Watcha Gonna Do About It?

What a strange time for the world of cricket it has been. On and off the field it’s been engulfed in controversy and ennui, a peculiar combination, and one that seems to be a constant state. And it’s so strange to think about and write about. The goings on at Yorkshire and the ECB have been depressing and enraging to watch, but also without creating a desperate desire to write about it all. There were some attempts, some false starts and the realisation that Danny was always going to do it better, so here it is if you’ve not seen it yet: https://beingoutsidecricket.com/2021/11/14/who-watches-the-watchmen/

On the field we had the T20 World Cup, which passed by offering an acceptable degree of entertainment, without ever becoming a central sporting event of the year. Partly that’s because the conditions made it far too inclined towards the winner of the toss (and credit to Aaron Finch for directly acknowledging that), but also the sheer frequency of T20 cricket took away the sense of occasion. Covid restrictions mean there’s another T20 World Cup next year anyway, so it was hard to care overly beyond a mild sense of interest in what was going on. Once the World Cup was over, several teams dived straight into more T20 internationals in bi-lateral series, adding to the sense of it being nothing more than routine, a distraction.

Is this the real future of cricket? Because it does seem to be. It’s not so much the format here, as the sense of a diet of constant cricket, shorn of context or importance. If that is how it feels for a World Cup, then there are real issues to be faced. Now, I’m not (quite) so self-centred as to believe personal doubts translate to anything wider or more meaningful, but it’s me writing this, and I’ll have my say. It may be instead that most people were fully engaged in the competition and the outcome, but I have my doubts. Growing the game is hugely laudable, but a problem does arise if that interest becomes wider but ever shallower, the game more disposable and less a matter of passion and love. Because then boredom or indifference becomes an ever greater risk. Lots of sports are having to deal with that, and the determination to dilute what is there is hardly confined to cricket (such as the wish for a biennial football World Cup), but cricket is different in that it has always had international series outside of the relatively recent competitions, and they actually seemed to have their own importance too. Primarily, those were the Test series, but not entirely – 50 over series might not have meant as much, but the outcome still mattered generally.

It then leads to wondering about the audience for such matters. Going to live sport remains (usually) a hugely enjoyable experience irrespective of gripes about cost, accommodation or the total lack of interest in supporter welfare, but there is a difference between going for the spectacle and experience and going because of a passionate interest in the outcome. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, it’s certainly not to say it is definitely declining, but cricket increasingly lacks that competitive context that other sports have, which is where the risk of falling interest in the outcome becomes a real risk. It has at least appeared on the radar of the ICC, with the institution of the World Test Championship being directly down to those concerns. Whatever its flaws, adding a context to bilateral series is a helpful innovation. But Test cricket remains relatively rare compared to the shorter forms, making both its strengths and weaknesses in attracting attention more acute.

Cricket has always been a little different for the spectator to other sports, the tribalism of football and rugby does have echoes in cricket, both at county and international level, but not to the same extent. That’s probably down to the nature of the game as much as anything – even a wicket doesn’t invoke the same explosion of crowd emotion as a goal or a try does, but it is present, and it is valid, and unlike those shorter sports cricket has the ability to ramp up tension like little else. Yet crowds do respond to even the most irrelevant of matches when a player does something special, so it is a feeling that perhaps isn’t matched by the available evidence. It could also be a function of personally getting older. Certainly I remember my father being far less passionate about England doing well than I was at the time, and also him telling me that it hadn’t always been that way in his case either.

But it’s hard to avoid the feeling of not caring all that much, which is an interesting place to be with the Ashes coming up. What has always been the iconic series for English and Australian fans doesn’t seem to have quite the cachet that it once did. Again, this may not be inherent, as an expectation that England may face an especially difficult winter does reduce the degree of anticipation quite considerably. The last two years around the world too may be a significant element of it; sport has provided a pleasant diversion from more pressing issues, but has rarely seemed less vital or important in the context of wider life.

Perhaps it is reading too much into it, but there also seems a sense of the journalists trying to convince themselves about how much they really care in their written copy. It’s perfunctory, not engaged. Not about wider societal matters, such as the Azeem Rafiq testimony, for such injustice will lend itself to passionate writing from those who do it for a living, but in terms of the game itself. England’s defeat to New Zealand in the World T20, something that might once have generated pages of invective or analysis seemed to be met with something of a shrug. Sure, it’s T20, by definition it’s pretty disposable and forgettable, but the sense of….well, boredom with it all was hard to avoid.

