What’s wrong with Test cricket? Barry Richards tells us
My friend leant across me to ask of my companion, “What do you think of Joe Root as a batsman?” He was asking the right person. Sitting next to me was Barry Richards, an old team-mate of mine at Hampshire and the subject of my book, Sundial in the Shade. We were at Newlands watching the recent Test match between South Africa and England, having spent the tea interval signing books. “What do I think of Root?” he mused, rubbing his chin, “He looks a very good player. But Stokes – he’s box office!”
That set me thinking. Barry himself was box office, as the queues that had snaked along the corridor and up the stairs for him to sign copies of the book had amply illustrated. Stokes is indisputably box office. Flintoff was box office. So was Barry’s namesake, Viv. Botham too. Warne, Lillee, Sobers, Pollock, they were all box office. As were Bradman, Hobbs and the Grand Old Man, WG himself. Players who empty bars, not fill them. As we took a look around a packed and sunny Newlands – that is, if we dared to take our eyes for one second off the electrifying spectacle laid out before us – it was obvious few were loitering in the bars that day. This was Test cricket at its most compelling. 20,600 were privileged to witness a day’s cricket they shall never forget, and I bet that the number who claim to have been there doubles or triples over succeeding years. “But most of them are English,” Barry commented. That much was probably true. The Barmy Army were out in force and who could not resist a short holiday in the sun and beautiful surroundings of Cape Town, away from a dank and dismal Britain, especially with the exchange rate so favourable? “Test cricket is dying,” he continued, his gloomy tone not wholly explained by the home team’s shoddy bowling. Later, over a braai and a few beers, I quizzed him about his comment. How could he say that after enjoying such a pageant of strokeplay, in front of a capacity crowd too? Mark Nicholas is of the opinion that Barry Richards is one of the four deepest thinkers of the game that he has ever met (the others being Ted Dexter, Shane Warne and Martin Crowe). “He can think laterally and put ideas into your head that you’ve never thought of before,” he told me, “He’s knowledgeable, lucid and forensically analytical. I think he’s a brilliant communicator.” As such, therefore, it behoves us to listen when Barry opens his mouth, to talk about cricket, that is. Evidently, the MCC thought so too for he was invited to serve for a spell on the World Cricket Committee, a sort of independent think tank, pondering the big issues of the game and making recommendations for improvement. But its effectiveness had only limited impact, he believes. “Look,” he said, “committees and administrators are inherently conservative. They don’t like change. But if change doesn’t happen soon, I fear for the future of the longer format of the game.” All right, I challenged him: you are the supremo of world cricket. What would you do? He turned the meat, the smoke billowed and I took a deep draught of my beer. “For a start, I’d separate the amateur from the professional game. Not just the structure but the laws as well.” As illustration of what he meant, he cited the ruling of what constitutes a wide in a limited overs game. In club cricket, bowling down the leg-side is an effective means of curbing run scoring. So the strict implementation of calling a wide, even if the ball is only fractionally outside leg stump, is justified. “But not in the first-class game!” he exclaimed, “A ball pitching on middle and leg that would have missed leg stump by inches is meat and drink to any half-decent player. And yet, if he misses it, it’s called a wide. It should have gone for four. Instead, the bowling side is penalized. Nonsense!” I asked him whether his suggestion had been given consideration. He shook his head. The advance in technology of equipment, particularly bats, has exercised him for some time. There is an amusing picture, but no less relevant for all that, of him at the recent inaugural day/night Test in Adelaide. He is holding up the bat with which he scored his famous 325* in a day at Perth in 1970 in one hand and in the other is the modern weapon (picture below). A popgun next to a shotgun. “That photo says it all,” he pronounced. So does the expression on your face, I said. “With the old bats, if you got a top edge, the likelihood is that you would be caught 10 yards in from the boundary. Nowadays, the ball ends up in Row Z.” The same problem, power inflation, beset another game he’s pretty good at too, golf. But the governing authorities of golf put a limit to the amount of Kryptonite, or whatever it is that they put into a club to increase power off the sweet spot, so that weekend players, to say nothing of the professionals, can’t hit their ball into the stratosphere. “Why can’t they limit the thickness of bats?” he asked, “It’s almost become too dangerous, now they can hit it so powerfully. Soon, umpires will be helmeted and body-armoured like baseball umpires. And who would be a bowler these days? The balance of the game has shifted too much in the batsman’s favour and that is bad for the game.” He moved on – it seemed a natural progression – to outfields, and the boundaries thereof. “How many sixes did Stokes hit in that innings – 11, was it?” Some of them were worth twelve, I ventured. “My point exactly. In order to encourage six hitting, they’ve brought the boundaries in. Another advantage to the batsman.” He recounted a recent one-day game that he’d watched on television. The ball had travelled over the fielder’s head on the boundary for six. “But it didn’t even reach the fence! It dribbled along and finished up two or three feet short. It should have been out. Or failing that, three runs at the max. And yet it counted for six. Unfair!” He then made a point, which confirmed, if ever it needed confirming, Mark Nicholas’s view that he thinks out of the box. Why not have all outfields cut to the same length throughout the world? On many grounds today, if the ball beats the inner ring, it’s four, so quick are the outfields. The chase, the pick-up and the powerful arm, is becoming a lost art, he maintained. “How many threes were in that innings of Stokes’?” I didn’t know off-hand but I was willing to bet it was much fewer than the number of sixes. As we were discussing radical changes to the game, I was intrigued to know how one experiment that the ICC have put in place had gone, namely that day/night Test in Adelaide with the pink ball. He was cautiously optimistic. We agreed that it could not possibly work in England in early or late summer, the dew being the main problem. “But it could work in mid-summer. Why not introduce flexible hours of play, say starting at one o’clock and finishing at nine? That way, you could encourage people to come to the game after finishing work.” Why not, indeed? “But you English,” he finished off, “You’re so conservative. The game has always started at eleven, so it should always start at eleven.” With tea at 4.10, I reminded him. He sighed. He never was a big fan of egg sandwiches, curling up at the edges, and stale jaffa cakes. As if to make his point, he heaved a juicy, braai-seared steak onto my plate. And the conversation moved on to South African politics, as it invariably did. But that’s another story.