Coach Wanted – Englishmen Need Not Apply

There’s a vacuum at the heart of the men’s England team right now. The question of who should be captain is in flux because there is no coach or selector to make that call. There is no coach or selector because there is no director of cricket to hire them. There is no director of cricket because there is no chair and the chief executive is too busy fleshing out his CV for his next victim employer.

There is a lot of speculation about who will fill these roles though, with a great many names mentioned. What is becoming increasingly clear is that almost no one believes the next coach will be English, and many wouldn’t be surprised if that was also the case for the director of cricket. Indeed, no current English county coach or director of cricket appears to have even applied.

All of which begs the question: If there are 18 county teams with 18 head coaches and (I’m guessing) 18 directors of cricket, how come not a single English candidate is qualified to lead the England team?

It should be emphasised that this is not a new problem. The last (and only) English head coach to win an Ashes series is Mickey Stewart in 1987, and the only English head coach to win a men’s T20 or ODI World Cup is Paul Farbrace in 2014 with Sri Lanka. Trevor Bayliss (Australian), Andy Flower (Zimbabwean) and Duncan Fletcher (Zimbabwean) all came in and won something with the England team. Fletcher is the only one of these three to have spent any time coaching a county side, with two years at Glamorgan.

It’s difficult to look at this record, at the complete absence of high quality English coaches competing for the vacant positions, and not think that something has gone badly wrong within county cricket.

I have to preface this by saying that I don’t really follow county cricket particularly closely. I’ve never lived in a town or city which hosts a county team. I have lived the vast majority of my life outside of any of the eighteen major counties. I don’t pretend to have any expertise on the subject, and what follows may well be foolish generalisations based on nothing more than hearsay and my inherent biases.

All that said, being appointed coach in county cricket (and the England team) seems like it is much more about who you know rather than your skills or past results. Take England’s coaches: Graham Thorpe, Paul Collingwood and James Foster were all England teammates with director of cricket Ashley Giles. Although head coach Chris Silverwood appears not to been on the field together with Giles, they were certainly both in the same England ODI squad in 1997. I get the impression that the majority of county coaches are ex-players from the same teams. These kind of appointments are always popular with the fans/members (see Darren Gough at Yorkshire CCC), but don’t obviously lead to qualified or skilled coaching.

The methods routinely used within county cricket and the England team have to be questioned. The majority of English coaches appear to have a level 3 or 4 (‘Elite’) ECB coaching qualification. If no one who goes through this course appears to be any good at coaching professional first-class cricketers, should it not be changed?

There seems to be an extreme level of conservatism inherent in county (and international) coaching, which the ECB training seems to reinforce. Coaches don’t want to intervene or criticise players, even in private and on matters of basic technique. The emphasis appears to be almost entirely on boosting the players’ confidence. This is no doubt important, particularly on tour, but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to fix fundamentally flawed approaches to batting and bowling.

This is exacerbated by English cricket’s almost uniquely insular attitudes to both hiring coaches and gaining experience. A large number of coaches from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the West Indies or Zimbabwe have spent a lot of time working outside of their home countries. This is rarely the case in England, where having eighteen professional clubs plus a plethora of highly-paid roles at public schools means that ex-players don’t have to stray outside their comfort zone to make a living. This limits their experience, and means that they never see other methods of helping players develop.

One obvious consequence, if coaching in county cricket is almost universally substandard, is that this would inevitably harm the development of county cricketers. After all, how can players reasonably reach their potential if the people who are supposed to be teaching and managing them aren’t up to the job?

This is why I think that coaching is the key issue regarding the quality of English Test cricketers. There are undoubtedly a great many other factors: The pitches, the scheduling, county youth systems and financial incentives to name just four. They all should be addressed as soon possible, but I don’t believe county cricket will start producing Test-quality batsmen again before the coaching fundamentally improves. In the short term, that might involve the hiring of significantly more overseas staff until English candidates become employable.

If you have any thoughts on this post, or on anything else that crosses your mind, leave them below.

West Indies vs England – Third Test Preview

It’s difficult to know what to write here, since so little has changed in the past week. The series is still 0-0. Wood and Robinson are still out injured. Matt Parkinson is still warming the bench. The only real cause for optimism comes from the photos of the pitch, which at least look like a little grass has been allowed to remain.

With the fragility of both teams’ batting lineups, that should be plenty to force a result. Whilst some people are talking in hopeful tones about a new era for English cricket, with Dan Lawrence and Jonny Bairstow helping Joe Root lead the team to somewhere near basic competence. They have done well, as did Mahmood in his Test debut, but these performances have to be placed in the right context: The pitches were incredibly flat, and the West Indies are not a good Test team.

As it stands, the West Indies are eighth in the World Test Championship table (England are last in ninth), having won just one Test against Pakistan in the current cycle. It shouldn’t be a surprise that a team with England’s financial resources, England’s first-class depth, England’s unique focus on red ball cricket should be able to bat out a draw on benign surfaces. It should be a minimum expectation.

Aside from the players, the individual who has most obviously benefitted from England not losing two Tests in a row is Paul Collingwood. The interim head coach has apparently put his name forward for the permanent role, and not losing a Test series (as Silverwood failed to achieve four times in the past year) is clearly enough to at least be considered by the ECB. One notable aspect of this is that he has never worked as a coach in county cricket. He had several spells as a coach for Scotland, and has been with the England team for the past three years. This means that he has no experience as a head coach, and almost no track record for his potential employers to examine.

This is a very common trait amongst people who the ECB are considering for their vacant senior positions. It was reported today that Rob Key is in the running for the Director of Cricket position. I don’t have anything against him as a person, but he appears to have gone straight from his playing career to the Sky commentary booth. Whilst he might talk a good game (that is his job, after all), there’s absolutely nothing to prove that he can back it up. He has that in common with Andrew Strauss and Ed Smith, who both transitioned directly from punditry to senior ECB positions.

There are six candidates listed for the Director Of Cricket job in this article: Rob Key, Ed Smith, Tom Moody, Marcus North, Nathan Leamon and Mo Bobat. As far as I can tell, the only ones with any experience of coaching or managing a domestic cricket team are the two Australians, Moody and North. Smith, Leamon and Bobat have all only ever worked worked for the ECB as head selector, analyst and performance director respectively.

It is possible to look at this and say that the ECB are disrespecting county cricket by not recruiting people from that talent pool, but I have to question if there are any candidates who obviously deserve a shot with England. After all, Chris Silverwood was appointed by England after his team won the Championship but failed to make any impression in internationals. Peter Moores and Ashley Giles were also both county coaches before their spells with England. There is a long running and active discussion about how county cricket is failing to develop talented Test batters, but very little time is spent looking at the quality of the coaches and other staff. The two issues may well be linked. After all, poor coaching and management aren’t exactly helpful in helping the next generation of cricketers reach their full potential.

I honestly don’t know enough about county cricket to know if this is an entirely accurate picture, or what could be done about it. It doesn’t give me much optimism for any change in England’s fortunes over the next few years though.

If you have any comments about the Test, the ECB’s recruitment, or anything else, please leave them below.

West Indies vs England – Second Test Preview

There is a lot to be said for having low expectations, particularly as an English cricket fan. With a sufficiently poor outlook on the Test team, even the remotest evidence of adequacy comes as a pleasant surprise. You’d be forgiven for thinking, having read the press reports about the first Test, that a new dawn was on the horizon for England and the previous twelve months was just a transitional period. Zak Crawley is the successor to Cook, Leach is the successor to Swann, and Bairstow has finally refound his form.

Except obviously none of this is true. West Indies are a bad Test team, and the pitch was as dead as England’s chances of reaching a World Test Championship final in my lifetime. But such are the depths of the England team’s failings that not collapsing on an extremely batting-friendly pitch against a mediocre Test bowling attack is cause for celebration.

England have already announced the team for today’s game, with Saqib Mahmood coming in for the injured Mark Wood as the only change. It is a little surprising that there hasn’t been more rotation of the bowlers, with three Tests back-to-back, particularly with regards to Ben Stokes. Before the series began, the consensus seemed to be that Ben Stokes would only be used as a last resort bowling option and yet he ended up with 41 overs in the first test.

Alex Lees has the most to prove after a disappointing debut. Opening in Test cricket is always difficult, but he looked terrible in his two very short innings so far. Chris Woakes could also be bowling for his Test career, albeit having scored a useful 46 runs with the bat.

On the plus side for England, the photos of the pitch suggest that it will be very flat again. A cynical person might suggest that the grounds and boards benefit financially from the Barmy Army coming to the ground for five days, and they probably don’t care as much about whether there is an exciting match or result. It’s not a great business model for a sport, but it is what it is. Both sides certainly have the capacity to collapse twice on any pitch, so there’s still no guarantees of a bore draw.

As always, please post your comments below if you have anything to say about the Test or anything else.

West Indies vs England – Series Preview

I love Test cricket in the Caribbean. It just feels right. Glorious sunshine, steel drum music, 2pm starts. After the Ashes, it is a huge improvement.

Since 1974, England have won just one Test series from ten attempts in the West Indies. You would be hard pushed to find many English cricket fans who don’t think that this series will follow this pattern. The hosts might be without such legends as Richards, Holding or Lara, but defeating the current England team hardly requires that level of talent.

Behind the scenes, the England team must be a mess right now. They currently have no head coach, head selector, or even a Director, England Cricket. It’s not immediately clear who’s in charge, or who will still have a job in a month’s time. Paul Collingwood is acting as interim coach, but I don’t have much faith that he can do anything to turn things around. I loved him as a player, but he has been on the England men’s Test team staff for six years now and it would be hard to identify any positive impact he could have had in that time.

Changes have been made on the field as well. Both openers from the Ashes have been dropped, with Zak Crawley and Alex Lees being the latest ones to try their luck. Ben Foakes replaces Jos Buttler, who is currently resting in preparation for the IPL. Malan and Pope have also been left out of the playing squad, meaning that just four batsmen (Crawley, Root, Bairstow and Stokes) survive from England’s disastrous tour down under.

The headlines have all been about Anderson and Broad’s exclusion from the team. I have to say that I don’t really care about this decision for two reasons. The first reason is that I don’t think that it massively alters the chances of England winning this series. If the batsmen struggle to post scores of 300 or more, it doesn’t really matter which bowlers you select. The second reason is that I am, and I realise this is an unpopular viewpoint, a huge proponent of rotation. Keeping every player both physically and mentally fresh is vital in cricket (and every other team sport), not least after the past two years of bubbles and quarantines. To be honest, I’d have also rested Ben Stokes as he is currently considered unfit to bowl. Rotation also gives other bowlers the opportunity to step up and make their own mark.

That said, the signs from the four-day warmup game agains a West Indies President’s XI were not exactly promising. Ollie Robinson and Mark Wood both picked up injuries, although Wood did return to play in the second innings. Despite facing an inexperienced and largely unimpressive batting lineup, England’s bowlers only took 17 wickets in the game. Without Anderson and Broad’s experience, or the injured Jofra Archer’s pace, the signs look ominous for the first Test.

The only real saving grace for England going into this match is that the West Indies aren’t that great a team either. England’s last four Test series have been against the three teams at the top of the ICC’s Test rankings (India, New Zealand and Australia). The West Indies are sitting at number eight. Were I a boorish owner of a convenience store chain, I might even go as far as to call them ‘mediocre’. The truth is that the West Indies are still probably favourites to win this series, so what does that say about England?

If you have any comments on the series, or anything else, leave them below.

Farewell to Greats

I was thinking this morning I would write a piece about the love of cricket inspired by the feats of great players, not specifically about Rodney Marsh as the news of his death came through, but in one of those reflective moments when those you are familiar with as a child leave us. I was in two minds about doing it, there’s nothing worse than seeing such news breaking and immediately thinking of how to make it about me, or us. And then the shocking news of Shane Warne came through as well. I can’t write a tribute to them, I’m neither capable nor do I deserve to.

I didn’t know either of them, never met them, never anything more than seeing them across the field or on the television. I’ve no story about queueing for an autograph or a quick chat in a bar somewhere, they were and ever will be strangers to me. So plenty will tell their tales of when they did, while the chroniclers of cricket history will place them in their appropriate position as giants of the game, statistically and in terms of their impact. And we will read their wise words and nod in appreciation, as we should.

