Grated Expectations

There’s been a lot of reaction to England’s latest capitulation, and what it might mean. The Australians are gleeful and fair enough too, the English would be the same if it was the other way around. As is ever the case in these circumstances, the more thoughtful think about the consequences of continued one sided encounters, hoping against hope that the English will get their act together. It’s not their problem, any more than it was 25 years ago when they were dominant home and away. What that decade or more of batterings did do was force the nascent ECB into action to do something about it. And with success too, albeit a fairly fleeting, complacent success. This time around, there’s no sense of a determination from the governing body to fix things, more just the opposite.

There are a few caveats to be offered up – that England getting trounced in Australia is far from new, and the Australians themselves haven’t won in England in 20 years, while a focus on the Ashes to the detriment of all else has long been an issue in the mentality of too many in England. It’s true of Australians as well, but the difference is that they see smacking England about as a delightful consequence of their overall aim rather than the aim itself. But the suited and booted at the ECB made lots of noise about their two year plan to deliver the Ashes and they have failed quite spectacularly, though it’s unlikely they’ll acknowledge that. This isn’t a surprise to anyone paying attention, England were always going to be lambs to the slaughter (how ironic that was the title of a cricketing book when the shoe was on the other foot) because they just aren’t very good, and are declining from a position of outstanding mediocrity.

So what to write about it? There is no shortage of outraged shock out there, no shortage of lamentations for the latest death of English cricket, and a fair degree of anger. But not so much from us. Which is why this tweet from a sports journalist allowed the writing of a post:

Lee is right. We’ve written far less, what we have written has been more with weary resignation than the molten steel of outrage.

Partly it’s that none of this comes as any kind of bolt from the blue. All of us have banged on about the way the policies of the ECB were going to lead us to this point, not because of our truly magnificent insight into the complexities of the game, but because it was utterly bleeding obvious to anyone paying more than cursory attention. England haven’t just been pumped in the Ashes, they’ve been beaten up by India and New Zealand at home this year as well. They’re two good sides, but that’s only an excuse if the expectation is for England to lose on their own patch to good sides, which is to set sights low enough to be subterranean. There is a fair element of the ECB justifying it precisely on this basis, which is to suspect they accept declinism.

It bears stating yet again that the Hundred is not to blame for this debacle, but the strategy that culminated in the Hundred is. We all salute and appreciate the might of Darren Stevens, but the issue is not a game that allows his longevity, but one where in his mid-forties he wouldn’t noticeably weaken the England team if he was selected. There are only so many times these points can keep being made without us being bored of our own voices, and fed up with screaming into the void given so little attention has ever been paid to it. Not to us, who cares if anyone listens to us, but to anyone in a more prominent position making the same points.

Talk to most cricket journalists and they’ll be saying similar things with varying degrees of emphasis, but little of this gets into the general media because the wider public isn’t interested in the detail of how a successful England team is created, but only that it happens. More than that, they don’t pay that much attention to them doing adequately, but they do tend to notice a complete shellacking and their relatives in Australia sending rude Whatsapps to them. In the specialist cricketing publications the frustration is clear, in the national press less so; it doesn’t get past the sub-editors and the general readership won’t invest the time in learning about the problems, and more pertinently, they shouldn’t have to. Broadcast media, particularly Sky, have revelled in their own domination of the right to watch English cricket, and as a commercial entity have spent more time talking about how good things are than they ever have the likely future coming. They are entitled to do that, for the disaster the ECB have created is not down to them, but it might affect how much they’re prepared to pay for the particular joy of covering England being crushed on a regular basis – their refusal to bid for this series could be a harbinger of the future.

It’s customary at this time to point to a post or a paragraph where we predicted this, but our output hasn’t been one of a couple of comments proclaiming Nostradamus level awareness, it’s been the whole bloody website for years, the whole set of responses in the comments from those who visit. The Pietersen affair, whatever the rights and wrongs, was about an organisation whose prime motivation was no longer putting out the strongest team possible onto the field, and that was the main reason for the rage involved, the justifications on any issue possible except whether the central one as to whether it made England stronger or weaker. It certainly wasn’t the personal tribulations of someone none of us know and aren’t in truth overly keen on.

That is in the past, the anger transmuting in the subsequent years as the ECB continued down a path of prioritising other things, anything, except the fundamental point of their existence in making the game of cricket – ALL of the game of cricket – as strong as it could possibly be. The removal of free to air cricket was a symptom of a complacent organisation that felt they were in a strong position to take financial advantage of their success, irrespective of whether it undermined the foundations or not. The refusal over many years to acknowledge that it might have caused other problems was symptomatic of that shift in focus, but once again, it is not the reason for this series and shouldn’t be said to be, not least because it was fifteen years ago that it happened. It is one of a myriad of decisions and policies that compound each other, year in, year out, progressively weakening the fundamentals of the game, no one item to blame or single out, all of them pushing the direction to where we are now. Even when some things change (such as the new found enthusiasm for letting the public see the sport) they are being responded to in isolation rather than with a strategic approach, a sticking plaster applied to a gaping wound.

