In defence of cricket clubs – do they exist to excel at cricket or to run social experiments?

Any opinions that go against current orthodoxy are unwanted and liable to be met with abuse. Nevertheless it is important to consider whether the push for cricket clubs to find players that are not just ‘the best’ but represent certain demographics will have side-effects. We must also consider whether these side-effects are actually what is being sought by those pushing these ideas.

It has been a basic assumption since Gloucestershire played Yorkshire in 1890 that county cricket clubs exist to win cricket matches. It seems the most basic of factual statements that sports teams try above all else to win matches and competitions. It has indeed been the case until recently that selectors in any sport chose their teams based on their players’ ability.

This approach is being rejected at the moment in cricket. Clubs are starting to take diversity into account when choosing teams. The chairman of Middlesex has recently been quoted as saying,

I speak on behalf of the entire Club in saying that our desire is to see a first eleven walking out to play for the Club which is truly reflective of the broadly diverse county that Middlesex is today and that we will do all within our power to make that happen.

This approach means that the focus is no longer just excellence but also diversity. It seems clear that if you have two targets rather than one, it is harder to hit both. People may say that the aim of a cricket club should be to reflect the local demographics, that a focus on diversity is a good and proper aim. If so it must be accepted that seeking excellence is being laid aside, particularly when clubs are called to quickly find new players in demographics that don’t play cricket.

The push for kids who don’t play cricket ignores the fact that most kids prefer football. In an ideal world the names of cricket players would be on everyone’s lips and kids would shout ‘jumpers for wickets’ before having a quick game of cricket between lessons. But in the real world football is what they follow. Everywhere you look, football players are revered and featured in the papers. Kids with no family history of footballing pick it up in the playground. In comparison, even among cricket lovers, there is no doubt that cricket is a niche sport. There is not a weekly Match of the Day showing highlights. Cricket is time-consuming, has complex laws and needs expensive kit that’s heavy to lug around. Players aren’t revered and aren’t all millionaires. All the action takes place in the middle of a field with a small ball that’s frankly hard to see. Kids and adults alike often have to say ‘What happened?’ Umpiring is difficult, too much can depend on a finger raised in mistake. In football a bad decision might put you one-nil down, but there is time to regroup and come back. In cricket if the umpire gives you out erroneously there is no comeback. The afternoon is ruined.

All of which suggests that there are many reasons why a kid who likes football is not going to be seduced by cricket. To succeed you really need a parent who’s obsessed and listens to TMS.

This push to find cricket players amongst non-cricketing demographics ignores the fact that – hard though it is to admit – cricket isn’t more fun than other sports. Of course many of us think that with its five day matches and five match series it is a richer game, but most children who play football aren’t going to suddenly pick up a bat and think ‘at last I have found the sport I was born to play’.

The occasional one may, and clubs should put on coaching and training for all-comers. Cricket can be expensive to play and that can rule out many kids who could be encouraged to play by schemes to help poorer kids of all backgrounds. But though some will like the madness of cricket, many will think it is over-complicated, leads not to riches, adulation and evening games against Barcelona, and prefer one of the many other sports available to them.

Having set up a pathway open to all, clubs should not obsess over the demographics of the kids on their courses or the players in their teams. Teach anyone who comes and take the best onto the next level, regardless of background. To focus on representing the local demographics is to not focus on producing a winning team.

Some may say that the push for diversity is worth it and is a better aim than purely winning. Clubs will come to their own decisions, but it must be recognised that it fundamentally changes the raison d’être of the club.

Clubs have to decide, are they in the business of winning cricket matches or are they running social enterprises. Is getting their hands on the trophy the most important thing, or are the colour of the hands on the trophy most important. Because contrary to the diversity above all else narrative, they cannot focus on both. The reallocation of resources and loss of focus will reduce the level of cricket achieved. A worse team will attract less fans, worse players, will be less successful and will make less money. This push for diversity ASAP, which is couched as the only true desirable outcome could be the catalyst for cricket’s demise.

What do you think? Please leave a comment below?

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