A BLUEPRINT FOR BETTER CRICKET
Mark Nicholas once told me that in his opinion there were five former players who thought deeply about cricket, were insightful and had some interesting ideas on how to make the game better. Their minds worked creatively and intelligently; they were adventurous enough to think outside the box. They were Sir Don Bradman, Ted Dexter, Richie Benaud, Martin Crowe and Barry Richards. Sadly, only one of the quintet is still amongst us – Barry Richards – and I was lucky enough to catch up with him last week on his annual trip to these shores from his native South Africa. I had arranged for him a speaking tour of various cricket societies, mainly in the North,and accompanied him on long car journeys, acting as his gopher, navigator, accountant, bag man and general factotum. “12th Man, Murt,” he grinned. I had to laugh. After all, it was a role to which I had become accustomed in our Hampshire days. It wasn’t all reminiscing about memories of the Hampshire dressing room, though there was plenty of that. We had time to discuss sensibly the current state of the game, its merits and defects, and, as usual, his views were interesting and thought-provoking. For seven years, he was a member of the MCC World Cricket Committee, a group of former Test players gathered together in a sort of think tank, to mull over the structure and the laws of the game, making relevant recommendations to the ICC (International Cricket Council).
His greatest unease – apart from the quite feasible demise of Test match cricket and the unhealthy hegemony of the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India), with its T20 franchises spread worldwide – is that the historic battle between bat and ball is now seriously out of joint. He continuously referred to bat sizes. There is that famous photo (see above) of him holding up the bat that he used in thatglorious innings of his (325 not out) in a single day in Perth, Western Australia in the Sheffield Shield season of 1970-71,together with David Warner’s current blade. His expression says it all. Warner’s bat is three times thicker but only 2lbs heavier. “Jeez!” he exclaimed, “If I’d had a bat like this, I would have scored 150 hundreds, not 80.” His point was that top edges now fly into Row Z, rather than being caught in the in-field. He was vociferous in the MCC World Cricket Committee, insistent that bats’ thickness should be reduced. The powers-that-be have listened and issued new regulations for the size of bats but, in his opinion, they have not gone far enough. Furthermore, the new regulations must be strictly enforced, a policing about which he remains sceptical. The trouble, he pointed out, is that much money has been ploughed into research and development of bats because sponsors can put their logos on the back which are easily identifiable to the spectator and, more significantly, to the viewer on the sofa in the sitting room. The ball, by contrast,hasn’t changed for over 100 years. Nobody can spot a logo on a cricket ball, swiftly roughed up, that travels at speeds of 90mph.
The upshot is that the ball is hit harder and further than ever before. Sixes are now commonplace. The boffins have the technology to measure the distance a ball travels when it is hit into, or over, the stands. Why not add up the measurements and the team that hits it the furthest in aggregate wins the match? Or even, as a reductio ad absurdum, remove the bowlers and fielders from the equation? Use a bowling machine. Eleven batsmen have an over each and the aggregate distances are calculated to declare the winner. The game is rapidly approaching such a ludicrous scenario.
And while we’re about it, he continued, why should a batting side, when the batsman has missed the ball - making a mistake therefore - and it bounces off his pads or any other part of his body, be rewarded with a run, a leg bye? It should be a dead ball. Talking of dead balls….our tour had finished before the Bairstow stumping, so his audiences were unable to get his views on the incident. The no ball law, overstepping the popping crease, came in for his forensic examination. He is very much in favour of a return to the back foot law. Currently, if a bowler oversteps the mark by one inch with his front foot, it is deemed a no ball, even if he has secured a wicket. An inch! What difference does that make? Once again, the cards are stacked against the bowler. Ah, but the umpire would have to stand further back to police it, say his detractors, further from the business unfolding at the other end. Makes little difference, he retorted to general amusement; most umpires can’t see that far anyway. Interestingly enough, during my research for my book on Colin Cowdrey, I ploughed through reams of aerogrammes,written in his distinctive miniscule handwriting, from Sir Don Bradman to Cowdrey, with whom he had a close friendship, championing the return to the back foot law. Easier to spot, quicker to call, more time for the batsman to take advantage.
Talking of ‘alive’ balls, Barry had this suggestion to ease the balance back to equilibrium between bat and ball in the slugfest that is T20 cricket. Make the balls softer so that batsmen will find it harder to smack them out of the park. Just for T20s, not for the ‘proper’ game, of course. A different ball could be developed and manufactured and used worldwide. It could be done if the will is there, but sadly there doesn’t seem to be any.
Barry then turned towards an issue that has been a bugbear of mine for years and judging by the noises of agreement from his listeners, one of many others as well – slow play. The paying customer is not getting full value for the price of his admission ticket, which is expensive, as we all know. There is meant to be a minimum of 90 overs in the day, but that is rarely achieved because everybody out there on the pitch seems content to dawdle. Fines are ineffective, he said, because these days players are so well paid that a thousand pounds here or there is to them what small change would be for most of us.
For a start, why not start at 10.30 instead of 11.00? That would help. He would insist that the fielding side follow the umpires out onto the field of play in quick succession, swiftly followed by the batsmen. There should be no protracted agonising over setting the field. Everybody knows where he is meant to be fielding and should take up his position in shortorder. When the batsman is ready to receive the ball, the bowler should be at the top of his run. No shilly-shallying…he should be ready. At the fall of a wicket, the dismissed batsman and the next man in should cross on the field of play. There should be no breaks for drinks, changing gloves, bats, boots, sweaters and the like. These interruptions for the most part are unnecessary and irritating. Why not scrap the tea interval, he contended; after all, the players can hardly be gasping for a cup of tea because they have been regularly rehydrating during the afternoon session? A 20-minute break seemed pointless to him, though he did admit that the scrapping of the tea interval might not go down so well in England, where it has become part of the very fabric of a game of cricket in this country. If the umpires are given the authority, which at the moment, they do not seem to have, to ensure that the game moves along briskly, with appropriate run penalties against the offending teams, players will soon learn to get a move on. When he was playing county cricket in the 1970s, teams had to bowl 19.5 overs an hour. We managed it. So should players today.
Bazball? What did he think of it? As an attacking opening batsman in an era when openers were meant to dig in and see off the new ball, he was all for aggression and positivity. He very nearly scored a century before lunch in one of his four Test matches, but Bill Lawry, the Australian captain, deliberately wasted time in order that Barry should not do so; he did not want that ignoble statistic against his name and that of his team. So, nobody can lecture Barry on how to take an opposition attack apart. But judgement must be applied, and due consideration paid to the state of the game. The whole point is to win the match and he accused several English batsmen of throwing their wicket away when they had the bowlers at their mercy and thus ending up 50 or 60 runs short. When the margins are fine, as they have been in the first two Ashes Tests, that is what ultimately cost them. Australia don’t play Bazball but they are 2-0 up in the series.
Barry Richards is a consummate professional with a microphone in his hand. He is articulate – he spoke on each occasion for 45 minutes, without pause and without notes - and his observations and opinions, laced with one or two amusing anecdotes, were listened to by enrapt audiences. He ended on a poignant personal note. How did he cope with the tragedy as the world’s best batsman of only playing four Tests because of South Africa’s sporting isolation during the apartheid years? Losing a son and a partner was a tragedy, he asserted; only playing four Tests was a disappointment, a grave disappointment, it has to be admitted. But not a tragedy.