The Champions Trophy – Strauss The Builder

If you want a preview of the competition, in the form of a team-by-team analysis, I’m sorry, but you won’t find it here. The Cricketer has a half decent one, if you can stand purchasing something that #39 holds so dear to his heart, and I’m sure other blogs will be keen to take up the reins. But that’s not for us. We don’t have the time, don’t think you are that bothered, and so we’ve taken an editorial decision that we won’t do it.

Here at BOC we are more interested in what this 50 over jamboree represents. We’ve been building towards the Champions Trophy in that inexorable pursuit of a World 50 over event triumph ever since Comma and Empty Suit marched into Lord’s two years ago, with a white ball focus in their hand, and the trusty shield of trust to protect them from a 355 gun. Here’s where Andrew Strauss and the boys assess the ground floor structure. Is it suffering subsidence, and need to be knocked down to start again? Is the building on track, with some finishing touches required? Or should we stop here, have a damn fine bungalow, and start building another in the same mould for two years time?

Because in a couple of weeks’ time we will know whether Comma is a Cowboy or a Construction genius. That this is a competition that garners little or no interest when we are not hosting it is not the point. While all agree the format is pretty good (not perfect in my eyes) the sheer fact that India could brazenly not declare a team until well after the deadline shows the contempt it is sometimes held in. There was a review of the tournament when it was held in South Africa on TV the other day. I’ll bet we hardly remember the semi-final that we lost to Australia.

England have put a lot of eggs in this basket, and the view is that a semi-final place is a bare minimum, another defeat in the Final a setback, and only victory would really do. The England batting reminded everyone in the past week why we have a decent shot, and why we should, as we always should, caution people not to get too far ahead of themselves when it comes to this team. As we go into the competition, with group games against Bangladesh, Australia and New Zealand to come, there are some question marks.

Jason Roy’s alarming lack of form, a case of the IPL apparently hindering not enhancing a player, at the top of the order has some clamouring for Jonny Bairstow. I’m torn – where’s the evidence stacking up here? Roy has been poor, Bairstow not. Where’s the evidence that Jason is going to pull out of this tailspin? Hope? Belief? Confidence. This is where management is damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Keep him and he fails, and the hindsight squad will be in full effect. Change him and YJB fails… well, it was a panic measure showing little consistent thought. So whatever they do had better succeed. Money is on Roy staying. Good luck, Jason. (After I wrote the draft, Morgan has confirmed Jason Roy will remain in place for the duration of the tournament.)

Ben Stokes is now injured – there’s little point in covering this up, and little point in the England squad doing anything that jeopardises his long-term future. We know how this goes. Stokes will want to play, and will. The miniscule damage to his knee will get worse at some point soon, where he might be told to rest for a bit. He’ll come back and the knee won’t improve and he’ll be under the knife and out of the Ashes, maybe. This is potentially the Freddie Flintoff scenario all over again. The difference here is England needed Freddie the bowler more than Freddie the batsman. The opposite is true here.

The bowling is always a question mark, but that goes for all teams. This is a batsman’s game and the reaction to a track and weather conditions that allowed the ball to nibble a little on Sunday shows what happens when it isn’t. England’s bowling can be a bit up and down, can be a little samey, but can also have some inspirational moments. It may not have the pace of the Australian team, but in Woakes, Wood, Plunkett, Stokes and Ball, it has some solid performers. Rashid and Moeen have the potential to be two-way players, spinners that can bat a little.

England have massively improved, but so have Bangladesh, who lest we forget knocked us out of the previous 50 over shin-dig. Australia are the World Champions, and New Zealand are always game opponents. England should get out of the group, but they might not. Failure to do so may result in more hits for this bad news blog, but it will also be a wakeup call to those riding the ODI horse along the way. Comma has a lot riding on these two or so weeks. Vindication or vilification. It’s a fine line. A rain-affected game here, a bad day at the office there…..

For what it’s worth, Australia to beat India in the final. India having beaten England in the semi-final.

And on the other side of the fence, there’s the two comments in The Cricketer debate on the new ECB T20 competition. #39, our hero, believes that the new competition is more important than the feelings of a few disgruntled county members. Yet again I see the loyal supporters of the game denigrated by those who they watched play all those years ago and, to a good degree, paid their wages. I’m getting a little bit sick and tired of this casual approach to people with roots so deep in the game that pulling them out and away would take much effort and pain. But hey, if that’s not enough, John Etheridge reckons that if you are opposed to the new dawn of T20, then you are a dinosaur. That’s right. A dinosaur.

News comes from the other side of the globe that the Big Bash lost A$33m in the past five years. While this is obviously part of the ongoing pay negotiation battle Down Under, and both sides are spinning that number better than Drug Cheat in his pomp, it still is an interesting cautionary tale. We know the two markets are totally different. Cricket is eminently more visible in Australia than it is here. The culture of the sport is markedly different. AFL may be all consuming in Australia, but it doesn’t compare to the all seeing, all knowing, all pervasive Association Football in the UK. I’ve just seen the ECB Accounts. They’ve lost a fortune in 2016. The reserves, at £70m+ the year before, are down to the £35m now. That’s not great. No wonder the T20 desperation.

I’ll comment more on the Accounts, which can be found on Companies House if you look, later. What impressed me is the blanket media coverage of this loss. Did I miss it?

Anyway, enjoy the Champions Trophy. England v Bangladesh tomorrow – comments below.

England v South Africa: 3rd ODI

Appalling and disgraceful.  Shocking and irresponsible.  Replace the lot of them.

There’s bound to some kind of kneejerk response from some quarters to what was a pretty poor display by England, both with the bat and the ball.  Yet there does need to be some context involved: over the past two years England have been remarkably consistent batting first.  In the 23 innings in that time frame, they have passed 300 16 times. Furthermore, on all occasions they didn’t reach that landmark (and a few when they did) they lost.

England batting first in the last two years

What that suggests first and foremost is that 300 is the absolute benchmark now, and indeed all too frequently isn’t enough.  This isn’t especially a shock to anyone watching ODI cricket recently, but given that, it also makes it clear that taking risks is inherent in the modern game.

That list also shows that when England get it wrong, they do so spectacularly, the 138 at Manchester against Australia and the 153 today clear outliers.  Today was actually a pretty good recovery from 21-6, and showed a degree of fight and ballsiness that should be welcomed, albeit in a hopeless cause.  Where the debate lies is in the way England got out to a succession of poor, indeed identikit, shots in the first five overs.

Here’s the nub of it, how should a team approach the innings when they lose early wickets.  Within that list are a couple of examples – versus New Zealand at Southampton and the West Indies in North Sound, where England were 34-2 and 29-2 respectively – where they carried on going for the shots and scored just either side of 300, winning one and losing the other.  Either or both of those could have gone wrong and 40-4 the outcome, but it’s indicative of England’s approach that they do not decide to moderate their play but carry on in the same vein.

Now, it would be absolutely ideal if England could adjust their sights according to the situation, but this is a more difficult mental thing than might be supposed.  If a team is to play without fear, as most seem to want them to do, then that means backing themselves not to get out, but to score and score heavily.  A hope that England hit lots of sixes but don’t take any risks is all too easy to fall into, and the moment that freedom to stuff it up is removed, then the prospects of scoring 300 and even 400 as they have done recedes into memory.  To put it another way, collapses like this are an occupational hazard from a team that lives on the edge in their batting.

Of course, it could be argued that once they are three or four down, that kind of moderation would be eminently sensible, and that’s also true, but collapses happen in all forms of the game, and all who play at any level will be familiar with the post match head scratching as to why exactly everyone chose to get out to dreadful shots.

As someone might have said about their own game in the past, this is how England play, and given that there are going to be days where they get it all wrong.   Beating them up for that is entirely counterproductive and needs to be seen as the price paid for the generally successful highly aggressive strategy.  It doesn’t excuse an individual error, but it does explain how it can happen across the team.  England fans recall all too well the restrained style where they aimed for something competitive, and much good it did them too.

Having had that disastrous start, they actually did fairly well to reach 153, entirely down to Bairstow, Willey and Toby Roland-Jones.  It’s worth noting that none of them were especially restrained in their batting, going for their shots throughout in a vain attempt to pull off a miracle and get England a defendable total.  It could be argued that by so doing, and scoring at a shade under 5 an over, it represented the only possible way England had of offering up anything competitive.

South Africa certainly looked better for the changes they made.  Conditions were helpful early on, but not unduly so, and the addition of Morne Morkel lent the attack an air of increased menace.  Rabada may well be a star of the upcoming tournament, for he offers both express pace and control, while Parnell too looks dangerous at times.  A small wobble in the run chase is part for the course with the South Africans, but this match was effectively done after five overs.

For England, their bowling attack had a distinctly second string look to it, but with such a small total it is perhaps unfair to judge them harshly on today’s display.  Still, the opening spells were woefully poor in both direction and length, removing any minimal hope there might have been.  Roland-Jones did himself no harm, while Jonny Bairstow continues to be the most under-appreciated cricketer England have had in a while.  The batting is certainly strong, it must be in order for him to be left out.

It’s probably no bad thing for England to be given a kick up the backside in what was both a warm up match and a dead rubber as far as the series was concerned.  The real business begins later in the week, and it’s clear that England are certainly capable of winning the competition, but also capable of falling flat on their faces if they get it wrong.  It makes them a very interesting side to watch.

 

 

England v South Africa – 3rd ODI Intro

It was a good game on Saturday. England made what looked like a par score, or maybe that’s me just assuming we are going to make good 300+ scores these days. The visitors lost their key men with the winning line a little way away, but Morris and Miller brought them close before the curious / brilliant final over. England took the series, found a death bowler, and then pronounced injury worries.

I’m not going to go into a massive preview as the main event starts in a few days time. We will welcome any comments on the game tomorrow, as we always do, below, but realise that the interest is not there for ODIs. We hope it comes back for the Champions Trophy and the test matches. Great games, like Saturday’s, will not be remembered long. As I said, I hear the stuff about test matches lacking context, but an ODI series like this is so context-lite that it barely exists.

Here’s where I am these days. Work is busy. Life has limited spare time. There is a ton of sport out there. And I feel as those of us as cricket diehards are pretty unappreciated right now. Maybe there is a chance to enjoy the cricket for itself, but it’s hardly likely. It’s great we have a fresh pair of eyes to write more regularly for us, and a formal welcome to Danny from me, but I can’t even be bothered to read the press these days. Well, I do a bit:

Newman:

There was a time last winter when Morgan, who refused to lead his side in Bangladesh because of security concerns, was under pressure. But he has responded in style. This was his third one-day century in eight innings, after he had gone 24 knocks without one, and Morgan will go into the Champions Trophy at the top of his form.

Just how long is he going to go on about this?

OK. Enough. It’s late on Sunday, and I want to take the dog for a walk. Have a good one, and any comments on the game, leave below.

England v South Africa: 2nd ODI report

Saturdays are often the day for doing things, whether going out, doing the shopping, or spending time with family and friends.  But sometimes they are days where the sporting content on offer makes some plan to spend the day in front of the telly soaking it all in.  With cricket spread across the day, it left time to take in the rugby Premiership Cup Final, and the FA Cup final.  If there was one thing all three had in common it was that they were undeniably exciting. 

Of course this being a cricket blog, the others are peripheral, although the chances of the cricket getting too much attention in the Sunday papers probably aren’t great given events elsewhere.  But a warm up for the Champions Trophy it may be, it was still a fine game in its own right.  

