Blind Hope, Blind Visions, Blind Centre, Blind Hell

I’m back. It’s me again. I feel like I have been here before. Post overseas Ashes, and another crippling loss, filled with hopelessness and despair. This one felt worse. Inevitable. Overmatched, overstretched and over there in a hostile environment, under covid protocols, and having been on an unremitting treadmill that gave no time for practice. I barely watched any of it.

We’ll get into the personal stuff at the end, because I have something to say on that, but we have the usual old thing to get through when it comes to England in Australia, and we need to be absolutely clear that this appears to be terminal for the test game in England. It is going to take a seismic change to get things back to a level we can only dream of at the moment, and I am not sure adminstrators, counties, international cricket or the players are really that interested in seismic change.

I don’t hold myself up as any representative of the cricket following public and never have done. I’ve expressed my views on the game on this blog, and its predecessor, forcefully, angrily, sometimes over the top, but all with one thing front and centre – I really wanted to see, which was England being a good side, players introduced to the team to make our humdrum lives more palatable with exciting performances. For me, while white ball success was nice, this meant test cricket. It meant good series, hard fought series, home and away.

If I watched more than 2 hours of this series live, and I have BT, I would be surprised. I wasn’t letting this disturb sleep patterns, and the only way I was going to watch was if they surprised me. I can be accused of being fairweather, of glory hunting or whatever, but there are decisions to be made, time to be allocated, and in this time of pandemic, and especially after setbacks, choices on what you are going to invest your mental anguish in. An England test team with no preparation, in a semi-bubble, not really having had a break, with their talisman having missed the summer due to mental health issues, with a team riddled with faults, a batting line-up that looked fragile, and a fresh Australian side who have barely toured and on the morale-boosting back of a World T20 title. The portents were not good.

I’ve turned my back on it because it is the only recourse I have left. If you bang your head against a brick wall, some day it is going to cause permanent damage. When Chris Silverwood talked about taking the positives after 68 all out, the only thing I could think of is I had discovered the “do not disturb” feature on my mobile phone to stop getting alerts overnight. Honestly, it is hard writing this. I love the sport, owe it a lot for meeting friends and seeing places in my lifetime that I would never have gone to. It was a game I liked playing (well the batting part) but was never that good at, but when in the midst of a tight match, was something to behold.

I posted a tweet half way through the series that essentially said “draw a line back to 2005, and take it from there”. While that principally meant that the catastrophic decision to take the live game totally off free-to-air on the back of a once in a generation victory that united the nation behind the team, there are other strands. Players from that team, including Vaughan and Strauss, and yes KP, have had far too much influence with their mouths and attitudes than should have been – none of them have gone into coaching since they packed in, rather admin, or social media belching. or god-awful punditry, or player representation (sniff sniff, massive conflicts of interest). There is also the tendency to forget that the star of that series has now had to become some perennial TV celebrity to maintain profile. In that team we had one, possibly two, players drown under the responsibilities of the game and the treadmill they were on to be burned out. Another had his career ended, quite possibly through over-work. There were strands from that team that still weave through the game today.

Fast forward to today. As part of this post I decided to listen to Tom Harrison’s interview with Jonathan Agnew, and George Dobell’s reaction. Let me take you back to what I wrote four years ago on a similar theme:

“A few days ago Tom Harrison, in an interview covered in detail by George Dobell, basically said there was nothing to see here when it came to this Ashes. That winning in Australia is difficult because of home advantage. That because the money is now taken care of, and we aren’t a national embarrassment at white ball cricket any more, we are in a safe place, a nice place, a place to build upon and make hay when the sun shines. The complacency was immense, as teeth itching as Downton calling the 2013-14 series a “difficult winter”. The media fell asleep at this wheel. Nothing to bother their pretty little heads about, concerned more with what he didn’t say about Stokes than what he did say about how great Tom Harrison was while we lost the main test prize we seem to care about.”

