Cricket’s digital iron curtain its biggest problem
As a rule sports administrators with grand plans should be treated like Nigerian princes who want to share their inheritance. There are occasional exceptions and on Monday the England and Wales Cricket Board launched a scheme that almost everyone agrees is a good thing. It is a cricket school for children aged between five and eight years old. Eight one-hour classes cost £40 and the price includes a backpack with a personalised shirt, cap, plastic bat, ball and water bottle, which is delivered to your house. There is a hidden cost, which is the money parents will have to spend replacing plates, glasses and vases after their kids have been walloping shots around the kitchen. But those interested can simply pop their postcode into the website and find out where their nearest venue is. There are 2,000 around the country.
The ECB’s chief executive, Tom Harrison, explained the thinking behind it in a round of interviews where he made children’s sport sound a similar sort of business to managing a share portfolio. “We can be more relevant to children,” he said. “We need to focus on that market because the return on investment in attracting a five- to eight‑year‑old into the game, as a player or simply being a lifelong follower, is enormous.”
Harrison, like so many in his line of work, would benefit from an eight-week class in plain English but the blunt version is that, according to the ECB’s recent survey, less than 2% of English children say cricket is their favourite sport.
This is not a new problem. Sport England’s latest active people survey shows that over the past decade (since, coincidence or not, cricket was last on free-to-air TV) the number of people aged over 16 who play it at least once a week has dropped from 195,200 to 158,500 and the number who play at least once a month has dropped from 380,300 to 278,600.
In 2015 the ECB decided something had to be done and hired Matt Dwyer as their new director of participation and growth. Dwyer had done well in a similar role at Cricket Australia, who have doubled the number of children playing the game since 2010. He is an enthusiast and the All Stars cricket scheme is the first, perhaps most important part, of his grand plan to develop an “appropriate pathway” into the sport.
The point, Dwyer says, is that the ECB’s research shows that “unless a child has picked up a bat by the time they leave primary school, there’s very little chance we can get them to play”. So the ECB has doubled its investment in Chance to Shine to put the sport into more state schools and started All Stars. From there Dwyer hopes children will go on to play “pairs cricket with a soft ball”, progress to playing “with pads on a shortened pitch” and then, five to 10 years later, start in proper matches.
The launch took place at the Orbit, that £19m junkyard explosion next to the London Stadium. Which makes some sense the first time one thinks about it since London 2012 was sold to the IOC and the British public on the promise that it would inspire a generation to get into sport. And then a little less the second when one remembers it has done nothing of the sort.
The ECB arranged for a group of kids from West Ham cricket club to come along and take part in a demonstration class led by Jonny Bairstow and Lauren Winfield. They ran drills, batting, catching, throwing, bowling, fielding. It looked a lot of fun, especially for the three boys who spent most of it pelting oversize tennis balls at the poor man in the mascot suit.
When the session was done, a group of five kids scampered off on their own to play a proper game up against a signboard. The best of them grabbed the bat and immediately started lacing drives through the off-side. He even dropped to one knee to play what he described as a cheeky reverse sweep. Their coach said the boys had been playing the game for three or four years.
This scene touched on a couple of problems. One is that a lot of clubs run good junior programmes. They now find themselves being overrun and undercut by the ECB. The other is that, if All Stars is going to be really effective, it needs to attract boys and girls who, unlike this little group, do not play cricket.
The ECB knows this. It has linked up with Mumsnet to promote All Stars to “parents who don’t know anything about cricket, and might not have considered in the past”. But so long as all the matches are on Sky and BT the best sales pitch for the game is being given to people who have paid for it. More often that not, cricket is an inheritance. Most players come to it through their parents. Just like Bairstow, who explained that his first memory of the game was playing on a beach in Barbados while his father was there on tour. And Winfield, who first played when she filled in at fine leg in for her father’s club side. So, if the sport is going to grow, it has to be in the mainstream, easily, freely available online and on TV. And no, highlights shows don’t count.
It is harder than it sounds. Harrison has to balance reach and revenue. If it were not for Sky, the ECB would not have the money for a scheme like All Stars. But, then, if it were not for Sky’s money, the scheme might not have been needed.
Harrison has said that “there is real excitement and hope that cricket can get back on to free-to-air TV” through the new Twenty20 competition, which will launch in 2020.
So long as people are still playing polo the ECB does not need to worry about cricket becoming “the richest, most irrelevant sport in the country”, which was another of his quotes from Monday. But he and Dwyer have spoken about how they want to make the England team more accessible. Which is why, as well as that bat, ball and backpack, All Stars kids also receive a video message from Joe Root. Which is great except that to watch him play will cost you a lot more than £40.
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