Circular Firing Squad

Sometimes it’s hard to escape the nagging feeling that the ECB  appears to actively dislike its own sport.  It’s also easy to think they are deliberately and specifically trying to kill county cricket, particularly in its four day format.  It’s one of those thoughts that passes through a mind, dismissed as ludicrous, but re-appearing with every new announcement that appears intended to do exactly that.  The Hundred, the marginalisation of the county championship to the edges of the season (and a rather odd celebration in some quarters when a couple of fixtures are not at those margins), the apparently deliberate disdain for its existing audience.  The notion seems preposterous, but if it were to happen, it’s hard to believe the attempt would be done much differently to the way it is now.

There needs to be some full disclosure here:  I am not and never have been a passionate adherent of county cricket – it’s been a matter of relative indifference to me except as a pathway to the international sides, while club cricket was always my focus, with a healthy (or unhealthy depending on who you speak to) disdain for the conduct of the counties over the years.  To that extent, I don’t have an emotional bond to that strata of the game, more a recognition of how vital it is as a cog in the larger wheel, albeit one that could have been managed rather differently over the last fifty years.

And yet, at the same time, I also recognise how much it matters to many others, not least the other writers on this site, who have been spectators at many more games than I have, and who care about the tables and outcomes far more than I do.  That’s just me, I don’t defend it, and I don’t propound it, it’s just how it is.  And yet the finalisation of the format of the Hundred, to start the year after next, remains a subject to stoke my ire, due to the sheer arrogance of its creation and the dismissal of any opposition to it as somehow irrelevant.  Few businesses can survive with such a lofty view of those who might attend, and since the ECB have gone down the route of being a pseudo-business in the first place, it’s a fair stick with which to beat them.  New audiences are all very well, but existing ones are much easier to keep than winning brand new ones – indeed creating an entirely new market would be considered as nigh on impossible in equivalent circles.

Here, a reminder of why the Hundred is deemed necessary is worthwhile.  There is already a T20 tournament in place, but the deal with Sky for exclusive rights to it meant that there was no chance of any of it being free to air.  And the ECB have belatedly realised that their decision to remove any visibility for the sport has had catastrophic effects – the plummeting participation levels being one obvious result.  Therefore a second competition was necessary, one that could be sold to free to air television, at least in part, while also flogging it off to pay TV for more money.  I say sold, but the rumours are that the BBC are picking it up for peanuts, so desperate are the ECB to at least have some degree of public awareness it’s going on.

Having decided that a second short form competition is essential, the ECB were faced with a couple of problems – firstly to shorten it somewhat (although it should be noted that in all the early announcements it was stated to be a T20 competition, and presumably the BBC knew it), and second to give it at least some differentation from the Blast.  Hence the mad scramble for something shorter and with different playing conditions.  Likewise, the franchise idea came about by noting how other countries had fewer teams to make it work, and as a rather useful way of bypassing the counties themselves, given the feeling that 18 sides is too many.  An irony here is that in football, the very strength of the game in England is that there are so many teams – something other countries view with envy.  For cricket here it is deemed a problem, and not an opportunity.

Naturally, a smaller competition means that brand new teams need to be created, and thus the desire for city based franchises came along, preferably with a ready made audience who might affiliate with the urban centres in which they were based.  The trouble was, it was still going to be just another T20 tournament, and one that might even make sense as a financial centrepiece, were it not for there already being a competition in place that provided that.  So why not fiddle around with all the rules and make it “simpler” through various initiatives to render it vastly more complex?  And here we are with the Hundred, a format no one really wants, and no one asked for, all to fit around a succession of requirements forced on the ECB by their own actions and their own long term goal.

The confirmation of five or ten ball “overs” to fit the decimal headline number smacks entirely of trying to force a game into a title, and while it is hardly sacrilegeous to change the number of balls (8 ball overs were a thing for many years – indeed in order to shorten what became T20 many clubs have for years played 15 x 8 ball overs in evening leagues), it is the attempt to present a solution to a mathematical problem of their own making as somehow revolutionary that generates sarcastic responses.

Still, it’s going to happen, and despite the self-imposed strait-jacket, it will doubtless cause some initial interest, simply as something new, and as an event.  It may even catch on, given that the pressure from gambling broadcasters and governing bodies for ever shorter and more numerous forms of cricket is certainly there – as evidenced with T10 tournaments.  If it does, then the question of what happens to the T20 Blast will come up, for that competition can be seen as something of an barrier to what the ECB wish to achieve here – sidelining the annoying self-interested counties and producing a competition that can attract international attention for the benefit of the self-interested ECB.  It’s easy to be sceptical about the ECB’s motives (usually because being sceptical about their motives proves the correct attitude), but the current season structure is not going to be sustainable in the long term, and the creation of franchises moves the professional game in the direction that the avaricious will far prefer.

The other fly in the ointment is the county championship itself.  Although it ought to be a proving ground for Test cricket, the changing nature of Test cricket itself (and the selection of short form specialists to the team) has rendered it less vital in the eyes of those who must be obeyed.  It’s a nuisance – it takes too long, the crowds are small, and the counties need to be subsidised to play in it.  Why would anyone want such a competition when there’s so much money to be made elsewhere?  Thus, the heart of the season has been given over almost entirely to limited overs matches of one form or another, whether domestic or international, with the annoying red ball cricket kept out of the way, like an embarrassing uncle.  Some might argue that it could be nurtured and helped, a format of cricket that needs assistance rather than contempt, but this is not the way the ECB do things.

Having in 2018 created a fixture list that managed to avoid any cricket on a bank holiday (people might go along and watch – can’t have that), for 2019 they have gone the extra mile, avoiding any matches at the weekend where possible, and ensuring that those who work for a living won’t have a chance of getting along to see any play.  The sarcasm is justified, because there are only two possibilities here – firstly that the ECB are so completely incompetent that arranging fixtures at a time people might be able to go is something they’ve never considered, or that it is deliberate.  Despite the feeling that ineptitude is written into the ECB’s mission statement, they can’t possibly be that lacking in basic ability, so it can only be on purpose.  A deliberate decision to make the county championship even less accessible to spectators.  A deliberate decision to make membership of a county even less attractive.  A deliberate decision to turn away people who love the game.

Those who go and watch county cricket might be relatively few in number compared to other sports, but they are also very often the people involved in grass roots cricket, administrators and volunteers – those whose passion for the game exceeds the casual spectator by orders of magnitude.  They get laughed at and belittled, including by some members of the press, let alone the ECB who are supposed to be on the same damn side, but these people have a disproportionate value to the game that goes far beyond them sitting isolated under a blanket at New Road.  All ignored.  All treated with contempt.

This scornful attitude is why those who insist the Hundred is given a chance are missing the point.  It’s not that it can’t succeed, it’s not even that it won’t succeed, for even some free to air live coverage has a chance of generating interest far beyond the niche sport cricket currently is.  It is that the ECB really do not care about taking those who love the game with them.  They have no interest in trying to manage the 21st century commercial realities with the responsibilities that their supposed husbandry of the game of cricket in England and Wales ought to instil.  The dash for cash is the primary aim, the actual game of cricket a cipher, not the end in itself.

Those who play up and down the country are irrelevant.  Those who love cricket for the sake of the game they grew up with are irrelevant, unless they can be switch-sold and monetised.  The game of cricket itself is irrelevant, it is merely a means.  And that is the reason for the anger, not messing around with the rules, not trying to square a circle that wouldn’t be easy in any circumstances.  It’s that they don’t care about you, they don’t care about me.  That you played the game all your life is no more than a footnote, that you watch the game only of value in so far as you can be added up in revenue stream.

The ECB.  The only sports governing body that regards the game for which they are responsible as a hindrance to their aims.

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Sri Lanka vs England, 2nd Test: Victory

That England took the last three wickets to fall relatively quickly is not so surprising, that England have taken the series reasonably comfortably perhaps is. Sri Lanka certainly aren’t the side they were, and have a better justification for the usual excuse for defeat (“rebuilding”) than most do, but it remains a difficult place to go, as South Africa found to their cost only a few months ago.

England haven’t won an away series of any description for three years, and haven’t won in Asia/UAE for six, so there should be a recognition that this is a meritorious achievement. Perhaps most strikingly, they did so through their spinners, Leach, Rashid and Moeen all performing well, and perhaps surprising a few people. Nasser Hussain won a series as captain there, and observed afterwards that by creating pitches exceptionally conducive to turn, the hosts brought England’s more limited slow bowlers into the game – it may be that the same error has been made here again.

Certainly Leach has come out of the series to date with credit, but Moeen Ali for one has also to some degree answered those who maintained his away record was too poor for consideration. It’s just two Tests of course, and doesn’t alter what went before, but nor can it be ignored when he does do well. As for Adil Rashid, he remains a potent weapon, and if perhaps a luxury at times, that’s what wicket takers often are.

Perhaps the difference most of all was to be found in Joe Root’s century, as is often the case when a standout player raises himself to levels others cannot match. Pietersen did that in Colombo on a previous tour, appearing to be playing a different level to everyone else, and if not quite so startling this time, Root certainly showed he is a player of rare ability. There has been too much focus on his failure to convert fifties into hundreds and too little on his ability in the first place in recent times, a batsman being held responsible for the failures of others.

As for the openers, they have performed creditably enough. In neither case can they be said to have permanently cemented themselves, but equally neither has the Cook of the last few years been missed. In a match where it has been so spin friendly that England’s seamers failed to take a single wicket, to come out on top having made contributions counts as a win on more than one level.

England have endless problems off the field, but at times on it they simply deserve credit. This is one of those. A fine win, and a better series win.

Sri Lanka vs England: 2nd Test, Day Four

The whole period between October and December passes in something of a blur for me, a succession of work trips and meetings meaning that opening the front door is vaguely reminiscent of greeting a long lost relative you kind of recognise. Thus it was that plans to wake up early to watch a Test match failed utterly – late to sleep, late to rise and the persistent nagging question as to whether it’s possible to suffer jetlag on a flight back from Belfast.

Day one of this Test happened without realising it, day two similar, day three, yep you’ve got it, and day four was more a case of “oh yes, there’s cricket on. Actually this looks quite a good game”. At such times, with obliviousness concerning the actual game, a fall back to general awareness seems to be the best approach, namely that a target of 300 is a very stiff one, and that in such circumstances the chances are that there’ll be a decent stab at it, before wickets start to fall and the batting side ultimately fall short after a “crucial” wicket falls some time deep into the run chase.

For Test matches do follow a pattern. Not in the same way that ODIs or especially T20s do, where the formula is repeated each time with little variance, but more an echo of the several thousand games over a century and a half, with certain tropes to be followed and specific truths to be obeyed. The other part of this is that the wider public insist on refusing to see the evidence before their eyes and taking an entirely different view of what is going on.

Thus it is that 300+ targets are considered not just achievable (which they obviously are) but not too much more than a walk in the park. To point out that 300 has been chased a mere thirty times in Test cricket over a couple of thousand matches is met with surprise, bordering on disbelief. Now, of course the nature of the game is that fourth innings run chases aren’t a given in a game, while setting or achieving lower targets takes out another bundle, and then there are the dull draws, the games where it rains throughout (and not just in Manchester) and where teams batter another by an innings, so it isn’t quite such a small proportion, but it is somewhat rare. The persistence with which 300 is considered eminently gettable remains one of the odder cricketing beliefs out there.

There are other contradictions to the perceived wisdom held – Moeen Ali taking wickets out here appears to be taking fans’ cognitive dissonance to a whole new level – but it remains endlessly striking that the desperation for a wicket with 120 runs to get coincides so often with that wicket falling. Today, the unlucky man was Angelo Mathews, the latest player to fulfil his role as the “if only” candidate of a run chase.

75 runs to get, 3 wickets to fall. This is the kind of scenario where people set the alarms in anticipation of a thriller, only to see two wickets fall in the first over, or to watch the rain fall for three hours while contemplating the lost comforts of a duvet. And yet, once in a while that thriller happens, just enough to ensure everyone thinks they don’t want to miss it, while at the back of the mind the nagging certainty that it’s going to be a waste of time keeps sticking up a hand and telling the viewer not to bother. And that is quite a special attraction, to know that it could just be worth it.

I’m not going to get up early to watch the denouement. Oh I might. Maybe I will. Maybe I’ll oversleep. Oh who knows? But it’s fun when it gets like this anyway. See you tomorrow. Possibly.

Circling the Drain

Has there ever been a more low key build up to a major Test series? As English cricket continues to search for new ways to obliterate any goodwill it once had, and Australian cricket views the comedy W1A as a handbook for how to impress people, it’s easy to forget there is a Test series around the corner in Sri Lanka. The ODIs were sufficiently pointless to lower the bar of contractual obligation fixtures still further, particularly given the blithe excuses for scheduling them in the wet season, but now we come to a Test series that appears to have largely passed even cricket supporters by.

The strange thing about that is that Sri Lanka has always been one of the favourites for followers of the England team, and doubtless there will be impressive numbers of England supporters at the grounds, but the continuing tribulations around governance in both countries are of greater import than the games themselves. When a sport spends more time navel-gazing than playing, it’s a crisis.

Where to even begin with this? The unwelcome headlines around match fixing are one thing, the ECB managing to look indifferent and oblivious are another, testament to their uncanny ability to make any situation worse. The claims might seem a bit thin, but that doesn’t mean that lofty disdain is the right response.

The rumblings around the dog’s breakfast that is the Hundred continue, with the latest potential wheeze being the idea of selling off franchises. Quite why anyone would want to stump up serious money for a competition that has had such a hostile response, and which the ECB have marketed with the sure touch of Gerald Ratner hasn’t been explained, but if nothing else it points to a concern that the money-spinner the ECB claimed it would become isn’t likely to come true.

There are reports that the cost of its operation has now spiralled to £40m a year, a figure that beggars belief, and when added to the subsidy to the counties, it’s more like £70m a year. No wonder the idea of selling it off is now an attractive one – a shortfall needs to be made up.

Of course, a franchise system further erodes any semblance of fan loyalty to the teams, and having made it abundantly clear that the competition isn’t for existing supporters (deliberately telling your customer base to foxtrot oscar remains one of the most extraordinary things a governing body has ever done) we still don’t know who, if anyone, is likely to come and watch. Empty grounds are perhaps the biggest risk to the whole event, not initially (everyone rubber necks a car crash) but in terms of the viability over a few years.

Still, if it doesn’t work the ECB will happily change it – their inability to leave the cricket calendar alone for more than a year at a time is exceptional – but the amount of money already sunk into the thing and committed further is frightening. No business would dream of operating this way and expecting success.

Being committed to a particular approach and sticking to it no matter what is sometimes admirable, but this is seriously going out on a limb, and while expressing disbelief at the ECB has now surpassed cricket itself as a national sport, the worst part of the whole affair is that those who love cricket are placed in the unenviable position of being worried that the Hundred doesn’t work, not that it does. The potential for calamitous failure is now so high, and the consequences so dangerous, that it is a complete unknown what the fallout might be.

The upside is that the game will survive, by ironic virtue of the rather limited support to the grassroots the ECB has provided anyway, but here too the danger signs have been long flashing. Sunday cricket is in crisis, player participation levels reached desperation levels some years ago and the decline shows little sign of abating.

There are efforts to try to support it, club networks to allow players to get a game for example. They are laudable, but that they are deemed necessary is in itself a symbol of the mess the game is in. The biggest problem of all is the inability to see a way out of it. For all the fury at the invisibility of the sport to the public, the grotesque mismanagement of the game by the ECB itself, we are now in a position where the options are narrowing by the day. Perhaps the tipping point will only come when those involved at the highest level start seeing their own incomes under threat, and we are some way off that.

If the ECB’s incompetence is a benchmark few can match, Cricket Australia appear to be doing their damnedest to try. If nothing else, they do appear to have a better grasp of business realities than their English counterparts, but they too are afflicted by the drift away from criticism and towards mockery. The board level machinations are one thing, the ludicrous way the national team is disappearing up its own backside while maintaining an air of staggering pomposity is another.

If elite mateship hadn’t been received with sufficient hilarity, to double down and highlight elite honesty ensured many an aching side. Perhaps it was directed at David Warner, who threw his toys out of the pram when someone dared to sledge him, or perhaps it was directed at the ACA who are pushing for the return of those banned for ball tampering. The punishments for something that has gone on for years (though rarely with such ineptitude) seemed harsh at the time; to try to undo them afterwards is magnificently brazen, particularly with South Africa in town.

And I haven’t even mentioned how WADA are likely to deem cricket non-compliant. Marvellous.

And so we have some cricket on the way. For all the craven disdain for our game that those determined to exploit it for their own ends, the sport itself remains special. Cricket does not deserve the loyalty it receives from those who love it, seeing them as a revenue stream not the marketing team they really are – dedicated missionaries who wish to see it succeed. Those people will watch, buy tickets, travel to watch the team, as I am doing in the West Indies this winter. But patience is being tested to the limit, repeatedly.

It’s not yet too late. But my God we’re getting close.

England vs India: Fifth Test, Day Four – The Long Farewell.

Inevitable really.  Once he’d survived the new ball, it was written in the stars that Cook would finish off with a century, and while fairy tale endings are rare in sport, this one just seemed like it was always going to happen.  Cook batted better than he has done for a couple of years, the mental freedom gained by the decision to retire lending a fluidity and, dare I say it, style that had been absent for even longer than his best form.

Of course, scoring a century meant that some were all too quick to say he shouldn’t retire at all, a superb missing of the context of this final innings if ever there was one.  Yet with Cook, this happens all too often – the determination not to allow his record to speak for itself, but to demand and insist that it be recognised as something far more has caused irritation where it was never required.  This peculiar demand that “greatness” be recognised without qualification, often by those who insist otherwise when it isn’t a player they are so keen on has managed to generate ill feeling where a final superb innings should have been cause for celebration for all, even those who may have objected to the media beatification of him over the years.

For Cook has been a truly excellent opener for England, with a record that reflects longevity, skill and mental strength.  He deserves the plaudits for an outstanding career as a batsman, and if his ability as captain wasn’t at the same level, he’s not the first and won’t be the last of whom that will be said.  His achievements do not need artificially inflating, and particularly not if the intention is to try to prove some kind of point about the moral rightness of past decisions rather than a player being judged on his own merits.  Any player.

For Cook, the best tribute that can be paid to him is the one he said himself – that he was the best player he could possibly be.  There have been many more talented, but few have extracted the maximum from their ability the way he has.  As both a statement of record, and indeed as advice and aspiration for any cricketer, at whatever level, it is profoundly important, and the one he may well be most proud about.   His weaknesses as a batsman were obvious, his flaws laid bare particularly when out of form and struggling technically.  Yet his strengths too were substantial, perhaps nothing quite so much as an extraordinary degree of concentration.  He will be partly defined by the fall out that led to the sacking of Kevin Pietersen, and the sides taken in that argument.  Both of those batsmen have departed the scene now, but the schism in English cricket remains, and is by far a more troubling and damaging issue than two players.  Perhaps both will reflect on their parts in that, perhaps not, but the personalisation of the whole affair reflected badly on all sides.

Today was a day for paying tribute to an excellent player, and deservedly so.  If few get the opportunity to go out in style, players of distinction do at least deserve to be recognised properly for their contributions.  This appears too much to ask, sometimes.

If Cook was all about saying farewell, for Root it was for smacking down those who complained about his clear pulling of rank in terms of batting at number four.  He looked more fluent and in command than he has all summer, and while a dead rubber is hardly the time to make definitive judgements, allowing England’s best player to bat where he feels most comfortable is surely the best way forward rather than trying to patch weaknesses elsewere with him.

The two of them took the game far beyond India, who were already going through the motions midway through the day and simply waiting for the England declaration.  The usual fun and games late on added to the total, and with the target an improbable 464, Root finally decided enough was enough.

If India were going through the motions with the ball, they had one foot on the plane home with the bat, as James Anderson threatened to steal some of Cook’s thunder by drawing level with Glenn McGrath on the all time list.  There’s an irony here – in the determination of some to do all possible to inflate Cook’s record, a particular line has emerged about him being worth far more due to opening the batting in England against the Duke ball.  Yet if that is accepted, it automatically lessens Anderson’s achievements on English pitches using the same Duke ball.  Watching certain observers attempt to square that particular circle could prove amusing.

Rahul and Rahane steadied the ship from 2-3, but this game is more or less done, and England are almost certain to win it 4-1.  India should be wondering how this has happened, England will just be relieved that it has.  The future is an unknown except that at the end of play tomorrow, there’s only one candidate for that Man of the Match award.

England vs India: Fifth Test, Day Three – Just a Little Bit More

The mind is a funny thing.  It’s been said often enough that cricket is a game played in the head as much as on the pitch, and while this surface has been kinder to the batsmen that most in this series, it isn’t quite at the Melbourne 2017 levels of slow and flat.  Yet Alastair Cook has looked in both innings about as good as he has done for a couple of years.  That’s not to say that anyone should be begging him to re-consider his decision, but it is to say that the probable weight off his mind has led him to relax at the crease somewhat.  He batted well in the first innings, and he’s batted well here.  And those heading to the Oval tomorrow will get the chance to watch him tomorrow, which perhaps will help the attendance figures for a September Monday after the kids have gone back to school.  Nothing would quite highlight the way the ECB have managed the game recently as much as Cook departing for the last time in front of a couple of thousand people, and whatever the raging arguments about where he should be placed in the list of England batsmen, that would be an unedifying end.

In some ways, this has been the best Test of the series  (albeit a dead rubber which always removes the sense of jeopardy) perhaps because there’s at least half a chance it might reach the fifth day on its own terms, and perhaps because the bat seems marginally more on top than to date.  If anything, it appears to be getting easier to bat on, and a day on which only six wickets fell seems quite remarkable given all that’s gone before.  Yet the overall patterns continually repeat themselves, a very English set of pitches that produce generally similar cricket, and generally results inside four days.  It is less than surprising that teams struggle when they come here, or that England have so many problems overseas.  This time at the Oval, it’s the same, just slightly less so.

India had an excellent first half of the day, adding 118 runs to their overnight score with their remaining four wickets, largely thanks to an outstanding unbeaten 86 from Ravi Jadeja.  He farmed the strike expertly, the last three wickets adding 55, only 5 of which came from his partners.  Few would have begrudged him reaching a century, while in the match context, getting India within 40 made the match far more interesting than it looked like it was going to be.  England toiled manfully enough, with the biggest surprise being that Adil Rashid actually got a bowl.

India’s trials by DRS continued when they got hold of the ball, through managing to burn both of their reviews within 12 overs of England going out to bat. It was impressive too, given both reviews were palpably not out without so much as the benefit of a replay. One of the best decisions made by the ICC about DRS recently was to abolish the renewal of the two reviews after 80 overs, meaning that teams need to manage them far better than they currently are.  It matters less in England where surviving 80 overs in the first place appears to be a badge of honour, but the carelessness shown means both teams, but particularly India, will have to change their DRS ways on the flatter surfaces elsewhere.

If Cook was playing his final Test innings, many would have thought Keaton Jennings was doing the same, particularly after he left a ball that didn’t so much clip the bails as crash into middle and off stumps.  Leaving such a delivery is usually indicative of a scrambled mind, so he will be pleased to have heard Ed Smith indicate that he’s on the tour to Sri Lanka already.  Smith appears to have regarded this series win as huge vindication of his selections and his approach, which is fair enough as long as the team does win, though unusually strident to imply personal responsibility for that success. There is more than an element of hubris in his revelling in his unorthodox selections, and repeating a certainty that it is the right way to go.  Furthermore, he appeared quite relaxed about the top order difficulties, implying that he was quite content for the runs to come from the lower order.  For now, results are in his favour, but his supreme blithe confidence suggests he could probably do with someone on his shoulder whispering “Remember Caesar, you are just a man”.

Root at four showed all the signs of a man delighted to be batting where he wants to be, which in this England side does at least have a rarity value, as we know at least one of the top four for the winter tours.  Still, there has to be something said for the concept of batting your best player where he is most comfortable, in the hope of getting the best out of him.

154 ahead, two days to go.  England will want to be batting most of tomorrow, but there’s always that England thing of a collapse around the corner.  Even with that, another hundred oughtn’t to be beyond their capabilities, and a target of over 250 should be too much for India.

 

 

Cook Retires

The moment Jonathan Agnew tweeted about a major announcement, it was obvious what the story was going to be – that Cook would retire from Test cricket, but would get one more Test before departing the scene.  The timing is probably right, for although his form has declined precipitously over the last couple of years (in particular), it was always the case that he remained the best opener available for England.  His struggles this series brought that into question.  Cook has had many a technical battle throughout his career, but this looked different – his technique didn’t appear particularly off, he was just getting out consistently to deliveries that he wouldn’t have when at his best.

In his statement he admitted that there was nothing left in the tank, and he’s probably correct.  It is the right time for him, and the right time for England.

As for his career, he’s England’s highest Test run scorer and one of England’s best openers in modern history and the most capped Test cricketer for England.  His record is deserving of respect and admiration on its own terms, and excessively hagiographical coverage of him over the last few years shouldn’t detract from his success as a player, nor his position in England cricketing history.  His batting in Australia in 2010/11 remains a memory for all England fans, as do his performances in India in a rare Test series win there. At his best, he was the rock upon which a powerful England batting line up was founded, and his ability to bat time and demonstrate extraordinary powers of concentrations is a forgotten art in the current side.

Cook has been a fine batsman, and if the “Greatest of All Time” narrative became tiresome, that wasn’t his fault.  Respect given for a terrific career, and he will deserve the recognition he will doubtless be accorded by spectators at the Oval.  Freed from the pressure of struggling with his game, who knows, a sign off century might be possible.  As a way to celebrate his career as whole, it would be thoroughly fitting.

Full post to follow, but for now, comments below.

 

England vs India: 4th Test, Day Three: Same Old (Strangely)

England finish the third day in a fairly handy position all told, a lead well over 200, two wickets still intact, Indian bowlers struggling for penetration (a mild warning note there), and with a pitch that should be starting to deteriorate towards the back end of the match. Naturally, this being England, it’s been done the wrong way around – the top order struggling and the middle and lower order scoring the bulk of the runs.

If England’s defeats over the last 18 months are taken as a whole, it is generally when the middle and lower order fail to bail out the batsmen. Nor can they be expected to on a regular basis, for the normal way cricket works is that the top order score most of them, and the all rounders chip in some of the time. Trust England to develop an entirely different manner of playing. It isn’t a sustainable method for a team to generate continual success, and England’s problems at the top are something that they are going to have to resolve one way or another if they wish to make progress.

Cook failed again, and whether or not he is backed from within, his lean run goes on, and even by the modest returns of the last few years (yes, yes, two double centuries and not much else) he is struggling badly. There remains little evidence against the supposition that he’s coming towards the end, and what he decides will be interesting to observe, for while the Cook of his best years would be a loss, it’s much harder to make a case for him more recently. Whatever the returns in terms of runs scored, he doesn’t look like he’s going to make a big score currently either, and that, perhaps, is the biggest indicator of his plight.

Keaton Jennings in contrast looked rather good today, comfortable against both seam and spin, only to then be palpably lbw when well set. There’s a degree of sympathy for him, for it does show the fine margins at this level, and for all his problems this series, his record isn’t particularly different to Cook’s – the problem for England is two-fold, not just Jennings. He may well join the list of openers tried and discarded permanently.

A surprise was sprung with Moeen Ali coming out at number three. Plenty of speculation ensued about Root dropping a place, with a consensus (which doesn’t mean it’s true) that Root had put his foot down in terms of his desire to bat at four. If so, he’s right to as well, for Root is England’s best batsman, and it is peculiar to use him elsewhere to attempt to cover up for the weaknesses of the team that way. If he scores most runs at four, bat him at four. The roles are slightly different, and if that means another is a slight sacrifical lamb to get the best out of him, so be it – it can’t be said that the current top order is working well at present after all.

Moeen may not be good enough to bat at three, but then who is? It’s not so many years past that plenty were complaining that Trott scored too slowly, even in Tests, but what England would give for that now is immeasurable. It’s also a lesson about those who happily waved off players who they didn’t like assuming that they were easily replaceable. As one selector memorably said of Graham Thorpe, “what does he bring to the side apart from runs?”. More runs. Runs England are consistently short of at the top, and the carelessness with which players have been discarded over recent times is a source of constant wry amusement.

The loss of Jennings just before lunch was compounded by the first ball dismissal of Bairstow immediately after. It can be a mistake to assume a causation that isn’t necessarly there, but it can’t be said that playing Bairstow with a broken finger has been an unqualified success. Perhaps it’s just one of things, perhaps not.

Root and Stokes batted patiently before Root was run out needlessly, and at 122-5 India were on top, and England wobbling. That they recovered is partly down to Stokes batting well within himself (again) but mostly Jos Buttler doing likewise. Buttler this summer can be put down as a success, and whether he truly makes a go of his Test career is rather beside the point right now – he’s doing well. He also found an able ally in Sam Curran. His dropping for the last Test was harsh at the time, but it is delightful to see a young player ramming the error down the selectors’ throats as he is doing presently.

For India, Mohammed Shami was the pick of the bowlers, but it was hard work throughout. They will feel the pitch has slowed and died somewhat, making taking wickets hard work. If they are correct, then a run chase is more than possible as long as they don’t try to force things, and that too should be at the back of England minds.

There’s every chance the day four crowd will be in for a treat tomorrow, for while England are now ahead in the game, it’s not so far that anyone will be feeling comfortable.

Game on.

England vs India:4th Test, Day 2 – Bowlers to the Rescue

First with the bat, and now with the ball.  England’s plethora of all rounders initially got them to at least some kind of score, and then today got them right into the game with the ball.  By the time India passed England’s total with 9 wickets down, Sam Curran’s knock had become ever more important, and for India, Cheteshwar Pujara’s century was every bit as critical – though in his case, at least it could be said that it is his primary role in the side.

Moeen Ali was the star man for England, which always provides plenty of entertainment between those who think he’s under-appreciated, and those who point to his away record (not good) as a reason why he shouldn’t be anywhere near an England team.  The problem is that both are correct, as far as it goes.  Moeen at home has a very decent record indeed, Moeen away does not. Replacing him for away tours is a perfectly reasonable response to that, but there is always a peculiar belief that if done then England’s spinning options will dramatically improve, despite all the evidence to the contrary over the last ten years when discounting Graeme Swann.  He bowled very well today, taking five wickets, which both suggested that England may have their hands full with Ravi Ashwin, and highlighted the oddity of England playing two spinners and then only giving Rashid seven overs.  Two spinners often looks a luxury in England, and in this instance appears to be more about shoe-horning additional batting all rounders into the side than any expectation about the pitch.  Still, it’s always possible the second innings will be more conducive to Rashid’s skills, though leg spinners do tend to need runs on the board to be most effective, something England have been singularly unable to provide recently.

Broad too bowled well, and tested all the batsmen, while Sam Curran was the one who snared the prize wicket of an oddly out of sorts Virat Kohli.  But England used seven bowlers, including Keaton Jennings, who must have dearly wished for a bonus wicket to cheer himself up, and it looked overkill, with Stokes too just bowling the seven overs.

Of course, having bowling options is a wonderful thing, and particularly so when labouring in the field.  It can absolutely be said that England have a pretty balanced attack, with only a real paceman missing from what ought to be a dream combination of seam, swing, left arm, off spin and leg spin.  Whether the personnel are all good enough is a different matter of course.

India’s small lead would have been a disappointment at lunch, and a serious bonus shortly after tea, as this game swung wildly one way and then the other.  A mid order collapse of England proportions followed by the tail providing immense support for Pujara when it had looked like England might gain the most unlikely of first innings advantages.  Pujara himself batted beautifully, in conditions that slightly favoured the bowlers, though not to the extent that these teams appear determined to portray.  His marshalling of the lower order eked out far more runs than it should have, to England’s frustration, but perhaps it should be looked at in terms of praise for him, Sharma and Bumrah rather than anything England did obviously wrong.

As to where this game is going, currently all the pressure is on England’s batsmen, faced with the infamous third innings tension in a tight game.  Jennings and Cook deserve credit for coming through a tricky 20 minute spell unscathed, but the deficit is still there, and England will need to bat extremely well to set India a target where they’ll feel confident in bowling them out.  For England to be warm favourites, they would need to set a target in excess of 250, and there isn’t too much confidence in the England batting order right now – at least not in the top order.

Jennings may well feel this is his last chance, while Cook’s declining returns have consistently left England a couple of wickets down early on.  Either way, if both fail tomorrow England will be in deep trouble, and it’s been a fair old while since England’s openers have truly set a platform for the rest of the team.  No time like tomorrow.

After two days, this is a competitive Test match, and may yet go on to be a truly absorbing one.  But for that to happen England will have to exceed expectations and get into a position where they have at least the prospect of a win, and a series win.  India may well be the more confident, and if they bowl well tomorrow, those with tickets for the fourth day could be cursing their luck once again.  These are two brittle sides, and if low scoring matches are often the most exciting, when it happens repeatedly it merely highlights the flaws in the teams.

Nevertheless, a far better second day for England.  Whether they can make it a good third day as well – that’s more open to question.

The ECB: What is it Good For (Say it again)?

The Board and management team have considered the short and long-term goals of the business in order to support and grow the grassroots game while continuing to strive for success at the elite level with our 24 England teams.

Mission statements can be little more than a sop to marketing necessity, and often bear little relation to what is actually happening in a given sport. Put simply, the role of any organisation that is accredited as the supreme authority for a sport is to act as the guardian of the game, both in the present and the future, in order to ensure it is in good shape for future generations. To that end, the short paragraph above encapsulates rather well what a governing body should strive to achieve, particularly in a commercial world where obtaining financial support for the elite level is an exceptionally important part of what they must do.

The trouble is, this one belongs to the FA.

The ECB does have an equivalent, called Cricket Unleashed, that has five “central pillars” to their intentions. Somewhat ironically, the link defines itself as being in the Men’s section of the ECB’s website, which is both unfortunate and wryly amusing given that when someone tells them they’ll be aghast. The strategy makes interesting reading both in terms of the in depth objectives and the broader aims behind it, particularly when measured against what is actually going on:

More Play

The ECB will make the game more accessible and inspire the next generation of players, coaches, officials and volunteers, with a particular focus on families and the young.

Great Teams

The ECB will deliver winning men’s and women’s teams across the international and domestic spectrum that inspire and excite fans through on-field performance and their connection with the public on and off the field.

Inspired Fans

The fan will be at the heart of our game, our thinking and our events, to improve and personalise the cricket experience for all.

Good Governance & Social Responsibility

The ECB will make decisions in the best interests of the game and use the power of cricket to make a positive difference to communities around England and Wales. Protecting the integrity of our sport is critical and we will ensure we have the right governance and processes to achieve that.

Strong Finance & Operations

The ECB will increase the game’s revenues, invest our resources wisely and administer them responsibly to secure the growth of the game.

So far so good. For if a little PR orientated, it provides a benchmark against which the ECB can and should be measured in terms of their own performance and their aspirations. It can’t be denied that as a set of principles, it’s not too bad. There are clearly some clauses inserted to ensure that no one can possibly point out a gap, but that is the modern world, and no bad thing provided that is adhered to, even in part. The question is whether they do, or in some instances whether they even try.

More Play

The ECB will make the game more accessible and inspire the next generation of players, coaches, officials and volunteers, with a particular focus on families and the young.

It’s always been said that the trick of public relations is to get the big lie out of the way in the headline or title – the German Democratic Republic, the Department of Trade and Industry are two examples. Certainly “More Play” would be a positive, yet all the evidence points in the other direction. The ECB have stopped publishing detailed information on participation levels in England and Wales, presumably because they kept showing disastrous falls. One clever wheeze was to start combining the figures of both men and women, which given the rise of female cricket (and here, it must be acknowledged that the ECB have done well, and much as it might grate, perhaps the biggest advocate for it was the otherwise Odious Giles Clarke) has successfully masked to some extent the catastrophic collapse in male participation. Most figures go as far as 2016 so it is always possible that the last two years have seen the trend reversed, however unlikely. Snapshots may have different methodologies, so can’t be compared with the most comprehensive survey available over the last decade, which demonstrated a fall in the numbers of active participants of a quite horrifying 35%. The decline amongst youth players isn’t remotely as marked, but few sports are faced with such a collapse in interest and participation as cricket over that period.

