A Letter From New Jersey

Dear Fellow Outside Cricketers,

I am so sorry you have not heard from me, via a post, for quite a while. As some of you may know my mother-in-law was taken seriously ill in early January which meant my wife had to fly out to be with her, and I’ve come over to lend support etc. for a couple of weeks. This has meant that there won’t be a holiday this year, which means I won’t be disappearing off the site for a whole month or so when the cricket season is in full swing in the UK, but it has meant not a lot from me, save for the odd comment here and there on here. As always Chris and Sean have kept the pot boiling, and, of course, the brilliant guest posts we get too!

It also means that the only ball I have seen of any cricket was a catch by Saha on one of ESPN’s top 10 plays of the day segments. This was, sadly, characterised by the usual lack of knowledge from the hosts who said that India lost anyway, which was incorrect at the time because this was on Day 2 of that test match. Or maybe they had a premonition that a team unbeatable at home were going to stuff it up completely second time around, as they had the first. But a little more of that later on.

On the personal front, the mother-in-law is recuperating in a very decent care facility. The main problem with this is it is 90 miles away from her house, where we are staying, so we are seeing a lot of New Jersey’s road network and I’ve not had a ton of time to devote to cricket. I could write many a post on the plusses and minuses of US healthcare, but that’s for another time. We hope the mother-in-law comes home shortly after I return to the UK (next week), but that’s not entirely clear at this point. I’ve had some down time, and this has coincided with record high February temperatures last week (mid 70s fahrenheit), so I can let you all know that on the same day as Storm Doris, here is a picture of where I was in 75 degree heat..

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East Point Lighthouse – New Jersey

So what has happened in the cricket world since I left? Well, of course, most notably, Australia handed India a hell of a thrashing in Pune. I’ve seen none of it, but it is not hard to draw one conclusion – we were handed a pup by all the know it alls who said that India were unbeatable on their home turf, and that 4-0 was a result we really all should have expected. I’m not saying this now, I was saying it then. You talk down a “potentially great” England team like that, you are going to look stupid when another team gives them a game. A proper game. Rajkot should not have been an outlier, but the standard. The ultimate stain on that team, and that leadership, is that a bloke scored 303 for India against them and was dropped the next match. Karun Nair sits there as a total outlier when it comes to test triple centurions. I’m sure history will frame things differently, but the Tendulkars, Dravids and Gavaskars of this world have not made 300. I’m sure they found M25 surfaces somewhere, somehow, in their time in test cricket (and of course, lets not forget England collapsed in a heap on that Chennai surface the following day).

Australia, of course, were a dead team walking after they’d lost the first two tests against South Africa, and the pundits were on BT Sport having a good old laugh, giving the impression that all England had to do next year is show up and the Ashes would safely remain in out hands. I have my own nickname for Australia, and it is the cockroaches. Not because they are vermin, but because when you think you’ve killed them off, that they won’t return, that you are on top of the “problem”, they pop back up again, and return with a vengeance (this is based on my childhood in a tower block in Deptford – we could not shift those bastards. Cockroaches, not Australians). I will never write that country’s cricketers off. They may go on to lose the series, but Australia showed that they would stand up to India. It wasn’t just getting the best of the wicket, because Australia made 200+ after India were dismissed for 105. No-one is seriously claiming that Nathan Lyon is better in India than Ravi Ashwin, or that Steve O’Keefe is better than Jadeja? Are they? It may be, as I’ve not seen the game, that the pitch suited the Aussies better than expected, but it also show some bloody character in the Aussie make-up that we just excused in the English press prior to Christmas. Of course, let us see how the rest of the series pans out. I’m also keen on not jumping the gun and anointing a team a champion on one result, but you have to admit that this doesn’t cast our media’s supine attitude to the Cook Farewell Tour in a wonderful light thus far, does it?

I’ve not really followed the ODI series in New Zealand at all, if truth be told. I also note England are out in the West Indies, in my time zone (sort of) but there will be little chance of seeing anything until I get home. In the following six days I will have at least three, possibly four visits to the care home, which takes out the entire day, and when I do get home there will be some really good NBA games to watch live at a sociable hour, including the Warriors at the Bulls on Thursday. US sports TV is an interesting behemoth to study, with the amount of talk programming, and “embrace debate” stuff that can lurch from totally perceptive to utterly idiotic within a five minute span. It’s also interesting how much football from England we can get on main sports channels. I was in the care home last week with the Watford v West Ham match on.  I couldn’t see the League Cup Final as that was on a less mainstream cable channel (BeIN). Cricket, of course, doesn’t get a sniff anywhere as far as I can see. I sort of know the horror I will face if I ever emigrate.

New Jersey is my second home now, and yet cricket has a part to play in keeping me from it. I would miss not being able to see matches that I want to pay for via some all embracing website that would allow me to do so in one central location – like the US do on NBA, MLB and to a lesser extent NFL – but as I’ve said before, that would require foresight, prescience, vision, altruism and a price set fairly for all. I’ve as much chance of becoming Donald Trump’s Press Secretary than that happening.

Finally, I packed the edition of the Cricketer with the Paul Downton interview in it. I really must finish that piece. I just need to get angry again. Any suggestions.

All the best from South Jersey. Missing England…

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Wish you were here,

Dmitri

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The Curious Case of Moeen Ali

Sometimes when contributing to a blog, you need to write an article that you would really prefer not to. It is safe to say that this is one such occasion, as I’m going to call for the unthinkable, put my head on the line and say that Moeen Ali should be dropped from the Test side this summer.

I know, I feel like I’m clubbing a baby seal here, but please do hear me out on this one. Moeen is without doubt one of the most likeable and selfless players in the English set up. He has been pushed up and down the order by the England selectors more than I’ve had hot dinners (I believe he has batted every position from opener to number 9). He put his head on the line back in 2014, when England asked him to be their main spinner, when he was at best a part time bowler for his county. Not once has Moeen ever complained about the constant shifting of his role within the England team and that clearly shows that he is a selfless individual, one who is exceptionally proud to play for his country and hence why it is difficult for me to demand for him to be dropped.

Moeen currently averages 35 with the bat and 42 with the ball at this time of writing and averaged 45 with the bat and 46 with the ball over the last 12 months (before our resident stats expert Simon picks me up on this one). So some may question why I would like such a valuable team player as Moeen to be dropped, especially when he scored a hundred in the last Test in India. However, I’m sure we all remember Shane Warne’s observation about Monty Panesar some years ago “that Panesar, rather than having played 33 Tests, had merely played his first one 33 times.” Some felt it was overly harsh, I actually happened to agree on this point at the time. I also feel this quip should also apply to Moeen with both his batting and bowling. Moeen, whilst it’s wonderful to watch his batting in full flow, is just as likely to hole out to cover with a slightly uppish cover drive or to advance down the wicket a whack one down mid-on’s throat. He has been doing this since his Test Debut back in 2014, some 37 Test matches ago. There hasn’t seemed to be any deep thought about his batting and why he consistently gets out playing loose, wafty shots. Perhaps he is of the mindset that ‘that’s the way he plays, so why change when it’s bought him success in the past’ and that could be a fair point. I mean I remember another English batsman who came onto the scene in 2005 and played exciting, attacking and sometimes fairly brainless cricket; however this individual averaged a whole lot more than 35 in his career playing ‘his way’. Unfortunately the said individual liked to whistle when he got out, so that was that for him then.

I could however, live with the fact that Moeen is as likely to nick a wide one to third slip when looking to save the game as he is as likely to launch a sumptuous cover drive to the boundary that should have an R rating to it. I could live with this, if the rest of his game was in order; however it simply isn’t due to one glaring weakness that sorts out the county pro from the Test pro, the short ball. It’s not that Moeen can’t play the short ball, it’s the fact that Moeen really really can’t play the short ball. One only needs to look at the recent series in India, when he bounced out on slow low wickets both in the Test series and then latterly in the 3rd ODI against a 40 over old, soft white ball. The tangle that Moeen gets himself into when facing the bouncer is two fold. He doesn’t seem to have the ability to duck and weave against the short ball, something that Atherton in his prime had a fantastic ability to do, nor does he have the natural shot appreciation to deposit it into the stand such as Ricky Ponting did. This leaves Moeen in some halfway house, where he still has to play the hook but it is likely that he’ll either top edge it or place it down deep square legs throat. It sort of reminds me of Yuvraj Singh’s inability to make it in international cricket, he had all the shots in the book, but as soon as word went round that he didn’t like it by his nose, then every fast bowler worth his salt tried to put it there. We only have to see the results of the 2011 series in England, which pretty much ended his career as a Test batsman. This upcoming year, we have a strong and quick South African fast bowling attack coming to England, followed by the Ashes on quick and bouncy Australian wickets. I dread to think what the Hazlewood and Starc will do to him at the Gabba and WACA, but what I do know for sure, there aren’t going to be that many pitched up deliveries for him to cover drive.

