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Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Ashes and the Place of Cricket in the 21st Century

Ed Grayson explores the future of cricket after England's Ashes defeat

My whole life, I have been an avid cricket fan. I began playing the sport aged 9 in my back garden with my Dad, and I seemed to have a knack for it. I self-taught myself to bowl and was coming out with some relative quickies in no time, at least for my age. This was all not long after the passing of my grandfather who himself had been a top player, representing his school side in just his first year at school. It seemed to be a way for my father and me to connect with the memory of my late grandfather whilst doing something we both know he would have been very proud of. It is, of course, a great regret of mine that the man I called ‘Gangar’ never got to see me play.

Cricket is a dying art; a game that, many say, is moving behind the times. With dark, imperial undertones, the success of the sport proliferated at home and throughout the Empire in the 19th century, intended to ‘civilise’ the natives of the colonies. The success of those such as Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli in India, for example, are triumphs over such ignorance. But through their nation’s participation in a sport played almost exclusively by ex-British colonies, it is also an awkward reminder of both cricket and Britain’s imperial past.

The Ashes, too, was born out of this imperial context. After the first Australian win on English soil at The Oval in 1882, the satirical sports newspaper The Sporting Times claimed that English cricket had “died”, the body of which would be “cremated and the ashes taken to Australia”. The English captain of the next 1882-3 tour to Australia, Ivo Bligh, vowed to “regain those ashes”, which, in fact, he did.

Nearly 150 years later, we find ourselves as English fans in the same predicament that Mr Bligh found himself in 1882. The first test ended in Australia this year with an Aussie win by 9 wickets; the second by 275 runs; the third by an innings and 14 runs. As I write, Jonny Bairstow is 103 not-out in the fourth test; but his persistence seems rather futile. Nevertheless, I imagine it can’t hurt to score runs on Aussie soil.

The defeat Down Under however, is particularly worrying this year in light of the developments taking place behind the scenes at the ECB in the past couple of years. Test cricket is no longer a priority. Short-form games are prioritised, and receives most of the funding. The Hundred, a success, I will admit, is indicative of this neglect; and even though last summer was as brilliant as it was, particularly for the women’s game, this Ashes proved to be a test at the side’s resolve and capabilities at the long form of the game. Australia does, of course, have the Big Bash, but evidently is better at balancing its short and long-form foci. Perhaps lessons could be learnt from our Aussie cousins; I would advise they should be, however hard it may be.

This leaves English cricket in a precarious predicament at the dawn of 2022. It is not a sport, perhaps, that is attractive to younger audiences; nor is the test team at a level where the country is as captivated by their talent as we were last summer with the football at the European Championships, though the one-day sides are quite impressive. It is, indeed, a dying art. Or is it evolving? As a purest, I see its supposed ‘evolution’ as dangerous, and lacking precedent. The Ashes, a source of national pride but also one of the most fantastic athletic spectacles on the planet, cannot continue to fade into the abyss as this series threatens for the English. But perhaps this is a case of “adapt or die”. I know the game I fell in love with as a child, that I remember my grandfather through, will not be the same again in the 21st century. But what I do know is that I wish it to survive. My mind is not made up yet as to how, but in light of the Ashes, it appears it might be made up for me sooner rather than later.

Image: Davidmollyphotography / CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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