Friday, 27 February 2015

Column 3, 2015 – Cricket's gateway drug

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 106, Friday February 27, 2015.
[Full text below]

Sunday 28 August 2005, 8.4 million people watched the climax of the Trent Bridge Test on Channel 4, breaking the record of 7.7 million set two weeks earlier at Old Trafford. The conclusion at The Oval dipped to 7.4. But then, it was a Monday afternoon.

Wonderful though the 2005 Ashes was, it only became part of the national conversation that summer because people watched it. Ordinary people. People who don’t follow cricket, much less have trenchant views about who should bat three or the importance of a four-seam attack. Normal people saw it, and got swept up in its drama.

For this very reason, Britain has listed ‘crown jewel’ sporting events, regulated by the government. There are currently 10 events from The Olympics to Wimbledon protected for live broadcast on free-to-air TV, and nine protected for highlights.

Around the millennium, amid howls of protest, the ECB campaigned to have cricket de-listed, so they could “negotiate a fair price”. They succeeded. That Monday afternoon at The Oval almost 10 years ago was the last live international cricket on UK free-to-air TV.

It’s no coincidence that those were the last England cricketers to transcend their sport. There were Freddies and KPs in every playground – I now play with and against them every week. The ECB argued that Murdoch’s money would fund grass-roots cricket. Others, that the next generation of kids won’t want to emulate Moeen Ali or Joe Root, for the simple reason that they won’t know who they are.

With grim inevitability, this is proving to be the case. A national playing survey published last year showed participation levels in cricket have ‘plummeted’. The ECB has pledged to reverse the decline with ‘new initiatives at grass-roots level’, presumably using some of the £70 million a year they get for making it inaccessible at grass-roots level.

In recent weeks the clamour to reinstate free-to-air cricket has grown. Bosses at Yorkshire and Surrey have been vocal about it in the wake of the success of The Big Bash, which is free-to-air in Australia, (though on Sky here,) as is most cricket.

This is complex stuff. If you can afford it, Sky’s coverage is excellent. And it’s doubtful there’s much appetite among free-to-air broadcasters for a sport that takes ages, and (a circular argument but a fair point) hardly anyone watches anymore. Where cricket is still free, it’s riddled with rampant commercialism and relentless advertising. There isn’t a simple answer. It’s not exclusively cricket’s problem either. This month BBC lost The Open to Sky. The Rugby Six Nations is up for renegotiation.

In the 2013 home Ashes, the highlights beat the live show. Channel 5’s highlights were seen by 1.5 million, while just 1.3 million watched live on Sky.

So ITV’s daily World Cup highlights are very welcome. And while 10.30pm is not exactly kid-friendly, the door is at least ajar for that all-important audience – the one that doesn’t yet know it’s the audience.

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Friday, 20 February 2015

Column 2, 2015 – Unintended consequences

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 105, Friday February 20, 2015.
[Full text below]

My favourite umpiring conundrums are satisfying because they’re ultimately logical. They work out – there is justice, a correct answer.

The last ball of a match. The batting team are nine down, scores are level. The bowling team need a wicket or a dot, the batting team need one run.

Pretty good, right? This is edge of your seat stuff, even before the batsman is stumped off a wide.

So. What happens? Quite a head scratcher, isn’t it?

The answer is simple chronology. A wide cannot be called until it passes the batsman, and as such might not be called until after the stumping has occurred. But once called it is deemed to have been a wide from the moment of delivery, so the extra run is credited before the wicket and the batting team win.

Simple, eh? Straightforward, logical, understandable.

Now. Let’s turn our attention to the last ball of the England v Australia game last Saturday.

England were nine down. James Taylor was given out LBW by the on-field umpire, which was overturned on review by the third umpire. During the kerfuffle, Taylor and Jimmy Anderson attempted a leg bye and Jimmy was out of his ground when the wicket was broken. After the Taylor decision was reversed, Jimmy was given out, run out.

