Why The Hundred Must Be The ECB’s Priority This Season

No one could confuse me for being an advocate for The Hundred, nor a fan of either its concept or execution by the ECB. I have written posts here about its lack of simplicity, its patronising marketing towards women, its sycophantic press coverage, the ‘research’ which allegedly led to its creation, the ECB’s own justifications for its creation, the dumb team names, and the huge gender inequality inherent in the new competition. I have even written a Dr. Seuss parody about it. Last but by no means least, I have written a post with a hundred reasons why I think it’s a bad idea (Spoiler alert: I am also 82% through writing a second post with a hundred more reasons, although many of these may have become redundant based on current events). All told, I’ve written well over 25,000 words here on the subject. None of them complimentary.

Which is why it may surprise some of you to discover that I genuinely think The Hundred must be the ECB’s first priority when (or if) domestic cricket returns this year.

I’m no more a fan of it now than I have been before. Its a bad idea, made worse by the people running it. The rationale for it is flawed, and it risks alienating cricket’s loyal customers in order to attract new people. And I don’t even like any of the crisps. But none of that matters now. In light of cricket being essentially closed at the start of the season, there are two basic reasons why I think it should be the first domestic competition to return.

The first reason is that the competition format is literally made for television, which is important because it seems possible that people won’t be able to attend games in the near future. The main reason counties want T20 Blast games is their profitability, but a large portion of that money comes from attracting fans to the grounds. If large gatherings are banned (and the average T20 Blast crowd last year was over 7,000), then I think it might quickly become expensive for the counties.

The Blast’s format is basically designed to have as many games in as short as a period as possible in order to maximise attendance, with 126 group games played over 44 days. Sky Sports Cricket can typically only show 2 matches per day, and that includes the international cricket which will be almost certainly be happening in the same window. Without serious changes, such as a dramatic reduction in the number of games coupled with an increase in the competition’s duration, it seems likely that county cricket fans would only be able to watch around a third of the competition at all.

The Hundred, on the other hand, has 32 group games scheduled over 28 days. Ideal for Sky to fit around a Test series (which most of us will hopefully be watching), as was the original plan for this year anyway. If the women’s games were all made double-headers with the men’s, as the rationale that women’s cricket wouldn’t attract large enough attendances to be sustainable seems pointless if there are literally no fans present anyway, Sky might even be able to show all of them too. And that’s before we consider the BBC, who have the rights to show 10 men’s games and 8 from the women’s competition. With no Wimbledon, Olympics or European Championships this year, The Hundred might be the most high-profilelive sports they have this summer.

It may be possible that the English cricket season starts early enough to play both the T20 Blast and The Hundred, but even in that situation I would have The Hundred go first. The later the Blast is scheduled, in my mind, the more chance there is that people will be allowed to go to the grounds.

The second, and perhaps more important reason, is money. It’s been that the ECB is concerned that “Sky Sports will withhold part of this year’s £220million television contract if [The Hundred] is postponed“. If people can’t attend the games, then that is already a huge amount of money lost from English cricket in terms of gate receipts and beer snake ammunition. Other revenue, such as sponsorships, might also be affected. This is not a time when we can afford to be picky about where the money to fund English cricket is coming from, or what it is paying for.

This crisis could hardly have come at a worse time financially for English cricket. The £220m Sky TV deal meant that everyone blew through their 2019 reserves with the secure knowledge that a huge pay cheque was waiting for them this season. The ECB’s funds got to such a low point that they couldn’t even afford to pay their white ball international contracts for four months. The players received generous pay rises going in to this season, as (I would guess) did the coaches and many other staff behind the scenes at the counties and ECB. This means that English cricket is now more expensive to run than ever before, and needs as much money as possible to continue as it is now.

That £220m wasn’t a gift from Sky, but a payment for the ECB and counties providing cricket games for them to air. Specifically international cricket, the T20 Blast and The Hundred. If the ECB fails to deliver all of those competitions, then Sky would presumably be well within their rights to withold their next payment. They might even be be able cancel the contract altogether, and that could be a real disaster. With Sky Sports and BT both having lost subscribers during this sporting hiatus, it seems very unlikely that the TV rights for English cricket from 2021 would be worth anywhere near as much to them as the current deal offers.

Will The Hundred be any good? With few overseas players and likely no crowds, I wouldn’t have thought so. And, like I wrote at the start, I can think of plenty of reasons why it was going to suck even before all this happened. That said, people might be sufficiently starved of live sport by the point it starts not to care about such things.

In summary: I think the ECB should prioritise The Hundred, and it should be the first domestic competition to take place this year.

And no, this is not an April Fool.

Cricket – How do I Love Thee – Let Me Count the Ways

At the start of the lockdown, we asked anyone who wanted to write something for the site to send in an article. Elaine Simpson-Long took up the challenge with this lovely piece about falling in love with the game of cricket. Enjoy:

My journey from the darkness into the light took some time. 

I found cricket boring.

I was a tennis fan, skiving off school in the summer holidays to watch Wimbledon. When the kids went home to lunch I shot out with them and never came back.  I spent the mornings there so when Wimbledon was over and I returned and the nuns used to say “Have you been in School Elaine I have not seen you” I could answer with a clear conscience, “yes Sister I have” . And I had. But only for half a day.

I remember I used to get annoyed when the BBC would nip off to cover the Test match and left tennis behind.  Those were the days of one channel and cricket actually being on terrestrial tv.

I continued finding cricket a dreary past time for some years and then I ended up sharing an office with a cricket fanatic. During the summer he had his transistor radio (remember them?) permanently playing Test Match Special. Those were the heady days of Brian Johnson, Christopher Martin Jenkins, Tony Lewis et al and gradually this seeped into my consciousness and I found myself listening much though I tried not to.

Looking back I do wonder how this bloke got away with it as he did no work at all and skived all day. But then we worked in Local Government…..

