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Cricket is changing, but not for the worse

The game is rich, the audience is growing, and the quality of play is fantastic. More work needs to be done, but it's not all doom and gloom

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
10-Oct-2022
Younger fans want the game to entertain them. What's so bad about that?  •  Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Younger fans want the game to entertain them. What's so bad about that?  •  Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Factfulness is the last book, posthumously published, by Hans Rosling, the prolific Ted Talk lecturer. It focuses on ten reasons why the modern world, with all its imperfections, is a better place than we realise. It is the story of "the secret miracle of human progress" and provides an indispensable guide to critical thinking. The more of it I read, the more I began to think how much of the analysis and resultant clarity might apply to cricket.
This game of ours is constantly banging itself on the head when, actually, it is in a good place. Sure, the calendar is a little overcrowded and, yes, self-interest tends to guide the thinking, but bat and ball have never been outwitted. Once a game of stone, stick and wicket gate, cricket has reinvented itself more times than David Bowie did. It still has a loyal following and is fast developing a new audience for this new age. In fact, we might refer to "the secret miracle of cricket's progress".
Factfulness is full of surprises that contradict general opinion. For example, there are half the number of deaths from natural disasters than there were a hundred years ago; the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has almost halved in the last 20 years; global life expectancy is on the rise; about 87% of the world's population has electricity; about 80% of the world's children have been vaccinated against major diseases; most endangered species are no more endangered today than they were 25 years ago.
In cricket we can point to mind-blowing media rights deals (witness the recent $5.1 billion IPL coup, which made it the second-richest sporting competition on the planet); huge interest in private investment across the globe, including the USA; larger audiences across the board than ever before; high standards of play and a faster pace in all formats, which has changed cricket's appeal and brand potential; strong sales of merchandise; increasing participation among the young; amazing philanthropy; relevant humanitarian support, and more.
Yes, it's a changing canvas but not for the worse. Cricket, almost imperceptibly, is moving away from its niche market and expanding into something altogether more appealing to a mass audience. Expecting traditionalists to come to terms with this is difficult but exciting a younger audience is quite probable. In fact, it is already happening. And yes, money is at the root of much of this progress but money makes the world go round and is allowing cricket much of its new enterprise. The young want cricket to be fun and a little light-hearted. They don't want to be lectured, they want to be entertained. If that is cricket now and for the future, then so be it. The great world is spinning, so is the game of bat and ball and the secret miracles that sustain it.
September was an especially good month here in England, where the late summer turns to early autumn and a golden late-afternoon light shines upon the various competitions as they reach their climax. The County Championship was deservedly won by Surrey, a team that looked to have a little more quality resource than their nearest rivals, Hampshire and Lancashire. Briefly, it seemed as if Hampshire might pull off a remarkable treble, having already won the T20 Blast in late July, but the first of two debilitating defeats at the hands of Kent - the first of them in the Royal London 50-over Cup, the second in the Championship run-in - crushed the dreamers.
All season James Vince's Hampshire had pushed Rory Burns' Surrey to the wire, only for Lancashire to sprint up the inside track and steal second place. These are three good teams - well managed, talented and mentally alert. If there were ten teams at this level, there would be less crowing about the need for a change to the Championship format.
In a parallel universe, both Vince and Burns might have played for England this summer. Vince is more ruthless in his captaincy than in his batting, which continues to show amazing skill and flair if not the substance that selectors require. Within the Key-McCullum-Stokes template, Vince is a natural fit, and given the licence afforded Jonny Bairstow and the others who presently wear the three lions, he would almost certainly prosper. The slot, though, is at the top of the order, where Alex Lees is fortunate to be the man in position. He clings on with admirable resilience, unselfishly adapting his game to the moment - an attribute Stokes holds in high regard. The way Lees and Zak Crawley went about the short run chase at The Oval was quite thrilling.

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Meanwhile, in Pakistan, a seven-match series of life-affirming joy was played by England's T20 specialists, of whom Vince could also be considered as one. In fact, the list of those who did not play read like the Harlem Globetrotters - Stokes, Jos Buttler, Bairstow, Liam Livingstone, Jason Roy, Chris Jordan, Tymal Mills and Jofra Archer. This is enviable strength in depth, were it injury-free. As it was, England took the series 4-3, proving themselves more than competent on the pitches of Lahore and Karachi. Next up, Perth, Canberra and the MCG, as Buttler's team pursue the T20 World Cup.
In the latter part of the 20th century, England was the cricketing centre of the world from each summer. The infrastructure, enthusiasm and tradition is still here and very much ready to go
There was much to admire in Pakistan, not the least of which was full houses at both grounds, with ecstatic spectators riding the wave of Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan at the top of the order and a bevy of young Pakistan bowlers, all blessed with the heady sense of optimism that characterises young cricketers who at last have the chance to parade their gifts in international matches on home turf. It should be said that England were the better team: tighter and more disciplined, especially in the field. Phil Salt converted promise into pyrotechnics, while Harry Brook provided the kind of class we first saw in Joe Root a decade ago.
For once, though, the winners were not the story. When we consider what the people of Pakistan have been through, we can only aspire to their courage, patience and fortitude. It is a great country, admittedly one full of contradiction and uncertainty, but equally, one that punches above. Ramiz Raja has proved an inspirational choice as the PCB Chairman - persuasive and feisty - a man who loves to see Pakistan cricket punch above its weight whatever the obstacles put before it. This is well illustrated by the cricketers, and a reminder to any opponent who takes them lightly. Over the next month in Australia, they are a team to avoid lest the stars are aligned.

