Clubbing a Seal

The differences between the professional and the amateur game are many and varied, but perhaps the most stark is that without the driver of financial self-interest, the fundamental reason for turning out at the weekend or in the evenings is because it is fun, because the player wishes to perform in a sport that they love. It is a simple concept, and one that many paid to play struggle to grasp – cricketers love cricket. The same can be said in many areas of life, for there are plenty of cricket journalists who cannot get their heads around the idea of a blog that doesn’t seek to “monetise” its existence, and that those who write do so simply for the pleasure of it. But the difference is that this doesn’t matter a great deal, not being able to understand why people play cricket does.

Michael Vaughan has long banged the drum for converting club cricket into a replication of the short form white ball professional cricket, and this week was joined by Harry Gurney doing the same thing. Both have a perspective that is valid, but both have shown a complete inability to comprehend the differences and the motivations behind taking up a game. Gurney started off the row with this:

While Nasser Hussain answered as follows:

There are numerous issues raised by this, some valid, some not so much. The drop off in teenage participation is anything but new, for it has always been the case that clubs lose players at around that age, even 50 years ago. The reasons haven’t fundamentally changed, the transition into adulthood takes people away from many a childhood activity, and the high levels of university access these days have led many a club member to hope that they gain a talented, but extremely dim young player. Times change, and perhaps it is true that these days there are more distractions, but the central idea that this is something that has never happened before is both nonsensical and somewhat ignorant.

The central theme of Gurney’s argument that all club cricket should be T20 or Hundred provoked a strong reaction, and one that he first tried to defend, and then became progressively more sneery about contrary opinion while stating it was just a view. But what it did highlight was a complete lack of connection or empathy with those who play the game for pleasure, and an inability to separate his own career from the wider game. This isn’t terribly unusual, sportsmen who have reached a professional level often have a sense of superiority over those amateurs and a lack of awareness that cricket may not be the central activity in another person’s life – or to put it another way, success in cricket isn’t more important than success in life just because it is their life. It is an odd social phenomenon, and hardly a new one, but the belief that this extra ability allows both greater insight and a position of authority is downright weird. Gurney rather gave the game away a little later on:

This single tweet undermines so much of the debate, the sheer arrogance of assuming that social media followers imbue a sense of knowledge is quite something and more than anything expresses an inferiority complex on his part. An appeal to own authority is a very special kind of logical fallacy.

Still, the wider issues are worth examining, not least because the decline in player participation is something that ought to concern everyone. Yet Gurney has benefitted financially from the decisions taken by the ECB to extract as much revenue from the professional game as possible, and the Hundred is merely the latest iteration of that determination to turn the game of cricket into a revenue stream first and foremost. And it is here that the disconnect between his experience and that of the ordinary cricketer is most stark – the motivation behind a franchise cricketer is to provide his livelihood, the motivation behind a recreational cricketer is that he or she wants to play. That he undoubtedly played club cricket doesn’t mean he understands club cricket. It is therefore the case that format has irrelevance if paid to play, it is part of a job, and part of a career. This is not the same as turning out weekly because of love.

Quite why cricket has suffered so badly from a decline in participation is an open question, but responding to a symptom rather than a cause is equally fallacious. Rugby hasn’t suffered particularly badly, but football has. Both of those sports involve shorter games than cricket, and that one has suffered a drop off and the other not implies that it cannot simply be about the amount of time involved in playing. Simplistic answers to complex questions merely imply a lack of critical thought. The absence of cricket from free to air television is something that Hussain for one would never acknowledge given his role at Sky, and while Gurney did later say that he would like to see that, he didn’t go as far as saying he’d accept a lower income in order to make it happen. Again, here is a fundamental difference between those who play for fun and those who do so as a career, self-interest is entirely understandable, but it doesn’t help to provide a full picture.

Which leads to the question as to whether moving all club cricket to short form would actually help anything at all, for it is at least a valid question, however clumsily expressed. Young players begin with pairs cricket rather than 20 over games, and for good reason: it allows them to bat and bowl for a significant period rather than spending their time fielding and being out after a few balls. A fundamental misunderstanding about participation in cricket is that just being there wearing whites doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, players need to do the fun bits not just be a body on the field. Professionals can’t comprehend this, because when they were going through their age groups, they were always the best player and had the chance to do the all the good things – they dominated the game and while having a great time doing so, few would have spared a thought for the team-mate who sat on the boundary with pads on all innings.

There is no swifter way to discourage anyone who wants to play than to not give them a chance to do so, something club members are acutely conscious of, professional cricketers less so. And this is the major problem with all short form cricket – that if batting below number four, half the time a player is no more than a glorified fielder, especially if they aren’t one of the best four bowlers. This is not fun, and ensuring that everyone gets a game is the art of the club captain, again a concept entirely alien to a professional who is in a side on merit, and there to do a job.

