A PROPHET IS NOT WITHOUT HONOUR BUT IN HIS OWN COUNTRY
Barry Richards on limited overs cricket.
“A prophet is not without honour but in his own country.” Actually, Cally Barlow, widow of the great South African all-rounder, Eddie Barlow, did not utter these precise words. Jesus did. But the sentiment she was expressing was the same. The occasion was a meeting of the Cheltenham Cricket Society, of which she is president, and she was welcoming its guest speaker for the evening, Barry Richards, an old friend. The hall was packed and she reminded the audience that Barry, along with many others of that great South African team of the apartheid era, is now largely side lined, even airbrushed from history, in his homeland. More’s the pity was the overwhelming feeling of the assembled gathering, for Richards has a forensic intelligence about cricket, as well as a wealth of experience and a seasoned broadcaster’s articulacy. Mark Nicholas once told me that Barry, in his opinion, is in the top five most acute and penetrating thinkers of the game, the others being Don Bradman, Ted Dexter, Shane Warne and Martin Crowe. “They all had this ability to think outside the box,” he said, “Their analyses and ideas were – still are with the three who are still with us – always imaginative and insightful.” Barry’s talk confirmed this opinion; it was riveting. He ranged over a wide variety of topics but not the least thought provoking of his observations was his take on the modern game, in particular the one-day game, whose rise in popularity seems unstoppable. Is T20 taking over the world, he was asked. He paused, took stock, rubbed his cheek in that characteristic thoughtful way of his and said, well, yes, Test match cricket is in mortal peril. It appeals overwhelmingly to the older generation and is only popular and profitable in England. So much one-day cricket is being played around the world that the younger players are forgetting, or have never learnt, how to play a five day Test. Solutions? Two divisions are imperative, de facto already in place in many people’s eyes. Day/night games are a start but he would prefer more flexible hours. Why always start at 11.00 am? There must be creative thinking about how to improve customer experience, particularly for the young. Why are players cocooned in their dressing room all day? They should make themselves more accessible to their public. Why can’t the members of the squad not engaged that morning or afternoon give master classes in the nets to the kids? We need to think imaginatively if Test cricket is not to die on its feet. Compelling words. He was then asked whether he thought that the balance between bat and ball in the modern game had swung too far in favour of batsmen. “Definitely,” he grinned, “They wear helmets now!” He went through the list of familiar reasons that had accounted for the lop-sidedness of the contest: bigger bats, stronger players, shorter boundaries, tight restrictions on wides and bouncers, uniformly bland pitches and of course helmets, which beget boldness, even recklessness, in strokeplay. “Who’d be a bowler in this day and age?” he cried, “You might as well have robots delivering the ball and measure how far the batsmen hit it.” He cited one example of how much the balance between bat and ball has shifted, an extraordinary ODI between South Africa and Australia at The Wanderers in Johannesburg in 2006. During the day in which 50 overs per side were bowled, 872 runs were scored. Yes, that’s right, 872 runs! That’s at an average of over eight runs an over. It was undoubtedly a thrilling contest, Australia making 434-4 and South Africa snatching victory in the final over with 438-9. “But was it really a contest?” he pondered. Throughout the day there were 113 boundaries hit. With the aid of video recording and slo-mo technology, Barry later re-watched every one of those boundaries and came to the extraordinary conclusion that no more than 10% of them had come off the middle of the bat. Uh-oh, he thought to himself, something seriously wrong here; mishits should for the most part result in dismissal, not sail over the boundary for six. The game has lost its equilibrium. The traditional parity in the tussle between bat and ball has overbalanced. How to redress that balance? The thickness of bats should be lessened, an initiative already set in train by the MCC, the keeper of the game’s laws. How about a softer ball that can’t be hit so far? Using two balls alternately every over should be discontinued. And what about using a two-piece? No, not a swimming costume to upset a batsman’s concentration but a two-piece ball, rather than the traditional one, sewn in four pieces – that will aid swing. And here came his most radical idea. If the batsman shifts his stance once the bowler has commenced his run-up, the law governing whether the ball has pitched outside the line of leg stump, thus negating the possibility of an LBW decision, should be scrapped. All these changes would serve to help the bowler who is in sore need of succour in these days of massive hitting and mammoth totals. “O my Richards and my Barlow,” to quote, slightly abridged, from a famous poem, At Lord’s, by Francis Thompson. Eddie Barlow is sadly no longer with us. Barry Richards most certainly is. He plays a lot of golf these days – which he is unsurprisingly good at – but one can’t help but wonder that his brain, if no longer his body, would be better employed in the service of his country’s cricket. He would grace its airwaves, any country’s airwaves, for that matter. Oh, I forget – he would be debarred because he was never captain of England.