What golden age of cricket?

2010-05-22 00:00

MICHAEL Holding’s remark that Kieron Pollard is not yet a proper cricketer and Gary Kirsten’s comment that he is fitter than many of his younger players confirm the concerns held by many elders about the state of the game, and especially the distortions caused by the Twenty20 craze.

It’s a mistake to glorify the past. To talk about a golden age of cricket occurring 100 years ago is to forget that players were paid a pittance. Then England could be captained only by a toff, West Indies and South Africa by a white man, Sri Lanka by a blue- y a member of a gymkhana.

It was not such a beautiful world. Nowadays the game is open to all sections. Not that mankind has improved — there is precious little evidence of that. But communications, transport and money mean that cricket is no longer the preserve of the privileged.

On the field, too, there is little to regret. Scoring rates are faster, facilities better, results more common and the full range of skills are explored, even expanded. Black, white and brown mix, Muslims and Christians share a room, and rich and poor play in the same team.

Inevitably there are lots of headaches. Cricket inherited all the fractiousness of the empire and its aftermath, including border disputes, rivalries and resentments. Newly independent nations have followed a dialectical path from conservatism to radicalism and towards a more self-defining strategy.

Cricket survived these challenges because it long ago stopped being an imposition and became a popular recreation. Every country began to play by its own lights. Crucially, though, the core remained constant. Test matches remained the highest form of the game. Other formats might bring glory, but it alone gave greatness its platform — and it was taken for granted that every player accepted this verdict.

Never has that blithe assumption been put under such pressure. In refusing to salute Pollard as a finished product, Holding is asserting traditional values (home truths, as others might call them). Pollard is rich and famous, has played for Trinidad, South Australia and the Mumbai Indians. Wherever he goes he is feted. An imposing figure, he catches flies, clears stands and takes wickets. Yet he bats down the list even in 20-over matches and has never played Test cricket. He has only skimmed the surface of the game.

Can Pollard concentrate? Can he score runs against penetrating bowling or survive on dodgy pitches? Can he remove skilful batsmen with time on their side? Can he play off the back foot? But there is a more disconcerting question. Do the answers matter any longer? That is the crux. Can the game survive as a whimsy? Is the ordeal not a big part of it? Empires can be destroyed by self-indulgence.

Or take the young Indians, whose dedication has been questioned by their own coach. Indian cricket has been uplifted by a group of seniors of high calibre. They deserve better than India dished up in the Caribbean. But it is not easy to put old heads on young shoulders. These youngsters are living the high life. They can make a fortune without pushing themselves

Who is to tell Ishant Sharma and company that talent is to be nurtured? All of them are wealthy, but has one among them made the grade?

Kirsten’s complaint cuts to the quick. Usually complacency is a vice of the established. In a trice it has infected youth. Is it stupid to believe that happiness lies with fulfilment, not power and purse? Obviously the ANC Youth League does not agree, but that is the voice of luxury

Nor is South Africa immune. JP Duminy, Wayne Parnell and now David Miller face choices unknown to previous generations. Never has the culture of the community and the grounding of the individual mattered as much. Did these youngsters dream of wealth only, and all that comes with it? Those endless childhood matches — what were they about? The dream is precious, and easily corrupted.

Youth is not better or worse than before. Last summer, a colleague asked how to raise his 16-year-old. I advised him to write a book if he ever found out, as it is bound to be a best-seller. Shakespeare said that the ages between 14 and 23 ought to be ignored as they consist entirely of drinking, fighting and wenching.

Cricket has not altered that much either. The battle between bat and ball endures, quality is the key. In both areas, the basics stay the same.

But the experience of youth in cricket has changed beyond measure, and that ought to be addressed. Youngsters need to be told that cricket is a life not a lifestyle, otherwise they will never become the cricketers they were supposed to be — or the men.

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