Despite the renewed interest in cricket generated by a thrilling Ashes series, the English game is still dying and in the next few decades will cease to be a national sport in any meaningful sense. Was cricket inevitably doomed in the modern world? Or have the authorities and their innovations hastened its end?by Geoffrey Wheatcroft / September 25, 2005 / Leave a comment
As shadows lengthen and evenings shorten, cricket in September takes on an elegiac quality. There is more autumnal play than ever this year, and not only on village greens. The last test at the Oval begins on Thursday 8th September, while the county championship season now lasts almost until October.
Some of the reasons for this are stupid or ignoble. Every sports editor in London thinks that the cricketing authorities have made a mess of things. This year’s Ashes series was more eagerly awaited than any for years past, and has so far turned out to be intensely exciting. After the astonishing finishes to the Edgbaston and Old Trafford tests, cricket made it back to the front pages, and the series would have had the sports pages to itself if it had begun, as it used to, in June. Instead, the ICC’s “future test programme,” under which every test-playing nation must host every other nation every five years, meant that England had to play a series against Bangladesh, humiliating for both sides and ignored by the public, and then the Australian tests were delayed by a long run of one-day matches. The real cricket had barely begun before it was swallowed up by the vast loathly maw of the football season (our “winter game” now literally fits Byron’s definition of the English winter, “ending in July to recommence in August”).
But then maybe there is something fitting about cricket in the autumnal twilight. Whether in the shadow of the cathedral at Worcester, or of the two lovely red-stone medieval churches at Taunton, or of the gasholders at the Oval, it is hard not to sense a fading light. For all Flintoff’s heroics, English cricket has the flavour of a dying game; the epicentre of the sport is now Asia, and the recent relocation of the International Cricketing Council from Lord’s to Dubai was an eloquent, if absurd, statement.
To talk of the death of cricket may seem perverse after magnificent test matches watched by packed crowds and more than 7m people on television, but as a spectator sport, the game here now only exists in the form of tests and one-day trash-cricket. Its roots continue to wither. Less than 10 per cent of state schools play it properly, and the decline of county cricket has merely been slowed by the limited-over game and the imbecility of twenty20 cricket, a noisy attempt to recreate the atmosphere of a baseball game with the two teams batting for a mere 20 overs each.
This steady decline of cricket as a true national sport surely marks a great and significant change in our social and cultural history. For all that it is followed now with greater passion in India and Pakistan, and usually played better by Australians, cricket has until recently been part of the fabric of English summer life, and it has long been held to say something about national character. More Americans may watch their football than baseball (even the Michigan State college team plays in front of 100,000 spectators), but it is through baseball that Americans see themselves as a nation. The English, in the same way, used to see themselves through cricket.
“Cricket is not in reality a very popular game in England,” George Orwell wrote in 1944, “nowhere near so popular as football… but it gives expression to a well-marked trait in the English character, the tendency to value ‘form’ or ‘style’ more highly than success. In the eyes of any true cricket-lover it is possible for an innings of ten runs to be ‘better’ (ie more elegant) than an innings of a hundred runs: cricket is also one of the very few games in which the amateur can excel the professional.” As often with Orwell, the penetrating insight is wrapped in gross exaggeration—an innings of 73, like Flintoff’s at Edgbaston, can be more important than one of 140, but “ten” is absurd. But he was broadly right about the hegemonic role of cricket in English life.
Few sports have produced such a huge literature; if only quantity had been matched by quality. A great deal of cricket writing is painfully jocose or bathetic, justifying Cyril Connolly’s theory of permanent adolescence: compare the endlessly anthologised village cricket match from AG MacDonnell’s England, Their England with Hemingway’s best baseball stories; cricket has produced many classics of whimsy, but it does not have its Ring Lardner. The worst cricket poetry is disastrous. The team spirit and patriotic value of games were, of course, much invoked by late-Victorian schoolmasters. JEC Weldon, the headmaster of Harrow, saw games in terms of building a war- rior elite: “The pluck, the energy, the perseverance, the good temper, the self-control, the discipline, the co-operation, the esprit de corps, which merit success in cricket and football, are the very qualities which win the day in peace or war.” But even so, was Henry Newbolt’s “Vitae Lampada” read with straight faces even 100 years ago? “The sand of the desert is sodden red/Red with the wreck of a square that broke… But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the rank: ‘Play up, play up, and play the game!'” And against Newbolt, the great bard of empire, Kipling, thought games a time-wasting distraction: “The flannelled fools at the wicket or the muddied oafs at the goals.” And even good writers are often defeated by cricket. VS Naipaul’s account of the 1963 England vs West Indies test at Lord’s does not rank high among his reportage. And although the poem which runs, in its entirety, “I saw Hutton in his prime/Another time, another time,” may be typical of that master of minimalism, Harold Pinter, it is hardly his most important work.