A friend of mine invited me one summer to spend a weekend with her and her family. They lived in Nottingham and her dad, Bill, was a member of the Nottingham CCC.  Oh he was a lovely man. Immaculately turned out. pressed trousers, shirt and tie and polished shoes and courteous and polite. I loved him on sight.

The sun was shining on the Sunday morning and Bill announced we were going to watch a one day  match at the cricket ground. My heart sank, Oh God I thought but being a good guest I beamed and said “How nice” and off we went. Lovely sunny day and I found myself in the member’s enclosure drinking Pimms, eating cucumber sandwiches and strawberries and cream.  Despite myself I began to enjoy the cricket and then with a vague air of disbelief heard myself utter “Oh good shot, well done!” and this went on all afternoon. It was all frightfully British.

A month later and another visit to see Bill. This time it was in the hay fever season, the pollen count was through the roof and I could barely breathe. Bill had asthma even worse than mine so we stayed indoors with the curtains drawn and what was on telly? Yes you have guessed it. A Test Match against Australia.  

Bill and I watched it all and he explained everything to me. And I mean everything. Why a certain bowler placed a fielder in a certain place as he was going to make him play his shot there, the field placings – they took a while to sink in (I still have blank moments thinking about silly mid on)  – and the way individual batsmen played. He made me understand that just saving your wicket and blocking and sticking it out could be exciting (Cardiff in later years proved that) and I ended up being totally fascinated by it all.

(At the same time  I was learning to love cricket I had a boyfriend who loved Wagner and I spent an awful lot of time sitting through long Germanic operas and I honestly think the two were linked. You need tolerance and patience and stamina for both)

It was clear I just needed somebody to explain it all to me and I was lucky enough to find that person. Dear Bill. No longer with us but I will never forget him.

Later when I was married (luckily to a cricket lover) and had two daughters we all watched cricket together. When my eldest child started school I would strap her baby sister in the pram and race round to collect her from the playground in the afternoon, luckily just round the corner, grab her and belt back. No nattering with the yummy mummies at the school gate tarted up in the latest designer gear. I got it down to a fine art and found I only missed three overs.  Nowadays I would probably have only missed one. …

Though my husband liked cricket we did not have Sky and the darkness descended and so I watched an awful lot of tennis. This was anathema to him and  I did get rather tired of my beloved coming into the room and saying “Oh for heaven’s sake you are not STILL watching this crap are you”?

Reader I divorced him.

So I ended up living on my own and I thought ooh goody now I can get Sky with nobody to moan about it but the flats were a Sky free zone and so I languished existing on the coverage from Channel 4 which I thought was pretty good though Ian whathisface began to get on my nerves after a while. Too smooth and urbane by half. Never trust a smooth man is my motto. 

Then Sky came up with the idea of communal dishes and all of us screamed with delight and had it installed and I was in heaven. I now had cricket coming out of my ears and I wallowed in cricket and all was gemutlich and lovely. I was a happy woman.

It was too good to last. 2014 happened.

KP.   Need I say more? 

The answer is no because it has all been said, but I will nail my colours to the mast here and say I was firmly in Kev’s Camp.  I simply could not understand the vitriol and hatred he seemed to generate on social media and the cricketing forums and, of course, the ECB.  You would have to be a mixture of Mugabe and Hitler to justify this reaction. OK I get he was a Marmite person but considering the English team was peopled with the likes of Broad, Anderson and Prior you cannot feel he was alone in that regard.

Along with others during that time, I lost faith with the English cricket team. Not cricket itself, I could never do that, but I found it really hard, if not impossible to support them.  I found myself watching their opponents and willing them to do well. When they took an English wicket I cheered. Now I did not like feeling like this I found it all vaguely discombobulating.

Things got better when the Golden Boy finally retired and I did not have to watch him standing in the field looking gormless and picking his nose while Anderson and Broad ignored him and did what they liked.  Of course, I then had to watch Joe Root standing in the field, not picking his nose thank gawd, while Anderson and Broad ignored him and did what they liked.  

This feeling lasted until last year when the tide slowly started to turn and I found myself beginning to support them again, but I have to say it is still early days and I realised how fragile this feeling was when I watched the final of the World Cup and really wished New Zealand had won.   

Watching cricket over the past forty years has brought me so much joy.  I enjoy one day matches, I enjoy 20-20, I love the IPL with all its razzamatazz and silliness. But oh how I love Test Cricket.  When it is on my friends and family know that I more or less go into purdah and will not answer the phone or venture forth. When four day Tests were mooted last year I nearly had apoplexy.  

And sometimes I find myself watching cricket even when it clashes with Wimbledon. Proof positive I think.

At the moment I am in self isolation as I am an Old Person – my daughters have told me so and said I have to Be Careful.  So now would be the perfect time to watch cricket. And of course there is none. Talk about the law of Sod. It is like being ill in bed and thinking oh I can spend all day reading when the reality is you are feeling lousy and can’t be arsed.  

There are only so many re-runs of old cricket matches one can take, and the picture is square and you have great gaps at the side on your posh new telly and it is all too much to bear. So I have switched off and ponder on the Big Question – are Sky going to give me a refund on my sub to Sky Sports now they are not showing any?  I have my doubts..

So there you have it. My journey into the light. Not exactly revelatory or earth shattering.

It’s quiet at present, otherwise I am sure this would never see the light of day .  So if you have read this sparkling and witty piece through to the end then well done. You deserve a treat. 

Perhaps you should buy a ticket for The Hundred…..

Elaine Simpson-Long @randomjottings1

Idle Nonsense

I posted on Twitter an invitation for anyone who wanted to write an article to while away the time as we all stare at four walls over the next couple of weeks to do so.  I’ll do so again here, and if you want to contact any of us, that’d be great.  For what it’s worth, I’m at tlg@beingoutsidecricket.com

Often people worry about how well they write, how it will come across, and whether they have enough content to make it worthwhile.  Come now, no-one is going to care, anything amusing or entertaining is going to bring a much needed smile to someone, so go for it.  Even if it’s very short, it’s well worth it.

I thought I’d share a tale from many years ago about a cricket tour, about how players on cricket tour are utterly brutal to their friends.  Some will read it and tut, some will laugh or smile.  But these memories stay with you, and for good reason.  Names and locations are changed to protect the extremely guilty.

The Geordie was a passable enough cricketer, and a decent bloke.  Liked a beer, liked a laugh, had an accent that became progressively thicker the deeper into his cups that he became.  But he was a sensible enough chap, inordinately proud of his good looks, utterly horrified at the prematurely receding hairline he would do his best to hide that caused much debate as to how far he would go in years to come when it required winding around his head.

The phrase “kid in a sweet shop” was made for his first cricket tour.  The relatively sensible fellow had become a raging beast, permanently hammered and incapable of any kind of meaningful speech.  My arrival a day in to the tour meant as I said hello to him and was answered with incoherent dribble (no, not drivel) caused a mirthful team mate to pull me aside and advise that “the Geordie you knew is not the Geordie who now exists”.  Obviously there is a fine line between someone being highly entertaining and extremely irritating when they’re like that, and he did his level best to cross that line at every opportunity.

Nevertheless, to the shock of everyone, he still managed to pull.  God knows how, God knows what she was thinking.  In the manner of people who support their friends at all stages, everyone naturally did all they could to wreck it for him.  But she knew what was going on, and ignored us with the disdain and contempt we entirely deserved.  It all went wrong for him when, fed up with the lot of us, he lost his temper and yelled out “What’s wrong with you all, you’re like flies round shit”.  After a brief pause of disbelief, we fell about laughing, she said “Oh, thanks very much” and stormed off.  Job done.

He may have been mildly irritated with us all by that stage, so clearly the only thing to do was to make it even worse for him.  For reasons I’ve long forgotten, one evening he passed me his wallet and asked me to look after it.  Clearly, this was an opportunity not to be passed up, so another team mate promptly stole his credit cards.  In the manner of such things, he was too drunk to notice, and we didn’t volunteer to return them.  The following morning he noticed they were missing, asked around if anyone had seen them, and our complete innocence was beautifully acted out.

Assuming he’d lost them the night before, he returned to the hotel bar, and nope, they weren’t there.  So one of us rang the hotel from a call box (you can tell this is many years ago) claiming to be from the club we’d played the day before and that they’d found them.  Off he went by taxi, using the last of his cash, promising the taxi driver he’d be able to pay via a cashpoint for the return journey.  It wasn’t too bad, only about 10 miles or so away.  He got to the club where the groundsman was working on the pitch, and the Geordie naturally assumed that he’d rung.  Nope, sorry mate, no idea.  Having timed it perfectly, that’s when we rang the club to say terribly sorry, but the person who had found the cards had had to go into town and could he meet him there?  Much grumbling ensued, but he was a spirited bloke, so he walked.  5 miles.  In the opposite direction to where we were.

Clearly, there was no one there to meet him, and no way of him getting any money.  Somehow, he persuaded another of the clubs we played, located in town, to lend him the money to get back to the hotel, hot, extraordinarily grumpy for some reason, and willing to regale us with the horrendous day he had gone through.

“And I still don’t know where my effing credit cards are”.

“These ones?”

“You bastards.  You utter, total bastards”.

And you know what?  He wasn’t wrong.

Feel free to add your own better tales below for our entertainment.

 

 

Netflix and Chill

The unsurprising news of the cancellation of England’s tour to Sri Lanka as the the Covid 19 virus continues its spread across the globe is not even the latest to be afflicted by the desire to limit contagion, as event after event, fixture after fixture is cancelled.

I’m not a scientist, comment on the virus and public policy by those with no knowledge of what is the right thing to do has been a feature of social media over recent days; screaming from a position of scientific ignorance is something I wish to avoid.

But the impact on multiple industries is going to be exceptionally severe, and sport is far from an exception.  The advice from the Chief Medical Officer that the peak level of infection is potentially 14 or more weeks away takes us into June, and thus from an English cricket perspective well into the summer.  This means that at best the Test series against the West Indies must be in major doubt, alongside the early rounds of County Championship and the T20 Blast.  Whether the cancellation of all such events over a lengthy period is sustainable is open to question, for few businesses can maintain shutdowns for any length of time, and whether the public will buy into an absence of much semblance of normal life is also a matter for debate.

The elective nature of the cancellations – as opposed to government compulsion – also means the question of whether insurance cover applies comes to the fore.  Few are likely to have direct knowledge, and by the very nature of it no one is going to want to admit the position publicly, but there must be considerable doubt as to whether the ECB or their counterparts are protected.  Such matters may be thought trifling in a public health crisis, but at some point things will return to normal, and the damage done to that normal life is important too.

It is clearly a big summer from the ECB’s perspective, the launch of the Hundred has been extraordinarily expensive, and while some might teasingly hope that cancellation of that unloved concept is a consequence, any curtailing or abandonment of it would provoke a major crisis in the finances of an organisation that is, like many others, already facing a highly uncertain future.  It is at times like these that the diminution in the ECB’s financial reserves over the last few years begins to look like a risk that has backfired badly.

Furthermore, there must be issues for Sky Sports, who have lost almost all of their content.  Subscriber cancellations seem the likeliest immediate impact of that, though what it means for the various sporting contracts must too be open to doubt.  Given the multi-lateral problems for all parties, one thing that probably can be assumed is that few will be looking to take a hard line.

Of course, the optimistic view would be that the return of sport in the coming months might attract much greater interest than would otherwise have been the case, and there is some reason to hope that once through the worst of this, entertainment may well pick up rapidly from a relieved and probably bored population.  The flip side of that is the financial hardship likely to be faced by many significantly reduces the disposable income for such things as sport.

