The Fox Without a Tail

There’s something particularly special about a new concept that requires those announcing it on social media to feel compelled to add variations on the phrase “this is not a joke”.  And certainly the double take across the cricket world was genuine – scrapping T20 cricket (at least in terms of one competition in the English summer) in favour of an outlined 100 ball one is, at the very least, an example of a new and unusual approach.

Equally, it’s certainly the case that trying to come up with any new idea is going to generate a negative response from many – it was pointed out that a lot of people derided the idea of T20 cricket when first mooted, and social media is no barometer for anything except itself.  Yet there are a few differences here:  20 over cricket was not a new thing, at least not for those who play the game. Clubs had run midweek competitions along those lines for decades, and everyone who played as a child had their first introduction to formal matches in a 20 over format.  It’s not unreasonable to assume that pretty much every cricketer who had ever picked up a bat or a ball would have played the general format.  Thus, although the media excitedly talked about T20 as being fresh and new, it was anything but for actual cricketers, a fact often overlooked in the rush to dismiss the views of those critical.  There was a template, there was experience of it, and it was easy to grasp what was going to be involved.  That’s not to say that all welcomed it, but those opposed did so on the grounds of what it would mean for the rest of the game, not because 20 overs was in itself completely radical.

In this case, T16.66, T16.4, S16.4, the 100 – or whatever anyone wishes to call it (and the fact there is no name in place indicates this is hardly a deeply thought through proposal) is something unprecedented, with no obvious rationale, or even a clearly visible latent demand.  There’s nothing wrong with fresh thinking though, and nothing that makes a format as comparatively new as T20 sacrosanct.  The question has to be what is meant to be achieved by the new competition, and whether such changes have value in those terms, rather than as a purely cricketing notion. After the initial derision – and it ought to be concerning that the response wasn’t outrage, but merriment and mocking  – came the fightback.  Contrarians suggested that those who dismissed it were the same people who opposed T20, coloured clothing, and anything else that’s now taken root in the sport.  Perhaps so, but it’s a very lazy response, as it could equally be mentioned plenty of people also pointed out the stupidity in substitutions being permitted as well – a new idea isn’t justifiable on the grounds of solely being new, and objections can’t be dismissed on the grounds of sepia tinted nostalgia or conservatism.

The 8 team franchise idea has been hamstrung from the start by the insistence on retaining the T20 Blast competition as well.  Whereas the IPL, Big Bash League, or all the other imitators around the world are the principal short form focus in each geographical area, in England it is a second one, to be layered on top of the first and forced to seek a new audience to justify its very existence.  Without the T20 Blast remaining in place, it is highly unlikely anyone would have remotely suggested making changes to differentiate it, it wouldn’t have been necessary, and more than that no-one would have desired it.  No matter how much the ECB might try to protest they are merely being innovative, it stems entirely from that single decision that they have to keep a separate T20 as well.  There is no other rationale or requirement beyond needing to distinguish the two.

So let us dismiss any suggestion that this is needed in itself.  Shortening the game by 3.4 overs has no pressing cricketing justification in and of itself.  Competitions as short as 10 overs a side do exist, certainly; but they do so for monetary reasons not cricketing ones, and whatever the flaws of the ECB, there does need to be a short form competition for cricketing reasons as well as financial ones.  Likewise, the super-deca-over at the end is not a radically new way of looking at the game, it’s merely something forced on them by the awkward mathematics of 100 not being divisible by 6.  Furthermore, the entire competition idea is not one of cricketing essentials, but the contradictions of a need for a wider television audience, having to satisfy the counties, and the horror of losing existing revenue streams.

This is not, fresh, new and exciting, it is the logical culmination of the initial starting position:  keeping the existing tournament, wanting an 8 team competition, and needing to draw a distinction between the two, thus the changes are inherently artificial, and a marketing tool first and foremost.  Post-facto justifications are a consistent element of any plan that is forced upon those putting it together, whereby all involved highlight how wonderful it all is, and no one dares mention that it would be an awful lot better if they hadn’t got into this mess in the first place.

The broadcasters are certainly part of this, the shortening of the game to fit into a two and a half hour time slot is important, yet the slight surprise from those who will be showing the tournament suggests that although they were asked if it worked for them, they weren’t the prime motivator behind the suggestion.  They signed up to a T20 tournament, and this change has come subsequent to that agreement.  It’s not surprising that they are fine with it, as a televised product with a defined length of that nature is certainly appealing, yet there were other ways to keep the timetable tight without such a radical departure, even fifteen eight-ball overs (something many clubs, faced with approaching darkness adopt) would have retained the game length while making things quicker.  Perhaps the most damning implication is that the ECB feel they are unable to make successful the most popular cricket format in the world without tinkering with it, a situation without precedent anywhere else in the world.  The basic product not being in itself good enough is what should be ringing alarm bells.

Perhaps the best illustration of the artificial attempts at differentiation was the reported discussion about whether to scrap the lbw rule for the new competition.  As an example of sheer stupidity, this one can’t be beaten.  That it wasn’t approved isn’t the point, it takes a special kind of mind to even float an idea so idiotic that it ought to disqualify anyone doing so from being allowed remotely near the game of cricket.  That there are issues such as a complete absence of any statistical context for a tournament different to anywhere else on the planet is a minor thing in the great scheme of things.

