Sunday, November 7, 2010

Book review: The Game is Not the Same by Alan McGilvray

By Ben Roberts, contributor to both Balanced Sports and World Cricket Watch

Nothing Endures Except Change - Heraclitus (535-475BC)

I recently picked up a book that I had taken from my late grandfathers bookshelf many years earlier. No doubt at the time I devoured it with as much passion and gusto that you would expect from a cricket obsessed schoolboy. The book was 'The Game is Not the Same' penned by the late ABC cricket broadcaster Alan McGilvray in 1985. It contains biographical elements, but for the most part is an experienced and wise gentleman of the game taking time upon his retirement to express his thoughts on a game that had consumed him from childhood.

McGilvray was clearly a modest man, though readers of the book will agree that he certainly did not restrain himself from giving opinion when asked. His playing record shows him being a reasonable cricketer. That he captained New South Wales and was told post his retirement from playing that he had at times Australian selectors attention perhaps says more. Despite this he displayed humility regarding his playing achievements. Humility a natural personality trait only heightened through playing in teams with such champions as Bradman, Kippax, McCabe, and others.

Upon completion of his playing career McGilvray took up a role as a cricket broadcaster with the ABC. It is interesting to reflect upon the attitude of McGilvray in this role. Although not expressly so, it appears that he took the stance that the primary entertainment was the cricket itself and broadcasters were only to serve the match. Such a stance would in my opinion be refreshing for today's cricket media. Here was a man who could provide expert opinion, yet actively chose to let the game be the entertainment and not himself, giving opinion only when required.

McGilvray goes into detail of his relationship as a broadcaster with three of Australia's great captains, Bradman, Benaud and Ian Chappell. The contrast to the modern adversarial nature of journalism could not be more stark. In all three instances both the captains and McGilvray recognised that each party was beholden to the other, and mutual respect was for the betterment of all. The captains knew that broadcasters and other media were the sum total of marketing the game received, and that they were responsible for attracting spectators to matches. McGilvray recognised that strong relationship with players helped improve the quality of his broadcasts.

An interesting story is told by McGilvray in the book, a story that I believe cricket followers could well do to remember with recent further revelations of corruption and fixing in the game. McGilvray's early broadcast partner was the former South Australian and Australian representative Victor Richardson, a man whom McGilvray competed against in First-Class cricket. Richardson played his final match for South Australia opposed to New South Wales including McGilvray. Batting for the final time in First-Class cricket, on nought Richardson hit a catch to McGilvray in gully. McGilvray openly admits he decided to drop the catch so that Richardson could have a more fitting farewell innings*.

It is no doubt obvious that McGilvray's motivations were charitable rather greed driven, but ultimately he elected that the result of this acute contest between bat and ball to be better served by Richardson's non-dismissal. There are countless other such stories (a great majority less good natured) throughout the history of the game that are similar and point a student of the game to two undeniable facts: One, the nature of the game of cricket being that although a team sport, it is more heavily reliant on individual performance than any other, leaving it more open for the manipulation of results; and two, the manipulation of results has occurred throughout the history of the game. This does not exonerate any player found guilty of accepting performance based bribes (please note that the cricketers currently accused are yet to be found guilty). Such greed driven actions hopefully, if proven, will elicit a punishment befitting the crime. But what it does do is continue to paint a backdrop in which to view events, and may call on us to not puritanically pretend that the game has always been perfect prior to recent revelations.

The recent history of the game has at times left the cricket fan feeling often confused with the varied forms as well sheer quantity of the games played. But this is not a new phenomenon, the game has always evolved and has always had competing priorities. McGilvray writes this book in a time where the game had recently been unified after World Series Cricket, and was facing new challenges with the surfacing of rebel tours to South Africa. A traditionalist at heart McGilvray was upset at the division in the game, but does not deny that the World Series players were right in taking a stand for better remuneration. To his credit, McGilvray puts forward a recommendation that given the new era of 4 & 5 day plus limited over games that all Sheffield Shield matches be reduced to two day, 100 overs a side contests to provide players preparation for both forms of the game. Such recommendation 25 years later may still have great merit.

McGilvray's playing and broadcasting career span meant that he witnessed major changes in the game. Including the shift from 'Timeless' to five day test matches, back foot to front foot no-balls, and 6 to 8 ball overs (the last one did not change en mass and at periods of time depended whether you were playing cricket in Australia or England as to how long an over went for). He also of course saw the birth and early success of limited overs cricket. I'm sure that those of McGilvray's experience would not think of today's cricket follower as being uniquely blessed/cursed compared to the historical evolution of the game.

Bradman, Benaud and Chappell all agreed with McGilvray's opinion that cricketers at the highest level of the game had a duty to play attractive cricket. The spectators entertainment was to be the foremost priority, even if this increased the risk of a match being lost. There has been an extended amount of criticism for recent modifications made to Australia's domestic limited overs competition. I personally support trialling the new format, but understand others criticisms. The strongest question in my mind as I reviewed the new arrangements was whether spectators were expected to pay the same amount in ticket prices (and cable TV subscription fees) despite the new format delivering 10 overs less cricket per match?

The game wasn't, isn't and never will be the same. But in the eyes of McGilvray, “the game will endure, to be enjoyed by all who respect it.”

*Richardson soon afterwards was dismissed for nought anyway rendering McGilvray's gesture worthless in pure cricketing terms.

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