If the central tenets of the ECB’s most lucrative activities face serious difficulties, it isn’t just the top level that will have questions to address in the coming months.  The amateur game too will be hit by some not wishing to participate, whether or not that is a reasonable response.  Clubs are always on a financial knife edge anyway, and it doesn’t take much to cause them serious difficulties, and with a governing body that even if inclined, would be financially unable to support them.

Supporters too are consistently overlooked.  The cancellation of the Sri Lanka tour was announced by the ECB with no reference to those who had booked to follow the team.  Worse than that, there was still no mention of those travelling in the email sent out to the England Cricket Supporter’s database.  It is clearly not practical for the ECB to offer refunds of their travel, but supporters are highly unlikely to be able to claim on their travel insurance for a destination that remains open to visit.  They are in an extremely difficult position, and it isn’t unreasonable to have expected the ECB to acknowledge that in their communication.  To have ignored it entirely smacks of an organisation that doesn’t care in the slightest about anyone else, and doesn’t even pay lip service to pretending that they do.

What happens next no one knows.  But it seems likely that Netflix, Amazon Prime and similar platforms are doing a decent trade in sign ups, as people either self-isolate or simply don’t have a huge amount else to go and do, or sport to watch.  Sport is always the most important least important thing, and either way the consequences are going to be with us for some years to come.

One thing is for sure, it is far from only sport that is facing these questions, take it from me.  For I work in travel and tourism, and I have had a shit of a month.

 

“Makes sense doesn’t it!” – The ECB, The Hundred, And Women’s Cricket

Today, as almost ninety thousand cricket fans crammed into the MCG and millions of TV viewers around the world watched the Women’s T20 World Cup final, seems an excellent opportunity to look at the status of women’s cricket here in England. The perception seems to be that we are making good progress towards a professional and popular women’s game. And, relative to some countries, we are. But there have been numerous opportunities squandered, a multitude of promises unfulfilled, and far too many empty platitudes.

Personally, I’ve found it frustrating that England has seemed to lag behind Australia in developing women’s cricket recently. England awarded the first full time central contracts in 2014, followed by Australia in 2015. Other than that, Australia have really taken the lead in the women’s game. Cricket Australia started the Women’s Big Bash League in 2015, followed by the ECB’s Kia Super League in 2016. When Australia’s domestic competition went fully professional in 2017, I naturally waited for the ECB to follow suit soon after. And waited. And waited. And waited.

Eventually, in 2019, the ECB finally seemed to come through on the next logical step for women’s cricket when the PCA announced that 100 new professional domestic cricketers would be created in 2020. It was included in the ‘Heads Of Agreement’ which detailed exactly what pay and other considerations professional players and the PCA could expect for the duration of the new £220m per year Sky TV deal. Meanwhile, people from the ECB were saying that there would be eight full time teams, based in the same cities as The Hundred, where these new professional players would play throughout the summer.

The creation of a professional domestic structure is absolutely key for the future of women’s cricket in England. It should provide a high standard of competition, which improves the ability to develop players for international cricket and also makes the  game more entertaining for potential supporters. In the best case scenario, if you build women’s cricket up like Cricket Australia have with the Women’s Big Bash League, you can even reach a point where women’s cricket is profitable rather than something subsidised by men’s cricket. Which is, frankly, more than men’s county cricket seems to manage.

Recent developments seem to suggest that we are a long way from the ECB committing to this kind of growth. First, the ECB reduced the number of new full time contracts from 100 to 40. Now, around 5 weeks before the English cricket season begins, we haven’t heard a single thing about any of these new players being signed or even the teams they’re supposed to play for. I’m starting to think that the ECB may have abandoned even these modest goals.

The reduction from 100 to 40 professional crickets is incredibly important for two main reasons. Firstly, it massively restricts the opportunities for women to make a career playing cricket. Australia’s star player, Ellyse Perry, had the option of either football or cricket as a career and chose cricket because there were more opportunities and higher wages in Australia. If she was English, it seems very likely that she would have become a footballer instead. Other prospective cricketers will have left the sport because they will have had to choose their full time job over cricket, because training and playing cricket in your free time in the hopes of gaining a rare full time contract just isn’t financially realistic for many people.

The second, and perhaps more important reason, is that a reduction to 40 new full time cricketers reduces The Hundred and the new 8-team domestic competitions (if they arrive) to semi-professional status. It’s simple arithmetic. If there are 21 cricketers with England central contracts, the 40 new domestic players and 24 overseas draft picks, that equals 85 total professionals.  There are 8 teams in The Hundred with a squad of 15 each, meaning that there is a total of 120 players. So at least 35 squad members in The Hundred this year will be amateurs. Club cricketers. A far cry from the rhetoric about it being an elite competition.

The reduction also acts as a reminder to all of us (not that anyone here needs reminding) that the ECB are not to be trusted, nor should their promises be believed. In another related example, England’s women cricketers were reportedly told that their pay brackets in The Hundred would range from £50,000 to £15,000. When the final figures were announced, it was actually from £15,000 to £3,000. Quite a difference.

I almost don’t blame the ECB for constantly lying and cheating though, because everyone else seems to just let them get away with it. The press don’t seem to care enough to write about it. The counties can’t even collectively act in their own interests, so the idea that they might somehow get their act together to help women’s cricket is almost laughable. The most disappointing to me is the PCA, who are supposed to represent and  protect these women cricketers from abuse and deceit by their employers. Not for the first time, the PCA’s response appears to be silence and inaction.

But most of this isn’t new. Whilst I’ve been angry about this consistent failure by the ECB to build up women’s cricket in England, the thing which really spurred me to write my first blog post in about six weeks was a couple of smug, arrogant and incredibly misleading tweets by the new “@TheHundred” Twitter account.

 

#EachForEqual is the official theme and hashtag for this year’s International Women’s Day (which is today). It is meant to represent support for “the gender equal boardroom, a gender equal government, gender equal media coverage, gender equal workplaces, gender equal sports coverage, [and] more gender equality in health and wealth.” So let’s examine how the ECB are doing on these aspirations which they are publicly supporting.

