As fans of leather on willow bemoan the lacklustre performance of the national side, many are turning to a simpler form of our summer sporting code. Simon Day reports on the Last Man Stands phenomenon.
Lying somewhere between a backyard bash and Twenty-20, Last Man Stands (LMS) represents cricket's latest makeover and it is quickly becoming a global trend.
There is a world league of 1714 teams, which features New Zealand's Cow Tippers in the lofty ranking of fourth place. They sit at the top of New Zealand's rankings and are favourites to win the national championships in January.
The prize is a $10,000 contribution to the winner's journey to London to play in the LMS world championships at Lord's, the home of cricket.
But Last Man Stands is far from the ponderous gentlemen's game Lord's is used to. It's a unique form of condensed cricket built for the passionate enthusiast who can no longer devote a whole Saturday to getting grass stains on white pants.
"People who have stopped playing are coming back into the game and I am seeing people I haven't seen since school," says Matt Ward, captain of the Cow Tippers.
Founded in London in 2005 by a group of friends who no longer had the time to play club cricket, it took around two years to perfect the rules. There are eight players and, importantly, eight wickets.
When the seventh wicket falls, the "last man stands" and bats alone. The final batsman must hit boundaries or run two, returning to the same end.
"The format has always been devised to maximise the participation of everyone in the game. So we got it down to eight players, which was the perfect number," says Ross Cawood, the New Zealand franchise founder.
It is also about efficiency. A match typically takes two hours after work and can include at least a couple of beers, even to calm the nerves before going out to bat. The 20 overs for each innings are made up of five balls. A batsman can be caught out and his partner run out in the same motion - a "double play". If the final ball of the innings is hit for six, it counts 12.
But it would be flawed to label LMS as merely social cricket. There is some serious competition and it is a growing business model.
The New Zealand league has attracted former international players, including Martin Crowe, Lou Vincent, Richard Jones and Paul Hitchcock. South African wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock played in the South African league.
The format is perfect for those who adore the game but can't sacrifice the time, says media darling and cricket fanatic Jeremy Wells, a specialist batsman for Pukelau (191st in the world).
"It is hard to enjoy Saturday cricket. It changes your whole weekend. It is tough on your dependents," Wells says.
"I really believe it is the future of social cricket in New Zealand."
There are about 50,000 registered players in England, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Next year, the competition is looking to expand into India and the United States.
After helping a mate start the London competition, South African-born Cawood, 33, moved to New Zealand in 2008 to start the franchise. In four summers, LMS in New Zealand has grown from 15 teams to 120, with 2500 players in leagues in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch.
Teams are made up of players from a wide range of backgrounds. You are as likely to be playing against someone who spends his days working at a desk as someone who you might recognise off the small screen - the four-win, 14-loss Smash Palace team includes comedians Dai Henwood, Brendhan Lovegrove and Ben Hurley.
Organising the tournament is now Cawood's full-time job and he spends six months in New Zealand and six months in the UK.
"I was in IT. I was never very good at it, so it was a good change," Cawood says.
He organises everything from hiring the playing fields to compiling the statistics. The weekly updated tables are key to the format's appeal, he says.
"I get emails all the time, about umpires putting the runs to the wrong batsmen. I get emails the next morning asking when the scorecard will be updated."
There is a global rankings system where teams and individual statistics can be compared with international competitors. Local and international "dream teams", of four batsmen, two bowlers, one all-rounder and a wicketkeeper, are selected weekly based on their past 14 performances.
Out of 1714 teams worldwide, the Barbeque Shrimps are ranked 1703. They have played in the Auckland league since it started in 2008. When they won their first game in four campaigns this season, a player streaked across the Auckland domain.
The team has secured sponsorship from Woodfloor Solutions (a company run by one of the players), which provides a weekly win bonus and ensures better-quality sausages and beers.
What they lack in cricketing ability they make up in passion for the game, says captain David Easterbrook. "It's an excuse to get together have a beer and play some cricket. What more could you want from a Kiwi summer?"
- Sunday Star Times
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