The Suburban Shield

It was hot but not unbearable. We arrived at the ground during the first session. After locating the only gate that seemed to be open, we paid a small fee and entered the aged stadium.

Dad and I took our seats in the shade among a spattering of spectators. Some stood at the bar discussing the state of the match while others sat alone with headphones in listening to the radio commentary.

A handful of young patrons could be found braving the heat; hands hanging over the advertising boards eagerly awaiting a well-struck ball. Children played on the grassy banks and yelled out feedback and suggestions to the Victorians in the field.

There couldn’t have been more than two hundred spectators. And while my estimates might be off, the takeaway is: the crowd was small.

Western Australia was in control of the match on the back of a strong bowling performance led by Jason Behrendorff who starred in his return from injury. Despite regular wickets and the lack of a significant individual score, the Warriors lead grew.

The stately nature of the match allowed my mind to wander. How long does Shield Cricket have before the life support is turned off?

The current model is not sustainable and while the WACA provides work for some, like the workhorses manning the scoreboard, the current practice is a financial failure. The revenue from the prosperous Big Bash is undoubtedly propping up state administrations but how much longer before the franchises cut the umbilical cord?

Though money alone is not the point.

Shield cricket is the key to Australia’s strength across all formats. It builds the requisite technique, like a sound defence and consistency of line and length, that isn’t replicated in Twenty20 cricket.

The shorter forms excite and have their place but a model centred around the crash and bash game will cause the calibre of our cricketers to deteriorate.

But what if we took Shield cricket to the suburbs? Imagine matches taking place at local parks around the states. The cost of staffing large grounds would be eliminated and conversely, the local grounds would benefit financially courtesy of bar sales and advertising opportunities.

Residents would flock to these fixtures – only a short walk from home. And even if it was only for the novelty, the ever-changing location of matches will expose the game to different people.

The young and impressionable will have easy access to quality cricket. I’m an avid cricket fan but I was 25 before I went to my first Shield game. I’m sure I’d have experienced a match at a much younger age if the opportunity was a five or ten-minute walk. I’d have slopped on some sunscreen, slapped on a hat and strolled down the road with Dad in tow.

State cricketers would be exposed to different conditions too, forcing them to become masters of adaptability.

The consistency of pitch conditions could be one of the obstacles of the Suburban Shield. How would the ground quality be ensured? Experienced groundskeepers could train the less well versed improving pitches nationwide.

Controls would have to be put in place to prevent vandalism of grounds too.

Would local parks be able to cope with large crowds? is another question that will be answered with time. Parking and restroom options will need to be considered.

But big crowds would be an indication of success. And a fraction of the money that was being used to staff and maintain a big stadium could instead be used to fund things like temporary toilets and seats.

For too long domestic cricket in its longest form has been allowed to plod along with spectator numbers barely outnumbering players and staff. Administrators have known this – and acknowledged it too – but very few changes or trials have been attempted, day-night matches being the exception.

Now is the time for a change; to break through this stubbornness. Shield cricket is terminally ill and the standard treatment isn’t working. The solution, if there is one, lies in doing some experimental.

 

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What Would You Change?

This is a transcript of a talkback radio conversation.

Host: Welcome to CricketFM. This afternoon we’ll be taking calls in answer to the question, “If you could change anything about the game of cricket what would it be and why?”. And here’s our first call – Shaun Watson – Am I pronouncing that correctly ‘Shah-ooh-neh’?

Shaun Watson: Ahh, hi Bill. Yup, your pronunciation is spot on.

H: Excellent. You’re not related to Shane Watson are you, Shaun?

SW:

H: Shaun?

SW: No, no relation to Shane Watson. Fantastic cricketer, though.

H: Fantastic is a little generous. But that’s beside the point – what changes would you make to cricket?

SW: I’d like to see LBW’s removed as a mode of dismissal Bill.

H: Interesting Shaun. Many would argue the game is already in favour of the batsman and a change like this would only further tip the balance.

