Is English Cricket Too Posh?

It seems fair to say that cricket in England has always been a class-based affair. For almost 200 years there was a separation between the independently wealthy amateur gentlemen and working-class professionals. It was only in 1963 that amateurism officially ended in English first-class cricket. There has always been a sense that English cricket is a game for aristocrats which the proles can only play at their sufferance and on their terms.

Even in recent history, there has been a bias toward people from privileged backgrounds. In the last 40 years, public school boys have accounted for 80% of the ECB/TCCB chairmen, 67.5% of the chairmen of selectors, and Test captains in 65% of the games. To put these numbers into context, in 2016/17 the percentage of children attending public schools in the UK was 7.9%.

Considering the over-representation of the well-to-do in the higher echelons of English cricket, you will be unsurprised to learn that this pattern continues in the selection of the England Test team. In the past 10 years there have been 126 England Men’s Test matches featuring 61 cricketers. Players who attended fee-paying schools make up 56.2% of the appearances in this period.

This was higher than I expected, but the real shock came when I looked a little deeper. If we divide the players into two groups, batsmen and wicketkeepers versus bowlers and allrounders, there is a massive disparity between the two. “Only” 26.5% of appearances by bowlers were by public school boys, and Stuart Broad’s 109 games account for 17.2% of them. Conversely, 81.7% of appearances by batsmen were from public school boys. That is a patently ridiculous figure.

The question this begs for me is this: “Why are people from ‘the right kind of family’ more likely to be batsmen than bowlers?” The most likely answer that I can give is coaching. People who attend fee-paying schools probably receive a higher level of cricket coaching from a younger age than people who go to comprehensive schools. It’s possible to train someone of average height, average strength and average speed to become a decent batsman, and wealthy people have the ability to make that happen.

The same is not necessarily true of bowling. There is an old adage in coaching: “You can’t teach speed”. I mean, you obviously can, but every person has a limit beyond which they can’t get any faster. One thing you definitely can’t train is height, which is also an advantage when becoming a fast bowler. No matter how much money you throw at it, you can’t make a posh boy grow 6’4″ tall and be capable of bowling at 85 mph. Bowling is therefore a significantly more representative and meritocratic discipline in English cricket.

I suspect that when counties scout their local clubs and schools, children from public schools would appear to be superior choices. Having received better coaching from a younger age, they will be playing closer to their potential abilities. This would however mean that counties overlook kids from less affluent areas who might have lesser abilities but greater potential.

There are, I suspect, other reasons. As I’ve pointed out at the start, senior roles in the ECB tend to favour people from privileged backgrounds. Public school boys have a reputation for intelligence, confidence and leadership ability. You only have to look at other areas of public life which they dominate like investment banking or politics to see how quickly these stereotypes fall apart under even the slightest scrutiny, but nevertheless they are considered “well-spoken” and “the kind of boy you hope your daughter marries”.

This disparity angers me for several reasons, not the least of which is that we as a country are probably losing multiple potentially great Test batsmen from the game simply because of the circumstances of their birth. It also has a massive long-term impact on the game. Most of the off-the-field roles in English cricket are taken by former players. Administrators, coaches, selectors, journalists, commentators and pundits are all likely to be former players. If the majority of players are from public schools, that means that they will also dominate all of the other aspects of English cricket.

So what can be done about it? Fortunately, there is already an example of a country whose cricket was also dominated by a wealthy and privileged elite but have reversed that trend in recent years. Of course, that country was South Africa.

Obviously the two situations aren’t even remotely comparable. Black South Africans had faced over a century of institutionalised racism in all aspects of society, including cricket. Even after reinstatement into world cricket and the election of the ANC, there were relatively few cricket clubs in black communities. One of the solutions to this issue has been the use of quotas, requiring minimum numbers of black and coloured players in their international and first-class teams.

This approach is not without its downsides. I’m sure most people on this blog will be aware that Kevin Pietersen cited CSA’s policies as restricting his chances of playing in his home country. Several Kolpak players in county cricket have also suggested this, although a more cynical person might suggest that for most it seems like a straightforward financial decision. I don’t think this would be as strong an issue as it is in South Africa.

The current system in South Africa allows 5 white players in any first-class team, and there are only 6 first-class teams. This means that there are essentially 30 professional contracts available to white South Africans, which does seem somewhat restrictive. If similar quotas were enforced for privately educated players in county cricket, there would be 90 spots for them because English cricket has three times the number of teams. This seems like an eminently workable number, allowing room for both experienced professionals and developing future stars but without allowing a wealthy minority to dominate the sport.

A quota system would force counties to look beyond the low-hanging fruit of public school cricketers and encourage them to help promote mainstream youth participation in their regions. If the privately educated became minorities on the cricket field, hopefully that would also filter through over time to all of the other facets of the game. Indeed, if English cricket ever weans itself off rich entitled men being in charge, perhaps they will finally close the divide between those Inside and Outside Cricket?

As always, we welcome your thoughts and comments below.

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Let Me Tell You About A Little Situation, It’s Been Testing My Patience

Sport is emotional. I am pretty emotional. Warning – this is a bit of a rant, jotted down in one take, with a duff keyboard and a lagging laptop. By the end, I’ve had enough of all of it. So just a head’s up. My laptop is still intact, although the swear box has been filled nicely. So take it away…..

Lyrics from a song I like this year (well a remix of) but sums up where I am. I’m not writing about an ODI that followed a well-trodden path, even if it contained the sort of century that you can only dream about. Moeen is rightly popular among many – a throwback cricketer in many ways, and someone England should be proud to have. To play an innings like that should dominate my thinking, my prose, my match report. But in truth I barely watched the game. Things to do, places to go, other sports intruding on my time, other chores needing to be done. Devoting a whole day to sitting in front of a screen, commenting on the cricket is a luxury I can have on only so many occasions. Obviously this means you miss hundreds like today.

But the lyrics in the title (from a song called Tearing Me Up) are directed more at the contents of the article by Nick Hoult regarding the ECB contemplating ending the five day test and shrinking the matches into 4. Graves, at about the same time he was talking to KP and then denying he said what he said, mentioned this sack of garbage a couple of years ago, and most of us put it down to the witless ramblings of another useless administrator who might have money, but had no idea. Empty Suit, presumably because two people at the top of the ECB can’t really be disagreeing with each other, backed up this tosh, but no-one else seemed really serious. Distinct hums came into our airspace when Shiny Toy and #39 started to really float this out in the open. Shiny Toy kept the myth going that all five day tests that reside in our memories as classics could all have been the same with 4 days. Because he is floating it out there that there will be 8 hour days at the test to bowl 100+ overs. Good grief. As Jimmy said on commentary today, they struggle to bowl 90 now so “not sure how that would work”.

Then, this week, we heard that South Africa were trying to make the four day match planned for Boxing Day against Zimbabwe a “test match”. You know how these minds work, it’s as clear as day. “Hello, there’s an opportunity out there, if South Africa get this in the books, maybe we can do it.” The reasons are that they will save seven days play a year, that Day 5 being removed will save substantial costs, and it will make the game more consumer friendly. Have they asked those consumers if that’s something they actually want? The ones they care about. Don’t bother. Specious arseholes.

