R.E.S.P.E.C.T. (Sock it to me, Sock it to me)

Greetings pop pickers, and welcome to the hit parade of the best insults directed at cricket supporters by the cricket authorities and their media cheerleaders.  Call them supporters, cricketers, county members, amateurs – are they worth having a go at?  Not half!  Let’s get on with the countdown…

10) Ticket to Ride – The Beatles

Straight in to the top ten with Graeme Swann’s stirring anthem about Test match prices.  Not for him an awareness of the expense incurred by those paying his wages.  Not for him a sensible silence when not knowing how much a ticket costs.  Instead he piped up expressing surprise at the cost of attending, saying he was shocked to discover it was (then) almost £100 to go, and that he’d thought it was only “about £20”.  Derision swiftly followed.

9) Bills – Lunch Money Lewis

Hungry?  Feel like a nice meal?  Well, you’re out of luck.  You can spend an hour queueing up for soggy chips and a crappy burger and pay £15 for the privilege.  Don’t bother trying to around lunchtime though, that’ll take an hour or so.  If you want a beer as well, that’s a different queue.  Could be an hour there too, so that £100 you’ve spent on a ticket in London looks really good value when you miss the play you’ve paid for – you can even spend the time queueing working out the draining finances.  But fear not, for the Twitter account of Lords’ will be there to remind you of the fine dining options the players receive, and the equally delightful catering the press corps get.  It’s just what you want to see as you contemplate a diminishing wallet and a drooping excuse for a sandwich, comparing the image on your phone with the painful and largely inedible reality.

8) My Generation – The Who

Those who have given their lives over to cricket might feel that they deserve a bit of credit.  Those who play a game for no other reason than they love it might believe they should be left alone.  Those who give up their time to prepare pitches, decorate and maintain pavilions, organise teams, create youth sections and do all the enormous quantities of work involved in club cricket could feel there’s nothing wrong with them also picking up a bat and wandering out to the middle.  But they’d be wrong and Nasser Hussain was quick to tell them so, in the usual manner of Sky and the ECB aligning their stars perfectly.  Such “old fogeys” need to get out of the game according to him, they’re blocking the young players.  That there wouldn’t actually be any club cricket without the old fogeys doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.  Nor that people outside the professional game play because they want to.  The Scots have a phrase that answers this kind of argument, and it starts “get tae…”.

7) Stupid Girl – Garbage

If coming up with an idea that those who love the game consider pretty stupid to begin with, it helps to have the message alongside it a good one.  It probably isn’t best practice to first tell all those who buy tickets that it isn’t for them, second patronise half the population with the phrase “mums and kids” and third go for the ultimate in telling that minority majority that they’re making it vastly more complex simplifying things just for them.  Andrew Strauss’s extraordinarily clumsy justification for ripping up the game of cricket in this country and replacing it with another format went down like a cup of warm sick with those being addressed.  Mums and kids might be too dense to understand cricket as it stands, but they weren’t so dim they couldn’t spot they were being talked down to.  Women – know your place!

6) We Are Family – Sister Sledge

You can’t be US President unless you’re born in the USA.  This is a restriction that bothers most people not at all, given few have such an aspiration, but even less knew that there is also a barrier to being England captain that doesn’t involve, you know, being good at cricket.  The Odious Giles Clarke was quick to raise the bar by stating that in Alastair Cook, “he and his family are very much the sort of people we want the England captain and his family to be.”  Horrendous plebs like the vast majority of the English population need not apply.

5) The Flood – Take That

The ECB don’t leak.  You’ve been told, time and again.  By them, admittedly, and not by anyone else.  But they don’t leak, they don’t give primers to journalists, and they keep schtum at all times.  That the outcome of Kevin Pietersen’s meeting with Tom Harrison and Andrew Strauss was being broadcast by Jonathan Agnew within minutes of it taking place must have happened by osmosis.  That the “South-African-born-middle-order-batsman” (unlike Strauss himself, naturally) also had his private letter to Hugh Morris released to the press can’t possibly have happened.  That then England coach Peter Moores had to sit and watch England play Ireland while everyone knew he was being sacked definitely wasn’t an example of a leak.  Because the ECB don’t leak.  Ever.

4) Don’t You Want Me – Human League

Tom Harrison is a kind of anti-thesaurus, whereby he considers all the possible words that could be used and resolutely chooses the wrong one.  A sillynym, if you like.  Most sports revel in their most dedicated acolytes, or at the very least pretend to pay them respect while counting the money that they pump in to the game to allow the administrators a decent supply of bourbon biscuits for their Very Important Meetings.  But not for him such lip service, not for the great man a recognition of the time and effort they put in to backing a game they adore.  No, no, they’re a barrier, a problem.  And thus can be safely termed “obsessives” instead.  Cricket is entirely unique in considering the game itself to be a problem, and those who love it most to be a big part of that problem rather than an important element to build upon.  It’s just one word, but once again it’s the wrong one, and once again cricket refuses to celebrate its own adherents but instead kicks them in the balls (women don’t count as we know) and screams at them not to get up again.

3) I Only Wanna Be With You – Dusty Springfield

Most sports have suffered from the rise of Marketing Speak – the unmitigated bollocks spouting from the executives in place of anything meaningful, and the endless use of the term “stakeholders” in cricket is guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of anyone getting progressively more fed up with every hopeless pronouncement.  But the ECB, as is their wont, go a bit further, by forgetting the supporters and amateur players each time they offer it up.  Ashley Giles came up with a good example with “We should show we have pride in playing cricket for England, that we respect everyone: all our stakeholders, sponsors, the media”.  Ah yes, sponsors and the media.  They’re the ones to talk about.  Especially post a shambolic World T20 where England stank the place out and supporters went nuts at the displays on offer.  As ever with ECB people, it’s not just what they say, it’s when they choose to say it, and who they are talking to.  Those awful little people can be safely ignored.

