My England Men’s High Performance Review

Last month, I wrote a post about the ECB’s High Performance Review consultation document, written by Sir Andrew Strauss and a consultancy firm called Twenty First Group. My post wasn’t really about the contents of the report itself, but more about how it’s possible to lead readers towards a conclusion simply by altering the titling, scale and orientation of graphs. It’s not an uncommon trick, and you can see it all the time in advertising, politics and business. I honestly thought it would be somewhat boring and esoteric for most readers, which is why I was surprised at how many people liked and shared it. As it stands, it is now the most read post ever on BeingOutsideCricket.com.

Because that post was almost entirely about presentation, it didn’t deal with the conclusions and proposals contained within the report. This post will address each of the suggestions made within the ECB report, as well as my own solutions for the problems which it highlights

It is somewhat ironic that England’s results following the commission of Sir Andrew Strauss’ report have arguably undermined its foundations. Few people would have predicted England winning six out of seven Tests during their home summer, nor losing seven from eleven ODIs and T20Is. At the same time, the success of the Test team seemingly occurred in spite of long-standing issues with the team rather than by addressing them, and the white ball teams’ successes in previous seasons could easily be viewed the same way. Effective leadership, which is able to maximise a team’s strengths and minimise its weaknesses, makes a huge difference with regards to results on the field.

You will notice that this post includes no charts and relatively few statistics, particularly compared to the report written by Sir Andrew Strauss and Twenty First Group. There are two key reasons for this. The first is that a lot of the issues discussed are broadly unquantifiable. When considering a cricketer’s potential in terms of batting or bowling, or how close they are to reaching that potential, you can’t really put a numerical figure on that outside of video games.

The second, more important reason is that statistics on their own offer very little insight into the issues that the England teams are facing and often have counter-intuitive outcomes. One example would be how people understand that the best T20 bowlers often have worse economy rates because they are chosen to bowl in the most difficult portions of the game. Another example would be England Test spin bowling. Here is a table of the best eleven Test bowling averages for English spinners since 1990, with players from the last ten years highlighted in bold:

PlayerSpanAve
DI Gower1978-199220.00
SG Borthwick2014-201420.50
JC Tredwell2010-201529.18
GP Swann2008-201329.96
DW Lawrence2021-202232.33
RK Illingworth1991-199532.36
MJ Leach2018-202232.51
PM Such1993-199933.56
DM Bess2018-202133.97
MS Panesar2006-201334.71
MM Ali2014-202136.66

Over a thirty-two year period, eight out of the eleven bowlers with the best averages were from the last ten years. In purely statistical terms, you could choose to argue that we are in the middle of a golden era for English spin bowling. The reality, as people who watch Test cricket will know, is very different. Outside of Graeme Swann, English spinners have been asked to perform very limited roles and largely protected from the most dangerous batters. However, it is very difficult to quantify this difference in a meaningful way.

Strauss’ Proposals

There are forty three proposals or ’emerging ideas’ contained within the review from Sir Andrew Strauss. They can be placed into three broad categories: Increasing the role of the ECB, expanding on current practices, or failing to consider the knock-on effects which would follow.

Corporate Bloat

In 1999, the ECB had an average (i.e. two employees on a six-month contract would equal one ‘average’ employee over the year) of 96 employees excluding cricketers and umpires. In 2021, this had risen to 305 employees on average, again excluding cricketers and umpires. The average annual wage for these employees rose by 96.8% from £25,458 to £50,104 between 1999 and 2014 (the last year wages were separated by category in the ECB’s accounts). That is close to twice as much as the rate of inflation over this period.

The reason for this is a culture within the ECB which suggests that spending money on a problem is the same as resolving it. Participation is down? Create a new directorship and employ a large staff to address it. Participation continued to fall, but the ECB could point towards the amount of money and resources they were expending as proof of how serious they were with regards to the issue. It’s no way to run a sports governing body, or anything else for that matter.

Place a new High Performance Non-Executive Director on the board – Adding another highly paid role to the upper echelons of the ECB, presumably with a number of extra staff to support them. It does bear saying that there is already a non-executive participant on the ECB board who is supposed to give their expert opinions on how to improve the England team: Sir Andrew Strauss. He has been chair of the ECB’s Performance Cricket Committee since 2019, and part of his role is advising the board on this very subject. In this context, it is very odd that he was chosen to head this review.

Have the existing Performance Cricket Committee singularly focused on England performance/Creation of Performance Advisory Board – This would seem to suggest that the current Performance Cricket Committee, of which Sir Andrew Strauss is chair, should be split in two: One committee focused on the England teams and the other on developing players, each with their own staff. This would have the effect of doubling the number of employees (and cost) involved in this purely administrative process, but wouldn’t obviously lead to an improvement in results.

Research into ‘What It Takes To Win’ (red and white ball), leading to another report – This is the holy grail of consultancy: Make one of the conclusions of a report you write a recommendation to hire you for another report. It is also pretty damning of the ECB, suggesting that they don’t understand what it takes to win a cricket match after twenty five years of existence.

If it helps speed things up, I can summarise What It Takes To Win (or WITTW, as is used several times in the ECB’s review) in six words: Score more runs than the opposition. You’re welcome, ECB.

Annual performance summit bringing together English game (players, coaches, Directors of Cricket, sport science, ground staff etc.) – Aside from the cost, and the disruption to the counties as half their staff decamp to a massive conference, what would this achieve? Apart from anything else, the ECB have historically been very poor when it comes to listening to others so the dialogue for this event would presumably be one way. If that is the case, then its function could just as easily be fulfilled by an email.

Broaden development curriculum (Directors Of Cricket, etc.) – Every English coach in county cricket has an ECB coaching qualification, due to a programme which began in 2000. In fact, every ECB-affiliated club in the country is required to have an ECB Level 2 coach (apparently at a cost of £300 each) in order to pass the Clubmark standard and play in leagues. If that approach has not worked, which the need for a High Performance review suggests, then why would extending the need for ECB qualifications to Directors of Cricket improve the situation?

Coach development to adopt ‘What It Takes To Win’ framework/Practical coaching opportunities, including leadership exposure – On one hand, changing the training framework for English cricket coaches makes a lot of sense when you consider their track record; No English men’s coach has won an Ashes series since Micky Stewart in 1987, and none has ever won an ICC tournament with England. Doing something different at least offers the chance of improvement.

On the other hand, maybe part of the problem is that every coach is being taught to deal with every player in the same way? Perhaps moving away from the ECB training coaches altogether and allowing every team to develop their own approach to improving their own cricketers rather than insisting on a single ‘ideal’ method would yield better results?

North vs South red ball match in UAE during pre-season – What better way to prepare for the County Championship in April, or the One Day Cup, than a red ball exhibition match in Dubai? Whilst theoretically a showcase for talented players to press their case for England selection, it would also seem like it hurts the prospects of a good start to the season for everyone chosen.

Formalise overseas club programme for selected players – As the word ‘formalise’ suggests, this already happens. It would just be the ECB organising it rather than the counties or the players themselves, which doesn’t obviously add any extra to the process.

Clear principles to defined how England want to play and to win/Clear, consistent communication of selection criteria aligned with ‘What It Takes To Win’ – This suggestion will go down like a bucket of sick with everyone involved in the England team. It essentially says that the ECB board will mandate to selectors, coaches and captains the criteria for selection and the playing strategies for all of the England teams. Who would choose to work under those conditions?

More Of The Same

It is said that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is a sign of madness. If this is true, then I suspect there are a few offices with rubber walls at the ECB.

Exploration of mobile ball tracking – Presumably this would mean the ECB having more data regarding cricketers in non-televised county matches, and particularly the County Championship. The thing about ball tracking data, as well as other statistics, is that it doesn’t tell you anything that watching the match wouldn’t. If every county match is already seen by a scout, and videoed, then it’s questionable whether this could justify its cost.

People who don’t have a firm grasp on statistics often think that they might offer a perfect, flawless means of selecting a cricket team. It is ‘science’, after all, rather than the guesswork of a has-been ex-cricketer who is probably biased towards his former team anyway. This is sadly not the case. For the easiest possible demonstration of this: Cricket analysts disagree with each other. All the time. Every player, every match, every delivery has so many factors involved (The path of the ball, the pitch, the air conditions, the light, the state of the game, the number of balls the batter has already faced, and team strategies, to name but a few) that data analysis has to somehow quantify in order to give a standard numerical value. Each analyst or company therefore has a wide range of data which they can incorporate or ignore in order to produce an output which looks ‘right’ to them, and every single one has come up with a different solution.

It bears saying that the business of cricket analytics is not contingent on results. As far as I am aware, no outside analysis has been performed on the accuracy of predictive services such as CricViz or individual analysts. Their business model is in selling themselves to executives like Sir Andrew Strauss or broadcasters like Sky Sports, and is reliant on not letting people view their ‘proprietary’ systems or auditing their effectiveness. If a company were able to predict cricket matches with any degree of accuracy, they would be able to make a thousand times more money through betting on the outcome of matches than accepting a stipend from cricket teams and broadcasters. A professional gambler is financially dependent on correctly calculating the chances of a team winning or losing a match, which is why I am much more inclined to trust their judgement than that of an analyst.

