The Tangled Web

I’ll confess to a considerable degree of amusement that the Australian ball tampering scandal has reared up again on the back of an excellent interview with Cameron Bancroft. Amusement but not outrage, though – for the main crime was in being so extraordinarily brazen about it and getting caught. Teams have operated variations on the theme for time immemorial, and Australia aren’t remotely unique in so doing. The hilarity at their idiocy wasn’t a sense of fury at them doing it, it was always the rank hypocrisy of operating as the arbiters of cricketing morality while being even more obvious about it than everyone else.

So spare me the appalled hand-wringing, both then and now. What is new, and what was entirely predictable, is the seeping out of implications of others being involved beyond the three who admitted to it and who took their punishments. Bancroft wasn’t and isn’t a core member of the Australian team, and has always had less reason to keep his trap shut than Warner or Smith, and while clearly reluctant to dob in his team mates, that is the effect of his words. Rule one of allowing any closing of ranks and permitting people to take all the blame is to ensure that it’s worth their while to do so, not just initially, but over time too. There’s something oddly admirable in Bancroft’s refusal to name names or implicate others, but it has always been wildly implausible that bowlers for whom the condition of the ball is everything would be entirely oblivious to what was going on.

None of this hugely matters, bar as a truly wonderful spectator sport, except to point out that the net result has been that this entire sorry tale has rumbled on for three years and counting, and has now been gifted a new life. It’s not entirely academic either, given the likely change of captaincy of the Australian Test team in the near future and the candidates for that role.

It is thus that the decision to turn the whole affair into a navel gazing exercise on the subject of national character has backfired spectacularly by failing to ensure that it was comprehensive and final. As crimes go, this wasn’t the worst, but the response was so fantastically over the top that it created its own life far beyond the period in question. Cricket Australia’s statement that they would welcome further information has inflamed a whole topic that could have been put to bed long ago. And while social media and crowds (God love them, let’s see them again soon) wouldn’t let the Australian players forget, that didn’t matter and doesn’t matter – opposition crowds are looking for a reason to bait a team, not conducting a rationalisation of virtue.

But as a template for a governing body response, it remains fascinating. To go far over the top in the moral framing, and then accept a hopelessly unlikely explanation has managed to create the worst of all worlds – far from shutting the matter down, it has extended it, and created a glorious feedback loop of further questioning. It’s beautiful to watch.

No, I’m not horrified, appalled, aghast or anything else. But I am chuckling.

Hello Darkness My Old Friend

The overnight news about the proposed football European Super League will have caused many a wry smile from cricket followers up and down the country. All the usual words and phrases are in there – “stakeholders” will be consulted, it’s about “partnerships”, a “sustainable commercial approach” and not forgetting “solidarity”. A copy and paste of corporate gaslighting and bullshit meaning little except for a power grab and a desire to enrich themselves yet further and remove the jeopardy that is the essence of sport.

Football is a vastly bigger and wealthier game than cricket, and as such the response is magnitudes higher, but the arguments are the same, the objections are the same, and the lack of any interest in what the little people think is just the same. We’ve been here time and again, and we will see the same degree of pretence that it’s for the good of “the game” (another reminder that those in power only mean the game as it pertains to them, not the game itself) and that it’s nothing other than trying to secure the financial stability of the sport.

Where football differs is that this has attracted the attention and the ire of the politicians, who never fail to sport a point of votes principle on which to opine. To that extent, football fans are luckier. When both the ICC and ECB, internationally and domestically decide to put aside matters of sporting integrity in favour of filthy lucre, there is a deafening silence from all but a very few. Cricket doesn’t particularly matter, and certainly doesn’t matter to enough. Football does.

But the same set of parameters apply – that sport is a means of generating money rather than the other way around, and it’s both reflective of the reality in which we live and also a governance question that has never been addressed. It has been said before that the most dangerous foe any sport can face is a man (always a man) in a suit saying “I can help”. Yet there’s also the endless hypocrisy about it all. Sky News has spent much of the morning decrying the greed involved and parading their new found commitment to tradition and sporting values over dollars and euros – a quite breathtaking demonstration of rank hypocrisy. Should it go ahead and Sky win the broadcast contract, expect a rapid reverse ferret from their news channel to promote it as the greatest sporting invention since the round ball. Likewise, while Gary Neville’s monologue about the tradition of the game is helpful for all those opposed to the Super League, he’s one of those who has benefitted heavily from the concentration of power and resources in the hands of the few. His part ownership of Salford City is the same in microcosm – invested money making a team competitive above the level it would otherwise be – not a thing wrong with that, except the selectivity involved in deciding what is morally acceptable and what isn’t.

Football and cricket are different in so many respects, not least that football clubs have always been rapaciously commercial for a century or more. A quick look at the origins of many of the leading clubs shows very little has changed – all of the so called “traditional” big teams have become that way due to heavy owner investment at different times in the past. Just like cricket, this is nothing more than the logical culmination of a direction of travel that has been in place for decades. Few of those furious today strongly objected to the abolition of gate sharing in the 1980s, nor when directors were first allowed to take money out of the clubs around the same time, let alone the creation of the Premier League which was also sold as being for general benefit rather than personal enrichment. Some greed is apparently fine, it’s only when it goes to the next level that it’s something to object to.

But this is a cricket blog, not a football one, so those arguments can be had elsewhere. The relevance to cricket is only in the parallels, in the way that the ECB have tried, with rather less competence, to move the sport into the same frame with the same kinds of outcomes. While sports are different, the determination to force them down the same path to maximise (in the short term, it should be noted) revenues and ameliorate the bank balances of those already in positions of power is entirely the same. Franchise football with no promotion and relegation removes the essence of any sporting system, namely that teams can rise or fall on their sporting merits (and financial management plays a major role in that). But it is anaethema to investors, who wish to see a return on their down payment with certainty, something that sport is inherently bad at – which is why we watch it.

