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Looking Forward - Yesterday and Today


Martin Chandler | 11:35pm gmt 14 Aug 2009
Looking Forward - Yesterday and TodayAt Old Trafford in 1956 Jim Laker produced one of the most famous individual performances ever in a Test Match, and one which will surely never be repeated. It was hardly surprising then, following that 19 for 90 in the Ashes deciding fourth Test, that publishers rushed to sign up the man who had enthralled the nation, and it was Frederick Muller Limited who secured the rights to publish Laker's autobiography. In the 1950's Mullers were one of the leading publishers in that field also, at various times, publishing books in the names of Colin Cowdrey, Trevor Bailey, Tom Graveney and Bill Edrich. Today there is no trace of the company's imprint, although its lineage can be traced through to current publishers Random House.

In time Laker was to become a respected commentator and author in his own right but his three early books for Muller were ghost written. One, "Over to me", that was published in 1960, was to cause a considerable furore, but the books were, generally, no more satisfying than similar books which appear today. The first book to appear bearing Laker's name appeared in early 1957 and was entitled 'Spinning Round the World'. There is nothing remarkable about the content of the book and there are no compelling reasons for anyone to seek out a copy today, however there is one fascinating chapter, the final one, where Laker looks forward in order to speculate as to what cricket in the year 2000, forty three years on, might be like.

The purpose of this article is to have a look at Laker's approach in order to see just how accurate or otherwise his predictions were and then for the writer to try and project the game forward again, this time, less ambitiously, to 21 years hence.

To understand Laker's vision of the future it is necessary to know a little about the man himself and, more importantly, something of the state of the game when he made his predictions. Although Laker played his county cricket for Surrey, he was a gritty Yorkshireman. After leaving Surrey he also played briefly for Essex as an amateur but he was, throughout his Surrey career, a professional with all the typical attitudes and values of the northern professionals of that time.

As far as the game itself was concerned England was very much the centre of the cricket world and the only country where there was a full time professional structure. Seventeen First Class counties would compete each year for the County Championship playing 28 three day games apiece. Only around half a dozen of them ever had any realistic aspirations to winning the title and there was no other domestic competition, so many games had little by way of a competitive edge. Overseas players had to acquire a residential qualification before they could play county cricket, and a decision to do so would end their international careers, so while there were overseas players in the English game they were not the top stars and English crowds only saw overseas Test players when they toured with their countries every few years. Test cricket was televised, but in grainy black and white, so in order to see the game properly supporters had to turn up at the grounds.

In 1957 the English game was run by the MCC then, as now, a private club for gentlemen, and a similar organisation, the Imperial Cricket Conference, ran the world game. The abolition in the English game of the division between amateur and professional was, by 1957, inevitable but it was to be another six years before the distinction was finally consigned to sporting and social history.

As far as the international game was concerned Test cricket had the great battles between England and Australia but for many years every other contest had been some way behind both in competitiveness and importance. South Africa had beaten England, in South Africa, on three occasions and once, in 1935, had defeated England in England but only once had they achieved even a draw in a series with Australia and, prior to 1952/53, had won but one Test against their Southern Hemisphere rivals. New Zealand in those days had never beaten England in a single Test and India had only ever won one match against England and that against what was effectively a second XI in 1951/52.

Australia had only played New Zealand once, in a game so one sided they did not play them again for almost 30 years, and they had never been beaten by India. Only West Indies, who had comfortably beaten England in England in 1950, had changed the order of things and even they had failed to trouble Australia. In 1957 Pakistan had been the most recent addition to the family of Test playing nations and they had proved competitive, a great fast medium bowler, Fazal Mahmood, spearheading them to Test victories over England and Australia but the team as a whole was young and inexperienced and it was to be another 30 years before Pakistan would reach the top of the tree. It is also worth bearing in mind that in 1957 there was only one touring side to England each summer. Then, as now, Australia visited every four years as, since the war, had South Africa. There were therefore only two slots in the four year cycle for the other tourists and the 1950's saw nine years between New Zealand tours, eight years between Pakistani visits and seven years between those of India and the West Indies. A Test series then was four, or more usually, five matches. There were, of course, no one day internationals and the tourists would also play each of the 17 First Class counties once, and in the case of Yorkshire, Surrey and Lancashire usually twice, as well as a number of other First Class fixtures.