The latest excuse for the abjectness of the Test team is that white ball cricket has been prioritised. It’s true, but it’s still not an acceptable rationale. Other countries have piled into the revenues created by T20 without destroying their Test teams, and while there is a wider issue at stake about the increasing domination of the short forms of the game, that doesn’t justify England going backwards relative to the others. White or red ball is a false dichotomy only the ECB seem to get away with. Australia don’t, India don’t, and with the disparity in income to the rest of the world, those are the nations England should be compared to. Only here is this given even the slightest credence. And that applies to all those years when England had a reasonable Test side and a piss-poor one day team too. It wasn’t an excuse then, it isn’t now, and winning World Cups is not a pretext for an inability to put 300 on the board in Tests.

Likewise, the way the debate around the public school contribution to the England team is framed is to miss the point entirely. Having more or less the entire batting order over an extended period of time having been privately educated is not grounds to attack the private sector, but to point out the hideous failure of English cricket to maximise the talent available to itself. There is just no excuse for that – it’s not about the 7% who make up the 94%, it’s about the 93% who only comprise the 6%. It is a total failure of the coaching structure to so appallingly waste the resources available, an abysmal flop in turning young players from an extraordinarily large intake into good cricketers

Shifting the county championship to the margins of the season, on green or tired pitches, undoubtedly has an impact, but it’s not just the hardware of when and where it is played, but also the software of the mindset of those who play in it. It might well be the case that players are choosing to thrash a quick thirty rather than knuckle down and battle through, but calling out a single player for thinking that way is all about that player. When it’s true to an extent of an entire generation, it’s about those in authority who have created the circumstances to allow it to happen.

The England hierarchy have encouraged it, the media have amplified it. Jason Roy was selected to open in Tests and the selectors applauded for their daring by far too many. There are still those calling for Liam Livingstone to be in the side, not because he might make a Test cricketer (for all I know, he might), but because he plays sexy cricket, hits the ball a long way and gains the pundit plenty of column inches to push the case.

What did anyone expect? There is no plan, except to make as much money as possible, not for the wider benefit of the game of cricket, but for the bank balances of those involved in the game professionally. Don’t expect those who rely on it for their living to come out and be publicly angry about it, because their livelihood and comfortable income is dependent on more of the same. The ECB officers have seen huge rises in salaries (well, apart from the expendables at a lower level who they made redundant) and it’s impossible to avoid the suspicion that lining their own nests is the principal reason for far too many ECB acolytes, as each big deal provides yet another large bonus, yet another big pay rise. Consequences? There are none. If they go, it’s with a fat cheque. If they play, they earn more and aren’t going to complain in a short career.

All of this was expected. All of it was coming. This is not accidental, it’s a consequence of repeated decisions made by those in power who remain entirely unaccountable to anyone outside the small circle of people for whom the mutual financial benefit overrides any other consideration. Sure, we can call out the players, who haven’t been good enough and have folded repeatedly. We can call out the coaching team who have made baffling selectorial decisions. And many of those will pay the price for this debacle, for sacrifices are demanded. What will it change though? What material difference will it make? England can get a better coach, but Duncan Fletcher had far more to work with than whoever takes over from Silverwood, and had the backing of an organisation that was determined to improve the quality of the player base.

Yes, I’m still angry. But not at the results, I’m angry it has taken this entirely inevitable shoeing for too many to wonder what has been going on. What the bloody hell did they expect to happen? What the bloody hell are they going to do about it? Because if the answer is to tinker around the margins, to call for the latest flavour of the month to be shoved into the team or to debate which bang average opener needs to replace the other bang average opener, then get used to more of this. Far too many people have been warning of what would happen and dismissed as cranks and extremists, well the ECB and all those who hang on to their coat-tails and line their pockets accordingly have made this. They should own it, they should take responsibility. But they won’t, and that, above all else, is why I might be still angry, but most of all, I’m contemptuous of them.

Christmas Repeats

As I was watching the Morecambe and Wise 1971 Christmas Special for the umpteenth time, I was struck by how familiar the television schedules seem over the holidays. Even death has failed to keep Eric and Ernie off our screens for any Christmas in over 50 years. There’s The Snowman on Channel 4, as always. The Queen’s Speech, of course. People love the traditions of watching the same thing over and over again.

