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5 May 2024

How to fix English cricket

This year’s Wisden almanack describes a game in desperate pursuit of both profit and purpose.

By Peter Williams

Time was that the cue for club cricketers to dig out their kit and dream of the summer to come, and of a sudden, magical increase in their abilities, was the start of the County Championship in April, an event usually marked in the papers with an ironical picture of a gloomy, windswept ground housing a few cagoule-clad spectators and the players themselves, frozen stiff. Today, the reminder for many that cricket is afoot comes in late March with the BBC’s commentaries of the Indian Premier League (IPL) – an interminable (74 matches this year) orgy of six-hitting and cheerleading, where the world’s best short-form players perform to packed stadiums.

The success of the IPL, the second-richest sports league in the world, has created a glut of similar T20 (20 overs a side) competitions as cash-strapped cricket boards strive for a share of its wealth. In February, South Africa, which had the best Test team in the world not long ago, sent a third-string Test side to lose in New Zealand so that its stars could play in the SA20, a tournament in which all six teams are owned by IPL franchises. As a packed international schedule becomes ever more squeezed by franchise T20, Test and first-class cricket are in danger of being swallowed up.

Into this turmoil comes the 161st edition of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, the longest-running sports annual in the world and the definitive archive of the preceding English season and year in international cricket. An almanack might seem an arcane format suited to an arcane game, yet reading Wisden often bears a striking resemblance to the smartphone experience: it invites casual, discursive browsing, the chance to disappear down various rabbit holes of trivia, statistics and miscellanea (see the index of unusual occurrences) – every scorecard a short story tight and suggestive enough to make Hemingway jealous – mixed in with weightier fare. Highlights this year include Jonathan Liew on the storied career of the almanack’s cover star, Stuart Broad; Raf Nicholson’s fascinating history of women’s Tests; the former England captain Mike Brearley on the thrilling transformation captain Ben Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum have made to the men’s Test team; and tributes to the leading male and female cricketers in the world (Australian captain Pat Cummins and England’s Nat Sciver-Brunt, respectively).

Under the editorship of Lawrence Booth, Wisden also continues to offer a strident voice for reason and fairness. His editor’s notes lead on the International Cricket Council (ICC)’s decision to give India’s cricketing board, the BCCI, an even greater share (38.5 per cent) of the international broadcast rights revenue when other boards, such as those in the West Indies and South Africa, could have used what is small change for the BCCI to keep Test cricket alive and competitive, writing: “India’s payday was waved through for two reasons: everyone earned a little more than before; and no one wants to upset the Indians, because they generate most of cricket’s wealth… this is where cricket finds itself, in dreary thrall to the notion that market forces must be obeyed.”

As such, Sharda Ugra’s report on the alarming politicisation of Indian cricket and last year’s 50-over World Cup, hosted by India, is one of the more urgent items. She describes an unlovely tournament “treated like a copy-and-paste version of the IPL” and conceived more as a coronation for India and a platform for Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalism than an international showpiece (amusingly, India lost the final and Modi had to present the trophy to Cummins).

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But as the BCCI won’t care what Wisden thinks, the almanack’s campaigning energies are probably better directed to the home front – as in the radical, hopeful essay by Michael Collins, one of the authors of the 2023 Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket report, which was written in the wake of Black Lives Matter and the racism scandal exposed by Azeem Rafiq at Yorkshire. To break down English cricket’s endemic racism, sexism and classism, he proposes a complete democratisation of participation at junior level that ends the hold that private schools have on the route into the professional game. Equally worthy of attention is Tanya Aldred’s report on how the climate crisis and pollution are already compromising player safety, and may in time force an overdue reckoning with the excessive amount of professional cricket being played.

On this, the IPL et al could still learn a thing or two from the counties about how to create an overstuffed season guaranteed to defeat the will of anyone who might want to follow it. Thanks to years of muddled thinking and panicked audience-widening initiatives, the men’s English domestic calendar features four different competitions, all jumbled up, played by the 18 first-class counties and the eight franchises of the Hundred – a 100-ball tournament devised for terrestrial TV and a family audience (but which many county fans view as a sort of firework-spangled dungheap vandalising their summer). When the 2024 fixture list was released, the Professional Cricketers’ Association lambasted the “unsustainable” schedule, arguing that the standard was being lowered by the relentless grind and switching between formats, and that the travel required was a safety risk for male and female players driving around the country, night after night. It makes no financial sense, with most counties heavily dependent on the revenue redistributed from the England international TV rights to survive, rather than membership or gate revenue. Nor does it make much cricketing sense: there is a huge gap between county and international level, and the England teams play soul-sapping amounts of cricket to generate the broadcast revenue that keeps the counties going. 

Like Wisden, cricket may yet prove peculiarly suited to the modern age – its unique rhythms mean it can be taken in as the soundtrack to the summer, like the background noise of a long, undemanding podcast, while you are doing something useful. It offers great variety, from the febrile 20-over hit to the excellent BBC and YouTube coverage of Championship cricket – the definitive sound of middle-aged men in a shed, not so much raging against the dying of the light as settling into it like an old easy chair. Short-form cricket, IPL included, can be a gateway to the wonders of the longer form, but as Stokes and McCullum understand, the standard, the billing and the attitude for Test cricket have to be right.

This in turn depends on a cogent, reasonable schedule that helps players excel and draws in casual fans. If – as the ECB’s 2022 High Performance Review suggests they should – the counties start to think of themselves less as (failing) professional sports teams and more as vital community assets and evangelists for their sport, and devote more of their resources to the excellent grass-roots work already happening and less to servicing a pointlessly full schedule, then the game in Britain may yet grow. As Michael Collins puts it: “Cricket is a unique sport in terms of England’s history, culture and social make-up. The cricket club is one of those ‘little platoons’ – family, church and community groups – that can, at its best, embed individuals in wider contexts of meaning and belonging that enrich lives.” Which is to say that, for all its flaws, cricket can still take its place as our summer game and one of the glories of that season.

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2024
Edited by Lawrence Booth
Wisden, 1,600pp, £60

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[See also: A battle for the soul of English cricket]

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll