Ray of light for cricket’s lengthening shadows

A top-class domestic competition on free-to-air TV could rescue a fragmented sport marginalised by a series of disastrous decisions

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The first golden age: “A Game of Cricket”, from “Youth’s Educator for Home and Society”, 1896

A Saturday in May and I made my way to Edgbaston to watch Warwickshire play Lancashire in the Royal London One Day Cup, as befits a retired cricketer. It was cold and there were short, sharp showers which included some hail. The crowd were a pleasant lot with something of a Commonwealth flavour: I identified South Africans and Canadians as well as the more predictable Indians, Pakistanis and English. They were generous in their applause for players on both sides. It was a decent game and well contested, the crucial performance being a century stand by two young Warwickshire batsmen, Hain and Banks, neither of whom I had previously heard of. The match was declared as having been won by Warwickshire at the “cut-off point” of 6.45pm, at which moment they had reached the target set for that time by the arcane Duckworth-Lewis formula. The result was of no importance: Warwickshire had already failed to qualify for the next round and it had ceased to matter to Lancashire a couple of hours earlier when it was obvious that Yorkshire were being rolled over at Worcester.

My overwhelming impression was one of bewilderment at what had happened to domestic one-day cricket. It cost just £2 to get in, yet the crowd was derisory, a couple of thousand people scattered round a ground that holds 25,000. The professional one-day season is now marginalised to the damp days of April and May and is all over before the football season has finished. If you had diligently read up your Wisden or Playfair annuals to find out who might be playing, you might have thrilled to the prospect of seeing Liam Livingstone and Jos Buttler, respectively Lancashire’s captain and wicketkeeper,  regarded as two of the world’s most exciting batsmen. But they were both in India, earning serious money in the Indian Premier League in a yet shorter version of the game, though James Anderson, England’s leading Test match bowler, was playing. This marginalisation of the one-day, 50-over game is an odd business, because it is assumed globally to be the normal form of the game and is the format in which the World Cup is contested.

‘My overwhelming impression was one of bewilderment at what had happened to one-day cricket. The crowd was derisory, a couple of thousand people scattered round  a ground that holds 25,000’

For a spectator of my age it is particularly strange to reflect that the competition I was watching was the successor to the Gillette Cup (1963-80) and its successor, the NatWest Cup. In the 1970s a ticket to one of Lancashire’s games in the cup was a precious thing indeed, and that in a era when it was very rare to need a ticket for a football match. Those games ran to a finish and there are legends of heroics in the dusk still discussed by old men in pubs (and available to watch on YouTube). The competition climaxed in September at a packed Lord’s and was viewed by an eight-figure television audience. So in watching this rather desolate successor competition it is impossible to avoid the question, “How did we get here from there?” The domestic fixture list is now a complete shambles. The “first-class” (four-day) game is also marginalised to the point that when, in 2017, the young Lancashire batsman Haseeb Hameed was a candidate for England selection, it was impossible to know whether he was in good form or not because the county did not have a first-class fixture for 43 days at the height of the season.

During this time the players were playing the newest and shortest version of cricket, the T20 version of 20 overs per side, deemed almost universally by those in authority to be the best chance of extending the game’s appeal to a wider and younger audience. I should say straight away that I am not an opponent of T20; it would be very odd if I were given that I played it for 50 years and frequently declared it to be the finest possible way of spending an English summer evening. The game is only new to professional cricket; amateurs have played it time out of mind. It is a good game and retains most of the skills of cricket, including varieties of slow bowling, but it could never be as varied or tactically complex as the long game. I am inclined to think it is innocent of the charge of undermining traditional cricket skills, even if it sometimes looks that way when you watch certain English players in action. After all, cricketers are trained from the outset (or should be) to play appropriately in different situations, and different formats simply extend that requirement. In the last year I have watched young teams from Pakistan and the West Indies play excellent Test cricket despite being of the T20 generation. The problem is not with T20 itself, but with having massive amounts of it dropped into the schedule in a desperate and disruptive way when it would not have been difficult to incorporate it harmoniously.

