Fear and loathing in cricket’s fraying heartland | Andy Bull | Sport
The barman at the Bat and Ball isn’t sure whether or not he likes cricket. “Never seen it,” he says, “never played it.” It’s a pity, because the game grew up by his pub. It’s a hook over the road from Broadhalfpenny Down, where they played the very first game of first-class cricket in 1772. The landlord then was Richard Nyren, captain, secretary, and star turn of the famous Hambledon team who often played and beat All-England. They used to have 20,000 here for those matches. This particular Saturday Hambledon’s third XI are playing Portsmouth’s. There are five people watching. The players are all old men and young kids, starting their first or last seasons in senior cricket.
Hambledon had a job getting a side out. A lot of the younger boys were away playing for their private schools, the older ones were already back at university, and everyone else was in Southampton watching England play Pakistan. They weren’t the only club struggling. There were eight forfeits across the league that weekend. It used to be the local rule that a side who forfeited three game in a season would be demoted, but they had to scrap it. Too many teams would have suffered.
The Hampshire league was the largest in the world till lately. “I could name 20 clubs that have folded sides in the last five years,” says Hambledon’s chairman, Mark Le-Clercq. The actual number is 40. A lot stopped running third or second teams, some, such as Swan Green, just closed down everything. It’s a national problem. The England and Wales Cricket Board says that across the country participation has fallen by 8% in three years. That’s true if you’re only counting people who play once a year. If you’re counting the regulars who played once a month, it’s down by 20%.
The Cricket World Cup starts at the end of the month, and later in the summer England host the Ashes too. The two biggest events in the sport are happening back-to-back, and England are favourites for both. We’ll hear a lot about England’s wins and losses, less about what’s going on below, in the villages, towns, and counties. The ECB’s chief executive, Tom Harrison, keeps saying it is a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to revitalise the game across the country. But Le-Clercq isn’t sure it’s going to have any effect on his club. “The ticket prices are so expensive, and it’s only on Sky, so not many people are going to see it.”
The last time Hambledon had a surge of interest was in 2005, when the Ashes were on Channel 4. That series had an average daily audience of 2.76m. In 2006, Sport England recorded that 195,200 adults were playing cricket every week. Then the game went behind a paywall. A decade later, the 2015 Ashes had an average daily audience of 360,444, and weekly participation had dropped to 158,500.
Harrison hopes England’s success this summer is going to build another great wave of enthusiasm that will carry the sport into 2020, when the ECB will launch the Hundred, a simpler, quicker, version of cricket, played by eight new teams in the middle of summer. It’s been designed, at enormous cost, to try to win back the wider audience the ECB has lost. For the first time in 15 years, a handful of live cricket matches will be back on mainstream free-to-air TV.
They’re trying to make matches quicker down in Hampshire, too. A club game can take up to 12 hours, door-to-door, so this year they agreed to chop off two overs, but a proposal to scrap the tea break was voted down at the AGM by 140 votes to eight. Overs come and go, but cakes and sandwiches are sacrosanct.
In that, and everything else, Hambledon seem pretty typical. They certainly have the same problems as everyone else. Their pavilion has been broken into four times in the past few months. “The thieves can’t have been cricketers,” Le-Clercq says, “or they’d have known there’s nothing here in the winter.” There’s not a whole lot here in the summer either. “Sky Sports throws a lot of money at cricket,” says Le-Clercq, “but none of it reaches this far down.”
Hambledon do have a very strong junior section. They have 150 kids, so many that they knocked back the ECB when the board tried to get them to sign up to their new All Stars coaching programme. It would have cost them £45 for every kid they enlisted, and Le-Clercq just couldn’t see that it was worth it. He relies instead on the work of a committed group of volunteers who coach, umpire, keep the score, make the tea, and look after the facilities. Their wickets have been particularly good lately, the groundsman tells me, because he just got divorced so has a lot more time on his hands.
There are enough local people involved that the club still feels connected to community around it, among them cricket’s passed on from one generation to the next. Le-Clercq’s dad was the club’s handyman, he is the chairman, and his son captains the first XI. People come here because their friends and parents do too, not because of what England do. “We have lots of children that don’t know who Jos Buttler is.”
It’s tea. The day is warm, the urn is hot, and the pies and rolls and cakes are all laid out by a stack of paper plates. Hambledon have 163. All’s well. But like everyone else who loves cricket, Le-Clercq is worried. He is worried that a lot of young people don’t have the time for it any more, worried that it has died out in the local state schools, and worried that it is not being seen on free-to-air TV. The Hundred is supposed to help fix all this. But when I bring it up, one of Hambledon’s players looks at me like I’ve just farted, and the others burst out laughing.
“Don’t mention it,” says Le-Clercq. “It’s best not to get us started on that.”
