The empire strikes back

On the eve of an eagerly awaited Ashes series, Peter Wilby reveals how the forces of globalisation a

Whoever designed this summer’s cricket programme must have had a sly sense of humour. Immediately after the newest, brashest form of the game, the World Twenty20, comes the oldest, most traditional contest of all: an Ashes series between England and Australia comprising five five-day Test matches, starting in Cardiff on Wednesday. White clothes, red balls and ancient rituals of lunch and tea replace the coloured costumes, white balls and dancing girls that greet each Twenty20 boundary. It is as though a performance of the St Matthew Passion had been preceded by a karaoke session.

It is one of cricket’s strengths that it is infinitely adaptable, and that a short game can be as demanding of players’ skills as the longer versions. For cricket connoisseurs, however, there can be no doubt about which form of the game is superior. There are rarely empty seats for the first three days of a midsummer Test in England, and never for the Ashes. For a few weeks between Wimbledon and the start of the football season, cricket will hold public and media attention, with Kevin Pietersen’s Achilles attracting the coverage normally reserved for Wayne Rooney’s metatarsal. Yet the survival of the traditional game hangs by a thread. Earlier this year, when England visited the Caribbean, where cricket once brought normal life to a standstill, most support came from England’s travelling “Barmy Army” – and even they couldn’t half-fill the region’s modest stadiums. Tests during England’s most recent tour of Pakistan, in 2005-2006, attracted roughly 10,000 a day only by giving away 70 per cent of the tickets. The first Test between South Africa and Australia in Johannesburg this year, for the unofficial world championship, attracted average crowds of fewer than 15,000 spectators a day in a ground that holds 34,000.

The rulers of English cricket would never admit it (they have spent more than a century denying the need for change, until desperation forces it upon them) but, in most countries, Test matches might not survive another decade. The Ashes may go on for longer – much depends on whether England remain competitive, as they have managed only spasmodically for the past 20 years. But, as the former Somerset captain and writer Peter Roebuck observed, “the remarkable thing is not that shorter matches have been introduced, but that the longer version endures”.

The rise of India has changed everything. The subcontinent now generates 70 per cent of world cricket’s revenues and doesn’t hesitate to exercise the power and influence that brings. Cricket has always been a vehicle for national self-assertion. The ruling elite of Victorian England saw it as part of the empire’s civilising mission, binding its far-flung subjects into loyalty to the mother country and its values. “To play it . . . honourably,” said Lord Harris, the governor general of colonial Bombay in the 1890s and a former captain of Kent, “is a moral lesson in itself and the classroom is God’s air and sunshine.”

Later, the game would unite the scattered populations of Australia, becoming an expression of Australianness: aggressive, unsentimental, egalitarian, unadorned by frills and refinements. In the West Indies, cricket began as a proclamation of white settler supremacy – no black player was allowed to become the regular captain until 1960 – then turned into an assertion of black autonomy and self-respect. Now India, an emerging world power in politics and economics, finds in cricket an arena where it may dominate.

It offers by far the largest and most lucrative market for the game. As the academics Nalin Mehta, Jon Gemmell and Dominic Malcolm put it in the current issue of the Sport in Society journal, “cricketers are the biggest brand names in the [Indian] consumer economy”. The Indian Premier League (IPL), a Twenty20 competition between city-based teams that is modelled on the English football Premiership, offers players previously unimaginable sums for a couple of months’ cricket. For 2008, the league’s first year, global media rights and team franchises were sold for $1.7bn and some players commanded contracts worth more than $1m. This year, security fears during a general election forced the league into exile in South Africa, but that seems likely to be a temporary setback. Across the world, many of the best professional players no longer aspire to a Test place but want an IPL contract.

Leading England players are still bound by contracts that supposedly limit their freedom to play elsewhere. But the IPL offered Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, the two star players, £450,000 over three weeks. The ECB dared not stop them from joining the league, even though they risked injury ahead of the Ashes. Flintoff’s agent has already suggested that leading players will in future refuse contracts from their national boards, offering themselves, like golf players, to the highest bidders from tournaments around the world. Now that England’s attempt to enlist Allen Stanford as saviour has ended in disaster – the Texan was arrested on fraud charges in the US – most such bidders are likely to be Indian.

Once, the English would have enlisted their Australian allies to keep the uppity natives in their place. In 1996, after a series of wrangles over, for example, who should host the next World Cup, England, Australia, the West Indies and New Zealand drew up a secret plan to split world cricket by playing each other and nobody else. Anything on those lines is now inconceivable, because leading players would opt to follow the money to India. Talk of “mercenaries”, lacking commitment to their national team, rings hollow when Pietersen is a South African (and by no means the first one) who opted for England to maximise his income. Moreover, the Twenty20 game, enthusiastically embraced in India, was invented in England to shore up the budgets of penurious county clubs.

India’s new power represents an astonishing reversal of history. For a century, from the first Test match against Australia in 1877, England was the undisputed ruler of world cricket. The Imperial Cricket Conference (ICC), formed in 1909 by England, Australia and South Africa, administered the international game, but was in reality a front for the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), based at Lord’s in north London. This was a private club of the English elite that had governed the domestic game and laid down the rules (or “Laws”, as they are pompously called) since 1787. The ICC (renamed the International Cricket Council in 1989) became an independent body only in 1993. Until then, England and Australia retained a veto over any decision taken by other cricketing nations. When a World Cup was first created (involving matches of 50 overs each side), the first three tournaments, in 1975, 1979 and 1983, were all held in England.

