Ashes to ashes

<strong>Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2006</strong>

Edited by Matthew Engel <em>John Wisden & Co, 1,

In his Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951, the historian Ross McKibbin argues that cricket was once the most "national" of all sports. At least until the 1960s, it was played and followed throughout the country by all social classes - and by both men and women, cricket being the only game that required the preparation of a meal. Football and rugby league were then mainly working-class games, rugby union a middle-class one. Cricket, though ruled at first-class level by an unusually stuck-up middle-class elite, had a mass appeal in northern working-class towns, where fiercely competitive local leagues played to a high standard and could afford to hire overseas stars such as the West Indian all-rounder Learie Constantine; at one stage, Accrington nearly succeeded in signing Don Bradman. In the 1930s, 40 per cent of first-class county cricketers were middle-class amateurs, but the fast bowling was almost invariably done by men of proletarian stock, often from mining areas.

So cricket is not the new football, as everybody kept saying last summer. Rather, football became the new cricket - though, even now, all but a handful of professional players and coaches come from working-class backgrounds. Can cricket regain its former popularity?

It is possible, but very unlikely. Following England's Ashes triumph, this latest edition of Wisden is in suitably euphoric mood. "This was the England cricket team, for heaven's sake, being greeted on the streets of London as though they were pioneering astronauts getting a ticker-tape reception through New York," writes Matthew Engel, the editor. "Around the country, kids who had never picked up cricket bats were suddenly pretending to be Freddie or Vaughany or Harmy or KP." Engel rejects all qualifying adverbs and pronounces the five Tests against Australia as "The Greatest Series". Other pieces hail Kevin Pietersen as cricket's first rock star, note how the Ashes series led to a leap in the sophistication of computer cricket games, celebrate how newspaper editors stopped yawning at the very mention of the game, and detail the boom in cricket equipment which helped shops sell £3,000 of kit a week last autumn when they used to sell £150. A panel headed "The Summer of Love" records the wilder flights of Fleet Street scribes: "lit up this summer like a burning sun" (Daily Mirror); "brought fathers and sons closer together" (Sunday Telegraph); and "epic grandeur . . . only the three fights between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier compare" (Michael Parkinson).

It is all very thrilling and, as Engel points out, particularly pleasing to real cricket lovers, as we call ourselves, because this was the full-length game, played with white clothes and red balls, instead of the other way round. But as Engel also points out, cricket has no prospect of becoming a world game. Only Britain and nine former members of its empire play it to any standard, and things are likely to remain that way. "Cricket around the world" is always among the most delightful sections of Wisden, but mainly because of its comic qualities. In St Petersburg, for example, "the games had to be shifted from their original venue, the Field of Mars (formerly the parade ground for the tsar's imperial guard), because the local militia regularly turned up and threatened to arrest us".

Even among the ten full members of the International Cricket Council, enthusiasm for Tests is waning. Zimbabwe and Bangladesh struggle to compete at all. In India and Pakistan, as the two series involving England this winter showed, the matches mostly play to grounds that can be generously described as half-empty. Only in England and Australia do Tests continue to draw paying customers in large numbers.

Perhaps this doesn't matter, since the game's revenues now depend more on TV rights, sponsorship and corporate hospitality than on conventional gate money, and the Sky commentator David Lloyd can make as much noise (and sense) as 10,000 half-pickled spectators.

But in most of the cricket-playing world, the one-day game - at which England is hopeless - generates far more public enthusiasm. English professional cricketers regard the County Championship, with its four-day games, as the most important competition, but nobody watches it. The Indians would rather win the one-day World Cup than beat England in a Test series. The top players are already overloaded with international one-day matches around the world, which can attract big crowds almost anywhere from among expatriate Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Something has to give and, in most countries, I'd expect it to be the Test matches.

It is quite possible, therefore, that in 20 years' time regular Test series will be confined to England versus Australia, as they were in the 19th century. They will be rather like golf's biennial Ryder Cup or the first nine days of Wimbledon's tennis championships before the last British player gets knocked out in the quarter-finals. They will generate a brief period of intense public enthusiasm. But they will not, I fear, restore cricket to its former place in our national life.