Musings From The Padded Cell

Cricket’s Last Gamble?

In 2011 I had my first stab at writing a book largely about growing up obsessed with the beautiful game of cricket at a small club in Bradford.

It was called A Critics’ Corner, had a print run of 150 and, thankfully, sold out. Publishers did not beat a path to my door though but we bought a few junior balls through the proceeds.

Critics Corner by Steve Wilson

That was some seven years after England had beaten Australia for the first time in eighteen painful years and the last year cricket was broadcast live on terrestrial television, the nation hooked on Channel 4’s coverage.

Michael Vaughan lifts the Ashes

Since then it has almost vanished from sight; a recent ECB survey found that only 2% of kids rated it their favourite sport.

How could a sport that once dominated our summers have fallen from grace so spectacularly and just when we had finally won back the coveted Ashes?

So the announcement last week of a return, albeit not till 2020, of live cricket to the BBC has to be welcomed even if the limited content is dominated by the 20/20 format. League administrators take note.

“Young people you don’t know what you’re missing!”

Here’s an edited and updated version from my chapter in A Critics’ Corner all those years ago.

Chapter 30 – Kingdom Of Days

The game of cricket as we know and love is under threat at all levels and no more so than the club game despite whatever participation statistics the English Cricket Board (ECB) can spin.

Look around the leagues and witness the declining number of teams, the undeniable slide in standards and the weekly struggles to get teams out.

For all the national initiatives like the ECB’s flagship Chance to Shine – promoting the game in state primary schools – the game seems to have all the attraction of smallpox to the vast majority of kids.

Cricket does not suffer in isolation as we have become a nation of sports watchers rather than participants. Inactivity is as big a threat to society as alcohol and tobacco; active people also have more choice often with greater flexibility and less commitment.

Cricket suffers in several ways; it is a long game, requires technical skills coaching at a young age backed up by hours of practice and depends on our unpredictable climate.

As a youngster you also have to get used to failure and be prepared to come again. Not everybody is a winner.

However, when the ECB took Mr Murdoch’s money all those years ago they deprived a large part of the population the opportunity to fall in love with this unique game.

As such we are at a crossroads.

Chance To Shine

The great and the good celebrated five years of Chance to Shine at Lords in 2011 with one million kids claimed to have been beneficiaries from some 3,000 state schools.

Whilst this was a start there are an estimated 27,000 state schools and the impact of Chance To Shine is hard to judge.

As a deliverer of the scheme I know it’s limitations all too well; the best we can do is offer kids a taster but often we represent a few hours off for a teacher.

Typically a school will be offered sixteen hours of “coaching” although on an hourly basis, the length of sessions can be curtailed dramatically for all manner of reasons.

Factor in trying to control a group of around thirty kids including the disinterested, disruptive and downright delinquent whilst reaching out to the small minority who may have a genuine interest and you can see the issues.

In reality, it is a numbers game as the ECB uses the scheme to argue it’s case with Sport England when national funding is doled out to governing bodies; participation is key to all sports now, even if illusory.

Surely a far more productive approach would be to align ECB coaches to clusters of schools with a direct relationship and feed to a local club and local junior league? A competitive inter-school tournament would be the end goal.

Kids need to aspire and, as the scheme sits in schools with no competitive teams, there is little hook for the kids post the taster sessions. Leaflets and flyers simply compete for attention with a multitude of other offerings.

Society

I accept that society has changed massively since I first picked up a bat and, as sport is an essential part of the fabric of society, then change has been woefully slow especially in club cricket.

Local leagues have been stuck in the dark ages longer than the average committee man.

Of course, a key issue for junior sport these days is the state of the nation’s kids who for most, competitive school sport is non existent. I know of secondary school kids in Bradford whose only school cricket is softball!

The utterly ridiculous notion that competitiveness is not good and that everybody should get a medal is complete rubbish and offers a lie to youngsters as to real life.

Brian Glover in Kes…”I’m bloody Booby Charlton!”

Consider too whatever happened to the school PE teacher, someone who taught so much more than could ever be gained in the classroom?

When we were younger the PE teacher did much unpaid work but over the years goodwill on the part of teachers vanished starting way back in the 1980s. The losers here have been the kids.

Specialist PE teachers should be an essential part of all primary and secondary schools. Cost should not be an issue because in the longer term the savings to the likes of the NHS would far outweigh the investment.

It is not rocket science but politicians never look further than the next election. They can bleat all they like about obesity but they offer nothing in return.

Sport – The Miracle Pill

Armani and coaching were never happy bedfellows

The demolition of opportunities for youngsters to play sport and the loss of all the positive attributes such as health, team building and social integration will see us continue a slide towards an unhealthy and socially backward society.

We have to get true competitive sport back into schools supported by high quality PE teachers because the alternatives are stark.

And the challenge for cricket, which cannot wait for such a sea change should it ever occur, is to find a way to ensure cricket remains a game open to the masses, not the preserve of the few and one that kids can love again.

The Great TV Debate

The loss of cricket on terrestrial television made it invisible to a generation and more. Back in 2011 I wrote that there had to be a way to get the nation greater access to cricket.

At the time, then ECB Chief Executive, Giles Clarke, was interviewed on radio and contended that without Sky TV money the club game would disappear; it was an appalling example of the elite’s lack of understanding of the club game.

After all, how did we survive for the hundred plus years before the Sky deal?

I argued that brokering a deal with Sky to return some degree of international cricket to terrestrial television need not be devastating to the ECB coffers; after years of denial it seems the ECB agree.

Equally – I must have had a crystal ball – I contended that if I could drop football from my Sky package I would do so in a flash, but I would not give up my subscription to Sky just because the odd test match was on free to air.

How about the evening session of a test match free to air after 5pm so families could watch the last hour or so of a day? There are lots of free to air channels available.

Sky are about to announce channels tailored to individual sports which is a bold but necessary move to combat new competitors. It will also give them more insight into who watches what.

Cricket is the flagship summer sport of Sky’s offering yet if the Sky money is so critical to grass roots where is it all going?

Back in the Dark Ages

Bradford Park Avenue 1895

Leagues should also be much more proactive in response to a changing world. We have to become progressive from the bottom up in trying to attract and retain the next generations of players and administrators.

In league cricket very little has changed since I started in the 1970s. We are simply not attracting nor retaining enough new entrants to the game to keep it alive longer term.

Somehow we have to make the game more attractive, looking at formats and structures; it has bugger all to do with “back in our day”! Where better for any senior league to experiment that with second team cricket?

I offered several suggestions back in 2011 with a view to try to retain the youngsters we spend years developing but, inescapably, are not staying with the game in enough numbers.

My ideas are not rocket science (nor were they in 2011) but here goes:

  • Reduce the overs in our league from fifty to forty as the leap from twenty over junior cricket is too great for many kids. In addition, truthfully, how many old lags in the Stiffs would not be pleased?
  • Limit the bowlers to a maximum of ten and throw out the ridiculous ECB’s Fast Bowling Directives.
  • Use the cup to experiment with different formats.

And finally, stop this ridiculous obsession with shelling out money on players who contribute absolutely nothing to the clubs they turn out for.

The game is in a dire state at the moment and it needs resources ploughing back rather than into the pockets of over-rated hired guns.

Lets all start to take some responsibility for the future of the game or suffer the consequences if we don’t.

Sadly, despite much bluster I don’t think much has changed at all since 2011 and if the writing were not writ clear as daylight back then, it sure is now.

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About Steve

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Comments

  1. .. and to back up the comments above just take a look at some of the pathetically low scores in last Saturdays Aire Wharfe 2nd XI programme. The league really do have to take a more serious look, and quickly, as to how they can address this spiraling decline in standard and interest.

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