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
Published in September 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.