Old boys' private club is steadily killing international cricket

COMMENT: The Cricket World Cup is about to start but there seems to be little interest

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The Independent Online

International cricket is dying on its feet. That much was evident long before the Sunday newspapers confirmed the fact.

England open their campaign in the sport’s World Cup finals in Melbourne on Saturday and yet the coverage added up to a couple of pages at the back of the sports supplements at best. There were six mentions of Jos Buttler in the entire national press on Sunday and only four papers referenced him at all.

How many reading this could identify a photograph of that Englishman who gives us most cause for excitement heading into the MCG encounter with Australia? I’d hazard a guess at six out of 10.

The invisibility of cricket within these shores doesn’t help. The national team has vanished from millions of screens since it went behind the paywall. The ECB has grown wealthy on Sky’s money, with a workforce which has increased from 155 to 222, and though the grassroots have certainly benefited, most people haven’t a clue who the nation’s best club players are. Participation and attendances have dropped.

But there’s a far broader – more existential – problem of relevance for the international game. The market has dictated the way cricket has mutated and grown and though I saw one description of the T20 version of the game as “an entertainment loosely based on cricket” at the weekend, you simply cannot argue with the way that people choose to watch it.

Of course there is an instinct to detest the Indian Premier League for the way it has diminished the value of a cap with three lions on it. But people are attracted. The noise generated by Australia’s Big Bash is something that this World Cup – taking place in Australia and New Zealand – might actually struggle to beat.

And what has international cricket been doing while this challenge has been assailing them on all sides? Closing the door on countries who want to join in. Look at the participants in the tournament which opens when Sri Lanka play the hosts in Christchurch on Saturday and you will see the same exclusive members’ club, restricted principally to countries which once belonged to the British Empire.

Yes, there will be a colourful, patronising story to tell if little Afghanistan’s team –born in the wreckage of war – claim a scalp or two. But the competition between international teams moves at a supertanker’s pace. Eleven of the 14 teams competing at this World Cup are the same nations which competed 16 years ago.

Remember the mighty Irish team which famously beat England at the 2011 World Cup. How many games do you think they have been allowed to play against top-flight nations in the four years since? A grand total of nine. As soon as the 2011 tournament was over they were cast back into the wilderness of associate nations cricket. “We need fixtures. We’re crying out for that,” their captain William Porterfield says. “I’m not asking for seven fixtures against Australia or India, but we’ve got to be playing teams around us. We’ve got an open door to anyone so I’m guessing teams aren’t agreeing to play us...”

The governing body, Cricket Ireland, could not have done more, increasing turnover tenfold to £3.4m a year since 2006, quadrupling the number of active cricketers and professionalising the game to the extent that every member of Porterfield’s World Cup squad will be a pro. But despite intense lobbying by chief executive Warren Deutrom and the national team’s on-field success, the established countries don’t want to know them. England grant Ireland one ODI against them every two years, on a date of their choosing.

Jos-Buttler-Getty-Images.jpg
Jos Buttler in action for England

 

Here, in microcosm, is a story of avaricious international cricket in the age of the Big Three – England, Australia and India – when countries only want the money-spinning fixtures. It is a sport which has no desire to expand its frontiers, for the long-term good.

The pitiful story of India’s threats to sue West Indies over the strike which prematurely ended their tour of the subcontinent last autumn revealed the same myopia about the need for a bigger group of strong competitors. “West Indies: a team in disarray,” Wisden India reported at the weekend, in a piece which neglected to say that the World Cup is infinitely weaker with the Caribbean nation – which has not won the tournament since the two legendary victories under Clive Lloyd at Lord’s in 1975 and 1979 – now on its knees.

Rugby union provides a salutary lesson in how to embrace the aspirant countries, in the interests of better sport. Our Rugby Football Union currently has coaches working in Samoa, helping to improve the team in line with the nation’s great natural rugby talent, so that they will be able to make a contest out of their World Cup matches against USA, South Africa, Scotland and Japan, come September.

Cricket’s impending competition is a completely different story: an old boys’ club gathering as endless as it is predictable, in which England can play disastrously and still reach the quarter-finals, by beating Scotland, Afghanistan and Bangladesh in the weeks ahead. Some fancy the Kiwis for a change but the causes for suspense don’t reach much beyond that. It doesn’t look like a new frontier for an international game which, in the era of inventive, fiercely commercial T20, needs to find one fast.

Wales broke a simple rule: Don’t make them hate you

The dangers of giving the opposition a reason to hate you have been apparent ever since Bob Paisley arrived in Munich with his Liverpool team in 1981 for the European Cup semi-final second leg and found that Paul Breitner had called the English opposition “unintelligent”. Paisley posted the offending article on the dressing-room wall and his boys went on to lift the trophy.

The story came to mind in the Millennium Stadium on Friday night as England scrum-half Ben Youngs described how the Welsh had insisted the red rose boys take the field in the middle of a laser light show and that they would join them in a while. They understandably refused.

 

“We knew Wales would play this way,” Youngs said. “We didn’t want to go out and stand there for five minutes and wait for them.” You can distil what the Welsh gamesmanship added up to in one word:foolish.

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