The 2016 Dmitris – #2 – 6 6 6 6

Image result for carlos brathwaite

When blogging you can get a bit caught up about what happens now, in the recent past. It’s why many of the awards get given to those who achieve late in the year, how lists are skewed towards the modern era, and not the old. It seems a long time ago now, but the busiest day on the blog this year, outside of the infamous List, and more of that later in the year, was in the immediate aftermath of the World T20 Final. I sort of think of that final over as a “Sliding Doors” moment. To guess the true significance, from my perspective, of it, is to hypothesise on what might have been.

I think the key post that frames the impact I thought might be coming our way is the one I wrote on 26 January, and called Schism. It aches me, genuinely, that as a result of actions in 2014 England supporters, the ones we encounter on social media, split down the middle.  Team Cook (ECB) vs Team KP (Outside Cricket). The two sides entrenched, in many ways not seeing each others point of view, but letting the frustration of the other side refusing to “buckle” reinforce matters more. I try to see things from the anti-KP brigade, and I just can’t. I accept that. I write about it. How difficult it is to think that people can take a load of media-assembled points and run them as fact without doing the thinking themselves. About how it is evident, to me, that the ECB leaked like my old shed roof and yet this was acceptable because it was getting the man. I try to explain this pull, this wretched feeling that something went so disgustingly wrong, that there were people who would rather side with the authorities than with a maverick, not seeing the bigger picture.

The Ashes in 2015 brought out the worst in the pro-ECB masses. It put us in our place. We were there only to be told to toe the line, get in with England and Cook, and yet people still kept on keeping on. There was still a tough core of people on here who would not get over the issues, not move on, not get into line. Maybe it brought out the worst in us. A peevish refusal to accept the position, almost that to give up would be to betray what we had putout there in the previous 18 months.

Over the preceding winter to the T20 competition KP started to hit form in the Big Bash. While certain people talked up a potential recall to the England, we all deep down knew it would never happen. Too many egos at play, too much water under the bridge. But it still rankled. A brilliant T20 performer left kicking his heels, undoubtedly good enough to get in the team, but kept out by a concept, a grudge, and stupidity.

What was so important about the loss in the World T20 Final is what it prevented from happening. It’s almost sacrilege to say it was a good thing England lost, and I can’t quite go that far. Was I crushingly disappointed? No. And I like this ODI/T20 team because it doesn’t, or at least didn’t, carry the baggage the test team did. But it was the way the press, the acolytes, the hangers-on were lining up what they would say if the victory had been sealed. Within a year Comma would be vindicated, feted as a genius, a man who turned water into wine, a man who could do little wrong. Look at us 8 months on, and see where we are now – a bedraggled test unit, at the end of their tether – and see how the climate has changed. Then there would be the ample opportunities to stick the knife into Kevin Pietersen – don’t they always – and us. People like us. Those who despise the ECB. Those who had excoriated a supine, pliant media for their obsequiousness. We would have seen the Ashes 2015 aftermath rerun – a time of vile abuse, of crass stupidity, and a downright unpleasant time to be blogging. It really ceased being fun.

Carlos Brathwaite also brought joy to the West Indies. Some of the players in that team it is very fair to say do not command respect. Gayle’s behaviour in Australia last winter being the most prominent, but Dwayne Bravo and Marlon Samuels aren’t exactly angels, and as for ‘Dre Russ, we are still awaiting his drug hearing. But there’s something about a West Indies success that just rouses you. Well it does me. It’s not being a hipster, but more in touch with my youth and their all conquering team. Those glimpses are more fleeting, their cricket more fragile – that word again – and thus unrestrained joy, especially at the expense of a cocky, arrogant foe (and England are that, whether we like it or not, we are not well liked in international circles) could be understood. Newman went ballistic at it, acting like a child, telling them off for celebrating in front of us, being mean spirited, and, worst of all, adding on to their U-19 success on the back of a Mankading, evidence of not playing the game in the right way.

