Sticky wicket

Both flummoxed and outflanked by football, cricket in Britain is at a low ebb. Stephen Moss wonders

The public talk of little else; there are games taking place in every park and on every street corner; it is on TV around the clock; its leading player is the country's biggest star. Cricket is a national obsession.

In India, that is. On a recent visit to Varanasi, the holiest shrine of Hinduism, I was amazed and inspired to see dozens of late-afternoon games being played on the ghats beside the Ganges - games involving up to 20 youngsters, playing beautifully correct shots, bowling venomously, appointing umpires to ensure fair play.

You will never see children acting as umpires in such games in the UK; in fact it is now a rarity to see children playing cricket here at all, unless some cricket-mad father has drawn a pitch on a wind-blown beach and is compiling a patient double hundred against his son's looping leg-breaks. Cricket in the UK has lost its confidence and direction; the danger now is that it will lose its audience, too.

Godfrey Evans died recently and the loving obituaries summoned up a mistily remembered age. Evans the great wicketkeeper, the great drinker, the great womaniser - alert, alive, a fixture in the world-beating England sides of the 1950s, a natural force. When Denis Compton died in 1997, obituarists and feature writers hymned his presence and his passing in similar terms - a sportsman who captivated a nation, whose talent lit up austerity Britain. Somehow it is hard to imagine similar encomia to Alec Stewart or Mark Ealham. Cricket in the UK has become drab.

I first saw a cricket match when I was seven. I had been to the beach at Barry in South Wales, got a sun-induced headache and was sitting in the cool of a cafe which overlooked the local ground. Figures in white were scurrying about in a way that gradually started to make sense. My headache went. I was hooked on this lovely, ludicrous game. C L R James, the philosopher of cricket, likens the movement of the fielders as the bowler approaches to breathing: in, out, in, out, hundreds of times in the course of the innings. Cricket allowed me to breathe that day, and has been helping ever since.

I can get as dewy-eyed as the next man about cricket, and if the next man is Joyce, Beckett or Siegfried Sassoon, all of whom loved cricket, so much the better. It is a game with a history, a literature, a poetry; it is a game that is not an adjunct to life, but life itself. W G Grace didn't merely play cricket; his life was cricket. He played for 50 years; as soon as he retired, he died, surely not coincidentally. He died during the first world war, failing to get his due: the ultimate enthusiast dying during a war that killed optimism and ended cricket's golden age.

Now we have a leaden age - of identikit professional cricketers in their sponsored saloons, and administrators who don't quite believe in the pulling power of cricket. Soccer is an 11-months-a-year juggernaut crushing any rival that dares to block its path. The county championship is dying on its feet - who can spare four days to watch a match, who relates to counties any more? The game is desperate to be accessible in this "people's age" but doesn't want to alienate its core supporters: is it a one-day game or a four- or five-day game? Is it serious cricket or pyjama cricket? Is it Radio 4 or Talk Radio? The BBC or Channel 4? Sybil Ruscoe or E W Swanton?

The Daily Telegraph employs both these august commentators: the whizzy would-be new face of cricket and the old retainer. E W ("Jim") Swanton is 92 and has been writing about cricket since 1926; legend has it that the three-month-old Swanton was present when the ageing W G scored a century for London County at Forest Hill in 1907. Ruscoe, 38, is the fresh face of cricket on TV: the woman chosen by Channel 4 to make the game accessible.

Accessibility was Channel 4's watchword when it ousted the BBC as the home of terrestrial TV cricket coverage last October. The financial difference between the two bids was minimal and the BBC said it would have happily upped its offer. But, after 60 years with the Beeb, the cricket authorities wanted a change. According to Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), it was time to "relaunch cricket in a fresh and exciting way". Enter Sybil, saying all the right things.

"If you went to a secondary modern school and you are a woman and if you haven't played Test cricket, then you felt excluded from the coverage," she told one interviewer recently. "It was like stepping into the East India Club in St James's Square, whereas I'd like to think that cricket coverage on Channel 4 is like stepping into a club where everyone is welcome, male or female, black or white."

She was actually talking about the BBC's radio coverage - with its public-school antics and accents, its obsession with cakes and buses, its nicknames and non sequiturs - but its dry-as-dust approach to cricket on TV was also in her sights. Channel 4 successfully painted the Beeb as boring and exclusive, and convinced the ECB that it was damaging the game.

"Women have been excluded from the coverage of televised cricket for far too long," said Channel 4's controller of sport, Mark Sharman, who promised that the station would be at "the forefront of the revolution that cricket is undergoing". He also drew a parallel between Channel 4's overturning of the established order and the MCC's decision to admit women members. The age of Swanton is over; that of Ruscoe is at hand.

Or is it? The fact that the Telegraph employs both suggests it is not quite sure. Talk Radio has outbid Radio 4's Test Match Special and will have broadcasting rights to England's Test series against South Africa in the autumn, but it promises not to depart too far from TMS's larky ball-by-ball coverage. The ECB tried hard to inject some populism into its World Cup launch - the model Caprice, the grinning cook Ainsley Harriott and the cricket-mad weatherman John Kettley were enticed into the nets at Lord's, and ex-Eurythmic Dave Stewart penned a World Cup song - but it had a desperate lack of conviction.

