England vs Australia: 4th ODI Open Thread

After the demolition of the Australian bowling that was either magnificent or an illustration of the continuing descent of bowlers into batsman fodder, depending on perspective, it’s off to Chester-le-Street for the fourth match of a series England have already won.

As so often with cricket, as much interest can be found in what is happening off the field, and the release of the Future Tours Programme for 2018-23 (having left it a mite late) is something to which we’ll return.  Much of the content has been trailed heavily – the creation of a World Test Championship and an ODI League for example, but perhaps the most striking thing is how for England, Australia and India, playing each other will take up around half of their entire Test playing programmes.  It appears familiarity and boredom with the same opponents is not a factor to be considered.

Comments on today’s ODI and whatever else takes your fancy below.

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Wallcharts at the Ready

If ever there was a day for multi-screening, yesterday was it. Four World Cup matches, a succession of rugby internationals, the US Open golf, a Test match in the Caribbean, and the small matter of an ODI.

At the end of it, Australian sport had suffered the kind of day that England fans tend to be grimly accustomed to, with defeat to France at the World Cup, defeat to Ireland in the rugby, and defeat to England in the cricket. Schadenfreude may not be the most attractive character trait, but amusement was both widespread and frankly enjoyable.

Enthusiasm for this series against Australia appears limited, not least among those buying tickets. As much as it was claimed the game was sold out, there were plenty of empty seats on show in Cardiff. Either the Welsh have an awful lot of money to throw away, or someone is gilding the lily. Still, disappointing crowds are not that unusual for internationals at that venue, and it was hardly deserted. But the sense of going through the motions is unsurprising given both the timing of the series and the sense that this nothing other than a financial obligation tour.

England are 2-0 up without giving the impression they are remotely playing at their best, and with Australia missing so many key players there is little to engender a feeling of this being much more than practice for either side. Those players who look dangerous in the short form continue to do so, those who appear to be struggling show little sign of answering the questions about them.

A football World Cup always dominates the sporting environment, and a Test series during it would struggle for attention too, but despite being as relatively inaccessible (pay TV) as the cricket, the rugby summer tours have a greater sense of occasion to them. The sarcastic description of one day games as JAMODIs (Just Another Meaningless One Day International) has rarely felt as apposite as here. The pretence that this is about the build up to next year’s cricket World Cup doesn’t cut it, especially given the absence of Pakistan from the schedule despite being here for two Tests.

With 13 white ball matches across the heart of the summer before the Tests get underway again, we have barely got going. This becomes troubling for a number of reasons – the press themselves in unguarded moments will confess to struggling to write anything new about them, and while that isn’t especially an issue in itself, the translated ennui among cricket followers is. Andrew Strauss obliquely referenced the lack of context with his concept of a points system, which while widely derided does at least draw attention to the fundamental problem.

Ironically, cricket had its solution to this in the past, by making the ODIs part of the build up to what most still consider the main event. The last but one England tour of New Zealand comprised three T20s, then three ODIs, then three Tests. The sense of a build up towards a sporting climax was inescapable, and provided that much needed balance and importance. The same applied to the 2005 Ashes series, where there was certainly no shortage of white ball cricket scheduled, but it felt like part of a wider whole, and by the time the first Test came around, anticipation was at fever pitch.

The problem with this Australian tour is that winning or losing is instantly forgettable for both sets of fans and success or failure doesn’t matter – except to make Malcolm Conn look an idiot, and he doesn’t usually need help with that.

The more dramatic cricket news has still happened in the Test arena, firstly with Afghanistan’s debut, and secondly with the ball tampering allegations concerning the Sri Lankan team in the West Indies. In the former heavy defeat inside two days matters little in the wider sense of welcoming a new team to the Test game, and if the cricket boards show little inclination to support expansion, the same can’t be said of the Indian team. They conducted themselves in an exemplary manner, showing every indication of being fully aware what an extraordinary achievement it was for Afghanistan to have reached this point. They deserve credit for recognising it in such a classy manner.

In contrast, the refusal of the Sri Lankan team to take the field after being accused of changing the condition of the ball offered up plenty of reminders of Pakistan’s similar action at the Oval in the forfeited Test. The problem here is the failure to support the umpires in their decision-making. Already whispers of legal action have begun, which is precisely why umpires are so reluctant to take action in the first place. Whether they are ultimately right or wrong is beside the point, if officials aren’t allowed to make decisions and receive support, then they won’t make them. Darrell Hair’s ostracism and belittling remains a stain on the game whatever his character flaws. The umpire’s decision is not final, and it should be.

England’s next match takes place on Tuesday, the day after their football counterparts open their World Cup campaign. Whatever the result, it is undoubtedly the case that the football will be all that receives extensive coverage. Of course, a World Cup is truly special, but it’s also on free to air television, making it a community event. The audience figures for the Spain-Portugal match are simply astonishing, reaching a peak of over 10 million across TV and online. Cricket may not be able to match that kind of reach, but it highlights for the umpteenth time the absurdity of claiming that free to air doesn’t matter.

Peter Della Penna tweeted that the BBC had made an offer to Sky to broadcast the Scotland-Pakistan T20 on the red button which was declined, as Sky didn’t want it distracting from the England Women’s ODI they were showing. To begin with, the realisation that the Scotland matches were under the umbrella of the ECB contract came as a surprise – in return for England playing them, it had been outsourced. As a result, Scotland’s match wasn’t shown anywhere in the UK when it could have been. Yet it makes explicit the position that a low key international not involving England could be more popular with the viewers, even when online or interactive TV, than a pay TV one that does. The very importance of that can’t be overstated, given it is exactly what is repeatedly denied by those who propound the pay TV model.

Assuming no more shenanigans, there will be Test cricket on later. But let’s be honest, we’re going to be watching the World Cup.

Ridiculous to the Sublime

The dust has settled somewhat on England’s Test series with Pakistan, but at the end of it, few are any wiser as to where England stand. For Pakistan, their tour to Ireland and England must count as a reasonable success – victory in Malahide was expected, certainly, but the quality of the Test and the occasion itself lent a real shine to their participation. That Test match reminded all who love the game, and this form of it in particular, just why they have so much affection for it.

