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Monday, 10 December, 2018

Vandalising cricket’s T20 format is a preposterous plan

The Thursday column

T20 cricket is an entertaining spectacle
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Last week, for the first time in far too long, I enjoyed the delights of an evening of T20 action and was quickly reminded just why it remains the greatest sporting innovation of the 21st century, and also why ongoing attempts to create a slightly different version of the game should be resisted at all costs.

Lord’s was not quite packed for Middlesex’s clash with Somerset but it was full enough to create a tremendous buzz, with traditional rucksack-wielding cricket fans and office workers looking to inject some joy into their day as they congregated for an evening of drinking and generally having fun.

The ball was smashed to all parts of the ground, fielders dazzled us with their acrobatics, flames erupted from fire-breathing contraptions whenever a six was blasted, people chucked t-shirts into the stands and every so often the crowd sang along to Sweet Caroline or some other tune. It was brilliant.

There was only thing that annoyed me - the scoreboards. When digital technology enabled cricket grounds to replace the old versions there should have been a significant improvement in the content they displayed.

But incredibly many, including Lord’s, chose to replicate traditional scoreboards, meaning spectators are still required to scan the screen to find out how many overs have been bowled, subtract the team batting first’s total from the chasing side’s tally and calculate the equation.

It’s laughable. There is nothing on there to say simply: Somerset require 42 from 33 balls with four wickets left or whatever. Meanwhile players are referred to by numbers that they don’t even wear on their backs, and there is still a ludicrous requirement for residual information from the pre-digital age such as fall of last wicket to remain.

The scoreboard should hum with live information, stats, bowling speeds and players’ actual names instead of looking like it is still operated by an old guy using metal numbers hung from little hooks, although that did not manage to detract from what was otherwise an excellent evening.

It is almost beyond comprehension that anyone in a position of power in cricket thinks there is any value messing with the T20 format to create yet another version of the game, but that is precisely what the ECB is doing through its preposterous plans to launch the Hundred.

T20 is a perfectly understandable short-form adaptation of the traditional game. Its desired intention to give fans a short, spectacular burst of cricket has become slightly scarred by a failure to prevent captains and bowlers arsing around with field placings in the closing stages of each innings, but better regulation by the umpires would be a simple remedy, and by and large it is a brilliant innovation.

The Hundred, which the ECB seems intent on foisting upon us, is a pointless and tawdry vandalisation of T20, with various absurd gimmicks being floated, the latest of which is the idea of specialist batsmen and bowlers who would not be required to do the things they are no good at.

One of the great things about cricket is that all 11 players are involved in every innings. The idea of some slogger smashing it about and then being able to lounge around in the pavilion rather than do a stint in the field is unnecessary and against the spirit of cricket.

There is also a plan to make each innings comprise 20 five-ball overs. Why? In what way would that enhance what T20 offers? Has anyone ever sat at a T20 match and yearned for five-ball overs? Of course not.

I am all for senior sports administrators and rulers exploring the potential for beneficial innovation, but this is just a witless bastardisation of a truly great idea.

It will confuse potential new fans, who will have to familiarise themselves with yet another format, and it will add nothing.

Cricket was handed a lifeline to protect it from losing relevance in the modern sporting world when some genius invented T20. It should continue to harvest that gift instead of messing about with it.

Whether you want to spend three to five days, a full day or three hours watching a cricket match from start to finish there is a format in existence that meets your needs. And there is absolutely no need for another.

It's impossible to trust tarnished Tour 

Which of them are clean? All? Some? One or two? How many of the top ten have taken something they shouldn’t have?

These, sadly, are questions that hang permanently over professional cycling, making it impossible to enjoy as completely as one can other sports.

That’s not to say doping is solely a cycling problem, of course. Indeed it would not surprise me one iota if a major drugs issue involving team sports emerged sooner or later.

But the days when you could allow yourself to watch in total admiration as a knackered cyclist dragged himself clear of his rivals up a mountain, believing you were witnessing true sporting heroism, ended long ago.

It is such a shame. I have had a deep love of the Tour de France ever since it was first televised in Britain in the mid-1980s. But the list of famous riders who have been outed as dopers - Theunisse, Rooks, Pantani, Virenque, Zulle, Abdoujaparov, Armstrong, Museeuw and so many more - means every notable performance is viewed with the utmost suspicion these days.

That does not make the Tour difficult to watch. Sitting on the sofa with a geographically appropriate bottle of something (Tennents Super more often than not) watching the peloton grinding their way through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world is always extremely pleasant, but when we watch sport, even those of us who tend to alter our priorities with a wager, we want to be awestruck.

More by Bruce Millington

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Comparing Bobby Robson's side to England's heroes in Russia

Hard not to get caught up in euphoria of Harry Kane's heroics

Swell of England optimism likely to end in predictable heartache

Marvellous World Cup start has shown football in a wonderful light

We want to believe the winners of mountain stages have been victorious because they were prepared to go through the pain barrier harder and deeper than their rivals, not because they are more willing than their rivals to get busy with a syringe.

The 2018 edition is a thriller, with the outcome still up in the air deep into the third week, a point of the race at which it is often clear who will wear yellow in Paris.

But while there is much speculation among cycling fans about who the winner will be, there is an inevitable clinical nature to the debate, with superlatives rare and cynicism the pervading flavour.

Clean cyclists deserve abundant praise because the task of pedalling more than 2,000 miles around France, mountains and all, in three weeks is monumental. We just don’t know which ones they are any more.

Jockeys rarely deserve to be given a rough ride

It happened again recently. Someone asked me why the Racing Post criticises jockeys so infrequently. This person - and he was not the first to express such a sentiment - claimed there are far more bad rides than one would think reading the Post and that we should “stop giving them such an easy time”.

My defence on this point has not changed down the years. If a jockey clearly makes a mess of a ride we will report it. And if it looks like they have failed to exert maximum effort, our Analysis writers will comment appropriately.

But when you are trying to control a bloody great muscly animal at upwards of 30mph things are bound to go wrong from time to time, and there has to be some understanding of that fact.

There also has to be some understanding that jockeys live the most extraordinarily difficult lives, waking at the crack of dawn, driving hundreds of miles every day on clogged motorways, starving themselves and sweating buckets to keep their weight so artificially low and, most importantly, risking their health every time they are legged up.

A significant percentage of jockeys are constantly inactive through injury and this week one of their current number, Bryony Frost, was revealed to have fractured her sternum, torn her liver and bruised her pancreas in a fall at Newton Abbot.

The willingness of these heroes to play for such high stakes when going about their job means my default position towards jockeys is one of utter admiration.

The dangers of riding racehorses for a living are heightened when the ground is so firm, as it has been during this incredibly hot, dry summer, and it would be nice if everyone bore that in mind when they feel the urge to pillory the pilot just because their bet has lost.

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The Hundred, which the ECB seems intent on foisting upon us, is a pointless and tawdry vandalisation of T20, with various gimmicks being floated
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