A circle of fielders surrounds the batsman as a medium-paced journeyman trundles in. There is a smack of leather upon willow. A square leg fielder gives chase in a display of laboured exertion. Then it is all back to a rickety pavilion where tea and sandwiches are dispatched across laminate tables served by local volunteers.
This is an image which for many years has been associated with the English summertime. “Fifty years from now,” the former Prime Minister John Major told the Conservative Party on St George’s Day in 1993, England “will still be the country of long shadows on county [cricket] grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers.”
By the time Major gave his speech, the quaint England he yearned to preserve was already being swept away by the market forces unleashed by his predecessor. The drastic medicine Margaret Thatcher administered to Britain’s ailing state-dominated economy in the Eighties did not resurrect traditional values, as she had hoped, but instead replaced them with an individualist ethos centred around instant gratification.
It ought perhaps to be little surprise, then, that Test cricket – a game steeped in tradition, fair play and slow-burn tactical nous – appears to be withering, despite managing to limp into the 21st century. The long shadows on the county ground are still there, but long-form cricket feels awfully out of kilter with contemporary capitalism and its hard-nosed accelerationist logic.
Those at the top of the sport appear to recognise as much. “The younger generation, whether you like it or not, are just not attracted to cricket”, said the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) Colin Graves recently. “They want something different. They want it to be more exciting. They want it shorter. They want it simpler to understand.”
In other words, audiences want something which doesn’t very much resemble cricket.
The ECB’s solution to this conundrum has been to try to adapt to our abbreviated collective attention span by introducing shorter formats and ever-greater sensory stimulation. Indeed, Graves was seeking in his remarks to justify the introduction of the ECB’s forthcoming 100-ball competition, which will consist of 15 traditional six-ball overs and a final 10-ball over.
Set to arrive in 2020, ‘The Hundred’ comes on the back of the 2003 introduction of the 20-over T20 ‘blast’ competition. The T20 experience – beery, loud and resembling a stag-do as much as a game of cricket – has been a commercial success and appears to have attracted new faces to the game. Surrey Cricket Club reported this year that 47% of those who bought tickets for the T20 Blast competition at the Oval had never before watched live cricket.
Short formats are where the money is. Consequently, this is the trajectory cricket will take; as will the most talented players, who are increasingly cutting test careers short to play more fast-paced – and lucrative – versions of the game. According to the Federation of International Cricket Associations (Fica), 49% of professional players would consider giving up a central contract with their national side to play as a free agent in the T20 game.
The flow of money is ultimately driven by a shift in demand among domestic but also international audiences. Television ratings for 20-overs cricket in India climbed by 228% between 2012 and 2015, whereas for Test cricket they fell by 38%. The decline in the popularity of Test cricket is happening across the globe.
The fear among the sport’s hierarchy must surely be that the longer five-day format is incompatible with our bourgeoning ‘on demand’ culture where stimulation is available at the click of a button. A nearly week-long match feels like something of an anachronism when in most other respects life appears to be speeding up.
The declining popularity of English Test cricket has not been helped by the fact that those who do still wish to watch it – those who haven’t yet succumbed to the notion that speed equates to superiority – are prevented from doing so by its retreat behind a paywall. The journalist Emma John, author of Following On, A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket, tells me that she believes interest in the game started to dwindle when the big international matches were removed from free-to-air terrestrial television following the iconic 2005 Ashes series between England and Australia:
“When I was obsessing over cricket in the nineties I never doubted I was in a minority of teenagers who were doing the same… But the game definitely loomed larger in the national consciousness and was a part of our cultural conversation.”
During the years when Test match cricket was available on the BBC it provided a sort of backdrop to the English summertime. This is hardly mere sentimental reverie: at home, and in the homes of most of my friends, cricket was perennially humming away in the background, the Yorkshire twang of Geoffrey Boycott and the soft Australian lilt of Richie Benaud rising and falling over the gentle stir of a restless crowd.
Even if you weren’t interested in the cricket – and many in my family were not – you would be well aware that England were dreadful, and that Michael Atherton should get the boot as captain as soon as possible. It was simply another part of the national conversation. Today, the loss of television rights has put cricket out of reach for the average viewer.
