It is that time of the year again.
A month and a half of blinding lights, deafening sound and endless action; gyrating hips of the cheerleaders and the bellowing of hamming commentators celebrating DLF Maximums, coloured clothes, and late night parties, all surrounding 20-over contests.
And all along one can hear the disgruntled voices of the ‘traditionalists’, refusing to be drowned by the sound and fury of the tournament.
“Too much commercialisation of cricket, with all the associated evils of betting and fixing,” laments the puritan. “Sadly, no longer a gentleman’s game. Too much money floating about. Cricket is supposed to be played over two innings and in whites. This is just tamasha which uses the fanaticism of cricket in India to mint money.”
So on and so forth.
In some ways, the traditionalists do keep a feature of the game alive with their nagging complaints. But, not in the precise way that they presume.
Actually, this very act of complaining about the commercialisation of the game — with voices raised against the changes of format and laments against an abstract, non-existent, concept of ‘pure cricket’ — has become a time-tested tradition of cricket. And the traditionalists we have mentioned do keep that very trait alive and well.
The value of the antichrist
There are luminaries among the traditionalists.
EW Swanton, perhaps the most conservative of the legendary commentators to grace the game, famously called the media mogul Kerry Packer “anti-Christ”. That was when the latter had divided the cricket world into two with his epochal World Series. That was in the late 1970s, the kick-start of a new age of cricketing commercialism and what the Swanton-brigade pompously termed, ‘Pyjama cricket’.
However, there is no professional cricketer today who is not thankful for that very revolution brought about by the Packer Circus. After decades of shuffling between day jobs and cricket seasons, the enormously talented men who excelled at this popular sport were finally able to make serious money from the game. Unlike the promising careers of Ian Redpath, Bob Cowper and others, that had to be criminally curtailed because of financial concerns, the post-Packer cricketers could concentrate totally on the game.
Equally important was the way that the One-day game and Day/Night cricket was made popular by the Packer interlude, and the role it played in resuscitating cricket from its death bed.
If one takes off the pink tints of rosy romantic retrospection, one will find that the 1960s had seen 47% of Test matches end in draws. After a brief improvement to 42% draws in the 1970s, the 1980s saw as many as 46% stalemates. Many of them were played out on the dullest, life-less sub-continental wickets with 77-over days and slow rate of scoring.
There were several people writing the obituary of Test cricket by the 1980s, especially after the pathologically boring series between India and England in 1981-82. When a handful of English cricketers went on a rebel tour to South Africa almost immediately after the series against India, they confessed that they were not pro-apartheid, but were just sick to their souls with Test cricket. And with Geoff Boycott and Chris Tavare putting glaciers to shame with their marathon partnerships, and with Sunil Gavaskar responding with something like 72 runs in a full day’s play, one could fully understand their point of view.
Had it not been the changes and colours brought about by Packer, and an avalanche of interest in the shorter format of the game, Test cricket could indeed have been in rigor mortis by the late 1980s. In many ways, it was the interest in ODIs, along with the versatility and innovations that it injected into the longer format, that had kept the traditional form of the game alive through that critical period.
The traditionalists now lamenting the end of the good old days of pure cricket can well remember that draws are down to 23% in this decade and runs are scored faster than ever before, which together make for far more interesting Test cricket. And a large credit for this has to go to the change brought about by the shorter formats.
Plus, the players who entertain us on the IPL fields are extremely gifted and have worked very hard indeed to get to where they are. If they get paid a lot of money, it should be encouraged. For decades cricketers were among the lesser paid among international sportsmen, their earnings dwarfed by Tennis aces and basketball stars. At long last, they stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of them. Given that we spend a large part of our lives being entertained by these very men, the least we can do is not to grudge them their earnings.
Complaints down the ages
But, the tradition of complaining about the blatant commercialisation of the game and the erosion of pure traditional cricket goes way further than the 1970s and Packer.
In 1932, the same year that would see cricket being revolutionised by Bodyline, the novelist CP Snow observed, “Since cricket became brighter, a man of taste can only go to the ground and regret the past.” One must hasten to add that it was not necessarily Snow’s own point of view. He had put the words in the mouth of a character in his novel Death Under Sail. Snow was well aware how men have this propensity to cling on to their past, eyes wide shut to the positives of the present.
