Manifesto for change: a polemic

Ok.  Let’s put it out there.  The ICEC Report is based on flaky data from a self-selecting relatively small group of people (4,156) who, it suggests, may be more representative of the wider cricket community than the UK population.   

Given the number of white middle class middle aged, privately educated, cisgender male reactionaries – the Report labels “Type K” – the complexion of many respondents sounds more like a pastiche of the Lord’s long-room than my clubhouse or any other I have frequented in my ‘lived experience’.    

And ‘lived experiences’ are what the Report is all about, not numbers.  A cursory read of the research report underpinning the main Report findings reveals method, sentiment and language indicating the researchers are 100% representative of an ideological Groupthink rarely found outside the metropolis and university sociology departments. It’s no wonder they had to persuade ECB to issue a further call for submissions specifically targeting people beyond the M25.   

And while club cricket was largely out of scope of the Report – despite 171 references to the recreational game and 88 to clubs –  that’s primarily, so far as I can see, because there’s an unspoken conspiracy between Report commissioners, researchers, ECB and the game’s notional leaders to hide the fact there isn’t enough known about or robust data on the club game and, if there was, it might undermine the Report’s evidence base and assumptions.   

But let’s not use that as grounds for dismissing the report or its essential messages.  That there is widespread discrimination and barriers to access for significant sections of our community.  And that is hurting the game as much, if not more, than the many individuals who have experienced it.   

If the Report’s credibility is not helped by the evidence and the way it has been collected and interpreted, then that should not undermine the commitment of the game to addressing the issues it raises and the recommendations it makes.  Because, actually, whether by accident or design it creates a moment in time that needs to be seized.  A collective consensus – ignoring irreconcilable Type Ks – and momentum to reset the game.  

The overwhelming majority will recognise that this is not only about racism and sexism but the lack of diversity in cricket is a factor of socioeconomic inequalities in access to cricket.  In simple terms, getting beyond the EDI Groupthink language, the game needs to be better set up to support and foster the contribution of 93% of the population who do not have the privileges bestowed by a private school education.   

As PA Media cricket correspondent, Rory Dollard, said when interviewed by Michael Atherton for Sky during the Lord’s test, what about the next 4,000?  The ones that didn’t get the ECB or ICEC email, not because they’re lost to the game but because they never started the game.  That cuts across gender, orientation, race, ethnicity and physical ability.    

That is primarily resulting from the diminishing visibility of cricket in state schools. The reasons for that are not simple but they’re not complex either. And it’s way too simplistic to blame successive prime ministers for selling off school playing fields. Amongst the most regularly cited factors:

  • Impingement of national curriculum and teacher workloads
  • A productivity drive on discretionary school activity
  • The growing range of competing sports, activities and Young People’s interests
  • Perception that cricket is far more time consuming than other sports and considered ‘boring’ by kids
  • Lack of teacher awareness, interest and capability to deliver cricket (particularly in larger primary school classes)
  • Lack of school playing space and equipment (for traditional set up)
  • Professionalisation of PE in secondary schools with demise of non-PE staff cricket support
  • The challenge of cricket as a GSCE Sport discipline – regarded as a hard option

Clubs have picked up the slack to some extent and it is far more common for clubs to start junior cricket at ages 5-8 than in the past, a shift that predated ECB All Stars and national programmes in most clubs.

Previously kids would join clubs typically at ages 10-13 to hone capabilities developed in school and/or casual play with mates and already knowing what cricket looked like.

Yes, many clubs could be unwelcoming or daunting to those from  lower socioeconomic groups or outside established school relationships. But that cultural exclusivity is a much reduced phenomenon in recent years – kids, any kids, and their families are a valuable commodity for clubs. Joining and retained long enough to play open age cricket, parents supporting the bar and inveigled by a welcoming environment to volunteer for coaching support, then coaching and maybe a touch of umpiring or scoring if not playing themselves. The career path from club novice to club chair is well trod. Many clubs now speak of the Lifetime Value (LTV) of members, some can even express that in £SD terms.

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 kids of all ages playing now in most clubs with junior programmes than 20 or 30 years ago. Ashes 2005 and parallel development of Clubmark was a watershed. And the diversity – ethnic probably and gender certainly – is much greater but socioeconomic diversity may well be in decline.

But it is still not broad enough – in enough clubs – to generate the levels of interest/passion in the wider school population beyond those able/keen to play and with access to clubs with junior programmes; bluntly, those who may go on to replace the aging community of cricket fans, buy test match tickets, pay Sky subscriptions, join county clubs or provide volunteer support at clubs.  Cricket’s demographic time bomb.

The loss of Free-To-Air (FTA) TV coverage of cricket is a factor in kids’ awareness of the game but it’s probable that they’re more inclined to become committed through play than through watching. Doubtful that given the change in kids’ TV viewing/patterns – far more fragmented across far more channels – that FTA cricket will drive mass visibility that may have been true in past, even if the main FTA mass channels wanted to put cricket back on.

