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English Cricket's Crumbling Pyramid

The England and Wales Cricket Board needs to loosen the collar, rip off its tie, and join us all in the 21st century.

Scott Oliver

Wikimedia Commons

The all-conquering Welsh rugby team of the 1970s used to insist that their routinely vanquished neighbours England were not actually that bad a team – they just picked the wrong players and lacked the vision and understanding of how to win. The problem, they said, was who selects the selectors.

Which brings us to the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) – an organisation so stuffy, high-handed and with such a "toxic" image, they are considering re-branding – and to the pervasive sense of gloom that has hung over the summer game since the 5-0 shellacking in Australia 15 months ago, culminating in a World Cup campaign for which the word "clusterfuck" might well have been invented.

Picking the teams during that period has been Uppingham-educated chocolate heir James Whitaker, who joined the panel after three years outside cricket running the family business. Before that, he'd been Director of Cricket at the county side where he'd spent his entire playing career, Leicestershire. There, he'd been fast-tracked through the ECB system, doing his Level 1 and 2 coaching badges in a single weekend. The same process takes Average Joes three or four years of experience-gathering.

Maybe that's why he needed colleagues to explain what a "mixed bowling action" was when he sat his Level 3 in 2003 – the minimum requirement for running a professional team – at which his group was set an overnight task of delivering a hypothetical teatime team-talk to a side on the ropes. Rather than consult the assortment of well-qualified no-name fellow coaches, he told them: "I've done this sort of thing thousands of times, chaps. You go and have a drink. I'll take care of it".

By all accounts, his presentation was an embarrassing mélange of banal, pride-and-passion, up-and-at-em clichés. That sounds reminiscent of his cringeworthy first press conference as National Selector when, through the constraints of a gagging order, he hinted obliquely at why the best player, Kevin Pietersen, had been sacked: "There's a group of players there looking forward to re-energising this team, going forward with different values, re-evaluating the culture of the team..." etc, etc.

Perhaps Whitaker is from the right sort of family to pick the England team, in much the same way that outgoing ECB Chairman, Giles Clarke (a man who looks as though he was born in a blazer), claimed last summer that under-fire skipper Alastair Cook was "very much the sort of people we want the England captain and his family to be". As PR goes, this wasn't exactly Max Clifford. On second thoughts...

Along with the recently fired Paul Downton (legacy to the English game: sacking Pietersen for whistling after he got out and looking "disengaged") Clarke and Whitaker are part of what Lawrence Booth, editor of cricket's bible, Wisden, witheringly referred to as the ECB's "nexus of self-preservation". The organisation had "repeatedly lost touch with the basic idea that the national team belongs to us all".

Clarke's replacement as Chairman, the bumptious, no-nonsense former Yorkshire supremo and supermarket tycoon Colin Graves, has quickly stirred things up, first dragging KP off death row (Surrey had already moved him from the solitary confinement of T20 to a normal cell), then issuing a thinly-veiled threat that, should England fail to beat a "mediocre" West Indies, other positions could be under threat.

Whitaker has clung to his job for now. This is despite sacking Cook, the man he called "our exceptional leader", in the tournament lead-up, having backed him long after everyone realised he was the wrong horse. But this is ominous news for Peter Moores, widely vilified during the World Cup fiasco for his use of management jargon and apparent obsession with the data extensively compiled by a bulky, ever-vigilant backroom team that possibly suffocated the flair out of a team playing black-and-white, silent movie ODI cricket where others were performing in HD surround sound. His position as precariously perched as the coach at the end of The Italian Job, Moores' statement in the aftermath of defeat to Bangladesh that he "will have to look at the data" will probably be his Do I not like orange.

The more English cricket struggles to produce x-factor players – George Dobell has nicknamed Loughborough's expensively appointed National Performance Centre "Bluffbrough" – the more they throw their technocratic heft at the matter. In fact, it's difficult, at present, to find a spot in an English cricketing pyramid expensively superintended by the ECB that isn't crumbling and in need of major renovations. The ECB's recent survey showed 2014 participation numbers down a whopping 7% from 2013. From shop window to grass roots, the picture is looking bleak. There is a sense of a sport withering on the vine.

Somewhat ironic, then, that 10 years ago this Ashes summer, a team of English cricketers – 50 shades of shitfaced – were riding an open-top bus to a throbbing Trafalgar Square en route to debauched photocalls at Lord's and Number 10. Cricketers! They were the lead item on prime-time news. The next time London was brought to such a standstill, people were plundering plasmas and trainers.

The occasion was beating the mighty Australians for the first time in 18 years, a glorious epic of exquisitely elongated tension, an exhilarating, seats-of-the-pants ride that so captivated the nation that 17% came off that year's GDP (since clawed back from the great unwashed in swinging austerity). The country became a gigantic party. Cricket was street, rock and roll, box office. A bleary-eyed 'Freddie' Flintoff and skunk-haired KP became folk heroes for adults and children alike, and the sport had what the latter called "a once in a generation opportunity" to capture hearts and minds.

