English cricket only has itself to blame for the forgotten World Cup

The fateful 2005 decision to screen all of England’s games on pay TV means the sport is no longer part of the national conversation. 

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We’ve enjoyed a tremendous carnival of cricket this summer. The atmosphere within the grounds, particularly for matches involving teams from the Indian subcontinent, has been electric. Some of the games have been genuine thrillers and the global TV audience has been huge, with reputedly over a billion people watching the India vs. Pakistan match a few weeks ago. 

Despite this superficial success, there’s an awkward reality for English cricket. Outside of the grounds, few people in England are watching and plenty are barely aware that this tournament is taking place. Not a single game is being shown live on terrestrial television. This represents a catastrophic failure on behalf of England’s cricketing authorities.

A domestic-hosted World Cup represented an opportunity for the sport to reintroduce itself to fans who’ve stopped engaging since cricket disappeared to satellite TV, and to introduce itself to a new generation. This should have been straightforward. There is no major men’s football tournament happening this year and the Olympics aren’t held until next July. The English team is one of the best in the world, with a number of swashbuckling players who should have captured the public imagination. 

Yet in spite of these favourable circumstances, the Cricket World Cup has so far failed to become part of the national conversation. The English women’s football team have, rightly, become part of this conversation after a number of heroic performances. These performances — free-to-air on the BBC — have the left the England cricket team trailing in their wake.

How have the English Cricket Board failed to take advantage of such a golden opportunity? The answer dates back to a 2005 decision to show all of England’s matches on Sky. Sky’s coverage is consistently brilliant but, in restricting games to a paid-for-channel, the ECB resolved that certainty of revenue was more important than growing the audience for the sport. This led to an Ashes test match famously attracting fewer viewers than a repeat of Columbo on BBC1 at the same time. Just as competition for attention became greater, the response of England’s cricketing authorities was to make its core product more difficult to find. The long-run consequences for the game could be disastrous. 

It was only 14 years ago that cricket genuinely did play a role in the national imagination. The 2005 Ashes was perhaps the best test series in living memory and its pivotal moments — culminating in the sight of a drunken Freddie Flintoff stumbling into Downing Street — dominated conversation in schools, workplaces and pubs. Regent’s Park and other outside spaces around the country were packed out to watch the decisive test match.

The peak TV audience during that golden summer was over nine million. The top audience for England during this World Cup has rarely exceeded one million and has slumped as low as 500,000. Contrast this with the growing national mood of excitement around the Lionesses: England’s quarter-final against Norway attracted almost eight million viewers. 

Other sports have learned from cricket’s mistakes and are reaching new audiences via free-to-air TV. Rugby Union, once a sport that, in England, spoke mainly to a private school minority, now enjoys audience figures of well over eight million and has used terrestrial TV coverage to broaden its appeal. Cricket, on the other hand, risks becoming a second-tier sport having relinquished its once-proud status as a national sport with an appeal second only to football.

This crisis at the heart of the game isn’t just reflected in viewing figures but in the number of people playing the game and their background. Put simply, fewer people are playing the game and those who do tend to come from more privileged backgrounds. Although the ECB promised that the revenue from Sky would be used to boost participation, the number of people playing the game has actually plummeted since 2005. Participation figures show that the number of people regularly playing the game has almost halved over the last few decades. 

The great northern cricketing circuit, often supported by local industries and beautifully chronicled in Harry Pearson’s Slipless In Settle, is in decline and the game is only played in a third of state schools. Whereas the 2005 Ashes-winning team was dominated by state school players, the Commission for Social Mobility recently identified the England cricket team as one of the worst examples of “elitist Britain”, with 43 per cent of the team privately educated (compared to 7 per cent of the population). 

In losing terrestrial coverage, cricket has also lost the benefit of capturing accidental viewers and has shut off its heroes from national view. Terrestrial TV coverage lends enormous oxygen of publicity to a sporting event and means that viewers who accidentally tune in might end up hooked. That isn’t the case when you have to buy a satellite dish and a Sky Sports subscription and then make your way to the relevant channel.

Members of this England cricket team should be household names. The fact that they’re not should provoke soul-searching for both the ECB and those politicians who resolutely defended the ECB’s right to sell the national summer sport to the highest bidder. The failure to expose an England-hosted World Cup to a large domestic audience represents a profound failure by cricketing authorities. 

Plans to launch a new format — The Hundred — next year on the BBC shows the ECB at least understands the extent of its self-inflicted woes. This might be too little, too late, however, to retain cricket’s place at the heart of England’s national conversation.

David Skelton is the director of Renewal, a new campaign group aiming to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party to working class and ethnic minority voters. @djskelton