(Photo: Getty Images)
By Dan Whiting
“The younger generation are just not attracted to cricket,” said ECB chairman Colin Graves the week before last as he unveiled his 100-ball game to the general public. To say his comments caused quite a stir amongst the cricketing fraternity would be an understatement as clubs hit back on social media.
Twitter was awash with photos of clubs and the All Stars scheme with their outfields full of 5-8 year-olds running around. However, there is a trend that is worrying cricket committees from Land’s End to John O’Groats and that is the amount of games called off in senior cricket due to non availability.
Cricket’s participation levels are well known to those at grassroots levels, yet there seems to be nothing being done by the people who run the game. Whilst All Stars is a good scheme to gain interest in children’s cricket, the problem facing cricket clubs is further up the age groups. Whilst the numbers may well look good to the bean counters at the ECB, the reality is that club cricket is facing a crisis that is threatening the future of the game – that is the conversion of junior cricketers into seniors. Forget the money that colts cricket brings in, this should be the driving force behind running a junior team. If the seeds aren’t watered, the plant will die.
The amount of teenagers turning their back on the game is cricket’s Dutch Elm disease, its myxomatosis and is threatening the very existence of the summer sport.
Last week in the Saracens Hertfordshire Cricket League, there were nine cancellations in the lower leagues. That is 18 teams meaning that a grand total of 198 people who were left without a game on a weekend where the sun shone in most parts of the country. That is just in one county. This, on a weekend is out of the football season bar the FA Cup Final and although there was a Royal Wedding on television, in my experience, not many third eleven cricketers that I know have suddenly become avid fans of the monarchy. Our own third eleven at Southgate Adelaide Cricket Club where I am chairman, has played one fixture out of three so far this season due to opposition teams ‘dropping out’ and there were just nine opponents on the field for that game.
Avid readers of The Cricket Paper will refer back to a piece that I wrote in these pages in February detailing the poor retention rates of those aged between 15 and 17 years of age. This is the lifeblood of lower elevens and without these individuals clubs will struggle. It is already proven at club level with the amount of unfulfilled fixtures at third or fourth team level.
The lack of teenagers isn’t the only reason though. All-day cricket at Premier League level has squeezed clubs from both ends with the family man struggling to leave home on a Saturday morning at 9am, returning home at 9.30pm. It is a classic reason why bar profits and Sunday cricket have taken a nosedive in recent years and many clubs are feeling the pinch. Whereas many clubs had a variety of ages in their ranks a few years ago, there seems to be a sharp decrease in the older and younger players.
Many of the bigger clubs have taken all of the players at junior level leaving the smaller teams struggling for numbers. In effect they have taken the bat and the ball and now have no one to play against.
Many on Twitter are citing the new “no ball law” with regards to deliveries being above the striker’s normal stance. It has to be said that this is likely to affect the junior bowler who is more wayward. Having given up a Saturday to play, would you want to be embarrassingly hauled off after two balls? Many are saying that football interferes with cricket with the season ever expanding. Many are claiming that the game is too long for the junior player and they want T20, although the counter argument that with 20-over games that there could be even less participation than the kid who gets seven overs per game. Lack of cricket on terrestrial television and the lack of win/lose formats in club cricket were also mooted, as was the standards of player behaviour putting youngsters off the sport.
So what is the answer?
Firstly, clubs themselves have a responsibility. Captains who field youths at fine-leg all day will have them running for their iphone quicker than you can swipe no. The no-ball law in club cricket needs addressing so that there is more leeway for those who are at junior levels playing in adult cricket. The win/lose format has come into play in the Saracens Hertfordshire League this season and the drop out rate is worse than ever. Personally, I’m a fan of the draw in cricket and young spinners have to learn to winkle a side out, bowling with flight and guile with close fielders, as opposed to flat one-day ‘darts’ to keep the score down.
Terrestrial television is the holy grail. Participation numbers were at an all-time high in 2005 when that brilliant Ashes series was broadcast on Channel 4. The ECB have to take some responsibility for selling the game off to a subscription channel thus depriving everyone in a generation from seeing the game.
Development cricket is also key. This needs a serious push from the ECB with a game at decent grounds for those at the teenage demographic. Clubs who produce cricketers need rewarding. There is plenty of money in the game and what trickles down to grass roots levels needs addressing. Giving money to Premier League clubs only for that club to spend it on players isn’t the answer.
The ECB needs to look at participation levels and quickly before it doesn’t have the next generation. It’s a worrying trend that those who follow the professional game will not realise, yet there are 900,000 people who play club cricket every year. Those who are at the club cricket coal face will nod their heads sagely at the above and agree that it’s a real issue facing the future of the sport.
Clubs are folding, leagues are dying out yet as long as Lord’s is full and the bars are being drunk dry at over a fiver a pint, all is rosy in the coffers of cricket.
The reality is that it isn’t. Graves’ comments ring true in certain respects and it needs sorting out before the guillotine falls on many more communities.
The ECB have to do something. And quickly.