Blizzards have been sweeping the country, so it must be the start of the cricket season. And sure enough MCC play Sussex, the champion county, in the annual throat-clearing match at Lord’s today: thermals at the ready please. Though quite why that has always opened the season is beyond me. And ask yourself where would you rather be: in St John’s Wood or flying out to Jaipur, to see Graeme Smith, Shane Warne and Younus Khan take on Chennai’s M.S. Dhoni, Matthew Hayden and Muralitharan in the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 series which starts next week?
In truth, though, for all its stately flummery, cricket has been very nimble in adapting itself to this changing world, while hanging on to the best of the rest. The 100th annual Army v. Navy game, for example, takes place this year, at Lord’s, and is marked on the cover of MCC members’ ticket book. Meanwhile Lord’s will stage the all-singing, all-dancing Twenty20 World Cup final next year, with marching bands, and presumably cheerleaders in MCC bikinis.
But you hope that cricket will be able to deal with what Kevin Pietersen touched on recently. Pietersen was bellyaching, not unsurprisingly, that top English players were missing out on the IPL jackpot because it coincided with the start of the English Test season. He added: ‘Chris Gayle [the West Indies captain, and a perfectly OK player but not anyone you’d drive through the night to watch] texted me the other day to ask why I’m not playing and I said “I can’t”. He just sent dollar signs in the next text message.’ Classy. There’s still no sign that the international calendar is being reorganised to take account of the April–1 June IPL schedule. But it will — and sooner rather than later. England are in the West Indies next spring which means that Flintoff, Pietersen and even Collingwood will miss out again. Dimi Mascerenhas, he of the five sixes off the last five balls against India last year, will however be coining it in India as he’s not on a central contract.
Meanwhile is Test cricket in trouble? The first three days of all this spring’s Test series against New Zealand have been sold out for months. New Zealand for heaven’s sake! On the other hand the current West Indies/Sri Lanka series, a theoretically succulent offering, is being played out to largely empty stands in the Caribbean as far as one see from the television. And are we witnessing the slow death of the fast bowler? With the exception of Brett Lee, who’s knocking on a bit, Shoaib Akhtar, who’s possessed of a death wish, and South Africa’s Dale Steyn, a truly brilliant prospect, the incessant cricket seems to be killing off the quicks.
And the batsmen are able to feast on pretty mediocre bowling. Leading players now average more than 55, some in the 60s. A generation or so ago, it was only the real greats who had averages of around 50: Richards, Gavaskar, Border — a proper elite. Between Lawrence Rowe scoring a triple ton in the early 1970s and Graham Gooch in the 1990s, there were no triple centuries in Test cricket. Now they seem to be coming thick and fast, an absolute rocket of one from India’s Sehwag only the other day. Of course cricket has to change, and MCC is dealing with it pretty well. But we mustn’t lose sight of some of the real strengths of the game.
The English language doesn’t have words to do justice to quite how much F1 chief Max ‘Spanker’ Mosley and McLaren boss Ron Dennis loathe each other. It was Spanker of course who fined McLaren $100 million over the ‘Spygate’ saga last year. So — oh to have been a flying duck on the wall at Dennis’s substantial pile the other day when the News of the World dropped with its fabulous exposé of Spanker’s leisure pursuits.