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A crisis that defines the age

Charlie Brain can only look on as the ball trickles into his stumps Martin Williamson

There is a crisis in recreational cricket in England and Wales. Everybody who plays the game has felt the storm building for years. The only surprise is that it has taken so long for the figures to show it.

First, Eoin Morgan dares to suggest that England's policy is undermining professional T20 cricket; now the amateur game is revealed to be in deep trouble. It has not been a good week. To solve cricket's problems, it is first necessary to accept that these problems exist. They do - and they threaten the well-being of England's traditional summer game.

Amateur clubs are closing, many with more than a century of tradition, and the fear is that there are many more to follow. Merger chats are commonplace, finances are in the red, volunteers are thin on the ground and if, on Friday night, you are lucky enough to have 22 definite players (the 1st and 2nd teams having changed at least seven times since Tuesday) you can bet your mortgage that one of them will pull out on Saturday morning. Three if it is a bad weather forecast.

Maybe some should close. Maybe the game would be better for a bit of thinning down. Maybe those without the necessary commitment are better spurned. Yes, the pessimism is now running that deep. But the amateur game provides the first steps for England players, even in these days of identification from an early age (cloning is not yet considered, although Giles Clarke, whose company has just struck oil in Paraguay, might regard it as worth investing in) and crucially, as well as providing players, it makes club cricketers into fans.

Just imagine how bleak the figures would be without the injection of the estimated 30% of immigrants, largely from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Most must contend with shrinking cricket facilities in the inner cities and their integration into traditional clubs has been problematic at times but they are keeping the flame alive.

What is instructive perhaps is to reflect at the outset on the latest English tourism campaign which I happened to catch at Brussels railway station last month (the worst signposted rail station in the world - perhaps all those bureaucrats can come up with a solution).

"Come and see the gentlemen's game," it extolled, below a picture showing old white men stooped over stumps in an idyllic pastoral scene. You can't blame the ECB for the way the tourist board sells cricket but Miss Marple-style fantasies do not help. So let us consider instead the reality.

Many will contend that the lack of professional cricket on free-to-air TV is at the heart of the problem for the amateur game in England and, while this must logically be a factor, it is far too simplistic to leap to this conclusion alone. There are other influences at work and the governing body is seeking to combat powerful social changes which, even if it plays a blinder, it might only be able to alleviate at best.

Recreational cricket, more than any other sport, faces immense challenges which the ECB, through a variety of schemes, is seriously trying to address. All team sports are suffering from declining interest - partly because individual sports chime with the modern self-orientated age, partly because team sports demand regular appointments - but it is cricket that is most exposed.

"There were only 247,000 "core" players in 2014 and even they are defined as people who would commit to 12 matches, roughly half the fixtures in an average league season. Nearly 600,000 "occasional" or "cameo" players played a lot less"

How do you save a game that demands hours when many people only want to give minutes, that only reveals its secrets slowly when everybody wants instant gratification?

Weekend work spreads its tentacles across the nation and when work does not intervene the role of men in family life has changed, enforced not just by what is presented as positive female empowerment but relationships in which two people go out to work. The draining effects on amateur cricket have been delayed because older players, kneecaps strapped, shoulders aching, have been holding the line.

But even without those social changes, there is the factor that we live in an ever more impatient world. A game that takes six hours, plus travel time, out of a Saturday afternoon does not fit easily with the modern-day world where few people have much time to spare.

The average quiz on Facebook has six questions and does not seriously try to answer the question it poses. Answer, get the results, done that, move on. To attempt any more risks people becoming impatient. I often become impatient at the times I have been told that.

The ECB has responded by encouraging more short-form midweek cricket. Having invented Twenty20 cricket, it now promotes Last Man Standing, an eight-a-side affair where everybody bats and bowls. The logic of promoting an alternative game to Twenty20 - the game you want people to watch - is worth debating. Short-form cricket is in demand, but shorter games with fewer players bring in less revenue.

