Last week I went to two cricket matches and wrote fan reports on both for Cricinfo. (links at the bottom) To me they were the perfect microcosm of everything that can be perfect about cricket, and every way in which cricket as a sport is going in the wrong direction. They were both T20 matches, so don’t assume this is merely a gripe about a format. One of the matches was a tour warmup, with the other being arguably the marquee cricket match of the summer. Why was it then that my visit to Whangarei, a small town to the north of Auckland, was so much more enjoyable than the first T20 match of the England series in Auckland?
Perhaps it was to do with the ecosystem created by each ground. Cobham Oval is what we might call a boutique cricket ground, with grassy banks, no imposing grandstands, and an old, low slung pavilion. The cricket ground has a capacity of around 5500, and there were probably 4500 or so at the warmup match. There was very little need for the P.A to be pumping out noise, as the contained nature of the ground made it sound, look and feel like a full house.
Compare that to Eden Park, which on the night was approximately half full. There were between 20 and 30 thousand people watching the game, it felt more like 10. The empty seats were noticable, and the lack of spontaneous crowd energy palpable. Every now and again a lacklustre Mexican wave would circle the stands, but by and large the crowd relied on cues from the music and announcer to get excited. The players ran out of the tunnel through a cloud of artificial smoke and laser lights. It was all a little sad. Is this what cricket has to resort to for people to have a good time?
No, it isn’t. The crowd in Whangarei were clearly having an excellent day in the sun. Why? The game was of a high quality, the advantage swung back and forth and people seemed to know the intricacies of cricket. Compared to the invasive hype surrounding the Eden Park game, it was sedate, at no stage did anything feel overhyped. This is important, as overhyping tends to lead to moments when crowds realise the Emperor is naked. Exactly this happened near the end of the Eden Park match, about half the crowd had already left by the end of the match.
I think the idea that cuts to the heart of the issue is that cricket is boring. Come on, we all know it is, and love it anyway, but at surface level cricket is a slow, dull sport. To add all of the flashy fireworks, music and contrived party atmosphere does nothing to make it a more exciting sport, it just comes across as absurd. Besides, hype doesn’t last forever. After a while, who will come and watch cricket? Will it be the party animals who don’t much care for the sport but just want a good time? Will it be the real fans who enjoy the game for its own sake? Or will they all have been driven away in the quest for spectacle over sport?