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If you were an avid cricket enthusiast in 1990’s England, it probably didn’t make you part of the Cool Britannia brigade. You were more likely seen as a touch odd, especially if you happened to be a teenager in state education. Football very much ruled the roost and the best you could hope for in the way of cricket coaching at school was being chucked a plastic blue bat to hold whilst a teacher frantically searched for a child capable of getting a ball to the other end of the wicket with what the ICC would regard as a ‘legal’ delivery.
Then it all changed. On a warm September day in 2005, 8 million people tuned in to Channel 4 to watch England win the Ashes for the first time in 20 years. Suddenly English cricket had rock stars: the swaggering Kevin Pietersen with his skunk hairdo and Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff with his talisman qualities and taste for a beer, captivated the nation. In addition, cricket’s new offering of Twenty20, introduced two years earlier, was ripening as a product and kids were taking notice.
The impact was enormous, even on a local level. The number of juniors at my local cricket club rose from 15 to 100 in a year. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) exploited the boom by expanding their Chance to Shine initiative which subsequently took cricket in to 7,000 state schools, introducing 2 million youngsters to the sport. The ripple of this boom hit a peak in 2012 when a whopping 22.5% of youngsters aged 11-15 in England were playing cricket regularly.
Fast forward seven years and participation amongst 11-15-year-olds has almost halved. Even more worryingly, amateur participation has dropped 20% across the board in the last three years with just 291,900 cricketers playing at least twice a month this summer. The biggest drop of all is in the 16-19 age bracket where an active cricketer has a 40% chance of leaving the game completely by their 19thbirthday. A generation has been lost.
But why? The ECB have been criticised for focusing too much on top-level Premier League amateur cricket, but perhaps more thought is required in relation to socio-cultural factors. Exams, relationships, family pressures, careers, boredom and more entertaining alternatives are all reasons for non-participation. If you look at the basic offering of amateur cricket, with the exception of some Twenty20, it hasn’t really changed at all. Millennials and younger generations live in an age of instant gratification. As a casual cricketer, 10 hours out of the home takes some explaining and 50 overs in the field can grate a little. Shorter formats, varied formats, earlier start/finish times, innovative tournament play, better pitches and better facilities are all factors that would help keep more people in the game.
Those 8 million Channel 4 viewers were back last Sunday to watch England’s coronation as World Cup winners in what is being rightly heralded as the greatest one-day international of all time. There’s a gift-wrapped opportunity to arrest the participation slide. Capitalising on participation amongst children should be a penalty kick but it can still be missed. Amateur cricket must be prepared to cater for this generation once they are ready to progress to the senior ranks. The next chance could be another 14 years away…