The Ghosts of Cricket Past and Future

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Back in those hard hitting and intoxicated days before Christmas and the New Year – a mere stitch back in time when the elastic on my trousers was relaxed and my liver chipper and fighting fit – I wrote a morose piece on Why Red Cards Have No Place In Cricket. I promised or threatened, depending on how you look at it, to write a follow up on why day/night Ashes Test Matches are akin to the anti-christ. Well, with the New Year unwinding and my belly reminiscent of a furiously pumped beach ball, now is that time.

I should apologise in advance for the stream of consciousness that I’m going to unload. The problem is that day/night Ashes Tests cannot be discussed in isolation but only as part of a much wider issue that is slowly casting a shroud-like presence over our game.

An individual examination of day / nighters would be like a doctor diagnosing the last symptoms of a critically ill patient. What we actually need to do is go back further through the patient’s history – right the way back to the booze, fags, fry-ups, and all those bad lifestyle decisions that brought us into this imaginary emergency room. So, sit back and put your Leonard Cohen record on – a dearly lamented man who surely would’ve seen the art and beauty in a grim 5th day rear-guard action.

I don’t know about you but I worry about the recent glut of sudden and ill-considered changes to the game. Not in a “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” type way (although I do often struggle to suppress Luddite type sensibilities) because it has metamorphosed into a form of grim acceptance. The ICC, ECB and other national governing boards seem determined to lock Test and first class cricket into a box and bury it deep in the ground – a treasured artefact but one that has reached the point of anachronism. I worry that ‘proper cricket’ is now merely damned with insincere reverence – brought out, dusted off and indulged now and again to remind the deluded faithful that it is carefully cherished by its keepers.

I am reminded of the poet Robert Frost (I name drop him only to cultivate a thin veneer of intelligence). Over the past few years, cricket has arrived at Frost’s metaphoric “Two divergent roads in the yellow wood”. Rather than taking a thoughtful and considered view on Test / First Class cricket’s future direction, the administrators instead zipped up their hoodies, cranked up their gangster rap and sprinted up the undiscovered path to profit and shallow modernity. Probably kicking a dog walker and happy-slapping a pensioner along the way.

Have the authorities come to the deliberate conclusion that the pure-form of the game is terminally uncool, impossible to sell to a modern 20/20 obsessed audience and most importantly not lucrative? After all, this is the only value system that counts in the sporting corporate world. If this view exists at the very top then what hope does the long-form of the game have?

Clinging on to the last fading remnants of seasonal licence let us for a moment wheel out the ghost of Christmas, or should it be the ghost of cricket, past. If, like me, you happen to be on or around the unfortunate age of 39, English, and reading this, then you can only possibly be a diehard.

Throughout our youth everything possible was set in place to make us hate the game. I myself made the catastrophic mistake to love cricket in the summer of 1989. This was the summer when England meekly surrendered The Ashes to Allan Border’s Australian’s, and the tone was set for 16 years of ritual humiliation.

I was 12 back then, and endured this cycle of indignity and purgatory until that wondrous day at The Oval in 2005. Liking cricket at school was to mark yourself out as seriously uncool, and England were denounced by everyone, much to my frustration, as totally rubbish. Cricket to the uninitiated was a boring and soft game played by nerds, chewing on limp cucumber sandwiches and drinking tea (probably with an extended pinkie out of china cups).

There were a few high spots, the 1991 World Cup being one, but not many. Despite this conspicuous lack of success the grounds were usually full for Test Matches and one-dayers. I can also remember relatively healthy crowds down in Bournemouth for Hampshire’s out-ground matches. I saw the last ever championship game there versus Middlesex. The teams included David Gower, Malcolm Marshall, Robin Smith, Mike Gatting, Desmond Haynes, Angus Fraser, Phil Tuffnell and John Emburey. When was the last time we saw 8 proper internationals playing in a run of the mill championship game? Probably all down to central contracts.

