This just isn't cricket
The Australian proposal for day-night Tests has revealed a reactionary in this former radical
Friday December 14, 2007
English traditionalists, already appalled by the signing of the EU treaty in Portugal, yesterday faced another assault on their ancient way of life. The Australian cricket authorities confirmed that they are considering the possibility of introducing day-night Test matches.
Readers who would be happy if the sport of cricket were burned and the ashes transported to Australia should not turn over now, because the point of this story is - to borrow an ancient phrase - not cricket, or at least not just cricket. In the reaction to the Australian proposal, we see the classic shape of any standoff between conservatives and reformers: whether the practice facing change is the gender of clerics, the appropriate clothes to be worn in restaurants or the way in which foxes should die.
And what's strange for me is the side I'm on. So naturally drawn to modernism that my teachers had to force me to read books written before 1922, I would have voted for change in most controversies over alteration. But on this one my immediate instinct - as strong as Richard Littlejohn's on Europe - was that Test matches should commence just before elevenses and finish just before dinner.
Briefly to explain the debate to the uninitiated: Tests - known to the over-30s as "proper cricket" - are played across five eight-hour stretches of daylight, with the game suspended when dusk descends. One-day games have recently become "day-night", starting in the afternoon and concluding under floodlights, and the Aussies propose extending this to proper cricket. The horror of those opposed is increased by the fear that the meddling won't stop with the clock. Once artificial lighting is introduced, two other long traditions of Test matches - white clothing and red balls - will likely be replaced by lurid colour and white respectively.
The problem is that, for many who watch cricket, there is a visceral pleasure in the dew on the grass at the start and the sun falling behind the stands at the end. This arrangement has a natural rhythm to it. Many cricket-loving writers - Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Simon Gray, John Arlott - have employed the late afternoon of a cricket match as some kind of metaphor for life: the fading of the light at close of play becoming an image of lost time. The only available equivalent in day-night games - switching the generator off - lacks the same poignancy, expect perhaps for poems about euthanasia.
Another source of grumpiness is that, as often in modern sport, the motivation to change is driven by the needs of television. Already, in British football, fans have been forced to endure long journeys home on a Sunday night because tea time on what used to be the Lord's day is the slot in which telly executives wanted matches to happen.
In cricket, Tests which started in the Australian afternoon would not only move half of their days into evening peak-time, when audiences and advertising rates are larger, but, when the opponents were England or South Africa, live overseas coverage would no longer be screened during the night but could attract perkier and more plentiful breakfast-time viewers.
But opposition to later beginnings for cricket matches goes beyond the football fan's complaint of inconvenience, because light and air are fundamental to the way in which the ball moves, and is seen in a way that does not apply in the winter game.
Another argument against the Australian proposal which is not just reflex traditionalism is that cricket, more than perhaps any other sport apart from baseball, depends on the comparison of present and past performances, so that modern players are measured against Bradman or Sobers. Even now, parallels cannot be exact - for instance, the rules on preparation and protection of pitches have changed - but there is still the baseline that players separated by generations batted and bowled across the same slice of the clockface.
Once a century, or a five-wicket haul, start being given the qualification "made under lights", then the game's great tradition of statistical pedantry, which is one of the things sustaining cricket-lovers as they age, begins to collapse.
And so I am now a reactionary. I keep telling myself, of course, that not all defences of the status quo are the same. Many of those who argued against female priests were misogynists, some foxhunters are psychotic snobs, and the opponents to European Union include racists. Those other debates between conservatives and liberals also touch on issues of economics and cruelty which have no equivalent in an argument over when games of cricket should start.
Even so, suffering this small experience of seeing something that has been an important part of my life exposed to meddling for reasons which seem dubious and ill thought-through has created the new experience of being on the side of the ancients against the moderns, and has given me a new tolerance for the misery and impotence of that position. I'm sorry, but it just isn't cricket.
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