Howzat! The Secret History of Cricket Videogames
Updated: Jan 14, 2020
As the spring slowly morphs into summer, the timeless echo of leather on willow and enthusiastic appeals for LBW once more resonates throughout the land. Antstream Arcade invites you to pad up and take guard, as we stroll through the virtual long room of pixelated cricket and sneak a peek at some of the games on its honours board.
With its popularity in the UK, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum became a home for the first wave of cricket videogames in the Eighties. Early efforts tended to be text-only, such as the originally-named Cricket, a mail-order only program that gave interminable automated written feedback on each delivery that begged for a Blowers-esque rumination on distressed pigeons. In 1983, London-based publisher CRL Group added graphics with Test Match Cricket and One Day Cricket, but these were little more than stick men, with interaction limited to pressing a button to bowl and then deciding whether to run or not. Wyvern Software’s Howzat utilised a similar method, resulting in most scorecards containing an exceptionally high ratio of run-outs while the ZX Spectrum used a series of simple statistics to determine the result of each ball. On a side-note, Howzat was noteworthy for being the first cricket game to be endorsed by an actual player, Somerset’s Brian Rose.
Soon the sport began appearing on other platforms, with the Dragon 32 getting a version thanks to coder Tim Love. Tim Love’s Cricket was then converted to the Commodore 64 computer and became a reasonable hit, no doubt helped by being a little more graphically than just simple stick men. There was clearly scope for action cricket games, and soon one of English cricket’s biggest stars would be lending his name to one. Ian Botham’s Test Match from Tynesoft showed virtually the whole cricket pitch onscreen with proper graphics, albeit small and unconvincing sprites. Different styles of bowling could be employed (fast, medium, bouncer or spin) and the field set by the player accordingly, before pressing a key to let loose your terrifying delivery.
Batting was also uncomplicated. Most video games at the time used one-button joysticks and the direction you pushed the stick decided your stroke, the timing of pressing the button determining how well you played it. Ian Botham’s Test Match was not well-received despite the endorsement of England’s finest all-rounder; the gameplay was often tortuous and the timing required for batting too precise. In other words, it was about as much fun as fielding at short leg in early April, and nowhere near as entertaining as watching Beefy himself bat.
Meantime, a new company, Audiogenic Software, was about to embark on a series of sports games with the help of one of Botham’s England colleagues. Graham Gooch’s Test Cricket, released in 1985, was a fresh approach to the cricket video game. Realising the need for larger and better sprites, programmer MJ McLean took the template laid down by Tim Love and vastly refined the graphics and, critically, the keyboard responses, allowing for a more fluid and playable game. Graham Gooch’s Test Cricket became the first cricket simulation to successfully meld the sport into an arcade game that even non-fans could appreciate and inspired a franchise that would become one of the most popular cricket series.
Despite the 8-bit computers such as Spectrum and Commodore 64 entering the twilight of their careers, there was still enough life in them for two more significant cricket games, as well as something of an oddity. Alternative Software was a budget software house based in Pontefract, Yorkshire. Having already re-released Wyvern’s Howzat to great success (it had the good timing of releasing it early in 1987, just as the England cricket team were claiming the Ashes down under), Alternative gave us Cricket Crazy in 1988. Written by Charles Sharp, this sun-soaked text adventure involved hijackers, crashed aircraft, troublesome natives and a hero named Botham, as well as plenty of cricket-related puzzles to solve.
Released in the same year was International Cricket by Grandslam. Most of the computer game magazines of the time were giving away games on their covers and the Spectrum’s Your Sinclair was no exception. Whether Grandslam didn’t consider the game worthy enough, or didn’t want to bother marketing it, International Cricket proved to be a highlight of 8-bit cricket. Boasting similar graphics to Graham Gooch’s Test Cricket, it introduced a level of control over every major facet of the game and bowling specific deliveries required precise timing of the fire button. Each type of delivery needed its own shot and these had to be timed correctly as well. Play too early and the batsman would loop the ball in the air; play too late and he’d edge it to the waiting slips. After bowling the ball, the player could then take control over the relevant fielder, positioning him to stop or catch the ball, and a handy power and height bar helped you out in this respect. Despite a number of bugs, International Cricket was an excellent game and one of the few from the era that retains any playability today.
A significant sub-genre, the cricket management game, had remained surprisingly absent for the sport, especially when you consider the popularity of Kevin Toms’ Football Manager. This changed in 1990 when budget software house Hi-Tec created Cricket Captain, a simulation that saw the player taking control of a county side, picking its squad, dismissing out-of-favour players and hiring new faces. Once on the field, it was your task to set the field and tactics before choosing the bowler and watching the computer play out the results. Despite coming late in the life of the 8-bit computers, Cricket Captain was a neat and absorbing challenge, if a little limited. More in-depth versions of cricket management games had already started appearing on the Commodore Amiga, but despite the improved processing power, they had been largely met with indifference. It was time for the arcade cricket game to step up, and the leaders in this field were Audiogenic.
Continuing its line of games based around legendary England batsman Graham Gooch, Audiogenic released Graham Gooch World Class Cricket on the 16-bit computers in 1993. The game marked a new era in cricket computer games thanks to its superb presentation, lifelike graphics and exciting gameplay. Yet despite being well-reviewed, it wasn’t until publisher Codemasters sealed a deal with Audiogenic to create a similar title on the Sega Megadrive that a cricket game really hit the mainstream. Bolstered by the addition of the player who had just eclipsed Sir Garfield Sobers’ 36-year-old record for the highest test match individual score, as well as achieving the highest first-class score, Graham Gooch gave way to Brian Lara and the game became a world-wide smash. Unsurprisingly, Codemasters released another version the following year with improved graphics and an entertaining classic mode which gave the player the chance to jump into real matches from the past. For England fans, the ultimate challenge lay in the Headingly test of 1981. As the player takes control of the action, England have just lost their seventh wicket and Graham Dilley has joined a certain famous all-rounder at the crease. Can you turn the tide and make history?
Meanwhile, even the Super Nintendo Console (SNES) was getting in on the act with Antipodean developer Beam Software producing Super International Cricket for the machine, the only cricket game to appear on it. Beam had already released the Australian-only International Cricket on the Super Nintendo’s predecessor, the NES, but this had been a poor game with cripplingly bad artificial intelligence. The sequel received a European release and was streets ahead in terms of graphics and gameplay, although the lack of authentic player names hamstrung the realism. The developer would go on to create Cricket 96 for Electronic Arts who, encouraged by the success of FIFA and its yearly updates, had decided to try its hand at a cricket franchise. While EA Cricket 96 retained the familiar zoomed-in and slightly-above viewpoint, 97 was notable for featuring a view similar to the modern incarnations of the game.
And there was still room for a popular management simulation to make its mark. International Cricket Captain (ICC) began in 1998 courtesy of coder Chris Child and publisher Empire Interactive. Inspired by the phenomenally successful football management sim Championship Manager, the player took charge of a first-class county with the main goal attaining management of the England cricket team. As with its football equivalent, International Cricket Captain is a statistical and tactical delight for any fan of sport in general.
Today, as ever, cricket video games remain something of a sticky wicket for publishers. Yet after a fallow period, EA’s Cricket is returning in 2019 with another official Ashes edition. Mixing the customisation of Don Bradman’s Cricket with new intuitive controls, this would appear to be the best current option for console cricket fans, with quick-hit games such as Stick Cricket providing the mobile thrills. There will always be a place for cricket video games, but perhaps for now, until the sport itself branches into newer territories, we should be content that the few games that come our way are generally created with an extraordinary passion for the sport. Hit out, or get out!
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