You have heard the argument before, things were better in my day. Like it or not, we have probably all been guilty of making the statement and some definitively so. Maybe they were or perhaps not.
What is certain is that they were different.
One of my earliest cricket memories is going out to Malahide to see a Big Game which was being sponsored by a cigarette company. At the entrance we were offered single cigarettes by representatives of the sponsors. While my father was a resolute non-smoker, he was, I suppose, fair game for the sponsor, but I was six years old. As I say, things were different.
However it is still valid to compare and contrast the olden days to the current state. And of course, that leads to another discussion, which olden days? Where do we start? For the purposes of this discussion, I will take my days as the bygone days.
What about the grounds to start with? An easy one surely? Paul Reynolds of Cricket Leinster has done some work on the statistics available to him, one of his findings was that North County CC was the ground which produced the highest scores. Not an unreasonable finding one felt, North County is a good wicket and with a fast outfield and short enough boundaries, it made sense.
But for those of us who played our senior cricket before The Inch ground was developed, we might have raised an eyebrow. Its predecessor The Nevitt was a ground where 150 was a very defendable score. It was a tough place to bat and a canny bowling attack chock full of Murphys and Mooneys who knew exactly how to bowl on the surface.
In fact, there were few places which would be deemed a batting paradise. Leinster was always true as was Carlisle whose wicket rarely looked pretty but always played well. The best of the rest were slow and low, scoring never easy yet wickets hard to come by. Less said about the worst of the rest.
This was before the professionalisation of ground keeping which has transformed every aspect of our cricket grounds. These days, all grounds have covers, back then a few had and for some of those that did, they were viewed as an optional extra. One early version of Clontarf’s covers were so heavy that they sat in the corner unmoved most of the season, perhaps making an appearance for Internationals or cup finals.
Now we see manicured outfields at every venue. Pembroke is a ground where many showpiece games take place, and rightly so. However, there was a time that players called upon their seniority to ensure that they fielded on the wall side of the ground. If you were still a sprog, then you had best listen to the sages when they advised that the wearing of a box was essential when sent to the side which was the home of the Monkstown rugby pitch. Dale has worked miracles on that patch in particular. Indeed, while all grounds have upped their game, perhaps the only plus you might find in days of yore is that games were generally played on fresh wickets.
Of course, it is entirely possible that current used wickets are better than old fresh ones. We will have to call an early lead for the modern era.
Bats, let us talk about bats. Batsmen, even "wanna be" batsmen, love bats. There is nothing better than a new piece of willow. Thin grains, wide grains, we all have our favourite. One grip maybe two, does it affect the balance? What is the pick up like? There is nothing new in this. Bats become an obsession? Remember your first bat? Of course you do.
The first bat that I bought was a Duncan Fearnley (Stg 26), bought from the factory beside the Worcestershire county ground on a tour, probably 1982. Prior to this, I used a club bat. Unthinkable now that a player might be 17 before owning their own bat. But they just were not particularly available. Pre internet, there was one shop in Dublin where one could buy cricket gear, Ronnie Byrne's Sportsgear. Yes you might find something in the Slazenger shop or even Elverys but no self respecting cricketer would actually buy it there.
My first proper bat then was bought in a wonderful sports shop in Piccadilly circus. Lillywhites was a sports person's dream. Floor on floor of high quality sports gear. I bought a Gray Nicholls Powerspot there, it was a dream. Bizarrely a long handle bat but it was a revelation to finally bat with a proper piece of willow. It smashed after half a season, soft wood, the experts told me.
Enda McDermott organised a bat from a Belfast shop to replace it, a Newbury, if I loved the Gray Nicholls, the Newbury had me infatuated. The Duncan Fearnley, by the way, was an abomination. It seems almost too easy to get a bat now, endless rows of bats, masses of brands never before heard of. But wood is wood. Except now there is an awful lot of wood in a bat. The weights haven't changed much but the amount of wood in a bat certainly has changed.
Cards on the table, I don't like it. I cannot accept that a mistimed thick edge can fly for a 6, crap shots shouldn't be so rewarded. I don't know the answer, beyond reducing the dimensions of the bat. But here is another idea. Cricket, I feel, is a game of aesthetics. And that should be rewarded. While a thick edge for 6 has to stay a 6, I feel a beautiful cover drive, delicate late cut or a click off the pads, should be positively rewarded. A panel of experts on the side should be able to inform the scorers that a particular shot has been awarded bonus runs "for style" .
