Blind Hope, Blind Visions, Blind Centre, Blind Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year!

Less Is Not Always More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ECB are almost certain to do it then.

As always, please leave your comments below.

Grated Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Repeats

As I was watching the Morecambe and Wise 1971 Christmas Special for the umpteenth time, I was struck by how familiar the television schedules seem over the holidays. Even death has failed to keep Eric and Ernie off our screens for any Christmas in over 50 years. There’s The Snowman on Channel 4, as always. The Queen’s Speech, of course. People love the traditions of watching the same thing over and over again.

The same could be said about the England Test team. You could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a repeat last night, as England yet again collapsed with bat and failed to impress with the ball. With only a minor changes in the cast, it followed broadly the same plot as the previous two Tests, and the recent series against India and New Zealand, and the previous series in Australia.

But where people welcome the traditions of watching the same things every Christmas, at least most of them have uplifting endings. Even EastEnders isn’t unrelentingly grim in their Christmas episode. England Test cricket fans haven’t been so lucky, as the last month has been a constant succession of misguided hope and failure.

So here I am, begging the England team to change the script. Not by winning, that is clearly unrealistic at this point. Rather, just playing somewhere near their potential. Not gifting their wickets to the opposition, or allowing the Australian batters to get their eye in with a barrage of short and wide deliveries. I can take them losing to a better team, as Australia undoubtedly is. What I can’t take is them capitulating without even the smallest measure of resistance or intelligence.

I have seen that show too many times before.

Down the Only Road I’ve Ever Known

I suppose it’s always possible England will pull this one out of the fire. I suppose it’s possible that for the rest of the series they’re competitive, and even in losing, do so while having their moments. Knee-jerk responses to a Test disaster can make fools of anyone, when in the following match a team roars back and batters their opponents. It’s always possible. It doesn’t feel that way here, but if that happens this time, feel free to thumb your nose at me.

Getting walloped in Australia isn’t especially unusual either. Anyone who is reminded of their advancing years constantly by being referred to as Covid-vulnerable (who knew that was going to a signifier?) is pretty used to it, the exceptions in ’78/9, ’86/7 and 2010/11 being glorious interludes in a regular diet of being flogged and receiving gleefully abusive messages from friends and family who have unaccountably chosen to identify as Australian. But there’s always been a particular narrative around the reasons why and the happenstance that led to it. Throughout the nineties England were a moderate team, but Australia were extremely bloody good, and consolation could be found (to a degree) by the way they rampaged across the planet hammering almost everyone – which is another reason why we were all West Indies fans.

By the early years of this century, England were losing, but they were fighting – they were merely completely outclassed. We can accept that, and the way England were progressing generally meant that there was hope things might change. The 2006/7 whitewash was infuriating, but that was a good England team against a good Australian team bent on revenge, and England imploded. Sporting meltdowns happen without having wider ramifications, and in a team environment that sense of doom can spread like wildfire. 2013/14 felt like the end of an era, and it proved to be as well, and in any case the fallout from that swiftly moved off the backpages and onto the front, as the ECB embarked on a civil war with their own game’s supporters. In that, the sheer sense of anger (on both sides) left everyone engaged in the fight and what would happen next. Whatever the wrongs of what happened – and we may have said one or two things at the time – it was a body of cricket followers thoroughly invested in what was happening.

There was a degree of hangover from that four years ago too, though the fire had faded. Some of the media clung to the wreckage as though a few floating planks comprised part of the ship of English cricket, but the emperor (nothing wrong with a metaphor transition) was as naked as the day he was born, the pointing of fingers amounted to demanding to know what was going to be done about it.

This time around we know what was done about it. To make things worse. It’s not just that this is a poor England team, because God knows we’ve seen enough of those, it’s that there is no way of thinking anything other than that this is likely to be routine. The Hundred isn’t to blame for England’s Test woes, let’s put that to bed right now. But the decision-making process and strategy (loosely termed) adopted by the ECB that led to the Hundred as the culmination of their intentions is, and those behind it will be moving on soon enough leaving the trail of wreckage in their wake.

What did they expect to happen? Increasing the focus on white ball cricket was a reasonable enough aim, as English cricket had certainly undervalued it for a long time. It gave us a World Cup, sure. It’ll likely give England a shot at another one in the coming years, and maybe a T20 World Cup or two as well. Fine. But the either/or mentality of it has never made a great deal of sense when other countries have managed to create good Test and short form teams, and in any case England’s historic ability to have truly crap Test teams at the same time as truly crap 50 over teams was a notable achievement in itself.

But this team can’t bat. The best bowlers, even taking into account the loss of key personnel through injury, aren’t that far off the point where they too move into more vulnerable Covid categories, which is a damn fine tribute to their longevity and skill, and maybe it is the case that when they are gone we’ll appreciate their replacements more. But it’s the batting, stupid. The batting. We can all pile into Rory Burns for his series to date, but it’s not like there’s an 8,000 Test run replacement obviously in the wings. Sure, some will read that and say Sibley was discarded too quickly, or that Sam Robson ought to be given another go (a fair point too), but it doesn’t change the material shortage in players who might be expected to turn into Test level batsmen entirely because the structure of English cricket isn’t going to create them.

