On Sunday night those who didn’t value their sleep were treated to sport at its finest at Augusta National. Two men fighting it out for their first green jacket. Two men who knew that their legacy would not be truly complete without winning a Masters title. Two men who played brilliant and ordinary golf, fought tooth and claw, but also never forgot that how they conducted themselves and how the event was perceived was pretty important too. I have a healthy disregard for the people who run Augusta National and how much of the authoritarian, snobby behaviour is tolerated, but you have to say this. They absolutely know how to run a historic, important golf tournament. Although not to the same levels of arrogance, the same can be largely said for the Royal and Ancient in the UK, with the Open Championship. They haven’t played the tournament on a truly inland course (is it Lytham that is the only one that doesn’t look truly like a links course) and maintain the traditions of seaside golf in a major championship.
A few decades ago US golf set up the PGA Tour and created their own tournament. It is The Players Championship. They have the strongest field of the year (or if not, one of the strongest). Like the Masters it is played on the same course every year (TPC Sawgrass). It even has an iconic hole, the 17th, the Island green. It has one of the richest purses outside the Tour Championship. Who the hell cares who wins it, though? Sandy Lyle once did, and was asked by the TV interviewer “what’s the difference between winning this and the British Open, Sandy?” to which he replied “about 100 years of history.”
So, Dmitri, why are you wittering on about golf? This is a cricket blog.
You’d be right, but there are a number of interesting parallels between golf and cricket. Like cricket, participation numbers in golf are declining in the UK. Like cricket, playing the sport to any sort of competence is expensive. Like cricket the sport is disappearing rapidly behind a paywall – make the most of the Masters because there isn’t anything else live on FTA for the rest of the year. Like cricket the authorities in Europe are in crisis because the US PGA Tour dwarfs everything, and the European Tour is a very poor imitation. Like cricket, golf in Europe thought it needed to jazz things up, and we now have the race to Dubai, which has hardly grabbed the world’s attention. Cricket isn’t exactly the same as golf, but there is no doubting that in terms of this country, there’s a lot to compare it to.
The Masters is a majestic piece of sporting theatre when it is close. I flitted in and out for the first nine holes of the final round, before getting really into it for the back nine, and transfixed from when Sergio Garcia got that par at 13. There’s not a lot artificial in its construct. The course is manicured to death, but with the exception of some modernisation, never seems to be beaten. -9 to win a tournament is, in my view, how it should be. The course can be a bit tricked up, some of it resembling a crazy golf course, but players love it (and hate it). What made yesterday was the tradition, the heritage and the prize. The coveted prize. A bleedin’ awful jacket. This prize appeals every bit as much to the young golfers, the millennials like Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth, than it does to the old lags that Rose and Sergio now fall into. It doesn’t treat its watchers like idiots, but also doesn’t let them besmirch the event either. Commercialism, although rampant in hospitality etc., is kept out of the way everywhere else except on the golfers themselves.
Then I thought back to the Friday evening I spent at The Oval. Like Augusta it has a long history. Like Augusta it has embraced modernity, but not been taken over by it. It also hosted a long, but not so cherished, institution like the County Championship and holds a test match every year. It opens itself up to T20 and built a successful, if a little boorish, brand to it. Those players out there, even those now not in the international limelight, like Kumar Sangakkara, Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott don’t have to be there, but I presume play because they still enjoy it. It’s not the Masters, of course it isn’t, but it felt like sport in as near a pure form as cricket can get. I got to see a legend bat, carefully, respectfully, diligently, but then let loose a shot of such beauty and class that you were overwhelmed for a single moment. How could this not be loved?
But it isn’t by authorities because it is not commercially viable. It isn’t loved by enough people at all. The format is changed to fill in around the commercially viable and the TV audience, rather than those who stick by it. Lack of attendance at The Oval, which holds 25000, is seen as a lack of interest. Cricket does not command a whole page in the tabloid newspaper now, like it used to. A childhood memory would be scouring the Sunday papers to see who had gone big the previous day. We don’t need that now, the internet does it for us, and papers are a dying game – in some ways much more so than cricket (so the angst that papers don’t send reporters to cricket matches should be put into proper context). I saw John Etheridge and Dean Wilson at the Oval on Friday, but didn’t see a match report on line on their websites for that day. There’s a view that counties and a sport that lasts more than one day isn’t viable any more, yet the Masters lasts four days, and that was thrilling.
I watched some of the IPL over the weekend. This is, after all, what the people want if you tell them enough. It was bright, vibrant, loud, atmospheric and played to full houses. What it wasn’t was good. At times it looks like the Seniors Tour out there. But we have screaming commentators, on one occasion turning into car salespersons, telling me how the odd well connected shot was out of this world, while I wondered why I should care at all about what was being put in front of me. Carlos Brathwaite, remember the name, got out to a shot that our club number 7 would have been embarrassed about – he had got away with an LBW decision the ball before, so closed his eyes, launched his bat at the ball to the next, hit the ground on his downswing and was bowled. It was ghastly. Now, I know the IPL is not aimed at me, but if it is aimed at the next generation what is it telling them? I love how Eoin Morgan is interviewed by Sky prior to the tournament and saying how the IPL is so unique (run for cover), but he’s finding it jolly nice not having to play and picking up a nice salary for so doing. Very nice that he is being rested. We are supposed to be interested because there are eight England players out there. This is what we want.
T20 has its place, but it isn’t, and never should be the pinnacle of the sport. Test cricket is the pinnacle, and it is not measured by how much revenue it generates, how much money is in it, or even how many people attend. Your place among the all-time greats isn’t sealed by T20 performances. We might remember Brathwaite’s name for that four six salvo last year, but he’s not going to be a legend of the game, is he? When we mention the top batsmen in the world, it’s because they are all proficient, brilliant test batsmen, not a T20 or even an ODI legend. It’s because, over time, test cricket has found out those not quite up to it – Michael Bevan, a phenomenon in limited overs, a failure at test; Hick and Rampraskash, the last to a hundred first class hundreds who never clinched the deal in tests; Yuvraj Singh, a fearsome limited over plays, a limited test one. Tests make players, like Steve Waugh, Steve Smith et al, when there are flaws which can be over-ridden by application, ability and temperament. I am no fan of T20 cricket, but I’m even less of a fan of those who seek to change test cricket.
There is a lot wrong with test cricket, but there’s not a lot wrong with it that doesn’t involve throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We have our issues with over rates, the teams can be slightly precious about over rates, I don’t give a stuff if TV can’t fit in certain times – that’s their problem, not the game. Trying to shoehorn in a four day test is just so utterly cretinous in this day and age that I don’t know where to start, but I’ll have a go. If you get a full day’s play rained off, and especially if it is Day 3 and one team has batted well, then the game is shot to pieces. Some of the best tests lasted four days – Edgbaston 2005 and Trent Bridge the same year come to mind – but others would have perished on the vine in four days – Adelaide 2006, Old Trafford 2005 immediately from an England perspective. Forget cramming in extra overs, the TV companies don’t want play past 6:30, the players can’t get in 90 as it is. Five day test cricket evolved because it worked. Because it gives the game, the modern game, time to breathe. A test match is a longform story, and should go at its own pace. If you want to play fast, play fast, but if you can grind, well then do that to. It allows all sorts to play, and to play all sorts of games. There are bad games, of course there are, but there are some superb ones to. Test cricket is about sport. Great sport is entertaining. T20 is about entertaining, and entertaining isn’t always great sport.
I don’t believe tradition, heritage, longform, nuanced, high level sport is the preserve of some crusty old timers like me. I don’t believe the love of test cricket that I cultivated at an early age is just something that applies to people over the age of 40. I am probably guilty as most, but we need to place more trust in our younger people. They might develop test cricket into a form that is different, just as the 1990-2006 Aussies played differently to the previous champion team, the West Indies. By shutting off access to the greatest form of the game, the authorities in this country are guilty of putting the heritage of the sport at greatest risk. A new T20 league is not a cure-all. It isn’t even a gateway drug to test cricket. The ECB betray their trust in the brand of test cricket, and I hate using the word brand, by talking it down. They betray the sport by playing too many games, turning the latest cycle of Ashes test into a best forgotten era of poor quality games played by knackered players, and then tell us it is our fault for not being with the times.
If you think I’m being melodramatic compare two other veritable English sporting institutions. Wimbledon is a fuddy-duddy, up your own rear-end, tennis tournament where certain traditions have to be maintained, but where the club can modernise (a roof of the Centre Court) and where winning a title there is viewed as the Masters is in golf. It is in the rudest of health, remains on the BBC (for the time being) and it is venerated in the sporting calendar.
Then look at the FA Cup. The premier date in the football calendar for supporters of my age. If you couldn’t win the league, you could have a go at the Cup. It was a marvellous occasion, it was the game families got together for. It was special. Now it has been pretty much demolished. The Premier League teams outside of the top six treat it like a dose of measles. The top six muddle along with second XIs until the business end. The prize of getting to Wembley is now for four teams rather than two. The Final used to be the finale of the season – recently they played a full programme of league fixtures around it. Now we pretend it is important, when it is really isn’t. They took the magic out, and expected people to still buy an inferior product. It mattered if you won things, not finished 11th in the Premier League. Ah, they say, but Leicester won the Premier League so magic can still happen! Check out what the Big Six clubs have done since then very quietly behind the scenes. They don’t believe in sport at all, they believe in a rigged game, and they are trying to rig it so they get even more of a ridiculously generous pie. Despite beating them all in the league last year, and gone further in the Champions League than their rivals, Leicester City aren’t big enough. Quick reminder – one of those “Big Six” hasn’t won the league in 56 years.
This long old piece has gone on a bit, I know, but events like yesterday, fewer and further between, inspire me and remind me why I love sport. Why I love the competition. It’s all a game, and winning matters, but not at the cost of everything. Where quality competition between evenly matched foes, in a perfect setting, is compelling without being forced. The drama naturally evolved, with other actors flitting in and flitting out. Even when the tournament is won comfortably, there’s still a feeling a player could implode. Sometimes, like Jordan Spieth, Greg Norman and Curtis Strange to name but three, they do. Sometimes, like Adelaide, “boring” test matches explode into life into compelling finishes. Sport is wonderful, sport evolved over time, and sport can easily be ruined if not taken care of, is party to short-term cash grabs and made the preserve of an elite few.
So getting misty eyed over a golf tournament is understood through the prism of this being an event that is given context by history. Chicago Cubs fans will feel the same about the World Series last year. Leicester City in the Premier League, which, like it or not, is the same format, more or less, than top flight football for the past, oh, century or so. I felt like that with the Boston Red Sox in 2004, Millwall getting to Wembley in the same year, Edgbaston 2005, and many more. It can’t be produced at will, it has to be natural, and people have to care.
There are morals to these tales, and the reaction to sport is individual in nature. Maybe, just maybe, in cricket, we might understand that, and as a governing body they should not countenance radical tampering with the highest form of the sport. It is five days for a reason. Just as it is four rounds for a reason. It is two weeks on grass for a reason. It is seven games at the end of a 162 game regular season for a reason. Sport. Top level sport is a thing of beauty, framed by history, and savoured by those who watch it. Money, no matter how hard you try, cannot guarantee that kudos. The Super Bowl evolved. The World Cup (football) evolved (and now threatens to eat itself). It was just good to be reminded how great it can be. Food for thought.
As if this post wasn’t long enough, I had a couple of extra thoughts to add.
As you know, I won’t listen to that Flintoff and Savage podcast, but one clip was posted on Twitter and it was interesting. Take it at face value for starters. (dash – can’t find it). In it Freddie basically said he wanted to score runs and take wickets for Lancashire and England. When he played for the Chennai Super Kings he felt no attachment and didn’t care.
Found it. Flintoff isn’t pure as the driven snow. He was commercially very aware (remember how he held the bat up when he made a hundred at the bit the Woodworm bat tapered in? Never short of showing something different, our Fred). But it says a lot about the mindset of your sportsman. Love him or hate him, but Flintoff always laid his body on the line for England.
The other thing is that despite the superb entertainment last night, the Masters drew a very disappointing TV audience. The NFL saw a drastic decrease in viewer numbers this year. The NBA regular season looks to have a smaller audience. Baseball’s World Series bucked the trend last year, but only because of the long-standing story of the Cubs, but regular season numbers are low. In England we see decreasing numbers – the Grand National drew a low number this weekend. Yet all we see is sports rights rise and rise. The fewer are paying more and more, while the sports get further out of reach to a watching public in the UK, and to a less interested market in the States. There is a ton more choice on TV these days, but still, this gravy train has to stop, doesn’t it?
Finally, and with all due health warnings about the source (barely sentient Charles Sale), there’s this story…
With this point very important to note, if true.
Sky are revamping their service this summer with cricket, Formula One and golf getting dedicated channels. Football is still seen as the big seller and will have two channels, one for the Premier League and one for the rest.
The new format will allow a cheaper entry price for one package of £18 a month but viewers will pay significantly more if they want to purchase the whole of the Sky Sports output.
This is interesting. As I said on Twitter, what this will mean is I would cancel pretty much everything else except cricket. Not quite sure this is a great idea by Sky.
We have a very complex landscape, a world that seems to watch sport less but be asked to pay more, and be treated with even more contempt by governing bodies. Where the hell do we go from here? Hoping for the best, but fearing for the worst.