Certainly everything has changed


YOU will have to excuse me if I sound a little out of sorts. The truth is that I have been up all night watching England play New Zealand with a 13-hour time difference. In other words they begin when I should be drinking my bedtime cocoa and finish just as the newspaper boy comes whistling cheerily down the garden path. Not my best time, I have to say.

Add to that two daily doses of a Chinese medicinal tea that tastes like crude oil mixed with something dredged from a swamp and an ongoing argument with my favourite scorer about the use of a statistician in the first part of the 21st century. You can imagine how I feel.

Not fit for next month's marathon, definitely out of the running to take Darren Gough's place in the Test team and reluctant to set off on a quick climb up Kilimanjaro with my best pal Toddy.

I'm not even fit to celebrate ten years writing for The Sportstar which comes around shortly. Perhaps I'll feel better by then.

Somewhere about 2.30 one morning, just as the blurred figures on my television set were trooping off for tea, I began to worry about the last ten years. They have been strange times, propelling cricket into the modern era in some ways and bringing the game into gross disrepute in another.

Particularly since Nathan Astle, my new hero, had just begun to hit the ball as if his life depended on a strike rate above two runs a ball.

At first I thought I was dreaming but my second thought was that something was seriously wrong. Batsmen don't play shots so cleanly, so often when their side are trying to make 550 in the fourth innings. Not in a match which began with two wickets in the first over.

Whatever happened to the long slow innings, a succession of maiden overs and a run rate below two an over? Those were the days, my boy, I can tell you. Test batsmen knew how to defend. None of this fancy dan, big hits over third man and 11 sixes in a double hundred. In the 1960s and 1970s they understood proper Test cricket.

My third concern was, as the New Zealand No. 11 Chris Cairns limped out to bat with 200 still needed or about 125 overs left in the game and the new ball only a couple of overs old, some sort of corruption must have taken charge.

Now let me say straight away that nothing of the sort had happened. This Test was played fair and square.

But ever since two Test captains were banned for life, a bookmaker claimed that a dozen prominent players were on the take and every Press briefing by ICC was led by a report from the Anti Corruption Unit the shadow of bribery has made it impossible to view the unusual with anything but suspicion.

It has spoiled many a match and given us all nightmares. Happily, England won the Test in Christchurch but just suppose Astle and Cairns had made another 100 runs and won the game with a record score, there would have been some questions to answer.

It is just one of the ways the game has changed forever in the last ten years, although I prefer to remember the bowling of Allan Donald, the batting of Saeed Anwar and Sanath Jayasuriya, the fielding of Jonty Rhodes and the sheer bloody-minded guts of Mike Atherton.

Certainly everything has changed.

I feel sorriest for the umpires. They seemed to have been stripped of their natural duties - making decisions, keeping the two sides from tearing one another limb from limb and upholding the Laws. When eight of them were appointed to an elite list recently you had to wonder if their long trips and high wages were really necessary.

The latest ICC meeting in South Africa has gone some way to restoring their powers over discipline. Let's hope that process continues as it may stop, at the least, rows over match referees whose days may also be numbered.

All the same it is not going to be long before the umpires lose all right to stick their finger high in the air forcing us to wonder if umpiring is a career you can recommend to your children. Already some writers in love with cliche have said they will have nothing to do except hold the bowler's sweater and count the deliveries.

Well, a towel rail can be erected to hold the sweaters, but is there any need for the umpires to count up to six? It could be done more efficiently by a scorer pressing a buzzer or sounding a hooter to mark the end of each over. A Wimbledon-type set of electronics could deal with the no-balls and wides and any complication arising from the Laws can be more easily dealt with in the pavilion.

The day of the umpire is done. Sorry, Venkat, there may be a job for you for another five years, but don't rely on working to pensionable age. Sadly, Shep your life in the jet stream will soon be done. Too late to go back to football refereeing Steve Bucknor but I guess a relaxing life in Jamaica is not too bad a way to spend an early retirement.

Which brings me to the argument about the use to which a scorer or statistician should be put in the modern Test match.

I believe that a Test ought to be run from the sidelines with the match referee, the third and fourth umpire and the official scorers sitting together and in direct telephone communication with the two umpires onfield.

In other words the guys in the middle should no longer have to stand on their own. They should have back-up from the officials in the stand. My friend with the stats says the scorers should stay out of the equation. She thinks there is too much interference with the umpires as it is.

Unfortunately, there have been a couple of moves in the last two years that have made it unlikely that match referees, assistant umpires and scorers will ever attain the degree of cosiness and comfort I visualised.

First the Australians, who always seem to be first nowadays, asked their scorer Mike Walsh to use a piece of equipment that records every ball, defines its length and direction, analyses the batsman's stroke, notes the field placings and then puts all the information through its computer.

It's a coaching aid from the new era and it's here to stay. Is scoring, an art form that has been undervalued since the days when notches were carved into sticks, here to stay? Certainly, there are no more dots and dashes in Mike Walsh's future.

England have followed suit, so that their scorer Malcolm Ashton, has also been converted to perform the Walsh job. He now has a full contract with the England and Wales Cricket Board and in future he will be operating his gadget at every England match home and away. "Don't worry about the scoring job," I was told by ECB people, "we will pick up a scorer abroad." Men from the county circuit will score the home Tests, a tradition going back into the 19th century.

That is far from satisfactory; and certainly not with the World Cup just around the corner. Who is going to rule on all those five and seven-ball overs for a start?

Matches in that tournament may be settled by a single run, or by the Duckworth-Lewis system or by a close study of the laws. At Auckland, England were given the wrong advice on their tactics when the Duckworth-Lewis method was used. Malcolm Ashton would undoubtedly have given them the right answer.

Having a scorer-stats man who can argue your corner is vital in the 21st century and yet this is the very moment at which two of the leading countries have chosen to push their own specialist into a back room to analyse strokes and deliveries.

Still, the game is as vigorous as ever, if that New Zealand challenge to England's total is any guideline; and from the viewpoint of every other Test side the Australians have decided against using Chinese athletic training methods to boost their players' energy levels.

You may remember that a few years ago the Chinese middle distance runners were made to drink turtle blood as part of their training routine. If the taste is half as foul as the drink they have been feeding me to "restore the balance of your body" the players have every reason to be grateful.