Alastair Cook breaching the 10,000 test runs barrier. Alex Hales breaking England’s highest individual ODI score. England setting a new world record in a format at which they’ve traditionally been woefully unsuccessful. All in one summer. Easily the most competitive summer since the glory days of 2005, hope and belief for English cricket was plentiful in 2016. The problem is, even in the absence of the Premier League, and especially following a disappointingly boring European Championships, no one cared.
Nobody was stopping strangers in the street and asking them “did you see Alex Hales score 171?” or “were you watching when Alastair Cook went past 10,000 test runs?” Ask yourself this; have you talked to a fellow Briton about Jason Kenny joining Sir Chris Hoy on six gold medals, or his fiancé Laura Trott gaining her fourth? I’m fairly sure you would have discussed Andy Murray’s Wimbledon and Olympic double, touched upon Max Whitlock becoming the first Briton to win gold in the gymnastics or witnessed Mo Farah’s successful defence of his double double.
When it comes to BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY), all the Olympians above will be on the list. All going well in the Paralympics, Dame Sarah Storey and Jonnie Peacock, at least, will join them. On the list of ten, or even 12 if they expand it again, will there be a place for Joe Root, James Anderson or Alastair Cook? Will there be one for Chris Woakes, whose summer has propelled him from part-time international player to the first name on the team sheet? There wasn’t last year, why would there be this? SPOTY offers a rare opportunity for free exposure. Cricketers are once again finding themselves cast out.
This summer is no different to 2012, or 2008 before it. Cricket takes a backseat when the Olympics come around. For some, the cricket buffs, this prospect is sickening. For most, the Olympics only exist on a four-year cycle. Cricket happens every year, and if you miss one day, you can watch the next. If you miss Usain Bolt’s 100m gold, the same is not true. Cricket loses significance during Olympic summers, and before it could cope with that. But now, every Olympic summer drives another nail in the coffin of cricket’s slow death.
We know that participation levels are falling; we’ve seen that the ECB have had their budget cuts due to failing to meet growth targets. For those without Sky, the only cricket they can see all summer on TV is BBC highlights of wickets or sixes or channel 5’s hour long show every evening of test cricket. And even then, why watch cricket when you can watch the Olympics? I consider myself one of the aforementioned cricket buffs, yet even I preferred the Olympics.
Cricket needs the Olympics more than the Olympics needs cricket. In England, the five most popular sports, by participation level, are swimming, athletics, cycling, football and golf. All five are Olympic sports. Table tennis participation is growing; cricket is falling – yet another feather in the Olympics’ cap.
And it’s not just in England where the Olympics could help cricket. Outside of India and the rest of the subcontinent, cricket has no relevance. When hockey was introduced into the Olympics in 1908, only three countries took part. Argentina didn’t arrive until 1968. This summer they won gold in the men’s tournament. Hockey’s legacy at the Olympics will be introducing more countries to the sport than just Britain and Northern Europe. Cricket could find itself with a similar legacy in 30 to 40 years time.
The biggest criticisms of cricket made by people are that it takes too long, is too complicated, and nothing really happens. But then, realistically, you could argue the same about golf. And that had a successful reintroduction to the Olympics this summer. Also, cricket has a ready-made format perfect for Olympic digestion. Olympic sports are short and snappy, which is what T20 is. But if 40 overs is too long, then why not try a ten over a side shootout, or a five? Would that really reduce the skill set required by the players? Or would it not increase specialisation and allow more youngsters the chance to sample the furious and exciting nature of the sport? Is it not the case that the shorter the sport, the more likely it is to be exciting?
Picture this: a five-a-side cricket match played with five overs each on a pitch with short boundaries. Only three bowlers are allowed to bowl overs, two with two and one with another. In your five, you’d realistically pick one bowler, one batter, one wicket-keeper and two all-rounders.
Wouldn’t it be exciting to see Great Britain sacrificing Moeen or Rashid to gain an extra batter and giving Root an over of spin to bowl? Or South Africa having to choose between Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn? The West Indies, competing, of course, as individual nations, would have all their stars on show. With the shorter format, more matches could be packed into the same session – much like the successful Rugby Sevens. For the price of a ticket to one T20 match in this country, you could see hours of exciting action. The pitch wouldn’t deteriorate; the action wouldn’t let up.
Cricket has been at the Olympics before. In 1900, in Paris, a two-day match between a British side and a French one comprising of mainly ex-pats was a dull affair. The Olympics have moved on since 1900, and cricket has too. The exile has been too long; the need for exposure is now too great. In 2012, this country got so swept away by golden fever that we forgot all about England’s awful summer. In 2016, the country was once again caught up in a gold rush, but this time, we missed an enthralling summer. No longer can cricket be ignored, no longer can cricket sit at home while other sports get the attention, interest and free airing cricket so desperately needs.