Steve Waugh plays the forward defense
© Getty Images
29

Wordplay

Is this boring you?

What is the purpose of sport: to entertain or to pursue excellence?

Simon Barnes |

Everybody wanted Andre Agassi to win the 1999 men's singles final at Wimbledon, because he was a showman, because it would be a better story, because it would be a nice change. No one wanted Pete Sampras to win, because he was boring.

I'm still capable of feeling rage on the subject. Back in the days when Wimbledon courts were seriously fast, Sampras was the ultimate master. He won that final in straight sets and Agassi was brilliant throughout. The problem was that Sampras was perfect. And people still found that boring.

The same dilemma exists in cricket. Some people who will tell you that Virat Kohli (44 Tests, average 45) is a better Test batsman than Rahul Dravid (164 Tests, average 52). The reason is that Dravid was boring. He was as near a complete player as you can get, so why did he get nicknamed "The Wall"? An excellent defensive method was just a part of what he did.

But the power of the word "boring" is very considerable in 21st-century sport. At its heart is the question of whether a professional athlete is required to offer entertainment or whether his only obligation is to pure sport. Is sport a jolly day out? Or is it the pursuit of victory and excellence?

I have always inclined towards the purist view that sport is not entertainment; it just so happens that sport is, quite often, entertaining. But then you must ask yourself what would you rather watch: an immaculate display of highly skilled defensive football in a 0-0 draw, or a ten-goal thriller full of mistakes?

The Olympic Games is packed with events that we normally consider boring, but once every four years they become essential viewing, sometimes from local patriotism, sometimes because the quest for excellence is in itself compelling. For one week in four years, swimming ceases to be boring.

At one time a six was a rare and thrilling thing, so people felt that if there were more sixes, cricket would be less boring. As a result the six is now a run-of-the-mill sort of thing

But that's a response I've always distrusted a little. Shouldn't the audience be participants, making some kind of effort to understand, to meet the athletes halfway? The modern consensus has the audience as passive - sitting back and waiting to be amused.

Sport v entertainment: an ancient dilemma. In 1973 the American League brought the designated hitter to baseball. The DH bats instead of the pitcher, who, like fast bowlers, is traditionally weak with a bat in his hand. The idea was more hits and more home runs. The subtler issue of the pitcher's versatility was regarded as boring. The National League didn't accept this, however, and the two sides snipe at each other every October when the champions of the two leagues meet in the World Series.

But cricket has gone further than this. Much further. Cricket hasn't tinkered with the rules, cricket has changed the game - all in the attempt to escape any accusation of being boring. Cricket is the incredible disappearing game, shortening itself from five days to 65 overs, then 60, then 50, and then 20.

It was decided by some cosmic agreement that batting is exciting so long as it involves a lot of boundaries, but bowling is boring. So pitches became batter-friendly, boundaries were brought closer to the wicket, and any number of rules were brought in to keep the flow of boundaries - free hits, fielding restrictions and one ball at each end to make things easier for the batsman. At the same time batting technology was revolutionized, while ball technology remained static.

Three sets of vintage Sampras in the 1999 Wimbledon final. Would you call that boring?

Three sets of vintage Sampras in the 1999 Wimbledon final. Would you call that boring? Mark Sandten / © Getty Images

At one time a six was a rare and thrilling thing, so people felt that if there were more sixes, cricket would be less boring. As a result the six is now a run-of-the-mill sort of thing. Shahid Afridi has 351 sixes in ODIs all by himself.

But the debate is not really about the future of cricket. It's a deeper and wider issue than that. The extent to which sport must go out of its way to please its audience, and what sport loses when it does so. Some changes are good. The tiebreaker in tennis has worked out well as a way of deciding a tight set. Other changes are less good. The penalty shoot-out in football is, in any sporting or logical terms, absurd.

If you let the mass audience - the least thoughtful sections of your clientele - dictate terms, then you are in danger of losing the more profound and meaningful parts of sport. But that is precisely the kind of audience that sponsors and advertisers love. It comes down to one question: is sport about making as much money as possible, or about seeking the highest level of excellence that humanity can achieve?

If you happen to find excellence boring then seek something more your own size, say I. I'm told that professional wrestling is very entertaining. In fact, it sometimes seems that cricket adopted this activity as a role model. What could possibly go wrong?

Simon Barnes is a former chief sportswriter of the Times and the author of more than 20 books

 

RELATED ARTICLES

 

LOGIN TO POST YOUR COMMENTS

  • POSTED BY cricfan02002323 on | October 14, 2016, 4:57 GMT

    Fee agree with my favorite Simon , specially the cricket has become more a thrilling movie type, to make a movie hit one has to mix all the formulas , same way just to entertain cricket is reduced to 20 overs each where bits & pieces players demoralizing the talents.

  • POSTED BY cricfan98437632 on | September 20, 2016, 9:35 GMT

    I agree with you Mr. Simon, definitely whether the sport is for entertainment or to pursue excellence is a dilemma. I feel the purpose of sport is to pursue excellence. But the way to pursue excellence has got to do with entertainment or boredom. On your example of virat Kohli or rahul dravid. There's no doubt that both strive(former is on the path the later achieved it) to pursue excellence but the way they chose is completely contrasting. I would say one is an entertainer and other is boring (Providing that both are able to get a result in their favuor). It is imperative to reach the end objective only then one can truely differentiate the difference between boring and entertaining.

  • POSTED BY John Smith on | September 7, 2016, 6:13 GMT

    I pretty much only watch tests, so I'm with the basic premise of the article. But, I'd disagree about the tennis and footy. I love the fifth set of Gland Slam's when there's no tie break and penalty shootouts allow a "weaker" side to play defensive, one could say boring, football trying to take the game to a shoot out were it should be 50/50. Chelsea when they won the Champion's League, Greece in the European Championships were as perversely beautiful as your photo of Steve Waugh's forward defense.

  • POSTED BY bhushanB on | September 6, 2016, 14:40 GMT

    I am sad that we even had to discuss this. Well if you do not appreciate a 10K or a marathon, then by all means go watch 100m dash.

    No one would sit through 3 hours and watch a marathon, but that does not mean it is not popular or needs to be shot in the foot. In fact more and more people are joining the sport of longer forms of running and even trying their hand at Iron Mans and Ultrathons.

    Coming back to boring vs entertainment - sorry folks go watch your reality shows or movies if you are here for pure entertainment.

  • POSTED BY bhushanB on | September 6, 2016, 13:29 GMT

    The purpose of sport is to excel. Entertainment is just a by-product.

  • POSTED BY Nutcutlet on | September 5, 2016, 10:20 GMT

    Nightwing1: a most thoughtful post; I can readily agree with it. I am sure that youngsters today 'get into' cricket by watching or, even better, by playing shortened forms of the game. Those youngsters will, however, mature in their tastes in all things and if they have the mind and inclination to explore what else any field has to offer (music, food, art, and sport to name a few examples) then they will discover greater depths to worthwhile pursuits. It is indeed a question of maturity allied to intelligence. That is why it is essential that Test cricket and other more sophisticated activities should be nurtured. I grew up playing school and club cricket and saw at the same time in life the apex of the game as that which was played when I went to the Oval with my father to watch Surrey or England. I could see that the level that I played at was but the first step on a continuum. It is the awareness of that continuum that has to be brought to the attention of the youth of today.

  • POSTED BY Nightwing1 on | September 5, 2016, 9:24 GMT

    It's a double edged sword. If they played 'old fashioned' cricket in this day and age with our shorter attention spans, the audience for cricket would die. Which then means less money goes into cricket and the sport dies. On the other hand, if we continue with the 'entertaining' cricket, the purists of the game complain mainly because they feel that this is not the spirit of the game. Cricket makes more money and brings in the crowds, but develops players that play cricket to entertain.

    The way I see it is all sports need to develop. There's a lot of discussion about "people who don't like test cricket, don't understand it." It's sort of true but I for one know I would never appreciate or watch test cricket had I not been brought up playing and watching it. However I would watch 20/20 cricket if I was new to the game due to the 'entertainment'. 20 over cricket is the starting point to get young people into cricket and then they can appreciate the longer form of the game as they grow

  • POSTED BY Raja2930 on | September 4, 2016, 22:56 GMT

    Spot on ! The purpose is to ENTERTAIN , most definitely. That's why I pay money to watch the West Indies and Sri lanka and avoid the Aussies, England and South Africa.

    Movies and sport are for entertainment, romantic comedies and musicals for movies and entertaining cricketers and Rugby union players for sport !

  • POSTED BY McGorium on | September 4, 2016, 17:23 GMT

    Here's the difficulty: does cricket exist to maximize revenue, or make just enough to get by? The Milton Friedman approach to this question is rather straightforward. The invisible hand of the free market will automatically shape the game into something the majority of its customers want. This is a liberal and democratic approach, appealing to the unwashed masses, not the noblesse at Lord's. Many players make enough that they don't need to worry about post-retirement careers.

    The opposite ideology is oligarchic: don't give the people what they want, but what they ought to have. The wise elders determine what an appropriate contest ought to look like, and disallow any tinkering with the essence of the game. Cricket will then be watched and played by the bourgeoisie (one can't make a living off it), forever in need of patronage from its tiny viewer base. This was the pre-Packer era in most countries. Many mediocre test players lived in poverty after retiring from cricket.

  • POSTED BY RohanMarkJay on | September 4, 2016, 9:44 GMT

    Test Cricket is unique in the world of sport. Should be preserved. The few 10 test cricket playing nations on this globe have the unique and cherished responsibility to preserve and play it for future generations. I know the limited overs format is more popular, and they are great forms of cricket in their own right. But test cricket is the ultimate test. Boring or not.

  • POSTED BY Dhaval Brahmbhatt on | September 4, 2016, 7:50 GMT

    Ahhh....someone's finally asked the question that I've been posing on these very forums - why is cricket there to please the audience and why should players care if the audiences like how they play or not? The answer of course is, money and we all need money to live and survive, but that does no good to the sport itself. I have always stated, let's leave Test cricket the way it should be. If the audiences come to watch the sport, fine. If they don't - don't worry. Cricketers need to play Test cricket, because they want to be "tested" - in varying conditions, against varied oppositions, over a period of 5 days, etc., and not because they need to make more money. That, they can do by playing T-20s and ODI cricket (or first class cricket). They should not expect any monies for playing Test cricket. If they play it like that, Tests will be more fun for those that truly understand the sport and have walked half-way to understand its nuances.

  • POSTED BY sorrysorryreally on | September 4, 2016, 7:29 GMT

    Test cricket seems to me all about excellence. To maintain it's appeal a tournament like icc odi or t20 worldcup is a must now.

  • POSTED BY Nutcutlet on | September 4, 2016, 1:46 GMT

    Various: do not suppose that everyone is like yourself! There are countless millions all over the world who appreciate cricket at something deeper than a superficial level. Every one of those intelligent and informed souls knows that Test cricket is the finest form of the game. It is the one least disfigured by rules and regulations which so plague the formatted versions. It is the one where excellence *in all facets of the game*is most evident. Any cricketer who aspires to play cricket at the highest possible level wants to play Test cricket, not t20. Perhaps you should ask yourself why he should want to do that.

  • POSTED BY g.shah.g on | September 4, 2016, 1:15 GMT

    a very good article nonetheless!

  • POSTED BY g.shah.g on | September 4, 2016, 1:15 GMT

    every sport is different. take entertainment out of football (or pro wrestling since simon mentioned it) it is not completel. on the flipside take the excellence out of golf you leave it incomplete as well. The thing with cricket is you have that it has the versatility to lie anywhere between the spectrum of entertainment and excellence. that is why it's such a beautiful game. still i do believe that test cricket (the dravid misbah mcgrath version of cricket) is not giveb it's due share of appreciation.

  • POSTED BY VariousHits on | September 3, 2016, 20:30 GMT

    What is the purpose of sport: to entertain or to pursue excellence?

    The article begins with this question.

    The purpose of sports is no doubt to chase excellence. However what is the point in being the best in a sport that no one watches. Thinking a sport like curling for instance. I am sure there has been a player in curling who has been by far the best executioner of the art of curling. A sportsman who was so good that his stuff bordered perfection itself as far as that sport went. So he has able to achieve excellence in his sport.