Laker gave us two alternative visions of the future, one of which he was at pains to point out was not serious, but which is, when looked at overall, perhaps the most prescient. Laker saw the first Ashes Series of the 21st century as consisting of ten Test matches, his rationale being the extra funds generated by the ultimate form of the game. He saw the final Test still taking place at The Oval, and while the lifts to take ticket holders to their seats and the waitress service that Laker envisaged for spectators have not actually come about, the vast improvement in spectator comfort that he predicted has.

As to the game itself Laker described players having numbered shirts and bowlers being allowed to make liberal use of substitutes to enable them to leave the field for a break after each spell. He also saw batsmen being allowed to take breaks within their innings, giving captains an American football style dilemma as to how best to arrange their batting order. It is certainly an interesting concept that a Paul Collingwood could be sent out to steady the ship after a couple of quick wickets fall only for him, having done so, to be able to take a rest while Andrew Fintoff comes out to blaze away safe in the knowledge that if he falls early Collingwood's war of attrition can resume. Laker also predicted the increase in scoring rates in Test cricket which recent generations have delivered. We have not seen the ten ball overs that he foresaw, nor a rule that a batsman must score off at least three deliveries in each ten ball over or face a penalty, but we have seen the shortening of boundaries, albeit that has not gone as far as the complete standardisation at 60 yards that Laker felt the future would bring.

Having set out that vision of the future Laker then took a step back, decided that the MCC and ICC were far too reactionary to countenance such changes and went on to outline a rather more conservative set of suggestions the majority of which have proved to be accurate.

First and foremost Laker foresaw, although it was not difficult at the time, that the old order of the game, run as it was in large part by grandees and great industrialists, would have to change, and that former players and professional businessmen would have to have a hand in the running of the game. Irrespective of one's views on how those individuals who have found themselves in positions of power have performed there is no doubt that the game is much more professionally run than in the 1950's.

As far as players are concerned, and Laker was only considering the English game here, he foresaw the dismantling of the archaic system of residential qualification for counties and predicted the dawn of the overseas player and a system of players transferring between counties and, which must have seemed farfetched at the time, the very recent concept of players going out on loan from one county to another. He also predicted, if not in so many words, the arrival of central contracts.

As far as the laws of the game are concerned there has been little change since the 1950's and Laker did not anticipate anything revolutionary nor did he consider it necessary. This was a time when, despite its having been in the game for more than twenty years, the 'new' LBW law that we have today was still controversial. Surprisingly, given that he was an off spinner, Laker was in favour of returning to the old rule whereby a batsman could not be out LBW to a ball pitching outside the off stump, although it is clear it was not something that he expected to happen. One change that the following years did see, and which Laker considered essential, was the abolition of the old back foot no ball law which, at a stroke, eradicated the problem with fast bowlers 'dragging' that was, by the time it changed, in 1969, a serious problem.

Laker still believed, and this was the only feature he took from his "unacceptable" vision, that boundaries would become standardised. He deplored a state of affairs whereby a batsman could be caught in the deep on one ground and play an identical shot for six on another and keenly felt the inequity of this. Again this is perhaps surprising from a man who was a spin bowler and who spent many of his playing days on the wide open spaces of Kennington Oval with its long boundaries.

Perhaps looking back to the controversies of the previous year Laker also foresaw a ground inspection panel to regularly inspect test and county grounds with a view to avoiding wickets being under prepared or otherwise unfit for the First Class game.

