Joe Root’s omission from Spoty carries a health warning for English cricket
And so with a dull thud of excitement the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award is upon us again. First of all: a disclaimer. Only the deeply misguided go on about this in any detail. The BBC’s award has always been a mannered affair, with its own distinct tone and texture. When Princess Anne won it in 1971 George Best – yes: that George Best – came second. Joe Calzaghe showed a healthy iconoclasm towards the whole thing when he broke the award shortly after winning it in 2007, his entourage throwing the trophy around “like a rugby ball” until it shattered inside its box.
Still, there was something genuinely startling this year about the absence of Joe Root from the main shortlist. Let’s face it, there is nothing more Root could have done in his sport this year. The world No1 Test batsman at the end of an Ashes-winning summer. The record holder for England runs in a calendar year. A role model professional in what is still technically the national summer sport. But no. Sorry Joe. Not bad but not enough.
Not that any of these matters in itself. It is a mistake to omit Root but this doesn’t diminish the achievements of those on the list. Adam Peaty and Max Whitlockmay not be household names but they too have achieved a gold standard in their sports and deserve every glimmer of credit. Plus, of course, this is the BBC and just as Sky sometimes imagines football began in 1992, so there is a natural weight towards those who exist on its screens.
The only real significance of that Root-less list is it feels like a salutary omission for cricket itself, another brushstroke in a wider picture. Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day and it is 10 years since the last cricketer made theBBC top three (Andrew Flintoff, 2005). Beyond that it’s an entire adult lifetime since the golden era from David Steele’s extraordinary victory in 1975, through Geoff Boycott (the runner-up in 1977) to the Botham Years (79-85, with sabbaticals).
The days when quite ordinary England cricketers were household names, when Mike Gatting’s (hotly denied) indiscretions were deemed front page (!) news will not come again. Crickethas made its tactical retreat behind the veil of pay-TV. It has, in the words of the proverb, taken what it wanted and paid for it.
So here we are. Kids who have pre-converted cricketing parents, or go to one of the minority of schools where cricket is still a thing, know who Joe Root is. To the majority, the floating fans, the untapped devotees of the future, he is simply a shadow presence, a national sporting hero manqué.
Which is a terrible shame on two levels. First because Root is a perfect breakout star: brilliant, cheeky, funny, cool. Kids that do know him love him. There are plenty of eight-year-olds out there already aping his batting stance and playing those (infernal) Root-style scoops every other ball.
And second because cricket has always needed stars to spread its word. This is a precarious sport, a world away from the easy thrills of football which will always come surging in through every crack and cranny. Cricket is difficult, obscure, academic. It needs easy-access heroes to cut through the complexities, personalities to draw in those who may otherwise be baffled at first by its maths and manners.
In this respect visibility is key. It was the relationship with the BBC after the second world war that effectively kept the sport going in this country as a public event, a 61-year monogamous marriage that brought mass ball-by-ball exposure, the Coronation year Ashes, Jim Laker in 1956 (cricket’s first Spoty winner) and the triumph of full-blown Botham-ism in 1981.
The decision to shack up with Sky Sports is often treated a little hysterically. It has plenty of hard sense to it. Those who are already fans get more and better TV access than ever before. There is guaranteed money in county cricket to pay for coaches, employees, players’ salaries, development and new (largely empty) stands.
The problem is the sustainability of the model. The pre-converted have been cashed in. Where will the future consumers come from? Who will actually play the game outside those who can afford to stumble across it, or have it given to them by the doggedness of the schools and local clubs that still thrive?
This is more than simply a mawkish lament for our vanished summers, those lost Roots, the fading glory of a better, more readily accessible televisual world. It is also a commercial problem to be solved. And there are solutions. Test cricket will never be back on terrestrial TV. It’s too long and not enough people watch it. Twenty20 cricket, on the other hand, was conceived as a way of spreading the glow and it could still do this on television.
Imagine, if you can, a sport that was willing to concede some of its revenue now for the promise of more jam tomorrow. Just by broadcasting domestic Twenty20 cricket on free to air television, whatever the immediate revenue implications, English cricket could create a hugely valuable connection. This has been key to the success of the Big Bash in Australia. When Alex Hales swatted the Sydney Sixers around the SCG two years ago, when Ben Stokes blitzed the Hurricanes in Hobart earlier this year, it was a shared sporting event in Australia, raising the slightly off possibility that two of England’s most exciting players may have converted more casually spectating non-cricket kids over there than they have over here.
In 2010 the IPL was streamed live on YouTube, a loss-leader that drew 50m viewers, 40% of those outside India. So English cricket, in the year of the invisible Root, really might want to consider peeking out from behind the battlements.
Right now England have a fantastic Twenty20 team full of young thrusters raised and honed in county cricket. The only sadness is that, like Victorian garden fairies, they’re only there if you want to see them, if you already believe. Root, Jason Roy, Jos Buttler, Moeen Ali: imagine a Twenty20 World Cup on free-to-air television – as all world cups should be – where these bold cricketers are allowed to proselytise the game, turn heads, drive sales of bats and balls to the football-sated, and seed the kind of interest that may even foster a return to the front rank. It won’t happen. For commercial, as well as sentimental reasons, it should.