Cricket: When did the rot set in? The 1860s, that's when

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The Independent Online
ECONOMETRICIANS AT the University of Southern California have dated the beginning of the decline of the British economy. It was 1868. If they are right, the development of modern English first-class cricket has coincided with the decline of the economy. In the 1860s, overarm bowling was legalised; three-day cricket had become common; John Wisden produced the first Almanack; and county clubs were formed in places like Lancashire and Yorkshire, Middlesex and Somerset. That may be when the rot set in too; in the second half of the 19th century. Like the economy, the origin of what has gone wrong with English cricket can be traced back much earlier than we generally think.

This was the period when the county clubs took over cricket from the touring All-England teams, and the MCC established its authority as the governing body. It was also the time of the partial emancipation of working men. They were allowed to leave work at lunchtime on Saturdays, and they developed a great appetite for sport. Football attracted large crowds. Cricket, on the other hand, became the sport of the leisured class.

Only professionals or shamateurs like W G Grace could afford to play three-day cricket. By the 1890s the gap between the first-class elite and cricketers who played in their spare time was virtually unbridgeable. The only people who had the time to watch these first-class cricketers were elderly members, the players and their families, schoolchildren in the holidays, and a few idle actors or writers. But there was an appetite for cricket; on Bank Holiday, when men were not working; huge crowds attended Roses matches or Middlesex v Sussex or Gloucestershire v Somerset.

Most of the time, however, the audiences were small. An official of Derbyshire CCC complained that Derby County FC took more money at the gate on one Saturday than the county club took in a whole cricket season. That was in 1887. Nothing has changed. All the first-class counties had been formed by 1888 (not all played in the Championship straight away). And all operate on much the same principles that were applied then. Twelve of the 18 are still members' clubs, and five more are Industrial and Provident Societies, which amounts to much the same thing.

One legacy of 19th-century values was the contrast between amateur and professional players, which lingered on until Kerry Packer finally transformed the game into a preserve for properly paid professional players. But the amateur tradition will not go away. Even a sage like John Woodcock last week lamented the demise of the swashbuckling amateur. This yearning comes 46 years after Len Hutton became England's first professional captain; it confirms that the search for remedies has become frantic.

The Victorian heritage dictated that when authority began to slip away from the MCC, it resided with the counties. On the ECB's First-Class Forum, it is one county, one vote, and this is a powerful deterrent to institutional reforms which might improve the quality of England's Test players.

But even the most enlightened administration would find it difficult to reform what happens in the heads of England players when they are trying to score 155 runs with eight wickets in hand in the series decider. The lack of intestinal fortitude is an absence of various qualities, including technique and self-belief. Curiously, the state of the economy might have something to do with it. Team sports require an additional quality which makes a unit perform, say, 25 per cent better than the sum of the parts played by individual members, rather than 25 per cent worse. For a team of English cricketers, there ought to be some inspiration in the idea of England. There is not much evidence of it.

Before English people became aware that the economy had really begun to decline in the 19th century, there was an instinctive feeling that British was best and, if it wasn't, that was because the nation had been forced into two World Wars. In the last 30 years, the evidence of the closure of the mines, the contraction of the railways, the sale of the motor industry, the decline of manufacturing and the sell-out of the City of London have affected the national psyche. In England's case, this may have been exaggerated by devolution.

Young players must find it difficult to know exactly what they are playing for. They can care; you could feel the fervour at Melbourne last December when Australia were beaten by 12 runs. But when English teams are down, they don't fight. They stay down. Perhaps England's cricketers are examples of post-nationalist detachment, beyond pride and passion. No longer victims of history, but an argument for the end of it.