It’s been a fair while since I’ve written a piece, and it’s been like an itch that needs scratching. The last few months have been fairly manic with work, but after next week it should be a quieter period, just in time for Christmas and then January and February, which are my easy months of the year, comparatively.
I’ve also been doing some research on a bigger post to come, and have notes scribbled all over the place. Picking the right time to do that is perhaps the biggest question.
The approaching series is the one in South Africa, historically always one of the marquee series, and thus one where excitement is building, right?
Hmm. Over the last week we had the nominations for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, and the observation that despite a truly fantastic year, Joe Root was missing from the list. It was also pointed out that at the same time, a woman footballer was on there, and much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued.
From a couple of cricket writers.
From the wider public there was the sound of complete indifference.
Now, the reason for me apparently picking on a female footballer there was deliberate. You see, not only are those matches visible on terrestrial television, but it goes further than that. Participation in female football has been growing rapidly in the last few years, and in the next 12 months or so, it will exceed the male participation in cricket in this country. Add to that the higher viewing figures for the Women’s World Cup, and realistically, why should there be the slightest objection or even query? By these measures, women’s football is simply more important to the English people than cricket is.
Is it really? Probably not, yet one of the defences the ECB puts up to cricket not being on terrestrial television is that it is available on Test Match Special on the radio. Yet here we have an Ashes winning year with one player across the calendar year proving genuinely exceptional and becoming the number one batsman in the world, and he wasn’t included. But the fundamental point is that people do get missed off these things, that isn’t the story – the total indifference to it is.
Few would argue that the SPOTY award is more than a bit of fluff, yet it is symptomatic of the decline in interest in the sport generally that Root being left out didn’t cause a storm of outrage, instead it wasn’t even noticed. Go to the pub, sit at the bar, raise the subject amongst those interested in sport and see what the reaction is. There’s a slight raising of the eyebrows and a response of “oh yes. That’s true”. This is more dangerous to the game here than anything, when the sporting public don’t even realise until it’s pointed out.
When this debate occurs, the question of terrestrial television coverage is always rejected with the line that the drop in revenue from doing so would be a disaster for the game, and that terrestrial coverage wouldn’t suddenly change everything. This is true, yet it is what it always has been – a complete straw man argument. No one is arguing that it is a panacea for all ills, it’s a deep seated concern that there won’t be much of a game to support at this rate.
Ah yes, but crowds remain excellent and there is strong demand, so the story goes. Yet this year there were day one tickets available for the Lords Ashes Test, on the day of the match. Trying to find this kind of information out from the ECB is nigh on impossible, and so the supporting evidence for this assertion is a simple one – I looked at the Lords website and went through most of the process of buying one to see if I could. It’s unlikely there were many, but the point is there actually were some.
Let’s just think about that; day one tickets, on the day, for the Lords Test, of an Ashes series. And England had just gone 1-0 up. Cost is a big part of this for certain, the exponential increase in ticket prices and the gouging of supporters by the ECB (funny how the huge rise in income for the ECB hasn’t held ticket prices down) has probably reached a point where a substantial number of those who would go simply don’t solely for this reason. Yet the alarm bells should be ringing loudly, and the biggest concern is they don’t seem to be.
It didn’t help of course that the Ashes series itself was such a dreadful one, five completely one sided matches with barely any drama or uncertainty beyond the first day and a bit. But to counter that, the two Tests against New Zealand were truly magnificent, cricket as entertainment at its best. It still didn’t make much difference.
With most specialist interests, there’s the matter that anyone writing or talking about it is doing so in an echo chamber, the only people who react or read it, or argue back are those who have the same interest, and thus it can be talked about at great length, entirely oblivious to the fact that no one outside of it cares. This is where cricket now is. The national press do cover the game, but if the Sun stopped writing about it (tucked away four pages in from the back) would anyone care? Would anyone outside of the few even notice? It seems unlikely.
Out of sight, out of mind is the most dangerous state for any sport to reach. For decades the lamentation that football has taken over the national consciousness at the expense of cricket has gone up, but it’s gone way further than that now. Rugby union is miles ahead, notwithstanding the England team gloriously completely the full set of the three “major” team sports all going out at the group stage of their respective World Cups (the football team’s failure is positively superb by comparison with the other two), in fact rugby league probably is. Cycling, tennis, athletics – they all now have a much broader appeal than cricket does. It’s nothing more than a minority interest, and the slump in people playing is as good an evidence of that as anything else.
If you were to visit some of the London parks, the removal of the cricket pitches by the councils is something that has been highlighted over the last few years. Yet a question that is never asked about that is what if the councils are right? What if they have removed them not just because of the expense, but because no one really cares if they do? It’s not like it was met with strong protest, more like quiet grumbles at the way things are going.
The national team is the pinnacle of any sport, and also the showcase of it. For all the talk about the dominance of the club game in football, nothing pulls in viewers or captures the imagination like the national team doing well – younger readers may need to ask a parent – yet despite the defeat in the UAE, the England cricket team had a reasonable enough year post World Cup, and for most of the wider public, it simply passed them by.
A South Africa tour should be highly anticipated, England don’t win there often, and despite the hosts comprehensive defeat in India, it will be a stiff challenge. But will anyone notice? Will anyone even realise it’s happening?
The wider ramifications of the ICC power grab are yet to unwind, the complicity of much of the media in allowing that to happen with no objections or investigation as shameful as it ever was. But the bigger issue right now is the game itself, and where it is in this country. And for the first time I am starting to truly fear for its future, not just at the top level but throughout. The mendacity and self-serving nature of the avaricious ECB is a subject to which we will return time and again. The danger is that it reaches a point where even when it’s put in front of the public, they still couldn’t care less.