GEORGE DAVIS WAS INNOCENT

A recent silly little video of mine (yes, I still make them, albeit not for YouTube) recalled those ‘occasional day’s holidays’ schools sparingly dished out to their grateful pupils; unlike the Bank Holidays or General Elections that closed the school gates, these rare gifts weren’t dictated by government, but by the schools themselves – ‘teacher training day’ being one of the mysterious euphemisms regularly employed as an excuse to give us all a 24-hour break from the grind. Back then, those of us whose parents were both in work were left to our own devices without fear of legal reprisals; but should the occasional day’s holiday unfortunately coincide with a day in which one parent happened to be at home, the sense of elation would be somewhat muted.

A day with mum, for example, would usually include being dragged to the shops – the shops in question being all the boring ones, of course; M&S, BHS and C&A were the dreaded triumvirate of tedium for a child, especially if mother’s intention was to procure an ‘outfit’ for said offspring with birthday parties, weddings, christenings and Christmas in mind; being transformed into a minor member of The Partridge Family was not necessarily high on the wish-list of many little boys in the 1970s, but it had a habit of happening whenever mother and son were left together.

A day with dad had its own horrors, mind. If father was feeling particularly restless, this could involve a trip to that dismal temple of misplaced masculine aspirations, the DIY store; this in turn might be followed by a ‘lunchtime pint’, which meant yours truly being handed a glass of lemonade in an empty beer garden whilst dad’s drink was consumed indoors at a strangely sedate pace. Therefore, the lesser of the available evils consisted of father strapping himself into the armchair and watching a continuous stream of live cricket. And to me at the time, cricket seemed to be a sport that spanned the entire day.

It appeared to start around 11 o’clock in the morning and would, in many cases, still be on around 7.30 in the evening – yet whenever I caught a glimpse of the screen it never looked like anything was happening. A vast expanse of green with most of it going to waste as lots of static men in white (who apparently shared a barber with either David Coleman or David Soul) stood around and occasionally broke into a brief sprint. The appeal was beyond me, especially when its marathon monopoly of the box meant I missed ‘Scooby Doo’ on the other side. Yes, the soporific ambience might be enlivened by the sudden apparition of a pissed naked man dashing across the pitch and attempting to leapfrog the wickets; otherwise, I couldn’t understand how it could hold my father’s attention, for this was the original ‘Slow TV’. At least football moved.

Yet, the names stuck; a child’s head has plenty of space for storage, and the roll-call of cricketers from the era claimed a good deal of that space through extensive exposure, so much so that even now – all these endless decades later – the mere mention of Tony Grieg or Geoff Boycott or Jeff Thomson or Dennis Lillee or Clive Lloyd is enough to evoke the moment as effectively as a few bars of anything by 10cc or ELO; ditto the distinctive tones of the men who described events to the viewer or listener – Laker, Benaud, Arlott, Trueman, Johnners – poets of the airwaves who imbued the sport and its numerous beguiling terms with a mellifluous, mystical resonance as potent as the locations on the shipping forecast. I didn’t get any of it as a child, but it makes more sense now – well, almost.

Looking back, it’s astonishing to realise this all-day, ad-free cricket coverage once shared the schedules with the Wimbledon fortnight and the two-year alternating of the World Cup and the Olympics; throw in a bit of golf or Formula One and it’s a wonder how a paltry pair of BBC TV channels managed to squeeze it all in without a red button or an iPlayer. But they did. And the only cost to the viewer was the licence fee. Yesterday, we had a trio of major sporting occasions going out live on free-to-air TV for the first time in a long time; aside from the frustrating failure of the respective governing bodies in ensuring their showcase events generated maximum viewing figures by not being staged simultaneously, it was still a refreshing change, if a tantalising one.

Boxing was the first sport I recall taking the bait of the satellite groomers around 30 years ago; I’d tuned-in to the big fights ever since the classic Ali events of the 70s, but the disappearance of pugilistic pursuits from the mainstream took my interest with it; I couldn’t name you a single world champion of any weight today. Football had been the initial beneficiary of the breaking of the BBC/ITV cartel, of course; but the reassuring presence of the traditional Saturday night highlights package as well as FA Cup coverage meant the loss of live league games didn’t have a negative impact on the popularity of the sport – if anything, the opposite applied. Yet, the national game was always going to do alright; not so its summer replacement.

It was a while before cricket followed suit, but the unforgettable Ashes series of 2005 was the last time live cricket graced the screens of non-subscribers. Whilst it’s understandable a sport that struggles to pay its way at county level went for the big bucks in the hope the money would filter down from the one-day glamour competitions, half-empty grounds with few faces under 40 isn’t exactly promising for tomorrow’s prospects. The selling-off of so many school playing fields has combined with a generation of casual viewers being denied stumbling onto the game during the same period to put cricket’s future in a precarious position. Yesterday’s staggering spectacle at Lord’s was surely the most encouraging advert for the sport that the ICC could have wished for; it would be foolhardy to let the opportunity to capitalise on it slip away from terrestrial broadcasters again, as happened in 2005. Cricket once more has the chance to benefit that desirable demographic so beloved of the Labour Party, ‘the many, not the few’.

There’s no doubt – as has recently been proven with the Women’s World Cup – that daily exposure on free-to-air TV enables a sporting tournament to capture the attention of the nation. For all the choice now available, terrestrial television remains the main recruitment tool for sport when it comes to ensnaring novices; subscribers are already converts. Indeed, would the annual Great British love affair with events in SW19 continue to fill the tennis courts of the country’s municipal parks every summer had Wimbledon gone the way cricket went? Yes, it could be argued that the game’s lengthy absence from free-to-air TV screens has further enhanced radio coverage and the legend of ‘Test Match Special’; and those who do subscribe would probably agree the likes of Sky and BT have successfully rebranded certain unlikely sports as ‘sexy’. But to give any sport exclusive coverage on a channel requiring subscription threatens to turn it into a minority interest that permanently excludes the majority – both today’s and tomorrow’s.

