A Manifesto for World Cricket
Russell Degnan

Previously: Part 1 a b c

Part 1d. Meaningful Cricket

The refrain for the age is the need for "meaningful" cricket. But as DB rightly noted, there is no real way of defining what meaning is. In one sense, all cricket is meaningless, as is all sport, and one suspects, all of life. How can one explore meaning is a mere game when one cannot define it for our very existence. That type of question may well be too deep for what this project, being a practical exposition of the game's strengths and weaknesses, but we might practically draw an answer to meaning from philosophy itself.

Meaning must be, I believe, self-referential; drawing on Descarte's idea that he must exist, because he thinks, we can say the same for cricket: it is meaningful when those involved, both on and off the field think it is meaningful. The question then becomes not existential, but one of motivation: why do players play, and why do fans watch?

The answer, I believe, is best conceived by making the analogy between sport and the narrative that underlies all sports. The most meaningful contest in test cricket today is the Ashes. They have meaning because they are steeped in history, the players play regularly, both team's structure their selections and goals around winning that one contest. There is, therefore, a running narrative surrounding the game, starting in discussions over selection a year or more before, and carried throughout a long five or six test series.

Most other contests are not so lucky. The lamentable 7 match ODI series are forgotten almost before they've finished. Despite their popularity their narrative interest exists only in as much as they relate to selection issues and form leading up to the two tournaments where the trophy counts for something. The cricket, as a spectacle, is not to blame, nor is there too much of it, necessarily. The problem is a lack of over-arching narrative, expressed through overkill of short tournaments.

Other sports do better. Perhaps the most astonishing narrative in international sports concerns the elongated process for FIFA World Cup qualification. Each team undergoes it, sometimes playing teams so poor they would never agree to play if not compelled to, sometimes games with more drama than the best narrated movie plot. Australia's seven consecutive failures, normally at the last hurdle, completely captured a nation largely indifferent to the sport. The World Cup itself was an adventure in itself, but it also finished well before the defining games of the tournament.

The important point to take from this is that good narratives relate to all teams. It is too much to hang the whole hat of a World Test Championship on the hats of the top contenders. Meaning for the ranks of second tier test teams, and more importantly, the aspirational associate nations, depends on finding a path that plays tem to the highest level, gives them scope for unlikely progression, historic upsets, and ultimately, in the interests of even competition and financial gain, their disappearance when the business end of the tournament concludes.

Meaning therefore, demands the best possible set of narratives, for each team, the elimination of games that lack meaning - the short bilateral tours that lack history or rivalry - and the development of a new format that develops its own twists and turns as the season(s) progress.

Mooted plans for a tiered system of test cricket, with home and away fixtures between a limited number of nations, and relegation every year or two allow this, to an extent, because there is a lead-up to a final, or competition winner. But it is not the only possible narrative format, and I don't believe the best one, leaving aside the deeper issues that are preventing it from gaining broader acceptance. Nevertheless, meaning, to me, means having a narrative, that puts each game into a context, whether that context is a tournament, or what is possibly the world's longest running sporting rivalry.

Idle Summers 26th November, 2009 19:03:03   [#]