‘There can be no summer in this land without cricket’, wrote Neville Cardus, whose rhapsodic vision of the game lies at the heart of its mythology. Hardly a week goes by without somebody borrowing a phrase or two from Cardus to emphasise what cricket means to England — or used to mean, for the modern landscape is very different.
When England play their 1,000th Test match this week, against India at Edgbaston, it will be the only first-class cricket to be found anywhere in the kingdom. Between 28 June and 19 August, seven plump weeks at the height of summer, spectators have only one round of championship matches to enjoy, so dominant has the one-day (‘white ball’) game become.
It isn’t even necessary to play first-class cricket to be selected for England. Earlier this year, Adil Rashid, the Yorkshire leg-spinner, told the club he would no longer play in the county championship, as he wanted to concentrate on one-day cricket, particularly T20, a slog-fest which is hardly cricket at all; certainly not as Cardus knew it.
Yet Rashid went to Birmingham this week, restored to the Test team. His club were incensed, and little wonder. Yorkshire have won 32 championships, more than any other county, and continue to provide players for England, notably Joe Root, the current captain. They had nurtured Rashid, and this summer awarded him a benefit, which is usually a licence to print money. But when England called him up, despite his lack of first-class cricket, he had the gall to rebuke his club for not congratulating him on his selection.
Other clouds have gathered during this sweltering summer. Edgbaston will be far from full for the India Test, and neither will Trent Bridge or Southampton. There are even tickets going for the Oval, which is normally full to the gunwales. Only Lord’s, the home of MCC, will put up ‘house full’ notices, though one person will be missing. Ben Stokes, the star all-rounder, will be facing charges of affray at Bristol Crown Court.
These are peculiar days, and becoming ever more peculiar, for the game appears to be run by people who are ashamed of it. In particular Colin ‘Grocer’ Graves, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), seems unable to go a month without offering some hostage to fortune. The more traditional lovers of cricket, who have watched helplessly as the familiar rhythms of the summer have been ruptured, wonder how many more shocks they can withstand before the game they grew up loving shuffles off in embarrassment.
Graves, founder of the Costcutter stores, and previously chairman of Yorkshire, has a grand plan to save English cricket, though he chooses an odd way to go about it. He has called the T20 format ‘mediocre’ and is the prime mover behind a new competition, known provisionally as ‘The Hundred’, whose details have leaked out over the summer, to hoots of derision from almost every-body who watches or, more significantly, plays cricket.
The only thing we know for sure is that when this new competition gets off the ground in 2020 the eight teams will be city-based, overturning 130 years of county identities. Each innings will feature 100 balls, hence ‘The Hundred’, but how those balls are bowled, and by whom, is a matter of conjecture. There may be ten balls an over. There may be 12 or even 15 players available to the teams, to accommodate specialists who are not required to bat, bowl and field.
As many people within the game have made plain, it’s a dog’s dinner. But Graves, who has said that young people ‘are not attracted to cricket’, is ploughing on, even if he hangs for it. The television rights have been sold for £1.1 billion, to cover the seasons 2020-24, and the 18 counties been assuaged to the tune of £1.3 million a year. In a game which has traditionally clung to the Gershwin Doctrine (‘I’ll pay the piper when times are riper’), that’s an awful lot of brass. Quite a lot of the dosh ends up in the pockets of the ECB, where jobs seem to grow on trees. Tom Harrison, the chief executive, is paid £607,000 a year to perform a service that Donald Carr, the old secretary of the Test and County Cricket Board, once did with an office of four hands.
Decorated though it may be in the colours of public interest, ‘The Hundred’ is a gaudy mess knocked up by people who no longer know what cricket is. It will have to be revised significantly to have any chance of convincing the players it is worth a candle, and the early indications are not promising. As for the spectators, their support has been underwhelming.
To be fair to the ‘Grocer’, the game has become less visible. Cricket is not played in many state schools because it takes time to supervise and the equipment is expensive. Clubs, even long-standing ones, are finding it hard to fulfil fixtures because fewer people are prepared to give up weekends. So fewer players are emerging at county level and, as night follows day, England have fewer cricketers of the necessary ability to call upon. Those who go all the way tend to have been educated at public schools, or imported from southern Africa.
The single most crippling development, though, has been the loss of Test cricket on terrestrial television. In 2005, when Channel 4 broadcast the epic Ashes series, Andrew Flintoff and Michael Vaughan were household figures, in the way that Ian Botham and Bob Willis were before them. Beating Australia makes England cricketers ten feet tall. Now, even though Alastair Cook has made more runs in Tests than any other Englishman, and James Anderson taken more wickets, those men can walk down the street unrecognised.
What would Cardus have made of the modern game, with bats like railway sleepers, and boundaries so short that even mis-hits go for six? Or the cheering, tribal crowds, who are encouraged to go berserk for the benefit of television producers, who like a bit of colour?
Perhaps we have got the game we deserve, and ‘The Hundred’ will be its crowning glory, with Grocer Graves clad in ermine, taking the salute of grateful courtiers. In which case, to quote Larkin, ‘that will be England gone’. A part of it, at least. There are happier ways of marking 1,000 Test matches.