Football is the people’s game. It’s one for the masses, easily accessible to people of all ages and classes. It can be played in parks and streets, on grass and concrete, with a proper ball or taped up plastic. If you’re alone, you can practice your juggling ability, reducing the world to just yourself and the sphere. In essence, football is a simple game even if it’s become convoluted in recent times.
In stark contrast lies cricket, a game that projects itself to be exclusive to the wider world but that, in reality, is highly inclusive. Like football, a makeshift bat and ball can conjure fun out of thin air. But the rudimentary differences between both sports couldn’t be more obvious.
One is high-octane for 90 minutes, while the other could last for a minimum of three hours to a maximum of five days; which sounds absurd to the common cricket illiterate. That’s without diving into the various rules and regulations that are a barrier to outsiders. There are three formats, 10 dismissals and a host of confusion to the uninitiated. Cricket isn’t simple. It’s what adds to the mystique and magic of it all.
While cricket is arguably the second most followed sport in the world, that statistic tells all but half of the tale. The popularity largely stems from the Indian subcontinent with its booming population, meaning that a large proportion of the support comes from a relatively small area. And while cricket was conceptualised in England and taken to Australia first, it’s in India that the sport has laid down its spiritual roots.
England allowed both cricket and football to get elude their grasp as their empire spread, consolidated and then collapsed after World War Two. Globalisation has taken both games to the furthest reaches of the world, a positive side-effect from their colonisation. While England are not a dominant team in cricket – nobody is at the moment – they are the only team to have a world-class side in both sports. The lack of a World Cup win is a common strand between both men’s national teams, but they remain the closest to achieving the double.
Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are decades away from a shot at making the football World Cup. New Zealand get a chance every four years but are inhibited by their continent’s frailties. South Africa hosted it in 2010, but their run ended there. The West Indies compete as individual nations in football, which leaves only Australia and Ireland amongst the top 12 full members in the International Cricket Council. Both countries have their share of quality players but are by no means world-beaters. The inverted relationship in quality between both sports is intriguing, but it might stem from the closed doors policy in cricket.
There is no doubt that cricket is an elitist sport, bound within its own self-made walls. It’s ironic that the administrators attempt to establish cricket as one of the most-followed sports in the world – which, by sheer numbers, it is – but in the process, they’ve boxed themselves in. Protecting the hoi polloi should never be the path to follow – and football is guilty of this too – but in cricket, the many have been shunted to the side, forced to travel in a lift across tiers with no access to the roof.
At a time when football was getting flak for increasing the World Cup size from 32 to 48, cricket was criticised for decreasing their own World Cup size from 14 to 10. Can that really make cricket a global sport? If football is a bustling metropolitan city, cricket is the rural area losing its people to the urban centre. In many ways, this is what’s happening with young fans in India and Pakistan as they take up football in greater numbers than ever.
The caveat is cricket’s limitations in having a qualification system as open as football’s. The duration of the game makes it unreasonable to have regional qualifying. Cricket’s multi-tiered World Cricket League, comprised of several divisions, is similar to the newly-conceptualised UEFA Nations League. Both structures keep the door ajar to a bright future for the minnows.
Afghanistan’s rise from a war-ravaged nation to one of the cricket’s top 12 with full member status is arguably a better story than Leicester’s improbable title win, an example of how desire can forge the path to success. Unlike football’s open nature, which allows for numerous shocks, the gap in quality is shown starkly in cricket. It is impossible to have India play Italy in the Cricket World Cup, neither is it feasible to have more than 16 teams. But teams like Hong Kong and the Netherlands are proof that they can compete if provided the pathway. To cut that lifeline at its infancy is to stagnate the game.
Every sport has something different about it that makes it niche, and they all have a place in the wider establishment in the form of the Olympics. What’s significant is that the world’s premier sporting event brings football down to its knees in the form of under-23 competition, reducing the possibility of it overshadowing the other events. But cricket doesn’t even warrant a place in Olympic sport. It’s reductionist to assume cricket’s continual absence puts it a rung below football, but it certainly means cricket remains an unknown quantity to most.
In the modern era, there is rarely direct interaction between cricket and football, with both giving the other the space it needs to flourish. The World Cups rarely clash, and the seasons run during different climate-influenced timings. In England, for example, the County Championship runs from April to September, while the Premier League runs from August to May. What that also means is that there can never be a dual athlete at the professional level, playing both sports through the year.
One may see the likes of Mohamed Salah gingerly grasp a cricket bat for the club’s official video channel, but that’s as much the interaction it’ll extend to. As athletes push their bodies to limits they never knew were possible, it’s tough for anyone to specialise in two top-level sports at a professional level. For those that do excel growing up, it leads to a tough choice.
Neville Neville was a league cricketer, playing for Greenmount Cricket Club in the Bolton Cricket League in the 1980s. Sport was certainly in his genes, for his three children all turned out to be proficient in theirs, while his wife Jill was a local netballer. Tracey, his daughter, inherited her mother’s genes and was a Commonwealth Games bronze medalist in Kuala Lumpur 1998. His two sons, Gary and Phil, were accomplished defenders for Manchester United.
Gary Neville could have embraced cricket ahead of football. While his father’s name was the subject of a terrace chant sung to the tune of David Bowie’s ‘Rebel Rebel’, Gary followed in his father’s footsteps by playing for Greenmount. He was a promising if impatient batsman, but he managed to have one partnership with eventual Australian Test batsman Matthew Hayden in a local cup game. Both hit centuries.
Phil was even more accomplished and could’ve made it too, even playing with Andrew Flintoff for the Lancashire under-19s. But they, along with Paul Scholes, were stopped by the coach. The risk of injury was too great – and so cricket lost three potential stars to football.
It wasn’t that way during the early 20th century, though. Leslie and Dennis Compton both etched out respectable careers in each sport. Dennis was a cricketer who played football; Leslie was the opposite. But both triumphed in the league, winning in 1948, while also earning an FA Cup winners medal in 1950.
The lack of intensity and physical toll compared to today meant they were able to play for Arsenal and Middlesex without affecting either side’s performance. After winning the 1947 County Championship, the brothers remain the only players to have won the First Division and the County titles. It’s a distinctive record that will stand the test of time.
The Compton brothers weren’t alone, however. Sir Viv Richards’ cricket career requires no embellishment, but according to some, he took part in the Antigua national team’s bid for 1974 World Cup qualification. Sadly, that story fell short by some margin as they lost 11-1 to Trinidad and Tobago and 6-0 to Suriname. Sir Ian Botham made 11 appearances for Scunthorpe United between 1979 and 1985 as a centre-back, while Sir Geoff Hurst, who scored a famous hat-trick in England’s World Cup win in 1966, also played first-class cricket for Essex in 1962, lasted one game. Arnie Sidebottom’s career was more circumspect, with 16 appearances for a modest Manchester United and a solitary Test cap.
Chris Balderston managed to eke out a distinguished football and cricket career simultaneously in the 1960s, scoring 24 goals in 117 appearances for Huddersfield over seven years and 68 in 376 for Carlisle United over a decade. He also played in 390 first-class matches and two Tests, scoring 19,034 runs, a stunning achievement.
His impact is best summarised by the events of 15 September 1976. Having remained not out on 51 for Leicestershire against Derbyshire, he then laced his boots to play in a 1-1 draw for Doncaster against Brentford. He returned the next morning to complete his century and then take three wickets, wrapping up his county’s first ever title. All in a day’s work.
There was also Charles Burgess Fry, the King Midas of the early 1900s. He represented England at both sports, making an FA Cup final appearance for Southampton while also equaling the long jump world record at the time. As the story goes, he turned down the throne of Albania. Fry was a writer, politician, sportsman and teacher combined; a man in his own class.
In more recent times, it’s impossible to find anybody who plays both sports at the top level. Ellyse Perry may be alone in that regard. She has a Test double century, two five-wicket hauls in Tests and ODIs, while also having a Women’s Cricket World Cup medal from 2013 and three World T20 medals. She’s one of the best Australian cricketers, but she also scored in the 2008 AFC Women’s Asia Cup and the 2011 Women’s World Cup. Her pedigree in each sport marks her out as one of Australia’s finest athletes.
In India, there is a sense of irony that the country’s national sport, hockey, combines ideas from both cricket and football, but it’s still widely overshadowed. Instead, it was a decision decades ago that shaped India’s sporting DNA.
Both national teams were formed in the 1930s, touring overseas in the pre-war days. Mohammad Salim signed for Celtic in 1936, becoming the first Indian to play in Europe. With the independence struggle coinciding with the prospect of World War Two, sport was a medium of escapism from the real world. Once those shackles were broken, football enjoyed a rapid growth as India left its mark at the 1948 Olympics, standing tall against the French, losing due to playing barefoot in harsh weather.
The lost opportunity at the 1950 World Cup may football’s longest-lasting regret in India. Invited on the basis of their 1948 heroics, they were granted automatic qualification by FIFA, but for whatever reason, the invitation was declined. The rumoured reason was their lack of appropriate footwear. It seems a trivial reason to turn down the opportunity, but hindsight really tints glasses in this case.
