The Short Game : Evolution or a dumbing down?

People of a certain age will remember a time when test cricket was all there was. Long summers framed by the traditional rivals (less the boycotted apartheid-era South Africa) slogging it out over five days. The droning of the oscillating fan, newspapers spread out over the floor, the long breaks as Dennis Lillee or Jeff Thompson trudged back to their marks, and Geoffrey Boycott slowly reached 50.
Cricket was not so much a sport as a rhythm, a back-drop to the summer months.
In 2017, cricket comes in a few different guises, and one of them has some traditionalists worried about the future of test cricket. Declining crowds and some tours only televised on pay-tv, the white flannels be-grimed from shining a red ball slowly being replaced by lurid team colours and cheerleaders.
T20 seems to be in ascendance, where anything can happen on any given ball. No gimmick is too cheesy not to be part of this low-brow game of glorified tip ‘n’ run: mic’d up players chatting about the state of play, anthems from Queen belted out on the loud speakers after any big slog, along with every conceivable method for advertising fried chicken or online betting.
It is as garish as it is fun.
Yet cricket is not the only sport where the stream-lined form is making people turn from the original long-form game. Rugby Sevens is loved by many who would not show up to see the 15s, and golf is attempting to move away from its famously soporific weekend drone.
If sport is about entertainment, spectacle and excitement, then surely the stream-lined form is about to consign the traditional sports to extinction. Call it sporting Darwinism.
On the face of it, choosing Sevens as Rugby’s representative at the Olympics makes a lot of sense. The game is considerable shorter, having two seven minute halves (or 10, if it is a final), and being played on a regular-sized field with fewer players, the focus is on quick hands and even quicker feet. With only seven players per team, there are quite a few holes through which to duck and score.
Plus the scrum, such a blight on the 15s version, consists of only three players per team and has no chance of collapsing.
It is an electric, muscular game with none of the quagmire lethargy seen so often in the 15s, which makes it much more attractive for the uninitiated.
T20 is similar in its approach. During a test, overs that feature six non-scoring shots are common: and are a sight that many a purist enjoys. In T20, players need to risk their wickets in order to hit the boundary. Reducing playing time from five days down to about three hours and 20 overs means that spectators see shots every couple of balls that they would have to wait half an hour for in a test.
This year, the Melbourne Cricket Ground has seen attendances for T20 top 80,000.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to test cricket comes in the form of the Indian Premier League. Massive short-term contracts lure internationals from across the world to slog for cash. The money on offer dwarves that paid by many cricket associations around the world, and when a series intersects with the IPL, players must make a choice: tradition or many, many rupees.
Golf is up to it too. In 2011, former golfer Peter McEvoy pitched a new high-energy sport of PowerPlay. Played over nine holes instead of 18, a points system and a second flag on the green ensure more excitement. The titular PowerPlay means that a player has to shoot for the more distant black flag three times in the first eight holes.
Going for the PowerPlay on the final hole carries risk, as a net bogey means you lose two points from the total.
Fans of these most idiosyncratic of sports –cricket, rugby and golf- should not worry too much about the younger, flashy brother getting all the attention. There are plenty of reasons why there will still be test cricket, 15s and old-school golf played over the coming decades.
First, administrators from these sports actually want the short-form version. These are not break-away sports, like the World Series back in the early 80s. They are carefully planned marketing ploys.
Cricket Australia’s head James Sutherland recently explained the strategy to The Australian newspaper. “It’s about kids, it’s about families and it’s about females,” he said.
“It’s not targeted to the traditional cricket fans. If they want to come along anyway, that’s fantastic and we’ll always embrace them. But we’ve been really intent on bringing new people to the game through T20 and the Big Bash and even if the competition is going through the roof, which it is right now, that’s what it started as and that’s what it remains. It’s been designed as an introduction to the game of cricket.”
The sport is effectively a Trojan horse: a way to get people interested in watching cricket. If they enjoy the Big Bash, maybe they will start leaning towards test cricket.
Moreover, the players themselves will never see winning a trophy shaped like a bucket of fried chicken to the strains of “Seven Nation Army” while fireworks are shot off the roof of the SCG as a replacement for winning the Ashes. All professionals understand the roots of their sports: invariably they were inspired by heroes of the past. These are the players they wish to emulate. Test cricket is where legends are forged, 15s is where the champions of the past made their names.
A sporting legacy is about matching or surpassing the triumphs of these icons, and these short form versions simply do not have the longevity or depth to create the all-important bank of statistics. More than athletic performance, it is the numbers that we use to judge our heroes.
Fearing these innovations is pointless: they cannot be legislated away, and they actually serve the function of opening the sports up to newer audiences. And if you are still worried that in ten years these sports will not exist, remember that old saying “class is permanent”. Fads come and go.