Inflatables and influencers: Make Cricket Cool Again or make it free? | Emma John

The Cricket World Cup does not need McFly and Love Island to be cool. It is just lost behind Sky’s paywall

Admiral Jellicoe probably wouldn’t have been a big advocate for one-day cricket. In the first world war, the commander of the British fleet gained a reputation for a strictly defensive style of play, the kind of dead-batting that determined the Battle of Jutland was only ever going to end in a draw. Winston Churchill did, after all, describe him as “the one man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon”. Jellicoe couldn’t afford a mid‑innings collapse.

He was there this past week, gazing on as Nelson’s Column was transformed into the middle stump of a cricket wicket by the combined magic of giant inflatables and low-angle photography. If he seemed to look down his nose at Sir Alastair Cook posing next to McFly’s Harry Judd, it was only because they’d mounted his plinth so high.

The event announcing 100 days to the start of the Cricket World Cup was one of those publicity stunts now written into the marketing plan of every international tournament: a well-meaning attempt to nudge a national collective consciousness that is understandably preoccupied. It’s hard to feel the urgency of a 100-day countdown to an opener against South Africa at the Oval when we’ve only 33 left till Brexit. Has anyone even checked Britain’s leather and willow stockpiles?

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This isn’t the first attempt to Make Cricket Cool Again, and it won’t be the last. This one had Chris Hughes from Love Island, “a social-media influencer” and IRL friend of Jonny Bairstow (they met at a VIP day at Ascot, where Chris was influencing). He talked about the Cotswolds club he plays for, and fended off questions about his romance with Little Mix’s Jesy Nelson. “It’s just so refreshing when it’s private,” said the star of the nation’s most‑watched reality dating show. “Half the time things that are said aren’t even true, but people are very easily influenced by what they read.” You’d presume this was good news for Hughes, and by extension for cricket.

But even Hughes can only do so much for a sport that made the fatal decision, in December 2004, to cut itself off from the mainstream by removing itself from terrestrial television. He struggles even to convince his celeb friends to give it a watch. “People in my industry don’t really get cricket,” said Hughes, a little sadly. “It’s not like football.”

Hughes is at least irrepressibly keen on the game, which makes him a 500% better choice of ambassador than Caprice was in 1999. The last time the Cricket World Cup came to these shores, the supermodel was dragooned into promoting a sport she had never before watched, and had to admit that she didn’t know what LBW stood for, let alone whether you could be given out to a ball pitching outside off if you were playing a shot.

Caprice was joined in her international diplomacy by Mark Little (Joe Mangel of Neighbours) and the cast of Casualty. There was, at least, some synergy between a group of emergency workers fighting their way through a sequence of disastrous accidents and England’s ’99 campaign. It had begun with a player dispute over pay and ended in their ejection before the Super Six stages, the day before Dave Stewart’s official tournament song, All Over The World, was released.

Caprice (left) leads the slip practice at Lord’s with Lesley Garrett and Clive Mantle to promote the 1999 Cricket World Cup.
Caprice (left) leads the slip practice at Lord’s with Lesley Garrett and Clive Mantle to promote the 1999 Cricket World Cup. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Allsport

England have learned a lot in the two decades since that tournament: evidently, since they are now the best one-day side in the world. “We didn’t take it seriously enough,” was Nasser Hussain’s judgment, as he stood in the shadow of Nelson. “It’s only been in the last four years – with Morgan, Strauss, Bayliss – that we have done.”

“England have always been looking to catch up with the rest of the world,” agreed James Anderson, “and at the minute England are setting that bar.”

There was talk of how the sky was the limit for Eoin Morgan’s men, how their batting skills were redrawing the very nature of the one-day game. “They think [scoring] 400 is a very distinct possibility,” Graeme Swann said. “If you’d said 400 was even a remote possibility to the pros when I started playing you’d have been kicked out of the changing room.” Only two days later, England proved his point, overhauling a mammoth total of 360 in their first ODI against West Indies with more than an over to spare – their highest ever successful run-chase.

It is a near certainty that England will put on a far better show for the public this summer than they did 20 years ago. Cricket aside, Britain has discovered that it can be rather good at hosting global sporting tournaments and the presence of a number of green‑track suited “Cricketeers” in Trafalgar Square brought back comforting memories of London 2012 and its army of smiling helpers. Perhaps this year will finally lay to rest the embarrassing memories of 1999’s opening ceremony at Lord’s, with its inaudible speech from Tony Blair and its damp fizzle of fireworks, which came to serve as a lasting metaphor for England’s performance.

What English cricket has been slower to learn, however, is that reaching new audiences (the stated aim of the Hundred, for instance) is not the same as making cricket cool. Or that cool itself is not instantly transferable from those with a big Insta-following. Cricket has only ever been cool to the wider public when its players have done cool things on the field, and been seen to do them – as in 1981, when Ian Botham became a pin-up, or 2005, when Freddie Flintoff won the nation’s hearts in what we knew then would be the final live series before England’s cricketers became invisible, hidden from view behind Sky’s paywall.

This week it was Swann who had the best answer, when asked how the game could break through to a new audience, and capture the nation’s attention. “I think,” he said, “that winning the World Cup is a very good way of doing it.”


Emma John

The GuardianTramp

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