Wisden's Wise Men Warn of Capitalism's Threat to Cricket
The first round of the County Championship starts today, accompanied no doubt by undesirable weather, but also by the welcome release of the 146th Wisden Cricketers' Almanack.
Any review on the past 12 months is sure to offer something to both cricket fan and social historian. The book's preface outlines the shared belief of editor Scyld Berry, former editor John Woodcock, and former England captain Ted Dexter that the last 12 months have been the most turbulent that they have known.
Arguably the biggest phenomenon was the Indian Premier League (IPL). A TV audience running into the hundreds of millions enjoyed 20-overs cricket, and a player auction in February bucked the trend of the world's most serious economic downturn since the 1930s.
The suggestion of the sport's future prosperity is matched by warning words: the need to tame the commercial interests that reduced many overs for TV audiences to five balls, the lack of characters in the shortened form, and just 23 of the 58-game competition being decided in the last over or by a margin of 10 runs or less, though a far higher ratio than that of the 2007 World Cup.
Test matches have been rearranged and series cancelled in order to placate the IPL. England's star cricketers will return from this year's tournament with four days to prepare for the first Test against the West Indies. It will be the first time that English players will play outside of England during the domestic season, other than on national service.
The International Cricket Council (ICC), cricket's United Nations, seems unwilling to step in to curtail the prominence of the IPL. But this has always been the case, argues Gideon Haigh, in an article to mark the organisation's centenary.
Long-serving Australian official Ray Steele stated that it had "only very limited functions and powers," and that it shouldn't be allowed to "get teeth."
That seemed to rest well when the ICC was considered at one with the MCC. Now that it is viewed as a subsidiary of the Indian Board, it is criticised as political and ineffective.
While we witness the proliferation of the 20-overs format, Sri Lanka's ex-captain Mahela Jayawardene points out that the ultimate form of the game for most players is still Test cricket. Yet these values are not reflected in the payments given to players.
Economic factors provide the reason that many South Africans come to England as Kolpak players—one of whom, Dale Benkenstein, is one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year. Another, Claude Henderson, points out to critics that England still has more players to qualify for their Test side than any other country.
It was not just players from the Southern hemisphere that dominated county sides, but also those recruited from public schools.
Yet cricket came 21st in a popularity survey among London secondary school children. The English Cricket Board's deal that allows Sky to deny free-to-air cricket will do little to win over the 26,000 youngsters who took part in the poll.
The majority of the country's pensioners are also being deprived, and Berry's fear is that these trends point towards cricket becoming a minority sport for the white and Asian middle class to watch and play.
Former editor Matthew Engel points out that Sky's interest depends on increasing subscriptions, not on English cricket. Nobody, he argues, outside of the TV industry wants Tests in early May.
It is not just the urban young and impoverished pensioners who feel excluded from the domestic game. An essay by Dean Wilson seeks reasons for the demise of cricket within the Afro-Caribbean community.
Unsurprisingly, these are mostly economic. They include the greater facilities on offer in the grammar and privately educated sector—schools that don't attract children of Afro-Caribbean backgrounds.
The cost of playing at a high level impacts on a community in which half of households are headed by one parent. The hiring of facilities has also become more difficult now that local authorities are either selling or not maintaining public spaces.
It matters that cricket embraces the similarities and the differences in those who play and follow it. The greater the diversity, the richer its tapestry.
Maybe Kevin Pietersen was seen as too diverse, as he lasted just three Tests before being fired for being the wrong sort of chap. He was an outsider who didn't always understand how the system operated. When asked for his thoughts on what was wrong with team England, the mandarins at the ECB were taken aback by his sincerity.
International cricket has become a little more competitive now that the Australians are not quite so dominant.
They were beaten in a home series for the first time since 1992-3 by South Africa, who also won a series in England for the first time since the end of apartheid.
Much has been made of the ethnic makeup of the Proteas, but it is pointed out that an African batter has still not reached the highest level.
Through the referral system, we have players openly questioning the umpire's decision, a Test match over-rate that averages below 14 an hour for the fourth year running, and a Pakistan team that didn't play a single Test in 2008.
Matthew Engel even berates a fixture schedule that means only four of the summer's Tests have the traditional Thursday start. All this confirms a turbulent 12 months, but also suggests problems ahead, particularly in the harsh economic climate.
This is alluded to by Scyld Berry in his concluding points, which note the failures of Western-style capitalism and hopes for a reassessment of cricket's values: "The best not the biggest, the most watchable not the most lucrative, the optimum amount of cricket not the maximum."
The pursuit of short-term profit has brought the world's financial institutions to ruin's door. Cricket has to deal with the aftereffects and ensure that it avoids the same fate.
Enjoy the season.
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