Gender equal boardroom – 4 out of 12 on the ECB board. There’s just one woman acting as a representative for the 40 counties and the MCC who elect the chairman and approve the board, I believe.

Gender equal media coverage – The ECB are always at pains to say that the men’s and women’s competitions are inextricably linked, and that both will gain signficant exposure. In the real world, Sky are committed to showing all 34 men’s games and just 11 women’s games whilst the BBC seem likely to air only the final. To put this into context: Sky showed 12 Kia Super League games in 2019, which means that the total coverage of women’s cricket by Sky will actually decrease this year.

Gender equal sports coverage – In The Hundred, the men will play 34 games at 8 grounds. All televised, all in big cities. The women, on the other hand, will play 30 games at 20 grounds, mostly in small towns and mostly not on television (and quite possibly not even streamed or with radio commentary).

Equality in wealth – Even including the £300,000 team bonus for winning, which is the same in both competitions, the average wage in The Hundred for a woman is around £60,000 less than for a man.

In other words, they’re achieving none of it. I don’t think they’re even working towards it. It’s just a meaningless hashtag and phrase.

The huge new TV deal and The Hundred were supposed to usher in a new era for women’s cricket in England. Whilst the press release platitudes and slick social media marketing still proclaim that to be true, the reality is far different. No amount of flashy videos, hashtags or other nonsense should distract us all from the fact that the ECB is absolutely screwing up the women’s cricket. Somehow even worse than they’ve done to the men’s game.

And the most frustrating thing to me is that hardly anyone seems to care.

A Little Learning Can be Dangerous

So there we have it, the second Test tour of the winter is over, and England are in rude health, having dispatched South Africa and found a team.  So runs the more optimistic take after what became a dominant performance in the second half of the series, following a floundering one at the start.  Reading too much into England’s performances at any given time is a perpetual danger, but failing to give them any credit for their successes when they have them is taking a curmudgeonly attitude too far.  There were good things to take from the tour, there were examples of players finding their feet in the Test arena and the kernel of a half reasonable team was more identifiable by the end of the Tests than at the beginning.

It must be noted that South Africa weren’t far short of a rabble by the end, either broken by England or by the circumstances in which they find themselves.  Triumphalism at England’s victory has been limited, given the problems afflicting both South African cricket and the wider game.  Few in the media generally have spoken about it in depth, partly for fear of damaging the product even further, partly because of a lack of detailed knowledge about the particular difficulties faced.  It’s wise not to pretend an awareness that doesn’t exist, but it doesn’t make it any less concerning to see one of the game’s major powers in such disarray, and while there are always local factors or specific challenges (Kolpak in South Africa’s case being one), there is a pattern of struggle off the field among all the nations apart from Australia, England and India.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be good teams produced, but the financial reality of the world game is predicated on ever increasing wealth accumulation by those who already have it, and descent into penury for the rest.  When ideas are mooted to “help” Test cricket (just as there have been lots of initiatives to help the FA Cup that have gone swimmingly) they always fiddle around the fringes rather than examining the fundamental imbalance in world cricket that have led to this point.  Four day Tests are proposed as a means of saving money, supposedly supporting poorer national boards, but their advocacy is from one of the wealthiest – at least before the splurge to support the Hundred drained the bank account – and is indicative of the way absolutely every option must be considered apart from those that have created the major structural mess in which the sport finds itself.

The self-interest by those who have been tasked with acting as defenders of the game never stops.  South Africa’s own shortcomings on and off the field can’t be directly addressed by the world game, but it can provide a sufficiently level playing field that South Africa have a chance of succeeding, rather than continuing to undermine any prospect of a viable long term future.  This is why the repeated claims that Test cricket is the apex of the game, the highest form of cricket, are met with such scepticism.  It’s not that every action and proposal is intended to wreck Test cricket, it’s just that if that was indeed the aim, it would be hard to see how there would be a great deal of difference in approach.

It’s not as though there aren’t enough warning signs elsewhere, even if governance has been less than stellar in many nations.  The admission of Ireland and Afghanistan to Test cricket was greeted with delight as a rare instance of the game seeking to grow its international footprint, but Ireland have already cancelled scheduled Tests because they can’t afford them, such is the loss making nature of the five day game outside England and Australia.  That the other formats benefit from the presence of Tests is rarely factored into the global reach of the sport anyway, but the point is that concepts such as four day Tests don’t resolve this fundamental imbalance in any way, nor is there any prospect of someone who isn’t a fan of five day Tests becoming one by virtue of removing a day.

All of which is to attempt to provide some context for an England success that showed significant promise, but was against a cricketing nation in real difficulties.  The next tour to Sri Lanka will be against another country struggling to maintain its cricketing base, albeit there too there are substantial self-inflicted woes.  The England players aren’t responsible for the circumstances in which they find themselves, and it can seem churlish to qualify their win by rationalising the circumstances of their opponents.  But as long as the gulf between the haves and the have nots continues to widen, the premier form of cricket is in peril, and the victories against those without the means to develop their own game to the same level has to come with an asterisk, as well as making clear the laughably awful administration in England that can’t even regularly make the most of its overwhelming financial and structural advantage.

This is unfortunate.  For England have a collection of likeable cricketers who may not all be exciting in the sense used all too often by boards determined to reduce every facet of the sport to variations of T20, but who have shown a willingness and ability to grasp the nature of Test cricket itself.  Of the batsmen, Rory Burns, Dominic Sibley and especially Ollie Pope enhanced their reputations as young players with the patience to play the long form of the game at the top level, while Zak Crawley showed flashes of potential that he might be able to do the same.  Added to a core group of players in Root, the estimable Stokes and Broad whose records, whatever the blemishes, speak for themselves and there is the basis for a half decent team.

In Mark Wood and Jofra Archer there is pace to burn, and if fitness is a concern over both of them, then that is still something of an improvement on not having pace at all which has been all too frequent.  The negative comment that Archer attracts continues to baffle, but he does receive a more questioning press, shall we say, than is remotely warranted.  There are suspicions aplenty about the kind of briefing that is being carried out – it may well be denied, it may well be not true, but that suspicion exists because of the track record of various ECB personnel doing just that to certain players.  As someone once said, this is a matter of trust.

Of the players deemed to be at risk for the Sri Lanka tour, two stand out, and for different reasons.  Jos Buttler is under pressure for his place following a fairly long fallow period in Test cricket.  He has his defenders, and his basic talent is not in question, more his aptitude for the red ball game.  He simply doesn’t have the track record in either county or Test cricket to suggest this run of “form” is an anomaly rather than a reversion to the mean.  A wicketkeeper batting at seven and averaging around 30 is no disaster, certainly.  But when that wicketkeeper is primarily a batsman anyway, and when at least one of his rivals is both substantially better in that role, and also probably as a batsman too, it is increasingly difficult to make a case for him.

The other player now under pressure, to the surprise of many, is Joe Denly.  He has certainly been consistent – consistently moderate perhaps, but consistent.  Plenty of starts, plenty of decent contributions, but he’s lacked a big score or two to go with it.  What he has done though is set the tone for those around him, absorbing the new ball, putting mileage into the legs of the bowlers, and providing a platform that the middle order , glory be, have started to turn into decent totals.  To that extent, Denly’s contribution to the team could well be viewed as being significantly greater than his run totals and average might suggest.  Even so, it’s not of a level that would normally make him a certainty to retain his spot, and if Burns was fit for Sri Lanka there might have been some support for thanking Denly and moving on.  It is that the reported change would be for Bairstow to come in at number three instead that provoked some disbelief, both given his own poor performance which led to his dropping, and a technique that isn’t often described as tight.  It is one report, so we shall see.

Prior to the series, indeed after the first Test, an analysis of what might constitute England’s best team, and what changes might be made would have been a problematic matter to debate.  Not because of limited options but rather despair as to where to begin, so many were the holes in the team, so varied were the disasters.  England are a hell of a long way from even approaching being the finished article, but perhaps there is the basis of something with which to work in the years ahead.  All that is needed is opposition comprising more than two other teams for them to measure themselves against.

 

South Africa vs. England, Fourth Test, Day 4 – The Final Cut

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The end came quickly for South Africa after their batsmen at least showed some application and fight in what was always likely to a forlorn cause chasing a World Record score to tie the series. Rassie van der Dussen led the way for the home team with a battling 98 that included some very decent stroke play and whilst England were never truly in trouble of losing the game, the odd doubt might have started to creep into the mind of more than one overly pessimistic England fan. The most disappointing thing for South Africa was that all of their batsmen made a start without being to push on and stick with van der Dussen though it must be said that Bavuma got an unplayable snorter from Broad whilst Faf after engaging in a bit of argy bargy with Buttler, got a ball that cruelly kept low. When De Kock got out trying to have a mow at Mark Wood the game had already gone by that point. South Africa were well beaten by that point and they knew it.

For England and Joe Root in particular, this has been as important series win as it has been for a while for England, despite South Africa looking particularly weak. To overcome a series of injuries alongside illness which affected the whole touring party and still win in South Africa is testament to some newly found fortitude and both Root and Silverwood should both be highly praised for instilling this. I also thought Root’s captaincy was far better than he has shown previously with him refusing to let the game drift or chasing the ball as he has done previously. England were inventive in the field with both their bowling changes and fielding positions without being funky for the sake of being funky and were often able to come up with a plan for many of the South African batsmen, with the dismissal of van der Dussen today a prime example even if it was a rotten shot from a batsman obviously distracted by the nervous 90’s. It does help when you can throw the ball to Ben Stokes when you’re desperately searching for a wicket mind.

There have been plenty of positives too for England with Ollie Pope, Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley and Dom Bess all being young players who have put their hands up this series. Now is certainly not the time to go over the top in their praise as they are all still raw and not without the odd technical fault, but there is promise there and it was encouraging to see them do this away from the conditions that they are most used to. All of the above will have peaks and troughs over the next couple of years, but England will be happy that there is young talent coming through from the much maligned county ranks. Naturally one of the biggest positives aside from Ben Stokes being fantastic, is the re-emergence of Mark Wood, who has bowled with fire and purpose for the last two Tests after many of us, myself included, felt that we would never see him play in an England shirt again. The fact that Wood has got himself fit again after so many horrible injuries and has lengthened his run up is very promising; however the caveat is whether England can keep him fit and certainly there is a strong case for wrapping him up in cotton wool for the next couple of years (I wouldn’t have him tour Sri Lanka). If we can manage his workload and get 7-8 Tests out of him over the next 2 years, then I’ll be incredibly happy, but again this is very much in the lap of the gods. I hope for Wood’s sake that he has seen the worst of the injuries now as he is a joy to watch and is obviously an immensely popular member of the dressing room. There are negatives of course to come of out of the series, but that is for another time, it’s hard enough to win away from home and so England should be proud for winning in South Africa, even if their team resembled nothing like the South African teams of the not so distant past.

As for South Africa, I genuinely fear for them in the short to medium term (and maybe even longer). I appreciate no proud South African fan wants sympathy from an England fan, but it’s hard not to have sympathy for the fans. The South African board has spent far too much time arguing with local journalists and overseeing a T20 tournament that nearly bankrupted them than doing their job and concentrating on matters on the pitch. It is also not South Africa’s fault that some of the richer counties can go and sign some of South Africa’s best up and coming players or players coming towards the end of their careers as kolpak’s with higher wages on offer than they can receive playing for the Test team. I can’t blame the players for wanting to ensure their financial stability as you only have a short career as a cricketer; however it does leave a bitter taste in the mouth and has bled the South African team of their better talent leaving the domestic cupboard dry. It’s also clear that things are going to get worse before they get better with Philander retiring after this game and Faf and Elgar likely to follow suit fairly quickly. This could be a really rough few years for this side and I fear that without better governance and investment in the sport, we could be seeing a repeat of what has happened to the West Indies over the past 10 years. I genuinely hope this isn’t the case as Test Cricket needs a strong South African team, but the omens aren’t looking good.

