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.

15 thoughts on “Watcha Gonna Do About It?

  1. Aden Biddle Nov 22, 2021 / 2:56 pm

    Three of questions from me.

    Do you think that the way sports are supported/followed in other countries skews thinking I find football in the UK, Cricket in India and the big three sports in USA have such fanatical following irrespective of volume of games or meaning but sometimes sports look to emulate this without stepping back and thinking that they are one offs and not something to aspire to? Is this something maybe brought about by assuming that everyone who follows cricket follows it with the same unrelenting following as Indian and other sub continent fans?

    Secondly what about the ODI super league? Looks like it is being scrapped it seemed on paper to be a really good idea guaranteeing context and minimum number of games for all. So many England fans looking forward to short ODI series in Ireland and Holland. It felt like the big nations had only just realised what they had created and backtracked but that might be cynical.

    Overall unrelenting white ball cricket can be over baring also there is this coverage of everything being “fantastic” “ingenious” Out of this world” is tough, but again is this just a British psyche thing?

    Like

    • thelegglance Nov 22, 2021 / 3:06 pm

      They’re good questions. I’m not sure – if there’s something that surprises me on an ongoing basis, it’s how Indian fans embraced the franchise model as something to support. Cultures are different of course, but I remain to be convinced such a thing applies here, and the vaguely desperate way many tried to claim that did happen with the Hundred increased my scepticism.

      But the point about primary sports being more immune is a good one, and the answer is….not sure. I’ll have to reflect and listen to others if they reply.

      Yeah, for the ODI Super League it doesn’t make money for the big boards. Ultimately that’s the biggie for them.

      And lastly, that’s infected almost all coverage I suppose. Greatesteveritis as we call it.

      Like

  2. maggiej Nov 22, 2021 / 3:55 pm

    Complete guess but as far as i know, India doesn’t have the same sort of county tradition that we do and so the franchise model is appealing, Also, like Australia, they have huge cities with large populations so basing the franchises around those cities is always going to produce a fanbase, like the Big Bash has but probably unlike our Hundred.

    On your original point, I don’t think it’s just you. There is less and less sport that I find really enjoyable to watch. I dispensed with Sky Sports because I didn’t watch much football, had lost interest in golf except for the occasional large tournament, cricket was becoming less appealing. You need either attractive teams or attractive/outstanding players to enjoy watching, eg Nadal, Federer, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy. I don’t find much appeal in the England cricket team, most football teams or most individuals in other sports any more It’s all too commercial and money driven. I much prefer county cricket these days because at least you can identify with the players and the teams more easily.

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      • Aden Biddle Nov 23, 2021 / 8:05 am

        This is why I love watching the Associate games and seeing them make the World Cups. They are far more genuine than the robotic media trained teams their lack of exposure makes them interesting to watch but more so every game they play tends to be really important.
        On the other points made I think with cricket you have a predicament in comparison to other sports that being an avid player and avid follower are very difficult (especially like me you don’t live in a county ground city or town) so when the games come thick and fast they become meaningless most people I know care more about their Saturday league than anything that happening outside that on TV.

        Like

  3. Sion Nov 22, 2021 / 6:15 pm

    One of the most insightful pieces I’ve read on the current state of cricket. As a cricket fan, it feels weird not particularly looking forward to the Ashes

    Liked by 2 people

  4. LordCanisLupus Nov 22, 2021 / 7:58 pm

    Brilliantly written. Captures my mood entirely, especially about the World T20 and the Ashes. A sport declines as it grows too large. It is the same thing about to happen with the World Cup in football when they move it to every two years, because someone, somewhere thinks it is a good idea. If you spread the high point too thinly, and undermine it by the level below becoming too large, or in the case of football, believing club football is bigger than winning world prizes, you lose the essence of the reason for sport.

    Some may have seen my tweets recently, but I have zero intention of staying up all night to watch the Ashes. The ECB have made it abundantly clear that 2021 was about the Hundred first, the Hundred second, the T20 World Cup third and really, who cares about an overseas Ashes anyway? It follows the last Ashes series after the 2019 World Cup, wedged in at the end of the season, rather than its centrepiece. Rescued by a Stokes miracle. I am not convinced the Aussies are as good as all that, but they should be good enough because our test team isn’t great. But do I really care? I can’t fight against the dying of the light any more. The greatest test for the England cricket team has been cast as an afterthought, along with those who cared.

    Excited for next year’s Hundred!

