A six point plan to fix English cricket
Twenty years ago last month the ECB was formed. With some fanfare, the then chairman, Lord MacLaurin, announced the launch of ‘Raising the Standard’ – a master plan aimed at revitalising the game at all levels. The Test team was in the doldrums, the one-day side was erratic, county cricket achieved little and was a scheduling nightmare, amateur clubs struggled for finance and players and cricket in state schools was non-existent.
Sound familiar? The situation facing the ECB chairman Colin Graves and his chief executive Tom Harrison is similar now. In some ways it is worse. At least in 1997 international cricket and the domestic one-day competitions were live on the BBC. Television audiences of 5m were common for Test matches or NatWest Trophy finals (although the 1997 final was postponed a week to accommodate the funeral of Princess Diana, an event which attracted a TV audience of 32m). Cricket vernacular was common parlance. The top players were immediately identifiable to the general public. When I told an apocryphal story about Mike Gatting’s genitals at a (private) club dinner it made the celebrity page in The Sun (a piece written, shamelessly, by a certain Piers Morgan).
Lord MacLaurin was a strong, ambitious leader who drove a number of good initiatives through, like central contracts and the birth of T20 and county premier leagues. But he made one fatal mistake. He allowed home Test matches to be taken off the protected list of sporting events that had to be shown on terrestrial TV. It was a Brexit moment (at least in a cricketing sense). There was a short-term benefit in that it allowed the ECB to double the income from broadcasters.
But, despite the ultimate bonanza of a £260m four-year deal with Sky (2014–17), the damage of selling all cricket exclusively to the satellite broadcaster is now clear. While 8.2m watched the final throes of the Trent Bridge Ashes Test of 2005 (on Channel 4), only 467,000 saw Joe Root take the winning catch to defeat the Aussies on the Saturday of the first Ashes Test of 2015. There would have been a further 1.2m watching the Channel 5 highlights that night, but still the drop in interest is vast.
The move to Sky has alienated many traditional fans, still in a huff a decade down the line about their beloved sport being effectively confiscated, and current star players like Root or Ben Stokes are not the household names they should be. Jos Buttler, one of the most phenomenal strikers of a cricket ball this country has ever produced, went to the Christmas service at his local Somerset village church last month. A few knowing adults recognised him, but hardly any kids.
This is the ultimate problem facing the ECB. Children – the future of the game – are less interested in cricket than they have ever been. This is not just cricket’s fault, of course. There are so many tantalising distractions at home to dissuade them from going outside and hitting/kicking a ball about. The idea that the kids would hang about all Saturday afternoon at the local cricket club watching their dad play belongs to a bygone era. Even if they did go nowadays, they would probably be so immersed in their devices they would not notice the game. The advent of 4G mobile technology is killing junior sport.
So, here’s the thing. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Cricket must use this technology to its benefit. The game needs an equivalent of a YouTube site like F2 Freestylers (5m subscribers), where highly talented freestyle footballers display amazing tricks and skills. Cricket needs the wow factor. Actually it’ is there already. A potted collection of the best of Buttler, Root, Jason Roy, Sam Billings and co might do to start with. A site that celebrates the diversity and skill of the modern game in bite-sized chunks.
There have been half-hearted attempts at this. They are of negligible use, however, if the public do not actually know who these people are or what they are doing. The success of F2 Freestylers is partly that their content is identifiable with the wizardly trickery of familiar names like Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, who were, until 2015 at any rate, live on ITV in the Champions League. Apart from brief glimpses of Eoin Morgan or Luke Wright in the IPL (also previously on ITV), no English cricketer had been seen live on free to air TV for 12 years until Eoin Morgan, Ian Bell and co (Big Bash, Channel 5) last month. The brilliance of Root and Buttler, in particular, and their white-ball cricket in general, is permanently behind a paywall.
