Last year, ECB Chief Executive Tom Harrison went on record to bill the summer of cricket that lay in wait in 2019 as a ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity’ for English cricket.
Ahead of a year that will see the UK take in the ICC Cricket World Cup, The Specsavers Ashes and The Women’s Ashes, it was hard to disagree.
A few weeks later, England collapsed to 77 all out in the first of three Tests against an unfancied West Indies side – the first in a string of batting catastrophes that contributed to them losing the three-match Test series inside 7 days. Far from an ideal start to a momentous year.
Fast forward to mid-May and the picture looks rosier. With a home 50-over Cricket World Cup looming, England sent out a marker to the rest of the world this month by amassing four consecutive scores of 340+ in their One Day International (ODI) series win against Pakistan, with each of the top five in great nick. Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow, in particular, looked in imperious form, with both batsmen producing stunning displays of ball striking.
That comes off the back of a record-breaking chase of 361 against a strong West Indies side in March, which was accompanied by a score of over 400 in the same series. England's 50-over credentials have never looked stronger.
So, what lies in store for English cricket this summer?
Winning the World Cup is the principal focus for England. The Ashes, so often the pinnacle of the English cricketing summer, is currently in the shadows as England chase that elusive first trophy in the limited overs format.
This is symptomatic of Trevor Bayliss’s time as head coach, which will be defined by an unapologetic shift in focus from red to white ball cricket; a point reflected in England’s dismal batting performance in the first two Tests against the West Indies.
Under the Aussie, England have lost an alarming 24 out of 53 Test matches, but he has also brought about a transformation in the national team's one-day form. Since his appointment after a disastrous World Cup in 2015, the win ratio under his stewardship sits at an all-time high of 67%, with the side winning an impressive 36 of 51 ODI’s since 2017.
Along the way they have defeated Australia and New Zealand both home and away, and assembled a score of 350+ on a barely believable 16 occasions - a number that includes two record-breaking first innings totals and one record-breaking chase.
To put that into context, in the fifteen-year period between the turn of the millennium and Bayliss taking charge, England scored over 350 just once, against Bangladesh in 2005.
As England’s track record in this format goes, it’s nothing sort of a revolution – the climax of which they hope will be a home victory in the 2019 tournament.
And what might that mean?
Everyone in the UK experienced the power of on-field success in the beer-soaked, sepia-tinted summer of 2018.
As Gareth Southgate’s unassuming squad performed beyond all expectation in Russia, there was a palpable shift in the public’s perception of their national team. Gone was the indifference that had characterised previous years, replaced with something that felt more like genuine affection.
Whilst it is unlikely that the penchant for pint-chucking will be replicated across cricket grounds this summer, the ECB will hope that a similar level of success in this year’s World Cup will be crucial to bringing cricket back to a nation whose love for the sport had potentially waned.
The appetite for ODI cricket in the UK remains strong. The ICC received over 3.2m applications for World Cup tickets this summer, from as many as 148 countries, selling over 800,000 tickets in total. So great was the volume of applicants for the grudge match between India and Pakistan that they could have filled Wembley Stadium several times over.
More encouragingly for the ECB, ICC Cricket World Cup’s Managing Director, Steve Elworthy, recently revealed that over 150,000 of those tickets purchased were bought by women, and the ICC estimates that up to 34% of paying spectators will be attending a cricket match in the UK for the first time ever. That bodes incredibly well for a governing body striving to appeal to a new demographic. The focus now will be on developing a deep understanding of that audience and ensuring interest levels and access to cricketing properties is maintained moving into 2020.
And the ECB is making every effort to harness that enthusiasm, rolling out a World Cup schools programme involving 8,000 schools, with a target of engaging 700,000 schoolchildren in cricket across the UK. This forms part of a wider strategy to inspire a generation between 2020-2024. With only 22% of schools currently playing the game, the creation of urban cricket centres across the country further aims to increase participation rates.
A dedicated South Asian action plan is also underway to engage communities in England with a historic affiliation to cricket. The current participation rate amongst South Asians sits at 30% but there is a real desire to develop that number significantly in the next few years.
Yet, whilst the groundwork is being carefully laid, a successful World Cup campaign has the potential to light the touch paper for the ECB. As with the Three Lions in 2018, and the Women’s World Cup triumph in 2017, on-field success would bring back page headlines, creating national icons out of the likes of Root, Roy and Rashid.
Will it happen?
The way the tournament is set-up favours the better teams, with each nation playing each other once in the group stages before advancing to the semi-finals. As long as they can manage the growing weight of expectation, recent form suggests that there is every reason to believe Bayliss’s men will deliver.
Throw in the intrigue of a home Men's Ashes series - where it is likely that Steve Smith will make his long-awaited test match return after the sandpaper scandal, an inaugural 4-day Test Match against Ireland and the return of the Women's Ashes to the UK, and the stage is set for a summer of cricket like no other.
Success across the board would undoubtedly help England and the sport of Cricket build a fresh supporting and playing community.