England have consistently scored heavily when batting first over the last couple of years, one painful collapse against Australia aside, and they go about their business in a similar manner each time.  The batting order is unquestionably a powerful one, even if the opening pair are probably not quite functioning perfectly as a partnership.  But there’s a happy knack of someone getting in and making a decisive score – Morgan in the first match, Stokes here.  Whether Stokes should have even been playing is a matter of some controversy. He said after the game that he’s fine when batting and fielding, but gets pain when bowling.  It is something of a puzzle why he would be risked, and certainly why he would be asked to bowl at all.  As it was he managed only three overs.  With England playing up to seven bowlers including him it does seem a curious risk to take with their talisman so close to a tournament England have set their stall out to win. 

That aside, Stokes was magnificent with the bat after an extraordinarily rocky start, three edges and two dropped catches in his first three balls.  The batting support came all the way down, Buttler producing some extraordinary shots in the closing overs, and Moeen once more quietly scoring rapidly.  He may dislike life at number seven (he was talking about Tests in fairness), but he does it well.

South Africa were fairly shambolic in the first half, the fielding was abysmal, the catching worse.  Yet they showed more than enough to suggest they are capable of beating anyone, and a tournament is all about what happens on the day.  These warm ups mean little in terms of the trophy itself.  Rabada is a real handful, and his dismissal of Roy was something we see all too rarely these days – a batsman beaten for sheer pace.

330 is a decent score, if not impregnable these days, and it’s certainly true that the visitors had the best of the conditions.  The cloud of the morning dispersed and it couldn’t have been better for batting.  But South Africa still should have won.  De Kock batted beautifully, De Villiers did what he does so well, and with Miller and Morris hitting cleanly and with some distance, to lose a match where only seven runs were needed off the final over, and with five wickets in hand was remarkable.  Mark Wood unquestionably bowled superbly, and despite figures of 0-48 from his ten, had a reasonable claim on the man of the match award.  Such is the lot of the bowlers at the end, whose figures take a pounding even when they have they have done something impressive. 

And so England take the series.  They got out of gaol a bit with this one.  And it was a good game to boot.  But then so was the FA Cup Final and so was the Premiership Cup final.  At least one of those will get acres of coverage.  Pity.  The cricket was good today. 

One last thing.  Elsewhere Kumar Sangakkara turned his fifth successive first class century into a double.  Those who have seen him play know just how special a cricketer he is.  Those that havent, time is running out.  Go and watch him if you can. 

England v South Africa – 2nd ODI – Preview of Sorts

 

We’re hot-desking in the office at the moment, which means as a relatively late starter I have all the fun of the fair in securing a desk. On Wednesday I sat next to a cricket supporter. Not a die-hard by any stretch of the imagination, but someone, ideally, who should be following the game. As Eoin Morgan completed his hundred, and Moeen Ali was attacking the Proteas, I turned to him and said “Morgan’s got another ton for us”. He looked at me in a facade of confusion. “What are you talking about?”.

He had absolutely no idea England were playing an ODI against the World’s Number One team. They say test cricket lacks “context” but this series is being played in advance of a major tournament as some form of glorified warm-up. England aren’t messing about with anyone at this time, and I am no doubting that their intensity is necessary, but this is a series with preparation in mind. England won’t, and can’t, make many changes in the next week and nor will South Africa. England are getting decent reps from the pundits, but there’s still this nagging doubt that the batting will collapse into a heap, or their bowling won’t staunch the runs. We might have a lot better prospects than the “puncher’s chance” of 2015, but it’s important not to peak too early.

But back to the visibility of this series. We know on BOC that ODI doesn’t FYB. But it is an important part of the ECB’s Mission Statement, and Strauss has a lot riding on this Champions Trophy and the 2019 World Cup. It’s certainly an impressive trick of the light to be able to charge £89 for Compton Upper tickets on Monday for what is a preparation event, but should we be worried that floating cricket fans had no clue this series was on? In a slightly related development, BBC were announced as the Champions Trophy highlights channel, which will improve some visibility, but not a knockout one. The game is drowning in ignorance, and it is doubtful a long run in the Champions Trophy is going to halt that.

One sage is not convinced the BBC will help the visibility at all…

You have to laugh. On so many levels.

Tomorrow sees the second ODI at Castle Greyskull, the international venue in England that is about as inaccessible as could be. That it’s a Bransgrove hosted event is also particularly lovely. There’s not a lot of love on here for him. The game itself is important only to see if England can maintain the momentum. It’s been a very high scoring ground in the past for ODIs and if the threatened storms don’t materialise, it should be tomorrow too. Jason Roy could do with a hit, Mark Wood needs miles under the clock, and Jos also needs to show a little form. But these are minor quibbles. England are playing an ODI on FA Cup Final day. On Rugby Union Premiership Final Day.  The PGA Championship is on at Wentworth. It’s a Bank Holiday weekend.

Will anyone notice another ODI with this talented exciting team? Another one of my colleagues is off to the Sponsor Bowl tomorrow. So I suppose people are. But enough of them?

You tell me.

Comments below.

England vs. South Africa – First ODI

Many thanks to Danny Frankland, who wrote a review of the first ODI in the absence of the normal culprits. Danny has agreed to write for us more often and we’re thrilled to have him on board. So play nice….


So England faced the ODI team currently ranked number 1 by the ICC and beat them convincingly in the end. A cause for celebration, you’d assume, but everyone’s focus is already on the Champions Trophy which begins in 8 days. The side England chose for this first game is widely expected to be their starting XI in the tournament, and so the team’s performance provides a useful gauge of what we can expect over the next 4 weeks.

Strengthened Their Position

Eoin Morgan – Of course as captain, Morgan’s place was already secure. He does attract a lot of criticism though, so his performance today will have quieted his naysayers (at least temporarily). He got a dominating score of 107 with the bat, and rotated the bowling well which seemed to create wickets from what was a very flat pitch.

Moeen Ali – As Sean B wrote before the game, Moeen’s ODI credentials are not as strong as England’s other all-rounders. His career averages are 27.75 with the bat and 47.54 with the ball, so he arguably wouldn’t get in the team either as a batsman or bowler alone. The two things he has going for him are that his bowling is typically economical, and he has the potential to bat like he has in this game. Moeen’s 117 run partnership with Morgan shaped the whole game, taking England’s score high enough to put pressure on South Africa’s batting lineup. He also bowled well, taking 2 wickets for only the second time in his previous 21 ODIs including the crucial dismissal of de Villiers.

Chris Woakes – Arguably England’s best ODI all-rounder, Woakes had a great game with the ball taking 4 wickets for only 38 runs. Crucially he quickly finished off the tail, which can sometimes be a problem for England’s bowlers.

Alex Hales – Although he’ll be disappointed with the way he lost his wicket to a very loose shot, Hales’ 61 set a strong platform for England to build on. After confirming his status as England’s best ODI opener in this game, it would be incredibly surprising if he didn’t play every game of the Champions Trophy.

No Change

Joe Root – Not a great innings by Root, but not terrible either. Since the 2015 World Cup, Root has averaged 63.00 in ODIs, so his position was never under threat. However he will be under even more scrutiny in the coming weeks, as people try to work out if the added pressure and attention from the Test captaincy will affect his batting.

Adil Rashid – Rashid is what he is; An expensive bowler who takes wickets. That’s what he did in this game, and England’s management clearly believe that it’s a tradeoff worth making.

Liam Plunkett – An economical but non-threatening performance on a very flat pitch in this game by Plunkett. I honestly had forgotten he was playing in this game when I was writing this report.

Weakened Their Position

Jos Buttler – With two more wicketkeepers in the squad, Buttler’s position is arguably the one under most threat from this starting XI. Whilst he was solid behind the stumps taking 4 catches, scoring only 7 runs won’t have done him any favours with the selectors. The manner of dismissal might be worrying too, as the South Africans appeared to have a specific plan to get him out and it worked.

Jason Roy – Only scoring 1 from 6 balls is always going to be a poor day’s work for an opening batsman. With the continued good performances from Hales, Root and Morgan, Roy might be the weakest specialist batsman in the team, if England’s management wanted to get Bairstow or Billings in the side without sacrificing Buttler.

Mark Wood – England’s least economical bowler in this game, both Amla and de Villiers took a liking to his bowling. They are world-class batsmen though, and he did get his revenge on Amla with a great LBW dismissal.

Ben Stokes – A disappointing game for the two million dollar man, but most worrying for everyone will be a knee injury which meant he only bowled two overs in the game. Captain Morgan said after the game that Ben was available to bowl if needed, which hopefully means it’s a very minor niggle.

On To Southampton

The next game in the series is on Saturday at the Ageas Bowl, starting at 11am. Changes are certain to be made, as it would be very surprising if Stokes played with even a minor injury on the eve of a tournament. Willey is the closest like-for-like replacement in the squad, and so would be the favourite to play in Stokes’ place. Ball, Bairstow and Billings will all be eager to press their case to play in the Champions Trophy, if given the opportunity.

As ever, thoughts and comments on the game below:

England vs. South Africa, ODI series preview

With the ODI series starting tomorrow, it finally feels like the international summer has arrived and hence will likely give us a true indication on whether Director Comma was right to place such an emphasis on white ball cricket since his appointment. Without wanting to disrespect the West Indies or an Ireland team that is tragically starting to wane, the upcoming series will give us an idea as to whether England are the real deal in one day cricket or whether it has been another false dawn.

On paper, the South African side looks as strong as any in International cricket at this current juncture, with a plethora of talented batsmen, bowlers and all-rounders. The opening partnership of Quinton De Kock and Hashim Amla offers both explosive power and exquisite timing in order to get the South African team off to a flyer, with De Kock in particular, in prime form at the moment. Of course, any side boasting the talents of AB De Villiers are going to be a threat to the opposing bowling attack, even if he looked slightly out of sorts in the IPL and with the late power hitting abilities of David Miller and Chris Morris, the South African batting attack is certainly up there with the best. As for the bowling, it isn’t quite as formidable as the batting but still boasts the likes of Rabada, Morkel and of course Imran Tahir, who despite his quite frankly ridiculous wicket celebrations, is one of the premier spin bowlers in one day cricket.

As for England, it seems rather surreal that they have actually had a settled side in the lead up to the tournament. I keep waking up waiting to hear that Gary Ballance has been parachuted into the side, but so far England are approaching the tournament with alarming efficiency. However, this is going to be the acid test as we approach the Champions Trophy. We keep hearing from the England squad about how much they’ve improved, which they have and how they are now a match for anyone in white ball cricket. Indeed Sam Billings recently said:

“Previously in this country we haven’t made one-day cricket a priority as such, but now people are petrified of our side now and you only find that out by talking to them.

 It’s very interesting to hear what other internationals think of our side. It’s kind of gone full circle – people now think we have a seriously good squad. You’ve probably got ten more guys who could slot in and do well. It keeps everyone on their toes. 

Generally there’s a buzz around the reputation of the England team in white ball cricket – it’s amazing to think about that transition from two years ago.”

Now of course there is nothing wrong about being bullish about England’s chances in the Champions Trophy, but there is a fine line between positivity and overconfidence. It is worth still remembering that England are ranked number 5 in the ODI format and whilst other teams have a new found respect for England, I very much doubt that they are petrified. Certainly not yet.

As for the make up of the side, it is now a pretty settled team with only slight question marks around the identity of the number 7 and which fast bowler will get the nod alongside Woakes and Wood (if he can stay fit). The main school of thought will be that Moeen comes in at number 7, which provides England with 6 full time bowling options; however I wouldn’t be too surprised if England went with Root as the 6th bowler and someone like Billings coming in at 7 to be the so called finisher, especially if the pitches are not particularly spin friendly. As for the bowling, which is without doubt the weaker link of England’s ODI team, it seems like it is a straight fight between Willey and Plunkett to be the main third seamer in this team. As for Jonny Bairstow, who is in the form of his life, it does appear that he is condemned to be carrying the drinks unless one of the top 5 picks up an injury.