    However since the sport itself doesn't enthrall anyone, what is the point of being a near perfect executioner of the art in a sport that no one else really gets or cares about. Do you really want test cricket to go that route? A sport has any purpose only if it entertains and enthralls viewers. Being the best in a sport that no one else gets is pointless.

  • POSTED BY abhirath on | September 3, 2016, 19:39 GMT

    This is an excellent piece Simon. Thanks!

  • POSTED BY jackiethepen on | September 3, 2016, 18:54 GMT

    I find Test match cricket and 4 day County championship cricket the most interesting form of the game. I just love slow cricket. I don't find it boring. I'm surprised given the interest in meditation and zen that this isn't acknowledged more. Watching Test match cricket is infinitely interesting because the match can change at every ball. The refinement of the different aspects which affect the game is absorbing and consuming. Humidity, wind, sunshine all affect the wicket and the ball's path. The condition of the ball slowly decaying through 80 overs. Then the bowler himself with the variety of deliveries, then the change of bowlers, or bowlers working in tandem and with the fielders. The field changes by the captain and bowler. All thrilling. Never mind the batsmen and their own stories and histories and different styles and approaches to the bowling. There are plots, sub-plots, great drama and narrative. Never a dull moment.

  • POSTED BY cantwaittosee on | September 3, 2016, 18:40 GMT

    Pursuit of Excellence is not boring. Infact, its the essence of sport. That is what its all about. Excellence on display and its pursuit is the most entertaining thing to watch. What is boring is One-Sided contest. Whether its between one team and the other, or between batsman and the bowler.

  • POSTED BY salmantarar on | September 3, 2016, 18:05 GMT

    In absolute terms sports is showmanship, one upsmanship, it is to show the superiority of one's game over the other in a contest. That one is more robotic or lacks people skills will not win the popular vote and that in itself doesn't take away from better player however the crowds may favor one the other. People like a good story and Face it people like the underdogs underdog and that is part of the flavor we should relish it. There will always be those who will go for perfection and their will be Mohammad Ali's!

  • POSTED BY Nutcutlet on | September 3, 2016, 17:31 GMT

    I suppose it all began with Kerry Packer, nearly forty years ago. His intervention was necessary; it made sure that cricketers could earn a decent living by excelling at their sport. The pendulum started swinging then and has never really swung back. Once commercial interests realised that there was a market ready to be tapped, cricketing authorities sold the soul of the game for the easy money that flowed into the coffers. And, like nearly all those who get a taste for extravagance are never satisfied, so it has continued. Inthe desire to pander to/ exploit the cricket-ignorant mass market - we have the game endlessly twisted and tweaked as it is today, dominated by money-spinning format cricket with all its obvious limitations. We have lost the heart of the game: a genuine and stern contest between bat and ball. Wicket-keeping is a lost art - so too close catching. Bowlers are no longer interested in wickets: run-saving is all. Be careful what you wish for, ICC!

  • POSTED BY Vishnu Teja Vithala on | September 3, 2016, 17:30 GMT

    The idea of sport is to WOW! you. It isn't about defense or six. Dravid is great because he could play defensive shot to an reverse inswinging yorker with all the time in the world and least fuss. Sachin was greater because he could, in his prime, play a flick of it to for a four. Afridi definitely more sixers than both but could play a gentle out-swinger from from Ganguly. To appreciate a sport you need someone who understands the intricacies of the sport. Same thing with music- agreed primary purpose is entertainment and pleasing of auditory senses but reason people appreciate classical music is because they know how difficult it is to get to that level of mastery.

  • POSTED BY caribbeanfan on | September 3, 2016, 16:50 GMT

    The very purpose of sports is to bring entertainment, that is how they started. As far as I am concerned this is a poorly researched and hence poorly written article. It uses the idea of Olympics which was nothing but an amateur event (still is for a few sports). I have never met a person saying Kohli is a better test batsman than Dravid. The article also says things like cricket has tried to accommodate ODIs and T20s and makes it sound like they have been done at the expense of test cricket. The fact however is that most teams are playing more tests today than they were playing 20 years ago. There is more for everyone.

    To be honest it is ridiculous to say that sports at Olympics are boring etc. The fans of those sports would like to disagree. If there is an issue with cricket then that is it is too exclusive. It needs to open up and allow at least 20-30 nations to play regular cricket. That would lead us to tap into talent from the entire globe.