The lowdown at Lowerhouse
Mark Le-Clercq has never met Stan Heaton, but I reckon they would get on just fine. Heaton is an ex-policeman who runs Lowerhouse CC in Burnley. They are in the Lancashire League, a very different school of cricket to the sort they play down in Hambledon. Up here, every team has a pro. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, they were great players, too. Heaton made his first fifty against Kapil Dev, “at his peak”, in a match against Nelson. That same year Michael Holding was playing for Rishton, and Andy Roberts was at Haslingdon. It’s different now. In 2009 Lowerhouse were trying to find an extra £20,000 to sign Ryan Harris. “Three weeks later he’d signed a £300,000 deal in the IPL.”
Heaton started at Lowerhouse as a tallyboy (a child who helps keep score). Back then they were “an abysmal club”. I ask him when was the worst of it was. “Oh,” he says, deadpan, “1862 to 2004.”
In 142 years of cricket, Lowerhouse finished runners-up once, and that was as good as it got. “In the 90s we didn’t even practise here because it was dangerous,” Heaton says, “it was all about survival then, we used to have meetings in the pub because they couldn’t afford to put the heating on.” They even put out a charity single to raise funds. It didn’t. “I realised that if I didn’t do something, the club would die,” Heaton says. So he did. And although he doesn’t mention it, he did it so well, that he was made an MBE.
Now Heaton is Lowerhouse’s cricket chairman, junior coordinator, league rep, child welfare officer, and groundsman. Under him, they have become one of the most successful clubs in the county. They have won four league titles and three cups in 15 years. And they have done it with a team made up, in the main, of players who came through their own junior system.
“Come down here most week nights,” one regular says, “and there are 50, 60, 70 kids playing cricket.” The setup at Lowerhouse gives the club a sense of purpose, a source of revenue, and a stream of players, volunteers and spectators. They get a lot of those, more than some county clubs. The big crowds come on Friday evenings when they play T20. They average around a thousand those nights, and they all pay a couple of quid on the gate.
“It’s turned into a bit of an event,” says their chief executive, Matthew Stansfield. “I was in a sandwich shop in the town centre and there was a couple of 17-year-old girls in front of me saying, ‘Are you going to the cricket tonight?’ It was one of those moments where you think: ‘Hang on, how has that come about?’”
One of the reasons for it is that they have such a savvy online presence. It is run by one of their younger members, Adam Hope. His granddad and dad both played here, but he wasn’t a strong player so he figured this was his best way to contribute. He built them an app, and now he has started live streaming their games. The camera is attached to the top of the sightscreen which means that whenever the bowler switches around the wicket the TV footage gets yanked off centre. A viewer in Prague tweets him instructions on how to fix it. “Left a bit”, “right a bit”, “perfect”.
All this baffles Jack Foster, who is sitting on a bench by the scoreboard. Foster has been a member here for 77 years. He has two metal hips and a new heart valve and a left arm he can’t use, but still comes to every home game. He grew up in one of the mill-workers’ houses that line two sides of the ground. “There used to be two big weaving sheds there,” Foster says, pointing away beyond fine leg, “and a boilerhouse across the road, the printworks down the bottom, and a big factory over the back.”
They are all gone now, so are the pubs, the Cricketers, the Redhouse, and the Junction, and a lot else too. From the outside it feels like the foundations this community was built on have all fallen away. The neighbouring parish, Rosegrave, has become one of the poorest in the country. But the club is still here, fighting for it. They are sponsored by the company which runs the local foodbank, and often hold bring-a-tin days. And much as it pains Heaton, they still throw a bonfire party every November. The grass at one end of the wicket is singed black. “It’s a 10-grand night for us,” he says, “so we’ll carry on burning grass.”
Lowerhouse works because Heaton and all the other volunteers do, too. Just like Hambledon, there are enough people here who care to keep the game going even while it is struggling elsewhere. Heaton says that state school cricket has gone, pub cricket has gone, and works cricket has gone. “Very few places in the north have any of that any more.” And again, this man, who has given so much of his life to the game, seems unconvinced by the ECB. He says its efforts to grow the game in state schools “haven’t made a bit of difference around here”. The reason Lowerhouse have so many kids playing, he says, is because they go into the schools themselves and recruit them directly.
Heaton knows how much Sky has done for the sport. Lowerhouse had one £50,000 grant for his nets, and another £50,000 grant for their changing room. “Nobody can knock the money,” he says, “but we have to find some way of bringing this game back to the masses.” He is not sure the World Cup will do it. “I don’t expect to see a surge in popularity, even if England win the thing, because how many people will see it?” As for the Hundred: “The ECB can try every experiment they can think of,” he says, “but 50-overs cricket is the pinnacle for us in this league, just like Test cricket is the pinnacle for international players.”
Heaton only has half an eye on what’s going on in the middle. He is more worried about organising his 14 youth teams for the next week’s fixtures. He likes to shut himself away in his car over the far side of the ground so he can concentrate on the job. He is eager to get back to it. “I don’t think we’re in a catastrophic position yet,” he says, “but I think we’re at a tipping point. The ECB have to make up their mind: do they want cricket to be an elite, professional sport, or do they want it to be the national game of summer? Right now that’s in the balance.”
