Thursday, 20 June 2013

CRYSTAL BALL-TAMPERING


Very occasionally you come up with a title so perfect that the hypothetical piece to which it gives form (title often comes first with these things) demands to be written. Such was the case with Crystal Ball-Tampering. I even asked a friend, Jake Goretzki, to draw a cartoon capturing the subject – call it branding, if you like.

Even so, ESPNcricinfo, in their wisdom (or because of the anti-creative demands of SEO, of course), decided to give the piece – 2200 words or so, now divided into three – a new title; or rather, three new titles. They also dispensed with some of the more risqué material, although I wasn't surprised with that. The idea of cricketamine might not go down too well in Bengaluru...

Anyway, if you want to read some absurdist predictions about the future of cricket, then here they be. The originals can be found here: Part One | Part Two | Part Three 

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Predicting the future is difficult. Very difficult. Notoriously difficult, even with tea leaves, astrology charts, animal entrails and algorithms. In cricket, the clairvoyants use many forms of futurology: divination by wagon wheel, by pitchmap, by Manhattan. And it’s still nigh-on impossible (which is why assorted “game outcome operatives” try and make things more predictable by bribing and/or blackmailing participants). But not totally so; not with the right tech-neeek. So, if you want to place a few heavy, cast-iron bets on the cricket, or simply cannot be bothered waiting for events to unfold, then here’s where the sport is heading…

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The year-on-year growth of the IPL, the massive heft of both India and the BCCICC (Board of Control for Cricket in the Indian-Controlled Countries, formed from the merger of the BCCI and ICC) behind this format, and the search for even more TV-friendly forms, sees the continued proliferation and then miniaturisation of T20 cricket.  

1-on-1 cricket is developed to fill the early evening light entertainment slot. It consists of a single super-over per side (re-named “over”, then re-re-named “super-duper-over”) with ad breaks between each ball and, for consenting bowlers, ad breaks within the delivery stride. R Ashwin and R Croft make a commercial killing. Tied games are decided with a super ball.

This format leads to cricket finally taking off in the USA, albeit with 31 states promptly introducing the death penalty for front foot no-balling (finally proving that capital punishment can work as a deterrent, albeit one that dissuades people from actually taking up cricket…).

With all the new leagues about, top players are forced to learn how to parachute so that they can be dropped into a stadium from light aircraft to wham-bam-thank-you-mam their highly remunerated contribution, before later being picked up to go to the next city, the next game, the next paycheque.

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It’s not all cash cows and gravy trains, however. The spot-fixing blight grows to epidemic proportions with the appearance of meta-fixing: betting on betting. Meanwhile, to prevent corruption by the officials, there’s the introduction of a “referee referee” to referee the man who referees the TV umpire.

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England react to this twenty-first century miniaturisation (“trivialisation”) of the game with a bit of old-fashioned nineteenth-century macro, reintroducing timeless Tests. And with unemployment hitting 47% in England by 2020 (a year the English try, unsuccessfully, to have renamed), there’s no problem filling the grounds to ensure the spectacle looks good for the TV viewer (although the ECB’s broadcasting rights deals plummet to £25.99 per Test match).

At domestic level they launch something called the English Defence League (there is some teething trouble with the branding), essentially a blockathon in which batsmen are rewarded for how closely they can kill the ball to them in a playing area of concentric, graded circles. Games go on in perpetuity. Dulux and ICI enter a bidding war for sponsorship rights. 

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While Indian cricket gets sexy and cosmopolitan, and England hunkers down ever more into some Avalon of lost nationhood, T20 expansion leads to several new Test countries:

  • Holland (full members of the BCCICC in 2016): unfortunately, rising sea-levels mean problems for their new stadium, and they will have to relocate to the East of the country and a stadium built on stilts.
  • UAE (2018): the Emiratis play in a giant transparent perspex ball suspended between two high-powered jets.
  • USA (2021): takes to the game with alacrity [see above] albeit with a few modifications: local rules permit 100 per cent flex at delivery; there are no stumps; they ask batters to run round a diamond rather than between sticks, etc.
  • North Korea (2022): with the Korean League’s batsmen having exclusively played with bats that other nations use for practising skied catches, thereby demonstrating (on a giant screen in Pyongyang each Sunday morning) their superior strength, the players come rather unstuck when they enter the international arena, not only because of standardised equipment but also because Kim Jong-Un only gets one life per innings.  
  • Russia (2025): with local rules insisting the batsman has to spin a barrel and, to the first ball they face, play whatever shot is on the slip of paper in there (“reverse sweep Dale Steyn”), the fatalistic Russians fail to adapt to the more sedate rhythms of five-day cricket.
  • Nigeria (2026) develops the game after its endlessly resourceful gangster class become enticed by match-fixing possibilities. The simple of act of scoring becomes a bit fraught, leading the BCCICC to implement neutral scorers.

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Despite the world game undergoing its Great Schism – India and T20 on the one side, England and the reversion to timeless Tests on the other – there is, on both sides of the divide, a common thread: TV rules everything, which means a profusion of new gimmicks (because TV men assume that the game itself isn’t interesting enough). Thus:

(1) In the drive for ‘interactivity’ and to make the game user-friendly, swathes of kidult gamers who last saw daylight in 2003 are now “allowed” (i.e. hoodwinked) to vote on bowling changes and moving the fielders. $2 per SMS. Bargain.

(2) Entertainment despot-entrepreneur Simeon Scowl of X-Factory fame launches a new talent show in India, Zero to Hero Honda Superstar, in which he takes one budding cricketer all the way to the national 1-on-1 team. The lucky winner will get to field in an unimportant part of the field and sit quietly at the back of the dressing room, perhaps making the tea when asked. Scowl told the assembled reporters at the media launch that he knows exactly what he’s looking for: “a certain je ne sais quoi”.

(3) Ever at the marketing cutting-edge, Australia’s Big Bash (Season 6) sees umpires replaced with glamour models wearing specially designed bikinis kitted out with devices to hold jumpers, caps, shades and other garb. The “yumpires” have a whole new repertoire of titillating, telegenic signals: out – they suck lasciviously on their finger; overturning a reviewed decision – they stroke their breast; leg byes – whew, you don’t even want to know! Billy Bowden goes berserk. As do feminists. Shane Warne has to be stretchered from the field when a yumpire asks him the positively pornographic question, “Are you coming round or over?”

(4) The belated American T20 league admits celebrity cricketers:

  • Usain Bolt becomes the fastest man to one professional run;
  • Daniel Day-Lewis, told by his skipper he’s going to play as a pace bowler (on account of his height), gets into character by spending a season with Ham CC where he insists he’s given the “new conker” and, when challenged about it, is hounded for being “temperamental”;
  • Michelle Pfeiffer is Day-Lewis’ new ball partner, prompting rumours of a Caddick and Gough-style rivalry;
  • David Blain is picked as a specialist floating slip, although he does not allow anyone else near the cordon while he’s there;
  • This means that Niles and Frasier Crane – Freudian Slips who always keep their eye on the ball – have to play on another franchise;
  • Sixteen-time World Darts Champion Phil “the Power” Taylor is drafted on account of being the best finisher in the business;
  • Coldplay are desperate to play but rules are rules and three behind square are still not allowed;
  • Heidi Klum, Claudia Schiffer, Kate Moss, Elle McPherson, Adriana Lima and Linda Evangelista are drafted in to field at fine leg and/or long leg.  


(5) There are also advancements in technology as drop-in stadiums are introduced. An egalitarian, meritocratic tendency in Australia then leads to the creation of boundaries that retract and contract according to the “punching power” of the batsman – a sort of handicap system based on how far they hit it. At the most architecturally advanced grounds, the stands also ebb in synch with the boundary. When Keiron Pollard and Chris Gayle bat, the crowd are so far from the square they need binoculars. It’s expensive, but it’s fair.

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Hand in hand with TV gimmickry comes the even more rampant commercialisation of all forms of the game.

By 2018, all players are contractually obliged to say a particular sponsor’s name depending as to which guard they take: “Mitsubishi middle-and-leg, please”; e.on one leg; Toyota two; Sony centre, etc. 

Players will also have to incorporate the sponsor’s name in their appeals (much as a decision cannot be given without an appeal, so, in the future, an appeal will not be valid unless it incorporates the sponsor’s name): “How-is-BP-that?”