Sport England’s Active People Survey shows a similar level of decline over the same period, albeit with different numbers, also demonstrating that some sports have performed well, and others badly. Cricket is unquestionably one of those that have performed badly, even more so given the rise in women playing to complicate the overall picture. Yet if the figure of just under 2 million women playing football once a week is accurate, then it amounts to approximately seven times as many women playing football as men playing cricket. That can be claimed to be a huge success for women’s sport (and is) but it also highlights rather acutely the problem cricket has, particularly when a fall from just under half a million cricketers to just over a quarter of a million is taken into account. Of course, that doesn’t mean for a second that growing the game shouldn’t be an aspiration, just the opposite, but the record of the ECB in the 21st century hasn’t been a good one, and the removal of cricket from free to air television does coincide with the fall in playing numbers. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, yet it is hard not to draw conclusions from the way the game has struggled for interest at the same time as it was removed from public sight. There is far too much corroboratory evidence to contradict the view that cricket, once one of the three major team sports in the country, is now a minority pursuit in every sense.

Within the body of the clause is a desire to make the game more accessible, and a particular focus on families and the young. This is part of the justification for the Hundred, and indeed reflects a lot of the statements made by various ECB officials in its support. The ECB’s own market research has indicated the cricket simply isn’t on the radar of children, with no recognition either of the game or the key players in the national team. The trouble here is that simply saying this is what it is all for, no matter how clumsily (“mums and kids”) doesn’t mean for a second that the aspiration becomes reality. The social media response to the endless variations on rules and playing conditions has been negative, which doesn’t mean that there is no merit behind any of them per se (nor that social media is representative of anything), but the whole intention behind Cricket Unleashed takes on a rather different hue when allied to the constant refrain that it isn’t aimed at existing cricket fans.

Accessibility can also be inferred to be a reference to cricket on free to air television, and if the omnishambles behind the Hundred to date has any saving grace whatever, it is the tacit admission by the ECB that hiding the game behind a paywall has been hugely damaging. It is vanishingly unlikely that anyone in authority will ever admit that, but the selling the Hundred rights for a relative song to the BBC (and that specific desire that it be the BBC) show that actions speak louder than words.

The trouble is that this particular aspiration collides headlong with many of the others, and that’s where the trouble begins. It is indicative of the mess the ECB have got into that the five pillars are tending towards the mutually exclusive. They needn’t have been.

Great Teams

The ECB will deliver winning men’s and women’s teams across the international and domestic spectrum that inspire and excite fans through on-field performance and their connection with the public on and off the field.

Of course. Wouldn’t anyone want that? Yet despite the statements from the ECB that Test cricket is their priority, this statement is suitably vague in terms of what it might actually mean. They could certainly argue that they are delivering on success in white ball cricket, both male and female, but it provides a nice free pass for the areas that aren’t going so well. It also places a lot of importance on the World Cup next year, and England’s hopes of winning it. A bad World Cup would seriously call into question the entire strategy on its own merits, let alone from the perspective of the Test game. Equally, the reference to domestic cricket being “inspiring and exciting” could be held to be indicating a white ball focus rather than red. The continued marginalisation of the County Championship certainly implies as much, and in the short term at least, the call up of players to the Test team who aren’t even playing red ball cricket for the counties is not a matter of protest so much as an obvious concomitant of the ECB’s own strategy.

The addition of a fourth limited overs domestic competition at the same time as reducing the importance of the County Championship (how else can its being shunted to April, May and September be viewed?) indicates plainly where the priorities lie. At the same time, they have financial imperatives that strongly point to what they are doing now, but ones that are on shaky ground in future given the fall in interest in cricket in the first place – if cricket loses interest, those TV rights become much less valuable. Hence the need for the Hundred, which may increase awareness of the game without directly impacting on the existing domestic and international finances.

Inspired Fans

The fan will be at the heart of our game, our thinking and our events, to improve and personalise the cricket experience for all.

This perhaps of all the five pillars of ECB wisdom will have the cricket supporter chuckling away most. The ever increasing ticket prices alone are hardly an indication of the fan being at the heart of anything other than the ECB’s wallet. To be fair to them, at least on this occasion they managed to include cricket fans in their list of stakeholders rather than ignoring them entirely, but nothing highlights the lack of trust in the organisation more than that even those not overtly critical of the ECB strategy will find this particular clause something of a joke.

It’s not even just the obvious issues that vex many a sporting fan (said ticket prices, food and drink costs, stadium access and so forth), it is also that the cricketing schedule is a mess to the point that fixtures are arranged with no thought whatever for the spectator. Bank Holidays empty of cricket, four day matches with no consistency on start date nor even falling over weekends, even entire swathes of the summer with no cricket in some formats at home grounds.

Naturally, paying lip service to supporters is a common complaint in all sports, but cricket has a particular problem in that the people who have supported the game over a long time are very often the same people who volunteer at clubs or schools to try to promote the sport itself. Treating traditional cricket spectators with contempt has a far greater impact on the game than is the case in previously comparable sports simply because there’s neither depth nor competition for attendance.

Of course, for T20 in particular, crowds have been strong, and some counties such as Surrey have invested heavily in a procedure known as “marketing”, to the point that they have demonstrated consistently high crowds, despite not having the assistance of the Hundred to do so. This might be thought to be worthy of credit, yet the silence from the ECB on this subject has been deafening. Of course, the whole tournament is restricted to Sky subscribers in the first place, and the unwillingness of either the ECB, the counties or both to countenance a drop in income is precisely why an additional tournament has been deemed necessary.

However, the nature of the crowds attending is rather open to debate. T20 cricket is neatly packaged into three hours (this has stretched somewhat – at the beginning it was two and a half, while the IPL has suffered from some games going as long as four hours), and attracts the casual spectator. This ought to be a good thing, for the shortest version of the game – so far – can and should be a gateway to developing an interest in cricket. However there are anecdotal complaints that people attend for a night out rather than game itself, which still isn’t a problem, for it provides much needed revenues from the bars. What is a contradiction is that the ECB have promoted the upcoming Hundred as being a family affair, while repeatedly stating it isn’t aimed at existing cricket fans.