This might be the greatest danger facing the sport, not the horrendous mess so much of it is in, but if indifference is the net response. The people behind County Cricket Matters (Annie Chave, sometimes of these pages in particular) evoke admiration not just for their cause, but also the sheer passion they bring to it. That so many don’t share it is somewhat beside the point, to be so invested in what they believe is the essence of a love of sport, and perhaps the worst part of how the ECB run the game is their apparent determination to crush that spirit. For if these people give up, then the game itself is vastly the poorer. Any and every sport needs people furious, angry, livid with what is going on, and not prepared to take it any more. Cricket’s drift to a form of entertainment and nothing more robs the game of those who truly care about it, where spectators are little different to those tuning in to Strictly every Saturday. That makes it easier to monetise, and as a result avaricious cricket boards will likely see few problems with it, and they’ll have moved on by the time the consequences of that are felt. But it also means that if the rank and file don’t care, they won’t invest their personal time in developing and supporting it. That is fatal for a sport, and drives its move to the margins at an ever faster rate, while allowing governing bodies to point at the revenue streams and insist they’re doing everything they can.

It is impossible for a blog like this to stay permanently furious at everything (and not especially healthy either), but it’s hard to avoid the feeling of having lost the argument, the game and the sport. It’s moved beyond us, morphed into something different, where the players are rotating background cast members rather than Top Trump cards to be argued over. Cricketing heroes won’t go away, Ben Stokes making himself available for the Ashes sent a frisson of excitement through many; but equally the retirement of AB De Villiers from all cricket didn’t generate the kind of emotion that someone of that stature ought to have done, as the circus swiftly moved on.

It is of increasing concern that the fears that cricket will self-destruct becomes instead a fear that its slide into irrelevance is not about small viewing figures, but about indifference as to sporting outcome. For sport to mean anything at all, for it to be the “most important, least important thing” there has to be an emotional investment in what transpires. Franchise cricket’s explosion around the world may be robbing that essence of sport from itself, and alienating those who always spent their time caring deeply about it.

But it could just be me.

Who Watches The Watchmen?

Despite England making a semi final appearance in the T20 World Cup, the English media (cricket and otherwise) has been focussed on the sordid goings on at Yorkshire County Cricket Club. This is tragic because this situation was eminently avoidable. It’s difficult to comprehend just how many things must have gone wrong for things to reach this point.

Yorkshire CCC are, deservedly, getting a kicking. If you sent eight men to sabotage an organisation from within, they would struggle to do so more effectively than the Yorkshire CCC board in the past year. Their ignorance was seemingly only matched by their arrogance. As each revelation came out, they just kept digging themselves deeper and deeper. They were clearly incapable of running a cricket club.

ECB chief executive Tom Harrison has watched from the sidelines whilst this slow motion trainwreck has taken place and done sweet fuck all. He has defended his inactions with the following statement:

“What we were asked to do was join the Yorkshire panel to be part of the investigation, which clearly we cannot do. We are the regulator, we either run the investigation in its entirety ourselves or we let our stakeholders run an investigation in the entirety itself.”

Let us take one single aspect of Azeem Rafiq’s experience: In August 2018, he made several complaints to Yorkshire CCC officials at a meeting attended by a PCA representative. This was reported in the Guardian (and quite possibly elsewhere), two years later in September 2020. That is also when the Yorkshire CCC investigation into Rafiq’s allegations began. The ECB’s Anti-Discrimination Code states that it is a breach of the code for an organisation to “fail to provide an effective, timely and proportionate response.” Yorkshire CCC literally did nothing for two whole years. There could not be a clearer breach of the ECB’s code. Nor, frankly, of basic human decency.

It is a very simple charge to prove, with independent witnesses. There is no reason why this specific matter could not have been dealt with by the ECB immediately after it was first reported, rather than waiting over a year. The ECB instead chose to wait until after the ‘independent’ report was completed. When that started, it was due to be finished within about two months. Instead, the final report wasn’t delivered to Yorkshire CCC for just under a year. Even when that happened, the ECB granted Yorkshire CCC a full two months to hand over the report.

No aspect of this has been conducted in an effective, timely, or proportionate manner. Not by Yorkshire CCC and, crucially, not by the ECB. If the “regulator” is not minded to follow its own code of conduct, why would any of the clubs it is purporting to regulate?

