Is Alastair Cook England’s finest batsman ever asks the BBC, after the skipper becomes the youngest player to reach 10,000 test runs? The evidence suggests that he probably is. The sad thing is that hardly anyone knows who he is.
I know who Cook is because I have a passing interest in cricket. No longer a serious interest in cricket, but a level of interest that means I have some idea who England are playing. But even though I pay dirty money to receive Rupert Murdoch’s near monopoly of live TV sport, watching it is something I do less and less.
The great man (Cook) completed his great achievement today, in front of a few thousand fans in Durham and maybe a few hundred thousand on Sky. That is the reality. Only test matches against Australia attract anything like significant TV audiences and even then barely a million tune in at peak times, fewer still away from peak times. This is why Cook is not a sporting superstar.
A sporting superstar is one who transcends his or her sport. Freddie Flintoff managed that, so did Shane Warne. Not only were they great cricketers, they had big personalities. For all I know, Cook too has a great big personality but outside the cricket fraternity he is not a star.
Of course, this is all down to cricket being off mainstream telly. It really is a case of out of sight, out of mind and if the only cricket available is behind Rupert Murdoch’s paywall, the logical extension is that less people watch it and less people care about it.
I came from a generation that came home from school and watched BBC’s test match coverage. Today’s kids don’t do that. That’s not really down to Rupert Murdoch, or not all of it, because kids have more to do and more to see these days. There were, back in the 1970s, no mobile phones or computers.
With interest in the summer game dwindling in terms of participation, the cricketing authorities did the obvious thing: they flogged off all broadcasting rights to a pay TV company, Sky, guaranteeing at a stroke huge sums of money combined with drastically reduced viewing figures. Result? Even lower participation levels and TV viewing figures actually falling. That all worked well, then.
Cook, like Joe Root and all the other England players of today, could walk into my local and no one, except many of the village cricket team (but by no means all) would have the first idea who they were. And therein lies a very sad tale.
What Cook has done is truly exceptional but hardly anyone knows nor cares. State schools no longer play the game, smaller clubs are folding in record numbers, less people are participating and slowly but surely a decline has set in. In its middle class heartlands, in the clubs and in the test match stands, the illusion that the game is alive and well is perpetuated by the hundreds of millions of pounds the England Cricket Board trousers from Rupert Murdoch, but to the vast majority of ordinary folk the game hardly matters.
There are plenty of reasons why cricket is in a spot of bother and the sell out to Murdoch is one of the important ones. That it is no longer at the centre of the English psyche is very sad and, I fear, irreversible.