Hello Darkness My Old Friend

The overnight news about the proposed football European Super League will have caused many a wry smile from cricket followers up and down the country. All the usual words and phrases are in there – “stakeholders” will be consulted, it’s about “partnerships”, a “sustainable commercial approach” and not forgetting “solidarity”. A copy and paste of corporate gaslighting and bullshit meaning little except for a power grab and a desire to enrich themselves yet further and remove the jeopardy that is the essence of sport.

Football is a vastly bigger and wealthier game than cricket, and as such the response is magnitudes higher, but the arguments are the same, the objections are the same, and the lack of any interest in what the little people think is just the same. We’ve been here time and again, and we will see the same degree of pretence that it’s for the good of “the game” (another reminder that those in power only mean the game as it pertains to them, not the game itself) and that it’s nothing other than trying to secure the financial stability of the sport.

Where football differs is that this has attracted the attention and the ire of the politicians, who never fail to sport a point of votes principle on which to opine. To that extent, football fans are luckier. When both the ICC and ECB, internationally and domestically decide to put aside matters of sporting integrity in favour of filthy lucre, there is a deafening silence from all but a very few. Cricket doesn’t particularly matter, and certainly doesn’t matter to enough. Football does.

But the same set of parameters apply – that sport is a means of generating money rather than the other way around, and it’s both reflective of the reality in which we live and also a governance question that has never been addressed. It has been said before that the most dangerous foe any sport can face is a man (always a man) in a suit saying “I can help”. Yet there’s also the endless hypocrisy about it all. Sky News has spent much of the morning decrying the greed involved and parading their new found commitment to tradition and sporting values over dollars and euros – a quite breathtaking demonstration of rank hypocrisy. Should it go ahead and Sky win the broadcast contract, expect a rapid reverse ferret from their news channel to promote it as the greatest sporting invention since the round ball. Likewise, while Gary Neville’s monologue about the tradition of the game is helpful for all those opposed to the Super League, he’s one of those who has benefitted heavily from the concentration of power and resources in the hands of the few. His part ownership of Salford City is the same in microcosm – invested money making a team competitive above the level it would otherwise be – not a thing wrong with that, except the selectivity involved in deciding what is morally acceptable and what isn’t.

Football and cricket are different in so many respects, not least that football clubs have always been rapaciously commercial for a century or more. A quick look at the origins of many of the leading clubs shows very little has changed – all of the so called “traditional” big teams have become that way due to heavy owner investment at different times in the past. Just like cricket, this is nothing more than the logical culmination of a direction of travel that has been in place for decades. Few of those furious today strongly objected to the abolition of gate sharing in the 1980s, nor when directors were first allowed to take money out of the clubs around the same time, let alone the creation of the Premier League which was also sold as being for general benefit rather than personal enrichment. Some greed is apparently fine, it’s only when it goes to the next level that it’s something to object to.

But this is a cricket blog, not a football one, so those arguments can be had elsewhere. The relevance to cricket is only in the parallels, in the way that the ECB have tried, with rather less competence, to move the sport into the same frame with the same kinds of outcomes. While sports are different, the determination to force them down the same path to maximise (in the short term, it should be noted) revenues and ameliorate the bank balances of those already in positions of power is entirely the same. Franchise football with no promotion and relegation removes the essence of any sporting system, namely that teams can rise or fall on their sporting merits (and financial management plays a major role in that). But it is anaethema to investors, who wish to see a return on their down payment with certainty, something that sport is inherently bad at – which is why we watch it.

The Hundred is the cricketing equivalent of the European Super League in these ways. Ignore for now the format – it’s always been the least of the objections anyway – a fixed number of teams able to compete each year with no danger of dropping out is precisely the golden goose for sporting investors. As long as the competition thrives, it’s a one way bet, an almost literal licence to print money. The difference is the serious doubt about the level of interest outside of a pandemic year where the public are desperate for anything to watch, which is why as well as a curse for the ECB’s finances, 2021 is also a golden opportunity to embed a structure that the supporters in general loathe. The IPL and the NFL are models for owners of sports franchises to wish to expand into other areas – irrespective of the latter having various safeguards built in to try to maintain a level playing field. Indeed, the IPL perhaps more so is the perfect template to follow, whereby sport as entertainment in the same way as WWE is the aim and the intention.

The European Super League faces a lot of hurdles to overcome – the hostility from football supporters matters far more than the hostility from cricket ones, because packed grounds are more essential to football than to domestic cricket which doesn’t have that tribal following to anything like the same extent. There will be those who suddenly discover it’s not such a bad thing after all when they realise there is scope for personal professional advancement, and that’s not in itself an unreasonable position to adopt because everyone needs to look out for themselves. But it doesn’t mean everyone else has to fall in line, nor that they have to accept the worldview espoused that is nothing other than self-interest on the part of those doing so – indeed all the Super League needs now is people to come out and say this new competition isn’t aimed at traditional supporters. Some of those who advocate exactly this for cricket have been quick to decry it happening in football – don’t think for a second it hasn’t been noticed.

India, The IPL, And The Hundred

When reports of the ECB seeking private investors in The Hundred were being published by a number of newspapers and website last May, I wrote a quick post on why that would be a stupid idea called The Hundred For Sale. Now that there appears to be speculation around IPL owners and the BCCI being brought in, with the ECB apparently hoping to tap into the vast Indian cricket fanbase, it seems a good idea to write a follow-up piece detailing the problems with this specific proposal.

The proposals mentioned in The Telegraph article are:

  • The BCCI to receive a portion of The Hundred’s TV revenue from Asia in exchange for allowing Indian men’s cricketers to play in the competition. (It seems likely that they will allow India’s women cricketers to play abroad without any concessions, as they already do in the Australian Big Bash League)
  • The owners of the eight current IPL teams to be allocated a 25% share of a team in The Hundred, in exchange for an investment.
  • Exhibition games involving IPL teams to be hosted by English counties.

The first question the ECB and counties might ask is how much would a Indian TV deal for The Hundred involving some Indian players realistically be worth? One hugely important factor to consider would be timezones: India Standard Time is 4.5 hours ahead of England’s British Summer Time. This means that a 2.5 hour game (The planned duration for a game in The Hundred) which starts at 6.30pm in England would finish at the equivalent of 1.30am in India. Even if stars like Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Ravi Jadeja were all playing, it seems unlikely that tens of millions of Indians would stay up that late. The ECB could choose to start matches earlier (swapping with the women’s games so that the men’s games began at 2.30pm, for example), which would put them into Indian prime time but during work hours in England. That almost certainly lead to fewer tickets sold, fewer British people watching on TV, and the ECB having to deal with a very annoyed Sky and BBC.

It would also be wise the temper expectations about which Indian players would come in the event of the BCCI allowing them to do so. The IPL has essentially created a global gap in the cricket calendar, allowing both their own and other internationals to play in the tournament unimpeded. The Hundred has no such luxury, with even England men’s cricketers playing two Tests during the competition. There is absolutely no guarantee that India won’t have matches scheduled during the competition, which would eliminate most of India’s biggest stars from contention.

The relatively low pay might also discourage the top echelon of Indian T20 players from choosing to play in The Hundred. Virat Kohli receives roughly £1.7m per year to play for Royal Challengers Bangalore, but the most he could get from Welsh Fire is £110,000 (assuming he was captain). For virtually anyone in the current Indian team, that’s not an amount of money which would in any way justify spending a month in Cardiff. Players on the fringes of the Indian team like Axar Patel or Umesh Yadav might be interested, but they wouldn’t have sufficient star power to generate financial gains for the ECB in terms of Indian TV deals or additional ticket sales.

Selling shares of the eight The Hundred teams to IPL owners would also be a mistake. To quote ECB chief executive Tom Harrison, “The key is that any money generated remains in cricket, for the good of all sections of the game”. Investors understandably expect a profit, and so would be looking to take as much money as possible out of English cricket. If their priority is to make as much money as possible, the ECB’s other objectives might have to be sidelined. You wouldn’t expect the owners of Chennai Super Kings to care if cricket participation numbers in Sheffield were decreasing, for example, whilst Yorkshire CCC might. Similarly, outside investors might demand higher ticket prices to increase revenue or a reduction in on-field entertainment to reduce costs.

Having Indian investors having stakes in individual teams could also cause problems between the ECB and the counties. Right now, most of the revenue in terms of ticket sales, merchandise, sponsorship and the TV rights is shared equally between all 18 counties in the form of a £1.3m annual payment. Essentially, the ECB owns all eight teams and only delegates the management to the various counties. Because of this, it almost doesn’t matter which county is associated with which team in The Hundred. Three of the eight teams are run by three counties, four of them by two counties, and Manchester Originals are solely controlled by Lancashire CCC. If the ECB turned them into franchises, with 25% ownership from Indian investors, then all of a sudden Lancashire CCC might have a 75% stake in a team whilst Glamorgan CCC might only have 25%.

The eight teams also have significantly different prospects in terms of profitability and revenue. The Oval Invincibles will play in a 25,500 capacity stadium which invariably sells out all of its T20 Blast games, whilst Welsh Fire will play at a ground which holds a maximum of 15,643 people and in reality struggles to sell even half that many tickets. If team stakeholders get a share of ticket, food and other merchandise revenue then they’d be fools not to want the Oval Invincibles team.

Beyond money, bringing the BCCI and IPL owners into positions of power in English cricket might place the ECB in a very uncomfortable ethical position. It’s escaped few people’s notice that the IPL has the best T20 cricketers from around the world with the sole exclusion of Pakistan. Just one Pakistan international has played in the IPL in the last decade (Azhar Mahmood, 2012-15). If the BCCI were to allow Indian players in The Hundred, it seems doubtful that they would be happy to see them playing alongside Pakistani overseas players. The ECB could be in a position where they would either have to accept this or call it out, which would likely have the effect of the BCCI withdrawing their support.

One of the aims of The Hundred was to engage British Asians, who are significantly more likely to enjoy watching and playing cricket than the ‘average’ Brit but might feel a stronger connection to domestic and national teams outside England. What people often gloss over is that ‘British Asian’ covers a broad swathe of nationalities, religions and other divisions, and that they don’t all necessarily get on with each other. For example, Moeen Ali was constantly booed at his home ground of Edgbaston when playing for England against India in 2014. As it stands, the ECB might be seen as broadly neutral in any internecine rivalries (by virtue of doing absolutely nothing). If they were to endorse the exclusion of one nation’s players to appease another’s, that might also have the effect of excluding a large number of potential fans who they were hoping to attract.

As far as the third proposal regarding exhibition games at grounds like the Oval goes, it’s not inherently ridiculous. Rajasthan Royals played Middlesex Panthers in 2009, for example. That said, I think any IPL team would struggle to assemble anywhere near its full roster for a few games in England in September and almost all of their stars would be missing due to either international commitments or plain lack of interest. The larger issue might be the BCCI, who would probably be more inclined to host such a competition in India rather than allowing an English ground to profit from the IPL’s brand.

Whilst I would love for Indian players to be available for all domestic competitions around the world, as they are from every other country, the costs of doing so for The Hundred seem to far, far outweigh the benefits.

If you have any comments about this post, the ODIs, or anything else, please post them below.

The Day After the Day After Tomorrow

Predicting the future is problematic, it’s much easier to predict the past, although Twitter users might be an example of that not being entirely the case. In wider life there seems to be consensus that while the question of whether the pandemic will make material lasting changes is an open one, it almost certainly has accelerated existing trends – such things as the decline of cash or the continued rise of online over physical retail.

Cricket seems little different – there is no reason to assume that this last year will cause wild changes in itself, but an acceleration of what was coming anyway, that’s a different matter.

Television deals are at the heart of the future and the present, and have been the principal driver of the changes over the last 10 years, whatever the disingenous pontifications from governing bodies about trying to engage people in the sport as more than exploitable consumers. The shortening of formats, first to T20 and then to 10 over equivalents or the Hundred are all about packaging the game into compact segments that fit into programming and allow advertising to be maximised. India is undoubtedly the principal power behind this, because their financial muscle is greater than just about everyone else put together. The rise of the IPL to not just be the biggest short form tournament, but the priority for the game full stop has been inexorable, and the players have been part of that for their own financial reasons. In all cases, it’s not something to particularly blame anyone for, it’s merely a reflection of desires that coincide and aims that correlate – the belief in some quarters that professional cricketers with a short career should sacrifice their ability to earn for the sake of tradition is naive at best. Thus the expectation has to be that not only will the IPL continue, but that it will become ever more central to the global game.

The Hundred is the ECB’s attempt to muscle in on the same thing, having blown their chance of making T20 their central selling point to the world game. There are endless problems with the assumption behind that. Globally, the difference between 16.4 overs and 20 is so minimal as to be not worthy of further debate, and the ever lengthening duration of IPL and Big Bash T20 matches to up to 4 hours implies that the purported domestic desire to have a very short game isn’t one entirely shared elsewhere – perhaps short enough is sufficient. That doesn’t mean in itself that it can’t be a domestic success, but the wish the ECB have for it to be a global phenomenon looks hamstrung from the start. Gimmickry has a place in all sports, irritating as many find it, but a successful gimmick is one that does draw people in, that does appear to have a value. The Hundred lacks this entirely, the hundred balls of an innings doesn’t even work as a deception.

It’s not unreasonable to believe that the Hundred will be a domestic option, and one with limited expansionary appeal. The argument made in its favour that it’s still cricket, and that the difference between it and T20 is sufficiently small for it to have sporting integrity is precisely the reason it’s unlikely to truly take off – why abandon the investment in T20 for a game that offers little extra? If The Hundred does remain an entirely domestic concept, it’s hard to see how it has a long term future when everyone else prefers the ironically more traditional T20. All new things attract attention initially, and whatever the complaints about it, it will have that first flush of attraction as something new. The problem it has is beyond that, years three and four. There comes a time when the question will be asked what the point of it is, and whether a T20 tournament would work better. The Hundred itself looks doomed in the longer term, though it may serve its purpose if it garners sufficient commercial attention to cause that debate to happen.

The 50 over form of the game will continue to be squeezed, but it remains a viable option because it still attracts strong crowds and decent quantities of sponsorship and advertising money. There may be experiments made to widen the differential between it and T20, such as four innings of 25 overs, but it is a format that isn’t particularly broken. The attitude towards it may change somewhat as T20 becomes ever more dominant, indeed 50 over cricket may come to be seen as a long form of the game, which has a certain irony, because for club cricketers around much of the world (there are exceptions) that’s exactly what it is and what it always has been, even if concepts such as winning or losing draws offer a slight level of nuance – though note those kinds of playing rules are on the decline.

Where that leaves Test cricket is another matter. The World Test Championship has been positioned as a way of creating context for Test cricket in order to give the bilateral series meaning. It’s always been a slightly confused position – not because it’s a bad idea, far from it, but because the endless ODI bilaterals lack any meaning whatever, yet continue unabated because of the financial return created by them. There are of course tournaments such as the World Cup, but that’s not really the rationale behind holding so many bilateral series, or they would be considered no more relevant than an international football friendly with all the irritation they cause. Cricket is, and always has been different (and has similarities to international rugby in this regard) in that a match has inherent value in itself, and doesn’t necessarily need that bigger context for everything. That doesn’t mean for a single momoment that tournaments like a World Cup aren’t necessary, they both are, and are wonderful things in themselves, albeit the formats of such things are another question. Therefore a World Test Championship can be both a good thing in itself and also a fig leaf that doesn’t address the structural challenges being faced. There is a suspicion that Test series are often organised as a necessary evil rather than something to be embraced as justified and attractive in themselves, entirely for those financial reasons. Or to put it another way, if Test matches provided strong revenue streams for every board, there would be more of them – England don’t play lots of Test cricket because the ECB adore five day cricket. If there was serious money at hand, the players would be less inclined to abandon the Test arena for the more lucrative white ball forms of the game. The decline of Test cricket in favour of white ball cricket is not because of a particular dislike of that form of the game for sporting reasons.

