Closing Ranks

It’s been quite striking the last couple of days how those who adore the establishment that is the ECB have adopted a “move on, nothing to see here” approach.  As usual, they do not answer the questions or objections that have been levelled by the hoi polloi, but instead repeat the same old lines about it being about the future, and that for undisclosed reasons, this is the right decision, and indeed the only decision.

Strauss should be trusted to do the right thing, Colin Graves is an honourable man and certainly didn’t intend to mislead, and we all know what Kevin Pietersen was guilty of (I can’t tell you though) and therefore deserves everything he got.

It’s nonsense though.

Colin Graves’ self-serving statement did nothing but use the lawyer technique of picking something no-one had accused him of, and denying it strongly.  No one ever claimed Pietersen had been guaranteed a place.  No one.  Not Pietersen himself, nor anyone else.  Claiming that private conversations had been talked about in the press deliberately ignored his own public statements which no matter how the apologists try and squirm, were absolutely clear and repeated on more than one occasion.  It was in any case more than slightly hypocritical given the BBC announced the outcome of the Pietersen/Strauss/Harrison meeting within minutes of it being over.  Since then we’ve had reports that Pietersen went out “in a blaze of glory” shouting expletives at the other two.  Since there were only three of them present, that means that if true, the information has come from either Strauss or Harrison – probably via a third party who likes to pass this on.  It’s a matter of trust you see.

Ian Bell’s press conference statements appear to have been largely glossed over.  But they are important because of who it was saying it, and what he said.  One of the constant refrains in the whole affair has been about what the players think about it all.  But the players won’t think about it overly because they will be thinking about themselves.  For the batsmen, no Pietersen means that they are just a little bit more secure in their position.  All players will first and foremost be interested in themselves and their own careers.  Bell was telling the absolute truth when he said they didn’t think about it much when they were in the West Indies and nor should they either.  Very few people in any walk of life are prepared to put their heads above the parapet for another, they prefer to keep their heads down, focus on themselves and hope it doesn’t happen to them.  That’s why the ECB got away with it initially – not because of some overwhelming support in the dressing room, which seems to amount to two or three players, but because the others would not stand up and object when it risked their own position and own careers.  It’s not malicious, it’s simply human nature.

Yet what Bell said contradicted so much of the ECB line.  He didn’t come out firing, he quietly and firmly had his say and deserves credit for doing so.  Much was made of his backing for Strauss in his new role, but again this should come as a surprise to no-one.  Players will accept the hierarchy in which they work because they can’t individually change it, and the public comments will always be in favour, no matter what their private feelings.  Yet there’s no reason to doubt that Bell absolutely meant it, because the players – especially the senior ones – will want stability.  The problem is that the behaviour of the ECB does just the opposite, and that has been the criticism all along.  Ignoring the rest of what Bell said, which runs so counter to the official line, simply reinforces the dim view taken of the way the ECB conduct themselves.

As much as the press obsess over Pietersen, they continue to miss the point about the whole matter and simply store up the resentment and indeed the story for later.  The termination of Pietersen’s chances does not provide closure on the whole affair; it might do to an extent were England to carry all before them this summer, because as much as it might fester amongst the supporters, it gives the press something different to write about, and the lack of trust amongst the supporters that has been so vocally put forward would reduced to a rumble.  That’s still damaging, especially when they don’t buy tickets, but it wouldn’t be front and centre in the media.  That is unlikely and there is the distinct possibility the summer could be a complete cricketing calamity.  If that were to transpire, every single one of these issues is going to be highly visible once again.  The fundamental point the ECB cannot address, no matter how much they try and obfuscate, is that their new policy is not one of selecting the best players on cricketing merit.  And that means should England lose Tests, the same questions will be put to them, as to whether England would be a better team if Pietersen were in it.  They’ve managed to turn the whole issue of a single player into a fundamental question of how they operate, in which Pietersen is simply the catalyst for questioning that approach.  At some point a player will step out of line.  They don’t dare drop him without inviting the same opprobrium.

The same applies to the question of who they will appoint as coach.  There have been enough indications that at best Gillespie is uncertain whether he would want to take a role where the Director, Cricket (that writing that title is in itself an instance of sarcasm demonstrates their problem) has already decided who can’t be picked and who is captain with no input or apparent authority from that coach means that there is the distinct possibility that the most able candidates will rule themselves out.  And if that happens, and we are left with another Peter Moores – presumably whoever gets it is at most the second best coach of his generation – then they have indeed sacrificed the England cricket team’s ability to succeed on the altar of their dislike of Pietersen.  This is a critical point, which has not been directly addressed in the discussion around the whole debacle.  If the unqualified removal of Pietersen from consideration results directly in being unable to engage a coach of the highest quality, that is not acting in the interests of the England team, and undermines the repeated claims to be acting in the medium to long term.

With the gift for timing that we have come to expect from the ECB, Tom Harrison chose this week of all weeks to effectively kill off the prospects of cricket appearing on free to air television:

“Sky have been a great partner for English cricket, going forward, we need to be very careful about the way in which this argument is understood. Is there a role for terrestrial television post the current deal with Sky. Terrestrial is becoming, frankly, less relevant every single year in the context of how people consume media. I don’t think we solve all our participation concerns by terrestrial television.”

Again, it’s using an argument advanced by absolutely no-one to defend the actions of the ECB.  No one has ever claimed putting cricket on free to air solves all problems, but it doesn’t mean for a second that at least some on there wouldn’t help.  All comparable sports make the effort to put some of their output on terrestrial TV, even those who took the Sky shilling long ago like rugby league.  Most sports try to ensure there is a balance – the money from Sky is undoubtedly important, but so is exposure on as wide a platform as possible.

Everyone is aware that consumption of audio visual output has changed and will continue to change over the years ahead, but failing to take into account how people discover the game is potentially crippling.  Cricket tragics will tend to eventually pay up if they can so they can watch.  The casual viewer will not, unless they are already interested in other sports and the bundling of content gives them cricket they would not specifically pay for.  Yet the ECB consistently tries to ignore the wider issue in favour of re-writing history.  Colin Graves – a man of integrity so he claims vociferously said:

“It would be nice to have some cricket on terrestrial television but the problem we have got is terrestrial television does not want cricket.  It certainly does not want Test cricket. We have to get best of all worlds, but if terrestrial broadcasters don’t want cricket, then what can you do?”

This misses the point and is completely disingenous.  It is hardly surprising terrestrial broadcasters are uninterested when it is abundantly clear that they have no prospect whatever of winning a contract to show it.  Why should they invest time and effort in thinking about where they could fit it into their schedules when they know perfectly well they have no chance and that the ECB will go with the highest bidder – which will be Sky unless BT Sport decide to jump in.  If the ECB were to state that they wanted Test cricket on terrestrial television and then no broadcaster showed an interest, then they could claim that.  Unless that happens it’s simply more mendacity from an organisation that seems to find telling the truth challenging in all circumstances.

The argument has been made that young people consume their media in  other ways than television these days.  That is true, but whether via X-Box, Playstation, iPad (other tablets are available – they really are) or anything else comparable, you still need that Sky subscription to watch it.  Unless you access illegal streams.  One would presume the ECB are not advocating that approach.

In any case, it pre-supposes an existing interest.  This does not happen by default, in order to develop an interest in a sport initially there must be some kind of exposure to it.  That may be from a parent, in which case all is well because that parent may imbue the child with the enthusiasm for the sport, but what if the parent hasn’t the finance or the interest in cricket in the first place?  The child will never casually come across cricket if the household does not have Sky Sports, and the idea that media output from the ECB will compensate for that is nonsensical – only those with an established interest will seek it out.

Cricket has become a niche sport, and the focus of the ECB’s response to criticism has been in terms of the England team.  But that is not their whole role in cricket, they are responsible for it at all levels.  The loss of cricket in schools has to some extent been offset by the clubs who have made astonishing efforts to drive interest; indeed the clubs have been instrumental in taking cricket into schools themselves.  As much as the ECB like to congratulate themselves for that, much of the funding comes from Sport England, who have expressed serious concerns about the decline in participation and warned their funding cannot be taken for granted, and most of the effort comes from people down at club and village level, who despair of where the next generation of cricketers will come from unless they do it themselves.

Cricket Australia have taken a fundamentally different approach.  The media position there is not radically different to the UK – and the point about youth televisual consumption is identical to here.  CA insist on cricket being free to air, and even take out advertisments promoting the game on Australian television.  By the ECB insisting their approach is the only one for the UK, they are directly saying that the Australian one is not the way.  There might be differences in the structure of TV between the two countries, but they are not so vast a comparison cannot be made.

Whether it be on the continuing fall out from the Pietersen omnishambles, the question of the coach, the matter of Alastair Cook being affirmed as England captain, or the subject of cricket on television, it is possible the ECB are right, and others wrong.  And in the last case, I would dearly like to be wrong.

Trouble is, I fear I’m not wrong at all.

UPDATE: Since this post was originally put up, the press have released articles concerning what Stuart Broad said about Pietersen.  Essentially it amounts to saying he’d have no objection to Pietersen playing, that the differences between them have been exaggerated, and perhaps most tellingly that he’s not spoken to anyone above him in the ECB about it.  Can anyone find anyone else in the England team apart from Cook who has a problem with him?  Because it seems to be narrowing the field by the day.




Oliver Holt has spoken. The Lord High Priest of Sports Journalism has given his view, and you, you vile proles, are not worthy. You have made him leave the glory of European football, the wonder of Masters Golf, the joy of worthwhile world sporting events, to make him comment on cricket before an Ashes series. And he’s told you to pipe down.

Here endeth the blog. Holt has put me in my place.

So, yes, it is easy to pick holes in Strauss’s decision on Pietersen. It is easy to say blithely that we should always pick our best players irrespective of whatever they may have done or the way they are regarded by team-mates.

It is easy to ridicule Strauss, but the hard fact is that mocking him is a simplistic way out of a complex, regrettable situation. The knee-jerk reaction may be to say he got it horribly wrong. Cold analysis suggests he probably got it right.

English cricket is in a mess at the moment. Everyone can see that. But it is entirely possible that if Strauss had brought Pietersen back, it would be in an even bigger mess.

Stories circulated last week that Alastair Cook would have quit as England captain if Pietersen had been recalled. Strauss hinted in a briefing with Sunday newspapers at Lord’s that others would have considered their futures, too. If KP came back, the England cricket team would have split in two.

Quite why anybody is surprised by that is a mystery. It is not long ago that KP accused Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson of presiding over a bullying culture in the England team. Bullying is an emotive subject. It’s not something you level at someone lightly. ‘It’s an awful word to use,’ Broad told me in Melbourne when we discussed the subject during the World Cup. Anderson and Broad have not simply forgotten it.

I was blind, but now I see. Once Holt pronounces, that is it. The end of the matter. The Supreme Court of sport opinion has now spoken.

Anyone fancy a revolt?

More later….