Cricket makes a comeback in Britain

Forget five-day matches and tea breaks. Today's cricket is short and saucy, delighting a new set of fans.

It was typical for the first weekend of the soccer season. A packed stadium. A captivated crowd. And a match so engrossing that 13 percent of the country watched it on TV, while vacationers around the world clutched their cellphones for text updates.

Only this wasn't a game of soccer. It was a mid-August cricket match, played between heavyweights England and Australia. For once, the eyes of the nation were on a different sport, a game that has not been fashionable since men wore moustaches and Brylcreem.

Cricket, it would appear, is back. But it has come a long way from the pastoral idyll of men in white, village greens, polite applause, and lots of tea. Suddenly this is a game with US-style swagger and pizazz, with athletic stars sporting colored clothing, dyed hair, and diamond stud earrings.

For the first time in a generation, an English cricketer is favored to win the BBC's sportsman of the year award. Children are playing in the parks again, and bat-and-ball sets are reportedly flying off the shelves. Cricket merchandising is even outselling soccer items, some retailers report. A top soccer manager admitted this month that the soccer season's start had been totally upstaged by end-of-season cricket for the first time in years.

Cricket's comeback here stems partly from a renewal of one of the game's oldest rivalries, between England and Australia.

But the revival must also credit the startling modernization of what always used to be an arcane, protracted, and impenetrable art form. If, to paraphrase Mark Twain, golf is a good walk spoiled, then cricket could be seen as a perfect way to spoil a picnic. Detractors complain that it goes on too long (a game can last five days), is unfathomable, and even ridiculous, with its strict rules for who can stand where and at what time tea may be taken.

Not any more. Alert to the gentle decline of the game in an accelerated world of shortened attention spans, authorities have innovated with a new, ultra-short format of the game complete with colored clothing, rock anthems to announce new batters, and a beer-and-hot-dog feel that is akin to baseball.

Games last three hours and start in the early evening to pull the after-work crowds. Grounds have been packed.

"Here we have created a pure form of the game which replicates all the excitement," says Colin Gibson, a spokesman for the English Cricket Board ruling body. "It's brought fans back to grounds."

Yet if 20:20 cricket, as it is known, has brought in the casual fan, remarkably it has been the drawn-out five-day game that has them salivating.

After 20 years of wretched results, an England team has emerged that has beaten every one - except world No. 1 Australia. The ongoing series between the two adversaries, currently tied at 1-1, is set to climax early in September. At the third game in the five-match series earlier this month, which ended in a nail-biting draw, several thousand fans were turned away at the turnstiles because the stands were full.

"England versus Australia is the biggest thing in cricket - it's like the US vs. Russia at ice hockey," says Graham Thorpe, a former English star who played 100 times for his country.

Mr. Thorpe says the reason for England's surprising revival is a simple administrative one. Five years ago, the best players were given special contracts to play for England, ending a system whereby they had onerous dual loyalties to club and country.

"It enabled players to be able to prepare properly," he says.

Although buoyant, the cricket revival faces numerous threats. Despite its 300-year tradition here, cricket has long struggled to inspire the young.

Unlike soccer, cricket requires expensive equipment and considerable organization to play properly. Many schools don't bother any more, and many children are not exposed to the sport.

Matthew Engel, editor of Wisden, the authoritative cricketers' almanac, says the danger is that the sudden burst of enthusiasm will taper off, particularly if authorities do not capitalize on their window of opportunity. "Remember the 2003 Rugby world cup," he says, recalling England's victory. "After that, rugby was supposed to take over from [soccer] as the No. 1 sport, with the entire population playing rugby within a short space of time. But it fades fairly quickly."

Thorpe says it is essential that authorities channel the lucrative financial gains from an exceptional summer into the game's grass roots. "It's most important that cricket is played in [public] schools," he says.

Another danger to cricket comes from the lifeblood that sustains it - television. This summer's dramatic international action has played out on live broadcasts to millions day after day, with more plots and character twists than a gripping soap opera.

But all that is about to change. With its long, unpredictable hours, cricket doesn't work well for TV schedulers. Beginning next summer, England's matches will be carried on a Rupert Murdoch-owned satellite channel, Sky. Millions of people will have no access to live cricket as a result.

To learn more about cricket, go to

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/cricket

Cricket glossary

Dolly - An easy catch

Grubber - A ball that hardly bounces.

Nurdle - To score runs by nudging the ball into vacant areas of the field.

Sledging - Trash talk, frowned upon.

Sandshoe crusher - A full-pitched delivery aimed at the batsman's toes.

The Ashes - Series between England and Australia.

Sources: cricinfo.com, cricketinf.hollosite.com

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