Now this could be glossed over somewhat, if Moeen was a premier spin bowler, but sadly most people now agree that he is what we thought he was in 2014, a part time bowler trying his best to cover England’s empty cupboard of spin bowling options. It is often true that when a new bowler comes into Test cricket, he has a bit of a bounce effect, in that the batsmen haven’t seen them bowl too much and quite often there are a few early wickets on offer as batsmen have yet to work them out. As with anything though in international cricket, coaches soon go through hours of video footage analyzing their technique, their weaknesses and where to target them and hence only high quality bowlers will flourish on this stage. This was true in 2014 when the Indian batsmen kept getting out to Moeen, by whacking him into the stands. However Moeen has now played 37 Test matches as England’s main spin weapon, and it would be fair to assume that he would be able to improve in that time; however sadly, I believe he has actually regressed as a bowler. He has all too often been easy pickings for opposition batsmen, milked around for singles at every opportunity and then waiting for the bad ball (which is often just around the corner) to put away to the boundary, thus making it impossible to build any pressure on the opposing side. Sure Moeen might bowl the odd Jaffa, but that doesn’t help too much when you’re constantly going at 4.5 runs an over. I might be being a tad unfair on Moeen’s bowling, as Graeme Swann aside, we have never been blessed with great spin bowlers since I’ve been following the cricket in depth. We won the 2005 with Ashley Giles as our main bowler, who wasn’t blessed with the most talent of an international Test spinner; however the one thing Giles could do was tie up an end and let our battery of quick’s steam in from the other end with an attacking field, because their main spinner wasn’t leaking 80 runs a day. This is something that unfortunately Moeen is simply unable to do.

It seems folly to me, to head to Australia where pitches aren’t exactly conducive to spin bowling with a part time bowler who can’t keep the runs down. I doubt Dave Warner or Steve Smith are losing any sleep about facing him in the middle. Even with England’s stocks of spin bowling being so diminished, surely it would make more sense to take a specialist spin bowler rather than a part time spinner that has regressed? The likes of Leach, Rayner, Rashid or even Mason Crane might not have that much better results in the short term, but I would hope that they would learn a lot from the experience and hence improve as their experience of International cricket grows. After 37 Test’s, I just don’t see how Moeen will improve his bowling sufficiently enough to be of an international standard.

In my own humble opinion, Moeen needs to focus on improving his batting, certainly against the short ball to lock down the number 5 position on his batting alone or somehow for his bowling to dramatically click for him to start the summer in the Test side. England had a preference for bits and pieces cricketers in the 90’s and we all know how that worked out for them then, I simply don’t see a place for them in a current Test side.

Right, I’ve got my tin hat on..

Viewing Figures – A Ramble Through Facts

We’ve another guest post from Andy Oliver, this time about the viewing figures for cricket over the last few years.  It’s a subject that isn’t easy to find hard facts on given the reticence of Sky to tell anyone how many people watch of course.  As ever with a guest post, our sincere thanks to Andy for writing it, and he’ll be around to answer any questions – or of course you can track him down on Twitter – @oshodisa

Don’t forget we’ve also got Man In a Barrel’s piece about county finances – that you can find here: https://beingoutsidecricket.com/2017/02/17/guest-post-a-look-at-county-finances/


 

A topic of discussion that comes around occasionally is that due to Sky’s lockout of coverage, there is nowhere near as many viewers of cricket as there was 10 years ago.

How true is this?  Has anyone seen any facts, figures or discussion?  I bow to any MSM who have covered this but I cannot recall coming across that many actual facts or discussion (queue the first reply being a list of 4 articles covering the same ground!).  We often hear that 8m people watched at one point of 2005 Ashes, but no one ever says how many people watched ‘Cooks Redemption’ (TM Nasser 2015) Ashes victory.

A Census Taker Once Tried To Test Me…

I’ve gathered this information from barb.co.uk, so cannot vouch for its accuracy, but they appear to be an industry body and say all the right things.  It’s been interesting seeing what info can be found on their website.  To generate their stats they have something like 5000 homes who provide a representative selection of the population.  These homes have automatic program trackers fitted to keep a log of what is watched.  They are then multiplied up to give a number of viewers and Bob’s your uncle.

The data publically available is not particularly user friendly for this type of research (There is a lot of data that I’ve had to plough through one weekly graph at a time).  I think that each individual result is an average for the duration of the program, rather than peak viewers at any given moment.  For example, the 4th(?) Ashes test in 2005 peaked at 8 million viewers but the program averaged 4 million viewers.  Please bear this in mind as I write below – I may play a little loose with terminology, but unless I explicitly state anything different, I mean the average number of viewers in any given broadcast as reported by BARB (so the 4 million, not the 8 million).  I’ve had to make a few educated guesses where info is not available or a particular programme is off the bottom of the week’s viewing figures.

 

Only the Facts Ma’am…

Since 2012 we have the following showing the maximum number of viewers any single day of a Test match play received.

2016 2015 2014 2013 2012
Most viewers 497,000 647,000 429,000 805,000 427,000

 

So it’s a bit up and down, but arguably viewing figures are sitting at an even level with intermittent peaks, but what do they represent?  Well, 2015 and 2013 were Ashes years.  It appears that Australia have a large impact on how many people watch cricket on Sky.

Non-Ashes years appear ‘stable’ between 400,000 – 500,000, but our Australian friends give us a significant boost.

So a bit of judicious reviewing of Australia’s last four visits (including you know when) gives us;

 

Test vs Australia
2015 2013 2009 2005
Most viewers 647,000 805,000 1,109,000 4,630,000

So, the most viewed single day’s play attracted over 4.6 million viewers (average remember, not peak) in 2005, and this has declined to less than 650,000 viewers in 2015.  Sky have lost up to 4 million people who showed an interest in cricket back when it was free to air on Channel 4.

Where have all these fans gone?

And remember that these are the most watched days of play.  The average viewers for the series shows us;

 

2015 2013 2009 2005
Average viewers across series 360,444 470,434 668,190 2,760,000

 

Again, this is a significant decline from on average 2.7 million people watching a series to just over 360,000 people.

So, talking broadly, about half the peak viewers for any given broadcast stay on to watch more of a series than just one day.  This number will be swung by rain days / early finishes – but I would not have thought it would be that significant to massively affect the above.

Why are people not watching as much cricket?  Is it the time it takes (this is an assessment of Test matches remember), or is it the quality of the matches?  Obviously the opposition matters, but why has the number of viewers even for Australia decreased?

Are the ECB aware of these numbers?  Do they even care given that Sky are currently happy to fill their schedules with easy to produce programming and pay the ECB handsomely for it?  Do Sky care given that cricket costs peanuts compared to how much they pay for football?  I wonder how much Sky makes on subscriptions and advertising for their £65 million yearly investment with the ECB.

Let’s take a quick look at the top three viewed broadcasts for the last 4 Ashes.

2015 2013 2009 2005
Top three viewed broadcasts 647,000 805,000 1,109,000 4,630,000
476,000 701,000 1,033,000 4,030,000
471,000 668,000 951,000 3,370,000

 

This gives an idea of how sustainable the top viewing figures are.  As we can see, 2005 quickly loses over a million viewers, but equally it is just one day’s play that kept the peak of 2015 above the half million mark (no prizes if you guessed that was Broads 8-fer-peanuts at Trent Bridge (I think)).  Both have lost about a quarter of their viewers between the peak and the third place broadcasts.

I presume that this is a normal pattern as there will be peaks and troughs – especially over the course of a test summer, but the raw reach of cricket appears to be significantly diminishing.

 You can’t handle the Truth!

No matter how it is spun, Test cricket attracts fewer TV viewers year on year.  Is this because test cricket it boring (dominated by home series advantage), or because it does not have the visibility of (until recently) the IPL.  At least the IPL was available on ITV 4.  That may be another one to look at – viewers between IPL on ITV and Sky.