I am, by my very nature, a traditionalist. I don’t care that much for T20. I’m not that massive a fan of 50 over cricket, but can recognise there’s a bit more nuance to it than spinners bowling darts, small boundaries, big bats, and yes, the skill involved is high. But to me the one thing that T20 does that is anathema to me in cricket, is that it makes the sport about individuals and not about teams. A great T20 player, someone who can bat for an hour and a half smashing it everywhere, is fun the first three or four times I see it. It then gets dull. It normalises the amazing. After a T20 hundred, where has that person to go? Make another for another team somewhere around the world? There’s no team allegiance, but rather have bat will travel. A constant complaint about test matches are there is no context. Where’s the context of playing for Surrey, Port Elizabeth, St Lucia, Quetta, Melbourne, Kwazulu-Natal, Delhi, Bangalore, et al. Lord almighty. Hired guns, performing at a cricket ground near you, and hang about, he’ll be playing for someone else soon. Many team sports you know do this? You are one step away from Exhibition Cricket where the result does not matter. A jot.

Test cricket matters to the players. Sadly not to the spectators it seems as they don’t seem to turn up around the world. But five day test cricket works as a sporting endeavour. 4 day test cricket, now we have been used to five days for pretty much all my cricketing life, is another concession to money. That ship sailed years ago and only the collapse of mighty sporting TV institutions is going to reverse it. The five day game works. If players are not going to bowl 90 overs in a day now, I can’t see how it’s going to work in four days. The players are going to be against it. We here are quite zealous about the lack of penalty for slow play, and yet in four day cricket the games could be much more vulnerable to such nonsense. To me, that’s the key problem with four day tests – it is utterly vulnerable to losing a full day’s play. If we get a rain out on Day 1, we have three days to construct a result. The team batting first could be badly punished for batting well – 350 for 2 after the second day and what are they to do? Pull out stupid early and then the game hinges on whether the team batting second makes the follow-on total. If they do, we might as well pack up and go home. Day 4s mean that you can set up a Game 5. Losing a day’s play on Day 2 would mean the same sort of farce, and Day 3 would ruin pretty much most games. You could have a thrilling test where England score 300 on the first day, the opponents could makes 280 on the second and England are 40 for 1 at the end of Day 2. A beautifully balanced test that could finish on Day 3, but looks destined for a Day 4 finish. Then we have a rained out day and…. England are 60 ahead and are going to have to make a daring declaration to win or bat out the day and try again. I think the third day rain out will kill many a test match. What you going to do, make them bowl 130 overs on Day 4?

That was quite long-winded, but test cricket has adapted to five days and the game is brilliant for it. There are many bad ODIs and T20 games. But a bad test has everyone clutching the pearls. But bad tests still have meaningful performances and five days can draw out thrillers from nowhere. Abu Dhabi a couple of years ago, for instance. Four dull days, great performances by Malik and Cook, and then a nervy collapse and we have a chase down. Four days and that test match will be condemned. Five days and pressure brought a top finish. I don’t even need to go down the Adelaide 2006 route. Adelaide 2010 would have been a draw due to the rain. India’s magnificent win there a few years before 2006 would have been a bore draw. Test matches, 90 overs a day fit 5 days well. I see no problem to be solved.

Except we don’t believe in tests any more. Youngsters are not interested (we are doing bad jobs as parents and sellers of the game if this is the case) we are told. Keep telling someone the problem is test matches and then you believe it. The ECB wan more T20 because they want more money. Players aren’t going to be giving cash up any time soon, so the powers that be will need them to play more – and charge us more to watch.

I’m packing this in for tonight – will return to it tomorrow as my keyboard is giving me the hump more than the ECB. You get my drift. I’ll be back tomorrow to rant some more if there is time. Four day test matches will be the end for me. It’s change to accommodate an inferior format, in my view, and like any punter I can choose to watch or choose not to. And I am now about to throw this accursed laptop across the room.

Good night.

UPDATE – A non-denial, denial. Let’s gird our loins for the consultation..

In a statement, a spokesman said: “ECB has no firm position on the staging of four-day Test matches. We can see benefits that more compact scheduling might deliver but are sensitive to the potential effects of any change to the traditional format. Careful consideration is required to support the right decisions for the wider game, and on-field matters are key.”

Further consultation will therefore take place before far-reaching decisions are made. “We would welcome more insight on the effects for players and fans in order to help the game make a fully-informed decision on any proposal,” added the ECB’s spokesman. “It is important that cricket is prepared to innovate in all formats of the game where it can help drive interest, accessibility or improvement.

“Above all, ECB is committed to a healthy and competitive future for Test match cricket, here and around the world.”

The New TV Deal – Winners And Losers

Yesterday, the ECB announced who won the broadcast rights to English cricket from 2020 to 2024. To no one’s surprise, the winners were Sky Sports and the BBC. The BBC will have up to 21 live T20 games plus international highlights and both radio coverage and online clips for all English cricket. Sky Sports have the rights for literally everything else to do with English cricket, as they do now. According to the Guardian’s Ali Martin, the new deals are worth around £1.1bn over 5 years or £220m per year, compared to the current deals of around £75m per year.

The Losers

The Counties – Barely two months ago, the counties signed away the majority of their bargaining power in exchange for £23.4m of a projected £40m increase in income from the new T20 league. Now it seems increasingly likely that, had they held off for another few months, they could easily have received twice as much just from keeping the same county structure as before. The ECB and Tom Harrison successfully made the counties so desperate by holding back their money that they voted themselves into pointlessness.

BT Sport – This could have been a massive coup for BT Sport, but the odds always seemed stacked against them. The ECB have a very close relationship with Sky Sports so BT were always at a disadvantage. BT can at least console themselves that they have pushed Sky to arguably overpay for cricket rights, meaning Sky might have less money to spend on other sports in the future.

Channel 5 – The FTA channel which has shown England’s highlights on Freeview for over a decade, they probably have good reason to feel snubbed that they weren’t seriously considered as the home for England’s free coverage from 2020. It’s rumoured that they bid more than the BBC too, rubbing salt into the wound.

The Fans – At the end of the day, every TV and sponsorship deal in sport is about taking money from the fans and giving it to the sport/players with the TV companies and sponsors making some profit as well. If more money is being paid, you can bet that costs will increase for fans somehow.

The Winners

The ECB/Tom Harrison – By almost every measure, these guys won. They achieved almost 90% of their £250m/year target, got the BBC as an active partner in promoting the sport generally and specifically the new T20 league, and they successfully neutered the counties so they probably won’t have to share most of the money with them. Whatever you think about these people (and seeing as you’re on this site, we can probably guess), this is a spectacular victory for them.

Sky Sports – They get to remain gatekeepers of English cricket, although they have paid quite a lot for the privilege. With reports on Tuesday that Sky were looking to rebrand Sky Sports 2 as Sky Sports Cricket (to go with the current Sky Sports F1 and planned Sky Sports Football and Golf channels), it suggested they were pretty confident about winning the rights from the ECB.

The BBC – The BBC got the rights to 21 live T20 games plus TV/online highlights and radio commentary at a fraction of the market value due to their massive reach. They have the most popular UK TV channels, radio stations and news website, and since Sky presumably offered more than enough money the ECB could afford to offer the BBC a discount.

Women’s Cricket – Of the 21 live T20 games the BBC will have rights for, 9 of them will be of women’s cricket; 1 T20I and 8 games from the Super League. The BBC also have the rights to show highlights of England women’s other internationals. Whilst a cynic might suggest that some of these will end up on the Red Button or streaming online, it’s still a massive increase in exposure for this side of the sport.

The Players – With such a massive increase in income, it’s a fair bet that the players will be getting a significant pay rise over the next few years. The relationship between the ECB and the PCA seems very amicable (too amicable, some might say) so a situation like Cricket Australia are having to deal with seems unlikely. That said, if the players don’t think they’re getting a fair share there could easily be a revolt.

Did I miss anyone out? As always, comments are welcome below.

Day 3 At The CT – South Africa v Sri Lanka and Other Stuff

Hello from Dmitri World.

