Musings From The Padded Cell

The M&S Vest

“The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

Warning! This article is really about the game of cricket; continue at your peril but never tamper with your ball.

What do you do when the product you are trying to sell to the masses starts to lose its appeal? In all forms of business and life in general, over time tastes change and what we once viewed as irreplaceable suddenly is no more.

In this regard I give you the M&S vest and the game of cricket.

Several hugely talented CEOs have all come and gone at M&S, each unable to arrest the decline in clothing sales for this once dominant retailer.

In direct contrast you could easily form the view that cricket’s administrators have largely been asleep at the wheel or locked in a bunker counting Sky Tv cash.

Cast back to 2005 when England had finally won the Ashes back, the Holy Grail of cricket, after 18 years of painful whuppings. It was the most thrilling of televised sporting events, a slow burning epic with more twists, tales and cliffhangers than a Hollywood blockbuster and watched by millions.

The year after, cricket vanished from terrestrial tv and participation levels continued a slide already visible to those of us running grassroots clubs; in Australia, chastened by defeat, participation levels actually rose and crucially cricket remained on free to air tv.

In fairness to Sky they had done an excellent job for years broadcasting England’s overseas tours and their coverage was fresh and innovative.

So the English Cricket Board (ECB) took the money and stated their intent to make England the top test team in the world. For a short time they achieved this but money’s impact perhaps simply coincided with a very good team.

At the basement level, cricketers can continue well past other sports but, combined with a rapidly changing work-life balance in Britain, spending five months of Saturdays on a field till early evening started to lose the appeal it once had.

In not even a decade the game lost a vast amount of participants in the 20-40 age groups, the very heart of its customer base. And yet, although the likes of M&S tried all manner of responses, cricket’s administrators – nationally and locally – had heads firmly in the sand.

Simply put they have been unwilling to admit that the mass market offering that has served them so well since the start of the last century no longer commanded the same audience.

And so we’ve reached a cliff edge, too close for comfort and too steep for many to survive.

But you might wonder why we cannot find new consumers for our once great product.

Tomorrow’s Players?

In 2017 the ECB announced All Stars Cricket, aimed squarely at the 5-8 year olds who, as my experience coaching in schools testifies, are more likely to name the North Korean leader than the England cricket captain.

It is a worthy initiative but it will take a decade before we know whether or not this has produced a new wave of players and volunteers. In the meantime clubs that could have benefited here will have vanished.

But let me give you an idea of what we face when trying to spread the message in schools as I do each summer.

Pre-dating All Stars was Chance To Shine launched in 2005. This was an attempt to reintroduce cricket back into state schools who account for some 93% of kids and largely had seen cricket vanish, like my old school as deadly as the old “pitch” was.

Chance To Shine is funded by charitable donations despite the millions that have flooded into the game. It relies on a network of coaches who can at the very best only provide taster sessions.

We get 16 hours per school split often into 8 sessions across 2 classes. One hour of coaching can end up as little as 35 minutes and this before the interruptions to sessions caused by those simply passing by to youth offender institutions.

Try 30 kids on a cold, rainy afternoon and you might conclude flogging smallpox would be easier than teaching the basics of catching and throwing.

And yet cricket encapsulates eight of the nine key movement skills taught to kids; running, jumping, throwing, catching, striking, balance, co-ordination and agility.

Only kicking is excluded but I’ve seen plenty kick their stumps to bits after a dodgy decision from Horace The Blind.

If I Were CEO

Bradford Park Avenue 1895

An old teammate of mine, having read last week’s piece on the folly of Bradford Park Avenue, whilst generous in his praise, asked what I would do.

In truth, the conundrum is much more deep rooted and complex than the M&S vest and I am no captain of industry but here goes.

To begin with society continually changes and what was good then is not now; cricket falls victim here. We have not responded to changing tastes and what changes have been made to the recreational game have been tinkering when a rebuild is required.

The game is too long, inflexible and mired in endless administration for the dwindling band of those willing to tackle this. We have had numerous player surveys but these are useless because you are only getting feedback from those still happy with the product.

We have ignored those who have abandoned the game in their thousands. Why did they? What would entice them back? And why have we a void of 20-40 year-olds the very core of the game.

Solutions

We need a format that still covers M&S to Primark. So here’s some blue sky thinking that will doubtless be ignored by those convinced it will still be all right come Saturday afternoon.

1 – shorter formats even across existing league structures from 50 overs for the top teams to 30 for those simply wishing to enjoy a quick game.

2 – radical revision of junior cricket where those that can still be bothered to try run teams actually have a chance of keeping kids engaged. Initiatives are already being considered from Australia – where All Stars was lifted – around small sided games, shorter pitches and less emphasis on trophies, more on long-term development.

If Australia are continually being forced to innovate this is clearly a much bigger issue for the game.

3 – possibly a shorter season as some leagues already do running from May to August. Limiting games may actually stimulate demand.

4 – earlier start times to allow freeing up Saturday nights for all. Clubs will argue that bar income will suffer but how many bars really are that busy given the paltry attendances now? There are other ways to generate income other than the bar.

5 – outlaw the odious practice of paying players other than in the Premier Leagues’ top echelons. It is ridiculous that clubs shell out hard won money on mediocre players who then speed off faster than Lewis Hamilton after a game and can ever be found when raffle tickets are being sold.

Administrators wail that this is impossible but that is rubbish; levying a threat of expulsion from the league if found out would deter most sensible clubs. And if we stop the practice of paying players then the financial pressures ease too.

6 – consider too how the £6m plus about to be spent at Bradford Park Avenue might be better spent using some crude fag-packet thinking. Assume a coach would cost £25k full time and this equates to 240 man years. Assume a 5 year plan and this translates to 48 full-time coaches – call it 40 to offer some admin slack – and consider Bradford has some 150 primary schools.

Allocating 3 schools per coach – not all will take up – and selling the unique transfer of skills cricket embeds would be a powerful offering would it not? Coaches could become the old PE teacher staging out of hours games and, crucially, forming the link between club and school. Call me naive but I would rather chance £6m here than a temple to vanity.

A Game In Crisis

The spirit of cricket.

These are not knee-jerk reactions as I wrote pretty much the same in 2009 – see here – in my first attempt at writing a book named after our once well-populated Critics’s Corner at Bolton Villas CC.

I have no doubt that most league administrators are well meaning people struggling with ever increasing workloads, remembering too that they are volunteers. Some may view this as survival of the fittest but this would be facile.

Recreational cricket simply by it’s unique format is a social game. People play largely in a circle they are comfortable in so a club collapsing does not necessarily mean more players in the pool.

In an attempt to sell the obscene investment in Bradford Park Avenue, Bradford Council made the ludicrous claim that Bradford district was short of eighteen cricket grounds.

Had they been reading the press this winter they may have noticed a swathe of collapses, mergers and loss of two team structures proving how disingenuous their claims are.

The writing is writ large on the wall.

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