Young fans at a Women's Super League game

Young fans coming into the game today have more teams, more formats and a more diverse set of heroes to support than previously

© Getty Images

Has cricket ever had it so good?

For all the pessimism about the sport, in many ways it is in better shape than ever

Tim Wigmore  |  

"This is not the game that enraptured me when I was six years old. Nor the game I have written about happily for much of my adult life." So wrote Matthew Engel, the esteemed former editor of Wisden, in the Guardian last October, articulating the disillusionment many cricket fans feel with the sport today. Engel was right: cricket is going through an age of staggering, relentless and sometimes overwhelming change. Yet, for all the tumult, what has emerged is a more vibrant and loved sport.

New love of a sport is perfect and pure. Sports fans fall for a game because of how it is, not because they want it to change. Just as George Orwell mocked the British view of life before World War I - "it was summer all the year round" - so it is wired deeply into cricket lovers that yesterday was better than today. But cricket has never really had a golden age.

The sport's original golden age, the two and a half decades before World War I, was an age when only three nations were permitted to play Test cricket. And this was an age of match-fixing and on-field fights; of hypocritical "shamateurs" who lied about being unpaid; of class snobbery; and a sport run for and by men who had no interest in women being able to play. The closer you scrutinise golden ages, the more they yellow around the edges.

So it is, too, with the sport's modern golden age, the 1990s - that which enraptured me as a child. In the men's game this was an age of often pulsating cricket, with bat and ball in perfect sync, ferocious fast bowling, beguiling mystery spin and talent spread around nine genuinely competitive Test sides. Off the field, too, it was a sport run with some genuine altruism, with money and fixtures divided more equitably among Test nations than before or since, and with the World Cup welcoming teams rather than excluding them.

But it was also the age of rampant match-fixing. It was an age when cricketers could not forge a career if it was their ill fortune to grow up in a non-Test nation. And it was an age when women cricketers from Test nations still had to play in skirts, were completely non-professional, while authorities didn't so much ignore the women's game as actively suppress it: the MCC did not permit female members until 1998; Pakistan did not have a women's team until 1997.

At its most basic level, the aim of a sport is to be watched and enjoyed. If a game is failing to do that, then really, what's the point?

The greatest single transformation since these times is T20. The format was alive and well in the 1990s, but restricted to club greens and school games. On England's new domestic T20 tournament, which launches in 2020 in a spirit of me-tooism, Engel writes: "My only interest - in common with many other cricket lovers - is the hope that the damnable thing is a total flop and that we can somehow save the game I once adored, and still love more than the people who have seized control of it."

The temptation remains to decry T20, to view it as a bastardisation of the sport, just as one-day cricket in coloured clothing was viewed when it was introduced in 1969, in England. And yet this ignores all that the format has done for the sport.

At its most basic level, the aim of a sport is to be watched and enjoyed. If a game is failing to do that, then really, what's the point? This is T20's greatest contribution: to help cricket become more popular. You can see it not just in the dynamism of the IPL or the Big Bash - in both its men's and women's tournaments - but also in the enraptured crowds that turn up at the Caribbean Premier League or the Pakistan Super League, and even in England, where the T20 Blast last year attracted an audience of over 900,000.

Of course, it is easy to deride T20 as opium for the attention-deficit age - and the format's brevity is indeed inherent to its appeal. Yet many don't just love it for the six-hitting - thrilling as that is - but for its nuance and intricacy, and how it is bringing baseball-style analytical thinking to cricket. Effectively T20 is two games: that which casual watchers can enjoy and be done with, and that which hardcore fans can analyse for long after.

And T20's greatest and most enduring impact, which should be celebrated by all cricket lovers, is to democratise the sport. It is a format easier to popularise in countries that were previously regarded as eccentric outposts: Afghanistan and even Hong Kong attract packed crowds for their domestic T20 leagues. Are all those new fans wrong? Would cricket be better off without them?

T20 is democratising the sport in another way too: by making it more meritocratic for players. Before T20, cricket was a world in which - unlike in other sports, where club games have a bigger share of their sport's ecosystem - if you had the wrong passport, you weren't allowed to fulfil your potential. If a player of Sachin Tendulkar's natural talent had been from Nepal, he wouldn't have had the opportunity to do much more than break copious records in the World Cricket League. The genius of T20 leagues is they don't care if, like Rashid Khan, you are from Kabul; only that your skills are good enough.

Never before has a cricketer from Afghanistan had the chance to become a global superstar

Never before has a cricketer from Afghanistan had the chance to become a global superstar © Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images

T20 has also been central to a broader story that nostalgists never stop to consider: the transformation of the women's game. This season's the Women's Big Bash League (WBBL) began with a peak audience of 629,000, and women's cricket is moving inexorably towards being self-sustainable. Within 15 years, the ICC hopes that its tournaments will have equal prize money for men and women.