This summer and winter are likely to define the reigns of both Bayliss and Strauss in both red ball and white ball cricket, and both sorely need for England to be successful in the Champions Trophy to build momentum going into the Test Series. If England fall in heap in the Champions Trophy and then fail to beat South Africa in the Test series, there are going to be some very awkward questions to be answered in the build up to the Ashes tour. The rhetoric stops now, it’s all about what England can do on the park. An interesting summer of cricket certainly awaits.

As ever, thoughts and comments on the game below:

 

Be My Friend

It’s not so long ago that newspapers and broadcast media bestrode the world of information, disseminating news and comment to the public, explaining what was going on and read and watched by the public  in their millions.  The internet changed all that, mostly for the good and sometimes for the ill.  It allowed blogs like this one to take off, gave a voice to a citizen army of writers and broadcasters and fragmented an industry that in some sectors still struggles to generate an income and define what content is worth paying for.  New viewpoints could be heard, if sufficient numbers were prepared to listen, share and discuss, and the democratisation of opinion was held to be a “good thing” even while the established media lamented the loss of control and influence amongst the great unwashed who now had the means of answering back.  Fake news became both a reality, and a term of abuse used to dismiss awkward opinions and shut down debate, and the general level of intolerance toward contrary opinions increased.

But there was a different strand that is only now being discussed and publicly recognised in traditional media  – the centralisation of messaging amongst sports clubs and governing bodies.  In one sense, it’s little different to how business has always operated, advertising being the key means of getting messages across and PR campaigns used to establish a reputation and a brand.  The means may change, but the principles remain the same.  Where it differed in a sporting context was that while the media had always been their means of doing so, there were few methods of exerting control over what was said and what angle the reporting took.  The club or board might not like it, but retaliating against a media outlet was entirely counterproductive, as they could be starved of publicity or constantly referred to as an entity who didn’t like free speech.  The objections in print would reach a wide audience, and be more or less impossible to successfully counter.

What has changed is that a club or a sporting body can now be their own media outlet.  Football clubs have their own TV channels, where they proudly boast exclusive interviews with their own employees, and where the message can be controlled in its entirety under the guise of access.

Tim Wigmore, always one of the more thoughtful cricket journalists out there, and one prepared to ask the most basic and important questions has written an article about this very question, Manchester United’s expressed desire to increase the prevalence of its “news” app providing the catalyst, alongside an acknowledgement that the USA has been moving down the same path.  There are many good points within that, and from a cricket blog perspective there’s a certain amusement to be had given it’s been one of the central themes of the writing on here over the last couple of years.

The ECB certainly floated the idea of their own subscription channel when musing the broadcast options coming up, and the appeal is easy to see – the revenue accrues entirely to them rather than to an intermediary and they can completely control the themes and provide a direct link to their army of sponsors.  Something approaching that model has been seen fairly clearly in India, where broadcast criticism of the BCCI has been rather comprehensively shut down.  In the UK at least, there are laws preventing the subject of a broadcast exercising editorial control, but that doesn’t apply (currently) to online.  In any case, while the attraction is clear, creating a full on media company is a big undertaking and to that end the ECB realistically still need partners for the foreseeable future.

Of course, there’s nothing especially radical in wishing to control a message, businesses do that all the time though generally speaking, avoiding being in the news is the aim there.  But the creation of their own story is part of the trick, and for employees and members of the industry, it’s nothing especially new.  By way of example, working in the travel and tourism industry I will tend to be very careful about what I say in public – not just in terms of those I work for, but in general.  Becoming the story through controversial opinions is something to be avoided like the plague, except in certain specific circumstances where such opinions are in themselves the currency – viz. Michael O’Leary.

Yet a full on takeover of the message by an organisation like the ECB is unlikely to be the real problem.  When that happens journalists become much more critical anyway, and the example contained within Mr Wigmore’s article, when Newcastle United banned journalists, attracted lots of attention and even more criticism.  By trying to control the story, they lost control of it completely, and freed the media to criticise with no further cost in terms of their relationship.

The far more insidious and dangerous trend in recent years has been the use of soft power to try to direct the narrative.  Sports journalism of the day to day nature requires access to the players and other key people in order to provide copy and generate interest, readership and, yes, clicks.  This can be made more difficult, and the plum opportunities given to those who are onside and can be trusted not to cause too many difficulties.  Those that don’t follow the script find that it’s a little harder to talk to the right people.  This is extremely tough to combat and a fair degree of sympathy for the individual journalist – but not the industry – is warranted.  To turn it around a different way, the three of us on here have no compunctions about what we say for the very good reason that we know for certain there is no prospect whatsoever of us being invited into the ECB’s inner sanctum, or even within the same diocese come to that.  However in our case, we aren’t being paid to do this, and don’t have a boss who can fire us.  But our and other blogs’ freedom comes at a different cost – highly limited contact with those in any degree of power.  A few journalists maintain a back channel to us, and occasionally we are given a heads up on something that they feel unable to write about themselves, which is a curious state of affairs on the one hand, and entirely understandable on another – not least the commercial imperative.

Where it is different for a journalist is that if they lose their access they struggle to do their job, and given it’s their livelihood it’s a real risk to take.  A reluctance to rock the boat is the likely result, and the other side of the coin is that by keeping close to the ECB they can get even better access and thus even greater reach for their articles with obvious personal benefits.  This kind of behaviour is worse by far because the bias is harder to spot, particularly amongst those who only pay cursory attention to the goings on.  It’s for that reason it’s such an attractive way of working for the ECB, or for any other organisation in the same position – limiting dissent, encouraging promotion, and enabling the party line to be maintained.  It’s also the hardest to combat; many journalists are very aware of the problem, but being aware of it and trying to prevent it are two different things.

