Martin Johnson column – Will T20 slog fest soon be a thing of the past?

Tuning into the cricket earlier this week, I was so startled by watching some chap in a custard yellow outfit declining to offer a stroke to a ball outside the off-stump that I called the TV repair man. And was suitably embarrassed when he informed me that there was nothing wrong with the set, other than the fact that the IPL had now finished, and been replaced by something called the Champions Trophy.

Well, I gave it a fair chance, but have now decided to switch my daytime viewing habits to Homes Under the Hammer. Whoever dreamt up a one-day cricket competition in which the object was not to hit every ball for six, thus allowing the commentators to shout, “that’s enooooormous!” half a dozen times per over, must frankly be stuck in the dark ages.

Before the unstoppable global tsunami known as T20, the 50-over format was actually considered to be pretty racy. Sexy even! Now you wonder why the thing takes almost as long to unravel as a day’s Test cricket, the only consolation being that, unlike T20, you can nip out to the kitchen for a cup of tea without missing 58 runs and two wickets in the three overs you’ve been gone.

You can always tell a T20 from an ODI by the crowd close-ups. In T20, the cameras are forever zooming in on some bloke pulling off an amazing catch without spilling a drop from the plastic pint he’s holding in his other hand. While in an ODI, the game has enough quiet moments for the cameraman to pan quietly around the ground before alighting upon a bunch of mildly inebriated nuns, who suddenly realise they’re on the big screen and begin waving at themselves.

This is not to say that the modern-day ODI hasn’t stepped up several gears since the format was first devised. Not too long ago, 250 was a perfectly acceptable target to try and defend, but now, with rare exceptions, if the team batting first doesn’t score a minimum of 300, the second half of the game often turns into an exercise in watching the run rate dropping on the field, and the yawn rate rising on the sofa.

Could it be, in years to come, that people will look back on the 2017 Champions Trophy and wonder why the totals were so pitifully small? And marvel in admiration at a miserly bowling analysis of 10-0-75-0. Well, if history is anything to go by, yes they will, and you only have to look back to the old domestic 40-over competition to realise how dramatically one-day cricket has evolved.

The John Player League was first unveiled in 1969, the same year as the abolition of the death penalty, Lulu finishing joint first in the Eurovision Song Contest with Boom-Bang-A-Bang, John Lennon marrying Yoko Ono, and BBC 2 first televising Pot Black, the snooker equivalent of one-day cricket.

As launches go, it didn’t get much of a thumbs up from the cricketers of the era, as it deprived them of their one day off in the week. With the three-day County Championship games starting on a Saturday, and finishing on a Tuesday, the JPL matches were scheduled for the Sunday, at a time when Sundays were strictly for doing the garden, or snoozing on the sofa after lunch.

It wasn’t only cricketers who didn’t do much on a Sunday. Nothing was open for a start, and if you ran out of milk, there was no supermarket to nip down to. You had to ring the neighbour’s doorbell and ask them if they could spare half a pint. “An act of cruelty” was how Tom Graveney described the business of asking a professional cricketer to play on Sundays. And in terms of the travelling arrangements, it certainly was. It was by no means uncommon for a team to finish a home county game on a Friday evening, and arrive at around midnight at their hotel for the following away game. Then on the Saturday night they’d drive back for a home Sunday League match, and then back again to finish the county game. Prompting Alan Ward, the Derbyshire fast bowler, to comment that if there were such a thing as re-incarnation, he’d like to come back as a Skegness donkey.

However, when it came to scoring rates, the batsmen made a Skegness donkey look like a Derby winner. If you scored more than 150 from your 40 overs it was regarded as a good effort. The bowling wasn’t very exciting either. Run-ups were restricted to 15 yards, which rendered genuine quickies pretty ineffective, and the Sunday League became a breeding ground for medium pace dibbly dobbers. Lancashire won the inaugural competition with a contribution of 23 wickets at less than three an over from their opening bat David Green, who in 24 first-class games that season bowled a total of 37 overs and didn’t get anyone out.

That first season also produced the most remarkable bowling analysis in the history of the one-day game, from Somerset spinner Brian Langford against Essex. Langford finished with figures of 8-8-0-0 at Yeovil, and it wasa feature of the John Player League that so many games were staged at outgrounds, like Coalville, Heanor, and Ashby de la Zouch.

Brian Close described it thus: “Throw down some sawdust, everyone put on top hats and red noses, and you’ve got the John Player League.” There were gimmics, and at Sussex grounds a local egg manufacturer placed a few giant plastic eggs around the boundary and offered some prize or other if a batsman hit one of them on the full.  Which, if memory serves, no-one ever did.

But the crowds turned up, and the BBC covered one live match every Sunday afternoon. Jim Laker was the main commentator, and Jim’s delivery was in direct contrast to the foam-flecked hysteria required of the ex-players hired for T20.

Jim sounded as though he was presiding over a funeral rather than a game of cricket, although perhaps we should give him credit for appearing to recognise earlier than most that the John Player League was only a more marginally exhilarating Sunday afternoon pursuit than visiting the Garden Centre.

It eventually died of natural causes, replaced by new and more exciting formulas. Who knows? One day a future generation might be sitting at a Ten10 match, saying: “cor, remember that T20 rubbish? By heck it was slow. Can’t believe it ever caught on.”

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, June 9 2017

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