Wisden and MacLaurin open attack on English game

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The Independent Online
These days, the onset of a new cricket season is not so much heralded by the smell of linseed oil and the sound of the groundsman's mower as the soundings off within the game's hallowed tome, the Wisden almanac.

Wisden is indispensable to those who love cricket, and this being its 134th edition, is regarded as something of an institution. However, under the excellent editorship of Matthew Engel, it has never become institutionalised and its spiky editorials have routinely failed to kowtow to the cricketing establishment.

This year is no exception and both Engel and Lord MacLaurin, the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, have highlighted the malaise they perceive to be at the heart of English cricket.

MacLaurin warns that unless England start being successful, the health of the entire game will be in jeopardy. "It's so rare for England to win Test matches people can almost remember where they were when it happened," he said in a piece entitled "English Cricket: a manifesto".

He is probably right, particularly when England play abroad in countries where the touchstones of modern consumer culture such as burger bars are missing. Still, if England's win in New Zealand has not convinced people like Engel and MacLaurin, it has at least given the T-shirt makers among the Barmy Army two more opportunities to print, "I was there" on their merchandise.

Engel, as coruscating as ever, calls for MacLaurin to "Tesco-ise" cricket in order that it may become an attractive product able to be sold in an imaginative manner at competitive prices.

"Amid the general global mood of cricketing expansionism, England is a spectacular and potentially catastrophic exception," Engel writes. "In 1996-97 the national team reached a point where even the good days were bad. At the World Cup the England squad resembled a bad-tempered grandmother attending a teenage rave.

"Unable to comprehend what was happening on the field and off it the players just lingered, looking sullen as well as incompetent. They conveyed as bad an impression in Zimbabwe... The captain, Mike Atherton, and the coach, David Lloyd, were culpable in failing to understand the importance of their roles as public figures.

"In England football has always been more popular than cricket. Ten years ago... the gap was a narrow one. It is now a yawning chasm.

"The consistent failure of the national team is the biggest single cause of the crisis, but it is not the crisis itself.

"The blunt fact is that cricket in the UK has become unattractive to the vast majority of the population. The game is widely perceived as elitist, exclusionist and dull."

As withering is Engel's assessment of Ray Illingworth's period in charge of England. "It was sad to watch a man whose career embodied so many of the strengths of English cricket flail around and have his failings exposed so hopelessly in the World Cup. He had no long-term strategy, merely faith in his own instincts. It was not enough."