Guest Post – Club Cricket – A Player Writes

My thanks to RPoultz of this parish who has ventured forth and offered his take on the recent Gurney/Hussain/Vaughan et al’s views on how club cricket should be played. Ross has laid out his views on the practical difficulties and re-emphasised a lot of the points Chris and I have made. He’s also brought in other angles which I, in particular, hadn’t considered. It’s a guest post, people, so keep that in mind when replying, but as always, I love reading other takes and this gives us some real food for thought. Maybe Harry will scan it and think a bit more. I doubt it, but you can but hope….

PLAYING MY PART…

This is my first post that I have written so please be gentle in the comments. However, I wanted to write this as, like many, I have been very taken aback by the recent tweets/comments of Gurney and Hussain about club cricket. I think we all know and understand that cricket is contracting due to lots of reasons which have been far better explained on the site than I can manage. The issues of free to air (cricket visibility), youth participation and retention of existing players is one that has no silver bullet. Is T20 the answer to this thought?

Firstly, I can understand the meaning behind the tweets as it is something that we have certainly discussed on those long walks round the boundary in that would a portion of the Saturday League games devoted to T20 be a viable option? I think this idea was talked about due to our side playing Premier Division cricket so half of our games start at 11 in the morning and usually finish between 7-8pm. Taking into account the game time, travel time and preparation for the game you can be out of your house from 9am to 9pm at night, if everything goes to plan. Looking at the appeal of a shortened day and more time with family etc is an appealing notion. When it was discussed though it was clear it is certainly not something that fits in with why the people, at least in the side I play, give up their Saturdays to play cricket. If this were T20 cricket, as you may imagine the bowlers were not thrilled about the possibility of a maximum of 4 overs per game and our numbers 5/6/7 batsmen looking forward to maybe up to 10 balls per game. At worst an opening bowler who bats 10/11 could bowl maybe one over, get hit for 15 runs and then not get another go. Then at the end of it you ask them for their £12 for the day and you can see how this might rankle slightly.

This sort of leads nicely into what was my immediate thought when Gurney suggested that all club cricket should be T20/The Hundred, which was who pays for it? I think this is one of the most overlooked issues with the whole idea of just playing T20 cricket. A vast majority of cricket clubs either play cricket on Council parks/pitches, and pay a fee per season to them for pitches and the preparation of them, or be fortunate enough to own their own ground but pay a groundsman to prepare and maintain their pitches and grounds. The money to pay for the grounds are accumulated through membership and match fees. So as an idea an average membership at a club could be around £100 and a match fee anywhere between £10 and £15. How could this possibly stay the same if all cricket were T20?

At cricket clubs in my area T20 games that are played at the moment range from being free to £5. If you take into account the reduced amount of cricket then both membership fees and match fees will have to come down. A player who either bats low down or bowls 1-2 overs per game probably won’t feel they are getting value for money for £15 a game. So inevitably this is going to leave a very large shortfall in finances at many, many cricket clubs. With a shortfall in finances how are clubs going to keep paying local councils/groundsmen to prepare the pitches? I honestly believe this is a much overlooked part of club cricket whenever the debate about changing to all T20 comes up. Simply without sufficient revenue clubs will not survive.

Of course there is a Vaughan route of organising BBQ’s, bouncy castles etc and making a day of it. As ever with his statements it doesn’t hold up to any sort of scrutiny. This is for any number of reasons such as who is organising these days – do clubs have an endless supply of volunteers to do this? Or that the novelty of having BBQ’s etc all the time will quickly wear off and then what? What do you do next to make the day an event? What about the weather as well? Is every week going to be 30 degrees and bathed in sunshine so all clubs can execute the Michael Vaughan endorsed cricket fetes at each ground in the country?? Very doubtful.

The weather does provide a link to my next point in that everyone says that making all cricket T20 will make the days shorter and everyone will be able to spend more time with their family, or being to go out earlier etc. Say for instance you start all T20 games at 2pm on Saturday. A good number of players will want to get there early to warm up and prepare. I don’t just see this at first team level either and have seen plenty of players do this at a 3rd/4th team level too. Plus many home sides have to put boundary ropes, markers etc. So taking this time into account you might look to get to the ground if at home around 12.30pm. Now, I have a wife and three kids and realistically there is only so much we can do in around 2 hours together in the morning. While this of course is 2 hours I wouldn’t get if we played a standard 50/50 game it still isn’t great deal of time to fit anything into. Going on previous experience of playing T20 cricket a game can last between 2 and half and 3 ours. So we are looking at finishing at 5 o’clock. I won’t lie and say that isn’t appealing because it is but then factor in getting in boundary ropes, markers and showering/changing you might be out the changing room between 6pm and 6.30pm. Again, in relation to my own circumstances, this doesn’t realistically give me a great deal of time to do anything with my family before my children’s bed times.

I guess what I am getting at is a driver behind Gurney’s tweets is that players will have more time with their families which in essence will be correct. However, having three kids you really want to spend a whole day having quality time with them rather than cramming things in either side of T20 game. The game almost gets in the way of a whole day with my family and if others feel like that then I am sure that will lead them to wonder if playing is really worthwhile? I know some of you might say well that time is better than what you will get leaving early in the morning and getting back later than 9pm. I feel like this misses the whole point and is what I disagree with about the argument it will give people more time with their families. Time isn’t the issue its quality time that matters and an extra hour here and there isn’t something to hang your hat on.

The above though is only when things run smoothly and perfectly on a hot summers day. What about rain? That obviously is going to be a factor in a lot of games during the season such as it is now. Are players looking forward to hanging around for hours waiting for the chance for a 5 over smash at 6/7 o’clock in the evening?? Lost balls will happen at plenty of grounds I am sure and how long will they take to replace?? A major driving force behind this T20 and that more people will play/stay in the game is that they won’t have to play much cricket, and will have more time to do whatever they want to on Saturdays. When you commit to playing cricket you understand the sacrifice in time it will mean and to the time spent with your family on a Saturday. If you really look at the time gained it is not a massive amount. I hope that people get into cricket because they enjoy playing it but what we are being told now is that you should enjoy playing less of it. It’s a strange new world. Again, on this issue I am only speaking as a man with a family and obviously those younger and without commitments may think differently to me.

Another aspect which is also not considered is the quality of pitches isn’t really conducive to T20 cricket. I play in a league where the quality of pitches really isn’t too bad but it is a league that is dominated by spin bowlers. A high percentage of the pitches turn very early in a game and there is no great pace in the wickets. With batsman trying to force the game in T20’s I cannot see the ECB dream of high scoring and big six hitting in league cricket coming to fruition. I think scores would be middling to low and the overall quality of cricket suffers for it.

As a cricketer I am an all-rounder who bats middle order and bowls left arm spin. When I first started out my spin bowling was helped along by some good captains who gave me a good amount of overs and helpful fields for a young spinner. I gradually got better over time due to this amount of overs I was getting each week which could range from 10-20. I am in no doubt that had I not bowled this amount of overs as a young spinner I wouldn’t have developed as a cricketer. When I first started there were many permutations that aren’t in the league now such as being able to start with the old ball in the second innings and all games being timed affairs. This is now not the case and I believe the development of younger spinners has suffered for it. Now, with Gurney’s ideals, a young spinner would be limited to 4 overs per week with a basic defensive field. Clearly this is going to lead to a shortfall in the development of skills as a spin bowler. Gurney’s defence of this appears to be that league cricket does not prepare players for 4 day cricket. Well thanks for stating the obvious. Of course it doesn’t but league cricket does assist the development of cricketers playing that standard. Over recent years players to come out of our league are Jamie Porter, Nick Browne, Dan Lawrence to name a few. So I think the league could make a claim that it is not a bad stepping stone to the professional level.

My last point, and I am sure I have missed some, that I wanted to make, is that we already have T20 cricket at club level. Indeed, when I first started playing first team cricket we had a midweek knockout competition which was 16, 8 ball overs which was a local completion and fiercely competitive. However, this has since ceased to exist and the T20 league competition that is now in place, which is played evenings/Sundays/bank holidays is, in my opinion, not very well regarded. This is due to a number of factors due to it not being regional, taking place at inconvenient times and general apathy to T20 cricket at club level and it not being taken seriously. Playing T20 solely on Saturdays would potentially solve a few of the issues but not the ultimate one is that T20 cricket isn’t that popular amongst those who play club cricket. It is still not regarded as proper cricket or equivalent to playing a full days play and earning whatever you get out of that. The players still hold a lot of respect for the challenge of a full day’s play whatever level they play and T20 cannot come close to that in what I have seen and heard from my playing colleagues, both in my team and those we play.

Lastly, I just want to share with you a personal example of why I love club cricket as it is. At my first club, which I was at for 16/17 years, I had an older mentor at the club who looked after me and helped me progress. He wasn’t the best cricketer in the world by any means. He is a back-up keeper, batted 9 usually although he occasionally opened when required and never, ever bowled. However, he more often than not made the first team at the club due to his self-sacrificing nature and willingness to help the team out by getting a TFC most weeks. However, having his experience and advice really helped me develop as a cricket and a person. Without him I doubt I would have continued in the game for as long as I have. If T20 had come in around when I first started there is no way he would have been able to pass on his knowledge to myself and others. He is a cricket purist so I doubt he would have continued to play. I am sure there is a guy like him at everyone’s club that they can relate to and can understand where I am coming from. I feel like all T20 is going to rob the younger generation of these type of experience players passing on knowledge and experience in how to play the game. Maybe, I am wrong and it doesn’t matter as everyone eventually finds their way. But it mattered and still matters to me which is why I will be always grateful to him.


My thanks to Ross for his contribution, which is as drafted (with a couple of tidied up parts). I hope this provides insight straight from someone immersed in the club game. Thanks to all the effort in putting this together, Ross. Great work.

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Joy and Pain, Sunshine and Rain

OK. Here goes. A post I’ve wanted to write for a while, on a subject that was a staple before HDWLIA “made it” , and which gets to the essence of my cricketing soul. I was a really ordinary cricketer, and I knew it. But I wanted to play. This week, those memories matter. It’s personal, so a lot of “I” in it, but I hope people recognise their own experiences, the people along the way. Please share those memories.