In fact;

2016 2015 2014 2013 2012
IPL finals 116,000* 100,000* 536,000 398,000 469,000
77,000 59,000

 

The IPL changed from ITV to Sky from 2015… hmmm, there is a pattern here!

A note about the Sky numbers – The final match was not on the ten most watched list on BARB (Or I could not find it), so I put the highest match actually watched in that week.  Not perfect, but it’s something to go on.  The 2nd numbers in Sky’s stewardship are the 10th most watch programme in the week the final took place (on the channel they were showing the IPL on).  Suggesting that the IPL final got fewer viewers than 59,000 and 77,000 for 2015 and 2016 respectively.

If that is correct… Wow…   Wow…

For all the good that Sky have brought to cricket; the technology, the quality, the analysis (back when they did that well – but I remember first encountering Hughes as the Analyst on Channel 4, when he did actual analysis properly), etc, they seem to have form for slashing the viewing numbers a sport used to get on Free to Air, and for reducing its availability and visibility.

But, a quick look at the last World T20: when England got Brathwaited in the final.  This tournament was in India so time zones come into play for a start, but Sky got over a million viewers for the final.  In fact England’s lowest number of viewers was 323,000 against Afghanistan on a Wednesday, which is basically as much as the peak number of viewers Sri Lanka got in the May tests which followed soon after.

So maybe there is hope there, that there are people who are interested.

If you build it, they will come…

Maybe we have seen in all the above that the broadcasters/ECB should be using T20 and ODIs as a gateway into Test cricket, not as an alternative.  Not everyone will make the transition, especially when Test cricket is sometimes dry, boring and predictable.

Thinking about that – any guesses for how many people watch the Blast Final (or whatever it was called before that).  I might have come across these at the same time as looking for the above.

2016 2015 2014 2013 2012
Blast 262,000 229,000 384,000 245,000 433,000
Leic 0 v Ars 0 Tot 0 v Eve 0 Eve 2 v Ars 2 SWA 1 v ManU 4 not on tv
BT sports Sky Sky Sky
608,000 691,000 946,000 1,833,000

 

At least the Blast appears to get more viewers than the IPL!

The Blast final is on a Saturday afternoon/evening so I’ve found the equivalent Premier League game on TV at approximately the same time.

As you can see there is a big decrease from the Premier league viewers to those watching the Blast final, but maybe not as much as I might have expected.  I would have thought more games on a Saturday evening would have got over 1 million viewers, but evidently not.

The football is just a diversion from the above table though.  In reality the Blast figures should be compared with other cricket.  Now making a comparison against Test matches is like comparing apples and oranges, but at least they are still fruit.

As we can see from the above information in 2016 more than twice as many watched Tests as they did  the Blast. That must be a scary stat for the ECB, and it’s no wonder they want to re-tool the Blast into a different competition.

Houston, We Have A Problem…

On a personal note (and one that may be echoed by those who read this), I have seen club cricket slowly wither as people participate less and less.  There are a number of reasons for this (my own personal reason is that I have a toddler now who takes up a lot of my time so I cannot justify spending 15 Saturdays over summer out and about like I used to).

But the number of teams that struggle to get a side out, or fold half way through the season seems to be increasing (purely anecdotal, but it does feel that way).

My village pushed forward on the back of 2005.  That was a watershed ‘rebirth’ of the aging side.  We (the royal we, I wasn’t around then!) had a massive influx of juniors who saw the Ashes and wanted some of it.  They are still playing now and are vital young 20 somethings.  We don’t see that now though.  Most of the Sunday juniors are there because it’s free child-minding for the parents (again anecdotal, but from a senior member of the club who does the training).  Often the kids don’t seem that interested.

Why are fewer people playing cricket?  Why are fewer people watching cricket?  Does it take too much time, do people not like the characters associated with the game (either watching it, playing it or dare I say reporting it)?  Are there no heroes to worship (Mine was Atherton growing up…. No, I don’t know why….).  Nowadays people want to bat like Pietersen, Gayle, Kohli, Butler etc.  This is great – but these talents need to be put on display so that more people see them and want to emulate them.

I’m serious… and don’t call me Shirley

What’s the solution for getting cricket back into the public consciousness?  I’m sure greater people than me are actively working on the problem (or at least I hope to God they are).  I know it’s been discussed on and off here on BOC.

I’m not sure getting Test cricket on FTA TV would work.  Not in the short term at least, however there must be a way to get the Blast or some international ODIs/T20s on there.

I don’t watch Premiership rugby, but usually enjoy sitting down to the World Cup or Six Nations.  I’m probably the definition of a fair weather fan where rugby is concerned.

I would watch rugby because it is available.  If it had been available for me to play when I was younger/fitter I might have gone in that direction.  I don’t hunt down rugby on Sky/BT now.  I don’t have the time nor the inclination, but I do watch rugby free to air; I know about the sport and in the future I might start going to matches & watching more.

Where is the draw for the fans in cricket?

It may not be the answer, but it surely must be the starting point.  Everyone agrees that there are more ‘distractions’ available for kids growing up.  They may not sit down in front of TV and be glued for a day (like I was way back when).  But they are certainly not going to sit down in front of Sky and watch it.

It’s all well and good catering to the hardcore fans (is that us?), who go to games, despite the cost, who pay for Sky, despite the cost.  Just to actually see some action.  But where is the next generation going to come from?  Launching a Twitter channel is not engaging new fans.  They won’t go looking for it without hearing/seeing some cricket.

This is a Twitter exchange I happened to see from dear old Bumble.  Don’t know what started it, or the exact details, but it highlights the mindset.  If you put it there, people will come, which isn’t true, you need to make people come.  The only people who check Sky/ECB Twitter are people who are already fans.  This is not enough;

tweet

 

The ECB need to decide what they want from their cricket.  Do they want Sky’s (or BT Sport’s which is another topic) pounds, or do they want to get more people watching it (live and on TV), more people talking about it and ultimately more people playing it.

You be the jury…

This has been a WWAAAYYYYY longer article than I ever intended, so well done if you have stayed with me to the end.  Please tell me what you think?  I could have gone into early summer versus prime summer, what happened on those ‘most watched’ days, what day of the week got the most viewers, ODIs & T20Is, World Cups (more than I did) and who knows what else.   It’s probably a good job I stopped here!

And my topic headers will be no challenge to anyone who has done the Crossword!

Guest Post – A Look At County Finances

First up an apology. Man in a Barrel wrote this piece for the blog during the middle of the India v England test series and we couldn’t quite squeeze it into a proper slot pre-Christmas. Then, with all the events going on with me personally in January, it got left by the wayside. MiaB has had his say on the financial situation he sees in county cricket, and it is an interesting take. I find Yorkshire’s financial situation particularly fascinating given who the county owes its future to and the potential for conflicts of interest (if in doubt, read the notes to the ECB accounts). Anyway, MiaB’s views, updated in recent weeks are worth a read, and as always I’d like to thank him (and others) who take their valuable time to write for us. Also, although we all know MiaB can handle himself, take into account he’s a guest writer and not one of us. We want to encourage people, not put them off!!!!

I’m over the other side of the pond at the moment, so now is the time for some more articles if people think they have something to say. There’s a long time before England’s next test. Ok, enough of me, take it away MiaB:

County Cricket Finances….by Man in a Barrel

In the November 2014 issue of the cricketer, there was an article about the generally poor state of the finances of the county cricket clubs.  It came as something of a revelation to me – I always assumed that cricket was a poor relation to football in the UK but that the sponsorship provided by companies such as John Player, Gillette, Benson and Hedges, Cornhill Insurance, Investec, Sky etc was sufficient to keep it in reasonable health.  However, it seemed from that article that the situation was dire.

Football has always been more transparent.  Some teams have tried to float on the Stock Exchange, for example.  However, I think we all know that, in reality, the clubs are rather small financial entities for the most part.  In the book Soccernomics, you can read an interesting selection of financial facts and figures.  It seems that few football clubs are run as money-making machines – remember how Alan Sugar failed at Spurs? – but that very few actually go bust.  Someone always turns up to bail them out.  In practice what that tends to mean is that they are run, at one end of the scale, as shiny toys or status symbols for the very wealthy such as Chelsea, Man City or, at the other end of the scale, as glorified social clubs where the players run around between stands made from corrugated iron and scaffolding props, such as Stevenage Utd.  In between, there are a mass of clubs supported by successful local businessmen or by people who are probably more intent on either developing (or stripping) any available assets.

