Cricket gluttony

Even at this stage of cricket's evolution, top players give the impression of being on a "Match Treadmill", which leaves little opportunity for the practice of and preparation for their roles as competitors and entertainers.

When I was a youngster, I recall that I had drummed into my head the message that one cannot have too much of a good thing! But somewhere in the dusty recesses of my knowledge of history, there was some recollection of one branch of English royalty succumbing to a "surfeit of lampreys!" I think that I am about to reach the same level of cricket gluttony in terms of One-Day Internationals.

Recently I read somewhere that more than 300 top-level limited-over games are played each year; and such is the emphasis placed on winning, that when one side looked like having to concede a match because of a player's non-appearance, the press box was raided in an attempt to recruit one of the fourth estate as a substitute! Such over-familiarity with the shorter version of the game runs the risk of concentrating entirely on the result of games and breeding contempt for its aesthetic values.

But, let us concede that the limited-over game has many attractive features — and that without its earnings, cricket by and large would be on Carey Street. Moreover, it guarantees the thrill-seeking, albeit uninitiated spectator of an easily appreciated, and frequently, exciting result. It also provides him with the opportunity of witnessing batsmen hit a plethora of runs with innovative strokes, at a lively aggressive pace: a batting tempo which is fettered only by the 50-over limitation imposed on the batting side, the 10-over ceiling on bowlers, the directional embargos placed upon individual bowlers, and the legal constraints restricting the field placements.

On the positive side of the coin, I love the colourful uniforms of the One-Day entertainment brigade. I think that the decision to play one-day games in the evening, under floodlights, at a time when spectators who work during the day, can attend the games, was an inspirational tactic. But, as a former bowler, I usually finish watching a One-Day game, seething with indignation at the injustice of it all.

The rules all seem to be stacked in favour of the bat. In the 18th century, when "Lumpy" Stevens and "Shock" White first pitched their wickets on the Hambledon Down, the game was intended to be an equal contest between bat and ball. Today's, mostly flawless, One-Day pitches do not permit such equality.

Then, just to make the limited-over game a little more one-sided, the legislators uncompromisingly defined what constituted a" bouncer"— an integral weapon in a fast bowler's armoury — then curbed the number of short-pitched deliveries permitted to the paceman! Further, they regulated against the specialist bowler dominating a game by restricting the number of overs he could bowl — even when he was taking wickets! Adding more insults to injury, "the powers that be" then decreed that a limited-over delivery passing just minimally down the leg-side — and perhaps even exploiting a batsman's weakness in that area — should be called "wide!"

The need of batsmen to score quick runs in "One-Dayers" provoked a natural reaction in bowlers to place more importance on bowling economically rather than taking wickets. It has also led to athletic fieldsmen flinging themselves around the oval in desperate efforts to conserve every possible run. Every possible catch has assumed epic importance. As a consequence, the standard of fielding in One-Day cricket has improved so dramatically that it is no longer possible to hide the fumbling fast bowler by fielding him at fine leg.

In truth, with its coloured clothes, flood-lights, its quicker-moving format, its television exposure, its simplicity of comprehension, its highlighting the man of the match and the player of the series, One-Day cricket has become more of a spectacular entertainment than a mere competition.

The latest fad is the Twenty20 version of the sport which made its debut last year. The popularity of Twenty20 cricket, with its accompanying off-the-field diversions of jazz bands and Bouncy Castles for the kids, revealed just how much appeal the traditional game seems to have lost to a sporting public, hell-bent on getting instant gratification from its spectatorship. Most cricket watchers now seem to have no time for the game's aesthetic and cerebral appeal.

The trouble is that, even at this stage of cricket's evolution, First-Class, Test and even club players give the impression of being on a "Match Treadmill", which leaves little opportunity for the practice of and preparation for their roles as competitors and entertainers. Moreover, it is an exhausting and injurious treadmill which, in the space of a few months of 2006/07, left a wake of mental stress, pulled muscles, and burn-out casualties in the England and Australian camps.

I am convinced that some of the injuries and strains sustained by cricketers the world over are caused by their stressful existence. Many international and First-Class players live a carousel type of life, going around and around from hotel to plane, from plane to hotel, from hotel to cricket dressing room and from dressing room to practice nets — living out of suitcases — playing the same opponents and seeing the usual familiar faces — round and round they go!

The gradual build-up to the Test climaxes in the 1950s, 60s and 70s was a far more civilised procedure. Since Tests were usually played between sides from the eastern and western hemispheres, and travel was largely by ship, just getting to the match venues took weeks rather than days.

Then, to minimise the travelling time involved, the tour programmers scheduled two or three matches to be played in one location. This was a far more civilised arrangement than today's flying hurly-burly — and one which brought teams to the threshold of a Test series in their Ideal Performance State: fresh, raring to go and in much the same frame of mind as that of the Aussie XI when coach Buchanan ushered it into the 2006/07 Ashes Series.

It should be added that, just preceding this Ashes rubber, Buchanan's task was rendered all the easier by his team being given what amounted to a four-month holiday, comparatively cricket-free, save for a few inconsequential games in Singapore and India and a relatively relaxed period of one-to-one preparation in the nets.

Contrast this to England's peripatetic six month's log-jam lead-up to its second Ashes tussle in the short space of a year: Tests and One-Day Series against Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It was small wonder that Flintoff's touring party needed an injury-management contingent almost as large as their playing staff!