Please sir, can I have some less?

Sport

It is very easy to have too much of a good thing. Such is the case with professional sport today, and it is damaging both to the players and to the entertainment value of the game.

International cricket perhaps best exemplifies this worrying trend.  The five match cricket Test Series is a successful and timeworn format.  The ebbs, flows, nuances and rhythm of the game ensure that it provides good entertainment. However, there are simply too many test series in a year.  Flagship series are losing their prestige as a result.  There should be some sort of a sporting mystery associated with a touring side. Sri Lanka or Pakistan should represent something of the unknown, a clash of sporting cultures as much as sportsmen. But with only a few years at most separating each tour, such novelty becomes an impossibility.

One day cricket is arguably far worse. Having just finished the Ashes, England then took on Australia in a seven match one day series. By the time that series finished on the 8th of February, the England players had been in Australia for over three months. Pakistan played six ODIs against New Zealand, on top of three Twenty20s.  It was a drab, dull, affair.  There is simply no logic to a seven match series. Invariably the contest ends early on. Three matches, at most five matches, is clearly sufficient to prove which team is better.  Indeed, these fixtures barely prove that. The series with Australia meant absolutely nothing, sandwiched, as it was, between the Ashes and the World Cup, the two events which England prize most highly.  Indeed, England sent home some of their front-line players. In all, six of the 15 man squad for the ODIs flew home early.

This sort of packed schedule is the fattest of cash cows, but if the present situation continues it will cease to be so. Cricket, in all its forms, is hamstrung by the small number of competitive nations, but even so it is rare to see a closely matched and compelling ODI series. In the recent Pakistan-New Zealand series, only one match was won by less than five wickets. None were won by less than forty runs.  Furthermore, international cricketers clearly suffer from fatigue. Crowds around the world want to see top players at their best, rather than jaded, hammering deliveries into pitches which have seen too much cricket.  It is unfeasible that top players can consistently perform at their best, especially when the mental burden of batting and the physical burden of bowling are so great.

There are certainly parallels with other sports here. Professional rugby represents pure attrition to the athlete’s body. Again, organizers demand too much of these sportsmen. The LV Cup, for example, is probably the most flagrant case of abuse. Clubs will not play front-line players in this competition. The money generated by the extra home games per season hardly seems worth the effort, and crowds for these games fall significantly short of other competitions. The toll on players is even more significant. Over 25% of all English professional players are injured at any one time. This is partly due to physicality of the game, but also due to the frequency with which players are exposed to this physicality. Munster are often criticized for not fielding their strongest side in league fixtures, saving them for the Heineken Cup, but their injury list has always been comparatively low as a result. On the other hand, when Andy Robinson was preparing an England side in autumn 2006, 50% of his selected players were unfit.

Sport now operates in a competitive entertainment market, and needs to attract new generations of fans. The governing bodies of our professional sports have to accept that there is a limit to what professional sport can achieve, and a limit to what spectators will tolerate.

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