Uneasy Lies The Head That Wears A Crown

The ECB chair, Ian Watmore, resigned today. It was something of a shock, as it was just over a year since he was hired in 2020. He came into the role at one of the worst times imaginable, with the ECB in an unimaginably poor financial position, The Hundred launch, and the continued spectre of COVID. This should have been the time when these pressures were easing on Watmore, but instead things seemed to unravel in quick succession. The shambolic cancellation of England’s tours to Pakistan, a disastrous meeting with county chiefs, and the lethargic response to Yorkshire’s racism report have meant that he had seemingly lost friends and allies in every sector of English cricket. Ultimately, as Michael Atherton puts it, he lost the dressing room and had to go.

Who takes over the position of ECB chair, and how they choose to approach the role, will have a significant effect on English cricket in the next few years and beyond. There are some huge challenges ahead, and here are some thoughts on a few of them:

The Ashes

The ECB are due to announce their decision tomorrow, but it seems increasingly likely that England’s tour of Australia will broadly go ahead as planned. This was expected, if only because of a cynical appraisal of how important Cricket Australia is to the ECB relative to the Pakistan Cricket Board. It’s certainly difficult to understand the logic behind a declaration that a four-day tour of Pakistan would be onerous on the players and staff whilst a three-month tour of Australia (including over a week just in quarantine) is fine.

But there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip, and the past year or so should teach us not to take anything for granted. A spike in Australian infections before or during the tour could put the spotlight back on the England team’s continued involvement. I personally have little sympathy with Cricket Australia, who have only played ODIs and T20Is away from home in the last eighteen months and can’t really understand the toll taken on England’s Test cricketers over that time.

I also think that the England team will have a lot less patience with Australia’s typical tactic of ‘mental disintegration’, both on the field and in the media, which is part of almost every antipodean Ashes. Joe Root is no doubt mindful of the huge financial pressure Cricket Australia are under, with up to $200m riding on the series going ahead, and might well consider taking his team home rather than copping a ton of abuse from people he is doing a huge favour for.

All of which is to say that the incoming chair will have an important and difficult task to handle, straight out of the gate (assuming they are appointed this year). Ensuring the series goes ahead as planned, holding Cricket Australia to their promises, and backing the players if they pull the plug on the whole thing. Whoever gets the job will have to hit the ground running, so to speak.

Pakistan/West Indies

One of the things which precipitated Watmore’s resignation appears to be the fallout from the cancellation of England’s tours of Pakistan. It would therefore be a good move from his successor to repair relations between the two countries as quickly as possible. Announcing a new tour, or an extension of the already-scheduled tour in 2022, would be a good way to go about this. The 2022 tour to the West Indies was expanded by three games as a similar show of gratitude for CWI touring England in 2020, and the chair should reiterate the ECB’s commitment to fulfilling their promises at the earliest opportunity.

On a broader level, it would be nice if the ECB spent more time touring the less financially or politically powerful cricketing nations. England last played an away Test against Bangladesh in 2016, Zimbabwe in 1996, and have never done so against Ireland. We love Test cricket in this country, but its continued survival depends on it being financially viable around the world. If we could find a way to visit these countries, even with weakened and rotated teams, it would go a long way to rebuilding relationships with cricketing nations outside the ‘Big 3’.

The Hundred

It seemed like it cast a vast, dark shadow over English cricket in the months and years leading up to its launch, but the end result felt decidedly unimpressive. Neither a triumphant success nor an unmitigated disaster. Just ‘meh’. Which might be considered a victory for its proponents, if not for the colossal price tag. All told, it’s likely that the true cost of that first season (including the development, design, and other costs in the years before) amounts to well over £100m. If I were to ever spend that kind of money on something, I’d expect nothing less than perfection.

The new ECB chair will undoubtedly want to make some changes for The Hundred’s sophomore season. Cutting the costs might be a good place to start. If the ECB could slice £13m from its £63m annual spend on the competition, it would at least break even. Cut a little more and it could actually start making the profit that Tom Harrison and others have already claimed. There’s certainly a lot of extraneous things which could be removed with little obvious impact to ticket sales, such as the musical guests at every game.

There will be those of you who would love to see The Hundred disappear altogether, but I can’t see that happening before 2025 (the beginning of the next TV deal). It’s in the Sky and BBC contracts, and there’s no backing out of that now. Aside from anything else, I really don’t like people or organisations who renege on their agreements. Polishing the turd is likely the order of the day, before it can be flushed away altogether in the next round of broadcast rights.

Sky TV Deal

Speaking of broadcast rights, the preparation for the next auction will likely be beginning soon. For all their faults, Colin Graves and Tom Harrison did oversee the first English cricket being shown on free-to-air TV since 2005 (even if it was just T20Is and The Hundred). The new ECB chair will have the opportunity to surpass that by some margin, if they choose to prioritise the growth of the game over the accumulation of money. In other words: Put live Test cricket back on Channel 4.

It might sound like a great idea to us fans, but it’s worth remembering that the ECB chair is elected by the counties who all rely on the cash they receive from the central TV contracts. A debt-ridden club, of which there are a few, might well prioritise getting an extra £2m every year over the exposure that Freeview provides. If the chair can’t persuade the counties to accept a bit less money, their tenure in the job could be as short as Ian Watmore’s.

The decision may not be as clear cut as this. BT has seemingly losing interest in their sports division whilst streaming giants like Amazon have launched their own coverage for events like the US Open in tennis. It’s a different world, which could lead to the value of English cricket’s coverage climbing or plummeting. Given this uncertainty, the ECB chair’s responsibility of ensuring maximum exposure for the game whilst keeping it solvent is not one I envy.

Yorkshire

It’s been three years since Azeem Rafiq first made his complaints known to several people at Yorkshire CCC, thirteen months since the county finally launched an investigation into the matter, and almost two months since they received the finished report. In all that time, the ECB have done nothing. It stinks, especially when you compare it to the high-profile and instant reaction to Ollie Robinson’s old tweets earlier this year. It would be nice to think that the new ECB chair could finally get things moving, although the cynical side of me has its doubts.

To become chair of the ECB, you have to be voted in by a majority of forty county representatives (both the major and minor counties). That includes Yorkshire, as well as any other counties who have their own skeletons in the closet. Quite simply: It would be difficult to see someone getting the job if they were committed to investigating and punishing racism at the counties. This is a short-sighted approach, as allowing the issue to continue unabated will only cause more problems for the clubs later on, but none of the county chairs seem particularly inclined to see it from this viewpoint.

County Cricket

The meeting which reportedly brought Ian Watmore’s tenure as ECB chair to an end was in large part about the future shape of English domestic cricket. There is also considerable tension between the counties which host The Hundred teams and those who don’t. With four domestic competitions and a packed international calendar, it will be no easy feat for his successor to keep everyone happy. In fact, it may well be impossible.

Given that the counties elect the ECB chair, whoever gets the job will have to be persuasive in getting everyone to compromise. It’s something of a tightrope, balancing the interests of all 18 counties, and I don’t have much hope for the outcome being particularly welcomed by county cricket fans.

Women’s Cricket

If the Hundred had one almost undeniable success, it was in the performance and popularity of the women’s competition. It had attendance and viewing figures not far removed from that of the men’s games, which begs the question: What next?

One obvious issue which could be quickly addressed is that of pay: The women were paid less than a sixth of what the men received on average. There is certainly a case for that imbalance to be at least partly remedied. The new chair might also see an opportunity to increase the value to the ECB of these likeable and talented cricketers by encouraging Sky to broadcast women’s domestic games outside of The Hundred.