There’s no real reason to assume this will improve, just the opposite.  In order for sports reporters to do their jobs properly, they need that access and they need to be able to talk to people within the top levels of the game, not just for themselves but for us as readers to try to glean the truth.  From that comes much of the best journalism, whether from sources or openly in interview.  It is a problem for the truth if any time they report on something they’ve learned they are dismissed for daring to talk to people – that is their job.  They face a dilemma in attempting to both gain insight and obtain a good story, while at the same time being entirely aware of what the ECB are up to.  Equally, conspiracy theories about all of them are unreasonable – the vast majority have professional pride and wouldn’t allow it to happen to them and wouldn’t be party to attempts to restrict them.  There are exceptions to that, and those that behave that way tend to attract a degree of contempt for their output.  But it’s rarely a matter of open collaboration, but of being sufficiently vulnerable to rein any criticism in because of the possible consequences.

If much of sport is now nothing more than a branch of the entertainment industry, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the same kinds of rules apply to the reporting.  Interviews with members of the movie industry are almost always on the back of promoting a film rather than for the sake of it – and always remember few people would wish to open up for the sake of it, these interviews are a part of their job and one many of them greatly dislike.  The prevalence of a footnote stating that a player is being interviewed courtesy of a particular sponsor has been an unwelcome development, and creates the dilemma for the journalist as to whether to play that particular game.  It’s hard to criticise them for doing so, yet it remains something of a blight.

There are few material answers to all of this.  Either journalism as a body responds and reacts to the threat to their independence or they don’t, and as is so often the case some of them do just that, and others take the advantages on offer as a trade for their independence.  It will undoubtedly allow them to generate much copy and many readers but at the price of their integrity.  That is their decision, ours is how much trust we have in anything they might say.  Some have found that even when they are right they are no longer believed, to their clear frustration.  But it’s brought on by their own conduct, and the collateral damage of good journalism being considered guilty by association makes it even worse.  We need them, we need them badly, but the truth is that they need us as well.  And that’s what needs to be remembered.

Money Makes the World Go Round

A curiosity of sports administrators everywhere over the last quarter of a century has been the apparent belief that their drive to monetise the game in every facet would pass unnoticed by everyone else.  The fans, under the misguided belief that the game belonged to them were the first ones to be cast aside, as ticket prices rocketed, television coverage disappeared behind a paywall and the wider game became utterly subservient to the pursuit of manna.  The English (football) Premier League was the first to make the connection, and the pathway to the present can be identified a good decade before that came into being, firstly with the removal of the gate revenue sharing model, then with the abolition of the key rule preventing owners from taking money out of the clubs.  With that in place, it was merely a matter of time before it became an investment opportunity with all that entailed.

In the case of cricket, the most obvious examples were the move to Sky and the creation of T20 at a professional level (as needs constantly pointing out to those who believe it was radical, it had existed at club level for half a century), which then led on to the IPL and its assorted imitators around the world.

In the space of little more than a decade, cricket had become the new sexy for those seeking to exploit commercial advantage in a way never seen before.  To some extent it was no more than the corollary of the Packer Circus in the late 1970s, but the scale and impact on the wider sport was of a new level entirely.

The last few weeks have shown indications that all of these developments have been coming to a head.  The BCCI’s response to the proposal to dramatically cut their still huge proportion of ICC generated revenues was to threaten a boycott of the Champions Trophy, Australia’s cricketers are in dispute with their board over money – even if not necessarily their own – while in England the proposed TV package deals for the upcoming auction of rights have caused divergent opinion on the merits or otherwise in terms of what they might mean.  But there’s a central element to all of them, namely that it is about the money.  Always the money.

There is an important part to this, a central theme that cannot be ignored. That is that the moment a governing body of a sport – and note, a sport – ceases to put the sport itself as the prime, indeed only, focus for its existence, then it stops being about the sport itself.  It becomes a means of creating wealth, no different to any other business.  In itself, that isn’t inherently wrong or evil, but it does change the focus and the strategy and changes the rationale for the game’s existence.  This isn’t a lament for the days of amateurism, but a recognition that it becomes merely another branch of the entertainment industry, with all that entails.  Those who love the game for the sake of it are never going to be important any longer, their value exists solely in the financial contribution they can make to it, and if it isn’t obvious on a balance sheet, then for the purposes of future planning, they don’t exist.  It is for that reason that the thousands of people in any given nation who give up their time to keep the game going are not just overlooked, they specifically don’t matter.  Lip service is paid to them, but nothing more than that.  When they complain that the ECB or their equivalents don’t think they matter, it’s because they’re right – they don’t matter.  All that they do comes to fruition anything up to 20 years down the line and cannot be assessed financially in the here and now, and that is all that is important.

The various stories across the press are not disparate items in the world of cricket, but separate strands of the same wider topic.  The dispute between Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketers Association has been covered in the UK from the perspective of the unlikely possibility that Australia might not have a team for the Ashes, as though that was in any way the principal issue at stake.  Within the Australian media there’s much more nuance about the matters at hand, with Gideon Haigh as so often cutting to the heart of the matter.  The wider issue he addresses is that conduct of CA is such that it regards the players as commodities to be given their orders by their bosses, rather than as integral to the game itself.  Cricket boards have reached the point where the pursuit of money is the end in and of itself, rather than a necessary means to support and grow the game. This about face in approach is critically important, for once understood all the decisions and proposals are much more easily grasped and the reasoning behind all that they do becomes clear.

