Isabella studies at St Anne’s Primary School, around the corner from The Oval where the England team arrived bleary eyed for public celebrations on the morning after the night of their lives. The Oval was thrown open to general public and around 3500 turned up to process what had transpired on Sunday. Isabella, 5, is peeping out of the grilled fence from her school, eager to run down to the stadium to see Jos Buttler. “I want to see him, I am waiting for my teacher to take me there.”
Sam, 10, is inside the stadium with his parents. Most of the people out there are kids, accompanied by parents — a heart-warming sight in a land where cricket is an afterthought to football. It’s not dying, but is ill and needs attention. So, what does this win mean to a 10-year-old? Sam pipes up: “Everything. It means everything.” Even as his father laughs, Sam continues: “You know what, some of my friends who think cricket is boring and only want to play football can now shut up!” The father, Simon, a cricket lover and a Sunday-amateur player, is beginning to chuckle now. Sam shows his autographed bat — there is Moeen Ali’s scribbles, and couple more. The father isn’t sure about the names, the kid is.
Andrew, probably in his 60s, is looking for a pub near the stadium. He bangs the door at The Beehive, traditionally the place where fans land up after a game at The Oval, but that’s shut. He walks around the block, around the streets and we meet again. “There is a pub there but just six boring folks mopping around and watching horse racing! England have won the World Cup, I need to celebrate, why can’t the pubs be open? Why doesn’t this country care about cricket? Do you think the pubs would be closed if we had won the football World Cup. No f***** way!” Andrew hobbles away, a slight limp in his legs, but his spirits up and about. Hope he found a pub to his liking.
Inside the stadium, a short while earlier, Eoin Morgan came down the stairs from the dressing room, followed by his team-mates, and The Oval exploded. A band of yellow-jacketed security personnel was trying to hold a rope to keep the World Cup-winning captain from getting mobbed. Morgan led the way, and the players high-fived with the kids, shook hands with the people and the security cordon gave in. Delirium was in the air, and even the prim and proper English were losing it a bit. Not really, but they were sort of relaxed. Keep calm and occasionally cheer. The kids were losing their heads, though.
Dr Thomas Fletcher is a senior lecturer in the School of Events, Tourism and Hospitality Management at Leeds Beckett University. He has also edited Cricket, Migration and Diasporic Communities, and been a consultant with the England Cricket board and Yorkshire Cricket. On Sunday, he finally saw an entire ODI game for the first time in 15 years. He is probably the best man to ask whether this epic win can stir up some cricket passion in this land.
The answer is “maybe, maybe not”. It all might come down to whether the ECB can tap into this once-in-a-lifetime deliriousness. But it would also come down to what the government-run schools do, he feels.
“Football is the go-to sport in government schools. It has a monopoly over kids, particularly white English kids. The perception is cricket is slow and boring. The T20s have helped and hopefully, this greatest game ever does its bit to that excitement. The majority of government schools don’t have competitive cricket teams. That’s the reality. There was a spike in interest after England’s 2005 Ashes win in the kids, and the ECB, to their credit, are doing what they can — from running programs to tap 5- to 8-year-olds. Trying to catch them young. But I would be lying if I told you that this World Cup win, as great and dramatic as it was, would alter the sporting landscape. I hope it does, but it needs structural reforms of sorts — from schools, from terrestrial TV broadcasts (how will kids love a game that they can’t even see?) and an effort from the ECB to make it cool to the kids.”
Fletcher’s work has revolved around diversity and participation of British Asians in the sport. “According to an ECB research, 30% of kids who play cricket in the country are British Asians. But hardly any progress through the professional system.” Yorkshire Cricket consulted with Fletcher to find exactly why that was happening.
“The key finding was that you can’t treat everyone the same. In Yorkshire, the jobs of Brit Asian fathers are still largely stereotypical: taxi drivers and in restaurant business or small-time work. What that means is the weekends where white English can take their kids to sports isn’t possible for the Asians. That’s the time when they are earning the most. Not everyone can be captured in the same way. We advocated to Yorkshire that they have to change their policies, approaches and tailor it to the kids and parents. Create cricket spaces and opportunities that suits the Brit Asians,” Fletcher says.
He worked with the ECB on how to get more Asian elders to take up cricket coaching to tackle that problem. If the coaches are Asians, then perhaps more kids would come and also, at the time of their convenience. Fletcher went to work and found a cultural problem. “What the Asian coaches, the ones who could potentially coach kids that is, were telling us was that their way is different from the English way. They didn’t fit into the English model of “proper cricket” coaching. That they weren’t about batting straight or getting the arm over in the right way and running in measuredly. They just wanted their kids to hit the ball as hard as possible and run in and bowl as fast as they can. Flair was their priority. They felt the English system was against it. Controlling their natural urges. They don’t want to coach that way. Also, the coaching training and certification was too expensive and time consuming. The language was difficult,” Fletcher says.
Fletcher also talks about how cricket is different from football in its popularity but also in its loyalites. “Look, it’s easy for a Brit Asian to support England in football or rugby. England don’t play Pakistan, India, or Bangladesh in those sports. They do in cricket. Friction comes in. Obviously, no one should tell which team people should support, but that friction throws up interesting hurdles when it comes to grassroots cricket. The administration and the culture of cricket in the country needs to step up and be more inclusive. They are trying, but they can do a lot more.”
Perhaps, the entertaining and aggressive style that England have played in this World Cup and over the last four years — and the fact that this team is very inclusive and diverse in its cast — can make a difference. “Hopefully it does.” But can it change things drastically? Fletcher remains sceptical. “Evidence suggests hosting and success in sporting events doesn’t always lead to more participation in the long-term. It needs structural and cultural changes: the way cricket is dying in government schools, the perception among white England that its boring, the fact that they can’t even see it on terrestrial television, the way it’s customised to the Brit Asians (parents and kids).” Hopefully the greatest cricket game that the world has ever seen does its bits it triggering those changes. Then Sam can have more of his school mates pestering the sports teacher at school for more cricket, Isabella can have more girls from her primary school to play cricket, and Andrew can find more pubs filled with cricket fans.
England’s cricketers, meanwhile, headed to 10 Downing Street to meet Prime Minister Theresa May at 7pm. May is on her way out as a result of the Brexit mess. Sports is almost the only source of joy in the country that is going though chaotic times. In the end, ironically, it isn’t football, the opium of the masses, which has provided the high, but the neglected sport of cricket.