June 4, 2009

Bringing the monster back home

When it comes to bringing its invented games back home in triumph, few countries could possibly boast a worse track record than England

From Association Football to Eton Fives, no country in the world has proven more adept at inventing and exporting new sports than England. But when it comes to bringing those games back home in triumph, few countries could possibly boast a worse track record.

Twenty20 cricket is the latest in a long line of sports to "come home" to England this week, but it is being made to feel about as welcome as a cane toad in a Brisbane living-room. If you were to ask your average English fan to name this month's big sporting events, the Lions tour of South Africa would probably share top billing with Wimbledon, with an honourable mention for Royal Ascot and the British Grand Prix. Does the prospect of a three-week, 12-team global cricket festival really whet the nation's appetite? Worryingly, I think we already know the answer to that one.

England's attitude to a form of the game they devised in 2003 is as apologetic as Albert Einstein's attitude to the Atom Bomb. An exceptional invention, subverted beyond the imagination of its creator, and now apparently threatening the very thing it was designed to help save. England's failure to embrace the shortest format - in defiance of the crowd-pleasing evidence from the domestic Twenty20 Cup - stems from a deep-rooted suspicion of the monster they've created.

Put simply, Twenty20's combination of money and brevity is seen as a direct threat to everything that England holds dear about cricket, namely the rhythm and history of Test matches - or, put more simply still, the Ashes, which is the only contest that really counts in England this summer. Everything revolves around the recapturing of the urn, because there is a misguided assumption that only a glorious repeat of the 2005 series will suffice to hoist Test cricket back to the pinnacle upon which it once belonged.

It is a damaging fallacy and one, ironically, that England's own Ashes foes would never condone. Australia haven't failed to reach the final of the 50-over World Cup since 1992, and they've won the last three crowns in a row from 1999 onwards - a run of form that hasn't exactly detracted from their ability to win Test matches. Coincidentally, the first of those victories was achieved at Lord's, in a tournament that England disgraced on numerous levels, starting with quite possibly the worst opening ceremony ever witnessed at a top-level international event.

The ECB's plans this time round are a closely guarded secret, and little wonder. Back then, a host of soggy fireworks turned the Lord's outfield into a civil war re-enactment society, a loosely connected microphone fused midway through Tony Blair's curtain-raising speech, and the team bombed out in the first round, the day before the official tournament song had been released. In the course of the tournament, England showed a complacent indifference to the fact that the eyes of the world were upon them. A decade on, and have those lessons really be learnt?

Not if the words of the then-ECB chairman, Lord MacLaurin, are anything to go by. Writing in this month's Wisden Cricketer, he stated that "Twenty20 should be kept in its box", as if it was some uppity underling with too much ambition for the office senior to handle. "I should say that I count myself among the traditionalists who didn't want any lessening of the game of cricket," he said. "It mustn't be the be-all and end-all of cricket. That should be Test matches. I would hate to see Twenty20 become the biggest form of cricket."

'England's attitude to a form of the game they devised in 2003 is as apologetic as Albert Einstein's attitude to the Atom Bomb. An exceptional invention, subverted beyond the imagination of its creator, and now apparently threatening the very thing it was designed to help save'

It's such a misguided attitude. You can't maintain quality by suppressing competition. To witness Lord's and Trent Bridge glowing under fully-functional, permanent floodlights, and to see The Oval bursting at the seams with 23,000 fanatical Indian and Pakistani supporters, was to be reminded that a major sporting event really has arrived on England's shores, and that surely has to be celebrated.

But why then, were there a mere 9200 punters at Lord's on Wednesday evening to watch Luke Wright and Ravi Bopara batter England to a nine-wicket win over West Indies? The choice of opponents clearly had something to do with the lack of interest - 17 encounters between the two sides in four months takes familiarity to contemptuous levels - but the admission price of £30 clearly didn't help the cause either. In 2007, the tournament organiser, Steve Elworthy, arranged for first-round tickets to be available for as little as £1.50. And there was scarcely a spare seat in any house.

Exchange rates aren't quite that favourable in England, but would it really have hurt to throw the gates open for a fiver, and encourage people to drum up enthusiasm for a competition that, in the words of Elworthy, is "a development product … for attracting new markets and new fans." England owes it to the sport it spawned to get with the programme and put together a tournament to remember, because the game is not going to stand still and wait for the old country to make its mind up.

Instead, the opportunity to capture a new audience is being allowed to drift by. Take the marketing for instance - about the only advertisement that has been remotely visible in the past weeks and months has been an ambiguous poster of an old buffer with St George's Crosses painted on his cheeks. What on earth is the message that that is trying to get across? Don't be afraid? Even old farts know how to barn-dance? Thanks for the hard sell, guys. Sadly, in this country, Twenty20 cricket is still being regarded as mutton dressed as lamb.

Trying suggesting that to Lalit Modi. The recently concluded Indian Premier League was not a competition without its faults, especially given the political problems that forced it to relocate to South Africa, but the successful exporting of one-year-old franchises such as Deccan Chargers and Chennai Super Kings gave the lie to Giles Clarke's assertion last summer that cricket fans are not interested in "made-up sides".

As global franchises such as Real Madrid and Manchester United have already shown, sporting allegiance does not have to be dictated by national boundaries. That may have been the formula that has worked for cricket until now, but let's be honest, the contests that have taken place in England so far this summer has been dire mismatches, thanks in no small part to a West Indies side that didn't even want to be here.

Even at full focus, West Indies struggle to match the game's big guns, just as the likes of Hull City and West Brom fail to keep up with Chelsea and Liverpool. And yet, West Indies aren't even the biggest stragglers on the international scene - Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Kenya exist in various shades of grey, while the up-and-coming Ireland feel their heads banging against a glass ceiling, as they lose their best players to England, time and time again.

The atmosphere of India's clash with Pakistan at The Oval demonstrated just what is possible when two fully-focussed nations go head to head - that very same visceral thrill turned England into Ashes junkies in 2005. But ever since that summer England have been as guilty as any nation of neglecting the form of the game that they profess to hold most dear, through a refusal to engage fully with any contest beneath the most glorious.

It's a sad fact that there are more viable IPL franchises than international outfits in the modern game. Old-school cricket needs a showcase like never before in the coming weeks, and the onus is on England to provide it. This month, it must finally be accepted that Twenty20 is not the enemy. It is the only realistic path to salvation.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • banka on June 6, 2009, 6:49 GMT

    I am great fan of England cricket team. I was devastated by loss even when score was 162 which I think was competitive even if opposition would have been Australia or India or South Africa. But I still have faith in our lads. They are fantastic bunch to click up togather as team. And if they do so, they could romp up the Cup. I have complains to ECB. My biggest delimma is continuing my interest in Cricket. I cannot watch it on TV as it costs you a lot to get Star Sports/Setanta/ESPN. I cannot go to venues as tickets ranges from 20-30 bucks on most of the occassions. Fans around UK are dwindling. In other words-ECB is killing cricket fans forcing them to abondon cricket.

  • bonaku on June 5, 2009, 14:45 GMT

    what should we do to make ECB to understand that they have to evolve with the situation. How can they thing that £30 is right price for warm up match and that too to see England vs WI. What kind of business sense do they have.

  • Nampally on June 5, 2009, 13:40 GMT

    Although England invented the game of Cricket in its original format & in its 20/20 format, they never did anything to market and sell it to the British fans as Lalit Modi did to the Indian fans. 60 years ago, cricket was the most popular sport in England. Now its rank in popularity is at its lowest level.In India Cricket's popularity is at its peak. No wonder that IPL has caught fire in India. Also the marketing did an excellent job in spicing it up with cheer leaders and Bollywood actors. Although IPL2 did not have the same crowd support in S.Africa as it did in India it still remained very popular. In England the 20/20 world cup will attract great interest but will not pull the local crowd as it does in India because the game has to share the spotlight with Soccer & Rugby, which are more popular in UK than Cricket. On a given day, 20/20 can be won by any team. England has as good a chance as any other team to win.Good Luck to England and to all the teams in winning the 20/20.

  • AhmedzzXI on June 5, 2009, 13:26 GMT

    I really dont knw why everything related to England cricket is so hyped. Whatever they do becomes a top story even if its a small thing as a player being injured or not picked, and seriously whenever i hear somebody say that England is a favourate to win a major tournament i burst out laughing, and i have a small problem with the media that whenever i open a top cricket site or a read the sports page of a newspaper i find that most the news is dominated by English cricket news which i dont want to read and someetimes even English first class matches are more talked about by the media than some international fixtures, and one more thing i dont really know why England is ranked so high when it comes to tests rankings for god sake they only play weaker teams and sometimes even lose to them i hardly a recall an England test series win against a major test nation. Hope they concentrate on the field rahter than making it to the news.