But what about the bowlers I hear you say, yes we need to do something for them too. You know that ball that is just "too good" well maybe they should be able to bank those and get enough, well there you are, another wicket. Just an idea.
It's not just bats that have changed, of course, helmets are worn by all these days. They did not exist in the early part of my career and were a rarity for most of it. If at all they might be worn fielding at short leg but again their scarcity in the sports shop meant it was nigh on impossible to get one without taking a trip across the water.
Many years later, I noticed Trent Johnson clocked 80mph on Sky sports. Trent was nearing the end of his Irish career and it dawned on me that he must have been a lot quicker when he first landed in Carlisle. So I raised this with him when I saw him next. Well it gave him a belly laugh that I queried if the 19 year tear away was quicker then than now. Of course he was, significantly, he quite reasonably suggested. "But, none of us wore helmets" I stammered. "Rod Green, he was the only one" Trent said, probably unable to believe it himself. Trent in fairness merely sought to get you out so while he carried that threat of taking your head off, he was much more interested in seeing the back of the batsmen. We can be thankful for that.
There were others too. Peter O'Reilly made the batsman's heart beat that bit quicker. In his pomp he was a thrilling sight, though less so if you were 20 yards from the release point. Just before my time there was a New Zealander in Pembroke called Stimpson who reportedly was seriously quick and in a combination that rarely made a batter comfortable, unpredictable too.
There is a great photo in the Clontarf archives, dating from the late 70s, which is an homage to the introduction of helmets in international cricket. The close fielders are all wearing motorcycle helmets, while batsman,J.B. Bunworth is bare headed and wicketkeeper, Collie Daly sports a cloth cap. They did not quite predict the future correctly but they were not far off.
The sight of a team arriving these days with rucksack style bags awakens a memory of gear bags of old. We all probably started with a Puma or Adidas sports bag and pads and bat strapped together, if your bag was big enough, you might strap them around the bag. I invested in an old style cricket bag bought from Alf Gover's indoor school and shops in London to get me started. For a while the height of fashion was the coffin. So called because it resembled, well, a coffin. Completely impractical in an amateur dressing room never mind the boot of a Ford Fiesta. They didn't last too long thankfully but have found their true vocation as a storage tool in many attics.
The gear means that the current game is in a 2 nil lead now and surely on the road to victory.
Formats. Well here is a topic that is likely to cause a debate or two. Senior League cricket in Leinster until the mid 90s allowed for the draw. It was always an issue for some, generally those teams that could not take 10 wickets to win a game. There were other formats too, a League Cup which was limited overs, usually 50 but it has gone through a few editions, winner takes all and the Senior Cup a limited over competition played over 60 overs. While this competition caused a lot of debate before it was recently reduced to 50 overs there were few players who didn't love a lunch match. Way, way, back this was a timeless competition and Clontarf played a final in 1960 which lasted 8 days. And no, I am not suggesting that we return to that.
League cricket now is the same as cup cricket, the same as League Cup cricket and essentially the same as 20 over cricket. The variation in formats allows for something different to break the monotony. There are other differences too. There was no limit on the overs a bowler could bowl in an innings and bowling 20 plus overs in a game was what a bowler signed up for at the beginning of a season. Podge Hughes used to rail against limiting bowlers, after all as he suggested, a batter is not limited by how long they can bat so why limit a bowler. The same Podge once told me that while playing for Malahide, the senior team used only 3 bowlers for the entire season, Dougie Goodwin, Les O'Shea and himself.
While that might be unusual over a season, most sides went into a game with 3 and a half bowlers. The half might sneak a few quick overs in to give the others a bit of a rest. In cup competition, it was a changing room mantra when batting to "wait for the 5th" - an acknowledgement that runs could be had against the 5th bowler who remember was going to have to bowl a full allotment of 12 overs. Most teams did not have 5 bowlers in their league side so a second team bowler was often brought in for the cup run. But the main bowlers were the best bowlers so as a batter you had to face the best your opposition had to offer. Not a bad thing.
But a young bowler needs exposure too, is there a compromise to be found somewhere? It leads me to another bugbear of mine. One day wides. As a bat I should be thankful that the bowler is obliged to bowl either on the stumps or just outside off. Thank you Lawmakers for making the job of batting that bit easier. But I can't actually accept it. My attitude is that if the bowler tries sneaking one down leg side, then he is (a) not trying to get me out or (b) bowled a bad ball. The first option is fine by me, second one even better and if I'm not good enough to do something with that ball, why should the bowler be penalised for my ineptitude? One day wide is a scourge, particularly at amateur level.
