Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Understanding cricket’s most common myth

Ever since I have studied old county cricket - an obsession that began when I was on holiday at Merimbula way back in 1991 - I have been struck by the manner in which the popularity of first-class cricket rose and fell with the prominence of spin bowlers, especially those spin bowlers who were prepared to spend lots of runs to buy wickets. This tendency applied not only in England, but also very dramatically in Australia during the 1930s and the Indian subcontinent in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

People often deny that spin bowlers are a major attraction for spectators. Undoubtedly the freedom of strokeplay resulting from the dominance of spin bowlers, who do not restrict a batsman’s strokes as fast bowlers do, causes the strong correlation between abundant spin and large crowds. Still, I feel spin bowlers may have been more of an attraction for spectators than even Wisden could see.

Under limited-overs cricket such county spinners as Blythe, Roy Kilner, Freeman, Goddard, Doug Wright, Thomas Mitchell, Jim Sims, Roley Jenkins - not forgetting imports like Tribe and Jack Walsh - became an unaffordable luxury. Curtailed boundaries which allowed for easier hitting of sixes had had the same tendency during the late 1950s and 1960s. In fact, from the time England failed against Bradman’s 1948 Australian team with its powerful fast bowling and ability to hit the generous bowlers of England in 1948, it was felt by authorities that England had to discard its lenient wrist-spinners to be competitive (this was almost certainly true as regards actually winning international games). However, despite the amazing quality of its play, crowds for first-class cricket in Australia were already declining as Lindwall, Miller and Bill Johnston took over from wrist-spinners O‘Reilly, Grimmett and Fleetwood-Smith. The same thing happened in the Indian subcontinent as the champion quartet of Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Prasanna and Venkataraghavan disappeared and India’s bowling became dependent on Kapil Dev (mind you, possibly the game’s greatest player since Sobers). Of course, after peaking in 1947, ten years later crowds in England had fallen to the extent every county was running at an increasing loss.

This rule even seems to extend before the days of “giving nothing away” strategy. When England’s fast bowling strength ebbed in the pre-war years, culminating in the brilliant side of 1911/1912, crowds had declined compared to ten years earlier when the standard of fast bowling troughed out momentarily, and increased when fast bowling weakened after World War I. Such patterns ought to have been obvious to every unbiased observer of cricket when the financial viability of first-class cricket became threatened: only when attacking spin bowling predominates at all levels can first-class cricket pay its way from gate money without wealthy patrons or limited-overs games. Changes devised in the 1950s to make first-class cricket more attractive had the reverse effect because they failed to recognise the crucial role of attacking, “lenient” spin bowling in making first-class cricket attractive. As Bob Wyatt noted, all the rule and playing condition changes made after 1954 merely discouraged the attacking spinner to such an extent that he disappeared from the game, and first-class cricket became forever subsidised by limited-overs cricket.

If it had been recognised how attacking spin was so crucial to the appeal of first-class cricket, authorities in the Enriched cricket-playing countries of England and New Zealand would have aimed to see what was encouraging short-of-a-length seam bowling instead of spin, such as:
  1. covering of pitches
    • in Enriched lands there is no justification for pitch covering apart from short-term money gain
    • in fact, the incentive to waste time means less cricket is played on covered pitches even with more delays. On uncovered pitches, in contrast, fast bowlers cannot gain a foothold with as long run-ups as are routinely found with covered wickets
    • in Tropical and Unenriched lands uncovered pitches can be very dangerous to batsmen and do not encourage spin as much since fast bowlers can get a foothold more easily
    • even on the extremely infertile soils of Australia and South Africa spin bowling did decline with pitch covering
    • in England, once pitches were largely covered, the decline in spin bowling can be seen from how:
      1. between 1890 and 1958 spin bowlers topped the averages in all but ten years
      2. since 1959 only Derek Underwood and Saqlain Mushtaq have ever topped the averages as a spin bowler
  2. poorly-drained squares with too much clay or “Surrey loam”
    • this was an incentive to cover pitches because of the huge delays in the wet 1954 and 1956 summers - and even in some recent summers with full covering!
    • they also prevent pitches from wearing even a little to help spinners in relatively hot and dry weather in Enriched countries
    • in the pre-World War I years, there were efforts to remove excess clay to improve drainage after the bad summer of 1902
  3. artificial fertilisers
    • these encourage more green grass and tighten the binding to favour the short-of-a-length seam bowler who can move the ball off the seam
  4. changes in the new ball rule
    • when a new ball became available after a set number of overs rather than runs possibly expensive overs from attacking spinners were no longer viable
    • outside England and New Zealand, the new ball rule had a very major role in the decline of spin bowling because the shine can remain on the ball for a much longer time on older soils possessing less lush outfields
Yet, despite all this evidence, in the crisis years of the 1960s by such eminent writers as Learie Constantine (wrong man for the job?) said that:
“Like it or not, what people pay to see is fast bowling and fast scoring played in a serious way. It may or may not be cricket, but that is what they pay to see.”
If we look at those crowd figures described above, saying “people pay to see fast bowling” stands as patently wrong. England in 1947 and India from 1950 to 1980 had no fast bowling and huge crowds. No country with really strong fast bowling, not even the dominant West Indian teams of the 1980s or Lillee and Thomson in the 1970s, ever rivalled them in public appeal!

What motivates the suggestion fast bowlers attract spectators when crowd figures show this false? Most likely, I think, it relates to the character of the Boom and subsequent generations of the Enriched World, who tend to seek excitement at all costs. It has been thus thought that the violence of short-pitched fast bowling, especially with the candid statements of Lillee and Thomson in the 1974/1975 tour, would lure spectators. However, history shows that as merely a short-term thrill and that using such tactics can never maintain good crowds for long. In contrast, attacking spin bowling and freedom of strokes can lure crowds to long matches over generations.

It is also possible that people in England were quite desperate to attract young people to cricket. Thus, even when they could be shown (and knew) that large crowds at first-class games correlated very strongly with abundant enterprising spin bowling and the absence of short-of-a-length seam, cricket writers realised that the time and money required to develop the skills of spin bowling were much greater than hard hitting or (in appropriate athletes) fast bowling. Thus, cricket writers did not want to put youngsters under conditions where they would work a long time before reward. Such spin giants of old county cricket as Hedley Verity, Tich Freeman, Charlie Parker, Tom Goddard, George Dennett, Thomas Mitchell, Jack Young of Middlesex, and Tich Richmond all took years of practice after reaching adulthood to become top class - practice which Britons of the 1960s did not want and with high taxes could never afford. This meant claiming against evidence from figures within historic memory that fast bowling attracted crowds, a myth that no doubt cost English cricket a great deal in the long term.

Even today, there are those who believe the myth, as can be seen from Kane Middleton, Poonam Chauhan, Bruce Elliott and Jacqueline Alderson’s introduction to an article about injuries in fast bowling. It claims that the intensity the fastest bowlers bring can be a key factor drawing crowds to cricket, but as I have noted with Australia in the 1970s this is a short-term attraction. On the other hand, people with actual experience of cricket, such as Allan Border and Peter Roebuck in “Killer Trend” (New Straits Times, 31 December 1988; p. 14), argue that as crowd figures suggest fast bowlers, even those who try to create an atmosphere more akin to gridiron or ice hockey, do not help the game’s attractiveness. In the view of this article an “unrelenting battle” with slow over-rates is the cause of the decline in first-class crowds over a long period, something I find extremely reasonable.

It seems that all too many historians and cricketers have ignored the evidence for this theory, but as a last word they should not do so! Looking at history I sympathise with this view, even if I look at it in a different light from twenty-one years of historical study.

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