While the ECB have tied themselves in knots trying to retain two T20 competitions for the men, the same can’t be said for the women.  The Kia Super League is to be scrapped at the end of this season in order to make way for the new competition.  When the plan was for it to be a normal T20 tournament this was perfectly sensible, but the changed format now means that there will be no women’s T20 cricket played at any kind of level in this country.  It is deeply impressive to be so thoughtless as to manage to hamstring the one area of success the ECB have managed in the last few years, but they’ve done it.

Among the various explanations for the changes is that this is aimed at the young, rather than the existing cricket fan.  It’s an easy, trite and rather meaningless aspiration to trot out – everyone wants that – and were it the case that there was a strong reason to believe so, then that would be worthy of consideration, but there is no evidence that these proposals will do any such thing.  The focus on just eight sides, artificially constructed and with no in-built support, automatically removes many from the equation by virtue of distance and tribalism, and while the other T20 competitions are equally artificial, they don’t also have the competition of another tournament that does have all those things.  Even the schedule counters the idea that it’s for the young, with matches being played in the evening primarily.  Shortening the game doesn’t in itself make it less appealing, except to those coming from far away, but nor is there the slightest reason to assume this makes it more attractive than a normal T20 match.  The ECB’s media release detailed that they had spoken to broadcasters and players (though it seems it was only three players rather than a wide consultation) but there was no mention of supporters.  Existing cricket fans would probably react negatively, certainly, but if the aim is for new ones, then it would be hoped that extensive market research had been carried out to find just what would be appealing and what wouldn’t.  Perhaps it has been done, but if so then surely the ECB would have mentioned that.

The claim that this was backed widely within the game was somewhat questioned by the Surrey Chief Executive tweeting that the first they knew about it was an hour before the public announcement, adding to the impression that this was a set of ideas cooked up late on and presented without too much further thought.  It is the absence of anything like coherent planning that is the hallmark of this whole affair; and indicative of an organisation that has descended ever deeper into a murky mess of its own making.  The sidelining of the county championship is one thing, and immensely damaging for the Test game in this country, but to then create a shambles around their own centrepiece focus on T20 cricket as well is highly impressive in its own way.

Some of this competition will be on terrestrial television, and that is to be welcomed, but there is no reason to assume that without these changes it wouldn’t have been, nor that its presence was conditional upon it.  The BBC had already announced their delight at covering the competition, this was not an either/or if it didn’t go ahead in this form.

Winning new converts to a sport is a worthy aim, and one that every sport needs to achieve.  But it is also the case in sport as in business that new customers are much harder to acquire than existing ones.  Male participation levels have collapsed in recent years, while the game becomes ever more invisible to the wider public.  The choice to put some of this on free to air television was a tacit acceptance in the first place that the ECB’s policies have wrecked the foundation of cricket support, yet the lack of faith in their own core product is clear, and the attempt to pacify the counties at the same time has no impact other than to destroy the core game both at first class level and ultimately at Test level.

Playing around at the edges of this competition is neither here nor there when set against the wider context of having supervised the diminution of the game’s importance to the  public at large.  It isn’t that people are angry at this, it’s that they’re laughing about it, that they see it as just the latest desperate wheeze to try to arrest a spiral of decline that the ECB’s own policies have created.  The boast when T20 was created was that it could be the financial saviour of the game of cricket, and you know what, it absolutely could have been.  Instead it became a crutch on which to lean, to the point that an additional layer needed to be created, and then amended in order to be considered relevant.

There is nothing so obvious as a governing body systematically destroying the asset that they began with.  Fans are no longer angry, they are in despair about the game they love.  For if there’s one certainty about this announcement, it’s that if the ECB hadn’t lost its tail, it wouldn’t be telling everyone how wonderful it is to live without one.

 

 

Advertisements

One of the Boys

There are some things that are beyond all abilities. One of those is trying to put up a blog when there’s a power cut that takes out both normal power and also the mobile phone towers meaning a complete absence of online access. This was a piece that was written this morning, but couldn’t be uploaded during a frustrating day, that involved also a total absence of work. As a result, some observations have been changed…

Cricket is an elitest sport. It doesn’t have to be, but it is. Equipment is expensive, certainly, which is why for the young in particular cricket clubs have always strived to provide kit for those making their way in the game. But like tennis, it has the public perception of being a game that is for the elite, the posh, the wealthy – reinforced by only being accessible to view for those prepared to pay a subscription. There’s a disconnect in that, for the clubs themselves are not, in general terms. They are comprised of people from all backgrounds, and all walks of life from the affluent to the impoverished, the public schools to the inner cities – albeit decreasingly so in the latter case. Yet in the administration of the game, and in the opportunities for those coming up through the ranks, this is anything but the case, and an England team comprised mostly of those from fee paying school backgrounds is illustrative of that.

Thus it is that the appointment of Ed Smith as the new national selector is utterly unsurprising at all levels. He fits all the proper metrics – public schoolboy (not a compulsory requirement as much as good evidence of being worthy of consideration), a Thoroughly Good Chap and thus reflective of the kind of Good Chap the other Good Chaps want to see. The apogee of this attitude was the Odious Giles Clarke’s comment about how Alastair Cook “and his family are very much the sort of people we want the England captain and his family to be”. Note the “we” involved there, this is a pervasive attitude throughout the echelons of the ECB, not just one man’s view. It’s not even deliberate, it’s merely that they consistently go for the same people who reflect their own backgrounds and their own values, and therefore they represent exactly the kind of people they would want in the roles. Thus it is no surprise that someone like Andrew Strauss would consider him ideal, nor that someone like Andrew Strauss would be considered ideal himself. A virtuous circle of a small group of self-appointed officers and gentlemen – Flashman at the Charge.

