In case you forgot to fail to notice it, the Australian domestic cricket season got under way this week incognito.
For the first time, the great limited-overs Cup, that put names such as Gillette, McDonald's, Mercantile Mutual, ING and Matador on the map, commenced in radio and television silence. As much coverage, and as many spectators, attended the first weekend of the grade cricket season.
The non-coverage of the Cup formerly known as BBQ is even more significant than the cause: that few were watching it. Channel Nine, eventually on one of its cable subsidiaries, persisted covering the Cup for many years out of a sense of duty to the place cricket holds, or held, in our national culture. It didn't matter that nobody was watching; what mattered was that they could. Now, Cricket Australia stations cameras at the games and streams through its website. As a land grab, it ranks alongside the last days of the Pilbara real estate boom. The owner bid for it just before it passed in.
Dully fades the BBQ. This was a watershed moment confirming that cricket is no longer at the centre of Australian culture but has become one of its many sporting subcultures. The coming Ashes series will be the biggest show of the summer until January 7, and will divert us from the long-term steady decline of cricket as a sport Australians used to identify as their national game and in which they located their national self-esteem.
The Ashes will revive those images and memories but the significance of the contest loses a little of its lustre and relevance every four years. Within the cricket bubble, the Ashes is still the one contest that fills Test grounds all summer (thank you, England) and sucks in the emotions of passers-by, but looked at from a distance, that bubble is itself deflating.
In one sense, the loosening of cricket's grip on the Australian imagination is the fault of cricket's international strengths, particularly on the subcontinent. The Australian team has been diced and filleted into so many different shapes and formats and dispatched to so many venues that it is hard for the uncommitted public to identify, let alone identify with, the players. Australia is a subsidiary in a global game, much as it has become in rugby. Perhaps one day the International Cricket Council might do a SANZAAR on us and force us to cut one of our teams.
The "squad" mentality at national level, and a fast-rotating cast of players, is only part of the decline. The Australian team that defeated England 5-0 four years ago was unprecedented in comprising the same eleven players all series. I can name them, but can you? I would guess that more Australians could list the members of Ian Chappell's team from 1974-75 or Allan Border's from 1989, or Ricky Ponting's from 2006-07, than the eleven who regained the Ashes so ferociously under Michael Clarke four years ago. They were here, and then they were gone.
Where are they now? The Australian team that won the Ashes 5-0. Photo: Brendan Esposito
Cricket is suffering from the attention deficit disorder that plagues all sport: too much is on tomorrow to digest what happened last week. The Ashes will be eclipsed by the Big Bash League which signals, for masses of sports followers, the final countdown to the footie season (yep, the countdown has already started). Over summer, cricket is played in direct competition with the A-League, and for the first and last months of the season, football wins. Soccer and cricket very much resemble each other, even if they are moving in different directions.
They are both sports that have trouble gripping the imagination at the top: national teams struggling for success, international bodies pressuring local administrators, a constant battle to gain and keep the attention of a distracted public in a rapid-eye-movement media landscape. They are also sports that are immensely strong at the bottom, both enjoying fast-growing women's participation and millions of kids registering to wear a shirt. But both sports are losing these same kids in their teens. The roots are wide but exasperatingly lacking in depth.
Cricket, like the novel, like cinema - hey, like humans - has been dying since the day it was born. And it does have a habit of pre-booking and wallowing at its own funeral. But uniquely, Test cricket has been able to stall the passage of time and avoid sport's tendency to fizz, pop and vanish. Cricket has done this through its photography, its broadcasting and its literature.
The losing battle it is fighting has been in my mind this week, not just because of the invisible one-day cup but because of some of the excellent new cricket books I have been reading. Christian Ryan's Feeling is the Thing that Happens in 1000th of a Second meditates on the photography of Patrick Eagar in the 1975 season.
A book of eccentric brilliance, it also aches. Eagar's photos from that summer - Roy Fredericks in the World Cup final watching his hook shot go for six just after he's stepped on his stumps, Lillee and Thomson mid-stride, the Chappells and Walters in the dressing room, Rod Marsh airborne to catch Tony Greig - have frozen time for 42 years. Marsh is still mid-air, Gary Gilmour still eyes-up post-release that day he took six wickets at Headingley. And they will be forever, thanks to Eagar's genius. But the ache is that cricket, as embodied by the Ashes, is dangerously close to becoming more real in distant memory than in the present. Another 40 years from now, is the more vivid image of cricket going to be Dennis Lillee from 1975 or Mitchell Johnson from 2013, or Mitchell Starc from 2017? I have a feeling, and it's one that doesn't bode well for the frenetic present.
In a comical vein, Tea and No Sympathy from the underground phenomenon The Grade Cricketer (aka Dave Edwards, Sam Perry and Ian Higgins) does something parallel. This book is a novel, kind of Warwick Todd meets Nick Hornby. Set in the (lower) grade cricket scene, it puts the pain into painfully funny, but its underlying atmosphere is slightly tragic (a word that cricket has purloined for its own slide from relevance). To be part of grade cricket is not what it was, the foundation of a pyramid leading to national heroism. It is no place for old men (as The Grade Cricketer comments, "the constant selection issues a club would face between an ageing (23-year-old) batsman and an up-and-coming (20-year-old) talent" are on a tragic par with Romeo and Juliet. It's one long gallows laugh about a weird and dying subculture.
How does this make you feel as a cricket person? About 10 years ago, I glimpsed a TV showing the first day of a Brisbane Test match. Oh, it's started. Not professionally involved with the sport, I had simply forgotten the Test series was on already. It was a brush with the world of the casual follower, who will be drawn in by a big event such as the Ashes, but whom cricket will then be thinking up all sorts of ways to avoid losing. With the non-coverage of the one-day cup, a few more have been lost.