I’m writing this before the end of the Australia v New Zealand fixture, so you’ll have to forgive me for a lack of match report. The New Zealanders got off to a good start, but have started to encounter turbulence as the innings draws to a close. I’ll update the post at the end when I get to upload it onto the blog itself.

So the news thus far is that England’s comfortable win over Bangladesh has come with a casualty. The thought of Chris Woakes being bemoaned as a huge loss two years ago would be greeted with almost deafening laughter (as long as you were out of George Dobell’s earshot), but now the end of his ICC Trophy has been greeted with due solemnity and deference. I doubt we could have got more downbeat if we were a Barca fan and found out Lionel Messi was out for the year. In a stunning, and I genuinely mean stunning, piece of media groupthink, there are calls for the recall of Stuart Broad from the press-pack and the assorted hangers-on. I’ve seen ships that have sailed out of port, but this one has got half way around the globe! Think of Stuart Broad’s memorable white ball cricket moments. The first one that comes to mind was the shite he served up in the opening game of the 2009 World T20 against the might and fury of the Netherlands. Sure, don’t judge a book by one page, however memorable, but that you would almost unanimously come to the Stuart Broad conclusion smacks of collusion. How about Chris Jordan? Toby Roland-Jones? ODIs are a younger man’s game, and Stuart Broad needs to be kept back for tests. Don’t be silly. What next? A batting injury and call for Kevin Pietersen? (tee hee).

I Owe You Nothing

The other hot button topic is BBC’s decision to show the highlights at 11:20pm. I am a bit of a BBC loyalist, I’m afraid, because the options, have been shown to be far, far worse, and certainly for a sports fan like me. The BBC were dumped in 1999 because Channel 4 outbid them and threw a few more quid at the production values. The decision to dump the BBC was greeted with outrage by the stuffed shirts then. There was even a flirtation with TalkSport taking the radio coverage away from TMS, as they certainly did when they were free to bid for the overseas rights. The BBC cricket coverage, and sports team in general, must have been pretty cheesed off over the years as their coverage, in an analogue era, is compared to the digital coverage of this era, and cheap shots at local news interruptions, children’s programmes, and horse racing. The Beeb did cover highlights from the 2006-7 Ashes and the 2007 World Cup, but then haven’t been really on the radar since. ITV had the 2010-11 Ashes highlights package. I can’t actually remember if anyone had them for the 2013-14 series, but then I want to forget that clusterflick as much as possible.

That the BBC are giving any cricket free-to-air coverage, whatever that means in this day and age, is a bonus. At short notice they are not going to cast aside firm programming on the peak-viewing side of the news shows on BBC1 and BBC 2, so it is inevitable they will be on late at night. As many have pointed out, the conditions for covering this competition mean the programme can’t start before the end of the first highlight show on Sky anyway. What do cricket fans expect? As for BBC 4, its remit is as follows:

BBC Four’s primary role is to reflect a range of UK and international arts, music and culture. It should provide an ambitious range of innovative, high quality programming that is intellectually and culturally enriching, taking an expert and in-depth approach to a wide range of subjects.

Sport is noticeable by its absence. Yes, it has been used for extended Olympics coverage, or Euro/World Cup football overspill, but those events are planned years in advance. Here the BBC had a week. The BBC can’t just do what it wants. If it gets support or popular, as BBC 3 did, then it is threatened with closure. It is playing in a hostile market, and yet still people act like it owes the cricket public something. Basically, if I’d been told to eff off, had my coverage ridiculed, been totally ignored, failed with other highlight packages, had an extremely limited budget, and so on, I’d not be helping out a sport that had not stood by me. Watching various media numpties jump on their bandwagon has been as predictable as it has been sad. As they have presided over a sport disappearing from the public eye, they then do everything to disparage an FTA provider when they actually decide to show games because it “isn’t good enough”. Who the hell decided to hide the sport away in the first place?

Also. Can’t we record programmes any more and watch them when we want? When Selvey keeps telling us that we have a different digital viewing experience these days, why are you so worried about 11:20 highlights? Also, might have noticed there’s an election on? Newsnight on BBC2 isn’t going to cut short its programme at this time for an obscure, second rate, international competition.

I think Sean and I might disagree on this, but I’m just about fed up with the cricket press expecting the BBC to come to the rescue for its ailing, diminishing, hidden away sport, when the Beeb has been treated with nothing but contempt, the government has closed down avenues to put it on a more prominent footing if it wanted to (to appease the Pay TV masters) and the former head of the governing body, often through his own Sean Selfey Spicer, makes it clear what he thinks of the need to go back. Which commercial entity would clear any of its decks for a 50 over game between Sri Lanka and South Africa? Get real.

Nicholas’s comments below the previous post are well worth a read too!

Cricket Boots not Cricket Suits

The publication of the ECB’s latest financial statements appeared to have passed our fun loving press chappies (and chapesses) by. Which I found strange given the headline pre-tax loss of £37m. That’s quite an eye-opening figure which is explained away, as always, by the prevailing Chairman as part and parcel of the four year cycle of cricket life. In many cases there are points to be made that a loss that makes up north of 25% of your annual turnover isn’t “that bad”. £24 million of that appears to have been the “encouragement money” to County Chairman to give in on the T20 competition. Take that out, and a £13m loss looks more palatable when you consider the revenue-weak nature of our opponents last year. The funny thing is, though, that the Ashes really aren’t that much of a money-spinner. Without 2014 and the visit of India, that infamous reserve pot (which has been halved this year) would be in serious, serious strife. There certainly wouldn’t have been any  money to counties. Once again, our dependence on India is stark. It’s one of the key three strategic risks mentioned in the opening remarks (not explicitly, but under the guise of breakdown in relations with overseas cricket governing bodies – I’m pretty sure they aren’t referring with difficulties with Peter Chingoka or David Cameron there).

Other things of note is that one Director is being paid £600k for his work at the ECB. It appears to be a substantial increase on the previous year. Those of you thinking that Tom Harrison deserves it, form an orderly queue. No pushing in.

There’s the always interesting, and I’ve not quite figured out what it is, implied conflict of interest over Graves and a guarantee of a loan from / to Yorkshire. It expires in 2019. Nothing to see here.

There’s been a considerable increase in the number of development staff on the books. In itself that’s nothing to worry about, but in a year when you’ve spunked half your reserves up the wall you might think of waiting until you actually have your pot of gold before spending it.

These are the highlights, and they show how desperate the ECB is for a successful T20 tournament. Forget all the twaddle about growing the game, the success would diminish the importance on relying upon Indian summer visits to keep our game afloat. Let us not pretend that we would somehow survive an Indian administration apocalypse, because we are very dependent on them to play us. Very dependent. I await our fearless scribes and their take on these figures. You can also see my Tweets on the subject.

Oh Yes! Cricket

So to tomorrow’s game – at last. The South Africans must start favourites, as Sri Lanka appear to lack star power. I know Sean is going to the game, so hopefully he can provide some pearls of wisdom during and after the action. If you have any comments on the match, or on the above, fire away below, and if you get the chance, enjoy the game on the TV. Who you got for the Derby?

Plus, Kane Williamson scored a ton, the Aussies could have been in strife, and thus far I’ve not seen a ball bowled on Sky or BBC and not been able to tune into TalkSport. And no, not even Guerilla Cricket.

Enjoy your weekend, all.

The Champions Trophy – Strauss The Builder

If you want a preview of the competition, in the form of a team-by-team analysis, I’m sorry, but you won’t find it here. The Cricketer has a half decent one, if you can stand purchasing something that #39 holds so dear to his heart, and I’m sure other blogs will be keen to take up the reins. But that’s not for us. We don’t have the time, don’t think you are that bothered, and so we’ve taken an editorial decision that we won’t do it.

Here at BOC we are more interested in what this 50 over jamboree represents. We’ve been building towards the Champions Trophy in that inexorable pursuit of a World 50 over event triumph ever since Comma and Empty Suit marched into Lord’s two years ago, with a white ball focus in their hand, and the trusty shield of trust to protect them from a 355 gun. Here’s where Andrew Strauss and the boys assess the ground floor structure. Is it suffering subsidence, and need to be knocked down to start again? Is the building on track, with some finishing touches required? Or should we stop here, have a damn fine bungalow, and start building another in the same mould for two years time?

Because in a couple of weeks’ time we will know whether Comma is a Cowboy or a Construction genius. That this is a competition that garners little or no interest when we are not hosting it is not the point. While all agree the format is pretty good (not perfect in my eyes) the sheer fact that India could brazenly not declare a team until well after the deadline shows the contempt it is sometimes held in. There was a review of the tournament when it was held in South Africa on TV the other day. I’ll bet we hardly remember the semi-final that we lost to Australia.

England have put a lot of eggs in this basket, and the view is that a semi-final place is a bare minimum, another defeat in the Final a setback, and only victory would really do. The England batting reminded everyone in the past week why we have a decent shot, and why we should, as we always should, caution people not to get too far ahead of themselves when it comes to this team. As we go into the competition, with group games against Bangladesh, Australia and New Zealand to come, there are some question marks.

Jason Roy’s alarming lack of form, a case of the IPL apparently hindering not enhancing a player, at the top of the order has some clamouring for Jonny Bairstow. I’m torn – where’s the evidence stacking up here? Roy has been poor, Bairstow not. Where’s the evidence that Jason is going to pull out of this tailspin? Hope? Belief? Confidence. This is where management is damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Keep him and he fails, and the hindsight squad will be in full effect. Change him and YJB fails… well, it was a panic measure showing little consistent thought. So whatever they do had better succeed. Money is on Roy staying. Good luck, Jason. (After I wrote the draft, Morgan has confirmed Jason Roy will remain in place for the duration of the tournament.)

Ben Stokes is now injured – there’s little point in covering this up, and little point in the England squad doing anything that jeopardises his long-term future. We know how this goes. Stokes will want to play, and will. The miniscule damage to his knee will get worse at some point soon, where he might be told to rest for a bit. He’ll come back and the knee won’t improve and he’ll be under the knife and out of the Ashes, maybe. This is potentially the Freddie Flintoff scenario all over again. The difference here is England needed Freddie the bowler more than Freddie the batsman. The opposite is true here.

The bowling is always a question mark, but that goes for all teams. This is a batsman’s game and the reaction to a track and weather conditions that allowed the ball to nibble a little on Sunday shows what happens when it isn’t. England’s bowling can be a bit up and down, can be a little samey, but can also have some inspirational moments. It may not have the pace of the Australian team, but in Woakes, Wood, Plunkett, Stokes and Ball, it has some solid performers. Rashid and Moeen have the potential to be two-way players, spinners that can bat a little.

England have massively improved, but so have Bangladesh, who lest we forget knocked us out of the previous 50 over shin-dig. Australia are the World Champions, and New Zealand are always game opponents. England should get out of the group, but they might not. Failure to do so may result in more hits for this bad news blog, but it will also be a wakeup call to those riding the ODI horse along the way. Comma has a lot riding on these two or so weeks. Vindication or vilification. It’s a fine line. A rain-affected game here, a bad day at the office there…..

For what it’s worth, Australia to beat India in the final. India having beaten England in the semi-final.

And on the other side of the fence, there’s the two comments in The Cricketer debate on the new ECB T20 competition. #39, our hero, believes that the new competition is more important than the feelings of a few disgruntled county members. Yet again I see the loyal supporters of the game denigrated by those who they watched play all those years ago and, to a good degree, paid their wages. I’m getting a little bit sick and tired of this casual approach to people with roots so deep in the game that pulling them out and away would take much effort and pain. But hey, if that’s not enough, John Etheridge reckons that if you are opposed to the new dawn of T20, then you are a dinosaur. That’s right. A dinosaur.

News comes from the other side of the globe that the Big Bash lost A$33m in the past five years. While this is obviously part of the ongoing pay negotiation battle Down Under, and both sides are spinning that number better than Drug Cheat in his pomp, it still is an interesting cautionary tale. We know the two markets are totally different. Cricket is eminently more visible in Australia than it is here. The culture of the sport is markedly different. AFL may be all consuming in Australia, but it doesn’t compare to the all seeing, all knowing, all pervasive Association Football in the UK. I’ve just seen the ECB Accounts. They’ve lost a fortune in 2016. The reserves, at £70m+ the year before, are down to the £35m now. That’s not great. No wonder the T20 desperation.

I’ll comment more on the Accounts, which can be found on Companies House if you look, later. What impressed me is the blanket media coverage of this loss. Did I miss it?

Anyway, enjoy the Champions Trophy. England v Bangladesh tomorrow – comments below.

Be My Friend

It’s not so long ago that newspapers and broadcast media bestrode the world of information, disseminating news and comment to the public, explaining what was going on and read and watched by the public  in their millions.  The internet changed all that, mostly for the good and sometimes for the ill.  It allowed blogs like this one to take off, gave a voice to a citizen army of writers and broadcasters and fragmented an industry that in some sectors still struggles to generate an income and define what content is worth paying for.  New viewpoints could be heard, if sufficient numbers were prepared to listen, share and discuss, and the democratisation of opinion was held to be a “good thing” even while the established media lamented the loss of control and influence amongst the great unwashed who now had the means of answering back.  Fake news became both a reality, and a term of abuse used to dismiss awkward opinions and shut down debate, and the general level of intolerance toward contrary opinions increased.

But there was a different strand that is only now being discussed and publicly recognised in traditional media  – the centralisation of messaging amongst sports clubs and governing bodies.  In one sense, it’s little different to how business has always operated, advertising being the key means of getting messages across and PR campaigns used to establish a reputation and a brand.  The means may change, but the principles remain the same.  Where it differed in a sporting context was that while the media had always been their means of doing so, there were few methods of exerting control over what was said and what angle the reporting took.  The club or board might not like it, but retaliating against a media outlet was entirely counterproductive, as they could be starved of publicity or constantly referred to as an entity who didn’t like free speech.  The objections in print would reach a wide audience, and be more or less impossible to successfully counter.

What has changed is that a club or a sporting body can now be their own media outlet.  Football clubs have their own TV channels, where they proudly boast exclusive interviews with their own employees, and where the message can be controlled in its entirety under the guise of access.

Tim Wigmore, always one of the more thoughtful cricket journalists out there, and one prepared to ask the most basic and important questions has written an article about this very question, Manchester United’s expressed desire to increase the prevalence of its “news” app providing the catalyst, alongside an acknowledgement that the USA has been moving down the same path.  There are many good points within that, and from a cricket blog perspective there’s a certain amusement to be had given it’s been one of the central themes of the writing on here over the last couple of years.

The ECB certainly floated the idea of their own subscription channel when musing the broadcast options coming up, and the appeal is easy to see – the revenue accrues entirely to them rather than to an intermediary and they can completely control the themes and provide a direct link to their army of sponsors.  Something approaching that model has been seen fairly clearly in India, where broadcast criticism of the BCCI has been rather comprehensively shut down.  In the UK at least, there are laws preventing the subject of a broadcast exercising editorial control, but that doesn’t apply (currently) to online.  In any case, while the attraction is clear, creating a full on media company is a big undertaking and to that end the ECB realistically still need partners for the foreseeable future.

Of course, there’s nothing especially radical in wishing to control a message, businesses do that all the time though generally speaking, avoiding being in the news is the aim there.  But the creation of their own story is part of the trick, and for employees and members of the industry, it’s nothing especially new.  By way of example, working in the travel and tourism industry I will tend to be very careful about what I say in public – not just in terms of those I work for, but in general.  Becoming the story through controversial opinions is something to be avoided like the plague, except in certain specific circumstances where such opinions are in themselves the currency – viz. Michael O’Leary.

Yet a full on takeover of the message by an organisation like the ECB is unlikely to be the real problem.  When that happens journalists become much more critical anyway, and the example contained within Mr Wigmore’s article, when Newcastle United banned journalists, attracted lots of attention and even more criticism.  By trying to control the story, they lost control of it completely, and freed the media to criticise with no further cost in terms of their relationship.

The far more insidious and dangerous trend in recent years has been the use of soft power to try to direct the narrative.  Sports journalism of the day to day nature requires access to the players and other key people in order to provide copy and generate interest, readership and, yes, clicks.  This can be made more difficult, and the plum opportunities given to those who are onside and can be trusted not to cause too many difficulties.  Those that don’t follow the script find that it’s a little harder to talk to the right people.  This is extremely tough to combat and a fair degree of sympathy for the individual journalist – but not the industry – is warranted.  To turn it around a different way, the three of us on here have no compunctions about what we say for the very good reason that we know for certain there is no prospect whatsoever of us being invited into the ECB’s inner sanctum, or even within the same diocese come to that.  However in our case, we aren’t being paid to do this, and don’t have a boss who can fire us.  But our and other blogs’ freedom comes at a different cost – highly limited contact with those in any degree of power.  A few journalists maintain a back channel to us, and occasionally we are given a heads up on something that they feel unable to write about themselves, which is a curious state of affairs on the one hand, and entirely understandable on another – not least the commercial imperative.

Where it is different for a journalist is that if they lose their access they struggle to do their job, and given it’s their livelihood it’s a real risk to take.  A reluctance to rock the boat is the likely result, and the other side of the coin is that by keeping close to the ECB they can get even better access and thus even greater reach for their articles with obvious personal benefits.  This kind of behaviour is worse by far because the bias is harder to spot, particularly amongst those who only pay cursory attention to the goings on.  It’s for that reason it’s such an attractive way of working for the ECB, or for any other organisation in the same position – limiting dissent, encouraging promotion, and enabling the party line to be maintained.  It’s also the hardest to combat; many journalists are very aware of the problem, but being aware of it and trying to prevent it are two different things.

There’s no real reason to assume this will improve, just the opposite.  In order for sports reporters to do their jobs properly, they need that access and they need to be able to talk to people within the top levels of the game, not just for themselves but for us as readers to try to glean the truth.  From that comes much of the best journalism, whether from sources or openly in interview.  It is a problem for the truth if any time they report on something they’ve learned they are dismissed for daring to talk to people – that is their job.  They face a dilemma in attempting to both gain insight and obtain a good story, while at the same time being entirely aware of what the ECB are up to.  Equally, conspiracy theories about all of them are unreasonable – the vast majority have professional pride and wouldn’t allow it to happen to them and wouldn’t be party to attempts to restrict them.  There are exceptions to that, and those that behave that way tend to attract a degree of contempt for their output.  But it’s rarely a matter of open collaboration, but of being sufficiently vulnerable to rein any criticism in because of the possible consequences.

If much of sport is now nothing more than a branch of the entertainment industry, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the same kinds of rules apply to the reporting.  Interviews with members of the movie industry are almost always on the back of promoting a film rather than for the sake of it – and always remember few people would wish to open up for the sake of it, these interviews are a part of their job and one many of them greatly dislike.  The prevalence of a footnote stating that a player is being interviewed courtesy of a particular sponsor has been an unwelcome development, and creates the dilemma for the journalist as to whether to play that particular game.  It’s hard to criticise them for doing so, yet it remains something of a blight.

There are few material answers to all of this.  Either journalism as a body responds and reacts to the threat to their independence or they don’t, and as is so often the case some of them do just that, and others take the advantages on offer as a trade for their independence.  It will undoubtedly allow them to generate much copy and many readers but at the price of their integrity.  That is their decision, ours is how much trust we have in anything they might say.  Some have found that even when they are right they are no longer believed, to their clear frustration.  But it’s brought on by their own conduct, and the collateral damage of good journalism being considered guilty by association makes it even worse.  We need them, we need them badly, but the truth is that they need us as well.  And that’s what needs to be remembered.

Money Makes the World Go Round

A curiosity of sports administrators everywhere over the last quarter of a century has been the apparent belief that their drive to monetise the game in every facet would pass unnoticed by everyone else.  The fans, under the misguided belief that the game belonged to them were the first ones to be cast aside, as ticket prices rocketed, television coverage disappeared behind a paywall and the wider game became utterly subservient to the pursuit of manna.  The English (football) Premier League was the first to make the connection, and the pathway to the present can be identified a good decade before that came into being, firstly with the removal of the gate revenue sharing model, then with the abolition of the key rule preventing owners from taking money out of the clubs.  With that in place, it was merely a matter of time before it became an investment opportunity with all that entailed.

In the case of cricket, the most obvious examples were the move to Sky and the creation of T20 at a professional level (as needs constantly pointing out to those who believe it was radical, it had existed at club level for half a century), which then led on to the IPL and its assorted imitators around the world.

In the space of little more than a decade, cricket had become the new sexy for those seeking to exploit commercial advantage in a way never seen before.  To some extent it was no more than the corollary of the Packer Circus in the late 1970s, but the scale and impact on the wider sport was of a new level entirely.

The last few weeks have shown indications that all of these developments have been coming to a head.  The BCCI’s response to the proposal to dramatically cut their still huge proportion of ICC generated revenues was to threaten a boycott of the Champions Trophy, Australia’s cricketers are in dispute with their board over money – even if not necessarily their own – while in England the proposed TV package deals for the upcoming auction of rights have caused divergent opinion on the merits or otherwise in terms of what they might mean.  But there’s a central element to all of them, namely that it is about the money.  Always the money.

There is an important part to this, a central theme that cannot be ignored. That is that the moment a governing body of a sport – and note, a sport – ceases to put the sport itself as the prime, indeed only, focus for its existence, then it stops being about the sport itself.  It becomes a means of creating wealth, no different to any other business.  In itself, that isn’t inherently wrong or evil, but it does change the focus and the strategy and changes the rationale for the game’s existence.  This isn’t a lament for the days of amateurism, but a recognition that it becomes merely another branch of the entertainment industry, with all that entails.  Those who love the game for the sake of it are never going to be important any longer, their value exists solely in the financial contribution they can make to it, and if it isn’t obvious on a balance sheet, then for the purposes of future planning, they don’t exist.  It is for that reason that the thousands of people in any given nation who give up their time to keep the game going are not just overlooked, they specifically don’t matter.  Lip service is paid to them, but nothing more than that.  When they complain that the ECB or their equivalents don’t think they matter, it’s because they’re right – they don’t matter.  All that they do comes to fruition anything up to 20 years down the line and cannot be assessed financially in the here and now, and that is all that is important.

The various stories across the press are not disparate items in the world of cricket, but separate strands of the same wider topic.  The dispute between Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketers Association has been covered in the UK from the perspective of the unlikely possibility that Australia might not have a team for the Ashes, as though that was in any way the principal issue at stake.  Within the Australian media there’s much more nuance about the matters at hand, with Gideon Haigh as so often cutting to the heart of the matter.  The wider issue he addresses is that conduct of CA is such that it regards the players as commodities to be given their orders by their bosses, rather than as integral to the game itself.  Cricket boards have reached the point where the pursuit of money is the end in and of itself, rather than a necessary means to support and grow the game. This about face in approach is critically important, for once understood all the decisions and proposals are much more easily grasped and the reasoning behind all that they do becomes clear.