It’s not to say that Smith is necessarily a terrible choice. He spent most of his career on the county circuit, and it’s perfectly possible that he’s sufficiently in touch with the game at that level to be effective. But it is another instance of jobs for the boys, as long as they’re the right sort of boys. Smith of course has been thoroughly forgiven by those Inside Cricket for his unfortunate episode whereby he was caught out first by Krishna Murali and then the Cricket Couch for being very free and easy with the contents of an Economist article which he passed off as his own work. His employers at Cricinfo tried desperately hard to ignore it, and then eventually pulled the article, offering up a mealy mouthed defence by Sambit Bal to justify their ignoring of the whole affair. What was striking was the total absence of any of his writing colleagues defending him, or commenting on the various snide tweets and posts about the whole affair from the proletariat (see “fans, amateur players and supporters”). Even this morning with the news, it was as if it never happened. Johan Hari must desperately wonder how he ended up in the wrong sector.

The others supposedly in the frame for the role were Andy Flower, Derek Pringle and Mike Selvey – men of differing backgrounds certainly, but who still fit into that “right sort of chap” mentality that infests the ECB as an organisation and the cricketing establishment generally. The jobs move around among the same group of people; doing the same thing, with the same views, and perhaps above all else it’s notable that all those in the frame have sided with the ECB wherever possible in any kind of discussion about cricket and governance. To take one item of note, when the film Death of a Gentleman came out, Smith was critical of it, Selvey and Pringle completely silent (Flower as an ECB employee couldn’t be expected to say anything, so for that one he’s excluded), refusing to even mention its release. In Selvey’s case given his senior role at the Guardian, it was nothing but a complete abrogation of his responsibilities as a journalist. It was, and remains, disgraceful, both in terms of his pathetic sycophancy to Giles Clarke and the ECB generally, and the Guardian’s weak refusal to consider the subject then and since. That the Daily Telegraph became the bastion of the English cricket resistance remains deeply ironic. It is unsurprising that this collection of men from the same background, who have proved their loyalty to the cricket establishment in the most testing of circumstances, are exactly the people who would be considered for a role with them; nor that English cricket, so forgiving of those who go on rebel tours to South Africa but not those who stare out of windows, would worry little about such minor things as the integrity of journalism or the integrity of the game. Indeed, they have recently gone even further than merely supporting those who buttress their own worldview by specifically attacking those who dare to ask awkward questions, to the point a non-compliant journalist in the form of George Dobell is being threatened with legal action by the ECB, presumably for the crime of reporting on them without due deference.

Whatever the legal merits, the money to do this derives from supporters, clubs, players, counties and all who have an interest in the game. It is not the ECB’s, no matter how much they might like to think it is, and no matter how much they behave as though that is the case. The ECB is not the game – a simple, obvious point that bears stating simply because it’s not how they appear to see it, and strikes at the very heart of so much of the fury with and loathing of them: that they consider themselves an end in itself, not a facilitator, promoter and protector of the game of cricket. The appointment of Ed Smith and those others considered is not objectionable because he is incapable of the job, nor because it’s remotely the most important thing this month, but because it so beautifully encapsulates the mentality of the people to whom the care of the game was entrusted. No accountability, no democracy, no say in what they do or how they do it, and best of all, they wouldn’t begin to understand why so many object to them. Bringing the game into disrepute is a charge beloved of sporting authorities everywhere, but when thinking about those words: there is no better example of a sporting organisation in this country that manages that repeatedly than the ECB.

Separately, Talksport announced that they had won the rights to the overseas tours to Sri Lanka and the West Indies next winter. The response was resoundingly negative, to the shock of no one. Their coverage will doubtless be professional enough, yet the presence of endless betting adverts and advertorials will be enough to put many off. The one thing that must be said here is that for once this is nothing to do with the ECB, any more than the Ashes on BT Sport was. This is within the gift of the host boards, not the visitors, though it will be interesting to see whether the ECB behave as contemptibly with TalkSport (owned by their friends at Sky) as they did with BT when throwing them under a Twitter bus last winter.

On the other side of the world, rumours surfaced that Justin Langer will be appointed Australia’s new coach, swiftly denied as a done deal, but still likely. Langer is a coach in the same style as Flower to a fair degree, a martinet who demands total adherence to his methods, which may or may not be a good thing for them right now, depending on just what kind of standards are demanded. Perhaps it might work out, though it remains notable that they appear to be looking to choose someone before the two month review into Australian on field conduct is completed.

Lastly for now, today was the day when this blog reached the landmark of one million views. To do so in little more than three years is something we are proud of, particularly given our position on the naughty step in the world of English cricket. There are a small group of journalists who have encouraged us (and Wisden have generally), and have met with us – a common liking for beer proving apparent. It has been almost entirely below the radar which perhaps best reflects the prevailing view that our particular attitude is considered unwelcome by the cricketing establishment. They know who they are, and that they wouldn’t welcome being named and shamed thanked illustrates the point. Nevertheless, they are appreciated. Internally, we’ve had our crises, and it is those who contribute, read, argue with and correct us who are the main reason for keeping us going. Highlighting the readers and commenters has always been a trite observance in many instances, yet sometimes it’s heartfelt and honest. When we say we couldn’t do it without you, it is nothing but the truth. Continue to challenge us daily please.

Here’s to two million, and the absolute certainty that we’ll still never be invited to any ECB events (nor would we accept), we’ll still never try to monetise this place, and we’ll still do it because we love and care about the game we grew up with, played, watched and paid for. It doesn’t make us right, but it does make us a voice, even if from the margins.

