Cricket is awash with cash, and there are two newly-minted Test-playing nations, yet the game is going through an existential crisis. So what are we going to do about it?
There are, as Ian Botham once put it, “cricketers who empty bars when they walk to the crease, men like Flintoff, Brian Lara and Adam Gilchrist. The sort of players who get your pulse racing by watching them do what they do best.” A conversation about the ultimate journalistic equivalent of a ‘bar’ player would not be complete without a mention for Matthew Engel. He emptied the metaphorical refreshment tents of cricket commentators last Friday with a blazing innings constructed across twenty polemic paragraphs.
While the article made the cricketing community stand to attention, not a single reader could have taken any pleasure in its withering assessment of the state of the modern game and the governing bodies that hold its future in their palm. His stature as an x-factor journalist demands that we take notice.
This may have been the literary equivalent of the most violent of six-hitting sprees by a master number 3 batsman, but it feels as if it was made in the context of a doomed pursuit of a nominal fourth innings target, a parade of batsmen surrendering meekly at the other end.
Rather than rehashing his points, and wallowing in despair, let’s pick up where the article ended. “Cricket is not beyond salvation”, Engel asserts at the conclusion, before retiring to the pavilion, his pen tucked under his arm, the short, sharp shock delivered. However, his description of the current state of play as an “omnishambles” leaves us under no illusion as to the size of the task ahead.
So how do we save cricket? What are we actually going to do about the decline of the Test format, the muddled fixture calendar, the “rotting” of the game from corruption in Asia and waning domestic interest?
First things first – the game must change. Anyone who thinks that the Test format can be retained in its current incarnation is deluded. It is essential that we preserve its best aspects , but we don’t want to pickle it in formaldehyde.
It may seem sacrilegious to the old guard, but we have to move with the times. At some point we must acknowledge that the customer is always right. There is no point producing Betamax when the world has started watching VHS. Rather than looking down our collective nose at the modern sports fan, we need to listen and adapt our more traditional product accordingly to the needs of the market.
If this marketing vernacular alarms you, then think on this; cricket does not just compete with sport, it competes with the wider entertainment world. In the modern media age, we are not just jostling with rugby for second position behind football, we are pitting ourselves against the likes of Netflix, Amazon, and Apple. Asked recently to identify his company’s main competitor, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said “we are really competing with sleep on the margin”.
Cricket is playing on a different field. To think differently is to play Canute on the beach, hollering at the tide. It is okay to be idealistic as long as it is mixed in equal measure with pragmatism.
The trick here is not to equate picking up marketing smarts with ‘selling out’. Provided the game maintains an honest and engaging tone with the public, emphasising tradition but speaking to current and future supporters’ desires, maybe – just maybe – a mass audience will meet us half way. Finding the middle ground is very much like taking a quick single – without clear calling and a proper acceptance of the risks on either side, someone is going to get run out. With T20 backing up like Jonty Rhodes at the non-striker’s end, Test cricket is batting like Inzamam.
Some national governing bodies are moving swiftly in the right direction, most notably the ECB and ACB. Initiatives such as All Stars Cricket and the explicit strategy of operating in a consumer-centric way are helping engage new fans both young and old.
Crucially, however, the same cannot be said for the ICC. It seems to have very few points of direct contact with the global audience other than when it is time to hawk tickets every time the tournament circus pitches its big top in a new town. The organisation is observing and governing the game from inside a corporate box, rather than from the middle of the stands with the fans.
It is clear then that action must be taken. We have discussed the ‘how’: now for the ‘what’. Cricket has considerably more than 99 problems (including the pitch), but here are what I would suggest are the five most urgent matters in the game.
Hire the right people
“The ECB” Engel said in his article “still employs a few people with some knowledge of cricket, but even they seem to have zero knowledge of the game’s rhythms.” This was the one point of his that I thought was unfair. The ECB employs plenty of people who operate deeply within the fabric of the game (full disclosure – I am a former employee), and they do appreciate what works especially now that an increasing amount of data-led insight is being used to inform business decisions. However, there are many competing factors that dictate the pace of change and, within reason, it is more important to get it right than to implement change quickly.
That said, there is a need for a broader range of voices at the top level of the sport, and not necessarily ones that have a lengthy background in the game. Often, those who can think most clearly are those who can do so the most dispassionately.
