England’s Cricket World Cup has Mark Perryman hunting out his favourite CLR James quote to make sense of it all
Cricket’s version of the ‘years of hurt’, 44 in this case, came to a spectacular end early last Sunday evening. Thrilling, eventful, and glorious, no wonder the front pages the following morning were full of it. The sub-editor who came up with the headline ‘Champagne Super Over’ is surely in line for a hefty bonus.
For a certain version of a miserabilist left all this amounts to is a concocted, nationalistic, distraction from more important matters at hand. For others, its hip-hip-hooray the world has changed at the flick of a super over and superior number of wickets taken, the nation will take up bat and ball, obesity crisis, what crisis? The truth lies somewhere in-between, or as CLR James famously put it,
‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know.’
The hoo-hah over the tournament’s TV broadcasting rights sold off to the highest bidder, aka a Sky TV subscription channel, illustrates this perfectly. While the Women’s Football World Cup campaign of England, and Scotland, attracted record-breaking viewing figures, in their millions, over 12 million for England’s semi-final, until the Cricket World Cup final, after much pressure shared with Channel 4, the tournament scraped by on a few hundred thousand viewers. The contrast couldn’t be more obvious, ever since the birth of satellite TV hyped up claims have been made about the virtue of its generous purchase of TV rights, yet in every single case those following the sport on TV have plummeted, popular interest squandered, and the largesse wasted. And of course participation levels declined. Why on earth would any host nation allow a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a domestic World Cup be squandered in this way? Yet this summer we have not one but two examples, Cricket and Netball. The latter wasting the biggest chance it has ever had to grow a sport virtually every woman in this country has played during their schooldays. A sport the overwhelming majority promptly give up when walking out the school gates for the last time, never to return to the netball court. There’s been a modest reversal of this depressing trend following England’s Commonwealth Games Gold Medal but nothing like on the scale of platform a World Cup offers. But like the cricket, not if it’s watched by a fraction of the numbers terrestrial TV would have attracted.
These sports’ governing bodies, and there are plenty of other examples, clearly cannot be trusted with the wider interests they are charged with. Of course most, though by no means all, are hard-pressed for funds, but when participation is sacrificed for short term injection of cash then something is clearly amiss. Some, not enough, sporting events broadcasting rights are regulated, made unavailable to the satellite channels, only to be broadcast on terrestrial. As a first step an incoming Labour government should significantly extend that list, any domestic World Cup or World Championship for starters, the Ashes too. Nanny state? No, standing up for the nation’s sporting interests.
Those interests are centred on two roles sport performs like none other. Encouraging participation and framing a common-sense nationhood. On the same weekend as that epic World Cup final terrestrial TV also treated us to the Wimbledon Finals and the British Grand Prix. Both attracted huge audiences neither will lead to many, if any, taking up driving round Silverstone as a hobby and not a lot more picking up racquet and ball either. That is because participation isn’t just about what we can watch on TV from the comfort of our own sofa, it is about providing the means to get us off that sofa too.
Sport is socially constructed, a local go-kart track for the child inspired by Lewis Hamilton’s 100mph derring-do might do for starters but the numbers who can afford to enter this hugely expensive sport at a competitive level are minuscule. And tennis? The annual platform Wimbledon provides tennis frames it as an intensely upper middle-class pursuit, from the Royal Box guest list to strawberries and cream followed by a glass of Pimms. A revolutionary reinvention of tennis would see it become an urban, inner-city sport. A concrete tennis court is not only vandal-proof, it requires zero maintenance. An army of local authority coaches providing the much-needed structure to encourage those who pick up racquet and ball.
The focus on sport as mass participation, for the many, ring any bells? Any few who make it up the ranks to play at Wimbledon a pleasant surprise not the sum of our ambition. Having regulated the broadcasting rights an incoming Labour Government should also run an audit of every sport governing body’s finances, any failing to meet toughened participation objectives deprived of the generous state support they receive. Totalitarian? No not all, as most fans and grassroots participants would agree, these sports have lost the right to be trusted.
Participation in physical activity is key to the nation’s health, but sport is even bigger than that. A World Cup, of any sport, reaches the parts of a sporting nation like nothing else. When Liverpool won the Champions League the blue half of Merseyside looked away with studied indifference while they were hardly dancing in the streets of Manchester, North London and elsewhere either. A World Cup win is of a different scale. Mobilising the casual observer to become a hardened fan for a month at least, or in Eric Hobsbawm’s brilliant phrase, ‘an imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.’
But of course that ‘imagined community’ is hugely contested, never more so than in this era of the Brexit impasse. Jacob Rees-Mogg clearly hadn’t spent very long on the playing fields of Eton if he could in all seriousness tweet in the immediate aftermath of England’s World Cup victory, ‘We clearly don't need Europe to win.’ Nothing reveals faux-populism like a politician’s ignorance of sport. This was an England team with an Irish-born captain, an opening batsman born in South Africa, a man of the match born in New Zealand, wicket-takers born in Barbados and the grandson of a Pakistani immigrant. Diverse, multicultural, and all the better for it. Of course this isn’t enough to roll back a resurgent popular racism but it’s a start, an unrivalled platform for a very different imagined nation to the one of Rees-Mogg’s imagination.
What do they know of cricket who only cricket know? Not enough, the failure to understand the social impact and construction of sport leaves the Left incapable of contributing to the kind of national conversation Sunday’s World Cup win ignites. But what CLR James also taught us is that sport matters for its own sake too, not as a deviation from the real world but for millions an invaluable part of that world too. England (and Wales) savouring that moment of victory, without apologies, in this instance changing the world will have to wait ‘til another day.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, their World Champions T-shirt celebrating the diverse, multicultural England Team is available from here
Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is The Corbyn Effect and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here.