Sunday, 10 June 2012

How Ronald McDonald stole cricket

A few months ago the new editor of the Wisden Almanac caused a bit of a stir with his preface to this year's edition.  Lawrence Booth wrote at length about various issues within the game, including the increasing acceptability of talking about depression and the decision of Surrey’s Steven Davies to confirm his homosexuality.

However, they gained little coverage from the cricketing Press which instead chose to focus on Booth’s belief that the game’s administrators are focusing on the limited-overs formats – and especially Twenty20 – at the expense of the five-day game.

For example, England have axed a Test this summer to make room for five ODIs against Australia (meaning they will play six Tests, 13 ODIs and four T20s) and while Booth acknowledged that T20 is “a vital part of a fragile ecosystem”, he argued it has come to dominate to the extent that last year had two-Test series between South Africa and Australia in which “a pair of classics left the players craving a decider”.  The Champions League, in which both Cricket South Africa and Cricket Australia are key partners, meant the extra game could not be accommodated (leading Booth to call for all series not involving Bangladesh and Zimbabwe to have a minimum of three Tests).

Howzat?
What Wisden’s new boss had identified, although he perhaps didn’t realise it, is the impact on cricket of a sociological phenomena called McDonaldization.

George Ritzer first outlined the concept in 1993, arguing that it was “the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of society as well as the rest of the world”.  However it isn’t about the spread of McDonalds ‘restaurants’ or other fast food establishments, nor is it a process which developed only after Ray Kroc, the man who made McDonalds a global behemoth, flipped his the first burger, instead it is the “contemporary paradigm of the rationalization process”.

That being the case, Ritzer argued that McDonaldization was preceded by bureaucratization, F.W. Taylor’s time-and-motion studies and Henry Ford’s assembly-line approach to manufacturing which became known as Fordism.  Therefore, McDonalds can be seen as a symbol of wider social economic processes while at the same time being a driving force behind them (although as Ritzer points out he could have easily used the term “Burger Kingization” but that just sounds silly).

Ritzer’s concept has four key characteristics.  Firstly efficiency; the optimum method for achieving a desired outcome; for the customer McDonalds is “the best way to get from being hungry to being full,” while at the same the company has streamlined its operation to the nth degree so it is as efficient and as low-cost as possible.  Secondly, there is calculability which means placing greater emphasis on quantity; a cheap and/or fast product has come to be considered a ‘good’ product irrespective of its actual quality.

The third characterisitc is predictability which means that a product will be the same no matter when or where it is eaten; a Sausage and Egg McMuffin will be as horrible in Newcastle tomorrow as it was in New York last year (although to be fair, there’s something very appealing about a McMuffin when you have a hangover).  Finally there's control which limits both worker and consumer input; there is a restricted menu, uncomfortable seats which prompt customers to eat and leave quickly, or a drive-thru option which, better still, helps them to leave then eat.  It also substitutes non-human technology for human technology in the work place, limiting if not eradicating worker unpredictability and ensuring a consistent product.

All these characteristics are easy to spot within cricket although some have had a greater impact, creating the conditions Booth has identified.  The drive for efficiency has led to stadium refurbishments which are designed to allow for the more efficient movement of spectators within the ground; better transport links or parking which will allow more people to more easily attend events; more food stalls within grounds to decrease queues and increase the amount bought and profit generated; better designed club shops which help do the same and the use of the internet to allow people to buy tickets.  It's significant that it's the older grounds that have the most irregular (or non-rational) playing areas, such as Kent’s St Lawrence Ground which has a tree within the boundary.

Control is exerted over the game both by regulation of cricket fans' behaviour within stadia and the use of technology.  Prior to the 2011 World Cup in Sri Lanka, for example, it was announced that all spectators would be frisked by police on entering a ground and that there would be a ban on alcohol, banners and placards, the flags of any country other than the two playing and musical instruments.  This led to a huge online petition and in the end the ban on instruments and placards was revoked.  The last few years have seen another aspect of control introduced into the game – the replacement of human technology by non-human-technology – or the Decision Review System.  The use of Hawk Eye, Hot Spot and the Snickometer has removed the capacity for umpires to make mistakes and spoil games.  Or, at least, so we all thought.

India’s refusal to accept the DRS means cricket operates a two-tier system.  As Booth says: “what’s out in Mumbai may now not be out in Melbourne or Manchester.”  One of Ritzer’s key arguments is that “rational systems inevitably spawn irrationalities that limit, eventually compromise, and perhaps even undermine their rationality” and that’s what’s happened with the DRS.  Booth suggests this is because teams are allowed two incorrect challenges, meaning they are “gambling on marginal decisions”.  Either way something designed to increase control and predictability has led to a loss of control (for the ICC) as well as unpredictability (similar incidents can lead to different decisions depending where they happen).