There is no reason to assume this will change in the years to come, rather precisely the opposite. Countries like England play a lot of Test cricket because, at present at least, that is the largest level of spectators – and thus commercial – interest in the game. With big crowds and a big TV deal that has included, in fact focused, on Test cricket, it has been the core of the income of the professional game. It’s not the case elsewhere, and to highlight that particularly, the newer international countries such as Ireland have abandoned Test series because they cannot make them financially viable. Those are two ends of the range, but there are many more countries nearer the Irish end than the English one, and the English extreme is beginning to weaken. Core marquee series will continue, principally between the most powerful boards of India, Australia and England, but Test cricket will wither further beyond that. There is a way to prevent it, and that would be a more equitable wealth distribution globally, and allow the players to choose Test cricket as a viable means of support for them and their families. But let’s be clear – it isn’t going to happen. The handwringing about the decline of Test cricket among the great and the good has no relevance when the actions that could be taken to prevent it are verboten in administrative circles, because of their own narrow interests. Fundamentally, there isn’t a desire within the ICC hierarchy, and particularly the board hierarchies, to save Test cricket. Until or unless that happens, Test cricket is on a one way ticket to irrelevance and extinction.

This also has knock on effects for domestic cricket, not just in England but around the world. After all, the purpose of first class cricket has been largely to provide a training ground for the Test game, something that puts the hackles up for the county cricket fans who see a game that is important in its own right. But it has never been financially viable in itself anywhere since the 19th century, it wasn’t the point of it to be. The diminution in value of first class cricket is a corollary of the decline of Test cricket and its lack of revenue creation has changed its positioning from one that needs support in order to promote the wider game to being viewed as a revenue drain on central resources. This is an important change in focus – county cricket has never been something central in and of itself to the finances of cricket, it has had sporting value and been deemed worthy of support as such. This has changed – the justification for concepts like the Hundred have been to generate financial income in and of itself, and not for the purposes specifically of first class county cricket. This is central to the expectations in years to come, for no longer is it considered inherently valuable.

The arrival of the Hundred has a further likely consequence, in that it introduces franchise cricket to England. It is from a different era that Durham was added to the roster as the 18th county, the desire now is to shrink the base of teams, not expand them. Protests that regional franchises are purely for the shortest form of the game smack of disingenuousness – the strongest counties will survive irrespective, but the weaker ones look like they have no long term future. Formal status is unlikely to be revoked, because it simply doesn’t matter much, they will fall by the wayside as power and money is concentrated in the hands of the few, and the difference between some first class counties and some minor counties will be harder to determine. Salami tactics work in terms of generating change – abolishing counties would invite end of days headlines, allowing them to fade into obscurity will be met with a shrug of the shoulders from all but those directly affected. The protests from county cricket fans will make little difference – they have already been written off as unimportant.

This is not a future that many will relish. But as things stand it is where we are likely to be. Test cricket being in trouble is not breaking news, but the lack of any impetus or desire to change this is what is going to doom it to the margins. First class cricket and county cricket will follow, and the focus on white ball, and particularly T20 cricket is the future to be faced. It can change, certainly, but only if there is a desire to enact what is needed to make that happen. There is no sign of that happening, and no sign of a desire that it should happen. Money has become the driving motivation in sport across the world, but cricket is in a different place, whereby the belief among administrators is that the game of cricket has no future without change, and that the generation of cash is the prime motivation, not the sport itself. Business people can have that view, indeed they always have done, there is no reason to pretend they are other than what they are for good or ill, what is different in cricket is that there are few at the top of the game who believe passionately in the beauty of their own sport, who see their role as primarily to defend and grow it. Instead they consider that change must happen in order to make money, rather than making money to deliver a better sport. Not even the feast of mammon that is football has quite this attitude to their own game – they have a rapacious desire to monetise their sport, not consider the raison d’etre of the sport to be money generation.

The amateur game is far from immune to the fallout. Sunday friendly cricket has undoubtedly declined in a precipitous manner over recent years, as the player base has shrunk. A push to T20 matches from those viewing it from the lofty perspective of their professional career is to miss the central point that a desire for shorter games is as much a reflection of a smaller pool as it is modern life writ large in cricket. Free to air broadcast of cricket may still be the biggest driver of arresting such an unpropitious collapse in the player base, but it isn’t a panacea for the problems of the game either. Like so many things, it is complex to the point of confusion, but in this arena at least, the biggest change would be evidence that there’s much more than lip service to the importance of it from the centre. Here again, there is little reason to believe that will happen, and the decline of the clubs will continue.

For good or ill, it’s our direction of travel. There is no doubt that many will be aghast, but an attempt to be realistic isn’t an endorsement of where we are headed. And more specifically, it’s where we are meant to be headed. This is not a lament for a passing time, nor a wish that if only a few changes could be made. Too often the debate is framed around a tweak here, a nudge there. A few more pennies for a county perhaps, or throw a bone to a former associate nation. None of it matters, and none of it makes any difference, except to allow the drowning to suck in a last few precious breaths of air. It would require fundamental change to move the trajectory, and it won’t happen, can’t happen, because it is not accidental. It is not a game that has lost its way and is seeking a way back. It is far too much of a conspiracy to assume this is the development of a grand plan to reach this suggested destination, but it doesn’t have to be, it isn’t how it works. All it requires is for an acquiescence with the direction of travel, and that contentment is entirely present. For as long as the approach is one of managed decline of the traditional and a defensive mentality of the long standing, while embracing the new, shiny and above all lucrative, there is little reason to doubt where we will end up.

Return of the Mambo

It hasn’t yet been formally confirmed, but assuming all goes as expected, Channel 4 will be showing the India – England Test series. There are some interesting things about this development, beyond the pleasant surprise of the Test game returning to terrestrial television for the first time since 2005.

Strikingly, BT Sport and Sky failed to show much interest, while the mooted plan for primary rights holder Star Sports to distribute it via the Disney+ platform appears to have come to nothing. Amazon don’t seem to have tried terribly hard to get the rights either, and Channel 4 have bought them for a price below what might have been expected.