Much as happens at traffic lights at major road intersections, BCCICC will sell franchise opportunities in ball polishing: corporate high-rollers and top-dollar merchants come on as the cherry is being tossed around and give it the sugary sweet once-over…

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With WADA close to admitting defeat in the face of ever more sophisticated pharmaceutical products and masking agents, an unsanctioned T20 tournament in Netherlands in 2022 trials the legalization of performance enhancing drugs. With participants munching down the anabolic steroids, there’s a quantitative leap in the performance of fast-bowlers as speedsters regularly hit 190kph and Bangladeshi left-arm spinner Hasnain Manbub’s arm ball clocks 140kph.

With several players quaffing testosterone shakes while batting, the amount of aggression rises exponentially and the tournament soon spawns a sinister, ultraviolent, Running Man-style spin-off called Hardball, played for high stakes and in front of a TV audience rabid with bloodlust. The batsmen are not permitted to use any type of protection when facing the 120 mph exocets – although, as they’re on colossal doses of morphine, that doesn’t really matter.

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With the rise of social media, bowlers in T20, 1-on-1, Tests and Hardball will be tweeting between deliveries: “wide of the crease this ball, nip-backer, hope he tries to leave it and gets”. Or: “New blog: How I follow-up my bouncer with an inswinging yorker #waqared”. Are they bluffing? Meanwhile, on Facebook, Mickey Arthur insists on status updates at end of each over.

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By 2025, climate change means that fielding in gloves is permitted in England, while fielding naked is allowed in Sri Lanka and the Caribbean.

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Despite the misgivings of the egg-and-bacon crew that T20 is some sort of apocalypse, it’s undeniable that the format hothouses creativity. Thus the jaded seen-it-all-before merchants of the MCC get a rude shock as new technical innovations appear in IPL24 (their coaching manual still not yet updated to include the googly).

First, those amateur beach ballistics experts of Sri Lanka develop an up-swinger. While cries of “CHEAT!” emanate from the drinking clubs of West London, savvy administrators (from those same clubs) hotfoot it to the Commonwealth Office to expedite these wizards’ UK citizenship applications.

Then comes the first new distinct batting shot since the Dilscoop and the switch-hit appeared in the late noughties: a stroke developed by Eaioaioeun Morgan, cousin of Eion, called “the Hurl”. The batsman gets offside of the ball, as though to play the ramp shot, only he then somehow manages to keep the ball on the surface of the bat as both he and it pirouette through 180 degrees, finally hooking the ball over backward point head, à la pelota, at speeds of around 180 mph. Spectators in the point areas are advised to keep their eyes on the ball and to take out life insurance.

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While the rest of the world kowtow to the BCCICC and generally feast on the Twenty20 riches, the pauperisation of county cricket continues apace.

The drive to raise urgently needed funds leads to the redevelopment of county grounds in creative ways (following the lead of Canterbury, where they knocked down their indoor school to build a supermarket, and in which they occasionally practiced in the aisles – though not the fruit or dairy). Surrey, Warwickshire and Lancashire rent their outfields out as helipads, interrupting play on several occasions per day and causing an 89% rise in the amount of lost headgear – mainly wigs, some charity shop baseball caps. Somerset cut a gigantic chalk Facebook ‘like’ symbol into the Quantocks in the hope of attracting druids. Hove doubles as a campsite throughout the season. Chester-le-Street installs wind turbines.

Draconian new stop-and-search measures at the county grounds lead to the confiscation of packed lunches, with offenders immediately frogmarched to the spangly new Panini Palace under the grandstand for some pastrami, rocket and caramelised onion chutney creation that elicits only an affrighted stare.

By 2035, the counties’ parochial intransigence has reached absurd levels – in 19 of 21 cases (Staffordshire, Devon and Norfolk having been given first-class status) squads are larger than their memberships, cricket’s popularity having been eclipsed by parkour and base jumping – yet still the chairmen refuse to abandon the Sacred Format. The schedule – in which T20 games are shoehorned between the morning and evening sessions of Championship matches, causing chaos at the ticket booths – doesn’t really help.

Eventually, in 2040, with bankruptcy looming, a regional format is adopted. Lancashire and Yorkshire resist and secede, first from the Panini Palace Regional Championships then from the United Kingdom itself. Suddenly, England has as much trouble producing pace bowlers as India, who duly return to the Test fold.

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And that was all that the cricketing futurologists were able to tell us. So, what are you waiting for? Get down the bookies. 



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