State of Play

The gap between Tests reduces to some extent the frenetic nature of the media as far as cricket goes, and allows a little time for reflection about where we are more generally, and how we got here.

Although it’s fairly rare to offer up any praise for the ECB (for the simple reasons that they tend to both incompetence and duplicitousness, which is rarely a good combination), it is worth noting that Women’s Ashes matches have been scheduled for between the men’s Tests.  For once they have it right, as it’s far more likely to gain attention that way.  It says a fair bit about the ECB that the overriding reaction to seeing such a piece of consummate common sense is surprise.  Generating that interest creates a feedback loop, as shown by Sussex announcing that the T20 at Hove is nearly sold out.

The rise of women’s cricket in England is a fascinating development.  It’s one that the ECB pat themselves on the back for an awful lot, and it has to be said they have played a significant part in that, although women’s participation in what were traditionally male sports has shown a significant rise across the board, from the success of the football team to the way the women’s Six Nations is now covered on television and gets decent crowds.  In rugby, the RFU have gone as far as to schedule some matches directly after the men at Twickenham, something the ECB have also done beforehand with some England games, and with the same kind of success.  As a means of allowing the more casual supporter to watch, it’s obviously highly successful.  But what it also means is that cricket is not a discrete entity in this; women’s sport is gaining an attention that would have seemed highly unlikely a generation ago.  Quite why that might be is a little hard to pin down, much of it being for sociological reasons as to the acceptability of women playing such sports – good to know we’re in the 21st century at last.  The ECB are entitled to be pleased, but when seen in the context that the number of women playing football is shortly to overtake the number of men playing cricket, it raises as many questions as it answers about their role as governors of the English game.

Nevertheless, whatever provided the catalyst, and whatever the context of cricket more generally, the ECB have certainly played their part in helping growth in women’s cricket.  Free kit has been distributed to clubs, and free coaching and umpires courses provided for women who wish to make use of them.  That does represent something of a contrast in how it is for men wishing to do the same, and the costs involved tend to be significantly higher (and with less given back) than the football equivalents.  Many clubs offset that cost themselves, in order to encourage their members to gain their qualifications, but it is still a lot of money.

What doesn’t get mentioned much (and here the ECB aren’t alone by any means, it is taken for granted across both sport and other walks of life) is that any success requires people on the ground to volunteer and give up huge amounts of time to help encourage people to play the game.  The decline of schools cricket is often cited as being disastrous in this, yet in comparing what was available 25 years ago to what is available now, the clubs have more than filled that gap.  As someone who attended a cricket playing state school, the coaching was non-existent (and the county paid little attention to the state schools there anyway – in that little has changed) while only one local club had a thriving youth section – indeed only one local club even tried to create a thriving youth section.  Moving forward to the present day, it is truly astonishing to see medium sized clubs having colts evenings comprising up to a hundred youngsters of an evening, and a plethora of qualified coaches to help them.  It is, of course, enlightened self-interest from the clubs; shorn of a supply of schoolboy cricketers, they are producing their own.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that for a child who has shown an interest in cricket (therein lies a different debate), the opportunities for playing are now markedly more plentiful than they were in the 1980s.  So far so good, with the obvious concomitant opportunities for cricket more widely.

With both boys and girls cricket, those volunteers are the heroes and heroines.  Many clubs simply decided they wished to create a women’s and girls’ section, and worked ridiculously hard to try and make it work.  Many male players will be familiar with making up the numbers in the initial stages until sufficient players of the correct sex were available.  It is there where the ECB provided some support, a little of it directly, more of it via the counties.  Let there be no mistake, that support was and is critical, but it is still the uncredited hard workers that form the backbone of every cricket club who have made it happen, almost always unappreciated higher up in the game.  The ECB and the counties have been facilitators of an existing desire, not the creators of it.  Given the sheer number of clubs it couldn’t be any other way, but that’s where the balance lies, not in initiatives from the ECB.  Like any organisation, self-justification is part of the marketing, but agreeing that they deserve some credit is not the same as allowing them to take it all.

There is another side issue that affects both male and female youth cricket, and that’s the way funding and support is channelled through the counties.  Girls cricket provides a fascinating insight into the methods of boys cricket as well, given that it was essentially a tabula rasa upon the foundation of the structures.  Some of the counties are excellent, and it’s striking how many cricketers at the top level they are producing, notably Durham.  Others are not.  There is sufficient anecdotal evidence that some counties wish to work with a very small number of clubs in their Premier League alone, and ignore the rest.  That manifests itself in pushing even 12 year olds of promise, boy or girl, to the big clubs in the county, where they can be watched by the county structure.  The frustration for the majority is that there is little point in focusing on producing the best players they can, if the first time they come into contact with the county, that county tells them to leave and go somewhere else.  It becomes a parasitical relationship rather than one of mutual support.  Now of course, as that youngster develops, there comes a point where they need to be exposed to the highest level of club cricket possible, if they are to make it to the professional ranks, and every club is – or should be – fully aware of that.  But that isn’t what is occurring in at least some of the counties, they are attempting to hoover up every single promising player and divert them from their home club at the earliest possible age to a bigger one.  If this was happening to a tiny village club with one eleven, you could almost understand it, but it isn’t, it applies to clubs who are playing in the county league cricket structure and by any measure are good, strong cricket clubs.

The Sky Millions question is: how widespread is this?  It is dangerous to extrapolate anecdotal experiences with reality, but it is a complaint heard sufficiently to cause deep concern.  The trouble is that few people have direct experience of multiple county structures, so one that doesn’t behave in this way would be seen as doing things extremely well by those living in a “good” county without being aware of the circumstances elsewhere – and vice versa.  In at least some of the counties, and perhaps more, the club game is treated as something of a hindrance, except as a means of extracting the best players out of it and into the arms of the county.

That attitude towards the clubs at the ECB and the counties is evidenced by the complete lack of representation of the amateur game within its own governing body.  It is striking that the much maligned FA has much greater representation outside the professional game than the ECB does.  A cricket club needs to be affiliated to the ECB but has no power of influence over it.  There is a single representative from the recreational game on the board, and that one person wasn’t elected by any clubs, but is an appointee.  Equally, there is little or no oversight for how a county fulfils its obligations to the clubs in its area, which means it is reliant on them doing so in the wider interest rather than their own.  The clear decline in participation can be for any number of reasons on an individual level, but when there’s a pattern more widely, questions need to be asked why.  It would be easy to point to the loss of terrestrial TV coverage, and undoubtedly that will have played a part, but it is much more complex than that.

Where this has relevance as we move up through the levels of cricket is in terms of affecting the quality of the player base from which the counties and then England can select.  As has been pointed out on a number of occasions, up to seven of the England eleven are public schoolboys.  In some instances they are scholarship boys, quite possibly because of their cricket prowess in the first place.  This isn’t a class based point, or a political one, but the reality is that with 93% of children going to state schools, there is clearly an enormous wastage of basic talent.  That has to be balanced with the reality that with excellent facilities, the public schoolboy has likely far better access to cricket as a matter of course.  It’s not an either/or and it’s not a straightforward criticism.  What it is though, is extremely careless to have failed to make the most of the vast majority, in a way that football tends to avoid.  And that’s without taking into account the worrying lack of Asian talent making it to the top level given the proportion of club cricket that comprises.  The clubs are developing young cricketers in greater numbers than they ever have before, athought there is inevitably wastage as they grow up, and inevitably some parents will regard it as a useful form of free babysitting.  The volunteers and the clubs themselves are more than aware of that, but do it anyway because of the small percentage who will stay with the club into adulthood.  If the clubs themselves are providing the basic numbers, then at some point as the standard increases, they are falling by the wayside as a proportion of the whole.

With the Edgbaston Test approaching, the dropping of Gary Ballance for Jonny Bairstow has been accompanied by a sideline that there aren’t too many alternatives to choose from.  There is obviously the pachyderm hovering which must not be mentioned, but even in that instance, the point of origin for that player is South Africa.  Since he arrived as a 19 year old off-spinner, a strong case can be made that he learned to become the player he was in England rather than anywhere else, yet the formative years weren’t here.  Indeed the same applies to Ballance himself who learned his cricket in Zimbabwe.  The county system itself looks in both directions, both up to England level and down to club level.  If done well, that link can be invaluable, if done badly, it’s a matter of self-interest rather than the greater good.  England are always going to have some input from places like South Africa for obvious historical reasons, the number of overseas British passport holders is enormous, and the county game offers the potential for a good living.  Some object to the importation of such players who then turn out for England, but given the rules, which are stricter in England than they need to be internationally, there is nothing wrong with England choosing them, and in any case someone who moves across the world to make their career as a teenager is clearly a driven individual.

No, this isn’t about the use of such players per se, but why it is that without them England would be so markedly weaker, why we aren’t producing enough players of the requisite standard ourselves, and why we don’t produce the exceptional players that other countries seem to.

A little over a year ago, an article appeared in Cricinfo from a father talking about the experience of his son, who hadn’t been part of the age group sides, but had developed later on his county trial.  For those who missed it, it is well worth reading again in its entirety:

http://www.espncricinfo.com/thestands/content/story/717821.html

On its own, a single article like that means little, but the trouble was that it very clearly chimed with a great many others.  It was a small article, somewhat hidden away, and within the depressingly small confines of those interested in cricket, received a lot of attention.

Even if they can still think for themselves, they won’t be allowed to if they want to progress. Their whole lives will be structured by a battalion of experts for every eventuality, and should they speak up against it, they will be labelled “a divisive influence”, “a rebellious individual”, or most worryingly of all, “not a team player”.

The relentless focus on fitting in with what those above wished, the intolerance of individuality, and the requirement for a player to be coached to meet the narrow definitions of the approved cricketing path, rather than trying to get the most out of them is a complaint heard all too often, even in the national set up.  This is the other side of the coin from the counties themselves trying to drive the direction of youth cricketers from a very young age.  A child whose parent resists the push to move to a bigger club at an early age is already risking being marked out as part of the awkward squad, with all that entails.

Recently, he trialled with a first-class county, and after a single session lasting less than three hours, he was left injured and demoralised for more than a week afterwards. The injuries were because the session seemed to be less about cricket and far more about physical punishment. If a bowler failed to hit the cone, hurdle or pole that was acting as a target in the drill in question, he faced punishment. If a batsman failed to hit the bowling machine ball back between the cones provided, he would face punishment. If a fielder failed to complete the drill faultlessly, he would go back to the queue, because for the second half of the session, fielding drills were the punishment.

Allowances in that particular article need to be made for someone being a father to his son; the trouble was the lack of outrage from other counties, and the lack of anyone coming forward to say that it was an entirely isolated incident.  Indeed, just the opposite, with even some coaches lamenting that their own experiences in the centres of excellence mirrored it exactly.  Few allowances are made for players developing at different rates in the first place, if anything it was something of a surprise that an older player who hadn’t been through the county process got as far as getting a trial in the first place.

There’s a degree of irony in this.  When England talk about “executing their skills” ad nauseam, what is clear that those skills form a smaller part of the development of young players than might be thought.  English cricket – and the clubs are no more immune to this criticism than those above – has a terrible tendency to focus on what someone cannot do rather than what they can.  It is indicative that it is somewhat hard to imagine a Steve Smith, with a highly unconventional technique, making it to the top level without someone trying to force him to do what everyone else does, and probably failing.  A wise man once said that the skill of coaching was to ensure a player became the best he could be, and that doesn’t mean making that player fit in to preconceived ideas and micro-managing every aspect of their lives beyond the nets.

The danger for women’s cricket is that this template is being duplicated at every level.  From a low base, this probably doesn’t matter in the immediate term, but it seems too much to hope that lessons are being learned.

None of this should be seen as a criticism of the selection of Bairstow, his record this season merits consideration, and he is clearly steeped in cricket from birth, both directly and indirectly.  It is a matter of closing the circle from the lowest levels on the village green to the Test arena, whereby England are able to select from the widest and deepest talent pool available.  Whether it is the bowling attack, or the batting line up, the cry that often goes up is that is all too samey.  Yet this is hardly surprising given all the above.  Talented players are pushed the same way, to the same circumstances, and the same end result.  And ultimately we end up with an England team where the batsmen tend to be very similar, and so do the bowlers.  It is perhaps unsurprising in that context, that the county who are often seen as creating a template for producing players who exist on their own merits – Durham – are also the one who create players who reach England level that have quirky personalities and techniques that have been largely left alone.  It is furthermore disappointing to see that someone instrumental in that, Graeme Fowler, felt the need to stand down in protest at the direction the university cricket centre was going in.

In recent times one of the more striking things about the England team has been the peculiar joylessness in their play.  If the likes of the article above are true about how the various development centres are run, it is unsurprising that this would be the case, players pushed in a certain direction from a very young age, forced to operate with narrow parameters lest they be considered unable to toe the line or form part of the group, and prevented from expressing themselves in their play.  Of course, the New Zealand series showed that this doesn’t need to be so, yet the last Test showed worrying signs of a reversion to the mean, although a single match shouldn’t in itself be viewed as any kind of trend.  The challenge for Trevor Bayliss and Paul Farbrace would then be far more extensive than simply to allow England players to express themselves, it would be to undo half a lifetime of being trammeled and restricted.

This doesn’t mean for a moment that those players in the England set up are therefore unhappy, but it does take a particular type of person to operate in the kind of environment cricket in England works in.  The problem is not those players who have made it, but those who have not.  How many talented players are lost at every stage due to it?  Falling by the wayside is inevitable, not making the most of what you have is criminal.   Whether at 12 years old or 25 years old, a one size fits all approach cannot work, it simply produces those who are pre-disposed to fit the prevailing culture.  And that’s all very well, but you end up with an England side who are the products of that, with all the limitations therein.  One of the most striking things about l’affaire Pietersen is that he so plainly didn’t fit into the box into which the ECB wanted to put him.  When that same perspective pervades the entire game, then suspicions start to arise that the ECB itself is a major part of the problem.

It is highly unlikely that the ECB are doing anything except that which they feel to be the best overall.  But the tail wags the dog, with the counties having the overriding power.  Where this ties in as at both ends of the game’s spectrum.  The wider club game is often viewed as a chore within the counties, hence the desire to compact it to as few clubs as possible, while the England team is not the focus except inasmuch as it benefits those counties, especially financially.  That being the case, from youth to senior professional, the counties play their role well, producing significant numbers of county level professionals, of whom England select the best at playing county cricket.  The trouble is, that is not the same as producing the best possible players.  And this is completely inevitable, because although some would doubtless protest at the way they are being painted here, any organisation will gear itself to the promotion of its primary aim, irrespective of what they might say that aim is.   How that translates in terms of the financial distribution of the money brought into will be the subject of a future blog.

Women’s cricket is in an expansion phase where there is optimism about the direction in which it is moving.  But by doing it the same way as they are with the men, the potential for the same shortcomings is clearly there.  The men’s team will play the best available team (with arguably one exception) who will do the best that they can.  But why they are the best we have is a subject that reaches right the way down to the park and the village green, and ultimately, England get what they have worked for since the players were children.  The problem is, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

@BlueEarthMngmnt

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30 thoughts on “State of Play

  1. Zephirine Jul 25, 2015 / 4:12 pm

    Excellent piece with much food for thought. Thank you TLG.

    Like

    • BoerInAustria Jul 26, 2015 / 6:43 am

      Agree Z. This is fantastic writing. Honest, passionate and probing. All cricket writers in the MSM should hang their heads in shame.

      Like

  2. Mark Jul 25, 2015 / 4:53 pm

    Great article and it raises so many points of issue. It is interesting to compare the complaints of some ex footballers about their concerns about the rise of the football academy’s at the top clubs. Chris Waddle being one who has voiced his concerns. Young boys taken out of local football with their mates, and put into a giant sausage grinder of a machine. No school football, no local club football! Just a regime through the academy. Again the lack of enjoyment , and fun is removed. We will have to wait another 10/20 years to see if the model improves the amount of English players available in the system. But many are questioning some aspects of the method.

    This lack of enjoyment and individuality concerns me greatly. Without getting too political it seems as if this top down, almost agricultural system of growing live stock that is bread to order for the higher ups is being inflicted more and more in our lives. And I see no evidence that it is generating results.

    It is fascinating to me how much more success Britain has had in recent decades in sports that are individual rather than team controlled. Golf for example, or Tennis. Athletics, cycling. All things that can be done outside of a team environment. It is interesting how few great golfers have come through the famous private golf clubs of the last 25 years. Nick Faldo had parents that had no connection with Golf. He learned on the public courses. Ian Woosnam would sleep in his car so he could be up at 5.30 and ready to play at 6 am when the public golf course opened. Leave it till 9am and the que would be a mile long.

    It seems sports where kids good learn and then play without the constant control and surveillance of a nosey governing body, stacked with Blazers and little Hitlers obsessed with club rules and regulations have a chance to develop. When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s a friend of mine had huge difficulty getting into a private golf club. His parents finally found one that would take him. One day he was playing on a public course and he met a man in his late 20s who told him he had been trying get into that club for years. But they wouldn’t take him because he was a bricklayer. Hopefully things have improved, buta lot of top players seem to come out of the not so snotty clubs.

    As for the rise in woman’s sport I really enjoyed the woman’s football World Cup. It was quite nice to see the game played without all the rolling around and face clutching and cynicism we have in the men’s game. I only found out lately how big woman’s football was 100 years ago. It has been air brushed out of history. Apparently during the first world war, with all the young men fighting in France, woman’s football was put on to provide entertainment. It became hugely popular with tens of thousands attending matches. So popular that after the war the football authorities had to go out of their way to kill it off so as to start back up the men’s version. There’s always men in Blazers screwing it up.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. paulewart Jul 25, 2015 / 5:25 pm

    So the sadistic, joyless Flower hegemony has now drilled down to the counties. How very, very sad.

    Like

  4. keyserchris Jul 25, 2015 / 7:28 pm

    I can only speak from my village clubs perspective. We have 2 senior sides and until last year a thriving junior section, plus a ladies team. We have actively pursued a ladies side mostly from the enthusiasm from a couple of people in our club to do so, but with the fringe benefit that it increased our funding chances. Having a ladies team was a main cause in raising money through local council & wider grants to pay for 2 proper all weather nets for us. The ECB deserve huge credit for the women’s team development & success at the top level. Huge. But the main issue at a village level is two-fold: our local league has no representation through its county board at ECB level, and we do not qualify for ECB grants. As my understanding goes, grants at sub-county are only available via the NatWest Cricket Force & Chance to Shine schemes. Neither of which are funded directly by the ECB. ECB money sub-minor county is only available as loans. Even the FA are better than that. We want ECB money, it will cost us. I maintain (a probably lone voice) that that is scandalous one an era of falling participation.

    It is a rugby World Cup year. My local team (that I still sort of perform for…) has seen the post 2003 participation bubble burst, but has picked up in the last 18 months again. In 3 months time, we will see a guaranteed post WC bubble increase that, in a system where the RFU is directly involved with funding at every level. A system where the RFU is actively aware this will happen & is already stokeing flames accordingly already pre-WC.

    In our village league, we will shrink from 10 to 9 divisions this year. Clubs that had 3 teams 4 years ago will fold this year. Teams with genuinely amazing wickets & facilities, better than we can dream of. I find it tough to not reconcile the lack of FTA cricket with this drop in participation; and that is directly at the ECBs door. We had a similar post-2005 bubble, and that age group carried us, hit an age of University/work, and we couldn’t replace them…

    Like

    • thelegglance Jul 25, 2015 / 7:31 pm

      I’ll address the funding issue in a future post Chris. I need to try and get my head around where it all goes first. I’ve a lot of reading I need to do to prep for it.

      Like

      • keyserchris Jul 25, 2015 / 7:54 pm

        Oh, please do! There are no glamour headlines in the subject, but it has an impact at the lowest of levels (basically, my villages level…). For every year since we formed (40-odd years ago) we have played cricket despite the ECB, not because of it…

        Like

    • metatone Jul 27, 2015 / 11:19 am

      This fits more with the future article, but one huge problem for lower tiers is that any money that is connected to Sport England funding (rather than ECB direct money) has a bunch of strings attached. Crucially, there’s this basic rule that the funding is for capital improvements, not for running costs.

      (Ironically, I first became familiar with this problem helping out a women’s football club.)

      The difficulty here is that cricket, of all games, has running costs. A big issue here is pitches in particular. I’ve ranted before, but the ECB is insane for not employing regional grounds experts to help clubs maintain pitches.

      Like

  5. Rohan Jul 25, 2015 / 9:36 pm

    TLG this is superb. Excellent reasoning, strong arguments, wide and varied evidence. It really is a superb piece of critical analysis that puts the MSM and their efforts to shame.

    Fantastic stuff.

    Like

    • thelegglance Jul 25, 2015 / 11:36 pm

      Thank you Rohan. I was a bit uncertain about this one and asked Dmitri to have a look at the draft and make sure the various strands were pulled together sufficiently to make a coherent argument.

      I hope it makes some degree of sense at least.

      Like

    • Boz Jul 26, 2015 / 9:06 am

      this just confirms that Strauss is a C**T and a L**R – still, this is the man that claims England were caught ‘cold’ by Australia in the second test – taking the ECB b*****s to yet a new extreme

      Liked by 1 person

      • Boz Jul 26, 2015 / 9:08 am

        and it looks like the Women’s ODI will be postponed as yet another day of pouring rain engulfs the area leaving questions about whether there will be a summer at all this year …………..

        Like

    • Zephirine Jul 26, 2015 / 9:26 am

      “Alastair Cook has publicly expressed his disappointment”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Zephirine Jul 26, 2015 / 9:29 am

        (That was Alastair’s disappointment with the pitches, but no doubt he’s disappointed about the women’s ODI as well, if he’s noticed it’s on. He probably feels something should be done about the rain.)

        Like

      • Fred Jul 26, 2015 / 12:40 pm

        Alastair Cook has publicly expressed his disappointment with the Lord’s pitch, saying: “We want to play on English wickets and that probably wasn’t too English.”
        he went on to say “The pitch wasn’t from the right sort of pitch family. I heard it whistling the night before and it did some other things too I can’t tell you about. Something should be done. I could have shown the leadership to prepare this pitch, but that was taken away from me. But the pitch in Edgbaston has real character, English character, it’s not South African at all.”
        “I’m going to shoot a dear now” he added.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Zephirine Jul 26, 2015 / 1:26 pm

        Very good, Fred!!

        Like

      • BoerInAustria Jul 26, 2015 / 1:29 pm

        In an attempt to strengthen the all English approach, a media campaign reinforced Stokes credentials:

        “Although he was born in New Zealand, he has lived most of his life in Britain and looks and sounds like a Durham boy”(Guardian)
        and
        “Stokes’s battling character was forged in his teenage years after his parents moved from New Zealand to the north west of England so his father could pursue his playing and then coaching career at Workington” (Daily Mail).

        None of that “New Zealand born” nonsense.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Fred Jul 26, 2015 / 1:37 pm

        It’s like my cooking Zepherine, any success is due not so much to the chef but to the quality of the raw material available!

        Like

      • Arron Wright Jul 26, 2015 / 2:21 pm

        “any success is due not so much to the chef”

        Blasphemy. Stone him.

        Liked by 1 person

      • BoerInAustria Jul 26, 2015 / 2:28 pm

        Like

      • Fred Jul 26, 2015 / 2:49 pm

        Oops!
        Now if I was a dishonest man I’d say my pun was entirely intended.

        Like

    • d'Arthez Jul 26, 2015 / 2:10 pm

      They will have looked at it. If only to ensure that no one can accuse the ECB of having dismissed such socialist notions out of hand.

      Liked by 1 person

    • SimonH Jul 26, 2015 / 2:47 pm

      There was a discussion about a franchise T20 on this morning’s CWOTV.

      Unsurprisingly, the FTA aspect wasn’t part of the discussion at all. What was really important was whether the Test players would be available (they aren’t in the BBL). Oh, and whether supporters could cope with three different teams using the Oval or whether the poor dears would be too confused. But what’s FTA compared to such issues?

      (Some thoughts on other bits of CWOTV are on the previous thread).

      Like

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