Thursday, 3 December 2015

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 5

Thursday, 3 December 2015
Over the past ten years, it's often felt like the ECB's relationship with the fans has been on a downward spiral. And it's not necessarily over one consistent issue: instead there are just a lot of little things that can just stack up, giving an overriding sense of separation between those running the game and the rest.

The issue that perhaps best shows the troubled relationship between the ECB and the fans though, is over a player: yes, Kevin Pietersen. I've written on the issue several times before, as it just seems to repeat itself too often, so I'll try not to go into too much depth and repeat myself too. It's just the way the whole thing has been handled so horribly. Ten years ago, Pietersen made his test entrance, a key figure of that Ashes win. Who can forget his 158 at The Oval, fifteen fours and seven sixes, coming in at a time when the result was still in the balance? It was the kind of innings that built his image, showed how he was always capable of the extraordinary even if it was always equally likely to end in frustration. A player who would empty the bars, inspire batsmen around the country, a player people would sit up and watch. Yes, there were always many who didn't like him – his arrogance and attitude could just as easily turn people off, whilst others grumbled about his South African origins – but in those first years in the team, the world was at his feet.

But it was a downward slide after taking the captaincy, and then losing the captaincy. The relationship between player and board was never the same, and the fallout from the second Ashes whitewash became too much. It's not an issue of whether or not he should be in the team; or at least, it stopped being about that a long time ago. It's about the way the matter has been managed. Announcements without proper explanations, vague wars of words that do nothing to clear the matter up, declaring that he has no England future on the same day he scores an unbeaten triple century for his county – as bad timing as you could possibly get. The matter does, at last, seem resolved despite the occasional snipe, and we can finally breathe a sigh of relief. Pietersen's been no angel throughout – the comments on twitter are tiring, and the book doesn't leave him in a good light either. But a lot of the time the ECB seem to have made it their mission to come off worse, and have made themselves the villains in the eyes of many who still want to see him play. And there have been those subtly-messaged comments: about the people 'outside cricket', those with the 'right sort of family'. What does it make the rest of us?

And there's the self-interest matter too. The development of the 'Big Three' at the ICC, a move that appears to ensure England remain as one of the powerhouses of the game off the pitch, even as they're often struggling on it. A move to help England's sense of self-importance, in a sense creating a new division alongside India and Australia, whilst diminishing 'smaller' nations. Is it a move of a nation who cares for the health of an international game, or a nation that puts its own survival first, even if it then only has two friends left to play with? Well, at least they wouldn't have to play teams like Pakistan, South Africa, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, West Indies; all teams they've failed to beat in test series over the past three years. The treatment of associates can be even worse: just look at the scheduling for matches against Ireland and Scotland, and look at the team selections, too. Look at matches against Hong Kong and the UAE on England's current tour: matches where there's no good reason why they couldn't really have been full internationals, but that instead became mere knockabouts between 'elevens'.

Sometimes cricket just doesn't feel accessible. Ticket prices rise to new levels whilst there's no live action on free television, which can push the game to be more abstract than a reality for many. Good things do happen: programmes like Chance To Shine, launched in 2005, helping to bring regular coaching and competitive cricket into state schools; and involving many high profile cricketers from the men's and women's games. It's a programme that has done a great job, showing the educational value of cricket and succeeding in its initial ten-year aim to get cricket back into a third of state schools.

But elsewhere it can look gloomy. The ECB's National Cricket Playing Survey found in 2014 that significantly less people were playing the game regularly than the year before. The weather was a factor, yes, but there was also a notable proportion dissatisfied with the options on offer; particularly the case in the southern Asian community. Look at the England team, and it doesn't always seem representative. There's the 'posh boy' image of the game that is difficult to shake off, with many players coming from a private school background or else having close family members very involved in the game. It's nothing against them at all, and in sport you cheer for your players regardless of where they've come from. But you do wonder if there are others out there being lost through lesser opportunity.

There's just often a feeling of disconnect between those running the game and those watching it, between the desires of the board and the desires of the supporters and even the players. It's something that's always been there to an extent, but it feels like it's a relationship that has deteriorated further over the past ten years; or maybe I'm simply more aware of this as I've grown older, past the optimistic eleven year old on the high of 2005. As I've said before, there are no issues here with easy answers, and they're not ones I'd like to have the responsibility to solve either. Surely though, there must be some room for improvement.

10 Years Since Edgbaston: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
Where Are We Now?

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