The best Australian players stand to benefit, in the short term at least, from adopting the CA proposal; their rejection stems, they say, from their concern about the levels below the highest, both amateur and professional.  Even if their opposition isn’t entirely altruistic – which it may well be – they have a very strong case in objecting to the removal of a revenue sharing model.  With all well paid professional sports stars, the cry goes up that they are overpaid, yet this dramatically misses the point.  No one goes to a game or watches on television because of the administrators, it is entirely and totally down to the players.  Every commercial deal is made on that back of that essential point, and the players deserve to paid in proportion to the money coming in.  It’s not even purely the international level cricketers either, for the showcasing of their skills is on the back of those below, right the way down to someone appearing on a Sunday afternoon for their pub side.  In the purest commercial terms, the players are the product, and while the value of a David Warner and an amateur club player is obviously vastly different, they still form part of the same equation.  That CA don’t see it that way at all can be gleaned from the attempt to divide and rule by separating out the top players from the rest to try to force through the changes.  Those leading performers deserve credit for both seeing through the ruse and refusing to solely look after their own financial interests.

Top sportsmen (and overwhelmingly, it is men) are rarely motivated by money once it reaches a certain point.  The difference between coming first and second in a golf major is not a matter of money, but of pride and sporting ambition.  Attempting to set one group against another when the money is already good is doomed to failure.  It’s certainly not just in cricket where there is resistance, in recent times tennis players at the top level have threatened action of those below them weren’t better rewarded for their efforts.

All too often, they are criticised for greed, the question put is how much more money do they want.  It’s a false equation – they deserve to be paid in proportion with how much is generated, largely by them.  It’s nothing more and nothing less.  Boards and owners regard them as employees to be compensated and do not see that the money does not belong to administrators, no matter how much they dislike that fact.  It is also why the boards have a mentality that grassroots funding is a cost, rather than the raison d’etre for their existence.  It’s why they try to minimise that outlay rather than consider it the driving motivation.   As a point of principle, the Australian players need to win this argument, even if the result may not be a community one at the end of the matter.

For this is not a parochial Australian matter, the same arguments will be had around the world.  The ECB are preparing their latest round of media deals for coverage and there has been much comment around the likelihood of some free to air television coverage and even some celebration that it will form part of the future arrangements.  This is misplaced, even though any free access is to be welcomed in and of itself.  The ECB are hoping to play Sky Sports and BT Sport off against each other to maximise the income, and have split the packages with that in mind. Almost all of the meaningful coverage will go to one or the other, since within Package One goes all the international cricket and the country cricket – such as it is in the latter case.  The new T20 league goes into a separate category, doubtless with the intention of it being the consolation prize for whoever doesn’t get the first one, and necessitating a second subscription for those who wish to see it all.  By splitting these the overall value is undoubtedly higher but it can’t be said to be good news for the individuals paying for access.  Which of Sky or BT gets them is neither here nor there in the larger scheme of things, given the Balkanisation of sports television.

Where it gets more interesting is in the free to air packages available, offering two men’s T20 internationals, one women’s T20 international, ten men’s and eight women’s T20 league matches.  On the face of it, it’s a reasonable size too, but it indicates a pure focus on the T20 side of the game for wider consumption. Partly this will be because terrestrial broadcasters have to fit sport around the rest of their schedules, and two and a half hour programmes will fit ideally in contrast to five days of Test cricket.  The logic of the argument that T20 is a gateway to the game more generally can be supported by the categorisation, but equally it can be seen as regarding the shortest form of the game as the only viable one from the perspective of both free to air broadcasters and the ECB itself.  This case has been made many times, most often in the misleading and specious argument that the likes of the BBC have shown no interest in Test cricket.  That is true, and is because the ECB have shown no interest in the BBC, so why should they bother?

Where the free to air packages go will also be indicative of whether the ECB take the wider broadcast of the game as being in any way important.  According to Nick Hoult at the Telegraph, the BBC are one potential home, but so are Discovery, via their Quest channel.  There can be no doubt whatever that the BBC would offer the largest footprint for potential viewership, just as there can be no doubt whatever that Discovery would sign a larger cheque.  Choosing the latter would be incontrovertible proof that money is all that matters to the ECB.  No protestations about the importance of growing interest in the game could ever be believed if they still hid away the free to air broadcast on a minor channel, for make no mistake, Quest is a minor channel, one which most people won’t even be aware.  The reach of the BBC is vastly greater than any alternative, including ITV, although few would complain if it went there instead.  If the ECB do want people to watch cricket, the main channels are the only game in town.

Whatever the outcome of the TV bids, the same processes applying in Australia are going to come to England as well.  Already players are going to miss England matches in order to play T20 tournaments elsewhere in the world, a situation that remains ever ironic given the way the ECB publicly berated and belittled Kevin Pietersen for wanting to do far less than is the now the case.  Those who have bought tickets for the matches in anticipation of seeing England’s strongest team will be disappointed, and are once again ignored as being irrelevant.  In England at least, it hasn’t quite reached the point it did in Australia where two separate national teams were playing at the same time, but the acceptance of the concept of the national team not representing the best available is well established, even before taking into account the ludicrous schedule that necessitates resting players.

England’s players are well remunerated in international terms, but the ECB’s focus on extracting the maximum from the game at the same time as concentrating power to themselves will undoubtedly lead to the same kind of friction seen in Australia.  The gap between the international players and the county ones is vast, the difference between genuine affluence and a barely reasonable living, particularly given the short career on offer.  Boards have opened the Pandora’s Box of commercialisation, and are now attempting to screw the lid back down as the realisation of what that entails begins to dawn on them.  Franchise cricket in the form of the T20 league is merely the apogee of this centralised mentality.  The county game will be sidelined – not in itself a disaster for the wider game were there alternate structures in place but there won’t be.  For many county professionals – let alone smaller counties excluded from the party – there will be a severe chill in the air, the downgrading of both county championship and the assorted one day competitions can’t do anything but damage their livelihoods for it is impossible to imagine the revenues from the existing competitions doing anything but dropping vertically.  More critically for the wider game, the same applies to Test cricket.  It is hard to believe that the ECB will wish for Tests to be running alongside the latest shiny toy, for that would weaken the commercial proposition they have pushed so hard to create.  In isolation, that might not be a disaster, in common with all the other tournaments worldwide, it’s severely problematic.  That T20 is now the prime focus for the ECB, and for cricket more widely around the world is indisputable.  The rub here is that T20, sold as the means of generating legions of new cricket fans, could have done exactly that with some wisdom.

At some point there will be a reckoning in terms of the England players too.  They can earn heavily as free agents and the security of an England contract only has value for as long as they can’t do better as free agents – which would include playing for England, but not under ECB control.  The top down model of enforcing both behaviour and availability works for as long as the boards run everything within their domain.  Their own actions are sowing the seeds of their downfall, yet there is no real awareness that this is the case.  The lack of focus on the sport for the sake of it can be seen with their treatment of the counties as an obstruction to be overcome, while even their initiatives at the lowest level are open to question. Danny’s excellent article about the All Stars Cricket initiative raises a fundamental question about their approach:  While anything to encourage cricket is inherently a good thing, the usual opacity concerning how much the ECB are investing applies.  ASC is a commercial venture first and foremost, and it’s hard to get away from the feeling that the clubs know better how to do this themselves, and would benefit more greatly from financial support to do so.  It smacks of a PR exercise that’s more about the ECB itself than the game of cricket, the cost involved rather gives that away.