Roll out ‘What It Takes To Win’ scouting system – Considering that ‘What It Takes To Win’ hasn’t even been defined yet, and apparently needs another review to do so, Sir Andrew Strauss certainly seems to have a strong idea about what it will be. I suspect, given the previous proposal, that it would use ball tracking data to identify county cricketers with similar data profiles to successful international players.

Formal, game-wide communication plan (goals, ‘What It Takes To Win’, feedback etc.) – The ECB publishes strategy documents every few years (Cricket Unleashed in 2016, Inspiring Generations in 2019, etc.), so the next one is due in the coming eighteen months anyway. Presumably this is already in the process of being written behind the scenes.

Proactive scouting of players to transition to performance roles/More quality & opportunity in existing roles, not ‘new’ roles – There are two things which confuse me here. The first is that I can not grasp who needs this. Seeing as every county and England coach I can name is an ex-cricketer, it seems like the path from player to backroom staff is well-established and working fine. The second is the apparent assumption that it’s desirable for coaches to be former professional cricketers. Doing something and teaching something require very different skill sets, and limiting your choice of new coaches to a few dozen retiring players every year doesn’t seem entirely wise.

Review of County Partnership Agreement from 2025/Potential reward based on impact: performance, inspiring generations, talent development etc. to align with English cricket objectives/Meaningful compensation for counties who develop elite players – The County Partnership Agreement is negotiated between the ECB, the counties and the players’ union (the PCA), and fundamentally determines how money flows through the sport. The current agreement runs from 2020-2024 and ensures that every county receives roughly the same amount of money regardless of winning competitions or how many England players they develop. For the ECB to substantially change this policy, to make payments performance-related instead, would probably require at least twelve of the eighteen counties to vote in favour. This is unlikely to happen, because half of those teams would (correctly) say that they would lose out in that scenario. Why would teams such as Glamorgan, Leicestershire or Derbyshire support such a proposal?

Explore warm weather training facility partnerships – Teams already do this now. This year, a quick search confirms that Derbyshire (Spain), Essex (Abu Dhabi), Gloucestershire (Dubai), Lancashire (Dubai), Leicestershire (Spain), and Somerset (Abu Dhabi) all spent time abroad before the season started. This might be linked to the North vs South proposal, as it would be easier to organise if all eighteen counties were training in the same country, but doesn’t offer any obvious performance benefit.

Continuation of the under-19s programme/Reinstate international matches at under-17 level – As the word ‘continuation’ would imply, there would be no change to the under-19s programme. It is therefore strange that the review would include it at all. As for the under-17s, I am very doubtful that touring with a group of sixteen year-olds will have a significant impact on their future playing careers.

Extend role of Lions teams – Name one player who credits a Lions tour with improving them as a cricketer. Just one. I know I can’t. This is not to say that A teams are worthless, as India A has a great record of developing several of their international stars. Playing more, more regular matches would make the Lions superficially closer to the Indian system, but the difference in results between the two programmes might be due more to the personnel involved than the number of games played.

Ways other than wildcards to connect the T20 Blast to The Hundred – This does not have any obvious impact on improving player performance.

Maintenance of fast bowler central contracts/Athlete monitoring system/Improved profiling, screening, and surveillance of athlete workloads – Three fast (as opposed to fast-medium or medium-fast) bowlers currently hold England central contracts: Mark Wood, Jofra Archer and Olly Stone. All three are injured, and haven’t played a single Test or first class match between them this season. Even if you expand this to all thirteen centrally contracted pace bowlers, only four of them (Anderson, Broad, Stokes and Craig Overton) have managed to play in more than five Test or Championship matches in 2022. There certainly needs to be an improvement made, but the broader question might be: Are the methods and philosophies currently used by the ECB fundamentally flawed?

Unintended Consequences

One of the more frustrating characteristics of the ECB is its tendency not to think through the consequences of its proposals. Even when they have a good idea, it almost inevitably either isn’t taken full advantage of or has a negative impact elsewhere.

Trial use of different balls to develop variety of skills/A bonus points scoring system to incentivise better pitches in the Championship – I don’t necessarily disagree with either of these suggestions, except for the effect that it would have on the competition. If the Championship’s rules are changed so that conditions are much more batting friendly, then the obvious outcome will be a lot more draws. As a spectacle for fans, and as preparation for Test cricket, this is not good.

Fewer days of cricket, to aid player performance/T20 Blast schedule optimised to maximise narrative and attendances – The narrative that counties play too much relies on the idea that teams are or should be selecting the same people in every game possible. To take an example from another sport: Liverpool FC played 63 competitive matches last season, but no outfield player started more than 51 of them. Whilst there are certainly debates about whether football teams play too much, or in too many competitions, the clubs and players found a solution which worked for everyone involved: Rotation.

Strongest possible 50 Over competition in April, with a smaller group stage and emphasis on knockouts – The move to April is possibly good, as it would allow all county cricketers to play the fifty over format. It is important that all players get an opportunity to become familiar with the pace and skills needing in that length of match. White ball cricket is also arguably more resilient with regards to wet weather and longer nights than its longer counterpart thanks to DLS and floodlights, and so a move to April might not hurt it as a competition. The smaller group stage with more knockouts might be problematic though, as it reduces the number of guaranteed matches a developing player might be able to experience. It was already the competition with the fewest number of matches (8 group games compared to 14 in both the Championship and T20 Blast), this move could make that difference even greater.

Smaller top division in County Championship – This suggestion appears to be more about reducing the number of total first team county matches in a season in order to allow The Hundred its own window rather than offering any performance benefit.

It also offers an unnecessary complexity to the potential structure, as the proposal appears to be for two Division 2s of six teams each to sit below Division 1. In order to determine which Division 2 winner actually gets promoted, a play-off between the two will be played at the end of September. Which begs the question: What happens if it is a rain-affected draw?

Higher allocation to multi-format players, multi-year deals – Lucrative contracts for multi-format players does make some sense. They have the option of eschewing Test cricket altogether and making as much (or quite possibly more) money on the global T20 circuit, and so it may be worth paying them more if they are an improvement on the red ball specialists who are available. The last part is important, because multi-format players are probably the ones most at risk of burning out due to spending so much time away from home.

The idea of giving players multi-year deals requires a significant level of faith in the England selectors, which is not obviously warranted. To take one example: Rory Burns currently has an England central contract. They are awarded in October, and Burns was in the Test team at that time. By January, his England career was apparently over. In total, he has played in just three of the fifteen Tests in the contract period. There is an argument that central contracts should be made shorter, and more reactive to changes in form, rather than longer.

England match fees to cover higher percentage of pay for red & white ball specialists – You can’t logically complain about player workload and also incentivise them to play as many England matches as possible in order to maximise their pay.

My Proposals

Of course, all of my criticism of the report does not mean that things in English cricket don’t have to change. Here are my own proposals in order to improve the performance of the England men’s teams.

Junior Pathways

It almost goes without saying that the strength and depth of talent within county cricket depends on the efficacy of the counties’ junior pathways, and yet the public release of Sir Andrew Strauss’ report fails to mention this area once. If counties are unable to recruit young cricketers with the greatest potential at the ages of seventeen or eighteen, then the overall quality of county cricket and the talent pool for England selection suffers as a result.

Seek to improve overall junior participation, rather than relying on ECB-led programmes – There are a number of concerning issues relating to junior cricket in England and Wales, but the main, overarching problem could be participation levels. Whilst the ECB has not released official figures in a long time, it would certainly appear to be the case that junior participation has declined significantly over the past twenty years. ECB-led programmes such as All Stars Cricket and Dynamos and the independent charity Chance To Shine have not obviously arrested this decline. Measures could include a new website focussed on directing parents towards local clubs, significant promotion on social media and through the ECB’s media partners from February through April, and resources being made available to help clubs promote themselves locally.

Do not include children from schools with extensive cricket coaching and facilities in county age group programmes before the age of fifteen – The next step in the path to becoming a professional cricketer after club cricket are the county trials. There is widespread anecdotal evidence suggesting that invitations to this greatly favour white children from wealthy backgrounds, predominantly from independent schools. This is a major issue because it severely limits the number of youngsters which English cricket draws on. There is little to be gained from a few hours every week with county coaches as these kids are already receiving a high level of support, and so the coaches’ time could be better spent with children who have less access to training, fitness and nutritional advice. Instead, treat independent schools as self-funding academies and play against them to gauge the abilities of both groups.

Approximately 7% of children in England and Wales attend fee-paying schools, and yet 62.6% of men’s Test appearances between 2007 and 2017 were by former public schoolboys. This appears to at least partly be because they are heavily favoured at the earliest stages of player development. One outcome of this is that most English Test cricketers come from a demographic smaller than the population for any full ICC member, including New Zealand (7% of the England and Wales population being approximately 4.1 million people). This unnecessary limiting of the talent pool would logically lead to finding fewer high quality players.

The reliance on private schools is not necessarily having a positive impact on the England men’s Test team. The four current Test players with the most appearances since 2019 are Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Stuart Broad and James Anderson. Of these four, Broad was the only one to enter the county system whilst at a fee-paying school (Root gained a cricketing scholarship after joining Yorkshire).