The same could be said about the England Test team. You could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a repeat last night, as England yet again collapsed with bat and failed to impress with the ball. With only a minor changes in the cast, it followed broadly the same plot as the previous two Tests, and the recent series against India and New Zealand, and the previous series in Australia.

But where people welcome the traditions of watching the same things every Christmas, at least most of them have uplifting endings. Even EastEnders isn’t unrelentingly grim in their Christmas episode. England Test cricket fans haven’t been so lucky, as the last month has been a constant succession of misguided hope and failure.

So here I am, begging the England team to change the script. Not by winning, that is clearly unrealistic at this point. Rather, just playing somewhere near their potential. Not gifting their wickets to the opposition, or allowing the Australian batters to get their eye in with a barrage of short and wide deliveries. I can take them losing to a better team, as Australia undoubtedly is. What I can’t take is them capitulating without even the smallest measure of resistance or intelligence.

I have seen that show too many times before.

Down the Only Road I’ve Ever Known

I suppose it’s always possible England will pull this one out of the fire. I suppose it’s possible that for the rest of the series they’re competitive, and even in losing, do so while having their moments. Knee-jerk responses to a Test disaster can make fools of anyone, when in the following match a team roars back and batters their opponents. It’s always possible. It doesn’t feel that way here, but if that happens this time, feel free to thumb your nose at me.

Getting walloped in Australia isn’t especially unusual either. Anyone who is reminded of their advancing years constantly by being referred to as Covid-vulnerable (who knew that was going to a signifier?) is pretty used to it, the exceptions in ’78/9, ’86/7 and 2010/11 being glorious interludes in a regular diet of being flogged and receiving gleefully abusive messages from friends and family who have unaccountably chosen to identify as Australian. But there’s always been a particular narrative around the reasons why and the happenstance that led to it. Throughout the nineties England were a moderate team, but Australia were extremely bloody good, and consolation could be found (to a degree) by the way they rampaged across the planet hammering almost everyone – which is another reason why we were all West Indies fans.

By the early years of this century, England were losing, but they were fighting – they were merely completely outclassed. We can accept that, and the way England were progressing generally meant that there was hope things might change. The 2006/7 whitewash was infuriating, but that was a good England team against a good Australian team bent on revenge, and England imploded. Sporting meltdowns happen without having wider ramifications, and in a team environment that sense of doom can spread like wildfire. 2013/14 felt like the end of an era, and it proved to be as well, and in any case the fallout from that swiftly moved off the backpages and onto the front, as the ECB embarked on a civil war with their own game’s supporters. In that, the sheer sense of anger (on both sides) left everyone engaged in the fight and what would happen next. Whatever the wrongs of what happened – and we may have said one or two things at the time – it was a body of cricket followers thoroughly invested in what was happening.

There was a degree of hangover from that four years ago too, though the fire had faded. Some of the media clung to the wreckage as though a few floating planks comprised part of the ship of English cricket, but the emperor (nothing wrong with a metaphor transition) was as naked as the day he was born, the pointing of fingers amounted to demanding to know what was going to be done about it.

This time around we know what was done about it. To make things worse. It’s not just that this is a poor England team, because God knows we’ve seen enough of those, it’s that there is no way of thinking anything other than that this is likely to be routine. The Hundred isn’t to blame for England’s Test woes, let’s put that to bed right now. But the decision-making process and strategy (loosely termed) adopted by the ECB that led to the Hundred as the culmination of their intentions is, and those behind it will be moving on soon enough leaving the trail of wreckage in their wake.

What did they expect to happen? Increasing the focus on white ball cricket was a reasonable enough aim, as English cricket had certainly undervalued it for a long time. It gave us a World Cup, sure. It’ll likely give England a shot at another one in the coming years, and maybe a T20 World Cup or two as well. Fine. But the either/or mentality of it has never made a great deal of sense when other countries have managed to create good Test and short form teams, and in any case England’s historic ability to have truly crap Test teams at the same time as truly crap 50 over teams was a notable achievement in itself.

But this team can’t bat. The best bowlers, even taking into account the loss of key personnel through injury, aren’t that far off the point where they too move into more vulnerable Covid categories, which is a damn fine tribute to their longevity and skill, and maybe it is the case that when they are gone we’ll appreciate their replacements more. But it’s the batting, stupid. The batting. We can all pile into Rory Burns for his series to date, but it’s not like there’s an 8,000 Test run replacement obviously in the wings. Sure, some will read that and say Sibley was discarded too quickly, or that Sam Robson ought to be given another go (a fair point too), but it doesn’t change the material shortage in players who might be expected to turn into Test level batsmen entirely because the structure of English cricket isn’t going to create them.

