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.