Cricket’s falling star isn’t a one-sport phenomenon – it’s a widespread issue. By working together to resolve, we’ll be a nation in better shape.
My love affair with cricket began not with an expensive bat on a regulation pitch or even the makeshift stumps we chalked on lampposts as kids, but on TV in the late 70s.
I grew up in Yorkshire, cricket’s spiritual home, but my school missed the participation memo. I hadn’t the opportunity to explore cricket, so my latent passion for the game – and whatever talent was or wasn’t rumbling around – had to be channelled elsewhere.
As standard, my school offered football, rugby (league of course), athletics in summer and, courtesy of a proactive local council club, golf too. As it often does, early exposure spurned a lifelong connection and today I love my football; run marathons around the world, and (at one point) I had a golf handicap of nine.
With cricket, I had to find my own path and only began properly engaging with it around my mid-teens. But I was an exception: the age at which I fell for cricket is, in fact, the sport’s drop zone.
Cricket bodies today recognise the perils of the mid-teens – one day they’re cricket daft, the next they’re drifting away as life opens up and the old bat and ball can’t compete with the lure of more glamorous pastimes.
But here’s the rub: cricket’s falling star isn’t a one-sport problem, it’s a pan-sport issue.
Unless a deep bond is forged early, talent gets squandered, fandom gets lost and would-be casuals give up on healthy, social habits that might just serve them well.
At Yorkshire Cricket we moved in this direction, opening up and strengthening bonds with the almost 800 local cricket clubs across the county. We also forged strong links with the Leeds Rhinos to tackle a shared problem and made significant inroads to engage youngsters, albeit in a finite geography.
For reasons of health, community, discipline, social wellbeing – uncovering a passion for some kind of activity should be the overall objective.
If each sport were to see participation as the goal and cease fighting for their own little corner, youngsters can get early exposure that may bond them to a sport for life, whether as fans, amateurs or professionals.
I don’t care if a young girl tries cricket and hates it, at least the attempt has been made. She can then move on to sample rugby, netball, hockey or athletics to find a better fit.
Utopian, sure. But connecting young people to sport, not a sport, should be the national goal. If such a dynamic thickens the talent pool and leads to more medals on the world stage – great. If it ramps up physical activity, improves the nation’s health record and means more bums in seats come matchday – even better.
If every sport is left to fend for itself, we’re all left to pan for gold in a national talent pool – leaving the majority mass and the hidden gems behind.
In a recent interview, I was asked when I first started playing cricket and the answer is never. I’ve had the odd amateur roll-around but I’ve never played. The closest I came was having Liam Plunkett, the fastest bowler in the county, hurl 100mph grenades at me.
I’ve been lucky. The age I fell under cricket’s spell meant my playing career was finished before it got started but I managed to get involved suit-side and experience the odd moment facing down the pros. Even if it nearly cost me a limb.
BatFast is a move in this direction. Having units at TenPin bowling, fitness clubs, shopping centres and town squares mean taking it out of venues where only cricket’s initiated can get access. That would be a status quo move and we’re aiming for progress.
Our priority is gifting cricket to anyone: the untapped millions who, for reasons of image and access, need an obvious, no-brainer new vehicle. BatFast is that.
Convert the youngsters and you might just plant a seed that flowers at Headingley circa 2030. Convert the adults and at the very least you may just shift a few more test match tickets.