That’s it! The covers are on, the strips are repaired, the clubhouse lights have been switched off for the final time. Well played all, 2016 has been a blast.
After another season of effort and achievement both on and off the field of play, the best of which is celebrated in issue 145 of All Out Cricket, in what health is the recreational game in England and Wales?
Regular readers of the club pages in AOC will be familiar with hearing that the game faces challenges as a participation sport. In fact, anyone who’s played the game at any point in the last hundred years would be well acquainted with the idea. “I fear the threat of apathy to our sport… I see too much indifference… it needs a stiff dose of something…” So wrote a fretful Leo Bennett in his book The Weekend Cricketer. Published 1951. That’s cricket: perpetually in crisis – yet simultaneously wary of change.
It’s two years now since the findings of the ECB’s landmark participation survey hit headlines with its stark statistical warnings. Player numbers had dropped by 64,000 in a single year, down from 908,000 in 2013 to 844,000 in 2014. Almost 600,000 of that number were defined as merely ‘occasional’ or ‘cameo’ players. Five per cent of all organised fixtures were conceded in 2014 because at least one of the teams was unable to field a full side. The conclusion was unavoidable: the game was in decline and, in the eyes of some, that was due to years of complacent mismanagement. The philosophy that pouring resources into the England team would have an inevitable trickle-down effect on the grassroots was open for reconsideration.
In truth, participation numbers were falling broadly in line with those of other team sports. People have less time and more options – fewer of us are playing organised games. But cricket’s place in the popular consciousness seemed particularly threatened.
Two years on, if the overall downward trends haven’t yet made a comprehensive reversal, then at least the ECB’s resolve in tackling them cannot fairly be questioned. Led by a new director of participation and growth, the Australian Matt Dwyer, the last 18 months has seen the assembly of a new and expanded ECB workforce focused entirely on recreational cricket, as well as a host of new measures aimed at making participation easier and more attractive – particularly to young people.
In 2016, the ECB U19 Club T20 tournament – a vibrant competition of coloured kits, named shirts and walk-on music, targeted at the school-leaving age-bracket – was expanded to include over 600 clubs. The Get The Game On campaign encouraged leagues, clubs and volunteers to work together to ensure the completion of more matches. New women’s sections have been opened up, offering coaching and easy-to-play formats to attract new players. The annual participation survey has been continued and expanded.
Those initiatives are soon likely to seem fairly minor. After 18 months of research and head-bashing, the new ‘participation and growth’ team have put a plan together. Early next year, the ECB will publish its participation agenda, which will include full details of a new entry-level programme designed to make cricket more inviting and accessible. Among other things, this is likely to mean the expansion of shorter, more informal formats of the game. After all, an hour-long session with a soft ball (and requiring no extra kit) is, all things considered, a more appropriate introduction to the game than being chucked in to an all-day 120-over league match.
But the ‘participation agenda’ will look beyond clubs themselves, too. Yet more ECB research in 2015 (just two months after the summer’s Ashes) made some alarming findings about the place of cricket in the minds of young people. Less than two per cent of kids across England and Wales named cricket as their favourite sport. Just seven per cent put cricket in their top two. When asked simply to name 10 different sports, three out of 10 kids didn’t say cricket at all. The game itself is at risk of drifting towards irrelevance outside of its traditional confines.
So change is required. Dwyer, who was head-hunted by the ECB after huge success in a similar role for Cricket Australia, takes a holistic view – knowing how significant the impact of the Big Bash was in stimulating participation down under. “We found that kids aspire to big cricket,” Dwyer has told AOC. “That connection to big cricket is what kids want. The Big Bash is unashamedly about attracting kids and their mothers. It’s not for you and I, it’s not for the traditionalist.” The ECB ‘s determination to implement a new city-based professional T20 competition, which received a boost at Lord’s this month, has surely been driven at least in part by its participation objectives. Newcomers need something glamorous and identifiable to aspire to.
What then, does this all mean for those of us who live and breathe the game already, who don’t need any winning over? The week-in-week-out contributors, the in-the-blood lifers? The community of club cricket, in many ways, doesn’t require much change. Its collaborative spirit, its ability to educate, inspire and accommodate all ages, shapes, sizes and colours – all that remains. And yet players are leaving the game. Why? Many point to the lack of cricket on terrestrial TV – and who wouldn’t, in an ideal world, like to see more of the game on free-to-air? Others highlight the limited facilities for cricket in state schools – albeit that Chance to Shine is doing brilliant work in addressing that.
But these points alone miss the crux of the matter. For this is not a problem unique to cricket, nor one that can be laid at the door of a single administrator, but, principally, the result of long-term changes in society. People work long hours, into the weekend, conference calling, Skyping, emailing beyond the nine to five, and when the working week does relent, they are rightly expected to play an active part in family life. Cricket’s drawn-out charms are rarely conducive either to successful careers or thriving relationships. Even where free time is abundant, there are countless options for how to fill it, and why would you miss a night out on the town because you’re still driving back halfway across the county after batting at seven and not getting a bowl? With increased mobility and online interaction, as people’s sense of connection to their immediate community has weakened, selling cricket club life has become harder.
In the face of all this, clubs – as highlighted month after month in the pages of AOC – have actually been remarkably resilient. The volunteers keep trucking, the junior sections keep growing, the experiences they create keep happening. But they are also – slowly in some cases, quicker in others – embracing change. Clubs and leagues all over the country are looking at bringing start times forward, reducing the length of matches and shortening travel distances – all of which has to be eminently sensible (even if it challenges some traditions held dear by local organisers). The administrative burdens placed on club committees in recent times have made it harder work to stay in a league, avoid sanction and keep a club going. That too is being addressed.
And what about player behaviour? What effect does foul-mouthed yobbery, or just a general undercurrent of unpleasantness, have on a player debating whether or not cricket is enjoyable enough to justify the time it takes to play? The conduct of players and the overall tone of matches is something for which everyone involved in the game should take some small element of responsibility. In the end, it’s recreational cricket. Only the minority find aggression and fighting the main source of fun.
Things will move on. Leagues will adapt their formats, change their regulations. Clubs will merge, come to arrangements with park sides; share facilities, players, experiences. Clubs will set up new women’s sides, and if they haven’t got enough numbers themselves, do so in conjunction with their neighbours. Clubs will arrange games with local businesses, invite unconnected local residents down for a barbeque, set up links with other sports clubs, add crèches to their pavilions, join new 10-over leagues for casual players. Clubs will find ways to survive and thrive as meaningful communities in their space and time. They always have.
Because in the end cricket clubs are, as we aim to highlight in our Club Cricket Special, entirely about the people who make them. They bring people together within communities, creating relationships, experiences; giving purpose and meaning to people’s lives. Society might be increasingly individualistic, but we remain social animals, and somewhere in a modern, disconnecting world of glaring laptop screens, viral videos, 24-hour news, five-minute celebrities, email-on-the-go, 60-hour working weeks and social media fury, not far from the surface, people are desperate for something simpler and more meaningful to grab on to. Something they can touch, and feel. Ultimately, most of us just want to feel like we’re a part of something. To be involved in club cricket is exactly that.
Issue 145 of All Out Cricket – a club cricket special – is available to buy direct from us here.