Just like Labour after the election, this is a time for soul-searching. The Lord’s test match has wrought a paradigm shift. Sage observers detect a change in the national mood. To semi-quote the Scorpions, has a wind of change blown through English cricket?
Cricket means different things to different people. English cricket followers come in many stripes, all equally valid. For some, a day at the cricket is a once-yearly treat – an opportunity to catch up with old friends, enjoy a few beers, and (hopefully) watch England do well. They neither know nor care who the administrators are. Cricket is for fun, alone: an escape from the drudgery of real life.
For others, cricket is a more serious pastime – they keep a regular eye on the scores, subscribe to Sky Sports, and find themselves pulled into the gravitational field of the England team.
And for another group, cricket is a maddeningly indispensable tier of their lives. They follow every single detail and identify with the national side as if it were an extension of their own being. They attach to each machination the same importance as their own health and livelihood.
Among followers who take part in the earthier debates about English cricket, opinion is heavily fractured. Simon Hughes is wrong to speak of a ‘silent majority’. Ed Smith was also mistaken when he said “fans are not divided…social media is divided and social media is a poor reflection of cricket”. Any watercooler conversation will tell you there many shades of grey. As an anecdotal example, at my village cricket club this weekend no two players had quite the same view.
It must all seem a little simpler to England followers who are children – an integral tier of cricket’s constituency and a notable feature of Monday’s crowd at Lord’s. Children can watch cricket through enviably innocent eyes, insulated from recriminations, their sleep undisturbed by nightmares about Paul Downton.
Innocence is the key. The defining feature of the last eighteen months, for me, is the loss of that innocence. Cricket has felt like it might never be quite the same again. We always vaguely knew the view behind the scenes was generally unsavoury, but we closed our eyes and pretended not to see the workings. But then a series of events savagely ripped away the curtain, Oz-style, to reveal the workings in all their gory detail.
Since then I have struggled to take an England match at face value. During play, you witness what certain people want the side to be, not what it should be. It feels like a sham. Try as I might, I can’t dissociate the cricket from the people who are pulling the levers backstage. Others will find it much easier.
But can innocence be restored? And has Ben Stokes’s miraculous performance already achieved this?
In the wake of Lord’s, influential media commentators have unilaterally declared War Is Over. And in a way, who can blame them? They must be bored to the back teeth of reporting failure and strife. Their editors demand a narrative which will put a smile back on readers’ faces. Cricket writers have no readership if that readership has lost interest in cricket. Lord’s – and its vague evocation of the 2005 Ashes – gave them an opportunity to reconnect with a patriotic audience starved of good news.
After the fourth day, Jonathan Agnew wrote:
For some time we have heard of England’s need to reconnect with their fans, to make the public care about them. On the fourth day of the first Test against New Zealand at Lord’s, the brilliant Ben Stokes delivered exactly the sort of performance required to do that.
And the following the result, in a piece headlined “‘Fantastic’ England repay goodwill of their ‘tremendous’ fans”, he also said:
I’m not sure if there was ever a great deal of ill-feeling towards the England cricket team, in fact there was goodwill. Perhaps if the noise around the team is removed, a deep breath is taken and we let them play, we will see more performances like in the 124-run win against New Zealand at Lord’s.
They were right behind England, which clearly did them good. It proves my point that there is goodwill towards the national team. At Lord’s, it was reciprocated and appreciated by the players.
Agnew seems to imply that supporters have a responsibility to wind down the negativity for the good of the team. I find this analysis unappealing – it almost suggests it’s our fault they played badly in the first place – but maybe you think he has a point.
In the Telegraph, Jonathan Liew had this to say:
Perhaps we will look back at this Sunday as People’s Sunday: the day when we all fell in love with English cricket again. Sure, there have been rumblings of affability over the last year or so; forecasts of an impending charm front arriving from a northerly direction. And for all its managerial idiocy, none of us ever actually wanted England to lose. But for those of us who have invested our happiness in this team, this was the moment when it finally kept up its side of the bargain.
In the same paper, Nick Hoult reported that the “England team won back the public after a tough eighteen months”, while his colleague Scyld Berry believes supporters now stand firmly behind their captain:
Cook will surely treasure the ovation when he reached his hundred as a seal of public approval for himself, his philosophy and his team.
A caveat is essential here. Cook was applauded by people who were prepared to pay (and handsomely) to attend the test match. Followers who feel alienated from the team did not, by definition, turn up. And the crowd were surely more likely to be clapping Cook’s runs than his philosophy.
