Martin Smith column: Is a Root and branch change needed to preserve the future of cricket in England?

Remember cricket, anyone?

Tuesday, 6th June 2017, 6:37 am
England skipper Joe Root chats with former England captain Michael Vaughan

You know, that summer game that seemed to be on TV all day, all summer and all free to lazily dip in and out of between boredom and riding your bike.

Whoever it was who decided that Britain didn’t need to see cricket live on free-to-air TV back in 1998 did a fantastic job - if the idea was to kill the game off.

Someone thought it a good idea back then for Test cricket to lose its protected ‘Category A’ broadcast status which meant Test matches had to be free to air on terrestrial TV. Money legitimately changed hands of course, Sky Sports took it on with all the fanfare and hoopla that big budget coverage can bring.

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And the quality of their cricket output is brilliant.

But most of us don’t watch it any more, despite the brilliance of Sheffield skippers Joe Root and Michael Vaughan before him. The BBC’s 61-year exclusive coverage of home Tests ended 19 years ago with a 10-wicket victory for Sri Lanka in a one-match “series” at The Oval.

Nineteen years of decline, as it turns out.

Despite the game’s fanatical devotees in other parts of the world, statatistics released last year show that only 278,600 people in the UK regularly play cricket - half of what it was 20 years ago. No-one can put the fall in numbers playing cricket entirely down to its not being available for kids to watch on TV. Or maybe they can - along with a decline in schools participation.

It’s been a long time since cricket was football’s summer equivalent, though football coverage went the same way. But football’s structure and tribalism meant it was a more robust species than the delicate flower of cricket with it’s all-day, acquired-taste, speciality appeal.

Cricket needed protection and it didn’t get it.

Since 1998 the England cricket team have been rubbish, brilliant, average, brilliant and not bad and was the best team in the world for some of that time.

Imagine if that had been the football team?

Cricket highlights returned to BBC last week but the after-11pm timeslot won’t be recruiting many schoolkids to its slow-burn charm.

Just 200,000 are estimated to have watched the Champions Trophy highlights of the England v Bangladesh game.

After 300-plus years as a mass-participation sport many forecast English cricket’s demise when it slipped out of mainstream media focus at the turn of the 21st century

Nothing’s happened since to suggest they were wrong.