It’s not exactly original, I know, but the end of a year brings forth a time to reflect, to review and to write tedious end of year pieces looking forward to the next. Good grief, I know I am guilty of that more than most! Be warned, this is a long one……
How will I look back on 2016? It has been a challenging year for blogging, it has to be said. From a personal perspective I’ve found this year quite tough. I’ve not had the pure motivation of previous years, and for quite lengthy periods have not been bothered to write. That’s probably a product of two things.
- The first is that with a few glorious exceptions, the authorities have upgraded themselves from Keystone Cops to Dad’s Army, and thus haven’t really pushed the buttons. Combined with somehow finishing the KP for England (in the T20) debate despite none of us thinking it was ever an option they would undertake, the ECB mainly steered clear of self-made obstacles. Then they raised their T20 plans and banished Durham, and they gave us some gifts to work on. However, the ECB had a quiet year (by recent standards) it has to be said. The rumblings of old perennial flowers in the garden may give portents to future growth of enthusiasm.
- The second is blogging burnout. I have said on many occasions how unprepared I was when How Did We Lose in Adelaide took off. Not just the time and effort to write and write and write, but also mentally how draining it can be, especially on top of a very busy job. The whole thing took a lot out of me. Writing the blog became borderline obsessive. Content, no matter how it was derived, mattered. I started feeling the pace during the 2015 Ashes. Having moved from HDWLIA to the new blog, it had become established and even had a new writer to help out (which greatly undersells what Chris has brought to this blog – but that’s how he worded his first offer, “helping out”), but I was thoroughly pissed off by the cricket, the media, the idiots throwing bricks at us, and probably culminated in the Twitter meltdown with Etheridge. I was knackered. At times during 2016 that has resurfaced. I have a life outside of here and work. I have a lot of other interests. It is time I paid attention to them. But, this is like an addictive drug. It keeps pulling me back. I’m sometimes not sure if this is good or not!
For me 2016 was a year when the campaigning, more vociferous (shall we say) blogging was put a little back in its box. This hasn’t been the year for it, although it may have ended a good deal more tetchily than it was in the middle months. That’s not to say I don’t think Being Outside Cricket is declining in relevance, such as we have. There’s still something on here you will not find anywhere else, and that’s a lot of cricket tragics putting forward angry points of view, without fear or favour. The voice is still heard, if a lot less acknowledged in public, and that we have retained a very healthy hit rate and visitor count despite a decline in the number of articles, in conjunction with a test year which, on paper, wasn’t the most attractive in pure media terms, and a lack of major controversies speaks volumes. At the end of 2016 I feel better than at most parts of the year. I do recognise, though, that the next four or five months are going to be absolutely brutal with a lack of England test matches, and only patchy instances of ODI cricket to sustain us. The one thing learned is that test matches drive traffic. Well that and KP and/or Alastair Cook. With an absence of those factors, all of us here are under no illusions how tough the barren lands of early 2017 will be. In contrast, the next year from May 2017 will be absolutely off the charts.
Outside of Being Outside Cricket, I am sad that people like Maxie (totally) and Tregaskis (to a lesser extent) are not rumbling around as they used to. Both are inspirations to me over the past few years, writing in their own styles, and attacking their foe with precision and not a little flair as well. If they are the guided missiles or sniper’s rifle, I’m a big hefty cannon! Maxie in particular is a grievous loss to our cause and to that of cricket blogging. Maxie drives traffic when he writes. You may not agree with him, but you read him. You may argue with him, but you listen to him. He has that skill to get under the right people’s noses. I have said that he will always have a place to write if he ever wanted to “come back” and that stands. Without him, and with the different direction I think The Full Toss has gone, it does feel quite lonely out here, being angry and keeping the fires burning!
That’s because others who were equally vociferous during the tumultuous times are much less so now. That is the writer’s choice, of course, and I don’t want to criticise them for it. Each cricket writer / blogger has to be true to themselves. I have said, many times, that if I wasn’t true to what I believed in you’d see it a mile off, and I wouldn’t be able to write for any length of time. I have a couple of individuals in mind (and not the Full Toss before people put 2+2 together and make 5), and they need to realise that playing both sides of the fence is taking much of their readership for granted. They are still capable of great things, pieces I read and enjoy. But there are other times I think “are you being, have you been, totally honest with your readers?” That’s for them. Call it friendly advice.
It would not be a review of the year without mentioning the madhouse that is Twitter. Contact with the media has fallen off a cliff this year as obviously we don’t need to be acknowledged as we were post-KP. Now that’s a dead issue the media, those who bothered, don’t need to know how the great unwashed feel. That’s no more evident in the recent Cook incidents. The press don’t need to protect him now, because there’s no combined angry backlash if he was to be sacked coming, other than from a couple of diehard pillocks the world can ignore safely. After KP there was an angry backlash from a number of blogs, new and old, and the reporters had to recognise this. Now there’s nothing to get angry about, there’s nothing for them to worry about. I’d be a little bit concerned, if I was a journo, about some of the key big beasts being put out to pasture. They weren’t, in the main, the ones who had the foggiest idea about “social media”, despite being on it.
Twitter has been a lot less confrontational. The odd arsehole that got on my nerves as always – some who follow KP’s twitter feed to have a pop strike me as particularly “obsessed” – but nothing like the rubbish I’ve had to put up with in the past. After the early issues this year with one, we’ve had a spell where we’ve managed, I think, to not get mad at each other, which suits me. The other one I have had constant issues with showed their nasty side by threatening to out my name in a particularly lovely Tweet, but even if they do, no-one cares. Then there was the remarkably odd parody twitter feed. I’ve blocked that old bollocks. Other than that, it’s all quite quiet, and that can only be a good thing for your health, I suppose.
So to the cricket. What, really? If I must? Let’s focus on England.
The year started with the Ben Stokes blitz in Cape Town. This incredible knock didn’t get England a win, but it did set the tone for some high octane stuff during the year. Almost, but not quite, unnoticed in that innings was the magnificent first hundred for Jonny Bairstow, which would lay the table for his year. England actually finished Cape Town on the back foot after a double hundred by Amla and a century by Bavuma, and a last day wobble, but returned magnificently on top at Johannesburg when the stars aligned for another of those Stuart Broad spells. Joe Root’s masterful century on a surface that Broad made hay on is conveniently forgotten by those wishing to criticise him now, and it laid the foundation for the series win. England then went on to lose a one-sided, we don’t give a stuff test, at Centurion. Funny how, when we lose these matches, we don’t give a stuff because we’ve won the series. I suppose it makes us feel like the 1990s Australian team if we think like that.
The ensuing ODI series with South Africa started with England’s attacking play dominating. The first two matches were taken in some style, before the tide turned, and England’s devil may care approach came unstuck in the decider. If one lesson was learned it was not to say we would win a series 5-0 when we hadn’t actually won the series. Maybe we’ll learn. Also, Adil Rashid dropped a catch and copped a ton of blame. That set a tone.
The World T20 competition was greeted with little hope, given it was being played in India and “we never do well in the sub-continent”. England lost to the West Indies in a Gayle tour de force, but came back to win the rest of their group games, including a phenomenal run chase against South Africa that was a much a trait of our new attitude as the loss in the ODI decider in South Africa had been. People, it’s two sides of the same coin. It just isn’t a tuppence, but a nice shiny new £2 one. England qualified for the semi-final, and overcame New Zealand, and when they got to the Final were relieved to be facing West Indies and not India. We all know what happened then, and we also know how important a moment in the cricket year for attitudes going forward in the media and the blogs that was.
The good feelings from the World T20, despite the tumultuous ending, and the start of the new county season seemed to beckon a bright summer. But the first half was low key, and in many ways just dull. The home series v Sri Lanka, both in tests and ODIs, lacked a certain something. There were exciting moments, none more so than Liam Plunkett’s last ball six in the first ODI, but Sri Lanka’s game approach was not matched by results. England won the test series 2-0, with a rain-affected draw the other “result”, and got through the two limited overs portions of the somewhat less than Super Series unbeaten. It was job done for England, but judging by attendances at the test matches, the level of interest on here, and my own (lack of) attempts to keep up with fixtures while on holiday in the US, it raised a number of very awkward questions about the quality of the product on show. This was the first time I had to listen via Guerilla Cricket. A useful service, but really not my cup of Earl Grey. After that it was Cricinfo (and my first question on Polite Enquiries which was met with George saying “I don’t think Dmitri is being totally serious”.
The second half of the summer was covered in my 5th Dmitri for the year. From England’s perspective it was a series that possibly got away. There was much rancour and discord over the omission of Anderson and Stokes from the first test, which grew when the whispers that they were fit were married up with a defeat at the hands of a vibrant opposition and around the same time Andy Flower broke his “dignified silence”. There was a distinct smack of “good journalism” about it all. The second test at Old Trafford was one way traffic once Cook and Root set about the task at hand, with Root becoming only the second domestic player since 1990 to pass 250 in a test match. England took the wickets they needed within the time allotted for a comprehensive win. A tight third test that ebbed and flowed went the way of the hosts when Pakistan failed to survive Day 5 (heard that one before), but any resting on the laurels was rudely awakened when a lax first innings at The Oval was at least 150 runs short (despite a Moeen masterpiece) and Younis Khan’s double hundred pointed the way to a series levelling victory. In both wins Yasir Shah had applied the bowling coup de grace. Yasir was lethal in London, undone up north.
The ODI series that followed had some magnificent performances, most notably the breaking of Robin Smith’s 23 year old record for the highest ODI score by an England player. Hales had 200 at his mercy but had to settle for 171. That new record might not last 23 months. England also made the highest ODI score of 444 for 3, Wahab recorded figures of 0 for 110 (second only to the legend of Mick Lewis in ODIs), Jos Buttler took 22 balls to reach 50 (an English record) and so on and so forth. We also had a number 11 make a 50 in the response! Pakistan rallied towards the end of the series, winning the last game, and then winning the T20 as well, but overall, sentiment towards the white ball team was in the ascendant. They were/are genuinely fun to watch.
The problem with England, its media, and many of its fans, is that there is too much emphasis placed on “doing what is perceived to be the right thing”. Looming at the end of the series was the trip to Bangladesh, where international teams were less keen to go, especially after the early July terrorist attacks at a bakery in Dhaka that was frequented by overseas visitors. After a very thorough review, itself indicative of the tricky nature of the decision, and backed by a host government prepared to throw a shedload of money at security, the tour was deemed safe to proceed. Players were given, by the ECB, keeping in mind the security issues, a choice whether they would go on the tour or stay. Eoin Morgan and Alex Hales said they did not feel comfortable and withdrew, just as Andrew Caddick did in India many years ago. The results were a widespread condemnation of Morgan, an Oliver Holt expedition so shallow that it barely merited being a puddle of a piece, and the generation of nonsensical heat and light about duty, loyalty, courage and leadership. A 2-1 ODI series win, under some interesting and tetchy leadership by Jos Buttler, was greeted like a huge triumph, and now the same heat and light is on whether Morgan should be in the team on merit, or whether we should just throw in the young guns, like, er, Ben Duckett (that went well in the test team). Morgan is a great captain of an ODI team and keeps his place on merit. Cook wasn’t a great captain of a poor performing test team, and was in poor nick for quite a while, and the press could barely mention it. We are a funny bunch.
Once the ODI series and the all the old cobblers that came with had been got out of the way, so we went into the two match test series. Alastair Cook had come back from the UK after the birth of his second child, and assumed the reins of the team, as they sought to hold back the hosts on some very spicy, spinning wickets. Both tests were filled with drama. Batting was perilous, but England got enough to win by a narrow margin at Chittagong, with Stokes being the difference, but the cracks did not hold at Dhaka, and Bangladesh romped to a famous victory. There was lot of great spin in evidence, with the English representatives coming from the media, and the hosts from the team, and especially the exciting talent that was Mehedi Hassan. The media tried to make it look like this was a valiant drawn series against a talented foe. Most of us thought this was a recipe for disaster with India looming, and no-one was being called for it except the three spinners. Batsmen weren’t to blame, they rarely are (unless you should not have been picked in the first place, Gary Balance). Those of us with long memories will recall the over the top reactions to a hit out or get out 50 by Ben Duckett for a while to come. It took all of two matches for him to become “unselectable” after that.
Then on to India. The result was pre-ordained according to the press and other experts. I’m listening to an old Switch Hit where Mark Butcher basically said that anyone with any cricket knowledge should have known that was going to be the result. I am really sorry, but I am not buying it, will not be buying it, and won’t be buying it any time soon. England were competitive, so they said, but lost key sessions and lost 4-0. Because this was the bar set at the start, then it was almost acceptable for it to be the end result. I was half joking when I said anything other than 5-0 would be painted as a success.
But you know, and I know, that this isn’t really what is going on. For the media to, almost as one, indicate that it’s time up for Alastair Cook suggests he’s not really thought of as totally without blame for this one in the same way David Gower wasn’t for the Blackwash of 1984. The captaincy was abject at some points – and all captains go through abject moments – but he seemed to be unable to rouse anyone, to get them enthused or excited. At times it was going through the motions. Karun Nair has a test triple hundred to his name, for heaven’s sake. Gavaskar, Tendulkar, Dravid, Viswanath, Hazare et al have not made one, but Karun Nair has. Jayant Yadav may be a very talented cricketer, but he has a test ton to his name too. Yet this was seen to be almost “expected”. I’m scratching my head.
England played well at Rajkot, batted with discipline, made a massive first innings total, dictated terms, and played with good sense. The declaration caused some ructions, but I wasn’t overly fussed about it. A decent performance after Dhaka was what was needed. Of course, some went silly over it, and then found out why you shouldn’t when we were handily beaten at Vizag. Kohli’s masterful 167 being the key batting difference, and while some were still saying the signs were really encouraging, most of us thought that unless the bleeding was stopped we were in real trouble. Of course, the toss was “crucial” there, and the result might have been different had we won it. When we won the toss at Mohail, we were promptly dismissed for 283 and dead in the water. Of course, this ignores the fact that India were 204 for 6 in reply and were totally let off the hook, as the tail wagged. A 124 run lead for India was enough. England never got back into the game.
At this point Haseeb Hameed had sustained a broken finger and was out of the rest of the tour, which meant his almost legendary start could benefit more from not playing in the final two test matches. Hameed is a talent, for sure, but I do like to see my talents make massive scores before anointing them as the heir apparent to Kumar Sangakkara, even if that means I’m bloody unreasonable in so doing. English sport is littered with kids built up before they are due, and cast aside when they don’t live up to the hype. Let’s hope HH is an exception to the rule.
The last two test matches followed similar patterns. England won the toss, thus gaining an advantage, but still found themselves batting last as they made on the face of it decent totals, but totally inadequate when you neither appeared to have the clue or the sticky hands to constrain Indian batsmen. Are you really telling me that Mumbai was a 631 wicket? I’ve just heard Mark Butcher call England’s second innings as being inevitably below 200, because the deck was doing everything. Yet we couldn’t get shot of the Indian lower order? They were 34 runs behind us when the 7th wicket went down and walked away with a 231 lead! As for Chennai, that was a road. A road we couldn’t be arsed to stick it out on to get a draw.
Look, I recognise, as someone who has watched the game enough that winning in India is tough. I am not bloody stupid. What got me with this is the almost reticent attitude of those following, who seemed to take more time explaining away our failures rather than getting stuck into players who underperformed, unless their name was Adil Rashid. It was quite strange, having lived through some disastrous tours where the press declared open season, even at times when we were expected to be thrashed (every overseas Ashes series it seemed). Now everyone wanted to be ever so reasonable about it. As the beloved says “beware a change of behaviour”.
The year ends with England, touted as possible world number 1s after their win in South Africa in a state of flux. I think most people, in their hearts, know Cook should go. Some have known it a lot longer than others. There is almost ludicrous expectations on Hameed, while Keaton Jennings may have a debut test ton under his belt, but still appears to have a bit to prove. The batting order is a mess, we are playing a wicket keeper batsman as a batsman, and a batsman wicketkeeper as the keeper. Moeen Ali doesn’t know whether he is coming or going. Adil is on the one hand a fragile, catch dropping liability, and within a fortnight our number one spinner. The seam bowling looked worryingly ineffective once the wickets got flat, and James Anderson appears to be an injury prone, too many miles on the clock, up and down bowler (has he lost that nip) on wickets that don’t help him. That doesn’t even mention the coaching staff. Trevor Bayliss got too much praise when things were going well, and pushed off a day early when they weren’t. He’s either managed the press well, or there is something going on. There are a number of grumblings about his test coaching ability, but nothing serious yet. Maybe there’s a nice herbaceous border around him with lots of pretty flowers? As for Paul Farbrace, who knows? Everyone still seems to be in Camp Farby. Nothing to seems to stick to him. If we are doing well, he gets lots and lots of praise. When they go badly, he gets lots and lots of praise. I’m not entirely sure why! Maybe it’s because he’s a cheeky chappy, chirpy and upbeat, a lovely assistant, creating a good environment. 2017 has many many tests – the Champions Trophy had better go well. South Africa won’t be pushovers, and we might freeze West Indies to death by the end of September, while our players will be on their knees. And then….The Ashes!
So to the media. We’ve seen the loss of some of the behemoths of the reporting game. Stephen Brenkley was dispensed with when the Independent went online only, and now is the home of any jobbing freelancer wanting to sell copy. There’s the case of spreading yourself too thinly as a couple of the hardy perennials of the up and coming crew are doing. While Brenkley wasn’t my cup of tea, and to be fair, I’m not really sure who is, I found him more the unthreatening scribe, clearly in love with what he was doing because of the sport and less because he appeared in love with himself. In some ways I miss Bunkers.
Then there was the well trailed removal of Mike Selvey from the Guardian. It is never nice to see a man lose his job, and it is important that this isn’t jumping on his misfortune, but he needed to read the runes and he didn’t. Like Pringle before he gave off the impression the game owed him a living, and the reverence he received BTL in The Guardian often enforced that. The lachrymose tributes on his demise were OTT. His view of embracing social media was to put what he thought out there and slag off anyone who disagreed. As a newspaper man, you can’t do that. Engage, debate, even try to get to know your accusers. Some have done it and found it, I think, of mutual benefit. For Phil Walker to almost cuddle him on Cricket Writers was the last straw for me with AOC. Selvey had no truck with the likes of us, independent of mind, as acerbic in print as he could be. He didn’t want to read views contrary to his, or at least, he might if you’d played the game at the highest level. But he might ask himself why we have a decent relationship with certain journalists and not him while he sups his pint and pines, of course, for a job lost. There were a lot on here who really liked you Mike. Maybe ask why they ended up being on the other side of that line at the end.
Meanwhile the same old correspondents plod along, touring the world, filing copy, being read by fewer people as the game gradually disappears. It’s a bloody shame. Again, to those who block me, namely Paul Newman and Simon Wilde, ask yourselves why we got so damned angry at some of your copy – well that’s Newman, I don’t have the first clue why Wilde blocked me, I quite liked him – because a number of your colleagues did. Think about how the fans are consuming their cricket writing these days. Think beyond scoring a few cheap hits and stupid BTL twaddle, and more about the sport itself. Try not to use your columns to settle other people’s scores.
On TV the new kid on the block, BT Sport, has made a middling start to its coverage. Speaking for myself I think it has a decent panel, even with the odious Lovejoy on it, and it made a splash with the early prominent names of Ponting and KP, knowing these were for a short period of time. This is a practice run for their Ashes coverage next year. Let me give you a number of pieces of advice based on what I have seen of their test and ODI coverage.
- A highlights show is to watch cricket first, hear you lot jabbering on later. The amount of actual play shown is laughable. When the Ashes are played next year, more cricket and a lot less bunny.
- Greg James is a promising host but he appears to be limited in what he knows. Now either he is being constrained by the format and the talking heads, or he is limited in what he knows.
- As for the live coverage, please stop the silly little inserts during the coverage. It’s bad enough with Channel 9 cramming in their imbeciles, without adding to the number of voices. Let it breathe.
- Separate the action and the chat as much as possible.
- If you want any more advice, email@example.com
I have the week off to follow the Sydney test next week, and might provide some more views. It’s good that there are different avenues to watch, but not so good when you have to pay more. The world will, must, have a dedicated cricket viewing source soon, or else it is going to lose revenue and customers.
There’s a bigger piece on domestic cricket to write, and how it interacts with TV. At the moment we have an almighty mess with the ECB and the counties being accused of all sorts by everyone. Until something truly crystallises – ha ha, playing in Beckenham – it’s all heat and light. And dull to watch.
So a year that began with a bang, ended with a dud. There’s too much here already to give a world view of the game, so maybe that’s something I can look into in the New Year. I’ll also be encompassing another aspect in another of the Dmitris, but for now, with cricket, media and blogging in here, it should be enough to be going on.
Happy New Year. One more piece to come.