On a personal note, I would also love to see women’s Test cricket on a regular basis. It baffles me that the women’s team play almost no matches in the format which is by far the most popular and profitable for their male counterparts. If the ECB could see their way to persuading every touring team to play at least one Test, I think it would go a long way towards ‘traditional’ (ie old) cricket fans fully embracing women’s cricket.

Participation

As people often seem to forget, the ECB is responsible for amateur cricket in England and Wales as well as the professional game. Cricket clubs seem to get very little support from their governing body, and are rarely listened to. Volunteers are taken for granted, monolithic schemes such as All Stars or Dynamos are thrust upon clubs, and hours of bureaucratic admin and tech support are inflicted on club secretaries through ClubSpark and PlayCricket.

It would be incredible if the new ECB chair could do something about this. There are two key themes which I think need to be addressed: Simplicity and flexibility. The first is easy: Running a local cricket club should not have to be a full-time (unpaid) job. It should not require expertise in computers, social media and finances as well as (you would hope) some knowledge of cricket. It shouldn’t take months to adapt to the software you use for scoring. These are all long-standing issues which the ECB never seem inclined to tackle.

The second fundamental change I would love to see from the ECB is to recognise the enormous diversity of clubs in English cricket. Some have hundreds of members, some barely have eleven. Some have pavillions, and some don’t. Some are in affluent areas, and some aren’t. Some teams are focused on winning at all costs, some are more social clubs. Whenever a new scheme is released by the ECB, it always seems like it’s a one-size-fits-all solution. Thats fine if your club fits (like, I would guess, most ECB Premier League teams), but it leaves a lot more on the outside looking in. A more flexible, attentive attitude towards club cricket could really help boost participation (or at least slow its decline) across the country.

Restructuring

As I have said several times now through this post, the ECB chair is elected essentially by the counties. This means that the counties’ needs (mostly money) are prioritised over the interests of every other ‘stakeholder’ in English cricket; The players, proponents of the women’s game, people involved in local clubs, and of course the fans. This is just the fundamental structure of the ECB.

In order to break the cycle of counties pressuring the ECB to maximise revenues to prop up their own mismanaged clubs at the expense of every other aspect of the sport, the long term solution is to introduce representatives of everyone the ECB holds sway over as members and decisionmakers of equal importance to the counties. Organisations such as the Professional Cricketers Association, the Cricket Supporters’ Association and the assorted club cricket organisations absolutely deserve to have some say over who makes decisions on their behalf.

It would undoubtedly be a hard sell to persuade the counties to cede some of their power, but it’s difficult to see the ECB becoming a functioning governing body whilst the people running it are beholden to just one interest group.

Conclusion

The more I wrote of this post, the more I felt sorry for Ian Watmore. It’s clear that it’s a virtually impossible job, which explains why no one seems to have particularly fond memories of any ECB (or TCCB) chairman in the history of the sport.

There is, of course, one outstanding candidate: George Dobell. Well liked by many involved in running county cricket, a founder of the Cricket Supporters’ Association and a known proponent for reforming the game. He’s also currently between jobs and presumably available to take over at short notice. If there is one person who can address all of the points in this post, and basically save English cricket, it’s George Dobell.

Otherwise, we’re screwed.

If you want to comment on this post, or any of the dozens of things happening in cricket right now, please write your comments below.

I Play My Cards Into The Sun, And Try To Work Out… What Are You To Me?

Heavens, this has been a really bad day for cricket in England. There were a number of people paraded in the very limited clips that I have seen who looked bereft. At one point, before my sense of proportion kicked in, I had a modicum of sympathy for Tom Harrison. To see a test match totally wiped out on the morning of Day One, with no prospect of the game being played for at least 9 months, must be one of the worst wounds inflicted on the “premier form of the sport” for quite a while. A test can be binned, and no-one seems to know what to do. In a time of pandemic, sport had provided a release of sorts for people across the world. This test had a place in history awaiting it – India clinching a great series win with their bowling attack for the ages or England fighting back to draw a series where they have been second best – and now it is gone.

Just when we were absorbing this news, another bombshell dropped. My colleagues have followed the threads much better than I, and one of the things that the newish role I have in my job entails is being much more time poor so I can’t follow everything, and I feel sure they will offer the right level of analysis. That there was not someone there to just shout “stop” when the news came out about the test abandonment speaks volumes for Yorkshire’s handling of this. That they thought the morning of a test match, even without this abandonment, was the right time to give their views on the report is just dumbfounding. To see some press guys actually feeling sympathy for them on this timing issue was even more confounding. The conclusions drawn have been spun, and I just feel tired at the sight of this, so lord alone knows what Azeem Rafiq feels like. This needs to be addressed properly, not half-hearted, not pulling punches. I fear it won’t and the schisms will continue.

I’m, at heart, a simple soul. I feel profound sadness at what has hit my social media airwaves today. The first thing, my base point, is that India’s cricketers rightly feel very nervous about contracting Covid. Cards on the table – so would I. I have a good friend of mine in hospital, right now, with Covid. Your reaction is individual. That’s mine right now. I see there are reported stories that the players are fearful of missing the conclusion of the IPL which is due to restart at the end of next week. In some ways I don’t blame them – players will obviously want to play where the money is, whether we like it or not. Then I saw England fans having a go at India, India having a go back at England in South Africa last winter, and finger pointing, fan loyalty and all the other rubbish that pollutes my airwaves. I genuinely don’t know what the story is, and frankly, so do a lot of others fall into that same boat.

Fingers point at a book launch by Ravi Shastri, and one can also look at how the Sri Lankan players who broke the bubble were treated by their authority earlier this year. You can have immense sympathies on players constrained in what they can do in their lives between games. Throwing mental health about casually, like Tom Harrison did today, can seem inappropriate, but I am prepared to give the benefit of the doubt today. The Indian team were not exactly in a good place to play today, and in this era, perhaps we can have some understanding – with a huge caveat to follow….

There is huge questioning on how this is going to be paid for – a forfeit puts BCCI on the hook, a Covid-linked postponement and we go to the insurance market. I take a look at the accounts as I like to keep my old skills intact, and if you look at the notes near the end of them, ECB self-insures. In 2019’s accounts, the ECB paid the insurance firm, Reigndei (gettit?), premium of £2m. Let’s assume that tickets today averaged £75, and 21,000 were purchased. That’s just over £1.5m lost today in ticket revenue alone. Multiply that by three…. Then add on the 4th day sales. That insurance fund is going to take a hit unless they have (and they must have, mustn’t they) proper reinsurance. However, they will only pay out for certain circumstances (weather probably being the most likely and usual) and this may not be.

That’s small beer compared to the losses to Lancashire CCC, the concession holders, the part-time workers, stewards, catering, bar staff, ticket staff, merchandise sellers and so on. Sky will have good cause to ask for some money back (they were paid in kind for the 2020 deficit with the New Zealand tests this year), and I wonder what happens to the international revenues. Money, the root of all evil, the blight of our lives, is trouble. The haunted, hangdog look of Harrison spoke volumes. He looked shot. He’ll earn that bonus now, won’t he?

The poor fans who paid for costly rail tickets, hotel accommodation, booked time off from work, had possibly looked forward to this for two years, sit at home or in their hotel room, and can only be the source of sympathy. I’ve always thought that the fans taking any weather risk is totally unfair. That the players cannot be arsed to bowl the fall quota of overs on a test day is not exactly reassuring. That tests are shunted to the arse end of the season, and not played in July, when it is the most popular form of the game here is testament to where we are. The fans only matter if they have to be brought to a new competition that needs to gain traction. I am sorry, but your words, ECB, today fall on stony ground in this household. You’ve abused fans for so long, any words of sorrow are not going to be accepted here.