“I am sorry to say that I do not think the game has improved. Men do not play for their side as they did in my younger days. There is far too much of the business element in cricket all around,” said Vyell Walker, the old Middlesex amateur cricketer. This was in 1899!
“Cricket is now so common, it is a mere trade,” wrote journalist Frederick Gale in a letter to The Times … in 1884!
“Cricket has become such a business that there arises in the minds of the amateur cricketers whether they can continue the sport,” wrote another novelist, a more famous one … Anthony Trollope. And that was in the 1860s, a decade and more before the first Test match was contested.
“The modern politics of trickery was as yet a sealed book to the Hambledonians, what they did, they did for love and honour of victory.” This piece of romantic nonsense came from the pen of John Nyren, reliving his past in the so-called cradle of cricket. And this was penned in 1833.
“A set match at Lord’s for money, hard money, between a certain number of gentlemen and players, as they are called – people who make a trade of the noble sport, and degrade it into an affair of betting and hedgings and cheatings, it may be, like boxing or horse racing.” Sounds so much like the self-righteous puritans complaining about the IPL auctions today. But this was written by novelist Mary Russel Mitford in the 1820s.
As I mentioned in the beginning, the traditionalists do keep the flame burning with their complaints … the complaints about the commercialisation of the game, which has been the same since the very beginning.
And much of such complaints are voiced with little actual comprehension of the history of the game, rather than some abstract and unverified fable about the gentleman’s game.
Let us go even further back.
Never a Gentleman’s Game
A match between Old Etonians and ‘England’ featured a wager of £1,500 plus side bets totaling £20,000 … in 1751. Yes, you read it right. In 1751.
In the Hambledon matches, the very cradle of cricket lamented by Nyren (who, incidentally, was a liar and plagiarist), the normal wage was £500 a side. It amounted to a lot of money in the late 18th century.
In 1794, the Earls of Winchilsea and Darnley wagered 1,000 guineas on a match between their respective sides.
It was always about the money.
Talented professionals were hired by moneyed patrons because there would be matches for huge stakes. Is it much different from what we see now? And there have been numerous instances of professional, and even amateur, palms being greased so that such matches slipped through. In other words, matches were fixed and thrown.
There is a reason that every other sport has ‘rules’ while cricket has ‘laws’. In the 18th century, England had drawn up an expensive legislation dealing with crimes against property, including poaching and squatting. The same landed gentry who passed these laws in the Parliament also codified the elaborate laws of cricket. This was simply because of the enormous amounts over which betting and fixing were involved in the game.
Unlike popular perception, shorter versions of the game including Twenty20 did not provide new opportunities of staking money. From the earliest days, cricket’s unique two innings format made it ideal for gamblers (check details at https://uk.mansionbet.com/). It made wagers more complex and results more random. The conclusion of the first innings provided the opportunity to increase stakes or revise odds.
The first detailed guide of the game was drawn up not in England, not even in English. It was in the Bavarian village of Schnepfental and written in German. This was in 1796, the work of a teacher named Johann Christian Friedrich Gutsmuths. This document called cricket ‘a magnificent game which lends itself to being played even without money. As a game for money it is greatly preferable to cards.’
It carried on to First-Class cricket and the early Test matches as well.
The first known instance of fixing in First-Class cricket was encountered in 1842, and featured Alfred Mynn, a man who was almost as big a name in the first half of the 19th century as WG Grace was in the second half. After this match between Kent and England XI charges of fixing made sinister rounds and ‘Alfred Mynn was hissed at in Maidstone Market.’
When the first ever Test match was played at Melbourne in 1877, England had to make do with a makeshift wicketkeeper. Ted Pooley, their regular stumper, was in prison in New Zealand after some severe altercation surrounding betting.
Plenty of early Ashes encounters were cloaked in suspicion of murky dealings, rampant betting and suspicious performances. Especially in the series played in 1881-82.
Money was as important to amateurs as professionals, and WG Grace made enough from the game to give rise to the term ‘shamatuerism’.
