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Football shouldn’t be allowed to deny cricket its moment in the sun

Jonathan Freedland

The Guardian

Today at least I had an excuse. Like plenty of others this summer, I’d been sneaking guilty peeks at the cricket during the working day, checking the score, hitting refresh on the webpage, occasionally donning the headphones for a cheeky dose of Test Match Special. Yesterday morning the urge became irresistible, as Australia crumbled, the entire team wiped out in the time it usually takes a team to clear its throat, having scored a paltry 60 runs.

Today the drama continued for cricket fans, luring the eyeballs of all but the most conscientious away from that budget document or urgent spreadsheet towards Trent Bridge, where England are on the verge of wresting the Ashes back from their century-long rivals. I particularly like the doctor who admitted he furtively checks the score on his laptop while seeing patients: they assume he’s looking up their test results. When the doctor’s jaw dropped at the scale of the Aussie collapse, his elderly patient assumed he was about to be told the worst possible news and was on the verge of tears. “It took me a while to calm him down.” No such conflict for me today: I could openly follow proceedings in the name of column-related research. What could be better, on a warm summer’s day, than to see England uncurl those Australian fingers from the urn and win back cricket’s most fabled prize?

Except, what’s this? In a few hours’ time the attention of the nation’s sports lovers will swing away from cricket towards football. Yes, even though August is in its infancy and the days are still long, we shall tomorrow hear the whistle of the ref, the outraged howl of crowds baying for a penalty and the protestations of innocence from players who’ve dived as extravagantly as if they’d leapt from Tom Daley’s highest board.

A quirk of the diary it might be, but it feels like an offence against nature all the same. For the football season to begin now, as the Ashes reaches its climax, is all wrong. There are rhythms to our national life, tides and currents that mark the seasons as surely as the falling of the leaves or the darkening of the nights, and this seeks to upend them. It is a violation on a par with the premature “back to school” poster I spotted in a high street window last week, a form of words that can make the heart sink in early September, let alone a month in advance.

It’s too early. Cricket gets so little national airtime these days that it’s wrong to shrink its moment in the sun yet further. Football will dominate the calendar from now till July next year, thanks to the European Championship (which explains this season’s early start). At least cricket should be allowed to rule August. Instead, football is greedily colonising the eighth month along with all the others.

Don’t get me wrong. Though a late convert to the game, I’m a football fan too. But this rude incursion into cricket’s midsummer garden does invite a contrast between the two sports – and what each of these national games says about the nation that plays them.

The most obvious dividing line is money. My sons, 14 and 11, could tell you what Wayne Rooney pulls in each week, as well as the precise market value of Mesut Özil, Diego Costa or Christian Benteke. They would have no idea what Stuart Broad or Joe Root, the heroes of Trent Bridge, are paid. While they have gained an education in global capitalism, familiarising themselves, thanks to Chelsea and Manchester City, with the oligarchic nature of the Russian economy and the sovereign wealth of the Gulf states, all they know of England and Australia is the talent of their cricketers. Watching the Premier League, and especially their beloved Arsenal, has taught them that managerial nous and technical skill alone are not enough: deep coffers are what champions are made of. In cricket as they know it, wealth doesn’t even enter into it.

I say “cricket as they know it” because there is another side of the game. That’s the theme of a new documentary, Death of a Gentleman, which bills itself as a story of “greed, power and the endless pursuit of more”. There is certainly a story to tell about the vast fortunes that now sluice through the game, in India especially, home of the brash and lucrative Indian Premier League. It’s true, too, that live cricket is no longer easily accessible, kept off free-to-air TV in Britain since 2005. And yet, outside India at least, money is simply not as visible, as overt or as dominant in cricket as it is in football, where a player’s most important stat is not goals scored but his most recent transfer fee. (County cricket, meanwhile, makes no money at all, relying instead on a subsidy from international fixtures.)

Cricket’s pace is different, combat spread over five days in a Test, in contrast with the 90-minute adrenaline burst that is a football match. Today’s cricketers are not the tea-taking gentlemen of yore, but there is still a basic courtesy that informs the sport: even now, players will stand and applaud an outstanding achievement by their opponents. And parents don’t (usually) have to fear what words their lip-reading children will spot when an irate cricketer is caught on camera cursing his luck.

I’m aware of how conservative all this sounds. When you reflect on the way cricket turns us towards a different aspect of our past – recalling the imperial relationships we have with India, the West Indies, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, as well as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – you can sound positively Ukip-ian, as if preferring the commonwealth connections of yesteryear to the largely European ones manifest in today’s hugely cosmopolitan Premier League. The drift to Faragism becomes more pronounced when you contrast the diversity of the two England teams, cricket and football: these days, the former is almost all white (with the important exception of Moeen Ali).

The seasoned sports writer Mihir Bose has a good defence to that charge, stressing that cricket “is the only international sport to have been passed into non-white hands”. While the Fifa leadership is now, and is expected to remain, dominated by Europeans, says Bose, today it’s Indian cricket that makes 80% of the money and runs the game. He adds that while English football clubs were still fielding all-white, all-English teams in the 1970s, county cricket sides of the same period were studded with the finest players the West Indies and the subcontinent could produce.

Of course, such an argument – which is better, cricket or football? – could rage in ale-soaked bars for all eternity. The joyous thing is, we don’t have to choose. We can have both. But only if we give each its due, without hurrying one of them off the field before it’s barely had time to lift its bat in celebration.

      

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