Certainly the time difference is less than prime time in the UK with starts around 4am, but there is a day/night Test in the schedule, while at weekends in particular at least half the day’s play is at a relatively civilised time.

What is of significant interest is the lack of intent by those channels who have in the last decade been the sole outlets for almost all cricket in this country. Given the relatively low cost, should it be a concern to the ECB that appetite is so thin? Perhaps. It also does emphasise that the oft-repeated line that terrestrial broadcasters are inherently uninterested in the Test format is untrue – and it will be a harder case for them to make in future.

This doesn’t mean that the ECB will see the light – their addiction to money ahead of all other considerations is unlikely to wane, because it would mean difficult decisions about priorities. What would be embarrassing for them would be for the Channel 4 audience to exceed that of Sky – for it would provide ammunition against the ECB who appear to revel in the concept that the public don’t care about the game and won’t watch it on free to air television.

The ECB might have no say at all about who shows this series, but the fall out from it could prove interesting to say the least. If broadcasters’ desire to show cricket has lessened, so will the amount of money they’re prepared to pay. Hiding the game away on satellite pay channels has come with immense costs to the wider game, but been supported by the governing body on the grounds that there is no alternative. Their expectation appears to have been that rights values were only going to go in one direction – upwards. It is distinctly possible that this upcoming series is a first indication that may not be so. If that were to be true, and we have little firm idea what is in the minds of the pay TV channels, it may yet be the ECB have backed the wrong horse even by their own standards of success.

For now, let’s just enjoy the return of the best form of the game to a place where all can access it. But this may well not be the end of the matter for the game in this country.

How To Tell A Bad Idea In Cricket Without Actually Trying It First

The Australian Big Bash League have just announced three new rules which will feature in the competition due to start next month. These are ‘Power Surge’ [Two of the six powerplay overs must be taken after the halfway point by the batting team], ‘Bash Boost’ [Teams get a bonus point for being ahead after 10 overs] and ‘The X-Factor’ [Teams can substitute one player at the midway point of the first innings].

The announcement has been met with almost unaminous derision and disbelief from cricket fans, and quite a large proportion of the media too. The answer to that from its (relatively few) proponents is to watch it in action first. This strikes a nerve with me, because it’s the exact same answer people (almost exclusively employed by the ECB, Sky or the BBC) gave when faced with criticism of The Hundred. In the most extreme example, Isa Guha wrote that she felt people only had “the right to have a go” at The Hundred after it had been played for “4-5 years”.

There are three main ways in which this answer annoys me. The first is that it takes us as fans and customers for granted. There is absolutely nothing preventing us from spending our time and money on something else if we don’t like what we see. Second, I think most people can tell whether they like something or not very quickly. A bad first impression, such as from an ECB director going on national radio to tell people that the new cricket format isn’t for anyone listening, is a hard thing to overcome. A company ignores a significant negative visceral response from its consumer base at its peril. The third, and perhaps most important, is that its incredibly patronising. Few hearts and minds have been won by people implying that the people who are concerned must all be morons.

All of which begs the question: How can you tell a good idea from a bad one without spending tens of millions of pounds (or dollars) trying it in live televised games for a few years?

1) Is It Actually A New Idea?

One obvious way in which proposals can be judged is if they have actually been tried before. For people who were following cricket in 2005, the Big Bash League’s ‘X-Factor’ sounds remarkably similar to the ‘super sub’ idea which was briefly used in one-day internationals. That was abandoned within a few months after almost everyone involved agreed that it massively favoured the team who won the toss. It’s difficult to see how the BBL substitution rule won’t suffer the same fate, and it certainly hasn’t been explained by anyone from Cricket Australia.

Heeding lessons of the past need not be confined solely to cricket either. If we wanted to look at The Hundred’s reducing the number of cricket teams in England & Wales, we could compare it to the experience in Welsh Rugby from 2004. Nine clubs representing nine cities and towns were amalgamated into five (later four) regional teams. Despite undoubtedly producing a higher average quality of rugby, in terms of improving the finances or the number of supporters in Welsh rugby it has been a comprehensive failure.

2) Can You Make A Logical Argument In Its Favour?

In life, it’s generally a good rule of thumb that you probably don’t understand something very well if you can’t also explain it to someone else. Likewise, if you can’t clearly express why a change to the playing conditions of a tournament is an improvement then it probably isn’t.

It is a common theme that any explanations coming from the ECB or Cricket Australia on topics like these miss a vital step. They typically spell out what the problem they are trying to address is. They always say what they are doing. What they never do is link the two together in any kind of logical manner. Imagine that you went to a doctor with a splitting headache and they decided to put your ankle in plaster. That’s the level of logic that cricket boards seem to operate at.

When talking about the changes to this year’s BBL, the Big Bash’s player acquisition and cricket consultant Trent Woodhill said both, “Integrity [of the game] is about high performance and it’s about the contest between bat, ball and fielders.” and, “It happens in all other sports, coaches have a major say in the result. We want dialogue, we want discussion from broadcasters, as to why a coach or captain has made the decision they’ve made.” So the position of Cricket Australia appears to be that ‘bat, ball and fielders’ are the key to the integrity of the game, and that these new additions will make those aspects less important relative to the actions of the coaches and captains.

I’m certainly struggling to find a compelling argument for why Cricket Australia believe bonus points based on the scores after ten overs would be a good idea. If the team batting first scores 200-6 (Or, being in Australia, 6-200), their opponents are more likely to score an extra point if they are all out for 105 after eleven overs than they are scoring 199 from their allotted twenty overs. Why would you potentially reward losing by 95 runs more than losing by 1 run?

