The resounding victory scored by England men’s cricket team in the first Test match in Chennai, India on February 9 was truly historic. India had lost only one of their most recent 35 Tests at home and had not lost in Chennai since 1999. The victory was largely assured by the England captain, Joe Root, who produced the highest ever individual score by an English player in a test in India. The icing on the cake was provided by fast bowler James Anderson, whose devastating display of swing bowling turned the momentum on the final day inexorably in England’s favour.
The match was also notable because it was the first time England’s test team had appeared live on UK terrestrial television since 2005. Historically England (men’s) Test matches had been deemed sporting “crown jewels” of such national interest that they must be available live and on free-to-air. But this meant the game missed out on the huge potential income from broadcast rights on pay TV.
The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) successfully petitioned government and at the end of 2004 it was announced that Test cricket would be demoted to the B-list after 2005, meaning it could be bought up by the likes of Sky TV for exclusive broadcast on subscription channels. Since then, with a very few exceptions, anyone not subscribing to pay TV has not been able to watch live international cricket in the UK.
It was terrible timing because the 2005 series was also truly remarkable, as viewers in the UK got to watch their team win a hard-fought series to break Australia’s 16-year domination of the Ashes, actually winning the trophy on home soil for the first time in 18 years. In one BBC Radio 5 Live poll in 2005, 80% of respondents stated that they now preferred cricket to football. The television deal with Sky had been announced in December 2004 but grumblings turned to dismay in the autumn as people realised what the public would now be missing.
Standout England cricket victories are inevitably followed by a discussion of the potential for leveraging this public popularity. In part, this is because those who run the game or provide media coverage look enviously towards football’s wealth. Their firm belief that the game should be more popular explains, moreover, why cricket is unique in continuously tinkering with the game’s multiple formats by introducing one-day games and, more recently, the short-form T20 and (due for launch this year) The Hundred, an even more abbreviated version of the game.
Future of the game
Ideas for expanding the game’s popularity invariably revolve around a desire to involve more children. For instance, The Hundred is billed as “an unforgettable experience for the whole family”. But how realistic is that?
In a 2012 survey for the Cricket Foundation (published in the Journal of the Cricket Society in 2014 and unfortunately only available to members online), we found that even though 76.5% of primary school children played cricket at school, just 20% correctly named the England men’s captain. We found that the short-format T20 cricket was twice as popular as Test cricket among secondary school children. Only a quarter of these children had seen a live cricket match or claimed to watch England Test matches on TV.
While 35.8% owned an England football shirt, just 9.3% owned the equivalent cricketing gear. But – most significantly perhaps – overwhelmingly children wanted more opportunities to play the game rather than the freedom to watch games either live or on TV.
So children seem to engage with cricket differently to the way adults do. Children largely want the stimulation of hitting a ball or experiencing the visceral sensations of being part of a noisy crowd. Adults are more drawn by the intellectual engagement that the game provides. An understanding of the subtleties of the sport takes time to develop and, for those who want to increase cricket’s popularity, change can be frustratingly slow.
So what will make a difference to cricket’s popularity? It seems that widespread television coverage is not that important. When Sky TV generously shared coverage of the 2019 Men’s cricket world cup final with free-to-air channels, the viewing figures were just 100,000 less than the peak of 2005. So not much had changed in the intervening 14 years.
Rather, what we learn from 2005 Ashes and the unprecedented grip that cricket had on the nation’s attention, is that the greatest sports events resonate with some broader social narrative. The 2005 Ashes series took place against a backdrop of a new, more inclusive, democratic and open sense of Englishness. This was a team that challenged ideas about cricket being an upper-class game, with a heroic down-to-earth talisman in all-rounder Andrew Flintoff, roared on by the Barmy Army.
But also, during that Ashes series, London was targeted by terrorist bombings at various transport hubs, killing 52 and injuring scores of others. The country desperately needed a feelgood factor. Cricket historians pointing back to the 1981 Ashes series, when another great all-rounder, Ian Botham, almost single-handedly defeated the visiting Australian team, recall that England was in the grip of bitter and divisive race riots at the time.
Cricket becomes popular when England does well. But the triumph in this year’s first Test against India was followed by a massive defeat in the next game. In the end, whether or not English fans continue to enjoy the success – or otherwise – of their national team on free-to-air TV, it will be the children who race outside with their bats and balls and youthful enthusiasm who hold the future of the sport in their hands.