I feel utterly sad today. I think you can tell. Not angry. Sad. A game run by charlatans will be vulnerable in circumstances like this. There is nowhere to turn. Harrison bemoaning the packed schedule is like a fisherman complaining about sea conditions. It would be easy to point fingers at the BCCI, and as you know I always believed iCC stands for India Controls Cricket, but let the dust settle and we’ll see. As the scribes signed off from Twitter tonight, you could almost feel their exhaustion, and again, you could feel pangs of sorrow. Maybe if they’d called these rulers of our game out earlier, we might have prevented some of this, but I don’t know. That’s it in a nutshell. I don’t know.

Happy to hear your views. I am sure mine will crystallise when I hear and read more. There is other cricket about to watch, but the sense that the last test of the season has been taken is a fitting epitaph for a divisive, destructive, vicious, last couple of months. I will be at the Oval on Monday, hoping for an oasis of calm, and a nice day’s cricket. I hope it is an antidote to what we’ve seen today. I have the feeling it will be a sticking plaster over an open wound.

I sincerely hope that fans might get more consideration going forward. But really what are we to the authorities other than ATM machines? What, really, have we ever been?

England vs India – 4th Test, Day 5 – No Surprises

This morning, fans of Test cricket around the world were effusively praising this game, with all three (or four) results being possible. As an England fan, I had to wonder if these people had been in a cave for the last eight years. England scoring 291 runs on the fifth day, even with all ten wickets in hand and a remarkably benign pitch? Virtually impossible.

To let you in on the workings behind Being Outside Cricket, all four of us have jobs and so there are times when none of us have the chance to see the day’s play. Today is one of those times. But the thing is, I’ve seen this so many times before that I can practically write the match report blind. There were a couple of brief periods where England looked comfortable, but wickets falling in clusters meant that the few good performances were for nothing. A couple of batters were dismissed through what can only be described as a Vaughan-esque display of stupidity. Some absolute tit ran onto the pitch when he had no business being there (Could be Jarvo, could be any of the England batters bar Joe Root).

The idea that England were in any way capable of scoring almost three hundred runs today was laughable, but you have to think that this was their plan this morning since there is almost no other reason why Dawid Malan could have been run out (I say almost no reason, because there is also matchfixing). This kind of delusion seems utterly bizarre. England haven’t had a batting unit capable of managing that even fifty percent of the time since 2013. The decline has been almost constant. No one has managed to replace Strauss, or Trott, or Prior, or Bell, or Cook when they retired. All of them averaged over forty with the bat, but Joe Root is the only one in the current team to have reached that relatively basic benchmark.

And yet, in spite of their obviously limited ability and the overwhelming odds, I do understand why they might have chosen to attempt the win. For a start, if they played defensively throughout and comfortably made the draw then they would have been attacked by their fans and the media for not playing entertaining cricket or lacking a killer instinct. There is also a lot of positive thinking which is seemingly enforced throughout professional sports. Every time England have been crushed by better opposition, we’ve been told that they are taking the positives and learning the lessons. If you think you can’t achieve something, you almost definitely won’t. Or so the theory goes. That might be fine in a game like tennis, where the results are binary and you must either win or lose. In sports with draws, depriving your opponent of a win can (depending on the situation) be almost as good as winning yourself.

In fairness, it wasn’t the batting that lost this game for England. The bowling and catching in portions of this game have been diabolically bad. Anderson, Robinson, Woakes and Overton are all very good when the ball swings, but when it didn’t swing during India’s second innings they seemingly had no answers. This isn’t necessarily a reflection on the bowlers, but on the selections of Chris Silverwood and the utter ineptitude of England’s medical staff. There are sometimes points in a Test match where you need a bowler who can bowl unplayable deliveries, even if they are less consistent and more expensive. A spinner who can turn the ball both ways, or a pace bowler who can go above 90mph. England had neither, and India punished them for this oversight.

As for who to blame for England’s catching, the obvious culprit would be fielding coach Carl Hopkinson. His own first-class record certainly doesn’t mark him out as a skilled catcher, with only 39 catches in his career. To put that into context, Moeen Ali has 40 Test catches in just a few more innings. Imagine making Moeen Ali your fielding coach. Hopkinson has also had the job since 2018, in which period England have been quite possibly the worst Test team in terms of not taking their chances in the field. It is the stated policy of England’s Test selection that they prefer to give players one game too many than too few. Does this also apply to the specialist coaches?

There are undoubtedly other factors. The revolving door of batting selections has meant that players don’t get used to fielding in one position for a run of games. The slip cordon has changed seemingly every week. I also suspect that England’s white ball cricketers don’t spend a lot of time on close catching practice or other red ball-centric exercises during large parts of the year. Whatever the causes, the ECB seemingly has no answer for what has been a very consistent shortcoming in the test team.

Speaking of history repeating itself, and no one with any sense being surprised: Yesterday marked the anniversary of Yorkshire CCC launching their independent investigation into racism at the club, and absolutely nothing happened. Yorkshire aren’t doing anything, and the ECB and the PCA (the player’s union) aren’t forcing them to do anything. I’ve written about the PCA’s limitations in this regard, so you can read about that HERE if you want. The ECB have a long record of sticking their head in the sand and ignoring any issue until it goes away. It quite often works. That was why I was incredulous when, three months ago, the ECB came down like a ton of bricks on Ollie Robinson for a series of tweets in very poor taste from 2012. There were furious statements from chief executive Tom Harrison, an immediate suspension, and a quick investigation by the Cricket Disciplinary Committee.

Robinson was very unlucky in some respects, because the ECB has never done anything remotely close to this before, or since. On the other hand, the harshness of the punishment and his apparent sense of remorse has seemingly helped rehabilitate him in the eyes of the public. You might compare him to Craig Overton, who is still facing questions on his own racist incident from 2015 and perhaps a greater level of suspicion about his current attitude than Robinson. In that regard, the ECB and Yorkshire might want to consider the merits of publicly admitting their mistakes and showing genuine regret rather than letting the issue rumble on for another year.

If you have any comments on England’s continuing ineptitude, or anything else, feel free to comment below.

England v India – 4th Test 4th Day – I Am A Little Bit Insecure, A Little Unconfident

It’s taken me a while today to arrive at a song lyric for the title. I was looking for songs about optimism, but that wouldn’t be right. Songs about hope? No. Let’s go for something about being let down and not getting your hopes up. It was either that or a song about roads….

I’ve not paid a huge amount of attention to the test match, if truth be told. I’ve spent a good part of the week in Yorkshire, an absolutely lovely part of the world, and just dipped in and out of the TMS commentary. At one point on my last day up there I visited the Black Sheep Brewery in Masham, and they had a lovely bar there with the cricket on. The wife and border collie were in the car, so there was no way I could delay any more than I had to. At that stage England were staging the first innings comeback from 60-odd for 5 and the commentators were making a point that someone was going to make a hundred on this surface, and that could be the winning contribution. It remains to be seen if Rohit has done the required for the prophecy to come true.

