Unleash the Cricket

Members’ Forum, Grace Road, 13th October 2016

At any given time, somewhere in this country, in a conference centre, lecture hall or meeting room, a man (or woman, but in the present case a man) will be standing in front of a screen, about to deliver a presentation. He may or may not believe what he is about to say, but he knows that his audience will be, at best, suspicious, at worst hostile. His task is to persuade them to accept some proposal for change. He may believe that this change will genuinely be in the best interests of his audience, or he might know full well that it is not. He may know that he has to persuade them for the change to occur, or (more likely) that it is going to happen anyway. There may be some scope to modify the proposal, or the “consultation process” might be a complete sham.

The presentation will contain most of the following (in bullet point-style, to adopt the conventions of the genre):

  • An attempt to establish that the speaker (on behalf of the management) understands the “concerns” of the audience, that their interests are the same, that they are all on the same side, really.
  • Some threats (of the awful consequences if the proposal is not adopted).
  • The phrase “The status quo is not an option”.
  • A lot of statistics, which the audience are in no position to query, however untrue they may appear to their own experience and intuition.
  • These statistics presented as the outcome of “research”, without much explanation of the source or methodology, or opportunity to query either. The speaker to announce the results of this “research” as if he were a high priest reporting back from a session with the Delphic Oracle.
  • Reassurance that the bleak future implied by the research need not come to pass (the audience does not need to “reach for the razorblades” or “throw itself out of the window”), if only the proposal is adopted.
  • The proposal, outlined in easy-reading infographics, decorated with pictures of vibrant and diverse young people, these representing The Future.
  • Questions (to be deflected or embraced, depending on how awkward or supportive they happen to be).

Anyone who has experience of these occasions, from either side of the divide, might be forgiven for approaching another with a certain weariness, which may explain why so few turned up to last Thursday’s Members’ Forum at Grace Road (it stuck fairly faithfully to the template above). I counted roughly 35 (out of a total membership of, I would guess, 5-700), of whom I recognised about half as regular attenders at Championship matches. Other explanations for the low turnout might be that it had only been extensively publicised on the internet (which, in many cases, our members do not have, or know how to use), and that the timing and venue (Grace Road at 6.15 on a dull October evening) will have discouraged both older members who prefer not to drive into Leicester at night, and younger ones who may not have time to get there after work (or to spare on a school night). Anyone who relies on buses (as many do) would be completely stymied, as they would be unlikely to get home again.

The event had been advertised as a chance to question Colin Graves, Waseem Khan and others. In the event, Waseem (for whom I have a lot of respect, but who is unlikely to do anything to queer his pitch with the ECB), occupied a supportive-but-not-wanting-to-get-too-involved position in the front row and said nothing. Graves spoke about 15 words (of which four were “workstreams”, “stakeholders”, “going” and “forward”), then sat and observed, looking both avuncular and vaguely sinister, as though he were simultaneously sucking on a Werther’s Original and stroking a white Persian cat. I thought I caught him looking askance at my scribbling in a notebook, but perhaps it is just that his eyes follow you around the room, like the Mona Lisa. The talking and pointing was done by Gordon Hollins (the Chief Operating Officer) and Mike Fordham (who has been involved with marketing both the IPL and the BB). Both appeared personable and plausible, but then, if they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have been doing their jobs.

I won’t spend too much time outlining the ECB’s case. Anyone who is at all interested in this subject will already be aware of the main points of their research from newspaper reports, and if you require more detail try looking at the ECB’s website under “Cricket Unleashed” (it even has a Powerpoint template, if you would like to make a presentation to yourself). But the gist of it is as follows:

  • All of English cricket (county, club, women’s – the lot) depends on financial support from the ECB.
  • 90% of the ECB’s revenue derives from bilateral international series (mostly from broadcasting rights). It is assumed that this will decline, leaving English cricket in a precarious position.
  • The only viable alternative revenue stream (see how I’m picking up the lingo) will come from T20 cricket.
  • Participation is in decline (apparently half of club cricketers are thinking of giving up next season – probably more if they’ve just made another duck or put their back out again).
  • The majority of those attending all forms of cricket (including T20) are male, over 45 and in social classes ABC1. When asked to choose a word to describe cricket, most 5-15 year-olds chose “boring” (their second choice was “ambivalent”, which suggests that it wasn’t a very long list).

The solution?

