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A brave new World

by Neil Burns

When The Prime Minister declared a national pandemic in March, few (if anyone) had heard of furlough or imagined what the next few months would be like. The fact that professional sport resumed, albeit behind closed doors has been remarkable. Full credit to everyone who has played their part in making it happen, not least the courageous Cricket Boards of West Indies, Pakistan and Australia, who agreed to send their international squads to the UK for a series of matches in a vital summer for the game in England.

Without wanting to sound trite, and labor the point about the more-important medical needs of those infected with COVID-19, I think the mental health of many people in the country was significantly helped by the return to our TV screens of professional sport. I am aware of the fact that the pandemic has placed the elderly and the vulnerable at great risk and I feel empathy for every sufferer (I had friends who lost both parents during the summer due to COVID-19) and simultaneously for those experiencing other illnesses and unable to receive the treatment that their condition requires. 2020 has been a horrible time and nobody knows how the future will unfold. One thing is for sure, professional sport will need to cut its’ cloth very differently in the future if crowds aren’t able to return to live events soon. And, if companies continue to ‘go to the wall’ then fewer sponsors will be able to support top-level sport other than through showing a genuine interest in the results and performance of the team(s) and sport(s) they support.

From a cricket perspective, what started as a cricket season that was going to build on England’s successful winter tours and amazing World Cup win at Lord’s in 2019, ended last night at Edgbaston as Notts Outlaws defeated Surrey in the T20 final. Despite a soggy outfield and rain-reduced matches in the semi-finals, there was some excellent cricket on show. The final itself revealed the importance of having experienced performers on key positions with Notts Ben Duckett (a previous t20 winner with Northants) overcome his failure to get his new Notts team into the final last year and former Somerset t20 winner, Pete Trego, both play excellent roles in securing a much-needed morale-boosting victory for their new team.

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Duckett is a gifted stroke-maker and clearly a fun-loving individual. Success in cricket at a higher level has so far eluded him with accusations of immaturity circling around him. But yesterday evening, with the tournament on the line, he revealed an impressive maturity with the bat as he paced his innings with perfection to steer his team home. In moments such as this, previous indiscretions tend to get forgotten and the high-profile nature of performing successfully in televised matches will mean that Duckett’s stock as a cricketer will rise considerably overnight.  Meanwhile, Notts other high-profile batsmen Alex Hales and Joe Clarke will be grateful that their failure to deliver when it mattered most for their club this summer may get overlooked in the victory celebrations. Peter Moores and his coaching team will be thrilled to place another piece of silverware in the Trent Bridge trophy cabinet after a miserable period in four-day cricket for one of England’s most popular and respected clubs. In reality, winning a t20 competition should not be the only metric by which a professional club should be measured. But, increasingly, it would seem that winning t20 Finals Day is seen as being on top of the brave new world in cricket. 

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On other fronts, the brave new world of ‘bio-secure cricket’ gave us two absorbing test series and the rejuvenation of Jos Buttler’s ‘promising’ test career as well as the rubber-stamping of Chris Woakes’ reputation as a superb cricketer in English conditions. Stuart Broad re-discovered his mojo after being excluded from the 1st test versus West Indies and the indefatigable James Anderson 500th test wicket suggested that he may yet prove to be successful on the next Ashes tour to Australia. Jofra Archer was ‘in trouble’ for contravening the COVID-19 regulations but continued to prove his worth as a pace bowler who can ‘shake-up’ opposition batsmen and make things happen for his fellow members of the bowling attack. Pace does funny things to a batsman’s psyche, and the fact that England has Mark Wood and Jofra available for selection means that their captain across every format will feel confident that his team will not get bullied by their opposition.

Short-form cricket has become a bit of a slog-athon for some batsmen. There are some individuals who would not have got a game in the 1990’s, but have since prospered in the modern era with the rise in profile and income for white-ball specialist batsmen. To some extent, it has meant the need for technical excellence has been reduced. Without top-class fast bowling from overseas players in county cricket, and so few quality spinners bowling on wearing pitches in the 4-day game, batsmen are able to make a very good living with (dare I say it?) inferior skills. Powerful ball-striking has replaced precise defensive technique combined with touch play as ‘in-demand’ characteristics of top-class players. 

Where will the game go next? Bigger hitters? Even smaller boundaries? 10 over tournaments? Made-for-tv events with celebrities appearing at the wicket occasionally in some teams? professional teams with mixed gender cricketers to appeal to the ‘Diversity & Inclusivity’ movement? Fewer 4-day matches each decade until the county championship is effectively a relic?

I remain curious about the game and am in thrall to its’ ability to survive crises. The game has changed beyond all recognition – but one thing must remain – the contest between bat and ball MUST be fair.

The brave new world must include bowlers being involved in think-tanks about how to develop the sport further. Too few bowlers get consulted, let alone asked to lead the sport’s thinking. And, whilst we’re at it, how about asking the paying-public what they want to buy too? Cricket has a good opportunity to re-invent itself as a professional game – t20 is the format youngsters seem to enjoy the most and it is easy to consume for the young working professional. But, it must not be the only format. ICC would be wise to protect the drama which unfolded when Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes won the test match at Old Trafford. I was on a beach in the Gower Peninsula in Wales listening to the radio commentary and it was a feeling of back to the future for this old cricketer.

What a strange summer – but what a brilliant, memorable cricket season it has been too. Well done to everyone who has played their part in making it happen. The Cricket Family, at every level of the game deserves a big pat on the back.

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