The Economy Drive: Is the ECB channelling Yes Minister?

News broke today that the ECB are planning on cutting 62 jobs in the wake of the Covid shutdown. This is far from surprising, the scale of revenue loss for all sports forced to play behind closed doors has been catastrophic, and in cricket’s case exacerbated by coming into force just as the season was about to get under way. Televised Test matches and ODIs will have mitigated some of the financial distress, but as with businesses up and down the country and across the world, revenue falls equates to needing to cut costs, and staffing is invariably one of those to be impacted.

Yet the ECB statement raises as many questions as it answers, both in terms of where the reductions will come and how the cost cutting will take place. There is the confirmation that their plans including the Hundred will continue to go ahead by stating that they intend to deliver on their Inspiring Generations strategy, which is no surprise at all, but is finally in black and white. Secondly, they detail that their staffing budget will reduce by 20% at the same time as talking about the 62 positions. According to Statista the ECB employ 379 staff, making the 62 to go around 16% of the total. Yet it seems unlikely that the number of contracted players or umpires will be reduced, or not by any meaningful level, and thus the 62 is more likely to come from development, coaching, administration, support and commercial.

That would also fit precisely, exactly, perfectly with the 20% reduction in budget, which may or may not be a coincidence. It is to be hoped very much that it is a coincidence, because otherwise it would imply no wage cuts at all for those at the top of the organisation. It is certainly true that they took reductions in salary during lockdown, but according to George Dobell this is currently only the case until October. There are some issues to be raised if that is true, particularly highlighted in the ECB release which states “We have now shared with colleagues our Board-approved proposals, which will generate significant savings”. What the ECB will do in future is an open question, but if Dobell is correct in his reporting, it is to state that during these Board meetings to approve the positional cuts, the level of executive pay cannot have been discussed as an agenda item, except at most to confirm the current level of remuneration.

This is highly surprising, particularly given Harrison’s warning that 2021 could well be every bit as bad financially as 2020, indicating the potential for a further £100m loss. To not factor in executive pay beyond October is simply extraordinary, and very hard to comprehend were it to be an oversight in the press release.

It remains entirely possible this is not the case, and that the reporting is incorrect. But at the very least questions need to be asked about this, for from a cursory reading both of the press statement and the Cricinfo article, it appears that as things stand executive pay, including Tom Harrison on his £720,000 a year may well be being reinstated. During the lockdown period all ECB staff took pay cuts of between 10 and 25%, a further implication with this 20% reduction in headcount AND a 20% reduction in budget that pay for the others is returning to normal. Again, there’s the possibility that the budget cuts are on top of those already undertaken in salaries, but it would be extremely unusual not to mention that if it were the case.

Finally, if redundancy payments are included in this new budget, then that would be a different consideration, but if they are separated out elsewhere in the accounts, as severance payments very often are, then those staff under threat would have grounds for asking some fairly major questions. It is to be hoped that the journalists do just that.

600: Rise of the Umpire’s Finger

Minimal play on the final day, a match ruined by rain and bad weather led it to peter out in a draw, and a 1-0 win for England.  In reality, that was always likely, and as much as anything else it was about whether James Anderson would have the opportunity to bowl and take that elusive 600th Test wicket.  It was more of an issue than would usually be the case, at 38 years old and with the world struggling under the load of Covid-19, there was always the possibility that he wouldn’t get another chance.  All things being equal, he will probably be around for a little while yet, but injury could have intervened, and no one can be entirely sure whether planned tours will go ahead.  Considered overall, it is better to have it out of the way now, both for him personally and to prevent any danger of selectors and public having an eye on him being stranded on 599.

There will always be debate about where particular players stand in the pantheon of leading performers.  It isn’t helped by the tendency in the modern world to assign labels of greatest ever far too frequently, leading to irritation and a push back against it.  It doesn’t matter.  It has never mattered.  Only one person can ever be given that epithet by any individual, making it by definition exclusionary and rarely a considered statement.  Anderson’s overall record is hampered by a difficult start to his Test career, his first hundred wickets coming at an average of 35 meaning that even as thereafter it dropped dramatically it wasn’t until ten years after his debut that it dipped below 30.   It has continued to fall ever since, best highlighted in a tweet from Tim Wigmore:

 

It’s 12 years since he took that 100th wicket, it’s 7 years since he took his 300th.  Longevity is an achievement in itself, particularly for a seam bowler for whom the physicality of bowling is in itself a major challenge, but his record over the last ten years or more is world class and world class over longer than the vast majority of whole Test careers.

His record is markedly better in England than it is overseas, but this is neither surprising nor should it be used as more than an observation, and certainly not a stick with which to beat him.  He is a product of English cricket and his skills are necessarily geared to where he plays most.  He’s not the first to have such a differential and won’t be the last – it is an extremely rare (and great) bowler indeed to be equally successful in all conditions, and as someone who relies on swing, being stuck with the Kookaburra ball abroad will necessarily reduce his effectiveness dramatically.

Moreover, in a time when Test cricket is under ever increasing threat, his only likely challenger as top wicket taker for a pace bowler is Stuart Broad, his long term opening partner.  England play more Test matches than anyone else, but even in England colours it is increasingly hard to imagine someone other than Broad from anywhere matching his longevity, fitness and wicket taking prowess.

