In theory it has been a bumper year for English cricket fans – test series against the world’s top two teams, a new domestic competition with games on free to air television, as well as a T20 World Cup now underway, and an Ashes series to come over the winter.
But it’s also been a summer that has had many fearing for the future of the game they adore – and whether it will exist in the forms they grew up loving in a few years. These aren’t just England fans bemoaning the return of 1990s-style batting collapses, but rather deeper questions about who owns sport, as well as what success and sustainability looks like.
The most obvious point of contention is The Hundred, a new franchise format that has sparked vicious divides in the English game. To its supporters, including many ex-players now signed up as cheerleading commentators, it is an example of English cricket finally moving into the 21st Century – embracing social media, diversity, and engaging new audiences.
Its advocates point to close-to-sell-out crowds with a greater proportion of younger fans, impressive sounding metrics such as a “broadcast reach” of 16.1 million viewers, thanks in large part to a return to free to air TV. Although some of the numbers look less all-conquering when scrutinised and compared to previous events. An indisputable success though has been parallel women’s competition – even if few matches were played in prime time and players still earn a fraction of their male counterparts.
However, it’s long been acknowledged that cricket often faces a supply rather than a demand problem in attracting and keeping new players. Clubs with decent facilities often have waiting lists to join youth sides, while a 2018 England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) action plan aimed at attracting more South Asian players into or back to the game found that 1 in 5 had trouble finding a place to play, and half believed schools’ provision was inadequate. Even the most impressive engagement metrics won’t count for much if cuts to schools and councils funding mean there are fewer facilities where kids can learn the game. Meanwhile, a shockingly handled racism scandal in Yorkshire has somewhat taken the sheen off efforts to promote diversity.
Critics worry these structural issues, and moves they would ordinarily support – such as an end to Sky’s long standing TV monopoly and cheaper tickets, are being used to justify a power grab that will make the game less accountable to its fans. To see why, you need to look at scheduling and the new competition’s ownership. Unlike the county based T20 Blast, The Hundred only features franchises based at eight of the 18 county teams’ grounds, with each being wholly owned by the ECB. That meant many fans could not see their teams play top level domestic cricket during the height of summer this year – instead having to make do with marginalised existing competitions to accommodate the new cash cow.
Ian Lomax, of the Lancashire Action Group, who are campaigning for greater influence in the running of their county says: “It’s destroying the fabric of county cricket which has been around for over 150 years. It’s already marginalised the T20, made the One Day Cup a reserve team competition and the (four day County) Championship has now been pushed to the outer limits of the season even more.”
Perhaps even more worrying for The Hundred’s critics is that after agreeing to the new competition due to the promise of a £1.3 million payment each year from a central pot, they are now reliant on its success and growth, even while it damages the Blast competition that had provided well managed counties with a degree of financial independence from central TV deals.
With those £24.7 million in payments not included in projections showing The Hundred will make an £11 million ‘profit’, matters only get more opaque. Therefore, campaigners like Lomax fear the new competition has been more about depriving counties and by extension their members a “say about how the game is run” and fear it’s the first step to abolish unfashionable teams and formats deemed unprofitable altogether.
As ECB chief executive Tom Harrison has indicated a willingness to sell parts of the new franchises to investors, it’s easy to see why sceptics see the new competition as a way of diverting cricket’s assets (its fans and players) into a more financially attractive vehicle for sponsors, TV firms, and investors rather than a brave new dawn. An impression that greed is a motivator hasn’t been helped by ECB executives sharing £2.1 million in bonuses despite asking players and staff to take pay cuts due to the pandemic – and those with long memories can recall English officials prostrating themselves at the feet of helicopter-borne American fraudster Allen Stanford.
England’s final test match this year against India was cancelled, officially due to a Covid outbreak, but, conveniently, days before players were due to fly out to the U.A.E. for the rearranged IPL – leaving fans who’d turned up to the game in Manchester in the lurch. Across the Atlantic, Pakistan’s tour of the West Indies was hit by both rain and players getting heat stroke because it was played in July rather than the traditional Caribbean season of the spring.
It’s a situation that has figures as influential as former England captain Michael Atherton ruefully predicting that franchise cricket will dominate the future – with little room for anything else.
If that fate were to come to pass then cricket would ultimately be a victim of modern sport’s model of constant financial growth. Institutions that have been around for two centuries would either be no more or unrecognisable. Attritional skills unique to longer formats would die out, and the magic of the longer game would be lost, not because fans fell out of love with the game, but because administrators chased financial growth at all costs, and forgot that they had a duty to something more than the accounts.