We have Joe Root, a batter who is genuinely outstanding and deserves all the praise he gets, and that’s it. Ben Stokes? In a stronger team he would be the wildcard, someone to come in and devastate the opposition, to be that special cricketer who can change a game in a session. In this team he’s the second best batsman. Stokes is wonderful. He should not be head and shoulders above all bar one of the batting line up.

The same applies to the role of spinner. We keep moving from one to the next, and the next will always be the solution and never is. They’re all ok, looked at in the right light and playing in the right conditions. None of them are going to change the world, because English cricket isn’t going to produce anyone who does. Shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic doesn’t even begin to cover it.

And then there’s their heads. We’re one and a bit Tests into this series and England look completely gone. It’s not just the clear awareness of impending collapse when they bat. The dropped catches, the disparity in no balls bowled, the frankly weird tactics (let’s bowl Joe Root as dusk falls in a pink ball Test) are not indicative necessarily of anyone in charge having odd ideas about cricket as much as evidence of a team and coaching staff whose minds are in a whirl and unable to think straight. That kind of bewildered groupthink is easy to see from the outside, but very hard to get out of on the inside, until someone yells “Let’s get back to basics”, which always goes swimmingly anyway.

All of which means the most probable outcome here is that things are going to get worse. Not just this series, though if there’s something to truly envy about Australian sporting teams it’s their manner of emulating their local sea fauna by hunting down their prey once it’s flailing in the water remorselessly. But beyond this series, indeed for the forseeable future. Many a fan in past series has considered a thrashing by our warmest enemies as the price worth paying for change. It’s not the same as wanting the team to lose, which has always been a lazy accusation when this subject comes up, but it is about wanting to see action on resolving the problems.

The ECB aren’t going to change.

That, in a nutshell is the despair felt by many, and the more problematic indifference and ennui felt by others. If England get the kind of tonking that looks distinctly possible, we are unlikely to see a Lord McLaurin institute a root and branch reform in order to stop this happening in future, we’ll instead have an ECB expressing disappointment along with a fair supply of platitudes about the lessons that will be learned. It’s not that the cupboard is bare, it’s that English cricket governance took an axe to the cupboard and turned it into an iced water dispenser.

It’s what happens when that reality dawns more widely than among the hardcore cricket fraternity that is the big question. And that, in itself, is the fight to come.

Ashes Preview

There is a palpable sense of apathy about the Ashes series. Generally, on Twitter and in the general public, but most certainly amongst the writers at Being Outside Cricket. Of the four of us, I might actually be the only one who intends to watch a game or two. Even then, that is in large part because I have a massive amount of annual leave built up and I have only a few months to use it. I have the holidays, I subscribe to BT Sport, so it would be a waste not to.

There’s a number of factors which have contributed to this malaise. The effects of COVID-19, both direct and indirect, really put the importance of sport into perspective. Likewise, the revelations regarding the extent of racism in English cricket have reduced people’s enthusiasm for the game.

Perhaps the most significant reason is that almost no one thinks England will manage to win a single match in the series. They have neither the batting ability to outscore Australia, nor the bowling ability to taken the host’s wickets cheaply. Their catching is also diabolically bad. This is by no means an overpowering Australian lineup, they lost their most recent home series against an injury-ravaged Indian side, but they are still better than England in every phase of play.

England haven’t managed to win a Test match in Australia since 2011, and their team was significantly stronger than now in both 2013 and 2017. The only things that can stop Australia winning 5-0 are rain (the forecast for the first Test isn’t exactly great), a ridiculously flat pitch (ie Melbourne 2017), or state border closures. Cricket Australia probably shouldn’t even bother making a massive print of an English hand with one finger raised.

All of which is to say that you shouldn’t expect full coverage of the Ashes from us at Being Outside Cricket this winter. There will be posts, when we’re in the mood or have something to say, but there almost certainly won’t be daily reports on the day’s play. We’ll still be on Twitter, and still read and respond to comments on the blog. Everything else, we’ll see how it goes.

In terms of a preview, it looks grim for England on paper. Australia’s team (announced three days in advance) has four players with Test batting averages over 39.00 (Smith, Labuschagne, Warner and Head). England’s whole 15-man squad has one (Root). England’s batsmen have two main weaknesses: Fast bowling and spin. Those are Australia’s two bowling strengths. England lack X-factor bowlers who might stand a good chance of bowling out a set Smith or Labuschagne, particularly if they favour allrounders like Woakes or Overton to bolster their fragile batting order. England’s catching in recent times, or lack thereof, has meant that the bowlers typically need to make an two or three extra chances per innings, which is always a tough ask in Australian conditions.

Quite simply, England are screwed.

Watcha Gonna Do About It?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it could just be me.

Who Watches The Watchmen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once is enough.

Uneasy Lies The Head That Wears A Crown

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

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

The Ashes

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

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

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

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

Pakistan/West Indies

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

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

The Hundred

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

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

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

Sky TV Deal

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

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

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

Yorkshire

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

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

County Cricket

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

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

Women’s Cricket

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

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

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

Participation

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

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

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

Restructuring

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Otherwise, we’re screwed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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