David Blackburn

Cricket is more than a game

Cricket is more than a game
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Does this advert ring a bell? It showed a handsome young man hitting a cricket ball far into the distance. It appeared on the Tube last spring. The tagline read: ‘How far can you hit it, Rory?’ The advert said that the young man was Rory Hamilton-Brown, captain of Surrey County Cricket Club. It urged commuters to watch his team play. It suggested glamour and clamour; neither of which is associated with stolid county cricket. Something was afoot.

Hamilton-Brown had been appointed three years earlier, aged 22, to rejuvenate Surrey, a once great club wandering in the wilderness. He was the youngest captain in the country, and one of the most famous, despite not having played for England – the traditional mark of success. A young team was built around him, seasoned with a sprinkling of established pros. This was youth culture applied to cricket. Surrey’s method owed more to PlayStation than the hallowed coaching manual: patient defence became a rare sight as the boys blazed in all directions. Their brashness was exhilarating, and there was substance to it: 2011 saw them win a cup and secure promotion to the league’s top division.

The advert promised much more from this team; but, fast forward 12 months and the Hamilton-Brown experiment has ended. He left Surrey for Sussex (a county he has described as being more ‘caring’ than Surrey) to rebuild his career having resigned the captaincy after his friend and teammate Tom Maynard, 23, died in very tragic circumstances last June.

Hamilton-Brown describes Maynard’s death as his ‘first real setback’ in life, an indication of how the young heads were, understandably, unsettled. But a season in the doldrums could only be partly blamed on the tragedy, which occurred mid-term. Change had to come, and that change was showcased this week as Surrey met Sussex (and Hamilton-Brown) at the Oval.

Surrey reacted with great dignity to Maynard’s death; and it also turned crisis to its advantage. It called time on the cult of youth by hiring international superstars and old pros. The new captain is 32-year-old Graeme Smith, a gnarled champion of the modern game who has captained highly politicised South Africa with distinction in more than 100 Test matches. Smith has not retired from international cricket, so Surrey must replace him when South Africa is playing. This year they have secured the services of Australian legend Ricky Ponting, still imperious at the age of 38.

It is many years since county sides were built around overseas players of Smith and Ponting’s eminence; English cricket having been the territory of foreign journeymen since the proliferation of international matches in the 1990s and 2000s. Some counties will try to match Surrey. Smith and Ponting may encourage their peers to these shores; but it is far from certain. Indian domestic teams are shelling out 7 figure sums on global stars, while the English Cricket Board (ECB) enforces a strict £1.9m salary cap on county squads to encourage fair competition between the haves and have nots. Surrey did not need to break the cap to sign Smith and Ponting because it enjoys certain natural advantages, one of which is the thrill of London.

Smith and Ponting are cricket’s answer to Mark Carney and Kevin Spacey. Their gravitas is likely to pull London’s wealthy punters through the Oval’s gates. The club’s management also talks of ‘role models’, which suggests that this cultural revolution is also designed to guide younger players in light of the Maynard tragedy.

The Maynard inquest made for surprising reading, especially for those who imagined county cricket to be an impoverished irrelevance followed by the sort of person you’d avoid on the bus. Maynard’s wealth is the most remarkable element. Where did he find the money for a £450 bottle of Grey Goose vodka? How could he afford to drive a Merc? How could a cricketer support a rock star’s cocaine habit? It is a far cry from the old days, when even the great Sir Ian Botham and Sir Vivian Richards were so poor they shared gloomy digs for 10 years.

There is, quite simply, much more interest (and therefore much more money) in English cricket now. This is down to the sustained success of the national team since 2003, the advent of cash cows like the Twenty 20 format, advances in communications technology, and, above all, globalisation. The ECB recently sold TV rights to Sky for hundreds of millions of pounds; it has also agreed to export coverage to the sub-continent and Arabia in a 7 year deal with ESPN worth well in excess of £100m. There is online engagement, too. ESPN Cricinfo’s county section, for instance, is thought to have attracted over 30 million hits during the 22 week cricket season in 2012, a substantial figure when one considers last summer's packed sporting calendar.

Brave new worlds need heroes, and heroes live well. Exciting young players can command six figure salaries and attract commercial endorsements without having played at international level. The lesser mortals don’t do too badly either: Angus Porter, chairman of the Professional Cricketers Association, told me that ‘the average 23-24 year old will earn around £40,000’, which is £14,500 more than UK average earnings last year.

Tom Maynard’s death has resuscitated cautionary tales about the perils of youth and money. These are fatuous: people are led to such extremes by desolation, not affluence. His tragedy has, however, renewed intelligent thought about cricket’s place in the world, particularly its role in the war on drugs. The debate addresses the questions: ‘What should society do with those who take illegal “recreational drugs”? To what extent should be they punished or rehabilitated?' So far, cricket has reflected society’s uncertainties on these matters. Angus Porter spoke to me of the need for clubs to take responsibility as employers. Surrey shares his analysis: it has introduced a peer support network to recognise signs of substance abuse and depression, and to arrange rehabilitation.

On this basis it seems that cricket views drug users as victims first and criminals second, which is humane and constructive. On the other hand sportsmen are “role models”, so perhaps they should be held to the highest standards by their employers and governing bodies.

There is precedent for a hard-line. Cricket (officially at least) does not tolerate match-fixing because it brings the game into disrepute. In 2012, Mervyn Westfield became the first English player to be convicted of spot-fixing after he took a £6,000 bung to bowl one bad over during a game in 2009, when he was 21. The older player alleged to have corrupted Westfield, Danish Kaneria, was banned for life from playing in England. The case is troubling. Kaneria’s presumed guilt aside, Westfield was a bit-part player thought to have earned as little as £10,000 a year plus appearance fees; it doesn’t take genius to see why he took the bung. But did he know what he was doing? ‘Match-fixing’ implies elaborate schemes that determine whole contests. A single over in a nothing game, who knew that was risking everything? A hard-line has to be a fair line. Players need to know exactly what the dangers are and what penalties are incurred. That applies to drug abuse as well as match-fixing.

Domestic cricket is no longer the preserve of harmless old boys in anoraks. It’s an increasingly serious business. Yet it is still a delight of the English summer. I skipped the office an hour early a few years back and went to the Oval for the evening. There I saw a young man called Tom Maynard play a gripping, match-winning innings. One for the future, I thought. Ponting and Smith will play similar innings this year; but, sadly, Maynard and Westfield will not be maturing alongside them. Cricket must work to ensure that their tragedies remain rare so that it remains delightful and commercial. The stakes are high.