It’s while discussing predictability that Ritzer makes one of his two, albeit brief, mentions of sport noting that tennis matches used to be played without tie-breaks and so each set had the potential to drag on to an indeterminate number of games.  This wasn't great for TV and so the authorities introduced the tie-breaker for all but the final set, thus making tennis matches more predictable in length (although it can still throw up the odd anomaly like the 11-hour Wimbledon marathon between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut in 2010).  This desire for predictability is one of the founding principles of the T20 game which is far more accommodating to the requirements of TV than a Test match.  T20 consists of two innings of 20 overs each and lasts not much longer than three hours (similar to a football or rugby game) and so it's far more predictable than a Test, which might last for five days or might last for two (as did the fourth Test between England and the West Indies at Headingley 12 years ago).

When discussing England’s year on the pitch in his preface, Booth hit upon one of the issues that affects society in general (and thus cricket) saying that this is the “era of rolling news”.  Tony Blair recently mentioned rolling news in his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry and pointed out in one of his final speeches as Prime Minister how “in the 1960s, the Government would sometimes, on a serious issue, have a Cabinet lasting two days.  It would be laughable to think you could do that now without the heavens falling in before lunch on the first day.”  Barack Obama, just months after becoming president, lamented a political “attention span that has only grown shorter with the 24-hour news cycle”.

We live in an age when people don’t write letters - preferring 2 snd txts - so it’s little wonder, then, that the amount of time allowed for cricket games is growing shorter.  In his 1986 book Sports Spectators, historian Allen Guttmann wrote that “the length of Victorian and later [cricket] matches symbolised the pace of life in a rural society not yet dominated by an industrial sense of time.”  Yet by 1937, we’d seen the last timeless Test after a match in Durban between England and South Africa ended in a draw after 11 days because the visitors had to catch their boat home.  The Times argued that: "A match without the discipline imposed by time is null and void of all the elements which go to make cricket the enchanting game it naturally is" and Booth’s predecessor as Wisden editor, wrote in that year’s yellow book that: “The time limitless match we now believe to be dead."  So it was that the Test match was compacted into five days – the equivalent of a nicely controlled, efficient, predictable and calculable industrialized working week.

As we all know, time waits for no one and less than 30 years later the one-day format had been introduced in England via the Gillette Cup.  1971 saw the first one-day international, a 40 eight-ball over affair between England and Australia played after their scheduled Test match was abandoned after the first three days were washed out.  The format was cemented by Kerry Packer’s revolution in the late 1970s and a similar pattern occurred with T20 when (again) less than 30-years later the format was (again) introduced in England before (again) being revolutionized abroad, this time in India.

As with the DRS system, this drive for rationality has created some irrationality.  As Booth points out, “the IPL and Champions League accounted for almost a fifth of the year, giving rise to the malaise known as cricket fatigue”.  This focus on quantity over quality rears its ugly head in another section of his preface – Putting the World Cup to Rights.  Here Booth argues for a World cup of 12 teams, in two groups of six with the top two from each group contesting the semi-finals.  This would reduce the number of games from 49 to 33 (there were 51 in 2007) and almost every game in such a tournament would have something riding on it but in Booth’s words “it would mean less TV money.  So forget it.”  Again, the drive for rationality (more games = more money) creates an irrationality (more games = a less competitive and therefore duller tournament).

McLovin' it?
Ritzer’s second mention of sport comes when he discusses calculability and he suggests that a focus on quantity has led to attempts in sports to see more points scored at a faster pace although this, he argues, has also compromised quality.  Ritzer focuses on basketball which used to be “a rather leisurely game” in which fans enjoyed “the strategies and maneuvers employed by the players” who could run out the clock if they were leading.  However the NBA wanted to attract TV audiences and so in 1954 they introduced the 24-second shot clock limiting teams’ time on the ball.

Ritzer argues this “run-and-shoot” approach to basketball is a consequence of our “eat-and-run” society.  A similar “hit-and-run” approach has seen the cricket “ecosystem” become dominated by T20 with its shorter games and its faster style of play.  There is a ‘fielding circle’ and power plays limiting the number of fielders outside that circle which encourages big hitting and high scoring and to ensure a fast pace fielding sides are penalised if they take too long to bowl their overs (the opposition team gains extra runs).  If a game is tied, we get an even shorter game, the Super Over; a one-over-a-side mini match.

So, cricket has been McDonaldized; society’s supposed desire for quantity over quality has led to more, faster and higher-scoring games.  Is this all bad?  Booth acknowledges that his critique "is based on an assumption: that Test cricket is the better game” before making a brief argument that it is because only Test cricket has room for Jonathan Trott to score more than 2,000 runs without hitting a six and David Warner to lash five in one innings. 

Despite the entertaining crashes, bangs and wallops of T20 it's five-day cricket which stands the test of time by providing the genuinely memorable and epic contests that resonate long through the sport’s history; Bodyline, Brisbane in 1960, Headingley in 1981, Kolkata in 2001 and Edgbaston in 2005 to name just a few.

Face it, we’ve all been to McDonalds, probably more times than we’d care to admit but how many visits can we actually remember?  While it might be more expensive and the service might not be as quick, it’s the long meals in the best restaurants where you get to eat proper food from a diverse menu in unique surroundings that live long in the memory.

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1 comment:

sanam arzoo said...

I do agree - I work with the coaches at my local cricket ball, and the hard ball is always a challenge for the youngsters. We use soft ball games to get them used to hitting and catching.