2) Don’t Blame it on the Sunshine – The Jackson Five

You can always rely on Colin Graves to put his foot in it.  Whether it be calling England’s opposition “mediocre” right before they hand out a thrashing, threatening counties for not acknowledging his greatness, or leading players up the garden path and encouraging them to give up hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of contracts before delivering a slap; he manages to say the wrong thing at the wrong time without exception.  So it was that he justified the impending Hundred with the immortal phrase “The younger generation, whether you like it or not, are just not attracted to cricket”.  It’s not that he’s entirely wrong, for everyone involved in the game has the same concerns, it’s the sheer chutzpah in refusing to recognise that the organisation he heads up is largely responsible for the damn thing in the first place – making the game entirely invisible to the wider public by hiding it behind a pay wall may not have been the best method of encouraging people to get involved.  To pipe up at exactly the same time as the ECB launched their latest All Stars Cricket aimed at the young was a superb example of telling everyone working hard at the lower levels that they were wasting their time doing so.

1) Let’s Go Outside – George Michael

It’s not all bad – after all it stopped us racking our brains for a name for this place.  But the ECB/PCA joint statement in the aftermath of the Kevin Pietersen sacking remains the high point in the long list of putting down the oiks who dare to object to the way the game is run.  It was two little words that did the damage, referring in parentheses to those “outside cricket” who had dared to be critical.  The defence made following the furious reaction to the statement was that it was clearly referring to Piers Morgan in particular, which remains a perfect example of how the professional game fails to get it.  Morgan is far from being everybody’s cup of tea, but the point was that since he goes to cricket and plays cricket at club level, if he is “outside cricket” then so is everyone else.  As a case study in how the professional game sneers at all those not in it, it has never been bettered.

Baby, I Got It.

 

 

 

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Clubbing a Seal

The differences between the professional and the amateur game are many and varied, but perhaps the most stark is that without the driver of financial self-interest, the fundamental reason for turning out at the weekend or in the evenings is because it is fun, because the player wishes to perform in a sport that they love. It is a simple concept, and one that many paid to play struggle to grasp – cricketers love cricket. The same can be said in many areas of life, for there are plenty of cricket journalists who cannot get their heads around the idea of a blog that doesn’t seek to “monetise” its existence, and that those who write do so simply for the pleasure of it. But the difference is that this doesn’t matter a great deal, not being able to understand why people play cricket does.

Michael Vaughan has long banged the drum for converting club cricket into a replication of the short form white ball professional cricket, and this week was joined by Harry Gurney doing the same thing. Both have a perspective that is valid, but both have shown a complete inability to comprehend the differences and the motivations behind taking up a game. Gurney started off the row with this:

While Nasser Hussain answered as follows:

There are numerous issues raised by this, some valid, some not so much. The drop off in teenage participation is anything but new, for it has always been the case that clubs lose players at around that age, even 50 years ago. The reasons haven’t fundamentally changed, the transition into adulthood takes people away from many a childhood activity, and the high levels of university access these days have led many a club member to hope that they gain a talented, but extremely dim young player. Times change, and perhaps it is true that these days there are more distractions, but the central idea that this is something that has never happened before is both nonsensical and somewhat ignorant.

The central theme of Gurney’s argument that all club cricket should be T20 or Hundred provoked a strong reaction, and one that he first tried to defend, and then became progressively more sneery about contrary opinion while stating it was just a view. But what it did highlight was a complete lack of connection or empathy with those who play the game for pleasure, and an inability to separate his own career from the wider game. This isn’t terribly unusual, sportsmen who have reached a professional level often have a sense of superiority over those amateurs and a lack of awareness that cricket may not be the central activity in another person’s life – or to put it another way, success in cricket isn’t more important than success in life just because it is their life. It is an odd social phenomenon, and hardly a new one, but the belief that this extra ability allows both greater insight and a position of authority is downright weird. Gurney rather gave the game away a little later on:

This single tweet undermines so much of the debate, the sheer arrogance of assuming that social media followers imbue a sense of knowledge is quite something and more than anything expresses an inferiority complex on his part. An appeal to own authority is a very special kind of logical fallacy.

Still, the wider issues are worth examining, not least because the decline in player participation is something that ought to concern everyone. Yet Gurney has benefitted financially from the decisions taken by the ECB to extract as much revenue from the professional game as possible, and the Hundred is merely the latest iteration of that determination to turn the game of cricket into a revenue stream first and foremost. And it is here that the disconnect between his experience and that of the ordinary cricketer is most stark – the motivation behind a franchise cricketer is to provide his livelihood, the motivation behind a recreational cricketer is that he or she wants to play. That he undoubtedly played club cricket doesn’t mean he understands club cricket. It is therefore the case that format has irrelevance if paid to play, it is part of a job, and part of a career. This is not the same as turning out weekly because of love.

Quite why cricket has suffered so badly from a decline in participation is an open question, but responding to a symptom rather than a cause is equally fallacious. Rugby hasn’t suffered particularly badly, but football has. Both of those sports involve shorter games than cricket, and that one has suffered a drop off and the other not implies that it cannot simply be about the amount of time involved in playing. Simplistic answers to complex questions merely imply a lack of critical thought. The absence of cricket from free to air television is something that Hussain for one would never acknowledge given his role at Sky, and while Gurney did later say that he would like to see that, he didn’t go as far as saying he’d accept a lower income in order to make it happen. Again, here is a fundamental difference between those who play for fun and those who do so as a career, self-interest is entirely understandable, but it doesn’t help to provide a full picture.

Which leads to the question as to whether moving all club cricket to short form would actually help anything at all, for it is at least a valid question, however clumsily expressed. Young players begin with pairs cricket rather than 20 over games, and for good reason: it allows them to bat and bowl for a significant period rather than spending their time fielding and being out after a few balls. A fundamental misunderstanding about participation in cricket is that just being there wearing whites doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, players need to do the fun bits not just be a body on the field. Professionals can’t comprehend this, because when they were going through their age groups, they were always the best player and had the chance to do the all the good things – they dominated the game and while having a great time doing so, few would have spared a thought for the team-mate who sat on the boundary with pads on all innings.

There is no swifter way to discourage anyone who wants to play than to not give them a chance to do so, something club members are acutely conscious of, professional cricketers less so. And this is the major problem with all short form cricket – that if batting below number four, half the time a player is no more than a glorified fielder, especially if they aren’t one of the best four bowlers. This is not fun, and ensuring that everyone gets a game is the art of the club captain, again a concept entirely alien to a professional who is in a side on merit, and there to do a job.