I tried to locate sources of financial data for the county cricket clubs.  Not many of them had anything available on their websites but I located data for Yorkshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire.  This was an interesting sample because it included 2 sides with Test match grounds and a comparative minnow.  I intended to put together a blogpost on my discoveries but this coincided with the start of 2015.  The general feeling of disenchantment with cricket that took me over around that time meant that I never completed it.  Subsequent events suggest that my conclusions for this sample are typical of the bigger picture.

The main conclusions were that cricket is not a money-making business; it just about pays its way, if rain holds off.  Most clubs are just about muddling along.  However, it is likely that the clubs that host international matches have been very bold and have over-extended their balance sheets to such an extent that they are close to being insolvent.  In football, many clubs have spent way too much money acquiring players and have amassed significant debts thereby; in cricket they build new pavilions.  Oligarchs and sheiks buy football clubs.  No one has so far come along for county cricket apart from a certain supermarket chief.

I’ll start this overview with Warwickshire in 2014.

Total turnover was £12.5 and they seemed to make an operating profit of £4.7m.  Within these figures, cricket revenues were £3.8m, with a cost of sales of £4.2m.  So, on its own, cricket was loss-making for this county in 2014.  Thankfully, the ECB chipped in with £3.1m – some of which was probably prize money for winning The Blast.

By comparison, the Yorkshire cricket revenues for 2013 were £2.7m and for Worcestershire in 2012 £0.6m – there is a note to the effect that their results were adversely impacted by weather.  For the purposes of this snapshot, it is worth noting that all 3 counties lost money on cricket pure and simple.

In terms of EBITDA – profit before tax, interest and depreciation, the figures were £1.7m for Warks, £0.2m for Yorks and £0.1m for Worcs.  So, you expect the balance sheets to be pretty small-scale affairs.  These are relatively small businesses.

You could not be more wrong.  Warks declare fixed assets of £36.8m, totally off the scale for this size of income statement.  How on earth did they amass so much in the way of fixed assets – the major single element is given as Pavilion Development at £31.1m?

A quick scan shows that they have taken on loans of £21.6m.  Most of it is a loan from Birmingham City Council repayable starting from March 2017 at 5% interest.  It is secured on the freehold land and buildings owned by the club.  Just to cover the interest on this loan would require profits of £1.1m – which would come close to wiping out their EBITDA.  As it was, they charged interest of £1.4m and depreciation of £1.4m, so there was no profit left over.

If this were a property company, as the investment in buildings would suggest it really is, you would expect the building to generate a return of, say 5%.  Given all the quantitative easing that has inflated asset values and decreased yields, let’s assume 3%.  This would entail getting a profit after interest and depreciation of £1.0, which is way out of sight.  It is tough to see how they would get from a loss of £1.2m to a profit on that scale.

Moving on to Yorks, the figures are comparable.  Fixed assets of £28.5m supported by a pre-tax loss of £0.7m.  They have loans of £24.1m.  However, Warks’s main creditor was the local council.  Recent events show that councils can be persuaded to forgive debts.  I am not sure that, if I lived in Leeds, I would be totally happy for my council to lend £7.6m to a cricket club that was basically insolvent.  Surely there must be a quid pro quo in terms of out-reach efforts and community work?  If there is, the club keep quiet about it.  In any case, the council has a charge over the freehold land and buildings at Headingley and, as an example that the council might be worried, Mr Graves has given a shortfall guarantee.

So far so good.  However, the club has also taken out a loan from HSBC for £3.3m.  This is secured by a first charge over the Cricket Centre and a second charge over Headingley.  HSBC also has a fixed and floating charge over all the assets of the club.  Needless to say, Mr Graves has given another personal guarantee.  The loan is repayable by 2020 and interest is base +4%.  As a commercial institution, HSBC are putting very onerous conditions on the club that they are probably unable to comply with on the basis of their own trading activities.

However, it gets worse; various trusts in the name of the Graves family have “lent” £10.1m to the club – up from £7.1m the previous year.  The increase basically seems to have paid down some of the HSBC overdraft.  So the Graves family is basically bankrolling the club on a day-to-day basis by providing long-term loans.  Interest is payable at base+4%.  C J Graves is personally owed £4.5m and this is repayable on 12 months’ notice and secured by a 4th charge over Headingley.  The 2 Graves trusts are owed £5.6m and are repayable in October 2016, secured by a 3rdcharge over Headingley.

Obviously you have to wonder just how much these charges are worth if HSBC or the council pull the plug.  How much leeway does the HSBC branch have to waive interest or extend repayment terms?  Could they be persuaded to classify it as, say, marketing spend in an attempt to garner local affection? Did the trusts insist on repayment in October 2016?  Time will tell.  However it is clear that both Warks and Yorks need to get their assets sweating a bit harder if the clubs, or Mr Graves, is not to go bust.  You wonder also what impact this might have on the affairs of Costcutter.  Maybe Yorks should be treated as a subsidiary of that supermarket chain.  What would be the impact on the chain if the guarantees given by Graves were called in?

It was a relief to turn to Worcs.  £5.1m of fixed assets supported by loans of £2.7m is at least a conceivable ratio.  True, their income statement makes sorry reading in 2012 but they have a track record of making around £0.3m EBITDA and their 2012 turnover was adversely affected by rain.  However, they have also leased out some land to Premier Inns for 150 years for a 120 room hotel and they are very clear about the need to build a 365 day business instead of one that depends on 50 days of cricket.  This gave them a boost to profits of £0.4m in 2012.

When a football club over-extends by buying players, at least there should be some benefit for the fans in terms of trophies or the chance to see a few galacticos.  Is cricket held in such affection by the fans that solutions will emerge if the counties get into difficulties – such as what happened to Glasgow Rangers or Southampton FC?

Questions that I cannot answer.  But if I were running Yorks or Warks, I would not be sleeping easily at night.

Update

I downloaded the accounts for Yorkshire for the year ended December 2015.  Things have moved on but they are still far from rosy.  The guys are obviously pedalling vigorously so I hope that my assessment does not look as if I am dissing them.  They have worked hard to increase turnover and improve profitability.  Turnover has grown from £6.8m to £8.4m, which I think represents a considerable achievement.  They have also moved to a position where they are making retained profits of £0.4m compared with losses of £0.3m in 2014 and £0.6m in 2013.  It’s a start but nowhere near enough to service the debt mountain.  Debt remains about £24m.

However, you must always beware of the sleight of hand, particularly with corporations in distress.  In 2015, there is an exceptional item of £0.8m as a result of the local authority reconsidering the amount of interest due on its loan and effectively giving the club a kickback.  Without that surge of generosity, the retained profit would disappear.  Also, it is worth noting that the 2014 position benefited from a grant of £0.5m from the ECB, which Yorks used to repay a loan from the ECB.  Smoke and mirrors?  Every little helps.

The real interest is in what has been done to restructure the debt.  Obviously Mr Graves is not able to bankroll the club personally anymore and they were in thrall to the vipers at HSBC.  So they have found a genie, in the shape of another Graves family trust.  To quote from the accounts:

The Graves family trusts have provided loans of £18.9m which has allowed the previous loans from Colin Graves, the Graves family trusts and Leeds City Council to be repaid. As part of the refinancing we are grateful to Leeds City Council who after reviewing the actual cost of interest that the Council had incurred in servicing the debt which demonstrated that the cost to the Council of the loan has been fully met by the Club, accepted £6.5m in settlement of the £7.4m capital outstanding on the loan. This gave rise to exceptional income, net of costs, of £781,106.

As part of the refinancing HSBC agreed to return any capital payments made in 2015, lower their interest rate to 2.5% and defer full capital repayment until 1st October 2018 in return for a First Legal Charge over the Cricket Centre and a Third Legal Charge over Headingley Cricket Ground in respect of the bank loan and overdrafts. HSBC Bank plc also has a fixed and floating charge over all of the assets of the Club, subject to the Legal Charges referred to above.

To enable the repayment of the Leeds City Council debt, further debt has been incurred. CJ & J Graves Accumulation & Maintenance and J Graves Accumulation & Maintenance Trusts loans now stand at £6.7m each bearing an interest rate of 4.625% and with initial capital repayments to be made in 2019 (£2m each Trust) and during 2020 (£1.5m each Trust) with the balance at 31 December 2020. The two Trusts have been granted by the Club joint First Legal Charge over Headingley Cricket Ground and joint Second Legal Charge over the Cricket Centre.

