An abbreviated version of this article appeared in All Out Cricket magazine, June 2015
Two weeks before this season began, we heard that one of the sides in our division (Division Two of the Derbyshire County Cricket League) had pulled out, unable to guarantee enough players for two teams. The week before the season began, three more teams pulled out of divisions lower down the leagues. This is becoming a familiar pattern. It is the tangible evidence to match the ECB’s figures released last November, which revealed that in recreational cricket across England and Wales the number of players aged 14 to 65 dropped from 908,000 in 2013 to 844,000 in 2014, and more than 5% of games were conceded because at least one of the clubs was unable to field a side.
There are many reasons for this worrying drop. It’s a complex picture which has much to do with the times in which we live. However, one overriding factor eclipses all others: Sky TV.
Great, comprehensive coverage it may be but so few people can see it. In the glorious summer of 2005, there were days when the test matches on Channel 4 had 8.4 million viewers. Cricket was part of the national collective consciousness, a thread woven into the fabric of society, a national cultural reference point. It was also so exciting and such great sporting drama, that you couldn’t wait to get down the cricket club to share the thrill with your team-mates.
How did the ECB ride the crest of this wave? Take it off terrestrial television and move the decimal point on those viewing figures in the wrong direction.
The ECB’s solution seems to be predicated on funnelling large amounts of Sky money into ambitious player recruitment projects. These are, by and large, undeniably a good idea – Chance to Shine, for example. What’s not to like about a programme to take cricket into schools and introduce kids to the game?
But Chance to Shine – and other ideas – are simply making the best of a bad job. Having someone come into schools to teach cricket might interest one or two for a while but when the coaching stops, in all likelihood the interest will stop too. In contrast, a child grows up in a family that loves cricket, where cricket is on the television and where the local club is part of their lives, and there’s a much stronger base for the creation of a cricketer for life. People need to learn the joys of cricket, not be told them. Schemes imposed from the top down simply don’t work as well as organic growth from the grass roots.
Part of the issue is that the joy of cricket is not always immediate. It is in its nuances, in the reading between the lines, in the story that is so much bigger than its constituent chapters. By growing up with cricket all around you, on the television, down at the cricket club, you grow to understand that it’s not all about the occasional blast of action, it’s also about the barely noticeable tremors. It’s about a bowler’s skill, a batsman’s temperament, a mental battle, a verbal joust, a tactical fight, the pitch, the weather, the state of the ball. This is a game where moving one fielder one yard could change everything. You don’t pick up this kind of nuance by seeing a 30 second clip on the news. This is the stuff that seeps into your consciousness over long periods of time, catalysed perhaps by the insight of Benaud, Cozier or Atherton.
Without the deeply-rooted love of the game fostered in their youth, adults too easily lose the habit of playing. The complete absorption I find in the game seems to be thinner on the ground these days. Saturday cricket was (and to a large extent remains) the focus of my week in the summer months but for many these days, it is simply something to do if they have nothing else on.
Numbers, therefore, are falling. Clubs find it difficult to keep going. Once a club is struggling, it can be a slippery slope. Players have the choice of staying with their local club which may be struggling to put teams out, can’t pay a groundsman, can’t afford to repair the showers and so on, or they can go to one of the big clubs, with its four Saturday teams, grant-funded clubhouse, club pro and belting track. One player goes, then another, and another and the tipping point is soon reached. Another club falls by the wayside.
Sadly these clubs that are falling are often the traditional, small village clubs – clubs that used to work perfectly in their unique environs. They don’t have any ambitions to be a big club with 10 junior teams, four senior teams and a host of ex-professionals. But the latter is exactly the kind of club that receives most of the focus, and has the wherewithal to secure funding and support. So this kind of club keeps getting bigger and the little village clubs continue to die away. It’s a self-perpetuating homogenisation of the recreational game that is not helpful in the long term. With participation decreasing, surely we should be more creative and less prescriptive?
As clubs disappear, we’re in danger of losing cricket as a broad church and consequently the diversity to attract different people to take up and stay in this beautiful game. No amount of Chance to Shine money is going to arrest this decline.