Question: What’s the best way to follow test cricket?
Answer: Team bus, then the pavilion, then at the wicket with your teammates.
Well, obviously! But the average cricket punter isn’t so fortunate as to play for England, and he is more than likely stuck at home. As such, cricket votaries must find another way to keep up with the latest developments 10,000 miles Down Under, even though things have not begun quite as England would have wished.
There’s television, radio, alternative-radio, newspapers, blogs, social media and your mate Dave who, to your immeasurable envy, has got an entrance ticket to the Gabba or the Melbourne Cricket Ground or wherever his unjust good-fortune has taken him, and from where he is sending you provocative texts and photos of the scene, knowing full well that it’s the middle of the night back home and freezing cold and you’ve got to go to work in the morning.
Mates, eh? But we live in modern times, do we not? And with great technology comes great… No, hang on, that’s something else… Here it is: With all this new media comes greater choice in how we might follow the cricket. So, just what is the best option?
Time gone by, when players wore facial hair for reasons other than Movember, you’d have waited for the papers, which in turn would have waited for the steamship. Or a decade or two later you might have gleaned the score at Sydney from the clipped and crepitating voice on the wireless in the corner. But today we have an abundance of media options. If you are yet undecided on how to follow the Ashes this winter, or are struggling to make sense of this babble of choice, then perhaps this will help:
Let’s begin the old fashioned way: with newspapers. Take your pick. Broadsheet, tabloid, Berliner—all of which publish full scorecards and ample comment. It’s comment, really, that most elevates the British press. We know traditional newspapers are struggling to make a profit right now, but their future viability is dependent on high quality articles, with greater depth and nuance, rather than the currency of their news, for which they cannot compete with electronic media.
The political environment is also somewhat hostile, but it’s difficult to see why either politicians or regulators might want to stop Derek Pringle and Mike Atherton venting their frustrations in black and white. Newspapers also tend to give a considered view. Cricket writers are able to spend the day percolating their literary conceits, and the reader gets to wallow in their joy or misery, whichever mood the players have roused in them.
But lack of immediacy is a genuine problem for newspapers. These days we like to have things 24/7, but we have to wait until the following day before reading about the exploits of Mitchell Johnson or Ryan Harris; and as play doesn’t usually finish until the sun is shining on Greenwich, reports miss the final hours of play. By the time the newspaper story gets to the reader, he already knows what has happened. Editors need to offer something more.
Which brings us to television: the Rolls Royce of cricket-following options. If you’ve got High Definition, all the better. Ball by ball, and to the very second, you can follow the action the other side of the world. TV — that most modern and culture-shifting of devices — allows the viewer to see, in full florescence and at various speeds, each snorting wicket, scintillating catch and glorious shot, all with expert analysis on hand to explain the action. And if we’re lucky, we might catch one or two fruity sledges. The commentator’s words are less important in this medium, mostly because we can see the action perfectly well for ourselves, but this is one instance when less really is more.
Yet there is a problem with television coverage: not everyone can get it. Each cricket devotee will have their reasons for not subscribing, but the most prevalent is, no doubt, cost. The coverage maybe good, but it isn’t cheap. So millions of cricketers are orphaned from the game, like waifs bereft of the thing that sustains them. Other options are required.
Up steps radio. Aficionados like to claim this is the ‘high art’ of the form, which may or may not be the case; but the real reason for the success of radio (or voice broadcast, as is more pertinent a description since we can now listen through the internet) is that it doesn’t cost a penny (apart from internet connections and computers and smartphones; but apart from that, it’s free).
With radio broadcast, the bucolic tones of an Agnew or a Blofeld, or the late Johnston and Arlott, sing through the air and we are transported to the field of play in a way that engages the imagination more effectively than the clearest of television pictures. Because we have to make an effort to imagine ourselves there, the rewards are so much greater than sitting passively in front of the TV. Some viewers are even known to turn the TV commentary down and the radio up — No offence, you guys!
