A question of life and death

THE times, they are a changing. Half a century ago, Neville Cardus celebrated cricket as "the background music to an English summer." Today, with the summer leisure industry having turned global and churning out competing pursuits for the young, if the summer sport needs to survive in the country of its birth, it had better not aspire to be anything but the main score blaring out from a public address system. If the first Test at Lord's is any indication, the ongoing Ashes series could well be worth all the hype.

Here is hoping that for the next one month, the world's two top-ranked Test teams continue to play the sort of game that makes the young droves checking out flight availability to exotic Spanish, Greek and Italian destinations forget the Mediterranean sun. May the quality of cricket reach such a crescendo in the last available live summer on terrestrial TV (at least for four years) that when the Premiership Big Boys start off in mid August (a football season that blends seamlessly with the next season through the FIFA World Cup in the summer of 2006) cricket cannot be dismantled from the public consciousness.

An England win in a closely fought series that goes down to the wire at the Oval might just about ensure that the game is not forgotten in the football madness of next summer and the non-availability of the game on terrestrial TV for the first time since 1938. Many young Londoners would then probably remember the Oval as a historic cricket ground owned by the Surrey County Cricket Club rather than as the next station from Stockwell on the Northern Line, which, according to a 2004 Sports Nexus/YouGov poll, was what the majority of them said the word meant to them.

It must, however, be said that the Twenty20 competition has the potential to achieve this turnaround in public awareness. The ECB has successfully got the mobile-phone wielding, burger munching generation hooked on to it by a brilliant marketing strategy of presenting it as a one stop shop — an evening of slam-bang cricket accompanied by food, drinks, gambling, fun, games and of course a rock concert once a year. Come to watch cricket, and you get all what you are looking for plus a game of cricket free, is the idea, and in one stroke competing leisure pursuits were integrated into the compressed time set aside for cricket.

Mike Marqusee, the sport academic and writer, quoted the Sports Nexus poll in a recent article for The Guardian, arguing that the ECB has mistakenly conflated the success of the national team with the idea of putting cricket at the heart of the national culture. When asked what they felt about the performances about the England team over the last 10 years, 43 per cent of respondents said they did not care and 13 per cent replied they did not know. In the poll, 89 per cent of committed cricket followers stated that the ECB policies were killing recreational cricket, that centrepiece among Victorian cultural practices which has long given cricket its place in nationalist imagination.

Marqusee further argued that the ECB decision to grant BSkyB live exclusive rights of cricket from next summer has further exacerbated English cricket's crisis of access.

Marqusee is right to an extent — after all, as he writes, according to the National Recreational Cricket Conference there has been a 40 per cent drop in recreational cricketers since 1994. But, there is also another side to the picture. The ECB, in dire need of funds from the State, has been forced to restructure itself and the system over the last few years, and the process saw a new strategy for cricket in April.

The new strategy put an end to the morbid fear that the �220m of Sky money over four years will be spent on the salaries of second rate Australians and South Africans rushing into the counties taking advantage of the European Court of Justice's Kolpak Ruling of 2003. The excess revenue from television, the ECB announced, would be split proportionately between the England team and the recreational game. If the Thatcherite policies of selling off council grounds to real estate builders and cutting off public funds to schools started recreational cricket's decline, the ECB is now reversing the trend. The recent announcement of a budget of �5m for interest-free loans to clubs for cricket facilities, and the policy to link the club to the nearest State schools have to be welcomed in this regard.

The sweetness of leather meeting the willow and young men in cricketing whites — one of the most romanticised sounds and sights of England — now exists primarily in its inner-cities where children of South Asian origin live. The ECB initiatives, as well as a great Ashes series climaxing in an English win, might well tempt children of the dominant community to move the goalposts for three months of the year.