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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 29, Dated July 25, 2009
ICC: A Century of Cricket  
trends & upheavals

Cricket’s Past Is Its Best Future

We should cut some of the top-tier games and focus on local clubs

BRIAN STODDART
Author, Saturday Afternoon Fever

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A kid’s game Street children play cricket on an empty road in the heart of Kolkata

THE UPROAR OVER Britain’s parliamentary future, following revelations of expense account manipulations by MPs, shows that even the oldest and most central of institutions must embrace social change or become irrelevant. Sports forms and organizations have always been a direct product of the societies from which they emerge and are subject to changing tastes, moral codes and conventions – the decline in popularity of, say, squash racquets and snooker demonstrate that well.

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Global cricket has perhaps sensed that better than most, as demonstrated by the rapid growth of the T20 form. The very term ‘T20’ has mimicked the popularity of the year 2020 as a future planning date target. Even so, there is still much cricket might do to ensure its relevance as a social pillar.

Tradition is a powerful force in most cultures and protecting tradition in cricket is important in order to guarantee it a future. Most tours now, however, do little to stimulate local interest. Ashes tours of old, in both England and Australia, had a series of state and county matches that were well-attended and gave good exposure to a wider range of players. They attracted more people to matches at cheaper prices. Tradition comes at a premium these days – a ticket to a day at the Lords test now costs more than $100. We need to have more people watching at lower prices if cricket is to remain a relevant and accessible sport.

Similarly, grassroots cricket needs more recognition. Most grade competitions in the world have as much high drama as the televised version and those dramas are more relevant to the average person. National grade championship competitions would do more to capitalise on that interest, especially in social quarters that are underprivileged. Not long ago a Melbourne newspaper ran a story about a junior side full of Vietnamese and other refugee kids. Promoting their games would be a great long-term investment in cricket because such actions broaden the sport’s social relevance and inclusiveness.

At a time when top-line cricket has become a business rather than a game, is it sacrilege to suggest that less cricket would be better? For some years now it has been almost impossible for anyone other than the most fanatical devotee to keep up with who is playing whom and where — and why! Less top-line cricket would allow space to promote the lower levels, which is where cricket’s social survival and relevance resides. It might also allow for international sides like West Indies and Zimbabwe to fully rebuild themselves.

We need to have more people watching at lower prices if cricket is to remain a relevant and accessible sport

Making cricket more relevant, however, does not mean dumbing it down as an art form. The T20 version has its place, no doubt, but it can never be the main game because it has no social relevance whatsoever. It is an advertising vehicle rather than a game and advertising vehicles have a notoriously short shelf life. The core of the game has to remain relevant and there are signs that it is disappearing.

Should we spend time proselytizing cricket and, for example, “getting it into China”? Maybe. Football’s history, in this case, is instructive. It is now a global game because it somehow created meaning wherever it went. As Newcastle, West Brom and Middlesborough headed for relegation there was talk about how this paralleled the decline of England’s northwest as an industrial centre. It is hard to imagine such a comment being made about a cricket team anywhere and that should be cause for reflection. If the game’s heartland is becoming socially dislocated then no number of “new” players will reverse the trend.

The T20 version has its place, but it can never be the main game because it has no social relevance

One answer is to put even more effort into the second layer of natural cricketing nations because the feeder lines into the top level are just too narrow. Whenever people talk of, say, Australia being too dominant, they are really saying that the game’s development is lopsided. Massive transformation is required, yet cricket is always different. It is ironic that as English football is now swamped by ‘foreign’ players, cricket is fiddling with the Kolpak provisions to make such entrance even harder. While there are some reasons for that, the fundamentally different approaches of the codes is instructive.

These days I sit writing in a room overlooking what has to be one of the most expensive cricket grounds in the world, just a kilometer or so from Westminster and belonging to a public school. It is a privileged place, but it is a reminder that it was from such places that cricket spread round the Empire, to people who then adapted its form and traditions.

By furthering rather than frustrating that natural process, and by emphasizing the game’s meaning rather than its business opportunities, we will help guarantee cricket’s survival as a meaningful social organism.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 29, Dated July 25, 2009

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