England’s World Cup cricket hero Ben Stokes has been nominated along with Black Caps skipper Kane Williamson for New Zealander of the Year.
England’s shock loss to Pakistan in the early hours of Tuesday morning gave Australian fans a certain satisfaction on their otherwise standard weekday commute.
Morning coffees were enjoyed with a healthy spoonful of smugness, and many relished in the hosts’ failure after starting at un-backable odds. It also raised the prospect (albeit, a slim one) of an early World Cup exit for Eoin Morgan’s side.
A loss to the West Indies next Friday would make one of their later games against India and Australia must-win encounters – a tense place to be in the group stages.
England will almost certainly still finish in the all-important top four. But the fact is they remain under considerable pressure: Pressure to win their first major ODI trophy, pressure to convert their world domination into tangible success, and pressure to not succumb to the pressure of a home World Cup.
No pressure, lads.
But perhaps the biggest weight of all is the fact that this team, this summer, are expected to do something special. There’s an expectation to not just win games of cricket, but the hearts and minds of the wider public.
Officials are expecting the rare scheduling eclipse of a World Cup and Ashes summer to lift cricket from it’s malaise in the UK, and inspire a nation.
You see cricket has, for some time now, struggled to attract and retain eyeballs in the UK – particularly young ones. Shifting the entire sport behind a paywall after the 2005 Ashes is now almost universally seen as a short-sighted cash grab by the England and Wales Cricket Board, which in hindsight has had a vastly negative impact on the sport.
The pay TV money, however, is now an opioid the ECB can’t and won’t walk away from. While the suits at Lord’s reiterate the pay TV money has allowed them to invest far more in grassroots cricket than they could with a hybrid free-to-air deal, the bare facts are that fewer kids are interested in cricket as they were 15 years ago.
Cricketers are also now far less recognisable than footballers. In fact, UK sports writer Jonathan Liew notes that a curious aspect of Ben Stokes’ criminal trial last year was that ‘person after person claimed in court that they had no idea who the defendant was’.
And that’s an issue for England. While the rusted-on cricket enthusiast will always be there, the ECB knows it must tap into cricket’s unmet potential by converting those yet to see the light.
That’s why winning this summer is so important for them. While success doesn’t guarantee a legion of new fans, failure means they won’t even get the chance.
Joe Root, speaking in the lead-up to the World Cup, said in no uncertain terms the importance of the coming months. He said England were desperate to recreate a moment like 2005 where, as a 14-year-old, he recalled seeing people emerge as fans despite no previous interest in the sport.
“The way the country came together and really got behind that England team was very inspirational,” he told Cricbuzz.
“We’ve got a very unique opportunity to play a World Cup and Ashes in the same summer and to do something special in both formats. I think it’s really important we recognise that, and we do everything we can to improve the game of cricket in this country.”
This summer has been touted as one of the ‘biggest ever’ for cricket in England. With the Champions League final now done, cricket has a free, uncluttered sporting schedule that it so rarely gets.
Each year, football takes up the vast majority of column inches for 10 months a year, and every other year (with the European Championships and World Cup) it almost lays claim to all 12.
But this year, it’s different. Cricket has free rein. And make no mistake everyone at the top, from players to executives, know the importance of making hay while the sun (hopefully) shines. The most obvious way that can happen is if England’s cricketer are successful.
The pressure is on.