Keep It Simple, Stupid

“Well very simple. I think what we’re trying to do with our new city-based tournament is really appeal to a new audience. So people that aren’t necessarily traditional cricket fans, and in particular looking at mums and kids during the summer holidays. So, what we’re trying to do is find a way of making the game as simple as possible for them to understand and, you know, if you imagine that sort of countdown from 100 balls down to 0 and the runs going up, I think that’s a pretty simple way of playing the game.”

These are the words of the ECB’s Director Of England Cricket, Andrew Strauss, in response to the question “A new 100-ball competition. Your reason for introducing that?” on Sportsweek. What stood out for me in this long winded (and arguably sexist) response, is that Strauss used the world “simple” three times in the first four sentences.

First, a recap of the current proposals by the ECB for this new format. Instead of the current T20 format of 20 six-ball overs per innings, each team will face a maximum of 100 balls in 16 overs. Of those 16 overs, one will have 10 balls and the rest will remain as 6 balls each. Since the initial proposal, there has been a suggestion reported in the Telegraph that the fielding team will have the option of switching bowlers during the longer over up to three times.

All of which begs the question: How is this simpler than T20? It honestly sounds like the most convoluted format of cricket I’ve ever heard of.

I, like most people who frequent this blog (or at least most of the people who comment), prefer Test cricket to the other forms of the game. With all the talk of the new tournament and now a new format, I’ve been trying to think why that is. The answer I have come up with is this: It’s a simple game.

For a start, the goals of the teams playing Test cricket are very simple. The fielding side has to take 20 wickets. If a Test team can’t manage that (see England’s performances this winter), they can’t win. Conversely, the batting team will attempt to preserve their wickets. If successful, they should never lose.

Which is not to say that there aren’t complexities in Test cricket. LBW is cricket’s answer to football’s offside rule, incredibly difficult to explain to a newbie and probably requiring diagrams of some sort. It is a necessary complication though, because otherwise it would be possible for batsmen to essentially negate all forms of dismissal. The names for the positions in the field aren’t exactly intuitive for people unfamiliar with the game, but given the massive variety of possible places a fielder can be in there may not be an obvious solution to that. More recently, the DRS system has also added some confusion to proceedings. That was almost an enforced change, with technology showing umpires’ mistakes almost instantly on television and causing an outcry amongst aggrieved fans.

The other formats of the game are certainly shorter, but can hardly be described as more simple. Take as an example the powerplays. I’m a cricket fan, I’ve watched and listened to dozens of ODIs, I’ve even done match reports for some of them here on BOC. I literally couldn’t tell you when the ODI powerplays are or how many fielders have to be within the circle. It seems to change every few years, and at some point I decided to stop keeping track.

Even more importantly, the powerplays mean that the rules by which the teams are playing change throughout the game itself. This would be like every rugby union game starting with 10 minutes of 7-a-side to encourage more tries, or football matches having 15 minutes without goalkeepers. I honestly can’t think of any other examples in sport where the rules shift mid-match, excluding tie-breakers such as extra time and penalty shoot-outs.

The thing I really hate about limited overs cricket is the limit on how many overs any player can bowl. As a fan of the sport, I want to see the best players from both teams facing each other as much as possible. Instead, batsmen in ODIs and T20s face the majority of their deliveries from bowlers picked for their batting ability over anything else. Whilst I understand the reasons behind it, namely that it weakens the bowling and strengthens the batting and therefore ensures a high-scoring game, it still feels contrived and artificial to me.

If the ECB really wanted to produce a format which was easy for newcomers and existing fans to understand and enjoy, surely the obvious solution is to have as few rules and restrictions as possible? No bowling limits, no fielding limits, and especially no weirdly long overs. Just get 11 great players on the field and let them create the drama and excitement, like in every popular sport.

It’s really very simple.

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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.

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!

“Rain” – New Zealand v England – 1st Test, 2nd Day Review

After what must be considered their worst day of the whole winter (and they have plenty to choose from), the England team probably weren’t hopeful about getting any kind of result from the game. The one thing which might help undeservedly rescue them is the weather, and that was what happened today.

The first session started on time after rain showers earlier in the day, but lasted only 10 overs before the downpour began. New Zealand made steady progress and Williamson completed his 18th Test century, but little else of note happened.