That over changed a lot, and in many ways the blogging landscape has calmed down a lot since there. There’s not the visceral anger there once seemed to be. The usual suspects still have their ways of cheesing me off, but there’s not that need to fight as much. I think an England win might have exacerbated it. Not that that is at all important, and this isn’t meant to be a (totally) self-centred piece, but the anti-KP/ ECB fanboy/girl mob got to feel real pain, even if it was fleeting, even if it was in a tournament we all thought we had no chance in. It may have turned a cricket team’s fate, as their test team now looks a little better, but with still a long way to go. It was a cracking tournament and England played very well, and we can build confidence upon that display, in very testing conditions. But in the end, one of the most amazing finishes you are likely to see impacted very widely, and possibly, just possibly, the corner was turned on a number of fronts, big and small.

So, for Dmitri #2, a little obscure, a little tangential, and maybe a little controversial, I give you 6 6 6 6. Remember the Name…

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Fleet Street Peek: Pique, Cheek and Shriek

It’s now three days since England came so close to winning a second World T20 title, and the press have had their say and moved on.  Ben Stokes has received a lot of scrutiny over that final over, most of it sympathetic, some of it much less so, particularly in the immediate aftermatch, to the point where the concerns about him being the latest journalistic punchbag post Pietersen have resurfaced, specifically a Daily Express headline writer who decided to go with “Choker” as the headline, doubtless to the fury of the journalistic staff.

Over the last couple of years the Daily Telegraph has largely supplanted the Guardian as the broadsheet newspaper which delivers some of the most thoughtful comment.  That’s not to say the old Telegraph of blazers and public schoolboys (although to be fair, there’s a lot of that in the Guardian too, they just tend not to revel in it) has disappeared, for Simon Heffer wrote in the aftermath of the tournament a protest against the way it is supplanting both championship and Test cricket.  His article actually makes a number of very good points, though the opening line of “Along with thousands of other MCC members” is always going to raise a smile.  Still, it’s rare enough that someone in the media references Death of a Gentleman to be worth checking out, and while some of the issues, such as the question of T20 franchise cricket are not open and shut, Heffer argues his case with passion, which is welcome.

Almost all the Telegraph coverage focuses on the players and the match itself.  Paul Hayward is one who retains sympathy for Stokes in print.  Hayward doesn’t tend to get universal praise for his writing, but his opening line is a potent one:

“If you think Ben Stokes’s bowling was to blame, try hitting four consecutive sixes in front of a global television audience, in the final over, to win a world title when all seems lost.”

By focusing on the brilliance of Brathwaite instead of the pain of Stokes, he followed the line that the Telegraph has maintained since the game finished.  Jonathan Liew’s initial match report had remained sympathetic throughout, merely hoping that Stokes would be able to forgive himself, while Michael Vaughan follows pretty much the same line.  Vaughan does go on to say that it was the best tournament he had seen, and gave it 10 out of 10, which is a curiously shallow view of it.  For certain, many of the matches were exciting, and one semi-final and the final itself were thrilling, but 10 out of 10 when the ticketing was a shambles?  When the Associates were more or less ignored at the start?  From the perspective of looking only at the TV spectacle, yes you could see why that might be a view, but surely there are wider issues to look at.

In contrast, the Guardian decided to go big on Andrew Strauss, Vic Marks in the build up writing an homage to Strauss’s achievements.  It is always curious how the players themselves seem to be secondary in some eyes to those above, for while Strauss does deserve some note for his decisions, retaining Eoin Morgan as captain was unquestionably slightly surprising, to then focus only on all good things as being the work of the Director, Cricket is nonsensical.  As for the media being “hoodwinked” over the choice of Bayliss as coach, when all expected it to go to Jason Gillespie, well maybe they were, but this blog queried the likelihood of him getting it at the time, specifically because of how much the media were going on about it, and the ECB’s talent for not telling them the truth.  Choosing Bayliss was a good call, but praising Strauss for everything, while quietly ignoring some of the less glorious episodes, and indeed the players is bizarre.  Even when Nasser Hussain invoked Strauss, he did make the point of saying the players deserve it most of all.  It’s a very English thing though, the suits are the ones who get the praise, but so rarely the criticism as we’ve been all too aware of over the last couple of years.

Marks did focus on the players, or more specifically Stokes himself, when writing after the final, following suit with most others about how he will deal with what happened, but Mike Selvey manages to go through all sorts of hoops when writing about the dysfunctional relationship with Caribbean cricket to avoid even referring to the wider issues about the world game.  It’s quite impressive in a way, for while the relations between the players and the board in the West Indies are indeed shambolic, at least part of the problem is down to the West Indies very much being in the bracket of the have-nots of the international game, something that Selvey has studiously avoided ever considering.  If he’d ever bothered to watch Death of a Gentleman, he might grasp some of the problems that afflict countries outside the Big Three, but presumably even daring to do so would bring down the wrath of his friends in high places amongst English cricket’s hierarchy.

Over in the Mail, Paul Newman got a bit carried away, writing a tear stained love letter to Stokes of the kind that he used to do for his one time ghost-writing subject Kevin Pietersen.  It’s all rather lovely, but we have seen how he can turn.  He also decided to take the opportunity to talk about Strauss, going so far as to describe the Champions Trophy as one that Strauss “will be desperate to win” which is just odd.

When reading through the various articles about this, it’s quite striking how little comment there is.  The Times might well have plenty, but since it’s hidden behind a paywall it’s going to get ignored.  The press did give coverage to the match reports, which is useful given most of the public didn’t see the final, but subsequently?  Not so much.  It’s a bit thin, and although there are the specialist sites such as Cricinfo, which are so frequently excellent with Jarrod Kimber excelling himself, and Ed Smith being, well Ed Smith.  But for general newspapers, the days of in depth analysis seem to be largely behind us. A shame.

Four Hits to the Win

Spare a thought this evening for Ben Stokes, a player for whom most things have gone right the last 18 months or so.  With England needing to restrict the West Indies to fewer than 18 runs off the final over, and with Marlon Samuels marooned at the non-strikers end, confidence must have been high.  Four consecutive sixes to win the match with two balls to spare probably wasn’t figuring in many worst nightmares for the England team, and yet that’s exactly what happened.

And you’ve got to laugh.  Not because the England players remotely deserve the pain they are going through in any way whatsoever – but because sport can be magnificent sometimes, no matter how much administrators try to ruin it.  And make no mistake, that was magnificent.  West Indies were if not quite dead and buried then certainly on life support, England on the verge of victory.  And yet, there’s always the slight possibility in any sporting encounter for the extraordinary to happen.  It doesn’t very often, for if it did the exceptional would become the mundane, but when it does it is enough to make any viewer apart from the most partisan and one eyed stand and applaud.  The essence of joy in sport is to chuckle delightedly at special achievements.

The incredible finish doesn’t alter the truth that England could and should have posted a much better score than they did; some dismissals were unfortunate, some a little careless, albeit within the confines of a format where a high risk approach is a necessity and often highly rewarded.   It is difficult and unreasonable to criticise players for doing the same thing that gains them success when on occasion it leads to failure, unless that failure is evidence of failing to learn.  Equally, safety first is never a profitable means of playing 20 over cricket, but a fair few England players will look on their final with regret.  England’s disastrous start in reaching 23-3 was one they never entirely recovered from, although Joe Root once again did his best, and David Willey in the closing overs got England up to some kind of score.

One of the key arts of captaincy is for decisions and gambles to come off, and in attempting to defend a moderate total, opening the bowling from one end with Joe Root was definitely a gamble, but one that did indeed come off, removing both Gayle and Charles in his opening over. From there the West Indies were struggling to catch up, and the required rate began to rise.  Marlon Samuels received a life when initially given out caught behind only to be reprieved by the TV umpire.  This is as unsatisfactory as it always is.  It’s been demonstrated on so many occasions that foreshortening makes the ball look like it touched the ground when it didn’t, to the point where the late Tony Greig showed a ball several inches off the ground appearing to be grassed.  Did it carry?  Who knows.  Television is a poor means of examination precisely because it is fundamentally misleading.  Those saying it touched the ground are doing so on the same flawed evidence in the first place – it is simply impossible to know.  The umpires need to take control here and make decisions, and onlookers need to accept their judgement as being based on better evidence than the television can provide, that of seeing the action in three dimensions.

Willey was the pick of the bowlers, alongside Adil Rashid, as their ability to restrict the batsmen first tilted the game towards England, and then seemingly had it won.

The fall out from the tournament will undoubtedly continue over the next few days.  Darren Sammy had plenty to say at the presentation, not holding back in his criticism of the WICB and stating his uncertainty about whether the team would play together again. There’s no doubt at all that cricket in the Caribbean is in serious trouble; where the primary responsibility lies is open to debate, but if this victory concentrates minds in a region where cricket remains a passion, then perhaps it will be worthwhile.  The problem is that we’ve been here before, and it made little difference.  There are no signs it will this time either, for a disconnect between administrators and players and supporters are hardly the sole prerogative of the English.

If there’s one thing to act as a saving grace in England’s defeat, it’s that it has stopped some of the more predictable sources from gloating about how the ECB have handled things perfectly over the last couple of years and how a win would have justified it all.  It clearly doesn’t, in the same way that defeat doesn’t make those criticisms correct either.  But the desire from some to cheerlead the actions of a board that’s demonstrably untrustworthy remains as downright peculiar as it ever was.  With 19 required off the final over, the suspicion that “Who needs Kevin Pietersen?” tweets and articles were about to be sent out is a strong one.  And here’s the point, that argument is valid win or lose, it’s just that it tends not to appear when England lose.  For those it will not present a problem, for they will doubtless pop up again next time the players on the pitch perform well, the obsession is peculiar from those who profess not to care.

And the England team?  They’ve performed well in this tournament, probably significantly above expectations.  Eoin Morgan has not had the best time with the bat, but has led the team well.  The bowlers improved by the game, while the batsmen were explosive, and reasonably consistent, notably the outstanding Root.  Those players will be crushed by the loss, and particularly the way it happened, and exhortations to be proud of themselves will fall on deaf ears.  That’s the nature of elite sportsmen and women – second is nowhere.  But England do have a collection of highly talented cricketers, and despite the ructions above have been a credit to themselves and the shirt they wear.

The tournament itself is a testament to the belief that less is more, for by going straight to semi-finals rather than quarters, each group match became critical.  The main competition was short and sharp, entertaining and often nail biting.  The continuing disdain for the Associate nations and the way they were kept out of sight before the entry of the Test playing countries remains as contemptible as it appeared a month ago.  In 50 over cricket, the ICC have gone for the ultimate – making the tournament long and boring and excluding the outsiders to peering through the gates at the party within. There isn’t so much wrong with cricket that it couldn’t be improved by exiling the sport’s bureaucrats and power hungry businessmen to a remote island somewhere.

As for the media, there will doubtless be much wailing about the outcome here, but the reality of T20 is being wise after the event to explain wins or losses only makes sense where a team is clearly off the pace.  England could have won today, but didn’t.  It’s just sport – trying to find explanations in a very tight match is merely speculative.  There was a huge amount wrong with how England played the game for about a decade, the way they are playing it now is exactly how they should play, and the antithesis of how many in the ECB establishment allowed them to play for a long time.  And when that basic concept has been corrected, to the credit of players, captain and coach, it is a bit much for those who stood in the way all that time to try to claim the credit.  Some you win, some you lose – but play the right way and the opportunities to win are much greater.

Well done the West Indies, both men and women.  The party tonight will be good.

 

Vive le Roy – England in the final

As the saying goes, one out of two ain’t bad.  Equally, both sexes should be preparing for a final, for this morning the problems in the middle order finally caught up with the women’s team and cost them the match.  Throughout the group stages the top order had done most of the job, only for the jitters to kick in, the wickets to begin tumbling and a frantic scramble ensued to win matches that already looked safe.  Against Australia the same thing happened, only this time the quality of opposition was superior.  A fascinating thing about cricket is the collective panic that can set in to a side, and then happen repeatedly.  Everyone in the team is aware of it, everyone about to go in to bat feels they are the ones to arrest the slide – and yet it proves impossible to do.  The psychology of team sports is endlessly fascinating.  T20 cricket more than perhaps any other form of the game can be about an individual raising their team to higher levels than perhaps they are at as a unit.  Edwards, Taylor and Beaumont have been excellent and carried the side to this stage.  The inability of those following to capitalise means they will go no further.

From the men however, it was dominant, as they cruised home against New Zealand with nearly three overs to spare –  a result that is to all intents and purposes a thrashing.  It was also the most complete performance from them in the tournament to date, for every side is more than aware that the firepower of England’s batting is their strong point.  Moreover the victory over South Africa in the group stages means that every side will be thoroughly aware that they have the ability to chase down pretty much any target set, but on this occasion they didn’t have to because the bowlers did their bit, and more.

New Zealand will be deeply disappointed to have only made 153, especially after passing 100 after just 12.2 overs.  At that point the generally useless score predictor beloved of the TV coverage was suggesting 197, which just goes to show that complex algorithms supplied after hundreds of hours of work are no better than equal to someone with a modicum of common sense and cricket watching experience thinking that they could get 200 here unless England start taking wickets to slow them down.  Moeen Ali was the first to apply the brakes to the scoring, despite only bowling the two overs.  Stokes and Jordan then increased the pressure to the point wickets began to fall under the strain of trying to raise the run rate.  The latter in particular has improved by the game in this competition, while in Stokes England have a genuine death bowler for the late stages.  Whoever England play in the final, this is going to be critical, for both potential opponents have explosive players who can ruin any carefully laid plans.

Alex Hales and Jason Roy made a sub-standard total look positively inadequate within 5 overs, rattling along at ten an over and removing any sense of pressure from the equation.  Roy in particular was outstanding, demolishing a good attack while never slogging, while Hales, who has plenty of form for doing the same thing showed an excellent sense of game management in playing the supporting role to his partner.  By the time Hales was dismissed for 20 runs that were far more valuable than in the numbers, England were over half way to their target with the better part of 12 overs to get the remainder.

It wouldn’t be England without a small wobble, and two wickets in two balls supplied that – Eoin Morgan’s penchant for first ball dismissals coming to the fore once again – but England had this under control and pretty much in the bag even then, despite Scott Styris’ entirely understandable pleas for a couple more wickets.  Any prospect of the game going to the wire was removed by Jos Buttler brutally finishing the game off with an unbeaten 32 off 17 balls, yet ironically it was the present of Root, quietly going about his business that lent the sense of certainty to the outcome some time before.

And so a nation rejoices, right?  Well not really.  As has been observed before, this whole competition has barely registered with the wider public.  In some ways that’s down to the perception (in the UK)  that T20 is the least important format of cricket, and when England won the thing back in 2010, it can’t be said that open top bus parades were the result.  Yet if the muted response to England’s first global tournament victory back then was the benchmark, this time it’s even more low key.  Sky’s coverage has been as thorough as it usually is – at least for the men (the protestations that the failure to cover the England women was out of their hands is nonsensical, Sky are a very high value partner for the ICC, one who can and do push their case with them) but the newspaper coverage has been a little scanty and relegated to the inside pages, and while the BBC have certainly promoted the event in their TV reminders (not adverts.  Oh no) it is without any sense that it has captured the zeitgeist.

The reality here is that cricket’s media footprint has declined to the point it’s a special interest sport, not a general interest one as it used to be. Here’s a little test for you:  when was the last time you heard someone say they hated cricket?  It’s so invisible they don’t have to any more, it doesn’t even exist as something to loathe.  That’s no reflection on this current team, who are playing T20 how it should be played – indeed how only a couple of England players in the past demanded it be – which means that they are doubly unfortunate to be doing all the right things at a time where people don’t really care any more.

This isn’t carping at the England team, and it’s certainly not berating the print media, who respond to what their readers wish to see.  But it is a dreadful missed opportunity that England can reach a world final, and rather than it be a catalyst for increased participation and interest, it merely serves to reinforce the sense of decline in importance for the wider public.  The vast majority of people will see this result only in a 60 second round up on the main evening news.  The showing of in game highlights has been a welcome development, so it isn’t that things aren’t being tried, with the proviso of refusing to recognise the bigger issue – the fear is that in England at least, it may be too late; not for the game, which will survive, but for cricket as a mainstream sport.

Reaching the final is a credit to this team, and they have every chance of winning the whole thing.  What a pity so few will notice. What a shame Jason Roy’s innings today won’t be the thing everyone is talking about work tomorrow.

If a Tree Falls and No One Hears it…

One of the fundamental problems with working for a living, is that it thoroughly gets in the way of other things – like watching cricket.  This is even more the case when that work involves travelling.  So it was that the first week of the tournament was spent in Berlin, which didn’t really matter that much given how the ICC were trying to keep those awful associates out of the way as much as possible.  The second week was spent back here in the UK, except with a ludicrous schedule whereby the defeat to the West Indies was spent either on the tube or eventually in a car heading to Bristol – which would have been fine but for the presence of a German colleague for whom the delights of a cricket match on the radio probably wouldn’t have been the centre-piece of his trip.

The win over South Africa was spent in Cambridge, a five hour meeting which was productive, but not really the time to be checking Cricinfo to see what was happening.

Afghanistan was missed by dint of what in truth was a fairly pleasant lunch in Mayfair, although my lack of familiarity with such places was evidenced by my (silent) reaction to the presentation of the bill.  Free advice to you all:  Do not ask someone who works in Mayfair where they fancy going to lunch.  They will tell you, and then you’re stuffed.

Sri Lanka – ah yes I watched the Sri Lanka match.  I’m pretty sure I was back home by then, and after four overs of their innings texted a friend to say that surely even England couldn’t screw this one up, only to watch them try awfully hard to do just that.  Still, they won, and the nature of T20 is that it often gets close simply because of the shortness of the format.

And so England are in a semi-final of a tournament that has largely passed me by.  And here’s where Dmitri’s preview hits the nail on the head, because I’m a cricket fan, I watch it routinely and yet by not getting to see it, it’s barely registered as a competition.  Worse than that, the women are also in the semi-final and haven’t even had all their matches broadcast on Sky.  There have been mealy-mouthed justifications that it’s out of their hands, but that’s a nonsense – if they wanted to show them they would have made a point of ensuring there was coverage.  They didn’t.

Dmitri’s preview is here:

https://beingoutsidecricket.com/2016/03/29/world-t20-semi-final-england-v-new-zealand/

And now I am back in the land of TV coverage I’ll put up a review tomorrow.

 

World’s Apart

Tomorrow is the start of the World T20.  Well sort of.  In fact anyone could be forgiven for not knowing when the tournament actually starts, even with the fixture list in front of them.  Indeed there are 12 matches in two groups made up of the sides outside the top eight that might be called qualifiers, or might be part of the main tournament.  Or could be something else.  Does anyone know what is going on here?  There are two groups in the first round and then we go into into the Super 10s, where it starts properly.  I think.  So it starts on the 15th.  Or possibly the 8th.  You do have to take your hat of to cricket administrators, they do a fantastic job of trying to pretend they care about those not at the top table while at the same time making it as hard as possible for any not in the club to get anywhere.

It’s not exactly surprising it should be all confusion, given that until a few days ago no one knew for sure whether all the matches would go ahead, how to get tickets or even where the games might be.  For cricket tour operators outside India it’s been something of a nightmare, two weeks notice of ticket sales before a tournament is entirely impossible to organise anything.  Pointing fingers is the easy bit, the reality of things is that we go into this tournament with few outside of those paying religious attention to the thing having much idea what the hell is going on.  Tournaments that begin this way tend to then struggle to catch the imagination of the wider audience.  Having said that, it’s in India (well it had to be in India, Australia or England – the Big Three stitch up ensured that) which is to all intents and purposes the home of T20, despite what the ECB might think, so the crowds will be large and vocal, especially if the home team do well.

Yet how many in England are aware that it is happening, and of those how many know how it will operate?  This is not an idle question, for it is the only global tournament England have ever won, and should garner attention.  Yet the media coverage here remains somewhat limited, and newspapers in this day and age give their readers what they want – clickbait might be the term of choice, but there’s a commercial imperative behind that, and when cricket is buried away, there’s a good reason for that.  We can of course remind everyone that with the competition tucked away on Sky, it’s also out of sight and out of mind, and all debates around cricket’s wider popularity in this country seem quite content to skirt the elephant that has parked itself squarely in the middle of the carpet.

As for how the tournament will unfold, who knows?  T20 is the format above all others which gives weaker sides a chance, essentially in cricket the longer the game the more certain it is the stronger side will prevail, which is an excellent reason behind making sure that the bigger sides (by which read “wealthier and more powerful sides”) have several opportunities to make sure they get through to the latter stages.

The likelihood is that the winner will come from one of India, Australia, South Africa and possibly England or New Zealand, with the home side’s familiarity with conditions a big advantage, but it is still quite open.

Also today the ECB announced the new format for the county season, which appears to amount to a reversion to how it was three years ago.  There are of course a variety of opinions around this, and those dead set against any idea of city based franchise cricket pleased with the outcome.  The problem with this debate is that it’s forever around the fringes – this is not decided as some item of pure principle about the history of the game in England, it’s about county chairmen ensuring that the game’s revenues work for them primarily.  Understandable of course, for turkeys tend to be reluctant to vote for Christmas, yet the claims that this represents the finest form of T20 tournament this country can host is palpable nonsense, as even the most cursory of glances at the Big Bash should demonstrate.   There are always going to be opinions about what is the best thing to do, but let’s not pretend for a moment it’s based on adhering firmly to questions of integrity.

Since I’m spending the next two weeks in a variety of places around Europe that doesn’t include “home” for more than one night, I shall be mostly absent until the latter part of the month.  Hooray I hear you cry…see you on the other side.

Move along, nothing to see…

England announced their squad for March’s World T20, making a late bid to match their previous and astounding heights of omnishambles over the last few years.  The selection of Liam Dawson, apparently on the back of a good Lions tour, is certainly eyebrow raising.  Trevor Bayliss’ swiftly made it clear one way or the other than if it all goes horribly wrong it ain’t down to him guv, by openly stating he hadn’t seen him play and that he was trusting the selectors.  The tone is so often the giveaway, and saying he was a good fielder “apparently” spoke volumes.  Of course, it’s not remotely Dawson’s fault, and he will be rightly thrilled and excited at his call up.  That James Whitaker stated it was on the back of the Lions tour may have been because it’s rather hard to state it was due to last year’s T20 blast when he failed to take a wicket.  Stephen Parry can count himself unfortunate.

Dawson may well go on to be a success, and there is nothing at all wrong with selections based on a hunch that the player will go well, but there is the suspicion that he will be little more than drinks carrier on this trip.

Broad too has been omitted, which rather makes his call up to the ODI series in South Africa somewhat peculiar, as he could have been given the time off to recover if he wasn’t going to be in the squad.  As it stands, and given he isn’t playing in that series so far, it seems pointless to make England’s key Test bowler hang around.

The selectors have managed to thoroughly pretend the various T20 competitions going on around the world don’t exist by ignoring Luke Wright.  England play too few T20 matches for there to be a pattern of international success to draw upon, and Wright is unquestionably a specialist in this form of the game.

And then there’s Kevin Pietersen.  His non-selection is a surprise to no-one, but the idea that England have six better T20 batsmen to draw upon is laughable.  It is thus a team selection for reasons other than cricketing ones.  Some will approve of that, many will not.  No one will be shocked, but the ECB once again are making it clear that teams are not decided on what players can do on the field.  They could have made the argument that they felt others would be more effective, which would be open to question, but a cricketing decision.  Instead they said that he wasn’t even discussed, and thus confirming the point that cricketing matters were not the focus.  As ever, the point is not about one player’s presence or otherwise, but what that means for all others going forward – if they don’t like you, then no matter how many runs or wickets you might take, you will not get in the side.

Some have suggested that England are amongst the favourites for the tournament, but the bowling looks somewhat thin for India conditions.  Even so, in competition cricket, they may well find a way, for not too many would have pointed to Ryan Sidebottom being so outstanding in the one global tournament England have ever won.  Steven Finn is in the squad despite his injury, and he is the one member of that attack shorn of Stuart Broad who looks a wicket-taker, his fitness is critical to England’s chances.

The fundamental objection to the ECB remains that they would prefer not to give themselves the best chance of winning something, in favour of internal politics.

As a statement of policy, it takes some beating.

South Africa vs England: ODI series

Tomorrow, there begins 7 matches – five ODIs and two T20s – against South Africa to finish off the tour.  As is usually the case when these take place after the Test series, there’s a sense of it being a winding down of the trip, as though they were tacked on the end.  Indeed, the Guardian’s preview of the series is entirely with reference to the Test team and what it might mean for that.  Yet, in a month, the World T20 begins, and this series carries far more relevance to that than anything else, particularly for an England team that ought to be in with a shout of doing well in it.

The 50 over game may not be directly translatable, but there are enough similarities for it to be a decent pointer to how the team approaches the one format where England have ever won a global title.  Jason Roy has picked up a back spasm on the eve of play, but assuming he is fit, then the batting line up offers quite some potency all the way down the order.  Whether they come off against a South African team that will pose a stiff challenge is another matter, for while England performed well in the UAE, there’s no sense that it is a settled side.

The core of the team is clearly Stokes and Root in terms of the batting, with the captain Eoin Morgan providing the solidity to the middle order that is now so critical.  Certainly there’s no doubt that shot making is this side’s strength, for of the probable side they bat right the way down to 9 or 10, every one of whom can put bat to ball to explosive effect.

Yet it’s equally true that there’s a brittleness about the line up, with limited experience and form which is essentially unknown.  It makes calling the likely outcome of the series rather difficult, for while England’s approach has been excellent, it’s an open debate as to how much quality is there.

The T20 squad is announced soon, and the 50 over format will be deemed an audition for that.  The notable absentee from the initial squad who could play is Stuart Broad, and while there is logic in managing his workload, it raises the question as to whether he is in their plans at all.  He has been called up as a replacement for Liam Plunkett, but he’s not expected to play the first game at least.

Of course, as far as that tournament is concerned, the spectre of Kevin Pietersen looms large.  The ECB will certainly be hoping that these matches go well, for a hammering will put pressure on them once again.  And so there should be, Pietersen has been a star in the T20 format this winter, and there is simply no getting away from the reality that England would be a stronger side with him than without.  If the ECB were clever, they would select him – and since the exclusion wasn’t on cricketing grounds, the reason it would be clever would also not be on cricketing grounds.  For the Pietersen issue has festered for two years precisely because of the duplicity and ineptitude of the ECB.  Bringing him back for the World T20, in a squad where there are no past issues to be managed, would strengthen the side in a cricketing sense yes, but would also allow a closing of the circle.

Pietersen is highly unlikely to play any more red ball cricket, but making use of his undoubtedly exceptional abilities in T20 would end much of the rancour at a stroke, and allow him to depart the stage with his head held high, and with the bitterness at least partly diffused.  The problem is that the ECB are simply not that clever.  And they almost certainly won’t do it.

And so it is this group of players in the 50 over matches, plus Sam Billings who will probably go into that competition.  Young, unquestionably exciting, and with bags of potential.  Yet with a major challenge ahead of them to win this series, against a very strong side.