I took the boy to watch a professional cricket match for the first time last week. To ease him in gently we plumped for one of those short Twenty20 contests that bear only a rough proximity to the game. It was a difficult decision as I’ve long regarded Twenty20 as a hideous mutation; a wham-bam construct designed for the Ritalin generation.
The match itself was as appalling as I had feared – a limited overs hit and run, which stripped out almost all the tactics that make cricket so absorbing. The teams wore pink and blue and cheerleaders littered the boundary, jumping up to perform ill-co-ordinated routines at any hint of a lull in play. Every possible piece of hoopla was crammed in to mitigate what those who don’t consider themselves aficionados would regard as the tedium of the match. If dancing bears were still legal, there would surely have been a troop of tethered teddies at the Pavilion End.
And yet there was much to like. There was a real attempt to build a family atmosphere, mostly through mimicking baseball culture. There were cheap tickets for kids, fairground stalls, faintly amusing sound effects and even free things to wave around, which always goes down well with the spawn. I liked everything in fact, everything except the game. Here my inner old fart kicked in. The teams were not, as I had thought, Middlesex and Sussex, but the Middlesex Panthers and the Sussex Sharks. I could just about see why Sussex went for Sharks. It is pleasingly alliterative and basking sharks can be seen off the coast in the summer months, whenever the hell they are. But Panthers in Middlesex? You don’t often spot them on the Finchley Road. I suppose the Middlesex Mice didn’t sound ferocious enough. I wondered about the Middlesex Middle Managers but it would have made for a poor mascot.
The boy, of course, loved it. The hope is that, in time, he will tire of such thin gruel and look to the subtleties of the real thing. But somehow I doubt it. For the popularity of Twenty20 is an admission that cricket is too dull for the next generations. You cannot argue with the commercial logic – any more than you can argue against shutting music stores and bookshops. Lord’s was at least a third full for an unimportant match and it may be that this helps subsidise the less profitable games – the ones so poorly attended that they stop play and wait for you if you need the toilet.
But the question for me is whether these efforts to make cricket more digestible for bite-size attention spans might actually undercut the sport; whether rather than building an audience for the future, it is, in fact, ensuring there isn’t one. Instant satisfaction rarely builds demand for delayed gratification. Sometimes things ought to require an effort. Too often the answer is to dumb down and gloss over; to set the bar so low that few value the achievement of vaulting it. Someone once wrote of a long-dead cricketer that “small boys rushed to the pavilion gate, women put down their knitting and strong men emerged from the bar when Joe Hardstaff came out to bat”. Could Twenty20 ever inspire such emotion?
Moving beyond sport, take voting. A consensus has arisen that making it easier to vote might alleviate poor turnout. So politicians experiment with weekend or online voting. Yet is there not an argument for not making it easier; a case that says that with difficulty comes value; that this modest inconvenience is a sign that voting matters, that it means more than ordering groceries?
Cricket is marginally less important than voting. Women, for instance, did not throw themselves in front of royal horses for a seat in the Tavern Stand. But for many, its joy is its complexity. Yes, we all love a great swashbuckling innings, but we also delight in the strategic placing of fielders or the absorbing duels between spinner and batsman. Sure, there is tension and a crescendo in Twenty20, but only in the way that cheap horror movies jangle nerves with staccato music or cats jumping suddenly from closets.
But it doesn’t matter, because the boy enjoyed it; which means I did too. So I guess we’ll be back and – who knows – maybe one day if all goes well, I’ll get to take him to a cricket match.