The Hundred is the cricketing equivalent of the European Super League in these ways. Ignore for now the format – it’s always been the least of the objections anyway – a fixed number of teams able to compete each year with no danger of dropping out is precisely the golden goose for sporting investors. As long as the competition thrives, it’s a one way bet, an almost literal licence to print money. The difference is the serious doubt about the level of interest outside of a pandemic year where the public are desperate for anything to watch, which is why as well as a curse for the ECB’s finances, 2021 is also a golden opportunity to embed a structure that the supporters in general loathe. The IPL and the NFL are models for owners of sports franchises to wish to expand into other areas – irrespective of the latter having various safeguards built in to try to maintain a level playing field. Indeed, the IPL perhaps more so is the perfect template to follow, whereby sport as entertainment in the same way as WWE is the aim and the intention.

The European Super League faces a lot of hurdles to overcome – the hostility from football supporters matters far more than the hostility from cricket ones, because packed grounds are more essential to football than to domestic cricket which doesn’t have that tribal following to anything like the same extent. There will be those who suddenly discover it’s not such a bad thing after all when they realise there is scope for personal professional advancement, and that’s not in itself an unreasonable position to adopt because everyone needs to look out for themselves. But it doesn’t mean everyone else has to fall in line, nor that they have to accept the worldview espoused that is nothing other than self-interest on the part of those doing so – indeed all the Super League needs now is people to come out and say this new competition isn’t aimed at traditional supporters. Some of those who advocate exactly this for cricket have been quick to decry it happening in football – don’t think for a second it hasn’t been noticed.

India, The IPL, And The Hundred

When reports of the ECB seeking private investors in The Hundred were being published by a number of newspapers and website last May, I wrote a quick post on why that would be a stupid idea called The Hundred For Sale. Now that there appears to be speculation around IPL owners and the BCCI being brought in, with the ECB apparently hoping to tap into the vast Indian cricket fanbase, it seems a good idea to write a follow-up piece detailing the problems with this specific proposal.

The proposals mentioned in The Telegraph article are:

  • The BCCI to receive a portion of The Hundred’s TV revenue from Asia in exchange for allowing Indian men’s cricketers to play in the competition. (It seems likely that they will allow India’s women cricketers to play abroad without any concessions, as they already do in the Australian Big Bash League)
  • The owners of the eight current IPL teams to be allocated a 25% share of a team in The Hundred, in exchange for an investment.
  • Exhibition games involving IPL teams to be hosted by English counties.

The first question the ECB and counties might ask is how much would a Indian TV deal for The Hundred involving some Indian players realistically be worth? One hugely important factor to consider would be timezones: India Standard Time is 4.5 hours ahead of England’s British Summer Time. This means that a 2.5 hour game (The planned duration for a game in The Hundred) which starts at 6.30pm in England would finish at the equivalent of 1.30am in India. Even if stars like Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Ravi Jadeja were all playing, it seems unlikely that tens of millions of Indians would stay up that late. The ECB could choose to start matches earlier (swapping with the women’s games so that the men’s games began at 2.30pm, for example), which would put them into Indian prime time but during work hours in England. That almost certainly lead to fewer tickets sold, fewer British people watching on TV, and the ECB having to deal with a very annoyed Sky and BBC.

It would also be wise the temper expectations about which Indian players would come in the event of the BCCI allowing them to do so. The IPL has essentially created a global gap in the cricket calendar, allowing both their own and other internationals to play in the tournament unimpeded. The Hundred has no such luxury, with even England men’s cricketers playing two Tests during the competition. There is absolutely no guarantee that India won’t have matches scheduled during the competition, which would eliminate most of India’s biggest stars from contention.

The relatively low pay might also discourage the top echelon of Indian T20 players from choosing to play in The Hundred. Virat Kohli receives roughly £1.7m per year to play for Royal Challengers Bangalore, but the most he could get from Welsh Fire is £110,000 (assuming he was captain). For virtually anyone in the current Indian team, that’s not an amount of money which would in any way justify spending a month in Cardiff. Players on the fringes of the Indian team like Axar Patel or Umesh Yadav might be interested, but they wouldn’t have sufficient star power to generate financial gains for the ECB in terms of Indian TV deals or additional ticket sales.

Selling shares of the eight The Hundred teams to IPL owners would also be a mistake. To quote ECB chief executive Tom Harrison, “The key is that any money generated remains in cricket, for the good of all sections of the game”. Investors understandably expect a profit, and so would be looking to take as much money as possible out of English cricket. If their priority is to make as much money as possible, the ECB’s other objectives might have to be sidelined. You wouldn’t expect the owners of Chennai Super Kings to care if cricket participation numbers in Sheffield were decreasing, for example, whilst Yorkshire CCC might. Similarly, outside investors might demand higher ticket prices to increase revenue or a reduction in on-field entertainment to reduce costs.

Having Indian investors having stakes in individual teams could also cause problems between the ECB and the counties. Right now, most of the revenue in terms of ticket sales, merchandise, sponsorship and the TV rights is shared equally between all 18 counties in the form of a £1.3m annual payment. Essentially, the ECB owns all eight teams and only delegates the management to the various counties. Because of this, it almost doesn’t matter which county is associated with which team in The Hundred. Three of the eight teams are run by three counties, four of them by two counties, and Manchester Originals are solely controlled by Lancashire CCC. If the ECB turned them into franchises, with 25% ownership from Indian investors, then all of a sudden Lancashire CCC might have a 75% stake in a team whilst Glamorgan CCC might only have 25%.

The eight teams also have significantly different prospects in terms of profitability and revenue. The Oval Invincibles will play in a 25,500 capacity stadium which invariably sells out all of its T20 Blast games, whilst Welsh Fire will play at a ground which holds a maximum of 15,643 people and in reality struggles to sell even half that many tickets. If team stakeholders get a share of ticket, food and other merchandise revenue then they’d be fools not to want the Oval Invincibles team.

Beyond money, bringing the BCCI and IPL owners into positions of power in English cricket might place the ECB in a very uncomfortable ethical position. It’s escaped few people’s notice that the IPL has the best T20 cricketers from around the world with the sole exclusion of Pakistan. Just one Pakistan international has played in the IPL in the last decade (Azhar Mahmood, 2012-15). If the BCCI were to allow Indian players in The Hundred, it seems doubtful that they would be happy to see them playing alongside Pakistani overseas players. The ECB could be in a position where they would either have to accept this or call it out, which would likely have the effect of the BCCI withdrawing their support.

