Ambitious ECB growth plan to shake up grassroots
A sense of defeatism clings around recreational cricket in England. The story of falling participation numbers is now well known. Clubs that once had a stable future are going under, state schools have other priorities and the game is struggling to connect.
And it is virtually impossible to discuss the problems, and how to address them, without somebody shouting "What about cricket on free-to-air television?" It has become the cry of the disenchanted and defeatist and it will not be easily appeased.
Tell us something we don't know, some may say. Tell us something worth knowing. Perhaps now we can.
Into that maelstrom of negativity has stepped Matt Dwyer, who last summer became the ECB's director of participation and growth, arriving in the same week that Australia played at Lord's. A couple of hours in his presence is enough to persuade all but the most irredeemable malcontent that English cricket can sort out its problems. The "can do" culture is fighting back.
Dwyer is a cricket obsessive with a sales background, having worked for such brands as Mars and Diageo. He also comes with a proven track record at Cricket Australia, having used the Big Bash to grow spectator interest and participation levels.
Six months into the job, his thoughts are coalescing. Strategies are nearing completion. Feedback towards his ideas is being sought around the country. The examination they will receive within the ECB hierarchy are nothing compared to the challenges he will meet when he seeks enthusiastic commitment from 39 county cricket boards and a host of local leagues.
ESPNcricinfo put some of the most pressing questions to him:
You've had some time looking at English cricket at all levels. What do you feel is the dominant image?
When I first started in Australia the perception of cricket was male, pale and stale and that was what we had to address. As I have gone around England I have become aware that there's a similar perception here - even though all the most recent studies tells many different stories, such as the fact that our grassroots game draws heavily on South Asian cricket communities.'
How did Australia achieve such success in reawakening interest?
What Australia did was actively recognise that we need to change the perception of the game to become more relevant to more people. We could tell ourselves things were going all right or we could open up the eyelids.
One of the ways they did that was to be clear as to the roles of each of the three formats. Test match cricket was always our number one format - we would take our love for it to the grave, but we could not take Test match cricket to its own grave.
We are in a unique situation as administrators that we are running three different formats. Other sports don't have that. How do you make that one of your advantages? T20 cricket became very unashamedly about engaging kids and engaging their mums and bringing new people to the game.
My experience in Australia has been successful: 30% growth in junior cricket in Australia the last three years, 7% growth in club cricket, three times more kids playing school cricket than four years ago, and an extra 220 women's teams.
Scyld Berry wrote recently about England's heavy reliance, historically, on cricketers from fee-paying schools. Does English cricket feel elitist to you?
I think there is a perception in some quarters that cricket is a public school game. Perception is reality and that is something we need to address.
The symbolism of some things in this country is clear to see: a young child turns on a broadcast to a cricket game and it is largely private school people playing or commentating. And they drive past the local cricket ground and the square is roped off - for good reason - saying, 'don't come on the ground'. There are some symbols in the game that don't necessarily make us more relevant to more people. We need to break a little bit of that. Cricket in England must get rid of its invisible walls.
When the mum drops off her child how do you make sure she has a warm welcome? That the women's toilets aren't the storage space? All those things that ensure a welcoming and inclusive environment.
Embedding cricket in the community again is very important to you, isn't it?
I think we have done a really good job in terms of potential participation in this country. If you love cricket, you can find a cricket ground and you can find a coach and you can have a hit on a Saturday afternoon. But if we want to sell the benefits of the game we haven't done a great job about articulating why cricket is relevant to more people in this country, why it should be at the heart of the community.
Why would parents consider cricket against a raft of 35 other sports that are on offer to their child? How many parents would know that cricket develops nine of the 10 fundamental movement skills: more than any other sport? How many mums would relate to the values of the game - the spirit of cricket and the fact it is a global game, and a smart game? The opportunity for kids to play cricket with their father - there aren't too many sports that offer that opportunity. How well is that promoted?
Many clubs in England are failing. How do they begin to turn that round?