Those youth players then move on to mostly 20 over cricket, a further reminder to those who lecture from on high that the professional game did not invent T20, no matter how much they try to tell themselves that they did. It is only in their teenage years that players have the opportunity to play a longer game, and is something that almost all cricketers want to do. Bowlers get more overs, batsmen get the chance to bat properly. Of course, if a player isn’t very good, standing around for 40 or 50 overs isn’t anyone’s idea of a fun afternoon, but nothing cuts to the heart of the difficulty at amateur level quite so much as trying to involve a player who isn’t really good enough to play at that level. This doesn’t mean that clubs don’t try to do it, because they try incredibly hard – anyone who has been involved in a captaincy role knows all too well how difficult that can be.

For those better players, 20 over cricket is a great game, but not necessarily their favoured form of it. It ought to be obvious why not, but apparently it needs saying: People are doing this for enjoyment – if batting is fun and bowling is fun, they want to do more of it, not less. There is indeed the question of the time involved, but a casual cricketer who doesn’t want to give up all day both has the opportunity to play in the 20 over matches (for most clubs have that) and pushing away those committed players who do want to play a full game is no kind of solution. It is a consistent failure of both the ECB and those with little idea of the recreational game to view the existing base as a problem to be dealt with rather than a strength to capitalise upon. Gurney himself made that clear with a further tweet:

This is a straw man argument. Few bar the terminally dense would believe playing 50 overs on a Saturday is any kind of preparation for four or five day cricket, they are chalk and cheese. But it does highlight that Gurney is under the impression that the purpose of club cricket is to provide a pathway to the professional game rather than having an inherent value in itself, and that by saying it’s different he’s implying it’s the same and worthy of comparison – a perspective that’s simply weird. For a few, perhaps it might be viewed in that sense, league cricket being something that all professionals will have played as they rose up the ranks, but being under the impression that the other ten players on the side were thinking in such terms is quite remarkable. They were playing to challenge themselves and because they enjoyed it. Nothing more and nothing less, they didn’t see it as a stepping stone to anywhere.

This lofty attitude can be seen just as clearly in the assumption that playing 20 overs allows people to turn out for a couple of hours rather than giving up a whole day. Firstly, 20 overs is much slower at club level, because they don’t have people throwing the ball back from the boundary every time it’s hit – the principal reason for only playing evening 20 over leagues in June is because of how difficult it is to get a full game in before darkness when starting at 6pm. Secondly, unlike their professional counterparts, club cricketers have to prepare the ground and the clubhouse for a game. They don’t rock up, turn out, play and piss off afterwards, they have endless jobs to do, whether that be putting out the boundary rope or hoovering the clubhouse before leaving, and that’s without the travel involved getting there. Assuming it is two or three hours only highlights a spectacular ignorance and entitlement to a degree that reaches the level of both amusement and contempt. A Sunday afternoon game that started at 1pm and ended at 4pm would involve home players arriving at midday and leaving at 5pm at the very earliest – a player who merely turns up to play and leaves will soon find themselves extremely unwelcome – but perhaps when a pro does it they believe their greatness should allow them extra latitude while everyone else does all the work. Playing a T20 match does not save most of the day.

Vaughan talked about having music and a festival atmosphere at such games – does he imagine this doesn’t happen? Does he imagine that clubs have staff who do all this for them as at the counties? Everything at club level requires people to do this in the first place, and to put it all away afterwards. And the ones that do it all tend to be the “old fogeys” Hussain wanted out of cricket clubs.

Club cricket is in trouble, and does need creative solutions. But for those in a position of privilege to lecture everyone else on what they ought to do, not for the benefit of the game but their own personal position is quite extraordinary. It took Jade Dernbach to offer a dose of reality:

Club cricketers want to play cricket. This is the most obvious and important point of all; they don’t do so because they are supplicants to the professional game, but because they love the sport. They make lifelong friends doing so, they socialise with each other, and above all else they care deeply about the sport. This is why they volunteer, they coach, they prepare the ground for play, they re-decorate the pavilion each April in preparation. And they work extremely hard (for free) to encourage youngsters to take up the game. Retaining young players has always been a challenge, retaining young players whose families don’t have access to Sky is an extreme challenge. But clubs are far more aware of the issues than any professional can be; that’s why they go into schools to introduce the game to those who have never seen it while those in the professional game count their money. They play 20 over cricket, they play 50 over cricket, they play league matches, they play friendly matches. And still they struggle, with virtually no assistance from the professional game that appears to consider it an obstacle rather than an asset.

It would be a start if those who have made a comfortable living from the game spent time listening to those who work their backsides off trying to promote a sport for no other reason than that they love it. But of course, those ordinary clubs and ordinary cricketers don’t have lots of Twitter followers, so I guess they don’t really count. Being Outside Cricket has never felt as acute.

Hey, it’s Test cricket. Remember me?

The unlikely is the heart of sport and the currency by which it sucks in new adherents, how it grabs hold of a child and retains them for life. All those who love Test cricket can remember the match that first got them well and truly hooked on the sport, and in cricket’s case, it really is Tests that do that more than any other format, even now.

Sri Lanka’s extraordinary victory today over South Africa has had social media ablaze, trending across different countries not involved in the series, but reaching those who care greatly, and beyond them to the casual viewer who will see that and wonder what the fuss is all about.

A Test that in this country at least was at the margins of niche interest exploded into the realms of fascination as an unlikely run chase sank towards failure; just another game and another defeat for a nation struggling against almost all opposition. No one told Kusal Perera, who responded with one of those once in a lifetime performances to snatch an utterly extraordinary victory, with the unlikely assistance of Vishwa Fernando at the end in an unbroken last wicket partnership of 78. And for cricket fans all around the world, a relatively low key Test match became required viewing as word went around that something incredible was happening.

The details barely matter, there are plenty of match reports to read through to vicariously experience the whole thing once again. But the sensation of witnessing something amazing in any sporting contest cannot be beaten, while in Test cricket the unique tension as it unfolds is something that can’t be replicated in many other arenas. The long form that so many suppose is the problem is precisely why even those without a dog in the fight feel their heart thumping in their chest and experience the gnawing tension that grows with every ball. The possibility of something epic, the fear that any second it might be snatched away, the drawn, pinched expressions on the faces of players for whom realisation is dawning that defeat and despair may be coming.

And this is why those who are responsible for the game, who denigrate Test cricket rather than embrace it, are loathed and despised by the strange obsessives who continue to proselytise that this form of the game is the one. Whether it be Edgbaston 2005 or Durban 2019; or even Barbados 1999 when Brian Lara finished with the same score as Kusal Perera in another acutely stressful finish, Test cricket can produce sheer magic, a degree of intensity that few sports can match.

If Test cricket is in trouble, it also falls to those of us who love it to tell everyone else why. If the governing bodies won’t do it, then someone else has to. It doesn’t compensate, it doesn’t begin to make up the shortfall, but in a small way, it helps a little.

And yes, this is an exceptional example. But most sports have their routine outcomes, we watch because of the unexpected, because of the amazing. Because hitting Dale Steyn into the stands in a T20 is routine, but doing so in a thrilling Test match with one wicket standing raises the hairs on the back of the neck.

Because it matters. Because it’s a Test match. And because it is utterly bloody wonderful.

There are highlights on Sky at 6pm this evening. If you missed it, do watch if you can.

Inside Cricket: Annie Chave in Barbados

A guest post this evening. Annie Chave (@anniechave on Twitter) relates her experiences in the Caribbean.

I’m standing on the ground at the Kensington Oval, Barbados. The First Test Match of the West Indies v England series has just finished. England have been nothing short of destroyed by a Windies side that had previously been seen as the underdog. Everywhere there are players, reporters, presenters and cameras. Roland Butcher walks over to me and mentions the fact that it’s his job to pick the Man of the Match. The obvious choice is Jason Holder, but Roland is discussing it with me. How did I get to this point in time, this glitch in reality? I found myself trying to make sense of my position. Just how had I earned the media pass which I was wearing round my neck? I have no obvious background in reporting, I haven’t played cricket at a high level, I don’t have a well-connected family and I’m not a prize winner. But I’m a good honest fan of the game and, over the last year, I’ve devoted my time and my money to campaigning for the fact that someone like me, yes a woman, but also a scorer and a fan of village cricket, can have a useful and usable knowledge of the first-class game. That, along with a few days experience of broadcasting with Guerilla Cricket, was my vantage point before this Test Match. Now, after the Barbados experience, I can offer a glimpse of an ‘insider’ view of the cricketing fraternity.

Barbados is beautiful. It has beaches to die for, impressive buildings, beautiful countryside, but what it has in abundance, its overriding attraction, is an almost insatiable love of cricket. This could not have been more obvious than at the Kensington Oval. To be sure, much of the local support came from people employed at the ground, with English supporters outnumbering Windies by 75% to 25%, but the whole ground buzzed and sang in a way that exposed the old-school stuffiness and new-school corporate nature of English Test Match grounds. I was lucky enough to be working with one of the West Indian legends of the commentary box, Joseph ‘Reds’ Perreira, who has been commentating on West Indian Tests since 1971. As we arrived at the ground at 8.30 a.m. on the first day, I helped him to the very smart ‘new-look Media Centre’ (paid for by the Windies World Cup win). We threaded our way among the stalls people were setting up for the day, with fresh fruit and various foodstuffs in abundance. It was a slow passage as everyone wanted a piece of Reds. So many selfies and hugs. It was becoming clear quite what an icon this man is. The Media Centre was alive with action. Every radio and TV station has its own box, lined up like cars on a seven-lane motorway, all with windshields facing the same way. Reds and I were working for the local radio station, Line and Length (Starcom Network), run by the immensely popular Barry Wilkinson. It was inside the reality bubble of the Starcom box that David Brooks, myself and Reds introduced the day’s play. Listening to Reds talk it was obvious why he has such legendary status in the Caribbean. He has a wonderful lilting voice and his style is a unique mixture of Tony Cozier and John Arlott. (Both of whom he worked with on numerous occasions).

Reds wasn’t the only icon, though. Donna Symmonds, the first woman to commentate on Test Match Special but who last commentated twelve years ago, was kicking off the with her wonderfully precise ball-by-ball description of play. We also had the quite brilliant Roland Butcher, of Middlesex and (3 Tests) England. A more relaxed and affable star you’re unlikely to find. As the day progressed I found myself in the company of more and more stars of the game. I was beginning to feel a bit like Miles Jupp, the ‘fibber in the heat’ who inveigled his way into the press box during England’s 2006 tour of India. Jonathan Agnew popped in to talk to Donna, Vic Marks took up the commentary, as did Tino Best, in his barely fitting tight shirt. ‘No cricket for me’, he told me, ‘just a beach body now’. Vic and Tino had very different styles, but both were hugely entertaining in their analysis. Johnny Barran, who works for Radio 5 on their county cricket coverage, was brilliantly professional and helpful. For me, though, the first morning was spent in persuading a very chatty Colin Croft to come on to our lunchtime programme and present Reds with a Line and Length lifetime achievement award. This award was the brainchild of David Brooks, who holds Reds in great esteem. Colin and Reds reminisced over the airwaves about the heyday of Windies cricket, and our lunchtime show, like the game, was off to a flyer.

It was on my very first day, media pass on show, that I made my way to the President’s box. In the room full of legends of the game, I’d arranged to meet a West Indian friend who very kindly introduced me to none other than Sir Garfield Sobers. How do you greet a cricketing knight? Bow, curtsey, genuflect? I seized the initiative, grabbed his hand, shook it and said what an immense honour it was to meet such an amazing player of the game. Like the true gentleman that he is, he turned the conversation onto me. Sir Garfield said that he had visited the UK every year for the last forty years, and we chatted about the relative beauty of Devon. It must have been me who turned our conversation to the six sixes at Swansea. It was pure luck, he said, that the match was filmed at all due to another match being cancelled. He was greatly enjoying Shimron Hetmyer’s innings, he said, as he went off to watch its continuation, and I wandered back to my box in a daze, encased in a private dialogue, replaying a conversation that will stay with me for life, along with a photograph of the two of us in conversation.

On the second day England were all out for 77 in their first innings, leaving the Windies very much in the driving seat. The temperature in our Caribbean box started rising; a resurgent Windies were creating heat all across the Media Centre. I took a walk around the ground, and, with my accreditation on display, I was able to interview a selection of both sets of fans. There was a general sense of disbelief in England’s poor batting display, but what was also evident across the whole ground, was a sense that it was great to see the Windies asking questions and proving their critics wrong. The English supporters were partying, but the Windies supporters were partying better and louder.

I headed back to the Media Centre, where the reporters line up at their desks. On the floor below them, coffee and cakes are available, and a few reporters can generally be found, taking refuge in conversation from the demands of the job. Two of my favourites, George Dobell and the enigmatic Jonathan Liew, were there, interacting over a biscuit after meeting their various deadlines. We discussed the condition of County Cricket, and I was delighted to discover that they share my dismay at the ‘looming doom’ of the 100. It would be hard to find two people with more knowledge and ability to predict and dissect the horror ahead. Over coffee and in the lift, I had friendly and relaxed conversations with Steve Harmison, Nasser Hussain, David Lloyd and Michael Atherton – faces and voices we fans are all so familiar with. What surprised me more than anything was how friendly and relaxed everyone was. No prima donnas or dismissive comments. It was jokes and banter against a background of serious engagement with cricket. I was one of the lads. And that brings me on to a point that I find staggering. Apart from Donna Symmonds, I didn’t see any other woman in the Media Centre actually working in the media. I know that’s not always the case, but it was that way in Barbados. This is something that is part of the old-school cricket tradition, and it will change. I feel as if I’ve been lucky enough to be part of that growth, and that makes me feel immensely proud.

Meanwhile, the match progressed at two paces: a massive 18 wickets on day two, followed by a day without a single one. I’ll never forget the pure joy on Holder’s face as he pumped the air when he reached his 200. For day three, we had landed a lunchtime show with Jonathan Agnew. Agnew is a commentator more famous than most of the players these days, and so it was a nervous me that went to disturb him and Test Match Special Producer, Adam Mountford, in The TMS box to discuss timings and features. They were both delightful, and the interview with Aggers, in which we turned the tables on the ultimate interviewer, was entertaining and honest. As I listened to Aggers I felt that my radio at home had somehow provided an out of body experience. It wasn’t that I was starstruck. I was over all that. It was just that his voice had been part of my cricket listening for so long that I couldn’t quite believe that my voice was sharing a space with it.

The following day we were poised. England had begun their second innings positively after the Windies had declared 627 ahead after the fairy-tale partnership between their giant captain Jason Holder and their canny keeper, the elfin Shane Dowrich. It had been a full-on few days of exceptionally exciting cricket, and I’d had to learn several of the ins and outs of radio production in a hurry. It wasn’t surprising, then, that, when Steve Harmison told me that he was hoping for an early finish, I agreed whole-heartedly. My mind had been whirring and I wanted to give it a rest with a day away from the ground that had become my home for the last four days. I didn’t really expect England to fail quite so emphatically again in their second innings. At lunch on the fourth day, we interviewed the highly entertaining Darren Gough. It felt right somehow that Gough was here and talking about his experience with the greats of Windies cricket against the backdrop of such a powerful ‘new Windies’ performance. England lost their way in the second innings, and the match juddered to a halt a day early. England annihilated; Windies resplendent; Steve Harmison and me chuffed to bits.

It was, in fact, after the end of the game that I had my Miles Jupp experience. I’d followed the reporters onto the pitch. There were groups of people dotted around the outfield. Sky had set up their cameras and were interviewing Roston Chase, the improbable eight-wicket hero, and Jason Holder, the benignly triumphant skipper. There was a group of people setting up the presentation area, various members of either side were being interviewed by radio stations and a party of VIPs paraded on with the Barbadian Prime Minister. They were followed by about a dozen reporters, and the dozen reporters were followed by me. I was one of only two women in this particular crowd. The other was Mia Mottley, the first woman to hold the office of Prime Minister of Barbados. Under the circumstances, I had to brazen it out. When Trevor Bayliss was brought out to face the newspaper reporters, I joined in the huddle. Around me, newsmen recorded their questions and his answers on their phones. I was fascinated to watch the English press secretary count the time down and take control of the session. As soon as Bayliss, in his usual clipped manner, had finished, the press secretary made a beeline for the pavilion. The reporters, with me behind them, followed at a pace. Unlike the reporters, I had no idea where I was going, but I was bloody well going there. I found myself in a small room with raked seating for the reporters, so I sat at the back, waiting for someone to come over and tell me to leave. Holder and Chase were brought out to face the press. They were magnanimous about England in their answers and modest about their own performances. Joe Root looked more shell-shocked, but he held his own and managed to put across his main point, that although their performance was disappointing he felt England were good at bouncing back. I was intrigued to be present in the room for the whole performance, and it rounded off my experience at the ground perfectly. I’d witnessed the whole ‘inside cricket event’, right from the very start, with the setting up, the ball-by-ball coverage of the incredible match right through to the analysis and summing up.

As I left the ground there was a sense of jubilation everywhere: an afterglow from the stands, chatter around the food stalls, partying in the rum bars, and the chaos of the crowds and taxis. This had been an overpowering win. It was a piece of history, and I had been there to witness it. But ‘witness’ is too passive, too ‘outside’ a word to do justice to my experience. For this Test Match, I was not just a witness. I was ‘in cricket’.

West Indies vs England: 3rd Test, Day One

A day of cricket that most of all resembled the outbreak of a Test match occurred in St Lucia today. It involved England grafting having been put into bat, and finishing the day in a half reasonable position.

It could certainly be argued that the hosts, having won the series, had lost a little intensity, for they didn’t bowl anything like as well as they had in either of the first two Tests, while the absence of the suspended captain may also have had an impact. Whatever it was, the direction and accuracy was a notch down on where it has been up to now, particularly as the day wore on and the frustration began to rise.

It was still good enough to account for the England top order, the perennial problems England have in losing early wickets much to the fore. The selection of Keaton Jennings was bizarre in the first place, and he should have been given out once and was also dropped before eventually being put out of his misery by Holder’s replacement Keemo Paul.

It is hard not to feel anything other than sympathy for Jennings’ predicament. He’s hopelessly out of form, has significant technical flaws in his game, and was on a hiding to nothing being called into this one. It is not in any way surprising he failed, his head cannot be in a good cricketing place right now. Quite what those responsible expected to have dramatically changed is unknown, for this was trying the same thing again and expecting a different result. That’s known as the definition of something or other.

Rory Burns managed to play around a straight one, as did Joe Denly, while an out of sorts Root had an ugly old waft outside off stump. There is a lot of talk about his form, but it is only this winter that he was scoring centuries and being praised for showing signs of overcoming his conversion “problem”. Root is a fine player, and of all of the problems the England batting line up might have, he is the least of them, whatever the low return from this tour might be, and however out of touch he might be at present. He is the one genuinely class batsman in the team.

After that it was the Buttler and Stokes show. Both had a little luck, certainly, but Stokes probably has the purest technique of any of the England players, and has shown before he has the mental aptitude for a rearguard action. He was hardly slow of course, but he wasn’t over-aggressive, and he looked the most comfortable at the crease of any England batsman this series.

His dismissal off a no ball, leaving the field of play, left all but a remarkably smug few non-plussed, the law having changed to allow a batsman to be recalled at any point up to the next delivery to be bowled. Was I aware? Nope. First time I’ve seen that.

Although there was a little rain before lunch, the over rate was once again abysmal, in fact marginally worse than at Antigua. It may be that another West Indies captain is going to be on the sidelines for the start of the ODI series. If nothing else, it quite pointedly thumbed a nose at the ICC, but if there was sympathy in some quarters for Jason Holder, there’s likely to be far less for Brathwaite this time around given a second team offence.

By the end of play the West Indies were looking a little weary, and a four wicket return having put England into bat represents far less than they would ever have hoped or anticipated. This was without doubt England’s best day of the series. Far too late, but a decent one in the end even so.

Even when losing early wickets, England had shown a much greater level of discipline in their approach, and perhaps something can be taken from that for the Ashes, though given how far away that is, the chances are a belated learned lesson here will have no effect. But what it did do was lay at least some kind of platform for the middle order, and that was a first this series.

For tomorrow, this could still go two ways. The pitch is certainly more even than at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, and there is no reason why 300 shouldn’t be considered par. England still have a way to go to get to that, and with their propensity for spectacular collapses, it shouldn’t be assumed this is certain to be reached.

Nevertheless, at long last England have been competitive. In itself, that represents a minor victory. As long as it is considered that and no more, they can be relatively content with their efforts.

But tomorrow? Well tomorrow is another day.

West Indies vs England: 3rd Test, Day One Live

It probably won’t be a full live blog the way the last Test was, but we’ll open this one to have a place for discussion given how there’s a lot of content on the site at present.

We’ll all chime in at different points during the day, but over by over it isn’t.

Comments below of course!

England have lost the toss and will bat first. What could possibly go wrong?

This doesn’t look a particularly quick pitch at all.

As John Etheridge states…

It’s almost like people expected that from Jennings…

All in all a pretty decent session from England. Jennings went in familiar fashion, but they’ve been a fair bit more restrained in their play, and left better than in either of the first two Tests. Whether they can go on from here, well that’s a different question.

We sit here, patiently awaiting the collapse.

Buttler and Stokes have done rather well here.

West Indies vs England: 3rd Test Preview

It’s been a busy old week for the site, and Sean’s piece about the ECB, the Test team and the county set up has attracted lots of deserved attention.  For those yet to read it, it can be found here .

For England, there is the small matter of a Test match in St Lucia to deal with.  Having been comprehensively walloped in the first two Tests, England will go to St Lucia knowing it is likely to be the quickest pitch of the series, as the hosts finally appear to have realised that playing to their strengths reaps dividends, especially against teams who have shown a marked dislike for pace and bounce.  Whether it is as uneven as the Antigua surface is to some extent beside the point, England have struggled badly on perfectly flat quick, bouncy pitches in recent times, and the insistence of the ECB on producing slow, low tracks at home, allied with the pushing to the margins of the red ball county game mean it is hardly surprising that England batsmen react as if stung by a wasp when they come across bounce and pace.  Still, that’s no kind of excuse, given it’s entirely of their own doing in the first place, and the lack of preparation – or more specifically the apparent preparation and selection for the kinds of pitches seen in years past are a failure of planning that hasn’t attracted as much attention as it should have.  England’s first Test selection was utterly wrong, and how they got it that wrong should receive more scrutiny, beyond simply blaming captain and coach.

This time around, they at least don’t have to deal with trying to bowl to Jason Holder for a day at a time, banned as he is from the match for a slow over rate.  There has been much sympathy for him, but in principle the decision is fair enough – it is the lack of consistency that is the problem.  However, it needs to be said that much noise concerning slow over rates comes from the likes of us, while anecdotally, it can’t be said that it is a pressing concern for most, which perhaps puts us as outliers.

To replace him, the West Indies have called up an all rounder in Keemo Paul as a direct replacement, and another fast bowler in Oshane Thomas.  Which they go with will say a lot about how fragile they believe England to be after their previous drubbings.

For England, unless injury forces a change from Stokes and Foakes, if they do change anything it is most likely to be to bring in Mark Wood, who whatever his shortcomings in his career to date, and injury has plagued him, is certainly the only member of the squad who might have the pace to match the West Indians.  It really is like being back in 1985 – all we need is for someone to talk about meeting fire with fire.  If this is what England go with, the player at most risk is Sam Curran, keeping up the fine tradition of England replacing a bowler when the batsmen fail.  Wood himself directly commented on that, in a delightfully off message observation that will not have endeared him to the England hierarchy.

“I think I’ve got a chance. It’s very harsh to leave a bowler out when it’s the batting that’s failed but that always seems to be the case, doesn’t it?”

Optimism is in short supply, but it is always possible that England will have learned some lessons from the series to date.  Perhaps they’ll bat more responsibly, and not assume they are in a one day international.  Perhaps they’ll consider occupation of the crease to be a valid aim.  Perhaps they’ll bowl to do more than try and invite the kinds of reckless shots that England batsmen make.  But the evidence to date suggests it unlikely.  Still, that’s the beauty of sport.