The heavy shower passed fairly quickly, and play restarted just over an hour later. This session coincided with the second new ball for England, and both Anderson and Woakes (with Broad only getting two overs before being pulled) got quite a lot of movement with it. An Anderson inswinger did for Williamson, hitting him plumb in front, and the traditional captain’s DRS review failed to save him. Whilst the swing challenged the other New Zealand batsmen, neither gave up a clear chance and after just 13 overs the rain came down again.

And thus ends what is by far the shortest and easiest match report I’ve ever had to write. The forecast for tomorrow looks even worse than today, which might leave England the faint hope that they can rescue a draw. Meanwhile, with a lead of 171 runs New Zealand must be considering a declaration sooner rather than later.

As always, comments welcome below.

Integrity In English Cricket, And Other Myths

Yesterday, former Somerset chairman Andy Nash resigned his role on the ECB management board as a non-executive director representing the interests of the counties. In his resignation letter, Nash said that:

“The standards of Corporate Governance at the ECB are falling well short of acceptable and in all conscience I can’t allow myself to be associated with it.

Those are pretty damning words about the ECB, which should make him something of a hero here at Being Outside Cricket. Certainly, his core argument that the ECB is full of biases and that it is poorly run is one that most of us would agree with. The question I have regarding Nash is whether someone who has been on the ECB’s management board for almost five years, and a county chairman before that for another nine years, has any right to distance themselves from the decisions that the ECB has made in that time.

Certainly I question whether the specific issue which appears to have triggered his resignation is worth such a gesture. In the letter he sent to Colin Graves, Nash wrote:

The current fiasco over the actual / alleged / planned payments to TMGs [Test Match Grounds] is an exemplar. Whether intentional or not it clearly signals to many a move to promote 8 counties as the first among equals. As an ardent supporter of the 18 FCCs [first-class counties] this is not a direction I can live with.

To put this into context, it leaked this week (quelle surprise) that the ECB planned to give counties with Test match grounds an extra £500,000 in every year which they didn’t host a Test match. Now I’m certainly not suggesting that there is absolutely nothing dodgy about this arrangement. It could well have been a backroom deal to reward the larger counties for supporting the ECB’s new T20 competition, when a similar payment actually tied to hosting one of the new teams would have almost certainly been blocked by the other ten counties.

But equally, I believe that these payments are a necessary evil. The ECB’s policy of forcing counties to ‘bid’ in order to host England games since 2007, guaranteeing to pay the ECB a minimum amount even if the revenue the county receives from the game isn’t enough to cover the payment, has meant that being a Test match ground has been a financial struggle for many counties. The ECB have also considered factors like the capacity of grounds and the quality of the facilities when assigning games, which has meant that grounds have had to invest (at great expense) in updating and enlarging their stands simply in order to maintain their allocation of international games.

Last year, the ECB decided to reduce the number of home Test matches per year from seven to six. With Lord’s hosting two games annually, this means that at least three of the eight counties with Test grounds will miss out on Tests every year. This could cause significant financial problems and end up with more counties getting the same treatment as Durham, which no one wants. Well except perhaps for Durham fans, who might be glad to know that they weren’t singled out for punishment before the ECB decided to address the underlying problems in their own systems.

However, even though I might agree with the principle of ensuring that England’s international grounds have a guaranteed income, there have to be questions about how the policy has been arranged. It appears to be the case that the ECB’s management board did not approve of the decision for the ECB to hand out £1.5m annually, nor were they even informed. This suggests a worrying (and yet entirely unsurprising) lack of oversight for the people in charge, and perhaps a worthy justification for a person of principle to resign as a member of the ECB’s board.

Which brings us to Andy Nash’s principles. In an interview with BBC Somerset today, he said:

“It suggests we’re moving towards favouring an elite band of eight teams rather than treating 18 fairly, and that is not something I could reconcile my conscience to.”

Which of course is wonderful. Most readers here seem to support there being eighteen teams in English cricket. Bravo to such a man of conscience, willing to resign rather than even considering any move towards a future where English cricket is divided between the haves and have-nots. A future where eight counties stand alone above the rest.

Except, of course, that this is a relatively new position for him. As Somerset’s chairman, Nash voted in favour of the ECB’s new T20 competition which only has eight teams. Why? Apparently he was in possession of a signed letter from the ECB’s chairman, Colin Graves, stating that Somerset were well placed to host one of the new sides. He was also on the ECB management board at the time, representing (in theory) all 18 major counties, where he voted for the ECB’s proposition.