A further £5.5m of debt has also been incurred from the CJ Graves 1999 Settlement Trust bearing an interest rate of 0%. The Club has granted Second Legal Charge over Headingley Cricket Ground and Third Legal Charge over the Cricket Centre.”

So the local authority is off their backs and has accepted less interest than was originally due – I wonder if the details of that arrangement will ever be forthcoming.  It could be that the authority was borrowing at a very low rate and charging the club a higher rate and has decided to waive some of the difference.  Let’s be generous.  HSBC have also reduced the interest rate and granted a repayment holiday.  I guess they can recognise a distressed debtor when they see one and have taken the view that taking control of a cricket ground is outside their area of expertise.  It also helps when you can find someone to loan you £5.5m interest-free.  I can only imagine that the terms of the trust are that it exists to ensure the survival of Yorkshire cricket club.  I hope the beneficiaries are happy.  So it is no longer Colin Graves who supports the club, just a bunch of trusts with £19m of his family wealth tied up in them.  It seems a little bit “Maxwell” to me but at least the cricket club still exists.  I guess that things down in Hampshire are not so very different.  Oh and those family trusts did not get repaid in 2016 – as if we could not have guessed.

In January, David Hopps wrote an article about Warwickshire that echoes what I have been writing here but in a more easygoing way –http://www.espncricinfo.com/county-cricket-2017/content/story/1079949.html

Another point of interest is the recent revelation by Vic Marks about Cook:

we once discussed county cricket and Cook said 14 counties would be infinitely preferable – a very sound argument but how do you get there? “Simple,” he said. “Get rid of whoever are in the bottom four of the second division at the end of the season.” At the time two of those positions were occupied by Surrey and Yorkshire. The implications of their expulsion, while briefly amusing to me, did not seem to have any impact on his thinking.”

 Perhaps Cook was unaware that bankrupting 2 of the clubs who supply Test match grounds might be a self-defeating gesture?

Never a Cross Word

Now don’t tell me you get THIS in any normal blog. Anyone who knows the Editorial Team here at BOC will tell you that we really want Arron to write some blog pieces for us (Nonoxcol as he’s known round these parts). Well, he has, but this is completely different. He’s put together a crossword. Yes. Seriously.

I apologise that in my New Year horror-zone I had completely forgotten this (and a Man in a Barrel piece I also want to put up) and so this should have been up weeks ago. I hope you’ll be able to click on the picture and get the full size version of the grid.

arrons-crossword

And to the clues….

arrons-crossword-clues

It is very BOC-centric so hopefully you will get the references! My thanks to nonoxcol for all the effort put into this. 

This is no ordinary blog, eh?

If you wish to comment on the appointment of Joe Root, please read TLG’s post below. Judging by the current reaction it’s all a bit of a shrug of the shoulders. 

Meet the New Boss

One of the more striking features of the ECB in recent years has been their ability to leak when it suits them, remain tight lipped when it doesn’t, and insist that they don’t leak at all at all times.  So while Cook’s resignation was kept under wraps right up to the point it was announced, there can be little surprise at the heavily trailed news over the weekend – confirmed today –  that Joe Root will be appointed England captain.  By all accounts this was agreed on Saturday or Sunday in a phone call with Andrew Strauss, who presumably was using the bugged phone the ECB provide when they want news to get out.  A day is a little slower than normal for it to reach the media – few will forget the way the supposedly private meeting between Strauss, Harrison and Pietersen ended up being reported in detail on Radio Five Live mere minutes after finishing for example.  Sharpen up fellers.

Still, while the ECB deserve all the cynicism that comes their way for their repeatedly duplicitous behaviour (OK, this one is hardly a crime – but they shouldn’t have it go past without comment), it didn’t take a cricketing sage to work out that Root was more or less the only name in the frame once Cook had finally decided to go.  Indeed, it is remarkable how the simple matter of the on-field captain has now been built up to become A Very Important Thing in a way that it never used to be.  Sure, resignations and appointments to the role have always been big news, that’s no different – what is, is how long is taken over the process, as though the Nobel Committee were ruminating on a choice between Einstein and Newton.  It’s natural to want to get it right of course, but it’s hard to get away from the feeling that pomposity and procedure is felt to directly correlate to importance – perhaps it is a direct response to the declining news footprint cricket now has in the British media.  It is a disease afflicting a lot of sports these days – but news management has now eaten itself by becoming more important than the news itself.

Appointing Root was the blindingly obvious decision, and the possibility it wouldn’t be him only arose because the ECB, Strauss and Cook have taken so damn long over the matter in the first place.  When Cook resigned the papers dutifully followed the line that he’d been thinking about it since the start – the start note – of the India leg of the winter tour.  When the handover of the England captaincy takes longer than that of the US Presidency, something is a little peculiar.  To be fair to Cook, if they’re going to allow him to take an age, then why should he rush, but it still reaches levels of absurdity to place the role on that kind of pedestal, with the fundamental difference that the England cricket captain, who hasn’t been especially successful in the role by any measure, was allowed to do all that for himself seemingly with no outside reference on whether he should be permitted that freedom.

What will prove interesting in future years will be whether Root himself is elevated to that level of God-like status, or whether Cook is an exception.  For there are some similarities to Cook in the way that he has been groomed as most favoured son for some time now. It almost felt as though the only reason for a reluctance to move on more quickly was some lingering feeling that being a damn nice chap prevents any action in favour of the next damn nice chap.

Much has been made of Root’s inexperience in captaincy – a situation that is entirely inevitable in the modern game where playing county cricket is the exception rather than the rule for those who reach international level.  It isn’t remotely relevant for the simple reason that unless things change radically in future, this is likely to be the case with every England captain forever more.  Whether he succeeds or fails, it won’t be because of a lack of experience, it will be whether he is any good at it.  For the fundamental point is this:  There is no reason from the outside to assume any one player is a more natural captain than any other.  Root might well be the ideal choice for captain, but then so might Ben Stokes, or so might Mark Wood.  There is simply no reason to think one way or the other amongst those of us outside cricket beyond a certain kind of prejudice that we all carry within us.  Root being a clean cut generally good egg from the right background certainly makes him suitable for the ECB marketing department, but it doesn’t mean for a moment he is the best on-field captain.

Lest this be thought to be making a case for Stokes or anyone else, it isn’t, but it is to highlight that the choice of captain always tends to be from a rather narrow set of parameters.  As the years go on, the choice of Michael Vaughan stands out as being highly unusual from the usual mix of those whose nice background marked them out as being of the right stuff for the ECB. Again, it isn’t anything against Root himself, but it has been long made clear he was the heir apparent and no other candidates were ever put forward.  To put it another way, Moeen Ali has some captaincy experience at both England U-19 level and for Worcestershire as a stand in – not much, but no less than Root, yet there was never any prospect of him being the one, and given he isn’t certain of his place in the side, that could easily be argued as to why not.  This is where it gets into difficult territory, because there is no accusation whatever of discrimination on race grounds (Nasser Hussain belies that anyway), but more that it is simply rather hard to imagine the current ECB going with someone with such a normal personal history.  Not impossible, for it does happen (Vaughan), and nor is it advocating that someone like Moeen should – it’s merely the case that the ECB is constituted by a certain type of person from a certain type of background, and they by default look for a similar kind of person in their captain.  It’s probably unconscious, and echoed by a cricket media that is largely from the same kind of environment who have a tendency to approve of that line of thinking.  They’ll hate that and deny it, but we all do the same thing in our lives, we instinctively support those similar.  Let’s put it this way: how likely is it that the ECB would be keen to appoint a working class kid from the wrong side of the tracks as captain?  It’s a little hard to credit.

For Root himself, there is the fear that his being chosen as captain will automatically impact on his batting, yet there is no reason to believe so.  Cook himself didn’t suffer notably from being captain, his record before and during is fairly comparable; his batting problems when they occur are more a matter of him being a player at constant war with his technique than anything else.  Likewise, to take England’s Australian counterparts, the three most recent incumbents have all performed superbly with the bat as captain. The fear that he will lose form is nothing but seeing the glass as being half empty – why shouldn’t he do a Graham Gooch for example?

