Journalist and Broadcaster
Russell Holden, in his far ranging and mostly exhaustive study of Cricket and Contemporary Society in Britain, sets himself the task of understanding how Cricket has become increasingly less popular and prominent within British society despite both the men’s and women’s national teams achieving a series of stunning on-field successes in the last decade and a half. As he says in his opening remarks, “the challenge and core concern of this volume is to explain how sporting success particularly after a number of barren years has, to some extent, backfired on the status and impact of Britain’s prime summer sport.” In this endeavour Holden largely succeeds, despite being at something of a disadvantage. His study was completed before two high profile investigations into allegations of racism at Yorkshire County Cricket Club and within the Scotland national team reported their findings earlier this year. These latest revelations would certainly have impacted, especially on his chapters that examine the South Asian community in the UK and cricket within the devolved nations.
From the very outset Holden lets us know who his main influences are. Mike Marqusee (1953–2015), who wrote possibly the most important contribution to understanding how cricket is understood within the British psyche (Anyone But England 1995) was a self-described “deracinated New York Marxist Jew” who moved to England and became obsessed with cricket. A fervent critic of the Lord’s establishment (who at the time Marqusee was writing effectively ran not just English cricket, but also the world game), he despaired at the smallminded elitism that was more interested in maintaining tradition dating back to the 19th Century than in growing the game both within the UK and in the wider world. For Marqusee, the cricket authorities were intent more in maintaining their power than spreading the game to a wider audience.
Holden, however, recognises that a new power structure is also now in place which was far less apparent when Marqusee was writing at the turn of the 21st Century; namely neo-liberalism, which prioritises the monetization of sport far above the maintenance of tradition and the expression of abstract virtues such as selflessness, honesty and respect for authority. This recognition leads him to conclude that “the future direction of cricket revolves around the issue of whether sport, and in this instance, cricket best evolves through paternalistic planning by national and international institutions or whether it is better served in the long run by being open to the more self-interested and unpredictable influence of market forces. The most appropriate response is to attempt to balance and manage these two contrasting approaches.”
He rightly identifies the period straight after that Ashes win in 2005 as one characterised by drift, confusion, and the pursuit of revenue at the expense of engagement with the wider communities within the UK.
Holden acknowledges though that a Marxist or neo-Marxist approach has its limitations and the other most important influence on him is the figurational sociologist Norbert Elias. Holden tells us: “The core of this [figurational] approach is that human beings are inherently social and interdependent, therefore the context in which humans behave and act are increasingly complex with individuals influencing and being influenced by a greater range of people and factors as the consequences of human actions including the display of emotions from social identities ripple widely through society and incorporate factors from a range of disciplines. Elias declares that there is a connection between the long-term structural development of societies and changes in people’s social behaviour and habits.”
At this point it is important that readers of this review appreciate that its author is not an academic. I am a broadcaster and journalist and as a result am not qualified to critique this approach, though I will say that Holden could perhaps get on speaking terms with either commas, or the construction of shorter sentences as the above quote most certainly demonstrates.
What does flow from this approach, though, is a wide ranging and detailed examination of why cricket in the UK has failed so many of its different social and ethnic communities since the landmark victory in the Ashes of 2005; a victory that ended 16 years without success in Test Match cricket against Australia. This victory was achieved just six years after England were officially ranked the worst side in the world and within a further six years they would go on to be ranked number one.
The main target of criticism from Holden is the governing body; the England and Wales Cricket Board (EWCB) whom he repeatedly reminds us declined to contribute to his study. He rightly identifies the period straight after that Ashes win in 2005 as one characterised by drift, confusion, and the pursuit of revenue at the expense of engagement with the wider communities within the UK. As cricket disappeared from free to air (FTA) broadcasting in the UK and hid behind a paywall it became increasingly unnoticed. Football had for years been on a relentless march to supremacy within the British sporting psyche but while cricket was visible to millions without subscription TV, its players had a considerable notoriety. Holden makes this assertion strenuously, pointing out that England’s leading run scorer, Alastair Cook, played his entire career (2006-2018) away from FTA television. Elite players, some of them the best England has ever produced, were and to a large extent still are, invisible.
Why does this matter? Well, as Holden expertly demonstrates, the stories of players and the visibility of their successes act as inspirations for generations to come. His chapter on the sharp decline of participation among the British Afro-Caribbean community places strong emphasis not just on the inaccessibility of cricket to the UK’s less advantaged communities as it becomes increasingly a game for the public school educated elite, but also the lack of visible success of black cricketers as the West Indies national team went into sharp decline from the mid 1990s. The stories that people tell each other of great feats that inspire the young simply weren’t there anymore.
Again, Holden is excellent on debunking the absurdity of the so called ‘Tebbit Test’; a ludicrous notion put forward by former Conservative minister Norman Tebbit in the 1980s that UK based immigrants from across the former Empire should support the England national team rather than the country of their parents’ or grandparents’ birth. This point is strongly to the fore when he examines the growth of the game among the South Asian population of the UK. Here participation and engagement is growing as the epicentre of cricket shifted from London to the Indian sub-continent at the turn of the 21st Century; the “Indianization” of Cricket, as Holden puts it. Young South Asians watch India and Pakistan in large numbers when those teams play in England. Asian recreational cricket leagues have also been set up around the country but most notably in Yorkshire. In these developments Holden also sees failure of the authorities properly to exploit this enthusiasm; however, the racism scandal that is now engulfing cricket in Yorkshire might well have helped Holden provide a more comprehensive context. This is no fault of the author, of course. The findings of that report have only recently come to light.
Not all is doom and gloom, though. Holden makes the obvious suggestion, and scandalously one that I have never heard, that the EWCB could look to South Asian businesses for prominent sponsorship roles. Currently pretty much all high-profile sponsors of the national game (with the exception of Specsavers) have traditionally come from the world of finance (Investec, Cornhill Insurance, Brit Insurance). As engagement with the South Asian community improves, and there are strong signs that it is improving through programmes particularly in the Midlands as well as via the prominence of players such as Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, Holden’s recommendation may soon become a reality.
Holden identifies the rapid rise of participation and televisual prominence in women’s cricket as a source for optimism. Again he is unfortunate not to have witnessed the success of the Women’s Hundred, a new short form tournament that launched in 2021 after Holden had finished his investigations, as this would have added further fuel to his justified positivity, but as the game becomes more feminised, there is a genuine hope that it can break from the shackles of traditionalism and embrace a new audience.
Ultimately this study, while being a forensic examination of the factors at work that define the various British communities’ relationship with Cricket, is a labour of love. Holden wants to know “how [cricket] can capture the nation once more as the chief summer sport and not completely drop off the sporting radar during the winter months”. He believes it can be done through successful national men’s and women’s teams and “[by engaging] as widely as possible in projecting a sport that is accessible, open, safe and free of injustice and discrimination”. Like many lovers of this truly remarkable sport, I sincerely hope he’s right.
Copyright © Daniel Norcross 2022