The priority for a cricket club that is failing is 100% focus on your juniors - from the age of five. There is no quick-fix answer that will turn around a cricket club that is sliding down the wrong way. There are some tweaks you can do - a more inclusive environment, improve your facilities, try different formats, questioning whether finishing at 8 o'clock on a Saturday night is really the right way to attract a 32-year-old dad with a five-year-old child - but the long-term sustainability of a cricket club comes from focusing on your juniors and having a great experience in junior cricket and building your base.
We need to stop making excuses. Guys and girls are going to get jobs at the age of 18, they are going to move on to different places in the country to study, they are going to start working, they are going to find alcohol, they are going to find love interests, all that sort of stuff. That's society. We are not going to change that.
But if they have had a great experience between five and 17 or 18 or whenever they drop off that is still a lifetime of attraction to the game. Give them a great experience and the romance of cricket will always be there. If later they decide they want to come back to play the game will take them back with open arms.
If you get one kid inspired to play the game, most times you have an opportunity to get two others immediately, as far as the mum and the dad are concerned. What can they do as future volunteers? Maybe dad will come back and play again - that was one of the biggest growth areas in Australia. Maybe they will pick up a county game. What Australia went with was 'Let's inspire the next generation and win the battle of the schoolyard'.
But start with inspiring five to 12-year-olds.
The length of club games is an issue for many players who leave the recreational game. What is your view on that?
If games finished at 8 o'clock in Australia, we would lose half of our players.
We carried out a national players' survey where we asked people about their optimum playing time. A large majority said, 'Start at 1pm, finish by 7pm, 40-overs a side, win lose'. But they were the ones already playing.
My opinion is the game needs to offer more formats to take into account people's lifestyles. It is great to tweak the existing player base but if we want to grow the base we need to speak to our 10m fans and say what format would you want to play? That is the role of participation and growth. What do we do to further stimulate Last Man Stands, which showed 20% growth last year, or influence clubs to say it's okay to have a T20 side? If the clubs aren't responding quickly enough to people's needs then we need to make a call about what to do.
I want our clubs to be the heart of the community. Clubs are the spine of the game and always will be. But we need different formats for people to be able to participate.
As you say, society has changed, and that makes volunteers harder than ever to find. How do you deal with that?
My recommendation is that from ECB level down to the individual clubs we need to be better customer focused as a game. There are certain volunteers out there that spend every waking minute focusing on the cricket club and love the documentation that goes with it. There are others out there who have a role because when asked for help they stood still when everybody else stepped back. With the best intentions they don't have the time to do it.
Let's make it easier to administer the game. Technology allows us the chance to make their jobs easier. That may be one of my main recommendations. How do we improve our play-cricket.com website and create a system which helps the long suffering cricket administrator do things with one touch of a button, communicate with players, tell them the game is cancelled, the training night has changed, track results, online scoring, player registrations online… There is so much you can do.
My job for Cricket Australia was to grow the game. The club administrators were saying it was additional pressure: 'If I get more teams in shorter formats that means I might need a new coach, more pitches, more facilities, I might lose players from my other teams - I don't know if I'm up for that'. So make their job easier.
That would involve rival bodies - clubs and leagues and counties - working together. Are they capable of doing that?
The message that I think is really important is unification of the game in this country. We should always compete on the field and that's really important and it will drive standards forward in cricket. But there are other parts of our game where we should work together to simplify a complicated supply chain - to get something out of Lord's down through a county, down though a cricket board, down through a league, down through a club, to inspire a five-year-old kid to have a great experience at a cricket club. Everyone needs to buy into the systems that help that come together.
All the pieces of the puzzle are there. They have just all been thrown on to the page. There is crossover with the same question being answered 39 different times across county cricket boards. We need to clarify the roles we all play for the good of cricket in this country and not spend every minute of the day competing in areas we don't actually have to compete on.
You were an administrator yourself, in club cricket back in Victoria. Looking back, did you get anything badly wrong?
I've been impressed with the Get The Game On campaign - sending the message out to administrators, groundstaff, captains, to do everything you can to get a game on.
I think back to some things I did as an administrator in my local volunteer role and the amount of decisions I made that were in complete contrast to that philosophy, either to make things easier for me, or to try to stop anarchy taking over, or to minimise risk - if only somebody had turned that light on for me.
