World Cup win can inject fresh (free to) air in English cricket

England must continue to play aggressive, intelligent cricket that adapts to circumstance Getty Images

There was joy, of course, after the victory over New Zealand. And there was excitement. The prospect of a first World Cup semi-final in nearly 30 years does that.

But, most of all, there was probably relief. Relief not just in the fact that several of this battered and bruised team could have a rest ahead of the next game - already there is talk that, once the World Cup is over, Jofra Archer may not be seen again until the second Ashes Test - but that all the hard work, all the investment, all the talent had not gone to waste.

England have been building for this tournament for four years or so. For the first time in their history, they have prioritised the ODI format with a view to winning this World Cup. They hired a coach for that reason; they changed their domestic schedule - and the pitches on which the domestic competition is played - for that reason. And, for the first time, they compromised their Test ambitions for the same reason. The belief that winning a home World Cup could inspire a new generation of players and supporters trumped everything else. It would have been heartbreaking to have fallen at the first hurdle.

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It would also have been damaging. And well beyond the borders of England and Wales. Let's be clear: cricket in England and Wales has been ailing for some time. Starved of the oxygen of free-to-air television for nearly a decade-and-a-half, its relevance to the wider community has dwindled to the point where some children will grow up having no experience or exposure to the game. With participation rates falling, representative teams have become ever more reliant on private schools, ancestral passports, and Asian communities to provide players. While subscription-based coverage is excellent, it doesn't necessarily reach beyond the market that has already fallen in love with the game. You don't have to be a genius to work out the long-term implications of that. There is no room for complacency in contemplating the future of the game in England. It has to reach out; it has to find a new audience.

If cricket does become a niche sport in England - something like polo or croquet, seen as a charming reminder of the way summers used to be - the ramifications will be felt well beyond its border. It would mean, in time, a decline in the number of spectators following England on tour (the demise of the final salary pension may do that anyway), a decline in broadcast fees and sponsorship deals from one of cricket's most affluent markets, and a decline in the value - in every sense - of games against the team that everyone wants to beat. It's often said that cricket needs a strong Pakistan or West Indies and it's true. But it needs a strong England, too.

Watch on Hotstar (USA only): Highlights of England's win over New Zealand

So England need this World Cup. Not to win it, necessarily - though that would help - but to have a decent run in it. To showcase what those who have watched this team since the last tournament already know: cricket can be a hugely entertaining sport and this is a team that will reward its followers with more than their fair share of drama. It needs to inspire that new generation of players and supporters. It needs to show its value to broadcasters and schedulers. It needs some oxygen.

It is a much-repeated myth that people no longer watch television in traditional ways. Sure, streaming has changed things. But if you ever needed proof of the benefits of free-to-air broadcasting, you have only to consider the women's football World Cup. Broadcast free to air, it has attracted huge TV audiences - certainly ones that dwarf the figures cricket can manage behind its paywall - and provided a huge boost to women's sport in the process. It is nothing but a success story, though those of us who want to see cricket prosper in a similar way perhaps can't resist looking on and wondering.

As Liam Plunkett told the BBC on Thursday: "Playing for England you're the pride of the country. You want people to be able to access that and watch that. We feel like we've built something special here as a team. You want as many people to watch it as possible."

There's no reason - none at all - why this England cricket team should not have enjoyed just such a surge in popularity had they had similar exposure. They are hugely skilful, wonderfully entertaining, and admirably approachable. And yes, this is a team containing several fine role-models. They should be an easy sell.

But they've been hidden for too long and it will take something major - like winning a World Cup - to gain much serious traction beyond the specialist media which is already committed to them. As an aside, Giles Clarke - the architect of the decision to sell the game exclusively to a subscription broadcaster - continued to work in the oil and gas industry after leaving cricket. You could draw an interesting parallel with that industry, which could be said to have done to the planet what could be happening to our game: damage its long-term survival for the sake of short-term profit. Clarke's regime did some good things for English cricket with the money they made but, with hindsight, his long-term legacy looks increasingly grim.

The picture is not entirely bleak. Tickets for international matches in England (but not Wales) continue to sell well, even if the demographic is worryingly old. Tickets for the domestic T20 tournament sell pretty well, too (again, except in Wales), and might well sell better with more support from the governing body. While many cricket followers have deep reservations about the introduction of The Hundred, it will, at least, see some cricket return on free-to-air TV. And there's no reason for a new audience to not fall in love with the game if we can only get them to watch it. Of late, however, there's been too much exploitation and too little investment.

The England squad have to put all this out of their minds, of course. They are under enough pressure in knowing they are living the first lines of their obituaries without being burdened with the future of the game. They need to keep doing what they did in the last couple of games: play aggressive, intelligent cricket that adapts to circumstance without straying from the methods that have served them so well over the last couple of years. They reminded themselves of that in the meeting they held after the Australia defeat. It bodes well that they subsequently held their nerve in two high-pressure matches against high-class sides.

The squad will now take several days off before assembling in Birmingham on Monday night. They will then train on Tuesday and Wednesday (a few will net on Monday) before the semi-final at Edgbaston on Thursday. The game will be played on a fresh pitch just two strips away from the one on which they defeated India on Sunday. It has, therefore, a slightly longer boundary towards the Pershore Road side of the ground; the side that offered the shorter boundary in that group game.

Such issues are a detail. The point is, a sport fighting for its place among its rivals has a chance to shine in England next week. And whether you support Bangladesh, Pakistan, Australia or India, that is good news.