SW: But Bill, there are so many ways to get out – caught, stumped, run out. I mean, you can’t even hit your own wicket these days. Then there’s the whole question about accuracy – can we really trust the umpires? Most of them are pretty old and their ageing eyes are bound to make mistakes.

H: Thanks for call Shaun – food for thought. Our next caller is Lionel Length. Lionel, can you please tell the audience your title.

Lionel Length: Afternoon Bill. I’m the chairman of the Bowler’s Union.

H: I didn’t know such an organisation was in existence.

LL: Oh yes, we’ve been around for some time. Those darn batsmen overshadow us-

H: How would you change the game Lionel?

LL: I would like to see the reintroduction of the underarm delivery, Bill. As you mentioned to the last caller, the game is well and truly in favour of the batsman and by allowing bowlers to bowl underarm deliveries, it will allow them to stem the flow of runs. I mean, have you seen the size of David Warner’s bat? You could circumnavigate the world on that thing if you attached a sail.

H: Don’t you think the game would become boring if bowler’s resorted to rolling the ball to the batsman?

LL: Nonsense. It would force innovation, Bill. It would lead to new shots, field placements and people would flock to stadiums as a result.

H: Hmm, I’m not so sure Lionel but thanks for the call. Next, we have an international caller – Zhang Wei. Where are you from?

Zang Wei: Bill, hello. I’m from China.

H: Incredible. This call must be costing you a pretty penny. What change would you like to see?

ZW: I’d like the ‘chinaman’ bowling title changed to left arm leg spinner. I mean, it’s a gross representation of our people. How did it come about anyway?

H: I believe the origins stem back to 1933-

ZW: You know what Bill? I don’t care about the origin. It’s offensive.

H: Thank you for the call, Zhang. Phew. He’s a fiery one. Our final caller is Bruce Worthington. Bruce your ninety-five, is that correct?

Bruce Worthington: Morning Bill, that’s correct.

H: Bruce, what change would you like to see?

BW: Well, you see Bill, I grew up listening to cricket on the radio. The broadcasters described what was happening in the game because we, the listeners, couldn’t see the happenings. But now with television, I can see exactly what’s happening, yet the commentators persist. And that would be fine if they were adding another dimension to the game. But they’re not. We have bowler’s putting ‘revolutions’ on the ball and batsman ‘caressing’ the ball. It’s absolute hogwash – half the time I’m reaching for the dictionary to find out exactly what Shane Warne means when he says the ball ‘rags’!

H: You make a fine point Bruce. Unless the ball is an onion, how can you ‘chop’ the ball to third man? What’s your suggestion then Bruce?

BW: Silence.

H: No commentary?

BW: No commentary.

H: Wow. I like it.

BW: And another thing – I didn’t turn on the cricket to watch the crowd, but the cameraman insists on showing me these people anyway. If I wanted to watch people ranting and raving-

H: OK then, thank Bruce. Unfortunately, that’s all we have time for today. Do join us next week where we’ll discuss Doug Bollinger’s beard.

Why I Love Cricket #2

Rivalries form an integral part of all sports.

Cricket has its share of rivalries, the most notable and original being the Ashes – a series which has fans perspiring more than Inzamam after running a three.

Though, the tribalism evident in other sporting codes will not be found in the cricketing landscape. The seething hatred of the opposition during a football fixture would shock most cricket supporters.

Followers of the game of bat and ball are more interested in the contest. The result is important too, but if the battle is well fought, the cricket fan will be content.

The 2005 Ashes will go down in history as one of the great series, and not because of the final scorecard (what was it again?) but the drama and competitiveness of two sides unwilling to take a backward step. And while fans will huff and puff when their side loses there is no loathing of the opposition, only disappointment that they couldn’t get over the line.