All of this fits into a clear pattern in the history of the game. It is a story of cycles, reinventions and (short) golden ages. The Victorians turned a bucolic activity, much connected with drink and gambling, into a highly-skilled organised game played at all levels of society and regulated by unwritten codes as well as written laws. Following the formalisation of a county championship in 1890 there was a first golden age in which cricket was hailed as the “national game”. By the consumer age of the 1950s, it was in severe decline and was partially reinvented as a shorter game on a slightly different principle—that an innings could be ended by a determinate number of overs being bowled rather than by a side being bowled out. This quickly generated a less-recognised second “Gillette” golden age, which included the
excellent high-profile World Cups of 1975 and 1979 (both won by the West Indies). Now we have the T20 reinvention, which the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) is taking to new extremes with an inter-city 100-ball competition next year. The underlying themes of this history are a tendency for existing forms to stagnate and become duller when played professionally and a tension between both the domestic and international games and between the different formats. Cricket, in short, has only ever briefly looked stable and well-organised. But it has rarely looked as badly-organised as it is now. This season is being billed as “The greatest year of English cricket” because there is a World Cup and an Ashes series between England and Australia. The top players, who are making good money, agree. But  their level of the game is a glossy facade on the shambles below, where the various competitions will be watched by the fewest people ever in this country.

In terms of decision-making, what has happened in cricket is a classic case of disjointed incrementalism: a series of decisions, mostly taken on fairly short-term financial grounds, that add up to a result that nobody could possibly have intended. But there is one decision which stands out as just plain bad. In 2005, a memorable Ashes series, won by England after five tense and thrilling five-day Test matches, was shown on Channel 4 and at times verged on 50 per cent of the total national TV audience. Unfortunately, this success carried its own in-built disaster, when  the rights were sold to Sky shortly afterwards. Behind that decision was a non-decision: many sporting events had been listed as “crown jewels” at the government’s insistence to showcase particular sports on free-to-air television. Thus Six Nations rugby and Wimbledon tennis, for example, remained available to
everybody. But cricket, given its perennial problem with levels and formats, could not agree on a “crown jewel” and sold the lot.

Anyone close to or committed to this decision will tell you that it was an offer that could not be refused and that it was money which would filter down and benefit the whole of cricket. Frankly, this was similar to the pious nonsense that government ministers spout when they say that their financial support of Olympic sport will have a “legacy” of mass participation. There is no evidence for it whatsoever. Participation in cricket is down by nearly 40 per cent in a decade. The once “national” game can barely raise a quarter of a million participants, though ethnic minority cricket and women’s cricket have both grown. Of course, the major factors here are complex social changes; I was the chairman of a cricket club from 1987 to 2017 and could write a book about why people do not or cannot play cricket, even though they want to. But it is also extremely damaging that most people grow up knowing nothing of cricket.  The participants these days are almost exclusively people from cricket-oriented schools and families, a distinct minority in both cases. It has become a niche or cult sport; it is not even an “event” sport like rugby or tennis or horse racing, because, thanks to its marginalisation on satellite TV,  it doesn’t have the important moments when it does become the focus of something like national attention.

So if we are to reinvent cricket yet again and aim for another golden age, what are the principles on which change should be based? Primarily, television has to be tamed and used, rather than allowed to dictate. The trouble with specialised sports channels is that they want sheer quantity and their interests become almost directly opposed to those of the game itself. A knock-out cup doesn’t provide enough screen filler, but the resulting TV-friendly extended league formats have ruined the domestic cup competitions and the World Cup. There seems to me to be an obvious solution to most of the scheduling problems. First-class and T20 cricket should go on throughout the season. International cricket, especially the kind of endless 50-over internationals that nobody ever remembers, should be severely reduced. One-day, 50-over cricket requires an approach which is paradoxical. There should be much less of it and it should be the least of the elements, but it should be given a much higher profile, with its own distinctive and dramatic format in the shape of a knock-out cup, scheduled to include international players, shown on free-to-air television and with a high-profile final at Lord’s. Once again, a ticket for a Lancashire-Yorkshire quarter-final might be a precious thing, and those admirable enthusiasts trying to take cricket to the dark corners of society where it is unknown would have some glamour and imagery to fall back on.