Monday 23 April 2012

The radical County Championship

Sat among pensioners, loners and pigeons at The Oval, Surrey's Championship outing against Worcestershire didn't feel like a typical gathering of anti-establishment agitators. The rumbles of discontent from members sounded familiar perhaps, the polite cheers less so. Yet the spectacle we were witnessing – four-day domestic cricket – was as brazen a two-fingers up at the ruling ideas of the day as any Occupy protest.

The hackneyed view of the Championship is that it replays a lost era of pastoral England. At 122 years old, people often see it –to mangle Derek Birley – as an institutionalised anachronism. Some hail this as its virtue, dialing down the pace of life at a time when everything else seems to be speeding up. Others vilify it as irrelevant for the very same reason.

But the Championship is no relic. A glance at the first few scorecards of the season show wickets and boundary boards clattering rapidly. The rate of scoring is as unmistakeably modern as the batsmen's inability to tough it out on lively wickets. Similarly the way the game is covered – online radio, live blogs, Tweets – is more contemporary than dated technologies like television or print media. We know vast numbers follow the games online – one day perhaps they can prove as economically valuable as TV viewers.

Yet what's radical is the experience of the sport itself. A game sprawling four days is entirely antithetical to the commercial interests that rule our age. A marketeer likes few things more than an easily-digestible, quick sell. It is why Twenty20 is the era's golden goose. That does not make it bad – Twenty20 is extremely watchable – but its slavish compliance with the commercial rulebook makes it deeply conservative.

Like most big-budget blockbuster entertainment, the way Twenty20 is sold is also rather patronising. The entertainment industry – which Matthew Hayden will tell you is where cricket squarely belongs – thrives on making passive spectators of us all. Rather than trust us to participate in making our experience of the sport we love, the kings of commerce prefer to spoon feed us every step of the way. Cricket's natural cadence – where pauses outstretch action – gets disrupted by a chaotic cocktail of cheap stimulants. Crack go the fireworks, up go the cheerleaders' legs, “phew” go the money men. By preventing supporters from filling cricket's empty spaces ourselves, we become disenfranchised from the game.

The Championship, though, demands more of us. Unlike other forms, there are no commentators selling products, or dubious governments, mid game. Neither do they script our emotional reaction to every passage of play. In between deliveries, overs, sessions and innings we are instead left to muse. Sometimes about what we've seen, often not. With no visual or aural noise demanding attention when the action pauses, two people can sit a row apart and spend entirely different days at the cricket. That's a fundamental challenge to business ideals that prefer homogeneous, interchangeable experiences that market easily.

That the Championship is unique in this regard is less conspiracy and more cold calculation. Shorter cricket is ‘what the market wants’. But there is a danger of misunderstanding the market 'forces' the game cowers to. The market has no force of its own. It doesn't even exist. Instead it takes players, TV companies, administrators, sponsors and countless other groups to make it. Currently these groups shovel plenty into promoting limited-overs cricket and very little into even protecting – let alone promoting – the longer game. They have no confidence that the sport itself is strong enough to carry its own weight.

Nobody, of course, admits this. Instead administrators point to market research that becomes like an unknowable Big Brother we must obey. Yes, cricket's governing bodies need to find ways of listening to fans but surveys are a sham democracy. They are neither empowering nor always effective.

In a different sphere, Apple's overwhelming success makes them a favourite of business gurus, yet they avoided market research when developing their products. “It’s not about pop culture, and it’s not about fooling people, and it’s not about convincing people that they want something they don’t,” Steve Jobs once said. “You can’t go out and ask people, you know, what’s the next big [thing].” Similarly US TV network HBO – makers of The Sopranos and The Wire - shunned the easy route their competitors followed and instead developed unfashionable, quality programmes that they are now lauded for. There is a lesson in that.

There is much about the County game that remains entrenched in the past. It is dominated, on and off the field, by privileged white men. Though crowds grew last year they remain small and don't reflect the demographics of the country nearly fully enough. These are challenges administrators, players and minority communities themselves must take seriously. Yet cricket is entertainment and like all forms of entertainment is says something about the society it's in. Far from nostalgia, the Championship should be celebrated for its unique progressiveness.
This post also appears at Spin cricket


Abhik said...

Beautiful! One reason I like this post is because you've put to words things I have felt for a while now. But more importantly, I like the studied manner in which the points are presented.

A pertinent example of the points made in this article is that of how the topic of day-night Test cricket has been treated by administrators, and even a majority of the media. Agreed that we haven't had a lot of evidence on offer about its viability, but this lack of evidence has a lot to do with how it has been perceived by the administrators and media. In my opinion, some genuine insights can be found if one looks to market Test cricket in the manner that you have outlined.
The example of Apple is brilliant one. Indeed such an attitude can be found in not just Apple but in almost all big companies, including Google and Microsoft, which have lasted over a significant period of time. What is key here is that, despite their focus on profits, they have not betrayed the fundamentals of computer science. Moreover, they lay a lot of stress on research. The same applies to cricket.

Ashesinsomniac said...

Thanks Abhik! Very kind. There definitely seems an imbalance where TV companies and boards are very keen and happy to advertise the shorter game, but less convinced they can market the longer form. Which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.