Two Eyes Staring Cold And Silent

Public Enemy, in their landmark album “It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back” were not talking about the IPL, nor even the breakage of total free to air domestic coverage in Australia. In the excellent album track “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos” the lyrical poet Chuck D could have been summing up my attitude to the cricket writing establishment, and authority in general when he said:

“They wanted me for their army or whatever, picture me giving a damn, I said never”.

Being a cricket blogger is a funny old thing. I sense you can go a number of ways. You can be the oppositional defiant type, railing against decisions, being the contrarian, sometimes for being contrary’s sake. You can rail against the establishment, any approach by them is treated with utter contempt, any approach to them would be treated the same. It’s been a summary of my last four years, if truth be told. I’ve not wanted to like the ECB or the press, or the TV coverage, and they’ve given me little reason to change my mind. Some have, those that engaged, but not many.

Others have come with us some of the way, then turned inward and in many cases matched up with the cricket writing establishment. It’s not for me, has never been for me, never will be for me. I blogged because I could put my opinion. Opinions make the world go round, but as you may have noted since Alastair Cook’s 244 not out, those opinions have been much more muted. What’s the point? For some, though, that 244 was among the most important innings ever played. Really, yes it was. It stuffed everything back down our throats. We were WRONG. I was WRONG. Take it, sucker.

Then there is another breed of blogger / writer. Those that indulged us when it was trendy to do so, and may still think that we (and when I say we, I really mean me) have a voice that is worth reading, but only things that they are comfortable with. I really don’t care now what people make of what I write. It’s gone well beyond that point (and Chris, to his due credit got me out of a lot of that) where I have to not go off the reservation to prevent offence to the neighbours, or be the man to make the attacks when I really don’t feel like it. At the moment, on matters like Dobell v Graves, I really, really don’t feel like doing it AGAIN. In case you out there in the writing world haven’t noticed, I’ve been doing this for ages, time for others to take the shot and shell.

So, Dmitri, you don’t care, but you cared about the Cook 244? True. They may not be positions that match, but the sheer paucity of logic behind the buffing up of that innings was too much even for me. What the hell was the point? Those that loved him, love him more. Those that had pointed out his world was of peaks and long troughs thought ignoring the past few years was a sign of madness. I then thought the mad one was me.

I’m writing this late on a Saturday night. I’m watching the NBA Play-Offs, I’m keeping up with the Red Sox and their great start to the season, and I’m marvelling at Millwall’s run at the Championship play-offs with a squad that cost £800k to buy. In short, with a job that is now all consuming and recovering from an injury caused by getting out of my loft (I will never have a go at bowlers with side strain, ever), what is there to write about cricket? What is there that fuels my passion to write about the game? I don’t care about the IPL, I just don’t. You can’t make me care. I watch the scores and see close game after close game, and think, this is rigged. That’s how cynical I am. Like Jason Roy wafting at three harmless balls to get to the last ball to win it today. If Jason Roy were an Indian or a Pakistani we’d be calling foul. We’d be wrong, but that’s the world we live in.

The County Championship is upon us, in freezing cold April. I’d dearly love to go on Friday, but I can only slip out for one day this week, and as the 12th anniversary of my father’s passing is on Thursday that takes precedence (it was my late mum’s birthday on Friday, which still is a gut wrenching day at the best of times). I have a week off in May, but it’s when there’s garbage Royal London nonsense on. I might be able to nick off a week in June, but then the World Cup football is on. I may get to the T20. I do have a day at the Test this year, but that’s not really by plan. Cricket is getting relegated to the edges of my life, and not even this blog can raise the enthusiasm. You’ve read that before, and yet something fires me up. But what can do this now.

I’m so proud of the work Sean, Chris and Danny have done. I can only think of a couple of other things that have meant that much to me as this blog and this community outside of friends and family. I think we’ve kept things real, we’ve never been fake, we write from the heart, and we write with our souls. The blog has never been a job, and it never should be. It should be what we all want to do. I know, from experience, that it can cause and add to immense stress. I know it can turn you slightly mad. I know it can be harmful as well as rewarding.

In a week when Chris gets the accolades he so richly deserves, for being that commenter back in the day who I said to myself “I want this bloke to write with me”, I look forward to the summer. I genuinely hope it is filled with plenty to write, plenty to comment upon, plenty to get us happy, plenty to get us mad. I hope to see great cricket, I hope to see new talent develop and given the chance to flourish. I want it to be great. I don’t like not caring. The sport, through school years, through playing bad club cricket, through watching at home, and overseas, for giving me life experiences a working class kid, from working class parents, raised in a tower block in Deptford, could never have dreamed of. A bat, a ball, a decent sized playing area, and four or five people and we could play the game in the street, or on the fields, or in the playground. Love nurtured, and sadly, now taken for granted. Our generation, who had the game in our hearts see the authorities, and increasingly the writing community turn away from us. We are the dying of the light. The rage that doesn’t matter any more. The obsessives utterly taken for granted. “They won’t desert the sport, they love it too much”.

Don’t count on it. I don’t like being told what to write. I don’t like being told what SHOULD annoy me. I write in my increasingly limited spare time, and it’s likely to become even more limited. Being taken for granted is not an option.