Make all county age group programmes free (or as cheap as possible) for all participants, in order to ensure that no potential England cricketers are discouraged from a career in the sport – Ideally this would also include transport expenses, as most counties cover a large geographical area and even reaching the training grounds on a regular basis might be difficult for many families. The county pathways appear to systemically discourage children from low or average income backgrounds progressing. Some age group programmes expect parents to pay over £1,000 per year for coaching, equipment and travel. This level of expenditure will obviously exclude vast swathes of potential cricketers.

Encourage older children who might have little interest in cricket but physical attributes suited to the game, such as height and speed, to train and play at clubs – If batting conditions in the County Championship were changed so that teams needed a full compliment of rapid fast bowlers in order to regularly take twenty wickets, then there might not be enough players in their junior systems to satisfy that demand. The ability to regularly bowl 90 mph seems so rare in county cricket that it’s possible even junior club leagues could not supply enough for all eighteen first-class counties. If this is the case, then it would be necessary to branch out recruitment beyond kids already playing cricket.

County Cricket

County cricket is different from the other two sections of my suggestions because developing cricketers is not necessarily the primary focus of everyone involved. Whilst teams might want their players to improve, other factors such as winning competitions and making enough money to be financially independent might be considered as important or more so. A majority of first class counties are also nominally controlled by their members who could theoretically obstruct any proposals. Therefore, any changes to county cricket will have to balance a number of factors in order to be approved and effective.

In order to decide how best to change county cricket, it is first necessary to consider what are the current broad strengths and weaknesses within English cricket. In red ball cricket, the main strength is probably medium-fast/fast-medium bowling and wicketkeeper-batters whilst the weaknesses would be batting (and particularly opening), fast and spin bowling, and slip catching. In limited overs formats, the strengths appear to be batting and fielding whilst bowling may not be quite as strong.

There appears to be a broad consensus that making conditions more batter-friendly in the Championship would help improve the development of Test batters. The current conditions certainly don’t seem to discourage the use of medium and medium-fast bowlers, which can be relatively rare in Test cricket. However, such a move would lead to more draws which could hurt both the competition and counties’ ability to attract fans unless other changes are made.

Switch the ball used in Championship matches to one which is less responsive to swing and seam – The Dukes red ball appears to act differently to those used overseas in Test matches, in that it allows seam and swing movement for many more overs. A red Kookaburra ball seems to deviate very little after roughly twenty overs, which encourages a different strategy when it comes to both batting and bowling. Opening batters are even more important for their role of seeing off the new ball, so that the middle order can take advantage later in the innings rather than being exposed to the new ball. Fast bowlers have to learn to take wickets without relying on seam and swing alone, which should encourage them to develop other techniques. The Kookaburra and SG balls might also lessen the gap in effectiveness between medium-fast and spin bowlers compared to using the Dukes.

Incentivise teams in the Championship to produce more batting-friendly pitches by offering batting bonus points only to the home team, whilst encouraging bowling teams to recruit and develop more talented bowlers in these conditions by offering bowling bonus points only to the away team – For example, the reward could be 2 points for the home side reaching 400 runs in the first innings or the away side bowling the opposition out within 100 overs in the first innings.

Play fewer, five-day matches in the Championship – One puzzling aspect of the debate regarding cricket formats in domestic competitions is that the argument frequently levelled against The Hundred or the defunct Pro 40, that they don’t prepare players for international matches, is almost never applied to the first-class game. Playing a red ball match over four rather than five days makes a significant difference to the pace and strategies needed to succeed, as the differences between men’s and women’s Tests could indicate. If conditions become more batter-friendly, then longer games will help reduce the chances of draws. For spin bowlers, longer matches would both increase demand for their use in a holding role in the first innings and as an attacking option on the fourth and fifth days. For batters, it will allow them to stay at the crease longer without being forced to artificially increase their scoring rate for a declaration, as well as offering more opportunities to bat on a spinning pitch. Ten five-day games would require a maximum of 50 days’ first-class cricket, compared to 56 for the current structure.

Introduce a high minimum match fee for all Championship games in the 2025-28 County Partnership Agreement – A core issue which may need to be addressed is that of imbalanced financial rewards for players. A talented young batter within county cricket has the ability to focus on improving themselves in various different ways, and may well consider the career prospects of those decisions. Test cricket is by far the most lucrative format for English cricket as a whole, and yet the salaries for playing in the County Championship are typically less than impressive. The 90th best English T20 cricketer can still expect to receive a £30,000 contract in The Hundred on top of their main county salary, whilst there is no parallel in first-class cricket. A smart player would look at this situation and prioritise improving their white ball skills in order to maximise their earnings over the remainder of their professional playing career. £5,000 per game, for example, could increase competition for places and hopefully lead to more players prioritising red ball cricket.

Propose a limit on the number of matches and/or days’ play any county cricketer can play in the English season in the next County Partnership Agreement, in order to avoid overwork and fatigue. For example: 35 matches or 60 days’ play over six months – It is a matter of great importance for players and their union (the PCA) that county cricketers feel they do not have enough time to rest or train during the English season due to the number of matches. This would address the concerns of the PCA, although it could lead to lower average pay for players if teams require larger squads as a result.

Allow counties to sign a second overseas player in the Championship, with the requirement that they have to be a member of a touring Test team – One proposal being publicly floated in response to Sir Andrew Strauss’ report is to ban overseas cricketers from the Championship. As a broad aim of reforming domestic cricket is to hopefully raise the standard of play closer to international matches, it does seem like an odd choice to reject the services of actual international players. Counties gaining the services of successful and experienced Test cricketers to offer an example and possible mentoring to the rest of their squad appears to have few downsides and should be encouraged, even if it is only for a few games. This will hopefully encourage active Test cricketers to participate in the competition, particularly before their series starts in order to acclimate to English conditions. Depending on the number of players interested, it may make sense to limit this to Division 1 teams.

Poach talented overseas players – This probably won’t be a popular suggestion, but it might well be very effective. The period when England were arguably closest to Strauss’ aspiration of being the top men’s team in all three formats was 2010-12, between winning the World T20 and dropping from the top spot in the ICC’s Test rankings. In that time, 10 out of 37 England cricketers were born overseas. Their inclusion boosted England to being (briefly) the best team in the word (except in ODIs, which was arguably an issue of selection rather than available players).

Playing in and for England would certainly be an attractive and lucrative prospect for players from most countries, particularly if their skills were suited more towards Test cricket. If counties were able to sign prospective international cricketers as home-grown rather than overseas until they gained England eligibility, that would generate an influx of talent within just a few years. Many of my proposals would take ten years or more to feed through to the England team, and so this could potentially operate as a stopgap solution until then.

Change the schedule – This is the kiss of death for a discussion about improving the performance of England and county cricketers. There is absolutely no possible solution which can or will satisfy the ECB, counties, players and fans. It does not help that no one can seem to agree on what the priority of county cricket is. Is it to develop the best possible cricketers for the England team, which provides most of its funding? Is it for counties to become financially self-reliant? Is it for the enjoyment of its fans? In the context of a High Performance Review, it makes sense to try and consider changes which could potentially improve the England teams in some way.

If the county calendar was structured wholly in order to support the England teams, then the ideal schedule would likely be very similar to the international calendar but a few weeks ahead. This would mean that every England player would be able to play three or more matches in the relevant format at the domestic level immediately before the beginning of (as well as during) an international series. However, there would be significant disadvantages in other areas. The T20 Blast and One Day Cup would each have to be split in two across the season, in order to accommodate the two three-match ODI and T20I series that England play every year. Players in particular seem to generally prefer playing formats in single windows. This approach would also mean that the domestic calendar changed drastically every year because a season with a five-Test series has a very different structure to one with two three-Test series, which would make it harder for counties to build an audience for their competitions year-on-year.

Another possible viewpoint would be considering how many games in each competition counties should play. A typical English summer is perfectly balanced between the three formats: 6 Tests, 6 ODIs and 6 T20Is. If you compare that to this season, county cricket had 14 Championship, and either 22 T20s or 14 T20s and 8 One Day Cup matches (excluding knockouts) depending on whether a player was selected in The Hundred or not. It is difficult to justify the need for the ninety best English T20 cricketers playing a minimum of twenty two group games between the Blast and The Hundred, taking up almost half of the season, in this context. However, it is highly unlikely that counties or their members would agree to any reduction in such a popular and profitable competition as the Blast whilst The Hundred is apparently contractually protected until 2028.

International Cricket And The ECB

Another area largely overlooked in Sir Andrew Strauss’ report was how the England team and other elements of the player pathway operated centrally by the ECB helped or hindered the development of world class cricketers. The assumption running through the document appeared to be that the ECB would do a better job than the counties in terms of training and managing young players, an assumption not necessarily backed by their own past performance.

The ECB runs several programmes which are intended to facilitate the step up from county to international cricket. An under-19s team which participates in ICC competitions, the National Cricket Performance Centre at Loughborough, and the England Lions international A team are the ones which run continuously, with others such as spin and pace bowling camps held overseas on an ad hoc basis. Given that a High Performance Review was needed in the first place, it seems fair to suggest that these systems might need significant improvement.

Have more batting coaches for the Test team – One consequence of England’s struggles in Tests has been the selection of younger cricketers, particularly batters. Because no specialist batter to debut for England since 2014 has managed to maintain a Test batting average above 33.00 and selectors have been reluctant to go back to previously dropped players, there have been an increasing number of debutants aged 24 or less chosen. Despite this, the coaching structure of the England Test team seems largely the same as it was ten years ago. Whilst a single batting coach might be fine for a team made up largely of veterans, perhaps more are required when so many players are young and inexperienced?

