Hopes of Reviving Interest in Cricket

Report by Abc of Cricket’s UK Correspondent Neil Robinson 11/05/03

Although the competition itself is not scheduled to begin until June 13th, the ECB’s bold new Twenty20 cup received its official launch last Thursday, with a swanky media, amidst a rooftop garden in central London. After months of uncertainty regarding the sponsorship of the new competition, English cricket’s governing body were keen on using the event to advertise the recruitment of three major backers in the shape of energy company npower, the reward card group Nectar and electronics giant Philips. But, it was the idea of the 20-over format and its associated glitz, which dominated proceedings.

Twenty20 is the ECB’s latest big idea aimed at capturing the hearts and minds of younger generations, for whom cricket seems an obscure game played by middle-class, middle-aged gents in pristine whites and harlequin caps. Matches will take place on weekday evenings between teams clad in the now familiar bright colours and using a white ball. Perhaps to make them feel a sense of empathy with the players, spectators will be encouraged to wear fancy dress (I shall be attending heavily disguised as a member of the MCC) and entertained by live performances from popular teen groups such as Mis-Teeq and Atomic Kitten (I shall come armed with a portable CD player loaded with the latest offering from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion). Umpires and players will be wired for sound during televised games. Karaoke, barbecues and mobile jacuzzis will also feature prominently, while one presumes the services of the St John Ambulance Brigade and psychiatric counselling will be standing by for anyone rash enough to consider taking an open air dip, on an English summer evening.

The reason for all this razzamatazz is quite straightforward. According to ECB Chief Executive Tim Lamb, “People just aren’t coming to watch County Cricket any more.” He is right, up to a point. Go to most County Championship matches and you will see a scene familiar from four-day cricket the world over, a smattering of spectators, most of them congregated in the members’ enclosure. Championship crowds have been in decline since the 1960s, but worryingly the phenomenon appears to have spread to the one-day competitions in recent years. Even the end of season knock-out final at Lord’s, has little of the feeling of spectacle it once used to command. But, this is not the whole story. The opening round of this year’s County Championship was held over the Easter Holiday weekend and most Counties reported their highest crowds for 30 or in some cases 40 years, while a visit to most of the annual festivals at places such as Cheltenham or Ilford, will bring you among a crowd of thousands, rather than a few dozen fellow fans.

The clear inference of this, is that four day cricket is wildly out of step with the pace and conveniences of modern life and has a host of other attractions to compete with. But, there remains strong interest in watching it among all generations, provided that it is scheduled in such a way as to allow people to attend it and shared around the country well enough, that people will regard it as a happy change of pace rather than a regular presence to be taken for granted. However, these lessons appear to be difficult to learn. The last 15 years have seen first-class cricket disappear from dozens of County outgrounds, partly because players object to their poorer facilities and an ever greater concentration of matches at County headquarters. As a result, more and more players get the bulk of their County education in front of thousands of empty seats, hardly the best preparation for the pressure cooker atmosphere of Test cricket. Meanwhile, the County schedule remains too chaotic for the casual fan to get to grips with, Championship matches beginning on every day of the week bar Saturday and Sunday and only four full rounds beginning on a Friday, when the bulk of the match might be viewed over a free weekend. The most common starting day is Wednesday, so by the time the average working person is free to attend, Saturday morning, most matches are virtually over.

Since the revolution in the game produced by the introduction of the 60-over Gillette Cup forty years ago, the game’s authorities have been in the habit of seeking more radical solutions, rather than sensible scheduling and distribution of matches. It was the same argument ten years ago when the Sunday League switched over to the coloured-clothing, white ball format of today. “We must attract more young people to the game,” was the clarion call, “and rid cricket of its stuffy old image.” Well, white shirts went out and coloured shirts came in amid much rejoicing from marketing experts and television executives. But ten years on, the story is much the same. Go to a game in the rebranded National League and you will see much what you would have seen in 1985, the same mix of generations, old folks in floppy sunhats dripping ice-cream down their chins, young men singing raucous songs after one too many at the beer tent, children playing knockabout games on the boundary just as they always have done. Only the cricketers’ clothes have changed and the crowds are a good deal more sparse. But the image, that vague elusive concept, the image of cricket, remains just as it was before.