The best Australian players stand to benefit, in the short term at least, from adopting the CA proposal; their rejection stems, they say, from their concern about the levels below the highest, both amateur and professional.  Even if their opposition isn’t entirely altruistic – which it may well be – they have a very strong case in objecting to the removal of a revenue sharing model.  With all well paid professional sports stars, the cry goes up that they are overpaid, yet this dramatically misses the point.  No one goes to a game or watches on television because of the administrators, it is entirely and totally down to the players.  Every commercial deal is made on that back of that essential point, and the players deserve to paid in proportion to the money coming in.  It’s not even purely the international level cricketers either, for the showcasing of their skills is on the back of those below, right the way down to someone appearing on a Sunday afternoon for their pub side.  In the purest commercial terms, the players are the product, and while the value of a David Warner and an amateur club player is obviously vastly different, they still form part of the same equation.  That CA don’t see it that way at all can be gleaned from the attempt to divide and rule by separating out the top players from the rest to try to force through the changes.  Those leading performers deserve credit for both seeing through the ruse and refusing to solely look after their own financial interests.

Top sportsmen (and overwhelmingly, it is men) are rarely motivated by money once it reaches a certain point.  The difference between coming first and second in a golf major is not a matter of money, but of pride and sporting ambition.  Attempting to set one group against another when the money is already good is doomed to failure.  It’s certainly not just in cricket where there is resistance, in recent times tennis players at the top level have threatened action of those below them weren’t better rewarded for their efforts.

All too often, they are criticised for greed, the question put is how much more money do they want.  It’s a false equation – they deserve to be paid in proportion with how much is generated, largely by them.  It’s nothing more and nothing less.  Boards and owners regard them as employees to be compensated and do not see that the money does not belong to administrators, no matter how much they dislike that fact.  It is also why the boards have a mentality that grassroots funding is a cost, rather than the raison d’etre for their existence.  It’s why they try to minimise that outlay rather than consider it the driving motivation.   As a point of principle, the Australian players need to win this argument, even if the result may not be a community one at the end of the matter.

For this is not a parochial Australian matter, the same arguments will be had around the world.  The ECB are preparing their latest round of media deals for coverage and there has been much comment around the likelihood of some free to air television coverage and even some celebration that it will form part of the future arrangements.  This is misplaced, even though any free access is to be welcomed in and of itself.  The ECB are hoping to play Sky Sports and BT Sport off against each other to maximise the income, and have split the packages with that in mind. Almost all of the meaningful coverage will go to one or the other, since within Package One goes all the international cricket and the country cricket – such as it is in the latter case.  The new T20 league goes into a separate category, doubtless with the intention of it being the consolation prize for whoever doesn’t get the first one, and necessitating a second subscription for those who wish to see it all.  By splitting these the overall value is undoubtedly higher but it can’t be said to be good news for the individuals paying for access.  Which of Sky or BT gets them is neither here nor there in the larger scheme of things, given the Balkanisation of sports television.

Where it gets more interesting is in the free to air packages available, offering two men’s T20 internationals, one women’s T20 international, ten men’s and eight women’s T20 league matches.  On the face of it, it’s a reasonable size too, but it indicates a pure focus on the T20 side of the game for wider consumption. Partly this will be because terrestrial broadcasters have to fit sport around the rest of their schedules, and two and a half hour programmes will fit ideally in contrast to five days of Test cricket.  The logic of the argument that T20 is a gateway to the game more generally can be supported by the categorisation, but equally it can be seen as regarding the shortest form of the game as the only viable one from the perspective of both free to air broadcasters and the ECB itself.  This case has been made many times, most often in the misleading and specious argument that the likes of the BBC have shown no interest in Test cricket.  That is true, and is because the ECB have shown no interest in the BBC, so why should they bother?

Where the free to air packages go will also be indicative of whether the ECB take the wider broadcast of the game as being in any way important.  According to Nick Hoult at the Telegraph, the BBC are one potential home, but so are Discovery, via their Quest channel.  There can be no doubt whatever that the BBC would offer the largest footprint for potential viewership, just as there can be no doubt whatever that Discovery would sign a larger cheque.  Choosing the latter would be incontrovertible proof that money is all that matters to the ECB.  No protestations about the importance of growing interest in the game could ever be believed if they still hid away the free to air broadcast on a minor channel, for make no mistake, Quest is a minor channel, one which most people won’t even be aware.  The reach of the BBC is vastly greater than any alternative, including ITV, although few would complain if it went there instead.  If the ECB do want people to watch cricket, the main channels are the only game in town.

Whatever the outcome of the TV bids, the same processes applying in Australia are going to come to England as well.  Already players are going to miss England matches in order to play T20 tournaments elsewhere in the world, a situation that remains ever ironic given the way the ECB publicly berated and belittled Kevin Pietersen for wanting to do far less than is the now the case.  Those who have bought tickets for the matches in anticipation of seeing England’s strongest team will be disappointed, and are once again ignored as being irrelevant.  In England at least, it hasn’t quite reached the point it did in Australia where two separate national teams were playing at the same time, but the acceptance of the concept of the national team not representing the best available is well established, even before taking into account the ludicrous schedule that necessitates resting players.

England’s players are well remunerated in international terms, but the ECB’s focus on extracting the maximum from the game at the same time as concentrating power to themselves will undoubtedly lead to the same kind of friction seen in Australia.  The gap between the international players and the county ones is vast, the difference between genuine affluence and a barely reasonable living, particularly given the short career on offer.  Boards have opened the Pandora’s Box of commercialisation, and are now attempting to screw the lid back down as the realisation of what that entails begins to dawn on them.  Franchise cricket in the form of the T20 league is merely the apogee of this centralised mentality.  The county game will be sidelined – not in itself a disaster for the wider game were there alternate structures in place but there won’t be.  For many county professionals – let alone smaller counties excluded from the party – there will be a severe chill in the air, the downgrading of both county championship and the assorted one day competitions can’t do anything but damage their livelihoods for it is impossible to imagine the revenues from the existing competitions doing anything but dropping vertically.  More critically for the wider game, the same applies to Test cricket.  It is hard to believe that the ECB will wish for Tests to be running alongside the latest shiny toy, for that would weaken the commercial proposition they have pushed so hard to create.  In isolation, that might not be a disaster, in common with all the other tournaments worldwide, it’s severely problematic.  That T20 is now the prime focus for the ECB, and for cricket more widely around the world is indisputable.  The rub here is that T20, sold as the means of generating legions of new cricket fans, could have done exactly that with some wisdom.

