Twenty years of far-reaching changes

It is exactly 20 years since I returned from West Indies and had to wait more than an hour at Heathrow Airport for my luggage to come down the carousel. England had been BEATEN 5-0 and it was a sad homecoming. So I wondered the other night, when the nightclub in my hotel was still going loud and clear at 3 a.m., just what had changed in the 20 years later. The answer is almost everything, writes TED CORBETT.

It is exactly 20 years since I returned from West Indies and had to wait more than an hour at Heathrow Airport for my luggage to come down the carousel. You might think that is nothing unusual but it was a shock to those of us who thought that travelling with the England cricket team was a guarantee of good service. Unhappily, they had just been beaten 5-0 by Viv Richards's mighty men, David Gower had been forced to make a speech in which he stole a phrase from the song of the moment by saying "My ship has sunk" and the mood in England was that they were a waste of space.

The main reason for the disgust was that Gower had ordered "optional nets" when the ones on offer were not to the team's liking; but that is only half the story. Besides, the West Indies had no trouble finding nets to their satisfaction.

So I wondered the other night, when the nightclub in my hotel was still going loud and clear at 3 a.m., just what had changed in the 20 years later.

The answer is almost everything.

In 1986 there were still players, like Viv Richards and Sunil Gavaskar, who did not wear helmets; every Test had a rest day; back-to-back Tests were rare and certainly there were never three in a row; games were played up-country in Rajkot, Sialkot, Bundaberg, Cleethorpes, New Plymouth, Berbice and Fiji; no Test had been televised from overseas; and coaches were unknown. Now there are coaches everywhere, security men behind every pillar and as for public relations men they are ten a penny. It's about what most of them are worth, too.

Even kids of 10 are supposed to wear helmets in England now — health and safety don't you know — the training undertaken by the Test stars would also be suitable for a Commonwealth Games athlete and television is so ever-present that its value on the open market provides every country with an income that was only dream material years ago.

Computers are just as omni-present. Laptops mean that a freelance can service, as I did in the mid-1990s, half a dozen newspapers or agencies on the same day. I never saw one before the World Cup in 1983 and it was not until 1990 that they became a feature of every Press Box.

For players and reporters alike the health scares of the sub-continent have diminished by a power of ten now that clean bottled water is generally available and that all the matches are played in the bigger cities. Back to back Tests, the absence of rest days means that the action is more intense but tours last only nine or ten weeks instead of four or five months.

But there is barely a day a year when no cricket is played. England play at least 13 Tests a year; 20 years ago they had six at home against Australia and five in West Indies; and as for one-day international matches it is no longer just the four teams from the sub-continent who play many a year.

England, whose captains used to sneer "who remembers the result of a one-day match the next morning", have been forced to take them seriously and actually lead the way in Twenty-20 international cricket.

It is only five years since the death of Malcolm Marshall five years after he stopped playing and he had never heard of this latest short form of the game.

Another sore issue has been killed by neutral umpires. Now it is possible to think that the umpire is blind or stupid or does not know the Laws, but you cannot say he favours his own side. One day perhaps cricket will be man enough to thank Imran Khan who pushed the idea hard in the 1980s.

I am not sure that the increasing influence of the International Cricket Council, the governing body, is to the game's advantage. They have made a number of decisions, which ought to be consigned to the dustbin and their belief that a Test begins when the toss is made flies in the face of the Laws.

Perhaps they should consider whether they want to take the supervision of that important part of the game away from the MCC who are, to say the least of their virtues, an independent body and carry out their work with care.

The growth of the travelling support, combining holidays in the sun with cricket and the chance to let their hair down thousands of miles from spouses, bosses and busybodies of all sort has resulted in every England fan with a scorched body being designated a member of the Barmy Army.

In fact, the Army has two marks to its credit, even if its chants are boring and repetitive and its songs not very funny. It has managed to keep out of trouble and it has offered England abroad a measure of support in the face of the constant jibes they faced in Australia particularly.

They all wear tee shirts so like the England shirt as to be indistinguishable which causes some apoplexy among the older, more conservative retired players but they have not so far done anything to bring their own country into disrepute which is a lot more than can be said for those fans who will go to Germany for the World Cup football shortly.

Some of them feel they are exploited abroad where they complain more about the high price of tickets than they do at home but it has been one of the happier aspects of modern cricket.

The few, with red faces and all too often with `bacon and egg' MCC ties, who used to go to Barbados and to Australia for the Melbourne and Sydney Tests has now grown so that hundreds go to venues like Chittagong, Galle and Peshawar, not places many people consider as they thumb their way through holiday brochures each year. Those who have not the money or the inclination to travel have another option.

They can get up at strange times of the day and night and, through the television lens, see as much cricket as they want. Sometimes there are three matches in a 24-hour period. What more could a cricket follower want?

Finally, there is the biggest change of all, the emergence of India as the seat of power within the game, the source of its money and the place where the great players are to be found. In the next five years they will, if I get my guess right, be top of the world Test rankings, high in the one-day international league and possibly World Cup holders.

And, why not? A country with more cricketers than Australia has people, with 10 per cent growth, with land to spare can achieve anything in whatever area it chooses.

If it chooses to concentrate all its talents on cricket, the sky is the limit.