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With England suffering yet another hammering Down Under, no doubt the usual inquests will start to unfold. The post-mortem into previous Ashes defeats have led to the Botham report, the Acfield report; it is no wonder that US pathology series Quincy hasn’t been unfurled by the England and Wales Cricket Board.
The root causes, pardon the pun, behind England’s downfall will no doubt inspect everything from the county game (always an easy one to beat with the stick) to grassroots failures. However, there is one serious problem running through the heart of club cricket. The equivalent of the San Andreas in youth cricket here in the UK is a fault line that needs addressing urgently. That is, the exodus from the game of those aged between 15 and 17.
The ECB are trying to make the numbers increase in club cricket. A drop from ten years ago from over a million people playing our summer sport to just over 900,000 is a cause for concern. Initiatives such as All Stars Cricket aimed at those children aged from 5-8 years of age was launched last summer to combat this, although my followers on social media who range from cricket clubs all over the country, were split on whether it had been a success or not. After just six months after being rolled out, before clubs hibernate for the winter, surely it is too early to tell?
The All Stars is based on an Australian concept called MILO, which introduces 500,000 kids to cricket a year, so their website claims. With All Stars based on a concept to attract 5-8 year olds, some clubs have found it a success whilst others will remain to see what the retention rates are like further down the line, with many local cricket clubs making just £5 per child this year from this scheme. Many have complained that it is a lot of work for a negligible reward.
Both MILO and All Stars are a drive to increase numbers at the bottom end of the wedge to therefore make the pyramid thicker at the top, theoretically.
However there lies a problem.
The major problem affecting every cricket club is the loss of 15 to 17-year olds to the sport across the country. The pyramid is thinning out so much at the top that it is close to being a rhombus.
Many accusations have been thrown at this demographic – the Naughty Noughties, the Snowflake Generation due to their ability to melt away, which is certainly an accusation that numerous club cricket chairmen across the United Kingdom are experiencing.
It is a serious flaw in the marketing drive to promote the kids to cricket if they are relinquishing the chance to don the whites. Or even the pyjamas of T20 so loved by the youth. It is a generation who say ‘No’ by swiping their mobile phones.
So why are they turning their backs on our beautiful game?
There are a multitude of reasons and I am not sure why personally. A generation that has been brought up on T20 cricket should be an integral part of any vibrant cricket club. However, the razzmatazz of seeing Aaron Finch or Eoin Morgan hit the ball a hundred yards into the stands is hard to replicate physically for most 15-year-olds. Playing on slow club wickets, where the ball doesn’t bounce as high makes this task even harder.
This age group are turning their back on the 40 or 50 over cricket that most league structures seem to offer. It is an integral reason why Sunday cricket is on its last legs in the shires. Without this age group, club cricket on the Sabbath is withering but the teenagers of Britain also don’t want to be stuck at fine leg when their mates are out having a good time and not wanting to play. It is a chicken and egg scenario facing the Sunday game and captains have a duty to include their youth players.
As a 47 year old man I find it hard to fathom. When I was 15, the year was 1985 and I was cricket obsessed. Junior cricket was played at Under 15 level and also in the next colts group up at Under-17. I would net once a week and was playing adult cricket on a Saturday and a Sunday.
The reason for my obsession that has become a lifelong one?
That summer of 1985, England smashed an albeit weak Australian side. To watch David Gower, the England captain, gracefully put the Antipodeans to the sword was an inspiration for all of us. His 166 and 215 were memorable but any English child who watched the partnership between Gower and Gooch at the Oval cannot fail to have been inspired.
Gooch with his railway sleeper, battering the Aussie attack for 196, with Gower wafting his wand, merely caressing the ball to the boundary. It was the antithesis of strokeplay, yet effective for both players. Never mind Madonna singing Into the Groove, it was David Gower who was ‘in the groove’ in that long, hot summer.
More to the point is that this game was on terrestrial television. Okay it was occasionally interrupted by a horse race or Pebble Mill, but this was a constant reminder of who our heroes were.
The pros and cons of selling the game off to a subscriber on television have been discussed numerous times, but with the last time it was on terrestrial television being 13 years ago, is it a coincidence that the 15-17 year olds are absconding? Hmm.
There are many reasons why this generation are shunning cricket. They simply have more options these days than those of mine did, despite some of us having the ability to get into public houses at such a tender age. State school cricket selling their playing fields off and PE teachers who have no clue about the intricacies of the sport don’t help.
However, we have to come up with answers or the game is in serious trouble. A specific T20 competition for those of this year group at a time of year that doesn’t interfere with exams, with a final at top grounds and statistics on an App, or via some sort of mobile technology would be appealing to them, perhaps in the same way that Last Man Stands has done. An abbreviated game where they don’t have to hang around for seven or eight hours on a weekend is what they are looking for.
Cricket clubs across the land are in serious trouble. We need to look at ways and ideas on how we are going to retain our burgeoning talent or even more clubs will be forced to merge. Marketing the sport, getting it into the public eye and targeting the 15 to 17-year olds that repudiate cricket is a must so that clubs flourish. Making the ability to coach them must be made easier so that clubs don’t have to jump through hoops to get their coaches qualified.
Cricket needs to look at the retention levels of the current production line as well as putting more children into the talent pool.
Otherwise we will go from All Stars to no stars.