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

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Cricket in the killing fields

Today 25,000 people around the world will die needlessly of hunger, while three billion people will scrape less than $2 to live off. Today Sri Lanka play England in a Test match. It is obvious and frustratingly trite to point out that sport doesn't matter. Of course it doesn't. Except that millions of people believe it does. The countless number following the Colombo Test will smile, scream, tut and cheer because of it.

Those of us who do believe that it matters are not just a brazen minority with a skewed sense of perspective. By investing meaning in the teams we follow we form a community that, in the case of international sport, helps keep the precarious idea of nationhood alive. When a Dhoni six prompts the same delight for a dalit woman in Bihar as a Mumbai executive, a kinship forms that momentarily gives India a common bond. It's why the cliché about sport and politics not mixing misses the point entirely. Sport is politics.

While the Ten Sport commentary may insist otherwise, politics and sport are deeply intertwined in Sri Lanka's current Test series against England. The cricket is happening in the midsts of a recent genocide. Channel Four's Killing Fields unearthed serious evidence that 40,000 civilians, mostly Tamils, were systematically murdered in the final weeks of Sri Lanka's civil war. The government accused is intimately tied to the Sri Lanka cricket team, even affecting - as we saw last summer - the make up of the side. When you add that SLCB's corruption means some of the world's best cricketers are not being paid on time you have a strong case that international cricket should not be supporting the regime by touring.

But that would miss sport's significance. In Kumar Sangakkarra's brilliant MCC address last year he recalled his shock at meeting a soldier who told him: "It is OK if I die because it is my job and I am ready for it. But you are a hero and if you were to die it would be a great loss for our country.” It again sounds like an absurd lack of perspective.

Yet as Sri Lankans – and many others - are discovering to brutal effect, holding the idea of a nation together is incredibly difficult. Different histories, classes, ethnicities, religions and genders have to be subsumed under an identity strong enough, ultimately, to override all others. When American schoolchildren swear their allegiance to the flag each morning it's a nod to just how much work goes into keeping the imagined community alive.

Angelo Matthews, the Sri Lanka vice captain, has returned from injury for the second Test. Matthews is the highest-profile Tamil in Sri Lanka cricket since Muttiah Muralitharan retired. His presence is practice, however fleeting, of the ideal of a diverse country unified by common interest. When Sinhalese and Tamil supporters cheer for Sri Lanka cricket, they stick a finger in the eye of the forces that aim to rip the nation apart. It's why cricket must continue to be played in the country.

The recent cricketing boycotts have been precisely because diversity was sucked out the 'national' team. South Africa refused to allow the idea of a multi-racial nation be demonstrated by a multi-racial cricket team and were rightly boycotted. Discrimination happens, of course, in far more subtle and bureaucratic ways: you only have to think of Australia's inability to find non-white players and England's inability to find cricketers from less privileged backgrounds. Equally the fact Matthews is Sri Lanka's only Tamil player and was himself brought up in a Sinhalese area shows that significant obstacles exist. But directly blocking an ethnic group is different and Sri Lanka's government are yet to do that.

This isn't to say that calls for reform should be ignored. Ten Sports' continual promotion of Sri Lanka tourism and its studied indifference to the political context is difficult to stomach. A board as cash-strapped as Sri Lanka's are in no position to make demands of a TV company. Likewise the ICC and the other member nations' total silence over the SLCB's endemic corruption is a disgrace.

Yet those are off-field matters. National identity is about more than administration. It's about people who never meet sharing the same symbols and experiences and feeling united because of them. As the national sport, cricket is a vital part of that.