I would argue that Andy Nash was perfectly willing to live with a two-tier county system when he thought that Somerset might be in the top tier. Now that this is clearly not going to happen, it seems a little late to cast himself as an ardent defender of the smaller county teams.

So, to summarise: I agree with the ECB’s payments to Test grounds, but not the way it’s been managed. I agree with Andy Nash’s purported sentiments about maintaining 18 teams in English cricket and his assertion that the ECB’s level of governance is extremely poor, but consider him wholly complicit in the ECB’s actions during his time in significant positions of influence.

But I certainly agree with this quote from Nash’s interview on BBC Somerset:

“If, as directors, you’re learning about such things through the media then there’s something very wrong.”

As always, comments are welcomed below.

Athers’ Blathers

Last week, former England captain Michael Atherton published an article entitled “Cricket: it’s where rational, joined-up thought goes to die” on the Times website. It was briefly put on the site for free before being pulled behind the newspaper’s pay wall, so now if you want to read it, you’ll need to at least register a free account with them. The great and good of the English cricket media immediately hailed it as a masterpiece by one of cricket’s greatest writers.

Last Monday, the British Sports Journalism Awards were held at a fancy hotel in South London, where Michael Atherton was given the Cricket Writer Of The Year award for the fourth time in a row. In congratulating him on Twitter, the Times cited his latest work as an example of why he is the greatest cricket writer in the country.

In the article, Atherton lists a series of decisions taken by cricketers, coaches and administrators which he deemed to be ‘irrational’. Now, regular readers here will know that there’s a lot to choose from here. The ECB in particular are prone to making irrational decisions most of the time. It is therefore somewhat incredible to realise that he names virtually no irrational things in the whole piece.

So I have gone through the whole thing, and explained point-by-point why he is wrong.

Alex Hales changing his mind about first-class cricket – Rational. Athers quotes a 2016 interview from Hales where he says he wants to play in all three formats. To put that into the correct context, at the time he was playing in all three formats for England. He said it just before he played in a Test series against Pakistan, in which he averaged 18.12 and was then dropped. Now it’s almost two years later and he seems unlikely to get another chance in the Test team. He did average 47.11 last year in the Championship, but that was in Division 2 and was only the 24th highest average in that competition. If his dream of playing Tests again is dead, why not concentrate on limited overs cricket?

Nottinghamshire changing their mind about offering Alex Hales a white ball contract – Rational. Again in 2016, Nottinghamshire refused to offer Hales a white ball contract. To put this into context, in 2016 he was playing all three formats for England and so would only have been available for his county in April before the international season began. If he wasn’t contracted for red ball cricket, he might not have played a game all season. Now that he isn’t in the England Test team, he will likely be available for large chunks of the county limited overs competitions.

Adil Rashid apparently changing his mind about a white ball contract between December and February – Rational. In December, Rashid gave a standard generic quote about wanting to help Yorkshire regain the Championship title but in February signed a contract which meant he wouldn’t be taking part in that competition. It could be that he changed his mind, or he didn’t think that Yorkshire would offer him a contract without him having to play 4-day cricket. Either way, it’s hardly a sign of irrationality.

Jack Leach bowling more overs than Mason Crane during the Lions tour of the West Indies – Incredibly rational. Jack Leach is a better bowler than Mason Crane. He just is. The England Lions captain Keaton Jennings correctly surmised this, and chose his bowlers accordingly. Mason Crane wasn’t even selected for the third game of the Lions tour.

Mason Crane was selected for the Australia and New Zealand Test tours – Irrational. I’ve got to give Atherton this one. It was a ridiculous selection.

The ECB are offering white ball-only contracts to players – Rational. The truth is, England’s white ball specialists have been getting screwed until recently. Test players have had much more money and job security through their central contracts whilst the ODI and T20I cricketers have largely been relying on match fees. This was a much-needed rebalancing of the scales.

The chairman of the English players’ union and the chief executive of the South African players’ union disagree about white ball-only contracts – Rational. Two people in similar jobs disagreeing about something. Who cares?

