If you want to play it properly, the game is likely to burn a hole in your pocket
With an empty Coke can, a plastic bottle, or even just a stone, we used to play football. Drop down a pair of jumpers for goalposts and you have an instant pitch in classrooms, corridors, and even the little patio at my grandma’s house, where I played epic matches against my sister. To form a basic game of football cost absolutely nothing. And yes, cricket too: with improvised bats from bits of wood and balls shaped from scrunched-up paper. You can pretend to be a national legend when stroking a sphere of rubbish along the floor with a rolled-up umbrella.
However, if you actually take the field and formally upgrade, the financial costs of playing football and cricket rapidly diverge.
Ask Durham, relegated from top-flight cricket because they couldn’t balance their books.
Ask mum and dad when their son or daughter picks up a bat.
Ask the club cricketer walking to the crease on a Saturday afternoon, where the rising price of playing is at its most extortionate. Before even being picked for his team, the treasurer will have asked for his annual subs, and while not as wallet-emptying as joining a golf club, these could be anything from £100 upwards, along with a weekly match fee – the last time I played league cricket, this was £15 a game.
The problem is that bat quality does tend to equal bat price. You can get lucky with a bargain plank, and find the middle pings even when the grain wavers and the knots spoil the finish, but the best willow will cost
Still, our amateur is eager, and he has paid his bills and is striding to the middle. Depending on whether he wants his boots to fall apart before he scores that century, or he rightly understands that his feet are precious – my dad once broke his ankle darting for a quick single when one set of spikes stuck and the others slipped – and need support, he could have forked out anything from £20 for a pair of clodhoppers to £125 for a pair of cutting- edge Asics that promise to help him “run quicker between the wickets”.
Inside this boot is a sock – white, because no one rates a player wearing any other colour. And for a day standing in the field this sock might include “ventilation channels” and be constructed from choice Merino wool and “polypropylene to wick away moisture” and set you back £10-£15 a pair. And unless you’re a cricket brute who thinks it’s okay to take guard in a pair of chinos, you’ll be wearing whites: a shirt and pair of trousers that may or may not be included in your team subs.
You’re dressed for the sport and you’ve paid to be on the pitch. Now you need protection.
Before pads, the Gentlemen and Players of yesteryear would suffer gangrene from cricket-ball welts. So you don modern leg guards that make you look like a stormtrooper, especially in addition to that brand new helmet, the second one you have bought in two seasons as your old lid didn’t conform to the latest ECB British standard regulations banning movable grilles. Still, safety is paramount, and if your teeth get knocked out, your dentist becomes part of the cricket-cost equation, rather than the landlord after you buy that round in the pub after the game. Besides, at your level, batting on the occasional minefield wicket, you need all the defence you can get against a ball weighing 5¾ ounces, travelling up to 90mph – not to mention costing anything from £5 (if you want to bowl with something shaped liked a potato after ten overs) to £90. You also need hand-stitched gloves (even cheap gloves are handmade, due to their design complexity) to defend your digits, and a priceless box.
Finally, and most importantly – and most expensive – your bat. Your beloved blade, an extension of your body. The bat you choose represents something of your character, and perhaps your financial situation. Some men buy flashy cars in a mid-life crisis, others buy bats. Interviewed onTest Match Special this season, fellow writer Jon Hotten wondered if the pricey clefts of his team-mates would ever make more runs than they had cost in pounds. The problem is that bat quality does tend to equal bat price. You can get lucky with a bargain plank, and find the middle pings even when the grain wavers and the knots spoil the finish, but the best willow will cost.
So there our club player stands, kitted out and settled up with the treasurer, ready to face his first ball of the season, a delivery that will pitch on a wicket tended and maintained by professional ground staff. Even the mangiest of park tracks will, despite appearances, have been mowed, weeded, scarified and rolled. A strip will have been painted on, sightscreens erected, and quite possibly an umpire who is not one of your mates will be adjudicating, and expecting a few quid in exchange for listening to bowlers swear at him all afternoon.
Cricket costs. It drains pockets of the impoverished keen. It’s simply not a cheap sport when played properly, and I do wonder how many kids from less privileged backgrounds don’t get into the game because they, or their parents, can’t afford it. Good schools, usually private, provide proper facilities. Bad comprehensives can’t afford a manicured square and paid coaches. Vandals set fire to my own school’s artificial strip a week after it was laid.
Thankfully, beyond the governing bodies who ultimately dole out cash coming in from the clubs, amateur players and spectators, there are benefactors: sponsors, broadcasters, great charities, like Chance to Shine, dedicated mums and dads who dig deep so their children can take the pitch in proper whites and proper kit, and the generous clubs who subsidise the less well-heeled player.
Cricket costs, but it’s also a sport people obsess about. A sport we love. And when we’re in love, we find a way.