  • Create a new T20 tournament that will appeal to that proportion of the supposed “9.4 million” who have some interest in cricket, but do not currently attend matches.
  • This audience will be younger and more “diverse”. The ECB will be able to attract sponsorship and advertising from companies (such as soft drinks manufacturers) who aim their products at a younger audience, rather than the booze and financial services industries, which only appeal to us oldies.
  • This new competition will be “a new event and a new narrative”, a “TV orientated product” which will be marketed through non-traditional media.
  • It will be aimed at a family audience, in particular “Mums, who hold the purse strings”, looking for somewhere to take the children in the Summer holidays.
  • The marketors (yes, that is a word – they even have their own Worshipful Company) will seek to learn from the WWE and other “entertainment products”.
  • The new tournament will rejuvenate the game and protect the revenue stream that irrigates the rest of English cricket and allows it to flower.

So far, so good (or not, but plausible, at any rate). But what will the new tournament look like in practice?

  • The likely start date is 2020 (two or three years later than originally proposed). “20/20 in 2020” is, as Mike Fordham suggested, “a marketor’s dream” (and he seems to place an inordinate trust in their powers of divination).
  • The new teams will not be “franchises”, or even “city-based” (any mention of these terms from the floor prompted an immediate correction), they will be regional teams, which will attract regional support and offer the players an intermediate stage between county and international cricket.
  • The TV deal for the new competition is likely to contain some FTA broadcasts.
  • The new teams will play most of their games at a Test match ground, but may also play some at the grounds of the other counties in the region (e.g. Grace Road).
  • It will be played in a single block in August.
  • The counties will each receive £1.3 million in revenue (more for those hosting matches).

So (I think this is what interested those in the audience most), what will the new season look like? Something like this:

  • April (& May?) : the 50 over cup (a revival of the unlamented, frozen, days when the season began with the qualifying rounds of the B&H).
  • June-July : a slightly reduced T20 blast, played mostly on Friday evenings (to keep the booze’n’balti brigade happy).
  • August : the new Sunny D Supercharge plus … apparently, some kind of limited overs tournament that will include those county players unwanted by the regional sides, but also the minor counties.
  • The County Championship will, I think, be fitted into the gaps from April to July, cease in August and resume in September.
  • There will be fewer Test matches.

And so (again), what did I think? Quite a few things, as you can imagine, but thought that, for once, I would try to report the facts without too much opinionating. But, for what it’s worth, here’s a few …

  • Much depends on how far you are prepared to trust the ECB, and take what they are saying at face value. I don’t belong to the faction that sees them as evil personified (I didn’t notice any half-gnawed baby’s bones hidden under Colin Graves’ chair), and I don’t doubt that most of their officers and employees have what they conceive to be the best interests of English cricket at heart. On the other hand, if they thought the greater good of English cricket (and their careers) justified the extinction of one or two counties, or their relegation to the minor counties, I doubt they would hesitate to do so. (My objection to the ECB has never been as much to its personnel or actions as to its existence in its current over-mighty form : it was brought into being by the Counties, and, like Dr. Frankenstein, they may be starting to have second thoughts about their creation.)
  • I certainly shalln’t be watching the new T20 competition, but then, if I were planning to, the marketors would have failed : I am precisely the sort of undesirable they wish to repel. Who will is another matter, and a crucial one, given that the whole tottering edifice of English cricket appears to depend on its success. I would guess the regional teams might appeal in some regions (for instance Yorkshire), but less so in the East Midlands – most Leicester and Derby fans would only visit Trent Bridge to burn the place down (for football-related reasons). So, the future of English cricket does seem to depend rather a lot on uncovering enough of those purse-string controlling Mums.
  • I have long suspected that, if I am still watching Leicestershire and Northants in 20 years time, it will be at some level between the current Minor Counties and Division 2 of the Championship, quite possibly on a semi-professional basis and at outgrounds (and, as I suggested only last month when I visited Belper Meadows, on a purely selfish level, that would suit me well enough). The messages here were mixed : Hollins went out of his way to stress that the ECB represented all 39 counties, on the other hand that “parity of first class status is critical” and there would be no minor first-class counties. But if all goes to plan, and I find myself in August 2020 watching a Leicestershire XI playing Bedfordshire at Wardown Park, that will feel very much like the future to me.

Any questions?