As this is the last day before returning to work (and so the Happy Song definitely doesn’t apply) I’ve been from pillar to post today before reverting to the norm. So I just dipped in and out of the Indian innings. England needed a sharp start, but didn’t really get it, but did have a decent morning session in the end – if that makes sense. Removing Jadeja and Rahane (who you feel must now be on India’s hot seat) in quick succession to LBW decisions for Chris Woakes certainly helped. Removing Kohli soon after that, nicking to Overton at first slip off Ali brought the one danger of all things going awry – Rishabh Pant, who made his first test century here last time around, taking over. But there was a little bit more circumspection (all things are relative here).

England may have seen some light that the chase could be around 250-280, but Pant and Thakur put on a century partnership to take India past 400, and making the prospective chase look more formidable by the minute. Thakur completed another rambunctious half century, while Pant took more time about his. Some late order thrashing about took India up to 466 and set England 368 to win – a record, should they get there, for all tests to take over the record set just two years ago at Headingley. But again, hope is a dangerous thing.

“Handful of complaints, but I can’t help the fact that everyone can see these scars”

This is not a vintage England line-up, but the decision not to pick Ravi Ashwin looks like as flawed a selection as England’s ability to compile major scores. The pitch is clearly playing very well. Haseeb came out on a pair, but got off the mark quickly. Burns coped with early pressure outside off stump from Jadeja, but this isn’t a spinning top, more a flat top. The openers accumulated, looked busy between the wickets, hit the bad balls for runs, and established a decent platform. Hell, it was like old school test cricket. It was, in its own way, gripping. The edge of the precipice at all times, waiting for the chop on, the one that creeps, the one error of judgement. But 50 passed and no real alarms, save a bump ball that really wasn’t on review. As time crept past 6:30, play continued, because if you lose some on a previous day you can make it up, but if you lose it on the same day because overs haven’t been bowled, you can’t. Siraj coughed up a couple of leg glance boundaries for Hameed, and then, in a trait seen throughout the test, a hopeless review meant Kohli and the lads are one down on that score. England finished on 77 for 0. Game on. Well played to them both.

If yesterday was moving day, the movement was slow but very well organised and put together in the gloom. Today, under bright stars, and tortured analogies, India may well have taken residence, but eviction orders can be revoked tomorrow. Tomorrow’s scribe gets the glory, because this game is going to be won by either side, as a draw looks less likely to me. 290 in a day is not insurmountable – and a test series win is really on the line. The old cliche that it will be a vital first hour is as appropriate, and as tired, as always.

And tomorrow, I return to work. Sigh.

Comments below for tomorrow’s play and anything that raised interest today.

England vs. India, 4th Test, Day 3 – The Flames Are All Long Gone, But The Pain Lingers On.

As a holder of a ticket for the 4th Day at the Oval, I was somewhat worried yesterday that my chances of seeing a decent amount of live play weren’t looking great. Oh how wrong I was. India were superb and dominated a tired and undisciplined England attack, the first over with the new ball excepted and have put themselves in a strong position to go 2-1 up in the series, barring a remarkable 2nd innings with the bat from England.

The day seemed set up for bowling with cloudy overhead conditions and a bowling line up used to get prodigious swing in English conditions. Of course, none of that happened, the seam bowlers whilst generally being economical posed little threat and the swing that we were hoping to see never materialised. As a former bowler, it still interests me how overhead conditions can be so different at different grounds with regard to how the ball behaves and how sometimes a ball will do nothing, then get replaced by another ball after the captain has complained so much and got it replaced and then that ball will suddenly start hooping. An interesting titbit, I read on Twitter (thanks TLG) is that an Indian NASA scientist once did a paper trying to explain reverse swing. It intrigued them so much they ended up supporting the whole project. Long story short was they couldn’t fully work it out. Now if NASA can’t work out why a ball will or will not swing and sometimes reverse, then I think us mere mortals don’t stand a chance. Whatever it was today, be it the pitch, the outfield, or the ball, it simply didn’t swing and hence England’s bowlers looked pretty innocuous on a day where we hoped they could dominate.

That all being said, both Pujara and Rohit batted beautifully, with the latter recording his first century on foreign soil. Both were circumspect in their defence but equally adept at putting away anything loose from the English bowlers, which unfortunately there was a fair amount of. I always thought of Rohit as a one-day player and have memories of him coming in down the order in his early days of Test cricket and struggling. He has obviously worked massively hard at his red ball game, and it has absolutely paid off. Apart from Joe Root, who has had a quite breath-taking series with the bat, Rohit has probably looked the next most assured at the crease. Pujara also looks a different player in the 2nd innings compared to what he does in the first innings and despite being hampered with an ankle injury, played a fluent knock that took the pressure off of Rohit at the other end. Indeed it was a surprise when both departed off consecutive balls of the first over of the new ball, with Rohit mistiming a pull straight down the throat of Chris Woakes and then Pujara nicking one onto his pads that was taken in the slip cordon. Speaking of which, it was another chastening day for Rory Burns, who after dropping Rohit on 6 last night (well he technically didn’t get a hand on it), then dropped Rohit today on 31. It was no means a dolly but those are the sort of chances that you have to take to win Test matches. Quite frankly you could have a cardboard cut out of Alastair Cook in the slips and it would probably have the same chance of catching an edge as Rory Burns.

As for the England bowlers, the quicks looked leggy in what was a placid pitch with 2 set batsmen in. No-one bowled terribly, but there wasn’t really any stage where they looked at all threatening. One might be entitled to answer the question why a 39-year Jimmy Anderson has been picked in 4 consecutive Test matches as there is no doubt that both he and Robinson look like they are getting close to the red zone where bowlers start to break down. I also felt that Woakes, playing his first Test match in a year and recovering from injury, understandably looked a bit short on stamina. If the quicks were tidy without looking too menacing, the same sadly can’t be said for our spinner. I genuinely don’t like to have a pop at Moeen, as he is clearly a classy individual on and off the pitch, but his bowling today as it quite often can be, was at best buffet bowling. Moeen is the classic jack of all trades and master of none, as his brain-dead dismissal yesterday evening showed. Today he was unable to maintain a line or length that could restrict the Indian batsmen and for Root, trying to set a field for him must have felt like trying to put out the Great Crystal Palace fire with a leaky bucket. I like Moeen and think he should be a fixture in the white ball teams, but with Woakes perfectly capable of batting at 7, then there is no need to carry on with the clearly flawed Moeen experiment. After all, there is a spinner that England have chosen not to pick this Summer with a record of 40 2nd innings wickets at an average of 21 during his Test career. I said it at the start of the series and will say it again that Jack Leach should be one of the first names on the team sheet and his continued omission strikes of something a little sinister from Silverwood and Root.

I’m not sure who has tomorrow as I will be frequenting the Oval, but as ever thoughts on the game below are very much appreciated.

England vs India: 4th Test, Day 2 – Hanging on the telephone

An abiding memory of this Test, for occasionally they happen, will be the increasing irritation within the household with the fall of every wicket, English or Indian. Perhaps this is not how most will see what has unfolded over the first two days of a match that has threatened to go at fast forward, but then not everyone lives with someone who has a ticket for day four. In the same way I recall a drive up to Edgbaston in 2015 listening to day two shouting at the radio as to whether any Australian, any Australian at all, could bloody bat. As it turned out, Mitchell Starc and Peter Neville could, somewhat, so we did get some play to watch. Still, with these two teams, hoping for a full fourth day is always going to be a bit of a gamble, and there remains the distinct possibiluty that tomorrow could see the game done and dusted. And there will be sulking if so, but the good news is that the pitch appears to be becoming easier to bat on rather than harder, certainly judging by fewer wickets falling today.