One of the aims of The Hundred was to engage British Asians, who are significantly more likely to enjoy watching and playing cricket than the ‘average’ Brit but might feel a stronger connection to domestic and national teams outside England. What people often gloss over is that ‘British Asian’ covers a broad swathe of nationalities, religions and other divisions, and that they don’t all necessarily get on with each other. For example, Moeen Ali was constantly booed at his home ground of Edgbaston when playing for England against India in 2014. As it stands, the ECB might be seen as broadly neutral in any internecine rivalries (by virtue of doing absolutely nothing). If they were to endorse the exclusion of one nation’s players to appease another’s, that might also have the effect of excluding a large number of potential fans who they were hoping to attract.

As far as the third proposal regarding exhibition games at grounds like the Oval goes, it’s not inherently ridiculous. Rajasthan Royals played Middlesex Panthers in 2009, for example. That said, I think any IPL team would struggle to assemble anywhere near its full roster for a few games in England in September and almost all of their stars would be missing due to either international commitments or plain lack of interest. The larger issue might be the BCCI, who would probably be more inclined to host such a competition in India rather than allowing an English ground to profit from the IPL’s brand.

Whilst I would love for Indian players to be available for all domestic competitions around the world, as they are from every other country, the costs of doing so for The Hundred seem to far, far outweigh the benefits.

If you have any comments about this post, the ODIs, or anything else, please post them below.

India v England – 4th Test, Day 3 – Are You Gonna Try To Make This Work?

Confession – I’ve seen none of this test match up until 8:30 am. I woke up, looked at the phone and it said England were 65 for 6. Joe Root then got out. A large part of me, and that’s large, said “go back to sleep”, but duty called and I rumbled downstairs to watch it. In the 10 minutes before tea all that seemed to happen was Sunil Gavaskar getting on my nerves. He’s not on his own for doing that when I have just woken up.

I’m also one who sleeps in bunches and looks at the phone. When I looked at 5 and saw no wickets had fallen, it wasn’t a surprise. I then didn’t bother when I briefly woke up around 6:30. I had a thought of Karun Nair, and that Axar and Sundar might put on 200 for the 8th wicket in a mini-Chennai tribute band style, but it appears as though once Axar departed, the last two batsmen were not able to stay with Sundar to get his first test century.

England’s wickets fell in a heap, as we’ve become used to. It does seem a very long time since Joe Root’s magnificent double hundred in Chennai, and downright embarrassing that in the subsequent 7 England innings the team hasn’t managed to make his first test individual score, let alone anyone approach that great feat. It’s also a long time since another premature and ultimately ill-fated Ed Smith victory lap, and we wait with baited breath for the explanation the genius will provide us for the utter calamity that followed. I mean, yeah, it’s terrific to have a pool of players and to rest them during the mentally exhausting bubble environment, but no, when that is followed by abject uselessness, such “how damn clever am I” pontification, lapped up by a media willing to believe this fool, seems somewhat hollow.

Let’s look at this calamity, in the batting because the bowling hasn’t been truly woeful. England managed scores of 178, 134, 164, 112, 81, 205 and 135. We have had two players pass 50 in six test innings – Ben Stokes leading the way with 55. Zak Crawley made a half-century in the early knockings at Ahmedabad Part Un. Dan Lawrence might get there as I write this. We’ve seen Sibley look all at sea, Bairstow, well, if there isn’t an expose of our ridiculous thinking then I don’t know what is. Ben Stokes has not bowled until he was flogged here, and to me seemed mentally somewhere else. Ollie Pope looked decent at times, but that’s not exactly enough and he’s going to hear voices about his place this summer if there are no runs. Rory Burns looked out of his depth, and was chucked in the sea. Joe Root’s mammoth contributions were always going to end. Dan Lawrence has shown promise, and in this innings has looked decent, and with an idea, which is a bit of a damning indictment on his slightly more experienced colleagues. Foakes has flattered to deceive, but everyone is in love with his keeping, so that’s fine (Indian comms trying to put Pant on a level field with him has been one of the more amusing commentary traits). Sometimes it appears as though Jack Leach has more of an idea and a game plan than some of our “better players”.

But what’s the point of caring about this if the authorities are really only playing lip service? They have the T20 World Cup as their priority. Also, the players aren’t absolved of this, as it is clear (and I am not sure I can blame them) that some view the IPL as more important than this test series. Yes, India can also be accused of this, but Stokes not bowling until this test, and Buttler being packed off home is a bit of a tell. Look, it’s the real world we are dealing with here, and money talks, walks and buys houses. Test glory just makes you feel good. It don’t pay the bills. It’s not the only thing, not even the main thing, but there has been mood music that it’s good prep for the IPL, and that’s got to be good for the World T20. That the World T20, and then the Ashes are important this year and that to lose this series is expected. It’s a mish mash of points, I know, but a Joe Root wonder innings could well have stopped a 4-0 thrashing, so that’s OK. At least his tour de force won a game on a result pitch.

Yes, time for one of my golden great “oh no, not again” points. But yes. Ever since we lost an Ashes series 4-0, and seemed happy that the media’s hero had prevented it with a 244, that same media should have that pointed out to them at every turn. At least in that series Malan and Bairstow made a good century each. At least we had some nice moments to watch. But the media said 4-0 was not that bad, and we should just move on. Now, when you see the last three tests resemble something much worse than Ted Dexter’s all at sea garbage of the 1990s, the press and the pundit class need to can it. Your ship sailed.

Dan Lawrence has added a 50, Jack Leach has just got out.

A 3-1 series defeat flatters England. They were eviscerated in this test. Once Sundar and Pant dragged India out of the hole they had made for themselves, put a lead up of 150ish, the game was done. England realistically needed to make 350 to give themselves a live chance, and that was never going to happen. That England have been demolished in a series where Pujara, Kohli and Rahane have not made centuries says it all.

Lawrence is now out, and the game is over. India have won by an innings. Ashwin and Axar take five each. The game is up. In more ways than one.

I really can’t be bothered, because, frankly, once the tide turned, I don’t think England were that massively bothered either. Anger long since passed me by, and despair is something you feel only when really disappointed. England talk about the primacy of the test game, and then subside in a clueless funk. They have a bowler who, possibly despite himself, took wickets in Sri Lanka and the first test, dropped him, let the news run that they thought he was shot, left him out of the test where Joe Root took a five-for, and then picked him here to fail. They did that and had just two seam bowlers, one of which hadn’t bowled much at all all series, and played Lawrence, who they’d dropped, at number 7. This isn’t blue sky thinking. There’s nothing clever about it, It’s an idiot let loose in the laboratory. Whether it is Ed Smith, Chris Silverwood or Joe Root responsible, I don’t know. If Vaughan is decrying the treatment of Bess, as he has been today, then I doubt Joe Root is responsible. The treatment of Moeen was also gob-smackingly ignorant as well. Stop telling these people they are clever.

India were ruthless, they bowled brilliantly on favourable wickets, to which they are absolutely entitled to produce, and in my view to be criticised for if we feel like it. A result pitch, set out as such, is better, whether we like it or not, than a road. But none of us are experts on how wickets play, and I try to steer away from it. But you are judged on results. Ashwin and Axar annihilated England on the helpful wickets. That’s test cricket, these days.

England came out of this with virtually nothing to show for it after a promising start. Reputations were not enhanced. Two day and three day defeats are soul-destroying. England at least clawed back in the last two tests, but from the moment Rohit set about England in Chennai, the die was cast.

It was good to see this on Channel 4, of course it was. That’s a decided positive. But the teams move to the stuff that matters now – white ball. It pays the bills, it gets the crowds, and it is the future. The tests may well be looked at as a curiosity. That we still appear to care feels like nostalgia for a bygone age, even in the present. This was a chastening loss IF it matters. In the immediate aftermath I have no doubts the players are incredibly hurt, but life goes on, and the circus is due to start for the big players and flailing at a spitting cobra on a spinning top is not in the IPL’s modus operandi.

The opening lyric to the song that the title comes from is “You don’t have to take this crap”. As I type Simon Hughes is blathering on. It seems appropriate really.

Cheers for following us through this test series, and one thing we are grateful for is England have allowed us a few extra lie-ins. As they say after the game “we need to take the positives”.

Comments below.

India vs. England, 4th Test, Day 2 – I Closed My Eyes and I Slipped Away

When I wrote the preview for this series back in early Feb, one of the key things I highlighted as a concern for England was their habit of picking a team that they wished they’d picked for the previous Test like they did when they last toured India. Sadly those that ignore history are doomed to make the same mistakes time and time again as Rishabh Pant piled into a tiring England attack who were a bowler short with their selection for this Test.

Whilst Pant took away this game and the Test series in the last session on Day 2, it must have been extremely galling for Stokes and Anderson, the former suffering with a stomach upset, who had bowled quite gallantly in difficult conditions earlier in the day. The lack of quick bowling options forced Stokes into a frontline bowling position, which is not exactly ideal as he is one of England’s best batsmen, yet he bowled with heart and no little skill to get England into a position where a first innings lead was a possibility before the Pant pyrotechnics. The wickets of Kohli to a sharp riser and then a wonderful inswinger to beat the defences of Rohit were a fast bowler’s dream scenario and with Anderson at the other end bowling miserly, the thought of a Mark Wood backing them up would have been the absolute ideal on this pitch. It was only when a clearly exhausted Stokes returned for his final spell that the wheels came off, though that was hardly unexpected due to the heat and workload put upon Stokes. Put it this way, I really don’t want to see our best all-rounder having to bowl 20 overs in a day anytime soon.

Of course at the heart of this was England’s nonsensical decision to go in with only 4 front line bowlers and Joe Root, who was never going to repeat his bowling heroics of the third Test. The recall of Dom Bess in essence gave England 3 front line bowlers as once again he struggled with rhythm, bowled too many full tosses and gave the Indian batsmen easy runs to relieve the pressure. This isn’t me having a go at Bess mind, being an international spin bowler is one of the hardest jobs in cricket and asking a young lad, who has never been first choice at his county, to learn on the job against one of the best attacks against spin bowling was always going to be an incredibly tough ask. I said during the Sri Lanka tour that Bess really looks like he needs a couple of seasons of county cricket to hone his skills before he should be playing for England on a regular basis. Don’t forget Graeme Swann, probably England’s finest proponent of spin in the modern ages was a bit rubbish when he first came onto the international scene but was a different player when he returned to the international side after honing his skills at Northants first and then latterly Nottinghamshire. Of course the ECB’s decision to push 4 day cricket to the outer extremes of the cricket season is not going to help the development of any young spinner coming through, but I would like to see Bess bowling regularly for Yorkshire this summer.

As for Rishabh Pant’s innings, well what can you say that others have not said? His positive approach whatever the scoreboard shows is absolutely refreshing and whilst it might not come off all the time, he has undoubtedly been a big reason why India will compete for the World Test Championship in England later on this year. The two shots that will live in memory for a long time were the sight of him charging down the wicket against Anderson with a new ball in hand and thumping it over mid-off and then the most audacious reverse paddle sweep over the slips from the same bowler. Even though the pitch wasn’t the most conducive to fast bowling, to do that against a guy with over 600 wickets is something else. The look Anderson gave when returning to his mark said everything that needed to be said.

We at BOC don’t like the current culture of besteveritis or comparing young players to past greats, but there are certainly shades of Adam Gilchrist in the way Pant bats and his ability to take the game away from you in a session. Of course, there will be tougher times ahead for Pant on pitches that offer more lateral movement, but I do hope he continues with his approach as it’s wonderful to watch as long as you’re not on the end of it. It would also be churlish not to mention the contribution of Washington Sundar, who looked at ease at the crease and played a gem of an innings as second fiddle to the fireworks going off at the other end.

Whilst it may not be over yet, with England having a squeak of a chance if they can take the final wickets with a lead under 100, it would be a very brave or foolish person to wager on England winning from here. A poor first session tomorrow morning and it may well be start the car time.