They have a problem here: firstly in that no one has any idea where these prospective fans will be coming from, and secondly the often raucous atmosphere of a T20 is hardly conducive to being a family affair. It is impossible to believe that they will restrict the sale of alcohol for a start, meaning that without a currently entirely invisible to cricket demographic flocking to grounds, the chances are that it will simply replicate existing audiences, at best.

Good Governance & Social Responsibility

The ECB will make decisions in the best interests of the game and use the power of cricket to make a positive difference to communities around England and Wales. Protecting the integrity of our sport is critical and we will ensure we have the right governance and processes to achieve that.

The opening line of this clause is in some ways the most controversial statement of the lot, even more so than the one about fans. For it is beyond question that this should be the primary role of a governing body, the question is whether it actually is.

Is it truly in the best interests of the game to marginalise red ball cricket? Is it truly in the interests of the game to weaken the Test side (for there can be little argument that this is the effect)? Was it truly in the best interests of the game to oversee a sport that has become invisible and that participation has plummeted?

No one has ever said balancing the needs of a sport is easy, and certainly the ECB’s equivalents are subject to plenty of criticism. Yet even an organisation as institutionally controversial as FIFA could argue that they have significantly grown the sport around the world. The ECB can’t even arrest the decline of theirs in England and might well be directly responsible for it. Over the last 20 years or so there have been repeated opportunities to take decisions that were in the interests of the wider game, yet time and again the perception (at the very least) is that this has not been the motivation.

The creation of the Hundred is entirely at odds with the statement that “protecting the integrity of the sport is critical”, as more and more outlandish ideas are bandied around in order to provide a differentiation for what is already there. Whatever the length of a game, the fundamentals of the game of cricket remain. Considering abolishing the lbw law (as they were reported to have done) drives a coach and horses through the very idea that the integrity of the game is sacrosanct. It isn’t going to happen of course, but the very fact that it was even up for consideration is highly indicative that anything, including the game of cricket itself is very much up for grabs when commercial desires apply. Too many people have made the observation that the ECB is the only sporting body to hate its own sport for it to be given the benefit of any doubt. All of which leads to:

Strong Finance & Operations

The ECB will increase the game’s revenues, invest our resources wisely and administer them responsibly to secure the growth of the game.

This is one area the ECB can (and do. Oh my word, they really do) point to success. The move behind a paywall has seen the revenues rise consistently over the last 15 years, albeit some years are better than others. But there appears to be little scope for significant growth as things currently stand, without something such as the Hundred, and that relies on it being a success.

There is a central question here which the ECB have never been able to plausibly dismiss, which is whether the purpose of the money is to support the game, or whether the game is there to generate money. The former should be the sole focus of any governing body – the suspicion is that the latter is specifically what drives the ECB.

What is the money actually for? It is highly questionable whether the revenues have reached the recreational game for one thing – indeed many clubs might not notice much difference were the ECB to disappear entirely, such is the distance of the relationship between them. The clubs themselves have no say whatever over anything the ECB do. In contrast to the FA, where elections occur at every level of the pyramid, the ECB appoint someone to be a voice of the club and village game, with no reference whatever to it.

Likewise, although there are initiatives such as Chance to Shine and All Stars Cricket, much of the funding comes from elsewhere, and most of the work is done by club volunteers. Indeed, in the latter case the degree of subsidy is rather open to question, in terms of whether there is much if any at all. It should always be noted that the various England youth sides are included in the grassroots funding of the game. They are worthy recipients of money, naturally, but grassroots? No.

How well they operate as initiatives is a more open question. Chance to Shine appears to have performed well, in at least trying to stem the losses in interest and participation (sometimes success is measured in managing decline), but All Stars Cricket has had a mixed reception, and it is impossible to know whether the claimed figures represent a genuine uplift in junior interest, or whether it is largely those likely to be involved anyway measured twice.

The county game of course relies in large part on the TV deals done and the subsidy derived from the ECB themselves. Counties haven’t been self-sufficient for much of their histories, but the justification has always been that they are the proving ground and development centres for the international teams. As the ECB imperils the Test team by their strategy, that justification becomes just a little weaker.

Equally, those desiring terrestrial TV coverage, whether of county or international cricket are constantly met with the response that the drop in funding would damage the county game. At this point, the difficult question needs to be put: So what?

All businesses cut their cloth according to their income, the idea that counties would not be able to cope with a drop in subsidy implies that they are unable to run their basic affairs. Football teams cope with relegation, because they address the cost base to reflect the income differential. To suggest that county cricket is the sole industry totally unable to handle this is to say that it is akin to a heroin addict unable to function without their latest fix. It certainly would be difficult, it certainly would involve job losses, and it certainly wouldn’t please players who saw their income level drop. But it could and would survive, unless those who are running cricket are entirely incompetent.

This is why the central question of what that desire for ever increasing revenue remains to ask what it is for. It doesn’t remotely appear to be for the betterment of the game of cricket, it appears to be for the betterment of a subsection of the game of cricket. The amateur game barely notices whether there are rises or falls, only the professional game would, and it is a valid question as to whether that is a price worth paying for a sport now in deep trouble.

Whether a reduction in income in return for vastly greater television exposure would be worthwhile depends entirely on where an observer is standing. Within the upper echelons of the game, it would be viewed as a disaster. Elsewhere, perhaps not so much. Yet this strikes at the very essence of the reason for the ECB’s existence. If it is not for the benefit of the game of cricket itself, but for the benefit of those employed within it, then the ECB haven’t just failed to abide by the terms of their own mission statements, they have demonstrated thoroughly that they don’t deserve to run the game.

And here lies the ultimate irony: Having presided over the transition of the game from one that managed to become a national icon in 2005 to one that barely registers in public consciousness, cricket has become so lacking in importance that the conduct of its governing authority passes without much notice, and without much interest. Giles Clarke once said (smugly) that no one cares about administration. He was correct, but not entirely for the reasons he was suggesting. No one cares about administration when the sport being administered has become irrelevent. And that’s why it’s not the failing of the ECB’s Five Pillars that is the problem, it’s that they’ve made such a monumental mess of it this century that few people any longer care enough to challenge them on it.