Personal View: By Charles Randall
How heartening it is to see so much about recreational cricket in the national press leading up to the World Cup tournament. But look closer and this media scrutiny has tapped into pessimism. And not without reason.
Andy Bull, a long-term champion of club cricket in The Guardian, wrote about the struggles of two clubs in an era when fewer men are playing cricket. The Daily Telegraph and The Economist carried articles about the important under-developed asian contribution. Thoughtful journalism about the overall game seemed to be everywhere.
As Mike Atherton commented in The Times, the national print output usually focused on one per cent of the game, the professional sector. As though to cleanse his soul he wrote about the other 99 per cent, giving Radlett CC a nice mention along the way for high standards. Incidentally not long after that he watched his son Josh score his maiden Herts Premier League century for Radlett at the age of 17.
So what about the pessimism? Joe Root's England side might well stagger through to the World Cup final as pre-tournament favourites. The nation's eyes would be upon them if satellite television did not have exclusive broadcast rights. It is regrettable that the money-hungry ICC ensured that these games would be visible only in pubs and clubs or at home via those pricey monthly sport bundles.
Oh, that's interesting. It has been claimed in a report by Leeds Beckett University that south asians tend to be put off playing cricket by the "culture" of alcohol in cricket clubs and sometimes for financial reasons. Yet it seems as though pubs and private clubs provide the only television access to World Cup games unless one can afford satellite. Bad luck on those fringe asians then. The same will apply to the Ashes series.
The statistic repeated in the media focus was the disproportionate south asian presence. This group represents just over five per cent of the population and yet provides 30 per cent of recreational players in England and Wales. And asians turn out far more regularly than white players. The ECB have already started their ambitious six-year action plan, called Engaging South Asian Communities. This covers 11 aspects, including facilities, finance, coaching, matchday experience and a "cohesive working culture".
Recently the ECB launched another initiative, supporting cricket clubs who host open family days at their ground this coming weekend of June 7-9 when England play Bangladesh and Australia play India.
Activities could include coaching for children and taster sessions for everyone, and perhaps women's and girls’ soft ball cricket. "Some clubs," the ECB added, "will be showing World Cup matches live." That really means only big clubs, but the ECB are putting up money. Grants of up to £1,000 could be available to help clubs digitise their clubhouses through new broadband and wi-fi or to upgrade catering facilities.
The ECB's aim is "to engage one million kids" over the World Cup period. "These family days will work to help connect clubs and local communities and engage future players and fans, getting kids involved in the game and to help clubs showcase themselves."
If matches could be seen on free-to-air television at every conceivable venue, this sort of project would be guaranteed to succeed. But engaging a million children - really engaging - without much television? It is difficult to see how that figure could ever be realistic.
Andy Bull interviewed Mark Le-Clercq, chairman of Hambledon CC, the evocative Hampshire club that nurtured the professional game at Broadhalfpenny Down. This excellent Guardian article contrasted the ECB's massive, expensive virtue-signalling national schemes with the close-up problems faced by clubs, which included vandalism and burglary.
Bull quoted the ECB’s chief executive Tom Harrison, who said the World Cup was a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to revitalise cricket. Le-Clercq was not convinced. "The ticket prices are so expensive, and it’s only on Sky, so not many people are going to see it,” he said, recalling that Hambledon enjoyed a surge of interest in 2005, when that iconic Ashes series could be seen on Channel 4. Hambledon have a flourishing youth section, but according to Le-Clercq, they have lots of children who "don’t know who Jos Buttler is".
Hambledon did not buy into All Stars, another major ECB scheme with big claims about exposing more children to cricket. Le-Clercq did not think it worth £45 charged for every child, which was a view shared by probably many clubs with large junior sections.
Bull interviewed another chairman - Stan Heaton, an ex-policeman at Lowerhouse CC, the successful Lancashire league club in Burnley. Lowerhouse provided a heartening example of how to make the most of things, exploring all ways of encouraging players and non-players. A streaming app service through a fixed sightscreen camera was a striking example. Regular Friday night T20 matches attracted good crowds at two quid a head. Youth players were proactively recruited from local schools.
Two £50,000 grants by the ECB towards nets and changing rooms helped significantly. "Nobody can knock the money," Heaton said, "but we have to find some way of bringing this game back to the masses."
He added: "I don’t think we’re in a catastrophic position yet, but I think we’re at a tipping point. The ECB have to make up their mind: do they want cricket to be an elite, professional sport, or do they want it to be the national game of summer? Right now that’s in the balance."
The MCC are playing their part this summer with a league for local secondary schools at the Nursery Ground at Lord’s. This will be softball cricket for 12 and 13 year-olds, but there should be opportunities with a hard ball in the nets.
Successive Governments have allowed cricket to die in state schools initially through lack of staffing in the 1980s, followed by deteriorating facilities and disappearing playing fields. Responsibility was thrust unfairly on clubs, poorly equipped to give children of all abilities the right experience of cricket.
The MCC initiative must be worth a try, however small.