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India means that cricket has a great future – and how England could still be part of it

Stephen Pollard quotes from and links to this article, but doesn’t comment other than calling it “fascinating”.

It certainly is. Will Buckley’s starting point is one that will now be familiar to all attentive Samizdata sports posting readers, which is that in India there are now a lot of fans of the game of cricket. More than there are people in Europe, is how I have put it here in the past. I’ll say it again, but differently. There are more Indian cricket fans than there are inhabitants of the USA. That ought to get our readers’ attention.

When Tendulkar bats against Pakistan, the television audience in India alone exceeds the combined populations of Europe. In contrast, when England played Germany in Euro 2000, the combined audience of BBC1 and ITV was 17.9 million. The chief executive of Star TV (Sky’s Asian wing) asked himself recently, what is sport in India? It’s cricket.

Indeed. And you can’t separate the rise of Indian cricket from the rise of India itself, which has undoubtedly been one of the great world stories of the last decade. Without going into the whole they’re-stealing-our-call-centre-jobs things yet again, we can certainly say that economically those Indians have sure pulled themselves together recently, partly because of all that computer stuff, and partly because they no longer have the example of the USSR to misguide them.

All of which means that India is not just crazy about cricket; it has money to spend on it. Hence the interest being displayed by Mr Murdoch’s men. Australia may be the current world champions of cricket, but India are a cricket superpower in the making. Australia have made cricket exciting now. India means that it is certain – absolutely certain – to remain so.

So, if cricket definitely has a future, what of English cricket? England versus Australia (the “Ashes”) used to be the biggest deal in the game. Not any more. What Will Buckley reports about the way cricket is played in England is, for me, the most interesting bit of all. On the face of it, England cricket is in terminal decline. Played only by second-raters, and watched only by old age pensioners awaiting death in their deck chairs. England haven’t been a big force in cricket since the golden days of Ian Botham and David Gower back in the nineteen eighties. Oh, the likes of Stewart, Atherton, and now the new captain Vaughan have kept soldiering on, mostly in adversity, but who wants to watch that? (Their most recent effort was getting beaten by Sri Lanka.)

Nevertheless, the certain knowledge that, with or without the country that invented it, cricket has a great future must make England’s cricketers want to be a serious part of that future, and Will Buckley’s piece contains the best explanation of what is wrong with England cricket and how to correct it that I’ve yet come across. I’ve heard the cure he offers many times before, but I’ve never heard the vital bit of thinking behind the cure makes sense of it, and hence explains why it might work, as opposed to just rearrange those deck chairs with their snoring pensioners.

Former England fast bowler and (briefly) captain Bob Willis (together with the aforementioned Michael Atherton) now runs something called the Cricket Reform Group, which presumably just means that he has opinions which he wants people to listen to. And his opinion is that the basic problem with England cricket is that to be a top England cricketer you have to take a flying leap of faith at the age of about eighteen. In order to be considered for a spot in the England side, you have to bet the next decade of your life. There are no half measures. If you aren’t prepared to be a full time county cricketer, you can’t ever be an England test cricketer.

Not surprisingly, this is a bet which generation after generation of highly talented young English cricketers have not been willing to place, considering what the stake is. That’s Willis’ explanation, and to me it really rings true. What Willis wants is a structure where you can play first class cricket throughout your twenties, while still having a life. The time when you decide how serious you are about cricket is not when some county says yes to you, but when England does. Says Willis:

‘At the moment you have to commit to a first-class career at 17 or 19 years of age. This doesn’t apply anywhere else in the world and it shouldn’t do so here. We want the 38 counties turned into 18 new cricket associations based at the current first-class grounds.’ The associations will be broken up into three leagues of six and play 10 first-class games a season from Friday to Monday.

‘In other words,’ says Willis, ‘you will be able to use your 20 days’ holiday allowance every year to ensure you are available.’ No one will be forced to make a final choice between cricket and another career until they have established in which direction their talents lie.

Here is something else I didn’t know:

‘It is evident that the County Championship system does not produce England cricketers on a regular basis,’ says Willis. ‘Andy Flintoff, Simon Jones, Alex Tudor and James Anderson were all fast-tracked past the Championship system.’

In other words, they joined the sort of ad hoc England club that they’ve formed to get past this problem. Flintoff is the most exciting England cricketer now playing. Anderson and Jones both look real prospects.

This, as I say, is the best thinking about England cricket that I’ve heard of in half a century of watching it and wondering about it. It explains so much.

Like: why English county cricket seems to be afflicted with an air of defeat. They mostly seem like losers. Why? Aren’t they pleased to be making money doing what they love?

No. They are being paid only a pittance, to do what is for them only a pale substitute for what they really wanted. They look like losers because they are losers, in other words. Their lives are slipping through their fingers while their contemporaries race ahead in Real Life, which they only get to start on if they abandon their dreams of cricket stardom altogether. No wonder they’re all so miserable.

I sense that, what with India getting so good, and Australia still being so good, and India versus Australia now being the great rivalry in cricket, and what with the example set by that other England team sport that has in common with cricket in that it is also not soccer (I’m talking about rugby) the England cricket people are in the mood to do whatever it takes to get England back into serious international contention and to stir up a bit of support from English people under forty. As rugby coach Clive Woodward has been saying for years of England rugby, we have the players. England has the cricketers. It’s just that most of them are too good at normal life to allow themselves even to be available for selection.

By the way, as Will Buckley also makes clear this applies especially to people of Indian descent who now live in England and who in the years to come must somehow be encouraged to play cricket for England in greater numbers than so far. The Indian diaspora will be second only to the original English imperial diaspora in spreading cricket to new countries, but that’s another posting (probably by Michael Jennings and on Ubersportingpundit, but I couldn’t find it.)

And talking of the Empire, in the olden days of English county cricket, lots of cricketers just used to play county cricket every day of the week, without being paid anything. These were the “gentlemen”. And then there were the “players”, who were paid. The gents had initials in front of their names (“E. R. Dexter”, “P. B. H. May”, “M. C. Cowdrey”, (“B. J. T. Bosanquet“)) on the scorecards and in the newspaper reports, while the players just had their surnames, like servants (“Hutton”, Larwood”), unless there were two with the same surname in the same team, in which case they had their initials printed after their surnames (“Bedser A. V.”, “Bedser E. A.” – famous twins who used to play for Surrey) And then, one day, the gentlemen couldn’t afford to do this anymore, and everyone just became players. England’s uniquely unsatisfactory current arrangements are presumably explained by the fact that our cricket system now is directly descended from a system which used to attract lots of cricketers, because in England a decent number of decent cricketers could afford it, as they couldn’t anywhere else. But now that they can’t afford it here either, a system which assumes that they can is a disaster.

So all in all, thanks very much to Stephen Pollard for the link, unadorned though it was by much in the way of comment from him.

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10 comments to India means that cricket has a great future – and how England could still be part of it

  • I think this is what you are saying:

    The English national side is no good because the county game is no good and the county game is no good because it can’t attract good players and it can’t attract good players because it doesn’t have any money.

    But you seem to be advocating as a solution Willis’s amateur leagues – but I don’t see how that brings money into the game.

    I would have thought that the success of the English Rugby team is the example to follow. That didn’t have any money either but it didn’t resort to amateur leagues – quite the opposite in fact.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    No.

    The England team is not good enough, because too many good players find the life of a county cricketer too much of a sacrifice for the chance of becoming a test cricketer. The Willis plan is not about money. It is about time. It is about organising the lives of those who aspire to play cricket for England in a way that makes sense, that is, in a way that enables them to get on with their “real”, non-cricket, lives. That way, if the England call never actually comes, they haven’t brought their real lives to a shuddering halt on the off chance.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    The Indians are masters of cricket… but not of much else. When have you heard of significant groups of indians achieving success in other sports?

    For a nation of almost a billion, they are sure pathetic at the Olympics and other international sporting events. They might be great at cricket, but other than the traditional cricket countries, nobody else gives a damn. And that includes the chinese and all of South East Asia.

    Compare to the Aussies. They’re great in cricket… AND rugby. And swimming. And loads of other sports.

    The indians have great cricket because they spend the most money and attention on the sport. But when the result of that cash outlay hardly puts their team above the other cricket powers, you’d think it was a pretty futile effort. What’s the return on investment?

    A professional league system is often the way to go in team sports to promote the sport and form a pool of talent for the national squads. But the question becomes, are there people willing to watch the games?

    Regarding the European Championships 2004 for soccer, it’s even more global, has been for some time now. Lots of Asians(not including indians, heh) watch the game. And as far as I know, the South Americans watch it too, if for no other reason than to scope out the opposition.

    The Wobbly Guy

  • The Ashes are real?

    And here I thought Douglas Adams made that up.

    I’m worried now…

  • J S Allison

    I would have thought that the problem with English cricket is that the best players in the county leagues are members of other country’s national teams.

    So when does cricket go Olympic? I mean, good grief, we have to put up with synchronized swimming of all things…

    We need a movement to remove from the Olympics all ‘sports’ that require scoring by judges to tell you how well you did. That is not sport, that is entertainment.

  • Theodopoulos Pherecydes

    Sport has no place in British schools. It might, after all, lead to outcomes where there are winners. So if schools are to have “games” at all, far better to buy one inflatable ball and a couple of nets than the gear required in modern cricket.

