“The world keeps on ending, but every year new people too dumb to know it show up as if the fun’s just started. ” John Updike’s creation Harry Angstrom, antihero of the Rabbit novels, may have been musing on life as a weary middle-aged car salesman in rust ‑ belt America. But he could just as easily have been speculating on the fate of English cricket down the years: a sport that is always in crisis, that has always been dying, that has been dying in some form since the day it was born.
No doubt the denizens of 18th-century Hambledon’s Broadhalfpenny Down spent their evenings sighing around the innkeeper’s fire about the collapse of batting techniques, the impatience of the young and how the whole thing will never survive the invention of the electric telegraph. Even the Ashes, Test cricket’s golden-age souvenir and commercial life force, was born out of a funeral rite.
Zoom out and it is tempting to conclude that End Times and lost idylls are English cricket’s natural state, a function of where it sits in the calendar, a sporting season that dies every autumn as the skies grow dark, where sunlit days are only ever snatched in between the gloom.
That drum has begun to beat a great deal louder in recent years. And with feeling now as the usual notes of doom coincide with genuine contraction and decay, the disappearance from schools, the marketing surveys that rank cricket just below lacrosse and eating sand in lists of favorite activities; along with hard, inconvertible evidence of racism, elitism, exclusion, a monoculture sealed behind its high garden wall. At what point do we reach critical mass?
For all the minor chords, there is something else here. As the current season revs on into high summer, as the crowd basks and boozes at sold-out Blast games, as Test cricket begins to stretch out into the corners of the non-football summer, as the Hundred promises a first full season of new things and new sound (plus heavy marketing and cheap tickets), it is hard not to conclude that for a dying sport this thing is very much alive.
The patient appears, against all expectations, to be not just vital, but – quietly, and in certain defined spaces – throbbing with good health. For all its flaws and its basic awkwardness, people want this thing. Maybe, just maybe, the problem with English cricket isn’t actually cricket.
The Guardian and Observer sports desk has commissioned a series of articles exploring the current state of English cricket. While a note of alarm will always be present, just as striking is the depth of will preserve this game, the sense of the game itself is good, that its struggles are in many ways structural and self-imposed. Are we really confident the England and Wales Cricket Board is best suited to solving them?
It is time to have this discussion. The ECB has no chief executive or chairman. Its driving force of the last few years has been Tom Harrison, who kept the lights on, but also oversaw a major racism scandal, the managed decline of red-ball cricket, who took a vast personal bonus out of the game and has alienated many traditional (this is not always a bad word) cricket supporters. Is the ECB, as constituted, still fit to address the issues? Are we happy with it? Do we need to dissolve it and find something new?
This is not a fanciful suggestion. It is easy to forget the ECB is a relatively new thing; and that the counties are not simply its subjects. The counties underwrite and endorse the ECB, not the other way round. It is a construct, with a defined role at the top end of the English cricket administration, but with no deep cultural roots.
The ECB is 25 years old. The body it replaced, the Test and County Cricket Board, lasted 28 years. Prior to that, England cricket was governed by the MCC and the Board of Control for Test Matches. Both of these later bodies were called into being for very specific reasons related to each time to money and control.
The TCCB was formed to allow English cricket to draw down government funding, which it could not do as a private club run by the MCC. Its replacement, the ECB, was formed as a mechanism to manage another new stream of money, the pay-TV deals of the 1990s.
So the ECB was founded in large part as a negotiator of broadcast rights and from there as a more professional means of distributing this powerful new funding source. On the field of play the aim was quite simple: to make England win by introducing stability, central contracts and a high ‑ functioning environment, thereby also making its own TV product more valuable.
This worked very well for a decade. It worked well with some distractions for a second decade. Right now, it looks like a model that is increasingly challenged. All of these things have a span. And the world has changed again.
Franchise cricket is the coming power. The ECB’s golden goose, the England team, with its cycle of settled satellite broadcast rights, is no longer the key driver of future income. The ECB knows this better than anyone, hence the first-idea-is-a-good-idea rustling ‑ up of the Hundred. And hence in the middle of this altering landscape we have a situation where moves the ECB makes often feel designed to promote and preserve the power of the ECB, as opposed to the health and spread of what other people might recognize as “English cricket”.
It is a classic declining dictator behavior. I am the state. What is good for me is good for all of you. Hence the drive to create that panicky franchise product, the cutting out of the counties, the need to chase the setting sun and create its own piece of intellectual property.
Does the ECB, a body obsessed with instant growth, eyeballs and revenue streams, really understand what is required? Because those needs have changed. The real priority for English cricket as a whole is not to wring a little more money out of its broadcasters, but to preserve and spread and find a way to share (not sell) a sport that has already cashed in its captive ancestral audience.
The job of any new governing body would be outreach, while dealing properly with the problems the ECB has overseen since 1997 of exclusion, barriers to entry, institutional racism, invisibility and the sense that this sport no longer belongs to the public.
These are no longer side issues to be managed by spin and puff. They are critical to survival and in need of a dedicated, expert hand. The ECB has tried to address all of these with an eyewash of gimmickry and slogans. But at the bottom it is run by marketing people for marketing purposes. It cannot solve these problems or find a way to do so that isn’t, also at the bottom, an act of salesmanship.
Any new governing body will also need to engage properly with India. The ECB has always had the cultural fear of being cut out and overshadowed by the Board of Control for Cricket in India and the Indian Premier League. But it is necessary to understand that India’s power center is simply the reality, that things such as the IPL’s annihilating new rights deal are good for cricket, because this is where cricket is now, that the English game must face that way, a feature of and satellite to this mega-league, not its jealous countries aunt.
There are many other tasks to be stitched into the founding articles of cricket’s new governance. The scrapping of central contracts, which belongs to the old ECB model, in favor of simply paying handsomely for each Test played, opening the pool to all active players, re-energizing the county red-ball cricket as a pathway.
Engaging with and nourishing the counties’ interests, not struggling with them, accepting that counties are where the game can be spread and diversified, where access can be fostered.
A new body would do well to remember that cricket will always remain a legacy product to some degree, odd and awkward, but still powerfully engaging; that this is a strength, not something to be ashamed of or pointlessly diluted. A new governing body would, above all, have to like cricket.
There is a great hunger for sports in general in this country. The biggest Test match crowds are still smaller than the biggest weekly crowds in the third tier of English football. It shouldn’t take too much to make the game viable enough, healthy enough, open enough. What is required is will, leadership and a body fit for purpose.