It helped having only four TV channels and nothing much to do in summer holidays. Tony Lewis and Richie Benaud would be a regular fixture on the BBC as the Soul-Limbo theme tune faded out. Solid and reliable coverage. No fanfare or razzamatazz because it was the crusty BBC, but also because they had faith in the product, despite the routine incompetence on the field.

The nadir was reached in 1999 with the humbling home series defeat to New Zealand that ushered in the Duncan Fletcher era and happier times. A year earlier Channel 4 had taken over the TV rights – thus upgrading the BBC’s solid family saloon to a flashy sports car.

It seemed to me that cricket was on the up. The ECB brought in T20 in 2003 as a bit of fun to get the crowds in and fund the serious stuff. Mainly aimed at families as a mechanism to grow the game but also to lure out lads out the lash (once a year punters who were good for 5 or 6 rounds to swell the coffers). It is entertaining now to remember that many of the star names had little truck with it. They preferred to sit it out and stay fresh for real cricket. That changed of course with the IPL and its thick wads of cash.

In 2004 the ECB took the money and farmed the game out to Sky. Live Cricket was no longer reachable on terrestrial television after 70 uninterrupted years. They told us the money would be invested in grass roots and we tried to believe them. The following year England regained The Ashes. I remember running into a pub after work to catch the conclusion of the Old Trafford Test. It was full to the rafters with every single person watching the game intently. I had never seen that before. The nerdy game had found its way back into the mainstream.

The terrific opportunity existed to latch onto this success and new-found popularity. Players like Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff were recognisable and bona-fide 21st century superstars. But the chance was squandered. The ECB cut open the belly of the T20 golden goose via market saturation. However, they still see it as the panacea for all of cricket’s ills. Meanwhile the championship gets squeezed into ever more contorted shapes – truncated into the least attractive ends of the summer when the weather is at its most inclement.

The ECB seem to have concluded that no one is interested, and that the decline in county cricket (and by natural consequence test cricket) is terminal – save for a few anoraks with their thermos flasks and Play Fair Cricket annuals. However, I sense that the demand is actually still there (or is at least no worse than it was 30 years ago). The problem is that access to the supply has been removed. And because the product has become so inaccessible, it is now rapidly becoming redundant; therefore the prophecy is a self-fulfilling one.

Likewise England has opted to prioritise white ball cricket over red. I always held the belief that England would be the last defenders of the long game. That hope now looks forlorn. Day/night Tests are just a gimmick and will do little to arrest the perceived decline in interest in the long term. Instead it will just chip away at the purity and integrity of the game and further devalue the product.

Only a bovine board like the ECB would book a day / nighter this summer at fortress Edgbaston as a means to give a weak West Indies team a fighting chance in the dark. Do they think no one will come otherwise? I think they will. If it is marketed properly and with conviction and at a fair price.

Most worrying the amateur game is receding year by year. It is easy to blame that on schools but it was relatively non-existent at my school back in the 80’s an early 90’s. Yet, the local senior and youth leagues were then in rude health. In the late 90’s my old local Sunday league had 80 teams. This has now fallen to barely 25.

The reasons for all of this are complex. But I trace most of this back to mismanagement, greed and avarice at the very top of the sport. The proliferation of plastic international T20 franchise tournaments that compresses international schedules and lures the big names away doesn’t help. Plus, of course, the ECB’s fateful decision back in 2004 to take away the free availability of televised cricket to all. Compared to where we are now, the seismic change that World Series Cricket brought about was merely kids’ stuff.

Garry White

31 comments

  • “Liking cricket at school was to mark yourself out as seriously uncool, and England were denounced by everyone, much to my frustration, as totally rubbish. Cricket to the uninitiated was a boring and soft game played by nerds, chewing on limp cucumber sandwiches and drinking tea (probably with an extended pinkie out of china cups).”

    Sherlock Holmes here: I predict you come from the south of England.

      • Cricket is only seen as a “posh sport” in the south of england*, in the north and midlands its just the regular summer sport played by all classes.

        I was never exposed to this idea of cricket as a posh sport until I moved to the south and I found it perplexing. To me, posh sports were tennis and polo. To a northerner, rugby union was a posh sport, not cricket.

        *Its obviously also seen as posh in wales and scotland, due to its associations with englishness.

        • I think its cricket’s authorities who are seen as posh. I don’t reckon there’s much of a north versus south divide in terms of perception.

            • I’m 41 and have the same experiences as the author of the article. Sadly Giles Clarke and others have ruined cricket.

              I went to a very working class secondary modern in north Kent and we played lots of cricket. There are poor people in Kent and they played/watched cricket too!

    • Context is everything. At my school (in the early 70s) being in the cricket team marked you out as either suicidal or immune to pain and danger – due to having to face our two opening bowlers in the nets (on a composition wicket). One opened the bowling for England Schools and the other was his opening partner for Warwickshire Colts. I still have the bruises.

        • Bouncers are ok. It is the stock ball just short of a length which cuts back from the line just outside off…..and keeps hitting the same spot on the inside of the right thigh. 🙂

          • I made my debut for the school 1st XI against James Kirtley. Yeah, he was pretty sharp. Didn’t get me out though! I wasn’t good enough to get an edge 😉

  • I’d say Alan Stanford was the true beginning of the horrific beast Cricket is today. He kicked off the Carribean premier league, which led to the Indian Cricket league which then led to a counter IPL forming

    I remember prior to the first t20 world cup India saying they wanted nothing to do with 20 over cricket!

  • Part of crickets problem is that there is too much of it. Part of crickets strength is that there is too much of it.

    Punters can’t get excited about New Zealand v Bangladesh or England v West Indies at the fag end of the season, but broadcasters like Sky love the fact that they can jut press the play button and for 300 days a year fill a channel without having to do much. The result seems to be more test cricket on TV and less people watching it or being interested in it.

    There also seems to be a growing gap of depth and quality. It reminds me of snooker at it’s peak compared to what it is today. We all need our Ronnie O’Sullivans or David Warners and it’s only in T20 that they are going to emerge. Thankfully Warner seems as committed to the national side and test cricket as he is to anything else.

    I’m not against day/night tests and would like to see how a test championship plays out.

    • It’s a hard one. Personally I want to be able to watch a test every week (different nations).. I have little to no interest in the domensric white ball stuff or int white ball slog a thons.

      Sure less is better in a way but you know as well as I do that it won’t be less test cricket, it’ll be less tests so players can go play 2020 etc. Aka, doing nothing to help except their bank balances

      Simple fact is, cricket needs to decide what format is primary and do that.

    • Interesting angle comparing cricket with snooker and probably T20 with pool. I’ve been watching the UK Masters on BBC 2, packed house, mostly aging audience. If you think standards have dropped, Stephen Hendrie and Steve Davis differ from you. They said it was higher quality than ever. The attraction is that you get to see the top players in action

  • We’ve had free-to-air cricket recently, albeit Big Bash T20 from Oz on Channel 5 but maybe it is a step in the right direction.

    I love the long format of the game but I enjoy T20 as well.

    The schedule(s) are the issues, international fixtures overlapping the county season so much mean that the county game is starved of some of the best players, although a lot of them are released for a 3 hour jaunt for a T20 game.

    • Absolutely. I remember once begging the boss to let me have the next morning off because I knew Viv Richards would be batting for Somerset nearby at Hove (he got a century). Also, treasured memories of championship games where I’ve watched Botham, Imran Khan, Gower, Tresco, Monty and many more as well as touring sides playing full strength county sides. It’s utter stupidity to reduce the quality of the product if you want to sell tickets.

  • D/N Tests can work in certain parts of the world but not in England with the long twilights and chilly evenings (nor probably on the subcontinent with the heavy dew). The last D/N Tests in UAE and Australia worked fine.

