A game, a sport or an entertainment?

A debate is opening which will — if it continues to a natural conclusion — decide whether cricket is a game, a sport or, most interestingly, an entertainment.

TED CORBETT

THE organisation which sponsors Test cricket in England — they are rather confusingly called npower and they supply electricity — offered another seven million pounds for a further two-year contract as the season began and assured the game of another period of easy living.

Television, especially Channel 4, wants Test cricket to end at 6 p.m. and not dawdle on to a 7 p.m. finish. The spectators, too, would like to go home early and at a fixed time. — Pics. V. V. KRISHNAN-

Behind the scenes, however, a more interesting development is taking place.

A debate is opening which will — if it continues to a natural conclusion — decide whether cricket is a game, a sport or, most interestingly, an entertainment.

It was begun with an article, written by the former Middlesex quick bowler Simon Hughes, now a pundit with Channel 4 television, who argued that cricket should attempt to get closer to the broadcasters so that the game would be more attractive to television.

Hughes argued that cricket fits badly into TV schedules in England and that at least its administrators ought to find ways to ensure that Tests finish on time.

They are supposed to end at 6 o'clock in the evening but, thanks to our long balmy summer nights full of sunshine and the gentle heat that makes English folk believe they have a hot season, they can over-run by as much as an hour.

Not for us the quick tropical sunset. We can still drive without headlights at 10 p.m. in midsummer and that causes a cricket problem.

I assume that Sky TV who share the international coverage do not care what time the matches finish since they have a dedicated sports channel which concentrates on the cricket; but on Channel 4, the main cricket channel, any finish after 7 p.m. cuts into their flagship current affairs programme. There have been a number of instances when that has caused a problem.

This summer Tests will begin at 10.45 a.m. in a bid to diminish the worry but there is nothing the programme makers or the cricketers can do about the great enemy that falls from the sky. "Rain!'' said the executive producer Gary Franses, with feeling. "If only we could do something about rain.'' Short of adding a roof to Lord's, the Oval, Edgbaston, Trent Bridge, Old Trafford, Headingley and Durham rain will continue to cause headaches. The early start, perhaps only one interval in the manner of one-day internationals rather than the traditional lunch and tea, and a brisker over-rate will help.

Hence the debate, which will probably grow in fervour and intensity throughout the next year.

Delays caused by rain cannot be easily fitted into six playing hours and there is bound to be one day this summer when I see Franses holding his head in his hands as a steady drizzle spoils his best-laid plans. I have a solution other than strong headache pills.

Suppose that the laws were rewritten to make 6 p.m. the mandatory finishing time for Tests in England. Never mind the number of overs bowled; although for every one outstanding there would be a 10-run penalty. Problem solved.

A glance at the statistics for 2000, 2001 and 2002 shows that 18 of the 21 Tests were affected by rain to some degree or another but at the same time only 10 of the 21 matches had any play on the fifth day.

In other words, although precautions must be taken to ensure that the spectators get 90 overs a day for their money — that is by fining teams with runs for unbowled overs — there should be just as few drawn matches. In only one of those 21 matches were anything like the full ration of 450 overs bowled.

The first Test against Sri Lanka last summer was drawn after 446.1 overs. Of the rest only eight used up more than 350 overs. In other words it is clear that few matches in this era require a full quota of overs and that it does not matter if overs unbowled on one day have to be bowled the following day.

Seven of the 21 Tests had final day finishes beyond 6 p.m. and if those could be eliminated there would be greater happiness for the cricket authorities, the television companies and the spectators who, as I have argued before in this column, get precious little for their money. They want to be able to tell their families what time they will return from the cricket, or inform their pals what time they can meet up for a meal or a drink.

At the moment they cannot keep to a timetable with any degree of certainty but if my plan was adopted they could get home in time to watch the peak viewing programmes that worry the television chiefs so much.

Fines in runs are an effective way of ensuring that if the weather is reasonable play will finish on time. We discovered that in Sharjah in 1993 when the Pepsi Champions Trophy between West Indies, the winners, Pakistan the finalists and Sri Lanka was played so briskly that West Indies completed their overs ahead of time even though they had four and five fast bowlers in their attack.

If the penalty is harsh enough 15 overs can be bowled in an hour regularly. It seems to me that in the last few years the will to enforce that target has been lost. More strength to the arm of Mike Procter who deducted an over from South Africa in the first World Cup tie. If only we could be sure his example would be followed.

In order to see these changes through there should be a summit meeting between ICC, ECB, various television companies and anyone else with a desire to see the game progress.

The first sign of such a move came 24 hours after Hughes' article appeared in print when more than 300 of the 370-strong membership of the Professional Cricketers Association gathered for their annual meeting at Edgbaston and decided unanimously that the players will take more of a responsible role as what they call "principle stakeholders in the game both on and off the pitch''.

In future they will look on themselves as the 19th county, although in the eyes of many administrators this title was usurped by MCC many years ago. This forward step by the PCA will help the ECB and the first-class counties improve the standard of cricket, increase commercial opportunities and continue to develop the game.

Their spokesman said: "The aim is to see all stakeholders in the game working much closer in what may be difficult times ahead. Any other alternative will see less revenue coming into the game and potential conflicts arising.''

At the same time Paul Foot, a high-flying television executive throughout his long career, devoted just a few words in a long article reviewing the effect of television on sport. It was utterly damning. He claimed that the England and Wales Cricket Board had made what he called a "fatal mistake'' by taking cricket from the BBC.

I am not so sure. Led by Gary Franses, the production company which puts out cricket for Channel 4 have been innovative and more colourful than BBC who, to say the least, needed a shake-up after years of unchanging presentation. Whether it remains with Channel 4 in two years' time remains to be seen but the experiment has certainly been worthwhile.

The truth is that the whole of cricket needs a similar explosion of ideas. It languishes on the fringe of sport as far as the media is concerned — and therefore the sponsors — because it is unimaginatively produced, because it is old-fashioned and because — unlike golf, snooker and several other what were once minority sports — it has not had a root and branch review of its format.

At the risk of being labelled the new Cassandra — who forecast bad times ahead so often that his listeners nodded off whenever he spoke — I will repeat that the game in England is on shaky ground with an uncertain future.

As Hughes, Foot and the PCA were making their suggestions about the way the game should change, I heard a single statistic that says the game is gradually sinking out of sight.

Some cricket boffin has calculated that the average age of Lancashire's 5,000 members is 57. Put whatever spin you like on that figure it cannot be said it suggests a long life ahead for the game.