Bizarrely they are in force down the leagues as well and ruin that game. A sport that is becoming slower every season might be extended by an extra 5 or even 10 overs depending on the competence of the bowlers. I accept that test match wides are not the answer but there must be a happy medium to be found. There is enough doubt on this topic for me to call it a draw. Still 2 nil to the New Agers.
Let us talk about behaviour, the behaviour of the players in particular. Despite what might be said, sledging has always had a place in the game. A senior player always looked to gain an advantage over a younger, less experienced opponent albeit in a less provocative manner than one might witness now. A younger player full of adrenalin and arrogance of youth casts aspersions on the abilities of the elders. Long has it been so. It seems now however to be a more personal jibe rather than a play for humour. We can blame many for the trend and the Australians have had fingers pointed at them on a regular basis for introducing this aggression to the game and we seemingly have just copied them. However the prime responsibility for the behaviour of players is the players themselves. If they cannot control their actions, then the club should recognise just how those behaviours reflect on their club as a whole and deal with it. It takes little more than the will of a club to improve the player to player relationship.
However, a much more fundamental worry is the issue of player to umpire, which I can state categorically is significantly worse than in the past. Once again it is a simple enough issue. The umpires are those in charge, as players we do not have to agree with them, we do not have to like their decisions but we must accept them. You might hear attempts at justification for some of these behaviours, that there is so much at stake, promotion, relegation. That merely insults the competitive nature of the cricket that went before. Oh and we played for decent cash prize money.
Liam Keegan (pictured below) was the senior umpire in Leinster for a good part of my career. He was a good umpire. If you were lucky enough to field a square leg and he liked you, you might be the recipient of some of his stash of jellies that got him through a long session. He had a reputation that if you caused him problems then he sorted things out on the pitch using the power he held as arbiter of the Laws. I think that Liam used this reputation more as a threat than in actuality. It was a threat that kept the players pretty much in line, very few argued with him and in general relationships between players and officials was good.
These days the ball must be returned to the umpires at the fall of a wicket. In the vast majority of occasions, the player in control of the ball will chuck the ball, often on the ground, in the general vicinity of one of the umpires. If you are trying to curry favour with the officials, this must be pretty low on the list of good ideas. Seriously, hand the ball to them, say “thank you” and be nice to them. It is not such a big deal.
A team mate of mine used to, quietly, enquire from an umpire at the end of an over, as to why he had given a not out decision, often with an arm around the shoulder as they moved off into their new positions. Never aggressive and then nod in agreement with the reasoning behind the decision. He might have thought this utter nonsense, but he had the grace and good manners to keep those thoughts to himself. By being nice to them he often got the marginal decision later on. Gamesmanship perhaps but of a much gentler type. Old days are a clear winner here and back in the game at 2-1.
Cricket is a social game, we play because we enjoy it, we like our team mates and it's fun. Some are more social than others. Hand on heart I am not the most social of animals. I got into a spot of bother when I stopped playing and was quoted by a newspaper that I would no longer have to wait till 7.30pm to see my one year old son on a Saturday night when the game was over. Cue a stream of text messages asking me what I was thinking. A number of players had been spinning the line of much later finishes to their non cricketing partners and here I was ruining their Saturday night session.
Drink driving laws changed a lot on the social cricket scene. Let's be honest, drink driving was never a good idea but it happened, quite a lot actually. All players stayed in the clubhouse after games, home and away players. They mixed with each other and created great friendships. Many clubs did not have their own bar but that made no difference, if you were up against The Hills, then afterwards you went to The Black Raven, Man O' War and later North County meant a night in Murtaghs (where lock ins were known to occur). Even the good Protestant lads in YM spent most of Saturday night in O'Reilly's, though back then they opted not to play on a Sunday.
It was good to see in the past season that teams were beginning to stay after games and within all the Covid regulations that had to be adhered to, share a beer, perhaps in recognition the social outlet, missing from our daily lives, was still available in a sporting setting.
However despite the resurrection of the social side of the game, the old days have pulled level and we are in a drawn situation. It falls therefore to the author to have the casting vote to see who wins this hotly contested duel.
Of course, therefore, it is the old days that wins. Whether the cricket was higher quality, the behaviour better and irrespective of the social side, it could only ever be so, they were my days and I wouldn't swap them for anything.<