Cricket

Once, one-day cricket was beamed free to all Australian TV sets, the commentators were beloved and the on-field theatrics magical. Now we have a six-week World Cup that is struggling to raise a flicker of interest. By Russell Marks.

Cricket World Cup fails to excite

Dave Warner executes his trademark leap upon scoring a century against Bangladesh at Trent Bridge on June 20.
Credit: AP Photo / RUI Vieira

When Twenty20 cricket arrived and began filling stadiums 15 years ago, I assumed 50-over cricket would be its casualty. But the format is still limping along with the 12th World Cup now on show in England and an oval in Cardiff.

Like the nation, I once inhaled cricket. When David Boon retired, aged 35, after the Australia Day Test match in 1996, I thought, “Why stop so young?” I was a left-arm unorthodox bowler on the fringes of the South Australian under-19 squad and worshipped cricket and its gods – Bradman and Warne – in a way the Lutherans at my high school never seemed to fully appreciate. But by the time Warnie had sent his last SMS as a Test cricketer, in 2007, I was a postgrad student who was inexplicably time-poor. So I retired from playing cricket and also, as something of a purist, from watching its shorter forms. The game curiously failed to notice my absence.

Now I’m back – and doing the proper bit, too. Late nights. Morning replays. Keeping up with player selections and rain forecasts and points tables as if I’m a middle-class teenage boy in Adelaide again. There are some mighty displays. Ireland’s best cricketer, Eoin Morgan, captaining England in line with the team’s long tradition of poaching players to fill its ranks, hit 17 sixes in a single innings, making an entire century just in balls he tonked over the fence. That’s never been done in the history of international cricket. Sheldon Cottrell (West Indies) and Ben Stokes (England) took one-handed outfield catches that made the restrictions imposed by ordinary physics and biomechanics seem quaintly unfashionable. Britain’s oddly shaped and comparatively small stadiums are hosting rambunctious vuvuzela parties for tens of thousands of Bangladeshi, Indian and Afghan supporters on allegedly natural highs.

But here in Australia, something’s missing. I still don’t really know what a Coulter-Nile or a Zampa is, perhaps because the only Big Bash League game I’ve seen was between fireworks and ’80s pop music at a cavernously empty MCG. And I certainly never expected to miss Richie, Bill, racially awkward Tony and the gang from Nine’s commentary team as much as I do, although Michael Clarke’s participation – the successful outcome of the rather gauche job application he made as part of his impromptu televised retirement back in 2015 – at least means I know the TV’s mute button works. Kerry Packer’s vision of a colourised, televised spectacle didn’t come about by plonking just any group of cricketing has-beens in front of the cameras and pressing “record”, which seems to be what has happened here. His was a carefully selected and curated set of has-beens, whose unique vocal inflections and on-screen relationship drama added its own theatrical quality to broadcasts. The main quality added by this World Cup’s commentary is irritation.

Whatever magic there was when Michael Bevan was single-battedly hauling Australia over the line in World Series round robins on balmy 1990s evenings, or when Lance Klusener and Allan Donald found themselves at the same end to finish the 1999 semi-final in an improbable tie, seems absent now. Twenty20-inspired innovations in batting technology and technique have dramatically multiplied the game’s explosive moments – its fours and sixes and classic catches and boundary saves – but in ways that reduce them to cheap sugar hits. Commentator Michael Slater, once a dashing ’90s opener, could barely rouse himself to remark on each successive hoick, blast and kapow of David Warner’s innings of 166 against Bangladesh. If we ignore for a moment the salary he gets in return for enhancing the game’s broadcast, it’s difficult to blame him. After the first couple of hundred of them, another six is just not all that thrilling.

But it’s more than that. The extent to which cricket can thrill in Australia directly correlates with its esteem within the national culture: the high thrill rates of the ’30s, ’40s, ’70s and ’90s are not constant. And cricket’s esteem in the national culture is not high when most of the nation can’t watch it. The only way to avoid paying Foxtel $700 (plus set-up costs) for me to return to hardcore World Cup fandom for six weeks was to subscribe to Foxtel’s little web-based mini-me, Kayo. At $25 a month, no lock-in contract and direct to my phone, it somehow then gets beamed to the TV through a very nifty thing called Chromecast. (If $25 seems a bit pricey next to Stan or Netflix, it actually compares pretty well to HeyHey.tv, which wants $6.95 every month in exchange for Hey Hey It’s Saturday reruns on demand.) My adjustment to this new reality of paying vastly more money to watch cricket in ways vastly more technologically complicated than pressing “on” and then “9” as we did in 1992 is hampered by my inability to forget the words of an otherwise very much forgotten communications minister, Michael Lee: “Pay TV was never intended to force Australian viewers to pay to watch sporting events that they have traditionally seen for free.”

And because our parliamentarians enjoy so much the experience of being lobbied by rent-seekers, some of whom helpfully even draft legislation so as to save members the trouble, I’m learning much more about odds by watching cricket than I ever expected to following the match-fixing scandals of recent decades. Perhaps never quite happy they had to kiss goodbye to Benson & Hedges’ loyal sponsorship in the ’90s, Cricket Australia “proudly” entered a “partnership” with Bet365 in 2012 to ensure 10-year-old fans discuss odds at least as much as stats and to assist, no doubt, the broader national transfer of wealth to the wealthy.

The difficulties of watching the World Cup in Australia are compounded by the sheer ethical complications associated with getting behind this national team. It’s not just Sandpapergate. Watching Dave Warner leap self-aggrandisingly into the air upon reaching the ton against relative minnows Bangladesh reminds one that despite not being all that good – in comparison with past Australian teams and the significant amounts of public money spent on their skill development – these Australians reflect the cocky cruelty that’s affected the national temper in recent times. We turn back refugee boats, we cut single mothers’ social security and we lock up Aboriginal people at alarming rates, so of course our cricketers sing “we are young and free” above First Nations’ objections and kick lowly teams when they’re down. There’s no effort to improve the national moral stock as Virat Kohli did early in the tournament when he implored Indian fans to stop booing Steve Smith on the basis that he’d done his time. We’ve become the West Dillon Panthers in season 4 of Friday Night Lights. We’re bullies and we’re cheats.

It’s times like these when some well-targeted marketing can help. Along with the new Australian spirit that’s been poured into the old World Series bottle, surely the classic Mojo Singers ditty can do with an update: “Warner’s sanding Kookaburras coarse / Starc intimidates like Border Force / Maxwell’s chucking tantrums / We’re singing racist anthems / Let’s get the kids to gamble, no remorse / C’mon, Aussie, c’mon, c’mon…!”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 29, 2019 as "Stumped". Subscribe here.

Russell Marks
is an honorary associate at La Trobe University. He has worked as a criminal defence lawyer, a cricket coach, an academic, a policy adviser and a speechwriter.