A great social history of cricket is still to seek, but it would be a story of many paradoxes. Orwell’s words about elegance are not wholly wrong. In baseball, pitchers are judged with statistical ruthlessness, rather than extolled for their guile and wiles as Shane Warne is. Batters are admired if they knock home runs; I have never known one commended for the graceful way he plays the ball, as batsmen from Frank Worrell to Mark Waugh have been. Sometimes this has a deleterious effect on cricket journalism, which has seen far too much self-conscious fine writing over the years, at least at the superior end of the trade, with Neville Cardus bearing much of the responsibility.
What Orwell said about cricket was linked to his romantic and sometimes misleadingly sentimental admiration for the English virtues. Do not the decency and honour of our island race shine through this game? Well, no, not always. Cricket was born 300 years ago in one of the most violent ages in our history, when it was an alternative to the other diversions of the populace, watching animals being tormented or women and children hanged. One of the first cricket heroes was the Regency rake the Reverend Lord Frederick Beauclerk, duke’s son and parson, a petulant, foul-mouthed bully who is said to have made 600 guineas a year from gambling on cricket. In the late 19th century, the cult of the amateur sportsman was well entrenched at public schools and universities. That was the age of the first great cricketer—maybe the greatest of all—WG Grace, a master of gamesmanship (many decades before Stephen Potter coined the word and defined it as “the art of winning without actually cheating”) and a man who ended 40 years as an amateur cricketer flagrantly richer than he had begun.
There was never a better illustration of English hypocrisy than the bodyline controversy of 1932-33. Baffled by the unstoppable run-scoring machine that was Donald Bradman, the MCC touring party (as England were then called abroad) decided to thwart him with methods which were barely legal and flagrantly contrary to that elusive spirit of the game. They were led by a gentleman, or amateur, in the form of Douglas Jardine, a brutish Wykehamist. “Leg theory,” as it was called, meant bowling across the wicket from off to leg, the ball aimed at the batsman’s body rather than the stumps, with fielders crowded on the leg side waiting for a catch as the batsman tried to protect himself from grievous bodily harm. Restrained official remonstrances from the Australian cricketing authorities were met with a contemptuous response. The MCC at Lord’s “deprecate your opinion that there has been unsportsmanlike play,” and as good as accused the Australians of being jumped-up colonials. In short, England behaved disgracefully, and then blamed the victim.
Elsewhere Orwell said that sport, so far from being a source of human brotherhood, “is an unfailing cause of ill-will,” another of his provocative half-truths. The bodyline episode appears to confirm his views. And during the apartheid era, cricket was riven by the problem of South Africa; the Basil D’Oliveira affair (described in Peter Oborne’s excellent recent book) once again showed how badly the London cricket establishment could behave in a crisis.
All the same, some of us regret the passing of the old dispensation, and the days when the MCC ran the game, for political as well as sentimental reasons. In the 1920s when Mussolini created the Dopolavoro, the fascist institute for controlling sports and pastimes, liberal Europe shuddered and guffawed at once. What could be more absurd than the idea that the state should have anything whatsoever to do with the people’s recreations?
Now we accept unthinkingly the existence of a minster of sport, and the fact that the government will fund, and control, games. It was greed for public money which led cricket to abandon the autonomy of the MCC, and even that wasn’t enough for some. When the question of the admission of women to the MCC arose, I voted twice, both times in the minority: the first time I voted for, on straightforward feminist grounds, and the second time I voted against, in protest at Tony Banks, then sports minister, telling MCC members to vote for women if they wanted to receive lottery largesse.
One has to admit that the MCC, like the Jockey Club, was not always an advertisement for self-regulation. And yet however reactionary its rulers could be, there was also a liberal spirit in cricket. It is a long time since only white faces were seen in Lord’s pavilion, and as long ago as 1868 a team of Aborigines became the first Australian cricketers to tour England. In the great cricketing era before 1914, “Ranji” and “Duleep” were national heroes more in England than in India.
