Who’s watching the cricket?

Chris Larkin

This summer has for some time been looked forward to as a make-or-break moment for English cricket. With England and Wales hosting the World Cup and an Ashes series starting here in August, it should be the perfect opportunity to make cricket part of the national conversation again; to try and halt the decline in enthusiasm for, and participation in, England’s traditional summer sport.

The current England team has been the best one-day side in the world for at least the last two years, propelled to the top of the ICC rankings by a brand of exciting, powerful, high-scoring and at times belligerent cricket, instilled and enforced by the captain, Eoin Morgan. They began the World Cup as favourites and despite a very shaky start – which left them on the brink of a humiliating exit from their own tournament – they made it through the group stage and have now reached the final after a comprehensive win over Australia at Edgbaston yesterday.

Very little progress, however, has been made in getting cricket back into the popular imagination. Yesterday’s victory made the front pages of some of today’s papers, but fewer than a million of us watched it on TV – compared to the 11 million who watched the football World Cup semi-final against the USA last week – because all of England’s international cricket matches are shown exclusively on Sky. Without the money that Sky pays for the broadcasting rights, English cricket would be in serious financial trouble, given the dwindling attendance at county games. But it inevitably means that fewer people follow the game.

In 2005, England beat Australia in a test series for the first time in 18 years. It was shown on terrestrial television by Channel 4. By the end of that summer the English public seemed to be in love with the game again. Viewing figures reached almost nine million; there were open-top bus parades and visits to Downing Street by bleary eyed England players. The game had never looked in better shape. And then, almost immediately, the ECB made the decision to sell the TV rights to Sky.

Tickets to international matches and domestic Twenty20 games routinely sell out at grounds across the country, but the average age of spectators is high, and fewer children than ever are playing the game. The lack of television exposure isn’t the only reason for that, but it can’t be discounted.

Sky has now confirmed it will share its broadcast rights to Sunday’s final with Channel 4. The England v. New Zealand match will be competing for viewers not only with the Wimbledon men’s final on the BBC but with the British Grand Prix on Channel 4 (the cricket will move over to More4 at lunchtime to make way for the motor racing, itself making a rare appearance on terrestrial TV: all other Formula One races are shown – where else – on Sky). But there may yet be a surge in interest in the cricket now that everyone can watch it; and nothing creates enthusiasm quite like winning.

Still, it’s hard not to see the hasty arrangement as an admission by the ECB that they made a huge mistake with the previous rights deals – an acknowledgment that, when English cricket was at its most popular for a generation, they prioritised short-term profit over long-term health. Other efforts to appeal to a younger, more diverse audience include the launch next year of a new, even shorter form of the game. ‘The Hundred’ will consist of 100-ball games, with city-based rather than county sides, and will be broadcast, in part, on the BBC.

Asked how he felt after the match yesterday, Eoin Morgan said it was ‘one of the better days’. If the England team keep performing, and the ECB can get a coherent strategy together to allow more people to watch and enjoy the game, then English cricket may still have a few more ‘better days’ ahead.


  • 13 July 2019 at 11:14am
    Tariq Ali says:
    Couldn't agree more. Cricket is slowly dying. Only 7% of primary school kids play it and the secondary school score isn't that different. More people watched the Women's Football Cup than the Cricket version. How different this is from the sub-continent where from Peshawar to Colombo via Delhi and Dhaka cricket is akin to religion.
    The rot began when Thatcher offered a helping hand to Rupert Murdoch as he was setting up Sky. The BBC was leaned on to let him have the cricket. They did. After that, the blame does lie with the over-greedy ECB and lack of resources for state schools. Radio Four would have long dumped its coverage had John Major (a cricket lover) not vetoed the decision. Lords will probably be full tomorrow for the Final, but perhaps not since most of the Indian fans in this country will have cancelled their appearance. Gimmicks like 20-20 cricket will not halt the decline, I'm afraid. In the meantime the ECB should encourage Pakistan and India to play their matches in this country and offer Pakistani cricket a home here . The empty stadiums of the Gulf are simply awful. Such a measure might make cricket popular in some cities....

    • 17 July 2019 at 7:37am
      carlislemike says: @ Tariq Ali
      Many important points but essentially as T A states, the lack of funding, facilities and even staffing in schools defeats any real growth in the game. The school day is crammed with a curriculum focussed on an education for "economic outcomes" and not on a broad curriculum embracing sports and arts.

    • 18 July 2019 at 4:06pm
      mototom says: @ Tariq Ali
      In East London (and no doubt in many other British cities) parks are full of boys and men of Asian heritage playing cricket. I'm not sure that English cricket pays this enthusiasm any heed at all.

    • 19 July 2019 at 12:44am
      roberte says: @ mototom
      In India it's wonderful, nay daunting, to see tiny nine-year-olds facing bowling from older boys twice their size. Does this happen anywhere in England?

      ce thwir ie

  • 13 July 2019 at 12:14pm
    adamppatch says:
    The 2005 ashes series was the last to be shown on terrestrial television, but the sky deal was agreed before that series took place.

  • 14 July 2019 at 10:30pm
    Chris Larkin says:
    If only the game itself could have produced some drama. Oh...

  • 15 July 2019 at 8:03am
    Camus says:
    The result of the six weeks of competition was a farce. The final was a tie but instead of declaring that there were two sides that were joint champions England was declared winner on the basis of the number of sixes they had hit. That must have been a Modi Inspiration. He is the one who has turned the game into a circus.

    • 15 July 2019 at 9:50am
      Chris Larkin says: @ Camus
      Both teams were aware of the rules before the 'Super Over' so I don't think farce is quite right. It certainly may not seem fair, or satisfactory to end on such an arbitrary measure, but the fact is that New Zealand only made it through the group stage by virtue of a point gained from a rained-off match and then by having a better net run rate—another rather arbitrary measure—than Pakistan (who actually beat them in their group match). Everyone has their share of good and bad luck throughout a tournament and there can be no argument England certainly rode theirs in this final, but whoever won would have deserved the victory. It's testament to Kane Williamson and New Zealand that they handled the disappointment with such dignity and grace.

  • 16 July 2019 at 6:13pm
    commonsense 171 says:
    BBC Radio really screwed up. I was listening to the match on Sirrius radio and just when the final turn by New Zealand in overtime was starting they switched to some previously recorded lifestyle story. Unbelievable. Would never have happened in a football match. What were they thinking.

  • 18 July 2019 at 2:56pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Aye and gentlemen in England now a-bed
    Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
    And hold their manhoods cheap that they manifestly
    Failed the England cricket test and preferred soccer et cetera.

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