This summer English cricket suffered its most disastrous defeat. At the same time the game reached its highest level of popularity since World War II. The visiting West Indian test (international) team trounced England in the three-game series by two games and a draw. The English captain, Ray Illingworth, was dismissed in one inning without even scoring a run, yet Lord's Cricket Ground had the full-house sign up.
The reason for the massive defeat and the soaring popularity is the same—foreign players. Out of 300 players in English first-class cricket, no more than 70 are foreign born. Nevertheless they dominate the batting averages; last year the list was headed by four foreign-born players; this season seven of the top 10 were foreign. Last year's champion county, Warwickshire, owed its success to four West Indian players; this season, these players joined the West Indian side in the test series, and Warwickshire finished far down in the standings.
The fire and attack of the players imported from the old commonwealth are transforming the game in the country that invented it, contributing to the success of one-day matches, which have attracted television money and commercial sponsorship. The shortened matches, in which each side is limited to a fixed number of bowling overs, are ideal for TV. They discourage defensive play and put a premium on fast bowling and spectacular batting. They also attract a different type of fan. Three-and five-day matches are watched by people with money and leisure, not the workingman, for whom soccer has always been the sport.
After the doldrums of the '50s, when the prevailing practice of slow defensive play nearly killed the game with boredom, the English county clubs lacked the young players needed to supply the fast game demanded by television and one-day matches. They began hiring West Indian immigrants and signing up other talent in the Caribbean. In the process they discovered a whole new market of fans among the local West Indian population. Cricket in their native countries no longer has any snobbish overtones. It is the game of the workingman, and cricketing skill is one of the best assets a slum boy from Kingston, Jamaica or Georgetown, Guyana can employ in working his way up. The immigrants brought this attitude to the game when they came to England. Now it appears to be infecting the British. People from noncricketing countries tend to regard cricket as the essence of dreariness and a useful pointer to the character of the phlegmatic British. But just as English soccer is degenerating into tedious defensive play, English cricket may reassert itself and overturn the old clich�.
Though the foreign players have revived the game in one respect, their presence and style have had a doleful effect on the quality of English cricketers. Because of the dominance of the foreigners there are few promising English-born players maturing at the moment. The average age of the English test team balloons progressively. In the face of this, the attitude of the English selectors is mystifying. For example, for the English tour of the West Indies, which begins next February, they have dropped John Snow, in the opinion of most fans England's only fast bowler of any ability. The reasons are unclear and may not be solely connected with Snow's cricketing talents.
All of which adds up to an unhappy West Indian test tour. The weak English team will face enormous and vociferous crowds and its batsmen will be confronted by lethal high-bouncing balls, coming at a speed of around 80 mph.
The English players had a bad enough summer. West Indian supporters flooded in from the ghettos of London and Birmingham to cheer on their side. English crowds once would never have hurled insults at players and umpires; the West Indians are teaching them how to do it. English fans used to let the players wander off the field at the end of a day's play to a sedate ripple of applause. This season the players had to sprint frantically to the clubhouse to avoid the mob storming across the pitch. Significantly, by the second day of the first test, white children were running on the pitch, too, something never seen before. By the end of the first test England had lost by 158 runs. A cross section of the British Establishment, including Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the Foreign Secretary and former president of the Marylebone Cricket Club, and Robert Carr, the Home Secretary, watched the series gloomily as armed bodyguards stood by peering about for IRA bombers. Once upon a time the scene would have been described as "not cricket."
And once upon a time it would have been regarded as not decent to have betting tents on the field. But Cyril Stein, the chairman of the bookmaking firm, Ladbrokes, had noticed that West Indian fans like to bet on every facet of the game and he cashed in during the test matches by setting up betting facilities behind the stands. Roughly the equivalent of a slot machine in Westminster Abbey, but the English crowds were quick to catch on.
Though the English children in the crowds were happy to join in the West Indian approach, the cricketing Establishment tended to view the full-blooded attitude of the fans with alarm. There were stiff-lipped mutterings after the second test when the West Indian captain protested some decisions of Umpire Arthur Fagg. The mutterings grew into shouts after the third test, when an English batsman, Geoff Boycott, was slightly jostled and jeered as he left the field after a poor performance. No poorer than England's as a whole in that test, lost by an inning and 226 runs.
So English cricket declines and flourishes at the same time. The most encouraging sign for the future is the growth of street cricket in the slums where soccer has reigned supreme. The Lords Taverners, a rich and influential cricketing association, thinks street cricket important enough to give funds for coaching and equipment. The hope is that, just as in days past most English test cricketers were nurtured in the balmy pastures of expensive-private schools, so the next generation will come from the immigrant ghettos and municipal housing projects.