Picture the scene: some time in the very near future, an exceptionally gifted yet unheralded and almost completely unknown fieldsman – a club cricketer from the Shires, a man off the Maidan – swoops at cover in the T20 World Cup semifinal and throws down the stumps, removing Shane Watson or Chris Gayle or Virat Kohli. A couple of hours passing will reveal that it’s the match-winning moment and yet no-one bats an eyelid, other than in astonishment at the uncanny anticipation, suppleness of the gather, and laser-like accuracy of the throw.
What’s to stop it happening, this glory of a plumber or plasterer, policeman or pilot?
Well, unfortunately, it’s the good old Laws of the game (2.3) and, beyond that, the playing conditions for all ICC tournaments. You see, our hero is not a substitute fielder, on for an injured (or ‘injured’) player. This is a designated specialist fielding replacement. A ringer, only legal.
But why is this scenario at present just a fantasy, a pipedream – and an apparently unpalatable one, too, if attempts to get this piece published are anything to go by? Why such a reflex invocation of tradition when contemplating this gimmick (and it is, unapologetically, a gimmick)? Should this potentiality of cricket – and not really that radical a one, when seen in proper context – at least be examined critically and debated? Maybe the supporters would like to see it. Maybe…
Anyway, there seems little prima facie reason or point to the traditionalists bridling about it contravening some imagined essence of the game – one editor said “I don't think it’s going to happen and I don’t think it should. They don’t do it in baseball, even though there is the money. Balancing the different skill sets and strengths and weaknesses is part of the interest” – especially for Twenty20, to which it would be limited. I don’t know whether people have been nodding off during the Maxx Mobile Strategic Time-Out, but the good ship Gimmick has long since sailed. T20 has long since prostrated itself afore the deities of commerce and entertainment: the cucumber sandwiches are zingerburgers; almost nothing on the clothes, pitch, umpires or equipment is not a billboard; boundaries are greeted not by polite applause but by the plosive bursts of techno-pop (their greater frequency not correlated to the excitement they educe) and choreographed jerking from pompom-wielding hardbodies.
We are in the era of cricketainment.
Not that all in the sports-watching fraternity consider entertainment the be-all and end-all. There are naysayers, and some of them not at all conservative. The counter position has perhaps been most eloquently expressed by the eminent football writer Jonathan Wilson:
One of sport’s great strengths is that the better side does not always win: that a team with poorer players can, through doggedness, effort and organization, prevail … One of the most depressing things about the modern breed of armchair fan is their demand to be entertained, their seeming belief that coaches are somehow answerable to them. They’re not. Sport is about struggle, about sides trying their utmost to win using whatever means they can within the rules and the spirit of the game as they interpret it. And if that means playing defensively, so be it.
He was talking about fitbaw, of course, o jogo bonito, and while the point is less valid in connection to T20, where a defensive mindset is clearly counter-productive, it could nevertheless be apt for ‘cricket as a whole’ (and it is surely in this articulation that cricket’s traditionalists tolerate T20).
But of course Twenty20 is cricket’s pioneering tool, its commercial cutting edge – not only financing the rest of the game, ensuring that, to paraphrase Nasser, “your New Zealands and West Indies and Sri Lankas” remain part of what is already a small Test-playing pool, but also ensuring that new generations, faced with an ever-pluralising range of leisure options, are attracted to the game. It is, we are told, the format that is going to ‘crack’ America (ah, the old trope of a bandwagon pushing West across new frontiers), and if special teams – specialist kicking units for both goal and punting to clear lines, specialist offence and defence – are good enough for American football, then why shouldn’t it be acceptable for cricket and this era of rampant made-for-TV boom-boom?
In many respects, cricket has of course already been Americanised. The IPL’s kitschy razzmatazz, the fluff and the cheerleaders, the advertising timeouts and macho franchise names, are a template every bit a part of the global omniculture as the golden arches. It has spawned the Champions League, too, a grotesquely imbalanced and unloved tournament that, this month, South African bums have shown little inclination to find seats for, let alone shuffle to the edge of them.
But let’s not be too quick to deride Twenty20 per se on account of these gaudy superfluities when the format has clearly hothoused existing technical (and perhaps tactical) skill-sets, as well as developing new ones, all of which have fed back into longer forms of the game and created variety. It would be churlish not to acknowledge that the slower ball bouncer, scoop and ramp shots and switch-hits owe their proliferation to T20 and are intriguing innovations.
As for fielding, after a great leap forward in the 1990s, levels have continued to improve as every single run has been struggled over, with the baseball techniques of relay throws and sliding pick-ups having become commonplace. But despite the fact that it’s no longer the game’s poor third relation – sabermetrics might indicate just how much of a difference it could make – there are still a few fielding passengers, stuffed into the side like a favourite overcoat into a suitcase on the very reasonable basis that, y’know, their batting and bowling skills kinda demand it. Not that such ovoid figures ought to be euthanised for the sake of some crack Soviet-style fielding regimen, you understand. (Funnily enough, another editor to reject this pitch grabbed very much the wrong end of the stick here: “Not too sure about the whole idea of treating fielding as an add-on skill. Seems a bit of a throwback to the days when real men didn’t get their whites dirty. Also the idea that cricket can be broken down to its component parts and some or all of them jazzed up for the Americans.”)
