Monday, June 06, 2005

Infomania, Complexity, and Patience

Cricket is a complex game. For this reason, many viewers think the game "boring", or too slow-paced to grab one's attention. They are, of course, utterly wrong. The joy of cricket is that the momentum of a game is constantly shifting, subtly, often imperceptibly, and that it is the ability of one team to be able to command the undulations that gives them the greatest chance to win. There are moments of individual brilliance and excitement - the crashing satisfaction of the ball whizzing towards the boundary; the sight of the stumps cartwheeling out of the ground; the sheer athleticism of a diving stop in the field. Yet the totality of a game of cricket offers so much more than these memorable moments - although in itself a series of events, the game itself is a constantly moving event, and only reaches its fullest meaning as a whole.

Test matches are, undoubtedly, the pinnacle of cricket - a five-day, five star menu for the cricket connosieur. Obviously, the demands of modern life are such that few people - journalists, retirees, and students post-finals - get the chance to see the match in its entireity. The medium of television gives us a chance to right this deficiency, through the means of a highlights package delivered nightly. A "light bites" menu, if you like, which allows the diner to sample the delights of the day even if lacking the stamina for the full meal.

If it is to express the true nature of the game, however, a highlights package needs to be detailed. Such is the pace of cricket that an awful lot of action can be shown in quite a short time through judicious editing - once you cut out half of Steve Harmison's run-up, and you ignore the throwing of the ball between fielders, then you have actually removed a large part of the action. These are integral parts of the match. The pace of the game, and the open-ended timeframe, is what lends cricket so much glorious subtlety. Yet as a substitute, action can fill in most of the gaps.

This should not mean, however, that we are subjected to a barrage of the most exciting moments of the game. A half-hour package that shows nothing but boundaries and wickets tells us little about the development of the game, but only pleases our short term appetite. We will see the wicket ball, where in the past we will have seen how the bowler set the wicket up. It is the difference between a well-prepared beef sandwich and a beefburger. In the past, highlights shows really were well thought-out. They might show a bowler bowling a maiden over. In theory, not very exciting. Yet in practice, it can be a microcosm of what the bowler was trying to achieve - how he was swinging the ball, what sort of length he was trying to bowl. Crucial to understanding the key passages of play, these details are often sacrificed nowadays for the desire for ever greater audiences.

I can't help but feel this is counterproductive. One of the reasons I love the concept of Twenty20 cricket is that it attracts a new type of audience, yet is used to supplement, rather than replace, cricket in its longer forms. Reducing Test cricket to a smash-and-grab raid in the highlights packages prevents us true fans from really selling the game; from letting our friends appreciate the wonders and tension that only cricket can provide. This I really mean - all the truly prolonged periods of tension I have seen in sport have come through Test matches. The Australia-West Indies match in 1999 was the most gripping piece of sport I have ever seen, and the tension lasted for well over an hour, with all possible results in the balance. There is, quite simply, no other sport that can be so exciting.

Cricket authorities and broadcasters should not be so reticent to trumpet this as a key marketing point for the game. We may live in a world where instant gratification and excitement appears to be the be-all and end-all. At the reckoning, however, it is all a bit shallow and unsatisfying. With a bit of effort, highlights shows could be a real showcase for the greatest game in the world. As they stand, they are a short-term palliative designed to get mums and dads to shell out for one-day shirts with "Flintoff" or "Pietersen" emblazoned on the back. If the game of cricket is to thrive, on the other hand, we need to get more people off the beefburgers and prepared to try the five star menu.