This is the final article published in The Cricketer in July 2023. The rather longer polemic on which it’s based including analysis of the challenges in reversing the decline of state school cricket and possible prescriptions, woven in to the findings from the ICEC report, can be found here
The long awaited ICEC report is as critical of socioeconomic inclusion in cricket as well as its ethnic and gender diversity
The lack of diversity in cricket is a factor of socioeconomic inequalities in access to cricket
That club cricket was largely out of scope for the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket – despite the report’s 171 references to the recreational game and 88 to clubs – probably suggests a lack of club knowledge, compounded by their reliance on spurious ECB data.
The report records “lived experiences” of a relatively small self-selecting group (4,156) who completed its survey but, it posits, may be more representative of the wider cricket community than the UK population.
The number of white, middle class, middle-aged, privately educated, cisgender male ‘reactionaries’ – the report labels “Type K” – is more a Lord’s Long Room pastiche than representative of any clubhouse I know.
This caricature of Type K is used almost as a control to set against the research evidence, which is presented in language, sentiment and ideological perspectives rarely found outside the social sciences faculty.
Let’s not use that to dismiss the ICEC report or its essential message. There is widespread discrimination, and there are barriers to access for significant sections of our community.
It should not weaken the game’s resolve to address the issues and the recommendations it makes. There are socioeconomic inequalities, and the game needs to be better set up to foster and support participation for 93 per cent of the population. That cuts across gender, orientation, race, ethnicity and physical ability.
Clubs have long recognised that they cannot afford to be unwelcoming. Young members and their families are a valuable commodity. That’s their business case for widening access, something the report shouldn’t decry.
Clubs are small businesses and need to be run as such, or they will disappear in the same way as pubs, post offices and other community institutions incapable of innovating and capturing new customers.
The report accepts market constraints in not proposing a ban on alcohol when it comes to cricket’s apparent drinking culture. Forty-two per cent of clubs in a recent Cricket Club Development Network poll said more than half their net income was generated through bar revenues. The bar is often part of an income diversification strategy as clubs become local community hubs.
The after-match drink with teammates is an important part of the cricket experience for many. But not for all, and there’s a diminishing propensity of younger players to join boozy late nights and the kind of drinking games that featured in Azeem Rafiq’s testimony. Many clubs are now as likely to serve lattes as lager in order to retain business.
Clubs are not ECB subsidiaries, however. They will brook any imposition of a cultural policy and new codes that do not support their continued development as open, diverse and commercially successful social enterprises.
Clubs already pushed back last year against entirely inappropriate and ultimately unenforceable disciplinary regulations. That saw a diluted version rolled out into the recreational game beyond the Premier Leagues, where the ECB does hold sway.
The ICEC view that dilution negatively. Yet, conversely, the report suggests too rigid reporting and complaint handling structures and disproportionate penalties may have the unintended consequence of discouraging the calling out of discrimination, in all its forms, wherever it occurs. Which infers that clubs should continue to drive their own progressive culture change and not be saddled with template policy and arbitrary metrics.
The report itself evidences the disparity between high numbers of South Asian heritage players in the club game – implying the problem is further up the pyramid where those numbers drop off dramatically.
There are far more young people of all ages, gender and ethnicity playing in most clubs with junior programmes than there were 20 or 30 years ago.
But it’s not broad enough, in enough clubs, to replicate past levels of awareness and access in the wider population necessary to drive the interest, indeed passion, of all those less able or keen to play. To put it bluntly, to replace the aging community of cricket fans who buy Test match tickets, pay Sky subscriptions, join counties or volunteer support at clubs.
That is entirely down to the disappearance of cricket in state schools. Increasingly time-poor teachers, parents and pupils has meant less sport and more easily packaged ‘physical activity’ in schools.
Clubs have picked up the slack to some extent, and starting junior cricket at ages 5-8 is far more common than in the past – a shift that predated ECB national programmes in most cases.
Club leaders say they need active support from schools to continue that growth, expand provision and opportunities for the widest range of young people. And that is problematic.
Schools’ focus tends to be sporadic and short-term. Clubs have limited capacity to support daytime school activity, and any commitment requires longer-term resource planning.
Even at clubs with established school relationships – often dependent on the personal commitment of the headteacher or teachers – the experience ebbs and flows as circumstances change.
Most club–school relationships are at primary level. Cricket in state secondary schools, where not currently played, is probably a dead duck, although clubs’ support could help make cricket an easier GCSE PE option.
Chance to Shine’s growth, through county board coaching teams introducing taster cricket to schools, has been positive. But taster activity is nowhere near enough. The conveyor belt from school to clubs is still not commonplace.
Chance to Shine’s chief executive, Laura Cordingley, says she could easily spend £20m. The ECB’s £2.5m annual investment is pathetic and needs to be at least four times that to make an attractive proposition for private sponsorship.
With 20,000 primary schools in the country, only clubs can provide capacity on the ground, and they need resources too. World Cup wins, Bazball and Ashes shows cricket can grab the national consciousness, but it needs local visibility to be sustained.
So it’s time for the ECB to meet its commitment to spending 30 per cent of net broadcast revenues on grassroots sport, given the recently extended Sky broadcast contract is worth a reported £880m. And for them to tap into the £600m extended school sport premium Rishi Sunak mentioned when asked about the ICEC’s recommendations to government on school cricket provision.
The club focus on a broader market – with a diversity of products, approaches, and business models – is a challenge for elite cricket and the development pathways subject to much attention in the report. It’s not insurmountable, if it produces many more Ben Stokes and Jimmy Andersons and their Asian-heritage and black equivalents – although it cannot blithely be assumed that those kids are more predisposed to cricket than any others from largely urban, state-school educated, low-income households.
We have to find ways of extending clubs’ reach into these communities, based on a coherent business case.
The ECB need a 10-20 year strategy for clubs developed in a genuine partnership supporting clubs’ long-term sustainability and leadership capacity. That will drive more equity than audits and template policy documents.
©John Swannick 2023