We have Joe Root, a batter who is genuinely outstanding and deserves all the praise he gets, and that’s it. Ben Stokes? In a stronger team he would be the wildcard, someone to come in and devastate the opposition, to be that special cricketer who can change a game in a session. In this team he’s the second best batsman. Stokes is wonderful. He should not be head and shoulders above all bar one of the batting line up.

The same applies to the role of spinner. We keep moving from one to the next, and the next will always be the solution and never is. They’re all ok, looked at in the right light and playing in the right conditions. None of them are going to change the world, because English cricket isn’t going to produce anyone who does. Shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic doesn’t even begin to cover it.

And then there’s their heads. We’re one and a bit Tests into this series and England look completely gone. It’s not just the clear awareness of impending collapse when they bat. The dropped catches, the disparity in no balls bowled, the frankly weird tactics (let’s bowl Joe Root as dusk falls in a pink ball Test) are not indicative necessarily of anyone in charge having odd ideas about cricket as much as evidence of a team and coaching staff whose minds are in a whirl and unable to think straight. That kind of bewildered groupthink is easy to see from the outside, but very hard to get out of on the inside, until someone yells “Let’s get back to basics”, which always goes swimmingly anyway.

All of which means the most probable outcome here is that things are going to get worse. Not just this series, though if there’s something to truly envy about Australian sporting teams it’s their manner of emulating their local sea fauna by hunting down their prey once it’s flailing in the water remorselessly. But beyond this series, indeed for the forseeable future. Many a fan in past series has considered a thrashing by our warmest enemies as the price worth paying for change. It’s not the same as wanting the team to lose, which has always been a lazy accusation when this subject comes up, but it is about wanting to see action on resolving the problems.

The ECB aren’t going to change.

That, in a nutshell is the despair felt by many, and the more problematic indifference and ennui felt by others. If England get the kind of tonking that looks distinctly possible, we are unlikely to see a Lord McLaurin institute a root and branch reform in order to stop this happening in future, we’ll instead have an ECB expressing disappointment along with a fair supply of platitudes about the lessons that will be learned. It’s not that the cupboard is bare, it’s that English cricket governance took an axe to the cupboard and turned it into an iced water dispenser.

It’s what happens when that reality dawns more widely than among the hardcore cricket fraternity that is the big question. And that, in itself, is the fight to come.

Ashes Preview

There is a palpable sense of apathy about the Ashes series. Generally, on Twitter and in the general public, but most certainly amongst the writers at Being Outside Cricket. Of the four of us, I might actually be the only one who intends to watch a game or two. Even then, that is in large part because I have a massive amount of annual leave built up and I have only a few months to use it. I have the holidays, I subscribe to BT Sport, so it would be a waste not to.

There’s a number of factors which have contributed to this malaise. The effects of COVID-19, both direct and indirect, really put the importance of sport into perspective. Likewise, the revelations regarding the extent of racism in English cricket have reduced people’s enthusiasm for the game.

Perhaps the most significant reason is that almost no one thinks England will manage to win a single match in the series. They have neither the batting ability to outscore Australia, nor the bowling ability to taken the host’s wickets cheaply. Their catching is also diabolically bad. This is by no means an overpowering Australian lineup, they lost their most recent home series against an injury-ravaged Indian side, but they are still better than England in every phase of play.

England haven’t managed to win a Test match in Australia since 2011, and their team was significantly stronger than now in both 2013 and 2017. The only things that can stop Australia winning 5-0 are rain (the forecast for the first Test isn’t exactly great), a ridiculously flat pitch (ie Melbourne 2017), or state border closures. Cricket Australia probably shouldn’t even bother making a massive print of an English hand with one finger raised.

All of which is to say that you shouldn’t expect full coverage of the Ashes from us at Being Outside Cricket this winter. There will be posts, when we’re in the mood or have something to say, but there almost certainly won’t be daily reports on the day’s play. We’ll still be on Twitter, and still read and respond to comments on the blog. Everything else, we’ll see how it goes.

In terms of a preview, it looks grim for England on paper. Australia’s team (announced three days in advance) has four players with Test batting averages over 39.00 (Smith, Labuschagne, Warner and Head). England’s whole 15-man squad has one (Root). England’s batsmen have two main weaknesses: Fast bowling and spin. Those are Australia’s two bowling strengths. England lack X-factor bowlers who might stand a good chance of bowling out a set Smith or Labuschagne, particularly if they favour allrounders like Woakes or Overton to bolster their fragile batting order. England’s catching in recent times, or lack thereof, has meant that the bowlers typically need to make an two or three extra chances per innings, which is always a tough ask in Australian conditions.

Quite simply, England are screwed.