With this death, an age of innocence died too

By William Rees-Mogg (THE TIMES, 26/03/07):

It seems probable, though not certain, that Bob Woolmer was murdered because he was “the man who knew too much”. He had been the South African coach at the time that his friend, Hanse Cronje, the South African cricket captain, was convicted of match fixing. Cronje died in a suspicious plane crash; possibly he was killed to prevent him writing his own account of the South African scandal. Mr Woolmer later told Clive Rice, another South African friend, that he knew who had been involved in match fixing, including officials as well as players.

Last September Mr Woolmer e-mailed Osman Samiuddin, a Pakistani journalist, asking for his help in producing a projected book which would give “the honest facts”. At the time of his death Mr Woolmer was angry and depressed at Pakistan’s unexpected defeat by Ireland, a defeat that must have been highly profitable for some of the World Cup bookmakers, legal and illegal.

It was widely expected that Mr Woolmer would retire as the Pakistan coach after the World Cup. He had had more than enough trouble. Pakistan has for years been a centre of dispute and rule-breaking in international cricket. If he had retired and had published his book, it seems likely that the book would have contained his views on match fixing. Certainly, those who had been involved in illegal activities, whether as bookmakers, officials or players, might reasonably have feared that he would name them.

The turnover of cricket betting is said to run into many hundreds of millions of pounds in the subcontinent alone; such gambling is illegal both in India and Pakistan and is controlled by criminals. When organised crime has a strong financial motive to eliminate a potential witness, the life of the witness is in danger. Mr Woolmer probably was killed to stop him talking. We may never know who committed the murder, let alone who ordered it.

International cricket has been transformed by television and gambling, both of which involve huge flows of money. Television has obviously brought great benefits to the game and to viewers. Those of us who have enjoyed a far better sight of the play than we could have had if we had been present at the ground, with commentaries as interesting as those of Richie Benaud, should not complain about the negative side-effects of television. Yet these do exist. International cricket is now designed as a television spectacle.

The old county game, in its three or four-day form, has largely been destroyed, though it produced some of the best cricket and cricketers in the history of the game. The enjoyable but inferior one-day game has become the dominant form; the World Cup itself is a competition of one-day matches. The popular, but meaningless, Twenty20 game has been introduced. Television needs excitement inside a limited time frame.

Cricket at its best is a courteous and thoughtful strategic game with complex skills, for which some days of play are required. Television is better suited to cricket in its one-day form, and football, which is all over in 90 minutes. Of course, television coverage of politics demands the same immediacy. A similar loss of context is the inevitable consequence. Television has created huge audiences for cricket, as it has for other games, particularly football. The cricket audiences inevitably include millions whose interest in the cricket is the opportunity to gamble. The explosion of gambling in the past ten years has come as a consequence of the equally explosive growth of television.

In most of those countries in which gambling is legal there has been little evidence of corruption. As with Prohibition in the United States, the prohibition of gambling in India and Pakistan has handed the business over to the criminals; they will corrupt any players whom they can reach. Where gambling is open and honest, the problem is greatly reduced. Perhaps one should worry more about the players than the viewers. John Ruskin, discussing the impact of the first Industrial Revolution on Victorian England, said that architecture was the best indicator of a nation’s civilisation, and that architecture should be judged by the creative freedom it gave to the individual craftsman. Sport is a popular indicator of modern British civilisation. Does the modern cricketer enjoy the creative freedom that makes the game enjoyable?

Not, I fancy, when playing Twenty20, which is as vulgar a parody of cricket as “Wham bam, thank you ma’am” is of sexual intercourse. Ruskin worried that the craftsman would simply become a part of the machine, as happened to the mass-production worker in the Factory Age. Cricketers who play too much cricket, in too many countries, in too short a time, and to a rigid formula, grow stale before our eyes.

If City dealers in foreign exchange suffer burnout in the course of their trading, professional cricketers can suffer burnout in the routine of global cricket. Cricketers now seem to have shorter careers than they used to. When I was a child many good cricketers played into their 40s. That is much rarer now. Cricket seems simply to have become less fun than it was.

It may be possible to stop the spread of corruption, though it appears that there may have been much more corruption than we imagined. It is certainly impossible to set back the clock. The whole world has been transformed by television; even if it were desirable, which it is not, cricket could not opt out of the modern world.

Yet it is desirable to bring the traditional sense of enjoyment back into modern cricket. Even now some players clearly do enjoy their cricket, in the way that David Gower did a generation ago. But the schedules need to be relaxed, and the mood to be lightened. In the end, cricket played in the Calvinist spirit, as though the England XI were captained by Oliver Cromwell, will not be watched because it will not be worth watching. Somerset was playing more enjoyable county cricket at Weston-super-Mare in the late 1930s than I often now see the England XI playing at an international level.