World Cup final is England's moment – but has the ECB dropped the ball?

Yorkmead, in Hall Green, south Birmingham, is a state school much like any other. It’s a mixed, medium-sized, red-brick, with just under 500 infants and juniors. Only, listen to the teachers describe playtimes there, and it’s clear that in at least little detail, it’s entirely unusual.

“The children here all love cricket,” says the Head of PE, Helen Baines, “they’d choose it over football any day of the week.” They play so often, Baines says, that the school’s bats are all “two inches shorter than they ought to be because they’re always being dragged across the concrete.” So in Yorkmead’s yards, cricket’s still the summer game. “It’s a cultural thing,” she says. “Around three-quarters of our children are from British Indian and British Pakistani families.”

According to the England and Wales Cricket Board’s own figures, only 7% of primary school children play cricket. And the only reason the number’s that big is because those schools have a close working relationship with the charity Chance to Shine, who work to promote the game in the state sector. At the secondary school level the situation’s even worse. There has been a knock-on effect on participation among adults. According to Sport England, the number of people aged over 16 who play cricket at least once a fortnight has fallen by 20% in the last three years, and the number who play it just once a year has fallen by 8% in the same time.

The World Cup was the game’s “once in a generation opportunity” to begin to fix these problems. “What we hope this summer will do,” the ECB’s Chief Executive Tom Harrison said before the start of the tournament, “is give us the energy and impetus we need to carry into 2020 and beyond to secure the future of our sport.” For England, success will be easy to measure. If Eoin Morgan’s exciting team can beat New Zealand on Sunday, they’ll be world champions. Between them, they’ve a battery of dazzling batsmen, an arsenal of ferocious fast bowlers, a wizardly spinner, and a handful of multi-talented all-rounders. They come from the south, the midlands, and the north, have roots in Ireland, South Africa, Pakistan, and Barbados, are split, almost fifty-fifty between state and private school backgrounds. They are a team that deserve this chance, and demand our attention.

As revealed in the Guardian, the Cricket World Cup final will be shown on free-to-air television now that England have qualified for the showpiece event against New Zealand. “Eoin Morgan has backed the decision to show the Cricket World Cup final on free-to-air television, a story revealed in the Guardian. “It’s very cool,” said England captain Eoin Morgan. “Particularly given the 2005 Ashes for me was the day cricket became cool – it was front and back page, everyone talking about it – that’s really good for the game. It’s great news it’s on free to air.” The match will be screened from 9am on both Channel 4 and Sky Sports, which holds the  UK broadcast rights. However, Channel 4 are also due to show the British Grand Prix on Sunday – the only live free-to-air slot for Formula One on British television this season – meaning cricket coverage will switch to More 4 for the duration of the race at Silverstone.

For English cricket, success is going to be far harder to calculate. The ECB say that over one million children have “engaged” with the tournament through outreach schemes, although the people working on the ground sound unconvinced. One described it as an exercise in “box-ticking”.

The millionth child was, apparently, one of the kids at Yorkmead. Baines says the World Cup has certainly made an impact there. They ran a week of cricket-themed lessons, and had a visit from two former England players, too, Jonathan Trott and Danielle Hazell. Thirty of their kids even got to be the mascots for England’s semi-final against Australia at Edgbaston. “They told me it was the best day of their lives,” she says. But then, Yorkmead already has a couple of successful teams playing in the local competitions, and a close relationship with Chance to Shine. The ECB weren’t taking the game to a new audience by coming to the school, but developing one they already have.

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A lot of this World Cup has felt like that. There have been big crowds inside grounds, and the statistics show that they’ve been younger, and more diverse than is typical at England’s matches. The organisers have done a brilliant job of including the British Asian community in particular. That’s something English cricket’s traditionally been pretty bad at, even though a third of their recreational players are from those communities. But when Pakistan played Bangladesh at Lord’s, last week, for example, the webpages had all been translated into Urdu, Bengali, and Hindi, there was a wide range of halal food on offer, and regular announcements advertising the multi-faith prayer room and the nearby London Central Mosque.

Local schoolchildren from 14 state schools across Westminster were invited into the Pavilion at Lords to watch Pakistan and Bangladesh earlier this month.

Local schoolchildren from 14 state schools were invited to the Lord’s pavilion to watch Pakistan and Bangladesh. Photograph: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for MCC

The problem with all this is, that at Lord’s, just like at Yorkmead, the authorities were working overtime to welcome people who already follow their sport. Inside the bubble fans have obsessed over every ball bowled in this World Cup, outside of it, judging by the wealth of anecdotal evidence, everyone else has seemed oblivious to it, even entirely unaware that it’s going on.

It hasn’t helped that the only coverage available inthe UK outside Sky’s paywall has been the 45-minute long highlights packages Channel 4 put out late each night, and the clips and snippets available on the BBC and ICC websites. It’s been this way for 14 years now, since the 2005 Ashes series, which – no coincidence, this – was also the last time that the sport enjoyed the sort of wider popularity it wishes it had now. Sky, under heavy pressure, eventually agreed that if England reached the final, they’d make that one match available on free-to-air TV so this Sunday’s game will be broadcast simultaneously on Channel 4. It feels like too little, too late, the cherry without the cake.

It’s also a tacit admission that the ECB’s strategy has been wrong for all these years, that they have to be on free-to-air TV to redress the balance between the reach they need and the revenue they want. The plan was that England would play brilliantly entertaining, successful cricket, and that the ECB would capitalise on the ensuing surge of enthusiasm for the sport. We’ll know whether the players can make good on their part of this by Sunday evening, but it will take years to find out whether the ECB can do too. Right now, the suspicion is that English cricket just may have missed its big opportunity, whether or not the England team can take theirs on Sunday.


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