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The Middle-Aged Spectator considers cricket

8 February 1975 was a life-changing day for me. I had finished Year 12 the previous November, and was waiting for my Teaching study to begin. A friend suggested a group of us should go to the test match in Melbourne; unusually, this was a 6th test in the series and the second of the series to be held at the MCG. With the Ashes already won (Australia had a 4-0 lead), there would be plenty of seats available.

We four stayed in an apartment in the inner-city area which belonged to a brother or a friend of my friend (or something), there was a little bit of under-age drinking, and then in the morning we were off to join the queue to enter the Southern Stand.

Australia’s first inning did not last the day (very disappointing in Test Cricket), and were it not for Ian Chappell (65) the English would have been batting much earlier. As it was, they only had to face a few overs before stumps.

And this is where my first real memory of Test Cricket kicks in. Dennis Lillee, bowling from the Members’ end, bowled with a pace and ferocity that one just doesn’t get on TV. He sent down a bouncer that went so high and fast that Rod Marsh (AUS wicketkeeper), standing 25m behind the stumps, could not catch it above his head and it went for 4 byes. The very next ball, the English opener Dennis Amiss was trapped in front of his wicket by an extraordinarily fast yorker. The LBW appeal came from the Lillee, the 5 players in the slips cordon, and the 40,000 spectators in the Southern Stand. The noise as the umpire lifted his finger to signal “out!” was deafening. And I was sold on Test Cricket.

A few days later I was back again, this time with my parents. My mother was clearly there under sufferance, and when we took our seats she pulled a book out of her bag and placed it on her lap. “Just in case I get bored,” she said. She put the book down to watch the start of play, and within half an hour had put it away. She, too, was sold, and for the rest of her life did the family ironing in front of the TV whenever there was cricket to watch.

That ‘deafening’ moment was eclipsed for me a few years later – on Boxing Day 1981 - and again at the ‘G’. And again, it involved Dennis Lillee. And again, another poor batting performance by Australia (and again with one stand out effort; this time Kim Hughes made 100) meant that the opposition, this time the West Indies, would face only five overs before play ended for the day.

The Australian opening bowlers, Dennis Lillee and Terry Alderman destroyed the top of the Windies’ batting lineup. On the last ball of the day’s play, Lillee bowled the West Indies’ champion Viv Richards, to reduce the team to 4/10. I have never heard anything like the noise from the crowd that evening. The cheering lasted beyond the players leaving the field. It was amazing, and just thinking about it now gives me goosebumps.

This summer I attended my first T20 Big Bash League games. One in Brisbane, and one at the MCG. There were a couple of memorable performances, both batting and bowling, but the nature of the Big Bash means that we quickly move on to the next game, and the next thrill. The crowds at both games were noisy and surprisingly partisan, and appeared to be enjoying themselves, even if they did have to be reminded from time to time to “make some noise!!”. There were fireworks, and dance troupes and loud music. There was a ground announcer for everything, and we were encouraged endlessly to support “Our Team”. That was a mixture of fun and tiresome. But then I am middle-aged, and I suspect, not quite in the target demographic. But, I did enjoy it, and I will attend again.

Something one of my companions in Melbourne pointed out was the amount of team merchandise being worn and displayed. And not just by children (and there were lots of kids at these games) but by adults, too. These clubs (or franchises, really) have only been in existence for 7 years, and only play about 8 games a season, so where does this tribalism come from?

The games are generally forgettable; the statistics that come out of them don’t have the authority of test averages, so what’s going on? I think there are two things here. Firstly, the timing. It’s midsummer, and generally hot. All the children and most of their parents are on a vacation break. Australians are fanatical about their football teams, and while the A-League plays during summer, most Australian football allegiances are to the AFL or NRL teams, for whom it is the off-season. So it fills a gap. Secondly, it’s about the event; not the sport so much, but being at a big event. And if you are going to be part of an event, then you dress for it.

T20 is the ADD version of cricket. That’s not a criticism, it’s an observation. At both matches I attended there were attempts to have a Mexican Wave. On each occasion it failed, because action on the field interrupted the participants. There’s so much happening so quickly, there’s not even time to buy a beer. Well, truth be told there is, if you are in the Members’ at the MCG and there are no children in your group – more staff and more space, but I’d hate to have to line up for a plastic cup of midstrength in the outer.

Should cricket snobs be worried about the rise of T20 cricket? Not at all; in fact they should be grateful, because this form is profitable, and draws crowds. Test cricket only seems to be successful when Australia and England play one another. Crowds are much smaller when other teams visit. Sheffield Shield games are woefully attended, but followed online by cricket tragics.

T20 crowds in Australia have been astonishingly good in the last few years, and Cricket Australia seem to be getting this right insofar as they are reluctant to kill this golden-egg laying goose. Expansion this year meant two extra games for each team. There’s no serious talk of more teams, and nor should there be. There is quite a small window over summer when this league can be played; go too late and there will be clashes with the various football codes, and wise heads know that wouldn’t work.

Test Cricket is great, but as a spectator it’s hard to commit to five days of attendance or unbroken TV viewing. A T20 match is over in 3 hours on a hot summer night.

Clearly, there’s a place for both, and after a really well-attended summer of Ashes tests and the Big Bash, it will be interesting to see what CA do with all their extra loot.


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