It’s almost impossible to put an exact date on such a matter but somewhen during the last decade or so the notion of spectating has become de trop. This author is obviously not old enough to remember when the concept of spectating at sports events was in its formative stages but one imagines that the public were attracted to their chosen stadium, ground or arena under the auspices of watching their chosen charges at play, enjoying the opportunity to appreciate the skills on show from those able to perform deeds that those in attendance could only dream of performing themselves along with the subtle nuances of one’s favoured pastime. Spectator sport was, and still is for some, a vicarious pastime as those onfield performers play out our own dreams. Some days the play would be excellent and noteworthy, others mundane and mediocre. The vicissitudes and unpredictable nature of spectating was, and still is, part of the appeal. The days when one witnesses exploits far greater than one expected outweigh those that fail to hold one’s attention.
For many a decade the concept of spectating appeared to remain the same but a recent phenomenon has witnessed sections of the public paying their money and expecting to be entertained akin to Bacchanalian hordes at the ancient Roman games. Such a notion instantly provokes the image of Russell Crowe’s battle weary character in the film Gladiator roaring the famed line “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!” at the baying crowds. No longer is watching players with great latent skills and abilities to perform great things enough. Now the concepts of expectation and unpredictability have been sacrificed at the altar of guaranteed entertainment, most noticeably in the shortest format of cricket. Spectators have morphed into consumers and those aforementioned glorious vicissitudes are no longer part of the evening out; one pays money to see sixes so sixes are most definitely demanded. Those in charge are all but obliged to acquiesce. Proffer a contest of 100-8 versus 90-5 and the consensus will not be positive. Such an occurrence is all rather odd though. There is no guarantee that one will pay a visit to the cinema or theatre and enjoy the subject matter of their chosen film or play. Sport, and Cricket especially, seems to be fair game though; expectations have now been replaced by a desire for inevitability and predictability.
Curiously, this isn’t a concept exclusive to Cricket, (watch a night of Premier League Darts and one will witness a made for TV, 180-fest created for entertainment and money making) but no other sport has dissected itself amid copious amounts of navel gazing, hand wringing and wailing of existential angst with consequential nip-tucks and overhauls to the actual playing parameters like Cricket has managed.
Somewhere along the line this subtle change has wreaked its influence. This author’s first experience of cricket in the flesh came fairly late in life, I had reached legal drinking age before finally taking the plunge, but that first trip to Hampshire’s homely headquarters at Northlands Road to see the hosts take on Lancashire was filled with anticipation and expectation, a chance to see those performers who I had witnessed on television during the previous decade. Indulging in a pre-match amble on the outfield, another pastime sadly lost in large sections of the modern game, myself and my friend were at one point within six feet or so of Robin Smith as he casually signed autographs for younger supporters. The personal sense of anticipation and excitement crackled at the prospect of watching the England star live and in the flesh. The match itself proved fairly unremarkable, Smith made an enterprising 39 runs before being skittled by Mark Chilton, but the joy was in the whole day rather than what unfolded on the greensward.
Similarly, this author attended a T20 Blast game at the Ageas Bowl last summer where the hosts, Hampshire, set the visitors, Middlesex, a challenging target. The north London county lost three early wickets, struggled to score quick runs and the final quarter of the match became predictable. People rapidly began to leave, the drama of the contest long evaporated into the ether, the procession through the final overs not entertaining enough for those who arrived to see sixes and sing rendition after rendition of “Sweet Caroline.” Not even the seemingly limitless supply of weak alcohol was enough to stop people heading for the exits. This is an inherent problem with T20 as a spectacle; too few matches reach the final five overs with the result still very much in the balance, the chance of final over drama often diminished.
Nevertheless, the demand for sporting predictability only travels in one direction. Cricket hasn’t yet ventured down the road of dispensing with bowlers but for how long? Or how long before a batsman is recalled for entertainment purposes after being dismissed? The notion of turning up and watching the play, with all its fallibilities, has rapidly become an antiquated concept. Sport in general, with Cricket comfortably at the forefront, is fast being forced into kowtowing to the me-first, selfie dominated society; a phenomenon that is of little benefit to anybody.