Evolving Cricket vs. Changeless Baseball: Concerns for the Future

“I see great things in baseball. It’s our game – the American game.” Walt Whitman.

For a cricket fan, it’s easy to admire the game of baseball. But it wasn’t until I moved to Boston that I gave this particular bat and ball game even a second thought.

It didn’t take long to become immersed in their sporting culture. I was lucky enough to visit during the Red Sox 2013 World Series triumph, witnessing the true passion of the Bostonian sports fans for the first time. In my 3 years thus far, the New England Patriots have also celebrated two Super Bowl wins. They love to win in Boston and, quite often, they do prevail. They are the fans that everyone loves to hate, perhaps equitable to Manchester United supporters. Being a Newcastle United sufferer, its nice to be on the other side for a change!

Seeing the Red Sox play at Fenway Park is a truly memorable experience. This iconic stadium has changed little since opening in 1912, giving it a powerful historical feel. More often than not, it’s brimming with adoring fans, which makes for a fantastic atmosphere. Spectators old and new touch the Green Monster for good luck, gobble down a Fenway Frank and, for some reason, sing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” in the middle of the 8th inning.

Terrific atmosphere: Fenway Park averages almost 36,000 fans per game.

I’ve even tried my hand at playing softball (baseball with a larger ball on a smaller field). No doubt having exhausted all other options, a friend invited me to play for his team last summer. Regrettably, I couldn’t shake my cricketing ‘trigger’ movement of shuffling back and across as the pitch came towards me. After two prior warnings, the umpire finally gave me out for stepping out of the box (apparently the rarest of dismissals in softball). Fortunately, this didn’t affect the result, and the ‘Beer Nuts’ were victorious. Unsurprisingly, I’ve not been asked to play again, but it brought back wonderful memories of playing cricket. The nerves you feel when you are next in bat, the anticipation of the ball coming to you in the field and the camaraderie with team mates are, in my opinion, second to none.

Apart from the obvious bat and ball analogy, there are so many aspects of baseball and cricket that are comparable.

Like cricket, baseball is a numbers game and success is readily quantifiable by the use of statistics. There is a sense of traditional values that elevate them above other popular team sports. Also, they have a following of die-hard fans who want to protect these values at all costs. Yet, those outside this circle accuse them of being slow and dull.

To a certain extent, the voices from the naysayers have become louder in recent years. It seems that the two sports have similar concerns for the future, but very different approaches to addressing them.

The evolution of cricket

Cricket has evolved considerably since its creation. The professional game was initially played over three or more days. This is the structure that baffles Americans given that first class cricket lasts for several days and could end in a draw. Cricket was first adapted by establishing the limited overs game, whereby the match finishes in one day. Finally, the launching of twenty over (T20) cricket in 2003 instigated the most aggressive and streamlined form of the game.

Baseball was undeniably a driving influence behind creation of T20 cricket. A game that lasts 3 hours rather than 4-5 days will understandably attract more spectators to live games. Indeed, attendances for the Indian Premier League (IPL) and Australian Big Bash league are comparable with those of Major League Baseball (MLB).

There are also more subtle facets of baseball that have filtered into cricket. For instance, Australia’s fielding coach Mike Young has brought aspects of baseballs athletic fielding to cricket. The surprising success of cash-strapped Northants in T20 cricket is partially due to mimicking the ‘Moneyball’ approach of Oakland Athletics. Further, the ‘knuckleball’, utilized excellently by Andrew Tye in the IPL, actually originated in baseball as early as the 1900’s.

However, there are also negative comparisons between T20 cricket and baseball. Baseball has been dealing with doping scandals since the 1990’s. In cricket, the explosive power needed by T20 specialists has amplified the temptations of doping. Indeed, two prominent T20 players, Andre Russell and Mohammad Shahzad, are currently serving doping-related bans (for more see Tim Wigmore’s excellent article on doping in cricket). Moreover, the current contract dispute between Cricket Australia and the Australian players echoes an MLB quarrel over salary caps in the 1990’s. Hopefully, the stand-off won’t play out in the same manner, which resulted in the abandonment of the 1994/95 post-season.

Baseball stands strong

Unlike cricket, baseball has not gone through a significant transformation. Minor rule changes aside, the core of the game is essentially the same as in the late 1800’s. One could argue that since the MLB averages around 30,000 spectators per game, there is no need to alter a winning product. But the consistent nature of baseball in an ever-changing world is certainly admirable.

The iconic Fenway Park has changed little since its formation in 1912. This is a microcosm for baseball itself, which has remained similar since 1887.

