We all know of cricket clubs and leagues that have folded across Yorkshire. With coronavirus now keeping clubs closed for months, these are worrying times indeed. Thankfully, this weekend, club cricket returns to Yorkshire. It is the start of a critical period as this vital community-sport faces up to a number of existential challenges.
Cricket in the UK has long been in decline. The active people survey (2016) conducted by Sport England found a fall of 12 percent in the number of people participating, whilst the number of adults that play cricket every week is less than a tenth of the number that play football weekly.
More worrying still is the fact that youth participation dropped off nearly 50 percent in the first half of the past decade, with a particularly acute issue amongst girls and young people aged between 16 and 18.
The causes of these issues have been well documented in numerous strategies and programmes created by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) in recent years. Lack of viable facilities, cultural barriers and the rigid format of the sport when compared to other quicker more agile sports such as football, cycling or running, all present formidable complications.
These challenges have been exacerbated by the year-long restrictions during the pandemic. In spite of government support, the lack of revenue for clubs has made it even harder for all but the most affluent clubs to invest in facilities.
Meanwhile people have made the shift to new ‘safe’ activities such as walking and running, or doing no activity at all. Sport England, in their coronavirus report on levels of activity in the UK, found that there was a significant decrease in the number of ‘active’ people, who they define as those doing 150 minutes of exercise a week (30 minutes per day).
Clearly, sport, and in particular cricket, is in much need of a good summer. Now more than ever, sport’s governing bodies – Sport England, the ECB, and the Yorkshire Cricket Board (YCB) – ought to make smart decisions that they can build on to secure a future for cricket.
Firstly, cricket must find its niche in our increasingly time conscious 21st century society.
Most cricket matches take up the majority of the day. This season, the ECB is experimenting with a new 100-ball format of cricket in the professional game, whilst at a grassroots level the inner city All Stars cricket programme has used basketball themes and concepts to attract more young people into the sport.
A recent uptick in participation from 2019 to 2020, for both adults and young people, suggests that new formats and concepts such as these are already providing part of the solution. They might also help to address issues related to culture and inclusivity that I discus in more detail below.
However, we must not forget that one of the key selling points of cricket is that it provides a tranquil oasis of time and space in our otherwise hectic and cluttered lives.
The pandemic has taught all of us just how precious it is to be able to take time out, meet with our friends and spend longer periods of time doing activities outdoors. All of this means that cricket, in its traditional format, might be finding its time once again.
The challenge may be simply to ensure that our clubs become more family-friendly, and that allowances are made for players to commit to fewer games rather than feeling that they need to be tied down for a full programme of games every week for four months.
Much more needs to be done to break down cultural barriers in cricket, to make the sport more accessible and inclusive in the ever-changing society in which we live.
Cricket is the second most popular sport in the world behind football and its reach into South Asian and Caribbean communities means that it has the chance to provide intercultural opportunities for club cricketers all around the country.
However, in the UK, cricket is traditionally male dominated and increasingly it’s a sport divided into white teams and South Asian teams. Many girls view cricket as a ‘boys sport’ and the national cricket playing survey (2014) found that more than two-fifths of South Asians are dissatisfied with playing opportunities in the UK.
The ECB has set out some pathways towards addressing these cultural barriers. But as events over the past 12 months at the YCB have demonstrated, they need to move much more quickly to embed an inclusive culture at all levels of the sport.
This must include serious levels of investment in the structures and processes that enable volunteers and players across all leagues and clubs to learn about and engage with diverse cultures in ways that recognise commonalities and differences, create connections with others and cultivate mutual respect.
We need to ensure that we invest in sustainable, high-quality facilities at grassroots level. This isn’t just about cricket clubs having brand new equipment such as nets, it’s about being resilient against climate change and using resources efficiently so as to reduce long-term cost.
A 2018 report by the Climate Coalition found that of all the major pitch sports, cricket will be the hardest hit by climate change. This means that our grassroots clubs need help to invest in better flood management measures. Sustainability should be viewed as a way to reduce unnecessary energy costs, while also helping the environment.
Delivering new formats, creating a new culture and renewing facilities will take considerable investment and bold decisions from our sports bodies as well as engagement and support from our grassroots clubs and communities.
At a time when all UK industries are crying out for more attention and more money, this will not be easy for cricket. We here in Yorkshire, the county that prides itself most on our shared cricket heritage, must all play our part in making this happen.
You can find details of the ECB’s action plans and how you can play a part in sustaining our great sport by clicking on these links Inspiring Generations; Transforming Women’s and Girls’ Cricket; South Asian Action Plan.