Their different generations make the reflections and memories so different, Rod Marsh for me was the permanent presence behind the stumps for Australia when I was a child, listening to the commentators (also largely sadly gone now) talking about how he was a truly special exponent of the art of wicket-keeping, which to my young ears was simply irritating, because he was an Aussie, and the reason they were talking about that was because he’d just flown in front of first slip to take a great catch, and thus yet another English wicket had fallen.

Warne was of course much later, and part of that dominant Australian team that ripped England to pieces for a decade and more. As a near contemporary, today’s news perhaps appals more, but in his case it was his sheer vitality, and larger than life presence that makes it such a shocking thing to hear about.

In both cases, they formed the backdrop of the rhythms of a game that is an ever present part of the lives of so many of us, the flow of opposition cricketers who evoked a feeling of grudging admiration and considerable irritation as they weaved their magic on hapless English victims – and it was always English in those days where matches between other teams were never shown on television. So to that extent it was always every couple of years you’d renew televisual or ground acquaintances who would proceed to ruin your summer most of the time.

Perhaps that’s why as an English person the fondest memories either came later or in other circumstances. Marsh might have had a fantastically brilliant career, but for me it was his shaking of his head, crossing of his arms and clear unhappiness at the Trevor Chappell underarm incident that raised him from opposing-far-too-good-player-how-irritating to three dimensional character. I doubt I saw that incident at the time either, but was familar enough with it at the time I was watching him. And of course towards the end of any great player’s career you start to appreciate them more than was previously the case.

Warne too, his brashness when he announced his arrival with that ball, was bound to wind up pretty much every English supporter, especially so when he backed that brashness up, again and again. There was that dawning horror in all England supporters as he became rather obviously far more than just a show-off, but in fact on his way to being one of the all time greats. And doing it for years. Saving his best for England, which invariably makes an Australian the pantomime villain, the one we adore but daren’t admit it. Thus it was that his last series in England, the 2005 Ashes ended with him becoming something of an honorary national treasure, the chants of “We only wish you were English” alongside the clear and abundant pleasure he was taking in being part of such a special series, even on the losing side. And perhaps it was partly because he was on the losing side he received that transparently warm and affectionate farewell from the English crowds. Either way, he deserved it.

And ultimately, isn’t that the point? Cricketers rise and fall, are new and exciting or veteran and grizzled, but what they leave behind even more than the runs, wickets and catches they score and take are the memories – the honour of watching them, the laughter or the frown when they end up on the front pages as well as the back. Feet of clay the lot of them, imperfect as all human beings are. Marsh was fantastically sardonic as a radio commentator, Warne endlessly frustrated because he could so often be banal, before suddenly being so extraordinarily insightful to the point you were hanging on every word.

But didn’t they seem fun? Characters you’d want to share a pint with and just listen to all evening long, at least while still upright. I can’t pay any kind of meaningful tribute to them, and the loss for their families is too much to take as it always is. But they have been part of the soundtrack of our lives, and maybe that’s as high a praise as can ever be offered. Cricket is poorer for their loss, but we’re all poorer for their loss.

The words are hopelessly inadequate. They’re the best I can do. I’m upset at the news of two people I didn’t know. And so are very many others.

Are The ECB Guilty Of Bringing The Game Into Disrepute?

I want to be clear from the outset of this post: It is not a joke. It is not hyperbole. It is not a hypothetical exercise. I truly believe that the ECB, according to its own rules, could refer itself to its ‘independent’ disciplinary committee for bringing the game and itself into disrepute. What follows is my argument for why it should happen.

This post was prompted by the news that Essex CCC were being charged under ECB directive 3.3 for failing to investigate the alleged use of racist language by their chairman John Faragher from 2017 (an allegation Faragher has denied).

To summarise: Faragher was accused of using a dated American expression which, for the sake of not getting this site filtered by Google and WordPress for content, I won’t explicitly refer to here. It is certainly a racist phrase, and using it in any workplace is unacceptable. Failing to investigate such a complaint is also totally unacceptable, and the timing of when it went public certainly harmed the sport’s image in England by seemingly confirming that issues weren’t confined to Yorkshire CCC.

But there is a complication: It would appear that the ECB themselves were informed of the allegation in 2018 and, like Essex CCC, they failed to investigate it. Nor did they look into Essex’s failure to follow the correct procedure at the time. It was only in 2021, under intense media and parliamentary pressure, that they finally acted. If the lack of response from Essex CCC has brought English cricket into disrepute, surely the ECB are equally as guilty?

This is sadly not an isolated incident. There are numerous examples of the ECB failing to investigate racist occurrences. The most obvious recent example relates to Azeem Rafiq, where they were content allowing Yorkshire CCC to royally screw things up for over a year. However, it should be remembered that Rafiq was only one of several ex-players who made allegations of racism in the press. Michael Carberry, Ebony Rainford-Brent, Dave Burton, Alex Tudor, Chris Thompson, and no doubt severals others who I have missed have all disclosed specific examples of racism within county cricket in the past two years.

The ECB’s inaction is not just related to cricketers. Umpires John Holder, Ismail Dawood and Devon Malcolm have accused them of discriminating against Black and Asian match officials. Alison Mitchell has alluded to racism within the England press box by ECB-accredited journalists being a recurring issue, with no investigations forthcoming. Pakistani journalist Saj Sadiq complained to the ECB last summer about how he was treated by the security at four separate England games, but was ignored. Former Leicestershire CCC chair Mehmooda Duke appears to have resigned from her role after being “intimidated” “coerced” and “manoeuvred” by people within the ECB.

Should Essex CCC be punished for failing to follow the proper procedure after they were made aware of the allegations regarding Faragher’s behaviour? Almost certainly, but surely the ECB must be held to the same standard. Where Essex may be guilty of one or two counts, I’ve listed at least twelve cases of the ECB failing to investigate or act regarding racism in this post. Are the ECB not also bound by the rules they (fail to) enforce?

