Home Blogs From the 1st Test to T20 Finals: The Transformation of England Cricket

From the 1st Test to T20 Finals: The Transformation of England Cricket

by Neil Burns

When WG Grace strode out to open the batting with his brother Edward Grace for England versus Australia in 1880 at The Oval in the 1st test match to be played in England, new territory was being experienced. England scored 410-8 by close of play on Day1.

Little did the game know, that 140 years on, England would have scored 399 or more on five different occasions in one innings of 50 over cricket!

The sport of cricket now celebrates an integration of different formats. It has also undergone a transformation of technique, with  a style of play across most matches and formats in Year 2020, increasingly dominated by the influence of t20. 

The sport has undergone a transformation since I retired as a player and especially since the introduction of t20 in England during 2003 in its’ style of play and promotion. The transformation has extended itself even further since the advent of the Indian Premier League (IPL) which has become the most significant introduction to the sport since Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket (or ‘circus’ as it was dubbed by the cricketing establishment) in the late 1970’s.

Surrey County Cricket Club have been innovators in a variety of ways, and their famous ground has hosted so many memorable events. Could their members have ever imagined back in 1880 what would follow on from the first ever test match in England? Short-form cricket, coloured clothing, permanent floodlights, billboard promotion, subscription tv, the telephone – let alone phone-clip alerts of wickets taken being shown on mobile phones!

The Oval will always hold a special place in my heart as it was to be the first Test Match Ground I would play on (as a 14 year-old schoolboy for Essex Schools), the place where I made my English first-class debut as a left-handed middle order batsman in a batting order alongside the legendary Australian captain Allan Border, and the home of the club I nearly signed for on a couple of occasions, first when Mickey Stewart was Cricket Manager, and latterly when Ian Greig and Geoff Arnold were at the helm.

As a student of the game, I was drawn to the club’s remarkable successes of the past and to the prospect of playing regularly at the iconic venue – the second oldest test ground in the world, and also the ground where FA Cup Finals were held. And, the appeal of playing for ‘a big club’ is also a seductive element for any ambitious young sportsperson.

The Oval has witnessed many significant moments in cricket’s rich history and if its’ walls could talk, I wonder what they would say about modern cricket? Is it a form of baseball? Is it a form of ‘Rounders on Speed’? Or, is it actually a better version of traditional one-day cricket than has ever been seen (or considered) before?

When my first-class playing career ended at The Oval in September 2002, I had enjoyed a journey of many ups ’n downs since turning professional in July 1982 upon leaving school as an ambitious 16 year-old. The career had been dominated by an emphasis on first-class cricket .

The influence of the one day game had seen the growth of the 55 0ver and 40 0ver formats which brought important revenue into the county clubs. The one day knockout cup moved from 60 overs to 50 over time and proved to be the showpiece event with the Final at Lord’s in early September. Today, the big domestic event is the t20 Finals Day. How times change!

On Sunday, I watched two t20 matches at the famous old ground (England’s first-ever test match was played here in 1880) on Sky Sports – firstly between Kent and Essex and then I watched Surrey versus Middlesex. I saw two sets of local rivals playing in a highly-competitive manner – but the quality of cricket bore little resemblance to what I was raised on.

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Straight-bat shots ‘down the ground’ were almost non-existent. Instead, switch-hits, reverse sweeps, in-to-out extra cover drives and ‘slogs’ across the line were the order of the day.

And, the bowling of consistent line and length (with the occasional variation of accurate Yorkers) didn’t feature as part of any bowling plan in the way I came to admire JK Lever in his brilliant career as a bowler. JK was Essex’s most reliable performer as well as being ‘the spearhead’ of the bowling attack.

During my 20-year playing career, there was ‘a bad way’ to get out, and ‘a right way to play’ in the minds of many of the most influential people in the game. Woe betide any young player who thought he knew better!

Sunday’s t20 fest at The Oval was fun to watch on tv. I witnessed two London-based teams, each club with a rich history, playing the type of cricket that wasn’t believable as a professional performance when I played the game. It has often occurred to me that t20 has given modern-day players a licence to think (and play) with an enviable freedom.

I imagine young cricketers would be amazed to know that many players of my generation, and the one before, considered short-form cricket as ‘hit and giggle’ in comparison to the longer first-class format. In fact, when the idea of a t20 competition was first brought into the public domain during the latter half of the 2002 season, most of my contemporaries thought it would be ‘mickey-mouse’ cricket. Instead, it has become a complex version of skills and tactics mixed with innovation and athleticism. The powerful hitting and the range of slower balls bowled is most impressive. And, the standard of fielding is often ‘out of this world’.

Most importantly, the game is becoming increasingly ‘cool’ – younger people want to watch the short-form game and socialise with their friends at the ground. Cricketers are becoming more marketable outside of their own ‘world’ to help big corporations sell product. The media is promoting the players and characters aswell as the events themselves. The future seems brighter than before.

Whatever ‘the naysayers’ wanted to project to their friends and colleagues, back in 2003, t20 cricket is now here to stay. I would go so far as to say that it may even become the staple diet in years to come. The transformation would be complete should that day arrive.

Meantime, let’s keep enjoying watching England be world-leaders as innovators of formats, and successful exponents of developing new levels of high-performance in the game. The more I watch Joss Buttler bat, plus England beat Australia in t20 matches, the more I love the format!

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