Across all sports and indeed outside of sport, there is the danger of harking back to the past and viewing it through rose tinted spectacles.  School cricket was never the panacea some make it out to be, and club involvement in the modern era is vastly superior to what was on offer 30 years ago.  But never has the wider game been further removed from the sharp end of the sport which has transmuted into a money making machine with no regard for outcome nor care about the game itself.  The ECB remains an organisation that primarily looks after its own interests, never better demonstrated than in its structure whereby the non-professional game has no elected representation anywhere within it.  Its authority is self-reinforcing, driving downwards and telling the vast majority of English cricket what to do.  The much maligned FA is by contrast a model of democratic accountability, to the point that much of the criticism stems from it being an amateur organisation trying to manage the professional sport.  Cricket could not be more different.

Given that, it should not be surprising that the ECB (and CA) focus is on its own success, defined by how much money it can bring in and divide up amongst its stakeholders – yes stakeholders.  Not too long ago the ECB attracted derision for forgetting to include match going supporters in that list, but the truth of the matter is that this wasn’t an embarrassing oversight, it was a statement of fact.  You don’t matter.  You might play the game, you might go and watch the game, you might coach colts, you might umpire or do the scoring.  You aren’t important and you are thoroughly and completely taken for granted.  The only time it will be noticed is if the grounds are empty or if the TV deals decline in value and even then it will be a matter of looking at the symptoms rather than the cause.  The only bulwark against this are the professional players, the one group in all this who might be considered to care about cricket for the sake of it.  They are the only ones who might actually stand up for the game, irrespective of how many millions they might earn themselves on the back of it.

What a delicious irony.

 

 

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.

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.

Clock of the Heart

The last three or four weeks have been something else. So much so that this is the first time in a while I’ve thought I should allocate some time to writing a piece that is a little bit more than a shortish match report, a snipe at a Newman piece of nonsense, or setting up a poll for you to consider.

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I’ve worked for my employer for a very long time, and now the workloads are such that we are all pushed harder than ever. It’s not a complaint, it’s a realistic setting out of the position we find us in right now. I get home later, I get home more mentally shattered, and cricket needs to compete for my time even more than ever. My job waxes and wanes. It’s waxing so much at the moment that we might call in Madame Tussauds.

Which means times is scarce, and free time needs to be appreciated. At this time of year, especially with the start of the NFL and the postseason in baseball (where my favourite team made it, but flamed out quickly) cricket is going to lose. If that happens, writing about it becomes less easy. Cricket blogging skews the attention space I give, but it isn’t going to conquer all.

With that in mind, I thought”what I should write” now I’ve got a few minutes. Throughout my time on this blog, and its predecessor, I’ve complained about how I don’t feel like actively supporting England as I think they (as Team ECB – I can’t divorce the two), and their supposed “loyal” fan base abandoned me ages ago, and they didn’t care very much about it.I’ve done that to death. It’s a recurring theme, and it still remains.

I also complained how the media was a sop to the ECB, not holding them to account, but supporting them, enabling them and in the end being in hock to them. This is a mainstay of the blog – indeed, Cricket365 have instigated a weekly review of the press on their site (like the Mediawatch on Football365, but not as punchy and not as good). We had our own focus, and it was on broadsheet journos in particular. The key individuals were Pringle and Selvey, two writers who evoke a mean spirit, a propensity to sneer towards those who dare question their omnipotence, and thus on this blog were roundly castigated for their atitudes. It speaks volumes that they have both been let go by their papers for younger, and presumably cheaper, regular replacements (Hoult and Martin).

We still have the festering boil that is most of the Daily Mail’s coverage these days (LB being an exception), but given that disgraceful rag is the leading web-traffic “news” driver in this country, it speaks more to the country we live in than anything a mere blogger, talking to his echo chamber, could ever compete against. Much of Newman’s copy mirrors the attitude of its paper, and there’s a much bigger problem there than cricket. A newspaper allowed to criticise anyone and anything that it sees fit is unable to comprehend or contemplate that anyone might dare criticise it and its ways (and doesn’t give a stuff if it does). We saw it this week with Brexit and those who think economic suicide is not a “patriotic” duty being told to be “silenced”. We’ve seen that bloody tactic before, and we’ve seen more than a few enablers of it on social media. How’s your lovely cuddly ECB now, folks?

But it’s the Mail’s attitude that I want to expand upon here, and it is related to cricket, so stick with it. If I might be indulged a little on Brexit, but only tangentially because I hate politics on here, if you doubt the wisdom of the decision you are told you are part of a “sneering metropolitan elite”. Given I live and work in London, do I tick those boxes? Well, that’s all part of the charm. I was born in a now destroyed hospital in Greenwich, and raised on a council estate in Deptford. My dad was a printer, my mum worked in a pub. I was about as working class as they come.I wasn’t a metropolitan elite, but I’m a Londoner. If I was born into that family now, I wouldn’t have Sky TV, that I do know. I’m not an elite, but what I was, was someone who loved playing cricket.

When I was living in Deptford we played football, and we played cricket on the streets. Cricket was visible. It had a presence. It was pretty much the only sport on TV on a Sunday. During summer holidays it was on TV all day when we were in the house and a test match or Gillette Cup match was on. This wasn’t a matter of consuming my media differently, it was as ingrained in me as football was. Rugby League and Rugby Union might have been on over the winter, but I had no desire to play that rubbish. Football needed a ball and five people tops. Cricket the same. How could you play rugby in the streets with those numbers? I didn’t learn how to play cricket at school. I learned in the street, with mates. But I was secured as a cricket nut from Infant School because my Dad helped me get into it, it was on the TV, and other like-minded kids wanted to play it. The cool dads in the media, especially those educated at the higher establishments, who seem to think they know what the kids like these days, are concentrating on the yoof at too old an age. Get them really young. That’s why kids play football.

I moved to another estate at the outer edges when I was 10, and we carried on playing cricket in the street, knowing the adults in their houses didn’t like it, but hell, why not. We’d improvise on our playing areas. One had no legside opportunities to score runs, so you learned to drive and cut. Another had a straight area, a bit of legside in front of square and nothing offside. So you learned to hit straight, or clear legs out of the way. You also had to take every catch that came your way. I don’t see any kids playing cricket in the street now, and I still live there, I don’t see any playing football for that matter. But unlike football, kids will consume it daily because if you are a football fan it is still easy to follow the game. Why would any kid even know about cricket now?

For a while Eminem’s song “Lose Yourself” was the England team song when people came out to bat. The opening lyrics in that song are prophetic…

Look
If you had
One shot
Or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted
In one moment
Would you capture it
Or just let it slip?

Every man and his dog knows when that opportunity was. It was September 2005. It was after the greatest England series we will ever know. It is where an underdog England team beat the mightiest of champions, and more to the point, damn well deserved to. It had characters, it had charm, it had verve, it had steel. It wouldn’t win every game, but it had people you could follow and enjoy doing so. At that point, the authorities in this country thought this would be a jolly great time to say to the 8 million who watched the denouement of the Trent Bridge terror, and who had chosen to invest their time and emotional wellbeing in a cricket event, even if it was for a short period, that no, that was it, unless you stumped up to Mr Murdoch’s lovely force for good.

Football did not do that, despite people claiming it that did. First, when the Premier League went to Sky, the biggest match in the football calendar at that point was the FA Cup Final, which remained on terrestrial TV, and the biggest tournament was the World Cup, and no-one doubted it was the world’s premier tournament, and that was entirely on terrestrial TV (at the Finals stage). Until recently the biggest Champions League matches could be found on terrestrial TV. Weekly live football wasn’t totally ingrained, and ITV for a while, after it lost the contract, covered a ton of Championship football on its local networks. Live football, free to air, with limited other routes for consumption of TV media, was available. The sport did not shut its access down across the board. It hasn’t been faultless, and the viewing figures in the UK are rarely published, but Sky invest so much money in it that if they didn’t win the contract, they’d be dead. But football is not cricket. Football did not shut down live coverage to all.

