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The Ten: Things Cricket Can’t Stop Tinkering With

by Wisden Staff

Ten things cricket won’t just let be.

10) Team selection

Selectors were not always as predictable and meticulous as they are now. During the six-match Ashes series in 1989 – which England lost 4-0 – some 29 souls were thrown to the Australian wolves. Although a ludicrous succession of injuries meant that soon-to-be-axed captain David Gower never actually ended up with the team agreed upon at selection meetings, it’s still an outrageous figure, one only beaten by the 30 players England fielded during the five-match home Ashes series in 1921 (which England also lost, incidentally). Fifteen bowlers, 13 batsmen and a keeper; even if there have been unhappy times since, 1989 still looks like an exhibition in how to make a team as unhappy and unsuccessful as possible.

9) English domestic cricket

Once a sacred pillar of the 
English summer, the county 
game has become the NHS of
 the sporting world: much loved, often derided and the
subject of countless well-intentioned but often counterproductive overhauls. In recent years we’ve reverted back to 50-over cricket (last abandoned at the end of the 2009 season) and developed a regular Friday night slot for T20 games in an attempt to a) mirror the international game and b) get more people through the gate. Admirable goals, but after a right old hoo-har trying to get the changes through in the first place, the wind seems to have changed again. With nobody seemingly able to agree on anything – from the number of divisions in the Championship (split into two back in 2000) to the necessity for a dedicated window for a ‘Big Bash’ style T20 tournament – expect our domestic game to be remorselessly poked and prodded for some considerable time yet.

8) The team’s batting order

Cricketers throughout the globe will be familiar with the lower-order nurdler who gets thrown up the order when the ball is doing a bit or the keeper who gets sacrificed when the thrash is on, but spare a thought for Yorkshire legend Wilfred Rhodes. In 1910 he became the second of three men to have batted in all 11 positions in Tests – the others being Australia’s Syd Gregory and Indian allrounder Vinoo Mankad. Rhodes reached this peak of statistical notoriety during the 29th of his 58 Tests, his ability to adopt so many different positions gaining him an honourary mention in the 1911 edition of the Karma Sutra. Beginning his career as a specialist slow left-armer and tailender, he became one of the game’s greatest allrounders, claiming 4,204 wickets and scoring almost 40,000 runs in first-class cricket. Not bad for a bloke whose country shoved him down to No.11 on no less than eight separate occasions.

A man for all occasions: Wilfred Rhodes

A man for all occasions: Wilfred Rhodes

7) The stumps

The stumps have changed height and width several times before becoming the strictly standardised size and shape they are today. Indeed, a wicket’s only been made up of three stumps since the late 18th century, before then it was two sticks joined along the top (à la the croquet hoop). A middle stump was first thought to be in order following a game between Five of England and Five of Hambledon in which Edward ‘Lumpy’ Stevens (they did nicknames properly back then, didn’t they?) bowled clean through the last batsman’s wicket three times without disturbing the stumps. Lumpy’s team still won, but when all is said and done that was probably a change that needed making.

6) DRS

The issue that has spawned countless online catfights and provoked a (very funny) barney between Ravi Shastri and Nasser Hussain, DRS – originally championed by former England coach Duncan Fletcher – has already had more incarnations than Doctor Who. From its troubled childhood during the 2009 West Indies v England series, when each team had three reviews at their disposal and the third umpire (barred from using the predictive element of Hawk Eye) had to slap a ruler on the TV screen to adjudicate lbw appeals, to the mixed-up adolescence it’s going through currently, where the political inclinations and pockets of the boards involved in a series dictate what technology is available (if indeed the system is used at all), it’s fair to say that we’ve yet to encounter the definitive version of the review system.

5) Fast bowlers’ actions

Whether it’s the emphasis on getting side-on that dominated in days of yore or the modern-day focus on injury-prevention and biomechanics, coaches’ tinkering has caused many a budding quick to lose their mojo. Jimmy Anderson reverted to his natural, ‘face in the dirt’ action after an unsuccessful coaching-inspired attempt to bowl in a more body-friendly fashion, and
 credits returning to his more instinctive approach for his
 rise up the world rankings. The late Graham Dilley was
 another who fell prey to
 ill-advised adjustments, so much so that by 1988 Geoffrey Boycott quipped
 that Dilley “now has Dennis 
Lillee’s action with Denis
 Thatcher’s pace.” AOC never saw the former prime minister’s husband in action, but considering Dilley ended up with 138 Test wickets at 29.76 we can only conclude he was pretty useful.