It is now possible to make a lucrative career in women's cricket, which is no longer ravaged by leading players retiring in their early 20s because they were paid little, if anything, and could not juggle their playing commitments with their professional careers. Greater investment and exposure for women's cricket means a larger pool of elite cricketers worldwide, turbocharging the sport's evolution. On the opening weekend of this season's WBBL, there were six totals higher than anything managed in the entire 2016-17 season. Empowering female cricketers has led to more varied cricket, more role models, and more athletes like Nat Sciver with her "Natmeg", impudently hitting the ball between her legs.

All the while, men's Test cricket is the patient on life support from birth, forever derided as hopelessly out of sync with the modern world - whether that modern world was Victorian Britain or today's smartphone-addicted planet. Today, Engel fears, "Test cricket is becoming irrelevant" - a common refrain throughout the world.

And yet, for all their issues, Test matches have never been followed by so many - through TV, digital streaming, audio, or a sly tab of ESPNcricinfo's live scorecards in the office. Tests will soon be played by 12 countries, twice the number in 1980. They are still played almost as much as ever: as of the end of 2017, there have been 346 Tests for the decade - one fewer than in the 1990s, with two full years remaining.

The new structure for Test cricket locks in all the top nine nations for at least 12 Tests each for every two-year period. This will ensure a steady fixture list of Tests that, Australia and England aside, even established Test nations have often lacked. Pakistan played 30 Tests during the entire 1960s, and none at all in 2008; New Zealand's 1980s team, who had a fair claim to being the second best in the world for a period, only played 59 in the whole decade.

For all their issues, Test matches have never been followed by so many - through TV, digital streaming, audio or a sly tab of ESPNcricinfo's live scorecards in the office

One of the unacknowledged benefits of T20 is that it has forced Test cricket out of its torpor and compelled it to ask a question fundamental for any sport: how can we get more people to watch? That can be seen with the advent of day-night Test cricket, one of the simplest reforms in cricket history and one of the most significant. Admittedly the sample size is small, but day-night Tests are watched by 25% more people than day Tests.

For all the angst about the balance between bat and ball shifting irrevocably, there is little evidence, unlike in the shorter forms, that the bat is becoming more dominant in Test cricket. Since the 1990s, the average team score has risen by about 20 runs per innings, but it is five runs lower in the 2010s than in the 2000s. An accidental benefit of day-night Tests appears to be greater assistance for bowlers.

If - as seems likely - Test cricket is marginalised a little by T20, yet played by 12 nations in a structured competition, while players from other nations have the chances to enjoy fulfilling careers in the other formats, is that such a loss?

It seems crude, even unsporting, to talk of money when assessing a sport's overall health. Gideon Haigh's question in Death of a Gentleman a few years ago - "Does cricket make money to exist, or exist to make money?" - remains as pertinent today. And yet if no one is prepared to pay to follow or support the game, then there isn't any money left to develop and nurture it, to pay the players and organise the games. The money a sport earns, if spent properly - and, yes, in cricket and beyond, this has often not been the case - ensures its future vitality. The only thing worse than a sport having too much money is one not having enough of it.

The value of the ICC's commercial and broadcasting rights from 1999-2007 was US$550 million; the current rights cycle, from 2015-23, is expected to reach $2.5-2.6 billion, an increase of over three times in real terms. It has become more lucrative not just because of better marketing and negotiating. Most fundamentally, cricket has become more lucrative because more people want to watch - and not only T20.

Who's not watching Test cricket?

Who's not watching Test cricket? © Getty Images

Worldwide, viewers watched a total of 5.2 billion hours of the 2017 Champions Trophy, compared to 3.2 billion in 2013, a tournament that took place in the same country and at the same time of the year. In 2005, the year the ICC took over the running of international female cricket, not a single ball of that year's Women's World Cup was televised live. When Anya Shrubsole bowled England's women to their epic victory in the World Cup final this year, the match had a global unique viewership of 142 million - three and a half times the entire unique viewership of the 2013 Women's World Cup.

More people are playing, too. According to the ICC's official figures, there were 1.5 million cricket participants outside of the ten Full Member countries in 2015, compared to 277,000 in 2005. These figures probably don't give a completely accurate portrayal - many within Associate cricket have said they could be inflated because funding is linked to the number of participants - but the direction of travel accords with what has been happening on the ground. Afghanistan and Ireland were awarded Full Member status last year - inconceivable a decade ago. Cricket has made remarkable strides in nations as diverse as Germany, Nepal and Papua New Guinea.

Of course, just as it always has done, cricket has myriad problems. Think of the continuing scourge of match-fixing, the growing threat of doping, the challenge of ensuring that three formats can peacefully coexist, the continued disregard for Associate nations, and how the ascent of club cricket imperils the international game.

But cricket is a game that is slowly conquering the stigmas that it has always been weighed down by - not just its length and pace, but also its treatment of women, and its image as a crusty game for nations of the old British Empire alone. It is a game that asks more of its best players - who, if they play all formats, must be capable of scoring a 50-ball century or bowling four frugal overs at the death of a tight game, as well as batting or bowling for days.

What is emerging from this recalibration is a more democratic and more varied game - three games, in fact. Cricket has never been played and enjoyed by so many people across countries, continents and genders. Take a step back and you will see a sport that, for all its flux, has never had it so good.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts