Declaration cricket and limited overs

I retired from running Clifton’s cricket in 2003 and up to that point, around the country, almost all main matches (ie Saturdays and one or two others like MCC) were declaration games. In the West Country several leading schools had agreed for a few years to experiment with what is sometimes known as a 110-over game, and I mean 55 x 2 not 50 though, of course, it could be. That is, it was effectively a declaration game (ie win/lose/draw), but the side batting first had to declare at 55 overs. In retrospect I think we should have made it a maximum of 58 for reasons I shan’t expand on here, but it would certainly avoid the sort of 70 v 45 over split sometimes seen in schoolboy declarations, not wanting to risk losing. And there’s the rub. The delicious part of (one day) declaration cricket is that it is very difficult – on a good wicket – to bowl a good batting side out in roughly 55 overs and it requires a huge amount of tactical nous, skilful captaincy, thoughtful bowling and a fair amount of gambling. The biggest gamble you have to make is to give the side batting second a decent chance of winning. If you declare too late, then you have missed this vital point and are in danger of ensuring a dull draw. But, done well, it ensures that the vast majority of games will have a fairly exciting climax and be a satisfying contest for 22 players and all spectators. Done badly, it will be a dull draw and I do not deny that there can be very dull draws.

There is a serious danger of supposing that all schoolboy (sic*) cricketers want to be professionals. Only a tiny fraction could even harbour such an ambition and only a very small fraction of professionals could harbour thoughts of playing for England. Nevertheless, in ECB circles it sometimes seems as if the only point of county cricket is to nurture England players and in turn that the only point of schools cricket is to nurture county players. This means that county cricket has been relegated to the margins of the English summer rather than being at the heart of it, as it used to be. At the other end, recreational cricket, which sounds almost pejorative, is struggling to find sufficient numbers of young adults who enjoy the game enough to want to continue playing after they leave school.

I disagree with the notion that schools cricket is a starting-point towards professional cricket. I disagree with the idea that schools cricket should necessarily mimic the formats etc of the professional game (for example, lunch between innings at 2.30pm). Professionals are in the entertainment business, as Andrew Strauss said not long ago. Schools are in the business of teaching young boys and girls to enjoy a richly satisfying, intricate and intelligent** game. It takes time, like an acquired taste, and it takes hard work. “In order to relax, you’ve first got to sweat your guts out” (said not by Viv Richards as it might have been, but by Jimmy Porter in “Look Back in Anger”).

To dwell on the professional game for a moment: until the 60s, the county game was at the heart of it. Test cricket was a relatively rarity. But audiences were dwindling (The Church of England faced similar problems***) and the first solution was to introduce the Gillette Cup (60 overs a side, win/lose). In the 70s came the Packer revolution which was what really changed things. There was money to be made, and so all professional cricketers started to be paid a decent salary rather than a pittance. Much later (circa 2003) came “Twenty20″ cricket. Now, 20-over cricket has been played for donkey’s years, usually evening matches played by pub teams, factory teams, police teams, you name it, followed by a few pints in the pub and maybe a game of skittles. Twenty20 was a skilful marketing name and the game especially promoted for people who don’t like or understand cricket (spectators, not players). Hence the emphasis on lots of big hitting etc, and that’s where we are at the moment. See also Elizabeth Ammon’s interesting riposte to this dumbing down in today’s Times.

In schools, the aim is quite different. The game is for the participants, not the spectators. Nothing wrong with Twenty20, as we now call it. Excellent for fielding, and running between the wickets. Better still, in this exam-obsessed age, it can be fitted into a late-afternoon slot such as 4pm and lasts about three hours in total. But it isn’t the essential game of cricket; rather a sort of warm-up, just as Squash was invented as a cheap and simple version of Rackets. In effect it is the finale of a full-length game but both sides start with all 10 wickets intact. As boys, we played endless games of tip-and-run. Much the same and good fun.

My issue is with the 50-over format (it is in the professional game too, but let that pass for the moment). Never mind that it really should be 55 anyway (50 just to ape the professional game with all their faffing about – Parkinson’s Law in action). Overs cricket is almost entirely about batsmen. Bowlers are just there as cannon-fodder, since there is no incentive – apparently – to get the batsman out. I say apparently because the biggest mistake made by the overwhelming majority of captains, including Test ones, is to forget that the best way to stop Viv Richards scoring runs is to get him out when he is at his most vulnerable, ie when he first comes in. The very worst thing to do is to spread the field and ease him in, so obviously the best thing to do is to attack – yes, three slips, two gulleys sort of thing with a decent bowler who is fired up by just having taken a wicket. How often do we see this? Absolutely never.

As I suggested earlier, the declaration format forces a reasonable balance between the two sides, even quite unevenly-matched ones. To win, even a much stronger side still has to take 10 wickets to win. However, in an overs match, the perhaps stronger side just bashes on until they have played the opposition out of the game, and then we all sit back for three hours of excruciating boredom or – more importantly and distressingly – crushing humiliation for the weaker side. They have to make a go of it and, being by definition inexperienced, probably make fools of themselves. All very nice for 11 players but enough – if repeated, as it will be because they lose confidence – to make the other 11 give up and go and play Frisbee.

In schools cricket, we really want 22 players to have an enjoyable game, to begin to understand its intricacies and in later life, even if they don’t continue playing, at least be enthusiastic and knowledgeable spectators at Test matches. The regrettable and boorish attitude of “win at all costs” (including cheating with varying degrees of culpability from excessive appealing through to “making more noise” ie intimidation, ball-tampering and sledging) in itself has made much club cricket very unappealing for the young (not to mention umpires). It was not always so by any means, and the blame can largely be put at the door of the ubiquitous limited-overs game just as obesity can largely be put down to the ubiquity of processed foods.

As an increasingly grumpy old man, I frequently find myself muttering that “Improvement” = deterioration. In the commercial world this is because businesses (including professional cricket) exist to make money and will often trumpet what is actually a worse product as an improvement. It does not have to be so in the amateur cricket world, though quite how we reverse it even after only 15 years is something I’d find very difficult to find an answer for. Once you have been raised on deliberately enticing processed food it is very difficult to wean young people onto more enriching real food.

It was always my view as a Master i/c that boys (and now girls) should learn to play both types of cricket: declaration cricket and overs cricket of varying lengths as fitted the time available. Nowadays, except for a very few schools, the former – far superior but more demanding and hence satisfying for both sides – has been squeezed out in favour of the almost universal limited-overs format. And just look at the results each week as I do. Once a side passes 300 the contest is over. Yes, there are very rare exceptions: Solihull v Nottingham HS (408-5 v 402), Malvern scoring 300+ at Millfield and losing; maybe one should add last year’s St George’s 531-8 (sic) with reply by Reading Blue Coat of 310. In fact, each week contains results where the side batting first makes a very large score and the second side gets nowhere near. Fine for macho posturing and the strong team’s ego (and marketing department) but not much else.

* I talk about boys’ cricket only. Because the spectacular growth and success of girls’ cricket are very recent indeed, the figures and set-up are as yet very different.

** If you have read this far, you may possibly be interested in a pamphlet I wrote 40 years ago called “Cricket is played in the mind – or ought to be” [apologies that there is currently a small gremlin in the works which has put ? instead of some other punctuation marks]

*** To see my observations on their disastrous solution, read my piece “THE LORD BE WITH YOu”.

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