You might not know it as you zip up your coat to brave the rain and the wind, but summer is here in England. And that means one thing. Cricket. The Ashes are in full (reverse) swing at the moment, and the feelgood factor is pretty high following England’s triumph at Lords.
I have to admit it, I like cricket, I enjoy playing it and watching it. But there is still that nagging feeling that the only reason I really enjoy it is because of the void left by another sport. Namely football.
Would I be as enthused by Paul Collingwood scratching around for a fifty if there was a World Cup on? Would Graeme Swann’s doosra really get the blood pumping if Messi, Kaká & Torres were going head to head? I doubt it. It might upset the MCC, but here goes. Football is better than cricket. And here’s why:
1. The Clothing
Let’s face it here; cricket kits are ridiculous aren’t they? The whites worn by all countries during test cricket may be traditional, and Australians will talk all day about the pride felt wearing the “Baggy Green” cap representing their country, but in the end they really are just glorified pyjamas. When you see fielders sliding around a grassy outfield wearing white slacks, it is a soap powder commercial’s heaven.
And let’s not even get started on the one day strips. Football may have been a little more pure in the days before shirt sponsorship, but even with AIG or Carlsberg or Emirates plastered on your chest, this Arsenal home shirt looks a damn sight better than this Lancashire kit, don’t you think?
2. International participation
According to the International Cricket Council (ICC), there are 104 members which actively participate in international cricket. Eerily this is exactly half of the number possessed by its football equivalent, FIFA. However, the ICC houses only ten full members– a figure swelled as recently as 2000 with the arrival of Bangladesh. This means that all International first class cricket consists of matches between these ten nations- England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, West Indies, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe.
And whilst tournaments such as the Cricket World Cup open their doors to “associate members” (teams such as Ireland, Holland & Scotland), there is a feeling that the ICC is, and will remain to be, a pretty closed shop with regards to new members. The sport may be on the rise in nations such as the Netherlands and the USA, but it has been nine years since Bangladesh were admitted to the elite, and in that time they have managed just three test victories, and remain bottom of the Test Rankings (ignoring the current ban on the Zimbabwe team). The omens are not great for associate members, and as for affiliate members (the likes of the Falkland Islands, Belize & Rwanda), the sport remains very much an amateur one.
Compare that to football for a second. In the past five World Cups we have seen nations such as Croatia, South Korea, Bulgaria, Romania, USA and the Ukraine enjoy prosperous (and surprising) runs, whilst at European level we have witnessed the remarkable success of Greece in 2004, the Czechs in 1996, and Denmark in 1992. Football is certainly a more levelled out sport, with more countries able to compete at a high level, increasing the competitiveness of the game, and helping it to avoid monotony.
3. The Cost
I don’t wish to preach here, my political and social knowledge is limited enough to make such acts a little difficult. But simple facts remain. To play football, what do I need? Two posts, a football, and some appropriate footwear (trainers or boots). I don’t even need that many other people, a goalkeeper will do. And whilst top-end football boots are pricey, it is possible to pick up some for a reasonable sum.
Compare that to what is required to have a useful game of cricket. If we are playing correctly you will need a proper cricket ball, a couple of bats, some stumps, some pads and a helmet (unless you are hard enough to take on the big red cherry without….which you aren’t). It can be an expensive pastime (see for yourself). Especially as a decent bat can cost up to £200, gloves can cost up to £50, helmet up to £40, ball around £30 and pads upwards of £60. And let’s not forget a pretty hefty holdall to carry it all around in too by the way.
Understandably, such costs can prove pretty prohibitive, especially for young working class families. Despite obvious blurring of class lines, especially in England, over the past few decades, such issues still reveal themselves in professional sport. Comparing the backgrounds of England football internationals and cricket internationals is interesting. Inner city kids- your Wayne Rooneys, Steven Gerrards etc- tend to find themselves priced out of sports such as cricket (and tennis) at a young age, and therefore turn to football.
4. Time Scales
Test cricket is a wonderful sport, I can’t deny it. The ultimate examination of a cricketer’s technique, temperament and, equally significantly, endurance. A test match is played over five gruelling days and, whilst this is necessary to ensure a fair result and a decent spectacle, it can dissuade some people from following the sport. Considering that you could, theoretically, watch five seven-hour days of cricket, and end without a result, it is not hard to see why some thrill-seekers are turned away from the game, and why the shorter format- One Day Internationals & Twenty20- is beginning to dominate the sport.
