Watcha Gonna Do About It?

What a strange time for the world of cricket it has been. On and off the field it’s been engulfed in controversy and ennui, a peculiar combination, and one that seems to be a constant state. And it’s so strange to think about and write about. The goings on at Yorkshire and the ECB have been depressing and enraging to watch, but also without creating a desperate desire to write about it all. There were some attempts, some false starts and the realisation that Danny was always going to do it better, so here it is if you’ve not seen it yet: https://beingoutsidecricket.com/2021/11/14/who-watches-the-watchmen/

On the field we had the T20 World Cup, which passed by offering an acceptable degree of entertainment, without ever becoming a central sporting event of the year. Partly that’s because the conditions made it far too inclined towards the winner of the toss (and credit to Aaron Finch for directly acknowledging that), but also the sheer frequency of T20 cricket took away the sense of occasion. Covid restrictions mean there’s another T20 World Cup next year anyway, so it was hard to care overly beyond a mild sense of interest in what was going on. Once the World Cup was over, several teams dived straight into more T20 internationals in bi-lateral series, adding to the sense of it being nothing more than routine, a distraction.

Is this the real future of cricket? Because it does seem to be. It’s not so much the format here, as the sense of a diet of constant cricket, shorn of context or importance. If that is how it feels for a World Cup, then there are real issues to be faced. Now, I’m not (quite) so self-centred as to believe personal doubts translate to anything wider or more meaningful, but it’s me writing this, and I’ll have my say. It may be instead that most people were fully engaged in the competition and the outcome, but I have my doubts. Growing the game is hugely laudable, but a problem does arise if that interest becomes wider but ever shallower, the game more disposable and less a matter of passion and love. Because then boredom or indifference becomes an ever greater risk. Lots of sports are having to deal with that, and the determination to dilute what is there is hardly confined to cricket (such as the wish for a biennial football World Cup), but cricket is different in that it has always had international series outside of the relatively recent competitions, and they actually seemed to have their own importance too. Primarily, those were the Test series, but not entirely – 50 over series might not have meant as much, but the outcome still mattered generally.

It then leads to wondering about the audience for such matters. Going to live sport remains (usually) a hugely enjoyable experience irrespective of gripes about cost, accommodation or the total lack of interest in supporter welfare, but there is a difference between going for the spectacle and experience and going because of a passionate interest in the outcome. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, it’s certainly not to say it is definitely declining, but cricket increasingly lacks that competitive context that other sports have, which is where the risk of falling interest in the outcome becomes a real risk. It has at least appeared on the radar of the ICC, with the institution of the World Test Championship being directly down to those concerns. Whatever its flaws, adding a context to bilateral series is a helpful innovation. But Test cricket remains relatively rare compared to the shorter forms, making both its strengths and weaknesses in attracting attention more acute.

Cricket has always been a little different for the spectator to other sports, the tribalism of football and rugby does have echoes in cricket, both at county and international level, but not to the same extent. That’s probably down to the nature of the game as much as anything – even a wicket doesn’t invoke the same explosion of crowd emotion as a goal or a try does, but it is present, and it is valid, and unlike those shorter sports cricket has the ability to ramp up tension like little else. Yet crowds do respond to even the most irrelevant of matches when a player does something special, so it is a feeling that perhaps isn’t matched by the available evidence. It could also be a function of personally getting older. Certainly I remember my father being far less passionate about England doing well than I was at the time, and also him telling me that it hadn’t always been that way in his case either.

But it’s hard to avoid the feeling of not caring all that much, which is an interesting place to be with the Ashes coming up. What has always been the iconic series for English and Australian fans doesn’t seem to have quite the cachet that it once did. Again, this may not be inherent, as an expectation that England may face an especially difficult winter does reduce the degree of anticipation quite considerably. The last two years around the world too may be a significant element of it; sport has provided a pleasant diversion from more pressing issues, but has rarely seemed less vital or important in the context of wider life.

Perhaps it is reading too much into it, but there also seems a sense of the journalists trying to convince themselves about how much they really care in their written copy. It’s perfunctory, not engaged. Not about wider societal matters, such as the Azeem Rafiq testimony, for such injustice will lend itself to passionate writing from those who do it for a living, but in terms of the game itself. England’s defeat to New Zealand in the World T20, something that might once have generated pages of invective or analysis seemed to be met with something of a shrug. Sure, it’s T20, by definition it’s pretty disposable and forgettable, but the sense of….well, boredom with it all was hard to avoid.

This might be the greatest danger facing the sport, not the horrendous mess so much of it is in, but if indifference is the net response. The people behind County Cricket Matters (Annie Chave, sometimes of these pages in particular) evoke admiration not just for their cause, but also the sheer passion they bring to it. That so many don’t share it is somewhat beside the point, to be so invested in what they believe is the essence of a love of sport, and perhaps the worst part of how the ECB run the game is their apparent determination to crush that spirit. For if these people give up, then the game itself is vastly the poorer. Any and every sport needs people furious, angry, livid with what is going on, and not prepared to take it any more. Cricket’s drift to a form of entertainment and nothing more robs the game of those who truly care about it, where spectators are little different to those tuning in to Strictly every Saturday. That makes it easier to monetise, and as a result avaricious cricket boards will likely see few problems with it, and they’ll have moved on by the time the consequences of that are felt. But it also means that if the rank and file don’t care, they won’t invest their personal time in developing and supporting it. That is fatal for a sport, and drives its move to the margins at an ever faster rate, while allowing governing bodies to point at the revenue streams and insist they’re doing everything they can.

It is impossible for a blog like this to stay permanently furious at everything (and not especially healthy either), but it’s hard to avoid the feeling of having lost the argument, the game and the sport. It’s moved beyond us, morphed into something different, where the players are rotating background cast members rather than Top Trump cards to be argued over. Cricketing heroes won’t go away, Ben Stokes making himself available for the Ashes sent a frisson of excitement through many; but equally the retirement of AB De Villiers from all cricket didn’t generate the kind of emotion that someone of that stature ought to have done, as the circus swiftly moved on.

It is of increasing concern that the fears that cricket will self-destruct becomes instead a fear that its slide into irrelevance is not about small viewing figures, but about indifference as to sporting outcome. For sport to mean anything at all, for it to be the “most important, least important thing” there has to be an emotional investment in what transpires. Franchise cricket’s explosion around the world may be robbing that essence of sport from itself, and alienating those who always spent their time caring deeply about it.

But it could just be me.