Cricket wants to be soccer. David Graveney, the chairman of the England selectors, has said he wants the atmosphere during the cricket World Cup to be like Euro 96. Whereas cricket used amicably to share the sporting year with football, in the 1990s it has been rolled over. As soccer has become a year-round soap opera filled with fabulous characters and fuelled by satellite TV's millions, cricket has languished, falling behind financially, relegated from the back pages to the inside pages, played less and less in schools, losing its street cred and park prominence. Hence the ECB's quest for accessibility and talk of revolution.

At the moment, there is no evidence that the revolution is working. This year's season has had a feeble start, overwhelmed by the culmination of the football season, disrupted as always by weather, undermined by the complexities of the fixture card. It demands considerable detective work to establish when championship matches and one-day games are actually being played. The World Cup might generously be described as slow-burn: the competition will take six weeks to determine a winner from among 12 teams, which is nothing if not leisurely.

By starting early the organisers, in effect, accepted that the first fortnight would be played in the shadow of football, in the hope of getting the contest its place in the sun in June. In theory, it would have been more logical to stage it in June and July, but apparently the organisers feared the competition from Wimbledon and golf's Open championship.

Therein lies cricket's problem. When the first World Cup was played in England in 1975, it lasted a fortnight and culminated in a marvellous Lord's final between the West Indies and Australia. In the age before marketing, before administrators worried about audience levels or attention spans, it was a triumph and no doubt did the game a power of good. Now, it seems, the public mind cannot accommodate all these sports: something has to give, and what has been giving in recent years is starless, benighted cricket.

It retains its loyal, Swantonian following - how else could Dickie Bird's autobiography sell 350,000 copies in hardback? But it is no longer attracting the casual sports fan who once, between May and August, would have followed the game, watched it on TV, perhaps even gone to the odd match. Whether Ruscoe can win them back, let alone convert those who have previously felt excluded from the sport, is the conundrum now facing the ECB.

My hunch is that cricket can't have it all ways: it can't be all things to all men (or women), it can't be warm beer and chilled chardonnay, it can't happily marry the Ruscoeites with the Swantonians. It is what it is: bizarre, tedious, metronomic, mad, sometimes magnificent; it can't be rewritten for a cool crowd.

What makes cricket barmy also makes it great: the fact that after five days' play and hundreds of man hours, it rains and the game's a draw, even if one side holds a massive advantage. For me, cricket's defining game is the so-called Timeless Test against South Africa in Durban in 1939, when England, after ten days' play and needing 696 to win, abandoned the chase at 654 for five because their boat home was about to leave. What, I often wondered, did the fans make of that?

Modern sport, cheered on by the marketers and schedulers, wants logic, drama, guaranteed resolution - even football games aren't allowed the luxury of replays any more: penalty shoot-outs are the goal. For cricket, that means the shorter version of the game is preferred to the longer and the county championship is seen as antediluvian.

Clearly the game must innovate - better facilities at grounds, big screens for replays, more public information, activities for children which recognise that a day at the cricket is a lengthy undertaking. But it must remain true to its traditions; it must keep faith with cricket's essential barminess, because therein lies its charm and beauty. The one-day game is a pale imitation of the real thing; the rules should not be tampered with in an effort to liven the game up; grass-roots cricket is worth cultivating or the game will never flower at the top.

Cricket's administrators have been thrashing around over the past few years, doing more harm than good, obsessed with the structure of the game rather than its spirit. I remember going to Canterbury to report the Saturday of a county game, which had been scheduled - this is a frequent occurrence - as the last day of the match. The game was finished before lunch, leaving one boy and his dad to eat their soggy lettuce sandwiches in the outfield with no further prospect of cricket. How are children supposed to see first-class cricket if there is little or no play on the only day on which they can attend? A question - one of many - for Lord MacLaurin.

Cricket is a beautiful, generous game, and worth defending, not as a museum piece beloved of cricket-mad Telegraph-reading colonels, but as a sport that is played, watched and followed widely, that is accessible, but not in the rather patronising way that broadcasters sometimes suggest. A knowledge of the game's traditions is important to understanding and enjoying its appeal, and no amount of graphics and camera angles and alternative ways of describing silly mid-on will replace that. In that sense, the long, rambling conversations that used to fill the damp afternoons on Test Match Special did have a point. Cricket was always as much about reflection as action.

Will it survive? Can it flourish again? It faces an uphill struggle; it urgently needs some charismatic players, and it must rediscover its self-belief and somehow combine the best of Swanton and Ruscoe, gravitas and openness, past and present, without losing its integrity. I might have been tempted to join the chorus of despair, predicting that the circle cannot be squared. But one morning just before the World Cup began, I was on a train into Waterloo when it was joined by a group of boys - aged about 11 or 12, clutching bags, laughing, shouting, very excited. I heard the name Ambrose, and I suddenly realised where they were going: to the Oval, for the warm-up match between Surrey and the West Indians. They still believed in "the product'', even if cricket's chiefs sometimes appear not to. They got off at Vauxhall and headed for that tatty, terrific ground; how I wished I could have joined them.

Stephen Moss is writing a cultural history of sport for HarperCollins

This article first appeared in the 24 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Luvvies, stop moaning