Sport - Jason Cowley takes a pie-thrower's advice

Cricket, for many years, has wanted to be more like football

I received an e-mail this week from someone called Mark Lynas. Mr Lynas is an environmental activist and also what you might call a pie-thrower. By which I mean, he is not a medium-paced bowler, trundling around the county circuit for one of our less successful sides, but the real thing. He actually throws pies. Most notoriously, he threw a pie at Bj0rn Lomborg during a bookshop reading in Oxford.

You see, he liked neither Lomborg nor his book The Skeptical Environmentalist. Nor did Lynas much care for my recent New Statesman article ("The man who demanded a recount", 30 June) about Lomborg, in which I questioned the righteous certainties of so many green activists, many of whom are toffs who have little understanding that the traditional left, pre-eminently concerned with issues of equity and the fundamental needs of the urban poor, were always enthusiastic polluters. He signed off by advising that, in future, I should restrict myself to cricket.

Now, I had been planning to write about Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire who has just taken control of Chelsea Football Club in one of the most sensational pieces of football business that I can remember. With his improbable wealth and limitless desire, Abramovich may well, if rumours about his wish to transform Chelsea into one of the world's great clubs are true, make the house that Jack Walker built at Blackburn Rovers appear very small indeed, a mere bungalow when set against his London mansion of colossal dimensions.

But enough of our Russian friend, from whom no doubt we shall be hearing much more in the months ahead. I shall, if only to please Mr Lynas, stick to cricket. This has been a strange season so far, a season of innovation, if the marketing men are to be believed, in which English cricket has embraced the 20-over game. Indeed, apart from two rather mediocre Test matches against an unhappy Zimbabwe side, the entire summer so far has been given over to the truncated form of the game. First Pakistan and now Zimbabwe (yes, again) and South Africa: England have had plenty of opportunity to demonstrate just what an inconsistent one-day side they are and just what a non-event so much one-day cricket can be.

For as long as I can remember, cricket has wanted to be more like football. It has wanted to be faster, more urgent, colourful and popular. Through the introduction of coloured clothing and floodlights, it has sought, yet never quite found, mass appeal. But the true appeal of cricket is that it can be anything it wants to be. It is hard to think of another game that is as flexible or capable of such innovation. It can be played in 20 overs or over five days. And unique among team games, it reveals individual strengths and weaknesses: no matter how hard you try, you can never escape the truth of your own individual performance, preserved as it is in imperishable type in a dusty scorebook.

For the past 20 years, I have been playing cricket, on and off, for various club and village sides. I have never played in a game that is not, in some way, restricted. Limited-overs cricket is what most of us begin playing at school; it is the form of the game that is most suitable to the rush of contemporary life. It has had a powerful impact on the way the five-day game is played: today Test cricket, certainly as perfected by the Australians and increasingly by New Zealand, South Africa and England, too, is played with far greater athleticism and attacking intensity than ever before, as sides seek to score at four runs per over. The Australian captain, Steve Waugh, would rather lose a game in pursuit of victory, however improbable, than accept a draw.

The roots of this new style of cricket lie in the innovations of the one-day game. Those who have dismissed 20-over cricket as a mere gimmick are probably right. It is a gimmick, but it is a good one all the same, and it may just inspire a new generation of boys and girls to take a look at the longer game.

Jason Cowley is the editor of Observer Sport Monthly