This came on the back of Alastair Cook’s face-saving 244 that drove me into another blogging meltdown and another break from writing. The media at that point were so dashed happy that their hero had averted a whitewash, they almost seemed to forgive Tom his little excuse therapy. Fast forward four years, supplant Covid for the difficult to win in Australia, and the disappearance of all the money, and the media, without a Cook to really get behind (because Root or Stokes didn’t make the defining contributions) are ready with the skewers. With some exceptions, just the minimum four years too late – I would say 8 myself. If the light had been marginally better at Sydney, and their quicks could have stayed on, we’d be talking about a whitewash, where the heroes were Head, Khawaja and Boland for the home team, and where Smith and Warner barely featured.

The interview Agnew held with Harrison was sickening. Agnew tried to be firm but genteel as always, polite doesn’t work with people like him, and Harrison avoided answers (how many enquiries have you had accusing racism was met with some word salad involving sub-committees, sub-divisions and confidence they’ll get it right), or spouted nonsense (we need to reset the domestic summer and not denying that the Hundred franchises might be the route to that), cited irrelevances (seam changes, heavy rollers, blah blah) and then pretty much did what he did in August and pleaded how hard his job was.

This is the man, who led the organisation, that had decent cash reserves to allow it to manage its way through crises, but spent it all to bribe counties to accept a competition that isn’t needed (certainly for the men) and that marginalised red ball cricket to the outer edges of the season, and he’s telling me hard luck stories? Yes, we’ve had a pandemic and it has messed up many people’s lives. But you have insisted on flogging the players, the international players, the multi-formatted international players, the multi-formatted attractive to the IPL players until they are shadows of themselves. This is to fulfil TV contracts, no more, no less. Four years ago England were battered in Australia, and then went to New Zealand and found themselves at 21 for 9 a couple of weeks later. Most of us thought that it was cruel and unusual punishment for this series to be tacked on to the end of a battering, and it shouldn’t really happen again. So what do we do this time? One more test than 2017-18, in the West Indies. Oh, and five T20s which won’t be anywhere near our best team in that format, but that doesn’t matter. There are TV contracts to fulfil.

The players can take only so much of the sympathy. Of course they are going to feather their own nests in more lucrative T20 tournaments that only get bigger in size. We probably all would. Not picking on him, but what do you think Liam Livingstone would choose if he could only have one of a white ball England contract, or a high paying, top end IPL deal? Test cricket is mentally exhausting work, and it is really hard to establish yourself. IPL/T20/Hundred you have to chuck down a few darts, or smash it to kingdom come, and you have youre internet memes, your media darlings screaming like Bay City Rollers fans and the gravy train in process where you get paid, as long as you maintain your standards, and won’t have to face 7 hours in the field as the oppo make 300 for 2 on a road. Joe Root, already very highly paid as England captain, has been desperate to play IPL (I thought he still was, but Danny has corrected me and he knows things much better than me). Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler also. You can’t take that money, then complain about workloads. I’m sorry, you just can’t.

Harrison knows red ball doesn’t have a viable long-term future, and he insults us by pretending that he thinks it does. Even if he has deluded himself, he won’t be the man to make that change, as any decent governing body would have fired him by now, and even this indecent one can’t let the small matter of devastated finances, a test team bottom of the World Test Championship, a game at war with itself and a parliamentary report calling the sport endemically racist go by, can it? Can it? Players are underperforming on a relentless treadmill where each organisation wants its piece of the cake.

Meanwhile, like dutiful morons, we are expected to pay our subscriptions to Sky and BT, buy our tickets for cricket grounds that look to soak the punter of any cash they have (£6.80 for a pint of rubbish – overpriced cheaply produced merchandise) while accepting that the man in charge will be trousering a monstrous bonus while presiding over a test team that is worse, and I’ve said it, than anything I’ve seen since that team that toured India in 1992-3.

We’ve pointed this out for years. We don’t expect to be listened to, so what’s the point? The authorities believe they know best, so why would they? The press is dropping away like flies, the old behemoths falling by the wayside, and the young guns need to work their nads off to keep themselves afloat these days. They make loud noises on Twitter, but what do they actually do to confront the men in suits? Are they worried about access?