England did reasonably well with the bat, pleasingly so given the lack of any contribution from Joe Root this time around. Ollie Pope was the top scorer, batting fluently and with purpose, to the point that his dismissal, dragging one on to his stumps was a real surprise. Of all the more recent England batsmen, he is the one that looks most at home – when he’s going well. Or to put it another way, his trials and tribulations leading to him being dropped were perhaps the most disappointing, because his batting envelope looks a lot larger than many others who have come in. Still, there’s no harm in being dropped, it’s all about how a player comes back. Let’s see.

Primary support came from Chris Woakes, last man out for 50 to go with his 4 wickets in the first innings. Much discussion centres around the disparity between his performances at home and those away from home. His batting average in England is around 36, away it is 19. His bowling average at home is 22, while away it is 52. It’s hardly unusual for any cricketer to perform better at home, but the gap is so huge it is hard to understand. Sure, his style is very much that of someone you’d expect to do better in English conditions, but it’s extremely disappointing how poor his away record is. And yet another way of looking at this is to wonder why he isn’t a permanent fixture in the side at home, when fit. His away record might well be poor, but his home one is astonishing. So far this Test, he’s shown why.

Decent support came from Jonny Bairstow, before being trapped lbw to a ball coming back into him for 37 – a depressingly familiar weakness. Moeen Ali did what late career Moeen has done a lot, which is to say played some gorgeous shots, and then got out to one that was….agricultural. But from 62-5, a lead of 99 will have been in wildest dreams territory, especially so given the batting fragility so prominent in this series.

India’s turn to bat again, and surely they would do better than first time around. And so far they have done, it would be too much to say they saw the day out without any alarms, but nor did England look like they were about to run through them either. Which is why it’s fair to say they have batted well, and have reduced the deficit down to 56.

More of the same is required, in fact much more. To be in with any kind of chance in this game, India still have to be batting by at least tea tomorrow, and to be in with a realistic chance, they have to bat the day. In normal circumstances this wouldn’t seem the most onerous of requirements but both these sides have demonstrated a quite exceptional ability to fall in a heap with the bat, which is why a lead of 99 feels so significant. Still, it’s also true that most would have expected India’s batting line up to outperform England’s, so maybe this match will be the one where they show their capability. England are certainly on top, and India now lack any margin for error. But a normal day’s play tomorrow and it means a happy camper who can head up to the Oval on Sunday to watch some cricket. This, more than anything, is the priority in this corner of Outside Cricket Towers.

Oh yes. Short of overs. Again. No one cares, we get it.

England vs India – 4th Test, Day 1 – Root Was Right

Sport is dominated by an almost slavish devotion to ‘conventional wisdom’. The reason seems fairly clear: No one ever got fired as a coach or captain for making the same choices as the majority of fans and your predecessors did. Any decisions which goes against the status quo, of how things are done, are always seen as a risk where you alone bear responsibility for the consequences. The overwhelming consensus was that everyone bats first at the Oval, given the choice, but Joe Root instead opted to field first. And, if you look at how today went, he was right to do so.

Which isn’t to say the day went wholly England’s way. The first half hour was very quiet, with India’s openers seemingly handling Anderson and Robinson with ease. At that point, several people were already starting to question Root’s decision to bat first. It wasn’t until Woakes replaced Anderson that the ball really started swinging (not something you often say about Anderson) and the Indian batters started struggling. India’s top three fell in just a few overs leading India to take the unusual position of promoting their typical number seven, Ravindra Jadeja, to five. There was speculation from the commentators that this was to disrupt England’s bowling with a left-right batting partnership, whilst people online joked that he was acting as a nightwatchman whose job was to protect Kohli and Rahane from the swinging ball. Of the two theories, I think I might favour the latter. He certainly seemed to be farming the strike away from Virat Kohli, which is another thing I wasn’t expecting to write at the start of the day.

The afternoon session began with Joe Root dropping a sharp chance at first slip, which was something of a theme for the day. England dropped the ball four times in the innings, adding perhaps another fifty runs onto India’s total. It doesn’t seem like much in that context, just over ten runs per drop, but this match has all the hallmarks of a low-scoring contest where every run counts. Gifting runs, and more time in the middle for Virat Kohli to rediscover his form, is not something which should be tolerated by England. Kohli and Rahane batted out most of the session, before a burst of wickets blew through the Indian middle order and exposed their long and fragile tail. And Shardul Thakur.

Sometimes in cricket, one batter just seems to be playing a different game altogether from his teammates. Joe Root has been one obvious example for most of this year. Shadul Thakur is a less obvious example, but his innings was certainly immense fun to watch. The bowler scored 57 runs from just 36 deliveries, which would be impressively quick score for a number eight in a T20. He just absolutely smashed it/edged it everywhere. I mean, I’m an England supporter but I can’t imagine many people didn’t enjoy watching it. Apart from England’s bowlers, I guess. Chris Woakes eventually managed to trap Thakur lbw, and England uncharacteristically managed to quickly dismiss the rest of the tailenders which left the tourists on a score of 191 all out.

Chris Woakes was one of two changes in this England side, replacing Sam Curran. With all due respect, this has made England’s bowling unit significantly better. Woakes outbowled Jimmy Anderson today. That’s just impressive. Curran didn’t perform well in this series with either bat or ball, and seemingly got picked based on his form in 2018 and the absence of any pace-bowling allrounders to replace him.

If Thakur’s cameo was a surprise, England’s response was anything but. Burns and Hameed scored just 6 runs between them before both being dismissed, exposing the middle order to the new ball yet again. This is the fifth time this year that Joe Root has come out with less than ten runs on the board. England lost three of those matches to India, and went on to win the game against Sri Lanka after Root scored 186. Unfortunately for England, that isn’t going to happen this time. Umesh Yadav bowled Root through the gate just before the close of play, with the hosts finishing the day on 53-3.

The match seems finely balanced, with two strong bowling attacks facing up against two brittle batting lineups. With Root already gone, it’s difficult to see this England team putting up a score above 300 and dominating. It’s good news for neutrals, keeping both sides in the game throughout. Less so for anyone who bought tickets for Day 4. Sorry Sean.

The teams were nine overs short today. You would think that would mostly be the fault of England, since they spent most of the day in the field and didn’t bowl a single over of spin. It seems clear that teams still aren’t taking over rates seriously, and the threat of losing World Test Championship points isn’t working even after Australia lost out on a chance to be in this year’s final due to such a deduction. Something has to change, but there seemingly isn’t any will within the ICC to do anything about it.

If you have any thoughts on the day’s play, or anything else that sparks your interest, post them below.

The Peculiar Joy of the Veteran

On the day that the peerless Dale Steyn retires, James Anderson carries on. And on. Sure, he’s rather good, but for the purposes of this piece I don’t care about the detail of his outswinger, or how he sets a batsman up. I care that he’s bloody old. He’s 39 years old and still running in. Sodding hell say we all. And rightly so too, for the ability to remain at, or near the top of your game at a time when most have forgotten where they hung up their boots several years earlier is worthy of praise in its own right. The skill never wanes, but the demands on the body as it ages, as muscles fibres weaken and joints become less flexible, usually diminishes the overall ability long before now.

We are in an era where sports science when it comes to diet and preparatory exercise appear to allow those prepared to put in the work to extend their careers at the highest level beyond what has been historically the case. Whether it be James Anderson or Roger Federer, it isn’t that they carry on, it’s that they carry on at, or near the top. Anderson’s record is actually getting better by most measures, which is frankly preposterous, while it is only very recently there are clear signs Federer is significantly below his previous level.

