Still The Best Loved Game?

Published: 2019
Pages: 286
Author: Cole, Neil
Publisher: Two Hens Press
Rating: 3.5 stars

Cricket Agonistes. Again. No genre of any sport maintains a sense of existential angst like English cricket. Such is the navel gazing, mea culpa, apologising for its own existence nature of the higher levels of the domestic game that English cricket seems to be perpetually finding ways to change rather than accepting the magnificence of the sport whilst expounding such magnificence to the world at large.

Perhaps the only benefit from such a state is that a niche for books discussing the English game and its enduring popularity has been forged, the latest of which, Still the Best Loved Game?, has been penned by Neil Cole. Taking its inspiration from Geoffrey Moorhouse’s The Best Loved Game, written during the 1978 season and published the following year, Cole’s offering also tips its hat at Duncan Hamilton’s A Last English Summer from nearly a decade ago.

Much like Hamilton’s tome, Cole journeys far and wide around the country, physically and metaphorically, as he watches matches across the whole oeuvre of standards, from internationals to club matches to the archetypal village contest, from the splendour of Lord’s to the county heartlands of Taunton and Worcester to the Lancashire League hotbed of Accrington. The aim of such perambulations are to gauge the mood and popularity of the nation’s supposed summer sport in the midst of the latest round of existential angst.

Cole’s tour begins amid the chill of early April at Edgbaston and a round of University matches but it is at a tour match at Leicester that he highlights one of county cricket’s more enduring positives: how one can leave one’s belongings on or under the seat at a match and wander off somewhere without fear of their possessions being stolen by one of their fellow spectators. Indeed, the early chapters feature the odd nugget of information that proves intriguing such as how the University Championship is now dominated by non-Oxbridge institutions as the emphasis at Oxford and Cambridge is so biased toward academic success as opposed to sporting.

Nevertheless, after two or three meandering chapters the subject matter of the book appears during the women’s international between England and South Africa. Here Cole highlights the difference in atmosphere at a women’s match when England were struggling; encouragement and joy rather than frustration and impatience at the team’s shortcomings that are often prevalent at men’s matches. Similarly interesting is how women’s cricket is enjoying an increase in crowds because women and girls now have female cricketers that they can follow and support as opposed to simply men.

Perhaps the first major salient point regarding the current zeitgeist of the county game develops in the chapter on the One-Day Cup Final, between Hampshire and Kent. Cole highlights how the competition has been affected by continual change, resulting in a dissipation of the excitement and drama in recent years due to the constant tinkering. Similarly detrimental effects have developed due to the move from a knock-out competition to a league equivalent that often features too many meaningless contests whilst the changes have led to a loss of identity, both for supporters and players.

Indeed, the chapter in general proves a rather perceptive offering. Further to his comments on the day itself Cole also outlines how Hampshire went from plain Hampshire to the Hampshire Hawks to the Hampshire Royals and back to plain Hampshire and how meaningless nicknames often distance clubs from supporters rather than attracting new ones. Nevertheless, despite the falling popularity of the Cup Final Cole pleasingly describes the unique atmosphere at Lord’s, comparing it to the buzz of a million bees.

One senses that Cole is an advocate of cricket’s great traditions but he shows an adept awareness of the issues facing the sport in such capricious times. Thus, he visits Taunton for a Kia Super League / T20 Blast double header and highlights how the shortest format is that most enjoyed by younger generations but how tastes change as one grows older and one appreciates longer format cricket. He also questions, akin to most current supporters, the ECB’s insistence on a new format when the current T20 Blast attracts good crowds full of the younger generations. In contrast, the chapter on the Lord’s test celebrates the extraordinary nature of the event but also highlights the difficulties faced by the long form of the game at large despite the bumper crowds that watch matches in England. Nevertheless, Cole does make a very salient point regarding any future decisions on the longest-form of the game. He succinctly highlights that the apocryphal belief that test cricket is on the wane and the continued uttering of such myths could prove dangerous as they could soon become believed or perceived fact by dint of being proclaimed so often. Ergo, proper investigation for the truth is unlikely to be undertaken and changes put in place regardless of the actual facts which fail to address the real issues with the format.

Cole follows his four days at Lord’s with an apt juxtaposition courtesy of a village match, often the figurative beating heart of the English game. Whilst sat in rural Hertfordshire, Cole muses on the challenges facing the club game including the main causes celebres such as dwindling participation, folding clubs, the high percentage of drop out players in their late teens (an issue that the ECB’s All-Stars drive fails to address) and the effects of an increasingly time poor society. Amidst such stark observations, Cole makes another salient point: many clubs have ceased fielding friendly sides so that people who wish to play cricket for fun rather than league placings, points and divisions are left with few options.

Indeed, the final handful of chapters paint something of a bleak picture of English cricket’s current existence but Cole, in the Conclusion, highlights the many positives that pervade the domestic game but are often overlooked in the penchant for navel gazing and apologising. For instance, attendances at county matches have increased in recent times, including the Championship, whilst the Blast has witnessed significant growth in the last 5 years. Although it is rarely highlighted, the County Championship is comfortably the best supported domestic first-class competition in the sport. Cole also highlights an obvious point regarding attendances that is oft overlooked or conveniently ignored: the Championship may attract modest crowds dominated by a certain sector of society but it is largely played during the middle of the week in contrast to the Blast with its evening and weekend matches. Apples and pears and all that. Similarly interesting is the assertion that just because first-class cricket doesn’t appeal to the younger generation one shouldn’t readily conclude that they are not interested in cricket as a sport; the success of All-Stars cricket has demonstrated as such. Cole also re-enforces the point he outlined in chapter four, that covering the women’s international between England and South Africa, underlining the marked increases in attendances and general upsurge in interest in the women’s game; not just from women and girls but also from men.

Cole concludes by asking the title of the book: Is cricket still the best loved game? Granted, the sport has been overtaken by the Football juggernaut in recent times, and other sports such as Rugby, has disappeared from mainstream television and is rarely played in state schools but Cole makes an interesting point regarding the position of the game in the English psyche at large. Plenty of people may not be interested in cricket as a sport but, if asked to describe a village scene, many are likely to describe a village cricket match in their vision. They may not follow the sport but, as Cole highlights, they appreciate its existence and are pleased that it is still part of daily life. The sport may not be the best loved game but it is still a game very much loved.

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