Comparing it to football, it is easy to understand why it lags behind in terms of spectator-friendliness. Prices may be relatively similar (and one could argue that a full day’s viewing represents better value for money) but football offers an infinitely more intense spectacle, and one which has an air of exclusivity that cannot be replicated by cricket. Knowing that a game lasts 90 minutes only (unless Sir Alex Ferguson is in charge of the watch….ok, cheap gag) adds to the whole experience. In cricket you simply don’t get that level of intensity or suspension, at least not until one team is chasing in the fourth innings. The Ashes series of 2005 was unique in a sense that it seemed to emit drama at just about every turn, but it is fair to say that it was a rare occurrence.
There are exceptions to this rule, I have to say. The Boxing Day tests at the MCG in Australia tend to be incredibly atmospheric, and there is a special atmosphere watching cricket in India at times, but on the whole a cricket match tends to have a far more laid back, carnival-like feel to it. The tribal nature of football crowds may overstep the mark at times, but it undoubtedly- in my eyes anyway- trumps the cricket mob in terms of creating and maintaining an atmosphere.
It is natural I suppose, linking in to the time-scale argument. It must be hard for a cricket fan to maintain enthusiasm for five solid days of action, especially when distractions such as alcohol, fancy-dress and the ever-irritating Mexican wave are so readily available. Football fans, on the contrary, are almost a part of the game; they are the twelfth man, willing their team forward, putting their rivals off, mocking mistakes, delighting in being in the presence of quality, and generally creating a far more atmospheric context in which to view sport.
Cricket is a complex sport. Yes it is a bat and a ball, but there are a multitude of shots, of field positions, of bowling deliveries, most of which seem to have cornered the market on downright stupid names.
Fielders can occupy a position in the gulley, at point, in the covers (but not under them), or in a silly position. We have short legs and long legs, mid ons and mid wickets, long ons and deep covers and extra covers. It is a minefield. Then we have the bowlers serving up doosras and googlies, sliders and flippers, bouncers and Yorkers, slow left chinamen (left arm spin bowlers if you were interested) and arm balls.
Whoever was thinking up these terms must have been enjoying the benefits of the Edgbaston members’ bar at the time, me thinks. Give me the pass, tackle and shoot mentality of football any day.
Football gets a bad press, and rightly so in some cases. It is true that the financial obsession within the game is spoiling certain aspects, and as a purist myself there are days when I long for a more innocent, pure sport. But then cricket, the whiter than white sport, is hardly infallible to the perils of controversy either. A sport that prides itself on sportsmanship has had some pretty high profile examples of skulduggery in the past.
In 1981 we had the infamous “underarm” bowling incident, involving Australian cricketers Greg & Trevor Chappell. Their opponents, New Zealand, needed six runs off the final ball of a One Day International. Australia were in no mood to take any risks there, so skipper Greg informed bowler Trevor to roll the ball gently down the track, eliminating the threat of the New Zealand batsman. Classy.
As far as I am aware also, in football we have never had the news that an international captain, one of the world’s top players, has been betting on his own side to lose. South Africa captain Hansie Cronje was involved in such an incident in the early 2000s. And whilst football has its share of cheats, Diego Maradona springs to mind at this point, the fact that Cronje was basically selling out his own country leaves a sour taste in the mouth. A gentleman’s sport indeed, but not played exclusively by them.
Football controversy is not entirely innocent of course, there are the bad tackles, the crowd violence, the drug scandals, even their own match fixing incidents, but for a sport priding itself on a clean-cut image such as cricket, such incidents are hard to gloss over.
8. Money talks
It is probably the number one criticism levelled at football these days. That there is too much money flying around, that the connection with the man on the street has been lost, that players have lost touch with reality somewhat. Give me the honest, working class, man of the people cricketer any day of the week.
Woah there! Hold on a second. The IPL anyone?
Sir Allen Stanford?
