Imagine this. You’re the captain of a village cricket team and you’re trying to get players together for a league match. You phone almost 50 people, and you manage to get only 9 people prepared to play. Imagine, too, that you’re a Level 2 coach, and that you’re tasked with getting as many children to junior training on a Friday evening, and only half the 48 who attended last year turn up. How do you feel, and who or what do you blame.
There’s the weather, of course, which last year, and at the beginning of this year, has been so atrocious that it wiped out 50% of youth training sessions, though not many games. Then there’s on the player availability side, social mobility. More people than ever are having to move away to get jobs or go to university (sometimes that’s a life style choice, sometimes it isn’t a choice at all). But that’s all a little simplistic.
The last couple of years, and this season (and we’re only 5 games in), it’s becoming obvious to me who the real culprits are. If I take it in reverse order of my headline, let me blame the Tories first of all. Our current economic climate means that people are working flat out all week, just to make ends meet, mothers and fathers, players and their families. They don’t want to spend the weekend, or one day of the weekend, playing cricket, when they’re knackered, when they’ve been away from their families all week, when they’re hard-pushed to put food on the table, never mind paying a £7 match fee. And, yes, I do blame the current government for this, because this exercise in austerity is failing, because there’s no effort to stimulate growth or alleviate the tax burden for the poorly-paid, because the 1% are still not paying their fair share in taxes.
Next, Sky. It’s ludicrous to allow test matches to be, to all intents and purposes, to be privatised. They should be broadcast on free-to-view channels so that anyone who wants to watch them can, so that anyone who doesn’t want to, or can’t, put money into fascist Murdoch’s pockets, can watch them. Not only that, watching cricket on TV has been formative for many generations in this country, and successive generations have now lost out on the test cricket watching experience, because it’s become a commercial venture rather than delivering sport to the masses. The West Indies are experiencing similar problems, and the decline of their cricketing fortunes can be directly linked to subscription TV, and to the glorification of high-earning sports rather than respect for a game which encapsulates life more than any other game ever played. It is an outrage that the game’s governing authorities have allowed themselves thus to be hijacked. And the net result is that less kids experience cricket on the telly, and that less kids are interested in playing it.
Last, and not least; in fact, the greatest culprit of them all, at least here in England – the ECB. The governing authority of the game, the guardians of the game, more powerful now than the MCC, they have it within their power to deliver cricket to free-to-view channels. There are ways and means of making it pay and pay enough to maintain the game at grassroots and international level. But will they do it? No. In fact, they permanently send emails to village clubs asking them to endorse Sky coverage in exchange for free Sky subscriptions into what may well be non-existent pavilions with running water, electricity and bars. And those letters and emails can sometimes take on a threatening tone, although precious little money actually cascades down to the level at which I play cricket. I have written to them at least once asking them why they don’t distribute more of their blood money to village clubs, why they aren’t more explicit in their support for small clubs, why small clubs are always struggling for money, even when their membership numbers are fairly healthy.
And it’s not just that that’s discouraging people from playing, people from joining cricket club committees, volunteering to help on a weekly basis. The ECB’s Clubmark scheme, which marks out clubs as being well run and efficient and worthy of support, requires so much paperwork, on an almost daily basis, that most clubs can’t actually cope with the administrative burden. It’s almost a full-time job for one person. Those employed by the ECB, of course, to check on these Clubmark clubs, are paid, are employees, are possibly even on ECB part-funded pension schemes and happily send so many emails to club volunteers that they’re just about spammers. But club volunteers don’t get paid; they’ve got day jobs and families, they’ve got other interests and concerns besides cricket; and, most importantly of all, they’d like to, just now and again, play cricket without having to worry about risk assessments, forms that need to be filled in, and Ts to be crossed and other letters to be dotted.
There is a crisis waiting to happen in English cricket, where grassroots cricket collapses, and only public school players are afforded the luxury of playing regular cricket, where there will be no significant talent moving the blurred pathway to international cricket, where Twenty20 slapabouts will be the order of the day and no-one understands how to declare or bat for a draw, or play the game fairly. And that day is not far away.