Trevor Bayliss believes that there shouldn’t be bilateral T20Is, but the ECB has scheduled more – Rational. This time, someone disagreeing with their employer. Who cares?

Jos Buttler disagrees with Bayliss’ idea – Rational. A player disagreeing with his coach. Who cares? (And seriously, who edits Atherton’s work and lets all this stuff through?)

Trevor Bayliss suggested that Paul Farbrace should replace him as England’s T20I coach immediately – Incredibly rational. Trevor Bayliss has publicly stated that he plans to leave the England job in 2019 after the Ashes series. The World T20 competition starts just 12 months later, which doesn’t give the new coach much time to shape the T20 squad beforehand. Bayliss’ T20 record is also much more shaky than what he has achieved in ODIs so far. Since his appointment, England have won 12 and lost 12 T20Is, compared to having won 36 and lost 15 in ODIs. It seems that either England or Bayliss is not that good in cricket’s shortest (international) format right now, and could use a change.

Eoin Morgan offers to play first-class cricket for Middlesex after not being drafted in the IPL – Rational. Morgan had the choice between sitting at home or being paid to play cricket, albeit not where he had hoped to be. He obviously chose the latter.

Australia played against New Zealand at Eden Park in Auckland, which has a field too small for T20Is – Rational.  Atherton even explains that it’s because the ground was already in use before the regulations regarding the minimum lengths of boundaries came in, and so it has a special dispensation. Increasing the boundary sizes on an existing ground would be very expensive, requiring major construction work and other costly measures, and probably isn’t possible at all in dual-use stadiums like Eden Park. Unless the ICC is prepared to pay New Zealand hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new cricket ground in Auckland, it seems fair enough to bend the rules slightly.

Australia and South Africa’s schedules are very congested – Rational. It makes their boards money. The more they play, the more money they make. It’s as simple as that.

Despite major investment, Durham, Hampshire and Cardiff aren’t hosting any Tests from 2020 onwards – Rational. Again, money largely explains this. The other grounds make more of it during Tests, and so are the preferred hosts.

Somerset won’t stage any internationals despite being a well-run county, whilst other counties will – Slightly irrational. The main criteria which Somerset have failed to meet is capacity, the County Ground in Taunton only has space for 12,500 spectators whilst the ones which will host internationals can each hold crowds of at least 15,000. It’s a shame, but perhaps part of what makes Somerset such a solid and responsible county also prevents them from committing to costly expansions to their ground with uncertain financial returns.

Rashid Khan is top of the ICC bowler’s ODI rankings, but might not play in the 2019 World Cup if Afghanistan fail to qualify – Rational. Sometimes great players are on teams which don’t qualify for major competitions. I hear Gareth Bale is a great player, but Wales last qualified for the football World Cup in 1958. (Note: I don’t care about whether Bales actually is a great player or not, so please don’t try to argue this point with me.)

The ICC claim they want to expand world cricket but have contracted the ODI World Cup from 14 teams to 10 – Rational. The ICC (or to be exact, the member boards) were lying. If expansion made the existing members more money in the short term, they’d be doing it. The format of ICC competitions is decided solely on monetary terms.

And yet Michael Atherton is considered the greatest cricket journalist in England. Go figure.

There Is Power In A Union

According to the singer Billy Bragg, trade unions are powerful and virtuous entities which support the workers against the abuses of their employers. They ensure fair pay, equitable treatment and protection from abuse. For professional cricketers and England and Wales, that role is filled by the Professional Cricketers’ Association.

The PCA helps support professional players in several ways. They help negotiate central contracts for England internationals, teach rookie players important lessons about what it means to be a modern sportsman, and support players after they leave the game. What they don’t do, in virtually any circumstances, is protect their members in any public way from the actions of the ECB. After several incidents in the past few years, I have been left wondering where the reaction from the player’s union was.

This post was prompted by a story posted today on the Daily Mail website. To summarise: Because of the large pay disparity between players who are and aren’t on central contracts, non-contracted players who played in 4 Tests, 10 limited overs games, or a combination of the two, would receive a £50,000 bonus. In the current England team, that would mean Stoneman, Vince, Malan, Curran and Roland-Jones are all due a large payout.

Except, of course, for the fact that the ECB are unmitigated arseholes and so have chosen to instead return to the old system of incremental contracts made solely at the discretion of the team’s director, Andrew Strauss. Of the five players who would have qualified for the bonus only Toby Roland-Jones has been offered an incremental contract, leaving the other four £50,000 out-of-pocket.