The ECB’s arguments in favour of The Hundred are even more egregious in this behaviour. To take just one example, one of the few snippets of the extensive research that the ECB have actually released to the public states that ‘75% of families would prefer a game that is under 3 hours in length and finished by 9pm’. That’s a fair enough point to make, but misses out two fairly obvious flaws. The first is that T20 Blast games already last under three hours (barring rain delays). Their own playing conditions state that games should last for 2 hour and 45 minutes. The second is that ten of the thirty-four games of the men’s Hundred scheduled this year were due to finish at 9.30pm because they could only start after Test matches against Pakistan had finished for the day. So, regarding the ECB’s own arguments for why The Hundred is needed as a format, the first part shows it to be unnecessary and the second part doesn’t apply to either competition.

3) Will It Still Work In An Imperfect World?

It’s very easy to make plans on paper which appear flawless but come apart very quickly in real life. To take a recent(ish) example, look at the 2019 Men’s Cricket World Cup final. Even the most one-eyed England fan must admit that having the game and the overall winner decided by boundary countback was a little unsatisfying. The fact is that the tie-breakers were agreed by every cricket board involved, who almost certainly thought that there could never be a situation where both teams would be tied after the super over. It really helps to consider these scenarios before they happen, rather than complaining about them after the fact.

With cricket, whether in England or Australia, the most common issue competitions face is the weather. One shower of rain and everyone’s on their computers trying to work out the DLS scores and how to come out ahead in a shortened game. Ten games were rain-affected in last year’s Big Bash, so it is not something which should be overlooked. With that in mind, how well do Cricket Australia’s proposals handle rain delays and reductions in overs?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is not well.

The ‘Bash Boost’ bonus point for being ahead after ten overs becomes a nightmare if rain occurs at any point between the start of play and the midway point of the second innings. Imagine a game where Team A scored 80 runs in their first ten overs and batted for the full twenty before it rained for an hour during the mid-inning interval. Team B then face a DLS target of 120 from ten overs. How many runs do they need to win the bonus point, and after how many overs?

If the rain occurs during the first innings, it becomes more complex still. Let’s say that Team A scores 80 in the first innings in ten overs when it starts raining, leaving Team B to chase a DLS target of 70 from six overs. Is the target for Team B to beat based on what Team A managed to score in ten overs or five? I get a migraine just thinking about the complexity required to keep things even remotely fair to both teams with such a system in place.

4) Can You Hold A Trial First?

Even after you’ve cleared all of these hurdles, it must be worth playing a few trial games with the proposed rule changes to see how actual cricketers and fans feel about them. The Big Bash League are basically committed to these new rules for 61 games this winter. Almost two solid months. If Australian fans start whinging (and we all know that goes against their national character, but it could happen), then that’s a lot of unnecessary resentment and strife for the players, coaches and administrators to deal with. It also potentially risks tens of millions of dollars if cricket fans decide to stop watching altogether.

With so much at risk, surely it’s worth seeing how it plays in real life before committing so much money and effort? A week of games, with players trying several scenarios as well as full games. If everything goes well, they act as further promotion for the competition and new rules. If things go poorly, you have only lost thousands of dollars instead of millions.

In the ECB’s defense, something I rarely say, they did actually hold some trials of The Hundred in 2018. The general consensus appeared to be that it was very, very similar to T20. The problem there is that it was supposed to be to a distinct and entirely new format which would attract people who found T20 too long and boring. Trials don’t serve a purpose if you ignore the results, unfortunately.

5) Are You Being Honest About Your Motivations?

All of the above points assume that cricket boards are fundamentally truthful and open organisations whose statements can be taken at face value. Both Cricket Australia and the ECB talk about making cricket more exciting, more popular and more modern with their new formats. What neither mention in their press releases and interviews is a desire for cricket (or at least their portion of it) to become more profitable. With three new rules, each with their own branding, the proposed changes to the Big Bash give Cricket Australia at least three more opportunities per game to add extra sponsors, making the BBL more profitable. For the ECB, they seem annoyed at T20’s popularity around the globe because they think they invented it and deserve some licensing money from the global leagues. They genuinely believe that other countries will pay them for the rights to host competitions using The Hundred as a format, if it can be a success here.

Regardless of whether they are right or wrong (Spoiler: They are wrong), it seems at least some of these public relations issues are caused by their disingenuity. If Cricket Australia had said, “In the current circumstances, we need to make more money this season or risk further job cuts,” then people might have been more understanding about the whole thing and willing to give it a go for a season. Telling people who already enjoy cricket that these nonsensical rule changes will make cricket more fun, on the other hand, is a recipe for disaster.

I don’t consider myself a cricket traditionalist. To be honest I find the idea a little amusing when it comes to a format like T20 which has only been played professionally for eighteen years. There are many rule changes I would like to see, or at least try. But it doesn’t seem too much to ask that governing bodies try to think things through before putting the contents of their brainstorming session on national television.

Thanks for reading, if you have any comments about this post or anything else please add them below.

How Not To Market A Product

As The Hundred begins its marketing campaign for next season, it seems like a good time to talk about some incredibly basic things to consider when selling something. It seems like the ECB needs all the help it can get.

The most basic tenet of marketing, at least as far as I understand it, is to always consider your audience. This encapsulates two concepts: The audience you currently have, and the audience you want to attract.

