England Have Lost Identity and Public Support—Can They Regain It on Sky TV?

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistJune 10, 2014

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 05:  Alastair Cook of England looks dejected during day three of the Fifth Ashes Test match between Australia and England at Sydney Cricket Ground on January 5, 2014 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

When Michael Vaughan jubilantly thrust the urn into the air at the Oval on September 12, 2005, it felt like a decisive moment for English cricket. 

In an unforgettable five-match encounter with the mightiest Australian side since Sir Donald Bradman's "Invincibles," England had not only triumphed but had done so in style.

With a raw bravado and a sense of adventure, Vaughan's England had captured the imagination of the public that summer. 

Clinching the Ashes was, of course, monumental. But it was more than that. A connection between the team and their supporters blossomed, as the observers of the game in England rejoiced in the way their team represented them.

Defined by the flair that complemented their skill and the ferocity that accompanied their graciousness, it briefly felt as though everything from the national team, the county system and grassroots cricket, through to the organisers and even down to the fans, had all bonded as one.

Looking back, perhaps the manner in which England achieved the victory was more significant than the enormity of the achievement itself. 

Yet, has the capture of that series in a summer remembered for the greatest Test cricket of all time grown to become the most perplexing moment in England's history?

Quite possibly.

MATT DUNHAM/Associated Press

What that 2005 series should represent is the definitive turning point of the game in England. Almost a decade later, that famous summer should mark the beginning of increased popularity and reach for cricket in Britain.

That connection established between Vaughan's men and the public should still be evident now. That thrust of the urn into the air at the Oval should stand as a moment mirroring the effect Shane Warne's dismissal of Mike Gatting in 1993 had on the captivation of the public in Australia.

But it doesn't.

Not at all.

Instead, the summer of 2005 represents what was the peak of the mountain for England—a lofty point with abrupt descents on each side. 

Nine years on, a widespread apathy for England has washed away any remnants of that infectious summer.

It's extremely important to note that the 2005 Ashes series was the last to be shown on free-to-air television in the United Kingdom. The success of that gripping season increased corporate interest in the game, which saw Sky and the ECB seize on the opportunity to develop a partnership.

But lost amid the haste to boost commercial revenue was the underlying importance of maintaining the game's broad reach. Despite the cash influx, English cricket took a step away from the very public that had been drawn in by the events of 2005. 

As pointed out by George Dobell of ESPN Cricinfo, Vaughan's team, particularly the star attractions such as Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen, were the last England players capable of bridging the gap between cricket and mainstream media. 

Also telling are the public's attitudes towards Flintoff and Pietersen at this very moment. The last of England's terrestrial heroes, fans continue to lament the absence of the renegade batsman amid a wave of apathy for the team, while the return of their favourite showman has been met with celebration and goodwill.

What the cricket-going public in England want is starkly clear. 

KINGSTON, JAMAICA - FEBRUARY 06:  Kevin Pietersen (L) and Andrew Flintoff of England walk off the field at the end of day three of the 1st Test between The West Indies and England played at Sabina Park on February 6, 2009 in Kingston, Jamaica  (Photo by J
Julian Herbert/Getty Images

Interestingly, the lack of sympathy for England at present stems from exactly what made the team dominant up to 2011 and had managed to maintain a plateau thereafter. 

In short, England became more professional. More regimented. More methodical.

On the field, it worked. Three consecutive Ashes victories, a series win in India, the ICC World Twenty20 title and the No. 1 rank in all three formats were secured. 

But the move to subscription television meant that England's efforts to capture the interest of the wider public needed to be doubled. Excellence was required, but it had to be enjoyable and engrossing. Fans needed captivating characters to swear their allegiance to.

Like they had in 2005, England's stars needed to push the boundaries between the game and mainstream culture.

Regrettably, England went the other way.

Under Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower—and to an even greater extent during the latter's partnership with Alastair Cook—England became so micro-managed that they became as robotic as they did insular, driving a wedge between the team and their observers and increasing the detachment from the most important group of all: the fans. 

Even as Cook's team brushed aside Australia almost 12 months ago, there was only restrained praise for the victors. Despite Cook, Pietersen, Ian Bell, James Anderson and Graeme Swann all soaring up the all-time lists during the series, a disconnect was apparent.

An inferior opponent had been defeated, but in the few moments they were challenged, England opted for attritional warfare.

Few will ever want to remember Day 2 of the fifth Test at the Oval when Cook's men barely managed 12 overs per hour with the series already won.

Unsurprisingly, a public with little affection for their national representatives wasn't prepared to afford England an ounce of compassion during their emasculation in Australia a handful of months later.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 05:  England captain Alastair Cook leads his team from the field as Australia celebrate winning the ashes at the end of day three of the Fifth Ashes Test match between Australia and England at Sydney Cricket Ground on January 5
Gareth Copley/Getty Images

So what's next? Can English cricket repair its connection with the broader population? And is that possible while the ECB continues to work with Sky?

It certainly needs to try.

Lamentably, cricket will remain on subscription television until at least 2017 under the current agreement, with Sky holding an option for an extra two years. Additionally, the polarised opinion that exists regarding the sport's whereabouts on television creates further division.

Players, administrators and the professional media will be quick to point out how necessary the cash injection from Sky is. Yet, the vast portion of the population without access to the service will argue that the injection is pointless if the game is denied to the masses. 

Despite the conundrum, it's clear that the England hierarchy are acutely aware of the national team's image problem.

"Australia connected with their public very well," Cook said in May of Australia's victorious 2013-14 Ashes campaign, according to the London Evening Standard.

"Maybe we became very insular as a side—it worked very well at some points for us, but when it wasn't going well we didn't have anything to fall back on. The guys in the dressing room are good people, they are nice guys. The public don't see that enough. I hope we can copy Australia a little bit in the way they did it."

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 07:  Mitchell Johnson of Australia celebrates after taking the wicket of James Anderson of England during day three of the Second Ashes Test match between Australia and England at Adelaide Oval on December 7, 2013 in Adelaid
Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

England, of course, aren't Australia. As cricketing outfits and as nations, the two foes possess contrasting people, systems, attitudes and personas. From the nature of their crowds, to their coaching methods, to the beer they drink, England and the continent they colonised are markedly different. 

However, examining Australia's renaissance would form a solid starting block for England.

After a tumultuous period of instability, Australia returned to their trusted pillars of strength, recapturing the essence and identity of their national team.

With a throwback coach, an aggressive captain and a group of combative characters, Australia discarded the high-performance route that had been initiated under Mickey Arthur and returned to what they know best: uncompromising cricket. 

A public with rustic, blue-collar roots largely embraced Darren Lehmann, Michael Clarke and their chargers. Crucially, too, the team's stars have remained on free-to-air television.

And in all of that lies a rough blueprint for England.

While retracing Australia's exact road to recovery isn't the definitive answer, the cultivation of a side that is representative of the nation's populace is a priority.

As in 2005, the manner and personality of the national team is key to developing a connection with the game's observers. Cricket in England needs to afford its characters, mavericks and renegades the freedom to express their individuality.

More than anything, the England team must emerge from their insular existence and attempt to capture the imagination once more.

Just the television channel cricket is found on may determine how successful those efforts are.


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