Every country has its mythology. It doesn’t have to be true — indeed, it’s often better if it isn’t, the carapace of half-truths it so acquires vaccinating it from the impact of those pesky hard facts — and England is no exception.
Since King John signed Magna Carta a few miles upriver from The Oval in 1215, England’s (later the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s) constitution has been an ephemeral thing, fragile yet fungible, surviving the rise and fall of Empire, World Wars and insurrections (in England in mid 17th century and in Ireland in the late 20th century) along with other more minor skirmishes.
Yet the very constitution that binds four nations under one flag, that balances the interests of big cities and picture postcard villages, that maintains the uneasy truce between rich and poor, feels like it’s creaking under pressure as the country drifts and lists having hit the iceberg of Brexit in June 2016, shipping water ever since.
People want change – any change, as long as it’s change. History warns that opportunists can find leverage in such environments and they seldom bring peace and goodwill in their wake.
In May 2019’s European elections, in Lambeth (where The Oval is located) fewer than 10% voted for The Brexit Party; in County Durham (where The Riverside Ground, Chester-le-Street, is located) 40% voted for The Brexit Party. These are not two differing interests that a little give and take, a little hypocritical British compromising, an old school managerial politics can solve — these are two different views of the world, two different futures that will resolve into one, inevitably leaving millions embittered and resentful. Cricketers will be travelling through a troubled land.
It is against this febrile backdrop that England hosts its fifth World Cup, having welcomed the cricketing world (well, some of it) in the unexpectedly hugely successful tournament of 1975, a splendid repeat show in 1979, the paradigm-shifting Indian success of 1983 and the damp squib of 1999, best remembered for a cock-up of an opening ceremony and a cock-up of a South African run out.
The atmosphere is no less febrile in English cricket too, where some of Brexit’s arguments (somewhat refracted) are also being played out.
The ECB (The England and Wales Cricket Board) have thrown almost all of their chips into the pot called The Hundred, the bastard offspring of the IPL and go-getting market researchers. Like other franchise competitions around the world, The Hundred will have eight teams based in major population centres and marketed to within an inch of their lives. But it will also have a format that will see sides bat 100 balls (counted down on the scoreboards) and bowlers deliver five or ten ball overs (I’m not sure, but definitely not six) and will make an appeal to “mums and kids” who (apparently) find Twenty20 both incomprehensible and too long.
Yes, that is the sound of the baby going down the drain with the bathwater.
Incredibly, having achieved the one thing most fans seem to want more than any other — the return of live cricket to free-to-air television — the ECB have alienated them almost to a man (if not to an, ahem, mum and kid). The already crowded cricket calendar has to accommodate another tournament. So, from 2020, the only 50 overs domestic competition will be played for by “development teams”, and the ties of top-level cricket to its counties will be broken for the first time since WG Grace’s time.
As with Brexit, these different interest groups appear to have no common ground — in the zero sum game that is English domestic cricket, one side will win and one will lose.
Despite that, the England team is in fine fettle, with batting and bowling resources the envy of other nations. It’s a team that reflects England too: British Asians, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid alongside Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow; men with heritages around the world, like Tom Curran and Jofra Archer, sharing a dressing room with Chris Woakes and Mark Wood. And this kaleidoscope of mankind is led by Eoin Morgan, a Dubliner who is the leader of his adopted nation in every sense.
Best of all, the migrations of Europeans and other nationalities into England — something that always appears as a concern for those who voted for Brexit to end Freedom of Movement, means that all 10 teams will find supporters at their matches, a person’s heritage largely accepted as a reason to shout for one’s team – no more Tebbit Test. The stands will be a blaze of partisan and, largely, good natured crowds.
England do not play like England (in any sport) traditionally play. The ball is hit hard, the players do not fear that failure will lead to instant exile and, you won’t believe this if you haven’t seen it, they seem to enjoy their work and each other’s company. 44 years on, England have found a formula that might just work.
In 2005, England’s storied Ashes win helped heal a country reeling after terrorist attacks in London, and made people look at their fellow man (especially if he was bearded and carrying a rucksack) with suspicion. That doesn’t happen so much these days, sullen hostility now given voice online and in shouty debate shows.
Cricket doesn’t command the nation’s attention like it did 14 years ago (that subscription TV deal to blame for many, but people’s free time has so many other calls these days too), so, if the home favourites do deliver, any euphoria will be limited in its scope.
England, and the game it gave to its old empire, faces an uncertain future.
© Island Cricket