The World Cup didn’t hold the same lustre or world-wide popularity that it does now, and there was no reason to go against their principles for a sport. But India have not set foot at a World Cup since – astounding for a country of India’s population. In an alternate reality, India may have sat at the top of the pile, with the World Cup propelling Indian football forward, but instead, it’s been left to meander, only now looking to fulfil its boundless potential.
Boosted by the Indian Super League – which is influenced by cricket’s version – the game is growing rapidly. They hosted the Under-17 World Cup successfully in 2017, with the local side acquitting themselves well. Sunil Chhetri continues his erstwhile journey of rallying the nation around the national team, aided by the most popular cricketers and celebrities in the country. They’ll take part in the 2018 Asian Cup, looking to put down a marker for future growth.
The attitudes of the Indian authorities towards cricket and football could not differ more. With cricket, the 1983 World Cup triumph was a turbo boost for the sport, which hasn’t looked back since. It was all the more impactful when they won the 2007 T20 World Cup, a shortened format that sparked the advent of franchise cricket. The Indian Premier League (IPL) was a revolution that seeped through all other major cricket-playing nations. The first signs of a truly modern, revenue-driven culture was formed in India, where the power of cricket was harnessed like nowhere else.
That’s the rule by which the English Premier League is now run, where revenue and TV deals govern the sport, where the power of money has never been more apparent.
One thing is clear in each sport now: money rules. And with the non-continuous form of cricket, it provides its players with the chance to cross the line between fair play and poor sportsmanship. Whether it’s by match and spot-fixing – both of which have had their fair share of major scandals – or by the greyer area of ball-tampering, the line is always shifting at the discretion of the game’s overseers.
Goalkeepers may complain about the state of the ball at every World Cup, but cricket takes the physics of the ball to another level, where the state of it can be as significant a factor as the bowler that wields it. Extracting swing is an art, using the shiny and rough sides of the ball, but reverse-swing is a grey area – rarely understood, yet truly lethal.
By tampering with the ball, the risk-reward pendulum is skewered. The dark arts offer gains that can provide the ultimate glory. Players throw the ball short to a teammate in the field to scuff one side of the ball in the hope of finding swing. Bowlers run down the middle of the pitch after their delivery, creating the rough in the pitch that can be exploited by a spinner. They can be punished for it, of course, like diving in football, but it’s often missed by those in charge. It is not dissimilar to such tactics in football, from cynical fouls and sneaky elbows to diving and under-watered pitches.
It is to lessen the burden on the referees that video reviews have been incorporated in recent times, but in cricket, it’s a slight misnomer. The Decision Review System (DRS) has been in place for numerous years now, improving steadily, but it is impossible to weed out every wrong call made in cricket. Teams are allocated one or two reviews per innings depending on the format, leaving the onus on the captain. If they believe they’ve been wronged, they can review. If they’re right, the decision is overturned and they keep the review; if not, the decision stays and they lose one. To a large extent, controversies are now kept to a minimum, even if the flaws in the system are difficult to eradicate.
The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) works on a similar level, but the responsibilities lie elsewhere. While in cricket the choice of review lies with the players, it’s left to the referee in the video room in football. He watches the replays, analyses the evidence and comes to a decision. If he deems it to be a clear and obvious error, he will signal via the microphone to the on-field referee. He can then view the moment pitchside before coming to a decision.
The difference here is that football is more subjective, and far more incidents occur. Offside goals can generally be ruled out easily, but penalties and red cards are tough to read. The referee has the benefit of rewatching the moment, but it is up to him and nobody else. It makes more sense for the referee to remain in charge. For all of the modern technology, human interpretation cannot be taken out of the game.
For the most part, VAR’s implementation at the 2018 World Cup was successful. Like with DRS, it’s still in its infancy, but with time the process will become more streamlined. The impact on fans, with the delayed decision, will also reduce. It may seem as though the game should remain as it is, but human nature is to fight evolution. The key lies in the name – ‘assistant’ – the system is only in place to aid the referee, rather than make the decision for them. Over a large sample size, it is bound to benefit.
It is imperative that both sports rise above the governing politics that have threatened to overshadow their very nature. FIFA’s issues with corruption have been long documented, while cricket continues to grapple with power struggles and spot-fixing scandals. In each sport, those in power have been accused of greed and milking the game out for their own benefit. It paints a bleak picture, but you have to look above and beyond it.
As each sport continues its quest to become bigger, richer and more influential, that they remain apart is imperative, though that’s becoming harder than ever with each sport’s almost year-long schedule. Fortunately, for now at least, you can have both cricket and football and enjoy these two great games simultaneously. Long may they entertain equally and flourish concurrently.
By Rahul Warrier @rahulw_