It’s not to say that baseball doesn’t share some of the same problems as cricket. The casual fan often loses interest due to the high number of games (162 in the regular season). Indeed, the majority of stadiums outside the North East and South West struggle to consistently fill stadiums. In contrast to baseball, American football has a total of 17 games per season, meaning the demand for tickets is huge. Also, the casual supporter can tune in and out without losing the perspective on the season. For this reason, I wonder whether cricket is in a similar danger of overwhelming the casual observers by having so many new tournaments.

Despite confidence from baseball officials, some worry that the game is not doing enough to safeguard its future. Although stable currently, there is a fear that attendences will gradually decline because of a failure to attract future generations. Perhaps soon, baseball will adapt to attract more support, just like cricket. For example, there has recently been discussion of limiting the number of pitching substitutions to enhance hitting opportunities.

Slow sports suffer in the modern world

The plight of these sports may be a sign of the times. Recreational activities are competing with far more now than in previous generations. The advent of smart phones, tablets and ever-improving video games give children of 2017 more choice than ever. In this age of instant entertainment, standing in the field or waiting to bat for long periods is less appealing than other sports. A child may be much more inclined to take up soccer or basketball, with higher chances of being constantly involved. It is also far less expensive for parents to buy basketball or soccer kits. These are obstacles that both sports need to overcome.

Perhaps then it is inevitable that the nature of the game has to change to meet the demands of the current day. It is clear that the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) envisaged packed out stadiums when pushing forward a new city-based T20 franchise tournament. The current T20 county tournament (Natwest T20 Blast) averaged around 6500 per game in 2015. In comparison, the MLB’s second tier (Minor League Baseball’s AAA league) attracted 6800 people per game in the same year.

Making the most of franchise T20 cricket

Clever marketing aside, the success of this tournament to attract new fans will surely depend on the cost to watch live and on television. Perhaps the biggest predictor of whether a child will follow a sport in adult life is through participation in childhood. Since a Sky TV package is enough to detract many, the broadcasting of some games on free-to-air (FTA) television could be crucial. After all, the 2005 Ashes, one of the greatest ever test series, was broadcast on Channel 4.

Over the Atlantic, baseball is increasingly going in the other direction with FTA games. For example, until 2005, Red Sox fans could watch 28 Friday night games per season on the local television network. For all but a handful of games shown on Fox, they now have to pay a hefty cable bill. However, there are several good streaming services that fans can use. These services may not be free, but they allow people to watch baseball at a fraction of the cost of cable TV.

 

For both sports, attracting children to the game will be the greatest challenge.
Preserving the uniqueness of cricket

For many, there is a deep concern that while the T20 format continues to thrive, the traditional formats may become extinct. T20 cricket is exciting to watch, but first class and test match cricket are what make the sport unique. It seems the ECB is intent on attracting new fans rather than market the first class competition.

One way to improve the quality of the first class competition is to allow England contracted players to play more games. For this reason, the organization of international matches needs to be considered. In 2018, for example, England host an ODI series against Australia between the main series against Pakistan and India. This leaves very little room for England players to play county cricket. Some argue that if there is a failure to incite enthusiasm in the first class structure, test cricket could suffer. Test cricket may be popular in England and Australia but it’s in decline elsewhere.

Therefore, it might be necessary to make sensible alterations to attract universal support, without harming it’s essence. One way would be to give more relevance to indivual matches by establishing a test championship. This wouldn’t alter the intrinsic nature of the game but would give substantial weight to all test match series. An increase in day/night games could stimulate more interest, particularly in warmer climates.

A more controversial alteration would be the introduction of 4-day test matches. This could only work if over rates (amount of overs bowled per day) were better policed. Over rates have become alarmingly sluggish in recent times. If people have to pay a lot of money, which in itself is an issue, they are surely obliged to see the appropriate amount of cricket. These proposals don’t come without problems, but still warrant serious discussion.

Finding the right balance

So, whilst baseball has steadfastly remained the same sport for multiple eras, the face of cricket continues to evolve. There is a concern for both games about attracting young supporters in a new world. But the MLB has the admirably confident outlook that future generations will continue to love their beautiful game. It may be imperative that cricket continues to adjust to attract new fans, but it mustn’t lose its own identity in the process. Because, just as Walt Whitman described baseball, there are many who still see great things in cricket.

 

For a more in-depth look at the problems facing the future of baseball and cricket, please refer to these excellent articles:

Baseball is struggling to hook kids — and risks losing fans to other sports

The decline of baseball and why it matters

Tests in 2020