20 years of ESPNCricinfo
Rob Steen
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now

"When I make up my mind to do something, I bloody well do it." So declared Dr Simon King, the Mike Hussey of the interweb, Mr Cricinfo. Not only did he bloody well do it, he did it bloody well. Likewise those who have maintained his foresight and industriousness. Readers of The New Ball Vol. 6: Co-Stars, published in 2001, might recall an internet analyst informing Alastair McLellan that an apparent attempt to "eat the whole niche" had produced a website that, although "initially compelling for most cricket enthusiasts, may not be fully satisfying to anyone". If there's any media tributary less worthy of implicit trust than journalism, it's internet analysis.

Rereading McLellan's exemplary (if not entirely prescient) essay on the roots of ESPNcricinfo the other day reminded me, indeed, that King had offered the dimple-cheeked baby up for adoption - by the ICC. He even told David Richards, then chief executive, that he could have it for free, as a promotional tool. "One of the uses I saw for Cricinfo was to cut out the - usually critical - media and provide a direct conduit from the boards to the fans," King, an admirer of cricket administrators back then (if possibly not now), told McLellan. Had Richards accepted - and back then, to be fair, the governing body did occupy a hutch next to the groundsman's hut at Lord's - we would have been saddled with an object immeasurably more compliant and far less worthy of our affection.

To a habitual breakfast-time log-onner such as myself, a world without ESPNcricinfo is now unthinkable. Or, at the very least, infinitely undesirable. In the late, unlamented BC era (Before Cricinfo), to my near-certain knowledge, surfing for up-to-the-minute sports news wasn't even a notion, much less an option. In fact, like Charlie, you couldn't surf at all. Dip maybe.

Espn.com and mlb.com opened for business in 1995, uefa.com two years later; Guardian Unlimited, the UK's first newspaper website, logged on two years after that, with BBC Online following suit at the turn of the millennium. Just for once, we can take the "con" out of "iconic".

Live score updates from Derby and Dhaka? Mr Tip, can I introduce you to Ms Iceberg? Before ESPNcricinfo, the nearest the vast majority of us could get to a remotely up-to-date list of Test averages, let alone the scorecards from the latest Sheffield Shield campaign, was to buy the Cricketer Quarterly - i.e. once every three months. Test records? Wait for April and Wisden, though even then the stats would be outdated by two months, at best. The innovations, though, went much further. If speed, depth and global sensibility have been integral to the site's appeal, so has interactivity.

Consider the world before ESPNcricinfo. What an utterly unrecognisable and highly unappetising place for the under-25s. Before ESPNcricinfo, Facebook was a decade away. Before ESPNcricinfo, browsers hung out almost exclusively in dusty libraries and mothy bookshops. Before ESPNcricinfo, there were no mobile scores or Youtube videos of Headingley '81, for the simple reason that only a tiny fraction of the globe owned a mobile phone or a non-legged mouse. Before ESPNcricinfo, to print prudes such as myself, "blogging" sounded like a creative cross between "blagging" and "begging", or else something you did in private, probably on the loo. Before ESPNcricinfo, podcasts were bulletins from outer space. Before ESPNcricinfo, no journalist I know would have taken extra care over an article for fear of being instantly assailed by corrections and/or derision. Before ESPNcricinfo, the world was full of twits and twats but nary a single tweet. Only those who fear freedom of speech, interaction and universal knowledge would call them the good old days.

BUT BACK TO THE FUTURE. King was driven by his conviction that cricket needed "a hub for the online cricket community… something with the ambition to store every conceivable piece of cricket information". That he sired both is as plain as the genius at Muttiah Muralitharan's fingertips. Yet Mr Cricinfo's immaculate conception may also be hailed one day for preserving the written press.

Last year brought a significant change to this site, echoing developments elsewhere, developments that could have a radical impact on the highest branches of that remarkably resilient if increasingly fragile oak tree we call journalism, namely the newspaper industry.

On the homepage we now have a range of choices: in addition to a global front page, with contents prioritised and structured accordingly, you can click up a variation with a UK, African, Indian, Pakistani or Australasian emphasis. Discovering whether a front-page lead in the India edition about spot-fixing is matched by a gloating take in the Pakistan edition - or vice-versa - has lately become part of my morning ritual.

Print is supposed to be yesterday's news. Daily, evening and weekly titles, so we are repeatedly assured, are the brontosaurus, triceratops and stegosaurus of the media jungle. Staffs and wages are being slashed; ancient and respected publications alike are closing. Online incarnations are stemming the tide to an extent but confidence has plunged to such depths that, until a couple of years ago, the owners weren't charging a bean.

Now paywalls are rising from New York and Frankfurt to Wapping and Canary Wharf. Pride in journalism, the belief that it has a market value as well as a crucial role to play in holding the evil, corrupt and powerful to account, is gradually returning. The next way forward promises to be down Cricinfo Avenue, directly to the one-stop shop.

ESPN has been venturing down that road for some time, hence its purchase of Cricinfo, but there is no print equivalent. The New York Times now has its Global/Africa/Americas/Asia/ European/Middle East web editions; the Guardian is heading in the same direction, setting up one network arm in Africa, another in Australia. "It's like the Australian version of Playboy," scoffed Campbell Reid, editorial director of News Unlimited Network. "Who needs the Australian version of the Guardian when I can log on to British version of the Guardian, which is the mother ship?" Such derision may be short-lived. The point is that Guardian Australia proffers not just a leftish slant on Australia but the latest step on the road to global Guardianisation, the chief obstacle to which is funding.

Now imagine the Murdochs throwing their unscarce resources behind the Times (one assumes it would travel rather better than the Page 3-led smuttiness of the Sun) and converting it into a global brand, complete with countless front-page options and a local heart (the Trinidad and Tobago Times?), stronger than its Big Apple namesake in key areas such as European politics, BBC intrigue and, of course, f***ball.

The upside is that knowledge and understanding will spread and sharpen; hell, the utopian vision of a true global village, devoid of national and regional blinkers, might not be so wild after all. On the downside, an awful lot of rivals will go to the wall and many alternative viewpoints expire with them. Fortunately, the (as yet) unfettered democracy of the web, for all that it can arouse the very worst in human nature, will continue to supply plenty of those.

So no, Cricinfosation would not be an unmitigated boon, but it could at least secure the future of the newspaper, a product of such wondrous versatility and convenience, it's a wonder it wasn't invented yesterday. The ICC's loss may be journalism's saviour.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton


Posted by ActionJacksonMan on (August 21, 2013, 17:40 GMT)

Another wonderfully written piece, Rob. It's worth pointing out that Cricinfo's success and global influence owes as much as anything to the insightful, thought-provoking articles provided by you and the other regular contributors on this site.

Posted by Kirk-at-Lords on (August 21, 2013, 16:20 GMT)

Steen provides a quirky but meaningful gloss on Cricinfo's historical significance, and what it might mean for the future. "Print" media may survive without the paper (the trees will thank us). What needs to survive is diversity of viewpoints and venues in which to share and consult to produce change when needed and preserve the best of cricket tradition.

Comments have now been closed for this article