Monday, 27 January 2020

Dave Renton on cricket (2008)

Cricket, lovely cricket
Written By: David Renton
Date: April 2008
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 31: Summer 2008 

‘I shall muse over the great days when cricket was cricket, played for its own sake, and not as a commercial exercise.’ — Wisden cricket monthly, 1979

With the launch of the Indian Premier League, cricket is for the first time awash with the sort of money that we have recently associated with football. Eight teams have been created. They will compete in a month-long Twenty20 tournament. Sony has agreed to pay more than $1 billion dollars for the privilege of broadcasting the competition over the next ten years. The players too will prosper. Mahendra Dhoni stands to make a cool $1.5 million, not bad for a maximum of around 20 hours' work.

Press coverage in England has split along familiar lines. The Telegraph warned of 'the threat to English cricket', portraying the story as one of foreign greed and domestic virtue. The Times was more enthusiastic, befitting the fact that Rupert Murdoch's son James will own one of the sides, Jaipur. The Guardian was struck most of all by the novelty of commercialisation: 'The human auction is new to cricket,' it observed in an editorial, 'indeed, almost everything about the set-up is new.'

To a seasoned analyst of cricket, such as the Guardian's own one-time cricket correspondent CLR James, I wonder how much of this would have been truly new. James famously travelled to England to ghost-write the autobiography of his friend, the West Indian cricket star and Nelson club professional Learie Constantine.

To a seasoned analyst of cricket, such as the Guardian's own one-time cricket correspondent CLR James, I wonder how much of this would have been truly new. James famously travelled to England to ghost-write the autobiography of his friend, the West Indian cricket star and Nelson club professional Learie Constantine.

Back in 1929, Constantine was paid the sum of £500 per season, plus £100 to cover the costs of travel to and from Trinidad each year, as well as performance bonuses, rail travel (third class) and refreshments. At the same time, professional football still operated a maximum wage of £8 per week, roughly half what Constantine was paid.

Even then of course there were sporting oligarchs. Herbert Chapman, for example, at Arsenal, was able to double the wages of his own star forward Alex James by finding him a paper job, ostensibly as a sports demonstrator at Selfridges.

League cricket, in Lancashire and Yorkshire, was a one-day format. It could draw audiences of up to ten thousand people. Then, as now, one-day cricket was portrayed by the authorities as a danger. People watching it were seen to be taking attention away from test and county cricket, the sport's ‘proper’ forms.

In 1920, employing language redolent of The Telegraph's recent coverage of the Indian Premier League, Wisden complained that 'the menace of the Yorkshire and Lancashire Leagues cannot be ignored.' In the same year, the authorities took measures to ban players from international cricket and representative matches where they refused to assist their county, when required. The idea was that Lancashire would be able to call on the services of amateurs playing in the Lancashire Leagues, Yorkshire on its own league cricketers and so on.

One contemporary complaint is that the commercialisation of sport is likely to diminish the spectacle. There will be too much cricket, its competitive edge blunted, because nobody really knows what the various Indian Premier League teams are supposed to stand for. Having no history, they can hardly be expected to stand for anything.

Of course, in 1932-3, the MCC happened upon its own scheme to make the sport more interesting, which was to send an English team to Australia with what appears to have been the sole aspiration of stopping the most talented cricketer of his generation Don Bradman from scoring a single run. This was to be achieved, infamously, by bowling at the batsman's body and packing the field on the leg side.
When a West Indies side toured England the following summer, they were introduced to the passive aggressive streak in the collective character of the game's leading administrators. Bowling short, but without a leg-side field, the West Indies were accused of cheating, and the leading figures of West Indies cricket (who were by happenstance also some of the leading figures in English cricket) backed down, instructing their bowlers never to bowl fast, legside or short.

The workers involved recorded the incident later with gallows humour. ‘In the MCC game against us in May at Lord's,’ Learie Constantine wrote, in another published memoir, one English batsman, Patsy Hendren ‘came to bat in this thing, a cricket cap specially padded with thick rubber, and with the peaks of two other caps coming down to guard temple and ears. Patsy put on this garment only when I bowled. The effectiveness of the shield remained doubtful as he never headed even one.’

There is too much cricket. There is too little history. The plans for the Indian Premier League are bloated. But to say that the League is a novelty: no, that won't do.

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