And then there’s Darren Stevens, who does undermine the sports science and diet hypothesis fairly spectacularly, but it’s my piece, so I’m including him anyway. Into his mid forties and providing hope for all middle aged people who wake in the morning to yet another unexplained back spasm or sore foot for no apparent reason. He too seems to have pulled off the impossible of not just playing at an advanced age, but doing so effectively and arguably every bit as much as a decade earlier.

Yet it is not their records that interest me here, it is the response to them. And not just them, they’re merely the most visible. Us. The rest of us, our own ageing process in sport and how we handle it. Part of it is to marvel at the continued ability to compete and win, but part of it also is the recognition of our own struggles as we age. It’s maybe why the young tend to care far less about such things – a “move over grandad” attitude is normal enough in youth, and in any case by definition they don’t much remember players at the start of their careers. That’s not to say young people don’t recognise the longevity, but they can’t possibly fully appreciate how much this must damn hurt, nor how extraordinary it is to see Anderson bowling at 85mph not far shy of his 40th birthday.

It certainly doesn’t have to be at the highest level. Every club cricketer will know the player who unaccountably is still in the 1st XI aged 50, surrounded by teens, 20s and 30 somethings. A total liability in the field of course – probably put into gully in the hope that they’ll stop something because they can’t get out of the way in time. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it tends to be a bowler, a spinner perhaps, who takes two steps and releases the ball, usually with a knowing grin on their face as the youngster at the other end slowly realises this old fart has forgotten more than they know, and that they’re about to become his (it usually is a his) 3,000th victim in club cricket. It happens a little less for the batsmen simply because eyes tend to decline in efficacy, and there’s nothing more disconcerting than the realisation you can’t see the sharpish opening bowler who you used to be able to handle with ease. Note to those aged around 30, the first sign of what’s to come is struggling to see the ball in indoor nets.

This state of affairs can last for many years, the magnificently elongated period known as middle age, defined as about a week for those aged 20, and about 40 years for those who have retired. But then we reach the truly special ones, those who turn out in cricket, or football (usually standing in the centre circle, not moving, but spraying 40 yard passes everywhere and impossible to tackle), or any other sport, at a time when all of their contemporaries have long since given up. That they love the game beyond measure is not in dispute, that they love the game to the point they are determined to play at a level that is a shadow of where they were is less common, not least because of a lesser involvement. To have once scored glorious hundreds and now to wander out at number 10 to save the game (it’s always to save the game and you know it) is to set sights at a very different level.

Perhaps the pleasure comes from teaching the younger players about the game – certainly that is what the endless and vital volunteers up and down the country do anyway. Perhaps it is just that it is the socialising. But there is a slightly different lesson to be given in this context, which is that the grey haired old bugger who is holding you up a) is someone you can’t get out and b) if you can’t get him out now, imagine how good he was 40 years ago.

Now clearly, none of this applies to a James Anderson, or a Shivnarine Chanderpaul, or a Graham Gooch, or a Courtney Walsh. But there are some similarities in how we approach this and how we feel about it, it’s a matter of familiarity with those who surround us and how we go through life ourself. The admiration for someone maintaining their level as a professional is still related to someone able to take the field alongside the rest despite being half a century older. And it’s a very special thing too, but one that can only truly be appreciated from the perspective of someone facing their own passing years. On the cricket field, tutting at the “oof” as an older player bends down and misses the ball in the field attracts a particular horror when years later you become that older player involuntarily expectorating from the shock of a ball drilled at you. Which you still fail to stop.

There are the good parts. The joy of turning around while standing at slip as the 15 year old hares after it, oblivious to the entirely deliberate placing of him at fine leg to perform this valuable service while the chat with the wicketkeeper continues uninterrupted. It is in itself a life lesson for all young players, and notably one they soon learn themselves as they transition from young buck to old lag over the years. It’s perhaps unlikely Jimmy Anderson has entirely grasped this, though there must be suspicions that Darren Stevens absolutely has, another strand to the deserved love that comes his way.

They are the reminder that a game can be played by all, appreciated by all, and that the little brats have got a hell of a shock coming to them. That’s got to be a good thing, right?

Lies, Damn Lies, And The Hundred

The Hundred has overshadowed essentially the whole of the English summer so far. It was, at least according to a lot of people, either the best or worst thing to happen in the entire history of cricket. I personally found it fairly underwhelming, but I can’t say I regularly watch T20 games anyway. The standard didn’t seem noticeably higher than the T20 Blast. The coverage was standard global T20 fare, with both the BBC and Sky dragging the standards down with a few dreadful choices in the commentary box. The ‘innovations’ (The TV graphics, five-ball overs, bowlers in consecutive overs, etc) seemed gimmicky and unnecessary. It was all a bit ‘meh’.

It is said that history is written by the victors, but sometimes the victors of a conflict can be decided by who writes the history. To that end, the ECB has posted a list of statistics which attempted to ‘prove’ the success of their new competition.

  • A total of 16.1m people watched some of the action on TV alone
  • 57% of viewers had not watched any other live ECB cricket in 2021
  • The peak number of viewers for finals day were 1.4m for the women’s game and 2.4m for the men’s game
  • 510,000 tickets were sold and issued in total
  • 55% of ticket buyers had not bought a ticket for cricket in this country before
  • 19% of tickets sold were for children
  • 59% of ticket-buyers were under 45 years old
  • 21% of ticket buyers were women
  • The total attendance for women’s games was 267,000, which is a world record for any women’s cricket event
  • There were 34.3m videos views, plus 264,000 downloads of The Hundred app
  • More than 28,000 items of merchandise were sold, including 7,000 items of team kit and training-wear
  • More runs per ball in the men’s competition than the IPL, and more in the women’s competition than the WBBL
  • A revenue of roughly £50m, which gives a profit of £10m to re-invest in cricket
  • A 230% increase in the number of junior fixtures in August 2021 compared to 2017-19
  • 10,000 more adult fixtures being played in club cricket compared to 2019
  • Over 101,000 children taking part in ECB-run National Programmes this summer
  • A 900% increase in the number of kids playing in All Stars and Dynamos during The Hundred competition time compared to previous years, thanks to the introduction of Dynamos
  • All Stars and Dynamos have seen 27,000 girls, 13,000 children from ethnically diverse backgrounds, and over 3,000 disabled children pick up a bat and ball
  • 10,000 kids have had free access to Dynamos cricket thanks to Sky’s sponsorship
  • 160 hubs in cities across the country have worked with over 20,000 young people, and 10,000 more have attended cricketing school breakfast clubs set up by the ECB

This is obviously a lot to go through, so I will split it up into three groups: TV viewers, attendances, and participation.

TV Viewers

A total of 16.1 million people watched some part of the action on TV alone. This seems impressive at first, but lacks a lot of context. First, what does “watched some part of the action” mean? The number of people watching a TV programme can be quantified in many different ways, the most common being ‘average’, ‘peak’ and ‘reach’. A company such as BARB uses a sample group of representative TV viewers (or real-time data from set-top boxes and online viewing) to estimate the number of people watching every TV programme in five-minute segments. The ‘average’ number of viewers is the mean of every segment for that programme and the ‘peak’ is the highest number of viewers for any segment in the programme. ‘Reach’ is the broadest measurement of the three, and essentially includes every single viewer who watched even just one five-minute segment of a TV programme (or, in this case, a series of thirty four TV programmes).

So how does this compare to other recent televised cricket? Well this year’s Test series between India and England on Channel 4 had a total ‘reach’ of over 9 million viewers, despite being between 4am and noon rather than UK prime time television. In 2019, 15.4 million people in the UK watched some part of the Men’s World Cup final. That was just one game, with almost no promotion by Channel 4 due to the last-minute nature of the agreement to let them air it.