  • Richard33 on June 5, 2009, 11:26 GMT

    An excellent article, but I disagree with one point. I do not believe that Test Match Cricket's only salvation will be through as Ashes win. 2005 reignited the nations enthusiasm for cricket not becuase England won, but simply becuase it was such a good close series. Surely, if we see a fantstic battle this summer where Andrew Struass makes 5 hundereds and Jimmy Anderson takes 40 wickets, but England still lose 3-2, due to even better performances from the Aussies, then it will rate as another classic series, but without the final icing on the cake. The one thing that makes cricket supporters different from other sports fans (Football mainly) is that they appreciate quality even though this quality maybe from the opposition. I was at Lords a few years ago when Tendulker was out cheaply. Instead of cheers, the English fans groaned as they wanted to see him bat.

  • dsquires on June 5, 2009, 10:49 GMT

    The ECB wants the money that comes from 20-20, but not the rest. I was at Lords on Wednesday. The audio was so muffled that it was impossible to hear any of the music or player interviews. The scoreboard showed the D/L total required, yet ommited the required run rate!

    My brother missed 5 overs of play as he was stuck queueing to buy a drink. He was in South Africa for the last 20-20 WC and said that the difference was shocking (cheap entry, fast service, etc). One could also compare to the IPL. It seemed that the aim there was to ensure that even if the game was a disaster the crowd went home entertained, with music between each delivery as part of that plan. Here they play it a little because they feel they ought to, but it is very half hearted.

    The fact is that if done properly 20-20 could be huge for cricket in England. If the masses prefer it to Test cricket, so-be-it. History is littered with things that were supposedly inferior winning due to mass appeal.

  • wigs666 on June 5, 2009, 10:32 GMT

    Blame tv. Every year cricket remains exclusively on pay-tv it slips further out of the public consciousness. The ECBs chasing Sky's millions betrays a colossal lack of judgement on their part. Why will the BBC or Channel 4 bother to bid for the cricket in 2014 if cricket is then viewed as being nothing more than a minority interest?

  • Muqs on June 5, 2009, 9:42 GMT

    I am a big fan of English Cricket team, and i wish they will be able to prove their critics wrong by winning the worldT20 this time. The present team got some dynamic aggressive cricketers who can play like man in almost every format of the game such as bopara,o.shah,swann,wright,broad,KP(yet to prove in T20) , along with them there is napier another aggressive cricketer. I think england team has come up a long way from the era of cricketers who could only score a 50 by playing 200 balls and a 100 by playing 500 balls lol.... , gone are the days of inflexible cricketers like vaughan, atherton etc.N nowadaz cricketers of that sort such as BELL find it difficult to be in the team. I guess it is the "attitude" era of cricket and one should man enough to play this game full of aggression and craze.This game is no more played by wearing suits n boots.n i think the present england team got players who can play like "MAN" rather than playing like so called boring "gentlemen".

  • fnm500 on June 5, 2009, 9:05 GMT

    I cannot understand why Rugby is more popular than Cricket in England even though England haven't won anything of note in Rugby since 2003.So the argument that you must win something to capture the national imagination may not be entirely true.Ditto with Wimbledon and Football.To illustrate how sad the state of affairs is in this country with regards to Cricket/T20 WC- I was sitting alone in a pub the other day watching Eng vs WI. A few young lads showed up about an hour into the game. I thought "Yes finally, someone other than me wants to watch cricket". No sir. They were there for the Lions game. The bar tender reluctantly had to ask them to leave as I wanted to watch the cricket. But I feel the game is really dying in this country, which is very sad. Cricket still needs England I think.Anyway, Andrew very well written article. I really do hope that someone "up there" is reading this.

  • Harvey on June 5, 2009, 8:54 GMT

    Andrew says that T20 is the only route to salvation, but I would argue that if English cricket hadn't been taken off terrestrial TV it wouldn't need salvation. English cricket's administrators HAVE been promoting T20. Promoting it literally to death in fact. They've been ramming it down the throats of the British public for ages now. For example The Stanford Super Series wasn't exactly kept secret, was it? The reaction of most English fans to that and the hype surrounding it was one of outright hostility. Peoples' feelings here towards T20 in general have been tainted by that. T20 was supposed to be just a bit of fun when it started, and was popular in small doses. Attempts to get us to take the format seriously or in ever larger doses have not been widely successful though. Those who say an IPL-style competition is what's needed over here are missing the point. The IPL might be popular in India, but so are Bollywood movies, and I don't see English audiences flocking along to those.

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