It has certainly been an interesting past few days in the cricket world. The One Day Series passed off as a 2-2 draw, not really satisfying the England fans as to the likelihood of winning the World Cup, but also not as bad as is being portrayed. Elsewhere New Zealand took care of business against Bangladesh in the first test, and there are various other limited overs internationals around. England are playing a T20 series that somewhat gives the lie to the need for context and quality to drive future engagement. It is pretty much passing the people by.

But what has dominated the airwaves, and certainly on here (readership – more than 3) since late last week is the debate over the future of English cricket and the role clubs have to play in that future. Which is awfully nice because for all the time I played club cricket, the authorities, international and county cricket players, and former internationals saw club cricket as an outlet for benefit functions, or roles as after dinner speakers at our annual do. They certainly didn’t bother us, and frankly, we were never going to bother them. They had their world, we had ours. We certainly never played to become something. We were a very small part of the recreational game.

The article written by Chris at the weekend has certainly caught the attention of a lot of people, Trying to follow it is a nigh on impossible task. But I’ll give it a go. I thought I’d give my experience of what it meant to play the game at a truly recreational level, the importance it had on my life, the joy and pain it brought, and how the attacks on it by the likes of Nasser, and the misguided, unbalanced nonsense, (and yes, Harry, if you deign to read this, I mean nonsense), have on an ordinary cricket fan and former below ordinary cricketer. In doing so, I relate to my experiences of cricket in South London, urban, congested space, many diversions on time, and I’d argue less cohesive. There are key differences between our club and those in villages, smaller communities and leagues. No one size fits all. This matters too.

Let me get one thing straight from the outset. I wasn’t a very good player, and have no delusions about my own competence. I didn’t play league cricket. My club played timed games when we were at home, and limited overs if that was the preferred format of the home team. We were a bunch of “Old Boys” (my team was linked to a school) plus their mates (I was the latter) who played Saturday games against the lower echelons of the region’s club teams (say a 3rd or 4th XI) or fellow non-league clubs, and on Sundays played friendlies, sometimes against quite decent opposition. We went down from one Saturday team and two Sunday, to, by the end of our club’s time, one Sunday team.

We often played some of the schoolboys in the team, but the desire from promising schoolkids then wasn’t to play T20, but to play league cricket – we lost one really decent prospect, but we were never going to keep him. We felt that playing league cricket would tear our club apart, so we never did it. We quite often played teams from clubs who played their “colts”, providing some adult development to younger players (we once played against a young Daniel Bell-Drummond). From our perspective, as the team’s core got older, so players dropped away. I stopped playing every week in 2004, and when my parents passed away in successive years, any appearances were fewer and further between. By 2007 I’d pretty much stopped playing club cricket. It could never be an outlet for my grief and adaptation to life without two of my core influences.

A damaged shoulder and a general lack of fitness in the late 00’s spelled the beginning of the end for the remaining work games. Playing in one where the opposition opener hit our very tame attack for 189 not out and walked off as if he was a world great, was another sign – I hated him, I hated being there. I was never a fan of fielding. That was my last 40 over game.

Now the thought of the pain of the days after playing terrifies the life out of me. It hurt enough when I was younger. Now I’m nearly ready to lift my bat up for reaching an age milestone, it sounds like the worst torture or pain could ensue – and horror stories from mates still trying act as a warning. I imagine a pain akin to the gout I came down with after I cracked the Sunday 1sts with a great innings (for me), and meant the rest of 1994 was a disaster of injury, pain and chronic loss of form.

I was a keen street-cricketer as a kid. We improvised, made local rules, had stumps consisting of post on a building, or bollards. The row into my house could double as a net. No cricket is played on my estate now. And it’s not to do with the proliferation of cars. It’s because the game is not visible. This has nothing to do with T20, or the Hundred. It’s not confined to cricket, but football isn’t played much now, like we did.

I wasn’t very good at school. I was a blocker. I had no real power. I could hit a pull shot, but all my attempts at cover drives or off drives, or even going over the top, seemed to have me holing out at mid-off or cover. I could hit a pull shot. I could block faster bowling. I hated fielding. I didn’t bowl very often. For that reason I was obviously our team’s opening batsman. I once wrote, what I think is one of the best cricket pieces I’ve written, about a traumatic game in 1982. If I get the time, I’ll link it on the Extra Bits. I got my first proper golden duck, and it resulted in carnage. I’ll definitely link it later.

I played in my year side until 15. In the second year, we won one game. In the third year we won one game (and I missed it due to a wedding). In the fourth year we improved into a really nice unit, just in time to be broken up for the 1st and 2nd XI teams in the fifth year. I got into the school 2nd XI in my fifth year, but playing against older players was not what I needed with my limited game. One memory from that does stick out. We played a match on a Saturday afternoon, we were bowled out for 36, and yours truly had opened the batting and finished 11 not out. My reward? I was dropped the following week. I was at a fee paying school, most famous for producing, if that’s the word, the chairman of Crystal Palace, the current Conservative Vice-Chairman and Gary Bushell. Hardly Eton. I was raised in Deptford and lived on a council estate for 40 years. I’m hardly Little Lord Fauntleroy.

The love of the game did not die, and instead I turned to scoring. I think I’m still the only schoolboy from my alma mater receiving full colours (the top honour) just for scoring – this makes me odd in Chris’s book, and he’s probably right. I was pretty good, which might be scary. I had a system sort of based on Bill Frindall’s, but without his concentration span, but I was decent enough. I once got to do it for England Schools (South) in a game including Mark Ealham, Nigel Llong, Johnny Longley, Mark Alleyne and Paul Farbrace – Nigel Llong I’d met before – he was a really good bloke. I can’t be sure, but I also think Chris Lewis also played.

Contrary to normal school life, as the overweight one, I wasn’t taken the Michael out of, I wasn’t abused or ribbed, by my cricket mates. The batsmen loved their radial scorecharts for the hundreds and I felt part of the team while being the one who never played. Some were good friends at the time. For a while I played golf with a few of them before going off to university, but once away from school, I cut it adrift. I don’t have fond memories of my school, but I do of those chaps. I got to play in one game, against the staff. Otherwise my one year old GN Powerspot ***** would have been totally wasted. My work, such as it is, is in the Wisdens of 1986, 1987, 1988. And then off to university.

Throughout university, a friend of mine, who I still see occasionally, told me to start playing again. I held out for the summer of 88. But he persuaded me to play for his Sunday 2nd XI in 1989, and so it was, one overcast day at the former Fire Brigade Ground in Sutton, I made my debut. For the next 15 years cricket was a firm fixture. I played most Sundays, some Saturdays (although sometimes I wouldn’t get picked), and even went on tour. I felt like an outsider for a while, an oddball who would come and go like so many others. My debut saw my mate’s dad run me out for 5, the following week I put a short wide ball away for four first ball, and hit the second straight to cover. As an opener! I was in despair then, wondering if I could play, and thinking I looked a fool, but the following week, batting at 6, I got in, got into a partnership with a more aggressive player at 8, and finished off not out. Walking off I expected to be close to my school best of 28. When I was told it was 42 not out, it was as if I’d scored a double ton.

I doubt the likes of Nasser and Harry, who had the talent, coaching and back-up would ever experience a feeling like that. No-one was more astounded than me. I was floating on air. I felt that I belonged, and when playing for a new club, when battling your own self-doubt, that meant the world. Three weeks into my new playing era, I had a bit more power, a better balance and approach, and I had made some runs. The half century would take another year. But that 42 gave me something to cling on to. I wasn’t a waste of space.

That’s what club cricket did for a keen enthusiast like me. When I went up a level, I struggled. But what I could do, and what my team often appreciated me for, was see out the quicker stuff. I didn’t wear a helmet, but strangely I was never scared. We had a couple of Surrey Under 19’s to encounter, or some burly blokes wanting to take out their aggression at the weekend, and it was terrific fun. I loved that feeling of 1 against 11. I struggled with concentration when it come to slower bowling, but when someone was quick, I knuckled down. The bruises, and there were many, were worth it. It’s not about character building, it is more about pitting your skills against people of similar or slightly better ability. If a class player played at our level, he would stand out. We used to play on a terrible wicket at Reigate Heath, where scores under 100 were not uncommon. One year the hosts turned up with a chap who had played in the Lancashire Leagues and made a biffing 98. The year before one of our club stalwarts made 45 not out on it and said it was about the best he had ever batted. I made 20, and I agreed!

We played mainly in Surrey, toured Berkshire and Oxfordshire, got the occasional fixture in NW Kent. We were based at South Bank Uni, and NatWest in Norbury. They were both batting tracks. We won when we should have lost, lost when we should have won, won a game off the last ball of the match by bowling the number 11 out, and lost a game chasing 200 when we were 180 for 2, and blamed the bloke who made 149 of them for losing it. I remember the screaming catches I took (both of them), those made by team-mates, freak bowling performances, people’s first hundreds, and most of all, I made many many friends. The ultimate honour was captaining the team in the filthy hot summer of 2003. We lost one game all year. I had some of those decisions that came off. But mostly we batted very deep. I tried to give everyone a game, if I could, but we were close knit and wanted to win. I found out how hard balancing that was when the following year I lost an opener bowler I relied upon, and players moaned more about their role. I wasn’t one of the better players, wasn’t dominating in a personal leadership role, and lost control. Cricket taught me an enormous life lesson.

1500 words in, and not a mention of T20 at our club. We played one game on tour, and it was boring. We played a timed game the day before, and it was exciting. Small sample size. We weren’t fans of 40 over games – it was that format that we lost our only game of 2003 – but that’s because we had a quite weak bowling attack. Our tactic was to let the oppo bat first, even in blazing hot sun, and chase them. We rarely played for draws, what was the point, but if in serious trouble, the technique in batting time was a good one. Club cricket is a massive mix of various standards, formats, abilities, playing conditions, and stories. It’s no more homogenised than football.

As 2005 passed there became a more distinct trend. Fewer kids playing for us or against us. Fewer people making themselves available for selection. Players looking for other clubs as we struggled to put out a team. Most of my team-mates were slightly older than me, but not by a huge amount. I was in my mid-30s coping without my parents, and cricket took a back seat. It wouldn’t have mattered a jot if we were playing T20 or a five day test. At that time the T20 format was taking off in England, and while it was talked about, no-one really wanted to play it. Talking to opposition teams, that was also the case. It was 25 overs for midweek work games, in the evenings, with 25 and out, but while they were lovely for my average, it meant I could never reach my holy grail playing in that format. I certainly wouldn’t have given up my Sunday for that short form being the permanent staple. For me it was the dream of everything coming together and getting to that promised land.

The holy grail was a century. I never got there. In many senses it is a feeling of great regret, but also a feeling of pride in that there was always something out there for me to try to get to, and kept me going. I was a much better player in my 30s than I was in my early 20s. But my two highest scores were made when I was 23 and 26. The latter is the one I will always look back on as the ultimate “missed opportunity”. Time was always never on my side as a player. I took a while to get going. I wasn’t a big hitter. But that day I got off to a flier. I had 50 by the time 20 overs had gone. With at least 45 minutes to bat, and the runs still coming, I top edged a sweep shot to a small boundary and was caught. I walked off not knowing what I had. I thought, mid 70s. It was 83. I had it in the palm of my hand and blew it. I never passed 65 again.

Club cricket was social, we liked a drink and a curry afterwards, or a Chinese in Streatham if it was a special occasion. I’ve met some of my best mates. I sing in a band where one is lead guitarist. We’ve gone to Australia and South Africa together, the second time to Oz with two other club members. When we meet up for a beer now, it’s all old times stuff. We used to go to the Oval test together as a team – up to 10 tickets per day – and I held the prestigious role of buying all the tickets for about five years. We’ve had club legends pass away, from our old leaders and role models, Brian and Vic, who played the game until late in life, and we loved them for it, to Kevin (who died tragically young of cancer – who we remember for an aquaplaning catch at Sidcup) and of course Neil, our wonderful, ebullient quickish bowler, who was taken ludicrously young in 2001. At his funeral, we were asked to take a moment when Neil made you smile. I remember that Sunday game, in the 1sts, when I made 39 in a run chase, and put us in a position to win. As I walked off, Neil bounds past, saying “Well Batted [Nickname], I’ll take this home from here”.

He didn’t.

We loved the game. When I asked the club secretary what support we got from the Surrey Cricket Board, or whatever authority ran the game, the answer was none. We paid for the pitches and teas out of our subs, we ran at break-even, I think, and we were a typical non-league playing club of which there were quite a few. We never even thought we were on anyone’s radar up above. We were left to get on with it, and old pros never mentioned club cricket. Sure, we recognised some of the names in the league cricket teams we played, but they weren’t cricketers. Three were Chelsea footballers, an ex-Millwall goalkeeper, one a BT Sport commentator, another a musician. I once played against the drummer from McFly!

That’s why what Hussain and Gurney’s comments in particular hit a spot. We never thought we were any good, and I had no aspirations other than to be the best I could be. To compare us to thinking we were close to any decent class, would be saying I would be ready for the Masters because I birdied the short par 4 6th at Beckenham Place Park. Once. Gurney went out of his lane more than once. This was possibly the most egregious nonsense.

These men and women are enthusiasts, living a little dream, but only at our own levels. Could I make 500 runs in a summer? Could I make a couple of fifties? We weren’t blocking anyone. Our older players would have dropped out if kids wanted to play, for the good of the club. Pre T20 era and post-it. But as the years went on fewer and fewer teams were available. Enthusiastic, non-league teams dropped away. More established club sides often filled their Sunday team with a couple of 1st XI players, who could dominate games, and make it a little dull, but often because they couldn’t find anyone else. Grounds disappeared – my work ground, and another we played at, is now set aside for football courts. Others are now the training centres for Millwall and Crystal Palace. Clubs, established clubs, merged, to survive. As cricket disappeared from the screens, so did cricketers, so did teams. Causation or correlation? I don’t have the answers. But to throw it on older players blocking younger ones seems daft to me.

I loved club cricket. I love it more now that I don’t play it. It resonated on so many levels. The friendships, the rivalries, the days we clicked, the days we fell apart, the laughter, and recriminations, the utter tapestry of life encapsulated from 1pm on Sunday to when I returned home that night. I got to learn some leadership skills, certainly some personal characteristics, and I found out more from the game each time I played. I learned I could never cover drive, and that I could hit a lovely cut shot, but could never keep it down. As I got older, I played them both on fewer occasions. As I got older, I opened on rarer occasions. I was down at 5, 6 or 7, that was good for the “get them over the line” 20 to 40 not out in a run chase. I loved that role. I was quite often the other one with the good player in a decent partnership. It’s a nice thing to be.

This may be the utterances of a bygone time, the musings of a cricketing relic, but what I am is a lover of the game, of what it brings. I had no real ability. I made myself the limited player that I was. I wished I could have played longer games rather than shorter ones, well, certainly from the batting standpoint (not sure about the fielding). I have so many stories, many I wrote in the early days of How Did We Lose In Adelaide, that I’ve never put on here because I don’t think they fit. Maybe I will to fill in the days.

What we’ve seen on here this week is that club cricketers around the country have read Chris’s amazing piece. It is the most hit piece on this blog ever. The only time I ever beat it was the equivalent of a steroid injection – KP retweeting a post back in 2014. Chris captured the moment. He was/is a far better player than me. Sean was a bowler, so obviously he is mad. Not sure about Danny. But it doesn’t matter. We played the game because we love it. We found our own reasons, our own motivations, and our own friendships through it. To be told that we, in some way, are part of the problem, that we are blocking the path by playing old fashioned games, that we should move out of the way and if we can’t play T20 we are somehow hindering the future does cut very, very deep. They may not mean to, although it is hard to square that supposition with Gurney’s attitude on Twitter this week, but you are insulting those that, in a number of ways, pay your wages. I’ll come on to that in a future post. The one message for now is that instead of telling us to play T20, and losing the strivers, the nudgers and nurdlers, the players trying to improve themselves and make bigger scores, that the decision should be left to club players. T20 isn’t the only answer. Celebrate all forms. Yes, even the winning draw (we never had that playing league cricket).

We all have our own tales to tell about our cricket performances. I’d love to hear your stories on here. We’ve a bit of time to fill before the World Cup. But the message from me is clear. I learned from older players, was geed up by younger players, made many friends, were happy for them when they did well, happier when I did, and hated every player who made runs against us. I shared my weekends with people who loved what they did, most of the time. I had decent runs, and I had 1994. I hit a bloke I couldn’t stand for six into the back gardens, and can still remember that feeling off the bat, and that stare when I did, the strut down the wicket, and my non-striker mate who knew the backstory saying “****ing hell. You enjoyed THAT!”.

I have always said the pro game should not tell the fans how to support the game. I stand by that. More of that in a follow-up.

To club cricketers of all ages, gender, shapes, sizes, races, abilities, enthusiasm, paces, eyesight, speed, and skill, thank you for doing it, and for those I met on the way, thank you for the years of enjoyment and despair. I owe the game more than it can ever pay back. I know a lot of you feel the same. The love of the game. Perhaps pros should recognise that before shooting off their mouths.

UPDATE – The link to the Cricket By Numbers piece, reproduced on The Extra Bits…

https://collythorpeii.wordpress.com/2019/03/08/cricket-by-numbers-0-zero-nothing/

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.

Standing in the Middle of it

Referees.  Umpires.  Judges.  Whatever the sport, the one appointed to arbitrate on the rules of the game is destined to be alone in their role.  Viewed with tolerance at best, contempt at worst, their errors are highlighted repeatedly, their characters called into question, their motivations considered suspect.

Who on earth would be an official?

Naturally, it’s never as simple as that, and the experience of those passing judgement on the play at the highest level is vastly different from further down the chain, while the experience varies widely between different sports and the conduct of the players within them.  Football referees are routinely abused by players and spectators at professional level, and there are sufficient tales of even worse behaviour at the grass roots to wonder why anyone would wish to put themself through the experience, but cricket, at least, remains a relative beacon of enlightenment compared to many other pastimes with regard to the treatment of the officials.

That’s not to pretend there are no problems, for at Test level incidences of open or masked dissent are legion, while there have been instances in club cricket of serious argument and, lamentably, even violence.  That they remain very much the exception is something to cherish and appreciate, and worthy of exploration as to why that might be,while also paying tribute to those who give up their time to perform a function as vital as opening the batting or bowling.

The most obvious statement to make is that without an umpire in some form, there isn’t a game.  Players can self-umpire, certainly, but it still requires someone to make the decisions and at the very least count accurately to six – albeit the ECB seem hellbent on adding extra complexity for the officials here with the Hundred.  This perhaps is something that sets cricket apart from other sports, for while in all of them an individual can choose to become an umpire, cricket is almost unique in that virtually everyone who has ever played an organised game of cricket will have stood as an umpire as well.  Friendly cricket may be in trouble, but it remains the usual path into more competitive fixtures for young players growing into the game, and few clubs have a permanent umpire prepared to stand all day on a regular basis for all teams.  Thus, the players have to do it themselves, and most players can remember the dawning horror of giving a team-mate out incorrectly, or the sense of pressure from a bowler, usually in a friendly manner, enquiring which of the three stumps that ball might have been missing.  Personally, the one particular incidence of humiliation came from a highly amused bowler gently asking how long one particular over was going to go on for, as I accidentally recycled the coins around my pocket for a second time.

Everyone can tell their own particular tale of woe here, but if nothing else, it taught a sense of understanding and respect for the role of the umpire, and the difficulties therein.  Without ever publicly admitting it, it was years before I learned to get the call of “no ball” out of my mouth in anything remotely approaching a timely manner, so bowlers more or less had a free pass to overstep whenever they were lucky enough to have me in the middle. I simply didn’t dare mention that the one that had just up rooted off stump should have been called by the idiot stood at the bowler’s end, though being by trade a batsman, I probably rejected more than my fair share of reasonable appeals.  Swings and roundabouts.

