Cricket World Cup 2019 tour diary: English apathy and another encounter with Mike Atherton
The Oval wears a near deserted look a day before the World Cup. (Image: Jamie Alter/CricketCountry)

Is there really a Cricket World Cup on in England?

You would not have known, given by the lack of advertising in London. Nothing at Heathrow Airport, where the border security agent who scans and stamps my passport is unaware of the fact that the quadrennial ODI championship starts this week in the country’s heart. Nothing on the tube ride from there onwards until you arrive in Kennington, in the Borough of Lambeth, in south London. Specifically, until you notice the red-bricked perimeter wall of The Oval, home of Surrey cricket and venue for the opening match of the ICC Cricket World Cup.

At The Oval tube station, a few small World Cup posters search for identity among a sea of fliers for plays, movies and literary events.

At The Oval tube station, there is little to inform passengers of the World Cup. (Image: Jamie Alter/CricketCountry)

At the small hotel where I am staying, a little over a kilometre from The Oval, the receptionist is aware the World Cup is on but doesn’t follow the sport. I ask a few people on sidewalk as I near The Oval, but they all say they don’t watch cricket.

Why this apathy towards cricket, the game which the English invented?

According to Lawrence Booth, the editor of Wisden, the two major reasons are the massive gulf between football and all other sports in England, and the 2005 deal whereby live cricket disappeared from terrestrial TV screens.

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“Football is the No 1 sport in the UK, by far. Rugby and cricket are way below. Had there been a football World Cup on, you would have seen hoardings all over London and advertising on TV would have been enormous. And you have to understand that the Sky deal in 2005 has had a huge impact. For 14 years, cricket has virtually disappeared from TV,” says Booth matter-of-factly.

The Sky deal which Booth refers to was a decision taken by the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) in 2004-05 in which live coverage of England’s home series were no longer made available on terrestrial TV. The ECB awarded an exclusive four-year contract to BSkyB, ending a six-year association with Channel 4 which itself had in 1999 ended the BBC’s 61-year run as the broadcaster of cricket in England.

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The ICC is confident that the World Cup will be lapped up by the fans in England – cricket’s governing body has already made plenty of money off it – but the reality is that outside a minority of followers, very few people care about the tournament.

Athers and I

In the summer of 2008, I spent about six weeks in London covering cricket. One of my assignments was an ODI between England and New Zealand at The Oval. It was a ripper of a match, which ended with the visiting team winning by one wicket off the last delivery.

After the match, the press box was cleared as almost all the reporters hurried across the ground to the Ken Barrington Centre where the post-match press conference took place. Still preoccupied with filing my match report of a controversial last-ball thriller – and with the advantage of having a colleague around to share duties – I sat in my seat typing.

From my peripheral vision, I was aware that to my left there was another person hunched over a laptop. It was only until that person spoke did I turn around to see who it was. A polite and familiar voice asked: “Sorry, do you know how to reconnect to the wifi?”

It was Michael Atherton, the former England captain turned TV analyst and chief cricket correspondent for The Times. I can’t remember what I mumbled in awe, but it probably wasn’t very impressive. Atherton nodded and got back to his copy, and then ran across the field to join the other media personnel.

Mike Atherton England
Former England captain Michael Atherton is now a TV analyst. © Getty

Eleven years later, I am back at The Oval. Its the day before the World Cup opener, there are several match copies to be written, the London weather has turned bitingly chilly and I am in desperate need of a cup of coffee. A friend and I make our way out of the media box and into the small adjoining room where there are refreshments.

Seeing a coffee machine, but nobody around to assist, I take an empty cup and press the ‘latte’ button. The machine rumbles to life with a loud hiss, spewing hot air and sputtering. No milk comes out, only a thin stream of black coffee after a few seconds. There’s no milk in there, my friend says.

As I stand behind the counter waiting to decide what to do next, who walks into the room? Atherton.

He puts down his laptop bag and blazer, smiles at us and then fixes his gaze on the coffee machine. I know exactly what is coming.

“Ah, lovely,” he says as he turns his eyes from the machine to meet my look, that polite smile on his face. “I’ll have a cappuccino when you’ve got a moment. Thanks.”

In 2008, Atherton asked me about the The Oval’s wifi. In 2019, he’s asked me to fix him a cup of coffee.

As my friend stifled his laughter, I again mumbled something to Atherton who was very apologetic once he realised I wasn’t part of the hospitality staff.

I wonder where we’ll meet next.