Start central contracts at any time – We are currently in the weird position where Rory Burns has played three Tests since being awarded a central contract, whilst Alex Lees has played ten Tests in the same time and does not have one (and may not even be on this year’s list). If you are going to play a cricketer, it only seems fair to pay them.

Scrap Lions tours and play more overseas Tests – A decade of consistent failure to develop Test cricketers has rendered the purpose of Lions tours virtually obsolete. If there is a talented batter, spinner or fast bowler, they immediately enter the Test squad. There is no thought of preparing them for the experience or wanting a closer look before giving them a cap, because no one already in the team has nailed down these positions. The success of the India A side might have been in part because India had a strong first XI, meaning that even their reserves still had Test-quality players who simply couldn’t get a game at the time. This is not the case for England. If the players the ECB are looking to develop are already in the Test squad, it makes more sense for them to play extra matches. Because they now have a separate coaching staff for Test cricket, this would be easier than ever to do.

Having a Test team tour has several advantages. It means the host country will be able to sell TV rights for the matches, which will presumably make arranging a tour much easier and less expensive than with the Lions. This extra money would engender good will with other cricket boards, and possibly help the ECB get their way in the ICC. Full TV coverage would presumably mean that the matches have the ball tracking data that so many within the ECB are enamoured with. The opposition teams would be stronger, and offer a greater test of the English players’ abilities. It wouldn’t need the ECB to recruit a second set of coaches, or produce different kits, or (I’m guessing) pay for their own room and board. There would be more pressure on players to perform, including from the media. It would have to be made clear to all involved that the senior players like Stokes, Root, Anderson and Broad are likely to be rested, but I think it is workable.

Routinely review player outcomes – Between the international teams, the Lions, Loughborough and age group cricket, the ECB and its coaches spend a lot of time with players. At least once a year, a report should be written for every player detailing what coaching a cricketer received and how each their ability, form and fitness changed as a result.

One of the most frustrating aspects of being an English cricket fans is the constant repetition of mistakes. Whilst everyone in the coaching staff is obviously doing their best, English cricket seems to be amongst the worst when it comes to keeping their fast bowlers fit and healthy. This is in spite of the ECB being the second-richest cricket board in the world. At the same time, no one ever seems to be held accountable. Through a comprehensive, regular review of how ECB coaching has affected every cricketer, it would hopefully help identify which techniques and coaches are or are not doing their jobs well.

Close the National Cricket Performance Centre at Loughborough – Since 2003, the National Cricket Performance Centre has been based at Loughborough University. It is a state of the art indoor training complex with multiple nets, ball tracking, biomechanics technology and dozens of highly qualified coaches, all dedicated to the production of fast bowlers capable of succeeding anywhere in the world.

Unfortunately, like data analysts, the methods used at Loughborough continually promise a future which never comes. Success is always just beyond the horizon.

Over almost twenty years, the staff and methods employed at Loughborough have appeared to ruin multiple promising bowling careers through ‘tweaking actions’ either to gain a little more pace or (ironically) avoid injuries. It is, if anything, getting worse in recent years. If a review of player outcomes found the coaches and techniques at the National Cricket Performance Centre fundamentally harmed the development of England cricketers, there would seem little point in continuing to fund such an expensive facility.

Examine role and composition of the ECB’s Performance Cricket Committee – One running theme within the ECB is a lack of accountability among senior staff. The most important example of these with regards to performance on the field could be its cricket committee, which is dedicated to the management of the England teams and their support structures. If a High Performance Review was needed, raising a multitude of issues which all come under the committee’s remit, then they have clearly not fulfilled their purpose. The ECB’s own review even tacitly acknowledges these shortcomings by suggesting that a second committee should be formed in order to take over many of its existing responsibilities.

To answer the question of whether the interface between the ECB board and the Managing Director of England Men’s Cricket (Rob Key) needs two, one, or possibly zero committees, it would be interesting to learn how other cricket boards operate. As far as I can tell, New Zealand Cricket has one committee to deal with these areas whilst the BCCI and Cricket Australia don’t appear to have any at all. Having two committees would seem like an overly bureaucratic solution if this is the case.

It is frankly bizarre that the chair of the Performance Cricket Committee was placed in charge of a review into the efficacy of his own work. It is a colossal conflict of interest which no one appears to acknowledge.

Conclusion

If there is one change which needs to be made in order to improve the performance of the England men’s teams, it is introducing accountability throughout the ECB. Not just the visible roles of captain and coach, but the highly paid employees in board rooms and behind the scenes who seem to always avoid being blamed for England’s issues but are very happy to accept bonuses for their successes. This would require an enormous cultural shift and, I suspect, a large number of redundancies. Good governance and being able to admit when mistakes have been made will make a huge difference to English cricket, both on and off the field.

Congratulations on making it to the end. This somehow ended up being the longest post I’ve ever written, and that is saying something for me. I have ignored the elephant in the room that is The Hundred. Obviously elements of scheduling would be much easier if it was scrapped, but it has been made abundantly clear that the competition will exist until at least 2028, and take place in August until at least 2026. I tried to limit my writing to what I thought the ECB and counties might agree to, and scrapping The Hundred is not one of them.

I don’t expect anyone to agree with me on everything in this post. I am criticising most of Sir Andrew Strauss’ 43 proposals and making 18 of my own, so it would be pretty bizarre if someone did see things exactly as I do. If you have your own suggestions or feel that I’ve got something wrong, feel free to post them in the comments below.

England v South Africa – 3rd Test Preview – Unlucky Breaks

England have won five Tests so far this summer and are looking to make it six, but will have to do so without their top scoring batter this summer. Jonny Bairstow slipped whilst walking to the tee at his local golf course and sustained an injury which requires him to undergo surgery and sees him unavailable for both this Test and the upcoming T20 World Cup.

It is a hammer blow for Brendon McCullum and the Test team. The success of Bazball has been built around Bairstow, who averaged 75.66 at a strike rate of 96.59 in Tests this summer. It was a freakishly excellent run of form which battered the opposition bowlers into submission and helped transform England from perennial losers into dominant winners.

The unenviable job of replacing Bairstow falls to fellow Yorkshireman, Harry Brook. He’s certainly in good form himself this year, scoring 967 runs in just eight Division 1 matches, but Test cricket is a big step up from the bowling he will have faced before. He has been heavily hyped in the lead up to today, which makes me fear that there is too much pressure on the young cricketer.

Brook is the only change to the England team from the previous match, with Ollie Robinson and Stuart Broad preferred over Potts and Overton whilst openers Alex Lees and Zak Crawley manage to exceed expectations by finishing the season. Averaging 25.00 and 18.26 over the six Tests, I feel that both players should be batting for their place in the winter tours. Whether that is actually the case with Crawley (First-class batting average: 29.42), who has a very strong supporter in England Director Of Cricket/Head Selector Rob Key, remains to be seen.

Another outcome of Bairstow’s injury has been the return of Alex Hales to the England fold. It had been heavily hinted that Rob Key wanted Hales in the white ball teams, saying in his first press conference in charge that the batter had ‘served his time’ away from the team, but Hales wasn’t included in the initial squad for the T20 World Cup. Things changed rapidly after the squad was announced, with news of Bairstow’s injury following almost immediately after. England suddenly had a need for an aggressive, experienced player in their middle order, and Hales was called up.

Hales’ inclusion is not without its controversies. He has a history of bad behaviour which includes his night out in Bristol which led to Ben Stokes facing affray charges and at least one failed recreational drug test. More recently, he was named in Azeem Rafiq’s testimony regarding allegations of racism within English cricket. Former captain Eoin Morgan seemed adamant that he should never play again, and one significant part of Ben Stokes’ public rehabilitation after Bristol appears to have been completely separating himself from the ‘bad influence’ of Hales.

However, sport is not a moral pursuit. No more so than politics or business, both of which cricket often resembles. The ECB clearly feels that the England team are more likely to win the T20 World Cup with Hales than without him, and that’s all that matters to them. Whether this damages the unity within the dressing room, and whether that has any effect on the performances on the field, remains to be seen.

If you have any comments about the match, banning cricketers playing golf, or anything else, please leave them below.

Lies, Damn Lies, And High Performance Reviews

Sir Andrew Strauss’ review into how to improve the performance of men’s international and domestic cricket is nearing its end, and has released its consultation document to the public. This unusual transparency from the ECB allows us to consider data given to county chiefs before they vote on the issue, and also gives us an insight into the current decision-making process within English cricket.

The actual report itself was written by consultants Twenty First Group, who call themselves a “Sports Intelligence Agency” (I assume this is an allusion to the Central Intelligence Agency, although I cannot fathom how that would be a helpful comparison), with input from a panel of experts across cricket, other sports, and business.

This appears at first glance to be very open, transparent and collaborative, particularly compared to the ECB’s usual modus operandi. However, it should be pointed out that various tricks have been used to direct readers to what you might assume to be the authors’ preferred outcomes.