Speaking of the ECB’s Anti-Discrimination Code, it is very interesting to compare it to their Anti-Corruption Code. In matters of matchfixing and gambling, it is considered a serious and explicit offence to refuse to cooperate with an investigation or fail to report an approach which you have witnessed. Now consider how many players, coaches and administrators refused to help the Yorkshire racism investigation. If they had acted in this way in a matchfixing inquiry, they could face up to a five year ban. It is clear, from both the text of the rules and the application of the rules, that the ECB place almost no importance of the issue of racism within the sport compared to the threat of intentionally losing a match.

This is not to say that the ECB have done nothing to combat racism. They required that the England team wore t-shirts with the motto “We stand together against racism”. They tweeted a lot about the ACE Programme. They promoted Black and Asian players disproportionately often before and during The Hundred. Such PR can be important. The idea that you ‘fake it until you make it’ with regards to equality isn’t entirely ridiculous. There will have been Black and Asian parents and children who will have gone to their local cricket clubs after the various promotions, press articles and social media posts that the ECB have offered in recent years. Marketing is fine, but it also has to be backed up by real action to be worth a damn. All of those campaigns, including the most recent #BlackHistoryMonth posts, have now been overwhelmed by reporting on Yorkshire CCC.

Let us not forget that the ECB have had their own issues regarding racism being discussed in the media. Ismail Dawood, John Holder and Devon Malcolm have highlighted that the ECB has not added a single Black or Asian to the first-class umpire and match umpire lists since it was formed in 1997. Their handling of past cases of racist abuse has also been in the spotlight. Although England bowler Craig Overton and Yorkshire head coach Andrew Gale were punished for on-field racist abuse, both were found guilty of a lesser offence. The ECB has never publicly explained why both players didn’t face the more serious Level 2 charge of racially abusing an opponent, with the greater penalties that would apply. In fact, Ollie Robinson might be the only person ever to be punished by the ECB where racism was considered an aggravating factor in his punishment.

Given Tom Harrison’s assertion that the ECB either runs investigations itself or lets the counties do so, one might wonder whether any action took place regarding allegations of racism within county dressing rooms made by Michael Carberry and Ebony Rainford-Brent, amongst others. Outside of matters relating to Azeem Rafiq and Yorkshire CCC, there hadn’t been any mention of investigations by other counties or the ECB in the press until after politicians started intervening.

Which brings us to the title of the post: Who watches the watchmen? The ECB has been at best passive when faced with evidence of racism within English cricket, and have arguably been complicit in suppressing and minimising the reports that have made it into public view. Given that they are (or consider themselves) the regulator of English cricket, who regulates them?

The answer, it appears, is the counties. The ECB is overseen by its 41 members, with representatives from the 18 First Class Counties, the 21 Cricket Boards of the non-First-Class Counties, the National Counties Cricket Association and the MCC. This would appear at first glance to be a colossal conflict of interest for a body which is supposed to act as regulator for the counties. If the Yorkshire CCC board’s reluctance to see the experiences of Rafiq as racist abuse is respresentative of other counties, and there’s little reason to suppose this is not the case, it isn’t surprising that the ECB apparently considers dealing with such issues as a very low priority.

The circular structure of English cricket, with the ECB both governing and being governed by the counties, means that the counties are essentially self-regulated. They have the power to set the rules, decide what the punishments will be, and who will be allowed to judge them. There is also no one who people can escalate their complaint to if the ECB fails to thoroughly investigate allegations made to or about them.

I believe that this inherent flaw within the ECB cannot be remedied without changing its entire structure. Fundamentally, the ECB is supposed to be run for the good of cricket at all levels within England and Wales but there is no one ensuring that they do this. They make decisions with no consistency, and they also have the ability to suppress or selectively release information in order to support whichever argument they are making. At this moment in time, only Parliament and the DCMS committee seemingly have the ability to hold them to account.

In order to address this, I would form a board of trustees to challenge the ECB. It would contain representatives from all aspects of the sport that the ECB governs, from fans to players (through organisations such as the Cricket Supporters Association and the Professional Cricketers Association), from amateur to professional, from men’s to women’s cricket. They could have monthly meetings with the ECB board, so that the board can justify their actions (or inaction). If they are not satisfied with what they hear, or receive a complaint regarding the ECB, they could have the power to investigate and, if necessary, punish wrongdoing.

There is no doubt that the ECB (and many counties) will be dealing quickly and firmly with allegations of racism in the near term, with even minor accusations becoming national news. However, the attention of the media will largely stray elsewhere and I see few reasons to think that they won’t revert back to their previous pattern of minimising and hiding complaints. If fundamental change is going to occur, it must happen now. Otherwise, in a few years, English cricket will likely go through this ordeal all over again.

Once is enough.

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?