At some point there will be a reckoning in terms of the England players too.  They can earn heavily as free agents and the security of an England contract only has value for as long as they can’t do better as free agents – which would include playing for England, but not under ECB control.  The top down model of enforcing both behaviour and availability works for as long as the boards run everything within their domain.  Their own actions are sowing the seeds of their downfall, yet there is no real awareness that this is the case.  The lack of focus on the sport for the sake of it can be seen with their treatment of the counties as an obstruction to be overcome, while even their initiatives at the lowest level are open to question. Danny’s excellent article about the All Stars Cricket initiative raises a fundamental question about their approach:  While anything to encourage cricket is inherently a good thing, the usual opacity concerning how much the ECB are investing applies.  ASC is a commercial venture first and foremost, and it’s hard to get away from the feeling that the clubs know better how to do this themselves, and would benefit more greatly from financial support to do so.  It smacks of a PR exercise that’s more about the ECB itself than the game of cricket, the cost involved rather gives that away.

Across all sports and indeed outside of sport, there is the danger of harking back to the past and viewing it through rose tinted spectacles.  School cricket was never the panacea some make it out to be, and club involvement in the modern era is vastly superior to what was on offer 30 years ago.  But never has the wider game been further removed from the sharp end of the sport which has transmuted into a money making machine with no regard for outcome nor care about the game itself.  The ECB remains an organisation that primarily looks after its own interests, never better demonstrated than in its structure whereby the non-professional game has no elected representation anywhere within it.  Its authority is self-reinforcing, driving downwards and telling the vast majority of English cricket what to do.  The much maligned FA is by contrast a model of democratic accountability, to the point that much of the criticism stems from it being an amateur organisation trying to manage the professional sport.  Cricket could not be more different.

Given that, it should not be surprising that the ECB (and CA) focus is on its own success, defined by how much money it can bring in and divide up amongst its stakeholders – yes stakeholders.  Not too long ago the ECB attracted derision for forgetting to include match going supporters in that list, but the truth of the matter is that this wasn’t an embarrassing oversight, it was a statement of fact.  You don’t matter.  You might play the game, you might go and watch the game, you might coach colts, you might umpire or do the scoring.  You aren’t important and you are thoroughly and completely taken for granted.  The only time it will be noticed is if the grounds are empty or if the TV deals decline in value and even then it will be a matter of looking at the symptoms rather than the cause.  The only bulwark against this are the professional players, the one group in all this who might be considered to care about cricket for the sake of it.  They are the only ones who might actually stand up for the game, irrespective of how many millions they might earn themselves on the back of it.

What a delicious irony.

 

 

The Cricketville Horror

Playing the game of cricket can bring such wonderful highs – that first fifty, first century, an unlikely run chase, the first five wicket haul.  In idle moments, many a cricketer will day dream about the day when something wonderful happened.  Of course, the trouble with such daydreaming is that barely has the pleasant memory got under way before something ignoble will push its way in.  Ah yes, that is the very essence of cricket, the cringe making memory of sheer embarrassment at abject failure.  The one that you keep hidden and mention to absolutely no one.  Shannon Gabriel’s magnificently irresponsible shot to lose the West Indies a Test and series against Pakistan highlights the extraordinary ability of the game to thoroughly wreck hours of hard work. Effectively with one ball to survive given a partner unbeaten on a hundred at the other end to face the final over, he decided it was the perfect moment to attempt to launch one out of the ground.  The silence from his team mates on returning to the pavilion must have been something to behold.

Thus, in that spirit, a celebration of all the truly stupid things we’ve done on the cricket field is in order.

Bowling out the opposition for 90 in a league game was a great effort.  We were very pleased with ourselves.  Wandering out to the middle to get the routine run chase under way there could be nothing but supreme confidence.  Even more so when the bowler slipped in his action first ball of the innings and sent down the slowest, rankest wide long hop that could ever be imagined.  It was therefore mildly disappointing to fail to smash it over point for fourm, and instead nick it behind to a wicketkeeper who only just managed to hang on to it before collapsing in giggles.  We lost.

Arundel is a gorgeous ground, beloved of all who play there, whether it be for a festival or a tour match for the visiting international side.  For club cricketers, the chance to play there is rare and coveted.  Thus it was that we turned up for a friendly, looking forward to playing at one of the most picturesque grounds anywhere in the world.  One of our number was particularly excited.  He wasn’t much of a player, but loved the game dearly, and for him this represented perhaps the highlight of his cricketing career.  As supportive team mates and friends, we naturally appreciated his excitement, and his nerves, and ensured that he could enjoy the day in every possible way.

One particular way we thought we’d help was to suggest to him that he opened the batting.  Having never in his life even approached this possibility before, he was rather reluctant to say the least, but we reassured him that not only should he open as a special treat, but he should take the first ball.  Although he was horrified by this, player after player told him not to worry, because the first ball is always a loosener and he could probably just leave it.  Eventually, and doubtless in no way due to the bullying insistence of his team, he agreed.  And out we strode to the middle.  At this point, the pangs of conscience started to appear at the back of my mind, and half way out I said “Look Tom, it’s just you and me now, I’ll take the first ball if you like, you don’t have to”.   By this point, part resigned, part angry, he refused, saying everyone was expecting it so he would.

Now, everyone knows where this is going, and sure enough, the first ball was perfect – pitched on off stump, moving away a touch and clipping the off bail.  As he marched off the sound of stifled guffaws from the boundary could be heard.  So far so normal, and an amusing item.  Until his mother turned up as he was in the pavilion ripping off his pads and gloves.  “He’s been looking forward to this for months, you know.  I do hope I get to watch him bat today”.

Gulp.

Over to you for all yours.