There is, perhaps, one problem with my thesis. Reading the ECB Cricket Disciplinary Committee’s regulations (I really know how to have a fun weekend), it’s not entirely clear whether the ECB as an entity is accountable to the committee. The only organisations it lists as ‘participants’ in its disciplinary process are “members”, which means the 39 counties (first-class and national) plus the MCC. If this is the case, then perhaps the ECB as a whole can escape due to a trifling technicality. It seems inarguable otherwise that they would be found guilty.

Individual employees are clearly liable though, as it specifically mentions “committee members of the ECB”. This would presumably include chief executive Tom Harrison as chair of the executive committee, for example. It is certainly be very difficult to imagine that this sustained failure to act over a long period of time in so many cases from the ECB could be possible without the knowledge and support of such senior members of staff.

I am sure that Harrison would resign long before any hearing took place. It is already being rumoured that will be leaving in the next few months anyway (just after his loyalty bonus is due, coincidentally). However, just referring him to the disciplinary committee would be an important message for the ECB to project that no one in English cricket is unaccountable and that things will genuinely change going forward. It would also help the ECB deflect accusations of double standards as it finally starts dealing with historic complaints and punishing the clubs or individuals responsible.

And at the end of the day, isn’t everyone being treated the same what equality is all about?

Thanks for reading. If you have any comments about the post or anything else cricket-related, leave them below.

Should Women Have Equal Pay In The Hundred?

Tomorrow, the ECB and several county chairs are going before the Digital, Culture, Media And Sport Parliamentary committee to answer questions regarding racism within English cricket and their responses to it (or the lack thereof). This is certainly an important issue which should be questioned and addressed, but it is far from the only problem that the sport has regarding diversity and equality. The treatment of women cricketers by the ECB and the counties has been (and continues to be) shameful.

This genuinely angers me, and never more so than when the ECB posts press releases, promotional videos and friendly articles by useful idiots in the press declaring how committed they are to gender equality. It is absolute bullshit. I’ve posted about this before, after the ECB posted a series of videos on Twitter proclaiming their support for the International Women’s Day 2020 campaign ‘Each For Equal’. It’s fair to say that I was not impressed.

In the first season of The Hundred, the total player wage bill for the women’s competition was £1.3m compared to £6.7m for the men. This meant that the average man was paid £45,000 more than the average woman. The ECB announced pay rises for everyone in this year’s competition, which was presented by some useful idiots in the press as being a “108%” (or “more than doubled”) increase for the women compared to ‘just’ 25% for the men. A real blow for equality in sport. This was technically accurate, but hardly tells the full story. With the total wage bills being £8.3m and £2.3m in 2022, the average pay gap for women cricketers has actually increased by £5,000 to £50,000.

The first question this scenario begs to be asked is whether it is legal. If you had a company with a 50-50 gender split and every single woman was paid £50,000 less than a man in the same job, you could expect to spend most of your time in lawyers’ offices and employment tribunals.

We understand in sport that men’s and women’s sports are typically separate, with their own discrete economic and competition structures and therefore it is not unfair for Cristiano Ronaldo to be paid more than Ella Toone, for example. However, it is not immediately apparent that this would apply to The Hundred. Almost every source of income is pooled together from both competitions, with no distinction for what proportion can (or should) be attributed to the men or women. The TV deals all include both men’s and women’s games. Every ticket sold (barring the season openers) is for both a men’s and women’s game. The same sponsorship deals cover both competitions. At the same time, it would seem like women do the same amount of work as the men in The Hundred, playing the same number of games and having apparently equal media and sponsorship commitments. It would be very interesting to hear what someone with more knowledge than me regarding employment law had to say on the issue.

Even if total pay equity is not legally required, the current balance is significantly out of proportion to the value they bring to the competition and the compensation they therefore deserve. With wage budgets of £8m and £2m, the women will on average be paid 25% as much as the men this season. According to the ECB’s own figures, the women’s Hundred had 52.4% of the attendance and (for the final) 58.3% of the TV viewers compared to the men’s games. It would seem to logically follow that the women therefore deserve to be paid at least 50% of what the men receive, or double what they are currently due in 2022.

To be clear: The TV audiences are the key statistic regarding how much income can be attributed to the women’s competition. The Sky and BBC TV deals alone account for £36.5m, roughly 70% of The Hundred’s revenue. If women’s cricket is attracting 52.4% of the men’s audience (and it is) then it follows that they are earning 34.4% (0.524/1.524) of those TV deals, or £12.5m. This would mean that the women’s competition is already making a profit, and would continue to do so even if their total wage budget was increased to £8m per year.

At the same time, the men’s competition has significantly greater costs. As well as having higher salaries for the players, it also requires an annual payment to the counties of £24.7m to compensate them for losing contracted men’s players during the season as well as lost income from hosting fewer, lower status men’s games in the middle of summer. This means that the men’s competition earns £24m in UK TV revenue (65.6% of £36.5m) but costs at least £32.7m. Even if you attribute 100% of ticket revenue (around £6.5m) to the men’s Hundred, it would still be making a significant loss. In short: The women’s Hundred appears to be subsidising the men’s.

However, these attendance and viewing figures don’t tell the whole story. The scheduling of The Hundred in the first year was entirely focussed on the men’s competition. Every single men’s game in 2021 was in a primetime television/attendance slot, by which I mean outside of work hours and avoiding clashes with the men’s Test series against India. By contrast, every weekday women’s game (bar the season opener) started at 3pm or 3.30pm and there were also ten women’s games scheduled to take place at the same time as the Tests.

That the women attracted such a large audience in spite of these handicaps placed on them by the ECB is incredible and, I would argue, suggests that they are significantly undervalued. After all, if the roles were reversed and every women’s game was given this kind of priority, would the men’s attendances and TV audiences still be higher? There is a reason why almost no sports play their games during work hours, if they can avoid it.

It bears saying that achieving equal pay in The Hundred would be much easier with the support of the PCA. The women players are all members, and you might expect that their union would be supporting them gaining more (and, I would argue, fairer) pay. However, the most obvious way for the ECB to implement this would having a £5m wage budget for each competition, which would represent a 37.5% pay cut for men. As I have previously posted, the PCA always seems to prioritise the interests of their male members over everyone else.