Clubs need the active support of schools to continue growth, expand provision and raise the awareness of cricket opportunities with the widest range of young people. And that is problematic.

Schools focus tends to be sporadic and short-term, making planning and logistics difficult. Clubs generally do not have the coaching capacity to support school activity during daytime and commitment to after-school or weekend activity requires longer-term resource planning. Even clubs with established school relationships will experience ebbs and flows; it is often dependent on the personal commitment of the head and/or one or two teachers which is prone to personnel change.

Cricket in state secondary schools where not currently played is almost certainly a dead duck; at least in terms of traditional formats on grass surfaces. Although the success of Dave Fulton-inspired Canterbury Academy shows state non-selective schools can compete with selective and private sector schools with the will, commitment and some resources. And Darren Talbot’s successful development of state school-based academies in Tooting and Chessington, shows that an alternative ‘Pathways’ model is possible.

Most club-school relationships are at primary level; extending the lead in time and investment required for payback. That’s  kids and families joining clubs.

Chance or Shine (C2S) and the growth of County Board coaching teams to deliver in recent years has been positive in introducing taster cricket to schools. But taster activity is nowhere near enough.  The co-ordination between C2S, County Boards and Clubs is seemingly not a priority, possibly due to resourcing of administration back up.  Long-term change through creation of a ‘conveyor belt’ from school to clubs is essential and currently wholly inadequate. And the scale is nowhere near enough required. 

Total C2S annual budget of £5m is paltry by comparison with FA/Football Foundation investment in school/club junior football. Chance to Shine’s chief executive, Laura Cordingley, says she could easily spend £20m. The ECB annual investment of £2.5m in C2S is pathetic and needs to be at least 3 or 4 times that to leverage additional private sponsorship.  Especially as C2S funding, supplemented by other charitable/social fundraising, is intended to replace ECB funding in the ‘privatisation’ of County Boards over time.

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. 

Yet cricket has an opportunity:  

Ashes 2005, Word Cup wins and Bazball has shown that cricket can grab the back pages and occasional front pages in national consciousness – maybe more for teachers than the kids but that’s important, too.

A lot of media influencers, celebrities and policy makers love cricket but where is the effort to redress recent damage to the game’s reputation?  Where is the All-Party Parliamentary Cricket Group like football, tennis and golf?  Where is the encouragement to clubs to engage (more) with the local MP and other opinion formers and showcase good works?

The profusion of digital channels and platforms, as well as creating the problem of fragmentation, are opportunities for delivering exciting ‘packaged’ live and not-so-live cricket cheaply.

Cricket with its complexities and varied formats could feed a growing ESports market; potential new channels to increase passion amongst those less interested/able in physical sport.

Despite the competition in sports and pastimes, few other sports are investing significantly in school delivery, providing space for well funded cricket response to the growing hegemony of football.

Lesson plans, teacher training, cricket focused multisports, quick game formats and big group activities, development of softball and tapeball products, packaged and deliverable GCSE Cricket modules, Just In Time Just Enough delivery methods, and rewarding of teacher ‘champions’ are critical factors. 

80% of primary school teachers – the ones required to deliver curriculum PE – are women and the higher profile of womens’ cricket needs to be leveraged more effectively in this target market.

Potential to tap into extended school sport premium – typically annual £25k for each primary school – is an opportunity.  But cricket MUST take on school sport private franchises; the generally poor quality delivery by unqualified ‘activators’ is damaging for sport and cricket in particular.  ECB should  lobby for schools/government/OFSTED quality assurance in use of SSP.

But clubs have to step up, too, to support setting up of conveyor belt.  With 20,000 primary schools and, maybe, 3,000 clubs capable of supporting junior cricket, only clubs can provide capacity on the ground.  Clubs will need to absorb relationships with more schools and potentially outside traditional catchment areas.  Clubs operating in hubs or through county boards need to co-ordinate in areas of high school/ low club density, especially where economically disadvantaged.

A clear unarguable business case for attracting even more kids is recognised by many clubs but needs to be made for all clubs with existing junior provision and for clubs where low/no provision but potential to develop.  That wider business case MUST include the rewards from supporting game-wide growth and non-club benefits to cricket more widely.

The club focus on a broader market of diverse abilities – requiring a diversity of products, approaches, and business models – will be a challenge for the traditional focus on elite cricket and the Development Pathways.  But it’s not insurmountable, especially if it produces many more Ben Stokes and Jimmy Andersons.   And their Asian-heritage and black equivalents.   

But let’s not forget that black kids are now at least three or four generation from the Windrush era and probably no more pre-disposed to cricket than any other group from largely urban, state-school, low-income households.  

We have to find ways of extending clubs’ outreach into these communities if they’re not already there.  Based on a coherent business case. 

That means resourcing.    And clubs as a long-term strategic focus – 10-20 years not present 4-5 year ECB strategic cycles – regeneration and growth of an extended Clubmark as catalyst for renewed effort and a genuine partnership based on long-term sustainability and leadership capacity.   

That will drive more equity than template policies and audits.   

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