  • POSTED BY SG70 on | September 3, 2016, 16:22 GMT

    Comparing Virat Kohli who has only played 45 Tests to Dravid is just not fair for Virat. But to humor you I would suggest to actually watch Virat's 4th inngs 100 at Adelaide 2015. Even Dravid would candidly agree that he could never bat like that. A better comparison is Sehwag vs Dravid. Both played in the same team and on same pitches and Sehwag opened up possibilities when none existed previously by shattering some age old dogma about new ball.

    This is not to say that Dravid was a bad cricketer. But the point is you need free flowing stroke makers in cricket just as you need the defenders like Dravid. Otherwise your team isnt going to win much. The evidence for this lies in cricket from pre-90s era where most Test matches ended in a draw.

    Lastly please be aware that Test Matches have become more exciting and watchable due to ODI cricket. Today test cricket survives because of ODI cricket. There is space for all formats.

  • POSTED BY Rakerjnam on | September 3, 2016, 15:08 GMT

    Why should sport stoop down to a lower level just to engage the lowest common denominator of the public? People who aren't really interested in cricket but just watch it while flipping channels are being made the priority by broadcasters. T20 was invented for such people. Why is it that people think test cricket is boring? If you think test cricket is boring, you definitely don't understand it. Test cricket has drama, tense sessions, subtle play unfolding into a bigger picture, fiery spells of bowling, batsman showing courage and withstanding such spells and coming out on top, bowlers like Steyn turning the match on its head in one spell! Man, I love test cricket! I feel sorry for people who don't enjoy it. T20 and ODI are so shallow compared to tests. Excellence should always be a priority. Entertainment is subjective. I for one am thoroughly entertained by a proper test match.

  • POSTED BY Kami!Syed on | September 3, 2016, 15:01 GMT

    Only True Cricket profession will appreciate and understand that what cricket is all about as follows:

    OLD Cricket spins around: Lara, Dravid, Kallis, Muhammad Yousuf, Walsh, Ambros, shane, Saqlain, Nassir hussain, Steve waugh, Sachin, Miandad, Wasim, Waqar, Imran Khan, Jhonty rodes, Allan donanld, Saeed anwer, Afridi and jayasuria

    Current cricket: Kame wiliamson, Root, Pujara, muhammad Amir, Starc, Steyn, Grame swan, Yasir Shah, Asif, philender.

    Webhardly find classical and true cricket in current Era and failed to find any techical bowler and batsmen.

    Except root and kame wiliamson no one is upto thebmark who can play bowlers like Wasim waqar shane saqlain ambros mc grath

  • POSTED BY Venkatesh Venkatesh on | September 3, 2016, 14:03 GMT

    As a Engineer I want perfection to core but at the same time entertainment is also required otherwise it is boring and drabbing this is wanted in all walks of life. At present short form of the game is more entreating rather than longer version of the game for relaxing . Regarding who is best cricketer in short version of the game it is Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma India is having perhaps both will fit top among ten around the world but if take longer version of the game Kohili and Steve Smith will stands out. Who is boring cricketer we had at present as well as past the un disputed champ anions are (1)Dravid, , Chandra Paul and off course Alistair Cook and many from South Africa will fit barring AB de Villiers but all these we have take in our stride and balance should be stuck between Entering and boring

  • POSTED BY pacelikefire on | September 3, 2016, 12:04 GMT

    As a professional dramatist, I'm aware there is another dimension to this conundrum (as a society we're too fond of making issues dualistic). At the top levels, .i.e. Test cricket, international football or rugby, the Olympics, swimming, diving, whatever, the debate should not be whether it's about the pursuit of excellence or whether it's entertaining (the former should be axiomatic), but, for the onlooker, whether it engages or not. Engagement is the key. And because people engage and use their brains at different levels and degrees related to their interest, that will vary person to person. I find Test cricket engaging, however slow the run or wicket taking rate - likewise the longer ODI, whereas I find 20/20 less engaging. I suspect that may be down to my age (brought up in an era in which greater and longer periods of concentration were encouraged or demanded).

  • POSTED BY UdtBaxi on | September 3, 2016, 11:46 GMT

    A thought provoking topic..