Rid cricket of its ills


WHAT sort of a game is it that concentrates so hard on how often there are breaks for food that it ignores the way the rest of the world has changed?

A very conservative, narrow-minded, lacking-in-perception sort of a game.

This refusal to see that life has moved on since the Victorians organised a game that stopped for lunch and tea at set times is bad enough. You can put that down to a love of tradition. It may be an outward symbol that all the old standards of truth and sportsmanship have been maintained.

Except that every cricketer from the village green to Lord's is streetwise, willing to shade the edge off the known rules of gamesmanship and even make the odd appeal when he knows the verdict will be not out.

There really is no logical reason for a slavish devotion to the immovability of the breaks for refreshment.

For years it has been necessary to undergo a university degree course to understand the Laws surrounding tea. Let us ordinary mortals agree that these are far too complicated; and instead condemn what happened in the third Test recently.

On the second day it was agreed after rain that tea would be taken at 4.10 and that there would be an inspection afterwards. By ten past four the ground was evidently dry, but Steve Bucknor and Dave Orchard did not start their inspection until after tea. Ten minutes were lost once they had taken the brief look necessary to order a restart.

A little commonsense, please, before the game loses any further respect. On the morning of the third day there was an unforgivable delay of an hour when both sides were able to practice but not to play. How ridiculous!

As for lunch, could we not abandon this interval, take a half time break after two and a half hours and drop tea altogether. Too big a change? But this game needs change and quickly.

As I look out of the Neville Cardus Suite Press Box on to an empty Old Trafford cricket ground, I can see nothing but trouble ahead.

The standard wet Manchester day provides the appropriate background; the cross of thick white and green covers on the square underlines the sad state of a game trembling on the edge of disaster.

To my left the stand that marks Brian Statham's contribution to Lancashire has a few wretched, soaked spectators huddled under the overhanging second deck. On the other side the pavilion is home to only the hardiest member. A "whale" is being driven backwards and forwards over the covers just in case the rain ever stops. Those of us with a long experience of this ground know the omens.

When the church spire at very deep third man is covered by low cloud play is not only unlikely but downright impossible.

It reflects the state of cricket in the 21st century when lack of support, weary players and an excess of television coverage from every corner of the globe suggests that the game is on the edge of a precipice. Rightly so too.

Sadly, the ostriches running the game seem to be unable to focus on the repairs needed to bring it into the modern era.

What can be achieved is on their television set every day. The World soccer Cup shows exciting, colourful players, the weeping of those who fail, the joy of success, full grounds in two countries with only a recent tradition of soccer. You can see the coffers filling.

Can cricket follow football's example when their World Cup begins next spring? Not unless a fresh wind blows, new administrators clear the path to a brighter future and players are given the chance to rest for more than a day at a time.

I have little sympathy with those England players - supported by their captain and coaching staff - who claim that competing at county level as well as in international matches brings poor performances.

Going back for a century or more English players have always had to compete every day of their short summer. Today's batsman also needs to have four innings a week; Graham Thorpe has just finished his sixth innings, eight weeks into the season.

Thorpe is rapidly establishing his right to be considered a world-class star. He has an average of 53.75 - including five centuries - since he had a winter at home. Note that. He took a winter off - following another tradition established by stars of the past like Fred Trueman, Raymond Illingworth, Walter Hammond, W. G. Grace - of missing out on a tour and resting instead.

The selectors did not like his decision so they made him wait before they chose him again, but now England has a refreshed batsman, mature, imaginative and bold. His absence from that tour was a masterpiece of clear thinking, far ahead of the authorities in his strategy.

Darren Gough made the same decision last year and has been roundly condemned. Injury in the one series he played has camouflaged the results, but he expects it to extend his career by a couple of years.

Alec Stewart also took last winter as a holiday and received no consideration from the selectors when he said he was quite willing to play in New Zealand. He has admitted in the last few days that he had another problem with the tour of India besides needing operations on his elbows.

He was concerned lest some sort of media plot pictured him alongside an Indian bookmaker who has accused him of accepting money. (That is another of cricket's worries as the World Cup approaches but we will leave those concerns to Lord Condon and his merry men.)

Eventually, I trust, the game's administrators will catch up with the players' thinking on the amount of touring they can endure; but can we expect a sea change in their attitude towards how and when games are staged?

As each summer passes, as each winter trip comes along, it becomes clearer that the public are far more interested in one-day internationals than Tests and, after all, despite television, sponsors and advertising the game still needs spectators and TV viewers.

Yet, although the figures are there for all to see, it is this subject which causes the administrators' heads to plunge deeper into the sand.

It has not always been so. I have just read Alan Hill's excellent biography of Hedley Verity, the England and Yorkshire slow left arm bowler. The book won awards and I can recommend it, although why anyone would write a man's life story and not talk about the money he earned, the conditions in his work place or the relationship between him and his bosses and fellow sportsmen is beyond me.

Hill recounts the story from the season which led up to the 1939-45 war in which the then Captain Verity was killed in Italy. Yorkshire set off on their 1939 southern tour amid speculation that war was not far away.

The captain Brian Sellars gathered the team together and told them: "I think it is our duty to carry on playing as if there was no talk of war. We are, after all, public entertainers."

Cricketers are still public entertainers. Just like actors, singers, and those of us sitting in the Press Box watching the rain. Players and their bosses forget that at their peril.

So what is needed to cure cricket's ills?

ICC must abandon the clumsy, ill-conceived and badly organised World championship. It cannot work as long as a home win against Bangladesh earns as many points as an away win in Australia. Not that anyone wins in Australia very often.

Instead it would be much simpler to put together one-day tournaments that counted towards a world title, in addition to the World Cup. Set alongside a continuing speed title for the world's quickest bowlers it would breathe new life into the one-day game before spectators decide those games are boring too.

Each Board will have to understand that if a player says he intends to miss a tour it is not because he is lazy, shiftless and dangerously independent. In fact they might write a structured break into his contract.

Finally, those who make the rules must get rid of this inflexible determination to base the whole game on breaks for food. It needs a root and branch rethink and the sooner the better.