June 27, 2019

On his headstone in Alderney, John Arlott has a couple of lines of his own verse:

“So clear you see those timeless things,

That, like a bird, the vision sings”

Arlott retired from cricket commentary in the summer of 1980 and he died in 1991, but if you’re of an age you can still hear his voice, rough over the hot coals in his chest, timeless in its own way.

England played four one-day internationals in Arlott’s final summer of commentary, two against West Indies and two against Australia. The last of them was ODI number 92. Geoffrey Boycott opened the batting and Jonny Bairstow’s father, David, kept wicket. Eleven years later, when Pakistan played Sri Lanka in Rawalpindi, that number had edged up to 710.

The World Cup Final at Lord’s on 14 July will be the 4,189th. Once the tournament has concluded, England will play a one-off Test match against Ireland at Lord’s, this the second ever scheduled for four days rather than five, and then cram an Ashes series into seven weeks before heading to New Zealand in November for five T20 internationals and two Tests, and then South Africa in December for four Tests, three ODIs and three T20s that conclude in February.

Those players with contracts for Indian Premier League franchises travel and train in March for a tournament that runs through April and May, by which time a new summer in England will have begun, a summer of either glory and money and futuristic cricket for people who don’t yet know they like the game but will, or, for the doomy traditionalist, the death of everything sacred and real.

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And then there’s another T20 World Cup.

Cricket may seem like it is at war with time, and in a way it always has been. It is built on Victorian scales, a pastime that filled midweek days in a time and place when there were midweek days to fill. Winter tours that ran for endless months made sense when you crossed the world by boat. The game could only move at the speed of the era in which it existed, but time was soon accelerating away. Letters to the editor from Brigadiers (retired) concerned with cricket being destroyed by lack of interest began appearing about 1905.

But time lends cricket more than misty nostalgia. The five-day game is symphonic, tidal. Its great ebbs and surges are inherently dramatic, and the actual act of bowler delivering and batsman hitting takes up such small increments of the day that an entire culture eddies around it, a written and spoken lingua franca that explores the game’s vast internal hinterland and, often, its humour and sheer inconsequentiality. Much of cricket was, and is, a stressless indulgence, an escape from time and its commands.

In 2003, a century or so on from the first printed intimations of its death, and years after its divisive schisms – Bodyline, apartheid, Kerry Packer – came cricket’s futuristic shiver, Twenty20. Somehow the crowds, which arrived immediately, felt it before the administrators and the players. It was the idea of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s then-marketing manager, Stuart Robertson, and when it was put to the chairmen of the 18 first-class counties, seven voted against. That seems almost as quaint as the reaction of the players, best illustrated in the first men’s T20 international, contested by Australia and New Zealand in 2005, when the New Zealand team wore retro kit and comedy wigs.

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The players, batters in particular, were being asked to re-value what they had always cherished and defended most – their wicket. Risk took on a new meaning and T20 minted the six as its currency. The Jamaican batsman Chris Gayle created a whole new personality, the Universe Boss, and reinvented six hitting as something spectacular and, for the bowler and the opposition, something demeaning and demoralising, striking them not just over the boundary but out of the ground, the crowds ecstatic as he became the format’s Grace or its Bradman. At his terrifying peak, Gayle was hitting one in every nine balls he faced in T20 cricket for six.

It was a distillation of five days into three hours, a spectacle that condensed time. Soon there were leagues and franchises everywhere, capped by the Indian Premier League, where players could make millions in six weeks. The game retooled itself, beefed itself up, weaponised by power and athleticism as well as undreamed-of skill. In a sport where time had always drifted, every ball became an ‘event’.

In 1983, India upset West Indies to win the ODI World Cup. By the time India won it again in 2011, it was the centre of the world game, its financial and emotional heartland. The final was no longer at Lord’s but in Mumbai, the match won with a six from one of India’s totemic players, MS Dhoni. The shift in power was complete.

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And above all other countries, India loved 50-over cricket. It had something that T20 cricket didn’t, and that was time. A hundred overs offered broadcasters almost 100 ad breaks, plus a day’s worth of commercial opportunity alongside a definitive result.

T20’s big break came in 2007, when India won the first ICC World T20 (not billed as a World Cup, because that already exists in 50-over cricket), novelistically defeating Pakistan in the final. The IPL began a year later in a blur of commerce. There may have been fewer ad breaks, but in place of sixes came ‘DLF maximums’, named after the sponsoring Indian real-estate developer. Phoney ‘tactical’ intervals had their “Official Strategic Time-Out Partner”, CEAT. Anything that moved, from the spider-cam to the umpires, got plastered in logos and graphics. Everything that didn’t move did, too. Alongside its $2 billion TV deal, the IPL has 19 official sponsors.

India, with its different time demands, has made T20 cricket longer. At the IPL, matches beginning at 8pm local time often end after midnight. No one in India cares. It is the centre of the game.

In an echo of history, England, where cricket had begun, who took part in the first Test and the first ODI and created T20, had lost control of a financial behemoth. It had no rights to the format itself and no T20 franchise competition like the IPL or Australia’s Big Bash. Its 18-team contest sprawled across the summer instead of slotting into a single narrative block. It had a TV deal that, since 2006, kept cricket on subscription television. But beyond all of this (and you could write entire books on each of those subjects) it has its battle with time.

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Britain is time-poor. We are all time-poor, and cricket takes time, needs time to work its magic, punch its weight. The ECB has responded by inventing, or at least by conceptualising, The Hundred, a contest that cuts 18 counties down to a series of city franchises, lops 20 deliveries per innings off a T20 game, that theoretically appeals to a new crowd by simplifying the game and by shortening it. It is an extraordinary commercial risk commanded by time.

Almost every ticket for the current World Cup has been sold. Six hundred thousand people applied for the 26,000 tickets for the India versus Pakistan group game. The tournament may be an exercise in pragmatism bordering on cynicism that guarantees each of the ten competing nations – and most importantly India – a minimum of nine live matches, but no-one can say that cricket is unpopular.

Well, actually the ECB can, and does, maintaining the beautifully Trumpian position that yes, this summer, with its World Cup and its Ashes, is great but could be greater, and will be next summer when the Hundred comes.

“In through the eyes and out through the mouth,” was John Arlott’s dictum for commentary. The game he walked away from in 1980 is both instantly recognisable, and alien and strange. You suspect he would have felt the years slip over it and know that this is just another fold in time, another moment of transience in what has always been cricket’s most real and eternal battle.

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