But by then, the English elite’s control was already threatened. In 1977, the Australian TV mogul Kerry Packer bought up most of the best players and established his own cricket circuit, with white balls, coloured clothing and floodlit matches, all now familiar but then thought revolutionary. The authorities tried to ban the “mercenaries” from playing again in England, only to be overruled by the courts. The matter was settled when Packer, who set up his circus because he was denied Australia’s cricket broadcasting rights, got what he considered his fair share of the official action. But the lesson for Lord’s – repeated during the 1980s as South Africa, isolated by apartheid, tempted leading players into “rebel tours” – was that, to repel further raiders, it must allow the best cricketers an income that reflected their commercial value.

The English reluctance to take professionalism seriously lies at the heart of cricket’s crisis in this country. Cricket, as the historian Ross McKibbin has pointed out, was until the 1950s the most “national” of all sports. Unlike football and rugby league (working class) or tennis and rugby union (middle class), it was played and watched by people across the social spectrum. Its strongholds were not just in the shires and suburban villages, as its literary and artistic representations might suggest, but in the mill-towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Between the wars, the 14 clubs of the Lancashire League – all within 20 miles of Blackburn – got 200,000 spectators a season and sometimes more than 300,000, totals that few county championship clubs could match. The northern leagues attracted overseas professionals, such as the West Indian Learie Constantine, who was paid £750 a season when the maximum football wage was £500.

But cricket never quite escaped the control achieved by the English ruling classes in the early 19th century. The game came to embody patrician values and political attitudes. Style – keeping a straight bat, for example – counted for more than technique and success. The earliest organised games involved dukes and earls raising teams that included grooms, gardeners, butlers, gamekeepers and labourers. The plebs did the bowling, fielded energetically and scored runs inelegantly to leg while aristocrats captained the teams, fielded languidly and batted stylishly, if often briefly and ineffectually. (Rugby had a similar divide between squat, determined working-class forwards who won the ball so that long-striding, socially superior three-quarters could run with it.)

So it remained for generations. Until very recently, English cricket was feudal in its structure. Most players were vassals, poorly paid during their careers and dependent for security beyond retirement on a “benefit” (a tax-free lump sum derived from gate receipts, raffles and collections), awarded by the good grace of their social betters on county committees. Like the passive Russian serfs who so infuriated Lenin, all but a few professionals humbly accepted their lot. The late cricket commentator John Arlott, himself a Liberal Party supporter, doubted there were more than half a dozen Labour voters in the whole county game. If cricket has faced upheavals over the past 30 years, they represent not a workers’ uprising, but a bourgeois revolution which, to borrow from Marx and Engels, “has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’”.

A distinction between amateurs and professionals continued until the 1960s: most county captains and, with one exception (Len Hutton), all England captains were amateurs. Because amateurs were often paid more than professionals, the distinction was a social one, and the fault-line survives to this day. The old-style, straight-talking professional, lacking in social graces, often leaves the England captaincy under a cloud: Brian Close (1967, time-wasting in a county match), Mike Gatting (1988, consorting with a barmaid during a Test), Kevin Pietersen (2009, insubordination) are examples. Players such as the current captain, Andrew Strauss (Radley College and Durham University) – euphemistically described by cricket writers as “thoughtful” – fit the English idea of a natural leader.

English cricket held the plebs at bay not only on the field but also at the turnstiles. It might have retained, even enhanced, its wide appeal, but attempts to make the game more competitive and popular were resisted until there was no alternative. A knockout cup (first proposed in 1873, introduced in 1963), Sunday cricket, a two-division championship, 20-overs-a-side games on summer evenings were introduced only when the county game faced bankruptcy. Until the 1960s, the counties played only three-day matches while the masses were at work; professionals played for a pittance because most revenue came from socially exclusive county memberships. Cricket still prefers small numbers of affluent supporters, many of them in corporate boxes, to a mass following. Black supporters, who keenly attended Tests involving the West Indies until the 1990s, have been largely priced out, along with many Indian and Pakistani fans.

This history leaves English cricket ill-equipped to cope with the game’s new world order. Globalisation, in sport as in economics, can be cruelly destructive of tradition. It favours mass production over craft skills, and international brands over long-established local names. Through TV and the internet, cricket, like football, can now reach a global audience, and the instant excitement and simplicity of Twenty20 – which, some think, might even catch on in America or China – make it a more sellable form of the game than the subtleties of Test matches.

Once, sporting loyalties were based on locality. Now, Manchester United – essentially a multinational business – matters almost as much in Shanghai as it does in Salford. A top football player’s first loyalty is no longer to an international team but, first, to his own brand and, second, to his club. Something similar is happening to cricket, the difference being that while England, with its Premiership, is a football superpower (as it is also a rugby union superpower), it must yield second place to India in cricket. The Delhi Daredevils or Royal Challengers Bangalore will compete for the services of a Flintoff or a Pietersen, as Manchester United and Real Madrid compete for Ronaldo.

To most of the cricketing world, the Ashes series will be a quaint sideshow. But the rivalry with Australia remains English cricket’s most precious asset, the only event that still holds the nation’s attention. Even that may not last much longer. Since the Second World War, England have only occasionally beaten Australia, usually by small margins and often at times of upheaval (as when Packer signed up nearly the entire Australian first team).

England narrowly won the 2005 series – hailed by the editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack as the greatest of all – and yet, give or take a couple of dropped catches, they could easily have lost. That would have made it nine consecutive series defeats since 1989, all by decisive margins. After another defeat in 2006-2007, would the nation then be awaiting this series so eagerly? Would Australia – who, before 2005, increasingly treated India as their more important rival – still be interested? And if England lose badly over the next two months, will 2005 come to be seen as a brief, happy revival of a dying contest?

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005. He is writing a socialist history of cricket