Now it may well be that the ECB were fully within their legal rights to get rid of these bonuses. I am not a lawyer, I haven’t seen the players’ contracts, I have no expertise in these areas. It certainly seems unethical to me though, withdrawing a bonus without informing the players involved. I would hope, if I were in that position and was a member of a players’ union, that they would intercede on my behalf. Instead, the PCA has remained silent on the issue.

But It All Amounts To Nothing If Together We Don’t Stand

Of course, sometimes silence is preferable to the alternative. As the saying goes, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” In past years, the two things the PCA has most been associated with in the press have been when they have come out on entirely the wrong side of events.

In 2014, England played against India at Edgbaston in a T20I. During that game, the last of England’s summer that year, Moeen Ali was booed by a significant number of Indian fans. The reason? Because he’s a Muslim of Pakistani heritage. It was bigotry, pure and simple. It was certainly against the terms and conditions for people who bought their tickets. It was quite possibly illegal (again I reiterate, I am not a lawyer). But it was also something the ECB would wish to minimise, both in order not to antagonise the powerful BCCI and to present the appearance that there is little to no racism within cricket.

To that end, the PCA’s chairman Angus Porter said in an interview soon after that:

“There is an element of taking it as a compliment. You are more likely to boo someone when you think they are someone to be feared. Take it as a positive, you’d rather be booed than ignored.”

Personally, I think cricketers would take it as a positive if they weren’t ever subjected to racist abuse, and if that did happen then at least their union should support them rather than telling them to “take the positives”. After a swift and decisive backlash Porter did apologise for his words, but the fact he said them at all was pretty damning.

The second example of the PCA’s folly, and the one more apposite to this blog, is the infamous press release that the PCA and ECB jointly wrote about Kevin Pietersen. Of course the headline quote was about allegations “from people outside cricket”, which indirectly gave this blog its name, but there are some other gems in there as well. This paragraph, for example, has not aged well after England’s 4-0 thrashing in Australia:

“The England team needs to rebuild after the whitewash in Australia. To do that, we must invest in our captain, Alastair Cook, supporting him in creating a culture in which he will have the full support of all players, with everyone pulling in the same direction and able to trust each other.”

But the quote which really angers me regarding the PCA’s continued silence is this:

Clearly, what happens in the dressing room or team meetings should remain in that environment and not be shared with people not connected with the team.”

This is so hypocritical, it is bordering on comedy. I can think of few players in the history of English cricket that have been leaked against more than KP. If anything unflattering to Pietersen occurred within the private confines of the England camp, you could be assured that it would be in the paper the next day. I can’t recall the PCA ever standing up for him (I presume he’s a member) and demanding that the leakers be punished.

But Who’ll Defend The Workers Who Cannot Organise?

It is fairly easy to pick out several England cricketers in recent years who have been the subject of repeated ‘anonymous’ leaks questioning their character, ability or fitness. Joe Root, Adil Rashid, Gary Ballance and Jonny Bairstow, just to name the Yorkshire contingent. These largely baseless allegations from “sources inside the England camp” (or however it’s phrased) could have real negative consequences for these players’ careers. Clubs could be less likely to sign them, or lower the amount they are prepared to pay for them. I want the players’ union to stand up to the ECB and demand either the leaks stop or the leakers (and let’s face it, we know who most of them are) should be sacked.

Likewise, the ECB’s punishments are often arbitrary and unwarranted. If we just take the recent tour of Australia as an example, following the first Test and the revelations of Jonny Bairstow’s odd meeting with Cameron Bancroft there was a curfew placed on the whole England team. Because of the actions of one player, the whole team was punished.

A few weeks later, Ben Duckett dumped a drink over Jimmy Anderson and was severely punished with suspension from the Lions team. It emerged soon after that other players had done similar things during the night, but only Duckett was punished at all.

And throughout the whole tour, Ben Stokes was named in the squad but unofficially suspended. Really, anything with the word “unofficial” is going to be a bit dodgy. Now, it’s possible that visa issues would have prevented Stokes entering the country, but it seems equally likely that the ECB failed to follow any kind of due process with someone who is presumably a PCA member.