Those youth players then move on to mostly 20 over cricket, a further reminder to those who lecture from on high that the professional game did not invent T20, no matter how much they try to tell themselves that they did. It is only in their teenage years that players have the opportunity to play a longer game, and is something that almost all cricketers want to do. Bowlers get more overs, batsmen get the chance to bat properly. Of course, if a player isn’t very good, standing around for 40 or 50 overs isn’t anyone’s idea of a fun afternoon, but nothing cuts to the heart of the difficulty at amateur level quite so much as trying to involve a player who isn’t really good enough to play at that level. This doesn’t mean that clubs don’t try to do it, because they try incredibly hard – anyone who has been involved in a captaincy role knows all too well how difficult that can be.

For those better players, 20 over cricket is a great game, but not necessarily their favoured form of it. It ought to be obvious why not, but apparently it needs saying: People are doing this for enjoyment – if batting is fun and bowling is fun, they want to do more of it, not less. There is indeed the question of the time involved, but a casual cricketer who doesn’t want to give up all day both has the opportunity to play in the 20 over matches (for most clubs have that) and pushing away those committed players who do want to play a full game is no kind of solution. It is a consistent failure of both the ECB and those with little idea of the recreational game to view the existing base as a problem to be dealt with rather than a strength to capitalise upon. Gurney himself made that clear with a further tweet:

This is a straw man argument. Few bar the terminally dense would believe playing 50 overs on a Saturday is any kind of preparation for four or five day cricket, they are chalk and cheese. But it does highlight that Gurney is under the impression that the purpose of club cricket is to provide a pathway to the professional game rather than having an inherent value in itself, and that by saying it’s different he’s implying it’s the same and worthy of comparison – a perspective that’s simply weird. For a few, perhaps it might be viewed in that sense, league cricket being something that all professionals will have played as they rose up the ranks, but being under the impression that the other ten players on the side were thinking in such terms is quite remarkable. They were playing to challenge themselves and because they enjoyed it. Nothing more and nothing less, they didn’t see it as a stepping stone to anywhere.

This lofty attitude can be seen just as clearly in the assumption that playing 20 overs allows people to turn out for a couple of hours rather than giving up a whole day. Firstly, 20 overs is much slower at club level, because they don’t have people throwing the ball back from the boundary every time it’s hit – the principal reason for only playing evening 20 over leagues in June is because of how difficult it is to get a full game in before darkness when starting at 6pm. Secondly, unlike their professional counterparts, club cricketers have to prepare the ground and the clubhouse for a game. They don’t rock up, turn out, play and piss off afterwards, they have endless jobs to do, whether that be putting out the boundary rope or hoovering the clubhouse before leaving, and that’s without the travel involved getting there. Assuming it is two or three hours only highlights a spectacular ignorance and entitlement to a degree that reaches the level of both amusement and contempt. A Sunday afternoon game that started at 1pm and ended at 4pm would involve home players arriving at midday and leaving at 5pm at the very earliest – a player who merely turns up to play and leaves will soon find themselves extremely unwelcome – but perhaps when a pro does it they believe their greatness should allow them extra latitude while everyone else does all the work. Playing a T20 match does not save most of the day.

Vaughan talked about having music and a festival atmosphere at such games – does he imagine this doesn’t happen? Does he imagine that clubs have staff who do all this for them as at the counties? Everything at club level requires people to do this in the first place, and to put it all away afterwards. And the ones that do it all tend to be the “old fogeys” Hussain wanted out of cricket clubs.

Club cricket is in trouble, and does need creative solutions. But for those in a position of privilege to lecture everyone else on what they ought to do, not for the benefit of the game but their own personal position is quite extraordinary. It took Jade Dernbach to offer a dose of reality:

Club cricketers want to play cricket. This is the most obvious and important point of all; they don’t do so because they are supplicants to the professional game, but because they love the sport. They make lifelong friends doing so, they socialise with each other, and above all else they care deeply about the sport. This is why they volunteer, they coach, they prepare the ground for play, they re-decorate the pavilion each April in preparation. And they work extremely hard (for free) to encourage youngsters to take up the game. Retaining young players has always been a challenge, retaining young players whose families don’t have access to Sky is an extreme challenge. But clubs are far more aware of the issues than any professional can be; that’s why they go into schools to introduce the game to those who have never seen it while those in the professional game count their money. They play 20 over cricket, they play 50 over cricket, they play league matches, they play friendly matches. And still they struggle, with virtually no assistance from the professional game that appears to consider it an obstacle rather than an asset.

It would be a start if those who have made a comfortable living from the game spent time listening to those who work their backsides off trying to promote a sport for no other reason than that they love it. But of course, those ordinary clubs and ordinary cricketers don’t have lots of Twitter followers, so I guess they don’t really count. Being Outside Cricket has never felt as acute.

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