No, it was never a Genleman’s Game.
Format from the formative days
Let us deal with the question of format now.
Yes, the traditional form of cricket consists of two innings and is played over five days.
Well, the Test matches are scheduled for five days, the First-Class games vary between five and three.
It is quite well known that the limited over games, varying between 40 to 50 overs a side came about in the 1960s, the first ODI was played in 1971 and soon it became a hugely successful format with the first 60-overs-a-side World Cup coming about in 1975.
And when the Twenty20 format emerged in the first decade of this century, many considered it blasphemy. This was akin to trivialisation of a great sport, instant gratification instead of classical recreation.
Well, it is true that the format has indeed been tinkered with. There are quite a few questions which arise from that, not all of them comfortable.
If we look at the history of spin bowling, we come across a virtual demise in the 1980s, before it was remarkably rejuvenated in the 1990s through Shane Warne and the others. The decline during the late 1970s and early 1980s was certainly caused by limited overs cricket, with batsmen using their feet more and spinners more keen to push it through.
Similarly, we do find ourselves asking whether spinners are not being affected in the same, or worse, ways yet again. If one earns an enormous amount of money by sending down four overs during the course of a day, with all the variations one can manage, will one be inclined to purchase wickets through 30 overs of painstaking toil during a day of Test cricket.
Yes, maybe this is not really beneficial for the longer format. Maybe there are other questionable effects as well.
Yet, one does remember the spin revolution in the 1990s, the increasing use of the slower ball by pacemen down the years, curious innovations brought about in multiple departments of the game. Hence, one can also be optimistic that just like the increase in positive cricket and result-oriented Test matches, T20, IPL and the other private leagues may influence spin bowling and the other departments in some positive ways as well.
However, the more important and historically relevant point is that T20 is not the first time that the format of the cricket was tinkered with. Neither was One-day cricket.
Test cricket itself, pure as it seems to the traditionalist, has not been a constant format. It has been played over three days, four days, five days and six days, often branching out into Timelessness. There is a lot of difference between a three-day game and a Timeless Test match as far as the format are concerned, and these are often not accounted for when we draw up the batting averages and other parameters to evaluate performance. There have been First-Class matches played over two days as well.
Additionally, the change in such laws as the front foot no ball, the leg before wicket rule and the concepts of follow on and declaration have influenced the game almost as much as duration. It has hardly been a constant format, with changes being frequent and understandably so.
But, let us look back once again at the early 19th century, back at the days when cricket was supposedly pristine, played by untainted cricketers who many would believe were angels about to sprout wings.
One of the most popular formats of those days was single or double wicket challenges. These were often more in demand than meetings between teams, were played between the top cricketers of the era and were, as usual, staked for a lot of money.
The earliest cricketing greats, Squire George Osbaldeston, Lord Frederick Beauclerk, William Lambert, Silver Billy Beldham … all of them were champions of single wicket cricket and their matches were contested in front of huge crowds, rife with excitement and bookmaking.
Later Alfred Mynn became a champion in this format and was revered as a cricketing colossus during the middle of the nineteenth century.
Most of these men mentioned, from Osbaldeston to Mynn, and a lot of the later cricketers, did ply their trade on the fields in coloured everyday clothing. They wore their waistcoats, hats, scarfs and breeches. Fuller Pilch, the greatest batsman before WG Grace, famously played in his top hat.
In fact, white wasn’t the uniform of choice until around the end of the 19th century, evolving with the creation of professional cricket teams. The initial regularised get-up consisted of a formal white shirt emblazoned with red polka dots, paired with a shirt and woolen cap.
Neither the format nor the attire has been constant.
The angelic old cricketer dressed in pure whites on the village green, playing for honour, over two innings and shunning money as evil … it is an image of a patchwork of multiple misconceptions.
Everything that we see in cricket is because of a complex series of evolutions. That is the true tradition of cricket, to evolve. And thus far it has done a splendid job of evolving. Test cricket is healthier than ever because of this. The players are better paid than ever.
The laments are, as explained, a part of tradition. Cricket would not be cricket without them. But, perhaps IPL and T20 cricket are not so bad for the game after all.