Misgoverned & MaroonedEnglish Men’s Cricket Still Faces Social Extinction
Richard Heller and Peter Oborne explore how money, centralisation and a lack of accountability around the England and Wales Cricket Board is taking the essence of the sport further away from fans
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Three electrifying performances by the England men’s team against the world Test cricket champions, New Zealand, may suggest to many that all is well again with English cricket.
The celebrations are a deserved tribute to an inspirational new combination of the captain, Ben Stokes, and the coach Brendon McCullum. But they cannot conceal the reality that English cricket is in deep trouble.
It is becoming marooned as a sport for affluent, predominantly white people. Long-concealed but now open scandals of racism overlie the routine, barely noticed, exclusion of thousands of potential participants on grounds of class and money.
According to Statista.com, the number of people in the UK playing cricket at least once a month fell from 364,600 in 2016 to 229,100 in 2021.
This cannot be attributed to the pandemic. Recreational cricket clubs made prodigious efforts to keep going during lockdown, especially in outdoor sessions for children, and many have reported a massive revival of interest from all genders and ages at the end of it.
Instead, the decline reflects long-term competition from other leisure activities which are easier to access and more welcoming for disadvantaged populations.
The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) estimated in 2018 that 30% of all recreational cricket players are of South Asian origin – but these represent only 4% of professional first-class cricketers. People of Asian or Afro-Caribbean origin are almost as unrepresented as first-class coaches or senior managers. In terms of class, 45% of the men employed in England to play first-class cricket were drawn from the 7% educated at independent schools (a higher proportion than members of the House of Lords). Many recorded as state-educated finished their cricket preparation at independent schools, including England’s best current batsman Joe Root, at the fine cricket nursery of Worksop on a scholarship from the age of 15.
English cricket remains a client, domestically and internationally, of outside commercial and media interests.
It has been misgoverned for years by a Board which seems almost determined to destroy the institutions which have elicited enduring loyalty from cricket followers and prepared generations of players for the highest forms of the game.
This Board is virtually a law unto itself and answers to no one for its stewardship of the game. It has been consistently late in addressing its multiple crises.
The wisest administrators would struggle to keep English cricket alive and well.
Its structure, with three-day county cricket and longer international Test matches at the summit, was economically obsolete from the moment it was established in the late 19th Century. It was created by, and for, a Victorian rural leisure class already yielding status and wealth to English cities.
English cricket could, and probably should have, developed as a professional short-form sport in those cities, as did association football. But the English rural amateurs not only made their long-form versions into the ‘first-class’ form of the domestic game but exported them – and their status – to the British Empire.
For connoisseurs of the game this was an astonishing piece of good luck, since these forms generated a unique mix of skills and drama. But they were rarely profitable, especially English county cricket which represented its nucleus.
The counties have had intermittent periods of prosperity, especially in the aftermath of both world wars, when live spectatorship at major matches was strong enough to finance them. But, in general, they relied on subsidies from local landowners or business leaders and other rich patrons or indeed the players themselves – professionals willing to work for low wages or genuine amateurs working only for genuine expenses.
From the 1960s, the first-class counties relied more and more on receipts from ever-shorter forms of cricket and on their share of revenues from domestic international Test matches. They generated sponsorship and commercial income.
The share of county revenues from attendance and membership fees dwindled year by year. This trend was accelerated from the late 1990s when global media revenues for international cricket matches took off dramatically thanks to expert salesmanship from Pakistan’s Ehsan Mani, at the International Cricket Council (ICC). The distribution of the English share of these revenues effectively turned the counties into dependents of the controlling body of English cricket, the England and Wales Cricket Board.
It is fair to say that the unremitting focus of the ECB since its inception has been the acquisition of money.
This prompted the most fatal decision in the modern history of English cricket – the removal of international cricket matches from free-to-air television. It robbed the game of millions of spectators of all ages, above all the casual ones who had ignored cricket but could drawn into it by an exciting passage of play.
England’s dramatic Ashes victory over Australia in 2005 had a peak viewing figure of nine million on free-to-air television. The England team acquired a national following. Even Tony Blair came to realise that cricket was popular. In 2019, when England equally dramatically snatched the men’s cricket World Cup, the television audience on Sky rarely exceeded a million.
The ECB claimed that the Sky revenues were vital for its investment in grassroots cricket, but the loss of these casual spectators was a far greater cost to participation in cricket than anything the ECB could do to compensate by dribbling support to the grassroots.
Perhaps the first-class county cricket clubs should never have come into existence. They have certainly less and less logic as the apex of English domestic cricket. None of the 18 have the same administrative boundaries as they did in Victorian times: one, Middlesex, no longer exists as a name in English local government. But that does not mean that they should be extinguished – which seems to have been the dominant strategy of the ECB for at least the last decade.
This has become overt since its introduction of the Hundred in 2021. For non-initiates, the Hundred is a new short-form version of cricket. Matches are completed even more quickly than T20 ones, allowing even more entertainment and advertising intervals.
Its invention owes much to the fury of the ECB at missing the commercial potential of T20, introduced in England but developed in India through the Indian Premier League, much imitated and the source of a revolution in money and power in global cricket. The ECB claimed that the Hundred would entice a new audience into cricket, especially women and children, although it was forced to modify its original marketing which implied that these two groups were too stupid to understand first-class cricket.
