WHEN CRICKET WAS MEGA

 The atmosphere crackled. The crowd noise thrummed. And then, still audible through it all, came the gentle metronomic thud of bat patting crease. It was a soundscape that signified everything a cricket fan needed to know: the moment of destiny had arrived. There was one ball to face. Four runs required. It was now or never.

 My mind was fuzzy from the pressure as I tried to remind myself of my options. Which shot should I play? Where would be the most profitable place to aim? For a split second it was as if a lifetime of experience had deserted me and I’d never played the game before. Was I bottling it? I glanced down, regathered, and deliberated. The A button meant ‘normal shot’, I remembered that much. It would produce a clean strike, but that didn’t necessarily equate to power or accuracy, and if I was going to find that precious boundary I needed plenty of both. It was certainly the percentage shot, but pressing A would be playing it safe, and what’s the point of being safe when you’re playing Russian Roulette in the Last Chance Saloon? Calling out to me instead was the dark temptress of the B button. All I needed to do was push B and my batsman would, for want of a better expression, ‘twat it’, performing an outlandish slog that might fizz off the bat and over the outfield for a heroically victorious six. That is unless I got the timing wrong, which in my career to date was more than likely. In that case the ball would balloon up in the air and plop into a fielder’s hands for a guaranteed catch and another ignominious defeat. My batsman was Peter McIntyre, possibly the least heralded Australian ODI player of the Nineties, facing the first ball of his innings at the worst possible time. Standing at his mark ready to run in was the menacing figure of Philip ‘Daffy’ DeFreitas, having already taken five wickets for eight runs in a mere three overs. He’d been devouring Australians and McIntyre was the pudding. A or B? Stick or twist? Both buttons had stated their case in my head, neither one convincingly, and now Daffy was running up to bowl. “Come on, Pete,” I willed. “We can do this.” My thumb hovered over A. Then B. And then back again. Would it be elation or despair? Once again everything had come down to the last pulsating delivery in a game of cricket. Or to be more specific, a game of Brian Lara Cricket on the Sega Mega Drive.

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It was last summer when Brian Lara re-entered my life. I was in the midst of hurriedly preparing to take my first live comedy show to the Edinburgh Fringe. The theme of the show was retro pop culture, a passion that I’d describe as worthwhile but which friends have described as ‘unhealthy’, ‘expensive’ and ‘a bit sad’. Undaunted by these unbelievers, I wanted to dedicate part of the story to the world of computer games and how important they had been to me when I was growing up in the Eighties and Nineties. Having been quite a sickly kid (visiting the doctor’s surgery often enough that my GP gave me a nickname - the less than flattering “Little Paleface”), I spent a lot of my childhood cooped up indoors. That’s a less than ideal situation for any tweenager, let alone one with a competitive edge and an insatiable appetite for sport. Luckily computer games allowed me and my brother Dan to scratch the sporting itch, providing a joyous portal to escapism in the comfort of my bedroom, sometimes for as little as £1.99 a pop: from athletics on an Amstrad CPC6128 to Grand National horse racing on a ZX Spectrum, we did battle across every discipline on any machine we could afford. It was the same era of retro gaming that Charlie Brooker recently tapped into with his zeitgeist-rocking drama Bandersnatch, a lost world that I wanted to reconnect with in the Fringe show to rekindle and share the joy they’d once sparked in me. With this as my mission, one muggy day in June I journeyed home to south Croydon and raided my mum’s attic to find an unlikely sporting fix.

