What next for English cricket? The first and most immediate answer is also an age-old one: thump the Australians in the forthcoming Ashes series. The second answer, which is more difficult to achieve, is: don’t waste this moment.
English cricket staked a lot on winning the world cup. The tournament will not be held in England for another 20 years if, indeed, it is ever held here again. For four years, this has been the target. For the first-time, and not without some controversy, the interests of one-day cricket were placed ahead of the traditional test format. To risk so much and still fail would have been a calamity.
Thanks to Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler and Jofra Archer and a hefty dollop of extravagant good fortune, Eoin Morgan duly became the first England captain to lift the world cup. A public thirsting for the chance to fall in love with a new generation of heroes has been given permission to do so. Job done. Or, at least, this part of the job has been accomplished. The joy felt in cricketing circles is tempered by something approaching relief too.
Cricket is no stranger to anxiety. The summer game is not what it once was. The forecast is always dire and cricket is forever worrying that its future is cloudy at best and, more frequently, liable to be washed away by modernity.
In 1957, MCC commissioned a report on the future of first-class cricket in England. It began:
“The MCC have for some time been increasingly concerned with the decline in the gates of county matches and at the tempo at which the game is played”.
The post-war boom years – in which all sports enjoyed record attendances – saw attendance at county championship matches reach two million. A decade later, that figure had fallen by half. Nowadays, you could be forgiven for thinking more dogs than people attend county championship cricket.
In 1960, John Arlott asked:
“Has cricket lost its attraction? Has it fallen out of date, out of tune with modern demands and public interest?”
Nor was this a fresh refrain even then. Cricketing people have been worrying about the game losing touch with its audience, or worse, betraying its own soul ever since it first became the national summer sport.
And yet, according to a report produced by Deloitte, in 2017 2.7 million tickets were sold for professional cricket matches in England. Even the dear old championship, unfashionable and marginalised as it may be, pulls in almost half a million aficionados.
In one sense, then, cricket has never been more popular. The game is in ruder health than sometimes thought. Watch fading film of past series, including the epic 1981 Ashes confrontation, and you will notice vast banks of empty seats. This summer’s series against England’s oldest rivals will be played in front of packed stands. At least in England, test cricket remains vibrant.
Despite that, there are real reasons for concern. Since 2005 cricket’s shop window – the international game – has largely been confined to subscription television stations.
Sky have done a lot for English cricket, not least by pumping in huge amounts of cash (Sky pays more than £200m a year for the rights to home internationals) but, unavoidably, this comes at the cost of access. A thriving game requires a thriving audience. Channel 4’s coverage of the world cup final attracted nearly five million people; a figure significantly greater than anything Sky could achieve. Free-to-air television is oxygen and free advertising.
The ECB’s latest wheeze to revive interest is a competition designed for people who neither like cricket nor have the patience for a Twenty20 fixture. “The Hundred” will debut next summer, featuring made-up city sides – Manchester Originals, Northern Superchargers, Southern Brave, Oval Incinvibles and so-on – playing matches in which each side will bat for, yes, 100 deliveries.
Perhaps it will work; it probably needs to given the ECB’s investment in the concept. It smacks of desperation, however, and a fundamental lack of confidence in the “product” the game’s administrators are supposed to be promoting. This, as any ad-man can tell you, is a poor place from which to start. It suggests the problem with cricket is cricket itself and if only cricket weren’t so crickety life would be simpler and easier.
In fact, as the world cup demonstrated, cricket can work regardless of format. If five-day, red-ball, cricket remains the pinnacle, one-day, white-ball, cricket can be a triumphant experience too. What matters is that the stakes matter. Hence the need for a proper world test championship that will give relevance to bilateral series and, crucially, be capable of being understood by “ordinary” supporters around the world.
Cricket is the most elegiac of sports but, viewed dispassionately, its survival is more remarkable than its troubles. It has, despite its ill-deserved reputation for stuffiness, shown a remarkable willingness to adapt the better to ensure its survival. The world cup is merely one iteration of that survival instinct.
Even so, a game that sometimes seems to specialise in talking down its achievements could sometimes benefit from accentuating the positive.
Cricket is so fond of half-empty glasses it sometimes forgets to note they’re still half-full. The dear old game has been teetering on the brink of crisis for a century and yet, despite everything, despite changing fashions, hapless administrators, and the perennial sense of somewhere becoming rain, it is still here.
First things first, however: beat the bloody Aussies.