People Only Read The Title

One very simple trick is just to use the title or description to state the point you want to make, even if the evidence doesn’t necessarily support it. Take this, the first page of evidence in the review:

Now look at just the location of the black dots. According to this graph (and confirmed by a quick check on Statsguru), England have the fourth-best seam unit away from home. They travel better than New Zealand or Pakistan, for example, who both have the reputation of being very good pace attacks. If this graph was presented without comment, what would someone take from it?

I can easily explain why the difference is so great between England’s home and away bowling averages in two words: Chris Woakes. Despite having a very poor record away from home, he has played in 20 Tests abroad (The 4th most amongst English pace bowlers behind Anderson, Broad and Stokes) since 2014. He averages 51.88. No rational person would select him, and even Ed Smith would find it a stretch. The reason he has played so many games in conditions that don’t suit him is because there was often no alternative. Everyone above him on the ‘Test bowlers suited for bowling on a flat/dry pitch with an unresponsive ball’ list was injured. In the same period, Mark Wood, Jofra Archer and Olly Stone combined have played in 19 Tests. It’s not that England don’t have pace bowlers capable of thriving in foreign conditions, it’s that they are almost always unavailable due to injury.

By happenstance, one of the High Performance Review panel members is ECB Performance Director Mo Bobat. His job for the last three years has been to oversee the fitness of England players, the bridging between county and international cricket through the Lions and other development programmes, and the Loughborough academy. If talented cricketers are spending more time on the physio table than on the pitch, you could argue that he is the one to blame.

Too Specific

One trick the ECB likes to use, as I have covered in two previous posts regarding The Hundred (HERE and HERE), is showing very specific statistics but using it to present a broader point which the data doesn’t support.

Take this chart, for example:

On the face of it, this looks terrible. Spinners get fewer domestic opportunities in England than the other 8 cricket boards, so how can the England team be expected to develop spinners who can prosper in Asia? Except that this isn’t what this chart actually shows. Instead of (for example) total spin overs bowled, it is a percentage of total overs. To answer why the panel chose this specific measure to illustrate their point, consider this chart:

So England has the lowest percentage of spin bowling, but also the highest number of days’ play for every team. If you take these two numbers and multiply them together, you get this chart:
England are still in the bottom half, but by no means the worst. And, just to be clear, these are values per team. There are only six first-class teams in both Australia and New Zealand, and so the total volume of spin overs bowled in England is almost certainly three times that of the other two countries. No one would argue that English cricket shouldn’t do more to develop spin bowling, particularly in the longer formats, but this data in the report doesn’t provide a convincing argument either for what the problem is nor what the solution should be.

Framing

It is very simple to alter the appearance of a graph in order to accentuate differences between figures. All you have to do is start the numerical axis at a number other than 0. Here’s one example:

Notice how the chart begins at 30 rather than 0 days. This means that the shortest bar is 6 days whilst the longest (England) is 17 days. To a casual observer, it would seem like England played almost three times as much cricket as New Zealand and India. To compare, here is what the chart would look like if it began at 0:

Seen at this scale, the differences between countries seem far less pronounced. English players play 30% more days than those from India or New Zealand according to this data, or 10% more than in South Africa. It suddenly becomes a less obvious factor for why English players might underperform.

Another related trick you can use is taking advantage of the page orientation to maximise or minimise the variation in a chart. Take this example:

As well as beginning at 0 and having a title which calls the averages “consistent”, it is also one of just two bar charts in the report which the bars are vertical rather than horizontal. On pages or screens in landscape orientation, vertical bars are shorter than horizontal ones due to a lack of space. This reduces the apparent differences between two bars even more than before. Here is the same data, but presented as a horizontal bar chart and a shortened X-axis (most other charts in the report are shown this way):

All of a sudden, you would face an argument that first-class cricket cannot be held in August or September. Considering that the rumours are that this (and April/May) is the panel’s favoured time for the Championship to be played, you can see why they made their style choices.

Read The Fine Print

If there is some data which you want to include for completeness (or perhaps to cover your arse, so you can prove you told someone at a later date) but it doesn’t support your argument, you can just hide it using formatting or perhaps hidden in an appendix. If we take another look at the first graph from the previous section, you can see a set of figures written in grey to the right of the chart:

If you put these numbers in a chart, it looks like this:

The major thing that this does is move India from joint last to joint second. India are currently ranked first in both the ICC Test and T20 team rankings, so you would be foolish to argue that the number of matches the best Indian cricketers were in was a detriment to their development.

Conclusion

I found myself utterly unimpressed with the outcome of this review. It’s light on detail and has very little in terms of actual recommendations from the panel itself. Instead, it largely seeks to ask the counties which changes they would make based on the information provided. Although the various manipulations which I have detailed above might point the counties towards certain proposals (fewer matches with greater rest, red ball games during The Hundred, a smaller Division 1), the actual suggestions from the panel are small and largely meaningless.

The one which makes me genuinely angry is ‘Understanding What It Takes To Win (WITTW)’. It say the ECB should “research into WITTW (red + white ball)” in order to produce a “Definitive WITTW report”. Maybe I was being naive, but I thought that was what the High Performance Review was supposed to come up with. Why would you have business leaders and people from other sports on the panel, including famed ‘win at almost any cost’ advocate Dave Brailsford, if not to provide an expert insight into how to succeed? I have to assume that this panel was not cheap to assemble, nor the consultancy firm who collated the report, and yet one of its key recommendations is that you should assemble another panel (and perhaps the same consultants) to answer the question that was basically the whole point of the original exercise? What utter nonsense. But nice work if you can get it.

There are three massive elephants in the room which the report has totally ignored. One is The Hundred. It is hand-waved through with the rather optimistic description of “The Hundred is committed through to 2028, and is a clear best vs. best competition”. How they square “best vs best” with the existence of Welsh Fire as a team is frankly beyond me. The Hundred apparently exists as a giant monolith in the middle of the English season, around which everything else has to fit. The cricket calendar in 2019 was far from perfect, but even the tournament’s biggest fans can’t deny that the domestic schedule is even worse now. The Hundred does aid the development of English cricketers, but almost exclusively towards entering other T20 leagues around the world rather than playing for England.

The second is the county youth system. Development of players ultimately depends on counties hiring those with the potential to play at international level, and it’s not clear that this is currently happening. I’ve written previously about how counties often seem to ignore talented youngsters if their face doesn’t fit or they can’t afford to fund their own training. You can see the almost immediate success of the ACE Programme and the South Asian Cricket Academy in identifying multiple cricketers outside the county system who are arguably better than those currently with contracts as evidence of this. Comparing schedules between countries does not matter if English clubs aren’t capable of identifying the best players available.

The third is how players improve (or don’t) whilst under the direct care of the ECB. It is a tale as old as time: A promising player has a breakout season in county cricket, gets called up to play for England, or a training camp at Loughborough. They start well, but over time their form declines. If they’re a batter, it’s usually their technique which is changed by the specialist coaches into a mess of neuroses where they now can’t keep out a delivery bowled by a twelve year old. They re-enter county cricket as a broken husk of a human being, and are never heard from again. If they’re a bowler, they are typically transformed from a colossus who bowls 90mph thunderbolts to someone with the skeletal structure of a 90 year old with osteoporosis who has trouble tieing his shoelaces. Ironically, this often occurs because the coaches want to alter the bowling action to ‘prevent injuries’. A lucky few become T20 specialists, more or less able to handle 4 overs every few days. Those less fortunate are chucked in a pile behind the bike sheds at ECB’s training centre in Loughborough.

All in all, the report is almost entirely without merit. How it took three months or more to come to this point when the data used in the charts would take an A Level Statistics student about a day to compile and the resulting ‘evidence’ is a mess of conflicting numbers which don’t really suggest any clear ‘solution’ to the problems at hand. As worthless a use of time and money as I can imagine, in all honesty. A fitting tribute to the end of the Tom Harrison era at the ECB.

If you have any comments about the post, England’s Test win, or anything else, please leave them below.

England v South Africa – 2nd Test Preview – Peaks And Troughs

It’s easy to fall into the trap of hyperbole when considering where the England Test team stand right now. In the last Test match, they lost all ten wickets for fewer than 200 runs in both innings. In the first half of the English season, they won four consecutive Test matches against two of the top teams in the world. Before that, they went 16 months without winning a single Test series.

It seems like there is no middle ground for this team. They seem unable to grind out a close win, or lose a tightly contested arm wrestle. They will either blow their opposition away like a hurricane hitting a matchstick factory, or collapse like… Well, like an England Test team.

England have announced a single change to their lineup, with Ollie Robinson replacing Matthew Potts. It is precisely what you would expect from England. Dropping a bowler after the batsmen embarassed themselves is textbook ECB practice from the last decade. Zak Crawley is visibly struggling, as is Alex Lees, but let’s instead get rid of the bowler who took more wickets than Anderson in the first Test. Classic.

At the same time, it would be foolish to discount England’s chances of drawing level in this series. South Africa are not a great Test side, and none of their batters currently have a Test average above 40 (unlike England’s Joe Root). It really wouldn’t take much for England to win by almost as big a margin as they lost the last game. If they had an X-factor bowler such as Jofra Archer, they’d possibly be favourites.

