Cricket has a confidence problem.
In 1982, America’s National Football League arrived on televisions in the UK. A highlights show on Sunday evening brought the best of the previous week’s action to a curious nation and found a willing audience, with many of a young age. I was eleven years old and instantly hooked. I didn’t understand all the rules or the terminology but that added to the exoticism of the adventure. I was being let in to a new world, one that belonged to the land of Hollywood, DC comics and all other things that seemed a million miles away from my rural Hampshire. It was exciting.
Not understanding at first didn’t seem to matter as we were led by the hand by British DJ Nicky Horne who, as a newcomer himself, was learning and explaining as we went. By the end of the first season I had a decent understanding, had pinned my colours to a team and was a fully-signed up NFL fan.
When the British American Football Federation began, I harassed my father until he drove me to a game; an unglamorous affair in a town I can no longer recall. Many years later, when NFL proper began bringing matches to these shores I would attend. Not every game, not every year, but often enough. And Autumn Sunday evenings in my household are still reserved for live American football on TV.
Looking back, the thing that sticks out is the confidence with which the National Football League brought their wares. As keen then as now to expand their viewership beyond their shores, the NFL did so with the attitude of – ‘look at this sport, it’s great. It might be a little complicated in places but we’ll explain and you’ll get it. Enjoy’. What they didn’t do is hold meetings where they shook their heads and thought up rule changes to counter the inability of young Europeans to understand the game or summon the patience to learn. Quarterbacks remained quarterbacks, downs remained downs, it was scrimmage not scrummage, quarters stayed at 15 minutes. Everything remained the same. We’d learn. We did.
Compare with cricket. Cricket has a supporter issue, we are told. In the UK at least, it’s too old, too male and too white to sustain its future. There is a need to spread the word domestically and internationally to places where the sport is still a tiny minority pursuit. Faced with this goal, cricket authorities around the globe appear to start from a position that the new audience just aren’t going to like the sport as it is. They’ll find it confusing, they’ll find it dull, they’ll find it too long. To get them looking it is necessary to change the game itself, the language, and sprinkle shiny new objects around the place to hold these novices’ attention.
So, The Hundred abandoned ‘Overs’ in favour of ‘Sets’, and toyed for a while with ‘Outs’ instead of ‘Wickets’. (Noted that in the recent Womens’ World Cup the TV graphics at the fall of the wicket went for ‘wicket/out’ in case anyone was confused). Two sets (I think, or was 10 balls one set that could be divided between two bowlers?) would take place consecutively from the same end to speed things along. T10, already on the scene, began to promote itself as ‘Cricket’s Fastest Format’ – come and watch, don’t worry, it won’t take too long! The Big Bash introduced ‘X Factor players’ ‘Power Surges’ and ‘Bash Boosts’. And now we have the 6ixty, as short as T10 with an extra powerplay that can be unlocked by hitting a certain number of sixes and… this is not satire… a ‘mystery free hit’ voted for by viewers via an app.
It’s a crisis of confidence. We seem to be shouting that we know the sport is a bit complicated, long and boring, but don’t worry, we’re trying to fix it.
The existence of shorter, quicker, formats is good. Helpful. Having attended many T20 Blast games over the years with young son in tow, the ability to fit in an entire professional match after school has been great. The entertainment around the games, the interaction with the crowd, the access to players for autographs and photos at the end, all add to the experience. And the cricket has remained cricket. After all, anyone who has played club cricket has experienced many a late-summer twenty-over dash after work when the setting sun would prevent anything longer.
To use the NFL as an exemplar of self-confidence might seem odd given it is the original trailblazer in terms of bells and whistles: cheerleaders, half-time shows. Those, though, are around the game, not altering its very nature.
No sport can remain static. Rule changes will always happen to enhance the spectacle and to protect the players. The NFL in recent years has moved the kick-off spot and lengthened the extra point. In the 1990s Rugby Union increased the points awarded for a try to counter a penalty-kicking era. Baseball has limited the number of pitching change as a result of an increasingly pitcher dominated game. Cricket has always evolved, from under to round to overarm bowling, the introduction and changes to the leg before wicket rule, outlawing of leg-theory, limiting the number bouncers per over, to powerplays and fielding circles in one day formats. Most major sports have adopted forms of television review of officials’ decisions and introduced concussion substitutes as a necessary innovation given our better understanding of brain injury.
This is no call for an unchanging sport. Sports must adapt and changes must always keep spectator enjoyment at the forefront. Without spectators, we have a pastime not a sport. But the successful changes are usually those that are reactions to natural innovations or trends within the game that threaten to throw out the evenness of contest or the spectacle that already exists. Introducing wacky innovations just to be different for its own sake is not only annoying for the existing supporter but undermines the very goal of growing the spectator pool.
To start from a point that newcomers need rules changed, terms dumbed down, funky innovations added, is insulting. Yes, sport can get complicated but we all started from the same spot – that someone threw the ball, someone tried to hit it – and we went from there, working it out as we went along with the help of friends, teammates or commentators. And most of us did that as children.
We are lectured that we must understand that children aren’t like we were. They are the YouTube, TikTok generation who will only consume things in packages of a few minutes at a time. Attention spans are not what they were. Frankly – and I usually never swear on this blog – bollocks. Try raising a 21st century, tech-savvy child and you will marvel at their ability to spent hours watching someone else play a video game on YouTube. Having grown up in the 1970s, I remember being told that my generation were devoid of concentration because of the evils of television. Yes, the internet has brought the availability of more distractions, children today can quickly pick up a screen to look at something else if a spectacle isn’t holding their attention, but we could always change channel or walk away. How kids access news and content has changed but they haven’t become alien creatures overnight.
The danger here is that the further you take the sport away from itself, the harder it will be to sustain the passing interest of the curious newcomer. To send the message you’ll like this funky version because the other is long, slow, uneventful with impenetrable terminology is not going to sustain interest across the whole sport. To alter the very language is to raise a barrier between one format and the next.
There is one very large and obvious exception to this. The Indian Premier League does not lack self-belief. As a result, it does not feel the need to mess with form. Yes, ‘strategic time outs’ have been added to allow for more advertising breaks, commentators are not so much on-message as becoming part-commentator, part-salesperson, and everything seems to have a sponsor, but the game is the same as anywhere else. Just sold better.
Cricket worldwide needs to share the IPL’s confidence. Sure, market it well via routes that will find all types of audience of different ethnicity, gender or socio-economic background, make it affordable to come to, visible on TV screens, accessible to play, and a welcoming and fun environment. All those things are right. But we must stop thinking of potential audiences as slow-on-the-uptake and instead send out the message: look at this sport, it’s great. It might be a little complicated in places but we’ll explain and you’ll get it. Enjoy.