Above all else, Anderson on song has been a joy to watch.  If the true pleasure of sport at the highest level is to witness human beings operating in a manner entirely foreign to ordinary mortals, then Anderson’s ability to have the ball on a piece on a string and to make accomplished batsmen look stupid is a rare one indeed.  There is nothing brutal about his bowling, although in his early years he was undoubtedly sharp, but there is the consistent ability to dismantle techniques and cause high quality batsmen to appear to be out of their depth.  Numbers don’t always explain that, but any who remember watching the intelligence of Richard Hadlee’s bowling will see a modern day echo of that in Anderson.

It would have been nice had there been a crowd to watch him do it, it would have been nicer still for him to have had his family there to share it with him.  But above all he got the chance to do it at all, and that is where endless thanks for the Test summer we have had must go to Pakistan and the West Indies.  A rarity on here it may be, but credit should also be paid to the ECB, for back in April any kind of cricket seemed a distant prospect.  Self-interest, of course it was, but self-interest that did provide a glimpse of a path back to some kind of normality, and that benefits us all.

There will be endless tributes to James Anderson from better people than me, some will go too far, some will cause irritation elsewhere in the world at the positioning of him at the head of a pack of great fast bowlers.  I don’t care.  Anderson has been grumpy, sometimes infuriating to watch (too short, too wide was a regular complaint), sometimes excused for actions other players would not have got away with.  But he’s also been a magician with a cricket ball, a player who has lasted when so many fell by the wayside, undoubtedly one of the greatest English Test bowlers of all time, and someone who has got a player out 600 times in Test cricket.  That’s one hell of a lot of raised umpire’s fingers.

 

Creeping to Domination

About ten years ago, England had days like these on a regular basis – a powerful top end would build a platform, and the middle order would exploit a tiring attack to lift England fairly consistently to 400 and 500+ totals.  Over the last six or seven years such days have been rare, with 300 more frequently the top end of their ambitions.  One match doesn’t signal a return to those more productive times, but nor should it be ignored when it happens.  England are in complete command of this Test match thanks to a record fifth wicket partnership between Zak Crawley and Jos Buttler, taking the team to a total of 583-8.  Oh heady days.

There is ever a temptation to go overboard about young players when they first make their mark, and Zak Crawley’s 267 will doubtless lead to gushing praise and comparisons to others that don’t yet need to be made.  It is enough to regard this innings as truly exceptional, and the player highly promising.  He remains inexperienced to the point that this was only his fourth first class century in little more than 50 games, with an average of barely 30.  Nothing at all to write home about.  But there is a difference between identifying a young player with a modest record and believing he will develop into a fully fledged Test cricketer and simply persevering with someone for the sake of it.  The modern day descent into besteveritis will likely mean that some of the praise is over the top in terms of the future career context, but that doesn’t, and shouldn’t take away from just how impressive he has been in this match.

It was an innings both of maturity and control – fluent throughout, solid in defence and despite admitting to nerves when in the nineties, seemingly unflappable as every milestone approached.  It is one knock, but a hell of a knock, and if cricket is a game played in the mind, it can only help him believe he has all the ability needed to succeed.  Rob Key, his mentor for many years is, and should be, extremely proud of him.

His partner throughout was Jos Buttler, a player whose own lack of a fine first class record made his initial selection a similar kind of punt, but with the difference that after nearly fifty Tests, he still had only one century to show for it.  His wicketkeeping in the first Test too had shown significant errors, suggesting that the pressure was starting to show.  Buttler isn’t an exceptional wicketkeeper by any stretch, but he is a generally competent one, albeit much less secure when standing up, as his lack of stumpings indicates.  His selection in that role is a choice, a slightly compromised wicketkeeper picked for the runs he can score and the way he scores them.  His shortcomings in his strongest suit were the main reason for his place coming under threat rather than his nominally primary role.

Here he was in control, his shot selection vastly improved compared to recently, and the pace of his innings suggested a player feeling in command for the first time in quite a while.  The calls for him to be replaced were not in error, for stick with a player long enough and eventually they will score runs.  But equally, when those calls are made, it needs to be acknowledged when he has come good, and as this series has gone on, he has looked much improved.  Keeping faith with him cannot yet be said to be the correct decision, but the signs of him learning at last how to compile a Test innings suggests it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that it will need to be acknowledged as a good one.  Only time will tell, though there will be some players feeling that they too would have liked the degree of support given to Buttler, and the chance to repay that faith.

Two days, one innings; two players, two Daddy hundreds.  The future can take of itself for both of them, today was very much their day, and they deserve all the plaudits going.

With a fine sense of crowd pleasing (even if on sofas and in cars up and down the country), Joe Root sent Stuart Broad in for a slog towards the end.  Broad has become something of a national treasure over the last year or so, which is intriguing given that for so long he was a player who divided opinion so much, even when performing well.  It is perhaps the fate of players who can change a match in a session that all too often it is asked why they don’t do it more often than celebrated for what a rare ability it is.  But while his bowling has been of high quality (and seemingly increasing quality) for a number of years, his batting mojo seems to have returned, to some extent at least.

Broad’s batting decline led to it being both sad in itself and worthy of mockery.  His resurrection – not to the near all rounder levels of ten years ago, but to a thrillingly attacking tailender – has changed perspectives from him being a figure of fun to one of adoration.  Stuart Broad batting would empty the bars if they were open.

A short session attacking the Pakistan batsmen was available, and to the surprise of no one, inroads were made.  Anderson picked up three, to take himself to 596 Test wickets, and a decent chance of reaching 600 by the end of the match. At 38, there is always the chance the end could come suddenly, and only the most churlish would lament him reaching such a landmark this week.