For @TheHundred, the first demographic is very easy to define: English cricket fans. Before a ball has been bowled, or a game televised, the only people who will have any interest in an upcoming domestic cricket competition’s Twitter account are obviously people who already like the sport. They almost certainly follow the England cricket team, and are more likely than not to be familiar with county cricket too. They might be men or women, young or old, rich or poor, but they all have that in common.

Knowing that, the obvious approach would be to use @TheHundred Twitter account to promote the cricketers involved in the competition. “You like this player? You can see him next summer in The Hundred.” The people following the account will already know them, and you might persuade some of those followers who were on the fence about the whole thing to give it the benefit of the doubt. It’s not sexy, it won’t win you an award for innovative marketing, but it works.

One incredibly odd choice for The Hundred is when its tweets and posts give every impression of being dismissive or downright hostile towards county cricket and its fans. I struggle to think of any example where a company has attacked or insulted its own customers whilst promoting a new product. For example: Coca Cola owns both ‘Coke’ and ‘Innocent Drinks’ (or at least 90% of it). Innocent’s Twitter account has never said, “Coke is incredibly bad for your health. Drink Innocent’s smoothies instead!” Literally no responsible company would do that, ever.

But the England And Wales Cricket Board do.

The second group, the Twitter account’s presumed target audience, is the more interesting aspect of The Hundred’s marketing efforts so far. It has been stated repeatedly by its proponents that The Hundred is designed to reach people who might be discouraged by their impression of the T20 Blast as a competition for ‘lads’. To quote Simon Hughes: “A lot of people feeling the Blast is not a game for them because it’s largely middle class and largely white, and particularly a kind of beer-fest. […] It has become a piss-up, actually.

If you look at who responded to The Hundred’s Twitter relaunch positively, and there wasn’t that many, a clear pattern emerges: They are all youngish men aged roughly 25-40. No women, no British Asians, no kids. Just blokes who I would guess like a drink and some ‘bantz’. If The Hundred’s aim was to draw in a new diverse audience for English cricket, they appear to be failing badly.

This is not a surprise to me, although I suspect the same could not be said for many at the ECB. My impression is that children or even the under-25s rarely use Twitter. Instagram, TikTok and Twitch all seem to have a younger user base, and so might be better platforms for attracting schoolkids or young adults to cricket. I would hesitate to even speculate on the best way to draw British Asians into English domestic cricket, but it’s not immediately obvious that the ECB have tried anything beyond creating a franchise-style competition vaguely reminiscent of the IPL/PSL/BPL.

The worse misstep in the ECB’s marketing approach regards women. The tone of The Hundred’s Twitter output could be charitably described as ‘laddish’. The thing to remember about this kind of the behaviour is that it is generally how men act when in the company of other men. Women tend not to participate in it, nor find it appealing. This might be why the vast majority of internet trolls appear to be male. If you were promoting a new competition which proclaimed (falsely, in my opinion) to be based on the principle of gender equality, with both the men’s and women’s competitions inextricably linked, why would you choose to project such an obnoxious and exclusively male personality on social media?

The problem the ECB face is that this is not an isolated problem with regards to their promoting cricket outside of their core white male demographic. If you remember last year’s launch of The Hundred’s website, the stock photo used prominently on the front page was literally the top Google result for “male audience”. When Andrew Strauss first announced The Hundred on Radio Five Live, he implied that the reason more women weren’t cricket fans was because they weren’t able to understand the game. There are two things which these three events have in common. The first is that they all demonstrate a chronic inability to consider the ECB’s output from the perspective of a female audience, which leaves them struggling to connect with roughly half of the UK population. The second (and more damning) commonality is that each of them would have been thoroughly prepared over several months. None of them could be excused as mistakes made in haste. Every detail will have been pored over by virtually the entire PR/marketing/social media arm of the ECB, not to mention a few very well-paid executives, and no one appeared to notice any issues.

Being ‘Outside Cricket’, I must admit to having almost no knowledge of the ECB’s inner workings. That said, I would be utterly unsurprised if I were to discover that the people involved in these debacles were almost exclusively white men aged thirty and above. Particularly when it comes to the senior roles where decisions are made. Whilst perhaps not essential, having a diverse staff must surely help when it comes to attracting a diverse audience. Otherwise you risk seeming out of touch, patronising, and frankly a bit of a joke.

Thanks for reading. If you have any comments about this, or anything else which came up during our extended break, please post them below.

The Economy Drive: Is the ECB channelling Yes Minister?

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

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

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

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

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

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

England vs. Pakistan – 3rd Test, Day 1 – Scores And Bores

Today was an exceptional day of cricket. An amazing batting performance from Zak Crawley left England very much in the ascendancy after the end of the first day. Rather frustratingly, I missed a large portion of it because I was busy transcribing Colin Graves’ interview on Sky, a long and boring process which took me over two hours to complete.

The day had a mixed start for England, with Rory Burns being squared up by Shaheen Shah Afridi and edging to the slips. This has not been a good series so far for the England opener, who currently has a series average of 5.00. In particular, the left-arm pace of Afridi has taken his wicket three times. That said, I wouldn’t be overly concerned by his form at this moment in time. His average against the West Indies just a few weeks ago was 46.80, and few teams have a high-quality left-handed pace bowler if that is a weakness of his.

Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley saw off the very good Pakistani pace attack with the new  ball, which brought in legspinner Yasir Shah. It had been noted after the first Test against Pakistan that Dom Sibley had the low strike rate against spin bowling of 36.61. What was not mentioned was that his average against spinners in Test cricket was 40.00. His scoring rate was raised during the game in commentary, and afterwards during interviews. During a press conference after that game, Sibley vowed to be “a bit more proactive” against spin. In the two games since that interview, his strike rate against spin has soared to 62.07, whilst his average against spin in those two games is 18.00. Today he was dismissed after being judged LBW after skipping down the pitch to try and hit Yasir Shah out of the ground.