Cricket needs to get back into the public consciousness. It has ceased to have national meaning or relevance, except every four years with the Ashes, or the World Cup (which, invariably, England exclude themselves from after the group stages). Tinkering at the margins – a bit of rescheduling here and there – will not work. It must reinvent itself. We all have to in this day and age. That is why the establishment of a new T20 tournament, creating fresh teams and allegiances, is pivotal. A new T20 competition in 2020: it is a marketeer’s dream. Nothing else will generate proper national (and international) interest and therefore woo the terrestrial broadcasters. They will not contemplate the unpredictability, schedule-commandeering or exorbitant cost of Tests any more. Period.
In spite of all the other media platforms and imaginatively packaged online highlights, some free-to-air TV is fundamental to cricket’s rejuvenation. It is the only way to reach every household. (And, frankly, the idea of a consumer paying for anything in the media is so 20th century). This is acknowledged even by the subscription services themselves. The sports head of one said to me recently “English cricket needs BBC TV on board. No other channel will do”. It may be that the ECB has to offer the BBC some rights for virtually nothing: a loss leader. That is the value of the exposure the Corporation offers. A weekly Monday and Wednesday night 7pm slot on BBC2 showing the new T20 during the summer holidays, and a weekly, Match of the Day-type highlights show would be ideal.
Meet and greet
A terrestrial TV partner is crucial to the ECB’s Cricket Unleashed campaign, a framework for developing the game launched last summer. “Together we will get a bat and ball into more hands,” says the mission statement, “introduce more people to the power of cricket, and show a new generation how to get involved.”
It is a great initiative, but it is dead in the water unless that ‘new generation’ can see the pinnacle of the game and the stars at play.
That means watching them on telly, in the flesh, and meeting them too. The England players need to be available to play in at least some of the new T20 tournament. In the last three years for instance, Root has played just five T20 matches for Yorkshire. The stars need to be visible and accessible. They and their county colleagues have to engage more with communities and state schools. Every primary school in the country should have at least one visit from a professional player annually to conduct a short coaching session, sign pictures and give away match tickets and kit. It is the responsibility of every county to organise this.
It will be worth it. It would have triple the impact of the government’s tame 2014 offering to state primaries of £150m for sport. That works out at about £9,000 per school. Or a specialist PE teacher once a week. Is that going to arrest the chronic unhealthiness and inertia of the nation’s youth? Er, no. But for the charity Chance to Shine’s fantastic efforts, the situation would be even worse.
Ask the family
We need to start young. Kids begin assimilating their sporting preferences from aged five onwards. Mine did (and it was not all cricket). It is good to hear that one of the core features of Cricket Unleashed is a simple version of the game for five to 8-year-olds (All Stars Cricket) which was a great success in Australia, taking cricket from sixth favourite sport to most popular amongst the under-10s almost overnight.
‘Technique’ should be a forbidden word at this stage. It is all about experimentation and having fun, not put your foot to the pitch play straight and keep it on the deck. Also, in common with successful children’s literature, it helps to engage the parents. They will be reassured to know that All Stars Cricket enhances nine out of the 10 vital motor skills in their little darlings (running, throwing, jumping, catching etc), more than any other junior sport. It teaches respect for your opponent too. Sounds like we could all do with a dose of it, not just the kids.
The county game needs to be much better at catering for these wide-eyed newbies, and families in general. There will be a lot of harrumphing at this statement and accusations of dumbing down. So be it. If nothing is done, more counties will follow Durham into bankruptcy. The few thousand adults (mostly middle-aged men) who regularly attend county matches will not sustain the domestic game. A new audience is required.