Being a fan of cricket, I have more affection for the players than anyone else in the game. I certainly like them more than the sport’s administrators, the coaches, the journalists, the commentators, and even the other fans. I want them to be well paid, well prepared for life as a professional sportsman, and also well prepared for life after cricket. The PCA appears to achieve these things, and I am grateful.

But I also want the players to be defended when attacked, or abused, or treated unfairly, and it is here that I find the PCA lacking. The players deserve better, and I hope their union faces up to that challenge.

As always, we welcome your comments below.

All Stars Cricket II: The Quickening

Last May, I wrote a post on a tiny blog I had started to rail against problems in English cricket. This post was about the ECB’s latest initiative, All Stars Cricket, and how I believed it to be a colossal failure. Virtually no one read it though, because I’m a nobody with barely any Twitter followers and I never played professional cricket (which appears to be a prerequisite for cricket journalism nowadays). One of the handful of people who did read it was thelegglance, and he liked it enough to repost it here on BOC. That one post got me in the door here, and I’ve since been lucky enough since to be invited to the inside of Being Outside Cricket.

This week marks the opening of the sign up period for kids to join this year’s edition of All Stars Cricket. Assuming your local club has filled in the necessary forms online, you will be able to register your kids for it very soon. For £40 your 5-8 year old kid can have their own personalised cricket kit delivered right to your door, plus 8 sessions at your local cricket club. This might come as a surprise to you, because there hasn’t been much publicity about it so far. If I wasn’t researching this article, I’m honestly not sure that I would have known.

So it would appear that the ECB have not learnt their lesson from last year, when they failed to market the scheme effectively despite some grand promises made during the launch event last March. So what has changed from last year? The answer, unsurprisingly, is not much.

If your kid still has last year’s kits and you were wondering if they could just use that and save yourself £35, the answer is no. There is a new shirt design, and perhaps more crucially a set of stumps included in the kit bag. There are a few minor alterations to the kits the club can get too, the standout part of which for me was that they are now offering “female specific clothing” for ‘Activators’, the ECB’s buzzword for coaches and volunteers.

As I said at the start of this post, I’ve been lucky enough to be here for almost a year now. In that time, I don’t think I’ve ever sworn on the site. I have only ever gone as far as saying ‘shit’ a few times on my Twitter (and admittedly a few gifs of people extending their middle finger). I am not a person who likes to swear. But the ECB apparently launched this scheme with the assumption that women wouldn’t be a part of their  “major grassroots initiative” to increase participation in cricket. In 2017? Seriously? Fuck these guys.

The Australian Blueprint

As you may know, the ECB’s All Stars Cricket scheme is more or less a direct copy of Cricket Australia’s in2CRICKET program. The ECB even hired Matt Dwyer, the man who had run the scheme for four years in Australia. It costs pretty much the same, it gives the kids pretty much the same equipment, and the activities are probably virtually the same too. It even has roughly the same number of kids as All Stars Cricket, with 35,731 kids taking part in Australia compared to around 37,000 in England and Wales.

Except, of course, that Australia has a much smaller population than England and Wales. Less than half, in fact. In2CRICKET’s participation figures are actually the equivalent of just over 83,000 if you take that into account, far beyond the figures for All Stars Cricket.

So what lessons can the ECB learn from Cricket Australia’s example? There are so many things that I almost don’t know where to start. Obviously the elephant in the room is that the sport is freely available in Australia, with live cricket appearing on free to air television. Kids see the game, like it, and want to play it. They not only like the game, they like the players. Most English players could walk down any High Street in the country with a fair chance of not being recognised. Obviously nothing is going to change about this situation for the next few years, but it needed to be said.

One thing I do wish the ECB might learn is consistency. In2CRICKET launched in 1996 as Have-A-Go Cricket and is now 21 years old. I’d honestly be amazed if All Stars Cricket managed to last 5 years. The ECB seem to have a predilection for launching new initiatives and scrapping old ones with barely a thought. No sooner has a club got themselves familiar with the status quo than the ECB will throw in a new scheme, often with more training and paperwork for the volunteers running the club. I would wager that constantly having to jump through hoops of the ECB’s devising is a major reason for people involved in clubs behind the scenes leaving the sport.