The absence of Holder would make any England win slightly hollow, and it could be argued that for England to really look properly at what has happened on this tour and why they need to be resoundingly beaten so no one can try and look for the positives.  Yet the ECB in recent years seem to care not a jot for reverses (away Ashes whitewashes are brushed off as being of little consequence, especially when they can’t blame the same person again) , content to win mostly at home and occasionally away if playing an understrength opponent.  This tour will be forgotten quickly when the World Cup comes around, though that does highlight the importance of England winning it to remotely justify the sidelining of the Test team, and the selection of a near on one day batting line up in the Test arena.  2019 does have the potential for the ECB to claim all is well and pat themselves on the back for their brilliance, but there will undoubtedly now be a few nervous glances over a shoulder or two at Lord’s, and so there should be.  It’s been a high stakes gamble, one which requires everything for the remainder of this year to go right .  The problem is that their concern is on the basis of how it reflects on their strategy, not a care about the game of cricket as a reason in itself.

None of this should be a surprise to anyone.  It still isn’t that England are an awful team – faced with friendly conditions they are a match for anyone.  But they have been found out away from home, and their limited approach does not serve them well in alien surrounds.  Whoever would have predicted that?

 

West Indies vs England: 2nd Test Review – Hubris

If the first Test was one sided, England were quick to say that such underperformance wouldn’t be repeated in Antigua, and they would be a side transformed. Perhaps it was the necessary self-confidence any team ought to have in itself, their ability to match and exceed the opponent. But perhaps instead it spoke of a wider hubris about where they sit in the cricket hierarchy, an inability to accept that they were being outplayed by a team who, in these conditions at least, were simply better than them.

Certainly England didn’t appear to have learned anything, nor did they change their approach with the bat. The same carefree certainty that they could dominate from the off, the same puzzled confusion that it didn’t just fail to work, but instead actually got worse, as scrambled minds struggled to deal with what was happening to them. If one thing has marked England out over recent years, it is an inability to think on their feet and respond to changing circumstances and a different challenge in front of them. Their difficulties faced with pace have become clear, their technical limitations dealing with a quick pitch that bounces even more so.

To a considerable extent it shouldn’t be surprising. The first class game is confined to the margins of the season with tracks that are either green or tired, the home Tests are played all too often on turgid surfaces where the ball rarely gets above knee level without additional effort, while the bowlers focus on getting swing rather than seam, and high pace is neutralised. The lack of genuine quick bowlers in the domestic game isn’t a coincidence, it is a product of the system and the conditions. It always, without exception, is that way. And they have become adept at playing in the conditions created at home for them, while appearing lost when faced with something different.

The misreading of the first Test selection smacked of a structure that expected the pitches in the Caribbean to be as they had been on previous tours – a failure of intelligence gathering if nothing else, as well as one of judgement. The second Test put that right to an extent, but the West Indies smelled blood by that point. No longer was it a case of sneaking a 1-0 lead and preparing dead pitches to hold on to it. This team had England on toast, and were going to demonstrate it again. From here, 3-0 looks far more likely than 2-1.

The selection of Keaton Jennings alone indicated England’s expectations, a player who has had modest success on slow surfaces, and looks technically short on anything else. That was changed here for Joe Denly, but expecting him to put right the problems in the England batting order was always optimistic to say the least.

The quartet of West Indies bowlers tore into England from the start, and it was abundantly obvious that England couldn’t cope with it. Certainly the pitch wasn’t the best, but it’s not hard to imagine previous generations of England batting line ups handling that rather better, and even the much maligned late 1990s version would have attempted to graft rather than hit their way out of trouble.

The folly of the approach was shown by how the West Indies batted in reply. Stuart Broad is one of the more thoughtful observers on the game in the England ranks, but while he was correct that England didn’t have a great deal of luck, there was unquestionably a difference in the chosen line of attack and how they were trying to get the batsmen out. The home team targeted the stumps, England bowled in the channel outside, passing the bat repeatedly for sure, but also limiting the kinds of dismissals possible.

Broad, by far the most impressive of the England bowlers, slightly gave the game away after day two, suggesting that the batsmen had indicated fuller deliveries were easier to score off, but that he felt they should have pushed it up further anyway. Once again, it’s about run prevention rather than wicket-taking as the central mindset, and while Broad is often guilty of that too, with him at least it feels that his mentality is to want to bowl people out. The spell on the second day had all the feeling of being on the cusp of one of those irrestible ones, and that the West Indies survived it is deeply to their credit. That’s not to say for a second that bowlers with 1,000 Test wickets between them don’t know what they’re doing, but there is a default to fall back on, and England do it repeatedly, and when it doesn’t work, it’s striking.

Jonny Bairstow had explained his first innings thrash by saying he never felt in on the pitch. Understandable perhaps given it was the first, early sighter. It was far less so second time around after Darren Bravo had provided such an object lesson in crease occupation. But here again, England were guilty of millionaire shots – expansive drives to straight, good length balls, flailing furiously at anything outside off stump.

Of the top order only Root could be said to have been got out, making him doubly unlucky after the unplayable one he got in the first innings. The others were all guilty of playing T20 shots in a Test match, or leaving a straight one – another indication of mental struggle.

England were certainly beaten by the better team, and there is no disgrace in that. There is in the manner of doing so. Hidebound, narrow minded and incapable of either considering or applying a different method. If they refuse to do so, that is poor. If they are incapable of doing so, that is worse. For it speaks to the very structure of the game the ECB have administered, with few obvious alternatives out there. Cause and effect. Always cause and effect.

As for the West Indies, if this is to prove the start of some kind of revival, however modest, that is cause for celebration. Cricket has too few teams to be casual about losing any more (ICC take note), and the manner of their victory and their style of play spoke to a deep pride in who they are and how they play. The clear burning anger at the perceived lack of respect given to them suggests as much. They have been a joy to behold, and if nothing else, the genuine and slightly bewildered delight of the locals is heart warming.

England have it all, money, a system that could be honed to produce the best that is possible. A deliberate strategy of sidelining that in pursuit of filthy lucre brings us to where we are now. It isn’t that England are a terrible team, but they are a one dimensional one, and one incapable of adapting. The express strategy of focusing on the one day forms of cricket is bearing fruit there, but at the expense of Tests. And when Anderson and Broad call it a day, the naked exposure is going to be even more obvious.

Results like this aren’t catastrophic in themselves, but they are the canary in the mine. The ECB approach has been to euthanise the canary rather than investigate the gas. And that’s why things won’t improve. Get used to it.

West Indies vs England: 2nd Test, Day Three Live Blog

Preamble: After being chivvied by Trevor in the comments for being late on parade, I’ve now had coffee and arrived at my spot in the ground. Square of the wicket in the Mound area by the way, though wandering around is permitted which is wonderful.

Stuart Broad said England need a batting hero today, and he’s probably right about that, but first up is the small matter of taking the last four wickets before the already significant deficit becomes a chasm. The possibility that this is the final day of the Test does loom large, for if England don’t bat extremely well later, this Test and this series is done.

For later on, these are the kinds of decisions that are more important though:

The crowd appears to have thinned again today, albeit hopefully more locals will be in given its a weekend and their team is (to be blunt) winning.

0910: Weather report, the skies are mostly clear, with a few fluffy clouds. No rain this morning at all so far.

0920: Desperate news from the West Indies camp that Alzarri Joseph’s mother passed away this morning. Nothing more to be said, dreadful.

0922: I think what I like about this ground, and presumably the others in the region, is that it’s a no shits given kind of venue. Do whatever you like, no one is bothered what you are doing or where. It’s so refreshing.

0930: Wise words from Chris Tremlett

0936: England still playing football in the warm up.

It amazes me so much gets written about this. It’s a relaxing way to get loose, and injuries can happen whatever they do. And they do as well. Not a thing wrong with it, when exercising, muscles can ping, ankles can be turned. Scrapping football won’t change that.

0949: view from the other side of the ground. Nothing to do with going to get another coffee.

0958: Out come the teams:

PS, the decent photographer on these pages is Dmitri. Me? I take as many as possible on the phone and pick the one that’s vaguely acceptable. My total lack of interest puzzles him.

1050: That nasty blow for Bravo is a sign of things to come for England. As was the Holder wicket. As the lead stretches, and with England needing to score a minimum of 250 to have any kind of realistic chance, this Test looks to be going only one way.

1057: Alzarri Joseph got a wonderful reception from the crowd as he walked out. But the PA isn’t very clear here, so most around me didn’t know and were asking why people were standing and applauding.

1119: It’s probably gone as well as it could have for England this morning. The real business of seeing how England bat is to come.

1134: That is a big lead on this.

1204: Being conditioned to expect the worst is a terrible thing. But getting to lunch without losing a wicket is mildly surprising all in all. Seeing England duck and weave though is a fantastic reminder of how Test cricket was at times in the past, before pitches became placid, slow and uniform, existing only to break the hearts of fast bowlers. So it’s a bit uneven. So what?

1244: I actually hate it when the press publish photos of their lunches that are provided for them, but since I queued and paid for this, I’ll mention the goat curry was excellent.

1258: Fancy an opener playing a risky pull shot in a crisis situation. Would never have happened a few years ago.

1322: It looked a terrible shot live. It looked worse on replay from Burns. A late cut (of sorts) straight to the slips is, well, brave.

1342: Still 52 overs scheduled today. So England should be significantly ahead assuming they’re still in by the close. One way or another, we’ll be a fair way to knowing the outcome.

1348: that’s another ridiculously ambitious shot. Bairstow said in the first innings that he didn’t feel ever in, hence attacking everything. Seems the second innings was to be the same.

1410: Don’t worry, they’ll learn from this. It’s just an aberration, right?

The atmosphere in the ground is great now though, the locals are climbing into this England team with relish and gusto. Who can blame them?

1419: this is shambolic. Again.

1420: Alzarri Joseph being the catalyst for it though, that’s pretty special.

1425: Just a brilliant atmosphere. Though just heard the England fans next to me say “bollocks to going to South Africa to watch this shit”.

Oh England are winning the rugby at least.

1432: Meet Michael, who has provided plenty of entertainment to the crowd all around the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium. He’s currently offering all the sad England fans a free flight home tonight and not to cry too much.

1441: Dominant session from the West Indies. And every chance they’ll wrap up the series after tea.

1450: My legs are burning. I await your sympathy.

1521: England are playing a positive, exciting brand of cricket, remember. Are you not entertained?

1530: Six down, four of them bowled. This aiming at the stumps lark is clearly overrated.

1543: Just to emphasise that no one cares what you do in this ground, there’s an enormous reefer being passed around just to my left. Lord’s next.

1556: Ironic cheers all round as England make the West Indies bat again. What a hiding this is.

1559: Seven wickets this innings have been bowled or lbw. England did that once when they bowled.

1610: “The England teams are very clear that part of their responsibility in playing this bold and brave cricket – this commitment to playing an exciting formula of cricket every time they go on the park – is linked to this.” – Tom Harrison.

That’s alright then.

1614: So. Beach tomorrow then.

1628: Just trying to get a few different photos of the finish, I’ll then pop them up with a few words. It’s not like anyone is on tenterhooks about the outcome!

1633: West Indies sneak it, in the end.

1641: On my way out of the ground now. Some photos and some video of the winning runs…edit: why the hell this is upside down is beyond me.

And a last farewell to the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium:

Two Tests played, two thumping victories for the home team. And my goodness did they deserve it. They outbatted and outbowled England by a distance, pretty much from start to finish. England have made a point when they lose matches of saying they haven’t executed their skills or some such guff. It’s nonsense, they’ve just been outplayed by a better team in these conditions.

The inability of the England team to graft and show fight is quite striking. Rabbits in the headlights when faced with the revolutionary tactic of a team bowling straight at them. It was a pleasure to witness the West Indies play, and to see the amazed pleasure of the locals who have watched their team struggle for too many years. And if a sporting success can bring a small crumb of comfort to a young man in distress, so be that too.

But some of the English media appear to be in disbelief that such a thing could happen, so convinced by the ECB mantra that all is going swimmingly that rational analysis has gone by the wayside. England are brittle they have been for some years. Doesn’t mean they can’t win, doesn’t mean they won’t win. But faced with challenging circumstances, they wilt more often than not and appear to struggle to cope with needing to change their method. That a player as free scoring as Darren Bravo gave them a lesson in Test match batting ought to ring alarm bells. But alas of course, it will not.

Have a good rest of the evening folks, been a pleasure to share the Test with you. TLG.