In Rebel Without A Pause, Chuck D said:

“Playin’ the role I got soul too
Voice my opinion with volume
Smooth, no what I am
Rough, ’cause I’m the man”

I’m the man is a bit strong – I’m seriously not that self-centered, but you could never call me smooth, and I’ve been a bit rough around the edges. But we voice an opinion with volume while being in touch with the soul of the game. I’ve just burned off all the winter’s cricket on to hard drive I could record. I’ve suddenly become fascinated with the career of Tom Hayward. I’ve been thinking about a really long piece on the career of Alastair Cook, because he’s a massively important cricketer, arguably the most important of the last 10 years for reasons that may not be obvious, or obvious only to me. But to do it justice it’s going to be really long, and it will bury the annoying lie that this is an blog that made it’s way by being Anti-Cook. And I need to sit down, get the Wisdens and videos out, and getting stuck in. Maybe in a month’s time.

There’s not a huge amount of comment on here, and please feel free to comment on any cricket below (treat this as an open thread), but one thing I’ve always written about is how I feel, about cricket, about life, and about the blogging world. I think it is a real trough at the moment. Too cosy. Too many people not doing what they should, seeking affirmation from others for their opinions, seeking to ingratiate rather than inform. If you read this and think I am talking about you, I probably am, but it shouldn’t matter. No-one needs my opinion, however rough around the edges. I just see an attempt to be the voice, rather than concentration on the message. There’s a softness now, including me. Maybe it will change. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it won’t be the lack of coverage that kills the interest, it will be apathy. Apathy is the incurable illness of sport. You have to care. The canary is struggling in the goldmine. No decent T20 sales, or close IPL finishes are going to change that yet.

There’s a song by Yotto, a Finnish musician, that I’m playing a lot:

I’ve been wondering,
Would you watch me slip away?
Would you watch me fall in silence?
Would you watch me fall in silence?

Now we finally realize,
To shine ahead of time.
You know it won’t last forever.
You know it won’t last forever.

There’s something to be said about that. Nothing does last forever. Both blogging and first class cricket at ends of the sport’s scale.

Especially when you see that one of the Wisden Cricket Photos of the Year didn’t even get the ball in shot. I did!

P1080219

Have a great weekend, and speak when I have something to say!

Dmitri (Peter)

His Son Is Working For The Daily Mail, It’s A Steady Job…..

It was Public Enemy, in their seminal hit “Fight The Power” that they issued the line “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamp”. Given Danny loved my Eminem reference last time, I thought I had to do another rap lyric to get the piece started. I’m a bit dense like that. But there is a point. If just a weak one.

Public Enemy clearly had civil rights and black empowerment in mind in their song, but we have our own more sedate versions (and I’m tearing this link apart too much, I know). When it comes to cricket, the game we play(ed), there are plenty of heroes, unsung ones from club life around the country. Those that give up their time, play into old age, keeping clubs going. They don’t appear on the major stage, nor would they want it. It’s the love of the game.

From my perspective, my club had one in particular who passed away in 2014. A terrific man, a terrific inspiration and a great recipient of the humour that came his way. He’s still missed.

However those of you on Twitter, who follow our feeds may well know where this is leading. Chris is going to be too modest to shout this out, but his piece written a year to the day tomorrow has been included in the Blog Review in this year’s Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack. The piece “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” was an amazing one that resonated far and wide, proved, if proof were needed that this blog is not a one trick pony, and that one of the best writers out there gets the due credit his effort and ability deserves. Yes, it’s a bit Smashy and Nicey, but well done sir.

Three years out of four for this blog and it’s predecessor in Wisden. Not bad for bilious inadequates. Whereas the last two were for hammering a message, this one is for the brilliant handling of the subject matter, and catching the mood in a game completely insecure in its standing in the country, nervous at the future. Looking back to the past reminds us of what we probably need to do. Remembering who went before is essential. They are inspirational.

Top stuff, Chris.

Sympathy For The Devil

David Warner is a massively unlikable person. He’s violent. He’s aggressive and insulting. He’s a cheat. Perhaps worst of all, he’s a hypocrite. It has been pretty amusing to several outside observers, including myself, how his past words and actions in this South Africa series have come back to bite him.

And so, with all of this baggage, it’s somewhat remarkable that Cricket Australia’s actions have led me to feel at least some small measure of sympathy for him. Obviously not much, but arguably a lot more than he otherwise deserves.

Warner was neither directly responsible for the ball tampering nor the man in charge. He hasn’t received any punishment from the ICC, unlike Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft. He is, however, unpopular in the Australian dressing room and in the international cricket press. Even a large portion of the team’s own supporters have tired of his antics, stereotypically Australian thought they might have been. In other words, he is an ideal scapegoat.

Bad Timing

It seems fair to say that the harsh punishments meted out to the ‘Sandpaper 3’ has more to do with Cricket Australia’s financial position than any kind of ethical stance. Within a few days of the ball tampering incident, which itself came after a series of unflattering stories involving Warner earlier in the series, the Australian Test series sponsor pulled out of their agreement. This action potentially costs CA $20m over the next three years. Even more importantly, this winter (at least for those in the wrong hemisphere) was also meant to be the time when new TV deals for Australian cricket were meant to be struck.

Immediately after the Ashes series, Cricket Australia were reportedly expecting to receive $1bn (Aus) over five years for the rights to show Australian cricket on the TV and streaming. That’s equivalent to £550m, or £110m per year. That’s quite a large deal considering that the ECB’s current TV deal up to 2019 was only for £75m a year, in a country with almost three times the population of Australia and where (unlike Australia) no cricket is shown on free-to-air TV.

Except now, with a cricket scandal on the front and back pages of every Australian newspaper, a deal that big seems some way away. Cricket boards have swept most indiscretions and wrongdoing under the carpet or given extraordinarily light punishments. Examples include racial abuse, talking to bookies, touring Apartheid South Africa and instigating what Richie Benaud described as “one of the worst things I have ever seen done on a cricket field.” And that’s just the rap sheet for Cricket Australia’s four-man selection panel. What they won’t forgive is costing them money. Potentially hundreds of millions of dollars, in this case.

In order to bring the story under control, Cricket Australia felt they had to draw a line under it with swift and severe punishments for all involved. Which brings us to the second aspect of unfortunate timing. The incident happened at the end of the Australian cricket season. This meant that any ban shorter than eight or nine months would involve the players missing no cricket in Australia whatsoever. This would seem lenient to some, which CA couldn’t abide.

Had the incident happened in September, three or six month bans would have suited everyone. The baying Australian public would have their pound of flesh and the players would have received punishments vaguely proportional to their ‘crimes’. As it is, two players being banned for a year seems ludicrously long and punitive.

“Fronting Up”

“Full credit to Steve Smith & Cam Bancroft for fronting up and admitting what they tried to do .. I know many teams and individuals who would have gone hiding .. it still doesn’t brush it away but at least they faced the music .. – Michael Vaughan.

Immediately after the press conference at the end of play in Cape Town, where Smith and Bancroft confessed to ball tampering, Michael Vaughan posted this tweet. The responses to it weren’t flattering to him or the Australians, and so he quickly deleted it and posted a new tweet with an almost 180 degree turn in viewpoint.

Apart from demonstrating Vaughan’s propensity to latch onto anything which he thinks will be popular and dumping it just as quickly, it also shows the way in which Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft are being separated from David Warner in the press. Numerous press reports (particularly from the one-eyed Australian journalists who wind us up so much) praise Smith and Bancroft for being honest, sincere, apologetic and so on. The same writers call Warner evasive, insincere and repetitive.

Even Cricket Australia are in on it. If you look at their videos on YouTube, they have Smith and Warner’s tearful press conferences. If you look at the titles, they are “Smith breaks down during emotional press conference” and ” Warner apologises but leaves out the detail”. Clearly CA have picked their scapegoat.

The reason why this division amuses me, other than the simple pleasure of watching the mindlessly aggressive Aussies attacking a kindred spirit in Warner just because it suits their agenda, is that Smith and Bancroft are the only ones who have definitely lied during this whole saga. First they denied everything to the on-field umpires, then told the press at the end of play that it involved “players and the leadership group” and used sticky tape. Finally, they told Cricket Australia’s investigators that it was just the three players involved, and a strip of sandpaper.

Even in their latest press conferences, there are discrepancies between Smith’s and Bancroft’s stories. Compare their answers when asked if it was the only time Australia had cheated. Steve Smith stated categorically that “To my knowledge, this has never happened before. This is the first time I’ve seen this happen, and I can assure you it will never happen again.” Cameron Bancroft gives a much more specific denial, “I have never ever been involved in tampering the ball. It completely compromises my values and what I stand for as a player and as a person.

On the other hand, David Warner has apparently chosen not to lie. For example, when Warner was asked at his press conference whether anyone else was involved his response was this: “I’m here today to accept my responsibility for my part in my involvement in what happened in Cape Town.” A clear non-answer, but also not a lie.

I would argue that part of the reason Dave Warner is being hung out to dry is that he isn’t giving the Australian press the answers they, and Cricket Australia, want to hear. “It was an isolated incident.” “It has never happened before.” “It was just three people.” No one in Australia’s cricketing establishment wants the scandal to widen, and Warner isn’t helping that cause by pleading the fifth whenever these questions come up.

This leads the press the declare that he has an ulterior motive, such as a $1m tell-all TV interview. Whilst I wouldn’t begrudge him that after this incident, especially considering the fairly high chance he won’t play for Australia again, the truth is that he might be the only player in the Australian team who hasn’t implicated someone else in the investigation. He appears to want to protect the team and his former teammates, even after they cast him as their scapegoat.

So Steve Smith, being the first one to cry and telling what are almost certainly lies, is credited with being emotional and honest. 25-year-old Cameron Bancroft is the young, impressionable victim of the senior player’s evil plans. Mohammad Amir without the great hair, essentially. Both of them are already rehabilitated in many people’s eyes, and ready to come back and represent Australia. And David Warner is the villain, who led the other two astray and is now trying to profit from the situation. Except without actually profiting from the situation in any way.

All of which is to say that I feel sympathetic for Warner in this specific circumstance. I wouldn’t be shedding any tears if he had been banned for a year (or longer) because of the other stuff he’s done. The fights, the insults, the send offs, and quite possibly tampering the ball himself. But he wasn’t. If anything, he was encouraged to do all of that even more by being rewarded with the vice captaincy. If he was a bad influence on others, it’s only because Cricket Australia allowed it. Welcomed it even.

I believe that allowing the blame to fall almost entirely on Warner, as appears to be the case in the Aussie media, is unfair and unjust. “Team culture” is defined by what the people in charge allow and clamp down on. For example, in England’s dressing room any kind of dissent is stamped down on immediately. It’s not right, but it is a vivid example of the amount of control administrators exert on a team. Cricket Australia have allowed their national team to become bullies and cheats, and it’s a little late to blame it on ‘one bad apple’. They did this.

As always, feel free to comment below.

After Winter, Must Come Spring

Monday night marked the end of England’s antipodean tour, a solid 5 months of overseas failure brightened only slightly by their two ODI series wins. On a personal note, it seemed reminiscent of a fictional never-ending winter like in the Chronicles Of Narnia or Game Of Thrones to me. The persistent cold weather at home during the day, then the depressing feats of mediocrity by the England Test team at night. It might have only been five months, but it somehow seemed like much longer.

