The marketing world’s efforts to improve cricket’s image have been laughable. As this summer has shown, all the sport needed was a winning England team
Even now, days after the event, the garden bushes of Kennington are still yielding up their bleary-eyed drunks. Strangers still bump into each other and smile in a dazed kind of way. And everywhere one can see the surprised grin normally worn by one who has pulled on a pair of ancient trousers previously missing and assumed lost and found that not only do they fit, but there’s also a &£20 note in the hip pocket.
Yes, against seemingly impossible odds, we won the Ashes and the nation erupted in a riot of joy. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. Sportswriters in the more serious newspapers reached for their copies of Mr Roget’s Thesaurus and declared England’s victory to be decidedly, absolutely, finally, unequivocally, unreservedly, and essentially glorious, dazzling, splendid, magnificent, marvellous, wonderful, terrific and superb, while their counterparts on the less serious newspapers were content to observe that the Australian team had well and truly had it stuffed up them.
Years from now grizzled, wrinkled men will dandle a grandchild on their knee and recall that they were there at the Oval on that September day in 2005. “I was wearing my Zulu warrior outfit and I can remember it as if it were yesterday. Suddenly, I saw myself on the big screen and quick as a flash I waved my assegai, rolled my eyes and stuck out my tongue. And your Uncle Bill who, if memory serves me right, was dressed as Queen Victoria, danced a conga with a tattooed lady from Ealing.”
The unbearably tense Ashes summer was a victory for many things: for sportsmanship, skill, bravery, tenacity and good humour; for national pride, high-spirited enjoyment, and fellow feeling; and, above all, for cricket. But let it not be said that it was a victory for marketing.
The year of cricket redivivus happened not because of marketing, but in spite of it. For if there is one thing that has marred and hampered this great game in recent years it is the itchy-fingered meddling of the PR girls, researchers, branding experts and image consultants.
Those who run cricket had rightly observed – it was as plain as the nose on Cyrano de Bergerac – that theirs was a game in decline, or rather a game lacking in popular appeal, which wasn’t quite the same thing. So they called in the outside experts, who wrongly diagnosed that the problem with cricket was that it was not football. What was needed was colour, rapid movement and instant gratification. Plus artificially injected excitement, which translated as loud music. They thought of everything – leggy cheerleaders, Jacuzzis on the boundary, and, at Lord’s, Jools Holland so amplified that the windows in mansions throughout St John’s Wood rattled and the amalgam fillings of the residents fell out. They gave Lord’s a logo and a slogan, “The home of cricket”, when it needed neither, and introduced Twenty20, a form of the game so mutilated that it was like chess played with only pawns.
The aim of the marketers was to attract to cricket an audience interested in anything other than cricket – music, dancing, beefburgers, high-kicking girls, you name it.
The problem, however, was not off the pitch, but on it. The crowds had melted away because they were sick of the dispiriting spectacle of watching England lose, year after year. A losing team cheer-led by strutting nymphets and accompanied by Jools Holland at the piano is still a losing team.
There are diehard followers of cricket, among whom I count myself, who would rather see England lose at cricket than see no cricket at all, but we are in a minority. What most people want are winners. Many, it is true, lack the sporting spirit: like those who flock to Wimbledon, they applaud the opponent’s errors and are graceless in defeat, but, for all that, there is nothing to compare with the throbbing excitement and unbearable tension of a closely fought contest in which your side looks like scrambling home.
This summer provided the tormented thrill of living drama in spades, and with every passing day of every Test the emotional agony grew and so did the interest until it seemed there was not a soul left in the land who was not gripped by the slowly unfolding saga.
Next year will be different. Cricket is bound to lose many of the instant followers it acquired this season. But enough will remain, curious to see and learn more of this wonderful, complex, fascinating sport. And as long as England keep winning, their support will last. Pity, though, that so many of these new adherents will no longer be able to watch the summer game on terrestrial television. You can blame the marketers for that, too.