If Pakistan are to get out of this one, they will have to bat out of their skins, or hope that the weather gods are smiling on them more than they were in the Second Test.  Conditions are one of the fickle factors that affect cricket, a random occurrence that can be utterly capricious.  The visitors had every chance of winning the last match, and now they will probably need the weather to restrict their defeat to 1-0.  No one ever said life was fair.

One last word on the weather.  For this match the umpires have been given increased latitude in making up time at the start of the day as well as the end, and in moving the sessions around to maximise cricket.  Some of the criticism in the 2nd Test was fully warranted, particularly around the inclination to go off the field rather than stay on.  Yet here they have been proactive, and have learned a lesson.  There was rain this morning, and lunch was pushed back to 2pm.  As it turned out, that probably cost some playing time, with the weather sunny and dry during lunch, inviting more pointed comment.  This was unfair, the umpires were doing their best to maximise play – they are not soothsayers when it comes to when the rain comes and goes.  It was just a trifle unlucky.  On this one, they should be cut a little slack.

Day of Frustration

No play, a Test most likely ruined by bad weather, but plenty of anger and irritation around at the perceived tardiness of umpires, groundstaff and cricket administrators generally.

A grey, damp, dismal day like today was always going to cause problems, and it’s certainly apparent that the irritation is shared by the cricket media, who provided continual sarcastic updates throughout the day at the lack of activity even when it wasn’t raining. Maybe it was a justified complaint, maybe it was a reflection of an awareness amongst all concerned at the ground that whatever they did it was going to make little difference.

But one thing can be noted – it was probably not today’s inaction that drove the annoyance so much as the keenness with which the umpires chose to leave the field on the first two days. Cricket constantly fails to show a determination to do all that is possible to ensure play, meaning that there is little sympathy for umpires or ICC when they might well have a point about it being unsuitable for getting a Test match on.

It’s self-inflicted, as so many things in cricket are. There is no benefit of the doubt, and no sense of earned trust that all are doing everything in their collective powers to get the players on the field. As with so many misfortunes, there are many authors, but none who are prepared to put their names to it. Insisting that cricket has to change, and has to be aware of its need for spectator engagement is true, but requires a lot more than just an edict from on high.

The umpires too often hide behind the regulations, the players rejected the chance to ease the requirements lest it affect the outcome of matches. The ICC rarely seem interested, and the sight of the poor bloody spectators short-changed has never been a subject that attracts much sympathy from within. It’s an inherent problem, and speaks to a core dismissal of those outside the bubble of the game. All too often that can include the journalists themselves – they and the fans are in alignment on this one, but it’s more a marriage of convenience than a deeply held alliance. It’s not new, it’s not likely to change, and it’s forever a symptom not a cause.

Maybe tomorrow will be better. But I wouldn’t put your mortgage on it.

Countering an Orthodoxy: Cricket in Schools

There are certain things everyone holds to be true. They are rarely challenged, and when they are, the views tends to disappear into a hole and be forever ignored. It’s therefore with no expectations at all that I decide to take on a known truth in cricket and argue that it doesn’t hold up. Namely that the major problem in cricket development is the lack of cricket in schools, and that things were so much better 35 years ago. It’s something you hear from every quarter, a lament for a golden age of youth cricket that has disappeared, to the detriment of the game overall and preventing the young from taking up the sport.

It’s a complex matter, open to debate, and isn’t, or shouldn’t be, clear cut. Yet it is always stated that the loss of schools cricket is a fundamental causal effect of cricket’s problems with engagement and rarely challenged. So I will.

I went to a state school, but one that played cricket. Even in those days that was fairly unusual – it was certainly the only school in the town that played, and matches were against others in the wider county rather than anyone in the immediate vicinity. Many of those were state schools, but by no means all – the idea that cricketing schools were a common thing isn’t true. Matters have got worse in the intervening years, that is not in doubt. Equally, the prevalence of school cricket varies dramatically by region and by degree of urban area. Yet in no sense in the state sector can it be argued that things have got better, cricket in schools is a much rarer sight than it was in the 1980s. To what extent that can be applied in an overall discussion of the state of play is a more complex matter.

Individual experience is not indicative of a wider truth, and nor is the plural of anecdote data, so when arguing any case it must always be borne in mind that experiences differ, and differ significantly. But it is also the case that the regular media commentary on schools cricket is driven by the fact that cricket journalism is driven by a largely privately educated reporting base. Their experience of school’s cricket is fundamentally different to that of the wider public, of whatever generation, and their fondness for their memories of their own experience is significantly out of kilter with the 93% not privately educated. It is simplistic to translate their own experiences and ethos to the wider topic, yet when they do so it is rarely argued with on the basis that it is stemming from a false premise.

While the private education sector often has exceptional facilities, focused coaching and the desire to develop ability, state schools are more prosaic about what is on offer, if anything. Teachers have neither the time nor (often) the skills to coach, and nor should they be expected to do so. In that supposed golden age of the 1980s school’s cricket it amounted to the odd session in the nets and representing the establishment in games. Little more. But the difference then was that relatively few clubs had an organised colts set up either as an alternative or a supplement. In my own case, when starting out only one club in the area had any kind of formal youth structure, and they played very few games a year. I saw the change happening – at 12 years old it was that one and only club in the area, by the time I was 19, there were half a dozen in the immediate vicinity, all with a youth section. For me, in order to play cricket, school was essential, the club exposure amounted to what will be a familiar process to many of starting out in the Sunday 2nd XI playing against men rather than regular age group cricket.

One area to note where school’s cricket did have a huge importance though, is that it was then the means for being put forward for the county age groups. Clubs were almost entirely ignored as a route into the county structure until eventually, in Kent at least, a structure was set up to allow that to happen.

This is entirely different to the position in the 21st century, where thousands of clubs provide a quite exceptional level of youth development, and also a pathway for the best into the county structure. Club coaches were non-existent 35 years ago, they are now widespread and able. To put it another way, and given that teachers were not filling that gap then or now, the standard and availability of coaching is so much better now that it barely qualifies as a debate. Equally, the number of youth games, whether internal to a club or against others, is vastly higher in 2020 (with allowances for Covid-19) than was ever the case when I was growing up. Equipment, always an expensive element of the game, is relatively plentiful and of good standard, compared to a school kitbag – if it existed at all – that was usually a relic from a decade or more earlier. And on a personal note, finding anything left handed was nigh on impossible.  If left-handers, or wicketkeepers wanted to play, they needed to beg their parents to buy them equipment.

By almost any measure you care to choose, for those who do play cricket, the clubs in the modern era offer a vastly superior experience than state schools ever did in the past. It therefore cannot be the argument that the nostalgia for some kind of golden era of cricket in schools was based on a better playing incidence, it has to be something else.

Cricket has faced a challenge in inspiring youngsters to take up the game in the first place, and it is here that the schools argument is on stronger ground. By exposing children to the game in the first place, it is suggested that more were inclined to take it up and to become cricketers, potentially life long ones. But although a firmer argument, it remains relatively flimsy when set against the opportunities now available. In my own case and those of my school team-mates, school didn’t introduce us to cricket, it was a pre-existing interest that school provided an outlet for. For children with that pre-existing interest, clubs now offer that much higher quality offering, but even for those who didn’t go on to play for either school or club, their initial exposure was less a matter of an organised games session and more a matter of using a bat and a tennis ball in the playground, the park or for those lucky enough, the back garden. The role of education in firing that initial spark of interest is a very open question. Even in my cricket playing school, organised activity for the wider pupils was highly limited; it did exist, but it couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be compared to sports like football or (in my case) hockey, which were established school activities. This will clearly vary from school to school, and personal experience to personal experience. Yet there are grounds for scepticism when even an established cricket playing school such as mine (and they still play, incidentally) didn’t provide the grounding for an introduction to the sport in any meaningful sense, only a focus for that wish to play.

With the truth that the number of schools playing has declined dramatically, one way that the clubs have attempted to pick up the slack is to go into state establishments to introduce the game to pupils. Where the question lies is whether this is because of a lack of opportunity, or because the game has become invisible with the retreat to showing the sport behind a paywall. Most surveys have indicated a general lack of awareness of cricket, but it is a leap to suggest that the primary reason for this is the lack of potential to play while being educated, it may be much more about the lack of access to seeing the sport at any kind of meaningful level to instil that first curiosity of cricket. And therein lies a related point, that even those in favour of subscription-based television coverage accept that free to air is a highly effective way of reaching people and inspiring interest, in their case, the argument is about the revenue loss involved were free to air to be the choice made. That being the case, while an argument can be made for hiding the game to generate income can be made, it is only acceptable if allied with a large scale push to create interest at youth level, and that has been entirely missing. The ECB continue to invest a relative pittance in youth cricket.

There is ever the temptation to see the past through rose tinted spectacles and assume a time where a particular circumstance was better. Times and our society has changed dramatically in the intervening years, but a simplistic view of where the problem lies doesn’t help anyone, particularly when the chances of that specific perceived flaw changing are minimal. Clubs have not only filled the gap, they have expanded the range of options exponentially. Anybody intrigued by cricket has a much greater chance to play, and more particularly, the range of abilities catered for is significantly enhanced beyond the position of around 13 people in a year group being given the chance to play.

A further objection to this hypothesis is the degree to which the professional ranks are increasingly drawn from the private schools, and particularly so in the case of the batsmen, with that being evidence of the impact of lack of state school cricket. Perhaps. But it may also be a matter of the overall increase in a focus on coaching per se, with the private schools being the only education outlets to provide for that. In other words, it is less about the state school coaching offering, which hasn’t changed at all in the last decades and more a matter of a substantial uplift in private coaching provision, alongside the increasing coaching focus of the game more generally. If that were to be true, then a trebling of the coaching levels in the clubs would still be a relative drop when matched against a quadrupling of the same in the public schools.

Cricket does have a lot of problems, but the increased interest over the last 12 months thanks to a World Cup win and the current England team’s apparent ability to pull off successful but preposterous run chases has helped enormously.  Yet it cannot undo several decades of malign indifference. This piece gives no answers, and only asks questions, but it seems reasonable enough not to simply accept a truism purely because it is widely held. Very few complex matters invite simple solutions, and perhaps this is an example of that.  This is an argument made from a position of powerful uncertainty, Strong disagreement with the case being made here is welcomed, because this is a subject that needs considering more deeply than it has been if we are to find a way of bringing the game back to the young, and to provide the next generation to fall in love with cricket.

Underdog Day Afternoon: Test Cricket Does it Again

The ECB are the lucky organisation.  They’ve done remarkably well to get Test series on this summer, with the help of the two visiting sides, but over the last couple of years they have been rewarded with some quite extraordinary finishes to international matches.  Overall, it’s hard to make a case that they deserve their exceptional fortune, but this summer, perhaps they do.  For today was one of those days that cricket can throw up, and which few sports can match.  It’s not just the drama of sport, it’s the elongated nature of it that is, if not unique, unusual.  Tension builds over time, over days.  A five day Test match is a special beast, and one to be cherished, particularly in these times where the whole concept is under threat.

The lack of crowd means that it’s not quite the same, it is a facsimile of the sport we know and love, but it is entirely forgivable and a price worth paying for the time being to be able to see it on television or listen to it on the radio.  That it can raise spirits in a time that needs spirits raising is an added bonus, but perhaps speaks most centrally to the value of sport itself, whatever the money men may insist.

The narrative of a Test match twists and turns, winds and loops, offering succour to those who need it, and exacerbating the pain of struggle for those who are finding sporting life difficult.  That England owed their win most of all to the twin innings of Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes added a delicious twist to the summer, for Buttler has been rightly under pressure for his place, both due to a lack of runs and his indifferent keeping in this match.  One swallow never makes a summer, but irrespective of the wider issues about the best choice for the wicketkeeper/batsman role, today was very much his day.  He played with freedom, confidence and aggression – his natural game, certainly, but one he’s struggled to display throughout his Test, and indeed county, career.  It is forever the case that selection and choice is wrapped in the paper of a thousand dilemmas and agendas, but on the day a player performs like this, only congratulations are needed, and only pleasure derived – both for a player and a human being.

In the post match interviews, Jos Buttler said that he felt that if he didn’t get runs today, he might have played his last Test for England.  Professional sport can be brutal, and the truth is that he may well have been right.  The personal tales weaving through a team game are endlessly fascinating.  Irrespective of merit, Buttler can enjoy his moment, while Joe Denly never got to experience his.  Such are the narrow margins, and Buttler’s quietly spoken charming nature makes it hard not to be anything but delighted for him.

Chris Woakes hasn’t been under remotely the same kind of pressure, for he is a bowler first and foremost, but his lack of runs had been noticed, most particularly by Shane Warne who demonstrated his usual monomania on a subject he’s newly discovered.  If runs had been hard to come by for him, today he was exceptional, as though he’d shrugged off any doubts and simply decided to play his shots.  Sometimes it works, and today was one of those days.  As is so often the case, when a player succeeds so dramatically, it’s hard to understand why they’d been having problems up until that point.

Pakistan should have won this match.  They outplayed England for three days, and added sufficient useful runs this morning to be in a strong, if not quite unassailable position.  Yet even that should have been a disappointment to them, for at times during this game England looked outclassed by their opponents.  England had a shot at victory today alright, but they really shouldn’t have been that fortunate.  If there’s one side-effect of the Ben Stokes absurdity in the World Cup final and at Headingley, it is that this England team will genuinely believe anything is possible, that they can win from anywhere.  It is a heady mental state to possess, and one that can materially change outcomes in a tight situation.

At 117-5,  the game seem almost up, Ollie Pope had just received a ball that had burst through the top and exploded off the pitch to give him no chance of avoiding gloving the ball in the air.  With a deteriorating surface and only Buttler and the bowlers to come, Winviz sternly informed the world, who couldn’t possibly have seen the evidence with their own eyes, that Pakistan were strong favourites.  What happened though was that as the ball got older and softer, the turn was still there, the bounce still inconsistent, but much more slowly off the pitch.  It was enough for the batsmen to cope.

There will be regrets from the tourists.  England got closer to their total in their first innings than should have been the case, largely due to Stuart Broad taking the long handle at the end, and in Pakistan’s second innings their overwhelmingly dominant position was steadily thrown away.  England bowled well, certainly, and gained a toehold in a game they had little right to be considered an equal party.  It remained profligate to toss away wickets and offer up a chance that oughtn’t to have been there.

It remains to be seen whether this first Test will be Pakistan’s best chance and if they wilt in the remainder of the series, but they have the talent to defeat this England team, they arguably have the greater obvious talent of the two.  Perhaps with two such mercurial sides nothing should surprise anyone, and if they both live up to the reputations for cricketing madness they have garnered, the next two matches might be a lot of fun.

 

 

 

 

Babar So Really: England v Pakistan, Day one

The weather forecast for this Test is quite reasonable, so today’s curtailed play should hopefully be the exception rather than the rule for the remainder of the game.

What play did take place was something of a throw-back, at least in the first session.  England bowled well, Pakistan repelled all that was thrown at them.  The importance of opening batsmen who can soak up the pressure has been ignored all too often over the last few years in favour of assuming that Test cricket is the same as one day cricket, full of blazing strokes and where batting time is of lesser importance.  Shan Masood demonstrated the value of occupation of the crease.  He may be a relatively limited player, but that’s been of little consequence for many an opener who has gone on to a successful career.  Although Pakistan did lose a couple of early wickets he, in consort with Babar Azam saw Pakistan through to lunch at 53-2.  Barely over 2 runs an over, but unquestionably a fairly successful first morning in challenging batting conditions.

After lunch, things became easier.  England bowled poorly, Babar began to cut loose.  It’s intriguing to see articles written about how he should be considered the fifth member of the Test batting exceptionals, not because he isn’t worthy of being bracketed with those, but because the list invariably includes Joe Root, who hasn’t been performing at that kind of level for a couple of years now, and to many observers, isn’t even currently the best batsman in the England side.  Still, it might be nit-picking to make that observation instead of accepting Babar’s right to be considered in the upper echelons of Test batsmen at present, and he certainly looked the part today.

England did have chances to take a third wicket, firstly when Jos Buttler dropped Shan Masood off Dom Bess’s bowling.  For all the debate around Buttler’s place, his wicketkeeping has been perfectly acceptable for most of his time in the England team, and it is his batting that has been most under scrutiny.  The dropped catch can be put down to just one of those things – any keeper is disappointed when a fine edge goes down, but always for different reasons to those the non-wicketkeeping commentators state:  It’s a question of technique, not reactions, for no keeper reacts to edges when standing up, the ball hits the gloves before the brain is aware an edge has been taken.   The missed stumping he will be more annoyed with, for being hit on the shoulder with the batsman that far down the pitch tends to suggest he was caught watching the batsman rather than the ball – something he will work long and hard on avoiding at all costs.

Standing up to the spinners might be something we see a fair bit of this Test if day one is anything to go by.  Bess got reasonable turn and significant bounce from the start, which may well be of concern to an England team likely to be batting last, against a team who have selected two leg-spinners.  Whether the pitch quickens or dies over the coming days will define their effectiveness, but, forced to bowl spin by bad light, both Bess and Root looked mildly threatening on occasion in the short evening session.

Whether the light was poor enough for the umpires to have forced England to bowl spin in the first place is an open question and goes to the heart of the competing demands of professional sport – the potentially litigious nature of the modern world and the importance of duty of care, versus the requirement that play happens.  Cricket always seems to struggle with this – and too often gives the impression that being on the field is considered a nice to have rather than an imperative of the game.  All too often resumptions are leisurely rather than urgent, meaning there is scepticism in those circumstances there ought to be trust.  It appears to be a congenital problem afflicting the game in too many areas.  Yet the commentators by the end did state that even with floodlights it was rather dark, but going off for bad light on safety grounds when the fast bowlers are operating is one thing; doing so when the spinners are on is another matter altogether.  The defence is usually on the grounds of fairness, but it’s hard to see how that is any different to being put into bat on a green seamer or having to bowl in baking heat.  Unless the fielders are in danger, there’s little excuse for it.

With an unbroken third wicket partnership of 96, Pakistan are in decent shape going in to day two, and any total in excess of 300 has put the England of the last few years under significant pressure.  Choosing to bat may or may not have been a marginal call, but there enough observers urging the captain who won the toss to bowl to make it clear it can’t have been entirely clear cut.  As ever, day two gives a greater indication of where this game is going.

Interview with a Vampire II: The Corona Wars

A little while ago, and due to a complete absence of knowledge on the subject, we posted an interview with noted Twitter user and professional gambler Innocent Bystander about gambling in cricket, and more widely across sport. Given all that has gone on over the last four months, it seemed a good time to revisit some of those issues and find out how life is for someone who doesn’t just watch live sport, but relies on it for his living. So inbetween the usual words of abuse that pass between us, he agreed to be asked some more questions about cricket, gambling and the future of both.

I began by asking him about the last few months, and how it has affected him, especially given his job:

“Well it pretty much shut down everything. No sport means no trading, and no trading means no income. It’s alright for those who get all that Rishi [Sunak – UK Chancellor of the Exchequer] money, but for the rest of us who got nothing, not so much. Fortunately I had some money saved to fall back on, but it was a long 3 months to say the least”.

Yep, this is sounding all too familiar to me as well. There has been an assumption in too many places that no-one has been left out, but it’s far from the truth. Normal life is one thing, but the nature of gambling being addictive on the one hand, and also offering the dream of a way out for those who are in financial distress led to troubling thoughts on several levels. It hasn’t been greatly discussed in the mainstream, but it must have been noticeable when sport returned that there was a rush to place bets, with a spike in income for the bookmakers. Problem gambling too hasn’t been highlighted in the lockdown period, but it is impossible to imagine that it all stopped in that period, so what happened and where did they all go?

“I probably chat about it most on Twitter, and the one thing about gamblers (professional or otherwise) there is that apparently no-one ever loses! It is always interesting how gambling gets put in with obesity, drinking and smoking as the vices that the government has to clamp down on. Roll all those in with the pandemic and the only headline that I was surprised not to see was gambling gives you coronavirus. Everything else seems to”

If the shutdown had a direct effect on gamblers, it clearly had just as big an effect on the gambling companies, and on the sports that are supported by, or even rely on them. Many governing bodies detailed the scale of their potential losses, and if in some instances the figures were inflated by counting all revenue sources to all levels of sport, it clearly had and is having an enormous impact. Sport has started to return, but behind closed doors, and the postponement of the test events with spectators present has removed that potential revenue stream for the time being at least. There has to be the suspicion that the relationship with gambling was behind the rapidity with which certain events were scheduled as soon as they were permitted:

“Well it’s been pretty obvious that a lot of sports were rushed back. Something like horse racing has always been primarily about gambling, and 10 over cricket was created pretty much entirely for the benefit of the betting industry – there was only so much virtual sports they could show to give people their fix! Remember that when the Cricketer ran their virtual cricket tournament, people were even trying to bet on that as well”

Ah yes, the 10 over cricket leagues. Last time we spoke Innocent Bystander predicted that these would grow in popularity around the world, and while no one could have imagined a global pandemic coming along to give that change a particular turbocharge, It’s interesting to see that among the first returning cricket has been the likes of the European Cricket League – amateur sport, televised and promoted. In a pure sporting sense, it’s been intriguing to watch a highly variable standard, but from a betting perspective, no one knew anything about the teams or players in advance. Given the sheer volume of money that has been wagered on the outcome, there must have been some serious research needed into who was playing and how they were likely to get on?

“It was certainly very surprising to see the volume of money traded on essentially amateur sport, but then it was the only show in town at the time, so with hindsight it probably wasnt a shock. I actually found assessing the quality of the participants relatively easy. The teams, players and tournaments had quite a lot of previous seasons statistics available online to review. So, with a little bit of work it produced a good return. Without giving too much away I tried to assess the strengths and weakness in each side, and rank each of them based on that. But you’d be surprised how much a teams odds could shorten just because they had a name that appealed to be people such as Zalmi or the Super Kings”.

Obviously there has been a great deal of controversy about the Cyprus event, did that surprise you (here I put in a note to be careful about what he said, on the grounds of not particularly wanting to receive a nasty letter from a lawyer)?

“What did surprise me was how blatant everything was. Nothing was subtle, and it’s been swept under the carpet pretty quickly by the league – the very next day they expelled the side involved and expunged their record from their website; then reforming with the remaining teams and a new schedule. The shocking thing for me was the lack of any kind of statement from the league – it doesnt exactly send out a message about the integrity of their competition, if anything it says the opposite.”

Everyone is wondering at what point things will return to normal, but the disruption across myriad industries raises questions as to whether change is transitory for the period of the pandemic, or whether long term changes are likely. Sport is perhaps one of the most visible industries there is, and given gambling is ancillary to that, I wondered how the longer term would look?

“The only real differences are the changes to the calendar and the behind closed doors nature of pretty much all of them for the immediate future. The fake crowd noise makes football watchable but in cricket the lack of variance in the level of the hum means it can be more irritating than helpful. As for things returning to normal, nothing gets there until the virus is suppressed and under control. I certainly wont be travelling to watch cricket anywhere else in the world for a while now”

As someone who works in the travel industry, this is the last thing I wanted to hear, albeit it’s not so surprising for many, but when it is said from someone who travels to watch England so frequently, it’s pretty depressing. It would also signal that supporters are likely to become even less important in the future, and the mere lip service they are paid at present will become even more the exception, in favour of the broadcasters.

“I probably need to flesh that out a bit – when I go to events I always book well in advance, get the best seats I can and stay at nice hotels. Now with all the uncertainty I cannot be sure that what I’m booking will end up happening. It might be postponed, or rearranged, even late on when there is a major financial penalty for any changes. I have been caught up in disruption in the past – the Mumbai bombings when I was booked into the Mumabi Taj Hotel meaning I had to rearrange to Mohali, and the 2010 T20 World Cup in the Caribbean where an Icelandic volcano decided to mess with all the flights. I had no family back then so it didn’t really matter that much being messed around – but with a 2 year old now I am less keen with last minute changes.

“I always used to joke that fans were an inconvenience to cricket authorities what with having to schedule events well in advance and stick to them – they would prefer it without those pesky fans getting in the way in grounds….”

I suspect that’s right, but if we move to a situation where fans won’t travel because of uncertainty, and governing bodies feel the freedom to change because fans aren’t travelling, it would likely signal the end of the kinds of mass following we have become used to seeing. The needs of travelling supporters have rarely been a priority, but they badly need to be now. Moving on, when last we talked, we discussed the whole matter of TV advertising, and since then there have been moves to remove pre-watershed live sports gambling commercials. Yet it doesn’t seem to have happened, so I asked what what was his understanding of the position there:

“To be honest I’m not too sure. I thought that football was banning adverts during matches but that doesnt seem to have taken place. In fact, it does seem to be wall to wall betting adverts again – only now they seem to have lost Ray Winstone’s large head…maybe that was the trade off! Either way, not much has happened, maybe there are only so many pressure groups headlines to go round”

As ever, my thanks to Innocent Bystander for being patient with my silly questions, and still not objecting to the titles I give these pieces – you can find him and follow him on Twitter @InnoBystander

It’s Chris Woakes Day. Oh Alright, Stuart.

As it turned out, the weather held off just long enough for England to take the last of the 8 wickets they needed to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 series win.  Only just, for mere moments after the final celebrations, the heavens opened.  Whether that downpour would have been enough to curtail play for sufficiently long to cause West Indian chagrin is a moot point, for there was a sense of inevitability about the steady procession of wickets and little in the way of meaningful resistance.  Jermaine Blackwood had a hint of permanence about him, but he too was swept away in a tide of wickets as Chris Woakes destroyed the middle order to finish with 5-50.  If ever there was a day to come up with a Michelle and still play second fiddle, this was it, for Broad took all of the others to fall to a bowler, including both his 500th Test victim and also the match-winning one.  The boy sure knows how to seize the limelight.

Much will be written about how this series was more about cricket being played at all, and the generosity of spirit in the West Indies team to come at all; they deserve the plaudits coming their way.  Despite local outbreaks, the Covid-19 situation is much improved from where it was when they agreed to tour, and while at present playing cricket seems an entirely reasonable activity, it was far from the case when they first accepted the invitation.  Cricket boards may have many reasons for acting the way they do, but individual players are the ones who walk the walk.  It isn’t just England who should be expressing their gratitude, it is all of sport, both here and abroad.  It may not be easy, and without spectators it may only be a facsimile of Test cricket, but all journeys begin with a single step.  That it was the West Indies players who took that first step should always be appreciated.