I was too slow-witted to think of it at the time, but, if I had asked a question, it would have been this:

“You have referred several times to the WWE as a potential role model for your new competition, in particular for the way in which it has been successfully marketed to children. As you have admitted, the WWE is not a sport, but an “entertainment product” ; in the USA it is legally classified as “sports entertainment”, the distinction being that in “sports entertainment” the outcome of the bouts, and indeed, their entire narrative, may proceed according to a pre-determined script. Or, to put it more bluntly, the matches are all fixed. As it is largely this – the guarantee of spectacular action and an interesting narrative, however artificial – that makes it easy to market to children, is that an aspect of the WWE that you will be seeking to emulate?

And, as a supplementary question, you have made it clear that you are hoping to appeal to an audience who know very little about cricket. That being so, how can they be expected to know whether what they are watching is fixed? Would you expect them to care? Would you care?”

Answers, please, on a Powerpoint slide …

Live at the Electric Circus

Leicestershire Foxes v “Birmingham Bears”, T20 Northern Division, Grace Road, Friday 24th June

“I’m so tired of working every day / Now the weekend’s come I’m gonna throw my troubles away / If you’ve got the cab fare mister you’ll do all right  / I want to see the bright lights tonight.”

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This was the second game of professional T20 I’ve seen  (I admit I went more out of curiosity than in the expectation of enjoyment). The first was a gentle Sunday afternoon affair, which led me to conclude that every social event in English life aspires to the condition of a village fete. A little sweeping, and too optimistic. There is, also, as we have seen, the “good day out”, and then there is the “good night out” which, for that section of the population most likely to enjoy one (men, mostly, between the ages of about 18 and 50) has three key ingredients: a) a beer b) a curry and c) a laugh. All three were available in profusion at Grace Road on Friday evening (the cricket, such as it was, provided the laughs).

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Past T20 campaigns at Grace Road have had various outlandish, family orientated themes: a beach theme one year, Hawaiian another. This year the approach is more direct: the slogan is “Bright lights, great nights” (we have floodlights now, you see) and the key offer is “Beer & balti(“pre-match curry served with rice & naan bread” and “complimentary bar with unlimited draft beer and lager and house wines until the close of play”) and, where beer and balti are, can bantz be far behind?

For patrons who prefer an a la carte approach to getting drunk, the old Geary Stand (named after Leicestershire’s famously “genial” inter-war stalwart George Geary), which once offered a refuge from the elements for the more sensitive spectators

has been transformed into the Geary Bar and the Spice Bazzar, thus, conveniently, allowing spectators to drink, eat curry and shelter from the rain simultaneously.

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Using cricket as a pretext to sell large amounts of alcohol has a history in England that stretches back to its eighteenth century origins as a commercial sport, when games were often laid on by inn-keepers as an alternative, or adjunct, to other, even less genteel, entertainments such cock-fighting and shift racing. Often, inevitably, the combination of booze and banter led to outbreaks of violence, such as after the match in Hinckley I described in an earlier post.

This culture of boozing’n’brawling (which never entirely went away) re-emerged and reached its apogee in the Hogarthian days of the old John Player League in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. Before the reform of the licensing laws the pubs were obliged to shut at 2.00, roughly when the games began : as a result, hardened topers would repair to the cricket, having already put in a couple of hours in the pub, and continue drinking for another five hours, with predictable results. (There is, for example, a description in Jon Agnew’s “8 Days a Week” of the Leicestershire team having to barricade themselves in the dressing room while enraged Glamorgan supporters smashed its windows in their efforts to get at them.)

I have to say that, although there was no shortage of booze, there was no real belligerence to the crowd at Grace Road on Friday. Apart from my feeling that we are simply a less physically violent society than we were in my youth, there is hardly enough time to get fighting drunk in the space of a T20 game, particularly when (unless you really fancy drinking pints of Pimms) the strongest brew on offer was Foster’s.

The other selling point this year is the new floodlighting, which was switched on before it was quite needed. I find there is a certain romance in floodlit football, a sort of Beltane light in the darkness quality (the poetry of the raindrops dancing in the backlit fagsmoke), but having them on this early on what should have been a fine evening in late June served only to highlight the unseasonable murk, to have too much in common with that peculiar English contradiction-in-terms, the patio heater.

