It’s so hard to know where to begin this month. Between the Hundred and this week’s dismal first innings batting performance at Trent Bridge, Ben Stokes’ stepping back and the postponement of England’s tour to Bangladesh, cricket is having quite the time of it.
While these are all separate events and circumstances that merit their own detailed discussions, they are also all intertwined in the existential crisis facing cricket.
I have to say, though, that I’m not certain that this existential crisis isn’t one borne out of the imaginations of administrators, or planted there by a raft of well-paid strategists and advisers who need to justify their salaries, perhaps.
So much is being done to ‘revive interest in cricket’ in England. Specifically red ball cricket, which if you listen to any cricket writer is dying a slow death. Supposedly, the way to interest more people in the slowest and most subtle form of the game is to attract them to the fastest, least subtle forms of the game.
Given that Test cricket in England sells out fairly regularly, even with Day 1 Lord’s tickets costing upwards of £150, I’m not so sure it’s struggling. Yes, chilly May days are quieter but on the whole, Test cricket is doing about as well as it can do when it’s regularly selling out its stadiums.
So maybe the problem is with the lack of diversity in cricket audiences. I applaud the ECB for thinking about this and trying to address it. I’m just not quite sure whether it’s women and children they want (not sure why they think our brain capacity can only appreciate the Hundred) or whether it’s the British Asian supporter, more likely to be city-based and with less affiliation to a county that they are aiming to attract. There was some brilliant work a couple of years ago trying to identify the barriers to engagement among the British Asian community and while I am certainly no expert, this work seemed to do a really good job in looking at why it is that so many British Asians play regular cricket but relatively few attend Test cricket.
As it is, I have enjoyed The Hundred; it’s a fun spectacle and worthwhile entertainment. But I understand the concern for first class cricket and the red ball county game in general. Freddie (he of this Addis newsletter) shared some interesting stats about the lack of first class balls faced by our batsmen in the run up to the first Test against India. It all makes for fairly compelling stuff when you are thinking about county long form cricket as the run up to Test match success. It did make me wonder how much more long form cricket (I really hate the whole red ball/white ball language!) they would have played without a) The Hundred and b) Covid, with all its associated changes to schedules and everything else.
There’s no doubt that the rescheduled IPL in September is pushing back England’s tour of Bangladesh and it seems to show a clear priority from the ECB. Does it also allow any Bangladeshi players to participate in the IPL though? And it seems to me the ECB is stuck between its players wanting to maximise their income and giving Bangladesh the respect they deserve as a Test playing nation. If the ECB went ahead with the tour as planned, surely half our players would simply make themselves unavailable and we would only send a half strength team. With our selection issues at the moment I’m not even sure we could turn out a reserve squad to be honest.
Ben Stokes’ situation again is surely linked. He has rightly received enormous support from all areas and without wishing to speculate on his individual circumstances it is heartening how far this topic has come since Jonathan Trott or even Marcus Trescothick. Quietly, in the background, the PCA and ECB have been working to pin down family and bubble arrangements for the upcoming Ashes tour of Australia. The obvious reading between the lines is that if families can’t go with, there are players who won’t want to go. While it’s easy to sit here and roll out the ‘I would kill to live their life’ line, clearly for those individuals these are major concerns that make a huge difference.
It all seems to come back down to the central question “what is the point of cricket?” For me, it is not that it makes money; not that is has a higher audience share or larger stadiums or sells more merchandise. It’s not about an ever-expanding team of back room staff at every level in order to spend the money that Sky he invested in the game. So if these aren’t the aims, then cricket isn’t broken and it doesn’t need fixing.