The strange death of English cricket

I have been asked to explain why I say the much quoted data on playing numbers is ‘spurious’. Any number of articles refer to the loss of 150,000 regular players since 2005. The ECB hierarchy were questioned on it again this week in a parliamentary appearance before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. There was no challenge; those numbers appear to have been internalised by the sport’s leadership.

The 150,000 comes from a selective interpretation of results from Sport England’s Active People survey – a phone canvass of several hundred thousand people a year to find out how many had played any of 30 funded sports in the past month – between 2005 and 2016. You can see the results year-by-year on a one page Excel sheet for yourself.

150,000 is the difference between the peak 428,000 figure (2008-9 as it happens, not 2005) and the final figure from the last survey in 2015-16. It’s a nice round headline-grabbing number. 150,000 fewer cricketers equals cricket in crisis.

But look again at the data. It’s a bit volatile – it jumps around from one year to the next, up and down – so how robust is the methodology? Were you ever phoned by Sport England and asked what sports you played? Do you know anybody who was? And what if you were phoned in February asking about the previous month? Or, in a hurry to get rid of the pollster, you skipped through the list of sports forgetting to admit to the annual office game against the accounts department you mentioned the year before?

Because that’s what it was seeking to measure. Any cricket experience, at any point, from the Test arena to the beach. It’s not asking if you play club cricket once a month. When it did do that – in a separate survey – the figures were far more stable. In fact, they actually registered a statistical increase!

Maybe that’s why Sport England canned the Active People survey after 2016. They would probably say there was a change of priorities and their focus is now on levels of physical activity, not the playing of individual recognisable sports, despite the fact they continue to fund those sports heavily. The cynic might suggest they were not too confident about the credibility of the data.

So why are those in cricket so prepared to accept the 150,000 slow death narrative? For some, it no doubt suits a purpose. On the one hand, it’s not unknown for organisations to exagerrate the scale of the problem to amplify an achievement. Creating an urgent need or recognising a crisis is a basic component of most organisational change strategies. And, on the other, there are those from an ideological perspective who welcome categoric proof of the game’s decline from the end of free-to-air coverage.

The ECB’s Select Committee response points to the complex change environment in which sport operates. That’s increasingly unhealthy and/or time-challenged people doing other or different things. We all see that, so it should be acknowledged when clubs have held things relatively steady in the face of the challenge.

The Network’s recent player numbers survey demonstrates this is the case over the last 10 years. Extrapolating the results, it shows a regular club playing population (aged 16+) of around 180,000 which is consistent with the Sport England club cricket findings. And 300,000 under 16s. Of course, players are far less available than in the past – 64% of clubs say so – and this is hitting the number of teams and Sunday cricket in particular.

But while we can all name clubs that are no longer around, or have merged, the number is surprisingly small. The anticipated shakeout from around 6,000 clubs at the early 2000s launch of Clubmark – which many saw as ECB goldplating Sport England’s safeguarding template to better identify the winners – has not happened. There are still around 6,000 clubs. If there was a big shakeout, it happened much earlier with the disappearance of semi-professional manufacturing company and industry institutional teams in the economic restructuring of the 1980s.

The real challenge now is for cricket to ensure it is in a pivotal position to play a key role in addressing those societal issues, responding to the ‘change environment’. That’s in schools and other community groups and better meeting the needs of those who might embrace, or return to, team sport rather than individual activity or none. Only clubs can provide the local infrastructure to support delivery of that effort. The welcome ‘Inspiring Generations’ ECB strategy bullet points the way forward, but it needs the appropriate funnelling of resources to make it a reality. And a willingness to listen to and build on the club experience.

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