Registration is one of those issues. Online gives you a great opportunity to instantly register people. It does not need to be more complicated than that.
I have already heard people say that you might understand how to sell cricket in Australia but that it's different over here…
My old man is 65 and he still plays in a local league in Victoria, bats No 11, doesn't bowl and loves every minute of it.
I loved the recreational game. I dropped into it after breaking a collarbone in an Australian Rules match and never went back to a higher grade. I have an ambition by the time I leave this country - whether it is in a box or some other time - that I want to have played a game of cricket in every county across the country. I have had some amazing offers from people so far.
We need to talk about state schools. Chance to Shine is doing a wonderful job, but it is an enormous challenge. Can a real impact be made?
It will absolutely be a focus for us. We can't only be relevant to 6% of the population, which is essentially what we are saying if we are to be a private school game. We need a strategy to engage state schools. That may not necessarily be hard-ball cricket on full-length cricket for state schools.
There is a raft of engagement opportunities. There is an opportunity for an ambassador programme in state schools. In Australia, we got one person to be the contact for cricket within a school and there was then an incentive programme for them. If they entered a team in a competition they got free tickets to a Big Bash game; if they facilitated a four-week skills programme using our resources they got discount on sports clothing. Again we can use technology - online videos to teach PE teachers not heavily into cricket about how you can co-ordinate 30 kids, keep them happy throwing balls around and associating it with the game of cricket.
Also curriculum resources - how do you get geography or physics classes using cricket as a teaching aid in these classes? In Australia we built that around the World Cup - and there are world events coming up in England in 2017 and 2019.
The main thrust of Chance to Shine has been on older kids, focusing on player retention. Our anticipation is that will change and the focus will sharpen in on five to 12-year-olds.
We have lobbied Sport England to concentrate on the right active behaviours at a younger age. I hope that new direction comes out in the next couple of months. Get the right pathway for kids aged five to 12 - the Junior Participation Pathway - an ability-based progression through skills-based games, moving into a softball game on a grass outfield.
Then, when kids are ready to put the pads on, that's when you put them into a more traditional form of the game. They come to junior cricket in clubs skilled up and ready to go. You have had them for about four years, and they have developed an affinity for the game, before they have to start buying the kit. In Australia, that has delivered 30% growth in numbers.
Let's minimalise every barrier we can because we know if a kid is in the game at 11 the next noticeable drop-off point is 16.
Surely you must bring schools and clubs closer?
There is a strong opportunity for a greater connection between schools and clubs in general, of which grounds can be a superb facilitator. Ground maximisation will be a critical element of our growth agenda. We are looking to put on more staff across the country to facilitate greater connection between schools and clubs to drive higher conversion between Chance to Shine and traditional club cricket, plus provide more opportunities for kids to play.
The future of T20 in England is under review and much of your success in Australia was linked to the promotion of the Big Bash…
A vibrant T20 tournament definitely helps. Kids want a connection to a club. It could be the England team, it could be their county XI or it could be the 1st XI at their local cricket club.
There are many reasons why a child plays in a local cricket club. Studies have suggested the first reason is that a mate took them down, the second reason is that parents encouraged it, the third reason is a school teacher or significant adult encouraged it and fourth on the ranking list is they wanted to play like their hero.
Diversity is also an important part of your job. It's a broad field - not just improving opportunities for people from a South Asian background, but women's cricket and disabled cricket, too.
We need to make the game more relevant to different communities. Clubs are our number two distribution channel so they have to be a big part of this strategy. The challenge is to get clubs to see the benefits of growth.
In certain parts of the country, everyone having a pint afterwards will still be representative of the cricket that is played, in other parts of the country it isn't and clubs have to be aware of that changing landscape otherwise they will wither on the vine. That is a scary kind of predicament we face.
That club element that we love - and I have been playing at the same club in Australia since I was five years old - from an outsiders' perspective it may be seen as not welcoming and exclusive. How do we walk that line in recognising that one of the club's biggest strengths is also one of the biggest weaknesses? It needs to be done.
David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps