There is a cost to tinkering with formats and selling the game to Sky crickets very life is at stake
The barman at the Bat and Ball isnt sure whether or not he likes cricket. Never seen it, he says, never played it. Its a pity, because the game grew up by his pub. Its 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 Hambledons third XI are playing Portsmouths. 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 werent 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 Hambledons 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. Its a national problem. The England and Wales Cricket Board says that across the country participation has fallen by 8% in three years. Thats true if youre only counting people who play once a year. If youre counting the regulars who played once a month, its 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. Well hear a lot about Englands wins and losses, less about whats going on below, in the villages, towns, and counties. The ECBs chief executive, Tom Harrison, keeps saying it is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revitalise the game across the country. But Le-Clercq isnt sure its going to have any effect on his club. The ticket prices are so expensive, and its 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 Englands 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. Its 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.
Theyre 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.