So what happened?

Picture by PA Images

First, the mass euphoria wasn't solely because it was the Aussies we'd beaten. It was also largely the result of Channel 4 beaming the images into the homes and daydreams of the whole nation. That was the last summer of free-to-air live cricket – moving the recently departed, much-loved doyen of cricket broadcasters, Richie Benaud, to hang up his mic. While Sky paying a premium for sole rights to international and domestic cricket has funnelled a lot of money into the grassroots, it is at the price of being structurally and unavoidably exclusive (a subscription doesn't come cheap), kindling less and less of those idly or avidly watching young imaginations.

READ MORE: Adios, Richie Benaud; Farewell, My Childhood

Such exclusivity is reinforced by the slow erosion of cricket in state schools (without dedicated parents ferrying keen youngsters to clubs, inevitably difficult in the bigger cities, the only contact with the game). Three years ago, Scyld Berry revealed that while 78% of England players in 2002 had come from state school (which 93% of the country attends), that figure had since dwindled to 24%. There are vast swathes of untapped talent out there. Statements such as Clarke's implicitly elitist car-crash of an observation about Captain Cook only reinforce the impression that if they made Moeen Ali skipper, his drunk taxi driver might lose control in the Dartford Tunnel.

As a result, the upward flow of talent through the system – from schools and clubs to professional and international cricket – is falling. Where Australia has cricket on both free-to-air TV and the public school curriculum, as well as a fecund domestic structure, we do not. Indeed, you could argue that Whitaker and his fellow selectors are not alchemists, that they cannot be expected to fashion silk purses from the sow's ear of English domestic cricket.

The fact is we are not producing many cricketers who can bowl over 90 mph. We are not producing many international-class spinners. We are becoming better at producing fearless, innovative attacking batsmen, the type to win modern short-form cricket – now we just have to pick them in the team.

All of this makes you wonder whether the 125-year-old county cricket system is fit for purpose. As the IPL twitches itself into life, English cricket seems ever more flaccid and inadequate. Performance anxiety reigns. Domestic Twenty20 cricket – the gateway and beacon for cricket's ongoing relevance – is beset by confusion and self-interest. Having been played for a number of years in a four-week mid-season bloc, a structure that allows counties to attract big-ticket stars, it changed last year to (mostly) Friday nights throughout the season. Despite a large marketing campaign and re-brand as "NatWest Blast", average attendances fell by 11% (6,503 to 5,772).

Where India and Australia have adopted a T20 franchise model, England's counties steadfastly refuse any modernising or streamlining, claiming that what supporters there are would walk away, unable to get behind one of these new-fangled, star-spangled entities. It is nonsense, of course, as though followers of English cricket's biggest domestic rivalry, Yorkshire and Lancashire, couldn't enjoy getting behind a North XI – be that in T20 or a regionalised first-class cricket structure designed to condense the available talent – and wouldn't relish informing the rest of the country how superior they were.

Identifications are more fluid than proponents of this mystified, misty-eyed ideological justification for keeping our cricket in the Dark Ages are prepared to admit. Would a Liverpool or Manchester City fan grumble if Wayne Rooney scored the winner in a World Cup final? But no, county cricket – a beleaguered system in which quantity outweighs quality, where mediocrity thrives – rumbles on awash with unacknowledged sentimentalism. How many county followers – if, hypothetically, it could be demonstrated unequivocally to them that it was detrimental to the success of the England team – would sanction its dismantling? How tenacious are those fantasies of belonging? Would it be like putting your parents in a home? Shire of my Forefathers, they sing.

Given this parochialism and self-interest, perhaps the very notion of the pyramid is flawed. Certainly, its base – the place where England players begin and love of the game is cultivated – is shrinking alarmingly. People are turning their backs on the game: a drop from 908,000 to 844,000 (of whom only 247,000 are "core" players available for over 12 weeks) in a year. As David Hopps spelt out, the reasons for the disenchantment are myriad, yet largely centre around social and cultural shifts that render the sacrifice of time increasingly difficult – be that because of changing work patterns, or the expectations placed on modern family men, or the acceleration of life and desire for instant gratification, or a growing sense of individualism and entitlement. The selflessness and voluntarism that sustains clubs is slowly evaporating.

And yet, in 1997, the ECB published a paper setting out the overhaul of the recreational game. Raising the Standard, it was called. The outcome has often been overwhelming layers of administration to try the patience of a saint, a one-size-fits-all approach that seems to chime with the box-ticking approach to coaching, from grassroots up to "Bluffborough", and the production of identikit, inhibited players. Not so much Raising as Imposing the Standard.

In its management structure, its vision and its flesh-and-blood cricketing product, the ECB badly needs to loosen the collar, rip off its tie, and join us all in the 21st century.