I’d also like to say a quick word on Vernon Philander, who retired from international cricket today and is going to take up a kolpak role at Somerset. This series was probably one too far for Big Vern, but he has been a great servant to South African cricket over the years. He also helped dispel the myth that you need to bowl 90mph to be successful in international cricket as it was rare that he ever reached the 80mph mark; however his control of the ball and consistent line and length ensured that you could never relax when facing him and his record with the ball (and with the bat) shows what a good cricketer he was. Sure you can’t match the excitement of a genuinely fast bowler charging in and hurling it in and 90mph, but there is still a place in every Test team for a genuinely accurate pace bowler. He will be missed.

As ever, appreciate any thoughts or opinions on the game or series below.

Thinking Out Loud: 4th Test, Day Three

Test cricket can be a beautiful thing. A precious thing. A wonderful mixture of talent and pressure culminating in moments which are seared into our memories for life.

But it also unfortunately has days like today as well. The day began with England leading the series and dominating the game, and finished the same way. The bits inbetween, both batting and bowling, were thoroughly unexciting.

The day began with an early wicket, Vern Philander caught off a leading edge in the first over of the day, leading to some speculation that England might consider enforcing the follow-on. That possibility was quickly crushed by the partnership which followed between de Kock and Pretororius, which almost carried South Africa through to Lunch. A quick flurry of wickets from Stokes and Wood ended this spell of resistance and left South Africa with a 217 run deficit in their first innings total.

The less written about England’s batting performance, the better. They were in a position where the score essentially didn’t matter as they were basically giving the bowlers a rest, and they batted like it. Loose shots, scrambled thinking, and poor technique. Honestly, the scoreline quite possibly flatters them in this innings. The dismissals I found most disappointing were those from batsmen who should be fighting for their batting position. Crawley, Denly and Buttler haven’t scored enough runs in this series to cement their place in the side, and this was their last chance to do so. They scored 24, 8 and 8 respectively. Crawley and Denly will likely have until Rory Burns is fit again to press their case, but this feels like it was Buttler’s last chance saloon.

Root managed to hang around though, scoring yet another unconverted fifty mainly with the tail. England managed to post a score of 248, leaving South Africa needing to chase 466 runs to win.

Somerset’s Vernon Philander looks to have finished his Test career early, with a hamstring injury of some description. He left the field in just his second over, and didn’t return all day. Given that this left South Africa with four seamers and no spinners, it’s little surprise that the day finished about 8 overs short.

Castle on the Hill: 4th Test, Day Two

The first Test of this series seems an awfully long time ago, and as we approach the conclusion of the red ball part of this tour, England are tightening the screw and exerting ever greater dominance by the day. Having waited a couple of years to score 400 in a Test match, England did it again for the second game running, and on a pitch offering a little more to the bowlers than at Port Elizabeth. It was also something of a bonus – England had batted passably well – although no one scored more than the 66 that Zak Crawley managed – but following a mini-collapse leaving England 318-9, a rollocking last wicket stand between Wood and Broad raised England from a reasonable total to a good one.

Tail end partnerships invariably invoke diametrically opposed emotions from those watching, for the English it was a hoot, both in terms of Wood’s clean striking and also in providing an echo of the days when Stuart Broad was so nearly a genuine all rounder. His batting decline has been precipitous, and given England’s determination to pick bowlers who can score runs, there will come a time when his relegation to number eleven is the determining factor behind him being dropped. More than anything else, that feeling of slight melancholy (allied with giggles) when he hits the ball as superbly as he did today can’t be avoided. It remains mystifying that over several years his decline was accepted as one of those things by the various coaching teams. Ironically enough, in the last year he has looked just a little better, albeit from a low base.

For South Africa, that partnership was a shambles – up to eight fielders on the boundary bowling to numbers 10 and 11 was surely the wrong way to go, even if captaincy and bowler meltdowns when faced with tail end slogging are far from unusual. South African minds are showing all the signs of being thoroughly scrambled now.

If South Africa have been guilty all too often of gifting their wickets this series, England deserve plenty of credit for the way they left their hosts in tatters today. Sure, Dean Elgar will have nightmares about the way he slapped the ball to point, but in general it was English excellence that worked its way through the top order. It’s not to pretend that South Africa’s batting is at a level where it ought to resist, because it has been brittle to the point of disintegration, but today they were trying everything to survive, they just got stuck, strokeless and the pressure ramped up as the run rate plummeted. On this occasion, England did bowl superbly, extracting far more life from the surface than their counterparts and generally just being too good for the South African batting. Wood’s dismissal of Malan was clocked at 94.4mph – the second fastest wicket taking ball by an Englishman recorded (Steve Harmison holds that particular record, a desperately unfortunate Glenn McGrath failing to deal with one at 97mph). One thing England have lacked in some years is bowling variety; with a left armer in Curran, a tall and brilliant seamer in Broad, a genuine pace merchant in Wood (or Archer) and an all rounder at the height of his powers in the shape of Ben Stokes, they have a balanced enough attack. Woakes as the traditional English seamer fits in to this bowling line up in a way that he doesn’t with the four right arm medium quicks they have had all too often.

Stokes offers mongrel to the England side in more than one way, and today was fined 15% of his match fee and handed a demerit point for his curiously old school volley of abuse to a spectator last evening. It was a relatively minor transgression by the Ed Sheeran lookalike, and the punishment is appropriate enough, but it is another reminder that while he remains the MVP in the England team, things like this will be accepted. When he goes through a rough patch, or his powers begin to wane, keep an eye out for the stories starting to appear about him being hard to manage – the modus operandi of the ECB is too frequent to ignore.