As ever thoughts on the game appreciated below.

India vs England – 4th Test, Day 1 – Pitch, Switch

Most of the pre-match chatter had been about the pitch. The previous game in Ahmedabad was the shortest Test match in the professional era, with most people blaming the groundsman (or whoever gave the groundsman their orders). England clearly expected more of the same, picking a bowling attack of three spinners (including Root) and just two pace bowlers (including Stokes). In hindsight, that may have been a mistake. There haven’t been any explosions of dust on day 1, unlike the previous two Tests, and India’s two pace bowlers have actually had success throughout the day. If anything, the conditions seem reminiscent of the first Test in the series.

Which brings us to England’s XI. Crawley, Sibley, Bairstow, Root, Stokes, Pope, Lawrence, Foakes, Bess, Leach and Anderson. The first thing that jumps out is the sheer depth in batting. Ben Foakes, with a Test batting average of 36.00 (The last two matches have knocked it down somewhat), at 8. The second thing is a lack of options with regards to pace bowling. Just Anderson and Stokes. England were clearly planning for a pitch where their spinners would do the majority of the work. That may have been a miscalculation. India’s fast bowlers were asked to bowl 23 overs today, as opposed to just 11 in the whole of the previous game, and there seemed to be good carry even with the old ball. Archer was unavailable due to an elbow injury, but Stone or Wood might have been helpful in these conditions.

Joe Root won the toss and opted to bat first again. It was all downhill from there. On a pretty benign pitch, with a little spin and bounce but still closer to a proverbial road than minefield, a competent batting line up should be expected to bat until well into Day 2. For a team like England’s which has essentially selected eight batsmen, a total of 400 might be considered their minimum target in these conditions. What we got instead was a rather pitiful score of 205 all out. Only a last wicket partnership from Leach and Anderson even got their total above 200.

England winning the first three Tests of the winter may have masked some of their issues, as all three victories were on the back of a big score by Joe Root. Few teams lose games where one of their batsmen scored 150+. In the eleven innings England have played against Sri Lanka and India this season, their batsmen have scored just ten scores of fifty and above, with Root accounting for three of those. There is simply no plan B if England’s captain doesn’t get a big score.

Anderson gave England a little hope in his first over, taking the wicket of Shubman Gill, but Pujara and Rohit saw India through to the close of play with few issues on 24-1.

Aside from the placid pitch, there has also been a big improvement in the position of third umpire. Anil Chaudhary has taken over from Chettithody Shamshuddin, and things are back to normal. An umpire, like a wicketkeeper, is arguably at their best when no one is talking about them and that is the case with the umpires today. No controversies, no steps skipped, and no rushed decisions. For all of England’s issues today, they certainly can’t blame the officials at all.

County cricket fans will have been pleased to see adverts for the T20 Blast during Channel 4’s live coverage of the Test. The cost is likely a pittance compared to what will be spent on promoting The Hundred this summer, but it’s nice to see any effort from the ECB with regards to promoting its other competitions. It often seems like the ECB forgets that they aren’t just responsible for the international teams (and now The Hundred). Any steps which show even a modicum of interest in county or recreational cricket must be seen as a sign of improvement from them.

As always, feel free to comment on the game or anything else below.

Welcome to the House of Fun: India vs England, 3rd Test, Day 2

A ridiculous day of cricket. A ridiculous Test. One way or the other, the shortest Test match since 1935 isn’t a great advert for the game, even if the watching of it was intense, breathless and extremely exciting. There are two separate things here: firstly that low scoring matches of whatever format tend to be the most thrilling, and for the obvious reason that every single ball matters, but secondly when conditions are so far in favour of the bowlers, it makes batting something of a lottery, and brings things to a close far earlier than should be remotely the case. When the batsmen are in true peril, scavenging every run has a value, while the bowlers take on the aspect of pack hunters, circling their prey. Yet it’s always been the case that when conditions favour one discipline too much over the other, it leads to an unsatisfactory game, and finishing well within two days (and with slow over-rates) is not something to relish.

The question though is how much the pitch is responsible for that. Watching on television caused no end of head scratching as to just why both teams (at least until India’s second innings when the target was so small as to make little difference) struggled so badly. The Chennai surface in the second Test seemed to turn more, and the ball seemed to go through the pitch far more. But the players made it very clear that this was extremely difficult, and their view is the most important. What seems to have happened was that the ball skidding on made it impossible for the batsmen to cope with it – the number of bowleds and lbws indicated that particularly. It isn’t always the explicit turn or bounce that does for them, any more than a two paced pitch visibly makes it clear to the naked eye why drag ons on driven catches are so prevalent – the outcome dictates the reason to the observer. Therefore it can’t be a criticism of all the batsmen, quite clearly the conditions were such that everybody struggled, but it is possible to accept that point and also note that England struggled far more, and should have done much better in the first innings in particular.

England looked utterly out of their depth, a far cry from the first innings of the first Test, and part of a trend of England’s scores getting progressively worse. The lack of pressure in India’s second innings makes a judgment a little hard, for there is a huge difference between the heat and pressure of a live match and when both sides know which way the game is heading and are going through the motions.

While irrespective of result, the pitch, or the pitch in combination with the pink ball, weren’t good enough, it was still the same for both sides, and England should have had the best of the conditions on offer. They chose the wrong team, with three seamers and one spinner, and Joe Root was not only being forced into action, but also picked up five wickets. That is both a credit to him and an indictment of the team England had chosen in the first place. Equally, this match wasn’t remotely lost by the bowlers, but by the batsmen, especially first time around.

England’s slim hopes of making the World Test Championship final are thus extinguished, on the back of having made five successive scores below 200. It’s hard not to conclude that England are getting precisely what they deserve for increasingly abject batting displays. India might be better at home, indeed are better at home, but there’s a difference between being outmatched and being hammered. England are increasingly being hammered, and while they have the chance to square the series, few would bet on them doing so.

India vs England – 3rd Test, Day 1

There was a lot of talk going into this Test from English fans and journalists about the pink ball favouring the away side in this game, or that the toss was the decisive factor in both of the previous games. Today, England have done their level best to disprove these theories quite thoroughly.