57% of viewers had not watched any other live ECB cricket in 2021. The key words here are “watched”, “live”, and “ECB”. “Watched” excludes people who listen to Test Match Special, “live” excludes people who watched the highlights on the BBC, and “ECB” excludes people who saw the Test series against India on Channel 4 (which the BCCI was responsible for). This statistic is presented in such a way as to imply that more than half of the TV viewers for The Hundred were new to the sport, or at least disconnected from it, but in fact does nothing of the sort.

The peak number of viewers for finals day were 1.4 million for the women’s game and 2.4 million for the men’s game. To add context for these figures: The opening games in the competition had peaks of 2.5 million viewers for the men’s game and 1.95 million viewers for the women’s. This suggests that audiences may have declined over the competition. Also bear in mind that these opening games were held on a Wednesday and Thursday night, whilst the finals were on the weekend when you might expect the number of TV viewers to be higher. If you were to compare these figures to the 2019 Men’s World Cup final, that had 8.92 million viewers at the start of the super over.

There were 34.3 million video views, plus 264,000 downloads of The Hundred app. Is this a lot? The ICC said that they had 4.6 billion video views during the 2019 Men’s World Cup, for example. I would guess that the number of views would increase with the number of videos you post, and with the number of platforms you posted them on. The number of views for the most popular video they posted would be interesting information, at least for me.

Attendances

510,000 tickets were sold and issued in total. The first part of this that jumps out at everyone is “and issued”. Something like 30-40,000 were given away by the ECB to NHS staff, cricket volunteers and children. I believe that Surrey were the only host county to include free entrance to The Hundred in their membership packages, but neither Surrey nor the ECB have said how many members took up this offer. The broader context of this figure is that the tickets were typically a lot cheaper than they would have been at the same grounds in the T20 Blast and, other than the Tests at Trent Bridge and Lord’s, no other first team cricket for cricket fans to watch at the grounds for the length of the competition.

55% of ticket-buyers had not bought a ticket for cricket in this country before. 19% of tickets sold were for children. 59% of ticket-buyers were under 45 years old. 21% of ticket-buyers were women. This is a huge dump of information regarding the demographics of people buying tickets for The Hundred, which appears impressive at first glance. Without knowing what the comparable figures were for the T20 Blast, you could look at these and assume that The Hundred was a huge step towards increasing the diversity of cricket crowds in England. In fact, Surrey have released their T20 Blast sales figures which appear to be very similar to those from The Hundred: 50% of their ticket-buyers were new to them in 2019, 20% of their tickets were for families, 60% of their ticket-buyers were under 45 years old, and 18% of their ticket-buyers were women. Whilst obviously the numbers for The Hundred are across eight grounds rather than just one, there seems to be very little improvement (if any) from the T20 Blast.

The total attendance for women’s games was 267,000, which is a world record for any women’s cricket event. You know what? I’m just going to give them this. If you were nitpicking, you could say that these figures (taken at the halfway point of the women’s games) includes some fans who only turned up early for the men’s games so they could get absolutely plastered. But even if that accounted for 30-40% of the official attendance, it would still be a world record.

More than 28,000 items of merchandise were sold, including 7,000 items of team kit and training-wear. This doesn’t even sound that impressive. I really wouldn’t be surprised if Surrey and Middlesex each sold more than 7,000 of their own kits to fans per year, whilst ‘items of merchandise’ could mean everything from a £1 bumper sticker to a £10 baseball cap.

More runs per ball in the men’s competition than the IPL, and more in the women’s competition than the WBBL. This one doesn’t really fit in any of the categories, so it might as well go here. The comparison with the IPL and WBBL seems a little odd. My entirely untested view on this is that Indian and Australian grounds typically seem larger than English ones on TV, which therefore makes it easier to hit sixes and have a higher scoring rate in England. Near the halfway point of The Hundred, statistician Ric Finlay said that the scoring rate in the men’s Hundred was 143.21 as opposed to 141.64 in the 2021 T20 Blast. It’s hardly a huge step forwards, at least in this country.

A revenue of roughly £50 million, which gives a profit of £10 million to re-invest in cricket. These figures have been questioned by a lot of people, as they don’t include the costs of the £1.3 million annual payments to each of the eighteen first-class counties (a total of £23.4 million per year). If this were included, The Hundred couldn’t be expected to make an annual profit until at least the next TV deal in 2025. One might also be forgiven for being cynical about the ECB’s intention to direct this ‘surplus’ towards grassroots cricket when (for example) the bonuses for ECB executives (£2.1 million) is almost the same as their annual donation for Chance To Shine (£2.5 million).

Participation

A 230% increase in the number of junior fixtures in August 2021 compared to 2017-19. 10,000 more adult fixtures being played in club cricket compared to 2019. A 900% increase in the number of kids playing in All Stars and Dynamos during The Hundred competition time. This has been a weird year. In terms of club cricket, the majority of games are typically held before August because that is when most children, and their parents, are away on holiday and therefore unavailable for games or training sessions. This year, there were a lot of restrictions related to COVID-19 until July 19th and a lot of people won’t be going away on holiday this summer.

It is also worthwhile to consider what the ECB’s source of information for these fixture figures is. It seems likely that it is via PlayCricket, the ECB’s website/app for cricket club administration and scoring. It has been mentioned that some club leagues have insisted clubs use PlayCricket more this year than in the past, which may have the effect of clubs posting games on the ECB website (friendlies, intra-squad matches, etc) which they would not have done before. Whether these figures reflect an actual increase in matches or just greater use of PlayCricket is yet to be seen.

Over 101,000 children taking part in ECB-run National Programmes this summer. 10,000 kids had free access to Dynamos cricket thanks to Sky’s sponsorship. 160 hubs in cities across the country have worked with over 20,000 young people, and 10,000 more have attended cricketing school breakfast clubs set up by the ECB. The headline figure of 101,000 seems great, until you consider the statistics which follow it. The ECB has launched Dynamos, which targets slightly older kids at clubs which already hold All Stars sessions, as well as the new hubs and breakfast clubs which all presumably are counted as “ECB-run National Programmes”. It seems probable that the only like-for-like comparison, the number of children in All Stars cricket, has actually fallen quite sharply. This is unsurprising and unavoidable in a pandemic-affected year, but the figures given seem quite misleading.

All Stars and Dynamos have seen 27,000 girls, 13,000 children from ethnically diverse backgrounds and over 3,000 disabled children pick up a bat and ball. Is this better than previous years, or non-branded junior club cricket sessions? Because the ECB has never consistently released data of participation, and when it does it is cherry-picked to support their decision like the ones above, I have absolutely no idea whether it is good or bad.

? Perhaps the most important figure is the one that the ECB hasn’t included: Total participation. The number of senior and/or junior players in England and Wales has fallen in every season from about 2010 onwards. To be clear: I’m not getting this from official figures, because the ECB doesn’t release them (unlike, for example, Cricket Australia). However, I do know that if the number of club cricketers had increased in that period then the ECB would have spared no effort or expense in letting everyone know about it, and how they were responsible. There would be press releases, TV interviews, open-top bus parades around St. John’s Wood, and so on. Their continued silence just reaffirms that, in spite of everything they’ve said, club cricket is in decline overall.