We also live in a society with an excessive sense of entitlement. Even at the lowest levels of recreational cricket, players expect better pitches, outfields, sightscreens, pavilions, practice facilities, even coaching. And everybody wants to win, but few are prepared to be the fill-in player who might make winning more attainable. The change in expectations in the past 30 years has been marked.

And how do you serve those expectations when millions are still suffering a fall in real income and a sense of community and obligation is harder to foster in a world obsessed with individualism?

Not only are there fewer volunteers to keep a club running, the match fees that provide the funds the volunteers need are increasingly resented. A huge number of clubs run because of generous donations made by people who care about the future of the game. That list, you may be surprised to learn, includes at least one international footballer who values the recreational cricket he played as a youngster.

Then there is junior development. No club deserves central funding of any sort unless it runs a fulfilling junior set-up and can be trusted to maintain it. Neither should anybody question the hoops clubs must jump through to run junior cricket safely at a time when child abuse cases in one town in South Yorkshire alone, Rotherham, defy comprehension. But here, too, the demands, are enormous. The clubs that meet them and run fulfilling junior set-ups are a model for the future.

The ECB makes every attempt to provide documentation (70 pages from memory) to make running a junior section easier. But even when you have found the club member willing to commit maybe three evenings a week free of charge for practice and matches, and even when you have sweet-talked a parent into getting involved rather than just using the evening as a free baby-sitting service, and even if you utterly recognise the relevance of the criminal record checks, and even if you avidly read from first page to last the ECB's excellent supportive literature, even then you still face the immense and confusing challenge of linking the criminal record check to the coaching course to the First Aid qualification.

And that done, your job has only just begun: you face the challenge of assembling and inspiring a motley collection of young people into playing, learning and enjoying the game. And all you had was a couple of hours a week you fancied giving back to the community.

Consider the figures facing the ECB. The 7% drop in players this year from 908,000 to 844,000 is disturbing enough, as is the fact that 5% of games were conceded - a figure which, if not stemmed almost instantly, could cause a downward spiral by bringing disillusionment among those who had made themselves available and then found their Saturday afternoon had become redundant. People do not like to buy into failure.

Dig deeper and the figures are even more worrying. There were only 247,000 "core" players in those 844,000 and even they are defined as people who would commit to 12 matches, roughly half the fixtures in an average league season. Nearly 600,000 were defined as "occasional" or "cameo" players who played a lot less.

Cameo players turn out occasionally and often bail out clubs who are grateful for their involvement. If you have 19 players on a Friday afternoon, it is no exaggeration to suggest that the poor sap charged with swelling it to 22 can send 30 text messages by Saturday lunchtime.

But these players don't contribute in any wider sense. They play because they have nothing better to do, or because they were drunk when they were asked, or because they owed somebody a favour. They have few ambitions to improve their game, they don't know half their team-mates, and most of them will not attend the social functions that keep the club afloat.

So what more can the ECB do? It has supported from the outset Chance to Shine - the wonderful charity run by the Cricket Foundation which seeks to foster cricket outside the private sector by linking cricket with state schools. It does an excellent job but debates rage about how it should spend its money. Former players want financial support for high-class coaching. Schoolteachers would prefer money to finance the bus to get the players to the ground. Many clubs just want support to pay a pensioner to open the pavilion and put some stumps up.

The consolation for the ECB is that the decline is being felt more at the bottom of the pyramid. Perhaps the idyll of village cricket is bound gradually to slip away, as hard as it is for those who have poured half a lifetime into helping to keep a club alive to accept that. The good players will always find a way. But the average players - and there have been hundreds of thousands of us - fill the grounds as spectators and champion the game in everyday life.

If many of those spectators are excluded both from watching the game and from playing it, truly the game is facing a crisis.

Cricket is not connecting as well as it should be. There is a vague disenchantment with the game which is also influenced by a lack of competitive nations at international level and a county circuit that fits uneasily with what professes to be cool in 2014. That the recreational game is hurting should be no surprise. But the next time you are tempted to say this is all because cricket is on Sky, think again. More freely accessible cricket is needed. But the issue is a lot more complicated than that.