When you go to exchange team sheets with your opposite number and see that they have gone with three spinners whilst you have dropped one from the previous game, it can’t be a great feeling. Joe Root won the toss, which was almost the only thing which went England’s way all morning. It does bear saying that the toss has proven less important in day/night Tests than you might think. The current record for teams winning the toss is 8-7, and it’s also 8-7 in favour of teams batting first. Indeed, the only definitive pattern for games played with the pink ball is that they appear to massively favour the home side with only two losses in the fifteen played so far.

England made four changes to the side which lost in Chennai: Crawley, Bairstow, Archer and Anderson replacing Burns, Lawrence, Ali and Stone. Of these four, only Zak Crawley made a positive impact in today’s play, scoring a quick 53. To put that in context, the other top six batsmen scored a combined total of 24 runs.

Dom Sibley fell early, edging a ball from Ishant Sharma to second slip. Bairstow followed soon after with an lbw to the left arm spin of Axar Patel. It is a little embarassing when a batsman is brought in based on his batting against spin, only to fall for a nine-baall duck. Root managed to steady the ship with Crawley for a while but was trapped in front by Ashwin on 17, whilst Crawley suffered the same fate from Patel. England, having won the toss and chosen to bat, were 81/4 at the end of the first session.

It didn’t get any better after Tea (the 20-minute break being first in this Test) with England’s tail failing to wag or even twitch a little. England lost their last six wickets for just 32 runs, with spinners Patel and Ashwin just dominating the tourists. Pope and Stokes were both dismissed in the first two overs of the session, which left Ben Foakes and a long tail. When England replaced Moeen Ali (England’s top run scorer in the previous Test) with Jofra Archer, that left them with a number 8 who has a Test batting average of 8.00. That decision put a lot of pressure on their specialist batsmen to build a strong platform, and they obviously didn’t respond well to the challenge.

To be clear: This was not the pitch, nor was the pink ball to blame for England’s collapse. There has been spin in Ahmedabad, but without the variable bounce or ‘excessive’ sideways movement we saw in Chennai. The new ball swung, but probably less so than the Dukes ball does in England. It was good bowling by India, and poor batting from England. It’s that simple.

Broad almost claimed the wicket of Gill in the five overs before the second (Supper?) break, but was denied by the third umpire overturning an onfield call of a low catch in the slips. There was dismay from the England team and their fans, not just at the decision but also how that decision was made. First, it came very quickly. From the third umpire asking the director for a replay to his decision being made took less than 30 seconds. Second, and more importantly, he only looked at one front-on angle. It is a basic principle with low catches that you should attempt to view it from side-on where possible, because foreshortening often makes the ball appear lower than it actually is due to the viewing angle and the lenses used.

The commentary was quite forthright in supporting the third umpire’s decision, which was not a surprise. There were two Indian commentators on at the time, and they simply wouldn’t have a job if they didn’t wholeheartedly support an Indian umpire making a decision in favour of the Indian batsman. Of course, they were helped in their certainty by their Star Sports producer declining to show any different angles of the catch (or non-catch). Mark Butcher had been prepared to question things in the first two Tests, and might have prompted further examination, but he has been replaced by Graeme Swann. It’s tough to remember a worse decline in commentary standards in the span just one Test. I’ve been watching it on mute.

In the night session, both sides played what could best be described as as average cricket. India scored 99/3, which is almost up to England’s total with plenty of wickets in hand. The conditions didn’t seem as bowling-friendly as advertised, perhaps because of dew on the ground. It is my vague recollection from when I used to watch the IPL on ITV4 that the ball got damp at night, causing it to seam and spin less. England could have poached a few more wickets, had catches not been dropped and (perhaps) the third umpire had taken more than a cursory look at a stumping.

Ultimately, England’s disappointing first innings total means that there is very little pressure on the Indian batsmen, who I expect to bat for most of tomorrow and put this game beyond doubt. Somehow, despite spinners bowling 47 overs, the day finished 8 overs short. It probably won’t matter, as England seemed the culpable party (bowling just 33 overs in over two and a half hours), but both sides have a chance of qualifying for the World Test Championship final and a points deduction would both hurt them and help Australia. Surely no one wants to help Australia.

I was so looking forward to this Test too, with its reasonable hours and pink swinging balls. After England’s performance, and the prospect of more Swann commentary, I might just stay in bed all day.

Free, to do What I want, Any Old Time.

The announcement about unlocking society yesterday has been timely for the ECB, given that today is the draft day for the Hundred. It is entirely unsurprising that the response from the majority of the commenting cricket fraternity has either been indifferent or negative, but that’s merely a reflection of the ongoing hostility to it, and also the abject failure of the ECB themselves to engage the support base over the last few years.

Where it gets more interesting is whether, in a sense, the ECB have fluked it in terms of the timing. If, as hoped, crowds return to sport this summer, then it just might be that their launch of this concept will work – in 2021 at least. The reasoning for that is simple enough, having been locked up for the best part of a year, there will be latent demand from the public to be out doing something – anything. The Hundred, with its reasonable pricing may well be able to tap into that desire, and the open air and generally spacious (except the seats) nature of cricket watching may attract even those who are nervous about being out and about among the general public.

Put aside views of the format of The Hundred for now, it doesn’t matter. Having something to do will matter, and given it’s summer before anyone can, it largely, if not entirely, bypasses other sports in the same period, and will have an earlier major event that crosses over in the liberalisation period with Euro 2020 taking place in June and July that ought to bring back some familiarity to the concept of going to sporting events.

Against that is the undoubted likely reduction in the numbers of people who are prepared to go anywhere this summer. Each time the pubs were re-opened there was an expectation of them being packed, and in city centres that may have been more the case, but elsewhere there was a clear reluctance from many to go out to public locations. What happens this summer in that general sense is an open question, but it’s probably true that the overall potential footprint is lower, while among those who do wish to partake, their incidence of making use of what is available may be higher.

