Here we are again, the start of an international summer, a first Test in the offing, and cricket in England continues to go round in circles with the same issues, same arguments, and fundamentally, the same tone deafness concerning how those crazy, unimportant people who love the game think – and including those who might fundamentally disagree with every word we ever write by the way. Just because some of what they believe happens, isn’t because they’re being listened to. So let’s have a little look through some of the current debating points – even the ones we’ve all talked about a hundred times before:
It’s not new, and it is a Lord’s thing particularly. Sure, the Oval isn’t cheap, London prices are a thing after all, but Lords is a lot more across the board, and since they have two Tests a year, they deserve all the stick they’re getting. But it’s been this way for a while now, and it’s far from the first time people have complained about it. There is something of a difference in that tickets are still available, but it’s not going to be half empty as some have suggested. 20,000 unsold tickets over 4 days does not equate to that in any way.
Nonetheless, there’s now a fairly substantial group who refuse to go to Lord’s because of the cost, even among those who can afford it. It doesn’t matter to the MCC or ECB at all as long as they’re replaced by others who will, though their argument that the Jubilee holiday has made it harder to sell tickets compared to what would otherwise be a normal work day is a bit peculiar. Sure, there are plenty of options, but people are off work, that increases the potential pool, not reduces it. Arguing that people don’t want to choose the cricket over other things isn’t the killer argument they think it is.
The difference in cost between somewhere like Lord’s and Headingley or Edgbaston is always what grates – though it’s far from unusual across other sports too. The difference in season ticket price between Arsenal and Manchester City is quite astonishing, reflecting local demographics and disposable income differences. But that it prices people out of the market is beyond doubt, while that there are so many who have benefitted hugely from cricket’s largesse bemoaning the cost while continuing to rake in the income and never having to buy a ticket also grates. It’s similar to those who get in for free criticising the Barmy Army – they rub quite a lot of people the wrong way, sure, but they pay their way, which is more than many of their critics do. But let’s put it this way – a family could go to Headingley for a Test from the south, book a hotel, and still save a fair old wodge compared to going to Lord’s. That’s not a great position for cricket to find itself in.
I’m not a sports scientist, I’m not a physiotherapist – on the subject of conditioning and biomechanics, what I know could be written on a postage stamp and still have room for franking. So nope, I don’t have solutions, nor do I have meaningful criticisms about what has gone wrong. But after several years of this, it’s not unreasonable to wonder what on earth they’re up to at the ECB and how come they keep breaking them.
Broad and Anderson
It might be their last summer. At this point, you never know if it might be their last Test. And if so many bowlers weren’t in the garage with the mechanics tutting and sucking their teeth, they might not be playing in this one either. But they deserved to be treated better at least in terms of the communication prior to the tour of the West Indies, and the recent comments from Rob Key about wanting to pick the best team were welcome: If the view is that Broad and Anderson (or indeed anyone else) aren’t part of the best team, there is no problem not selecting them, because that’s a judgment call everyone can argue about. The mire England managed to get themselves into far too often over recent years was in ignoring this basic premise and trying to be clever. The critical point is and always has been that if this is not the guiding principle, you’ll never pick your best side, because there will always be other issues butting in. It goes back a long way, and many will recall the infamous quote asking what Graham Thorpe brought to the England side apart from runs. Speaking of whom, every cricket fan has him in their thoughts.
We’ve lost a few of the most precious cricket characters over the winter. What is there to say? It’s dreadful. I will miss Shane Warne’s combination of banality and insight on commentary – I don’t mean that in any way flippantly, he was a magnificent cricketing icon and an infuriating commentator who we all deeply treasured and rather loved. Damn.
Rob Key is installed as the Managing Director, while Brendon McCullum is the head coach. What even makes a good managing director when it comes to England cricket? The direction of travel in the organisation comes from the board and the Chief Executive, the much loved Tom Harrison, for whom there will be rending of clothes and wailing from the masses as he steps down having completed his reign of terror over English cricket. The Managing Director – of men’s cricket only, note – can then only work with what he’s given. Take Ashley Giles doing that job. It coincided with England being generally inept, which is rarely a good look, but what did he specifically do wrong? That’s not a defence of him, it’s to say that from beyond the boundary it is difficult, if not impossible to have a good insight into how one individual is performing in the structure and where the fault lines lie.
