It has been years since football surged past cricket to become England’s favourite sport. Even so, more than a century after cricket’s “golden age”, an Ashes Test series between England and Australia remains one of the most resonant contests in the sporting calendar. This week, after the latest ignominious England defeat in Australia, it seems sensible to ask two questions. How come? And for how much longer?
For some of us, cricket is still the most wonderful of all sports, uniquely balancing individual skill, collective effort and the need for time and strategy. But why are England now playing it so badly? The Ashes contest is uniquely deep-rooted in national legend. The Bradmans and Bothams cast long shadows. But why has this inspired Australians to heroic feats, while reducing England to nervous wrecks?
It was predictable that the latest humiliating defeat of Joe Root and his team would trigger a bout of cricket soul-searching. The finger of blame has been pointed at inadequate preparation, defective batting technique, dropped catches, poor spin bowling, and lacklustre coaching and captaincy. All these are relevant. But they don’t get at a deeper underlying “why?”
The BBC’s Jonathan Agnew is among those who cast the net more widely. He points to enduring structural defects within English cricket itself. These include the marginalisation of the long form of cricket, of which Test matches are the pinnacle, in favour of the limited over “white ball” short forms that TV companies, advertisers and many supporters prefer. Not that this clash of codes seems to have troubled the Australians much.
Few have yet tried to take a larger view. One who has is my Guardian colleague Jonathan Liew. He identifies a basic cultural difference between the Australian and English approaches. “To play Test cricket for Australia in 2021 still essentially means something,” Liew wrote this week, citing the match-winning performance of Scott Boland, only the second cricketer of Indigenous Australian heritage to wear the trademark baggy green cap. By contrast, Liew points out, “the very point of the England Test team has become somehow blunted, dissolved, obscured”.
Again, one asks – why? The question would have been grist to the mill of arguably the 20th century’s most original writer on English cricket. It is half a century now since Rowland Bowen wrote what is still, for all its flaws and quirkiness, the single best cricket book of its era. But Cricket: A History of its Growth and Development Throughout the World, published in 1970, stands the test of time.
On the face of it, Bowen was a character out of English cricket central casting. A retired Indian army officer and perhaps a former spy, he was one of that tribe of white, private school, upper-middle-class men whose fanaticism about cricket still forms a significant stratum of the English game’s support. To call him an eccentric would be an understatement. This was a man who, believe it or not, amputated his own right leg in his bathroom in 1968 to prove it could be done.
His book, though, was another matter. Its central argument was that cricket’s rise reflected the flourishing of the industrial and imperial ages, and that English cricket was becoming unsustainable as industrial and imperial Britain came to an end. Bowen also thought cricket’s decline was intertwined with English racism – he pointedly chose the great Caribbean cricket writer and Marxist CLR James to write the introduction to his book – and he believed that most of the agonies of English cricket were caused by the wishes of those who controlled the game to preserve something that was historically doomed.
As misguided determinists do, Bowen sometimes let his vision of epochal decline get the better of him. Fifty years on, cricket has not been reduced to “rough and ready” status, metal bats have not replaced wooden ones, Wisden still comes out each year and the counties continue to provide the basis of the English game. Cricket’s adaptability has been greater and more successful than Bowen expected. The shift in power over world cricket from England to India was not something he foresaw either.
Even so, Bowen would have had a pretty clear understanding of why England get beaten in the Ashes so often. He would have put cricket’s problems in a larger social context. He would have said the pathways to cricket’s renewal and growth have been cut off, closed and neglected, making the game increasingly unsustainable at the grassroots, especially in state schools which have either had to sell their playing fields or never had them in the first place.
He would have said cricket suffers because it is no longer even visible, either in the flesh or on terrestrial TV. He would have said this is because the game has become overprofessionalised, existing too exclusively for the benefit of those who play, administer, promote and make money out of cricket for a living rather than being encouraged to grow more organically and in new ways within English society as it is now. He would have looked to the popularity of cricket in the subcontinent as a striking alternative model.
And he would have said cricket has not come to terms with its own racism. English cricket has a long, bad record on race, embodied by its support for apartheid-era South Africa. You know something is structurally wrong by comparing Gareth Southgate’s England football team, which often has five or more minority ethnic players and which is comfortable in its diversity, with Root’s side, which had just one player of non-European heritage this week. England footballers take the knee. Its cricketers do not. As Michael Holding powerfully says, cricket is simply not serious enough.
By far the most important thing that happened in English cricket this year was not the Ashes defeat but the exposure of the game’s institutionalised racism. A third of recreational cricket players in England are of south Asian heritage; that dwindles to just 4% at the elite county level. The complaints made by the former Yorkshire player Azeem Rafiq have at last blown a hole in the culpable complacency of his former county. But Yorkshire – of which I am a member – is not the only club that needs to start again from scratch.
It requires particularly powerful blinkers not to see links between these factors and England’s Ashes defeats. England cricket – and its overindulged Barmy Army of supporters – is too complacent, not very good and spends too much time in a bubble of Anglosphere exceptionalism. It is at risk of becoming a metaphor for Brexit, deluded about its abilities and achievements, promoting itself as the envy of the world when it is not, and resentful of its critics. The world has moved on. Perhaps cricket lovers should do so too.