John L Sullivan the boxer, Old Tom Morris the golfer, Spencer Gore the tennis player. . . if any Victorian sportsman could see us now and watch the modern version of the game they played, they would be amazed at the changes: the fitness levels, the equipment, the kit, the organisation.
But they would instantly recognize what was going on.
It could be different if WG Grace showed up at Lord’s, especially if he appeared when England cricket’s latest invention, The Hundred, was taking place. What are these idiots doing where we used to play cricket? Oh that East cricket, right? Why don’t they wear white? Why do they keep getting bored? What is this damn music for?
No game, until recently, had more reverence for its traditions than cricket. Yet in recent times, no game has changed so much and so quickly – often horrifying those who love it most.
At its extreme, it mutated into something entirely different.
Of course, many of the world’s most famous companies found success like this: Tiffany sold stationery, Nokia made boots, Wrigley soap, Colgate candles. Their bosses made legitimate business decisions to do something else.
But great sports have a soul: they are complex and delicate. You can’t just throw away one product and replace another.
Whose game is this? Is its main purpose profit, or is the purpose of profit to improve and maintain the game? Basically, is it a sport or a business?
There’s no sign of anyone considering the questions, let alone finding the answers.
Forty years ago, the incarnation of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) had six and a half members. The governing body of the world’s game, now called the International Cricket Council (ICC), was headed by the secretary of Marylebone Cricket Club – when she had a quiet afternoon.
Their successor bodies have vast bureaucracies, and the ICC is now based not in Lord’s but in this global Nowheresville: Dubai. Nobody, neither at the ECB nor at the ICC, has a title as simple as that of “secretary”.
In the 1980s, cricket across the world was essentially ruled by retired cricketers – mostly top flight players.
That didn’t make them incompetent with money – they were usually in business themselves, having won damn well at cricket.
Indeed, it was their frugality that landed them in two almighty mess: when their players were poached first by Australian tycoon Kerry Packer and then by South Africans, using government money to lure players in a country under purdah due to its apartheid policies. Thus, the salary of the players began to improve.
But the next two crises had more lasting consequences. In 1993, India and its allies effectively took control of the ICC by winning the support of minor cricketing countries to overturn a previous decision and stage the next World Cup in the sub-continent rather than England.
The ICC was already changing and having its own director general, the Australian David Richards. From now on, this body would have three centers of interest: cricket, business and geopolitics, generally in reverse order.
As has happened in other sports – most obviously football and athletics – power shifted from the picky late white men in blazers to a class of worldly international go-getters, not all of whom could be trusted to pay you back the five dollars you lent them.
Then the next big step in the transformation of cricket came in 2008 when the Indian Premier League (IPL) – playing eye-catching short form T20 cricket, full of six hits and dancers – galvanized the people of the country.
The resulting billions in unevenly distributed wealth have created a lucrative behemoth, entwined with the nation’s not-always-scrupulous ruling elite.
Thus the administrators of cricket, whoever they are, have lost control of both the direction of the game and the players.
Former English cricketers may have played for just one county throughout their careers or just county and country.
Now, with several imitative T20 leagues offering sweet short-term contracts even to less than stellar names, one energetic cricketer can play for six different teams a year. Have bat, will travel.
England cricket’s contribution to this mess, The Hundred, is even shorter than T20. But its addition means the brief English summer must now accommodate four forms of the same game.
Unsurprisingly, a confused five-day English Test team has just been slaughtered by Australia.
Will this affect the price of TV rights? This is what might well worry the current unelected directors of the ECB – none of whom have any stature in cricket, so much so that a former England captain, Sir Andrew Strauss, had to be co-opted as non-voting member. .
It’s like vegans running a butcher shop. If cricket trade continues to neglect cricket, it will just go from one gimmick to another and eventually there will be no more trade.
The author is a journalist, writer and FT Weekend Columnistand former editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack
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