For the players involved, there were the usual winners and losers.  Stuart Broad himself performed the admirable feat of not only being highly vocal in his disappointment at being left out of the first Test, but of backing up his words to the point he was duly anointed Player of the Series despite missing a third of it.  He’s been a peculiarly under-appreciated player throughout much of his career, his exceptional spells where he can destroy any batting line up often seeming to lead to irritation about his performances the rest of the time rather than appreciation of the box office displays themselves.  Yet his record is a fine one, and more intriguingly, he appears, at 34, to be getting better.  The lengths are fuller, the line straighter, and the sense of danger when he’s bowling is palpable.  Perhaps now he is being accepted for what he has become, and with a career much nearer the end than the beginning, taken to heart as someone to be enjoyed while he’s still around.

For much of his career he has been the foil to James Anderson.  At last, it appears to now be the other way around.  He’s the main man in the England bowling attack, and revelling in the adulation.  And why the hell not?  The stratified heights of the 500 Test wicket bowling club is analysed in terms of bowling averages and strike rate, but in Broad’s case both are continuining to fall.   In the last two years his average has been under 21, and his strike rate a quite exceptional 41 balls per wicket.  At his age, it cannot continue forever, but it is something to be thoroughly admired for as long as it does.  Nor is it any kind of accident, for his awareness of his age led him to make adjustments to his run up and action in the hope of extending his career.  It seems to be working.

Ben Stokes topped the batting averages, a Test series coming of age in many ways, for although his performances had become notable over the last few years, this was the one where few could argue with the statement that he’s now England’s best batsman.  And not a bad bowler either.

He wasn’t alone in having a series to look back on with some pleasure.  The opening pair of Sibley and Burns both made consistent contributions, lending the first wicket partnership a sense of permanence that has been absent from England for quite some time.  Those who complained about the scoring rate missed the point spectacularly; there are plenty in the England batting line up who can score quickly, but their repeated exposure to the new ball in a side all too often reduced to 30-3 suppressed their own ability to score, and laid too much pressure on Root.  It would not be in the least surprising to see his performances with the bat pick up as a result.

Neither Burns nor Sibley are the finished product, nor are either likely at this stage to scare bowling attacks around the world.  Indeed, their struggles to find scoring areas against spin made it clear there is work to be done. That isn’t the point, stability is sufficient in this England side after a period of anything but.  And a word here for Joe Denly, who has likely played his last Test innings: his scores were ultimately insufficient to maintain a Test career, particularly at his age.  Nevertheless, against Australia last year and South Africa in the winter, he did at least set a template for occupation of the crease that seemed entirely out of keeping with the helter-skelter (and markedly unsuccessful) England approach of recent times.  He brought a sense of calmness to an innings that was refreshing in its rarity in the current age.  There is no disgrace at all in not being quite good enough to make it in Test cricket, for very few do.  To have been moved on having at least made some kind of mark is to have some satisfaction.

The jury remains well and truly out on Jos Buttler’s place in the side.  His score of 67 in the first innings of the Third Test may be sufficient to keep him involved for the time being in the series against Pakistan, but he must surely be running out of time to be the man in possession.  It’s all been so predictable, for his batting career in Tests is more or less what would be exprected from his batting career in all red ball cricket.  Bairstow (if he can sort out his technical flaws) and Foakes are too good to be left on the sidelines by an under-contributing rival.

For the bowlers, England have something of an embarrassment of riches, at least on paper.  Anderson is no longer the attack leader in anything but name, but he remains a highly potent weapon, even if one used more sparingly than in the past.  Archer, Wood, Curran and Stone offer variety and potency – it is a greater selection from which to choose than appeared likely a couple of years ago when the bowling stocks post-Broad and Anderson looked frighteningly bare.

And then there’s Chris Woakes.  It is always a temptation to note the weaknesses of a player rather than their strengths, and while his overseas record isn’t too special, his one at home is quite exceptional.  There’s nothing particularly wrong in noting that as part of an overall strategy.

For the West Indies, there were few batting pluses, and those there were are couched in a sense of frustration they weren’t greater.  Jermaine Blackwood, Shamarh Brooks, Kraigg Brathwaite, Roston Chase, Shai Hope – all flattered to deceive, all looked like they could bat, all got themselves out when set.  Some are young and can improve, for some it’s likely this is just who they are.  For the West Indies to turn from being a competitive side into series winning one (overseas, in particular), they need to find a couple of batsmen who can suggest they will be around for more than a session.  It isn’t a plea for a world class one to come along – although they would doubtless be appreciative of that – but one who the others can learn from and bat around.  Ironic it may be, but perhaps they need a Joe Denly to set the tone.

They have the bowling.  If they ran out of steam by the third Test in quick succession with no rotation, it’s not too surprising, but they are a decent unit and complement each other well.  There is enough with which to work, and their team ultimately falling short this tour wasn’t down to the bowlers failing to perform, but the batsmen.

There is a danger of being patronising in approach when lauding the improvement of the West Indies, and they remain some distance from being good enough to be regular (or even semi-regular) victors abroad, but the difference now is that it does at least look like there is a plan and a strategy for getting there.  They may not succeed, but if now at the point where Caribbean cricket is making the most of the talent at its disposal, that is something.  There is not the sense of desperation at watching a West Indies team losing that has been present for all too many years.

The West Indies leave for home tomorrow, with gratitude and thanks, and doubtless with some relief on their part to be in a warmer environment than Manchester.  For England, an ODI series against Ireland follows before the Pakistan Test matches begin.  Some more cricket to watch, and a perhaps a better sense of where this England Test team are going and how they’re developing.  In April, this seemed like a pipe dream on so many levels.