© The Editor

8 thoughts on “GEORGE DAVIS WAS INNOCENT

  1. Cricket is really in desperate trouble. If yesterday’s spectacular has enthused more people – not least those who are in a position to return it to its rightful place – then that’s certainly a good thing. Unfortunately, the cricketing authorities seem to understand little of the game which they control (see, The Hundred – an attempt to finally destroy the very game they are supposed to be saving).

    I watched parts of the game yesterday. The extraordinary Wimbledon men’s final concluded just in time to switch back for the Super Over. And watching the cricket, my overwhelming sensation was alienation from a game I have been involved in all my life. Bizarrely distracting on-screen graphics, an awful jumble of camera angles, the field covered with advertising, frequent inerruptions of audible but ‘illegible’ background music, and the absence of poets in favour of former pros all created a ‘distance’ and made it impossble to feel immersed in an event that ought to have been a delight.

    In many ways, the corruption and decline of our national summer sport show in microcosm the state of society as a whole. No doubt there are some bits worth saving, if only our generation could extract its heads from its arses.

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    1. It is interesting that the factors which give some sports their unique, distinctive appeal can be viewed by those pulling the purse strings as the very things that will deter viewers accustomed to the brash, loud and gaudy. The elements of cricket that both bored and beguiled me as a child now attract me, yet they seem to be being erased by commercial pressures that deem all sporting occasions must have their roots in the glitzy, showbiz fluff of the Superbowl. The contrast between the presentation of the Cricket World Cup and Wimbledon yesterday was stark; the latter seemed to recognise the importance of not trying to fix something that has never broken. I don’t know if that’s because Wimbledon has evaded the clutches of subscription television and has therefore had no need to reinvent itself to appease the shortening attention-span, not to mention corporate sponsors.

      Both events were undeniably edge-of-the-seat drama of the highest order, but the BBC presentation definitely seemed to be truer in spirit to what makes Wimbledon the special occasion it still is.

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  2. Right on the money, Pet. Something like Test cricket, which is now too long, slow, and boring, cannot be popular because we have to see the result of any match right away (apparently). Yet we never watched a whole Test match. It was there in the background for days: half an hour on the radio on the way home from work; a report in the morning paper; highlights the next evening; Saturday morning on TV whilst busy doing something else. It was something that had our attention, without needing to hold our full attention; something we followed rather than watched.

    Followed rather than watched…almost perfect for the modern world, you would have thought. Score updates on Twitter, short video clips – the rhythm of cricket naturally produces short units of action…watch a wicket fall, or an over, or a spell, a session or an innings – whatever suits your situation.

    Wimbledon is not entirely beyond commercial pressures but, so far as I can tell, the only concession it has made is to accept a tiebreaker in the final set, after 24 games have been played. Now that’s a measured response.

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    1. I suppose, in a way, a Test match is akin to a General Election night broadcast that goes on into the next day – something to (as you say) dip in and out of at your leisure and try to catch the moment of drama when a Cabinet Minister loses their seat. As for the Wimbledon tiebreak, I think it was probably a good idea overall; I have a feeling they’d still be playing the men’s final now without it!

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  3. It seems like Misa & I have much in common – I was introduced to County Cricket by my dad 60 years ago, when I was 7 or 8 and when county grounds were then full of fathers & sons similarly ‘bonding’. The Holy Grail of ‘Test Cricket’ followed, allowing me to use that accumulated knowledge on a longer and wider canvas, usually via Test Match Special and/or the free TV coverage, occasionally with the bonus of corporate freebies to the actual matches in later life.

    I once tried (and failed) to explain to a French family with whom I’d been billeted that one single game can go on for five whole days (with a day-off on the Sunday back then) and, even though you knew by Day 2 that it would end it a draw, it was still compulsive listening on Long Wave for the remaining three days. Thus the rumoured madness of the English was duly confirmed to them.

    I regard all the short forms of the game, whether 50-Over, 20-Over or the proposed Hundred as mere chav-fodder, aimed at separating the hard-of-thinking from some of their leisure pounds: they have little in common, apart from bats, balls and bails, with the thoughtful, cranial, strategic game of ‘chess on grass’ that is real cricket.

    But, in defence of the cricket authorities, without those down-market innovations and the huge revenues from Sky, almost all cricket would have gone bust already, so pragmatism takes over – I’m content for the well-lagered viewers to have their cheap chav thrills if, as a result, the true theatre that is Test Cricket can continue to stimulate, entertain and enthral for longer. I just hope it stays on free-to-ear Test Match Special, where the vocally-drawn pictures are every bit as good anyway.

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    1. ‘Chess on grass’ – I think that is indeed the perfect description of Test Cricket I was searching for when I wrote this! And I shall not go for the obvious gag re ‘I’ve done many things on grass, but playing chess wasn’t one of them’…etc. As for early exposure to the county game, I do recall childhood visits to Scarborough and Headingley, and also even the long-gone Bradford Park Avenue ground.

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  4. I thought your blog was going to be a late “confession” of having dug up the pitch at Headingley in 1975 but hey ho, a good read. It was actually watching an England v West Indies game at Headingley on tv back in 1973 that got me into the sport, the exuberant atmosphere in the crowd as much as the action on the field. I’ve fond memories of the commentators of that period both on tv and radio; as with those voices of horse racing, they were a huge part of the appeal.

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    1. Hahah! No, not guilty – though I remember it well. Yes, it’s amazing how those voices can take you back to time and place as much as any hit record from the period; shows how deep they became engrained in the consciousness, I guess.

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