Then there’s the question of what kind of captain Root will be.  With so little experience it’s hard to know for sure, but the glimpses of him substituting for Cook tend to imply he’ll be rather more creative and attacking than was Cook, at least initially.  The truth is that we don’t know for sure and won’t find out until later this summer.  Having Cook to lean on should be an advantage, for whatever the merits or otherwise of his tenure, he will know what Root is going through better than anyone else.  Nasser Hussain managed the transition back to player better than most; if Cook can do the same it will be unquestionably an asset to the side and to Root personally.  It’s not an easy thing for Cook to do, and it’ll be hugely to his credit if he does it well.  Likewise, Cook the batsman should – all things being equal – be of far more importance to the England Test side than Cook the captain.  Being able to focus on that rather than the whole team may well liberate him to contribute heavily in the area that he is most valuable.  This too is a matter of uncertainty, precisely for the same reasons that his batting didn’t unduly suffer by being the skipper, but if those who believe Root will lose form from being captain are right, then it follows that Cook should significantly increase his contributions too – it can’t be had both ways.

Perhaps one of the more notable parts of the announcement is by omission – that Root has been appointed the Test captain.  As has been pointed out before, the England schedule over the next 2 years is bordering on the vicious, so it is at least good to see that he hasn’t been burdened with all the captaincy roles.  There are enough fears for the longevity of those players who play all formats already, without making one of them captain and thus unable to easily miss some of the tours – or at least parts of some of the tours.

The instinctive reaction is that Root is a good choice for the job.  There are never any guarantees, but he appears to possess the right blend of brains and mischievousness to make a go of it.  Cook wasn’t a great captain, and to that end he does have a relatively low bar to get over; whether he will get quite the hagiographical coverage that Cook did in the cricket press is a different question.  And in many ways, a deeply interesting one.  If he’s only ever “hung out to dry” to the same extent, he’ll do well enough.

 

 

 

Dirty Weekend – Guest Post

Simon H has been casting his eye over the latest goings on within the ICC and has kindly penned this article for us. As usual, with guest writers, don’t be as tough on him as you would on us!!!!

Take it away….

Dirty Weekend

By Simon H

It seems as if the weekend is a time when many, not least English cricket journalists, follow the game less closely. This is of course understandable – there are other attractions, other sports, family, friends, sleep. And then on Monday, you have a change of captain! But the trouble these days is that you can tune out for 48 hours and when you re-tune in you find the game you once loved has gone. The developments at the ICC board meeting last weekend haven’t quite gone that far perhaps but they’ve set in train a process that is going to have a serious impact on the game for a long time to come and will be more significant than England changing captain.

good-luck-manohar
The Man With A Plan?

The issues under discussion fell into two broad categories. The first was finance. Here the impetus for a quick decision was greater. Whether this was because discussions were more advanced or because the BCCI was in temporary disarray after the downfall of Thakur is a matter of taste. The crucial point was to roll-back the 23% share of ICC revenue India had obtained in the 2014 Big-Three Power-Grab. The precise detail of what has been agreed remains opaque. Together with the already agreed removal of permanent status on some key committees, this has been presented as amounting to the death of the 2014 changes.

However there are some reasons to pause about this. The new financial arrangement was based on a set of flowery principles – but info on the precise details of what was agreed and how it was reached is clear as mud. It looks based on a formula of who was able to at that moment grabbing what they could. It doesn’t create any permanent structure to distribute ICC revenue so further ructions are almost certain. The ICC desperately needs a formula to agree revenue distribution based on agreed principles (and by principles I don’t mean vacuous drivel but quantifiable factors like wealth, population size, player base and the like). Agreeing these principles may prove impossible but there’s no sign of any effort even to try. I suspect the big divide is how much should be based on “need” and how much on “contribution”. I also suspect that any re-thinking ICC revenue from first principles would lead to England and Australia getting a lot less so that’s why it wasn’t going to happen.

afghanistan-v-ireland
What sort of test would it be?

The other major issue was the structure of scheduling and in particular the desire to create more context for bilateral games. The extent to which “context” is a Trojan Horse for “fewer Tests, more T20” is another matter. Anyway, there was agreement to create a Test Championship with two divisions split 9-3 with the top two teams in D1 playing off every two years. Every team would play each other in one series within those two years with one match being regarded as a possible series. Teams would play their home fixtures as away fixtures in the next two years of the cycle. The three teams in Division Two (presumably Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Ireland) would play each other in matches designated ‘Tests’ but with no points at stake. There is no promotion, nor relegation. Fortunately the press release didn’t embarrass itself by using the word “meritocracy” this time. The performance of D2 teams is to be “assessed”, whatever that means. D1 teams can play extra matches outside of their required fixtures. Many details (like the location and format of the play-off – what to do in the event of a draw has been one of the perpetual stumbling blocks) will go to a working party and put to the next meeting in April.

The ODI and T20I schedules have also been revamped – but the details remain obscure. ODIs will become a 13-team league and results there lead to WC qualification. How exactly that’s going to work I haven’t got a Scooby. T20I WC qualification will be on a “regional” basis but there is no information how. Two other changes were f/c status for Afghanistan domestic cricket and the use of DRS in T20I with one review per side.

The reforms were voted on as a package and achieved a 7-2 majority with one abstention. India and SL voted against with Zimbabwe abstaining; the three associate members present had no voting rights (they will be gaining them as part of these changes – although that will leave 92 associates with still no voting power). The measures will be voted on again in April and India need four FMs to block them. SL have said their objections were more procedural than to the substance of the proposals. A furious battle for the votes of SL, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe now looks certain (does the ECB’s insistence on touring Bangladesh look a little more understandable now?). The possibility of an extremely angry backlash from the BCCI can’t be discounted.

So, what do we think? What would be an appropriate funding model for ICC revenue? What should teams be getting? And can a Test Championship along these lines work? How would the play-off be organised? Selvey wants a three-match series of home, away and neutral venues – would that be a good idea? Should there be promotion and relegation and how many teams should play Tests?  How do we feel to be represented by Giles Clarke?

clarke-001
You Taking My Name In Vain?

My thanks to Simon (pictures and captions are on me, not him) and hope to hear more from him soon.

It’s Outside Cricket Day

outside-cricket-iii

Welcome.

The joy of writing a blog is that events sometimes throw you off a little. I’ve had what I planned to do today all mapped out. I would be celebrating Outside Cricket Day with a fisking of Lawrence Booth’s interview with Paul Downton in last month’s Cricketer Magazine. Rest assured, I will be doing that. I’ll be finishing it off after writing this. I will, at one point in this piece, quote one line that really grated with me in it. It’s not from Downton, by the way…..

So what is Outside Cricket Day for those of you either new to here, or who think I have serious issues with my own sanity, or who are regulars who need reminding? Every February 9th we commemorate what was, quite possibly, the most immense cock up by our sporting governing body when it came to dealing with the people who, effectively, pay their wages by purchasing tickets, or expensive Sky subscriptions. So while, on the 4th, we commemorate the sacking of Kevin Pietersen (well, at least I do) and on the 6th, by sheer bad luck, we celebrate the birth of this esteemed blog, so the 9th means we get to look back on that press release. It was a cold, dark, Sunday night, and Pringle was getting more and more irate as the hours passed, when this superb piece of prose dropped from the ECB into arrogant immortality.

I’ve put a copy of the 11 February 2014 post on the press release on “The Extra Bits”. It’s great fun reading it again. The sheer bloody arrogance in it speaks volumes. Hence I called the piece “Know Your Place”. Click here to relive the nonsense.

The reason I’ve scrapped the idea of a Downton fisking to mark the date is because we have seen, this week, precisely why the concept that took HDWLIA and BOC forward remains as pertinent today as it did three years ago. I saw a tweet earlier saying we have a very different ECB now (I believe Mr Dobell wrote it) and yet I just don’t see it from the fans perspective. How? A cricket programme being messed about with. An international schedule drawn up by a sadist, which will mean a dilution of quality, and players collapsing in a heap? Durham? The fixation on a T20 league? Maybe we don’t have quite the blatant briefing against players we used to see, but the treatment by our media of Adil Rashid has set alarm bells off. I do not, for one minute, think the ECB gives any more of a stuff about the thoughts of the everyday cricket supporter than it did three years ago. If it did, Giles Clarke would not be still walking around representing us in any way whatsoever.

It has been this week’s media operation around Alastair Cook that has reinforced the need to highlight matters other than Downton’s lamentable attempts at self-justification. Let me go back to that key elements of the Press Release.

However, the England team needs to rebuild after the whitewash in Australia. To do that we must invest in our captain Alastair Cook and we must support him in creating a culture in which we can be confident he will have the full support of all players, with everyone pulling in the same direction and able to trust each other. It is for those reasons that we have decided to move on without Kevin Pietersen.