There is also the economic aspect to this. Many people are dramatically worse off, through job losses, collapses in income or business, and they will not have spare cash to be able to splurge on summer events (in this area, the low price of the Hundred is in its favour), but on the other hand there is a smaller but still sizeable group who are much better off, due to working from home rather than commuting, and the loss of things to spend money on more generally. How much one group might outweigh the other is another unknown, but there is an opportunity for the ECB to promote the entire competition in a slightly different way to had it been a normal year.

None of this undoes the structural problems faced by the entire concept, nor the challenges it will have in future years. An initial frisson of excitement at something new lasts no time at all, but if nothing else, it provides a means of making a good start. For cricket generally, the pricing attraction versus a ticket cost in excess of £150 at Lord’s for an ODI is a clear point of difference, especially for a family, and it shouldn’t be underestimated how that vast difference will play to a group of people who are open to paying for public entertainment, but not to have to sell a kidney for the privilege of attending.

What it won’t do is justify the Hundred itself, although it’s not hard to imagine the PR crowing that will result from busy grounds. It doesn’t mean that it isn’t justified either, it would simply be that the special circumstances of 2021 mean it is impossible to draw wider conclusions about the wisdom or otherwise of the whole venture. But in itself, it has the prospect this year of generating interest and ticket sales. For the ECB and the counties hosting games, that will be enough for now, and with the women’s matches running in parallel at more grounds than the core, it could be wider in reach and scope than anticipated. Indeed, the impact of The Hundred on women’s cricket more generally is a wider topic for debate, but this year, it might just make a material difference.

This would undoubtedly create mixed emotions – the ECB receiving instant absolution for their actions over the last few years would go down badly with many, irrespective of the cost of failure of the launch. But perhaps even for those most implacably opposed, it could be seen as a necessary evil this year to give the game at least a fighting chance of generating cash. Where that takes us in years to follow, that’s a very different question.

The Day After the Day After Tomorrow

Predicting the future is problematic, it’s much easier to predict the past, although Twitter users might be an example of that not being entirely the case. In wider life there seems to be consensus that while the question of whether the pandemic will make material lasting changes is an open one, it almost certainly has accelerated existing trends – such things as the decline of cash or the continued rise of online over physical retail.

Cricket seems little different – there is no reason to assume that this last year will cause wild changes in itself, but an acceleration of what was coming anyway, that’s a different matter.

Television deals are at the heart of the future and the present, and have been the principal driver of the changes over the last 10 years, whatever the disingenous pontifications from governing bodies about trying to engage people in the sport as more than exploitable consumers. The shortening of formats, first to T20 and then to 10 over equivalents or the Hundred are all about packaging the game into compact segments that fit into programming and allow advertising to be maximised. India is undoubtedly the principal power behind this, because their financial muscle is greater than just about everyone else put together. The rise of the IPL to not just be the biggest short form tournament, but the priority for the game full stop has been inexorable, and the players have been part of that for their own financial reasons. In all cases, it’s not something to particularly blame anyone for, it’s merely a reflection of desires that coincide and aims that correlate – the belief in some quarters that professional cricketers with a short career should sacrifice their ability to earn for the sake of tradition is naive at best. Thus the expectation has to be that not only will the IPL continue, but that it will become ever more central to the global game.

The Hundred is the ECB’s attempt to muscle in on the same thing, having blown their chance of making T20 their central selling point to the world game. There are endless problems with the assumption behind that. Globally, the difference between 16.4 overs and 20 is so minimal as to be not worthy of further debate, and the ever lengthening duration of IPL and Big Bash T20 matches to up to 4 hours implies that the purported domestic desire to have a very short game isn’t one entirely shared elsewhere – perhaps short enough is sufficient. That doesn’t mean in itself that it can’t be a domestic success, but the wish the ECB have for it to be a global phenomenon looks hamstrung from the start. Gimmickry has a place in all sports, irritating as many find it, but a successful gimmick is one that does draw people in, that does appear to have a value. The Hundred lacks this entirely, the hundred balls of an innings doesn’t even work as a deception.

It’s not unreasonable to believe that the Hundred will be a domestic option, and one with limited expansionary appeal. The argument made in its favour that it’s still cricket, and that the difference between it and T20 is sufficiently small for it to have sporting integrity is precisely the reason it’s unlikely to truly take off – why abandon the investment in T20 for a game that offers little extra? If The Hundred does remain an entirely domestic concept, it’s hard to see how it has a long term future when everyone else prefers the ironically more traditional T20. All new things attract attention initially, and whatever the complaints about it, it will have that first flush of attraction as something new. The problem it has is beyond that, years three and four. There comes a time when the question will be asked what the point of it is, and whether a T20 tournament would work better. The Hundred itself looks doomed in the longer term, though it may serve its purpose if it garners sufficient commercial attention to cause that debate to happen.

The 50 over form of the game will continue to be squeezed, but it remains a viable option because it still attracts strong crowds and decent quantities of sponsorship and advertising money. There may be experiments made to widen the differential between it and T20, such as four innings of 25 overs, but it is a format that isn’t particularly broken. The attitude towards it may change somewhat as T20 becomes ever more dominant, indeed 50 over cricket may come to be seen as a long form of the game, which has a certain irony, because for club cricketers around much of the world (there are exceptions) that’s exactly what it is and what it always has been, even if concepts such as winning or losing draws offer a slight level of nuance – though note those kinds of playing rules are on the decline.

Where that leaves Test cricket is another matter. The World Test Championship has been positioned as a way of creating context for Test cricket in order to give the bilateral series meaning. It’s always been a slightly confused position – not because it’s a bad idea, far from it, but because the endless ODI bilaterals lack any meaning whatever, yet continue unabated because of the financial return created by them. There are of course tournaments such as the World Cup, but that’s not really the rationale behind holding so many bilateral series, or they would be considered no more relevant than an international football friendly with all the irritation they cause. Cricket is, and always has been different (and has similarities to international rugby in this regard) in that a match has inherent value in itself, and doesn’t necessarily need that bigger context for everything. That doesn’t mean for a single momoment that tournaments like a World Cup aren’t necessary, they both are, and are wonderful things in themselves, albeit the formats of such things are another question. Therefore a World Test Championship can be both a good thing in itself and also a fig leaf that doesn’t address the structural challenges being faced. There is a suspicion that Test series are often organised as a necessary evil rather than something to be embraced as justified and attractive in themselves, entirely for those financial reasons. Or to put it another way, if Test matches provided strong revenue streams for every board, there would be more of them – England don’t play lots of Test cricket because the ECB adore five day cricket. If there was serious money at hand, the players would be less inclined to abandon the Test arena for the more lucrative white ball forms of the game. The decline of Test cricket in favour of white ball cricket is not because of a particular dislike of that form of the game for sporting reasons.

