As England overcame the might of the Scottish cricket team early on Monday morning in Christchurch, to a polite ripple of muted applause (heaven forbid the reaction of Piers Morgan had they lost!), it got me pondering once again about the state of the game in this country and what the future may hold…
Conceivably, such is the marathon nature of the World Cup, that England could lose another two games in the group stage, struggle past the minnows of Afghanistan and perennial underdogs Bangladesh, and reach the Super Eights where they will then just be two games away from an improbable final.
A convincing but ultimately routine win against our friends north of the border, however, has done little to dampen the notion that English cricket is currently in the midst of an identity crisis.
Whether or not Eoin Morgan’s side continue an upturn in form between now and the rest of the tournament remains to be seen, but clearly there are big and bold decisions that need to be made at the heart of English cricket to reinvigorate a sport currently caught at a crossroads.
The dilemma points at an increasingly disseminated product across all levels of the game, as well as a backdrop of well documented off-the-pitch politics that have generated more than their fair share of negative PR. Moreover, the huge success of the IPL and more recently the Big Bash in Australia, have served to make the traditional county game, the breeding ground for the next stars of Test cricket, increasingly marginalised.
Counties remain the bedrock of the national game, nurturing the next generation of cricketing talent, but dwindling crowds and growing debts make the current setup unsustainable. Prominent figures in the game, such as Kevin Pietersen and Jason Gillespie, have mooted the possibility of England introducing a similar franchise-based tournament, akin to the Big Bash, based in key cities such as London and Manchester, that could potentially attract new and bigger crowds and ultimately generate more money through TV and ad revenues to plough back into the national game.
While this seems like an intriguing proposition – who wouldn’t want to see the best of Surrey and Middlesex coming together as “London Thunder” – the political sensitivities in carving up counties that have stood the test of time continues to make such a move appear remote for now.
Somewhere down the line though, English cricket needs to decide to stick or twist.
I’m a traditionalist at heart, so for me nothing beats the rollercoaster ride of a 5-day test match, but it’s hard to argue that the longest form of the game has struggled to capitalise on the epiphany moment that saw the nation come to a standstill almost a decade ago to salute ‘Red-Eye’ Flintoff and his comrades during that invigorating summer of 2005.
Even when I used to go and see Derbyshire play in the 1990s, crowds were sparse, so it’s hardly a new phenomenon, but the ever-decreasing number of stars who ply their trade on the county circuit in favour of the big-hitting, bucks and bright lights of the IPL means that it’s an increasingly unappealing product.
Our national Twenty20 tournament does do a decent job of getting bums on seats, but based on my visits to The Oval over the last couple of years, the crowd is predominantly twenty or thirty-something types looking for a bit of entertainment to accompany their Friday night beers before the commute home, rather than hordes of enthused under-16s looking for a new batting or bowling role model. Indeed, with the likes of the NBA and NFL increasingly competing for new fans and attention amongst the national psyche, there’s a genuine and growing concern as to where the next Freddie or Jimmy Anderson is going to come from.
Following the Big Bash model and condensing T20 into a monthly tournament that takes place solely during the summer holidays may yet be a more sensible alternative – a vehicle to get more young people interested in their counties full stop, whatever the format.
I was a big fan of Michael Vaughan’s idea last year about introducing an ‘FA Cup’ style tournament for cricket, which would see amateur club sides and minor counties compete in a T20 competition for the chance to play against county sides later on in the tournament. Such an idea may yet come to fruition and would certainly provide a welcome boost to the grass roots game and inject some impetus across communities, while giving the ECB another tournament to market to TV broadcasters and sponsors.
As Kevin Pietersen wrote in his controversial autobiography, back in 2005 “English cricket had something it’s lost. Superstars. Sexiness. Momentum.” Love him or hate him, it’s hard to disagree with that statement.
As improbable as it seems, seeing England light up the MCG on 29 March in a World Cup Final would certainly whet the appetite and generate some buzz around this summer’s Ashes which is shaping up to be the most evenly contested since that unforgettable series ten years ago.
Come September, we could be talking about the likes of Joe Root and Moeen Ali as bonafide international stars that transcend all forms of the game – a marketer’s dream and potential role models to help inspire the next generation to leave the football boots in the wardrobe and dust off their cricket bats instead.