It has been a strange and quite emotional experience to return to England to watch the 2019 World Cup.
By Junaids (14th July, 2019)
I will be fifty years old this week. I grew up in England and have faint memories of the first World Cup in 1975 and vivid memories of the second and third ones in 1979 and 1983. All three were 60 over affairs with a red ball and showcased a game which rewarded the same skills as Test cricket did.
The Test audience and ODI audience were the same people in those days, because it was essentially the same game.
I took a couple of weeks off work to watch the 1996 World Cup and I attended five of the matches at the 2015 World Cup. I prefer Tests to ODI’s, but I love low-scoring 50 overs matches and the occasion that is the World Cup.
But this World Cup was different. From the time I landed back in England - 20 days into the tournament - hardly anyone that I met had watched a single game and most people didn’t even know that the ICC World Cup was taking place. Everyone knew that a Women’s FIFA World Cup was going on, but cricket has been reduced to being a niche sport like rugby league or netball or showjumping.
The first three World Cups in England were embraced by not just the English but also by people of all Commonwealth origins. The 2019 edition had an enthusiastic local Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi following, but at the grounds pretty much the only white spectators were males over the age of 50. And there weren’t that many of them!
I’m thrilled that Asian fans have embraced cricket. But having attended World Cup matches in England since 40 years ago I certainly notice the absence of West Indian and white English spectators.
This was different to my experience in Australia and New Zealand in 2015, where there were plenty of young non-Asian spectators, including lots of women. In England there were barely any.
I already knew that this World Cup was “Made for Indian TV”. This led to comical interludes at the grounds, with the scoreboards largely devoted to adverts and stadium activities advertising products that are not even available to British spectators. The in-ground advertising doesn’t get broadcast in India, and was a monumental waste of time and money, but also deprived spectators of knowing what the score was and how many overs each bowler had left.
This was symptomatic of how English cricket has largely abandoned any effort to cater for English fans at the grounds. They see their revenue as coming from Hospitality packages at the stadium and TV revenue, and act as if ordinary ticket buyers don’t count. The same administrators who sold English TV rights to a subscription-only network just fail to see that without a desirable stadium experience there will be no next generation of English cricket fans. At Edgbaston my ticket cost £240 yet I had to use my phone to see the scorecard!
Old Trafford is a further case in point. I’ve been going since the 1977 Ashes Test Match, and for years I was a Lancashire Member. But the roofed stands are gone, and the ground now consists of two enormous box-shaped Hospitality facilities with some (mainly uncovered) seats below and open stands elsewhere. When it rained in the India v New Zealand semi-final everyone huddled in the corridors below the stand and they - and the grotesquely antique toilets - soon became disgusting. It was a vile experience, and I quickly gave up and took a tram into Manchester. The next day I didn’t even bother to return for the Indian Innings - as far as I was concerned I was done with my home ground.
If anything the Edgbaston experience was even worse. The lengthy and static queues to get in and out of stairways to the seats brought back memories of the Ibrox and Hillsborough stadium disasters. And the toilets were even more disgusting, like a 1970’s football ground. Then the match ended, and signs warned that it was quicker to walk 2 miles to the city than to wait for a bus.
When Australia and New Zealand hosted the 2015 World Cup, match tickets included free bus or train travel to the ground. The English public received no such courtesy in 2019.
The cricket in 2019 was actually surprisingly good. But the stadium experience and matchday travel arrangements in England were primitive and repellent and made Adelaide and Auckland, let alone Sydney and Melbourne, look majestic.
But that is where English cricket seems to be. Completely orientated towards short-term profits from TV and Hospitality, with the ordinary public treated with contempt.
The idea of a “Made For Indian TV” tournament needn’t hurry domestic interest in cricket towards extinction. The 2015 World Cup hosted by Australia and New Zealand probably grew domestic interest.
But the 2019 tournament has failed to grow cricket in England. We are supposed to rejoice that the Final is to be shown on free-to-air TV in England. But it’s much too little, too late: after 14 years of free-to-air invisibility pretty much nobody under the age of 30 even understands cricket, let alone will choose to watch it.
But anyway, the Final is on free-to-air TV on the same day as the Men’s Singles Final at Wimbledon and the Formula 1 British Grand Prix. Why would that attract new viewers?
Any sport needs a spectator and participant base. Can cricket in England survive when its base is a combination of white grandfathers who like Test cricket combined with second and third generation British Asians who prefer the white ball game?
To me it looks awfully like the future for England is to become Toronto or Sharjah, hosting games for Indian TV which will be attended by a few thousand people of subcontinental ancestry.