Participation in English cricket December 9, 2015

Quit griping and get on board in fight to save game

Ambitious ECB plans to grow engagement and inspire a new generation need cricket lovers to start working together - and stop obsessing over free-to-air

Inspiring a new generation to love the game is cricket's challenge in England © Getty Images

It is easy to imagine where the sceptics might gather once details of how the ECB intends to reawaken interest in cricket are digested. They will come from the loose alliance of critics who oppose the ECB at almost every turn as if by political creed. They will come from dark recesses of the ECB itself where some will see no reason for change. They will come from the counties that prefer individuality to unity, no matter how impotent that might be. And they will come from some elderly league officials who have barely come to terms with a mobile phone and will regard web-based solutions with dread.

As the ECB begins to push ahead with plans to increase participation - the most coherent, ambitious, self-aware proposals I have seen in more than 30 years covering English cricket - the negativity that clings to various corners of English cricket must not be allowed to destroy potential good.

If you are five years old and, even though you don't know it, cricket can bring you joy in life - whether as a casual player, a committed club cricketer, a spectator of county or England cricket or maybe, just maybe, as a professional, perhaps even an England player so good that they might one day be shortlisted for the Sports Personality of the Year award (clearly harder than winning the Ashes) - a failure to act on your behalf just isn't fair.

Getting bats and balls in the hands of as many young children as possible in both schools and clubs is the pre-requisite if cricket in England and Wales is to thrive.

Many rank-and-file cricket lovers will dismiss these proposals for one reason. It is a fair bet that when the end of the world comes, and the cockroaches swarm over Lord's, a couple of lone protestors will rise to their feet and with a supreme effort gather a final breath to exhale: "But what about free to air!"

That English cricket would be better served by showing more cricket on free-to-air TV is a legitimate point of view, even if at its most extreme it clearly relies more on emotion than any hard-nosed commercial logic. It would be beneficial if county T20 got some live free-to-air time in the next rights round. But that stand-off has become repetitive and destructive.

Resenting the commercial age is one thing. But refusing to see good within the ECB where it has the potential to exist denies the chance of progress. And the ECB's new strategy for participation and growth is full of good things.

The danger to cricket in England and Wales - and it is a very real danger - is that the free-to-air advocates who, by their very nature, are utterly committed to the spreading and democratisation of the game, have adopted a maudlin view that advancing the game at all levels is impossible as long as much international cricket remains behind a paywall: that no good can be done.

They agonise over clubs closing, or look at the slide of popularity of cricket as you move down the age scales, and they blame it all on a lack of free to air. Blame apportioned, hands washed, job done.

The fact is that many of those clubs could and should have survived, irrespective of free to air. That the game is better funded as a result so has potential to change. That cricket can win the hearts of the coming generation. That these proposals - even when just the drawing together of old ideas in a unified fashion - offer a chance for many hard-pressed and dedicated volunteers and coaches to achieve more. Those most committed to the democratisation of the game should ally themselves to a new cause.

A vision for the betterment of the game in England has never been more strongly expressed than in the ECB's proposed engagement strategy

Equally suspicious of any new deal will be some of the officials who have served diligently for many decades, some well, some not so; some of them truly inspirational, some retaining office only because nobody else will do the job, a positive in itself. Many are deeply suspicious of change and will be fearful of talk of shorter game times, of "web-based administrative support systems" and "volunteer engagement strategies". Some can barely cope with email. They, too, have a challenge - and it is the need to open their minds to the desires of the next generation, to those who are actually playing the game.

The ECB's plans to increase participation - now being rolled out nationally for feedback - have already been prematurely dismissed by a few as the same old clichés. They are far from that. But many of the champions of the amateur game feel isolated and resentful. Mistrust of the ECB runs high.

To make these proposals work, the most active cricket lovers in this country need a unified faith in the value of the game to the nation, a belief in the vision that is on offer, a faith that improvements can be made, and a willingness to work together for a common goal.

That vision has never been more strongly expressed than in the ECB's proposed engagement strategy. It has taken random schemes, many of which left to fend for themselves would wither on the vine, added many new insights, and proposed a new unified approach in which everybody is stronger by working together.

Counties and clubs who have revelled in competition must also understand when unity can be a strength. Administrators have a chance to embrace a better future. Volunteers don't have to feel put upon. Players can play the games they want to play.

You might find imperfections if you look hard enough. Kids, for example, is listed under the engagement strategy as one of "Four Cs". Children would have been fine. There is no need to try so hard to be trendy. But I don't think you will ever find anything better.

So much good is there: the "invisible walls" that cricket in England - sometimes knowingly, sometimes not - has erected to dissuade players from getting involved; the over-reliance on public schools, as superior a job as they obviously do; the need for cricket to become ingrained in communities; the need to support administrators and coaches and those who just regard themselves as cricket-loving enthusiasts with modern web-based support systems that can make their jobs easier.

The ECB has had a clear-out of senior posts in the past year, but there may still remain the odd figure of middling influence who does not understand, and perhaps does not have much enthusiasm for, the need to spread cricket in England and Wales beyond its traditional boundaries. They must not be allowed to halt the progress that can be made.

Some will carp that Matt Dwyer, the ECB's director of participation and growth, is a salesman, that he is selling snake oil; that because he is not a former professional cricketer, his views are devalued; that because he is an Australian he does not understand how it works over here. That - to adopt a phrase beloved by the ECB's critics - he is somehow "outside cricket".

He is actually selling a remedy. It just needs people to take it.

England cricket, just to nitpick for a moment, is not entirely concealed; not totally behind a paywall. An excellent highlights programme is available on Channel 5, although the ECB is no doubt chary of mentioning it too loudly in case it upsets Sky. There are also clips a plenty on the ECB's own website and endless YouTube outlets, some more official than others. Enough for most youngsters to get by on. Add, one hopes, an occasional NatWest Blast game available for all and a path forward can exist.

How does the ECB win the co-operation of 39 county cricket boards, PE teachers with no cricket background, officials in leagues up and down the country, many of whom are suspicious of change, players who want many different formats and agitators who have long come to suspect - in the manner of rival political parties - everything the ECB tells them?

Simply by accepting it is the best chance to save the game.

A few years ago, feeling older and wearier, I left my own club in frustration at its failure to commit to the continuation of junior cricket. It was soon threatened by closure and only the bonus influx of players of Pakistani background has helped to keep it alive.

Two weeks ago, that club was approached by the Yorkshire Cricket Board and offered the chance to support the expansion of Chance to Shine by teaming up with local schools. It said yes. It is also restarting an Under-11s side next season. It is fulfilling its role again. And my interest is beginning to quicken once more.

Just one example of how the ECB's new engagement strategy can work. Outside cricket? You are better on the inside.

David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps

Comments