No doubt there were embers of racism and antisemitism flickering in some committee rooms: it was said that Percy Fender, the brilliant Surrey batsman and captain of the 1920s, was believed (though apparently wrongly) to be Jewish, and that this was why he never captained England. And yet someone like the Trinidadian Learie Constantine, for all that there was still ample colour prejudice in England, never found here the brutal racism he encountered in America. Even so, he never led his own country: there was an unspoken convention until the 1950s that the West Indian captain should be white. It was not until 1960 that a black man, in the truly knightly figure of Frank Worrell, captained the West Indies for an entire series. And yet that came barely ten years after a black man, in the form of Jackie Robinson, had been allowed to play major league baseball at all. That contrast is a little vignette of the different styles of British-imperial and American racism, one subtler and maybe more hypocritical, the other more brutal. More recently, Yorkshire county cricket club has been accused of contemptuous indifference to Yorkshire’s Asians, and although cricket thrives among British ethnic minorities, it often seems as separate as non-white cricket in South Africa under apartheid.
If cricket says something about race, it says more about class. A naive view of English life saw a simple class system: on the one hand were the players, the professionals, horny-handed yokels from the fields of Somerset or Sussex, or miners whistled up from pits in Nottinghamshire or Yorkshire. On the other hand were the amateurs, dashing young bloods, sprigs of fashion and country gentlemen, all wearing Eton Ramblers caps and IZ sweaters.
The truth was that many a county team consisted of rascals led by bounders. The pros were a mixed and sometimes sorry lot, sorry in more senses than one, ill-paid and often deeply depressed (there is a notoriously long line of cricketers who have died by their own hands). As to the amateurs, far from aristocrats, they were largely men of ambiguous social standing, who came from the pages not so much of Anthony Powell as of Simon Raven. In my boyhood cricketers seemed to take up much of the divorce courts’ time, and some were very dodgy customers. The definition of an amateur was anyway comically flexible. In other sports, it is normal enough for someone to begin as an amateur and turn pro. Only in cricket, I think, did the reverse happen: Wally Hammond was unique in captaining the Players first, and then the Gentlemen after he had turned amateur.
In the great age of cricket as a national sport, amateurs travelled first-class by train and pros third-class, they stayed in different hotels, used different dressing rooms and, at some grounds, different gates on to the field. Players called gentlemen “sir” and were subject to tough discipline. When Lionel Tennyson captained Hampshire between the wars, he would make recalcitrant pros write out lines like schoolboys. There was also the celebrated typographical distinction between Mr EF Longrigg (gentleman) and A Young (player): the papers would report that “Mr Longrigg and Young put on 50 between them.” As recently as 1950, the loudspeaker at Lord’s intoned gravely that there had been a mistake on the scorecard: it read “FJ Titmus” when it should have said “Titmus, FJ,” thereby committing the shocking solecism of conferring amateur status on that great off-spinner. Then at last, in 1962, after much agonising, the decision was taken to do away with the distinction, to abolish gentlemen and players and to call them all cricketers alike, with no further marks of rank and no more deference.
Whatever the motives, this was a classic case of unexamined premises and unintended consequences. Without anyone quite having thought it through, the assumption was made that cricket—the English county game—could support a roster of several hundred full-time paid players. But simply to state the proposition is to demonstrate its absurdity. The change coincided with steadily declining attendances at county matches; there are now 450 registered county cricketers at a time when matches are often played in front of fewer than 450 paying spectators.
Quite why cricket—real county cricket—has declined as a spectator sport is a puzzle for the social historian. Orwell’s “not in reality a very popular game in this country” was far from true when he wrote. Looking back, what is astonishing is how many did watch the game at a time when most people had far less leisure than now. There were two notable golden ages, after the two great wars, when cricket was followed with passionate enthusiasm. At the end of the 1920 season, on the day Middlesex beat Surrey to win the championship in “Plum” Warner’s last match, the Lord’s gates were closed behind 25,000 people.
In the next postwar lustrum, sport of all sorts saw a lease of life. The 1946 Grand National was watched by 300,000 people (and on a Friday); 143,470 watched Rangers play Hibs in the Scottish cup semi-final at Hampden Park in 1948; and in those years Sheffield Wednesday thought nothing of playing league matches before 80,000 fans at Hillsborough. But cricket also still had a large popular following, not least for the “festivals”: Kent at Canterbury or Gloucestershire at Cheltenham. Almost more startling than the figures for county matches were the tour matches. These are now almost extinct: this summer, in the course of a dismal fixture list, Australia played just two first-class matches against counties—Leicestershire and Worcestershire.
There was a time when every county expected to play the tourists, sometimes twice, and the matches would be watched by large crowds. Three years ago it was reported that the total membership of Derbyshire county cricket club was 1,877. One wonders when Derbyshire last played a first-class match in front of that many spectators. In 1948, 17,000 people were at Derby to watch Bradman’s Australians, on a Wednesday. When they played Kent, 23,000 watched them at Canterbury on a Monday, and at Swansea—a great cricket centre then—50,000 watched the Australians play Glamorgan over three days, more than 20,000 on the Saturday, a figure which would now delight either of the Swansea football clubs, rugby or soccer.
After that, almost everything went wrong with county cricket. Spectator numbers sharply declined in the 1950s and 1960s. The initial introduction of limited-overs matches was healthy enough, not least because they were played at a decent length: what is now the C&G trophy began life as a 65-over competition. Then came a 40-over Sunday league, and finally the reduction to absurdity of one-day trash-cricket in the form of twenty20 (see below for the complex mix of knockout cups and leagues that is modern cricket).
That mistake was compounded by others. When that hero of my boyhood Freddie Trueman used to appear on Test Match Special, he often spoke excellent sense. Told that there was too much cricket now played, he replied that there was too much of the wrong kind, meaning one-day trash-cricket, and he insisted that the problems of English cricket resulted from attempting to play southern hemisphere cricket in the northern hemisphere. He meant that three-day matches on uncovered wickets—the pitch left exposed to the elements—which were likely to be won by seamers and finger-spinners, have been replaced by four-day matches on covered wickets in the antipodean style. But that requires antipodean weather to produce hard wickets on which leg-spinners can flourish. Since the advent of Shane Warne, England have yearned for someone who could match him, but Richie Benaud always says—and he should know—that what a leg-spinner needs is not turn so much as bounce, and for that we in England shall have to wait for a good deal more global warming.
Inevitably trash-cricket has infected the five-day game: just consider some of the extraordinary periods of play in the current test series which, especially on England’s part, have been straight out of the limited-over game. As a severe sceptic, even cynic, about English cricket, I watched the Saturday of the Edgbaston test feeling rather like the tart-with-a-heart in Casablanca, who has been engaged in collaboration horizontale with German officers but is roused to patriotic tears by the Marseillaise. It was a wonderful day. But on Sunday England almost snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and won in the end by the barest of margins. The way you used to get rid of tail-enders was with accurate yorkers and flighted spin, but even Flintoff bowled loosely that morning, and Ashley Giles, England’s only spinner, was not up to it, any more than is Geraint Jones, the wicket-keeper. As for Old Trafford, England simply should have won. In one-day cricket, balls well outside the off stump or down the leg side prevent batsmen scoring, but they don’t take wickets. Steve Harmison epitomised the faults that come from too much playing of the wrong kind of cricket when he bowled the last over of the third test, needing a single wicket for victory. Three balls were wasted. Wickets are taken, especially against tail-enders, by bowling balls the batsman has to play. In all, there must have been at least 100 wasted balls in that Australian second innings: if every one of them had been on a line and length for the top of off stump, England would have won the match.
Apologists for the modern English game can say, reasonably enough, that it has had to accommodate itself to the age of instant gratification and minimal attention span, and that a Faustian bargain was necessary if the game was going to survive at all. Compared with football, it is time-consuming and expensive to arrange and play properly, its season lasts barely five months of the year and even then is at the mercy of the English climate. Beggars can’t be choosers and cricket had to take what help was available, didn’t it?
But the changes made in the name of expedience are likely to spell doom in the longer run. By selling the television rights to test cricket for the next four years to Sky, the ECB has raised £220m much of which will be distributed to the counties. It was still a shocking decision: quite apart from the fact that Channel 4’s coverage—with it stunning use of graphics—has become one of the best things on television, the ECB is diminishing the audience for test matches, and just at the time when the terrestrial television audience shot up this summer.
As for the horrors of twenty20, the wretches who dreamed it up can point to the large crowds it has attracted. But how long will that last once the novelty wears off? Can the game really survive if it consists of one-day trash-cricket and test matches, with everything in between on life-support? The best thing the ECB has done for a long time is, through its Cricket Foundation, to try to reintroduce the game to state schools. At present, a startling 35 per cent of first-class cricketers were educated at fee-paying schools, but the foundation is hoping over the next ten years to push the number of state schools that play the game properly from a tenth up to a third. (The country’s 8,000-plus local clubs now have 3,500 junior sections, which partly compensates for the decline of the game in schools.) Yet all this has the flavour of a desperate rearguard action. Despite a recent upward blip, gates at county matches have been in decline for decades, and by one depressing estimate, the numbers actually playing recreational cricket fell by 40 per cent between 1994 and 2004. The only part of the community where the game flourishes is among ethnic minorities, mainly south Asians rather than West Indians: 10 per cent of British-Pakistani men and boys play, against 2 per cent of the general population. As it happens, that is the same percentage as regularly attend services of the Church of England, another national institution which now enjoys a twilight existence.
What should have been done is quite easy to see. England might have learned something from the Australians, whose Sheffield Shield competition links the club game with the test team. In England, just one limited-over competition, ideally of 60 overs, should have been played, and would surely have thrived. It could have combined a league and knockout element, with a cup final at Lord’s in early August. The county championship itself should have been kept just as it once was, a season of 28 three-day matches played on uncovered wickets. This competition would have been “semi-pro”: each side would have had a core of no more than ten paid players, maybe fewer. And the county game would have served as a stepping-stone from club cricket to the highest levels. Then there would have been one more competition of four-day matches played by only five teams (let’s call them Lord’s, Oval, Edgbaston, Headingley and Old Trafford), serious and professional, with players on their mettle playing for selection in the national eleven.
In one other respect, the counties have done exactly the wrong thing, by sharply reducing the number of venues where they play. Hampshire has already gone the whole way: instead of alternating between Southampton, Portsmouth, Bournemouth and occasionally Basingstoke, it now plays only at the impressive but unlovable Rose Bowl, hard by the M27. Somerset wants to do the same. It has already abandoned Weston-super-Mare, and gives every impression that it would like to leave Bath as well. There was a time when it not only played three matches at each but played at Wells, Frome and Yeovil also. And Kent played at more grounds than any other side: Gravesend, Gillingham, Tonbridge, Maidstone, Blackheath, Folkestone, Dover, Tunbridge Wells and Canterbury. Last year, a report on county cricket by two Nottingham Business School academics suggested that counties need to play more “festival” games at grounds throughout the county to keep attendance up. By withdrawing to their headquarters, the clubs have been tearing up their roots.
If cricket once gave expression to well-marked traits in the English character, it now displays the infantilism of modern England. The old three-day cricket has passed out of fashion because it had to be taken seriously, and expected some degree of knowledge, concentration and connoisseurship. Twenty20 is cricket for New Brits, a nation with the concentration span of children. Even test matches have now become fancy-dress parties, with groups of grown men dressed as pirates, nuns, SS officers or whatnot. Maybe that all too accurately sums up our country today, which has adopted the old Viennese motto: “The situation is hopeless but not serious.”
As we descend giggling and sniggering beneath the waves of history, it may indeed be a consolation of sorts that we have left the world certain irreducible legacies, from this language to organised team games. Other countries have taken over those games and play them better than we can: New Zealanders at rugby, Brazilians at soccer and, for all this summer’s drama, Australians at cricket. So perhaps in the end it does not really matter if English cricket fades away.
It is possible to foresee a future, only a generation hence, when county cricket has effectively disappeared, the punters have at last tired of one-day trash-cricket, and when even the lingering enthusiasm for test matches has dwindled. By then, the game might well have become an esoteric survival, like real tennis (also played at Lord’s), archery or skittles. And by then, maybe it will be the character of minority groups in this country to which cricket gives expression. An officer’s mess in the Indian army is notoriously more English than any Englishmen would dare to be, and only in Antigua and Barbados have I ever seen Anglican churches packed on a Sunday. AJP Taylor said about soccer that, “By it the mark of England may well remain when the rest of her influence has vanished.” Might it be that cricket, too, will remain as a mark of the land which created it but, unlike soccer, a mark that will be barely visible in England itself?
Structure of the English county game The professional domestic game comprises four tournaments. The county championship is the only one of these with first-class status, with games lasting four days. Since 2000, the championship has had two divisions of nine teams each, with football-style promotion and relegation between the divisions at the end of the season.
Of the three one-day tournaments, the C&G knockout trophy (formerly the Gillette cup and Natwest trophy) and the totesport Sunday league have been around in various forms for many years. Twenty20, on the other hand, began in 2003. This new form of cricket, in which each side bats for 20 overs and boundaries are shortened, has attracted large crowds—average attendance was 7,000 last season, and 26,500 people watched the Middlesex vs Surrey game in 2004, the largest non-final single day cricket crowd since 1953.
Crowds at four-day games are far lower—an average of around 3,500—but numbers have increased slightly since the 2000 reorganisation. The ECB aims to boost attendance by 15 per cent over the next five years.