Even so, to pay women cricketers so little would seem to be too hypocritical even for the ECB to stomach. After all, they post lovely videos on all of their social media accounts proclaiming their support for International Women’s Day every single year. Given that one of the key themes running through every single International Women’s Day campaign is the fight against pay disparity, and the ECB actively promotes these campaigns, supporting equal pay in their new competition would seem like a no-brainer.

Which should tell you exactly how much I rate the ‘brains’ at the ECB.

Thanks for reading. If you have any comments, please leave them below.

Blind Hope, Blind Visions, Blind Centre, Blind Hell

I’m back. It’s me again. I feel like I have been here before. Post overseas Ashes, and another crippling loss, filled with hopelessness and despair. This one felt worse. Inevitable. Overmatched, overstretched and over there in a hostile environment, under covid protocols, and having been on an unremitting treadmill that gave no time for practice. I barely watched any of it.

We’ll get into the personal stuff at the end, because I have something to say on that, but we have the usual old thing to get through when it comes to England in Australia, and we need to be absolutely clear that this appears to be terminal for the test game in England. It is going to take a seismic change to get things back to a level we can only dream of at the moment, and I am not sure adminstrators, counties, international cricket or the players are really that interested in seismic change.

I don’t hold myself up as any representative of the cricket following public and never have done. I’ve expressed my views on the game on this blog, and its predecessor, forcefully, angrily, sometimes over the top, but all with one thing front and centre – I really wanted to see, which was England being a good side, players introduced to the team to make our humdrum lives more palatable with exciting performances. For me, while white ball success was nice, this meant test cricket. It meant good series, hard fought series, home and away.

If I watched more than 2 hours of this series live, and I have BT, I would be surprised. I wasn’t letting this disturb sleep patterns, and the only way I was going to watch was if they surprised me. I can be accused of being fairweather, of glory hunting or whatever, but there are decisions to be made, time to be allocated, and in this time of pandemic, and especially after setbacks, choices on what you are going to invest your mental anguish in. An England test team with no preparation, in a semi-bubble, not really having had a break, with their talisman having missed the summer due to mental health issues, with a team riddled with faults, a batting line-up that looked fragile, and a fresh Australian side who have barely toured and on the morale-boosting back of a World T20 title. The portents were not good.

I’ve turned my back on it because it is the only recourse I have left. If you bang your head against a brick wall, some day it is going to cause permanent damage. When Chris Silverwood talked about taking the positives after 68 all out, the only thing I could think of is I had discovered the “do not disturb” feature on my mobile phone to stop getting alerts overnight. Honestly, it is hard writing this. I love the sport, owe it a lot for meeting friends and seeing places in my lifetime that I would never have gone to. It was a game I liked playing (well the batting part) but was never that good at, but when in the midst of a tight match, was something to behold.

I posted a tweet half way through the series that essentially said “draw a line back to 2005, and take it from there”. While that principally meant that the catastrophic decision to take the live game totally off free-to-air on the back of a once in a generation victory that united the nation behind the team, there are other strands. Players from that team, including Vaughan and Strauss, and yes KP, have had far too much influence with their mouths and attitudes than should have been – none of them have gone into coaching since they packed in, rather admin, or social media belching. or god-awful punditry, or player representation (sniff sniff, massive conflicts of interest). There is also the tendency to forget that the star of that series has now had to become some perennial TV celebrity to maintain profile. In that team we had one, possibly two, players drown under the responsibilities of the game and the treadmill they were on to be burned out. Another had his career ended, quite possibly through over-work. There were strands from that team that still weave through the game today.

Fast forward to today. As part of this post I decided to listen to Tom Harrison’s interview with Jonathan Agnew, and George Dobell’s reaction. Let me take you back to what I wrote four years ago on a similar theme:

“A few days ago Tom Harrison, in an interview covered in detail by George Dobell, basically said there was nothing to see here when it came to this Ashes. That winning in Australia is difficult because of home advantage. That because the money is now taken care of, and we aren’t a national embarrassment at white ball cricket any more, we are in a safe place, a nice place, a place to build upon and make hay when the sun shines. The complacency was immense, as teeth itching as Downton calling the 2013-14 series a “difficult winter”. The media fell asleep at this wheel. Nothing to bother their pretty little heads about, concerned more with what he didn’t say about Stokes than what he did say about how great Tom Harrison was while we lost the main test prize we seem to care about.”

This came on the back of Alastair Cook’s face-saving 244 that drove me into another blogging meltdown and another break from writing. The media at that point were so dashed happy that their hero had averted a whitewash, they almost seemed to forgive Tom his little excuse therapy. Fast forward four years, supplant Covid for the difficult to win in Australia, and the disappearance of all the money, and the media, without a Cook to really get behind (because Root or Stokes didn’t make the defining contributions) are ready with the skewers. With some exceptions, just the minimum four years too late – I would say 8 myself. If the light had been marginally better at Sydney, and their quicks could have stayed on, we’d be talking about a whitewash, where the heroes were Head, Khawaja and Boland for the home team, and where Smith and Warner barely featured.

The interview Agnew held with Harrison was sickening. Agnew tried to be firm but genteel as always, polite doesn’t work with people like him, and Harrison avoided answers (how many enquiries have you had accusing racism was met with some word salad involving sub-committees, sub-divisions and confidence they’ll get it right), or spouted nonsense (we need to reset the domestic summer and not denying that the Hundred franchises might be the route to that), cited irrelevances (seam changes, heavy rollers, blah blah) and then pretty much did what he did in August and pleaded how hard his job was.

This is the man, who led the organisation, that had decent cash reserves to allow it to manage its way through crises, but spent it all to bribe counties to accept a competition that isn’t needed (certainly for the men) and that marginalised red ball cricket to the outer edges of the season, and he’s telling me hard luck stories? Yes, we’ve had a pandemic and it has messed up many people’s lives. But you have insisted on flogging the players, the international players, the multi-formatted international players, the multi-formatted attractive to the IPL players until they are shadows of themselves. This is to fulfil TV contracts, no more, no less. Four years ago England were battered in Australia, and then went to New Zealand and found themselves at 21 for 9 a couple of weeks later. Most of us thought that it was cruel and unusual punishment for this series to be tacked on to the end of a battering, and it shouldn’t really happen again. So what do we do this time? One more test than 2017-18, in the West Indies. Oh, and five T20s which won’t be anywhere near our best team in that format, but that doesn’t matter. There are TV contracts to fulfil.

The players can take only so much of the sympathy. Of course they are going to feather their own nests in more lucrative T20 tournaments that only get bigger in size. We probably all would. Not picking on him, but what do you think Liam Livingstone would choose if he could only have one of a white ball England contract, or a high paying, top end IPL deal? Test cricket is mentally exhausting work, and it is really hard to establish yourself. IPL/T20/Hundred you have to chuck down a few darts, or smash it to kingdom come, and you have youre internet memes, your media darlings screaming like Bay City Rollers fans and the gravy train in process where you get paid, as long as you maintain your standards, and won’t have to face 7 hours in the field as the oppo make 300 for 2 on a road. Joe Root, already very highly paid as England captain, has been desperate to play IPL (I thought he still was, but Danny has corrected me and he knows things much better than me). Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler also. You can’t take that money, then complain about workloads. I’m sorry, you just can’t.

Harrison knows red ball doesn’t have a viable long-term future, and he insults us by pretending that he thinks it does. Even if he has deluded himself, he won’t be the man to make that change, as any decent governing body would have fired him by now, and even this indecent one can’t let the small matter of devastated finances, a test team bottom of the World Test Championship, a game at war with itself and a parliamentary report calling the sport endemically racist go by, can it? Can it? Players are underperforming on a relentless treadmill where each organisation wants its piece of the cake.

Meanwhile, like dutiful morons, we are expected to pay our subscriptions to Sky and BT, buy our tickets for cricket grounds that look to soak the punter of any cash they have (£6.80 for a pint of rubbish – overpriced cheaply produced merchandise) while accepting that the man in charge will be trousering a monstrous bonus while presiding over a test team that is worse, and I’ve said it, than anything I’ve seen since that team that toured India in 1992-3.

We’ve pointed this out for years. We don’t expect to be listened to, so what’s the point? The authorities believe they know best, so why would they? The press is dropping away like flies, the old behemoths falling by the wayside, and the young guns need to work their nads off to keep themselves afloat these days. They make loud noises on Twitter, but what do they actually do to confront the men in suits? Are they worried about access?

Etheridge, in a weather vane moment, is being told the Sun won’t pay for a full time cricket correspondent. Crikey, although no-one bought the Sun for its cricket coverage, isn’t that a neon sign for the game? Even he said the punters aren’t interested in suits, but rather boots…. well they should be. It is going to take more than a Barney Ronay “how jolly clever and smart this piece is” approach to get things done. I’m not as big a fan of Liew as others, but at least he has a proper pop. We absolutely need to go at the suits.

Giles Clarke sold the game out behind a paywall, Graves was the personification of be careful what we wish for, and Watmore took one look at the whole clusterf*ck and preferred retirement. During that time we had Hugh Morris preside over the Moores v Pietersen debacle, Downton bestride the ECB like a housetrained Mr Blobby and Tom “Trust” Harrison live down to my day 1 predictions and then some. I take no pride or delight in being right, but goodness me, when you hear the next steps why are you not alarmed:

  • Ashley “Don’t Blame Me” Giles will prepare a tour report.
  • Joe Root – must stay as captain because There Is No Alternative. Stop me if you’ve heard that before
  • Chris Silverwood should be sacrificed, but it says a lot that (a) they gave him full selection power (b) the white ball team which is arguably more of his remit is pretty good, but that’s not enough (c) he’s another English coach that has utterly failed, so what does that say about ECB coaching and (d) there doesn’t appear to be a domestic alternative.
  • Ashley “Don’t Blame Me” Giles will prepare a wide-ranging tour report – oh, I’ve said that – and it will go to…
  • Andrew Strauss, who supposedly did one of these four years ago, and is revered, somehow, in authority circles because he no doubt killed off the KP spectre and made the obvious decision that our white ball cricket was a laughing stock so something must be done! The vision.
  • The game is dying through lack of exposure, working class kids don’t even know it really exists, and so we are looking to take a long-term view…. by hiding 90% of it behind a paywall for another 10 years.
  • We must look a domestic schedule crammed with too many games, and decide that the Hundred is untouchable. Joe Root’s comments today appear to back that up. A competition hyped to hell, and then forgotten (really, on the men’s side, how much do you actually remember).
  • We worry about players’ mental health, so let’s stack even more concentration of fixtures on them in an uncertain coming out of, or post-Pandemic period, and then wonder why performances are nonsense.
  • And pay the wretches “contractually agreed” obscene bonuses.

Why the hell do we still care? I mean, just look at that.

On a personal level, I feel sad that I stopped watching the Ashes. It has been a cornerstone of my cricketing journey. I remember following the highlights of the 5-1 tour in the Packer era; the listening to TMS as we eked out wicket after wicket at the MCG in 1982; the joy of the rampage in 86-7; the 90s watching our overmatched teams go up against greats; and yes going there in 2002 and 2006. The 2010-11 tour may well be the last we can ever watch and say, that was good. Because since then it is 13-0. In fact, since that Ashes tour of 1986-7 it is 32-6. Yes, it has always been tough, but it has also had competitive moments. We were never really in any of these games this time around, and we’d be lying to ourselves if we said we were. Winning the Ashes away is the holy grail for me, just as winning the Ryder Cup in the US always seemed sweeter than at home. And like the Ryder Cup, we face absolute batterings away from home unless something changes. The fear is, that the damage done to the game, through neglect and under-exposure, through contempt for the recreational game, through awful administration and the love of TV money over all, through class driven snobbery and elitism taking the game away from the masses, who now don’t care, renders any change now meaningless. Too late. Ships have sailed.

People like me should be warnings that you can’t take us for granted. I represent me, and only me. I am suffering badly through the pandemic on a mental health level. Others have it bad financially or both. I have to pick my things to care about, and adjust life to those that have left me. I feel cricket has left me. Others continue the good fight. I wish them well.

Happy New Year!