Etheridge, in a weather vane moment, is being told the Sun won’t pay for a full time cricket correspondent. Crikey, although no-one bought the Sun for its cricket coverage, isn’t that a neon sign for the game? Even he said the punters aren’t interested in suits, but rather boots…. well they should be. It is going to take more than a Barney Ronay “how jolly clever and smart this piece is” approach to get things done. I’m not as big a fan of Liew as others, but at least he has a proper pop. We absolutely need to go at the suits.

Giles Clarke sold the game out behind a paywall, Graves was the personification of be careful what we wish for, and Watmore took one look at the whole clusterf*ck and preferred retirement. During that time we had Hugh Morris preside over the Moores v Pietersen debacle, Downton bestride the ECB like a housetrained Mr Blobby and Tom “Trust” Harrison live down to my day 1 predictions and then some. I take no pride or delight in being right, but goodness me, when you hear the next steps why are you not alarmed:

  • Ashley “Don’t Blame Me” Giles will prepare a tour report.
  • Joe Root – must stay as captain because There Is No Alternative. Stop me if you’ve heard that before
  • Chris Silverwood should be sacrificed, but it says a lot that (a) they gave him full selection power (b) the white ball team which is arguably more of his remit is pretty good, but that’s not enough (c) he’s another English coach that has utterly failed, so what does that say about ECB coaching and (d) there doesn’t appear to be a domestic alternative.
  • Ashley “Don’t Blame Me” Giles will prepare a wide-ranging tour report – oh, I’ve said that – and it will go to…
  • Andrew Strauss, who supposedly did one of these four years ago, and is revered, somehow, in authority circles because he no doubt killed off the KP spectre and made the obvious decision that our white ball cricket was a laughing stock so something must be done! The vision.
  • The game is dying through lack of exposure, working class kids don’t even know it really exists, and so we are looking to take a long-term view…. by hiding 90% of it behind a paywall for another 10 years.
  • We must look a domestic schedule crammed with too many games, and decide that the Hundred is untouchable. Joe Root’s comments today appear to back that up. A competition hyped to hell, and then forgotten (really, on the men’s side, how much do you actually remember).
  • We worry about players’ mental health, so let’s stack even more concentration of fixtures on them in an uncertain coming out of, or post-Pandemic period, and then wonder why performances are nonsense.
  • And pay the wretches “contractually agreed” obscene bonuses.

Why the hell do we still care? I mean, just look at that.

On a personal level, I feel sad that I stopped watching the Ashes. It has been a cornerstone of my cricketing journey. I remember following the highlights of the 5-1 tour in the Packer era; the listening to TMS as we eked out wicket after wicket at the MCG in 1982; the joy of the rampage in 86-7; the 90s watching our overmatched teams go up against greats; and yes going there in 2002 and 2006. The 2010-11 tour may well be the last we can ever watch and say, that was good. Because since then it is 13-0. In fact, since that Ashes tour of 1986-7 it is 32-6. Yes, it has always been tough, but it has also had competitive moments. We were never really in any of these games this time around, and we’d be lying to ourselves if we said we were. Winning the Ashes away is the holy grail for me, just as winning the Ryder Cup in the US always seemed sweeter than at home. And like the Ryder Cup, we face absolute batterings away from home unless something changes. The fear is, that the damage done to the game, through neglect and under-exposure, through contempt for the recreational game, through awful administration and the love of TV money over all, through class driven snobbery and elitism taking the game away from the masses, who now don’t care, renders any change now meaningless. Too late. Ships have sailed.

People like me should be warnings that you can’t take us for granted. I represent me, and only me. I am suffering badly through the pandemic on a mental health level. Others have it bad financially or both. I have to pick my things to care about, and adjust life to those that have left me. I feel cricket has left me. Others continue the good fight. I wish them well.

Happy New Year!