In other news, it has been announced that several Test grounds will host women’s internationals in 2023. This is a huge step forward. Since the sold-out 2017 Women’s World Cup final at Lord’s, the ECB have only played a single match (a 2018 ODI at Headingley) at one of the eight largest cricket grounds, in the seven largest cities in England and Wales. You might remember that the ECB’s reasoning for The Hundred included the idea that holding it in smaller grounds, smaller towns, would limit its potential growth and profitability. The logical extension of that would be that they were actively attempting to sabotage women’s cricket in this country by refusing to let them play in the largest markets. It is perhaps no coincidence that this announcement only came three months after Tom Harrison quit.

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

England v South Africa Preview – Bazball, Bazball, Bazball, Bazball, Bazball

As England prepare to play Test cricket in August, perhaps for the last ever time, there is only one word on people’s lips. Coined by Andrew Miller, ‘Bazball’ is used to describe England’s freewheeling attacking style under new coach Brendon ‘Baz’ McCullum which has led to the Test team winning all four matches under his leadership so far.

I don’t personally like the term Bazball but, when both Baz and the entire South African cricket team seem to loathe it, my contrarian side insists that I use it as much as possible. South Africa’s coach, Mark Boucher, has even said that any cricket journalist using the term “has to” have a shot of tequila which he will supply. For free. Surely this demonstrates such a poor understanding of human psychology (particularly amongst the English cricket media) that he isn’t anywhere near qualified to lead an international cricket team?

Whilst I have enjoyed the ride, I’m unconvinced that the England Test team is much better than they were four months ago. Since August 2020, England have won a grand total of 1 match in which Joe Root didn’t score a century, and even then he got 86 not out. The key difference between now and last year is that he has received some support from Jonny Bairstow.

Since the start of 2021, England have scored a total of 21 Test centuries. Joe Root was responsible 11 of them. Of the remaining 10, 4 of them have were achieved by Jonny Bairstow in the past 4 Test matches. The significant improvement in Bairstow’s form seems to be the only real dissimilarity between McCullum and Silverwood’s England teams. Whether McCullum was responsible for that, or simply the lucky beneficiary, remains to be seen.

The conditions in England have also been unusually conducive to batting up until now. Hot, dry weather, Dukes balls which have become relatively lifeless after a few overs. Pitches which have stayed hard and true for a full five days. This is not what you would expect in an English summer and, given the rain forecast through part of this game, seems unlikely to be the case this week. To borrow a phrase from football: But can they do it on a cold, rainy day in St. John’s Wood?

England have not, in my opinion, given themselves their very best chance of winning by picking Zak Crawley as opener again. Crawley averages 26.71 in his 25 Test matches. Twenty five. Christ…

Anyway, that’s less than Dom Sibley (28.94), Joe Denly (29.53), Rory Burns (30.32), Mark Stoneman (27.68), Alex Hales (27.28), Sam Robson (30.54), Nick Compton (27.80) and Michael Carberry (28.75), just going through the list of openers who England have discarded for not scoring enough runs, and who (apart from Burns) all had far fewer chances to demonstrate they deserved their place.

It’s not even like he’s improving year on year. This summer, he has a Test batting average of 17.75 from 4 matches for England this summer, and 24.25 in 8 Championship games. It’s frankly a little odd that Kent are still picking him.

I don’t envy professional/degenerate gamblers like InnoBystander going into this series, because I frankly have no idea what is going to happen. England crushing South Africa and England being crushed by South Africa seem equally likely to me. Both teams have a fragility to them which means things could go very wrong, very quickly.

All that said, having predicted England losing every Test this summer, even the possibility of winning this series seems like a miracle to me. Long live Bazball!

If you have any comments on the game, or anything else, please leave them below!

The Goose That Lays The Golden Eggs

“As he grew rich he grew greedy; and thinking to get at once all the gold the Goose could give, he killed it and opened it only to find nothing.” – Aesop’s Fables

It is difficult to over exaggerate how much English cricket relies on Test cricket financially. Perhaps as much as two-thirds of the ECB’s total domestic income comes from the six or seven red ball internationals played every summer. The ticket sales alone for a home Ashes series draws in almost as much income as the entire Hundred (Including TV rights, sponsors, and 34/35 ‘full’ grounds) in a year.

Which is what makes it so surprising that the ECB seems intent on prioritising a competition which is losing money, and seems certain to continue losing money for the next six years without significant changes, to the detriment of their proverbial golden goose.

For a simple indication of the two formats’ relative worth: In 2019, the idea was mooted by MCC members that one Test every season, played at Lord’s, should be shown on Freeview. Sky responded by saying that such a move would cost the ECB £50m per year. For a single Test match. The total revenue for The Hundred in 2021 was £52m.

It has been said repeatedly by supporters of The Hundred that it is vital for the competition is played in August, since more children will be able to attend games or watch them on TV than at any other time of the year. This may be fair enough as an argument if your sole priority is the long term health of this one competition, but it is baffling in the context of English cricket as a whole.

Given that the ECB (and therefore the counties also) are so financially reliant on Test cricket, it would seem like a sensible measure to ensure that as many children as possible were able to watch it on TV, to become the next generation of fans (and, more cynically, customers). Instead, the ECB has chosen to do the opposite.

There is also the matter of attendance. The T20 Blast was shifted from primarily being in August in 2019 to June in 2022, and this appeared to cause a 23% decline in ticket sales. Given the high demand and high price for Test tickets in England, a similar fall in sales might cost the ECB several million pounds every year.

It should be said, in fairness to Tom Harrison and others at the ECB, that they acknowledge the reliance that English cricket has on a handful of Test matches every season. It was a key goal of The Hundred to become a second source of income for the game, to act as a safety net in the event that the commercial viability of the red ball game declined. That is not an unlikely scenario, not least because clowns like Harrison have been in charge of English Test cricket for a long time.

The initial indications from The Hundred this year don’t seem to indicate that the competition deserves this extraordinary level of support from the ECB. Viewing figures on the BBC for the men’s and women’s opening matches appear to be almost half what they were in 2021, suggesting very little interest from the wider public. And, to be clear, this is before the men’s Test series against South Africa has begun. Moving next year’s Ashes to a less favourable slot in the calendar wouldn’t obviously have any positive effect on The Hundred, but could have a severe negative impact on the number of people watching the Tests.

Cricket Australia hosts both a T20 competition and their Test series at the same time, with no obvious harm to either. The idea that it is necessary to sacrifice England internationals in order to ensure the growth and popularity of The Hundred is blatantly false. The whole exercise stinks of some worried executives throwing every possible resource behind a project they are publicly considered responsible for, or perhaps have bonuses linked to the success of, not caring about the wider damage it will cause the organisation and people they are supposed to represent.

The ECB is insulated somewhat from the consequences of their actions, at least for a while. A new Sky TV deal has already been agreed which offers them a similar guaranteed income over the next six years, albeit one that will likely be worth a lot less over time due to high inflation in the UK. The problem will come when they look to negotiate the next contract, from 2029 onwards. If interest in the longest format is diminished, and by extension its commercial worth, then it would lead to a significant devaluation in what Sky and their competitors thought the rights are worth paying for. That would be catastrophic for the ECB, and particularly the counties.

Or maybe I am wrong. But I don’t think I am.

If you have any comments on the post, The Hundred, or anything else, please leave them below.

Why Not Move The Hundred To April?

The Hundred has been a contentious issue for English cricket since it was first launched in 2018. Its supporters, most notably within the ECB and the media, seem to treat it like a sacred object where it would be considered blasphemous to alter any part of it. The appointment of Surrey CCC’s Richard Thompson as ECB chair represents perhaps the first time since its inception that someone in a position of actual power has publicly questioned aspects of the competition, and that represents an opportunity to make The Hundred work for everyone.

One of the most egregious lies told regarding The Hundred is that it would help attract new fans to both watch other teams and play at their local clubs. If The Hundred does excite a kid into joining an All Stars Cricket session, then they would have to wait until May the next year. Someone wanting to see more T20 games has the same issue. There is a reason why you never see advertisements saying “You can buy this product… In eight month’s time!” That reason is because it would be a monumentally stupid waste of resources. After eight months, the excitement and interest will have largely faded.

This would all change if The Hundred was held in April. This would allow the ECB to say “Did you like attending this match? Well, this very ground is hosting seven more matches almost exactly like it starting next month. You can buy tickets now.”, or “Are you interested in playing cricket? Well you’re in luck, because this website will show you a list of local cricket clubs starting junior sessions in the next few weeks.”, and “Like these women cricketers? Here’s the fixture list for the Charlotte Edwards Cup.”. It even allows Sky to say “Did you like watching this match on BBC/YouTube/TikTok/Pick? Here’s how to subscribe to Sky Sports via Now TV, where you can watch cricket almost every day for the next five months.”

It just makes sense.

There are other benefits hosting the competition in April. The international calendar for the England teams is now ridiculously condensed thanks to the ECB trying to avoid scheduling games through either the IPL or The Hundred. With the IPL extending into June now and The Hundred taking up all of August, only September, July and half of June are available for 7 Tests, 12 ODIs and 12 T20Is between the men’s and women’s teams. 58 days of scheduled cricket in a space of roughly 75 days. It’s ridiculous, physically unsustainable, and simply can’t last. Something has to give and, absent a significant change of heart from the BCCI, it has to be the ECB which relents.