Even so, we could argue that, the odd comedy misfield notwithstanding, this facet of the game could be improved for the benefit of spectators, on the basis that it’s the one skill that everyone at the ground can appreciate more or less equally, regardless of the angle at which they’re sat. And the way? Yep: introduce fielding special teams, maybe three or four whiz fielders who can replace a few of the lumberers, which will not only elevate the overall standard of fielding but also the overall level of the entertainment: actual cricket entertainment – what the sort of people I’d rather not talk to may call ‘the spectator experience’ – not the boundary writhers and infantilised hucksterism of the commentary.
Still holding the wrong end of the stick, the aforementioned editor continued: “I think part of [my problem with it]…is the sort of implicit suggestion that there aren’t four top-class fielders in most international T20 teams – or, to put it another way, that the standard of fielding can be raised by such a spectacular extent from its current level as to make this sort of experiment worthwhile”. But there are two misconceptions here: (a) we aren’t necessarily talking about international teams; and (b) it isn’t at all relevant how many excellent fielders there are. It’s about how many poor ones there are. In any case, the actual number of replacements, the nuts and bolts of it all, could be whatever the administrators want. An innings could be divided up into five-over blocks; each team has four designated replacements and three of them can come on for each bloc… It is as open to tinkering as a Ranieri midfield.
Look at it the situation this way: if entertainment is about providing guaranteed showmanship (at good value) for the oft-neglected punter, then depriving the crowd of the world’s best fielders of the appropriate stage simply because they aren’t good enough batters or bowlers is illogical (assuming you want excellence, not slapstick). Is it not fair that the best fielders get the chance to appear on the biggest stage? Why ever not open up the possibility (in T20) of being selected solely for your fielding? There are certainly some cricketers out there who may now be household names, even when that name is Sybrand Engelbrecht, about whom they raved at the 2008 Under-19 World Cup in
Malaysia due to some sensational catches. He also went to the CL
T20 in 2009 but the sole game he played for
saw him bowl a single over and not bat. Be that as it may, several credible
witnesses have said that he was the best fielder they have ever seen. Cape Cobras
Some domestic English fielders who could have lit up international cricket in this role include former Derbyshire man Garry Park, Chris Taylor of Gloucestershire, Lancashire’s Steven Croft and, of course, Gary Pratt, at present famous for his contribution to that series, which got him on that bus ride. Perhaps Pratt does occasionally dine out on it – and why ever not, if needs must – but playing Minor Counties cricket for Cumberland and peddling occasional anecdotes of his larks surfing English cricket’s first sustained wave of top-rank competence are not going to sustain him forever. The fact is that Pratt had certain skills that, in different circumstances, could have featured regularly, and with complete legitimacy, at international level (notwithstanding the fact that, under Fletcher, he clearly wasn’t at
by accident). Trent
Fielding special teams would permit the upward flow of supremely talented fielders and recognise fully that it is a gift in its own right. The innovation would be supremely inclusive and meritocratic, giving club cricketers the legitimate chance to represent their county, and even perhaps their country (again, quite how the payments would be worked out, or how it would be possible to be available on a semi-pro or freelance basis is a problem for the market and for individual choice).
Furthermore, only having to field for 10 of 20 overs (and let’s face it, the joy of fielding, if ever there, is always the first thing to go) could prolong the careers of some iconic, box-office players: they and their skippers might think that it’s worth hiding them for ten overs (four of which will be spent bowling), if that’s the mandatory amount for all 11 genuine team members. And this scenario also creates a whole new tactical dimension: which five-over blocks to keep the ageing spinner on, etc.
Then there could be some ‘unforseen’ effects (if the ensuing speculation is not itself a paradox): specialist fielders could acquire a general confidence in their game and become actual players, pros. Conversely, put under the spotlight solely for their fielding, with no second string to fall back on, they could effectively ‘yip up’ and the coach might have to factor this in to selectorial decisions. However, they would no doubt produce stories. And we are an unremittingly narrative species in the way we process the world (as neuroscience increasingly shows), hence the love of sport, which is live theatre, an existential drama: Bollywood and
Hollywood, with no guarantee the good guys
Finally, and this is where a traditionalist may bridle, it will permit certain celebrity cricketers without compromising the essential meritocracy of the bat-versus-ball battle. Usain Bolt has expressed a desire to play for Manchester United, but it is perhaps as a cricketer that his truer non-sprinting talent lies. It’s well known that he’s bredren with Chris Gayle and has been talked of as a possible Big Bash player. Well, we don’t really know of his ability (undoubtedly, he would be the fastest person to one T20 run), but I’m pretty sure he could do a job in the outfield!