Bill Pavilion End, Bill Ricquier's Cricket Views

Watching Paint Dry

In About the Game by Bill Ricquier

Is cricket too boring?

It may seem a strange question to ask but it isn’t really.

Writing this on the afternoon of Sunday 11 July it seems the whole world, not just the inhabitants of England and Italy, is obsessed with the upcoming Euro competition final. I couldn’t care less about it personally. That is at least partly because it is being played at the worst possible time from a Singapore perspective: kick-off is at 3 a.m. I am not especially interested in football. I know what’s going on in a general sort of way. I think I have only ever watched four “live” football matches: two at The Dell, the old ground in the centre of Southampton, not far from the sainted and similarly long-ago bulldozed County Ground; and two at Anfield. I can remember nothing about any of them. (I may have been to St Mary’s, The Dell’s bigger and swisher replacement; my nephew who will be reading this, will remind me. Even I, however, am not prepared to say that football is objectively boring. It just doesn’t especially interest me.

But a lot of the people working themselves up into a lather of uncontrollable excitement about tonight’s match, will be of the view, if they have thought about the matter at all, that cricket is boring. This is despite the fact that, apparently, cricket is the second most popular sport in the world. This deliciously meaningless statistic is explained by the fact that cricket is liked by rather a lot of people in the subcontinent; you can be sure that if by some miracle, India, Pakistan or Bangladesh were to win a global soccer tournament – gender and age group being immaterial – cricket would start slipping down into badminton territory.

Some sports are irredeemably dull. My son is a devotee of Formula One but I don’t get it myself. Yes it’s very fast and the start can be fun but once the commentators start talking about the strategic significance of the next pit stop you know it’s time to switch to Netflix. I don’t mind golf. My father was very keen so we watched a lot on television. Commentary is so important. I grew up listening to the great Henry Longhurst. His description of Doug Sanders missing a short putt to lose The Open to Jack Nicklaus had the drama, clarity and pathos of a Shakespeare soliloquy. You don’t forget that sort of thing.

My father was also very keen on horse-racing. I did not inherit that affection but I can see the appeal. I have been to a few meetings, including once to the Grand National. The atmosphere is great, and there is something truly wonderful about those magnificent beasts.

Cricket can be boring. Like many things it can be boring in different ways. We have just seen a boring ODI series between England and Sri Lanka. It wasn’t Sri Lanka’s fault. England were too good and they were too bad. The problem is that this is The Summer Game. With a product like that how can it compete with The Euro and with Wimbledon?

Cricket’s multiple formats – shortly to be joined by the – who knows, maybe inspired variation of The Hundred – ought to be a bulwark against boredom. But it doesn’t really work like that.

Being bored can be a function of all sorts of things, most commonly perhaps how one was introduced to the thing concerned. Many people’s introduction to playing cricket – and other sports – can be tedious or alarming or even traumatic. A child dragged along to watch a Test match can be put off it for life. And not necessarily a child. I love the story of Groucho Marx being taken to a match at Lord’s. He sat patiently for an hour or so and then enquired politely of his host: “When do they start?”

Anyway of course cricket is, or can be, boring. That is almost the point. Cricket is allowed to be boring because cricket really is like life itself; nobody expects to go through life without occasionally experiencing boredom. But this is really only true of the longest formats and especially, of course, Test cricket. Nobody turns up to watch one, three or five days of a Test match expecting to be gripped by every ball. People talk, drink, glance at a newspaper. Even the players need to “switch off” occasionally. With the shorter formats it is different. A T20 match is not a microcosm of life, any more than football is. Is a T20 match more “exciting” than a Test match? It all depends what you want I suppose. It’s shorter and faster and there are likely to be more “maximums”. It’s all down to the marketing men really, like most stuff that is unsatisfactory in the world. What is clear is that it lacks the infinite variety of Test cricket. But, people say, every ball is an event! The strategy! The stress levels! Once the commentators at The Hundred start talking about strategy we can be pretty sure we are in pit stop territory.

I was thinking about this the other day while watching the live stream of Hampshire’s Championship game against Surrey at The Hampshire Bowl, accompanied by superb commentary from Kevan James, Mark Church, Emily Windsor and Hampshire’s honorary archivist, Dave Allen.

The game was remarkable. Hampshire made almost 500, with a big hundred from Colin de Grandhomme. They then bowled Surrey out for 72 and enforced the follow-on. At the end of the third day Surrey were six for two, with captain and England batsman Rory Burns one of those dismissed.

So on the last day, Hampshire had to take eight wickets; Surrey had to bat out time to earn a draw.

The first ball of that fourth day was faced by the former South African international Hashim Amla. So was the last ball of the day. By then his score was 37 not out and Surrey were 122 for eight; game saved.

So Amla batted all day, facing 278 balls. Keith Barker, Hampshire’s left arm paceman, had the extraordinary figures of 22-17-9-3.

Amla – well, he just stayed there. Runs really were irrelevant of course. But the received wisdom is that you must not be too negative. You must play your “natural game”. What is Amla’s natural game? That is a good question. He has “form”; he played this sort of innings to save Tests for his country. But as well as being one of the best Test players of his generation, he was also one of the best ODI players of his generation. He has all the shots. More importantly he has a superb cricket brain and knows when to use them.

So how boring was it to watch someone batting all day and trying not to score any runs? I think you know the answer. Of course there was the context of Hampshire’s pressing for victory. Dave called it right a couple of hours before the end: “This is a thriller.”

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