Cricket’s ability to mock itself

Cricket’s ability to mock itself
Cricket’s ability to mock itself

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - LONDON: In cricket, what started out as a “bit of a laugh” but turned out to be much more serious? This is not a trick question. It could refer to Test cricket’s origins. England v Australia, five-day matches, players switching allegiance between countries, a jibe by Australians to create the “ashes” of English cricket in an urn. Although this turned a bit of fun into a deadly serious contest over almost 150 years, it is not the answer.

Another possibility is the start of limited-overs cricket. The first so-called international limited-overs match was played between Australia and England on Jan. 5, 1971 in Melbourne. The first three days of a Test match had been rained off and the authorities faced a significant loss of income. They decided to abandon the match, replace it with a one-off, one-day match and add a seventh Test at the end of the series. This was much to the surprise and reluctance of the players, who were not consulted.

The English players seemed more concerned about receiving money for being asked to play extra matches. They were used to the benefits of limited-over cricket, which had started in the English and Welsh professional game in 1963 as a response to falling attendances and defensive play. Although commercially successful, with a sponsor in Gillette, no other Test-playing nation displayed any enthusiasm for the format. The decision by the Australian authorities to stage the match did not raise a laugh among the players, while the Australian Cricket Board was not laughing in the face of a serious need to generate income.

On what would have been day five of the Test match, the one-day game went ahead in a format of 40 overs, each of eight deliveries, the standard in Australia at the time. The teams were billed as an “England XI” and an “Australia XI.” Press reports referred to it as a “one-day Test match.” Any skepticism about the match by players and authorities was not shared by spectators, 46,000 of them turning up to watch.

This was a light-bulb moment for the Australian Cricket Board, whose head, Sir Donald Bradman, proclaimed: “You have seen history made.” Australia won the match, the England captain admitting that his players did not take the game seriously, although they were relieved to play some cricket after having spent so much time in the dressing room, as well as receiving an extra £50 for participating.

In this rather grumpy and fragile set of circumstances history was, indeed, created without many of the participants recognizing the significance of the event. Some years later, one Australian player recalled his surprise that a game they thought a “bit of a joke” became part of cricket’s history.

A revolution had been set in train. In 1973, the first women’s one-day world cup was staged, followed by the men’s in 1975. Kerry Packer’s breakaway World Series Cricket in 1977 in Australia shook cricket’s authorities into realizing the commercial opportunities offered by the format. At that time, Australia, England and the West Indies were dominant. India did not take the format, often referred to as “pyjama cricket” because of the use of colored kit, at all seriously.

This all changed in 1983 when not only did India take the format seriously but its team also won the one-day world cup, defeating England, Australia and the West Indies along the way, inspired by the captain, Kapil Dev. In two months, the appeal of limited-overs cricket was transformed, as the Indian public fell head-over-heels in love with it and its heroes. Triangular and quadrangular tournaments were spawned on the Indian subcontinent and Sharjah. A joke became a joyful and serious commercial activity.

Yet, this is still not the answer to the original question. At the turn of the 20th century, falling attendances in England and Wales, poor performances by the national team and the imminent banning of tobacco advertising in sport combined to create a new crisis. Based on focus groups and surveys, the England and Wales Cricket Board concluded that the population wanted a form of cricket with wider appeal in terms of both duration and form of delivery. Reduced-over formats, such as 15 eight-ball or 20 overs of six balls, had been used for decades in club cricket in mid-week evening cups. In 2002, the board proposed a new Twenty20 Cup competition for the professional game.

This was narrowly approved by the county cricket clubs and launched in May 2003 on a roof garden in central London with members of a quickly forgotten pop group appearing in a tacky photoshoot. They were accompanied by the captains of the two county teams that were to contest the first match. One of them admitted to cringing when he saw the result of the photoshoot. He also said that he found the first match, on June 13, 2003, a “bit of fun.” It was not taken too seriously, as the general view was that it would not last.

How wrong could they have been? Another piece of cricketing history had been made, without anyone understanding the significance of the event. Counties used increasingly garish methods to entertain their new breed of spectators, who responded positively, thus ensuring that the format lasted longer than many thought would be the case. Once again, India was slow to adopt the format, but when it did cricket was transformed, the subcontinent effectively hijacking the new format.

The impacts of this continue to reverberate and encroach on other formats, as well as driving the game’s global expansion. Matches in the imminent twenty-team T20 World Cup will take place in the US, and T20 cricket will be an Olympic sport in 2028. So, from being a “a bit of a laugh,” it has become the dominant format and a commercial behemoth of existential threat to longer-established formats, both of which started as a “bit of a joke.” Cricket has a way of making fools of those who joke.

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