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As the game took place the day after the Referendum, I suppose I should try to tie the two together in some way, to suggest that the mood of the crowd (a sort of jovially sullen defiance) reflected the mood of the nation, but that would be stretching it a bit.  It is true that the award of some cheques to various “inner-city clubs” was met with total silence, but then so was the lap of honour made by a junior club in the interval (led, of course, by good old Charlie Fox, whose sunny temperament seemed quite unaffected by the day’s momentous events).

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If I seem to be treating this match as an anthropological exercise, that is because, considered simply as a game of cricket, it was of negligible interest. Warwickshire won the toss and, on a wicket still moist from earlier rain, and under low cloud, chose to bowl. Although Woakes, Rankin, Barker and Wright were missing, they were still able to play Clarke, Hannon-Dolby, Gordon and Adair, four seamers who would be automatic choices for the smaller counties. There was nothing fancy about the bowling, but, in these conditions, it would have been enough (in conventional cricket) to make any sensible batsman batten down the hatches and try to ride the storm out.

As it was, it was sad to see a talented group of batsman reduced to playing the kind of lamentable swipe that would get you slung out of a self-respecting pub team, in a futile attempt to “move the score along” and avoid the dreaded “dot ball” (although it was clear five overs in that they stood no chance of winning). Six of the seven wickets to fall were caught well short of the boundary the shots were intended to clear (the other saw Kevin O’Brien running himself out). If there was any sign of “360 degree batting”, it was mostly unintentional, although Lewis Hill did manage to play a deft slog-sweep for six and a neat scoop over the wicket-keeper’s head for four. Unfortunately, when he tried to repeat the trick a few balls later, the ball plopped tamely into the wicket-keeper’s gloves.

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The crowd (apart from one man who shouted “You Bears” every fifteen minutes, like a cuckoo-clock, they were mostly Foxes supporters) greatly enjoyed any Leicestershire boundary, whether it came off the bat, or, better still, as a result of some incompetent wicket-keeping or mishaps in the field. They seemed particularly amused when spinner Jeetan Patel fired in a ball at about 85 miles an hour without, judging by the angry gesticulation that followed, warning ‘keeper Ronchi he was about to do so, but their favourite thing of all seemed to be when a Warwickshire fieldsman narrowly failed to cut off a boundary because he had slipped over on the wet outfield. If only one of them had gone head first into an advertising hoarding, I imagine it would have made their night.

As it was, the highlight of the evening came when Sam Hain claimed a low catch deep in the outfield. The batsmen, as is the convention these days, pretended they hadn’t noticed and stayed put. The Umpires both walked over to Hain and, presumably, asked him earnestly, on Scouts’ Honour, whether he had taken the catch fairly. Whatever the conversation, no wicket resulted.

Unfortunately for Hain, all this had taken place directly in front of the “Stench and Benno Stand”, where the Foxes’ Ultras congregate (yes, we do have some). As a result, whenever the ball came near him he was greeted with boos, catcalls, choruses of “Does your carer know you’re here?” and a persistent chant of “Cheat, cheat, cheat!”. In alternate overs, he tried to take refuge in front of the “Family Stand” (no smoking, no alcohol), but the small children there gleefully took up the chant “Cheat, cheat, cheat ….”.

Cheat?

Cheat?

(I am not implying, by the way, that there was anything malicious about any of this.  It is just how you behave at the football, which is where most of the crowd have learned their sporting etiquette.)

There were almost as many children at Grace Road on Friday as there had been at last week’s Women’s International. One group will remember a squeaky-clean, officially sanctioned celebration of diversity, inclusion and all that is meant to be best in the modern game of cricket, the other a chance to stay up past your bedtime, eat chips, see your Dad get half-pissed and shout abuse at the opposition. I’m not at all sure which of the two groups is the more likely to have formed a lifelong attachment to the game. Whatever the answer, I don’t think they will be seeing me at too many more floodlit matches, at least not until the weather improves, or I become a Grandfather (whichever is the sooner).

Due to the railway timetable (which I won’t bore you with here), I left about five overs into Warwickshire’s reply (they won easily, of course).  Ian Bell opened their batting and I was able to catch a glimpse of his fabled “elegance” before I left, but I couldn’t help feeling  that, in this context, it was a little like watching Glenn Gould being asked to fill in between a stripper and the meat-raffle.

“A couple of drunken nights rolling on the floor / Is just the kind of mess I’m looking for / I want to see the bright lights …”

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