There is also a feeling with Cricket Australia’s youth development that everything is joined together and part of a larger plan. Whilst getting cricket into schools in England and Wales is largely done by the independent (and currently underfunded) Chance To Shine charity, in Australia it is done by Cricket Australia’s in2CRICKET Skills program. Whilst Chance To Shine claims to reach around 250,000 children per year in the UK, the Australian scheme reaches 500,000 every year. If we again consider the differences in population between the two countries, that is the equivalent of 1.16m children in England and Wales every year.

And what happens when the kids turn nine? Cricket Australia has a similar program for them too: the somewhat confusingly named Milo T20 Blast. Although it shares its name with our domestic T20 competition, it is in fact a more grown up version of All Stars Cricket aimed at 9-12 year olds.

All of which inexorably leads me to the conclusion that the ECB have failed to understand why youth participation in cricket is significantly higher in Australia than in England, and why Cricket Australia’s schemes are successful whilst theirs aren’t. Simply copying a single part of what is clearly an effective development framework is no more likely to work than teaching British kids how to speak Portuguese in the hope that it will make them play football like Ronaldo.

The ECB would contend that they do have a master plan for improving English cricket: Cricket Unleashed. All I can say is that if you can pick out a single substantive thing the ECB are going to do to increase participation on their website then you clearly understand business jargon a lot better than I, because the whole thing reads like vague nonsense to me.

Which leads us back to this year’s All Stars Cricket. By all accounts it is fun, and kids seem to love the personalised kit, so if your 5-8 year old kid is interested in cricket and you can spare £40 then there are probably worse ways to spend the money. But let’s not kid ourselves, All Stars Cricket is still not going to do what the ECB want it to do.

As always, comments welcome below.

New Zealand vs. England: First T20I Preview

In our latest post celebrating the blog’s third birthday, metatone suggested in the comments that we could put up an “Open Thread” post for England’s T20I and ODI games. Whilst all of the regular writers (and many of our audience) don’t pay as much attention to the shorter formats as Tests, it would allow those sad souls who find T20s “fun” to comment on the site in a thread just for them. As our Dear Leader said just over three years ago, “Let’s see how this one goes.”

England’s tour of Australia has finally come to an end, and it has been a mixed bag. They were dominant in the ODIs, and yet verging on the pathetic in both the Tests and T20Is. The inadequacies in the Test team are laid bare for everyone to see; the bowlers were incapable of taking wickets in challenging conditions and the batsmen were unable to survive the barrage of quality fast bowling and off spin.

The T20I team’s struggles are more puzzling to me. On paper, the squad is a good one. The majority of the players were in the team which took England to the final of the World T20 less than 2 years ago, as well as dominating Australia in the ODIs through January. England are 4-7 in T20Is since the 2016 tournament, compared to 28-7 in ODIs over the same period.

Of course, one thing which these figures demonstrate is that England plays a lot more ODIs than T20Is and perhaps that’s part of the problem. It’s a small sample size, and so maybe it would be wrong to read anything into these results. The T20 format is also more volatile in nature, meaning that a poor team might have more chance of winning than if a similar quality team was playing an 50 over game or Test.

But these issues aside, England’s T20I team does seem to be struggling. The ECB hired Bayliss as a limited overs genius and he has delivered (to an extent) in ODIs. With just over a year to go until the next World Cup, it seems like England are undeniably favourites to win that competition. For the World T20 in 2020 however, I wouldn’t bet on them even reaching the knockouts right now.

So what needs to change? Well there could be a case for a few players being dropped. Since the 2016 World T20, no player in the world has scored more runs than Joe Root at a lower strike rate. Likewise, Eoin Morgan and (surprisingly) Jos Buttler have scored their runs at a relatively sedate strike rate of 120. These scoring rates might be fine if you’re targeting an average score of 150, but I fear that’s not enough in today’s game.

Or perhaps a change in coaching would be enough. The majority of players in England’s current ODI team also played in the disastrous 2015 World Cup campaign. The greatest difference between then and now is the mentality and aggression of the team. They don’t settle for a target of 270, instead trying to put the game out of reach of the opposition. The T20I team appear to be unable to muster the same levels of ruthlessness.

All of which is to say that I’m not hopeful about England’s prospects against New Zealand tomorrow morning. England need to win both remaining games against the co-host to make the final, and nothing they’ve shown in the last two games would suggest they’re capable of that.

As always, comments are welcome below.