    It’s a crying shame. As an American who has spent a lot of time supporting Kent County, I think there’s a FAR better balance between batting and bowling in cricket than between batting and pitching in baseball. Cricket is a marvelous/marvellous game.

    Read Ed Smith’s book on attending a professional baseball training camp. It provides execellent insights into the differences between the games.

  • There’s a lot of work still to be done before the rise and rise of Indian cricket is complete; be that as it may, the trend is there.

    I’m not sure that cricket in England can really be saved though. To be a force in world cricket, you need a healthy club system, a strong first class sytem, and a well run Test team.

    Since Duncan Fletcher took over as England coach, I have to admit English cricket is well run at the top level, but the club and county system are quite inept, and I don’t see much chance of fixing that.

    As you point out, most of the better young England players are in the national team without a solid grounding in the county game.

    That is unavoidable, but it does have it’s drawbacks. James Anderson, for example, seems to be a lot more of a limited overs specialist rather then a Test bowler, because he’s not really had the proper grounding in bowling in first class cricket.

    Not that I’m advocating dropping him back in the county system. What Anderson really needs is to spend a summer in Australia playing Sheffield Sheild cricket.

  • Ashwin Sachdeva

    As an Indian, I can say that Indian cricket does seem the best in the world… and it is! There’s a lot of hype over cricket in India, especially when there’s an India-Pakistan game on (due to political the conflicts between the two countries).

    However, contrary to what this blog says, there have been Indians who’ve achieved world fame in other sports. Most notably, Tennis. The Paes-Bhupati doubles team won at Wimbledon and were the top doubles team in the world for quite a while. Vijay Amritraj was also a famous tennis player, but before my time. He’s now a well known commentator.

    The county championship system for Cricket is also existent in India. However, it doesn’t have people from other nationalities playing probably because the teams would not be able afford them. So this has encouraged the real talent to be found and trained. Most cricketers from the national team play for their states (the equivalent of a ‘county’). The national team is selected from the best players in the state championships. Therefore, it is a better system of discovering new Indian talent and then making good use of it.

    India vs. Australia matches have also been quite exciting as the Indian team is well aware of the skill of the Aussies. Especially, their bowlers. So I bet these games would continue to attract a large audience.

    India vs. England doesn’t have the same level of enthusiasm. I think India has won a large number of games against the English, and I can’t really remember any ‘special’ games between the two countries.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Yes, I did want to mention tennis, but, as well as the one guy who got something in badminton… Can’t remember his name now. Anyway, tennis is one sport amogst dozens. And wait, I remember india hockey being pretty good too…

    But compare to the other billion population country in the world, and think of the difference. Hell, think of the Aussies! Cricket is all and good, but shouldn’t you guys start diversifying now?

    You know, I’ve heard it said that US spectators tend to prefer games where there is high scoring(used to explain bias against soccer). But if that’s the case, why baseball against cricket? I’ve found professional cricket to be much more enjoyable than professional baseball.

    Imagine if the US decides to take up cricket as one of their serious sports…

    *shudder*

    The Wobbly Guy

  • Rahul

    Hey Wobbly Guy, Ashwin:

    Lets be honest about India – it has seen good nutrition for only a couple generations, having been ravaged by the British Empire for a few hundred years before 1947. And it has seen the free-market for barely a decade (since 1991), its leaders having foolishly followed the doomed Soviet model before. It may be a country of 1 billion people, but for all practical purposes, it is barely 13 years old.

    I think Brian Micklethwait hits the nail on the head about the reasons for success of failure in sport. The only reason why Indian cricket is producing decent talent is because it is the only sport in India that has significant money in it. Were the current ‘state selection’ mechanism in India reformed into a private league, like the NBA, for example, you would see an order of magnitude difference.

    Now Indians have found a new sport with money in it – golf. Also, the game suits the Indian temperament very well. Watch out for a fast-growing Indian golf talent pool within 5 years, primarily made up of two types of people: predominantly former caddies who learnt the game while making earning a living (e.g. Ali Sher etc.), and the rapidly expanding but much smaller player pool of neo-rich Indians, who are willing to spend money on a status-symbol sport like never before.

    Soccer in India is also improving quickly with the institution of the private league system, which is allowing a larger pool of players to make money playing the sport as a career. Its not yet enough money (been around for only a few years – FC Kochin was a trailblazer), and hence you don’t yet see enough talent.

    As for the classic Olympic sports? Forget it. For those, even the top atheletes in India are not in it for the money.

    IMHO the solution for British cricket lies not in the British Rugby example, but the British soccer example. Better still, the American NBA/NFL/NHL example. Money talks… and produces truly outstanding sportsmen. Thats just the way the world works.