Now, that is a genuinely dreadful decision. I mean truly, embarrassingly, are-you-seriously-professional-umpires bad. That ball could not have been more dead. It was an ex-ball, nailed to the proverbial perch.

The ICC later issued an acknowledgement (not an apology) that “the game ended incorrectly and an error was made.”

ICC Playing Conditions, Appendix 6, DRS, rule 3.6 a) states “If… an original decision of ‘Out’ is changed to ‘Not Out’, then the ball is still deemed to have become dead when the original decision was made (as per Law 23.1(a)(iii)). The batting side, while benefiting from the reversal of the dismissal, will not benefit from any runs that may subsequently have accrued from the delivery had the on-field umpire originally made a ‘Not Out’ decision.”

Clearly the umpires were wrong. But just as clearly, that DRS rule needs a bit of work, doesn’t it?

Last Saturday, England’s position was hopeless. The umpires not knowing the rules did not alter the result, it just denied Taylor his ton, stranding him on 98.

But let’s imagine for a moment a less hopeless situation. Get back on the edge of your seat.

Nine down. One behind. Last ball. The batsman is struck on the pad and the ball races away for four leg byes – the batting team win! But the bowling side appeal for LBW – it’s given! Then overturned on review! The batsman is not out, but the leg byes don’t count because the ball is retrospectively dead – the bowling side win!

Is that really how we want the World Cup Final decided? I think someone might need to take a long hard look at Appendix 6, rule 3.6 a).

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Friday, 13 February 2015

Column 1, 2015 – Phil Hughes

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 104, Friday February 13, 2015.
[Full text below]

The Cricket World Cup starts tomorrow, and cricket’s oldest foes meet in Melbourne. One name will not be on Australia’s team sheet, but will be on everyone’s mind.

It’s two and a half months since cricket changed more profoundly than any new rule, format or TV rights deal will ever change it.

A man was killed. He wasn’t a soldier or a test pilot, living with death every day. He wasn’t a racing driver or a mountain climber, who accept the possibility that one day their sport might exact the ultimate price. Phillip Hughes was a cricketer, killed playing cricket. People don’t die playing cricket.

Death is part of life, and youth cut down in its prime, its potential forever unfulfilled, is never less than tragic. But this one we felt particularly keenly. People don’t die playing cricket.

How decent a guy he was or how good a player he was should have no bearing on how we feel about a 25 year old killed at the crease. And yet it does. Hughes was an unorthodox swashbuckler of a batsman, and by all accounts attacked the rest of his life with similar zest.

The cricket world – fans, players, media, administrators – has never felt more united to me than it did that week. The game’s vibrant and highly engaged twitter community, whose default mode is sarcastic snark, perhaps epitomised the depth of feeling. #putoutyourbats was a poignant and understated expression of solidarity, mourning and respect from all corners of the globe. Google it if you didn’t see it. You won’t be sorry you did.

Twitter was not all that was elevated by the tragedy.

Australia’s captain Michael Clarke, besides being prodigiously gifted, has always come across as a bit brash, a bit pleased with himself. A modern celebrity, with all the trimmings – supermodel on his arm; supercar on his drive – a shallow, showy metrosexual.

I don’t recall ever having my impression of a public figure so quickly and comprehensively reversed.

From his statement on behalf of Hughes’ family at the hospital, to the Cricket Australia press conference, to publicly supporting Sean Abbott (who bowled the fatal bouncer) with the words “when you feel like getting back on the horse mate, I promise I will be the first to strap on the pads and go stand up the end of the net to hit them back at you,” to the heartbreaking eulogy at the funeral, he was a model of articulate dignity. He did his country, his sport, and his best mate proud.

If Hughes has a legacy, I hope it’s that. Cricket rallied because of his death. It gained perspective. It remembered that it’s just a game, and yet the game is what’s important. Clarke concluded his eulogy: “We must cherish it. We must learn from it... And we must play on.” If we’re lucky, perhaps the game will manage to retain that sentiment in Hughes’ memory. For while it has indeed played on, cricket will never forget Phillip Hughes.

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