This is particularly true given the hand dealt. The Hundred, Harrison’s ugly baby, is not the reason for England’s woeful Test run, but it is the culmination of decision making that is behind the decline of England’s Test team. A symptom, not a cause. Key wasn’t about to get the job by stating at interview that the Hundred was an abomination, even if he did secretly think that was the case, and in his role he has to work with the structure as is, not as he might wish it to be. Where the ECB go with Harrison’s replacement, now that’s where it gets interesting.
Suggesting a reduction of first class fixtures from 14 to 10 per season, as he did in a podcast yesterday, has to be seen in the light of the shambles of a schedule across the season and the need to fit in the Hundred and the Blast. What it does say, is that where that pressure is most keenly felt, it is red ball cricket that must give way. That’s not new and it’s not news, it’s how the ECB have operated for a decade or more, salami slicing the foundation of the Test team and presuming it won’t have an impact.
Now, fewer red ball matches don’t in themselves have to have a negative effect on the production of Test cricketers, it may even improve it. The problem is the same one that has been there for a while, that there’s no sense of strategy behind it, it’s simply cutting back where they feel they can.
And herein lies a general matter that we are all guilty of not doing at times – that is listening and trying to understand what the thinking is. Take Kevin Pietersen’s push for franchise cricket in the red ball game. I have a lot of doubts about that, including but not limited to that no one will remotely care about the outcome of any of the games, which is an important sporting requirement, and not just for the county cricket supporters. But it’s an idea worth considering, even if that consideration leads to disagreement. But the kicker there is that it’s extremely hard to understand the logic of why such a system would improve the standards of red ball cricket – it seems merely assertion. And so it is with Key’s comments about reducing the number of Championship games. Plenty will oppose that for very good reason from their perspective – fewer matches to watch or play in. A legitimate objection. But if there is a rational plan as to why this would raise standards, it’s ok to be open to that. It’s just that it’s a bit hard to see what that rationale is. And that’s why people who have been repeatedly whacked over the head by a board that doesn’t seem to care about the actual game of cricket are suspicious and angry. Who can blame them? As one former ECB Managing Director said, it’s all a matter of trust. Rob Key is by all accounts a genuinely decent, intelligent and thoughtful man (our only interaction with him was that he thought our cruel entry about him in the Outside Cricket List was funny, so we’ll love him for that). But he won’t be at all surprised that now he’s stepped into the role, that lack of trust now applies to him. He can earn it though, and that’s interesting thing to watch.
As for Brendon McCullum, not a clue. He might be great you know. Or not. Or he might be unable to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, which seems more likely. To me, the role of the coach always seems somewhat overblown anyway. Your mileage may vary.
New team, new captain
It occurs to me that when Root was captain, the There Is No Alternative argument always ignored that Stokes was the alternative. Now Stokes is captain there really is no alternative, and for the same reason that it was problematic when Root was captain, namely that no one else is sure of their place. He might be good at it, there’s no certain rule that an all rounder can’t do the job, and maybe he won’t bowl people into the ground which in itself would be a welcome development. Ultimately, captaincy candidates become apparent amongst those who play regularly and have a degree of certainty about their place. If we go back to the team of a decade ago, an argument could be made for about 8 or 9 people to be captain, not because they’d be good at it necessarily, but because they were a fixture in the side. Until the current merry go round of selection changes and there is a settled team – and that needs them to be good enough – this is how it will be.
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence this year that clubs are struggling to fill sides and have players available. This may be indicative of the wider problems afflicting cricket popularity that has been talked about for several years. Or maybe it’s specific for other reasons. None of it suggests a game in rude health, all of it has been flagged for quite some time as a concern. Perhaps the most concerning is that women’s teams have been reporting similar, and since the rise of female participation has been the one bright spot in an otherwise depressing landscape, that’s not good at all.
Everyone ready? Play
We do have a Test match in the morning to watch and listen to. For all the issues in the sport, things do feel slightly better when the international English summer begins. The mess of the India Test will be something to pick up when we get closer to the time, but New Zealand do at least have three Tests this time around, and feel slightly less of an afterthought, so it’s good to have the World Test Champions here first up. Shall we enjoy the next few days and see how it goes?