A 1-1 series draw with England, after fielding an inexperienced side, must also be deemed a fine result. In the discussions around how to help away sides compete, with ideas such as the abandonment of the toss (swiftly shot down by the ICC), it has perhaps been overlooked just what a good overall performance this has been. If there is fragility in this Pakistan side, it is to be expected at this stage of their development, better Pakistan teams than this edition have been equally prone to meltdown.

For England, the curate’s egg applies. Victory in the second Test spared their blushes somewhat, but shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow the dire display at Lord’s, nor the previous nine months that left Headingley being celebrated as their first win in eight matches.

Jos Buttler did well, even in the first Test to some degree, and if the concept of a frontline batsman playing at seven remains a peculiar longer term strategy, he did all that could have been asked of him. It doesn’t make him a long term success at this stage, but that he has talent is not in question. How he performs later in the summer will be intriguing to watch.

Placing a frontline batsman in an allrounder’s spot is reflective of the brittleness of England’s top order, yet ironically Buttler would be a devastating player to have in the locker were there a strong batting line up before him. To that extent he is a luxury, and it is to his credit that he performed in a rescue role as well.

Cook and Root both batted well at times without either going on to a really big score, though this remains a consistent England problem throughout the team, and the endless focus on Root’s conversion rate rather overlooks the small matter that even with that issue, no one has more centuries than him over the last couple of years. Still, for England to compete, let alone win against India, these two are going to need a strong series.

On the bowling side, Broad and Anderson still led the way, and both are in a similar position to Cook, in that they may be past their best, but are also still comfortably the best available in their positions. Neither of them bowled badly at Lord’s, yet received the usual criticism bowlers seem to when failing to contain opposition batsman after a miserable England batting display. To put that into context, few criticised Pakistan’s bowlers after Headingley, and they found themselves in a similar predicament.

Broad himself has talked about working hard on his wrist position, and both bowled among the fullest spells of their careers in the second Test. The problem with the discussions around them tends to stem from the determination of some to bracket them in an all time great list. They are unquestionably the best England bowlers in many years, and when leaving it at that, or even in arguing they are modern England greats, it is so much easier to give them the credit they deserve, rather than focusing on their weaker elements.

Behind them, it is less certain. Wood played the first Test and was discarded, again, without it being clear why he was dropped, or indeed why he was called up in the first place. Woakes did what he always does, which is to look a handful in English conditions, while Sam Curran remains what he was before his selection – promising.

This determination to label every new young player as the coming thing on debut is rather strange. Haseeb Hameed went through the same process (and may come again) and should surely be illustrative of the lack of wisdom in rushing to judgement. Dom Bess too has had plenty of column inches, but his success came rather more with the bat than the ball, and England spinners have been coming and going for a fair old while since Swann’s retirement. He may be different, and let’s hope so, but he is still merely a young player who may or may not prove worthy. Patience and realism is a better approach than gushing over the latest bright new thing.

We now have a long break before the next Test in August, the core of the summer given over to an interminable series of white ball matches that, however England perform, will be instantly forgettable. Who remembers the one day results last summer? Who remembers the one day results in New Zealand for that matter?

The ECB’s continual claim to place Test cricket at the heart of what they do rings as hollow as ever, as not just county championship cricket, but also the Tests are pushed to the margins of the season. The justification this year is the World Cup next, but few imagine that this will revert to the previous normal, and the number of Tests per season is in any case being reduced to six. This would be reasonable were it the case that it was to ease the burden on the players, but let’s be clear, it will be considered a gap, and a gap that will be filled by one day matches and T20.

Of those six Tests, three will take place in London, with Lord’s guaranteed two per year. Half of English Test cricket will take place in the capital, meaning the Midlands and North are scrapping for the remainder. English cricket continues to narrow its horizons.

There has been talk of Ireland playing a Test at Lord’s next year, and naturally enough, the ECB decided this was the perfect opportunity to push the concept of a four day Test. If there is one certainty about this organisation, it is that no opportunity to use the game of cricket to push their financial agenda should be missed. What could have been a glorious welcoming of Irish cricket to this side of the water will instead be an experiment for the ECB’s preferred financial model of play. Trying things out is fair enough, pushing an agenda irrespective of cricketing need is not.

This weekend England will play Scotland in an ODI. Thus it begins. Before the First Test against India, England will play 13 white ball matches of one kind or another. They are of course lucrative, and they are entertaining enough. England are a strong side, Australia and India the key draw in international cricket in this country. But the feeling that the battle for the soul of the game has been lost does not go away. Financial health is important, but the game of cricket does not exist purely in order to create that financial return, and there seems little doubt this is now the abiding priority.

There is no doubt that Test cricket is the core interest/readership of most of the blogs, but anecdotal evidence suggests it is similar in the newspapers as well. Perhaps that shows the priorities of England cricket fans, or perhaps it merely shows the priorities of a sub-set of cricket fans, the obsessives, as the ECB once put it. Either way, the absence of Tests, and indeed most of the county championship, during the peak summer months smacks of the future. The white ball is now king.

England vs Pakistan: 2nd Test, day one

A far better day for England than they’ve had in Test cricket in a fair while, and one where they have the chance tomorrow to take a hold on this game and get in a position to win their first Test in nine matches. What it doesn’t do is change any of the issues England have, and nor should it be deemed as evidence that all is suddenly rosy in the garden of English cricket once again. To do that would be to ignore the mounting evidence in favour of living purely in the moment and excusing the structural problems that have been there for some time, and were merely brought into focus last week.

That England bowled well, given conditions in which the ball swings should be no surprise to anyone. That when dismissing the opposition for a small total batting seems much easier should also be something to be expected, for the game has not changed so much that the fundamentals no longer apply.

Perhaps it is reading too much into things to see Vaughan’s suggestion that Broad be dropped as providing a kick up the backside, for it would suggest that a player who has been England”s best performer even on tours where the rest of the team has been abject has been coasting, which although a barb aimed at him regularly, doesn’t always accord with his overall record. Broad himself wasn’t having any of it, suggesting after play that the criticism was as much about people promoting their newspaper columns as anything else. One thing that can be said for Broad, he often eschews the anodyne media speak and says what he thinks – it’s sufficiently rare these days to be notable.

Nevertheless, today he was excellent, pitching the ball up, as he does when he is at his very best, and looking the lethal predator he so often appears to be in such conditions. Anderson too, although often tidy outside off stump rather than threatening, showed his ability in helpful conditions once more. There is nothing in what happened today to change the view that when circumstances allow, they are as good as anyone. That is not damning with faint praise, but a reflection of their very considerable skills.