There were other side effects too, and perhaps it can be argued that the widely held view that batsmen ought to walk can be ascribed to the self-umpiring model – a reluctance to put a team mate in an invidious position; the memory of a tongue lashing from a senior player who was put in that position on the one hand, being that umpiring player put in that position on the other.  Certainly it’s quite common for batsmen to walk in a friendly game while refusing to countenance doing so in a league match.  It’s an approach that might make little sense when viewed from the outside, a certain level of hypocrisy being involved, yet via the peculiar internal logic that applies in every sport, it seems an entirely reasonable way to go about things, and one I always applied personally.  To those who objected to the idea of not walking in a league match, I always countered that not once did a fielding side ever call me back to the middle when they’d benefitted from an incorrect decision.  Equally however, for that to stick, it really does mean accepting the decision of the umpire, right or wrong.

There are other benefits from being forced to go out and officiate for ten overs (we all remember team-mates leaving us out there for far longer) on a Sunday such as the opportunity when standing at square leg every other over for a pleasant chat with a member of the opposition, particularly as the years rolled by and regular opponents became acquaintances and sometimes even friends.  The social dimension of cricket has always been its greatest strength and its glue, but few sports offer the opportunity for a casual conversation over half an hour in the middle of the game the way cricket does in these circumstances; a particular delight rudely broken only by the panicked alarm of a run out appeal. Indeed, even in the high pressure environment of a Test match, it is common to see square leg fielder and square leg umpire engaged in conversation, let alone further down the pyramid.  Rose tinted spectacles shouldn’t be applied to considering the nature of this self-policed umpiring system, but while it is easy to remember occasional disagreements between teams, the reality is that for the most part, it’s a system that works well with little friction, mostly because only pride is at stake.

The rise of league cricket has changed the dynamic somewhat.  Some leagues still allow this method of player-umpires, particularly at the more junior levels where finding sufficient numbers of people to do the job can be challenging, but it is now more customary to either require a club to provide an umpire or, particularly at County League level, for panel umpires to be neutral decision-makers.  In the former case, it is probably the biggest potential cause for dissatisfaction – there is always an opponent renowned for having an umpire with selective eyesight depending on which side is batting.  Players of course are as one eyed as they always are in any sport in perceiving bias and slights against them while perfecting the cognitive dissonance of being absolutely certain the umpire was spot on when it favoured them.

Panel umpires on the other hand remove this perception, yet they also take something away from a club whose umpire never gets to stand at his own ground in a competitive match.  Players would consider this a price well worth paying, yet it remains a sadness that it is considered necessary, even though it almost certainly is.  Cricket does have an advantage here though, in that while socialising with opponents in the bar after a game has declined substantially in the last 30 years (drink-drive laws have played a major, and entirely justifiable, part in that), there remains the opportunity to chew the cud with the umpires after the game.  It is something that is far rarer in other team sports, and indeed even discouraged in some, the referee disappearing at the end of a game and never getting to know the players, and more importantly, never allowing the players to interact at a normal, human level.  This depends on the club, but the opportunity to see things from the umpires’ perspective is one that perceptive cricketers tend to seize upon, even if only to try to ensure the club in question gets a positive umpires’ report.  But equally umpires are often quick enough to apologise for any error, and batsmen quick enough to accept a decision honestly made even if incorrect.  Or as one umpire less than sympathetically reminded me, if I hadn’t missed the ball in the first place, he wouldn’t have had a decision to make. It is not utopian to note that the facility to talk to each other remains a significant strength in the game, and the aforementioned experience almost all cricketers will have with umpiring allows a degree of empathy not always present in every sport.

Leagues also now tend to require a scorer, a decision that makes sense on every level, not least to the frustrated webmaster of a club trying to make sense of a scorebook requiring entry into Play Cricket that doesn’t remotely add up.  Players common loathing of having to do the scoring meaning that scorers get more appreciation for their efforts than perhaps umpires do.  They also tend to privately regard those who love scoring as being slightly odd, while publicly expressing appreciation and delight for those doing it, a magnificently hypocritical position that’s going to cause the blood pressure of at least one of the authors on this site to rise significantly.

Every bit as much as the unsung heroes within a club who ensure cricket can be played, the umpires (and scorers) are essential to the running of the game.  Those who volunteer may be under-appreciated, but at least cricket appreciates them more than the adherents of many other sports do.  It isn’t that no one ever snaps or mutters at an umpire, but it is that most involved object when it happens, and it really doesn’t happen all that often.  Player behaviour towards each other may have deteriorated in recent times, but the sacrosanct nature of the umpire’s position remains largely in place – and needs to continue in the same vein.

Umpires down the years have been every bit as integral to my cricketing experience as the rest of the game, whether they be right or wrong, or whether they be the Sunday umpire Mike who took enormous delight in signalling byes rather than wides when I’d dived full length down the legside to try to reach an outstandingly wayward delivery from the bowler.  He bloody loved it.

Some of those I played with and against became umpires as their playing careers wound down, and the gentle teasing that as a former bowler they weren’t trusted by any batsman in the entire league was and is an essential part of the cycle of the game and the handing on of the baton.  Umpires at the very highest level might get paid, those below may in some circumstances get expenses, but more often they do so because they wish to give something back to the game they love.

Raise a glass to the umpire.  Without them we don’t have a game.  Raise a glass to the scorer.  Without them we don’t know who has won.

All Stars Cricket II: The Quickening

Last May, I wrote a post on a tiny blog I had started to rail against problems in English cricket. This post was about the ECB’s latest initiative, All Stars Cricket, and how I believed it to be a colossal failure. Virtually no one read it though, because I’m a nobody with barely any Twitter followers and I never played professional cricket (which appears to be a prerequisite for cricket journalism nowadays). One of the handful of people who did read it was thelegglance, and he liked it enough to repost it here on BOC. That one post got me in the door here, and I’ve since been lucky enough since to be invited to the inside of Being Outside Cricket.

This week marks the opening of the sign up period for kids to join this year’s edition of All Stars Cricket. Assuming your local club has filled in the necessary forms online, you will be able to register your kids for it very soon. For £40 your 5-8 year old kid can have their own personalised cricket kit delivered right to your door, plus 8 sessions at your local cricket club. This might come as a surprise to you, because there hasn’t been much publicity about it so far. If I wasn’t researching this article, I’m honestly not sure that I would have known.

So it would appear that the ECB have not learnt their lesson from last year, when they failed to market the scheme effectively despite some grand promises made during the launch event last March. So what has changed from last year? The answer, unsurprisingly, is not much.

If your kid still has last year’s kits and you were wondering if they could just use that and save yourself £35, the answer is no. There is a new shirt design, and perhaps more crucially a set of stumps included in the kit bag. There are a few minor alterations to the kits the club can get too, the standout part of which for me was that they are now offering “female specific clothing” for ‘Activators’, the ECB’s buzzword for coaches and volunteers.

As I said at the start of this post, I’ve been lucky enough to be here for almost a year now. In that time, I don’t think I’ve ever sworn on the site. I have only ever gone as far as saying ‘shit’ a few times on my Twitter (and admittedly a few gifs of people extending their middle finger). I am not a person who likes to swear. But the ECB apparently launched this scheme with the assumption that women wouldn’t be a part of their  “major grassroots initiative” to increase participation in cricket. In 2017? Seriously? Fuck these guys.

The Australian Blueprint

As you may know, the ECB’s All Stars Cricket scheme is more or less a direct copy of Cricket Australia’s in2CRICKET program. The ECB even hired Matt Dwyer, the man who had run the scheme for four years in Australia. It costs pretty much the same, it gives the kids pretty much the same equipment, and the activities are probably virtually the same too. It even has roughly the same number of kids as All Stars Cricket, with 35,731 kids taking part in Australia compared to around 37,000 in England and Wales.

Except, of course, that Australia has a much smaller population than England and Wales. Less than half, in fact. In2CRICKET’s participation figures are actually the equivalent of just over 83,000 if you take that into account, far beyond the figures for All Stars Cricket.

So what lessons can the ECB learn from Cricket Australia’s example? There are so many things that I almost don’t know where to start. Obviously the elephant in the room is that the sport is freely available in Australia, with live cricket appearing on free to air television. Kids see the game, like it, and want to play it. They not only like the game, they like the players. Most English players could walk down any High Street in the country with a fair chance of not being recognised. Obviously nothing is going to change about this situation for the next few years, but it needed to be said.

One thing I do wish the ECB might learn is consistency. In2CRICKET launched in 1996 as Have-A-Go Cricket and is now 21 years old. I’d honestly be amazed if All Stars Cricket managed to last 5 years. The ECB seem to have a predilection for launching new initiatives and scrapping old ones with barely a thought. No sooner has a club got themselves familiar with the status quo than the ECB will throw in a new scheme, often with more training and paperwork for the volunteers running the club. I would wager that constantly having to jump through hoops of the ECB’s devising is a major reason for people involved in clubs behind the scenes leaving the sport.

There is also a feeling with Cricket Australia’s youth development that everything is joined together and part of a larger plan. Whilst getting cricket into schools in England and Wales is largely done by the independent (and currently underfunded) Chance To Shine charity, in Australia it is done by Cricket Australia’s in2CRICKET Skills program. Whilst Chance To Shine claims to reach around 250,000 children per year in the UK, the Australian scheme reaches 500,000 every year. If we again consider the differences in population between the two countries, that is the equivalent of 1.16m children in England and Wales every year.

And what happens when the kids turn nine? Cricket Australia has a similar program for them too: the somewhat confusingly named Milo T20 Blast. Although it shares its name with our domestic T20 competition, it is in fact a more grown up version of All Stars Cricket aimed at 9-12 year olds.

All of which inexorably leads me to the conclusion that the ECB have failed to understand why youth participation in cricket is significantly higher in Australia than in England, and why Cricket Australia’s schemes are successful whilst theirs aren’t. Simply copying a single part of what is clearly an effective development framework is no more likely to work than teaching British kids how to speak Portuguese in the hope that it will make them play football like Ronaldo.

The ECB would contend that they do have a master plan for improving English cricket: Cricket Unleashed. All I can say is that if you can pick out a single substantive thing the ECB are going to do to increase participation on their website then you clearly understand business jargon a lot better than I, because the whole thing reads like vague nonsense to me.

Which leads us back to this year’s All Stars Cricket. By all accounts it is fun, and kids seem to love the personalised kit, so if your 5-8 year old kid is interested in cricket and you can spare £40 then there are probably worse ways to spend the money. But let’s not kid ourselves, All Stars Cricket is still not going to do what the ECB want it to do.

As always, comments welcome below.

