David Owen

During a visit last week to the home of Classical beauty, Greece, it occurred to me how unlovely the team sports I enjoy are becoming.

No, this is not a reference to the latest horrors perpetrated by designers of football clubs' second and third strips, although a tirade on that topic would be richly merited.

What I have in mind is rather the ways in which the nature of these sports at elite level has been evolving.

It seems to me that all too often the aesthetic beauty that helped to popularise my favourite team sports - football, rugby union and cricket - is being reduced or squeezed out in the name of efficiency.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no doubt that contemporary athletes and tactics are more efficient than their predecessors.

Modern teams would almost always get the better of their forerunners, just as records in timed sports perennially tumble.

But I would hate it if the beauty of team sports disappeared, like some doomed butterfly species whose habitat has been eaten up in the name of "progress".

Some examples:

Let’s start with cricket, which is the reason I was in Greece.

I have played - and enjoyed - enough short-format matches to appreciate the intellectual challenge and stimulus of contests in which a single mistake could be fatal and any minute might produce an incident or passage of play with significant bearing on the fixture’s outcome.

Cricketers of yesteryear played with more elegance than many of today's powerful strikers of the ball ©Getty Images
Cricketers of yesteryear played with more elegance than many of today's powerful strikers of the ball ©Getty Images

The spread of Twenty20 has, moreover, unleashed a frenzy of creativity by batters, fielders and bowlers, the like of which this venerable sport can rarely have experienced.

Yet while I sometimes find such contests gripping, and the skills on display frankly awe-inspiring, there tends to be little about them that I would regard as aesthetically pleasing.

I might marvel at the daring of a Jos Buttler bunt or the perfect trajectory of a leg-stump yorker delivered unerringly by some "death" bowler when the pressure is on.

But such feats do not inspire in me the involuntary intake of breath triggered by a particularly exquisite cover-drive or, still more, on-drive - shots which have been in the repertoire for decades, if not centuries, but which generally propel the ball along the ground and hence add less to the score than lofted slog shots whose risk may be reduced by big bats and short boundaries.

The most aesthetically-pleasing moment I can immediately recall in a Twenty20 match, indeed, was perpetrated by a bowler. It came in a clash between the Indian and Australian women’s teams and consisted of a deliciously-flighted delivery by Indian spinner Poonam Yadav which tempted Australia’s Rachael Haynes down the wicket to her doom, like a ship lured onto the rocks by the sirens’ call.

In rugby union, while I cannot prove it, it seems to me that the sweeping, precision-timed three-quarter moves that were long the glory of the game have become less frequent.

I would attribute this to the lack of space resulting from increased fitness levels and the tendency of forwards to fan out across the pitch, rather than trundling automatically towards each new breakdown.

I can easily appreciate how both these developments make teams more effective. But is the game as easy on the eye as in the respective heydays of Mike Gibson, Serge Blanco or even Gregor Townsend? All too rarely, it seems to me.

Also, as someone who grew up in Bristol while hooker John Pullin was in his pomp, I am bound to regret how the strike against the head seems almost to have faded into history.

As for football/soccer, the global mega-sport, the high-pressing game, as perfected by the likes of Liverpool, may be a marvel of fitness and coordination. But an aesthetic delight? I think not.

Pressing has become a crucial aspect of modern football tactics ©Getty Images
Pressing has become a crucial aspect of modern football tactics ©Getty Images

I was struck a few days ago when a leading authority on football tactics in my presence questioned the wisdom of Manchester United’s recent re-signing of Cristiano Ronaldo. This was largely on the grounds that it might, in his view, impair the effectiveness of United’s efforts to press the opposition high up the field to retrieve the ball.

Once again, in terms of efficient operation of the unit, I am inclined to concur with the expert’s assessment. At the same time, what does it say about modern sport if the arrival of one of the most talented footballers in history, albeit now a veteran, is questioned on such grounds?

Actually, what I think it says is that winning in sport matters more and more.

The avalanche of money that has descended on the sector over the past four decades or so makes this less than surprising - even if the phrase "Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing" comfortably pre-dates this.

As long as audiences continue to be attracted by the end product, perhaps it does not matter.

But, as I reflected last week beside a statue of Achilles, we may be reaching the point where something of value is at risk of being lost.

Sport is not an art form: aesthetic beauty, clearly, is not the primary point of the exercise.

But, for my generation, it is a big part of sport’s timeless appeal.

May it always be so.