The 18 counties had adapted with great success to T20 but they were ousted from the Hundred in favour of eight new franchise teams, with new invented names such as Northern Superchargers and Southern Brave. Each franchise had separate teams for men and women. One fortuitous effect of lockdown was to ensure that women and men’s matches had to be played and televised consecutively, which gave a real uplift in exposure to women’s cricket. The ECB did a four-year deal with Sky for the majority of Hundred matches, which is up for renewal, and signed a sponsorship deal with makers of junk food.
The ECB added the Hundred to an already cluttered programme. This English season will contain no fewer than 14 separate competitions – nine for men, five for woman. However, all of August, the prime viewing month for family audiences, is given to the Hundred.
The ECB now wants to renew for 10 years its current media deal for English cricket. This will entail continuance of the Hundred as the centrepiece of broadcast cricket coverage in that period. It would therefore entrench the baleful impact of the Hundred on all the rest of English cricket.
Seen in isolation, the Hundred is a harmless but pointless innovation in cricket. It offers nothing new to the game in playing skills or spectacle for watchers. The ECB has offered no reliable evidence of its commercial success and its ability to attract new spectators to the game. It has not been followed by any other country as a format nor, critically, by major media in other countries. In its second year, it has been largely shunned by overseas stars. Hundred teams will consist mainly of English players sucked away from their counties.
The ECB has never identified the costs and revenues specifically attributable to the Hundred, nor assessed its opportunity cost and the alternative use it could have made of the resources invested in it. In particular, the ECB never assessed the potential gains from building on the established profitability of T20 and its success in winning new audiences for all forms of cricket.
It has also never taken into account the impact of the Hundred in devaluing and displacing other competitions, especially the County Championship. The Hundred has driven it to the margins of the English cricket season, when playing conditions are at their worst and viewing conditions are at their least enticing. The Hundred has thus ensured that the Championship can no longer fulfil its essential function of preparing players for English Test cricket, which remains the game’s prime source of spectatorship, revenues, investment – and inspiration.
The Hundred is not only bad for the health of English cricket but also bad for the health of English children. When the Government and the NHS have been rightly campaigning against child obesity, it was shameful for the ECB to aim a new cricket competition at children and have it sponsored by junk food.
The ECB has never established why it was necessary to create a new cricket competition as the saviour of English cricket from which the counties, the traditional providers of cricket, were deliberately excluded. They assumed too easily that people had deserted county cricket, ignoring the impressive following which all the counties had built on social media and latterly through streaming.
It never explained why people who had deserted cricket teams rooted in their local communities, steeped in local history and culture, should suddenly follow outlandish new teams with no history and an identity confected from marketing babble.
However, the Hundred made total sense as part of an ECB strategy of centralising its control of the game, and culling the first-class counties or even extinguishing them altogether in favour of a franchise-based system in eight major cities.
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Replacing counties with franchises reduces democracy in the game. Counties are members’ organisations through which cricket fans can exercise real local influence. Franchises are not. They treat fans only as passive consumers.
Eliminating counties extinguishes the efforts they all make to discover new cricket talent, especially in remote places and disadvantaged communities. It is highly significant that Azeem Rafiq, the prime victim of racism in English cricket, has strongly opposed any reduction of counties. This would restrict the opportunities for future victims to find alternative pathways into top- flight cricket.
Franchises have no motive for long-term investment on grounds and infrastructure, as all the counties have undertaken over decades. Franchises are parasites on the talent and facilities developed by others.
Limiting top-flight cricket to eight cities automatically increases the cost and travelling time for spectators who do not live there. This will particularly affect poor and disabled cricket fans.
The ECB has so far ignored these and many other arguments against its policies. In fairness, it is now in a state of flux.
It has no chair and an acting chief executive, Clare Connor – the first woman anywhere to take charge of a national cricket administration. She is highly respected as an ex-captain of England women and as an administrator, but already had her hands full with responsibilities for women’s cricket with the ECB and the International Cricket Council, for leading the ECB’s belated review of dressing room culture and as President of the Marylebone Cricket Club.
If anything, the ECB has doubled-down on its support for the Hundred while Rob Key, the new Managing Director of England Men’s Cricket, has already signalled a further reduction of the first-class programme and the extinction of some existing counties as full participants.
At the heart of all controversies and problems of English cricket is the lack of accountability of the ECB. It is a private limited company, committed to making a profit over and above any commitment to the social history and wider values of English cricket. Its present membership has no special experience of cricket and could be the board of any other commercial enterprise of similar turnover.
Above all, it is barely accountable to anyone – least of all to English cricket supporters. The majority of the shares are held by the 18 counties. But, as we have already noted, these counties – for all their efforts – are financially dependent on the ECB, which has always found it easy to divide and rule them.
There is a real risk that the ECB will prevail in its drive for central control over English cricket – and continue its pursuit of money at all costs. If it succeeds in extinguishing the county game, English cricket lovers will not know what they have lost until it has gone.
They will find themselves compelled to watch more and more cricket designed to provide a short-term spectacle for television and commercial sponsors, with ever diminishing subtlety and drama and confected to make them consume more – like the junk food it promotes. Meanwhile, active participation in the game will continue to migrate to white families who can afford to send their children to independent schools.
Peter Oborne and Richard Heller present a regular cricket-themed podcast. This article draws on comments from recent guests, especially George Dobell, co-founder of the English Cricket Supporters Association; and Andy Nash, formerly chairman of Somerset CCC and a board member of the ECB. However, the opinions expressed are entirely the authors’ own