Sticky wickets: could England's cricketing slump be permanent?

I cannot remember an Ashes series that has aroused less anticipation - in fact, I've booked an overseas holiday during the first test.

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2015
Edited by Lawrence Booth
Wisden, 1,584pp, £50

The cover photograph of the 2005 edition of Wisden showed the England team in a victory huddle, while a sticker announced: “England’s record-breaking year”. Inside, the then editor, Matthew Engel, wrote: “None of the previous 141 Wisdens has had a story of English success... that can match this one.” Michael Vaughan’s team played 13 Tests in 2004, winning 11 and losing none. Engel rated the season ahead, which included a home Ashes series, “an absolutely lip-smacking prospect”. By the summer’s end, England had won the Ashes for the first time in nearly two decades – after a run of matches in which the outcome remained in doubt until the final afternoon – and the players were being mobbed by cheering crowds in Trafalgar Square. Wisden 2006 reported “a spectacular eruption of interest in the game”. One manufacturer, which usually counted its annual cricket bat sales in the hundreds, sold 20,000 in seven weeks.

Wisden 2015 has no English victory huddles to show. In 2014, a 5-0 Ashes whitewash in Australia was followed by an early and ignominious exit from the World Cup, though a home Test series victory over an apathetic Indian side came between the two disasters. Once again, England are about to play five Tests against the Aussies. Nobody is smacking their lips. I cannot remember an Ashes series that has aroused less anticipation – so little in my case that I have booked an overseas holiday during the first Test, reasoning that, since it’s in Cardiff, it will probably rain anyway. Australia are the bookmakers’ clear favourites; the odds against them achieving another whitewash are 7-1. As Engel observed in 2005, the greatest moments of English cricket are rarely sustained for long.

This time, the slump that invariably follows English success could prove terminal  for the game’s pretensions as the national summer sport. Lawrence Booth, the current Wisden editor, notes that an annual survey of recreational cricket found the number of players aged over 14 had fallen from 908,000 in 2013 to 844,000 in 2014, of whom 192,000 played for just one or two weeks and only 247,000 stuck it out for more than 11 weeks of the season.

A single year’s fall may be a blip but there are other signs of cricket’s sickness. The Village Cup began in 1972 with about 600 entries, which quickly rose to 800; this year, it has fewer than 300. In its centenary year, the Club Cricket Conference, based in the English south, has suspended its Cup competition because at least one team didn’t turn up for nearly half of last year’s first-round ties. Though some of this decline may be attributed to social change, Booth, like Engel before him, argues that the game’s rulers blundered when they allowed Sky to buy a monopoly of TV coverage. Cricket could capture the national imagination in 2005 partly because it was broadcast live and free on terrestrial television. Highlights are no substitute, Booth writes. “Cricket needs to be able to attract passing trade.”

The better news is that the coming season offers enough intriguing subplots to attract a degree of public interest. Cricket’s biggest box-office draw, Kevin Pietersen, a hero in 2005 but now sacked from the England team for not being clubbable enough, reappears in the County Championship, hoping to make so many runs that public clamour forces the authorities into a U-turn.

The all-rounder Moeen Ali makes the cover of this year’s Wisden. The progress of his attempt to become one of the few non-white English cricketers to establish himself in Tests for more than a brief period provides another subplot. In that triumphant summer of 2005, England’s team against Australia was all white. Since about a third of recreational cricketers in England are of Asian heritage, England may need to welcome many more like Moeen into the Test team before they can celebrate another year of 11 victories.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?