Elsewhere in the Telegraph was an un-bylined piece entitled ‘Five reasons we love England again‘:
A young, vibrant team and all-round superstar Ben Stokes have helped fans rediscover their passion for Test cricket. There is a freshness and vibrancy to this England team which has automatically endeared them to their supporters – it is, after all, much harder to hold grudges against wet-behind-the-ears rookies than gnarled veterans.
For all the agonising over the shoddy treatment of Kevin Pietersen and Peter Moores, the poor results and curious selection calls, it was impossible not to feel some sympathy for Alastair Cook. He is a decent man, thrust into a treacherous situation, and the applause which echoed around Lord’s as he conducted his post-match interview on Monday was heartfelt, not least because of the central part he had played in it.
I can’t let that go without pointing out that, in fact, Cook thrust himself into a treacherous situation – and one partly of his own making. This was revealed not by a rabid conspiracy-theorist but the ECB themselves, in the ‘due diligence’ dossier. To point this out isn’t making a dig, but simply stating a fact. If Cook feels hard done by, he should come out and tell his side of the story.
But let’s return to the main point. Have we – as the press suggests – fallen back in love with England again?
As far as I can tell, the great majority of English cricket followers hugely enjoyed the match. They were very impressed by the spirited nature of the team’s performance. Many, probably most, forgot about the misery and conflict and for a few days simply enjoyed the cricket. Those who made the journey to Lord’s looked like they were having a great time. And a sizeable chunk of the public now scan the England team sheet, see the new and newish faces, and increasingly view the team as a new entity, untarnished by the past.
All of that said, one inspirational test victory does not wipe the slate clean. The heroics of Ben Stokes have not pressed the ‘reset’ button. It’s not just that the wounds run too deep. Linking affection with success misses the point and misunderstands supporters.
Loyalty to England has never been about results. We faithfully followed England all through the period 1987-1999 – thirteen long years in which we won just a single major test series, against South Africa in 1998. During times of on-field disaster – 2006/07, say – our reaction was less anger than sorrow. It wasn’t the catastrophe of the 2013/14 Ashes which alienated us, but what happened off the field, afterwards – and the subsequent series victory over India did nothing to repair the damage.
English cricket’s civil war was never about the team’s performance. It was about enfranchisement. It was about belonging, and knowing that we were wanted and respected. It was about the relationship between administrators and supporters. It was about the way they view us, the way they treat us, and the rights they believe we should have.
None of that has changed.
The England team may be evolving but the establishment it represents has not. It’s run by the same kind of people, in the same way, with the same captain. If Colin Graves, Tom Harrison and Andrew Strauss desire a different relationship with the public from their predecessors, they’ve yet to demonstrate it.
It’s easy for a sceptic to imagine Harrison and Graves gleefully rubbing their hands as they walked away from Lord’s, thinking “that’ll shut the buggers up for a bit”. They probably regard Ben Stokes as the equivalent of drugging the water supply to pacify the proletariat.
In his TMS interview last week, Andrew Strauss said:
This is a good time for us all to come together and try and work out a path forward. Rather than being in completely estranged camps from each other. So let’s hope we can do that.
Which is fair enough, but how does he plan to achieve it? If he wants everyone to come together, he and the ECB must take specific action to make that happen. Otherwise, his words only mean ‘stop complaining – why? Because I told you to’. Basically he’s saying “move on”, like Giles Clarke did, but in politer language.
The ECB recently published their annual report for 2014. After a year of unprecedented turmoil and supporter alienation, this is what they had to say in the section entitled ‘Engaging with the fans’. It tells you everything you need to know.
ECB’s social media channels are playing a vital role in helping the governing body achieve one of its main strategic goals – to encourage more people to follow cricket. Video is a key part of the ECB digital team’s armoury as it seeks to boost the game’s online following. The team created a host of eye-catching and engaging videos which were designed to bring out the personalities of the England players – and show the public a different side to familiar cricketing faces.
Highlights included England wicketkeeper Jos Buttler trading tips with fellow England glove-man goalkeeper Joe Hart; England fast bowler James Anderson and captain Alastair Cook going head-to-head in a darts exhibition match; and batsman Joe Root showing off his strumming skills on the ukulele.
England’s triumph at Lord’s may have changed the cricketing dynamics, but there’s plenty else it won’t change. Lord’s won’t put cricket back on free-to-air television, reduce ticket prices, or give grass-roots a bigger share of the ECB’s revenue. Neither will it change how the ECB regard the public: as an indentured underclass.
I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom. The second test begins in twelve hours’ time, and many of you will be looking forward to another excellent match and perhaps an England series victory. Enjoy the cricket. But let’s not forget the bigger picture.