    As for the big names, ABDV has confirmed he will play the IPL but won’t tour England. That’s our present and future, folks!

  • A significant problem is the management of those players who would, in the past, have brought crowds into red ball cricket. This can best be seen in the activities of the irredeemably corrupt West Indies cricket authorities. The greatest attraction in world cricket, for 15 years from 1975 to 1990 was the fearsome West Indies team. Today their best players no longer turn out in tests. Why? Because the authorities refuse to pay them a realistic fee when they can earn fortunes playing T20.

    Until and unless the ICB introduce rules about availability, requiring players to be available for tests if they are to be eligible for lucrative T20 competitions, then the core of competitive test nations will shrink. And if rules are brought in they need to be accompanied by rules about what % of income needs to be distributed via test match fees in order to ensure equity.

    • Great idea. Say players must be available for their countries if they want to play in the IPL. But is such an arrangement possible politically?

      • Amazingly this is exactly the rule that the even more corrupt FIFA have for world football. Several Premier League clubs are currently finding out that it works. Alan Nyom of West Brom has had to sit out the last 2 games because he refused to go to the Africa Cup of Nations with Cameroon.

  • The thing that signals the terminal decline isn’t the fact no one watches the county games or the majority of internationals around the world.. I don’t even think having games on FTV will have that much effect as IPL and now BBL has been on and the figures are tiny.

    The biggest indication of the game is the following

    ‘Most worrying the amateur game is receding year by year. It is easy to blame that on schools but it was relatively non-existent at my school back in the 80’s an early 90’s. Yet, the local senior and youth leagues were then in rude health. In the late 90’s my old local Sunday league had 80 teams. This has now fallen to barely 25.’

    Sadly, people seem convinced a few midweek evening 2020’s are adequate and a few win/lose games at weekend will keep the interest in the game. Sadly, it won’t

    I don’t think it’s fixable now either because you have a generation who have grown up playing 2020 and told draw cricket is boring and the older ones are leaving the game in droves which is hurting the game. Add that to the 30/40’s who,are quitting more now too and you are in trouble

    2020’s won’t solve this as who the hell is going to give up time for,such a small game. Footy/rugby/golf you get a good game.. 2020, nope

    • IPL was a shit standard competition played by ex-cricketers in teams with ridiculous names, shown during the working day on a slightly obscure channel, but still got good viewing figures.

      When is the BBL on? I hear its on C5, but when? I haven’t seen a game. Presumably its on at 8am or something when everyone is either still in bed or leaving for work.

      In junior cricket, we have a problem with getting kids involved, although people like me are working our asses off to try and reverse it. Cricket is a difficult game to pick up from scratch, and a lot of the skills are picked up by watching professionals on the tv – if you never see cricket, the technique remains something of a mystery.

      However, at an adult level, our local league has more teams and more players than it has ever had at any point in its history. I made this point about cricket declining to some team mates recently and they laughed at me. My club has gone from having 1 team and 15 players to having 5 teams and 60 players in under 5 years.

      Well-run clubs expand, poorly-run clubs fold. Its the same as any other part of life.

      You also repeat the same nonsense about T20s – I have explained to you why this is wrong, so why do you keep repeating the same gibberish? You are either chronically stupid or a mendacious troll.

      • Having done the numbers for WEPL, BIrmingham premier league, Northants, Kent, east of England, military and all their associated feeder leagues, I got the number of teams actively playing from 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2016.. I can say that the numbers of teams have drastically lowered. (Luckiky this thick person has employees I can task to spend two weeks collating information if I so wish).

        I also did as many 2020 leagues as I could and they did show an increase between 2000 and 2010 but have fallen away a lot between 2010 and 2016.

        Luckily you and I will never agree so I’ll say again, if you would like to not respond to my posts and I’ll continue to ignore yours and it’s a win win for everyone.

By Garry White

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