The success of the Big Bash is rooted in the warm, inclusive welcome at the ground and the varied entertainment on offer. Matt Dwyer, the Australian heading the ECB’s growth and participation department recounts the excitement of his five-year-old son at his first Big Bash game: “As soon as he arrived he had his face painted, was given an inflatable ‘slapper’ to clap with and watched some motorcross riders doing acrobatic stunts. There were 250 young kids on the outfield being shown how to play. The music was fantastic – songs he knew. It was great fun even before the match started and he loved it. I took him to a NatWest Blast game the following year. As soon as we arrived someone spilt beer on him and Bon Jovi was blaring in his ear. After 20 minutes he wanted to leave. It showed me just how difficult it is to deliver a fan experience that appeals to both kids and party-goers. ”
Added to that, a whole family can attend a Big Bash match for the same price an adult pays for a NatWest Blast ticket (£20). Our pricing still puts a lot of people off.
The fairer sex
Women, who often hold the family purse strings these days, are still too often treated in a patronising way at cricket. There must be something wrong if there are more men dressed as women than actual women at the game. A fundamental change of attitude is required. They should be actively targeted. Encouraging them to attend matches and properly engage with the game is key to its survival. Not only will they bring the kids with them but more importantly most primary school teachers are women. It is they who can decide if their classes do gymnastics, dance or cricket in their weekly PE lessons. The success of the Kia Super League is valuable in this process, spreading the word about the standard and benefits of women’s cricket. Double headers at major venues (women’s matches preceding men’s) work well.
For those worrying that this plan is just sending English cricket careering helter-skelter down a T20 road knocking every other format out of the way, relax. With sensible, coherent scheduling, Tests, County Championship and T20 can all co-exist. Six Tests (all starting on a Thursday, one free-to-air) in two series of three, plus accompanying three-match ODI series, allows scope for a domestic T20 window in late July/August. A County Championship of 14 matches (all starting on a Friday) can be spread fairly evenly throughout the season. The NatWest Blast can be still be played in regional groups – including those treasured local derbies – leading to semi-finals and final as we have now. There should be at least one match (perhaps the final?) at Wembley. Harlequins manage to sell 80,000 tickets for a Premiership match at Twickenham in the Christmas holidays. It is a brilliant event. Cricket could do the same.
The 50-over domestic tournament should be an FA Cup style knockout involving all 38 counties (Cheshire, Cornwall etc) and Ireland and Scotland too. We need to take our exciting brand of white-ball cricket round the country for all to see and enjoy. It’s a fantastic product.
Strengthen the core
The top and bottom of the game are in need of the most remedial attention, but the middle – growing more and more fragmented by the day – must not be neglected. Clubs are struggling for players in Saturday league cricket, and there is a growing trend to play shorter forms in midweek, often outside the traditional club network. Last Man Stands, a cricketing equivalent of five-a-side football, using municipal pitches on summer evenings, now has 772 teams in the UK. There are numerous Asian Sunday leagues (30 per cent of amateur cricketers in the UK are of South Asian origin). There are even East London taxi drivers who play organised matches in supermarket car parks when they knock off at 3am. I am not making this up.
Cricket has to find a way to tap into this burgeoning market. Without disrupting these contests, a national midweek T20 league would attract many of these itinerant players to more active engagement with the clubs. Why Last Man Stands works so well is every team’s performances are recorded and ranked on a world ladder. They all feel part of something bigger. It is inclusive, and there are awards and a finals day at the end.
Research shows that British Asians are six times more likely to be interested in cricket than their white counterparts. Cricket is in their blood. They have to be encouraged to be part of the mainstream. More Asians must be lured onto regional boards and governing bodies and into coaching structures. We should be championing their intrinsic interest. Moeen Ali would be their figurehead.
The bottom line is this. Cricket takes up a huge amount of space and time, which 21st century people have not got. T20 and the Ashes will, in the long term, be the only things that survive. We can preserve the game’s diversity for a little while longer, but it will not be a simple process. It requires huge co-operation and co-ordination, and great patience. There will be wrong turns and collisions along the way. The ECB, even with their 263 staff, cannot do it alone. All of us – players, coaches, writers, commentators, supporters – can help. At least the product – great players, good blokes – is excellent. But the market is tough. We all must redouble our efforts to leave a proper legacy and try to immerse the next generation in the greatest sport on earth. Or at least delay the inevitable.