It’s a tricky thing, image. Especially if you’re a cricket lover trying to peer into the mind of a non-cricket person and work out what could change it. The ECB has once again demonstrated its fondness for marketing ploys using target demographics. Identify the particular type of person you wish to attract, then design your product specifically for them. But, the trouble with pigeon holes is, they’re only large enough for pigeons. There are plenty of younger people out there who would love to spend a free evening at the cricket, but who would also prefer a swift bullet to the brain as opposed to, ten minutes listening to Justin Timberlake. And will this bold new rebranding really mean more youngsters thinking  cricket is pretty cool after all, or will it just leave the same impression as those signs on churches saying “come on in, there’s a party in the house of The Lord...”. Surely, western civilisation has produced no more pathetic spectacle than that of the middle-aged vicar/politician/businessman who claims to understand exactly what “the kids” are after.

People involved with English cricket have a tendency to overlook one important fact, that being, cricket is actually a pretty good game. It really is! No doubt, the public will support it if they’re given a chance to learn how to play it while they’re young and when they’re older, to watch it when it fits in with their lives. But, English cricket loves its revolutions, so desperately convinced is it of its own deathly state, that these revolutions tend to be of style rather than substance. Change the image of the game and all will be well is the prevailing attitude, never mind dealing with the basics that caused the problem in the first place.

County Cricket has a number of difficulties to overcome, its prestige has suffered as a result of the growth in the international schedule during the English summer. What has the ECB done to address this? Simply compounded the problem by adding a further three one day internationals to the calendar in June. The public is underexposed to the game since the BBC stopped televising the old Sunday League. ECB response, to grant the rights to virtually all domestic cricket to satellite broadcaster Sky. The National League, Twenty20, all the summer’s ODIs, the Second Test v Zimbabwe, all but the final rounds of the knockout C&G Trophy and what little Championship cricket gets on TV, all of this is on Sky pay per view television, none of it live on terrestrial TV. The recent World Cup, didn’t even reach terrestrial viewers in highlight form. From major issues such as these, plus a chaotic fixture list with so many start dates and competitions that no-one knows what the hell is going on from one day to the next, right down to more prosaic issues such as the marketing of individual games, English cricket has its problems. Twenty20 will address none of these. Well, almost none.

The coloured clothing revolution of ten years ago, turned out not to be the panacaea the administrators were hoping for. But, one new innovation did begin to bring the crowds in, floodlit day-night cricket has gained ground very slowly in the UK, as only a few Counties have been able to afford the cost of permanent floodlights, or won planning permission to erect them at grounds, which are often located in residential areas. The white ball tends to zip around too much in damp or humid conditions, which are inevitable once dusk sets in, making chasing a target under lights unreasonably difficult  and furthermore, many evenings even in summer are rather chilly at this high latitude, while the sun sets so late and is preceeded by such a lengthy twilight (during which visibility even with lights is poor) that the lights rarely come into play until the game is nearly finished. But, it does bring the crowds in.

Whether floodlit cricket will continue to be a crowd pleaser in England once the first few years of novelty wear off, remains to be seen. But, it has proved conclusively that a market for cricket on weekday evenings does exist. Irrespective of all the hype and gimmickry, people will turn up to watch County Cricket when it suits THEM. This could turn out to be Twenty20’s greatest asset, it’s timing. As a quick, three-hour game set in early evening, Twenty20 will combine the one great advantage of floodlit cricket, with few of its inherent disadvantages. It will be scheduled for a time when people can come and watch, games will be over so quickly that any imbalance between batting first and second, any discomfort caused by fans sitting out on cold evenings, will be minimized.

Many purists, of whom I am normally one, have voiced concern that the rapid 20-over format, will be detrimental to players’ techniques, but I feel this is likely to be no more of a problem than it is with any one-day cricket and it might even help England produce more of the kind of explosive, fast-scoring batsmanship, so lacking in its one-day team in recent years. The fact, that it replaces a competition (the Benson & Hedges Cup) which ran on the standard 50-over format should not prove detrimental to England’s fortunes either. County Cricket has always contained a far higher proportion of limited overs cricket, than any other domestic system around the world, yet players from other nations adapt to ODI cricket far more easily than ours. Looking at the performances of England’s youngsters in last winter’s VB series in Australia, it was hard to credit that Owais Shah was the man with the best part of 100 domestic one-dayers under his belt and James Anderson the rookie, with barely three.

As English cricket stands on the brink of yet another revolution, a lot of home truths are staring it in the face. The new Twenty20 competition, has been thought necessary because crowds are falling in the traditional one -day tournaments. The old competitions were never designed to produce top quality players for the national team, merely to provide Counties with a source of income independent of central ECB funding and to bring in the crowds to aid the popularity of cricket. If they are no longer doing this job, what are they there for? If Twenty20 truly is the big idea that secures the future of English cricket, this latest revolution could go much further than anyone has thought.

Only time will tell!

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