The IPL is a breakaway Twenty20 cricket league in India, first held last year, and which features the cream of the crop from world cricket. A bit like the Premier League you could say, but even more faceless and money driven. Impossible? Nope. Players were assigned to the league’s eight teams using an auction system, and several player simply abandoned their own county/state sides back home to compete in the IPL. So much for a sense of belonging or community then. How much did Kevin Pietersen or Jacques Kallis know about Bangalore before they joined their side “Royal Challengers Bangalore”? Did Paul Collingwood spend his teenage years dreaming of representing the “Delhi Daredevils”? No, they did it for money.
The Stanford affair was even more preposterous, and has harmed the dignity and integrity of cricket for a lot of people. Stanford is a successful businessman in the financial sector in the USA, and used his power and influence to create the crassly-named “Stanford Twenty20” in the West Indies in 2006. Not content with such ego massaging however, he approached the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) in 2008 with an offer they couldn’t refuse. For a total prize fund of $20m, Stanford arranged for England to take on a West Indies all-star team- or the Stanford Superstars to give it a more loathsome title- in a series of Twenty20 internationals. He even managed to lower the tone further by arriving at Lords- the home of cricket- in a helicopter, and flirted openly with players’ wives on the sidelines.
England, predictably, lost pretty heavily, and each missed out on a small fortune, but soon after the ECB would be left with egg on its face as Stanford was revealed as the subject of a huge-scale fraud enquiry in the USA, centring on an $8bn investment scheme. The ECB quickly severed its ties with Stanford, but the damage had been done. When football-baiters moan about the money men in operation within the game, it may be worth considering that all sports have their share of sharks.
9. What can you win?
12th September 2005 was a momentous day, and not just because it was my 21st birthday. It was the day England regained the Ashes for the first time in 18 years, as Kevin Pietersen’s inspired 158 ended Australian resistance once and for all. The fans packed inside the Oval were going wild, the TV audience had peaked at around 20m, and Pietersen, Flintoff, Vaughan et al had engrained themselves into the ranks of English heroes.
Then it was time for the presentation. Man of the series, man of the match, a word with the two captains, but then the big one. The presentation of the Ashes. Michael Vaughan laps up the applause, accepts the congratulations, then lifts the most ridiculously small trophy up to the heavens. He can just about manage to get both of his hands onto it, this ten inch wooden urn containing, it is believed, the charred remains of a cricket bail. Cricket purists will shoot me down for this statement, but it did seem to lessen the enjoyment of winning, seeing such a miniscule trophy.
Compare that to a few months earlier, another day I will remember for the rest of my life. 25th May 2005. Liverpool have beaten AC Milan in the most incredible Champions League final in history (arguably), and Steven Gerrard is preparing to lift aloft the European Cup.
Against the backdrop of red ticker tape, the delirious Gerrard hoists the huge silver cup high above his head, barely able to hold the thing. Fans of Liverpool can now have their photograph taken with the iconic trophy, which puts the Ashes urn very much in the shade. Comparing the urn with the Jules Rimet trophy, or the FA Cup, or the European Championship, or even the Community Shield, it is clear which sport has the monopoly on useful silverware.
10. The Heroes
Cricketers tend to fall into a couple of categories. The dull, uninspiring characters, and the hard-drinking mavericks. But the latter are certainly fewer and further between. In the past we had Ian Botham, David Boon, Shane Warne & Imran Khan, but beyond that what do we have in terms of inspirational figures? Nasser Hussain? Mike Atherton? David Gower? Shudder.
Footballers do get a rough deal sometimes in terms of character assessments, and the truth is sometimes it is warranted, but has cricket ever had the flawed genius characters of George Best, or Maradona, or Paul Gascoigne? Has it ever even possessed the technical immaculacy of Leo Messi, or Pelé, or Johan Cruyff? Has it ever housed the quote machines of Bill Shankly, Brian Clough or even Kevin Keegan? I think not. When you are looking for heroes, football has the market locked down.
So there you have it, football is officially better than cricket (*puts on tin hat*). I will concede that cricket does beat football in some areas; sledging is something that adds a comedic element to cricket (providing it stays within reasonable limits), and their use of video technology is something which I believe football can learn from.
But for sheer entertainment, interest and quality, there can only be one winner. The Ashes will hold my attention this summer, but only till the football starts up again.