Cricket did. It took a great product, and at that time, what looked like a great team and told those who liked watching it, you have to pay, and pay quite a bit. The sport had just received a shot in the arm, after years of a poor product, winning its flagship series, and it turned in on itself. It took a short-term profit view, to prop up their addled infrastructure, at the expense of ever having it as a mass viewed event again. Why do you think the Olympics and the World Cup, and the Euros, are in the public conscience and their every move hung on by lots and lots of people, but cricket isn’t? To keep saying this doesn’t take massive insight, but to correct it, or even try, would take such a leap of faith that it doesn’t bear thinking about. It would cause a massive problem because, frankly, the players are paid too much, and the cost of facilities don’t reflect the revenue from them in most cases. Cricket is an economic basket case at anywhere other than international level in this country. As the distance between free to air, and recognising heroes, gets more distant, so does the chances of ever becoming big again. So does the point of writing about the sport.

So I sit here, less time to consume, because that is what everyone wants you to do in media land (consume), the sport and you wonder why I should care enough to write about it. I feel this even more when I see events like this week in Chittagong. As far as I recall, their chief gobshite, Oliver Holt, a man of great sanctimony, has not written about cricket for quite a while. He might have done a Lord’s test or something, but we have more recall of Martin Samuel following that line. The Mail have Paul Newman out there as the cricket correspondent, and Nasser Hussain as some combination of management stooge / bellower in chief, yet the Mail, and no doubt Mr Holt, felt the need to drop in and bring his sanctimonious perspective. Those of us out in the real world, who actually might be faced with the need to go to Bangladesh feel Eoin Morgan’s anxiety. For me it isn’t necessarily my safety, but what I’d put my loved ones through if I went. The mental torment, whether logical or not. Logic and fear are not usually compatible bedfellows. When you are dealing with the unexpected, and not knowing what you might be facing, I blame no-one for making that decision to stay at home. Sport isn’t war. Even if I had made the decision to go, I wouldn’t have questioned it. But that’s not enough for a paper that accuses the likes of me of being a sneering metropolitan elite, but does sneering for a living and a profit. No, Holt had to go. We await his piece on Sunday with a mixture of great relish, and great despair. He’s going to be a weapons grade tit, and we all know it.

What does Holt’s appearance mean to the likes of a cricket correspondent and former player who have lived through it for longer than him? Why wasn’t Newman or Hussain capable of doing precisely what Mr Sanctimony has done? Why just three days for Saint Oliver, on the back of his usual Ryder Cup shindig and a laughable piece after a visit to the new purpose-built Vikings stadium when he compared a billionaire ripping off his city partners with a monolith built for the Olympics and using it to beat West Ham around the head? Why did the Mail think it right to send someone to that country just to prove that Holt is more “courageous” than an England captain – because this is what this dick waving exercise was? As Cricket 365 said, Bangladesh are providing England military strength security. Instead of us asking if an England captain is safe, shouldn’t we be asking, as Holt probably should, whether they SHOULD be doing this, and if so WHY it is necessary? Are the ECB paying for this in totality? In part? Or are the ICC? Maybe he’ll surprise us. Given his focus on the national bloody anthem, I’m not holding my breath. And that’s something an asthmatic should never say.

Which brings me on to the ECB. I should be sitting back here smug, self-satisfied, proved right at their terminal incompetence. But I’m not. I’m sad, I’m angry, I’m disillusioned, and as time is tight, the last one is the easiest of the emotions to maintain. You can sit on Twitter and snipe at Kent doing their best to protect their own position, but that doesn’t get over the point that we judge often, don’t we, on little knowledge of the facts (it appears there is no contingency for this situation, and lawyers love a vacuum) and more on who is the “good guy” and who is the “bad guy”. After all, we’ve had two years telling us one player is Mr Nice Guy and the other is an obnoxious arse, and you pick your side. Why not with something that was never written down as a rule.

In this instance the behaviour of Rod Bransgrove is every bit more egregious than that of that other “bad guy” who seemed guilty only of not getting on with his coach, captain and injured wicket keeper. First of all, Rocket Rod decided that the way to get his membership on side was to call them, effectively, a bunch of out of touch oddballs. His words betrayed the attitude that many of those stuck to the good old values of long-form cricket could not possibly have the knowledge of a “successful businessman” and that they can moan all they like. If theyput in their views against the new City T20, he wasn’t going to pay a blind bit of notice to what these freaks had to say.

Now, one could admire this tosser’s honesty – but as we are frequently seeing in this sport, honesty covers a multitude of flaws barely adequately – but no, I choose not to. He’s a prick. I came to that conclusion then, and when he commented on Durham, well, I wasn’t going to be actively dissuaded by him then either. Not when he sat on a county team that had parlous financial troubles before he bailed them out, and now he’s sitting on a pile of losses too . His team was arguably worse run than Durham, but it wasn’t a going concern unless he bailed it out, which is his right.  Nah, that don’t matter to Rod. He just wants a City T20 team in his stadium in the hope he might get a little bit back of the money he’s lost. He has no more interest in developing test players as I have of setting up the Rocket Rod Rollerdisco Team.

It’s a famous quote, but one that resonates for the ECB. Bertrand Russell might have had Colin Graves in mind when he said “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” I am certainly full of doubt, so I hope I qualify for the latter, but when Graves, in his interview with TMS earlier this summer said he didn’t regret a thing he’d done in his tenure so far, I thought of this quote. Lizzie Ammon’s key revelation, in a piece lacking true meat but with a juicy morsel but certainly still far more steely than most of her media fellows have put out, relating to the four horse manures of the ECB spouting off loudly on a train confirmed fears, if confirmed they needed to be. People of the world, and of England cricket in particular, listen to me. These people are not high quality. They are lacking in insight, in competence, in ability and in strategy. The main “quality” the likes of Dig Your Own, the Empty Suit, Mr Comma, Mr Cupboard Under The Stairs, Norman Collier, Selfey’s mate Clarke … et al is that they are cocksure. I’ll leave it to others whether they qualify for the first part of Russell’s quote.

GraemeC, a contributor to the Ashes Panel last year and a sadly infrequent commenter here, has prepared a bit of an explanation on Yorkshire’s finances that is (a) better than mine last time out and (b) written brilliantly. I won’t add it to this mammoth piece of prose, but look out for it soon.

It’s really hard to think where cricket goes from here. There will be a sport. We just might not like it.

So to the blog, and the content, itself….

On the contents coming up, I’m sorry to say that I’m going to have to scale back on the ambitions for a lot of nostalgia pieces, and for that I am truly sorry, and quite disappointed. I love writing them, but they take a very long time, and it’s time I’d rather spend on other matters, if truth be told. I had done a fair bit leading into KP’s 158 in 2005, and I might add that as a Part 1, with no guarantee on timing for the meaty bits of part 2. My look back on Trent Bridge 1986 is also incomplete, but I don’t want to waste Sidesplittin’s brilliant answer to the question I posed on the mysterious Evan Gray. I’ll find some way in, one day, Sidey. I also hoped to do some stuff on the 30th anniversary of Gatting’s England tour to Australia, and started a first part on that. Then matters took over.  We have a full suite of test matches coming up (or in train) and that should keep us rolling along nicely. There’s no shortage of idiotic copy around still, so we won’t be wanting for material. All we will be wanting for is time.

Time. In time it could have been so much more. The time has nothing to show because. Time won’t give me time.

Take that FICJAM.