Obviously there are downsides to such a move. Nights are a lot colder in April than August, which would hit evening attendance somewhat. It wouldn’t all be school holidays, although the 2-week Easter break usually falls in April. Sky would probably not be too pleased if they wanted to show the IPL but were obliged to prioritise The Hundred instead, although I’d hope that the increased promotion for the rest of their Summer cricket might help mollify them.

Some players wouldn’t be available due to the IPL, including a few England internationals. Going by the squads in 2022, as many as 28 men’s cricketers in The Hundred (9 English plus 19 overseas) would be in India through April. The ECB could force players on central contracts to stay, but it would be massively unpopular with the PCA and might lead to people refusing to sign international contracts altogether. The loss of talent could be mitigated somewhat by the complete absence of international cricket in the IPL window, which would mean that virtually every other cricketer around the world was available. One obvious opportunity would be to recruit Pakistani players, who aren’t chosen by IPL teams for reasons left unspoken. That said, it’s virtually impossible for anyone to hold a T20 league at the same time as the IPL and not look like a second-tier competition. To be clear: The Hundred is a second-tier competition, but the ECB doesn’t want it to be that obvious.

There are undoubtedly other things that Richard Thompson could change in order to improve The Hundred for next season. The amount the women players are paid should be significantly increased, more women’s matches should have the prime nighttime slot, overall costs should be reduced, the on-screen graphics should be fixed, and Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen should be barred from entering the grounds. But none of that would have anywhere near the impact of having The Hundred, the showcase event for English cricket with up to 18 matches on Freeview, starting the season rather than being almost at its end.

If you have anything you’d like to say about the post, Thompson’s appointment, or anything else, please leave them below.

Do You Have To Be Rich To Play Cricket?

“Cricket is the most elitist sport in Britain” – The introduction to Freddie Flintoff’s Field Of Dreams

Flintoff’s programme on BBC One has prompted many questions and articles about whether one of the the show’s central premises, that working class children have virtually no chance of playing for England, was accurate.

I wrote a post here in 2017 which showed that 62.6% of Test appearances in the previous ten years were by players who had attended fee-paying schools, and this increased to an incredible 93.6% of appearances by batters and wicketkeepers. Of the 27 batters to play for England in that time, the only ones who attended exclusively secondary or grammar schools were Tim Ambrose, Michael Carberry, Adam Lyth, Owais Shah, Mark Stoneman, Michael Vaughan and Tom Westley.

When Michael Carberry (All Saints Catholic School, secondary) was abandoned as England opener after a single Ashes tour, despite outscoring Alastair Cook (Bedford School with a music scholarship, £21,945 per year), it is not unreasonable to think that a player who fit the archetype of an English batter (“Well spoken”, “articulate”, “sporting”, etc.) might have been given more chances by England’s chief selector James Whitaker (Uppingham School, £26,406 per year). That unconscious preference for players with similar backgrounds to themselves might well have continued with Ed Smith (Tonbridge School, £35,067 per year) and James Taylor (Shrewsbury School, £27,930 per year).

As easy (and fun) as it to blame the ECB and its’ selectors for a class bias, the simple truth is that there are very few state-schooled batters anywhere close to England contention in county cricket. That isn’t to say that there aren’t biases to be found in selection, but the real problems begin much, much earlier in the professional pathway.

Wealth confers an advantage in terms of playing professional cricket almost from birth. Purely in terms of forming an interest and love of watching the sport, a Sky Sports subscription (£407.88 per year on Now TV) is virtually essential. One noticeable theme from Freddie Flintoff’s Field Of Dreams was how few children in Preston failed to recognise Flintoff, but were also unable to even name any current England cricketers. Learning to play the game has similar barriers, where many public schools have full grass cricket pitches, former county cricketers as coaches and several hours of sport available every week whilst comprehensives are mostly limited to an hour or two of play with plastic bats and balls (if any cricket at all).

Children typically enter the county system between the ages of 10 and 14. By this point, the kids from wealthy families will have already received a significantly greater volume and quality of cricket coaching compared to their state-schooled competitors. This gives them a huge advantage at any county trials, an advantage which can be extended further through building relationships with the county coaches either via their school or expensive one-on-one coaching sessions.

Meanwhile, children without wealthy parents face a slew of obstacles before even reaching the county sessions. Public schools are significantly more likely to be visited by county scouts than an inner-city cricket club, for a start. This is doubly true for any club which is unable to enter the main ECB-affiliated leagues due to a lack of facilities or failing to gain the acceptance of the existing teams, regardless of how well they perform on the field. Most kids are limited to a couple of hours in the nets plus a single game every week, make do with cheap kit from a discount retailer, and rely on parents (often not theirs) for transport to away matches. All of this keeps a vast number of talented youngsters from even making it to the county trials, which are usually held in a different city or town to where they live anyway.

Those who do make it to the trials soon find that that being a part of the county age group squad is a very expensive business. At most counties, parents are expected to pay for a complete branded county kit, bats and other equipment, and also coaching. They are also strongly encouraged to shell out for expensive remedial one-on-one coaching for any flaws detected in training sessions, and sometimes even tours to foreign countries. Matt Prior (Brighton College with a sports scholarship, £20,490 per year) tweeted a few months ago that the cost for his two children in the Sussex CCC county set up was over £1,000 each.

This high cost invalidates the idea that public school scholarships act as some kind of social leveller which means that the statistics showing the dominance of privately-educated cricketers is unrepresentative. The most commonly used example is Joe Root (Worksop College with a sports scholarship, £14,199 per year). What people overlook is that Root joined the Yorkshire CCC youth system at the age of 11, and it wasn’t until he was 15 that he was offered his scholarship. This is the case with virtually all such scholarships; They are typically only offered after a child excels in the county youth teams and is virtually assured of a professional contract. If a family can’t even afford to attend the county’s training sessions, there is absolutely no chance that they will receive an all expenses paid golden ticket to an independent school.

Counties claim that they have little choice but to charge parents. Sussex CCC’s chief executive, Rob Andrew (Barnard Castle School, £15,498 per year), said:

“We all want the game to be as accessible as it can be. We all try to keep the costs reasonable. Where there is genuine hardship, we offer bursaries. We have genuine applications every year. The key thing for me is that in the end there is a significant cost to the counties to run these programmes. In an ideal world, we would offer all this coaching for free. But how do I pay for it? It would cost the club £250,000. We can’t afford to do that. Maybe some of the bigger counties have more resource, but we have to cut our cloth accordingly. If we’re forced to make it free, my fear is that the pathway programmes will get slashed.”

This begs the question: How much are Sussex CCC’s “pathway programmes” costing them now? The surprising answer is that, according to their own 2021 accounts, they are actually making a £17,000 profit from them (£499,000 income minus £482,000 expenses). Far from being a burden, or an investment necessary to improve the quality of the team, Sussex CCC seem to regard their age group squads and academies as a source of revenue to help fund other aspects of the club (such as, for example, their chief executive’s wages).

To put this figure of £499,000 in perspective: Sussex CCC’s combined ticket and membership sales in 2021 totalled £530,000. That season admittedly had reduced attendances due to COVID-19 (whilst the 2022 season has had reduced attendances due to the new scheduling), but even in 2019 they only managed to accrue £953,000 from people actually watching them play.

Squeezing parents for every penny they can is good business, but no way to run a cricket club. It is surprising to many outside observers that there are any costs to the parents at all. After all, why would a team exclude vast swathes of people without £1,000+ in their pockets when they are scouring their region for the best cricketers in their region? One reason is a total lack of consequences. Whether Sussex CCC develop all 11 England players or not, whether they use homegrown players or not, whether they gain promotion to Division 1 or not, the amount of revenue they receive is virtually unchanged. So why try?

This is a very different scenario to football, where the rewards for unearthing a star player are so lucrative (either through transfer fees or promotion) that clubs will bend over backwards to ensure any talented youngster signs for them. The idea of charging kids for this, potentially losing millions of pounds by allowing someone to be poached by a rival team, is anathema.

Sussex CCC could easily find ways to reduce expenses if they chose (or were forced) to not treat talented kids like a cash machine. They could just not have a uniform at all and have everyone play in their club/school whites for example. They could use their contracted players to help out in sessions rather than having so many dedicated coaches. It’s even possible to argue that children with access to professional-level cricket coaching and facilities at their (very expensive) schools don’t need to receive any coaching from the counties at all.

If we take the Sussex CCC chief executive’s estimate that completely free youth academies would cost them £250,000, then the total cost for all county cricket might be approximately £4,500,000 (18 x £250,000). The ECB’s Director Of Men’s Cricket, Rob Key (Colfe’s School, £19,125 per year), has proposed that profits from The Hundred should be used to fund age group county cricket in order not to “price half the people out of the market”. This is an interesting suggestion for a number of reasons: The first is that it is the contention of the ECB that The Hundred is already making a profit of roughly £11,000,000 every year. In that sense, the money is already available for this purpose. It has also been reported that the total budget for in-ground entertainment at The Hundred (fireworks, dancers, bands, etc) is over £6,000,000 per year. It is certainly worth questioning whether that is the best use of the ECB’s money.

This does nothing to absolve the counties of any blame, of course. Each county has received an extra £1,300,000 in annual funding from the ECB in exchange for their support of The Hundred, some of which could easily cover free youth coaching. Every club had a choice on what to spend that money on, and almost all of them have chosen not to spend it on their youth programmes.

