A Saturday in May and I made my way to Edgbaston to watch Warwickshire play Lancashire in the Royal London One Day Cup as befits a retired cricketer. It was cold and there were short, sharp showers which included some hail. The crowd were a pleasant lot with something of a Commonwealth flavour: I identified South Africans and Canadians as well as the more predictable Indians and Pakistanis and English. They were generous in their applause for players on both sides. It was a decent game and well contested, the crucial performance being a century stand by two young Warwickshire batsmen, Hain and Banks, neither of whom I had previously heard of. The match was declared as having been won by Warwickshire at the “cut-off point” of 6.45 pm at which moment Warwickshire had reached the target set for that time by the famous Duckworth-Lewis formula. The result was of no importance: it never had been to Warwickshire and it had ceased to matter to Lancashire a couple of hours earlier when it was obvious that Yorkshire were being rolled over at Worcester.
My overwhelming impression was one of bewilderment at what had happened to domestic one-day cricket. It cost two pounds to get in yet the crowd was derisory, a couple of thousand people scattered round a ground that holds twenty five thousand. The professional one day season is now marginalised to the damp days of April and May and is all over before the football season has finished. If you had diligently read up your Wisden or Playfair to find out who might be playing you might have thrilled to the prospect of seeing Liam Livingstone and Jos Butler, respectively Lancashire’s captain and wicket-keeper, as they are regarded as two of the world’s most exciting batsmen. But they were both in India, earning serious money in the Indian Premier League in a yet shorter version of the game, though James Anderson, England’s leading test match bowler, was playing. This marginalisation of the “one day”, 50-over game is an odd business because it is assumed globally to be the normal form of the game and is the form in which the World Cup is contested.
For a spectator of my age it is particularly strange to reflect that the competition I was watching was the successor to the Gillette Cup (1963-80) and its successor the Nat West Cup. In the 1970s a ticket to one of Lancashire’s games in the cup was a precious thing indeed and that in a era when it was very rare to need a ticket for a football match. Those games ran to a finish and there are legends of heroics in the dusk still discussed by old men in pubs (and available on YouTube). The competition climaxed in September at a packed Lord’s and was watched by an eight-figure television audience. So in watching this rather desolate successor competition it is impossible to avoid the question, “How did we get here from there?” The domestic fixture list is now a complete shambles. The “first class” (four day) game is also marginalised to the point when in 2017 the young Lancashire batsman Haseeb Hameed was a candidate for England selection, but it was impossible to know whether he was in good form or not because the county did not have a first class fixture for forty three days at the height of the season.
During this time the players were, of course, playing the newest and shortest version of cricket, the T20 version of twenty overs per side, deemed almost universally by those in authority to be the best or only chance of extending the game’s appeal to a wider and younger audience. I should say straight away that I am not an opponent of T20; it would be very odd if I were given that I played it for fifty years and frequently declared it to be the finest possible way of spending an English summer evening. The game is only new to professional cricket; amateurs have played it time out of mind. It is a good game and retains most of the skills of cricket, including varieties of slow bowling. Of course, it could never be as varied or as tactically complex as the long game. I am inclined to think it is innocent of the charge of undermining traditional cricket skills, even if it sometimes looks that way when you watch certain English players in action. After all, cricketers are trained from the outset (or should be) to play appropriately in different situations and different formats simply extend that requirement. In the last year I have watched young teams from Pakistan and the West Indies play excellent test cricket despite being of the T20 generation. The problem is not with T20 itself, but with having massive amounts of it dropped onto the schedule in a desperate and disruptive way whereas it would not have been difficult to incorporate it harmoniously.
