The other day here at TFT, James reflected on one of 2014’s less-reported episodes of ECB misjudgement: their obsession with Stuart Lancaster. If you’ll forgive me, I’d like to give the subject one more airing (even though Dmitri has got in first).
A quick recap. In March last year, Giles Clarke told the Evening Standard:
Stuart Lancaster has done a fantastic job. In a very short space of time, he has sorted out English rugby. He’s talked the language of teams which Paul Downton and I like very much. Paul said to me, ‘If you look at the most successful sporting team over the last 100 years, of course, it is the All Blacks’. One of the fundamentals they live by is the team. You just don’t get to play if you don’t believe in it. In the end the team must matter.
Two months later, Alastair Cook warmed to a similar theme when speaking to the Guardian.
Cook believes England can learn from the progression of the national rugby union side, [and] says there can be a lot to learn from Lancaster and the union operation.
“Lessons should be learned from the way they have gone about it,” said Cook. “Huge credit to Stuart and the guys for the way they have managed to change that. I imagine it has taken a hell of a lot of work and effort. They came second in the Six Nations three years in a row but everyone can see the development of the side. I went to watch them play against Ireland and it was a brilliant day.
“I shouldn’t talk too much about rugby but Stuart has obviously made some big calls about big players at certain stages of their career. He has picked people who are in form and who are playing well. Chris Ashton, he is an outstanding winger, he had a drop of form and they replaced him with a guy in form. Now ‘Ash the Splash’ has come back and done very well for Saracens and is back in the frame. That drives a higher standard.”
Choosing Stuart Lancaster and the England rugby union team as a role model to emulate? In the wake of Saturday’s calamity at Twickenham, it looks like Clarke, Downton and Cook might just have backed the wrong horse. Unless their explicit aim was to crash out of a world cup in the first round, in which case they not only matched their rugby counterparts’ achievements but beat them to it by seven months.
The ECB’s fixation with Lancaster’s rugby team epitomises many of the very worst qualities of English cricket’s ruling class: quarter-baked thinking; the passing off of second-hand opinions as one’s own wisdom; the wit and imagination of the golf-club bar-bore.
“The rugby guys have won some matches. Let’s try and be like the rugby guys”. Clarke, Cook and Downton’s thinking genuinely went no deeper than that. Scrunch down their remarks into specific points, and what do you have?
- Successful teams believe that teams are important.
- Successful teams pick players who are playing well, and drop those who aren’t.
- Alastair Cook had a “brilliant day” at the Ireland match.
With such a radical and strategically insightful manifesto as that, what could go wrong?
But here’s the tragedy. Forget the fetishisation of ‘team’, and Ash the bloody Splash. If Clarke and his cronies shifted their perspective by only a few degrees, they’d realise that English cricket could learn something very profound from the experience of English rugby.
A peak UK television audience of 11.6 million people watched Wales beat England in the rugby World Cup last Saturday week, a figure which represented 49% of the total TV audience. The average audience for the match was 6.33 million.
A week later, when England met Australia, the TV audience averaged 7.98 million and peaked at 10.96 million.
Even the less attractive rugby World Cup fixtures have drawn sizeable audiences. An average 2.51 million watched New Zealand v Namibia; 2.29 million saw Ireland beat Romania; the same number tuned in for South Africa v Samoa.
All these matches were shown live on free-to-air television, on ITV.
But how many people watched this year’s marquee event in English cricket – the Ashes – which was broadcast exclusively live on subscription television?
I approached Sky Sports to ask about their viewing figures. They replied to say that while five million people watched coverage of either the men’s or women’s Ashes at some point this summer, they do not release figures for average or peak audiences. Sky are so confident about the popularity of their coverage, they won’t say how many people were actually watching.
A few details have leaked out, here and there. The Guardian reported that only 467,000 viewers watched England beat Australia on the final day of the first Ashes test at Cardiff, barely more than the audience for the repeat of a 1974 Colombo film shown simultaneously that afternoon on ITV 3, which in turn was more than tuned in for the third day of the Cardiff match (340,000).
When England beat New Zealand on the pulsating final day of the Lord’s test in May – a match hyped as an epiphany for England cricket – only 577,000 watched on TV, fewer than the 757,000 who on another Sky Sports channel sat through that day’s Championship play-off final between Norwich City and Middlesbrough.
In the same report, the Guardian also looked back at previous Ashes series’ TV ratings.
Babatunde Buraimo, a senior lecturer of sports management at Liverpool University, says the average Channel 4 ratings for live coverage of the Ashes in 2001 was 1.11m. In 2005 that rose to 2.5m, with an astonishing 8.4m people transfixed by the climax of the fourth Test: at one point 48.4% of those watching TV were watching the Ashes.
While the data is incomplete – Buraimo does not have all the figures for the 2009 and 2013 Ashes series because Sky do not make them public – there is a worrying pattern based on Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (Barb) numbers.
In 2009 there were 14 occasions on which Sky’s live Ashes coverage made the top 30 weekly ratings for non-terrestrial stations. The figures, of between 670,000 and 1.1m viewers, were healthy too. Yet in 2013 only two sessions attracted more than 650,000 viewers and made Barb’s top 30.
A separate analysis by the BBC found that after the 2005 Ashes, when the coverage moved behind the Sky paywall, audiences declined to peaks of 1.92 million for the 2009 Ashes, and 1.3 million in 2013.
In this tale of two sports, the contrast couldn’t be clearer. Rugby, exposed to the public on free television, both at the World Cup and every year during the Six Nations, remains a mainstream sport.
This autumn, for two Saturdays in a row, the nation gathered in front of the TV to watch England (and Wales) play rugby – the kind of shared, mass participatory, experience which weaves sport so powerfully into our national culture.
During the last few weeks, rugby has been Britain’s leisure pursuit, and had England progressed further in the tournament, the impact would have been greater still. The players have beamed out from every corner of our newspapers. Free television has been awash with the game’s iconography. And when England were knocked out of the World Cup on Saturday, their exit led the news.
When England’s cricketers bombed in their own world cup, last March, hardly anyone noticed. In the UK, the coverage was paywalled – unlike in Australia, where the final, broadcast free on Channel 9, reached an audience of 4.2 million (out of a population of 24 million) and became the most-watched cricket match in Australian history.
In Britain, cricket is now as niche a sport as boxing or NFL – perhaps even more so. On Sunday, BBC Two had coverage of the New York Jets v the Miami Dolphins. Boxing pops up on TV during the Olympics and occasionally on ITV. Even darts and rugby league get a look in.
Cricket is now probably the only ‘major’ sport which is never, ever shown live on free-to-air television. The result is its disappearance from the radar of national consciousness. How many cricketers since 2005 have become celebrities? Who would recognise Ben Stokes if he walked into your local pub? How many children have heard of Steve Finn?
In their insularity and greed, the ECB have turned cricket into a marginal sport to exploit short-term commercial value. In their avarice and stupidity, the ECB have systematically lined their pockets while deliberately narrowing cricket’s constituency, making the game the exclusive domain of the comfortably-off. In their arrogance and selfishness, the ECB have deprived whole generations of children from low-income families of any meaningful access to the game.
While Colin Graves hands out the swagbags to the county chairmen who elected him, the board hands out pittances to Chance To Shine, and expects kids to be grateful for patronising You Tube videos of Joe Root playing the ukelele.
If we go on like this, cricket as an English sport will be dead within twenty years. It is not yet too late to change direction. But time is running out fast.