hy do people pay to watch Test cricket? Given the close attention television devotes to each game and the battery of technical devices used to analyse specific deliveries, it is a particularly relevant question. Respected cricket writers explain their absences from matches by saying that they “can see more on the box”.
Which is why Test venues deploy big screens and sell commentary radios. They want to give punters the opportunity to review the action and listen to expert comment while still attending the match. And I suppose the word used most often by those who pay to be present at sports events is “atmosphere”. Spectators enjoy experiencing the collective mood at an event, and that can even apply to those who watch on TV; I know people who could watch sport on their own TVs in comfortable lounges, yet often go to pubs or clubs where events are being shown. It’s a group thing.
It’s also a support thing, of course. Folk have loyalties and feel that it’s important to demonstrate them. They argue that there is a difference between those who merely want a team to win and those who manifest their commitment by turning up at games or offering financial support in other ways. The first group are fans, the second supporters.
All these arguments are rational enough and have been advanced quite often. But I’d like to offer another reason for being present at a sport. It is that you get a greater sense of the physical nature of the game when it is unmediated by a camera or a screen. People who attend rugby matches tell me that television gives little sense of how tough the game is; likewise, in cricket, I’m not sure that television helps you to understand either what it’s like to face truly fast bowling or the force with which a cricket ball is struck. Or, come to that, edged.
In the first six overs of the Emirates Old Trafford Test England’s slip cordon pouched four catches. They did so with remarkable ease. Had any of the chances been spilled I would bet a few quid that the commentators would have described them as “straightforward” or “regulation”. Maybe, even “dollies”. Well, to people who have played Test cricket and practiced their slip-catching skills on a daily basis, those descriptions may be accurate, yet by suggesting that such catches are easy, I think they mislead.
In particular, I don’t think they give a realistic idea of the speed at which slip catches arrive. Some cricketers will know what I mean, perhaps, but other lovers of the game can try the following experiment: if your club has a bowling machine, place it the normal position at the end of a wicket and set the speed to, say, 75 mph, which is not at all fast by first-class standards. Then go and stand where a normal slip would be. Finally, get an experienced batsman to snick catches to you or suspend an old bat firmly in the air and wait for the ball to catch the edge. My suspicion is that you will be taken aback by the pace at which the edges come or, if you try the second version of the experiment, you will be a trifle surprised when the edge comes at all.
The very simple point that I am making is that the closer you get to a sport, the quicker it is. This is apparently true of top level football and my experience is that it is certainly true of cricket. When Alastair Cook snaffled two catches in four balls this morning the ball seemed, on television at any rate, to loop into his hands. My contention is that “looping” is really the last thing a slip catch off James Anderson does. It is only by being on the ground that you get the best sense of how highly skilled Test slips are. The visual media mediate, albeit valuably. There is no substitute for the real.