The elite club run on cake sales
Karen Rothery wants to talk about balance, too. It’s the books she is worried about. Two weeks ago, she started work as the chief executive of Leicestershire County Cricket Club. Rothery spent two decades in the local garment trade but quit it “because in the end I just felt like the industry had been stuck in terminal decline”. Outside her office, Leicestershire are playing Warwickshire in the one-day cup. It’s a bank holiday, but the ground is almost empty. There are exactly seven people in the big family stand.
I ask Rothery if she is worried she is going to end up spending more time managing decline. “There’s always that risk, isn’t there?” she says, “I hope not.”
Leicestershire have what Rothery politely describes as “a chequered history of financial viability”. Right now, they depend on money they get from the ECB. “We’ve got to find different ways of making ourselves financially viable,” she says. “We’re not going to survive if we don’t do that. We’ve got to try and engage with the community, make this a place people want to come.” So this August, at the height of the season, they are turning the ground into an open-air cinema. They are screening Grease on one night and The Greatest Showman on the other.
Rothery thinks cricket has a diversity problem. She says it is “not a very woman-friendly environment”. Of course Leicester also has one of the largest British Asian communities in the country. When Pakistan played a warmup game here at the start of the month, they had a mixed crowd of 4,000 fans in. A week later, they have perhaps 400, almost entirely white. Leicestershire’s community manager, Mark Barber, says there is a similar problem in participation. The British Asian kids he meets love to play, he explains, but aren’t necessarily interested in the rigmarole of club cricket, “the membership fees, insurance forms, all the rules and etiquette”.
Barber has the harried air of a man trying to do half a dozen different jobs at once. “We always try and reach new audiences, but there’s only so much we can do.” The Hundred is supposed to help fix all this. The ECB wants it to appeal especially to women and people with south Asian heritage. Rothery is not sure if it will work or not. “Whether it’s the right thing or not, nobody know yet,” she says. “But I’m keeping an open mind.” At least, she says, “there’s a clear recognition from the ECB that we’ve got to change”.
Tom Harrison often talks about the support the county clubs have given the Hundred. What he doesn’t always mention is how much the ECB is paying them for it. Leicestershire’s head coach, Paul Nixon, does. Nixon would rather the ECB was concentrating on promoting the existing T20 competition, the Blast, which is bringing in almost a million spectators a year. The Hundred will push the Blast to the margins, but Leicestershire voted for it anyway. “How can we doubt anything that’s going to bring us £1.3m every year for the next five years?” Nixon says. “That’s a third of our annual budget.”
It means that next year he will be able to take the team on a pre-season tour, and buy them a new shipping container in which to store their bowling machines. Leicestershire have just had cameras installed in the nets at their cricket academy. They cost £12,000 and were paid for by the volunteer group who run the tea stall. They are an elite sports team run on cake sales.
Over in the stands, someone is blowing on a vuvuzela. His name is Stench and he and his mate Benno have colonised this little corner of the ground. “This is our church,” Stench says, “rain or shine, we’re here preaching cricket.” Stench is a season ticket-holder at Leicester City, and most of his friends have gone off on the bus to watch them play in Manchester. “But I’d rather be here.” Not many others would. “They’ve tried everything to get people in here and it’s not happening,” he says. “The kids just don’t want it.”
This year, for the first time, Benno thought about giving up his season ticket “because the schedule is such a mess”. Neither he nor Stench are going to watch the Hundred. “If Leicestershire aren’t in it, we’re not interested.”
A week later, the ECB launched the Hundred at Lord’s. Tom Harrison told everyone then that the likes of Stench and Benno would be won over in the end. “I think cricket fans are going to love it,” he said, because “it’s all about safeguarding everything we love about the game”. In the same speech, Harrison described Sky as “cricket’s best friend”. The next day the Daily Mail reported that Harrison had been given a £114,301 pay rise for his role in developing the Hundred, bringing his salary to £719,175.
I think of Mark Le-Clercq, doing his 10-hour days as a volunteer. “If you speak to anyone at the ECB,” Le-Clercq told me, “ask them from me where all the money goes.”
The game’s great strength is that, in places such as Hambledon and Lowerhouse there are people such as Le-Clercq and Heaton, and thousands of others, working to make sure it is kept alive where they live, and where it is struggling, like it is in Leicestershire, it is because that bond between the club and the neighbourhood around it has frayed away. In all three places, across village, town and county, there are people out there playing, coaching, and watching the game who seem very unsure about the job the ECB is doing looking after their own community. Harrison’s talk about “safeguarding cricket” sounds pretty unconvincing when you have seen first-hand how his board has spent years messing it around.
Because the truth is that for all talk about the “wider societal trends” behind what is happening to cricket, the ECB took the love these people have for the game and traded it for more money – money they have now spent trying to find a solution to the very problems that same deal created. They have raised ticket prices at grounds, made their fans pay for subscription TV, and cooked up an entirely new format of the sport, and in return they have offered grants and handouts to people who, like Stan Heaton and Paul Nixon, seem pretty conflicted about using them – conflicted, because they know for themselves exactly what it’s all cost.