The former ECB chief executive, Tom Harrison (Oundle School, £27,075 per year), certainly never took any steps to address these issues. Even when it was raised as a potentially racist policy which had the effect of preventing British Asians from becoming professional cricketers, it was just Yorkshire CCC rather than the ECB which acted. It remains to be seen whether the interim chief exectutive, Clair Connor (Brighton College, £20,490 per year), or whoever takes the role next will fare any better.

So to answer the question in the title: Perhaps you don’t have to be ‘rich’ to play county cricket, but you certainly won’t make it if you’re poor.

Any comments or questions about the post, any of the cricket being played, or anything else, leave them below.

T20 Blast Attendance – A Boring Maths Post

In the lead up to today’s finals, the ECB released information about attendance in this year’s competition; A total of approximately 800,000, including the sold out Edgbaston crowd. This was compared to 2019’s figures of 920,000, or a decline of roughly 15 percent. I had two questions upon hearing this news: ‘Weren’t there a massive number of abandoned matches in 2019?’ and ‘How much will that cost the counties?’

To answer the first question: Yes, there were. 24 matches were abandoned due to rain in 2019, as opposed to 7 in 2018 and 6 in 2022. In spite of this, 2019 was (and obviously remains) the season in which the most tickets were sold in the T20 Blast. Which led me to think about how it would be possible to account for this factor and correctly gauge how much attendances had really fallen.

As far as I can work out using ground capacities from Wikipedia, there were a maximum of 1.37 million seats available in the 2019 Blast (having subtracted the 24 washouts), and 1.55 million seats in 2022 (without 6 washouts). This allows us to compare the two seasons’ attendances as the percentage of available capacity: 67.2 percent in 2019, and 51.5 percent in 2022. This would mean that the reduction in ticket sales for the 18 counties isn’t really 15 percent, as has been reported, but 23.3 percent from 2019 to this season.

To put it another way: If the counties had sold the same proportion of seats in 2022 as they did in 2019, the total attendance for the competition would have been 1,040,000 instead of 800,000.

Which brings us to my second question, regarding how much this will have cost the counties. The Cricketer magazine published this useful list of county ticket prices, from which you can estimate how much more money each team would have made if they had sold 23.3 percent more tickets. The answer for all 18 counties combined is just over £5,000,000.

Of course, this simplistic conjecture likely fails to grasp the full scale of losses that the clubs are enduring. It does not account for the lost food, drink and merchandise sales from the grounds, for example. What is clear is that it is the clubs which have the largest grounds who suffer the most damage financially in this situation. Worcestershire CCC stand to lose roughly £100,000 this season (23.3 percent of 5,500 capacity * 6 home matches * £20 ticket price), whilst Surrey CCC’s losses might be over a million pounds (23.3 percent of 27,500 capacity * 7 home matches * £28 ticket price). Worcestershire CCC might feel like they are getting a good deal from the £1,300,000 ECB payment in return for supporting The Hundred. Surrey CCC, and the other hosts in The Hundred, might feel otherwise.

It’s hard to tell whether this season’s figures will have worried those in charge of the county clubs. Their chairs recently voted to support a new TV deal with Sky Sports on broadly the same terms as the current contract, including the continuation of The Hundred. This ties county cricket into a similar schedule for the next six seasons, but also presumably guarantees that each team will receive their extra £1,300,000 ‘dividend’ from the ECB. It remains to be seen if this will be a wise choice.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please leave them below.

Daydream Believer

England’s first Test victory of this summer was rather routine. Not in terms of the run chase, because that was impressive. But it was also entirely orthodox, relying on a proven world class batsman – their only world class batsman – leading his team home with a superb innings. It didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know, namely that England were a brittle batting line up, but that if Joe Root got runs they might have a chance. At the time it seemed little more than that, no indication in particular of anything especially different, and apart from Root’s majestic knock, England probably had the worst of the game. So sure, a win, and a welcome one after the dreadful run of the last 18 months, but maybe not a whole lot more. It’s with hindsight it appears to have been greater than that, with it granting a degree of confidence and belief in the next step. Since then all hell has broken loose, the batting performances becoming ever more extraordinary and insane. After the conclusion of today’s Test Ben Stokes said a part of him had hoped India’s lead had reached 450 in order to see what England did about it. And you can feel this team is absolutely itching to have a go at a world record chase just to see if they can do it. It’s a world record for a reason, but after the absurdly easy and routine chasing down of 380 who is to say they couldn’t do it?

And in a tactical and strategic sense, this has an effect. Teams will be wary of setting England a total that up to now will have been considered a safe one, particularly with a time element. Leaving England 300 to get at 5 an over has been something that could be viewed as placing the pressure entirely on an England team that had little intent to go after it and a couple of sessions to survive. Not any more, opponents would be viewing it as a risk to do so. Even 400 plus will be treated as though it’s a feasible target. That isn’t to say for a second that the game has been entirely turned on its head – in such circumstances the bowling team should feel they were in a strong position and not all fifth day pitches will be remotely as accommodating as the ones this summer, but the mind is a funny thing, and the nagging thought that England won’t just go for it, but might well get it will be present in many an opposing dressing room from now on. A similar thing happened with the ODI team, where teams would often be so aware that they needed a big total against an England side that made it abundantly clear they thought they could chase anything that opponents overreached and fell in a heap. Test cricket isn’t white ball cricket, true, but the difference so far this summer has been narrower than ever seen before.

Likewise, the disquiet when building a lead will be entirely about the potential doubt of whether it’s enough. It shifts the pressure onto England’s opponents in a way that has never been tried before in the longest form of the game, or at least not to this extent. It’s why the whole Bazball approach is so extraordinarily fascinating to watch how it pans out over the longer term. England haven’t become radically better as a batting line up overnight, but it is the case that the quite incredible levels of belief flowing through them have raised their level to a degree that’s hard to credit.

There will certainly be bad days, when they fall in a heap and collapse. But they are trying this out from a position where it was hard to see how they could get any worse, with endless feeble subsidence of the batting order under the lightest of pressure. When you’re often 100 or fewer all out anyway, why the hell not? In that they are lucky – because it’s not just that this is thrilling to watch, it’s that they have licence to do it from a supporter base that wants to see something, anything, done to show some sign of life.

Stokes again probably went too far, his last couple of innings were less aggression and more rank slogging. But you can see why and how this happened – he is trying to set a particular tone to the rest of the team that he won’t take a backward step and he wants them to follow his example. That will doubtless be pulled back in to some extent in the months ahead because he’s got a decent cricket brain, and he’s got the buy in from everyone, on and off the pitch to a level he doesn’t need to demand they follow suit. An example of the level of commitment was surely to be found yesterday evening, when the nightwatchman padded up was Stuart Broad. Stuart Broad!

It’s really why this morning and yesterday were so impressive. Although England scored at a preposterous rate, they weren’t going all out for trying to hit every ball to the boundary, it was aggressive, but it was controlled. Jonny Bairstow’s twin hundreds were markedly slower than those against New Zealand, yet still rapid by any standards other than his own. Root’s tempo is little changed, but it suddenly looks like part of a bigger plan than just his own ability, oft mentioned, to score quickly without anyone noticing. The ramp shots though – that is someone not just in astonishing form, but someone who doesn’t fear a bollocking if it goes wrong.

And it will. If there’s a certainty, at some point it will. But there is a difference between it going wrong on occasion due to the high risk/reward equation or doing so on a consistent basis because it’s not sustainable in Test cricket, and it’s that we don’t yet know, and that that will be enthralling to witness. Whether they can play like this away from home, whether they can do it against the likes of Australia (if they’ve done it to India and New Zealand I simply see no reason why not) and so on. But at the moment they are pushing the envelope to see what they can get away with, and it feels dangerous and exciting – not necessarily something people would normally think about Test cricket.

And here’s the biggie: Test cricket has been in real and increasing trouble, as the white ball game dominates the cricketing calendar. If England are to try to play like this consistently, and even more so if other teams follow their lead, then the Test game becomes far more than the one that people have loved for decades, it becomes one to really pull in those younger adherents that everyone is trying to chase after. It becomes an attraction in itself to those who happily go to an ODI hoping to see fireworks. That might not be entirely traditional, in fact it’s rather the opposite. But we have been hoping for a way that Test cricket might not just survive, but even thrive, and who knows, maybe this could be it.

It’s anecdotal, sure, but I’ve had plenty of friends who scarcely pay attention normally talk glowingly about how England have been playing. It is the fours and sixes that do it, and however facile many might find that, it’s not a crime to be practical in the approach to the need for Test cricket to succeed.

It doesn’t mean the challenges have gone away, nor the mismanagement by the ECB. Indeed, it would be a truly delicious irony after the millions chucked at the Hundred if the way to entice people into cricket proved to be the Test team instead, especially as Test cricket is, and always has been, the ECB’s main source of income.

Yet we now have a six week gap to the South Africa Test series as the white ball internationals take over and domestically the Hundred rears it’s controversial head. It’s unfortunate, but we didn’t really expect England’s start to this summer anyway, just the opposite. But let’s put it this way, the England Test team are raising all sorts of questions at the moment. There might not be answers, but they’re really, really good questions. And it’s an absolute blast isn’t it?