Simply Not Cricket

17th July 2015

Despite being a hugely popular national and international sport (witness the attention paid to the Ashes), the number of people playing cricket has fallen dramatically over recent years.

‘Is it facing a sticky wicket?’ asks Heather Harris, ‘or will it come thwack in fashion?’

The thwack (a word little used nowadays) of willow on leather was the sound of my youth. Whether on the local village green or the TV during a Test Match, cricket features heavily in my childhood memories.

My Dad would sit for what seemed like days in his armchair clapping the prowess of England legends – Beefy Botham or the angelically haired Gower – while my Mum kept him topped up with corned beef sandwiches. And as we only had one television (remember those days?) so my knowledge of LBW and Silly Mid on and off was born.

Matches were regularly re-enacted in our back garden, too. The fence was a ‘four’ and the shed a ‘six’. The greenhouse was an automatic –and expensive – ‘out’. My brothers were allowed to bowl over arm at my quivering knee length white socks (pads were far too expensive) and a broken fibula was a real possibility, had I not always been out first ball. They, meanwhile, thwacked my feeble underarm grass cutters for many hours – usually making 300 not out – each, before tea.
I didn’t care – I just loved to play.

Roll on three decades and these memories are why I found recent headlines so upsetting – not the furore over England cricketing maverick Kevin Pietersen (oh, how he regrets writing that best seller now) but the report by the English Cricket Board (ECB) in November 2014, announcing ‘Number of people playing cricket in England and Wales has plummeted, ECB survey shows.’

The Daily Telegraph’s cricket correspondent, Nick Hoult, said, ‘The ECB has been surprised by results from its own survey which revealed that the number of people playing cricket aged 14 and above has fallen by seven percent in a year from 908,000 to 844,000.’ It’s a tiny fraction of the amount of youngsters and adults who kick a football around every Sunday morning.

In the Financial Times, Matthew Engel wrote, ‘Across Britain in towns and villages alike, the number of cricket clubs has plummeted. Entries into the Village Cup have dropped from 800 to 300; membership of the Club Cricket Conference has gone from 2,300 to 900.’

For a game which depends on a safe pairs of hands this is surely a drop too far.

So just how did the sport of our childhood find itself on such a sticky wicket? The answer may have the ECB stumped but there have been plenty of theories brought to the crease.

Mark Lewarne, Head of Junior Cricket at popular Berkhamsted Cricket Club in Hertfordshire told me, “In terms of numbers we had a massive boost in interest after the 2005 Ashes which was virtually the last time cricket was on terrestrial TV. We increased junior numbers steadily to 2011 when we peaked at round about 320 kids (boys and girls). In the last couple of years this has declined but we do remain one of the largest youth sections in the county.”

Matthew Engel agrees. ‘SKY TV has had a monopoly on the rights to show live cricket since 2006, the year after 23 million people in the UK watched the final Ashes Test. With the game behind a pay wall on a specialist channel, and casual viewers effectively barred, these viewing figures have plummeted far below old levels.’

News of the extension of the SKY deal to 2019 ‘was met with quiet despair, both amongst those unable to afford a satellite dish and those who fear for the game’s future,’ wrote editor Lawrence Booth in a scathing editorial in the 152nd edition of Wisden’s Cricketers’ Almanack. (My dad owns every one).

Certainly, the fact that cricket is no longer the media sound-track of our summer must have some bearing on interest levels, but it can’t be the whole story. After all, football is so dominant across the TV network that few other sports – such as cycling – get a look-in, but bike sales are soaring faster than a Tour de France ascent. Running, too, is on track to an all time popularity level, but again is rarely featured in the media.

The sad fact is that a cricket match is long, and, as a society, we are time short.

As Pete Hadden, coach of our local Under 15s Cricket Team told me, “Running and cycling seem to fit better with the lifestyles of many younger adults today as they can control to a great extent when they do their sport and for how long,”

Ironically, by virtue of their flexibility, they are also amongst the more lonely sports, lacking the camaraderie and team spirit of a day at the crease (or three hours in the back garden). As Pete puts it, “Team sports at youth level teach so much about teamwork, trust, management and motivation; particularly cricket which is, in my humble opinion, comfortably the most cerebral of all sports”.

And it’s not only the youngsters themselves declaring them-selves ‘out’ when it comes to joining a cricket team, parents too are reluctant to wave their grass-stained offspring off on a Saturday at 10am and not have them back until 6 or 7pm.

“My teenagers all have so much homework at the weekend and also have to fit in Duke of Edinburgh tasks that we, and they, are reluctant to give a whole day up for cricket,” admits Frances, mum of three boys, who all gave up the local cricket team when they reached 15 – their GCSE year.

Frances also points out that this is particularly true for boys and girls who play for the school. Their matches are on a Saturday, so to play again on a Sunday would wipe out the entire weekend.

Mark at Berkhamsted recognises this. “It’s not unusual for a group of 40 kids in year 6 (u11) to thin out to say 20 at year 9 (u14) and as few as 5 at year 11 (under 16). This is tragic for cricket clubs as they invest so much time and effort in junior sections, only to find very few boys want to continue playing as they get older.”

For a game dependent on timing, it is a sad fact that the summer – with exams and holidays – is the worse time for attracting regular attendance. And, with many more cups and tournaments being played well into June and July, the football season is also encroaching on the cricketers’ turf.

As a cricket-mad Dad reluctantly explained, “I am desperate for my son to join his local cricket club in the summer but he just can’t commit, because he doesn’t want to miss out on playing in all the big footie events at the end of the season.”

Once this interest is lost at teenager level it is almost impossible to rekindle, and the effects are seen at all levels. The ECB report also revealed a worrying fall in the number of adult amateur players, stating, “The number of matches conceded because one team could not string together 11 players stood at five per cent last year.”

Faced with these worrying figures, the ECB has promised to encourage local county boards to consider new start times and shorter matches, ‘to fit in with modern lifestyles and help cricketers who are employed in shift work’.

This proposal is welcomed by Munir Ali, father of international player Moeen Ali who runs an academy at Edgbaston. “In the Birmingham League it is 55 overs per side from noon. If you are working shifts it is very hard to do that.”

He supported the new Twenty20 competition at under 19 level and also the ECB’s ambition to reduce the number of ‘rain stops play’ texts being sent on a match day morning.

Incredibly, only 15 Saturdays were rated ‘dry’ in 2014. “We are trying to improve drainage facilities and encourage players to play when rainfall has been minimal,” announced Gordon Hollins, the ECB chief operating officer.

Other sports can, of course, play in all weathers, without having to worry about soggy bails or slipping in the outfield.

The ECB will receive £27.5 million (the cost of a single premiership football player) from SportEngland between now and 2017 to help improve facilities at cricket clubs.

It will be money well spent. After all, as Mark Lewarne quite rightly says, “We remain optimistic that cricket can continue to flourish for decades to come. It is a wonderful sport that can create lifelong friendships and is a game you can play from 6 to 60.” That’s an opinion that certainly deserves a resounding clap – before I break for a traditional cricket tea.

Find Your Local