It took a while, but buried behind a mass of old clothes, books, fragments of Scalextric and dodgy insulation material I struck gold. To the untrained eye it was just one battered cardboard box among many, but I recognised it immediately as my box: my personal treasure trove, a time capsule from thirty years of gaming. After some careful excavation, and a brief digression to check if there was enough Scalextric left to build a track (tragically there wasn’t), I hauled the box downstairs and delved straight in. The Nintendo NES was still there, as was the Super Nintendo, the N64, the Playstation2, the Game Boy, and even a few Spectrum games. Luckily, so was the Sega Mega Drive. To be fair to them, they’d all been great relationships, but Sega was the ex I was most glad to see again. I picked her up, rubbed away a fine layer of dust and held her up to the light. She still looked good - sleek, glossy, petite - but could she still play? I rummaged through the box to see which games had survived, and underneath EA Hockey, John Madden ‘92, Micro Machines and Sonic, there it lay – Brian Lara Cricket. Eureka! After another bout of dusting, a furious forage for the controllers and a few failed attempts at loading, I found the two answers I craved: it still worked, and it’s still a bloody masterpiece. I immediately phoned my friend Tom, another BLC devotee. We’d played an Ashes clash against each other years ago and Tom had won in the last over. Naturally the defeat still burned. It was time for a rematch.

In 2019 Brian Lara Cricket celebrates its twenty-fifth birthday, and while a host of subsequent games have progressed light years beyond it in terms of graphics, sound, instant replays and intricate control systems, they all trail in Brian’s wake when it comes to excitement. Why? What is it about this simple computer program that somehow captured the essence of the game? Did the coders know what they were doing or was it a fluke? In the Eighties and Nineties the odds of a sports game being any good were never high, and not just when it came to cricket. In a world before the megalithic brands of FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer, even a decent football game could be hard to come by and kids’ bedrooms would be awash with comically poor interpretations of soccer like Match Day or Nintendo World Cup. Some titles, like Jaleco’s Goal, were so glitchy that a player would quickly discover an easy way to score precisely the same goal time after time, and the hope of a decent contest collapsed into nothing but a meaningless pixelated procession. Eventually, though, market forces caught up with football fans’ appetites and today the excellence and sophistication of football video games is beyond the wildest dreams of the MTV generation.  

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If only the same could be said of cricket. Without such a massive market to tap (at least for now), nothing like the same kind of financial muscle has been put into developing cricket games, resulting in relatively few titles being produced and fewer still that deserve to be played. This isn’t to say that gaming giants like Electronic Arts haven’t tried to crack the problem, but while each new game does look better than the last, ultimately that’s not what truly matters. Just as any fan watching a real-life match in the stands is far more interested in seeing a batsman hit a T20 six than the pursuant onslaught of music and fireworks, so a video game cricketer is only really interested in the gameplay. What’s going to make for a good match? In the last twenty-five years, only Brian Lara has had the answer. 

The genius of BLC isn’t immediately apparent upon switching it on. The first sight that confronts you is a loading screen that features the company logo ‘Audiogenic’, and underneath it reads a legend that lets you know in no uncertain terms, “This game is not endorsed by any player or team other than Brian Lara”. It’s a foreboding sentence that would have struck terror into the heart of a teenager who’d just forked out (or convinced their parents to fork out) £39.99 for a new cartridge. Such an opening gambit makes the game appear worryingly unofficial and would have stoked the fear that the impending gaming experience was about to be ruined by being forced to pick teams consisting of woeful soundalikes like Ricky Panting, Donald Allan and Shaun Wane. This catastrophic turn of events did happen in several sports video games but luckily the original BLC was unaffected. The publisher Codemasters seem to have taken a wondrously blasé approach, shoving a disclaimer on the front page and then just going ahead and using the real names anyway. It’s symbolic of a more innocent time, before games overtook movies as the most lucrative entertainment format on the planet and naming rights were ruthlessly monetised.

Once you’re past the loading screen, the game’s idiosyncratic and beguiling charms begin to show themselves. Brian’s pixelated profile hovers into view accompanied by a chirpy, welcoming theme tune that’s inflected with as much Caribbean pizzazz as the programmers could squeeze out of the Mega Drive’s 16-bit sound card. From that point on, all that stands between the player and a feast of virtual cricket is a generous and occasionally confusing array of game options, including the chance to play a 20-over match over five days, disable the LBW rule and even watch a simulated match between two computer teams. I wondered, did anyone in the world ever choose to do that? It was while I was scanning these menus that Tom arrived, having hotfooted it across London for our BLC grudge match. We got straight to the matter at hand, choosing a 10-over Ashes match with LBW enabled (of course), selecting “Sunday League” standard in order to ease ourselves gently back into the action.

We tossed a coin to choose teams and I got Australia, which you’d think would be an advantage until I impulsively allowed the computer to automatically pick my XI. My nerves jangled as the machine hovered its cursor over the squad and started picking players on my behalf: Mark Taylor: sure. Michael Slater: fine. Steve Waugh: of course. Mark Waugh: rude not to. Michael Bevan: er, I guess. PA Emery: Who? P McIntyre: You what? This was far from ideal. Not only had the computer lumbered me with the mysterious Peter McIntyre as my final batsman, more troublingly it had offered me a bowling department that contained only Craig McDermott as a recognised frontline seamer. Looking at my team, the only “pace” options I had to opening the attack with Craig were the dibbly-dobbly swing of Steve Waugh or the “fast” bowling of David Boon. Fast? Boon? Perhaps the programmers had made a typo with a rogue “s”. None of this boded well for my challenge to Tom’s superiority.

Despite the Mega Drive’s eccentric selection policy I managed to restrict Tom’s England side to 53 runs, but while we were playing I had a strange revelation. Steve Waugh had (thanks to me)  just served up a rank long-hop which Neil Fairbrother (via Tom) had cracked to the cover boundary for four, but what struck me was that there was something oddly familiar about the shot played by the computer sprite. It was an emphatic and dismissive square cut that was better animated than most of the game’s strokes and it reminded me of a very similar shot that batsmen used to play in the first and only other decent cricket video game I ever played in the late Eighties, Graham Gooch Cricket on the Amstrad. To compare the shot to a player from real life it resembled the awkward but effective pugnacity of Marcus Trescothick, and for some reason this gaming memory had been etched in my memory, as had the advertising hoarding that the ball would always race past, which simply said ‘Audiogenic’. For the first time in my life I made the connection between that strange fragment from my childhood and the loading screen of Brian Lara Cricket, and I realised that the only two cricket games I ever loved had been made by the same company. In a unique and unlikely way, Brian Lara and Graham Gooch were related. What’s more, some of the original game’s DNA had clearly survived. It took an unusual mix of sports fan and video game geek to see it, but somehow Amstrad and Sega’s cricket sprites had been ‘taught’ the same way to play the square cut. Thanks to the inexhaustible reaches of the internet, a quick Google informed me that the man responsible for both games is a British programmer called Graham Blighe (whose credits also included the mighty Emlyn Hughes International Soccer, which still has a loyal fanbase online). In my thirty years of following sport I’ve had several heroes, from Botham and Tufnell to Flintoff and Swann, but in terms of sheer hours of cricketing enjoyment I suppose Graham might just eclipse them all. I wondered if he knew how much joy he’d conjured in those lines of code, and if the real Brian Lara has got the foggiest about any of this.  Either way, there was no time to dwell on all that now. The reverence could wait. Right now I had a game to win.

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Back at the crease, Peter McIntyre and Phil DeFreitas eyed each other: it was a Western shootout transplanted to a cricket pitch transplanted to a video game. A or B? Tom set DeFreitas on his way to the crease; I made my decision. There was no point going out with a whimper. I selected my target area, over cow corner, and pressed B, commanding McIntyre to unfurl an almighty swing into the leg side. The ball left Daffy’s hand and I realised it was alarmingly slow, albeit a second too late. The animated cherry coasted through the air, gun-barrel straight and past the bat, splattering all three stumps and my hope across the turf. The wicketkeeper jumped for joy, Tom yelled with triumph, and I placed my controller on the coffee table in silence. This was the agony and ecstasy of cricket distilled into a brief computer game on a summer’s day in Croydon. It’s twenty-five years old but this game is still as good as ever. It’s a testament to the computer skills of a programmer called Graham, and it’s why Brian Lara will always be the master of not just the on drive and the cover drive, but also the Mega Drive.