Less Is Not Always More

As happens after every England Test series loss, an increasingly common occurrence these days, people have started proposing cutting the number of counties in English cricket to improve the development of Test cricketers.

Proponents of having fewer first-class teams are happy to concede that the County Championship used to be a much stronger competition, which would appear to contradict their argument from the outset as the number of teams hasn’t changed. Likewise, having eighteen teams hasn’t hurt the production of talented English white ball cricketers. In fact, it could be argued that England boasts the greatest depth in terms of T20 players of any country. This would suggest that the number of teams is not a key issue, although this does obviously not prevent people from suggesting it.

The first thing which must be acknowledged is that cutting the number of first-class teams would certainly improve the average quality of domestic red ball cricket in this country. In the short term. This is because it is a statistical trick. Imagine a school expelled the bottom half of its students. Even though the quality of teaching and the intelligence of the remaining children both remain the same, they could argue that their ‘average grade’ had risen sharply. The intrinsic flaw in this approach is that when a new batch of kids comes in, they are back where they started because they haven’t actually changed anything. Indeed, if the school had reduced their permanent capacity by half then there would presumably be half as many students with top grades once the original ones had left.

There are two obvious areas which could improve the number of high-quality county cricketers: Recruiting more junior players with high potential and improving the development of those players in order to meet that potential. At first glance, reducing the number of teams helps neither.

The greatest flaw with trying to adapt the Sheffield Shield format to England is the population density of the two countries. 16 million people, over 60% of Australia’s total population, live in the six cities which have first-class teams there. The number of people who live in the seventeen cities and towns which host county grounds is just 15.7 million, or 26.9% of England and Wales’s population.

In terms of developing Test players, the major effect is the number of children within each team’s catchment area. Looking at the three world-class Test players England currently has: Joe Root and Jimmy Anderson both grew up roughly 30 miles away from their respective county grounds, whilst Ben Stokes had to travel 90 miles each way to the Riverside Ground. This is one factor which restricts working-class kids from playing professional cricket, because they often need a stay-at-home parent with a car and the willingness to spend several hours a week just to attend county age group practice sessions and games.

If the number of teams was halved, that would mean many would have farther to travel and even more potential Test players would be excluded from the professional game. In that it disproportionately affects working-class children, reducing the number of teams might also be considered a diversity issue. Given the focus on that topic at the moment, both within the ECB and from Parliament, it would be a brave move for English cricket to take now.

Once they make their way through the junior teams, the issue then becomes whether these young players would get any opportunities to make the first XI if there were fewer places available. It seems unlikely that promising young cricketers such as Zak Crawley or Ollie Pope would have played as many Championship matches if there were significantly greater competition for places. Increasing the minimum standard of player comes at the expense of allowing youngsters to make their debuts early and gain valuable experience as a result.

The lack of chances to break through into a team was often cited by South African-born players as a reason why they came to England to play cricket, a situation admittedly exacerbated by racial quotas in the country. It is notable that Cricket South Africa have recently reverted from a six-team first-class competition (which ran from 2004 to 2020) to one featuring fifteen provincial teams. It would be interesting to see how those proposing a reduction in county teams explain why it apparently failed to work in South Africa.

So to summarise: Reducing the number of first-class teams in England and Wales doesn’t appear to solve any of the issues regarding developing Test cricketers, and will likely worsen some of them. It is a fundamentally self-destructive and pointless act which will be yet another step towards the end of Test cricket in this country.

The ECB are almost certain to do it then.

As always, please leave your comments below.

Grated Expectations

There’s been a lot of reaction to England’s latest capitulation, and what it might mean. The Australians are gleeful and fair enough too, the English would be the same if it was the other way around. As is ever the case in these circumstances, the more thoughtful think about the consequences of continued one sided encounters, hoping against hope that the English will get their act together. It’s not their problem, any more than it was 25 years ago when they were dominant home and away. What that decade or more of batterings did do was force the nascent ECB into action to do something about it. And with success too, albeit a fairly fleeting, complacent success. This time around, there’s no sense of a determination from the governing body to fix things, more just the opposite.

There are a few caveats to be offered up – that England getting trounced in Australia is far from new, and the Australians themselves haven’t won in England in 20 years, while a focus on the Ashes to the detriment of all else has long been an issue in the mentality of too many in England. It’s true of Australians as well, but the difference is that they see smacking England about as a delightful consequence of their overall aim rather than the aim itself. But the suited and booted at the ECB made lots of noise about their two year plan to deliver the Ashes and they have failed quite spectacularly, though it’s unlikely they’ll acknowledge that. This isn’t a surprise to anyone paying attention, England were always going to be lambs to the slaughter (how ironic that was the title of a cricketing book when the shoe was on the other foot) because they just aren’t very good, and are declining from a position of outstanding mediocrity.

So what to write about it? There is no shortage of outraged shock out there, no shortage of lamentations for the latest death of English cricket, and a fair degree of anger. But not so much from us. Which is why this tweet from a sports journalist allowed the writing of a post:

Lee is right. We’ve written far less, what we have written has been more with weary resignation than the molten steel of outrage.

Partly it’s that none of this comes as any kind of bolt from the blue. All of us have banged on about the way the policies of the ECB were going to lead us to this point, not because of our truly magnificent insight into the complexities of the game, but because it was utterly bleeding obvious to anyone paying more than cursory attention. England haven’t just been pumped in the Ashes, they’ve been beaten up by India and New Zealand at home this year as well. They’re two good sides, but that’s only an excuse if the expectation is for England to lose on their own patch to good sides, which is to set sights low enough to be subterranean. There is a fair element of the ECB justifying it precisely on this basis, which is to suspect they accept declinism.

It bears stating yet again that the Hundred is not to blame for this debacle, but the strategy that culminated in the Hundred is. We all salute and appreciate the might of Darren Stevens, but the issue is not a game that allows his longevity, but one where in his mid-forties he wouldn’t noticeably weaken the England team if he was selected. There are only so many times these points can keep being made without us being bored of our own voices, and fed up with screaming into the void given so little attention has ever been paid to it. Not to us, who cares if anyone listens to us, but to anyone in a more prominent position making the same points.