All Stars Cricket: Why is it Failing?

This is a guest post by Danny Frankland – and first appeared at http://www.dannycricket.wordpress.com.  You can also contact him via Twitter @dafrankland

If the ECB wanted to attract new people to the sport with the All Stars Cricket programme, perhaps it shouldn’t be more expensive than existing juniors cricket coaching or almost literally every other single thing a kid could be doing instead?

For those who might not be aware, the ECB recently launched a new initiative which aims to reverse the decline in youth participation in cricket. Named ‘All Stars Cricket’, the scheme is designed to get 5-8 year old boys and girls to “fun” coaching sessions at their local cricket clubs. The parents pay £40 to the ECB a few weeks before the sessions start, and in return they receive eight hour-long training sessions and a backpack containing a personalised cricket top, a water bottle, a hat, a cricket bat and a ball. The coaching is carefully designed by experts to be help children in their fitness and hand-eye coordination, as well as being entertaining.  In addition, there are videos online featuring current men’s and women’s England players, and suggestions for cricket-based games the parents can play with their children in their back garden.

At the launch a mere 7 weeks ago, the ECB were suggesting that they were targeting approximately 50,000 boys and girls to take part. They had announced a collaboration with MumsNet, an influential parenting website, and promised a marketing campaign to extend All Stars Cricket’s appeal beyond the children of existing cricket fans. 10,000 children who sign up before May 10th will also be randomly selected to meet and play with current England players at various events around the country.

Matt Dwyer, the Director of Participation & Growth at the ECB who is responsible for All Stars Cricket, was on Test Match Special on Sunday talking about it. The thing which immediately jumped out at me during the interview is that he said it’s on course to have around 20,000 children participating this year. This is 40% of the ECB’s own target, which begs the question: Why has it all gone wrong?

Cost And Value

The first thing that jumps out at me about All Stars Cricket is the cost. £40 upfront is not a small amount of money for a lot of people. Apart from excluding children with poor parents, it also represents a gamble even for cricket-loving middle-class parents. If they sign up their child only for the kid to hate it and refuse to go back, the parents will have paid £40 for the backpack and one hour of training.

And what do you get for £40? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen cricket bats with balls in one of my local pound shops, as well as water bottles and caps. The personalised shirt and backpack might be a little more expensive, but not much. I’d personally be amazed if the ECB was paying more than £4 for every child’s full kit.

As for the coaching itself, £40 still seems a lot of money for 8 hours of junior cricket coaching. To take the example of my local cricket club, they offer a weekly 90-minute training session for under-11s for £2.50, plus an annual junior membership of £5. For the same money as All Stars Cricket, a child gets 21 hours of coaching. It’s presumably by the same coaches, teaching the same skills and probably in quite similar ways. Perhaps it seems like better value in more expensive parts of the country, but it’s hard to see All Stars Cricket as anything other than a rip off where I live.

An important thing to remember is that All Stars Cricket isn’t just competing with existing cricket coaching, if parents have £40 to spend on making their child happy they have much better ways to spend it available to them. They could buy at least five or six new DVDs for them to watch, which is almost certain to offer more than 8 hours of entertainment. They could buy a new console game for around £40, again you’d expect more than 8 hours fun from that. They could buy 40 cheap crappy toys from their local pound shops, way more than 8 hours of fun there.

It might seem like an oversimplification but if the ECB wanted to attract new people to the sport with the All Stars Cricket programme, perhaps it shouldn’t be more expensive than existing juniors cricket coaching or almost literally every other single thing a kid could be doing instead?

Forward Planning

The other obvious flaw I see in All Stars Cricket is that it requires forward planning by the parents. The whole training plan is based around the kit the kids will get in the backpack. Each one has to be personalised and then delivered, which obviously takes some time. If someone heard about their local cricket club’s All Stars Cricket sessions the day before they started, they couldn’t just drop their kid off on the day with £40. If a kid who has signed up enjoys it, nothing they can do could get their friends to join up until the next year. If a family has a holiday booked for one of the weeks, the child will miss out and potentially be left behind the other children taking part. And of course the parents will still be paying for the hour’s training that the child misses.

All Stars Cricket, like most ECB-run schemes, suffers from rigidity and over-centralisation. If a new kid turned up at my local club’s regular junior coaching session, they wouldn’t be expected to pay anything up front. They’d almost certainly get one free trial session to meet everyone and see if they enjoyed it. They wouldn’t need any of their own kit.  Kids who forget to bring their weekly fees or pay their membership are still allowed to play, with a gentle reminder to bring them next week. With more than 8 hours of coaching every summer, if a child is away one week they won’t miss out on specific skills they might need to play cricket at the same level as the rest.

I’m also a little curious what happens with a club’s All Stars Cricket programme if some of it has to be cancelled due to rain. Can the club schedule an extra week, or do the kids lose out on some of the carefully selected activities due to lack of time? Again, and I hate to keep banging on about it, I doubt the parents get a refund either way.

Marketing

I don’t have any children, so I suppose it’s possible that the marketing is great and I’m just not seeing it. Obviously people who are already active with their local cricket clubs will almost certainly be aware of All Stars Cricket. I’d assume there are probably articles about it in many local newspapers, and some clubs will have managed to put up posters, handed out flyers, talked at school assemblies and so on. The usual kind of local unpaid outreach done largely by selfless volunteers.

I’ve not been able to find any evidence of the collaboration with MumsNet which was much heralded at the scheme’s launch. The only things which show up when searching for “All Stars Cricket” on MumsNet.com are an invitation to the launch event in March and a handful of posts in localised forums. I honestly find it a bit embarrassing.

Beyond that, all I’ve seen are social media posts and articles by national cricket journalists. The thing about these is that they’re only going to be seen by existing cricket fans. For a programme which many people had suggested could reach out to children without a cricket-loving parent, I’m not seeing any evidence of the ECB even trying.

Conclusion

In short: The ECB (which tries to solve everything with lots of money, mediocre marketing and no understanding of the general public) has tried to solve poor youth cricket participation with lots of money, mediocre marketing and no understanding of the general public. I’m honestly a little surprised even 20,000 kids will sign up.

As always at the ECB, despite creating a colossal failure no one will lose their job. It was probably all KP’s fault. Or it was the public’s fault for not understanding what a great deal the ECB were offering them. Clearly no one can be held responsible for this, or is so incompetent that they need to be replaced.

Feel free to insult me, or the ECB, in the comments below.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Up and down the country, young people are picking up a bat or a ball for the first time.  It might be in the back garden, it might be in the local park, but at any given moment someone who will go on to be a cricketer is gaining their first experience of the game.  For most, it will go no further, a casual game with the family or friends, and a memory that will occasionally resurface through life.  For some, a few, it will instil a deeper affection for and love of the game itself.  Those people will seek out a club, will learn how to improve and will play on a regular basis for years to come, and perhaps even for a lifetime.

At some point will come a time for reflection, a wondering of how they got to that point and about those who played a part in it.  Family is often first and foremost, and perhaps it goes without saying that it was my father who first put a bat in my hand.  But that is frequently just the start of the story, there are many others who play an instrumental role in what follows.

A few years ago I received a text from my mother to let me know that one of those who introduced me to the sport had died.  He was an old man by that point, the circle of life I guess, but nevertheless it came as something of a jolt to the system to hear the news.  In our minds people stay the same, and particularly so as we move away from our childhood homes and lose contact with those who were present in those formative years.

Neil Duncombe was someone who was in the team when I first started.  The excitement of being in the Sunday 2nd XI for the first time aged about twelve or thirteen is a vivid and evocative memory, far more so than playing for my school.  Of course at that point playing involved batting somewhere in the lower order, making up the numbers and doing the running around for the older players (wondering why they wouldn’t make an effort in the field, only to discover 30 years later that they were making an effort), and realising that the boundary was a hell of a long way from the wicket keeper.  The contribution in terms of runs was minimal – to the point I can recall reaching double figures for the first time and considering it a substantial achievement.  Neil was already about sixty by then, his career was coming to a close and he spent the day stood at first slip imparting wisdom and the humour that is so particularly a part of the game.  Yet he was one of the gods of the team to my young mind, a proper player to whom I looked up who I would spend the tea break sat next to just so I could listen to him, and who showed me how the game should be played.  He had been a good cricketer too, and a lesson gleaned from that was that if a 60 year old is playing against you, then don’t see them as they are now, imagine how good they must have been in their youth to still be on the field at that age.

Nor was he remotely alone in imparting wisdom, the captain was a man called Mike Connell, not the greatest cricketer – although at the time I thought he was of course – but the one who worked endlessly to ensure eleven players turned out every week, who organised everything, who walked the tightrope of friendly cricket game management in terms of trying to keep everyone involved and happy.   He was also the one who after a couple of years asked if I’d ever thought about keeping wicket.  Of course it hadn’t occurred to me, but given it was abundantly obvious I was one of the worst bowlers anyone had ever seen (capable of reasonable pace but entirely unable to direct it even vaguely in the right direction) he rather pithily pointed out that being behind the stumps might actually lead to me offering at least some kind of contribution to the team in the field.  He took me beyond the boundary, lobbed the frankly rubbish and oversized club gloves to me and started throwing cricket balls.  That I remember clearly, along with the “OK, you’ll do” observation having watched me.

To that point I’d had no desire to do the role at all, batting was all I cared about and by that time I was developing and scoring runs.  Mike was also the one who to my shock told me one day I was opening the batting.  I scored 19 – hardly an innings to pull up any trees, but I batted for a fair while and came off to lots of smiling team mates telling me that this was my metier and that I was a born opener.   My wicketkeeping on the other hand had to be pretty much self-taught; in those days the idea of qualified coaches in a club was something of a pipe dream – even now finding those capable of teaching wicketkeeping is a rarity.  Nevertheless, with encouragement I learned and progressed, and it gave me the added bonus of now being stood next to Neil on a Sunday afternoon where he would tell highly amusing tales and periodically offer up pertinent advice.  He may not have been a wicketkeeper himself but he knew the game, and importantly he knew when to keep quiet, that advice can be counter-productive if it’s not from a position of knowledge.