"Dennis Liillee's action; Denis Thatcher's pace"

“Dennis Liillee’s action; Denis Thatcher’s pace”

4) The length of an over

Back in the 18th century overs were only four balls long. No one really settled on the ideal length for quite some time; in 1889 the four-baller was increased to five and then, in 1900, the English game (for no evident reason) decided on six. But that didn’t stop the Australians deciding to go with eight-ball overs from 1922, a move which proved popular enough to spread to New Zealand and South Africa. English cricket experimented with eight-ball overs for the 1939 season, but the try-out was cut short when the Second World War broke out and the idea was never resurrected. After World Series Cricket
– which used eight-ball overs – finished in 1979/80, six-ball overs were once and for all agreed upon worldwide, and now anything longer or shorter is, according to the latest laws of the game, just not cricket.

3) ODIs

The one-day international has led a varied existence. It started life as a hastily convened one-off arranged after the fifth Test of the 1970/71 Ashes series was washed out, leaving the sides to play a one-innings game of 40 eight-ball overs a side. Much to the surprise of the Aussie authorities, 46,000 spectators turned up to watch. Quick to seize on the new idea, England hosted the second ODI in 1972 at Old Trafford, this time a 55-over affair. By the time a World Cup had been arranged in 1975, the games were 60 overs per side, and thereafter match lengths varied according to the preferences of the home country until everyone eventually agreed on 50. We’ve also seen many ‘ingenious’ innovations added to the format, such as the ill-fated ‘Supersub’, which allowed a substitute to be introduced as a replacement at any time to bowl, bat or keep wicket. That particular gem lasted six months and seemed always to involve Vikram Solanki. Then there was the switch from 15-over fielding restrictions to Powerplays – allowing each side to choose when to enforce its five additional overs of carnage – which were then tweaked again because it was decided captains were being too boring about it. And now you’re only allowed four fielders outside the 30-yard ring. It keeps us all on our toes.

2) The World Cup

In most sports, the World Cup is the most prestigious event in the calendar. In cricket, the competition has been a byword for organisational confusion. From an original group and knockout format, we went through the Super Sixes period in 1999 and 2003, saw the Super Eights concept introduced in 2007, then went back to a more traditional ‘large group followed by quarter-final’ structure in 2011. But the act of tinkering that truly beggars belief was the ICC’s response to claims that the whole tournament was simply too long. They decided to alleviate this problem by expelling Associate nations such as Ireland – one of the tournament’s overwhelming success stories – from the 2015 version. Fortunately, enough of a stink was raised around the game that the moneymen did a swift about-face. But when plans were drawn up for 2019? The Associates were binned again.

Peter May's godson Chris Cowdrey

Peter May’s godson Chris Cowdrey

1) The captaincy

It routinely mystifies AOC why anyone would want to be a skipper, particularly when your selectors are in one of their fickle phases. The summer of 1988 was a particularly unhappy period in this nation’s cricketing history: by the end of the series England hadn’t won a Test in 18 attempts. And in the course of one five-match rubber they got through (count ‘em) four skippers. Mike Gatting – the man who had led the victorious 1986/87 expedition Down Under not long before – was the victim of a ‘Bar Lady In Hotel Room’ tabloid sting before the second Test against the West Indies and was fired by the suits at Lord’s. The chalice was passed to seasoned twirler John Emburey, Gatt’s vice-captain for Middlesex and England, who supped its poison by presiding over a couple of heavy defeats before being left out altogether for the fourth Test at seamer-friendly Headingley. Five-times-capped captain of Kent (and godson of chairman of selectors Peter May) Chris Cowdrey got the nod instead, only for injury, defeat and a rapid selectorial change of heart to preclude his inclusion in any further internationals. Graham Gooch took the hospital pass for the last game (yep, another defeat) of the series. Captain at the start of the next English summer? David Gower.

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