Talk to most cricket journalists and they’ll be saying similar things with varying degrees of emphasis, but little of this gets into the general media because the wider public isn’t interested in the detail of how a successful England team is created, but only that it happens. More than that, they don’t pay that much attention to them doing adequately, but they do tend to notice a complete shellacking and their relatives in Australia sending rude Whatsapps to them. In the specialist cricketing publications the frustration is clear, in the national press less so; it doesn’t get past the sub-editors and the general readership won’t invest the time in learning about the problems, and more pertinently, they shouldn’t have to. Broadcast media, particularly Sky, have revelled in their own domination of the right to watch English cricket, and as a commercial entity have spent more time talking about how good things are than they ever have the likely future coming. They are entitled to do that, for the disaster the ECB have created is not down to them, but it might affect how much they’re prepared to pay for the particular joy of covering England being crushed on a regular basis – their refusal to bid for this series could be a harbinger of the future.

It’s customary at this time to point to a post or a paragraph where we predicted this, but our output hasn’t been one of a couple of comments proclaiming Nostradamus level awareness, it’s been the whole bloody website for years, the whole set of responses in the comments from those who visit. The Pietersen affair, whatever the rights and wrongs, was about an organisation whose prime motivation was no longer putting out the strongest team possible onto the field, and that was the main reason for the rage involved, the justifications on any issue possible except whether the central one as to whether it made England stronger or weaker. It certainly wasn’t the personal tribulations of someone none of us know and aren’t in truth overly keen on.

That is in the past, the anger transmuting in the subsequent years as the ECB continued down a path of prioritising other things, anything, except the fundamental point of their existence in making the game of cricket – ALL of the game of cricket – as strong as it could possibly be. The removal of free to air cricket was a symptom of a complacent organisation that felt they were in a strong position to take financial advantage of their success, irrespective of whether it undermined the foundations or not. The refusal over many years to acknowledge that it might have caused other problems was symptomatic of that shift in focus, but once again, it is not the reason for this series and shouldn’t be said to be, not least because it was fifteen years ago that it happened. It is one of a myriad of decisions and policies that compound each other, year in, year out, progressively weakening the fundamentals of the game, no one item to blame or single out, all of them pushing the direction to where we are now. Even when some things change (such as the new found enthusiasm for letting the public see the sport) they are being responded to in isolation rather than with a strategic approach, a sticking plaster applied to a gaping wound.

The latest excuse for the abjectness of the Test team is that white ball cricket has been prioritised. It’s true, but it’s still not an acceptable rationale. Other countries have piled into the revenues created by T20 without destroying their Test teams, and while there is a wider issue at stake about the increasing domination of the short forms of the game, that doesn’t justify England going backwards relative to the others. White or red ball is a false dichotomy only the ECB seem to get away with. Australia don’t, India don’t, and with the disparity in income to the rest of the world, those are the nations England should be compared to. Only here is this given even the slightest credence. And that applies to all those years when England had a reasonable Test side and a piss-poor one day team too. It wasn’t an excuse then, it isn’t now, and winning World Cups is not a pretext for an inability to put 300 on the board in Tests.

Likewise, the way the debate around the public school contribution to the England team is framed is to miss the point entirely. Having more or less the entire batting order over an extended period of time having been privately educated is not grounds to attack the private sector, but to point out the hideous failure of English cricket to maximise the talent available to itself. There is just no excuse for that – it’s not about the 7% who make up the 94%, it’s about the 93% who only comprise the 6%. It is a total failure of the coaching structure to so appallingly waste the resources available, an abysmal flop in turning young players from an extraordinarily large intake into good cricketers

Shifting the county championship to the margins of the season, on green or tired pitches, undoubtedly has an impact, but it’s not just the hardware of when and where it is played, but also the software of the mindset of those who play in it. It might well be the case that players are choosing to thrash a quick thirty rather than knuckle down and battle through, but calling out a single player for thinking that way is all about that player. When it’s true to an extent of an entire generation, it’s about those in authority who have created the circumstances to allow it to happen.

The England hierarchy have encouraged it, the media have amplified it. Jason Roy was selected to open in Tests and the selectors applauded for their daring by far too many. There are still those calling for Liam Livingstone to be in the side, not because he might make a Test cricketer (for all I know, he might), but because he plays sexy cricket, hits the ball a long way and gains the pundit plenty of column inches to push the case.

What did anyone expect? There is no plan, except to make as much money as possible, not for the wider benefit of the game of cricket, but for the bank balances of those involved in the game professionally. Don’t expect those who rely on it for their living to come out and be publicly angry about it, because their livelihood and comfortable income is dependent on more of the same. The ECB officers have seen huge rises in salaries (well, apart from the expendables at a lower level who they made redundant) and it’s impossible to avoid the suspicion that lining their own nests is the principal reason for far too many ECB acolytes, as each big deal provides yet another large bonus, yet another big pay rise. Consequences? There are none. If they go, it’s with a fat cheque. If they play, they earn more and aren’t going to complain in a short career.

All of this was expected. All of it was coming. This is not accidental, it’s a consequence of repeated decisions made by those in power who remain entirely unaccountable to anyone outside the small circle of people for whom the mutual financial benefit overrides any other consideration. Sure, we can call out the players, who haven’t been good enough and have folded repeatedly. We can call out the coaching team who have made baffling selectorial decisions. And many of those will pay the price for this debacle, for sacrifices are demanded. What will it change though? What material difference will it make? England can get a better coach, but Duncan Fletcher had far more to work with than whoever takes over from Silverwood, and had the backing of an organisation that was determined to improve the quality of the player base.

Yes, I’m still angry. But not at the results, I’m angry it has taken this entirely inevitable shoeing for too many to wonder what has been going on. What the bloody hell did they expect to happen? What the bloody hell are they going to do about it? Because if the answer is to tinker around the margins, to call for the latest flavour of the month to be shoved into the team or to debate which bang average opener needs to replace the other bang average opener, then get used to more of this. Far too many people have been warning of what would happen and dismissed as cranks and extremists, well the ECB and all those who hang on to their coat-tails and line their pockets accordingly have made this. They should own it, they should take responsibility. But they won’t, and that, above all else, is why I might be still angry, but most of all, I’m contemptuous of them.