Laker's final prediction was that the laws, or playing conditions, would contain provision for a fixed number of overs to be played in a day and that, after a number of gradual moves towards it, is now something we are used to. That it took so long to arrive is surprising and it took an infamous act of gamesmanship on the part of Brian Close, which cost him the England captaincy for the 1967/68 tour of West Indies, to secure the first move with the immediate introduction of a rule that 20 overs must be bowled in the final hour of a county championship match.

The most significant development that Laker did not foresee, and indeed none of his generation did, was the introduction of single day matches with a limitation of overs to both sides, and to anyone looking back on the latter part of the 20th century that development must be viewed as the most significant step taken in the game's evolution. Historically, a knockout cup between the First Class counties was mooted on a number of occasions, initially as long ago as 1873, without any consensus ever being reached. What was usually discussed was a competition consisting of standard First Class matches, however no satisfactory mechanism for resolving the problems thrown up by drawn games was ever worked out.

The possibility of one day cricket was considered, at some length, towards the end of the Second World War when the MCC was preparing for the resumption of the First Class game but was, effectively, dismissed out of hand. Two reasons were cited, firstly that a game of cricket limited by time or overs would be 'detrimental to the art and character of the game' and, secondly, that captains "would be encouraged to concentrate on preventing the batting side from scoring rather than from dismissing them". As the counties' finances lurched from crisis to crisis in the 1950's discussions about a cup competition continued but it was not until 1961 that it was finally decided that a 65 overs per side cup competition was to be launched and as a result in 1963 the Gillette Cup was born and the rest, as they say, is history.

So how will our great game look in 2030 as I approach my three score years and ten? I believe, like Jim Laker, that the game is fundamentally sound and little will change, at least insofar as the Test, First Class and List A versions of the game are concerned. There will, inevitably, be changes in the way that the game is umpired, and I have little doubt that in 2030 all potentially contentious umpiring decisions will be made instantly by technology and that the on-field umpire's role will become a management function rather than a judicial one. I see little change to the laws of the game in prospect, although following the retirement of Muttiah Muralitharan and the hard line stance the Australians have decided to take on the doosra, I can certainly see that particular delivery being outlawed and consigned to history. I also expect the heartfelt plea put forward recently by Swaranjeet to result in the remit of the match referee extending to pitch preparation to ensure that the sort of tedious cricket that we saw for a large part of England's series in the Caribbean earlier this year is not repeated.

As for the domestic game in England I cannot see the 18 county structure being dismantled but, given the success that central contracts have had in raising standards, I do think the amount of cricket played will inevitably and properly reduce so that players, and young and inexperienced ones in particular, have the opportunity to finely hone their skills in the nets rather than in match conditions.

The above being said my expectation of the 20/20 game is that that will change considerably in the next 21 years. 20/20 will still be cricket but I believe there will be law changes that will remove it even further from the First Class game and I do think it will develop along the lines of the future that Jim Laker did not like the look of.

I believe that LBW will end as a mode of dismissal in 20/20. It is far too complicated a law for casual viewers of the game and with it will be abolished the leg bye thereby, the legislature will say, adequately punishing the batsman for failing to lay bat on ball. I can also see greater rewards for batsmen who hit the ball further into the crowd and that we will end up with boundary eights and, perhaps, tens, as well as the traditional fours and sixes. I also believe, given the investment that some teams will make in the biggest names, that there will be an opportunity for batsmen to stay at the crease notwithstanding that they are dismissed and that captains will have to decide whether they want their star batsman to leave the crease or whether, on pain of a forfeit in terms of runs, they wish to leave him out there in place of a lesser batsman. I do not expect to be overly enamoured of this game as it changes but it will still be easily recognisable as cricket and as well as attracting a new audience to the game it will, I believe, spread the game around the world. I foresee that 20/20 cricket will feature in the Olympics in the near future and that it will be embraced by other nations in a way that the First Class game never will. In the 2030 20/20 World Cup I see the USA and Canada in particular providing strong opposition to the traditional test playing nations.

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