In the Test team, it’s hard to think of many players who come out of this winter without a diminished reputation. Jimmy Anderson, and perhaps Craig Overton (although he had a decidedly average average of 42.28 from his three Tests), are the only standout performers. Certainly, you would expect Overton to be pleased that his 2015 ban after racially abusing another player isn’t the first thing that people think of when they hear his name.

For everyone else, it’s been a tour to forget. Joe Root’s captaincy has been questioned by many, although it’s not clear exactly what more he could do. He was England’s top scorer (always a dangerous position in a losing Ashes), and his bowlers were essentially all dire. As the point was often made during Australia’s period of dominance, it’s easy being captain when you have McGrath and Warne in your side. It’s not like a lot of balls were being edged to vacant slip positions by the Australian and New Zealander batsmen, or mis-hit in the air to where fielders should have been. England’s bowlers just didn’t seem to induce many false shots throughout the winter.

Finishing with bowling averages over 60, it’s hard to see how Jake Ball, Tom Curran, Mason Crane, Chris Woakes or Moeen Ali can expect to play for England in the near future. Jack Leach has been receiving plaudits for his performance this week, but they may be premature. Being economical when the opposing team are trying to bat out a draw might not be the greatest test for an international spinner, although I wouldn’t be disappointed if he was picked for the Pakistan series. Woakes and Moeen were also disappointing with the bat, both averaging under 20, which could herald an end to England’s policy of picking three allrounders. In fact, with Stokes’ court dates coinciding with the India Test series, it’s possible that England might play without any allrounders for parts of this summer.

That in turn could badly expose England’s fragile batting lineup. Apart from Root, no English batsman averaged over 40. The tour began with questions about virtually all of England’s specialist batsmen, and it’s ended the same way. Stoneman has averaged less than his opening partner Cook, but also outscored him in 11 of the 18 innings they’ve shared so far. Vince looks great until he plays a loose shot and gets himself out cheaply. Malan did well in Australia, averaging 42.55, but once he was in conditions conducive to swing in New Zealand he seemed to have the same flaws as he demonstrated last summer against South Africa.

All of which leads us to the question: Where do England go from here? So far, the only people to lose their jobs have been the selectors. Certainly this seems overdue. England’s Chief Selector James Whitaker’s last selectorial triumph was Gary Ballance, who was dropped almost three years ago due to a catastrophic lack of form. It’s honestly been somewhat astonishing that he wasn’t fired years ago.

Trevor Bayliss and Paul Farbrace both seem secure in their positions until 2019, having survived this. You’d assume that this is because of England’s ODI form, because otherwise England’s immediate future looks pretty bleak. There hasn’t seemed to be much speculation on Andy Flower losing his position as the ECB’s Technical Director Of Elite Coaching, despite there not being much evidence of any elite players having developed during his tenure. In fact, the more cynical amongst us are speculating that he will move sideways into the vacant selector’s position. It would certainly seem apt, seeing as the ECB hired him for his current job following his team’s abject failure in the Ashes four years ago.

With failures apparently across the whole England team and staff, you would normally expect that the ECB’s Director Comma England Cricket Andrew Strauss should be under fire. When the tragically inept Paul Downton was fired and replaced by Strauss in 2015, England were 5th in the ICC Test rankings on 97 points and even the ECB realised that things needed changing. Today, England are 5th in the ICC Test Rankings on 97 points, and apparently the Director in charge of England’s cricket team is doing a fine job?

Except no one really wants to put the boot into Strauss right now, not least because he left the Ashes tour early when it was revealed that his wife had been diagnosed with cancer. He also seems to have a lot more friends in the English cricket media than Paul Downton did. Whilst Downton was outside the English cricket establishment for several years when he was making a living as a merchant banker (decide amongst yourselves whether that’s rhyming slang or not), Strauss has never left the upper echelons of English cricket society since his ascension to Test captain in 2009. He’s well-connected and, for the most part, well liked by the people who could make trouble for him. Sacking Strauss would also be an admission of failure from ECB Chairman Colin Graves, and even making the suggestion that Graves has failed is probably enough for him to sue you.

All of which means that the England Test team is virtually in the same position it was six months ago. And a year ago. And two years ago. And three years ago. And four years ago. They have a weak and brittle batting line up, a below average bowling attack, and there are no immediate prospects of improvement.

Still, at least winter is over now…

As always, please comment below.

New Zealand v England: 2nd Test, Day four

Probably the most notable event of the fourth day was losing the best part of a session to bad light, something distinctly likely to happen again on the final day.  It’s autumn, there is cloud cover, it’s just in the nature of things.  Aside from that, the day played out more or less as expected, with England declaring and New Zealand faced with attempting to bat out the remainder of the game.  They’ll fancy their chances of doing so, particularly if the weather comes to their rescue tomorrow.

England are anything but a confident team given a miserable winter, and indeed a pretty dire couple of years, especially away from home; so perhaps the criticism they’ve received for failing to press on early enough should be seen in that light.  Equally, the last time Root made a bold declaration, the West Indies chased down the target. Whatever Root’s protestations about not being affected by that (and that declaration was no mistake, West Indies and Shai Hope  especially just batted brilliantly.  Well done) he’d be less than human not to have it in the back of his mind.

