We go to cricket, now, to be entertained – especially of course at T20 level. Watching the closing stages of the Women’s Big Bash League you couldn’t fail to be impressed by the inch perfect bowling of Sophie Devine in the semi-finals, never mind the power and elegance of Ash Gardner in the final. Stirring stuff with players showing remarkable skill levels we couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago. Batsmen like Chris Lynn and D’Arcy Short, as well as Martin Guptill and Colin Munro, can take your breath away with their power. Glenn Maxwell has a range of skills that most people could never imagine possessing. How can we not be entertained? We go along dressed as bananas, sing along with the music, try and catch the ball as it’s sprayed into the crowd with efficient regularity, and, all in all, have a fine old time. Three hours of pleasure for, usually, a decent price. At the risk of being, again, the miserable old sod I am assured I am becoming, all this does raise the odd question or two in my mind.
I first began to watch cricket as a young kid in the late 50s and early 60s. We’d travel to Sheffield and Leeds to watch Yorkshire play and some of those players in the Yorkshire teams over that period have, I suppose, remained my cricketing heroes. We would sit with our sandwiches and, when we were a little bit older, with our hidden cans of Double Diamond bitter, and soak in the wonder of what we saw in front of us. There was the immaculately mown grass where light and shadow danced around – on the days there was sun that is – and that grass provided the stage where our heroes played their parts.
These cricketers were hard men. I suppose, if there was a word to define the county cricket we watched, that word would be dour. These men had no real interest in entertaining the spectators and, to be honest, I am not sure that we expected to be “entertained” as crowds do now. Of course we thrilled at the cavalier style of Colin Milburn, the brave and swashbuckling Northants player, when he played us, but we appreciated other things probably just as much as his cavalier flair. These professionals it seemed to me saw their job as winning or, second best, not losing. Final days of matches could be grim stuff as one side or the other attempted to hold on for the draw. (Do people still remember draws?) Defeat was a matter of lost pride and you could clearly see the bitterness on the defeated team’s faces as they walked from the field. Rivalries were intense and I couldn’t care less if we beat Lancashire and Surrey by just scoring singles. Each game for me seemed like an endless game of chess. I don’t know if I was ever entertained as I am now, but I was enthralled and intrigued.
On reflection, I don’t think the players saw themselves particularly as role models as players, apparently, are encouraged to be today. They rarely made any attempt to engage with spectators. The providing of autographs was rare and we rarely, if ever, engaged in any conversation with them. It didn’t matter. I knew that Vic Wilson, Jimmy Binks, and all the others would sweat blood for Yorkshire and I also somehow knew that playing for this county meant everything to them. That’s all I needed from them. I recall a lovely picture of Brian Close (a particular hero of mine) in the changing room sitting after lunch exhausted from his innings, freshly showered, a towel around his waist, cigarette in one hand, whiskey in another, reading the racing paper so he could put his bets on. You knew he’d be out there leading from the front as soon as he was needed. It seemed to me to be the ideal life.
When One-Day cricket came along (in England on a Sunday), we went to watch it. It could be fun – but it wasn’t really cricket. There were more sixes and some strange dismissals that livened up those Sunday afternoons but they couldn’t replace what I called then “real cricket”. Looking back I just cannot imagine Arnie Sidebottom or Fred Truman signing bats or pieces of paper in between overs or lining up for pre-arranged autograph signings. Actually, I can’t imagine any of the fast bowlers I worshipped, field with the skill and vigor of Trent Boult or Tim Southee. I don’t recall them often running after a ball once it has passed them or throwing themselves around the pitch to take wonderful catch after wonderful catch.
Crowds though, now, come to games to be entertained. They want, I guess, to see and appreciate different aspects of the game than we did. What’s different I guess is that players of today realise that and try to play accordingly. They are far more attuned to the crowd than my heroes were. What’s also different, perhaps, is our understanding of the word entertainment. Just as I admire the skill sets of a Kane Williamson, a Suzie Bates, or a Steve Smith, I also admire the sheer bloody–mindedness of cricketers all those years ago. The bloody-mindedness that won’t back down, that will bat all day, hardly troubling the scoreboard, to save the game, or bowl all day until your fingers are bleeding. It may have been dour but it enthralled me.
I say all that because I am a little suspicious of the word entertained. There’s a temporary feel about the word that bothers me. I can only remember a handful of the TV shows that entertained me in the 1980s. Only a few of the countless concerts I went to stay in the memory. I can recall many of the games I saw so long ago. I can still recall those Test series against Australia or the West Indies that so gripped us and, one senses, so can the players involved. There were fewer games to remember, after all. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, we still need to remember that cricket can contradict itself. It is large and contains multitudes.
One man’s enjoyment is another man’s banana.
Thank goodness for that.
Cover photo: Glen Turner in action. In 1972’s series against the West Indies, Turner faced 759 balls in making 259. Only one innings in history has been longer in terms of balls faced.