Sam Curran was given his debut after Ben Stokes failed a fitness test, while Mark Wood was the usual bowling sacrificial lamb in response to an abject batting display. This remains very odd, for Wood may not have been fantastic at Lord’s, but nor was he especially poor, particularly when the bowling attack as a whole was given little chance in defending such a poor score. Nor does the argument that he struggles with back to back Tests hold up given England’s seamers hardly were flogged into the ground over five days.

It’s not that none of the arguments are unreasonable, it’s that if they do why pick him to begin with? It seems what it always has done – muddled thinking. Brought in for a single Test, and then discarded. It’s hard to escape the cynical feeling that perhaps his best avenue would be to improve his batting.

Curran himself picked up one wicket to close out the innings, and bowled tidily enough for the most part without looking especially threatening or especially quick, which shouldn’t be so shocking from a 19 year old, and nor should he be judged upon it. That will be on the selectors, for he is a promising cricketer who needs to be nurtured.

Wisdom after the event might dictate that choosing to bat first was the wrong decision, but few expected the degree of movement that transpired, certainly not the commentators, nor it seemed the England team who would have chosen to bat as well. Sometimes it just happens that way.

At 79-7 Pakistan were really staring down the barrel, but Shadab Khan and Hasab Ali at least provided some respectability with a counterattack, that as normal left the bowlers looking somewhat bereft of ideas. Lower order hitting remains one of the more pleasurable sights on the Test cricket field.

In reply, England looked generally comfortable. Keaton Jennings made a decent contribution without going on, Alastair Cook looked in good touch – his late dismissal being down to being too early on the pull rather than too late – while Joe Root looked like Joe Root does. The evening session had some playing and missing, but no more than might be expected from a Headingley Test, and concluding 68 behind and with 8 wickets in hand, England look very well placed to take control.

Cook himself was setting a record with his 154th consecutive Test. It is to be hoped that someone, somewhere one day breaks his record – not for a second because he doesn’t deserve to enjoy a remarkable feat, but because it would mean that Test cricket remains healthy in the future. But it appears distinctly likely that this will remain his for all time. In which case, it remains remarkable, though perhaps not quite so much as Dave Nourse who played every Test of South Africa’s first 22 years in the game. Cook’s achievement is outstanding, Nourse’s is extraordinary.

And yet. The one thing that typifies England’s batting is its brittleness, and should tomorrow be a bowling day, as the forecast perhaps suggests, then Pakistan are anything but out of it.

England’s day by a significant margin, but they’re not there yet.

Till The Rivers All Run Dry

Whenever England suffer a defeat, the response is invariably as illuminating as the match itself. It is as though each must be taken in isolation, and never, ever must it be viewed as being part of a pattern. Even more specifically, cause and effect should not be considered, for then it might require thinking about how we got to this point and whether those decisions were wise ones or not. This becomes particularly important to ignore if those doing the analysis either failed to talk about potential pitfalls at the time, or if they instead happily supported them, in which case pretending that all current woes have nothing to do with any of it is by far the best course.

There are exceptions of course, George Dobell wrote a scathing article expressing surprise at the surprise, given the sidelining of first class cricket in this country and the decline in results in recent years. Yet he also implied that not only did the ECB not particularly care, but that this is deliberate – his description of the talent pool becoming a talent puddle being spot on it its brutal assessment of the point we’ve reached. In the follow up to the article on Twitter, he stated that the truth was that the ECB cared more for white ball cricket than red ball, and in one particular reply stated:

It is increasingly hard to take the counter view. When you stop being invited to briefings etc…It’s been an interesting few weeks. I’ll say more about that one day.

For a long time there has been a strong suspicion that the ECB have a real problem with those who don’t toe the line, those who dare to criticise. The apparent legal action against him by Colin Graves received ridicule, but far more insidious and dangerous is the question of access denied, of preventing those who are deemed off message from doing their job as a journalist, which can be, and sometimes still is, a noble profession. This perhaps is at least part of the reason for the rise of blogs like this one and many others – that we have no access to begin with means there is nothing to take away from us for being difficult. We say what we like, and any dislike the ECB has for us is returned in spades. The fundamental belief that cricket is our game, not the ECB’s is simply a view they do not share, but one (irrespective of view on individual subjects) from which players, supporters and fans will not back down.

Self-censorship is by far the most dangerous state of affairs in any free press society, and while it isn’t an accusation that can be specifically levelled at anyone (precisely why it is so dangerous – it happens by omission), the treatment of those who fail to the toe the line is an issue of vital importance. To turn it around the other way, is there any evidence or belief that the ECB would treat those who dare to criticise in exactly the same way as those who slavishly support them? As they are so fond of saying, this is a question of trust, and there is none.

The fallout from the Hundred – or whatever the hell they’re calling it this week – was in many quarters focused on the format itself, rather than the rationale that created the circumstances for the kind of stupidity that thought any of it was a good idea in the first place. It is not, and never has been a matter of whether a ten ball final over is a good idea or not. It is instead entirely about the cretinous management of the English game that has created a situation where such a tournament is deemed necessary to try and undo some of the damage wrought over the last fifteen years by an organisation so malevolently incompetent it has brought the game itself to its knees. Trying to fix the stereo while the wheels have fallen off is the default position of the ECB these days, and none of the derision around losing three and a bit overs should ever forget that.

Simon Hughes, the self-styled analyst, not only thoroughly supported the concept of the Hundred, but went full Al Gore and claimed he’d invented it. It is therefore no surprise that he managed to pen an article that managed the impressive feat of being utterly bereft of analysis while incorporating a leap in logic of truly epic proportions.

It is entirely a given that England batsmen of recent vintage have poor averages, it is equally a given that of those in the side only Cook and Root have recently averaged over 40, albeit Bairstow can be placed in that category if stat mining to a certain cut off point. Yet in all the praise of Cook in that article (and however fawning the coverage of him for modest performances recently, even the lesser Cook is a God among batsmen in this mess of an England team) at no point does Hughes seem to recognise that Cook is a product of an era where the ECB focused on red ball cricket. When England hit the nadir of home defeat to New Zealand in 1999 to become semi-officially the worst team in the world, the response was swift and determined. A focus on red ball cricket, a replication as far as possible of the conditions of Test match play, a specific plan to create Test match cricketers with bat and ball and strong competition for places in a team that was a match for anyone.

The hundreds racked up by England batsmen in the 2000s were by players who benefitted from that policy, who knew how to bat to a situation and whose entire careers had been predicated on the kind of cricket required to do so. It wasn’t just the batsmen either, the bowlers, faced with improved batting standards had to raise their games as well, in the age old arms race between bat and ball.

The best players in the English game are the older ones, who learned their art in that environment, with the arguable exception of Joe Root, who may be quite simply one of those exceptional players that comes along from time to time. Anderson and Broad were part of those England teams, Alastair Cook forced his way into a powerful side through sheer batting prowess to the point he was better than any of the other options. Hughes’ highlighting of Cook’s style of play being central to his career success is quite correct, what he fails to do is recognise that the circumstances in which he learned his game were conducive to that kind of play, and those circumstances no longer apply – which is why so few Cooks are now visible on the county scene.

Instead, Hughes focuses on social media as the reason behind England’s difficulties, drawing a logical parallel between Cook’s absence from it and his cricketing mindset. Apart from the sheer ignorance of apparently being unaware that social media is quite present in other countries whose batsmen have no problems racking up large scores against England, why single that out? Cook is the only one of the England team to raise lambs, perhaps that is the main reason instead? If only Haseeb Hameed had a farm, he would doubtless now be making double centuries in the England team rather than languishing in his county second team.

If Hughes at least recognises that England have a batting problem, Michael Vaughan in contrast highlights the bowlers, calling for Broad and Anderson to be dropped because they have been part of a losing England team for so long. As ever with Vaughan, there is a kernel of insight in what he says, for it is indeed the case that the side built around their bowling leadership is now on a downward spiral. Yet if England’s bowling has been unexceptional in recent times, it hasn’t been the main failing in a side crashing to calamitous defeat with ever greater regularity. Defending scores of 184 can be done on occasion, but not repeatedly, even for the very best. Opposition teams who have England on the rack after a risible score have an entirely different mentality, and bowlers simply cannot fix the unfixable, and nor can they escape the mental fatigue of being asked to so time and again. In this last Test, England didn’t bowl especially badly, dismissing Pakistan for a reasonably par score. The near 200 run deficit was not because of poor bowling.

Why Broad and Anderson? If a losing mentality is the problem, why not Cook? Why not Bairstow? Why not Stokes? In those cases at least there would be a semblance of recognition that the batting is the primary problem, rather than slating the bowling attack for failing to repeatedly perform miracles. It requires little cricketing genius to realise that the two of them, with excellent records, are most effective when they have runs to defend. Some might even say this has been true of every bowler who has ever played the game.

Broad and Anderson are reaching the end of the road, and Cook may not be too far behind them either. The critical problem this England side faces is not that they are past their best (because they probably are) but that they are still amongst the very best England have to offer. Criticism of them is often warranted, but an England team without them doesn’t just look weaker, it looks a disaster.

The ECB tried their best to deflect reality by talking about how to make away sides more competitive in Test matches, proposing the abolition of the toss to provide tourists with an advantage. Yet again, they are fiddling around the edges to distract from what is abundantly obvious to all. England were not thrashed in India because of the toss, they were not thrashed in Australia or New Zealand because of the toss. They were hammered because they aren’t very good, and the opposition, even opposition that isn’t that strong, are better. Home series have provided a figleaf of respectability in recent years, but even here results have been anything but dominant. The West Indies are no one’s idea of a top Test team, yet England barely sneaked a series win, losing a home Test to them for the first time in 17 years. England have not been inconsistent, they have been poor, and they are getting poorer, and there is little out there to suggest improvement is coming.

If England lose the second Test this week then they will slip to seventh in the Test rankings, above only Bangladesh (against whom they sneaked a largely undeserved series draw) and Zimbabwe in the table. Such a position may be indicative of the shambolic condition of the game, but it is unquestionably exactly where they deserve to be. Berating the players for the conditions that have led to this point is continuing to flog until morale improves.

The ECB have utterly sidelined county cricket as a preparation ground for Test matches. This is not new, the county championship has been pushed ever more to the margins for several years, and with successful bowlers being those medium pacers who bowl wicket to wicket, and successful batsmen those who chance their arm before they are undone by one with their name on it, these are the kinds of players England will produce. As Dobell said, “What did they expect?”.

The lack of care, the lack of any interest, was demonstrated by a glorious late May Bank Holiday Monday where there was no county cricket played anywhere, for the first time ever. That a Test was scheduled for its fifth day is no excuse whatever, to have failed to consider scheduling matches for a public holiday is entirely symptomatic of an organisation that simply doesn’t give a shit any more.

Do not try to tell people that the problems are with the coach. Do not try to tell people that the problems are with the application of the batsmen. And do not try to tell people that this is some transitory issue that will improve. This is the ECB reaping exactly what they have sown over the last fifteen years – handicapping the England Test team specifically, deliberately, and as part of a wider strategy. Late term panic about the invisibility of the sport from an organisation that continues to undermine its very essence not only fails to mitigate previous actions, it exacerbates them.

At every stage in this slow motion car crash there has been the opportunity to change direction. At every stage they could have listened to those who had the interests of cricket at their heart. And at every stage they have doubled down and pressed the accelerator pedal still further. Pathetic tinkering at the margins and pretending we haven’t got to this point by design is nothing other than fundamental dishonesty and contempt for everyone else.

You broke it ECB. And you don’t even care about fixing it.

England vs Pakistan: 1st Test, Day Two

Well isn’t this going swimmingly?

Call it a radical thought, but perhaps in the discussion around how to fix the away form, England have overlooked a slightly bigger problem.  They’re really not very good.  And when not very good, a preparation consisting of the IPL and very early season games on damp tracks might not be totally conducive to good performances at Test level.  England have only had three areas where they’ve been second best in this match – namely batting, bowling and fielding, against an inexperienced but talented Pakistan side who have gone through the highly unfashionable approach of preparing properly.  Ireland have an opportunity in future to ensure they get Test cricket at home by serving as high quality warm up for an England series, and while this seems condescending given England’s current woes, the difficulty of the fringe sides in gaining Test exposure is well documented.  A future of thoroughly prepared overseas teams against England sides who are anything but could prove a highly ironic development.

Of course, when England play poorly it is often the bowlers who pay the price, and it may be the case that here too they become the ones at risk for weirdly failing to adequately turn 184 into a decent score.  England didn’t bowl that badly today – it could have been better, certainly, not least if England hadn’t shelled six or seven (depending on how harsh an observer is feeling) catches.  Cook was particularly guilty, though it does tend to be first slip who is most culpable when a team gets the drops, just because he usually gets the most chances.

350-8 in many circumstances would be an adequate enough day, the problem is that yesterday was so bad it makes it look disastrous.  It certainly could have been substantially better had those catches been taken, but a poor batting display also has the effect of taking the pressure off the opposition batsmen and placing it on the bowlers and fielders who have to (again) try and rescue the team from the mess of their own creation.  Struggling teams miss chances, confident teams take them.  Anderson and Broad in particular passed the edge repeatedly, and did keep their lengths fairly consistent throughout.  They could have been luckier, certainly.  Stokes was the most effective of the other bowlers, working up decent pace at times as he did his best impression of someone livid at the match situation.

For Pakistan it was a case of sharing the workload.  Four players passed fifty, and they never looked to be in particular difficulties, remorselessly grinding England down, first to eliminate the modest deficit overnight and then to stretch the lead.  The nasty blow to Babar Azam’s arm allowed England to claim some late wickets, making the first two days merely horrendous rather than utterly catastrophic.  Pakistan thoroughly deserve their commanding lead, they have totally outplayed England to this point.

166 is already an enormous advantage, and it’s possible – especially if Babar bats tomorrow – that they could push it closer to 200, a situation in which England would need to bat out of their skins to have any chance at all, and where recent history suggests an innings defeat is more likely.  England have lost five of their last seven Tests, winning none of them, and six in eight is well and truly on the cards.  But is anyone really surprised?  The ECB have tried to point to away form as being the problem, without ever seemingly recognising that being a thoroughly modest team might be the bigger reason for such a lack of success.  Whatever the issues around a tail off in Cook’s form, even the lesser Cook is a batting titan in this poor team, while Broad and Anderson are intent on demonstrating to everyone that even as they get older the prospect of the team without them is quite terrifying.  Once again, the most familiar sensation is that of watching the West Indies attack as Walsh and Ambrose reached the end of their careers.

Tomorrow England will need to knuckle down, bat time and try to whittle down the deficit, yet so few of the batting order are capable of that kind of approach.  The selection of Buttler at seven has merit when a side is sufficiently strong to flay the opposition bowlers when pushing for a win, not so much when England are consistently in trouble.  What is he supposed to do, bat in a totally alien way to his strengths?

Yet again the teams fell short of the required number of overs in the day, this time three short, yesterday six short.  Yet again there’s no sign of anyone especially caring.  The range of official excuses has become tiresome – whatever delays there might be during play (and certainly there were a couple today, not least the injury to Babar Azam) ought to be catered for by the additional half hour.  The only conclusion is that the ICC don’t care, and nor do the national boards or indeed the players.  In truth, there’s not that much evidence that spectators are that bothered by it either, but it doesn’t mean that it is acceptable, it’s robbing spectators of part of their ticket fee.  It is particularly noteworthy given the various discussions around the Hundred, and the supposed shortening from T20 to fit into the allotted time.  That the authorities don’t care when play takes far too long is by far a better indicator of the problem than any artificial creation to ensure play is within a specific timeframe.  Yet it appears that those objecting are shouting into the wind, even if David Lloyd, to his credit, is one of very few commentators who consistently complains about it.  Given the match situation, perhaps fewer overs is indeed a mercy.

A three day finish is quite possible.  A huge defeat is quite likely.  And more than that, it could be seen coming.  But the ECB have Test cricket as their top priority, so no need to worry, right?

First, Do no Harm

We’ve written extensively on the whole ECB Hundred omnishambles, to the point where we leave it for a while as there seems little else to say, especially when the ECB themselves seem so determined to remove the need for nasty blogs to have a go at them by coming out with statements and decisions so cretinous as to need no further comment.

Still, as was pointed out in the comments to the last article, we should leave a thread open for people to laugh themselves silly comment on the latest fun and games, so here it is.

The latest entertainment came from the meeting between the PCA and the ECB, where Daryl Mitchell did our erstwhile overlords few favours with his words to the media afterwards. He warned everyone that without players there is no game, something that’s entirely true, though it remains notable how no one in the upper echelons of English cricket appears to have noticed that without supporters there is no game either. Which perhaps goes some way toward explaining the unique marketing strategy of infuriating and then rejecting cricket fans up and down the country as well as at the same time patronising those they want to come instead.

Still, that wasn’t the killer line. That came later with this gem:

Root and Stokes will be allocated to a team for marketing purposes, but they won’t be playing. The ECB made the point that this new audience won’t necessarily know who Stokes and Root are anyway”

Aside from the obvious pleasure of seeing the ECB receiving a dose of their own medicine and being thrown under the bus by someone else, it’s such a startling thing to say on so many levels. To begin with, an admission that the two most high profile players (for one reason or another) in the England set up aren’t known by the wider public is symptomatic of the disastrous profile of cricket generally, something given fair warning about when Root didn’t make the shortlist for Sports Personality of the Year even though he was number one batsman in the world at the time.

But it’s more than that. The ECB are going to be trying to push a competition absent their most high profile players, and saying it doesn’t matter. This hardly smacks of an attractive package for anyone to rush out and buy tickets. At the same time, the word is that the teams won’t be named after their geographical locations, rather impressively limiting the kind of tribal interest that team sports require. A little snippet that appeared saying some local players might be needed was a truly delicious example of an organisation that appear to have no idea what they’re doing.

Far more serious for cricket generally is Australia’s decision to cancel Bangladesh’s tour because they say it’s not financially viable. The ECB and Cricket Australia appear to be in competition with each other to see who is the more incompetent – a governing body Ashes if you will. The trouble is, the game itself is what is being burned.

If there’s anything that’s certain from all this, it’s that neither remotely cares for cricket supporters nor the integrity of the game itself. That may not be surprising, but it is an abrogation of their primary roles. Indeed their only role – for if they care not for the game of cricket and those who love it, what purpose do they serve?

The Fox Without a Tail

There’s something particularly special about a new concept that requires those announcing it on social media to feel compelled to add variations on the phrase “this is not a joke”.  And certainly the double take across the cricket world was genuine – scrapping T20 cricket (at least in terms of one competition in the English summer) in favour of an outlined 100 ball one is, at the very least, an example of a new and unusual approach.

Equally, it’s certainly the case that trying to come up with any new idea is going to generate a negative response from many – it was pointed out that a lot of people derided the idea of T20 cricket when first mooted, and social media is no barometer for anything except itself.  Yet there are a few differences here:  20 over cricket was not a new thing, at least not for those who play the game. Clubs had run midweek competitions along those lines for decades, and everyone who played as a child had their first introduction to formal matches in a 20 over format.  It’s not unreasonable to assume that pretty much every cricketer who had ever picked up a bat or a ball would have played the general format.  Thus, although the media excitedly talked about T20 as being fresh and new, it was anything but for actual cricketers, a fact often overlooked in the rush to dismiss the views of those critical.  There was a template, there was experience of it, and it was easy to grasp what was going to be involved.  That’s not to say that all welcomed it, but those opposed did so on the grounds of what it would mean for the rest of the game, not because 20 overs was in itself completely radical.

In this case, T16.66, T16.4, S16.4, the 100 – or whatever anyone wishes to call it (and the fact there is no name in place indicates this is hardly a deeply thought through proposal) is something unprecedented, with no obvious rationale, or even a clearly visible latent demand.  There’s nothing wrong with fresh thinking though, and nothing that makes a format as comparatively new as T20 sacrosanct.  The question has to be what is meant to be achieved by the new competition, and whether such changes have value in those terms, rather than as a purely cricketing notion. After the initial derision – and it ought to be concerning that the response wasn’t outrage, but merriment and mocking  – came the fightback.  Contrarians suggested that those who dismissed it were the same people who opposed T20, coloured clothing, and anything else that’s now taken root in the sport.  Perhaps so, but it’s a very lazy response, as it could equally be mentioned plenty of people also pointed out the stupidity in substitutions being permitted as well – a new idea isn’t justifiable on the grounds of solely being new, and objections can’t be dismissed on the grounds of sepia tinted nostalgia or conservatism.

The 8 team franchise idea has been hamstrung from the start by the insistence on retaining the T20 Blast competition as well.  Whereas the IPL, Big Bash League, or all the other imitators around the world are the principal short form focus in each geographical area, in England it is a second one, to be layered on top of the first and forced to seek a new audience to justify its very existence.  Without the T20 Blast remaining in place, it is highly unlikely anyone would have remotely suggested making changes to differentiate it, it wouldn’t have been necessary, and more than that no-one would have desired it.  No matter how much the ECB might try to protest they are merely being innovative, it stems entirely from that single decision that they have to keep a separate T20 as well.  There is no other rationale or requirement beyond needing to distinguish the two.

So let us dismiss any suggestion that this is needed in itself.  Shortening the game by 3.4 overs has no pressing cricketing justification in and of itself.  Competitions as short as 10 overs a side do exist, certainly; but they do so for monetary reasons not cricketing ones, and whatever the flaws of the ECB, there does need to be a short form competition for cricketing reasons as well as financial ones.  Likewise, the super-deca-over at the end is not a radically new way of looking at the game, it’s merely something forced on them by the awkward mathematics of 100 not being divisible by 6.  Furthermore, the entire competition idea is not one of cricketing essentials, but the contradictions of a need for a wider television audience, having to satisfy the counties, and the horror of losing existing revenue streams.

This is not, fresh, new and exciting, it is the logical culmination of the initial starting position:  keeping the existing tournament, wanting an 8 team competition, and needing to draw a distinction between the two, thus the changes are inherently artificial, and a marketing tool first and foremost.  Post-facto justifications are a consistent element of any plan that is forced upon those putting it together, whereby all involved highlight how wonderful it all is, and no one dares mention that it would be an awful lot better if they hadn’t got into this mess in the first place.

The broadcasters are certainly part of this, the shortening of the game to fit into a two and a half hour time slot is important, yet the slight surprise from those who will be showing the tournament suggests that although they were asked if it worked for them, they weren’t the prime motivator behind the suggestion.  They signed up to a T20 tournament, and this change has come subsequent to that agreement.  It’s not surprising that they are fine with it, as a televised product with a defined length of that nature is certainly appealing, yet there were other ways to keep the timetable tight without such a radical departure, even fifteen eight-ball overs (something many clubs, faced with approaching darkness adopt) would have retained the game length while making things quicker.  Perhaps the most damning implication is that the ECB feel they are unable to make successful the most popular cricket format in the world without tinkering with it, a situation without precedent anywhere else in the world.  The basic product not being in itself good enough is what should be ringing alarm bells.

Perhaps the best illustration of the artificial attempts at differentiation was the reported discussion about whether to scrap the lbw rule for the new competition.  As an example of sheer stupidity, this one can’t be beaten.  That it wasn’t approved isn’t the point, it takes a special kind of mind to even float an idea so idiotic that it ought to disqualify anyone doing so from being allowed remotely near the game of cricket.  That there are issues such as a complete absence of any statistical context for a tournament different to anywhere else on the planet is a minor thing in the great scheme of things.

While the ECB have tied themselves in knots trying to retain two T20 competitions for the men, the same can’t be said for the women.  The Kia Super League is to be scrapped at the end of this season in order to make way for the new competition.  When the plan was for it to be a normal T20 tournament this was perfectly sensible, but the changed format now means that there will be no women’s T20 cricket played at any kind of level in this country.  It is deeply impressive to be so thoughtless as to manage to hamstring the one area of success the ECB have managed in the last few years, but they’ve done it.

Among the various explanations for the changes is that this is aimed at the young, rather than the existing cricket fan.  It’s an easy, trite and rather meaningless aspiration to trot out – everyone wants that – and were it the case that there was a strong reason to believe so, then that would be worthy of consideration, but there is no evidence that these proposals will do any such thing.  The focus on just eight sides, artificially constructed and with no in-built support, automatically removes many from the equation by virtue of distance and tribalism, and while the other T20 competitions are equally artificial, they don’t also have the competition of another tournament that does have all those things.  Even the schedule counters the idea that it’s for the young, with matches being played in the evening primarily.  Shortening the game doesn’t in itself make it less appealing, except to those coming from far away, but nor is there the slightest reason to assume this makes it more attractive than a normal T20 match.  The ECB’s media release detailed that they had spoken to broadcasters and players (though it seems it was only three players rather than a wide consultation) but there was no mention of supporters.  Existing cricket fans would probably react negatively, certainly, but if the aim is for new ones, then it would be hoped that extensive market research had been carried out to find just what would be appealing and what wouldn’t.  Perhaps it has been done, but if so then surely the ECB would have mentioned that.

The claim that this was backed widely within the game was somewhat questioned by the Surrey Chief Executive tweeting that the first they knew about it was an hour before the public announcement, adding to the impression that this was a set of ideas cooked up late on and presented without too much further thought.  It is the absence of anything like coherent planning that is the hallmark of this whole affair; and indicative of an organisation that has descended ever deeper into a murky mess of its own making.  The sidelining of the county championship is one thing, and immensely damaging for the Test game in this country, but to then create a shambles around their own centrepiece focus on T20 cricket as well is highly impressive in its own way.

Some of this competition will be on terrestrial television, and that is to be welcomed, but there is no reason to assume that without these changes it wouldn’t have been, nor that its presence was conditional upon it.  The BBC had already announced their delight at covering the competition, this was not an either/or if it didn’t go ahead in this form.

Winning new converts to a sport is a worthy aim, and one that every sport needs to achieve.  But it is also the case in sport as in business that new customers are much harder to acquire than existing ones.  Male participation levels have collapsed in recent years, while the game becomes ever more invisible to the wider public.  The choice to put some of this on free to air television was a tacit acceptance in the first place that the ECB’s policies have wrecked the foundation of cricket support, yet the lack of faith in their own core product is clear, and the attempt to pacify the counties at the same time has no impact other than to destroy the core game both at first class level and ultimately at Test level.

Playing around at the edges of this competition is neither here nor there when set against the wider context of having supervised the diminution of the game’s importance to the  public at large.  It isn’t that people are angry at this, it’s that they’re laughing about it, that they see it as just the latest desperate wheeze to try to arrest a spiral of decline that the ECB’s own policies have created.  The boast when T20 was created was that it could be the financial saviour of the game of cricket, and you know what, it absolutely could have been.  Instead it became a crutch on which to lean, to the point that an additional layer needed to be created, and then amended in order to be considered relevant.

There is nothing so obvious as a governing body systematically destroying the asset that they began with.  Fans are no longer angry, they are in despair about the game they love.  For if there’s one certainty about this announcement, it’s that if the ECB hadn’t lost its tail, it wouldn’t be telling everyone how wonderful it is to live without one.

 

 

One of the Boys

There are some things that are beyond all abilities. One of those is trying to put up a blog when there’s a power cut that takes out both normal power and also the mobile phone towers meaning a complete absence of online access. This was a piece that was written this morning, but couldn’t be uploaded during a frustrating day, that involved also a total absence of work. As a result, some observations have been changed…

Cricket is an elitest sport. It doesn’t have to be, but it is. Equipment is expensive, certainly, which is why for the young in particular cricket clubs have always strived to provide kit for those making their way in the game. But like tennis, it has the public perception of being a game that is for the elite, the posh, the wealthy – reinforced by only being accessible to view for those prepared to pay a subscription. There’s a disconnect in that, for the clubs themselves are not, in general terms. They are comprised of people from all backgrounds, and all walks of life from the affluent to the impoverished, the public schools to the inner cities – albeit decreasingly so in the latter case. Yet in the administration of the game, and in the opportunities for those coming up through the ranks, this is anything but the case, and an England team comprised mostly of those from fee paying school backgrounds is illustrative of that.

Thus it is that the appointment of Ed Smith as the new national selector is utterly unsurprising at all levels. He fits all the proper metrics – public schoolboy (not a compulsory requirement as much as good evidence of being worthy of consideration), a Thoroughly Good Chap and thus reflective of the kind of Good Chap the other Good Chaps want to see. The apogee of this attitude was the Odious Giles Clarke’s comment about how Alastair Cook “and his family are very much the sort of people we want the England captain and his family to be”. Note the “we” involved there, this is a pervasive attitude throughout the echelons of the ECB, not just one man’s view. It’s not even deliberate, it’s merely that they consistently go for the same people who reflect their own backgrounds and their own values, and therefore they represent exactly the kind of people they would want in the roles. Thus it is no surprise that someone like Andrew Strauss would consider him ideal, nor that someone like Andrew Strauss would be considered ideal himself. A virtuous circle of a small group of self-appointed officers and gentlemen – Flashman at the Charge.

It’s not to say that Smith is necessarily a terrible choice. He spent most of his career on the county circuit, and it’s perfectly possible that he’s sufficiently in touch with the game at that level to be effective. But it is another instance of jobs for the boys, as long as they’re the right sort of boys. Smith of course has been thoroughly forgiven by those Inside Cricket for his unfortunate episode whereby he was caught out first by Krishna Murali and then the Cricket Couch for being very free and easy with the contents of an Economist article which he passed off as his own work. His employers at Cricinfo tried desperately hard to ignore it, and then eventually pulled the article, offering up a mealy mouthed defence by Sambit Bal to justify their ignoring of the whole affair. What was striking was the total absence of any of his writing colleagues defending him, or commenting on the various snide tweets and posts about the whole affair from the proletariat (see “fans, amateur players and supporters”). Even this morning with the news, it was as if it never happened. Johan Hari must desperately wonder how he ended up in the wrong sector.

The others supposedly in the frame for the role were Andy Flower, Derek Pringle and Mike Selvey – men of differing backgrounds certainly, but who still fit into that “right sort of chap” mentality that infests the ECB as an organisation and the cricketing establishment generally. The jobs move around among the same group of people; doing the same thing, with the same views, and perhaps above all else it’s notable that all those in the frame have sided with the ECB wherever possible in any kind of discussion about cricket and governance. To take one item of note, when the film Death of a Gentleman came out, Smith was critical of it, Selvey and Pringle completely silent (Flower as an ECB employee couldn’t be expected to say anything, so for that one he’s excluded), refusing to even mention its release. In Selvey’s case given his senior role at the Guardian, it was nothing but a complete abrogation of his responsibilities as a journalist. It was, and remains, disgraceful, both in terms of his pathetic sycophancy to Giles Clarke and the ECB generally, and the Guardian’s weak refusal to consider the subject then and since. That the Daily Telegraph became the bastion of the English cricket resistance remains deeply ironic. It is unsurprising that this collection of men from the same background, who have proved their loyalty to the cricket establishment in the most testing of circumstances, are exactly the people who would be considered for a role with them; nor that English cricket, so forgiving of those who go on rebel tours to South Africa but not those who stare out of windows, would worry little about such minor things as the integrity of journalism or the integrity of the game. Indeed, they have recently gone even further than merely supporting those who buttress their own worldview by specifically attacking those who dare to ask awkward questions, to the point a non-compliant journalist in the form of George Dobell is being threatened with legal action by the ECB, presumably for the crime of reporting on them without due deference.

Whatever the legal merits, the money to do this derives from supporters, clubs, players, counties and all who have an interest in the game. It is not the ECB’s, no matter how much they might like to think it is, and no matter how much they behave as though that is the case. The ECB is not the game – a simple, obvious point that bears stating simply because it’s not how they appear to see it, and strikes at the very heart of so much of the fury with and loathing of them: that they consider themselves an end in itself, not a facilitator, promoter and protector of the game of cricket. The appointment of Ed Smith and those others considered is not objectionable because he is incapable of the job, nor because it’s remotely the most important thing this month, but because it so beautifully encapsulates the mentality of the people to whom the care of the game was entrusted. No accountability, no democracy, no say in what they do or how they do it, and best of all, they wouldn’t begin to understand why so many object to them. Bringing the game into disrepute is a charge beloved of sporting authorities everywhere, but when thinking about those words: there is no better example of a sporting organisation in this country that manages that repeatedly than the ECB.

Separately, Talksport announced that they had won the rights to the overseas tours to Sri Lanka and the West Indies next winter. The response was resoundingly negative, to the shock of no one. Their coverage will doubtless be professional enough, yet the presence of endless betting adverts and advertorials will be enough to put many off. The one thing that must be said here is that for once this is nothing to do with the ECB, any more than the Ashes on BT Sport was. This is within the gift of the host boards, not the visitors, though it will be interesting to see whether the ECB behave as contemptibly with TalkSport (owned by their friends at Sky) as they did with BT when throwing them under a Twitter bus last winter.

On the other side of the world, rumours surfaced that Justin Langer will be appointed Australia’s new coach, swiftly denied as a done deal, but still likely. Langer is a coach in the same style as Flower to a fair degree, a martinet who demands total adherence to his methods, which may or may not be a good thing for them right now, depending on just what kind of standards are demanded. Perhaps it might work out, though it remains notable that they appear to be looking to choose someone before the two month review into Australian on field conduct is completed.

Lastly for now, today was the day when this blog reached the landmark of one million views. To do so in little more than three years is something we are proud of, particularly given our position on the naughty step in the world of English cricket. There are a small group of journalists who have encouraged us (and Wisden have generally), and have met with us – a common liking for beer proving apparent. It has been almost entirely below the radar which perhaps best reflects the prevailing view that our particular attitude is considered unwelcome by the cricketing establishment. They know who they are, and that they wouldn’t welcome being named and shamed thanked illustrates the point. Nevertheless, they are appreciated. Internally, we’ve had our crises, and it is those who contribute, read, argue with and correct us who are the main reason for keeping us going. Highlighting the readers and commenters has always been a trite observance in many instances, yet sometimes it’s heartfelt and honest. When we say we couldn’t do it without you, it is nothing but the truth. Continue to challenge us daily please.

Here’s to two million, and the absolute certainty that we’ll still never be invited to any ECB events (nor would we accept), we’ll still never try to monetise this place, and we’ll still do it because we love and care about the game we grew up with, played, watched and paid for. It doesn’t make us right, but it does make us a voice, even if from the margins.

New Zealand v England: 2nd Test, Day four

Probably the most notable event of the fourth day was losing the best part of a session to bad light, something distinctly likely to happen again on the final day.  It’s autumn, there is cloud cover, it’s just in the nature of things.  Aside from that, the day played out more or less as expected, with England declaring and New Zealand faced with attempting to bat out the remainder of the game.  They’ll fancy their chances of doing so, particularly if the weather comes to their rescue tomorrow.

England are anything but a confident team given a miserable winter, and indeed a pretty dire couple of years, especially away from home; so perhaps the criticism they’ve received for failing to press on early enough should be seen in that light.  Equally, the last time Root made a bold declaration, the West Indies chased down the target. Whatever Root’s protestations about not being affected by that (and that declaration was no mistake, West Indies and Shai Hope  especially just batted brilliantly.  Well done) he’d be less than human not to have it in the back of his mind.

Still, 1-0 or 2-0 as a series defeat doesn’t especially matter, though that New Zealand survived unscathed during the curtailed evening suggests a slight degree of conservatism wasn’t entirely unreasonable.  Inevitably, those watching call for an earlier declaration than those playing, and although in a totally different series position, at time of writing South Africa are well past 500 and still batting long past when they had enough runs.

One thing to note with England though, and that is that maximising the number of overs they can bowl does require they score enough runs to exceed how many New Zealand would have to face to win the game.  If a target of 300 is set, it doesn’t matter if there are 100 overs remaining or 200 overs remaining, the game isn’t going to go beyond 100 overs or so.

Thus, while England could have pushed on a little earlier and a little faster, it ultimately makes very little difference to how long New Zealand would have had to bat.  England declared midway through the afternoon session.  Even with trying to smash the ball to all parts, it’s unlikely England could have declared a great deal earlier, and nor is it realistically possible to factor in how much bad light there might be.

Root scored another fifty, without going on, though in these circumstances a century was a big ask anyway.  For all his issues with converting fifties into hundreds, it would be more of a concern if he wasn’t scoring runs at all.  Of him and Cook, he is less of a worry.  It’s in his head at the moment, but there’s no reason to assume it always will be.

Malan too scored a pleasant half century while Bairstow provided some late innings biffing to raise the prospective target further.

It can’t be said that Latham and Raval survived without alarms, for Broad and Anderson certainly looked dangerous, but survive they did, and with ten wickets in hand they will fancy their chances of batting out for a series win.

98 overs are scheduled to be bowled, and if light is a similar factor, that may be reduced to around 80.  That is ample time to give England a decent enough shot at winning, and importantly means that they should get a second new ball late on.

Sometimes it seems a little harsh to nitpick when they’ve done ok.