At the height of the celebrations the Oval resembled a playground at the end of term. There was Joe Root, marching across the pitch, a comet with a tail of schoolchildren in pursuit. A few metres away and another gaggle of kids, probably about 30 of them, had mobbed a TV camera and were screaming “champions” into the lens.
Impromptu fielding practice was underway and everything from caps to miniature cricket bats were seeking autographs. Amid all that, and squired by two burly security guards, Eoin Morgan hustled off the field and into the pavilion, the weighty World Cup trophy held securely in two hands.
Speaking later, Morgan admitted he had defaulted to describing England’s scintillating, graphene-fine victory over New Zealand at Lord’s as “incredible”.
“I’ve said incredible 50 times since lifting the trophy,” he said, for the 51st time. “I’d never allow myself to imagine winning the World Cup. Cynical me!” The skipper also made a further observation, that he was grateful for those who had stuck with England’s cricketers in tougher times, all those who “believed because we believed”.
This event at the Oval was a gathering of the believers. In 2005, when England won the Ashes and cricket asserted itself into the public consciousness in a way it never has since, the celebrations were loud, lairy and highly public. The players were drunk and an open top bus tour through central London ended with a shambling trip to No 10. In 2019 Morgan’s men got to meet the Prime Minister, with Theresa May receiving them at Downing Street. But there was no bus tour. Speculation was rife that it may have been considered too risky; what if nobody turned up?
During the seven-week duration of the World Cup, a lot has been made about how cricket has declined in the years since Kevin Pietersen stopped putting peroxide in his hair. Much of the debate has focused around TV and the way coverage of the sport has been fenced off on subscription TV. The final, which was aired on Channel 4 as well as Sky Sports, was a rare chance for a broader public to watch. It still attracted many fewer viewers than the annual treat of Wimbledon, however, and it will probably not be back again until the controversial new competition, The Hundred, hits the BBC next year.
Television is important but the message of this event appeared to be it is not everything. What matters is legacy, whether kids are playing the sport, whether in the words of Root: “We’ve left the sport in a better shape than we found it.” So that is why the kids were there. They came from all backgrounds and ethnicity and gender (a notable visual contrast to the adults in attendance), but they shared an infectious enthusiasm for the sport and had watched the final on their dad’s tablet. They were the legacy.
Most were sourced from All Stars Cricket, a scheme for five- to eight-year-olds run by the England and Wales Cricket Board. It attempts to acquaint kids, only 7% of whom currently play the sport, with basic cricket skills.
Payal Srivastava, a 10-year-old whose favourite player is England’s breakthrough fast bowler Jofra Archer, was one of those who took the day off school to attend with his parents. He extolled the scheme’s virtues without taking breath. “It’s really good,” he said. “We play mini-matches where you have to hit three balls, we play volcanoes and craters. We learn lots of different skills.” His friend Maha Ahmed, aged eight, agreed. Her favourite player is Moeen Ali.
As the event warmed up, Darius Green had been coaching another group of kids underneath the Oval in the Ken Barrington Cricket Centre. His organisation, Soul Ltd, tries to apply the benefits of sport – increased fitness, social skills, better mental health – to youngsters more broadly.
His cricket classes are funded by Surrey but they are by no means traditional. Everything in the room is neon, and the wickets are a sideshow, standing at the back of the room. Instead the kids practise throwing, rolling, jumping and catching. “We’re using elements of the sport to help with more general skill development,” Green said. “And cricket is great for a number of skills, from eye-hand co-ordination to speed, endurance and cardio-vascular strength. With it not being a mainstream sport, kids don’t tend to get bogged down in the details of it.”
Green’s assessment of cricket as being outside the mainstream will distress some fans but in terms of participation he is correct. In 2016 Sport England’s active people survey found fewer people playing cricket than squash, badminton or bowls. Thanks to Morgan, Archer, Stokes and co, however, cricket is thriving at the elite level. The challenge is for the latter to influence the former. And for everyone to keep on believing.