Remember this when Alastair Cook says, this week, that he was hung out to dry. Remember this when people make the moral equivalence that both have been done considerable wrongs by the powers that be. Also remember how Alastair Cook was desperate in those early months to set the record straight, and now, as a former captain, and with most, if not all the key elements in the decision not in supposed positions of influence, he still focuses only on his own bad luck to be playing badly at the same time as one of our best players had been scapegoated. You don’t need to read between the lines in that statement above to see who had truly been “hung out to dry” and who the real “lightning rod” was for the ECB.

Following the announcement of that decision, allegations have been made, some from people outside cricket, which as well as attacking the rationale of the ECB’s decision-making, have questioned, without justification, the integrity of the England Team Director and some of England’s players.

There it is, still in all its unvarnished (ok, I emboldened the best bit) glory. You, peasants, are outside cricket. Only those of us ITK are “inside”. As we’ve seen this week, this is latched onto by the powers that be, the media, and the useful Cooky stooges to mean “Piers Morgan”. As we’ve said, and Chris will opine on this at length, no matter how much you despise the man (and I do) Piers Morgan is a club cricketer who just happens to be friends with Pietersen. If Piers Morgan is “outside cricket” then so are we. I’ve always wondered what genius thought substituting Morgan for “outside cricket” was a good idea. We got that from Paul Downton’s use of the phrase in the 1985 Cricketer’s Who’s Who.

The complaint at the time still stands. The inside cricket grouping were clearly those that agreed with the decision, such as the ECB, and the compliant media to who they leaked copiously at the time. Selfey, Muppet, Bunkers, FICJAM, Aggers, Newman, Etheridge et al were clearly inside the tent, and wanted to stay there. Hell they probably needed to be. But you, the ones who really wanted to know what the hell was going on, and in the absence of any concrete information, drew your own conclusions? Nah. Stay outside. Shut your mouths. Know your damn place.

I love how that sentence also defends the ECB’s rationale about decision making! Still brings a smile to my face, that.

Outside Cricket as a phrase has stuck. I like to think our little gang over the last three years has made that so. Sure we’ve been called zealots live on air, but after a while I get used to that. They throw their allegations at us, and we have to take them. Cook’s comments this week, backed up in full by the papers (calling KP the Human Stink Bomb is a nadir even for that paper’s cricket coverage – the comfort being that not many people would have noticed) show that there is still an utter contempt for the group of people, loyal cricket fans like those who show support for our captain, who were disgusted at a scapegoating. And yes, I will still go on about it until I see a change in attitude by the ECB and the media.

With this press release in mind, let me take you to one line written in The Cricketer article about Downton:

“Having been approached by the ECB he gave up a lucrative job in the city to become England’s MD, he walked into a mess and did what he thought he needed to do to tidy it up. Disagree with his modus operandi if you like, but at least acknowledge it came from the right place.”

Hell NO! Acknowledge that I am “outside cricket” because he clearly believed people like us were, and should stay there. That’s not coming from the right place. It’s coming from someone telling me to know my place. I don’t think “disagreeing” with his modus operandi comes into it, and boo hoo if he came into a mess of a situation. He was rewarded with a decent salary and an opportunity to cast his own influence over the scene with all the aplomb to go round. His “modus operandi” was to treat the paying public like he would a pesky fly. A fruit fly maybe?

modus-operandi

Three years on and the damage from that decision, that press release persists. We’re always the ones being asked to “move on” and “let it go”. A number of us have. We’ve given up following the game we absolutely loved. As modus operandi go, alienating key supporters of the game is a pretty terrific way to go, don’t you think? I for one am glad that this blog is still going on, remembering and highlighting this as the days and years go by. We’ll come to our natural end one day, but it still seems a way off.

Happy, and angry, Outside Cricket Day.

This Is Not A Love Story

cook-goes

And it came to pass. It was going to happen sometime, and you’d think I’d be ready for it. But strangely I had not prepared. Some part of me thought that this would not happen until next year. There was no piece on the stocks. There was, surprisingly, no leak. Just shows.

It had been another one of those Monday mornings. The trains at my local station were at a standstill, alternative routes had to be found, and as I sat on the train at Mottingham station, I put on the headphones, started up the I-pod, and got out the smartphone. I would carry out my usual morning Twitter trawl, trying desperately to avoid the hyperbole relating to the comeback by the Forces of Evil in the Superbowl last night.

And there it was:

Now I know many of you will think this would have been met with a punch of the air, a scream of delight on the 9:35, a lap of honour around the carriage. Instead I sat there not quite, for a few seconds at least, able to take it in. Cook has resigned as England captain on a Monday morning at 9:30. Just about my worst time of the week. The blighter. Panic. What do I do? Who can write up a piece? Most importantly from my perspective, how will an article that will inevitably go against the grain be set out? How should it be pitched?

While I had to think how we dealt with this on the blog, I also wondered why no-one had yet flagged it up (it had been out for a good ten minutes – SimonH was slacking). Was it true? Then all the press boys ploughed in and we knew it was so.

So up went the post, the holding one, and here we are now. A few hours on, and the reaction has been, well, quite muted I think (although that may be because I’ve been cocooned in a work environment all day). It had an air of inevitability about it. Cook was a dead man walking, his captaincy so lethargic and lacking in inspiration in the latter part of the India tour in particular, that any other outcome would have been an insult to cricket supporters in this country. Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of his leadership and captaincy qualities, he had trailed this intention, benign or unintentional it might have been in his interview with #39 (he’s a skilled media operator, he knew what he was doing) as a possibility, and then all the pieces in the middle of the tour seemed to indicate that the press had been tipped off. The sheer devastation of that final India innings in Chennai had to be the final exclamation point on a tumultuous, yet quintessentially English regime. A novice Indian batsman getting a triple hundred. India totting up 700+. An innings defeat due to an abject collapse on the last day. It had that end of the reign about it. Cook was told to take his time, but the media, still, I presume all being briefed accordingly were almost unanimous. Hell, The Cricketer even ran a front cover that acted as if he’d gone already.

Yet there were still stories saying that this was Cook’s decision to make, and even the possibility that taking another crack at the Aussies for a Redemption beyond Redemption – a kind of Ashes Revenge, this time it’s personal – was something Cook should have if he wanted to. Little voices saying he should stay. They almost had me fooled.

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It should never have been so. We may find out in years to come whether Cook jumped, was pushed, or whatever, but if for one minute Cook said “you know, I think I’ll have another year, thanks” any decent leadership would have said “not bloody likely”. He should have been given the opportunity to resign, and if not told to. If he’d failed to do so, he should have been dismissed. We seemed to care more about the personal feelings of one player than the overall benefit to the team. The wellbeing of a dead duck captain, rather than an all points forward Team England. Cook probably didn’t feel like that, but the press gave the impression they did. It took a heart of stone not to laugh.

Now look. Cook is now being lauded for presiding over a deterioration in performance and saying it might be down to him a little – a little sprinkling of self-regard, a touch of piety and honesty. We’ve changed a fair old bit as a cricket media if that’s a plausible, rational point to make by an English sporting captain and to get praise for it. There will be the nice captaincy reviews, smatterings of integrity and class, and lots of praise for his resilience and fortitude. All that is for today. It’s nice to be nice, isn’t it? But this blog has always been that outlier. The sort of negative voice, that never moved on that could be “easily ignored”. Except it couldn’t. We owe Cook, and the media that supported him, and the ECB that backed him, a lot. Without it, what would we have done? Talk about T20 reorganisations being implemented with all the skill and dexterity of the original Millennium Dome?

So what of his reign over the past four years? I wouldn’t want to be the curmudgeon to say it was all crap, because it wasn’t. But I wouldn’t want anyone to believe this was some golden era for English cricket either. We lost at home to Sri Lanka. We drew at home to Pakistan. We lost a test in Bangladesh. We were beaten 2-0 in UAE. We lost 4-0 in India. We drew 1-1 in West Indies. There were plenty of downtimes against teams a “potential World number 1” should be winning against.

Cook, two tests against Bangladesh apart, took over the England captaincy in the middle of a good old dust up in the wake of the tiresome and stupid Textgate. History will show that a combination of Cook and Flower brought the maverick back, and the results were instant. Of course he ended up leading a reasonably unified England team for a tremendous win in India, down to the brilliance of his batting (nearly always magnificent against spin), the wonderful bowling of Anderson, Swann and Panesar, and of course, that innings in Mumbai. England’s victory was as stunning one, but also one that could, in hindsight be seen as misleading. Cook’s immense performance with the bat put the meme out that he was a “leader from the front”. Mark Butcher, for one, frequently premised comments on Cook with “he’s not a natural captain”. Any tactical nous, such as it was, was down to masses of (his) runs on the board, a magnetic performance or two from either of his two middle order stars, and his many, varied bowling attack. Maybe unfairly, but he never got the credit for that, or the Ashes win in 2013, until much later when it became a shield to protect him from the missiles aimed in his direction, rather than giving stone cold solid examples of how his captaincy had pushed the needle to victory. After 2013 his team were viewed as mean, surly, unpopular and too process driven. The reflection of their coach, and backed, tacitly or otherwise, by the incumbent captain who post-India saw a little drop off in form that started his two year run without a test hundred.

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Yes, 2013-14 was the watershed. It changed everything. It changed English cricket, to a degree it changed cricket journalism, it certainly changed this blogger, it changed the way fans talked and debated on Twitter. It was a cataclysm for England cricket. Fans turned against each other. The media sided with those who wanted to keep the fans in the dark, putting out their talking points, and letting their personal antipathy towards Pietersen cloud their judgement. This was partially Cook’s fault, but much more the ECB and the media. Cook was hung out to dry, made to be the lightning rod. He was in poor form. He had presided over an unmitigated disaster and looked helpless when confronted with it. He looked shot. But he had to be backed, because to do otherwise would actually betray his masters at the ECB and actually opened them up further to ridicule. Imagine, because it happened, when the man appointed to deal with the issue was asked whether he’d considered the position of the losing captain who had presided over that nightmare. “Not really, no” was the answer. Job’s a good ‘un. He could, and did, withstand sheer nonsense.

They were pathetic from the moment Cook allowed Sri Lanka to milk another 40 runs from the remaining seven overs with the old ball without looking to take wickets to the bitter end with Plunkett’s comical demise.

There can be no sparing of a captain who lacked any sense of tactical acumen in the field while his opposite number scored his second consecutive hundred and then carried on his long spell without a century of his own.

(I’ll give you three guesses who wrote this after Headingley 2014)

The anger at the dismissal of a top player without an explanation focused on two main targets. We’ll get to one of them in 3 days time when we celebrate “Outside Cricket Day”, and Alastair Cook was very much the other. Cook was in the room when it happened. He was party to any decision. He promised to explain what happened, and never did (we await his next book for that). He was even, reportedly, one of those who staunchly would not countenance a return even when Comma took the Directorship. Cook, like it or not, became the lightning rod. That’s because massive, abject failures like the abomination of Headingley 2014, that cost us a series for crying out loud, were brushed under the carpet as the mis-steps of a cricket captaincy novice. A greenhorn with little to fall back upon, a callow captain, who we should cut some slack. Journalism went on holiday, and instead we saw puff pieces, plaintive cries from his press poltroons, seeking to blame it on “vile abuse from social media”, while conveniently forgetting to mention that Alastair “doesn’t read Twitter”.

Many say he was close to quitting both then and at Lord’s when England fell to another gormless, abject home defeat. Maybe some of the press corps were beginning to doubt themselves, but they soon changed their mind, with 95 wonderful reasons at Southampton enough to persuade them that the flowers in the garden smelled just fine, and that the general public were right behind him. This innings has gone down in folklore. Centuries by others were ignored to pay homage to the “back to his best” Cook. The reaction was unbecoming, a celebration, a vindication, a revelation. England were back and they didn’t need a weasel with the willow to help them out any more. Case closed.

We sat through two years of every mistake and loss the England team suffered being nothing to do with Cook, and every win a reinforcement of how right the powers that be were. The sacking from the ODI captaincy, which should have been much earlier but the ECB couldn’t afford to upset the Cooks or the press bag carriers, at a time when it was too late to really adjust spoke volumes. It should have happened in the test matches, but it didn’t.  In both cases he needed talent to carry him through, and the test arena brought that likelihood closer. A 2015 Ashes win was, at the very moment of triumph, announced as “redemption for Cook” and Cook alone. Not Broad who had performed manfully down under and had just bowled one of the great spells at Trent Bridge. Not Anderson who had a chastening, injury-ridden tour. Not Root who had been so poor in Australia that he had been dropped. No, it was Alastair Cook. You want to trace the decline of Nasser in our eyes, and you can look right there. This ceased being about Team England. It was Project Cook.

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To be an England fan upset at the tawdriness of the sacking of Kevin Pietersen over the past three years has been chastening and enlightening. It has been enervating and infuriating. Plenty of highs, many lows. At each step we’ve been told to move on, to get behind the lads, to see Cook less as an England cricket captain in the high-pressure international sport environment, and more a totem of leafy, pastoral England. Farmer, family man, decent fellow, lovely, polite, a true Englishman, a man we should aspire to be, rather than worry about a seemingly shallow, self-obsessed, “maverick” who cared about as much about England as a South Africa might. For Cook it was a calling, a sense of duty and patriotism. For Pietersen it was a job. A badge of convenience. “He only worked there”. Cook was something more pure.

It was a coincidence that Cook’s resignation should take place on this blog’s 2nd birthday. Being Outside Cricket began on this day two years ago, having shut down How Did We Lose In Adelaide, for reasons best kept back in the day. If the issue of Cook as sanctified captain, and KP as wronged outsider, did not matter, if the invocations to move on weren’t rightfully ignored and if the history and people involved did not matter, this blog, and its predecessor, would not have gained the traction and the repeat visitors it has. There are reasons for it. There is a reason why Chris and Sean joined the editorial “board”. There is a reason when on down days we are still turning over double the hits we did in other dry spells. Throughout the two years of BOC, and the previous year of HDWLIA, the voice of supporters who didn’t buy the Cook as wronged, wounded warrior was heard. Many didn’t want it heard, we were told to stop our guesswork, to buy the accounts given to us by those in the know. We waited for this cast iron evidence of what had happened, and yet, and yet. We still wait. We can only conclude that the establishment have nothing to add. It did Cook no favours. It also must be said that Cook hardly did himself any either. This blog, the commenters on it, and the Twitter community that I feel a part of put the case. Many did not want to hear it. They chose to revile us. More fool them.

Cook’s captaincy has been discussed at length. His achievements as leader should not be ignored. Wins in South Africa should not be sniffed at. A couple of Ashes triumphs, hardly on the scale of 2005, but you can only beat what is in front of you, were worthy, but in the case of 2015 owed a lot to some favourable conditions on the wickets outside London. India 2012 can never be downplayed – you are a good general when you win, and Cook did it his way. There’s some credit to go around. Of course there is. Yet the debit is not for now. It makes you wonder when it ever would have been.

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Cook’s reign, in my eyes, will be one of stagnation, not evolution. Of turbulence, not stability. Of poor external environments borne of the inability to be straight with those who might have understood if he had been, not good environments, that seem still to bring forth maddening inconsistency. It will also be remembered as a time when England sacrificed its box office performer and as a result, partly because of it, partly because the trend was inexorable, interest in the test team, in cricket, receded. Loyal supporters, cricket lovers, turned their backs on a game that would rather protect the weak, than assimilate the difficult. Cook’s captaincy was a withering vine from the moment we lost the 4th test at The Oval this summer. Inevitable defeat in India, preceded by a lamentable one (sorry, still think that) in Bangladesh will be spun as taking one for his new captain. I lost faith at Headingley in 2014, fresh from Melbourne in 2013, and I had no confidence in those who might have effected change. Cook paid the price, England paid the price. It’s just that many of his fans just don’t know that yet.

So I shall not lament his descent into the ranks. I shan’t be pouring lachrymose tributes here there and everywhere. I’m not going to plough forth into hyperbolic hypocrisy. I’m sure as hell, with the bloody awful external environment I find myself in at the moment, not going to feel one pang of remorse for my supposed campaign against him. Harsh words could be fired at Pietersen, and still are, but one smidgeon of criticism against the Lord of the Ewes and we’re all lumped in with that professional attention whore Piers Morgan, just because we happen to be on the same side of the argument. It’s crap deflection, it’s unbecoming of the pliant media, and fanboys and girls out there, and while I have always acknowledged that people can, and will disagree, with me on Cook, I’ve seen precious little civil coming back. Now it’s over, maybe we can all breathe, maybe we can all look forward, and maybe, just maybe, this cult will be over.

Lord knows, we need it to be.