Still, 1-0 or 2-0 as a series defeat doesn’t especially matter, though that New Zealand survived unscathed during the curtailed evening suggests a slight degree of conservatism wasn’t entirely unreasonable.  Inevitably, those watching call for an earlier declaration than those playing, and although in a totally different series position, at time of writing South Africa are well past 500 and still batting long past when they had enough runs.

One thing to note with England though, and that is that maximising the number of overs they can bowl does require they score enough runs to exceed how many New Zealand would have to face to win the game.  If a target of 300 is set, it doesn’t matter if there are 100 overs remaining or 200 overs remaining, the game isn’t going to go beyond 100 overs or so.

Thus, while England could have pushed on a little earlier and a little faster, it ultimately makes very little difference to how long New Zealand would have had to bat.  England declared midway through the afternoon session.  Even with trying to smash the ball to all parts, it’s unlikely England could have declared a great deal earlier, and nor is it realistically possible to factor in how much bad light there might be.

Root scored another fifty, without going on, though in these circumstances a century was a big ask anyway.  For all his issues with converting fifties into hundreds, it would be more of a concern if he wasn’t scoring runs at all.  Of him and Cook, he is less of a worry.  It’s in his head at the moment, but there’s no reason to assume it always will be.

Malan too scored a pleasant half century while Bairstow provided some late innings biffing to raise the prospective target further.

It can’t be said that Latham and Raval survived without alarms, for Broad and Anderson certainly looked dangerous, but survive they did, and with ten wickets in hand they will fancy their chances of batting out for a series win.

98 overs are scheduled to be bowled, and if light is a similar factor, that may be reduced to around 80.  That is ample time to give England a decent enough shot at winning, and importantly means that they should get a second new ball late on.

Sometimes it seems a little harsh to nitpick when they’ve done ok.

NZ vs England: Second Test, Day Three – England Ascendant (Not An April Fool)

You might be forgiven for treating any news this morning with suspicion. It’s traditional for most news outlets nowadays to have at least one ‘joke’ story for April Fool’s Day. Therefore, when I awoke to see England had managed to build a lead of 231 runs with seven wickets remaining, the first thing I did was doublecheck the scorecard on another website. Especially when it suggested that Vince was the top scorer so far in England’s second innings.

The day started with 5 overs remaining until the new ball and New Zealand’s batsmen Watling and Southee took full advantage, smashing 27 runs off Wood, Stokes and Leach’s bowling. The match turned when England got the new ball, with Anderson quickly managing to swing the ball past Watling’s bat and into the wicketkeeper’s stumps. Broad followed up in the next over by taking another wicket when Ish Sodhi fenced at a ball outside off stump and edged it to Bairstow.

Tim Southee made it to 50 before Anderson bowled him, when the batsman was looking to hit him for six. Anderson was then hit out of the attack by Wagner, who managed 12 off Jimmy’s next over. This left the final wicket up for grabs, and Broad grabbed it by drawing Boult into a hook which he top-edged to Malan at fine leg.

England’s innings started with the customary early wicket, and as you might now expect the victim was Cook. It wasn’t an unplayable delivery, just a ball outside off which Cook prodded at and edged to the New Zealand keeper for 14. At this point, even people Inside Cricket are speculating that Cook might retire or be dropped this summer. He averages 33.25 this winter, which is remarkably low considering his top score of 244*. Other than his mammoth innings in Melbourne, he hasn’t managed an innings of even 40 runs whilst on tour.

The former captain’s quick departure left Stoneman and Vince at the crease. Not typically a sentence which inspires confidence in England fans, but both batsmen applied themselves to the situation.Both accumulated runs steadily, with Stoneman surviving a caught behind after his DRS appeal showed that the ball had hit his shoulder rather than the bat’s. Stoneman had more luck when Ross Taylor dropped him at slip on 48, and again when he sliced the ball just beyond the slip to bring up his half-century. A few overs later, Stoneman was dropped a second time in the slips by Southee. Proving that third time’s the charm, Stoneman edged the ball again and this time Watling caught it.

Vince followed not long after, a loose drive edged to Taylor at first slip. This honestly might be his trademark shot. Root and Malan steadied the ship, and saw England through the remaining hour of play until the day ended due to bad light. The tourists have a lead of 231 runs, with seven wickets still remaining.

This game is some players’ last chance to impress the new England selectors (whoever they will be) and cement their places this summer. Both Vince and Stoneman have good reason to worry, and their performance today might just be enough to save them. Their partnership of 123 runs in this innings has given England a significant lead, and crucially allows their middle order to avoid facing Boult and Southee with a new ball.

Stoneman might feel harshly treated if he is shown the door. In the 18 innings he has played for England, Stoneman has outscored Cook in 11 of them. That said, a Test average of 30.17 from 10 games hardly suggests a promising future. Of course, Stoneman’s career stats look amazing when compared to Vince’s Test batting average of 24.90. In truth, both batsmen must hope that the new selectors look primarily at their last innings rather than their entire body of work.

This game has also thrown up an unusual stat. So far, all 23 wickets have been taken by the opening bowlers. Southee, Boult, Anderson and Broad. That it has happened to both teams might suggest that it’s difficult to take wickets with the older ball. Equally, it might be an argument that the first change bowlers for both teams don’t match the quality of their teammates. Leach and Wood haven’t been particularly good in this Test so far, although in Leach’s defense spinners typically don’t prosper on day 2 of a game.

So, that’s it. England are 231 runs ahead, and there is virtually no way for them to lose the game. I have no doubt that they will smash New Zealand out tonight and finally win a game this winter.

Just kidding. They’re obviously going to find some way to screw this up. Happy April Fool’s Day!