Just when you thought it was safe, here’s yet another piece about the cricket. You know, the World Cup we actually won. And no, it’s not about the overthrows, DRS or any of that, it’s a piece about one of the plays and misses of the tournament … that’s right, the cricketarists …
It is law that the electric guitar is the sexiest instrument on earth, bar none. As a rule, however, cricket bats fall into the category ‘other’. Cricket just isn’t sexy (though that doesn’t mean that cricketers can’t be). For this year’s ICC World Cup, some bright spark of a PR consultant decided that it was time cricket got its sexy back. It was time cricket became the new rock n roll. Logic dictates that nothing can possibly be more rock n roll than, er, rock n roll, so the wizard wheeze was to join the two, and have a guitarist playing classic rock, unaccompanied, at each one of the World Cup venues. Just in case the public didn’t get what was happening, each player would be armed with the luthorial lovechild of a cricket bat and a Fender Telecaster, a sort of Gray Nicholls Willowcaster (it’s actually called a Coverdrive. No, I don’t know why, either). How much more rock n roll can you get?
Answers on a slightly used bail, please.
As Mike Selvey and Mark Butcher will attest, cricketers often play the guitar, and Captain Sensible of The Damned has long owned a custom Willowcaster, though when he wields his, you can bet it is an irony generally acknowledged. Perhaps the idea was to add a live dynamic at vital parts of the game. Or bits where nothing much was happening. Whatever the motivation, it was roundly derided by critics and the twitterati. One ‘op-ed’ piece ran as follows:
Seriously, who thought this novelty was so good it deserved this much air time? Firstly, play some fucking good songs. Secondly, don’t. I’m trying to enjoy the cricket not be constantly reminded that Cricket was founded by old out of touch white dudes who have no personality or swagger.
Now, I have some sympathy with the first question, and the first point. As for the second, however … pfft. Cricket was not founded, for one thing, and those who popularised and eventually codified it were anything but old and out of touch (though they were white dudes). More to the point, they were almost entirely personality and swagger.
Yes, it was a pretty dumb idea, but don’t blame the cricketarists.
Which brings me to another point; the name.
Was “Cricketarist” truly the best the finest minds in copywriting could concoct? On this subject twitter was unanimous, and for a change, it was also right.
The whole thing was straight out of the top drawer of the ECB’s new cabinet of ideas. You know, the one they found The Hundred in. The ECB’s new business model is jaw-achingly simple: take some very talented people, make them do something rather odd and poorly thought out while getting in their way as much as possible.
To illustrate this fact, I’d like to tell a Cricketarist’s story.
Darren Hunt was Cricketarist; Cardiff. He had a great time playing and on the ground met with near universal acclaim. The people enjoyed the idea: the critics moaned. Nevertheless, it appears that the ECB, via the events company they hired to organise things, conspired to make his job as difficult as possible.
You’re about to play to an audience of 25,000 (excluding TV), so this is no bit-part gig: it’s one that needs a cool head, calm hands and a well-organised set-up. This is not quite what happened. Luckily, Darren’s a trained, highly experienced and highly accomplished guitarist (I know this, because he was a student of mine at MI London back in the mid/late 90s), so is more than capable of dealing with such pressure. (For those citics who thought he wasn’t any good, I’d like to see you go head-to-head with him. Remember Piers and Brett?)
Leading up to the first game, Darren was shown a picture of the guitar, but told it was top secret. After all, any appearance on social media would damage the astonishingly adept campaign run by the ECB etc, right? Unfortunately, other details such as, for example, the set list, the set-up and what was actually going to happen were also top secret. Questions were met with the answer “yeah, we can sort it out the day before”, which incidentally was the day that he first got his actual hands on the cricket bat guitar. Words used to describe the first matchday ranged from ‘disorganised’ to ‘chaos’. He had no pass for the ground. His playing area (a sort of round dais) had no power until two minutes before the match started: his soundcheck lasted twenty seconds. You heard right. The soundcheck was basically an engineer somewhere saying “Yup! That’s on” into Darren’s earpiece. At least one commentator was heard to suggest that an entire band might have had more impact. Imagine a twenty-second band soundcheck. Before playing to several thousand people.
It was interesting to hear the disdain with which commentators, both professional and amateur, reacted to these guitar-wielding cheerleaders (all of whom were male. Could they not find one female guitarist in this land?). The rendition of Layla at Trent Bridge was akin to “listening to a bad guitar lesson”, while at another venue a commentator wondered if they were going to have to listen to Smoke on the Water “for the whole day”. And they had a point, as the set list reads as if concocted by a committee who knew that the electric guitar had been invented, but weren’t entirely au fait with what it actually. I mean, Hey Jude? Really? On solo guitar?
More to the point, each riff or tune was to be played until the DSM said STOP! So while the gig looked simple, it was anything but. Darren was to set up and listen for his cues (which were like Chuck Berry’s: “if you see me do this and you’re playing, stop. If you aren’t, start”):
once I heard “Cricketarist stand by and GO in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1”, I’d start whichever riff felt good. I was meant to continue playing during announcements (introducing next bowler etc) and then time my riffs to finish on another countdown, again from 5 down to 1.
Easy enough to start, but re-arranging a riff that isn’t at 120bpm while someone counts down from 5 to 1 at 60bpm such that it finishes both musically and on time is another matter. Try it. It’s like trying to connect with an Adil googly when you’re expecting a Jofra yorker. Sometimes it just ain’t going to happen. Add to that the prescribed set-list, which was rather lacking in forethought, and things might well have gone horribly wrong. Darren got through this by ignoring the less useful tunes in favour of
riffs that had a little mileage to spin out or wrap up easily. Eye of The Tiger, Back in Black, Highway to Hell, Superstition, Hammer To Fall, Another One Bites the Dust, Walk This Way, Are You Gonna Go My Way. Anything else and the tunes didn’t have the breath to resolve.
Luckily, after a few games, the set list approach was abandoned, and, as Darren puts it, he was given ‘free rein to improvise and make up my own riffs – so out came some tapping, sweep picking and other crowd pleasing antics.’ And crowds appeared pleased, if the number of selfies produced is anything to go by.
This World Cup has been criticised on every level, with some criticisms justified, some not, and now it’s done, both victors and vanquished will return to the Big Bashes and the IPLs to continue bashing the bejesus out of a leather orb, and the cricketarists will return to the theatres, pubs, clubs and their usual professional engagements (and yes, Darren did have to cancel a gig because he was playing at the World Cup, and yes, it really was at The Cricketers). But life may never be quite the same. For one thing, the experience of playing in front of 25,000 people is not something you can easily replicate, and that’s ignoring the SKY audience. For another, it’s expanded Darren’s guitar collection, as he explains: ‘I had a nice email [after the second Cardiff game] from the guitar maker saying he heard me on the radio and was really impressed with how good it sounded, and they’ve given me my own bat guitar that I am playing at some of my shows.’ We’ll have him onfield in no time.
As for the Willowcasters themselves, they will be signed and auctioned off for charity at the tournament’s end. I wonder which clubhouse walls will be adorned with them at the end-of-season dinner.
Now that we have emerged victorious, perhaps it’s time for Darren to be given the credit due to a rock n roll prophet. The tune with which he opened his account back in the tournament’s infancy was, after all, The Boys are Back in Town.