Striking a ball with a bat and propelling the ball at a target are both instinctive activities. Children, new to the game, revel in these basic physical challenges. Around those simple actions, cricket has assembled a dense patchwork of custom and law. Youngsters, enthralled by the essence of the sport, throw out challenges to its conventions. As a junior coach, I know that some of the required answers will not satisfy.
Take who gets the credit for dismissals.
‘Well done. Three wickets today.” I’ll congratulate a youngster on a successful debut.
‘No,’ I’ll be corrected, ‘I only bowled one out.’
‘Don’t forget the two catches your sister took off your bowling.’
‘But they don’t count as mine. I did get another one, though, when I ran out their opener’
Cricket’s laws governing the scoring of runs are perplexing. A boundary hit should be a bonus score, on top of the runs completed by the two batsmen trotting from one end to the other. When children realise one cancels out the other, some tend to settle for standing and watching the ball they’ve struck. Nonchalant if the ball reaches the boundary; wasteful if it pulls up short.
And mentioning boundaries, they’re not places a child would choose to field. Posts in battle haven’t been deserted as readily as by nine year olds told to sweep at deep backward square leg.
Fresh eyes bring a piercing clarity to some of cricket’s ethical dilemmas. Run out backing up – unequivocally out to the player who would extend no mercy to the opposing batsman whose stumps are broken while he has his laces tied by the umpire. A bowling arm that isn’t straight – patently unfair to the child who’s been working and working on her own action through indoor practice and chilly spring evenings.
Cricket’s laws and conventions only make good sense to those whose frame of reference is cricket. It is encouraging that children continue to come to clubs to play cricket, learning the techniques and thrilled at the challenge of the game. But fewer and fewer have already experienced cricket as a live spectator, or as a television viewer.
Cricket is drifting towards a status held by rounders or even British Bulldog. Pursuits for the playground and playing field, but not the living room or days out to matches with Mum and Dad.
While football anchors skills in its youngsters’ minds with references to the star players – the Iniesta two-touch, the Ronaldo step-over – most junior club members have only a hazy view of the cricketers they could be imitating. Spending time with young players convinces me that cricket risks becoming a sport without heroes.
Organised cricket may be a recreational choice of more UK primary school children than ever before. Many will carry on playing into their teens. But shorn of free to air TV coverage and overwhelmed by other electronic past-times, the game is losing its cultural position. Once the habit of watching, debating and obsessing about the game of cricket goes, so will the crowds at international match days, the big company sponsorship and eventually the essence that elevates cricket from a mere game, to a sport.