A great chance to tap a gold mine
So now we know. The UK has officially gone cricket-mad because Matthew Hoggard gets asked for his autograph when he goes shopping. Sorry, Hoggy, but it doesn¹t count if you¹ve just given the checkout girl your credit card.
But seriously, this past week must have been an eye-opener for the England team. Having been cocooned up in Duncan Fletcher's bubble for the back-to-back Tests at Edgbaston and Old Trafford, they returned home to switch off from the intensity of the Ashes.
Fat chance. The Ashes is flavour of the month in the British media. Front-page stories every day. Cricket shirts are outselling football shirts at the supermarket chain Asda. Even when the England football team played Denmark last week, commentators discussed the cricketers' exploits as a means of highlighting the woeful 4-1 defeat for the footballers. Steve Harmison was filmed arriving at a Newcastle football match on the iconic BBC television football show Match of the Day.
Actually it¹s not quite flavour of the month. It's flavour of the fortnight. If England win the Ashes then maybe the hoopla will last for a month. But then the UK sports media will drop cricket and start obsessing about footballers' groin strains again.
The reality is that cricket in the UK has never been in as parlous a state as all the sneering, prolier-than-thou London media types would have you believe. By the same token, Britain isn¹t suddenly populated by 60 million cricket tragics on the back of two astonishingly gripping Test matches. According to a press release from the Test sponsors npower "cricket is officially the new football". You what? So cricket's now going to start in August and go on until late May; players are going to be paid UK£100,000 a week and find themselves splashed over the tabloids for all manner of alleged sexual misdemeanours. I hope not.
The Ashes clearly has attracted some new fans to cricket. But the level and sustainability of that new support is impossible to quantify at this stage. That is a challenge the ECB faces over the next 12 months.
But their greater and more tangible challenge is to enfranchise and engage the British Asian cricket followers and players. This is an existing participatory audience that is mature, passionate and growing and needs to be embraced by the cricket establishment rather than shunned. England's age-group sides regularly contain players of Asian origin and there are an increasing number of British-born Asian county cricketers.
It seems logical that in the next decade and beyond the senior England side should reflect this. If there's a British-Asian hero bashing the Aussies in 2009, then cricket might be the new football.
John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer