“Do SOMETHING! ANYTHING!”

Sean’s excellent piece on Saturday captured the arguments over the plans to introduce a new T20 competition succinctly and accurately. I must put my cards on the table here. I just don’t think T20 is much good. It’s not particularly memorable in its own right, and because it is so frequent, with game after game after game bombarding you, a tournament like the Big Bash just feels like it goes on too long. Which means the IPL has got to a serious “what the hell” phase long before it gets to its knockout phase, or whatever it is that concludes it. I went to the first ever T20 at The Oval, back in the day, where the sheer shock that the ground was almost full and the club had catered for half that, still sticks in the mind more than the game did (Comma made a 50 I see). It’s interesting to see how the articles refer to the same concerns on show now.

Questioned about a shorter format, almost half were against it but of the 34% who expressed approval, most had never attended a county game. And for Robertson and the ECB it was the possibility of attracting new fans – and crucially families – that convinced them to press on.

“I just couldn’t see how it wouldn’t work,” John Carr, the ECB’s director of cricket operations at the time, said in 2004. “But it took a lot to convince the counties. Fair play to [Robertson]. It is one thing to have an idea like we did, but quite another to sell it. And that is what he did. And not only to the public, because I thought that one of the most important things was that it was sold to the players. It would only work if they took it seriously and did not dismiss it as ‘hit-and-giggle’ cricket.”

I used to go to a few of them back then. I remember Andrew Symonds tearing some attack apart at Beckenham (it was Hampshire’s), a very well contested quarter-final between Surrey and Worcestershire when it was skillful bowling that saved the day, and the “penalty bowl out” between Surrey and Warwickshire. I was a member back then, and felt absolutely no desire to go to Finals Day, and I had a culture of following my other sporting love all round the country.

For me T20 was there for a one-off “hope something good might happen” but often disappointed. I got a couple of free tickets to see Surrey a few years back, and KP was playing so it was a rare chance to see him in action, but the games themselves weren’t very exciting to me. I realise I’m not the kind of supporter this new competition is meant to get to, but also I wasn’t a fan of playing it when I had the chance, and thought it wasn’t that great a concept. It was cricket for cricket’s sake. I remember going to a Surrey v Middlesex game on my birthday, and Middlesex barely got 100. It was cripplingly dull. Even the most boring day at a test was better than that. No amount of fire machines, dancing people and loud music could make up for the fact it was a rubbish game.

The clubs saw the chance in the immediate aftermath of the initial success to go from the five games they had planned in season 1, and they continued in Season 2, to more. Remember those lazy hazy first season matches at East Molesey and Richmond Park? This increased to 8 in Season 3 and went up to, 10 in its 6th season. The counties became dependent on it to continue, seeing it as a necessary income, and could not resist the temptation to overkill. In its eighth season, in 2010, it became a league of 16 games, with quarter-finals? Even then they sensed they were killing the golden goose, because it reverted to 10 games after two seasons, before settling on the 14 we have now with the Blast (from 2014).

What that showed is the counties had no real idea on what to settle upon, and I know a number kicked up fury when it went from 8 home games to 5 in 2012. The Blast has seen some improvement in the attendances and there appears a fair buzz towards it this year. The “appointment to view” with a Friday night fixture was actually, in hindsight, a decent idea, but that’s been watered down now we’ve decided to play the fixtures in more of a block.

Then we have the IPL and the Big Bash. Envious glances were cast at these two competitions. Both play in considerably larger grounds than we have in this country, and both, therefore, attract the money makers. The IPL was very much set up as the Premier League of cricket, and the BBL followed with a different kind of league, but in sun-kissed stadia, free to air TV, and the teams playing just 8 games each. Both played one game a day (occasionally two at weekends), but all were televised live, and that’s what has got the attention of the ECB and their influential friends in the media. There wasn’t a Big Bash occasion that seemed to go by without Shiny Toy doing down our competition and bigging up theirs. The aim to copy the IPL wasn’t possible – we didn’t have the money, or the calendar slot for it – hence the waltz down the Sandford cul-de-sac. But the Big Bash? Why not?

I have always said that new leaders have to have a new idea to be remembered by and it has to be a big one. There is no place in this world for staying still, because the world moves without you if you do. For some, the sheer fact that Test Cricket has been in existence for 140 years is anathema in itself. The English football authorities changed in 1992 to the Premier League, which, we are told, has made our competition the best in the world, but in doing so, virtually killed the other main crown jewel, the FA Cup, dead. As a football fan of a non-Premier League team, I despise this. There’s nothing in the top heavy structure for me, and the FA Cup is a joke. We beat three Premier League teams this year, all playing reserve XIs, before Spurs put us out by taking the game vaguely seriously. The FA Cup is seen as a consolation prize now. In twenty years the culture of it being the biggest single day out is now relegated to big clubs saying it is not enough to win it.

What will a new City-based (or whatever it is) do the Blast which seemed to be standing on its own two feet, was a competition anyone could win (see Northants and Leicester – it’s great Yorkshire, the mighty Yorkshire, haven’t won it) and people seemed to genuinely enjoy it? I think there’s an overly rosy picture painted of it, the Blast is not perfect, but it’s working out for all concerned and there is a rise in interest. I wish it were a little shorter, but then I already said I’m not that bothered about it. But when Michael Vaughan is wetting himself every time the Big Bash comes on, it’s hard to resist. If you look at how recent ex-pros, who didn’t play much county cricket towards the end of their careers, react to the onset of a new competition, it’s noticeable how many do their old breeding grounds down.

The new competition is designed to get new followers in to watch the game. Tom Harrison, the Empty Suit, is carving out quite a niche for himself as an absolute weapon. In selling this “vision”, his new management brings radical change “thing”, he’s not just in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, he wants to fit someone else up for the incident. In a series of responses to Sean’s piece, I picked out a few of them, but two stood out.

Obsessive

‘Counties have been incredibly successful having an audience that is obsessive about the game but our county brands are not cutting through so this is all about creating brands that are relevant to our target audience of families and children. We have to connect to their very busy world.”

I know, over the years I’ve been doing this, that I can take a throwaway line and make too much of it. After all, we aren’t called “Being Outside Cricket” for nothing, eh Paul Downton? But the choice of the word “obsessive” here is an interesting one. Obsessive has very negative connotations. As if you shouldn’t be doing something. If you obsess over something the inference is that you shouldn’t, or you should dial it back a bit. So if you are “obsessive” about the county game, maybe you shouldn’t be? Harrison, despite playing some county cricket, clearly has some negative perceptions of the people who follow it. Demographic perhaps, social class perhaps? It’s an issue that won’t go away. County cricket, last I looked, provided all but one England test player in my lifetime (ole Muppet Pringle came from the Universities when he made his debut). The County Championship has, I think many will say, flourished so the top division is now seen as a rival to any first class competition in the world. I watched some last year, and although we’re not getting the top world pros any more, the underlying quality of the home talent is pretty decent. It’s not for all, and it is based on what some would see as arcane old structures, but it kind of works from a cricket perspective. It also instills loyalty in it. That, Tom, is no bad thing. It is a positive, not a negative.

Harrison could, if he had a modicum of charm, had called the denizens of the county game “passionate”, “devoted” or “enthusiastic”. Instead, because they don’t worship at his sharp empty-suited altar, they are obsessive. They are also obstructive. They don’t go on “leaps of faith” or “Futurebrand presentations” but live in the here and now. Many have never accepted T20 but see it as a necessary evil, and their counties have kept the show on the road because of it. Now they see a new competition as a threat to their very existence. And so they should.

Harrison and his cheerleaders and parrots in the media are selling the by-passing of these views as a virtue! Not all of us are “county championship or nothing” fans, but I respect the hell out of those that are. They are the people who will tell their kids, and their grandkids, about the feats of the past, just as my Dad told me about his era. It is they who will tell kids born now of the majesty of Tendulkar, the brilliance of Lara, the dominance of the great Aussie teams, and yes, things like being at Adelaide, or seeing England hit the bottom of the Test table (though for me it will need to be my nieces and nephew). These obsessives are your core support, Empty Suit. Why piss them off even more than you have to? I feel insulted by that statement, and so should anyone who will be there in a week or so supporting their county as the Championship starts. The ECB can call it #realcricket if they want on their mildly annoying Twitter feed, but when the voice at the top thinks it is OK to use “obsessive” I think he gives away what he really feels.

It’s Not About The Game, Dummy

“Twenty20 is short and sharp. The actual game is secondary to the entertainment and fan experience.”

I remember watching Star Wars, the original, back in the day at the Odeon in Lewisham. It’s been long since destroyed. It was smoke-filled, the seats were crap, the service worse, the film quality passable, yet I still remember it. It was shorter than a T20, it was new-ish (I mean, we’d all seen Star Trek) and the thing that stuck out was that it was an entertaining film that I still recall.

I went to see Phantom Menace in a lovely multiplex cinema, massive screen, comfy chairs, all mod cons, expensive food and drink, and the film was garbage. Just because my “fan experience” was good, and there was much more comfort, the “product” itself, what you go for, was ropy. I didn’t go to the cinema to see the next two, or even the new one.

Harrison here is giving the game away. On the one hand he wants a competition to capture the buzz, the excitement, the thrills of the Big Bash. But on the other he says this is “of secondary importance”. What the serious you know what is he on about? What the Blast has, no matter how little you feel about it, is when you get to the latter stages of it, it clearly matters to a lot of people. Northants and Leicestershire should tell you that. They couldn’t give a flying one about a “customer experience” and more about are they going to win the competition, as do their fans. You can’t just, in this country for sure, astroturf supporters. It’s called grass roots support for a reason. Harrison isn’t trying to get new people involved by a meaningful competition, but by some sort of high entertainment exhibition. Again, you watch the Big Bash and there does appear to be, especially with the Perth team, an affinity between the team and the supporters, and they are playing their matches at their worst test ground for amenities.

The argument, it seems the only argument, for this competition is to bring new spectators to the game. Now this is going to be interesting to see how this is done. Let’s say, for instance, that The Oval is hosting a fixture against the North London team. I could see how a rivalry might develop, and both those counties have a relatively short commuting range to get to the grounds. The Oval has a bit of a rep for becoming a drinking den during the T20 games. Up the ante on the supposed quality, and those supporters would be interested in more of the same in the late Summer months. How are you going to keep them out? Because that’s what Tom and co seem to be implying. These guys are good at getting tickets – better, I would suggest, than families, mums and dads. The city boys who make The Oval “what it is” on Blast days won’t mind shelling out a few extra quid. Are we going to make large parts of the ground “alcohol free”? How are you going to police that? How are you going to ensure families get tickets, even if there is no idea if that market actually exists? Are the ECB, in effect, going to take over the running of the ground for that game, something they don’t even do for international fixtures? Why would Surrey let the ECB take over the Oval for 4 or 5 nights a year? And good luck trying that with Lord’s!!!!!

It’s OK for fancy dan presentations by Futurebrand, or whoever they are, telling the ECB how to run things, giving them what they want, but what does Harrison actually want? There’s woolly aims about growing the game, future-proofing it, putting it on terrestrial TV. There’s much out there saying the status quo isn’t an option, and that county cricket isn’t a brand that sells. It’s much like test cricket. If you talk it down enough, you end up with even the supporters having little long-term faith. Harrison has fancy ideas, but no idea what will happen. He’s taking a leap of faith. If you are asking me to have faith in an ECB leap of faith, then you are asking the wrong person. The ECB used up my web of goodwill ages ago. All I see are charlatans at the top, keeping the man who did the most to sabotage long-term growth (Clarke) in gainful employment, and his successor locked firmly in Downton’s cupboard in case he says anything more out of order than the Empty Suit. When you have Comma, with a straight face, saying this competition could produce the test players of the future (yes, lots of “spinners” bowling darts is just what we need), my eyes rolled. They want a Big Bash. Michael Vaughan wants a Big Bash. Nasser Hussain wants a Big Bash. #39 wants a Big Bash.

It would just be the most honest thing to call it Big Bash, wouldn’t it. I can’t wait for the South London Scum to play the North London Toffs, and I hope many families will come for the “customer experience”. Let me hear them make some noise…

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Gambling the Family Jewels

Well everything is bright and rosy in the Garden of Eden that is England Cricket or that is what we have been told to believe by one of our beloved leaders, the vacuous ECB mouthpiece which is Tom Harrison. Dmitri did a brilliant job of deconstructing the various rubbish that the empty suit spewed in his various interviews over the past week, so I’m going to try and not go over old ground, instead I’m trying to fathom what this actually means for English cricket going forward.

Amongst all the corporate language and boring platitudes that were trotted out by Harrison, the most revealing comment was that “There’s a moment when we need to have a leap of faith, and I think we’re very close to that”. So in other words, it’s a case of sticking your finger in the air and hoping for the best, not exactly a ringing endorsement of the ECB’s strategic capabilities by any means. This is the equivalent of going all in on red at the casino table, hey you may be lucky and win the prize or it may come down on black and hence you lose everything – 130 years of county cricket down the drain because you went on a stupid hunch.

As for the competition itself, it more and more seems to be a bodge job with every day that passes. Surely if franchise cricket (or city based cricket, it’s the same thing to me) is what you believe in as the savior of English cricket then go the whole hog, replace the Blast with the new competition and start aggressively marketing it now – county opposition or not. The fact we will still have the T20 Blast in some form or another in an already busy calendar, which will now be viewed as an inferior competition and the fact that the new ‘Super T20 competition’ will take players away from the County Championship in the most important part of the season, thus making that an inferior product too doesn’t seem to make an awful amount of sense to me bearing in mind the investment needed.

The irony of all this is that the attendances at the Blast have been rising exponentially over the past years, certainly in the South of England, with a growth of 63% over the past four years. This might well be down to the fact that the majority of games are held on a Friday night and from experiences attending them myself, it does seem that a large make up of the audience tends to be younger males looking to throw down a number of beers in the sun before heading out for the evening (though quite why you would choose to consume Foster’s at £5.50 a pint in large quantities is beyond me); however the numbers don’t lie, the Blast has continued to see growth. Now I’m not saying the Blast is an ideal format, there are too many pointless games when qualification has all been assured or not, it is impossible to screen more than one game on TV, so broadcasters have to play lucky dip, hence we all got to miss out on Chris Gayle smashing a hundred at Taunton a couple of years ago and the competition lasts too long to get the top draw T20 players to attend. However, I think it would be fair to say that the cricketing world needs another T20 competition like a shark needs a bowler hat, quite simply it doesn’t. This is the crux of the matter, we have simply missed the boat as every Test playing nation has a T20 competition. What was new and innovative when the IPL came into place has become a dull, yearlong parade of mediocrity in the most part. If the ECB had been deadly serious about a new franchise competition as the only way to save English cricket, then it should have done it 5 years ago before all the other leagues started to pop up, not in 2020, when potentially everyone is sick of seeing Dwaine Bravo or Thisara Perera on their screens for 12 months solid and the format is already stale.

One of the most worrying things for me is the lack of market testing that the ECB has carried out. It is estimated that people will travel between 3-5 miles to attend a Blast game, how do they know that more people will travel to a South London Stags or a Manchester Moose’s game? That is obviously a rhetorical question, as quite obviously they don’t, no matter how much money is thrown at marketing the new competition. Then there is the case of actually alienating current fans. English cricket is fairly unique in it’s structure with so many first class teams and many fans are very tribal about the counties they support and rightly so (perhaps the exception is India, who have a large first class competition, but they struck while the iron was hot with the IPL), so how many of these fans are going to pay extra on top of what they already spend to go and see a team that they have absolutely no allegiance to? I couldn’t see myself getting particularly passionate about supporting a South London side and I guess many are in my boat too. Perhaps we’re not the ones that the ECB wants to get through the door, as the ECB is desperate to get kids involved as shown by the “Chance to Shine” programme, which in my opinion is simply a sticky plaster across an open wound. If the ECB is banking on attracting loads of families to attend the new competition as their main source of revenue, then it is a completely reckless gamble. Cricket has been out of the public eye since 2005, with only a select few that can either afford Sky or have family with a keen interest in the sport that have continued to follow the sport. Throwing a few plastic bats and kit at kids, when club cricket and interest in the game has continued to decline rapidly, is a bit like pissing into the wind. Sure the empty suit might think that Jonny Bairstow or Ben Stokes are the recognisable face of English cricket, but if I went to the average state primary school, with pictures of them, then I would bet 80% of the kids have no idea who they are. Cricket has been forgotten, it has become more elitist than ever and more importantly it no longer resonates with todays generation of kids. The ECB sold the future of English cricket down the river for a shed load of Sky’s cash, end of. It is welcoming to hear that the new competition will have some FTA access, but it is 12 years too late. Sure, you might well get some new younger converts, but how many will shrug there shoulders wondering what this weird game is?

Then of course, we come to the money aspect and that is where Mr. Empty Suit, feels he is best qualified, after all he was heavily involved in the sale of rights to Sky in the first place. Harrison is banking on the fact that they can get enough spin going around the new competition to get £35 million from either Sky or BT and he may well be right, after all, there is history of bidding wars between the two organisations; however even if they bank the TV money, they are still projected to lose £15million in the first year. Now I might not be an economist, but if went to my boss with an idea that was going to lose £15million in the first year, then I’d get laughed out of the room, yet this is the flagship competition that is going to save English cricket? I simply can’t reconcile both the figures and the risk here to make it a going concern.

Perhaps a more sensible suggestion would be to take that £15million and properly market the Blast, reduce some of the ticket prices to make them family attractive and use some of that money to take some of the games off Sky and onto an FTA platform. Sure the Blast could do with a bit of a revamp, as with any product that is 15 years old (2 or 3 divisions perhaps as a starter for 10), but it simply shouldn’t be ignored that it is only part of English cricket that isn’t in decline.

Surely it’s better that than recklessly gambling the future of county cricket on a hunch? Unfortunately logic has famously never been something that influences the corridors of power at the ECB. All in on red please.

Just Who Is This Clown?

Tom Harrison
Comical Empty Suit

You know me. I’m calm. I’m placid. Nothing much riles me. This blog has always been about keeping an even keel, being steady as she goes. But sometimes, just occasionally, someone pushes me too damn hard.

And in the past couple of days that person has been Tom Harrison, aka The Empty Suit. Here’s this no-mark’s latest missive from his saintly pulpit:

Speaking as the ECB launched All-Stars Cricket, which aims to get 50,000 five to eight-year-olds excited by the game this year, Harrison said: “The England teams are very clear that part of their responsibility in playing this bold and brave cricket – this commitment to playing an exciting formula of cricket every time they go on the park – is linked to this.

I don’t like unique, Simon H doesn’t like statements, I don’t have a lot of time for either formula or brands, and Mark doesn’t have a lot of time for any of them 🙂 . But this is arrant nonsense, and if I were Trevor Bayliss, or Andrew Strauss, I’d tell this effing bean counter to do one, or I’m resigning my post. If he wants to set the direction of travel for English cricket, then win the job as the absentee landlord coach, his laugh-a-minute deputy, or the man who put the comma into Director, Cricket. Until then, the way they play is up to them whether you like it or not.

One has to think what Alastair Cook must be thinking now. His job in the new England team, and my, we have a new England team every couple of months these days, is to be our anchor man. He has a promising young partner who appears to come to test cricket with an oven ready defensive technique and temperament, and we’ve got an Empty suit spouting off like a screaming child at a Bieber concert!

“Joe Root and [one-day and Twenty20 captain] Eoin Morgan understand their responsibility to be playing exciting cricket for future generations to connect with and for fans of the game to get behind us. It’s a very deliberate strategy. It doesn’t work every time you go out on the park. But we understand that it’s more likely you’re going to be forgiven for having a bad day if you’re doing everything to try to win a game, as opposed to not trying to lose it, which is a very key difference in positioning.”

I want to bang my head against a wall. Look at Australia on the same day as Harrison is uttering this wibble. They’ve played magnificently to draw a test and stay in the series when they could have blown it. Like another team failed to do and did blow it not so long ago. Someone pointed out in the comments that isn’t this opening up players to play so-called “reckless” shots and being able to quote “that’s the way I play”. I seem to recall that not going down too well not so long ago. Not just with the powers that be, but with the media as well. Harrison is not some wet-behind-the-ears media newbie like Downton.

Harrison said it was “100 per cent correct” that growing the game mattered more to the ECB than England winning a one-off Test playing boring cricket.

Then you are wrong. If we win an Ashes test playing boring cricket, then good on us. You won’t be finding me ever criticising the 2013 Ashes team.

We’re in a competitive world now. The reason why T20 blows other ratings out of the park on television and attendances – and this is not just in the UK, this is around the world – is because people want to watch. They know they’re going to go there and see some dramatic cricket, they’re going to see some amazing skill.”

Oh fuck me. In one paragraph he’s given the whole game away. He’s not concerned about cricket over and above everything else. He cares about revenue. T20 revenue. Competitive world it may be, but you are saying you are giving up on tests, and that T20 has to make money to fund it.

“We know that we’ve got a relevance issue with five to eight year-olds at the moment, as many sports do. We know that we’ve got a sport which can appeal to these audiences if we position it correctly and we deliver experiences that makes sense to parents and makes sense to kids.”

So in doing so, we’ll pay no heed to the preachers of the game – the parents, the people who play and run the clubs the ECB seemingly have just discovered since Matt Dwyer came into the fold – who seem to quite like test cricket, enjoy watching it, and would like to actually, you know, get to watch it without selling a kidney for a ticket, or their kids for a TV subscription. He’s still not mentioning the elephant in the room, is he? He can’t be this empty, can he?

Harrison said that the ECB’s controversial creation of an eight-team city-based Twenty20 competition was driven by similar motives.

“We’re trying to connect everything we do with this new audience that we’re trying to attract to the game,” he said, adding that it was about “making sure it’s relevant for mum and the family to go and spend some time at the county ground watching, taking their children along, watching a fantastic, phenomenal, exciting game of cricket”.

And throw the baby out with the bathwater. Make those mums and families travel further, to see teams made up of players thrown together at random, and who will all fly off to play in another league where they are all thrown together at random and rinse…repeat. It’s not putting a lot faith in the competition, it cares more about “individual skill” and “phenomenal, exciting” games of cricket. Watch Day 5 at The Oval in 2005. Watch Day 5 at Adelaide in 2006. Watch tension and pressure ratcheted up to the hilt. It’s what makes the Ryder Cup great. You know it means so much. Playing for England rather than some corporate whoredom like the Premier League, and its fans, have become.

Harrison revealed that whoever won the rights to the competition would have a say on which eight cities ended up with teams. He also disclosed that the ECB’s various rights would be split into packages, with at least one made affordable for terrestrial broadcasters, who have been starved of live coverage since 2005.

“The last time we went to market, we did not have international T20 as a product which was really packaged in a way that excited broadcasters,” he added. “We’ve got the new T20 tournament, which is designed to grow the sport in this country. And that will excite broadcasters. It is exciting broadcasters.”

Notice how the supporters have only been invoked as meaningless children carrying fodder, there to get the mums and kids (patronising as it is that mums don’t already like cricket – my mum, for example, loved it. Breaks my heart she died just before the 2005 Ashes) to come along. But no, the rights winners “would have a say on which eight cities ended up with teams”. This is like someone has put the worst ingredients of every single focus group inspired marketing consultant into a sports authority and then added steroids for an enhanced performance.

Harrison denied that English cricket had become less visible since live coverage vanished from free-to-air, insisting players such as Ben Stokes had “huge profiles”.

Well then he’s a liar as well as a clown.

This article was based on the reportage from the Telegraph article – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/cricket/2017/03/20/joe-root-told-england-must-play-exciting-cricket-even-leads/

The Product

“I had to be convinced because when I started out I was massively against it [four-day Tests], but I am for it because with Test cricket there is a risk of us loving it to death. We have to adapt.”
It’s been a tough time on the blog. Sean has been unavailable, Chris has been on his travels, and I’ve had the ongoing family issue in the States which thankfully looks more bright. It has also coincided with a period of limited England action. The ODI series in West Indies ticked the ICC Tours and England tour company boxes, but had little relevance to any future games. I really couldn’t care a dime about this North v South competition, played, as it is, in the Emirates. The quiet period is actually bloody important because England play far too much and any break is to be welcomed. Flogging a few of our players through all three formats for years on end is going to end careers prematurely.

For someone who has been on the blogging treadmill pretty much non-stop (we’ve had a few interludes here and there) for three years it has been a chance to actually take my eye off cricket for a while. I made little effort to watch anything while I was over in the USA, and I’m very much concentrating on getting out of the house quickly in the morning so don’t even switch on the India v Australia games. It’s on now, but it is hardly the most thrilling passage of play.

So last night, when I was struggling to get to sleep, I was thinking about what I could possibly write about. So I thought I’d probably concentrate at being an old man barking at the moon, and railing against something or other. It’s a vain person who quotes himself, but please let me have this indulgence. I replied to a Mark comment last night about the scriptures passed down by The Empty Suit (Tom Harrison) on the future of cricket in this country. In it, as is frequent in those circles, the sport of cricket, in whatever form it is played, is called a product. Now I’m sure I’ve referred to it as a “product” in the past,  but not in these egregious terms. It’s all about marketing, and image…. buzz if you like…. and actually not about the sport. Empty Suit was all corporate bluster and it pissed me off (and Mark too)

Harrison’s utter bullshit, invoking my favourite word “unique” (that’s a red flag indicating “charlatan” in my warning book) and as you say, Mark, “product” rather than “sport” or “competition” might fool some loyal followers of the used car salesman management text books, but it will never fool me when it comes to sport. Sport is not a product. It is sport. In essence, people playing. Wouldn’t it be nice if we got back to that?

Something has happened in the past weeks which has had me all wistful. It started with Millwall being drawn against Leicester in the FA Cup. It took me back to when we drew the same team in that competition in 1985. I went to that game with a friend from the same estate I lived on. He was 13 at the time, and we were great mates. We played football, we played cricket, we loved sport to death. He moved away a few years after, but I see him in on Twitter and he has a prominent-ish role in sport journalism now. I genuinely didn’t want to bother him with my nonsense for a while now, dropping a couple of hints if he wanted to follow them up, and yet he didn’t, and I was quite comfortable with that. This was because he is a journalist and I can’t say I was too keen on any journo knowing who I was at that stage.

Anyway, to cut a boring long story short, I got in contact after the Cup draw, and we are now talking a lot on line. It’s private conversations, but fascinating nonetheless, but I will quote one part. He said that what we have in common is a “childhood appreciation of sport” and I railed at this a bit. But then, on reflection, you know he is right. Sport is about playing, as I said to Mark, when you are a kid and that’s all that should matter. Playing, to the best of your ability, pushing yourself to improve, but to enjoy it. Like blogging. If this becomes a job, then I’m failing, and you’ll know it. When reading Empty Suit’s comments, you wonder what he thinks about the sport. It’s all about product this, experience that, context this, importance that. It’s a study in sport economics, not sport itself. Why should test cricket die if there isn’t money involved?

Sportsmen and women are, by and large, a lot like most of us. If we were offered a lot of money to do a job, and by so doing we would have to work shorter hours and less days, we’d bite that employer’s hands off. Why should cricketers, offered the riches of T20, be more predisposed to a gruelling five day game in the baking sun, than to a game usually played in the evening and lasting half the time of a normal day’s first class cricket? Gideon Haigh says in Death of a Gentleman that “T20 needs something to be shorter than”. The legends of the game aren’t really going to be forged in the white heat of a hit and giggle competition, but by efforts beyond the mere mortal, those of longevity, of perseverance. If you struggle to bat in T20 you aren’t given time to right yourself, as you are taking up time that others in better nick could better utilise. In test cricket it is part of the skill of the game that you can play badly, struggle, but work through it, blossom and triumph. You are given time to establish yourself.

The longer T20 goes on, the less I like it. I have always believed the worst thing that happened to the game was India winning the first T20 tournament. At that time India were sniffy about the game, thought it wasn’t right for international cricket and that they were above all that. Once they won the tournament, and with Yuvraj in great form smacking sixes for fun, the genie flew out of the bottle and we had the IPL. Players could earn fortunes, more than they got for playing for their international team, just by being great players, whether they were any good at T20 or not. The IPL may be the finishing school of cricket, as KP once mentioned (well, more than once) but it’s got little to do with what is happening on the field. T20 lends itself to betting. T20 lends itself to those with less attention spans.

Chuck D, one of the greatest musical lyricists of my time, commented that the black community seemed to want to infantilise itself, and have black adult artists appeal to kids as their primary selling aim, and so act childish. All that happens is the kids think that it is adult behaviour. I’m generalising, and Chuck D is a far better wordsmith than I ever will be, but his main point about those artists was that should concentrate on what they were, adults, and not talk down or dumb down for the sake of the corporations that run them. On a more trivial, sporting scale I see some likenesses. How many times are we told the T20 competition in the UK is necessary to “attract the kids”? Great. But you aren’t going to attract those kids to cricket. You are going to attract them to T20. In my view, it’s a bloody different sport! Kids won’t be playing test cricket, they will be seeing people smash balls over boundaries as the only measurable currency. This isn’t like baseball where pitchers are valued every bit as much as batsmen, but a game where the bat rules everything. Top quality test bowlers are rendered powerless by short boundaries, wickets made for runs, and a game that only seems to be “entertaining” if it is about peerless batting. The occasions when a bowler has been lauded from the rooftops for their performance? Tell me them.

T20 is a game with considerable skill, and I’m not diminishing that, but it isn’t about quality, it’s now about quantity. It is seen as the chance to make money by having another T20 competition that might secure some of the talent around the world. It is more and more being portrayed by the powers that be that it is the only way to secure the future of the game. A sort of gateway drug to the purity of test cricket. It’s nonsense. The Rugby Sevens aren’t taking over from test cricket. It’s almost a specialist sport in its own right. Five a side football is shorter, more accessible, the game we played as kids, yet it isn’t a thing in any way shape or form at the top level. Yet cricket is absolutely obsessed with changing its core characteristics, of what made it a sport that has lasted, in varying evolving forms for 140 years at least. A desperation to change, a desperation to seem relevant is taking us to a new unchartered territory. I think Empty Suit’s most relevant comment is this one…

“The balance between international and domestic cricket will change. We have to be careful about that and that is my fear about private ownership. Controlling private ownership will be difficult and controlling the ambition of very successful tournaments will be difficult.”The balance between international and domestic cricket will change. We have to be careful about that and that is my fear about private ownership. Controlling private ownership will be difficult and controlling the ambition of very successful tournaments will be difficult.”

Just read that and weep. This isn’t about developing future talent. It is about control. The ECB as our knight in shining armour, protecting English cricket from the marauding arms of the corporate raider is, quite frankly, rib-tickling in its chutzpah. So while we “watch the birdy” as Empty Suit prattles on about his conversion to four day test cricket, and that gets the headlines, what we are really looking at is a way for ECB to stop another body, like a Premier League, to go it alone and devil take the hindmost. The ECB, in all its generous cosy bosom, will cosset the cricket loving people of England and beyond in its tenderness. But if you disagree with that, you are bound to pay for it. That’s some stick for a puny carrot. The Premier League started off under the control of the Football Association – remember Graham Kelly and all that – before it spat that out and took on its own life. Now football is an oligarchy, a sport of totally entitled supporters, sacking managers who perform miracles to get teams into places, only to dismissed after a bit of a losing streak. It’s an out of control behemoth, in place to make money, more money and even more money.

Cricket has its own money issues. The top England players are on, conservatively, if the leak about Cook’s salary were correct, in the many hundreds of thousands. To pay these wages we need to make a ton of money. County teams also, we know, have players on salaries that are well above those that revenues can sustain. We know that the ECB has a war chest for seasons when India and Australia aren’t in town, but don’t seem to like using it (and if you might assume you could, ask Durham). The new T20, with these millions of TV viewers and punters waiting to follow the Big Bash model if only the ECB could come up with something, and the nonsense research put up to tell them what the want, and if it doesn’t, it’ll be spun that it is, is the only game in town. And there is no way anything is going to get in the way of it.

I still have some old fashioned, naive thoughts about sport being about people playing. It isn’t. Of course it’s not. It’s business. It has been for ages now. Childhood appreciation is a misguided construct. Cricket isn’t about that any more. It’s about a power grab. Trying to sell it any other way takes the punters for mugs. But they’ve been doing that for a while. There’s more on T20 to follow. But I for one am right behind our patrician authority, fighting the good fight against those corporate raiders! I never had Empty Suit as a modern day Arthur Scargill!

Have a good week everyone.

Nightmare In Dubai – Guest Post by SimonH

We would all have seen the sudden news from the ICC today about the sudden resignation for “personal reasons” of Shashank Manohar. As if he was reading my mind, our regular scrutineer of all things ICC has put pen to paper, or keyboard to screen, to give his quick take on what has happened today. So, take it away Simon H….

Clarke Book

“The Presidential limousine is turning into Elm Street…. President Manohar is waving…. There seems to be some sort of disturbance in the motorcade…. “

A bright new leader, not without his flaws certainly but committed to taking on entrenched interests and elites with vast power and money, is removed from office before completing his term? His proposed reforms look certain to die along with him? His shady deputy leader is positioned to take over? It may not quite be Dealey Plaza, and nobody yet has been identified firing the fatal shot from the grassy knoll, but it looks very much like March 15th 2017 has seen an undeclared coup (bloodless, fortunately) in global cricket governance.

The first thing to say is that this seems to have come out of nowhere. There had been no hints, no nods-and-winks, that this was imminent. The global cricket press corps, those Woodward and Bernsteins of investigative “proper” journalism, seem to have been completely blindsided. But then it isn’t so difficult to be blindsided if you’re looking in the opposite direction…..

Shashank Manohar, eight months into his two year term as ICC chairman, has emailed CEO Dave Richardson that he is standing down for undisclosed “personal reasons”. Indian media sources are reporting that it was a pre-emptive move in anticipation of losing the crucial vote on ICC reforms next month. Those proposals involved a new revenue-sharing deal that would cut India’s 22% of ICC revenue, the creation of a Test championship that would slash the number of games teams played, the creation of two divisions of 9 and 3 teams with no promotion/relegation, qualification for all teams for ICC tournaments and various other measures. The BCCI needed four FMs to block the moves and have reportedly secured the support of SL, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Those boards are apparently against more money for themselves. Some indication of the economics are here: http://www.hindustantimes.com/cricket/bcci-could-lose-180-190-million-in-new-icc-revenue-model-still-biggest-earner/story-YhtzoiMgonO7OJnriqJ7ZL.html

It appears that Zimbabwe have voted themselves out of $5m and the figures for SL and Bangladesh would be several times more that. This, obviously, is not

something you see every day. They are, more understandably, against permanent demotion to D2 (in Zimbabwe’s case) and playing a lot less Test cricket (in SL’s case).

The ICC will appoint an interim chairman until new elections can be held for a permanent replacement. Candidates need to be past or present ICC directors and to be nominated by at least two FM directors. The process seems most likely to carry on into the summer although it could technically be resolved next month. Unsurprisingly, the speculation from UK media sources is that Giles Clarke, known to be ambitious for the job but unable even to secure two nominations last time, is positioning himself for the job. The normally media-shy Clarke gave a rare interview recently: http://www.standard.co.uk/business/giles-clarke-the-cricket-nut-who-swapped-retail-for-oil-on-his-latest-innings-at-amerisur-a3463606.html

Clarke’s ambitions had been thwarted previously by non-Big Three FMs still furious over the 2014 Power Grab. Clarke has recently become a great supporter of returning international cricket to Pakistan: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/mar/06/pakistan-host-international-cricket-t20-series-world-xi-icc

Relentless churls might point out that Pakistan is not safe so Clarke set up his very own Warren Commission to come up with the result that had already been determined: http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/1086672.html

Therefore, we find ourselves today with what was yesterday’s distant possibility having become today’s imminent probability. The LBJ of cricket governance – with all the original’s probity, charm and intestinal fortitude for taking on those with money and power – is closing in on that crown he so coverts. If there’s one thing we should learn about the running of cricket, it’s never to say “it can’t get much worse”.

Contextual Adults

So that was that. England went to the Caribbean, they won the three ODIs, and that’s the job done. What exactly did they beat? How well or badly did they play? And perhaps more important than anything else, did anyone really care?

I don’t mean the players, who carried out their duties and won three games of varying closeness – the first was never truly in doubt, but competitive for long parts of the match; the second was England pulling a game out of a self-created hole; and the third was a rout – but the interest in the series from TV audiences, cricket supporters in this country and the host nation’s fans.

Far be it from me to use this site as a gauge of overall interest, but I was struck how, during the first ODI, there were no comments to be had from any of our regulars for large parts of the match. There wasn’t much more during the second and third games either. Now, quite conceivably, you are all getting a bit bored with Being Outside Cricket, and when your scribes are hardly beating a path to the keyboard to write up matches I can hardly blame you, but I think it’s something more serious than that. In Death of a Gentleman Michael Holding, I think, bemoans the “lack of context” in test match cricket. How a 3 match series plonked in the middle of a long stretch without test matches is supposed to be seen as anything other than a bit of international cricket fluff is difficult for me to argue against. Just like the tour to Sri Lanka before the 2015 World Cup, justifying it as a warm up for the Champions Trophy doesn’t really wash either. While the various tourist boards of Antigua and Barbados will no doubt be pleased with the considerable English turnout at the matches, that isn’t all we should look at.

There is also the question of precisely what we were facing. The PSL finished last weekend, so some of the key West Indian players were there, justifiably putting their own financial wellbeing and futures over the international cricket circus and a board that, from the outside, treats them with a disdain usually reserved for returning former England players to the Surrey T20 team,. So when the list came up on Sky of the alternative West Indian team that wasn’t the one facing us, it was sobering. Many words have been written on the demise of Caribbean cricket, and I know a particular tweeter I like (yes, genuinely, I do like him) gets fed up of the “hipsters” constantly wanting the West Indies to be relevant again, but this has been going on for a long time now. What’s the point of international cricket if whole teams are being excluded from selection, and when T20 leagues take priority?

That excuses the West Indians, but England, and the English cricket public, treated these three games with genuine indifference. There’s a cracking test series going on in India, with all the needle you’d expect from two teams that play to the limit, but then also believe (as do the large swathe of their supporters) that in the case of their own side, butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. New Zealand are playing South Africa in another test match which is competitive, played on a wicket suited to the format, and is poised well after three days. Sri Lanka are in a decent contest with Bangladesh too. I sensed, judging by the comments on here while I was in New Jersey, that the respondents here are far more interested in the goings on in the sub-continent than they were with this ODI series. Some of this can be put down to the fatigue we have with this team, but a lot must be because we aren’t interested in the format, and when international cricket becomes us versus a 2nd XI, well, then you can’t expect us to be totally bothered. I was back in the UK for the 3rd ODI and I can tell you, it wasn’t something I was rushing home for. I don’t represent anyone other than myself, but I think it speaks volumes.

Still. It’s all about the Champions Trophy. Never has this competition meant so much to an England cricket board.

A couple of other pieces of news that caught my eye. George Dobell’s latest on cricinfo regarding the saviour of English cricket, the new T20 contains all the old cobblers that we feared from our omnipotent, all seeing, rulers of the game. There’s the threats to non-believers in having money withdrawn; there’s the deception and corporate bullshit of using England internationals in the promotion when playing tests at the same time and thus not participating; there’s the fact the tarnishing of the rest of the game, by playing the 50 over tournament at the same time and intimating that’s the only cricket worthy for outgrounds; and there’s the draft. No-one, it appears, is to be affiliated to anybody. IF Joe Root were eligible for this, if he played for any team other than the putative Yorkshire based team, it would be a joke. Cricket, as if we have to stress it, isn’t football, and England is not Australia.

But then the ECB don’t give a flying f*ck about the opinions of a mid to late 40s grump, and are chasing the youngsters. In doing so, they threaten to alienate the core supporters once more. It’s almost as if they are setting out to do so. For example, I’m going to a T20 this year. Surrey v Essex. Me, and a friend from work, are taking an American who knows nothing about the game for a laugh, and for some beers. The sport itself? Almost incidental. A bit like T20 itself.

Finally, KP’s return to England’s cricket fields actually got a more muted response than I expected. This isn’t because the anti-KP brayers have had their time and run out of steam. Still plenty of them about, of course.  It seems as though it just doesn’t matter any more. There are warning signals everywhere and the authorities, paying the price for the game being hidden behind a paywall for over a decade, have a tough job on their hands. They’ve been handed a lifeline this year – a returning hero/scoundrel – but Surrey don’t need him to fill grounds. It’s a hard thing for many to understand but Pietersen, STILL, is the biggest name in the English game, and the likes of Stokes, Root and yes, Cook, have a way to go. No-one is going to go to a T20 game to see those three. They will for KP. Trust me. Whether that’s good or bad depends on your view. Why this is so? You know why. The ECB know why. The media might even know why (while they are not polishing Sky’s clocks).

Which leads me back to the start. An ODI series lacking context of any kind, plonked into the schedule years ago with no rhyme or reason, has concluded. There was little said, little noticed, and it will be forgotten in no short time. That’s a problem. I’m not sure anyone cares.

Back to the West Indies

When you have low key series like this one, there’s a temptation to re-use an old post title, asking whether a tree does fall in a forest if no one is there to witness it, but there is an unquestionable appeal to cricket in the West Indies in its own right, not least to the thousands of British tourists who use the opportunity of a cricket tour to get some much needed sunshine at the end of winter.  For the journalists too, it’s still a plum posting to get following the England team about, irrespective of the cricket on offer.  That’s not to criticise them for that, we all have elements of our employment that are rather better than others, and it’s understandable enough to want to go.

Although England are talking a good game about this tour being an integral part of the warm up for the Champions Trophy (which is something of a stretch) there is some importance for the West Indies given the psychological – but not cricketing – shock of failing to qualify for the tournament.  Moreover, there’s no certainty whether they’ll make the next World Cup given the determination to restrict it to as few teams as possible.  As an aside, it would thoroughly serve the ICC right to lose the West Indies if they didn’t make it just to highlight the stupidity of making the premier one day tournament such a restricted affair.  That being said, it would diminish the tournament if they were not there.

Therefore there is something riding on the series, at least for the home team who have only a further five matches to cement their place in the competition before the September cutoff.  Cricket fans around the world have watched in distress as the administrators and players collided repeatedly and often idiotically over the years.  The former powerhouse of world cricket had enough structural problems to deal with without constantly making things even worse.  The blame game got to the point that for many outsiders, they know longer understood what each spat was about, and more damningly they no longer cared.  Across the Caribbean positions were naturally more entrenched, but at the end of it the despair over the collapse of the international team never seemed to concentrated minds sufficiently to the point where all involved actually felt they needed to do something about it.

Given the conduct of the ECB over the last couple of years it’s easy to be cynical about all attempts of governing bodies – who tend to be anything but – to profess a new dawn in how they will run the game, but at some point the civil war in West Indies cricket will have to end.  It might be too much to hope that they will go from their current mess to back challenging all and sundry in the foreseeable future, but any signs of progress have to be welcomed.  If the ICC’s Big Three takeover is properly reversed, there might even  be an opportunity to make the most of doing so, but it will require an alignment of the all the planets to happen.  In England, Andrew Strauss’s title of “Director, Cricket” has been much mocked, yet his role unquestionably has value if done properly.  For the West Indies, the slightly less marketing department inspired Director of Cricket position has been taken up by Jimmy Adams, who is at least a figure who ought to generate widespread respect for his achievements.

George Dobell interviewed him for Cricinfo, and while words in themselves mean little, his desire to have the best players available – no qualification, no hedging – as a straightforward statement of intent, and that all sides need to give ground is perhaps one of the more promising signs for some time.  Whether it ultimately means anything at all, or whether he becomes another in a long line of people to leave in frustration at the Kafkaesque machinations of all sides is still to be seen, but any and all cricket fans around the world will hoping against hope that perhaps he is the one to really push the vested interests into looking after the wider game in the region.

In terms of the on field action most attention has been directed at the reunion of Ben Stokes and Carlos Brathwaite, following the spectacular end to the last World T20 final.  Brathwaite has spoken about his struggles to live up to that day, and it’s perhaps unfair to have expected him to.  There’s every chance it will be the highlight of his career when he comes to look back on it.  If so, there are worse memories to have.

Stokes himself might be worth keeping an eye on, if for no other reason than it’s either in the Caribbean or with Caribbean players that seems to define so many of his actions, from punching a locker to the repeated clashes with Marlon Samuels – which Samuels, it must be said, won.

As far as conditions in Antigua for the first match are concerned, the pitch appears grassy in places and bare in others, but with a 57 metre boundary at one end, the bowlers are going to have their work cut out to stop it being carnage.  As is so often the case with one day or T20 cricket, much discussion is had about bats, fielding restrictions and so on, whereas actually giving the bowlers a chance in the first place tends to be ignored.

England were pretty well beaten in India – in all formats – and perhaps their desire to put right some of those frustrations will make for a watchable series.  But let’s not pretend it’s essential, because it isn’t.