If it can be said — and I don’t see why not — that artists prefer the visual medium of television, then poets probably prefer radio; and the comedy poets have emerged on the scene in recent years. In 2009, Andy Zaltzman, self-confessed comedian, presented a radio programme: Yes, It’s The Ashes, a humorous take on the oldest cricketing rivalry. But Test Match Sofa, recently acquired by The Cricketer Magazine, now carries the mantle of ‘alternative’ commentary. Taking a more matey and irreverent approach to live cricket-chat than BBC’s Test Match Special, it broadcasts every test match played by England.
Yet perhaps you feel you cannot devote all the hours of the night — the ones normally spent sleeping — to the cricket, while at the same time remaining either employed or married. It’s a moot point as to which is the more desperate creature: the cricket widow or the cricket widower; but spending twenty-five winter nights with men from Down Under whispering sweet sorrows and elations into your ear is probably not the healthiest of pastimes.
You might, then, try a podcast, to which you can listen at your convenience. Test Match Special unleashes Geoffrey Boycott for a good twenty minutes at the close of play each day. And Cricinfo offers a less frequent but no less interesting podcast. Or you could listen to the day’s radio commentary on the iPlayer while at work. Who’d know?
This is where technology begins to bamboozle us with choices. Choice is a good thing, of course, but the options seem to expand exponentially. Perhaps the most democratic medium — in that anyone and everyone can broadcast their opinion — is Twitter. There are other forms of social media, but we’ve all heard of Twitter. With the help of the BBC’s cricket correspondent or current and ex-cricketers or celebrities or your mate Dave, you can keep up with the action. The only limitation is the number of people we choose to follow. Though sometimes someone will tweet ‘THAT’S OUT’ two minutes after everyone else has done the same, thus inducing mild coronary because we think yet another batsman has fallen to the national malaise.
The thing about social media is that it allows us mortals to join in — up to a point. In earlier times the cricket devotee listened passively to someone else telling the story, occassionally profaning at the television or the radio if suitably inspired, but now he can offer his own wisdoms and witticisms — lot’s of them. Perhaps he has coaching expertise to impart to some batsman who’s just been castled or a bowler who’s just thrown down a long hop and been hoiked for six? They’d appreciate that, I’m sure.
It’s probably the invention and gifting to the world of Internet technology, by Tim Berners-Lee, that is most responsible for this proliferation. It’s not possible to survey all of the web pages so far made, but a brief internet search of the term ‘cricket’ reveals 497,000,000 results. Happy reading! There’s no end to the stuff. Much of it is drivel, and much is out of date, but there’s certainly something there to satisfy most people.
Journalists, as already mentioned, are having a tough time of it at the moment, and cricket writers are no different. But the Internet has released all sorts of new voices. There are many writers out there, some professional, some unprofessional (meaning unpaid rather than incompetent, though they might be that too), who offer interesting commentary. Cricket truly is the sport of poets. Perhaps more than any other sport, it has provoked great writing, and while much of it ends up in books, a lot is also written on the web. Allan and Alex Massie, father and son, frequently venture their views on the game (go on, internet them); and there are plenty of other blogs from which to choose. They might not all offer the scores, but they offer thought.
And that’s what the game of cricket is really about: thought, and the mind. It would be inconceivable to play any game for five days solid and expect to rely on brawn alone to achieve the ends. Skill, of course, is also required, but it is brains and mental fortitude that makes the difference.
Indeed, perhaps it is the meandering paths of intellectual intrigue, from selections to field placements to line and length to declarations and much more, that bewitches cricket lovers so much: to the extent that the love of it becomes a sort of pathology.
There: ‘Cricket as Pathology, Discuss.’
And perhaps this is why devotees enjoy seeking out so many complicated and obscure ways to keep up with the day’s play, especially when the series in question is the Ashes. But as it happens, there is no best way to follow test cricket. Just follow any way you can.