The damage done by removing cricket from free-to-air television can be seen in the viewing figures: more than 8 million people tuned in to Channel 4 to watch England beat Australia in the 2005 Ashes series. By contrast, the final day of England’s 169-run victory in the first Ashes test match of 2015 – broadcast exclusively to subscribers on Sky Sports – saw just 467,000 tune in.
“[In the nineties] people always seemed to know when England had just lost a Test match,” John says. “It’s what made the 2005 Ashes win so special – plenty of folk who’d never particularly engaged with the game got swept up in the narrative… Of course that changed when the game was no longer readily available on free-to-air TV.”
As cricket has slipped below the radar so the sport’s pull has diminished. Indeed, it is at grassroots level that the rot in cricket is most clearly discernible. The number of adults in England who play cricket on a monthly basis declined by around 35% between 2007 and 2016.
The growth of the women’s game does provide a hint of optimism. The former England men’s captain Len Hutton may once have labelled the idea of women playing cricket “absurd, just like a man trying to knit”, 1 but in 2017, over 100 million tuned in to watch the final of the women’s cricket world cup.
Elsewhere, however, it is a story of increasing exclusivity. Few state schools play any cricket at all nowadays, resulting in the professional base of cricket in English county cricket becoming narrower. In 2013, 29% of players on the county circuit were privately educated, compared to 7% of the wider population. Moreover, England had five Afro-Caribbean players in the squad for the 1989-90 tour of the West Indies, whereas the crop of England players picked to face Pakistan at Lords in the first test this summer contained not a single non-white player.
At one time cricket offered what the Guyanese author Mike Phillips has likened to a “bridge” into English culture for migrants from the Caribbean:
“There was only one way of expressing West Indian character and a Caribbean presence, and that was cricket. Because it came out of Britain in the first place it offered a sort of bridge into the English culture. We understood what it meant to be part of this society partly because we understood cricket.”2
Such a need for a passport into English culture – epitomised by Norman Tebbit’s much-mocked ‘cricket loyalty test’ – has diminished, and the declining visibility of cricket has invariably had an impact on the rate at which youngsters are taking up the sport. So too has the drop in comprehensive funding and the difficulty experienced by working class parents trying to navigate the prestigious county cricket academy system.
Cricket’s declining popularity contrasts paradoxically with the relative success of the English national side. Back when Emma John grew up, the England cricket team were languishing near the bottom of the international pecking order. England contested 78 games of test cricket between 1993 and 2000 and won only 17 of them. By 1999 England were ranked as the worst test match side in the world.
But while today the England side continues to struggle overseas – a product in part of a hectic schedule which gives players little time to prepare properly for tours – on home turf they are able to compete with the very best. Unlike in the Nineties, however, few appear to be taking much notice.
Contemporary cricket is reliant, like Premier League football, on the money it receives from the television deals with satellite broadcasters (£1.1 billion in the latest ECB deal with Sky). So there is little prospect of winding the clock back to the days of terrestrial TV Test cricket (though the ECB appears to be trying to return some cricket to free-to-air television, something the Observer cricket writer Vic Marks likened to squeezing toothpaste back into the tube).
The fate of English cricket in the digital age may thus be likened to that of the free market more generally. Cricket is awash with cash compared to several decades ago. The game is at once richer, faster and slicker than it was in the past. Yet as with capitalism more broadly, people appear to be turning away from the hollowed-out end product in droves.
A permanent fixture of an Eighties and Nineties childhood was a forlorn looking English batsman trudging back to the pavilion under the ominous cloud of a single-figure score. Nowadays, England are able to field a far superior cricket team – a team which the country can justifiably be proud of, especially in the limited overs format. But while ‘England loses again’ headlines were a frequent feature of tabloid front pages during my childhood, ‘England wins again’ rarely makes it on to the back page, let alone the front.
The quaint and homespun imagery summoned by a Conservative Prime Minister in a speech 25 years ago was of an England that has gradually faded away. Few would bet on the “long shadows on the county ground” still being a feature of the English summertime of 2043. I can’t help feeling we’ve lost something more than long-form cricket in the process.