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Of all subjects on the lips of the English cricketing firmament right now, the one with most attention is the result of Andrew Strauss' high-performance review. In announcing his plans, Strauss urged the counties to put aside self-interest and see the bigger picture, which, in his eyes, is a top-ranked England team in all three formats. In short, the counties, or most of them, don't see it like that. It was ever thus.
The structure of the county game was never planned, it just evolved as a series of default positions to keep regions, and powerful people, happy. As early as 1837 there was reference in a Maidstone newspaper to a Championship match played by Kent and Nottinghamshire, who had both apparently beaten Sussex en route to the playoff. Surrey were soon engaged and then Middlesex, Yorkshire and Lancashire. The foundation of these teams came from the landed gentry, who hired workers to bowl fast, hit hard and field with zest. By the end of the 19th century, there were 15 counties pitted against one another, and by 1921, Northamptonshire and Glamorgan had entered the fray. At that number of 17 it stayed until Durham muscled their long overdue inclusion in 1992.
Not until 1963 was there any official one-day cricket, so a plethora of three-day Championship matches were played each summer at a specific rhythm and on mainly uncovered pitches. Now there are 14 Championship matches per side, and three other competitions over 50 overs, 20 overs and 100 balls.
The Strauss findings lead to a recommended schedule that comprises a six-team county premiership and two six-team conferences beneath it, with a playoff for one promotion place; a one-day cup played in April; a streamlined T20 Blast; first-class festivals that are not part of the Championship; and a North vs South red-ball competition played abroad during the pre-season period. The overriding conclusion from the smaller counties is that this is the thin end of the wedge. In the words of the Kent chair, Simon Philip, "We will not allow our club to become irrelevant."
Quite how this will pan out is anyone's guess. The new chairman of the ECB, Richard Thompson, is minded to bide some time, so it is unlikely that much will change for next year. He knows, however, that private investment in English cricket is nearby and champing at the bit. There are opportunities and invitations for that money to go elsewhere but England missed the T20 gravy train some 18 years ago now, and it would be a derelict to miss out again.
The best and most obvious route into the English game is via the Hundred, but probably even as I write, there are bigger ideas to hand with far greater and wide-reaching consequences. Well established, sports-driven private-equity firms like cricket's multi-formatted set-up and can tweak it to suit their models. Profit is not an immediate requirement but long-term "grow the game" investment surely is. If county cricket was really clever, it would wrap its arms around this opportunity so the game in England at large benefited from the bottom up (grassroots, participation, pathways), which is sustainable, rather than from the top down (high performance) which is often fleeting and always uncertain.
As of today, the picture suggests that the majority of counties are opposed to changes that are generally approved by the board and the executive. This clash of ideals and ambition has never been unravelled, which is more than just a pity because English cricket provides so much pleasure to so many from all over the world. In the latter part of the 20th century, from the introduction of top-quality overseas players to the county game, England was the cricketing centre of the world from May to September each summer. The infrastructure, enthusiasm and tradition is still here and very much ready to go. Some Hans Rosling-like critical thinking must become the great persuader in the discussion between disparate forces whose mistrust of one another continues to stand in the way of a game for all.
The new chairman of the ECB, Richard Thompson, knows that private investment into English cricket is nearby and champing at the bit. England missed the T20 gravy train some 18 years ago now and it would be a derelict to miss out again
Now, on the back of such a thrilling summer of Test cricket and an impressive first-division race for the County Championship, is exactly the time to make up and make good.

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Bairstow, dressed in tuxedo and black bow tie, whizzed into dinner at Lord's the other night, leg plastered up and set into a moon boot, knee resting on the seat of a two-wheeled go-kart kind of thing. This smiling Yorkshireman made six Test hundreds for England between January and July - each of them, in their own way, more brilliant than the last. In a freak tumble during a game of golf after the Old Trafford Test, he badly broke his leg, and he won't play again until the spring at a guess. Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad greeted him with bear hugs: united, the pride and joy of summer past was clear for all to see.
The dinner was in honour of the Bob Willis Fund, which raises money for research into early diagnosis of prostate cancer, and the Go Well Fund, established by Anderson and his mates from the Tailenders podcast for people who don't have it so good - Ukraine refugees, homeless adults, disadvantaged children.
On view alongside the present players were Sir Alastair Cook, David Gower and Mike Brearley. Geoff Miller made a very funny speech, and plenty of money was raised in a lively auction. Willis is much missed and remains greatly appreciated. It was a good night, both for the charities and the soul. How the great cricketing world continues to spin….

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator