What English cricket could *really* learn from rugby

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.


  • Outstanding article. I agree entirely with everything written…The ECB are effectively killing off cricket as a mainstream sport and its an absolute sporting tragedy

  • The travesty of the Ashes broadcast figures is that In Australia where it was free to air the viewing figures for the first session (which comes on at 8pm-10pm in the eastern states where 80% of the population resides). Was typically double the Sky figures – this from roughly 1/3 the population. Even in the 2nd session which doesn’t start until 10:40 was often getting 450-500,000.

    One of the great disappointments of the 3 years I spent living in England was not seeing live cricket on TV. I think it is just a lie that there is no audience for it with the number of digital channels available – which is one of the reasons the Ashes in the UK has come back on FTA TV in Aus after nearly disappearing a few years ago.

  • Absolutely right.

    And that’s without reckoning with the (several million ?) saddoes like me, who refuse on principal to pay for Sky.

  • On a positive note, it looks as though England will be fielding a leg spinner in a test match for the first time in … well, a very long time indeed.

  • “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?”

    It’s difficult to prove these things but there have been several questions about cricket recently on the TV quiz show ‘Pointless’. The show gives 100 members of the public 100 seconds to answer questions.

    One question concerned naming anyone who’d scored a century for England since 1985. The top three were Botham, Flintoff and Pietersen (none scored over forty). I remember that Andrew Strauss and Moeen Ali were pointless answers.

    Another concerned naming anyone who’d played in the last two Ashes. Pietersen was again in the top three. Cook scored seven.

  • Maxie does the political stuff brilliantly. I agree wholeheartedly with everything he says.

    I’d just like to add that the RFU and many prominent rugby pundits believe that the team has missed a golden opportunity. Had they reached the final they believe it would have grown the game, captured the public’s imagination, and cemented the sport’s future. Yet still they managed to attract nearly 50% of all people watching TV for two consecutive Saturdays. They’re just gutted it wasn’t 4 or 5 consecutive Saturdays.

    English cricket constantly blows ALL its opportunities year after year … voluntarily. It’s utter madness.

    No doubt we’ll get some people commenting here that FTA television simply doesn’t want cricket – so the ECB’s hands are tied. We hear this myth all the time. I have just one thing to say about this fallacy …

    If no other channel has wanted cricket since 2006, then why have Sky paid (and continue to bid) massive amounts of money for it? The goodness of their hearts maybe?!

    Sky has had no satellite or cable rival for the last ten years really – although BT sport is changing this now. The only rivals for the rights were basically FTA channels. Why did Sky pay so much if no FTA channels were interested?

  • With you 100% on this Maxi.
    The Rugby world cup figures have amazed me, not only the audiences but the attendance’s too.

    We have our own world cup here in 2019, it will be behind a pay wall, it won’t get exposure. It could bomb.

    I’m not too worried about test cricket in general, I think TV has changed so much that to expect TV companies to devote 200+ hours of time to cricket is asking a lot, BUT we’ve got to get some FTA cricket, start with T20 and grow it from there.
    There’s been a lot of disagreement over various subjects regarding English cricket in the last couple of years, however this is one thing it seems 99% agree on, its just we need to change the 1% who make the decisions opinion.

    • We wait six years for a comment from a reader with ‘accommodation’ in their user handle – and then two come along at once.

  • Great article as usual, avid reader.
    I think one other thing that cricket in general can learn from rugby out of this World Cup (speaking as a massive fan of both sports) is to get rid of this totally absurd idea of dropping the number of teams at the next World Cup. The only way for the lower tiered teams to improve, and be able to compete is if they receive a massive amount of funding from the international governing body *good luck with that* and an exposure to playing more high quality opppsition on big stages such as the World Cup. 12 years ago Australia put over 140 unnaposed points passed Namibia, this year Namibia scored a fantastic try against the world champions. That hasn’t come from cutting the weaker teams from the tournament, it has come from a commitment to improve world rugby and patience. Japan beating South Africa and Samoa is further evidence that the minnows of world rugby aren’t really minnows any more. The only reason cricket isn’t the same is the ICC are too concerned with lining their pockets and keeping the “big 3” happy. Absolute farce.

    Apologies for the lengthy post, kept it as concise as possible, it’s an issue I feel very strongly about!

    • Thanks for posting Jono. I agree with you. The minnows seem to be improving in rugby (Canada gave Italy a scare too) and Fiji look a good side. We keep hearing there are ‘no easy games’ in international football too. But can we say the same about cricket? Since Kenya beat Pakistan (was it?) over a decade ago, how many legitimate shocks or near shocks have there been … except games involving England and the Netherlands of course! That’s just us being useless ;-)

      • Well, Ireland beat West Indies in the last WC and England in the WC before that. They’ve also beaten Zimbabwe at least twice and tied with Pakistan in 2013.