That’s A Bonus

Part of the ECB’s eagerness to extoll the positive effects of The Hundred might be explained by the fact that their executives are apparently due to share a massive £2.1m in “performance-related” bonuses, based on reaching goals from their “Inspiring Generations” strategy document. This has been greeted with almost universal disbelief. Several defences and rationales for why the ECB executives should still receive this money have been offered, but none have been more complete than that by former ECB chairman Colin Graves. In an interview with the Guardian, he said:

“[The executives] have won the men’s World Cup [in 2019], the women’s World Cup [in 2017], secured the best broadcast deal in the history of the sport [worth £1.1bn], got the Hundred up and running and managed to stage a full summer of international cricket behind closed doors in 2020, despite a global pandemic. English cricket would have gone bust and they saved it.”

I must have missed Tom Harrison bowling England to victory in the 2017 women’s World Cup, or Sanjay Patel completing the run out at the very end of the 2019 men’s World Cup. Whilst such victories are undoubtedly group efforts, requiring the support of a multitude of people behind the scenes, few people outside of a former executive would place the importance of the top brass over that of the players on the field.

If these executives did “save English cricket”, it was also them who endangered its life by spending all of the ECB’s £70 million reserves (in 2016) on The Hundred (either directly, or using it to bribe counties into supporting a new competition). That £70 million would have been incredibly helpful for an unexpected event like (for example) a one-a-century global pandemic threatened all professional and amateur sport around the world.

If there is one group of people who did save (professional) cricket in England, it’s the West Indies and Pakistan teams who toured here in 2020. They came at an uncertain time, into a country with a high rate of infections, and spent almost all of their time here locked in their cricket grounds/hotels. I am sure it was a thoroughly unpleasant experience, for which they received little reward. Had they not come, it seems likely that the ECB would have lost most if not all of the Sky TV deal which it required to keep themselves and the counties afloat financially during the pandemic. If saving English cricket is the criteria for these bonuses, give it to them instead of the executives.

Graves also suggested that the bonus payments are a contractual matter in which no one (including the ECB, its chairman or the executives themselves) have any say over. That is simply not a credible argument after the last eighteen months. The England men’s players agreed a substantial cut in their own bonuses last year. Men’s county cricketers agreed to several pay cuts, including to their minimum salary. Men’s players in The Hundred agreed a 20% pay cut. These were all based on signed contracts, where the players and the PCA would have been entirely within their rights to demand the full amounts due. But they didn’t because they were persuaded, quite possibly by the ECB executives, that the game had a much greater need for that money elsewhere and that they could afford to take a financial hit in exchange for safeguarding the game that has given them so much.

The players at least had a choice. The ECB executives sacked 62 members of staff last year to cut costs, and many more at the counties will have lost their jobs too. For them, and the ECB staff members left behind with pay freezes and more work to handle with fewer colleagues, these news reports are about as welcome as a cup of cold vomit. That £2.1 million might well have saved a lot of their jobs, if nothing else. The fact that word of the bonuses was apparently leaked to the press might serve as a warning to Tom Harrison and the other executives, as you would imagine that there are a lot of skeletons in their closets (as well as their email folders and expense accounts) which their underpaid, overworked, and probably very angry underlings could email to friendly journalists.

The idea which Graves raised that the ECB’s executives are irreplaceable due to their genius-like intelligence is undercut by one simple fact: They did not see this backlash coming at all. Once it did come, they have not appeared to do anything about it. They have managed to upset the players, their staff (basically everyone in the whole organisation not getting the bonus), and the fans (always the least important group for them). That’s not being smart. It’s being greedy, and arrogant, and uncaring.

On a personal note, the idea of executive bonuses tied to targets has always baffled me somewhat. I am an employee who has always been very near the lower end of any organisational chart, and the idea of being paid extra for doing your job well has always been a distant dream to me. If I meet the targets set for me, I get to keep my job. If I don’t, I would be fired. The idea that I could achieve essentially none of my goals and still receive 80% of my wages sounds like a very nice employment contract to have.

As has been said by many people, the genuinely irreplaceable people in English cricket are the volunteers who run our clubs. The people who give vast amounts of their time and money to make it possible for virtually anyone in the country to play cricket every weekend through the summer. The chairs, coaches, players, groundskeepers, umpires, cooks, bar staff, and everyone else who sacrifices a lot and may well have had a very hard time of it in the past year. They get very little support from the ECB, and almost none personally from Tom Harrison and the other executives. Although £2.1 million might not be much when shared between the thousands of clubs across the country, this would have been a far better use of the money than having an extra wing built on Château Costume Vide.

At this point, I don’t expect much to change. The ECB’s playbook in such cases is normally to wait out the initial wave of fury and then do what they want anyway. You could see that in The Hundred, and the accusations of racism at Yorkshire, and in multiple other examples. If they cared about what people thought, they wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place.

If you have anything to say about the unmitigated gall of the ECB’s executives, the Test series, or anything else, post your comments below.

England vs. India, 3rd Test, Day 4 – Hold The Line

After what can only be described as a hard fought and gritty day of cricket yesterday, did anyone really believe England would roll over in India in a session this morning? I certainly didn’t when I volunteered /told it was my bloody turn to write today’s match report despite knowing that I was due to meet a friend for lunch. Still, I thought it would be easy to catch up on things especially as it was a bright sunny day in Headingley. Oh, how I was wrong.

So, I’m in the situation of having to write up the report despite only seeing the first half hour of play and consequently one wicket to fall, that of Pujara who misjudged a seaming delivery from Robinson and was given out LBW on review. From there it was a procession of Indian wickets many of which were casual wafts outside the off stump, which never ends well in English conditions. Naturally the most concerning for India, aside from Pant’s dreadful form, is the continued struggles of Virat Kohli who once edged a ball to the slips on a 4th stump line. It is somewhat reminiscent of when Kohli first toured England and whilst no doubt he remains one of the world’s premier batsmen, there is obviously a technical flaw in his game as all six of his dismissals have been pretty much the same. I have no doubt he’ll be working hard to address it, but fast bowlers from every cricketing nation will all have a keen eye on his form in the rest of the series.

Naturally, the English bowlers couldn’t have cared less if they tried. Robinson was once again the pick of the bowlers with a nagging off stump line and length that Josh Hazelwood has earnt his living from. I thought he bowled well yesterday without much luck, so a Michelle was fully deserved. Robinson was ably assisted by Craig Overton, who despite seeming to be the odd one out in most squads, bowled with good control and Moeen who as he often does, bowls some outstanding wicket taking deliveries but can also mix it up with some dross.

The best thing about the Test (no it’s not Jarvo) is the sheer turn around in fortunes from the result at Lords. Many, myself included, pretty much wrote England off after the calamitous defeat at Lords, so to go to Headingley and then thrash India by an innings and 76 runs shows how Test cricket is still the greatest format. The ECB’s treatment of their Test squad is nothing short of shoddy, but for the players and coaching staff to rally round after the Lord’s disaster and to then produce a performance like the one we saw, shows that we should give them some great credit as a squad. Of course, they won’t be able to claim any of the £2.1million bonus on offer, that’s only available to those who are trying to kill our county game. Plus ca change!

On a final note, now the Headingley Test match is consigned to the books, it must be time for the ECB to grow a backbone and pressure Yorkshire County Cricket Club to release the Azeem Rafiq report. I find it incredulous that no-one from the top echelons has realised the damage this is doing not just to Azeem but to the wider game with rumours and counter rumours abound. My guess is that no-one from Yorkshire will come out looking good from it, hence the delay, but if we’re serious about trying to promote equality and eradicate racism from our game, then the release of this report can’t come soon enough.

As always, any thoughts on the game are gratefully received below.