Curiously enough his son Chris also would become a keeper (and in my adult life a good friend) and some years later we would battle each other for the position in the first team, with me being driven on by the fact he was usually the first choice.  I was much younger than him and I was learning – put simply he was better than me at that point, though naturally enough I didn’t see it that way at the time.  Besides, my primary role in that side was to be a batsman, first as one of those not quite good enough for the firsts and then moving up the order until reaching the opening slot where I would spend most of my subsequent career.

The third member of those seniors in the Sunday 2nds was the opening bowler, Derek Robinson.  A seamer who eventually had to stop playing when his back finally gave way rather spectacularly during a game; he was also supremely accurate, something of a boon to someone having to learn how to stand up to the stumps from scratch.  With the batsman’s healthy disregard for bowlers of all types, I probably had less direct interaction with him initially in a learning sense (after all, bowling was for lesser types in my mind), but his delightful disposition and humour made him a joy to share a field with and a source of wisdom about the wider game.  As my keeping developed so would his advice in that discipline and his study, usually from fine leg, became a valuable source of information.

Of course, it wasn’t too long before I outgrew the Sunday 2nd XI, progressing through the sides to the league teams, initially the Saturday 2nd XI and then the 1sts.  Runs came much more freely, wicketkeeping progressed rapidly, life developed and I moved away eventually to a new club in a different county who got by far the best of my cricketing career.  It is a deep regret that while their time and effort allowed me to develop into a reasonable cricketer, those at my first club never remotely saw the best of me on the field.

And yet.

Looking back now, everything in terms of my cricketing life developed from those few short years on the lowest rung of the cricketing ladder.  Those three people were hardly alone, there were numerous different ones at every step of the way, even when I was old enough to hold my own as a player at a decent level.  But nothing is so formative as those in the early years who encourage, advise, criticise and perhaps especially when they tell you off.  An opposition player did that once too; I don’t know who he was and never played him again, but one of his team-mates scored undoubtedly one of luckiest fifties I’ve ever seen, balls flying in the air just past fielders, edges past the stumps and so on.  Reaching his half century was greeted by us in silent disbelief, with one or two making unfriendly observations about good fortune.  But as with many friendlies, one of their players was standing at square leg umpiring.  He came in at the end of the over and quietly said “People have different levels of ability – this is a big thing for him, respect his achievement”.  That opponent may never have scored a fifty again in his life, but that was his day, and it was magnificent.

His comment is seared into my mind, I felt deeply and utterly ashamed instantly, and the lesson he taught my fourteen year old self remained me with ever since.  I would always applaud or acknowledge an opponent’s landmark from then on, no matter how fortunate it might have been, and that wise cricketer’s words were passed on by me to many a young team-mate in similar circumstances.  I doubt he would ever even remember saying so, but I cannot thank him enough for delivering that quiet, understated bollocking.

For here is the point:  Few are ever aware of the impact they have on other people, young people especially.   They would doubtless be surprised to learn of their part in it all.  Neil Duncombe even gave me my first set of batting pads, old-fashioned cane ones with buckles that provided limited protection to my legs, but they were mine and they were a gift from someone I both looked up to and adored.  Mike Connell made me into a wicketkeeper.  Just him, no one else; hundreds of stumpings and catches down to his decision on a sunny day.  What made him do that, I have no idea.  Derek Robinson taught me how to improve, how to get better, and how to have fun on a cricket field.

I never told them.  Oh dear God, I didn’t tell any of them, not these three, not Paul Brook – a modest cricketer but a great man, not Martyn Cobb who taught me that cricket is a game that rewards thinking, not one of the many others I could list who weren’t my father yet who did so much.  In at least one case it’s now too late, and for the others I don’t know where they are or if even they are still around.  These people were instrumental in my cricketing life, yet I was far too self-absorbed with the arrogance and certainty of youth to realise it at the time.  They taught me everything, they gave up their time – yes to have fun, but also to guide, encourage and teach a young player about both the game and about life itself.

Everyone reading this will have had the same kind of experience;  it might be in cricket, it might be in any other sport. It doesn’t even have to be within a sport itself, for we all have those who have made the difference to who we are.  These names mean nothing to all but a very few, but you will have your own who do.  Tell them.  Express to them what they did for you.  Tell them how important they were, thank them for being who they were and what they did.

Before it’s too late.  Before you fervently wish you had taken just a moment to do so.

Community Service

In this part of the world, and for a certain category of person, April is a special time.  The arrival of spring in itself can warm the soul as well the skin; the profusion of life, the sound of birdsong and the explosion of colour signifies new beginnings.  Yet for some, a small collective, it suggests something rather more.

Across the world, the dates may change, and the climate may be very different, but the principle is identical, and the approach of the cricket season brings out the same mentality and activity wherever it may be.  For those who care start to get ready.  That might include players, who went to indoor nets in January and February, but it also includes all those who do the legwork, who prepare the fixture lists, who seed the grass on the ground, who put up the outdoor nets, who re-wire the pavilion or remove the mildew from the showers.  Those who spend the first part of the month repainting the picket fence outside the pavilion, or who have silently spent the winter ensure the square is ready – year in, year out.  Who go on courses to learn how to do it better, who wince every time the ball bounces badly.

When April itself arrives the same group of people then plan the coaching evenings for the kids, in full awareness that many parents regard this as free babysitting, and they do so on the off chance that one in twenty of the children who turn up may fall in love with the game and therefore could go on to be a playing member for the next thirty years.  They do this even though if that player becomes exceptionally good, they will leave and go somewhere else to play a higher standard.  Possibly and potentially, that might include the county programmes, meaning that all their hard work goes not to their club, but to the wider game.  They will joke that what they really want is a good young player who isn’t very bright, who won’t go to university and who will stay in the area.  But they know they will, and they know they will lose them.  But they pay it forward, in the hope their club will benefit from the hard work someone else put in somewhere else.  The circle of mutual support is a wide one.

And then there are those who have had their cricketing career, who captain the Sunday 2nd XI, batting at number nine and standing at slip, not enjoying their lack of contribution, frustrated at their waning powers, but deeply aware it was done for them in their youth.  They get little thanks for it, and may well be dead before the 40 year old they introduced to the sport thirty years earlier fully realises what he did for them, who then laments that they never told him quite how important to their life he was.  It was a he, mostly, but in decades to come it will be many a she too.   It already is.

Or there are those who despite their full awareness of the affectionate contempt in which the players hold them still volunteer to do the scoring, a thankless, dull task at the best of times, hated by most, loved by a very few.  They may have no cricketing ability at all, but choose to be involved and choose to help out.  Perhaps instead they go on an umpiring course, to give up their weekends to annoy players by being human and getting a decision wrong.  Come September those same people will compile the annual reports, with statistics, averages and club records.

A further subset go and watch a county match, aware of their small band of fellow travellers with whom they are often on first name terms, despite little in common but a shared passion for a game that passes most of the public by.  They go when the weather is cold and grey, and they go – and are joined by a few others – when it is warm and sunny and the appeal of a cold pint with appropriate on field background entertainment is available – the crack of ball on bat, the cries of fielders as they appeal for a decision to another who has given up a substantial proportion of their life to give back to the game they were brought up with, and who are able to make a modest living from doing so.

For five and a bit months across the country, this pattern prevails.  Some make the teas, traditionally they are tea ladies, more recently not so much.  Many will have little interest or concern, but will drive past a village green filled with cricketers and know that a traditional element of their national character is being played out in front of them.  Like Morris Dancing, they may not wish to be part of it themselves, they may even sneer at those who do it, but it is a precious part of national consciousness.  John Major was laughed at for his references to it, but as definitions of a desired national character go, there are many worse that could be chosen.

Each week the same group, always a small number of people in any club, go through the same process.  They prepare, they work, they give up their time for no other reason than a deep seated love for a sport.  Even within their own organisation there aren’t enough of them, they do several jobs not just one.  Sometimes they may get frustrated at the lack of respect they get for the contribution they make, but they do so not for fame or fortune and not for recognition, but because it needs to be done and if they don’t do it, then who will?

The rarefied atmosphere of the highest level of any sport is a world away from the day to day that makes up virtually all of the game.  Yet professional sport relies on the amateur to a far greater extent than the other way around, even though they both need the other for it to flourish.  But take away professional cricket, and the game would survive.  Take away amateur cricket and there is simply no game at all, which is why the dismissive behaviour towards it remains one of the more despicable attitudes pervading the corridors of power.  They deny it, but all involved know it is there – the ECB won’t even give the “recreational game” as they put it, elected representation to their organisation.  That is the reason this band of brothers and sisters quietly get on with things, with little help, and less interest from above.

These people do it all.  They are the backbone without whom nothing, nothing at all, would exist.  They are a minority within a minority, they provide everything and in return get little except perhaps personal satisfaction for making a contribution to society.  They are denied the right to even see their chosen sport at the top level without paying again for the privilege,  they are belittled and even laughed at.  Decisions are taken that make their lives just that little bit harder, and their response is to give even more time, and make even greater efforts, for no reason other than they feel it is the right thing to do, and that it matters.

Cricket is a sport first and foremost.  It isn’t a business, and it isn’t the opportunity to make vast amounts of money.  That may be a by product for a chosen few, but it is not the driver, it is not the raison d’etre, and those who behave as though it is should be ashamed.  Those who allow it to happen should be even more ashamed, for they could speak up yet do not do so. They betray the work done across the country, across the world, to provide a background for all those who care little for their efforts to exploit.

These are the obsessives.  The fanatics who move heaven and earth to ensure there is something for successive generations to complain about.  They do it in many different ways, from the park in the city centre to the village Common.  They support, morally and financially, all rungs of the game, and they provide the base interest that in turn creates the next level, be it County Championship, T20 or 50 over.

Yes, Mr Harrison, they are obsessives.  Every single one of them.  And you should get down on your knees and thank them for their very existence.  And so should we all.

Lost in Space

It’s been a fair while since I’ve  written a piece, and it’s been like an itch that needs scratching.  The last few months have been fairly manic with work, but after next week it should be a quieter period, just in time for Christmas and then January and February, which are my easy months of the year, comparatively.

I’ve also been doing some research on a bigger post to come, and have notes scribbled all over the place.  Picking the right time to do that is perhaps the biggest question.

The approaching series is the one in South Africa, historically always one of the marquee series, and thus one where excitement is building, right?