I am certainly not suggesting that the ICC or ECB hauls a hold all containing a good chunk of broadcast revenue to the nearest building full of strategy consultants (fuller disclosure – I used to be one of those too). What it should do, however, is work out what knowledge the game needs the most and hire experts in those fields, rather than relying wholly on ex-pros and general staff. Does the game need to innovate more? Hire some innovation experts. Want to compete with mass entertainment products? Employ some business development executives from that sector. Unless we have had enough of experts, of course…
An important step could be that the ICC sets up an independent think-tank, paid for not by the ICC but by monies levied from all stakeholders in the game. Fans, economists, media impresarios: if you bring good ideas to the table, then you are welcome. Funded by the game, this body would answer only to the game.
Sort out the bloody calendar
Cricket asks a lot of its supporters. Since at least the dawn of the T20 age, the shape of the English summer and the world programme has always changed year-to-year. Potential attendees are unlikely to have a good idea about when a game might be on at the local county ground without referring to a fixture list. Such chopping and changing takes its toll; even the Premier League decided not to whore itself out on Christmas Eve this year.
The international calendar operates in even murkier waters. Teams such as New Zealand can go months without playing a Test, while England are struggling not to play all their fixtures back-to-back. There is no natural cadence; the Future Tours Programme is no longer fit for purpose and the proposed Test Championship verges on the ludicrous.
There is no easy answer here, but I suspect that Test cricket could flex its muscle a bit more. Put on the spot, all major cricketing nations would assert the primacy of the Test format, but do they really mean it? It is time to front up in some honest conversations. Over to you, ICC.
Keep up with the Joneses
Traditionalists would pall at looking to the dreaded round ball game for inspiration, but observing with a critical-yet-eager eye would serve the game well. Football has made its fair share of mistakes (the ECB is certainly not the FA) but there is no denying that the game runs efficiently enough to retain its market value and march to a single tempo. Even anomalies like the Africa Cup of Nations are dealt with in a way that all parties accept.
Cricket is a unique sport, but learning from its peers does not start us on an inexorable journey to selling the soul of the game. Going back to first principles, taking the best ideas, avoiding pitfalls experienced by others; this is the way forward for cricket.
Get back on screens
Engel was right to cite the “catastrophic decision… to take the game away from the public and hand it to Sky” as responsible for robbing the nation of a generation of cricket enthusiasts. Once upon a time, from my sofa, I was captivated by Robert Croft bowling 40 overs unchanged in a dead rubber. Imagine what the 2005 Ashes triumph could have achieved.
It is the inconvenient truth that cricket needs to be on screens, reaching a mass audience. That is the only way to ignite lifelong passion as scale. Tactical plays such as All Stars help, but they are the assist for an audio-visual slam dunk.
The broadcast ship has sailed now until 2024, although it is a chink of light that domestic cricket of several flavours will reappear on free-to-air channels from 2020. For now, and the ECB is already making great strides in this area, cricket must seek to be on all the other screens that pervade our daily life. Phones, tablets, phablets, gaming consoles all have a role to play. Let’s sweat our content.
Tell a story
Being on screens is important, but we need to convert the short-term attention that the viewer has given us into something more meaningful and long-lasting. In the age of blanket media coverage, even the most exciting footage wears thin quickly. For better or worse, we live in the Age of Narrative.
As luck would have it, cricket has more than enough material to work with: heritage, quirkiness, blockbuster rivalries, underdogs, the lot. The game needs to talk about itself in a coherent unified way and ask itself what its brand really is. How would you tell the story of cricket to your children, your grandchildren, your friend who used to like cricket, your American friend? Tell your truth about the game and you might just set them on a long, but immensely fulfilling, love affair. Be passionate. Play Cupid. Help grow the game.
I’m not going to apologise for writing so much – no one should say sorry for having a passion. I hope that the length of this post has shown that the future might not be that bleak; there is plenty that can be done.
In summary, have some confidence! By embracing change we can own the outcomes; we must ask not what we have to lose through compromise, but what we can gain.
Being dissatisfied with the state of the game is not a problem; it shows you care. What matters is what you do next. We could be like the Architect from the Matrix trilogy (“there are levels of survival we are prepared to accept”) or we could work with the new order to forge a unified path. There is plenty of work to be done; let’s get to it.