On the opening morning of the men’s Cricket World Cup at The Oval, the queue extending from the adjacent underground station was encouraging. The bottleneck, however, was formed not by excited fans but by commuters, puzzled by the appearance of a large shiny trophy on a cardboard pedestal outside. Briefly obstructing their daily shuffle, it was an irritant, soon forgotten.
Ask the average passer-by what event the trophy was celebrating and most would have been hard-pressed to say what sport was involved. At an India fixture a few days later, however, for their fans the excitement appeared infinite. These were the figures desperately pacing back and forth outside the gates, checking their WhatsApp groups or the ICC website every five minutes for signs of a ticket. It is this incongruity that is the story so far of the 2019 Cricket World Cup: never has the contrast between cricket’s sub-continental allure and it’s domestic English apathy been more obvious.
Ninety-five per cent of the fans inside the grounds, who pounced with military efficiency on tickets being offloaded by free-market-savvy Australian, English or South African fans, are from the sub-continent. Without doubt this has made for incredible atmospheres within stadiums and it is a relief that, to some people at least, cricket’s appeal remains. But such enthusiasm, passion and interest in the game is in stark contrast to the despondency of the wider English public.
While Australia took on India behind a pricey television paywall and heavily guarded gates in central London, 6.1 million tuned in, for free, to watch England’s women play football in France. That is more than 11 times the number of average viewers watching England’s men in the Cricket World Cup. Its scheduling, including the final, clashes with major football, tennis and Formula 1 events. The announcement to great fanfare that highlights would be free-to-air has, in fact, seen them broadcast late at night, often past midnight, competing with reruns of Gogglebox. England’s match against the West Indies, which finished before 7pm, aired at five past eleven.
Before the tournament, England’s Joe Root told Telegraph Sport that social media has the power to “inspire every living person in this country”, but even the shortest of clips are being taken down for broadcast rights reasons. In a country where the ECB is trying to launch a new format, amidst a huge diversity drive targeted at a young, media-savvy audience, this is tragic.
The ECB will point to sold-out grounds and the positive effects of its South Asian Action Plan, launched last year to improve the inclusion of a hitherto poorly-engaged community. But swathes of empty seats at matches suggests it is less the eager, humble fan filling up stadiums and more the result of shrewd commercial planning, with tickets allocated to sponsors, corporates and tour groups months in advance. Unconcerned and with offers of alternative fun, it is not these recipients who will be breathing life back into the sport.
Better inclusion of the South Asian community is long overdue, and the ECB’s efforts are laudable. Many other, equally important and once-reliant support-bases, however, are fast disappearing. The absence of free-to-air television is a – if not the – major factor. But beyond this general engagement calamity, where are the plans to improve participation amongst the once vibrant West Indian diaspora? Or the collieries in the Midlands and North which once formed the backbone of the domestic game?
As the tournament begins its slow progress northwards, it appears the ECB has already admitted defeat; that cricket’s popularity and engagement in the sub-continent will never reach these shores.
There is a sweet irony that cricket’s imperialist inventors now submit to its Indian innovators, but it is a sad and preventable decline of a sport which was once the heartbeat of the English summer.
• A version of this article was originally printed in The Telegraph on 15 June 2019.