        One reason why there aren’t many upsets may be how few matches the ‘big’ teams play against the associates. One good thing England are doing on this tour is playing an ODI against the UAE (which most tourists to UAE and even Pakistan have failed to do).

        The reason why the associates are being removed from the WC and the format rigged is not because they are uncompetitive but because they might knock out one of the big boys in a repeat of 2007.

  • Thanks for the excellent article, Maxie.

    I know I keep banging on about this, but I make no apology for doing so again. It beggars belief that the ‘outreach’ of English cricket was *so* much greater in the early Channel 4 years than now, when Sky are pumping so much money into the game. I’m referring to the period between 2000 and 2002, when Channel 4 used the cricket to drive their primetime schedules (the Caribbean Summer and Indian Summer seasons), they put on beach cricket, concerts and film events around the test matches (e.g. FatBoy Slim playing on Brighton Common during the Oval test of 2001 and the Bollywood film nights in Regents Park in 2002 – in all these cases, the big screens showed the cricket during the day before the events and there were beach cricket events and other sideshows), they released CDs of the Caribbean/Indian music. It was just so *vibrant*.

    What is such a shame is that (the 2000 summer excepted) it didn’t coincide with a vibrant England team. They weren’t playing particularly well, and they didn’t light up the public’s imagination with either their results or performances. It’s ironic that when the spark went out of the C4 marketing (owing to the executives who brought along the cricket coverage moving on, and their successors not caring quite so much about the sport) the England team’s performances increased. I often wonder what would have happened had the 2005 Ashes series coincided with C4’s 2001-era enthusiasm for the sport. Whilst the coverage was still superb in 2005, the ‘off-screen’ events and marketing had long been watered down by that point, and the contract with Sky had already been signed for the following years.

    Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that given these events reaching out to the general public were put on in a period when cricket was shown on an FTA channel and the team themselves were not in a high period of success (although I have great admiration for the Hussain/Fletcher era, it has to be stated that the England team in 2001-2 didn’t light up the public’s imagination as much as the Vaughan team did from 2003-5), why are the ECB not doing the same now? Either request Sky to fund and market these events, or use their money to put them on themselves! It seems that there is no desire to grow the game within the country. They are only interested in middle-class people who shop at Waitrose and can afford Sky subscriptions and match day tickets.

    The ECB in the late-90s and early-00s was full of wacky characters (Brian Bolus and Simon Pack, anyone?!) but under Lord MacLaurin, it seemed that the ECB genuinely wanted to get the game of cricket out there. Since 2005, the England team has generally been pretty competitive at home, and have been generally successful. There have been periods since when the team have been extremely successful. And they had a team of ‘characters’ (your Swanns, Andersons, Pietersons and Priors) that people could identify with. So why did they not try to put on events like Channel 4 did in the early 2000s? Divert some of Sky’s money to genuine outreach and some events to get enthusiasm for cricket across once again.

    And I have to mention the project in Kennington, where Channel 4, the ECB, the local council, Surrey CCC and the Lord’s Taveners paid for a new inner-city cricket pitch. Have Sky done anything like that?! Get the game out there. And if the ECB are genuinely unable to put cricket on FTA TV (not that I believe that for a second) then at least try to put vibrant events on. It’s all too conservative (with both small and large-Cs!) for me, these days.

  • Funnily enough, Michael Atherton has an article in the Times this morning (correctly) decrying the idea that cricket has anything to learn from rugby team “culture”, but fails entirely to draw the more pertinent lesson of your article.

    It would, of course, be quite wrong to suggest that the matter of who employs him would have anything to do with that….

  • A very good article but you must know that free to air TV are not interested in showing live Test cricket because of the late finishes whilst they will always show football or rugby as it is relatively shorter and they have a much larger potential audience.

    • That’s what we keep hearing David, but I don’t believe it’s true. When we spoke to Jarrod Kimber a few weeks ago, he told us that television loves cricket. It provides a captive market and 5 whole days of programming. As I said in my comment above, if FTA television didn’t want test cricket, why have Sky paid so much for exclusive rights to show it for the last 10 years?

  • Also, as Maxie has pointed out in the past, one of the reasons behind the idea of the ‘crown jewels’ is that it takes the issue of whether broadcasters want to show an event out of the equation. They have to show certain events because they are so much part of the nation’s cultural life. That’s the point. Do they really want to show, for example, the Commonwealth Games?

    It’s worth pointing out as well that when we talk of “broadcasters” we mean in reality a small number of senior managers with zero democracy, minimal accountability and precious little transparency.

  • Many thanks for your kind words. When time allows, the next thing I’d like to look at is where the Sky money actually goes – you won’t be surprised to hear that the ECB are not very transparent about this.


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