All of this fits into a clear pattern in the history of the game. It is a story of cycles, re-inventions and (short) golden ages. The Victorians turned a bucolic activity, much connected with drink and gambling, into a highly skilled organised game played at all levels of society and regulated by unwritten codes as well as written laws. Following the formalisation of a county championship in 1890 there was a first “golden age” in which cricket was hailed as the “national game”. By the consumer age of the 1950s it was in severe decline and was partially re-invented as a shorter game on a slightly different principle – that an innings could be ended by a determinate number of overs being bowled rather than by a side being bowled out. This quickly generated a less recognised second, “Gillette”, golden age which included the excellent and high profile World Cups of 1975 and 1979 (both won by the West Indies). And now the T20 reinvention which the ECB is taking to new extremes with an inter-city 100-ball competition next year. The underlying themes of this history are a tendency for existing forms to stagnate and become duller when played professionally and a tension between both the levels of the game, domestic and international, and the forms. Cricket, in short, has only ever looked briefly stable and well organised and has rarely looked as badly organised as it is now. 2019 is billed as “the greatest year of English cricket” because there is a World Cup and an Ashes series and the top players, who are making good money, will tell you so, but their level of the game is a glossy facade on the shambles below and the competitions will be watched by the fewest people (in this country) who have ever watched such events.
In terms of decision-making what has happened in cricket is a classic case of disjointed incrementalism, of a series of decisions, mostly taken on fairly short term financial grounds, that add up to a result that nobody could possibly have intended. But there is one decision which stands out as just plain bad. In 2005 the Ashes series, shown on Channel 4, was extremely successful and verged on 50% of the total national television audience on several occasions. Unfortunately this success carried its own in-built disaster as the rights were sold to Sky. Behind that decision was a non-decision: many sporting events had been “listed” as “crown jewels” at government insistence to showcase particular sports on free-to-air television. Thus Six Nations rugby and Wimbledon tennis, for example, remained available to everybody. But cricket, given its perennial problem with levels and formats, could not agree on a “crown jewel” and sold the lot.
Anyone close to or committed to this decision will tell you that it was an offer that could not be refused and that it was money which would filter down and benefit the whole of cricket. Frankly, this was similar to the pious nonsense that government ministers spout when they say that their financial support of Olympic sport will have a “legacy” of mass participation. There is no evidence for it whatsoever. Participation in cricket is down by nearly 40% in a decade. The once “national” game can barely raise a quarter of a million participants though ethnic minority cricket and women’s cricket have both grown. Of course, the major factors here are complex social changes; I was the chairman of a cricket club from 1987 to 2017 and could write a book about why people do not or cannot play cricket even though they want to. But it is also extremely damaging that most people can grow up knowing nothing of cricket and the participants these days are almost exclusively people from cricket-oriented schools and families, a distinct minority in both cases. It has become a niche or cult sport; it is not even an “event” sport like rugby or tennis or horse racing, because, unlike them, it doesn’t have the important moments when it does become the focus of something like national attention.
So if we are to reinvent cricket yet again and aim for another golden age what are the principles on which change should be based? Primarily, I think television has to be tamed and used rather than allowed to dictate. The trouble with specialised sports channels is that they want sheer quantity and their interests become almost directly opposed to those of the game itself. A knock-out cup just isn’t enough screenfilla and it is by insisting on extended league formats for cup competitions that they have ruined the domestic cup competitions and also the World Cup. Actually, there seems to me to be an obvious solutions to most of the scheduling problems: first class and T20 cricket should go on throughout the season. International cricket, especially the kind of endless 50-over internationals that nobody ever remembers, should be severely reduced. One-day, fifty over cricket requires an approach which is paradoxical rather than contradictory. There should be much less of it and it should be the least of the elements, but it should be given a much higher profile with its own distinctive and dramatic format in the shape of a knock-out cup, scheduled to include international players, shown on free-to-air television and with a high-profile final at Lord’s. Once again a ticket for a Lancashire-Yorkshire quarter final might be a precious thing and those admirable enthusiasts trying to take cricket to the dark corners of society where it is unknown would have some glamour and imagery to fall back on.
Lincoln Allison May 2019
( An edited version of this article was published in Standpoint in June 2019, a month before England won the cricket World Cup for the first time. The victory was “a monkey off our backs”, but it changed nothing.)