There is no reason to assume this will change in the years to come, rather precisely the opposite. Countries like England play a lot of Test cricket because, at present at least, that is the largest level of spectators – and thus commercial – interest in the game. With big crowds and a big TV deal that has included, in fact focused, on Test cricket, it has been the core of the income of the professional game. It’s not the case elsewhere, and to highlight that particularly, the newer international countries such as Ireland have abandoned Test series because they cannot make them financially viable. Those are two ends of the range, but there are many more countries nearer the Irish end than the English one, and the English extreme is beginning to weaken. Core marquee series will continue, principally between the most powerful boards of India, Australia and England, but Test cricket will wither further beyond that. There is a way to prevent it, and that would be a more equitable wealth distribution globally, and allow the players to choose Test cricket as a viable means of support for them and their families. But let’s be clear – it isn’t going to happen. The handwringing about the decline of Test cricket among the great and the good has no relevance when the actions that could be taken to prevent it are verboten in administrative circles, because of their own narrow interests. Fundamentally, there isn’t a desire within the ICC hierarchy, and particularly the board hierarchies, to save Test cricket. Until or unless that happens, Test cricket is on a one way ticket to irrelevance and extinction.

This also has knock on effects for domestic cricket, not just in England but around the world. After all, the purpose of first class cricket has been largely to provide a training ground for the Test game, something that puts the hackles up for the county cricket fans who see a game that is important in its own right. But it has never been financially viable in itself anywhere since the 19th century, it wasn’t the point of it to be. The diminution in value of first class cricket is a corollary of the decline of Test cricket and its lack of revenue creation has changed its positioning from one that needs support in order to promote the wider game to being viewed as a revenue drain on central resources. This is an important change in focus – county cricket has never been something central in and of itself to the finances of cricket, it has had sporting value and been deemed worthy of support as such. This has changed – the justification for concepts like the Hundred have been to generate financial income in and of itself, and not for the purposes specifically of first class county cricket. This is central to the expectations in years to come, for no longer is it considered inherently valuable.

The arrival of the Hundred has a further likely consequence, in that it introduces franchise cricket to England. It is from a different era that Durham was added to the roster as the 18th county, the desire now is to shrink the base of teams, not expand them. Protests that regional franchises are purely for the shortest form of the game smack of disingenuousness – the strongest counties will survive irrespective, but the weaker ones look like they have no long term future. Formal status is unlikely to be revoked, because it simply doesn’t matter much, they will fall by the wayside as power and money is concentrated in the hands of the few, and the difference between some first class counties and some minor counties will be harder to determine. Salami tactics work in terms of generating change – abolishing counties would invite end of days headlines, allowing them to fade into obscurity will be met with a shrug of the shoulders from all but those directly affected. The protests from county cricket fans will make little difference – they have already been written off as unimportant.

This is not a future that many will relish. But as things stand it is where we are likely to be. Test cricket being in trouble is not breaking news, but the lack of any impetus or desire to change this is what is going to doom it to the margins. First class cricket and county cricket will follow, and the focus on white ball, and particularly T20 cricket is the future to be faced. It can change, certainly, but only if there is a desire to enact what is needed to make that happen. There is no sign of that happening, and no sign of a desire that it should happen. Money has become the driving motivation in sport across the world, but cricket is in a different place, whereby the belief among administrators is that the game of cricket has no future without change, and that the generation of cash is the prime motivation, not the sport itself. Business people can have that view, indeed they always have done, there is no reason to pretend they are other than what they are for good or ill, what is different in cricket is that there are few at the top of the game who believe passionately in the beauty of their own sport, who see their role as primarily to defend and grow it. Instead they consider that change must happen in order to make money, rather than making money to deliver a better sport. Not even the feast of mammon that is football has quite this attitude to their own game – they have a rapacious desire to monetise their sport, not consider the raison d’etre of the sport to be money generation.

The amateur game is far from immune to the fallout. Sunday friendly cricket has undoubtedly declined in a precipitous manner over recent years, as the player base has shrunk. A push to T20 matches from those viewing it from the lofty perspective of their professional career is to miss the central point that a desire for shorter games is as much a reflection of a smaller pool as it is modern life writ large in cricket. Free to air broadcast of cricket may still be the biggest driver of arresting such an unpropitious collapse in the player base, but it isn’t a panacea for the problems of the game either. Like so many things, it is complex to the point of confusion, but in this arena at least, the biggest change would be evidence that there’s much more than lip service to the importance of it from the centre. Here again, there is little reason to believe that will happen, and the decline of the clubs will continue.

For good or ill, it’s our direction of travel. There is no doubt that many will be aghast, but an attempt to be realistic isn’t an endorsement of where we are headed. And more specifically, it’s where we are meant to be headed. This is not a lament for a passing time, nor a wish that if only a few changes could be made. Too often the debate is framed around a tweak here, a nudge there. A few more pennies for a county perhaps, or throw a bone to a former associate nation. None of it matters, and none of it makes any difference, except to allow the drowning to suck in a last few precious breaths of air. It would require fundamental change to move the trajectory, and it won’t happen, can’t happen, because it is not accidental. It is not a game that has lost its way and is seeking a way back. It is far too much of a conspiracy to assume this is the development of a grand plan to reach this suggested destination, but it doesn’t have to be, it isn’t how it works. All it requires is for an acquiescence with the direction of travel, and that contentment is entirely present. For as long as the approach is one of managed decline of the traditional and a defensive mentality of the long standing, while embracing the new, shiny and above all lucrative, there is little reason to doubt where we will end up.