    Like

    • Mark Nov 22, 2021 / 9:23 pm

      Most sports have now become giant milking exercises, playing endless, meaningless matches with almost guaranteed outcome, and extracting maximum money out of their fans. (customers) But unlike most commercial outfits who at least pretend they care about their customers most sporting bodies have utter contempt for their customers. In some cases even telling them to their face they are not wanted. Even German car companies don’t go that far. So they can’t really complain when those fans find something else to do, and lose all interest in the shoddy product that is so often put before them.

      It’s easy to get all rose tinted glasses about it all because cricket never was in my lifetime as big as football. But I can say that an Ashes down under every four years was a huge highlight for me. Even when we were getting stuffed by Warne and McGrath. At least you felt you are watching true greatness.

      But now I have zero interest. Who cares? Certainly not the ECB, who have written off the last away Ashes series defeat with an indifferent shrug. 4-0 5-0 who cares? County cricket is not a big deal in terms of making money so they want rid of it, and a lot of the people who watch it. Which is why they were almost embarrassingly on their knees in the summer trying to drum up new customers for their latest ludicrous wheeze.

      Perhaps county cricket should become more for players who want to play for the love of the game. Perhaps become semi professional? Remove themselves from the clutches of the ECB. There is no money in Croquet but people still play it and are passionate about it. People are passionate about many things without any money involved.

      But times change and it seems younger people have far more choice of things to tempt them and their money. They also seem to consume sport differently. Sometimes taping games and then watching them on fast forward until a goal is scored. You can watch a whole match in about ten minutes. Shorter and shorter time span. That kind of mentality is never going to really enjoy a five day test match.

      A football world cup every two years is just another stupid idea, and devalues the product. I’m sure it will only lead to more talk of break away super leagues for the clubs. I’m still betting on all the major European club sides upping sticks and moving to China to start a new world super league within the next 30 years. If the moneys is right, it will happen.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Richard Clark Nov 23, 2021 / 8:35 am

    Great piece, and I find myself nodding along with pretty much all of it.

    Sadly, this is the route much of sport has chosen to go down now. Where everything has to be bigger, better, more razzamatazzy than before. It’s (another) form of pyramid scheme where only continued ‘growth’ can sustain the game. The trouble is pyramid schemes always fail in the end.

    I have grown weary of ‘big’ sport in recent years. I find my joy (in truth, perhaps, I always did) in things like non-league football – though even that is infected nowadays – and in women’s sports – which nobody has got round to ruining yet. I know I’m at risk of lapsing into cliche here, and of drifting from the main point, but there is still an element of the purity of sport here where, as you touch on above, it matters, but not too much. For the most part, they are largely untainted by gambling, by over indulgence in alcohol, by boorish behaviour, by NNNOOOOIIIIIIISSSSEEEEE! I can turn up, watch and absorb the game, and go home again.

    We have lost the essence of cricket. Is this an old fashioned view? Yes, and no. Either way, it’s mine.

    Like

    • Mark Nov 23, 2021 / 12:47 pm

      I agree with this Richard.

      The hype of modern sport has become ludicrous, and usually backfires as the game rarely lives up to the impossible hype. In addition, the biggest culprits in hyping up events and indulging in “Greatesteveritis” is the media. They have vacated their role as critic and policeman and have become cheerleaders. Often they seem to be in competition with each other to see how cringing and embarrassing they can suck up to the governing body they should be calling to account.

      I was walking my dog in a park recently and there was a football match going on. I would guess it was under 16 or maybe under 17 something like that. There was a fair old size crowd of about 300 people watching. Great passion, a lot of noise and banter and a cracking goal in the last five minutes to win the game. It was funny because when I watched the goal go in for a split second I thought….”can’t wait to see that on the replay” Then quickly you remember there won’t be a replay, and that moment is gone for ever into memory.

      On the plus side We didn’t have to listen to the over paid smug commentators and pundits like Gary Lineker sneering at us. Just a bunch of people enjoying themselves with a passion without the cynicism.

      Like

  6. quebecer Dec 2, 2021 / 12:15 am

    No, not just you. But hey ho, I suppose when you have business model and then try to adapt a sport to it rather than the other way around, the end result is, well, this.

    Like

  7. Marek Dec 2, 2021 / 10:06 pm

    Hooray for the Christmas present you didn’t know you wanted: another non-FTP series (this time as recompense for this year’s equally pointless one) shoehorned into England’s schedule, meaning that next winter will be almost as relentless as this one.

    And that England will have played New Zealand in four test series in well under four years, only one of them in the WTC.

    Like

    • Marek Dec 2, 2021 / 10:08 pm

      …and of course, hooray for the world’s first ever seven-match T20I series. Pioneers!

      Like

  8. dArthez Dec 4, 2021 / 7:33 am

    Take a bow Ajaz Patel. Taking 10 wickets in an innings in India. Well done

    Like

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