David Owen

We learnt one important lesson from the Cricket World Cup, which concluded in such superlatively dramatic fashion at Lord's last Sunday (July 14). Or we should have.

This is that relatively low-scoring one-day matches are a lot more exciting than high-scoring ones.

Why? Two reasons:

  1. They place a premium on all the skills showcased by the sport: not just the ability to smash a ball into the stands; but also accurate yet varied bowling, athletic fieldsmanship, judicious shot selection, tactical acumen et cetera.
  2. Since the identity of the winner is usually in doubt until close to the end – unlike in most batting slugfests, where a big first-innings total subjects the chasing side to almost immediate scoreboard pressure, even in benign conditions – the range of emotions induced by the play is far richer and more fluctuating.

This ought to provide food for thought for many sports, including those that have little in common with cricket.

Top question on the list: how should they react to the imperative to retain the interest of children and teenagers in a digital world with a shrinking attention span, where received wisdom has it that if you allow the slightest lull in the action, your audience will instantly evaporate?

The low-scoring Cricket World Cup final added to its drama ©Getty Images
The low-scoring Cricket World Cup final added to its drama ©Getty Images

The Cricket World Cup tells us that sport's reaction must be a good deal smarter than simply flooding the product with the ingredient that youngsters most crave – in cricket's case, sixes.

If you do this by producing wickets with the characteristics of tarmac and shortening boundaries to the point where mishits fly repeatedly over the rope and spin-bowlers are cudgelled, yes, you might get a short-term interest spike – until such time as two or three sixes an over starts to seem pedestrian and you need, once again, to increase the dose.

Furthermore, you also render your sport one-dimensional, consigning core skills that don't yield viral video clips and social media clicks to the dustbin of history, and severely diluting its long-term appeal.

This is the instant gratification trap lying in wait for all sorts of sports as they strive to capture young eyeballs in an age in which almost any content is readily accessible.

You could argue that other arms of the entertainment business are just as susceptible.

I am no film buff, but I have heard it said that Hollywood's focus on the same sort of teenage audience that sport – in some ways justifiably – spends so much time worrying about is part of what opened the door to Netflix.

Another trend in contemporary sport seems to be an inclination to saturate every split-second of down-time in the sporting action with noise, be it raucous up-tempo pop music, inane audience participation rituals or intrusive sponsor plugs.

It is as if the sports in question do not dare to permit a second to go by without some form of sensory onslaught, just in case the live audience has opportunity to reflect that the actual sport they are witnessing is, well, a bit crap.

The most extreme example of this I have personally experienced came at the Rio 2016 volleyball tournament.

"First impressions…are that this is a sport almost neurotically defying you to find it boring," I wrote at the time.

"Every conceivable 'down' moment is filled by a high-octane soundtrack played at a volume I used to associate with Lemmy concerts.

"There are tumblers, dancers, commentators who appear to find every play heart-stoppingly exciting.

"As I type this, the TV production team are dancing the Macarena."

It seemed particularly OTT, given that, as I also wrote, the traditional six-a-side volleyball format is "a terrific sport of skill, strategy, power and agility".

Another great net sport – badminton – felt the need in 2006, not to speed the game up exactly, but to speed up the rate at which points are scored.

Instead of only being won on an individual or pair's own serve, a point is now awarded to the winner(s) of every rally.

Yet on tracking the path of Britons Nathan Robertson and Gail Emms to an Olympic silver medal in 2004 in Athens, the element that I found most gripping, especially in their 93-minute final, was the exquisite slowness with which the scores sometimes crept towards the (then) magic 15 points.

After the British pair had established an early lead in a tension-filled second set, I wrote at the time, "it was as if they were running through sand to keep their noses in front".

This also points to another lesson about popularising your sport: at least when it comes to the Olympics, patriotism/nationalism is a far more important determinant of who and how many are watching than any sport-specific factor.

Still with the Olympics, I fear that the understandable pressure to impose a firm ceiling on overall athlete numbers will combine with the inexorable proliferation of events – there are set to be 339 next year in Tokyo – sooner or later for organisers to take steps to speed competitions up in a different way: by compressing the process of qualifying for Olympic finals.

I think this too would be regrettable.

Take the marquee athletics event, the 100 metres.

It has always seemed to me that a key part of the make-up of an Olympic 100m champion is the ability to negotiate three rounds of qualifying without mishap before the all-important final.

This ensures that the winner is imbued with stamina and mental strength, as well as sheer speed.

No doubt the first round of heats gets a fraction of the attention of the final; but I would argue that the event would be the poorer without it.

Nathan Robertson and Gail Emms played a gripping mixed doubles final at Athens 2004 ©Getty Images
Nathan Robertson and Gail Emms played a gripping mixed doubles final at Athens 2004 ©Getty Images

Some conclusions:

Don't infantilise sports by incentivising the most skilled adult practitioners to dedicate themselves primarily to formats designed primarily to hook kids.

I simply do not believe this is necessary: during the many decades when five-day (or even longer) Test cricket was king, I am not aware that anyone at all played the format at grass-roots level, for fairly obvious reasons.

Don't undervalue slow: it is often far more memorable and gripping than fast and furious.

Give your live audiences space – and occasional silence – to reflect upon the intrinsic value of the sport they have bought tickets to watch; if they had wanted to go to a techno rave in Ibiza, they would have done so.

Recognise that people grow up: just because they want to see lots of sixes aged eight, it does not preclude them from developing an appreciation of more multi-faceted formats by the time they hit 12, or 20.