For a sport, which favours loyalty, the lack of tribalism is a paradox. Even now as cricket succumbs to the clutches of franchising, a distinct loyalty remains. That’s not to say the Perth Scorchers or Melbourne Renegades are composed solely of native players, but even with the expanded freedom, a degree of purity remains.

When a player does change stripes, you won’t hear any booing (for the most part) but a polite respect.

Perhaps this contradiction can be explained by the unique position cricket finds itself in. Though the sport is played across the globe and with continued expansion, it has managed to maintain its niche status. This is the reflection of a cricket supporter – the proportion of diehards is staggering – but equally you’ll find those completely oblivious to the game.

By favouring the contest over the result, the community strengthens. By maintaining a high degree of respect a protective barrier has formed around cricket, guarding it against fractures evident in sports like boxing, where myriad federations exist.

A cricket fan may not be pleased when their team goes down, but they realise, it’s not the end of the world. They love the game for the tussle, the individual battles and the unspoken respect, which permeates the sport.

Why I Love Cricket #1

There’s no doubting my love for cricket.

My homepage is cricinfo.com, the caricature I received for my 21st birthday has me wielding a piece of willow and if there’s cricket on the telly, you’ll find me thoroughly engrossed.

The game has so many intricacies and layers – a reason why some are turned away from the sport (God help them). Though the multi-layered nature of cricket is one of the things that make it so great.

While ebbs and flows exist in most sports, none push the boundaries like cricket. The spectrum of emotions and sensations from watching a day’s play is so broad, ranging from nonchalant detachment to complete absorption.

You can be leisurely sipping a cup of tea while the game carries on at a lackadaisical pace. It’s almost as if the players have an agreement to remain in third gear and just let the game happen. The batsmen work the ball around – mainly scoring one’s and two’s, while the bowlers trundle away preserving energy.

Then, suddenly, everything changes.

You find yourself with only the fabric of your shorts on the sofa as you’re sucked into the battle between bat and ball. You’re unsure whether to keep watching or turn off the telecast to give your heart some respite.

There is a fiery rage in the eyes of the fast bowler but the batter is unperturbed. He’s bravado implies he’s capable of slapping every delivery over the fence as if it were child’s play.

The game can be described as both pleasurable, like a game of Scrabble, or frantic, like a destruction derby, all in the same breath.

Cricket, my dear friend, don’t ever change.

The Art of the Celebration

Only one hit away, he thought.

The crowd knew it too – expectancy and nerves shrouded the stadium.

He examined the field looking for an opening.

The bowler was talking to the captain. Plotting. Another field change – the deep point fieldsman strolled up from his position boundary.

The moment grew closer and the butterflies fluttered wildly in his tummy. Settle, he told himself.

Finally, the bowler began to trot in. He cleared his mind as best he could.

It was a loose delivery – full and wide outside the off stump. He just managed to get some bat on the ball and it squirted past the fielder at point. The one who had just been brought up.

It wasn’t pretty, but he didn’t care. He was there.

He ran down the wicket and glanced to his right just to make sure. He could relax – the ball had reached the boundary rope. Finally, he could show what he had spent months working on.

He began with a powerful leap. As he reached the peak of his jump he thrust his right fist in the air. The execution was sublime.

Like a territorial bear, he let out a guttural roar with arms spread wide. Then he pulled off his helmet and kissed the badge tenderly.

It was time for the finale.

He placed his helmet, bat and gloves on the floor, a motion that hushed the crowd. He began to jog, gathering speed and then launched.

First, there was a cartwheel. Then a somersault before coming to rest in a perfectly executed side split.

The crowd roared.

He stood and soaked up their approval and found himself reflecting on his journey.

It hadn’t been easy. He had spent hours and hours in front of the mirror fine-tuning his form. Kissing the badge in just the right way to demonstrate the passion and love he had for the game.

It hadn’t come cheap either. He had enlisted a coach – a tyrant of a man – to guide him through the gymnastics routine.

He had given up family, friends and cricket training to make it all possible.

But it was worth it.