Grant Woodward: Winning form that masks cricket’s grassroots decline

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THIS was the summer that seasoned England cricket supporters had been dreading. The arrival of another Ashes series – and a highly accomplished New Zealand side before them – could not have come at a worse time. Alastair Cook’s men had succumbed to a miserable defeat against a mediocre West Indies team, with the botched dismissal of coach Peter Moores reducing the England and Wales Cricket Board to laughing stock status.

Then there was the Pietersen Problem – the decision to effectively ban the supremely gifted but apparently troublesome batsman risked becoming an open wound.

What a difference a couple of days make. The performances of Yorkshire’s Joe Root, the resurgent form of captain Cook and, more than anything, the emergence of all-rounder Ben Stokes have brought the feelgood factor back.

Heartening too was the fact that the start of what looks set to be an exciting new chapter in English cricket was witnessed by a vocal crowd of 20,000 on the final day at Lord’s. A sizeable number were children and teenagers who had been let in for free and responded by cheering their new heroes to the rafters – showing there is a genuine appetite for the exciting brand of cricket that this new generation are eager to serve up.

But that’s where the good news ends, because sadly they were the only youngsters being inspired by the spectacle. Where once millions of cricket-mad children were glued to their TV sets in 1981 as Ian Botham hammered the Australian attack to all parts of Headingley, the only ones who got to witness Ben Stokes’ swashbuckling heroics were those who lived close enough to the ground to take advantage of the “Dad and lad for £20” ticket offer.

Even if the national team’s upturn in fortunes continues over the next five days in Leeds and on into an Ashes summer, it will mask a far deeper malaise.

Ten years ago, the Chance to Shine charity was launched. The brainchild of Mervyn King, then Governor of the Bank of England, and bat manufacturer Duncan Fearnley, its raison d’etre was to reverse the decline in cricket in state schools. But for all their good work, hitting tennis balls off cones is no substitute for being able to watch Ben Stokes pull and drive his way to a match-winning century. The complete absence of live cricket on terrestrial television means youngsters are being denied the opportunity to get inspired.

It was with bitter irony that England’s home Tests switched from Channel 4 to Sky following one of the greatest series in living memory. The 2005 Ashes, which saw the Michael Vaughan-skippered England side wrest back the urn for the first time in nearly two decades, was hailed at the time as a watershed moment for the sport in this country.

It should have been the catalyst for a revival. But it hasn’t worked out that way. The switch to Sky may net the ECB an estimated £280m over four years, but it is draining the lifeblood from the sport.

Figures released at the end of last year showed that the numbers playing at recreational level have fallen. The advent of Twenty20 was meant to reverse the decline, but the average number of spectators per game fell after the ECB relaunched the domestic T20 competition, which also happens to be on Sky.

Anecdotal evidence is just as damning. Before getting married and having children, weekends would find me turning out for a local club in Yorkshire’s Wetherby League. We had two competitive teams and a decent number of youngsters coming through the ranks.

I bumped into one of my former team mates the other day. He told me that the club is no more, having been forced to merge with another side some five miles away. “We just couldn’t get the numbers,” he said with an air of weary resignation. “We had no choice.”

Where once local clubs were turning out at least two, sometimes three or four, sides at weekends, these days many struggle to muster a first XI. Their once thriving youth teams are now non-existent, while mergers are sought at an alarming rate just to ensure survival.

For all the money that the ECB is pumping into the game as a result of the Sky millions, it cannot ever hope to make up for the absence of the game from 70 per cent of the nation’s screens.

That is not to say that Sky’s coverage has been found wanting. Far from it. Cricket lovers get far more insight than they ever did in the days of the BBC’s fusty, one-dimensional stewardship, but the chance of your average 11-year-old stumbling across a game and getting hooked are slimmer than ever. Factor in the competing attractions of games consoles and it’s no wonder grassroots numbers are in freefall.

In Australia, their Twenty20 competition – the Big Bash League – is on free-to-air television and draws huge audiences at home and in the grounds. The next generation is starting a lifelong love affair with the game.

In England, the ECB’s new deal with Sky means there will be no live cricket on terrestrial TV for at least four years. That cannot be good for the sport’s future.