Hmm.  Over the last week we had the nominations for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, and the observation that despite a truly fantastic year, Joe Root was missing from the list.  It was also pointed out that at the same time, a woman footballer was on there, and much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued.

From a couple of cricket writers.

From the wider public there was the sound of complete indifference.

Now, the reason for me apparently picking on a female footballer there was deliberate.  You see, not only are those matches visible on terrestrial television, but it goes further than that.  Participation in female football has been growing rapidly in the last few years, and in the next 12 months or so, it will exceed the male participation in cricket in this country.  Add to that the higher viewing figures for the Women’s World Cup, and realistically, why should there be the slightest objection or even query?  By these measures, women’s football is simply more important to the English people than cricket is.

Is it really?  Probably not, yet one of the defences the ECB puts up to cricket not being on terrestrial television is that it is available on Test Match Special on the radio.  Yet here we have an Ashes winning year with one player across the calendar year proving genuinely exceptional and becoming the number one batsman in the world, and he wasn’t included.  But the fundamental point is that people do get missed off these things, that isn’t the story – the total indifference to it is.

Few would argue that the SPOTY award is more than a bit of fluff, yet it is symptomatic of the decline in interest in the sport generally that Root being left out didn’t cause a storm of outrage, instead it wasn’t even noticed.  Go to the pub, sit at the bar, raise the subject amongst those interested in sport and see what the reaction is.  There’s a slight raising of the eyebrows and a response of “oh yes.  That’s true”.  This is more dangerous to the game here than anything, when the sporting public don’t even realise until it’s pointed out.

When this debate occurs, the question of terrestrial television coverage is always rejected with the line that the drop in revenue from doing so would be a disaster for the game, and that terrestrial coverage wouldn’t suddenly change everything.  This is true, yet it is what it always has been – a complete straw man argument.  No one is arguing that it is a panacea for all ills, it’s a deep seated concern that there won’t be much of a game to support at this rate.

Ah yes, but crowds remain excellent and there is strong demand, so the story goes.  Yet this year there were day one tickets available for the Lords Ashes Test, on the day of the match.  Trying to find this kind of information out from the ECB is nigh on impossible, and so the supporting evidence for this assertion is a simple one – I looked at the Lords website and went through most of the process of buying one to see if I could.  It’s unlikely there were many, but the point is there actually were some.

Let’s just think about that; day one tickets, on the day, for the Lords Test, of an Ashes series.  And England had just gone 1-0 up.  Cost is a big part of this for certain, the exponential increase in ticket prices and the gouging of supporters by the ECB (funny how the huge rise in income for the ECB hasn’t held ticket prices down) has probably reached a point where a substantial number of those who would go simply don’t solely for this reason. Yet the alarm bells should be ringing loudly, and the biggest concern is they don’t seem to be.

It didn’t help of course that the Ashes series itself was such a dreadful one, five completely one sided matches with barely any drama or uncertainty beyond the first day and a bit.  But to counter that, the two Tests against New Zealand were truly magnificent, cricket as entertainment at its best.  It still didn’t make much difference.

With most specialist interests, there’s the matter that anyone writing or talking about it is doing so in an echo chamber, the only people who react or read it, or argue back are those who have the same interest, and thus it can be talked about at great length, entirely oblivious to the fact that no one outside of it cares.  This is where cricket now is.  The national press do cover the game, but if the Sun stopped writing about it (tucked away four pages in from the back) would anyone care?  Would anyone outside of the few even notice?  It seems unlikely.

Out of sight, out of mind is the most dangerous state for any sport to reach.  For decades the lamentation that football has taken over the national consciousness at the expense of cricket has gone up, but it’s gone way further than that now.  Rugby union is miles ahead, notwithstanding the England team gloriously completely the full set of the three “major” team sports all going out at the group stage of their respective World Cups (the football team’s failure is positively superb by comparison with the other two), in fact rugby league probably is.  Cycling, tennis, athletics – they all now have a much broader appeal than cricket does.  It’s nothing more than a minority interest, and the slump in people playing is as good an evidence of that as anything else.

If you were to visit some of the London parks, the removal of the cricket pitches by the councils is something that has been highlighted over the last few years.  Yet a question that is never asked about that is what if the councils are right?  What if they have removed them not just because of the expense, but because no one really cares if they do?  It’s not like it was met with strong protest, more like quiet grumbles at the way things are going.

The national team is the pinnacle of any sport, and also the showcase of it.  For all the talk about the dominance of the club game in football, nothing pulls in viewers or captures the imagination like the national team doing well – younger readers may need to ask a parent – yet despite the defeat in the UAE, the England cricket team had a reasonable enough year post World Cup, and for most of the wider public, it simply passed them by.

A South Africa tour should be highly anticipated, England don’t win there often, and despite the hosts comprehensive defeat in India, it will be a stiff challenge.  But will anyone notice?  Will anyone even realise it’s happening?

The wider ramifications of the ICC power grab are yet to unwind, the complicity of much of the media in allowing that to happen with no objections or investigation as shameful as it ever was.  But the bigger issue right now is the game itself, and where it is in this country.  And for the first time I am starting to truly fear for its future, not just at the top level but throughout.  The mendacity and self-serving nature of the avaricious ECB is a subject to which we will return time and again.  The danger is that it reaches a point where even when it’s put in front of the public, they still couldn’t care less.

 

 

State of Play

The gap between Tests reduces to some extent the frenetic nature of the media as far as cricket goes, and allows a little time for reflection about where we are more generally, and how we got here.

Although it’s fairly rare to offer up any praise for the ECB (for the simple reasons that they tend to both incompetence and duplicitousness, which is rarely a good combination), it is worth noting that Women’s Ashes matches have been scheduled for between the men’s Tests.  For once they have it right, as it’s far more likely to gain attention that way.  It says a fair bit about the ECB that the overriding reaction to seeing such a piece of consummate common sense is surprise.  Generating that interest creates a feedback loop, as shown by Sussex announcing that the T20 at Hove is nearly sold out.

The rise of women’s cricket in England is a fascinating development.  It’s one that the ECB pat themselves on the back for an awful lot, and it has to be said they have played a significant part in that, although women’s participation in what were traditionally male sports has shown a significant rise across the board, from the success of the football team to the way the women’s Six Nations is now covered on television and gets decent crowds.  In rugby, the RFU have gone as far as to schedule some matches directly after the men at Twickenham, something the ECB have also done beforehand with some England games, and with the same kind of success.  As a means of allowing the more casual supporter to watch, it’s obviously highly successful.  But what it also means is that cricket is not a discrete entity in this; women’s sport is gaining an attention that would have seemed highly unlikely a generation ago.  Quite why that might be is a little hard to pin down, much of it being for sociological reasons as to the acceptability of women playing such sports – good to know we’re in the 21st century at last.  The ECB are entitled to be pleased, but when seen in the context that the number of women playing football is shortly to overtake the number of men playing cricket, it raises as many questions as it answers about their role as governors of the English game.

Nevertheless, whatever provided the catalyst, and whatever the context of cricket more generally, the ECB have certainly played their part in helping growth in women’s cricket.  Free kit has been distributed to clubs, and free coaching and umpires courses provided for women who wish to make use of them.  That does represent something of a contrast in how it is for men wishing to do the same, and the costs involved tend to be significantly higher (and with less given back) than the football equivalents.  Many clubs offset that cost themselves, in order to encourage their members to gain their qualifications, but it is still a lot of money.

What doesn’t get mentioned much (and here the ECB aren’t alone by any means, it is taken for granted across both sport and other walks of life) is that any success requires people on the ground to volunteer and give up huge amounts of time to help encourage people to play the game.  The decline of schools cricket is often cited as being disastrous in this, yet in comparing what was available 25 years ago to what is available now, the clubs have more than filled that gap.  As someone who attended a cricket playing state school, the coaching was non-existent (and the county paid little attention to the state schools there anyway – in that little has changed) while only one local club had a thriving youth section – indeed only one local club even tried to create a thriving youth section.  Moving forward to the present day, it is truly astonishing to see medium sized clubs having colts evenings comprising up to a hundred youngsters of an evening, and a plethora of qualified coaches to help them.  It is, of course, enlightened self-interest from the clubs; shorn of a supply of schoolboy cricketers, they are producing their own.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that for a child who has shown an interest in cricket (therein lies a different debate), the opportunities for playing are now markedly more plentiful than they were in the 1980s.  So far so good, with the obvious concomitant opportunities for cricket more widely.

With both boys and girls cricket, those volunteers are the heroes and heroines.  Many clubs simply decided they wished to create a women’s and girls’ section, and worked ridiculously hard to try and make it work.  Many male players will be familiar with making up the numbers in the initial stages until sufficient players of the correct sex were available.  It is there where the ECB provided some support, a little of it directly, more of it via the counties.  Let there be no mistake, that support was and is critical, but it is still the uncredited hard workers that form the backbone of every cricket club who have made it happen, almost always unappreciated higher up in the game.  The ECB and the counties have been facilitators of an existing desire, not the creators of it.  Given the sheer number of clubs it couldn’t be any other way, but that’s where the balance lies, not in initiatives from the ECB.  Like any organisation, self-justification is part of the marketing, but agreeing that they deserve some credit is not the same as allowing them to take it all.

There is another side issue that affects both male and female youth cricket, and that’s the way funding and support is channelled through the counties.  Girls cricket provides a fascinating insight into the methods of boys cricket as well, given that it was essentially a tabula rasa upon the foundation of the structures.  Some of the counties are excellent, and it’s striking how many cricketers at the top level they are producing, notably Durham.  Others are not.  There is sufficient anecdotal evidence that some counties wish to work with a very small number of clubs in their Premier League alone, and ignore the rest.  That manifests itself in pushing even 12 year olds of promise, boy or girl, to the big clubs in the county, where they can be watched by the county structure.  The frustration for the majority is that there is little point in focusing on producing the best players they can, if the first time they come into contact with the county, that county tells them to leave and go somewhere else.  It becomes a parasitical relationship rather than one of mutual support.  Now of course, as that youngster develops, there comes a point where they need to be exposed to the highest level of club cricket possible, if they are to make it to the professional ranks, and every club is – or should be – fully aware of that.  But that isn’t what is occurring in at least some of the counties, they are attempting to hoover up every single promising player and divert them from their home club at the earliest possible age to a bigger one.  If this was happening to a tiny village club with one eleven, you could almost understand it, but it isn’t, it applies to clubs who are playing in the county league cricket structure and by any measure are good, strong cricket clubs.

The Sky Millions question is: how widespread is this?  It is dangerous to extrapolate anecdotal experiences with reality, but it is a complaint heard sufficiently to cause deep concern.  The trouble is that few people have direct experience of multiple county structures, so one that doesn’t behave in this way would be seen as doing things extremely well by those living in a “good” county without being aware of the circumstances elsewhere – and vice versa.  In at least some of the counties, and perhaps more, the club game is treated as something of a hindrance, except as a means of extracting the best players out of it and into the arms of the county.

That attitude towards the clubs at the ECB and the counties is evidenced by the complete lack of representation of the amateur game within its own governing body.  It is striking that the much maligned FA has much greater representation outside the professional game than the ECB does.  A cricket club needs to be affiliated to the ECB but has no power of influence over it.  There is a single representative from the recreational game on the board, and that one person wasn’t elected by any clubs, but is an appointee.  Equally, there is little or no oversight for how a county fulfils its obligations to the clubs in its area, which means it is reliant on them doing so in the wider interest rather than their own.  The clear decline in participation can be for any number of reasons on an individual level, but when there’s a pattern more widely, questions need to be asked why.  It would be easy to point to the loss of terrestrial TV coverage, and undoubtedly that will have played a part, but it is much more complex than that.

Where this has relevance as we move up through the levels of cricket is in terms of affecting the quality of the player base from which the counties and then England can select.  As has been pointed out on a number of occasions, up to seven of the England eleven are public schoolboys.  In some instances they are scholarship boys, quite possibly because of their cricket prowess in the first place.  This isn’t a class based point, or a political one, but the reality is that with 93% of children going to state schools, there is clearly an enormous wastage of basic talent.  That has to be balanced with the reality that with excellent facilities, the public schoolboy has likely far better access to cricket as a matter of course.  It’s not an either/or and it’s not a straightforward criticism.  What it is though, is extremely careless to have failed to make the most of the vast majority, in a way that football tends to avoid.  And that’s without taking into account the worrying lack of Asian talent making it to the top level given the proportion of club cricket that comprises.  The clubs are developing young cricketers in greater numbers than they ever have before, athought there is inevitably wastage as they grow up, and inevitably some parents will regard it as a useful form of free babysitting.  The volunteers and the clubs themselves are more than aware of that, but do it anyway because of the small percentage who will stay with the club into adulthood.  If the clubs themselves are providing the basic numbers, then at some point as the standard increases, they are falling by the wayside as a proportion of the whole.

With the Edgbaston Test approaching, the dropping of Gary Ballance for Jonny Bairstow has been accompanied by a sideline that there aren’t too many alternatives to choose from.  There is obviously the pachyderm hovering which must not be mentioned, but even in that instance, the point of origin for that player is South Africa.  Since he arrived as a 19 year old off-spinner, a strong case can be made that he learned to become the player he was in England rather than anywhere else, yet the formative years weren’t here.  Indeed the same applies to Ballance himself who learned his cricket in Zimbabwe.  The county system itself looks in both directions, both up to England level and down to club level.  If done well, that link can be invaluable, if done badly, it’s a matter of self-interest rather than the greater good.  England are always going to have some input from places like South Africa for obvious historical reasons, the number of overseas British passport holders is enormous, and the county game offers the potential for a good living.  Some object to the importation of such players who then turn out for England, but given the rules, which are stricter in England than they need to be internationally, there is nothing wrong with England choosing them, and in any case someone who moves across the world to make their career as a teenager is clearly a driven individual.

No, this isn’t about the use of such players per se, but why it is that without them England would be so markedly weaker, why we aren’t producing enough players of the requisite standard ourselves, and why we don’t produce the exceptional players that other countries seem to.

A little over a year ago, an article appeared in Cricinfo from a father talking about the experience of his son, who hadn’t been part of the age group sides, but had developed later on his county trial.  For those who missed it, it is well worth reading again in its entirety:

http://www.espncricinfo.com/thestands/content/story/717821.html

On its own, a single article like that means little, but the trouble was that it very clearly chimed with a great many others.  It was a small article, somewhat hidden away, and within the depressingly small confines of those interested in cricket, received a lot of attention.

Even if they can still think for themselves, they won’t be allowed to if they want to progress. Their whole lives will be structured by a battalion of experts for every eventuality, and should they speak up against it, they will be labelled “a divisive influence”, “a rebellious individual”, or most worryingly of all, “not a team player”.

The relentless focus on fitting in with what those above wished, the intolerance of individuality, and the requirement for a player to be coached to meet the narrow definitions of the approved cricketing path, rather than trying to get the most out of them is a complaint heard all too often, even in the national set up.  This is the other side of the coin from the counties themselves trying to drive the direction of youth cricketers from a very young age.  A child whose parent resists the push to move to a bigger club at an early age is already risking being marked out as part of the awkward squad, with all that entails.

Recently, he trialled with a first-class county, and after a single session lasting less than three hours, he was left injured and demoralised for more than a week afterwards. The injuries were because the session seemed to be less about cricket and far more about physical punishment. If a bowler failed to hit the cone, hurdle or pole that was acting as a target in the drill in question, he faced punishment. If a batsman failed to hit the bowling machine ball back between the cones provided, he would face punishment. If a fielder failed to complete the drill faultlessly, he would go back to the queue, because for the second half of the session, fielding drills were the punishment.

Allowances in that particular article need to be made for someone being a father to his son; the trouble was the lack of outrage from other counties, and the lack of anyone coming forward to say that it was an entirely isolated incident.  Indeed, just the opposite, with even some coaches lamenting that their own experiences in the centres of excellence mirrored it exactly.  Few allowances are made for players developing at different rates in the first place, if anything it was something of a surprise that an older player who hadn’t been through the county process got as far as getting a trial in the first place.

There’s a degree of irony in this.  When England talk about “executing their skills” ad nauseam, what is clear that those skills form a smaller part of the development of young players than might be thought.  English cricket – and the clubs are no more immune to this criticism than those above – has a terrible tendency to focus on what someone cannot do rather than what they can.  It is indicative that it is somewhat hard to imagine a Steve Smith, with a highly unconventional technique, making it to the top level without someone trying to force him to do what everyone else does, and probably failing.  A wise man once said that the skill of coaching was to ensure a player became the best he could be, and that doesn’t mean making that player fit in to preconceived ideas and micro-managing every aspect of their lives beyond the nets.

The danger for women’s cricket is that this template is being duplicated at every level.  From a low base, this probably doesn’t matter in the immediate term, but it seems too much to hope that lessons are being learned.

None of this should be seen as a criticism of the selection of Bairstow, his record this season merits consideration, and he is clearly steeped in cricket from birth, both directly and indirectly.  It is a matter of closing the circle from the lowest levels on the village green to the Test arena, whereby England are able to select from the widest and deepest talent pool available.  Whether it is the bowling attack, or the batting line up, the cry that often goes up is that is all too samey.  Yet this is hardly surprising given all the above.  Talented players are pushed the same way, to the same circumstances, and the same end result.  And ultimately we end up with an England team where the batsmen tend to be very similar, and so do the bowlers.  It is perhaps unsurprising in that context, that the county who are often seen as creating a template for producing players who exist on their own merits – Durham – are also the one who create players who reach England level that have quirky personalities and techniques that have been largely left alone.  It is furthermore disappointing to see that someone instrumental in that, Graeme Fowler, felt the need to stand down in protest at the direction the university cricket centre was going in.

In recent times one of the more striking things about the England team has been the peculiar joylessness in their play.  If the likes of the article above are true about how the various development centres are run, it is unsurprising that this would be the case, players pushed in a certain direction from a very young age, forced to operate with narrow parameters lest they be considered unable to toe the line or form part of the group, and prevented from expressing themselves in their play.  Of course, the New Zealand series showed that this doesn’t need to be so, yet the last Test showed worrying signs of a reversion to the mean, although a single match shouldn’t in itself be viewed as any kind of trend.  The challenge for Trevor Bayliss and Paul Farbrace would then be far more extensive than simply to allow England players to express themselves, it would be to undo half a lifetime of being trammeled and restricted.

This doesn’t mean for a moment that those players in the England set up are therefore unhappy, but it does take a particular type of person to operate in the kind of environment cricket in England works in.  The problem is not those players who have made it, but those who have not.  How many talented players are lost at every stage due to it?  Falling by the wayside is inevitable, not making the most of what you have is criminal.   Whether at 12 years old or 25 years old, a one size fits all approach cannot work, it simply produces those who are pre-disposed to fit the prevailing culture.  And that’s all very well, but you end up with an England side who are the products of that, with all the limitations therein.  One of the most striking things about l’affaire Pietersen is that he so plainly didn’t fit into the box into which the ECB wanted to put him.  When that same perspective pervades the entire game, then suspicions start to arise that the ECB itself is a major part of the problem.

It is highly unlikely that the ECB are doing anything except that which they feel to be the best overall.  But the tail wags the dog, with the counties having the overriding power.  Where this ties in as at both ends of the game’s spectrum.  The wider club game is often viewed as a chore within the counties, hence the desire to compact it to as few clubs as possible, while the England team is not the focus except inasmuch as it benefits those counties, especially financially.  That being the case, from youth to senior professional, the counties play their role well, producing significant numbers of county level professionals, of whom England select the best at playing county cricket.  The trouble is, that is not the same as producing the best possible players.  And this is completely inevitable, because although some would doubtless protest at the way they are being painted here, any organisation will gear itself to the promotion of its primary aim, irrespective of what they might say that aim is.   How that translates in terms of the financial distribution of the money brought into will be the subject of a future blog.

Women’s cricket is in an expansion phase where there is optimism about the direction in which it is moving.  But by doing it the same way as they are with the men, the potential for the same shortcomings is clearly there.  The men’s team will play the best available team (with arguably one exception) who will do the best that they can.  But why they are the best we have is a subject that reaches right the way down to the park and the village green, and ultimately, England get what they have worked for since the players were children.  The problem is, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

@BlueEarthMngmnt