England didn’t pick a spinner, to consternation in some quarters, but the evidence so far suggests they haven’t made a mistake. That may yet prove an oversight by day four, should we get there, but as things stand the seamers are being rotated, and rotated to effect. Perhaps the bigger miss was for South Africa, who had no options when Broad and Wood were frolicking in the middle.

The plight of South African cricket – in which England themselves are certainly complicit – provokes a sense of gloom for anyone who loves this stupid game. It makes any praising of England laced with concern as they go about their business of beating up a national team who we desperately need in the world game. But it does need to be said that by one means or another, England are beginning to identify the core of what might be a half reasonable side. If Joe Denly is unlikely to have a long term future in the team, he has at least brought a degree of discipline that has rubbed off on those with more natural ability than him, and to that extent if nothing else, he’s performed a valuable service to English cricket. Likewise, the improved overall disposition has highlighted specific problem areas that were previously just part of an endless list of disasters to be dealt with. Jos Buttler’s struggles with the bat were disguised among everyone else’s – now they are abundantly clear.

We are two days in to this game, and the outcome of this match is pretty clear, barring miracles. The depression of South African cricket lovers, not at the state of this series but at the state of the sport, mitigates the degree of satisfaction their English counterparts at the way their team is progressing. England are not even close to the finished article, but they do at least look like they have a plan. After several years of circling the drain, that is welcome. If only the world game could develop a similar plan to allow all nations to compete on an even basis.

South Africa vs. England, Fourth Test, Day 1 – Storm In A Teacup

It’s rather a shame that a pretty good day’s play of Test Cricket will more be remembered for an indiscretion off the pitch rather than the actual play on it, but then that’s what happens when such a high profile cricketer such as Ben Stokes has a less than cordial chat with one of the fans. There have been people all over the place suggesting at what might have been said to Stokes, but this is pure guesswork as only Stokes himself know what abuse was hurled at him and really the player should know better in getting himself into a situation that was a lose-lose. I imagine Mr. Stokes will be getting an invite into the match referee’s room at some point whereby he’ll be a few quid lighter and a demerit point or two heavier. Anyway enough about that nonsense, no matter how much it’s serialised by the journos.

As for the game itself, it proved to be a rather entertaining day’s play once the rain had cleared with either side in the position to claim that they won the day’s play or not. There were both positives and negatives for England with the main positive being that Joe Root called the toss right on the fourth successive occasion and the main negative being the loss of Jofra Archer to injury with the reoccurrence of his elbow injury. The bad trot of injuries that England have suffered on this tour can’t just be put down to bad luck (except that of Rory Burns) but more the fact the players are being continuously ground into the ground with this crazy schedule. I think we’ll all be happy if England return home without contracting Ebola or something similar.

On a day when there was a bit of cloud cover over the ground, Root chose the correct decision to have a bat when he may well have been sorely tempted to bowl and was handsomely rewarded by his opening pair who scored the first century partnership for England since Chennai in 2016. That it has been this long really does highlight the struggles that England have had at the opening slot for more than a while and the reason why we have so often seen England at 50 odd for 4 on more than a few occasions in the not so distant past. The pair of Crawley and Sibley complimented each other particularly well, with the former playing some majestic strokes against a wayward attack with the latter compact and able to put away the bad ball of which there were many within the first session of cricket we got. Zak Crawley indeed looks like a real talent and a gem of a find as he has got better and more confident with every innings he’s played and now looks like he is starting to believe he belongs in Test Cricket. In fact, he looked nailed on for a century before being hit by a nasty bouncer by Nortje, which in turn gave him a rather ugly egg on his forehead and certainly affected his batting after this. It would not be a surprise to see him declared with a concussion tomorrow morning as he looked particularly shaky after that nasty hit on the head. This is very much in marked contrast with Joe Denly who has admirably tried with every sinew in his body to adapt to the Test game but has never really looked like he belongs at this level. With Rory Burns hopefully returning for the Sri Lanka tour, then Denly may find himself out of the team with Crawley replacing him at 3. It will be interesting mind to see how much sway Clever Ed puts in Denly’s leg spinning filth on pitches that are likely to turn.

For South Africa, the 2 sessions couldn’t have been markedly different. In the first session they bowled too short and too loose on a pitch that was offering bounce but not much else. Indeed it seemed fitting that the only time they made the batsman make an error and play at a delivery they shouldn’t have; it was wiped out by Big Philander overstepping the mark. It was a sloppy session from a team bereft of confidence. However any thoughts that England could steamroller them were so put to bed with 2 quick wickets, firstly a horrible strangle down the legside that seems to get Sibley out too often and then a nothing play or leave shot from the brain frazzled Crawley. South Africa then bowled extremely tidily for the rest of the session with Denly who had looked all over the place the first to go, closely followed by a rare misjudgement from Stokes, who played an overly ambitious shot early in his innings which led to the frank exchange of opinions that I spoke about above.

So onto Day 2 with the match evenly poised. If Root and Pope can take the lead up to somewhere close to 300 then England will be driving seat; however a couple of quick wickets for South Africa could lead to England struggling to get up to 250. The forecast isn’t particularly clever for tomorrow, so we are likely to have another rain interrupted day.

On a final note, I did find it incredibly surprising that neither team picked a front line spinner. I understand that Bullring hasn’t been a great hunting ground for spinners over the years; however the pitch does often break up on Day 4 or Day 5 and so not to pick a frontline spinner seems negligent to me. The only time I would ever consider picking a team without spinner is if the pitch resembled the St. Lawrence Ground in early April or Sabina Park back in 1998! Time will tell if I’m right or not, but I have a suspicion both captains might be rueing their selection decisions by the end of the match.

As ever thoughts or comments are always welcome.