Offside, 19 August
Is cricket the new football?
The first whistle of the new football season has, for once, been drowned out by the sound of willow on leather – not to mention the Barmy Army bugler – as the nation has been gripped by Ashes fever. Tens of thousands of cricket fans queued from the early hours of Monday morning to see the final day’s play at Old Trafford. Over 20,000 were turned away. By contrast Sunderland’s return to the Premier League was greeted by rows of empty seats at the Stadium of Light. What’s going on? Is cricket the new football?
Certainly cricket is matching football in the battle for newspaper column inches. But has it won the hearts and minds of the sporting public? ‘We’re selling more replica England cricket shirts than football shirts at the moment’, said a spokesman for the supermarket chain Asda. ‘Even people who thought they didn’t like cricket are suddenly talking about googlies, sliders and reverse swing’, observed Steven Howard in the Sun. There are even reports of small boys, jumpers for boundary ropes, playing cricket in parks.
However, it remains to be seen how long our rekindled love for cricket lasts. The England cricket team is the latest beneficiary of Shared National Experience Syndrome (SNES), that pathological craving for watercooler commonality that attaches itself promiscuously to any upturn in Britain’s sporting fortunes, regardless of how fleeting or how popular the sport. Football owes its remarkable renaissance in part to outbreaks of SNES during Italia ’90 and Euro ’96. But the public’s appetite for football has been sustained long after the SNES circus has left town.
The same can’t be said for other sports. We cheered on the British women’s curling team, the England rugby team, and the Olympic coxless fours, due to that rare constellation of circumstances, namely that the protagonists were a) British and b) winning. We all became curling or rugby or rowing fans for a day and then we lost interest. Will the same fate befall cricket, particularly when its nouveau fans discover that it’s not always so thrilling? Our renewed interest in Test cricket could well survive the end of the current Ashes campaign, providing the England team continues to perform well. But I can’t see the moribund county game being reinvigorated.
My main gripe with the comparisons being drawn between cricket and football is that they are often just an excuse for journalists to indulge in their favourite pastime: football bashing. As Peter Corrigan puts it in the Independent on Sunday, ‘In no way are the two games alike but in terms of sports vying for attention it is difficult to avoid making comparisons from which football does not emerge favourably’ (1).
Jonathan Stevenson’s article on the BBC website entitled ‘Cricket v football’ is a thinly veiled diatribe against boorish football. ‘[W]hen a bad call has been made, and there have been a few, how many times have you seen players from either side rush to the umpire and question the decision?’ asked Stevenson (2). Sue Mott in the Daily Telegraph also bemoaned the lack of respect for officials in football. ‘Mr Bowden and Mr Bucknor [the cricket umpires] do not have to run half the length of the cricket pitch to separate purple-faced warring factions. They do not suffer streams of violent abuse. They hold hats, wear jumpers, shake their heads and raise fingers, but not in the road-rage sense. It is lovely to see such tempered behaviour.’ (3)
Cricket is also held up as a paragon of sportsmanship. Peter Corrigan heaped praise on Andrew Flintoff for immediately rushing to console Brett Lee after England’s dramatic victory at Edgbaston. ‘It was an act of forgotten chivalry that stirred so many hearts and convinced us that something special was going on’, gushed Corrigan. ‘British sporting heroes are rare enough, to have one without a sign of a blemish is extraordinary.’ By contrast Corrigan lamented the fact that ‘sportsmanship’ is a word that ‘has been evicted from the football vocabulary unless used in a derogatory sense – ie, as the direct opposite of professionalism before the altar of which has been sacrificed all vestiges of fair play.’ In the London Evening Standard, Peter Oborne announced that, compared with the ‘true sport’ of cricket, ‘football is less a sport than a symptom of the sickness of our age’ (4).
The irony is that English cricket’s recent resurgence owes a lot more to football culture than the football-bashers would care to admit. The atmosphere at Test matches has been vastly improved by the Barmy Army’s plagiarism of partisan, football-style chanting and vilification of the opposition. On the pitch England’s Test cricketers are a more competitive breed who now give as good as they get when it comes to sledging – the dark art of abusing and unsettling one’s opponents. Peter Corrigan may decry vulgar professionalism but it is precisely the professionalisation of the England Test set-up under coach Duncan Fletcher that has transformed the fortunes of a team which, a decade ago, was the laughing stock of the cricket world.
Cricket isn’t the new football. Cricket is no better or worse than football – it’s just different. And, as far as I’m concerned, there should be room in our lives for both sports. Arsene Wenger once said that ‘everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home’. To develop Wenger’s metaphor, if they scrub up well and slap on a bit of lippy, both cricket and football can be quite attractive. Indeed, I reckon it’s entirely possible to enjoy a long-term polygamous relationship with both ladies.
(1) Cricket passes the chivalry test that football fails, Independent on Sunday, 14 August 2005
(2) Cricket v Football, BBC Sport, 15 August 2005
(3) Lost passions awakened by Warne chorus, Daily Telegraph, 16 August 2005
(4) Peter Oborne, London Evening Standard, 15 August 2005
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