There are two aspects of this that infuriate me. Firstly, since when does run rate matter in Tests? Whilst obviously it might be considered better to score more quickly than not, as it reduces the chances of a draw, I’d much rather have a slow batsmen averaging 40 than a quick one averaging 30. It seems notable that a large portion of those espousing its importance in Tests are those who seem to prefer T20 cricket.

My second, more important issue with this pressure on Sibley to score more quickly is that it seems a wholly predictable result that it will get in his head and lower his average. We saw it with Trott, and Compton, and Ballance. People take their scoring for granted, tell them to accelerate once they’re ‘in’, and it completely screws them up. I want Sibley to be opening for England in five years’ time with a Test average over 40. I think the best way to do that is to leave alone to score at his own pace. England have plenty of batsmen who can score quickly, so they can afford for one or two to take their time. Sibley genuinely seems to me like the real deal, and I don’t want him crashing out of the side prematurely.

Joe Root fell soon after Lunch, edging an unplayable delivery from Naseem Shah which moved sharply off the pitch before catching the edge. With one innings to go, Joe Root has a batting average this summer of 37.33. He hasn’t averaged over 40 in a home summer since 2017. Whilst he is entirely blameless for today’s dismissal, I do think that he could have possibly kept it out in his prime. The same frustrating way that Steve Smith or Virat Kohli just manage to keep an absolute jaffa from dismissing them. I think the time of considering Root one of the ‘Fab Four’ world batsmen, or of worrying that his conversion of fifties was too low, has long since passed.

Pope was clean bowled by Yasir Shah, which left England on 127/4 with Zak Crawley and Jos Buttler at the crease. These are two batsmen who I genuinely don’t rate particularly highly, and so I feared the worst. Zak Crawley’s first-class average is a mere 30.82, whilst Jos Buttler has an average of 32.31 after 46 Test matches with just the solitary century. To my pleasant surprise, they both delivered tremendous performances which took the game completely away from Pakistan and both remain not out overnight.

Crawley’s innings was truly remarkable. Rarely flustered or giving chances, he was scoring at almost 4 runs per over against what is an impressive Pakistani bowling attack. He finished the day on 171 not out, which is also his highest first-class score. He missed two Tests this summer in order to make room for the injured Ben Stokes playing as a specialist batsman. After today, I wouldn’t think that he will be considered England’s most expendable batsman.

There were two notable interviews broadcast today on Sky. Before play, ICC match umpire, Stuart’s dad and former Rebel tourist Chris Broad had a rare interview. Most of it was devoted to the changes in playing conditions for this Test regarding bad light. Essentially, umpires now have the option to start the day half an hour earlier rather than adding the time on at 6.30pm when light is likely to be at its worst. But, after that topic was well covered, the talk drifted to over rates:

Nasser Hussain: In the last five years in England, the over rate has dropped to 13.4 overs. In the last year, it is 12.1 overs when they should be bowling at 15. And yet only two captains have been fined in England by the ICC. Are the over rates at the moment acceptable?

Chris Broad: You talk about this country, you look at the number of crowds, the number of people who come and want to watch Test cricket. If they start falling away, then something needs to be looked at. I feel that there has been some exciting cricket in this series. If there were crowds in here, they would appreciate the fact that there has been some exciting cricket. There have been results in almost every Test match, and I think they’ve had value for money. It’s something that, if you look at stats, they can actually tell a different story. Tell perhaps an unreal story, and the entertainment value of the game of cricket. I think this series, as far as entertainment has been concerned, has been fantastic.

I think one of the most basic things I believe is that you don’t get to choose which laws you follow, or enforce. Unless you’re rich, obviously [/satire]. It is what infuriates me most about slow over rates. I would find it immensely entertaining for Jofra Archer to bowl from 4 yards in front of the bowling crease, if I wasn’t batting, but if he goes a millimetre beyond the bowling crease it’s called a no ball. I think many people just want to watch certain batsmen bat, Stuart Broad for example. But the ICC umpires won’t let him reset the stumps after being bowled while telling the bowler, “They came to see me bat, not you bowl.” Not even his dad.

I also disagree with the contention that enforcing over rates would make the cricket less entertaining. I can’t say for sure that it wouldn’t though, because I can’t recall at any point where it has been enforced. Teams are generally willing to accept the small fines or points penalties that are given and, as Nasser rightly points out, even these minor punishments are rarely used.

The second, more extensive interview of the day came during the Lunch break, with Ian “Wardy” Ward and Nasser Hussain ‘grilled’ outgoing ECB chairman Colin Graves. For your enjoyment, here is the whole goddamn thing:

Wardy: How’s the five years been?

Graves: It’s been challenging, but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it to be honest Ian. And when you look at all those highlights, we’ve come a long way in five years both on and off the field. From a board perspective, we’ve now got an independent board which I think is one of the best things English cricket has ever done. It’s been enjoyable.

Wardy really set the tone for the questions here. It couldn’t be a softer delivery if it was a 79-over old Kookaburra being bowled by Jack Shantry.

Wardy: What’s been your biggest challenge?

Graves: I think the biggest challenge certainly was getting The Hundred off the ground. We had all the pushback initially on that. I think people are starting to see the advantages of it now. So that was really challenging, but I still think it is the right thing to be doing and it will be a valuable asset to the ECB going forward. Both from a profit perspective and from a playing point of view as well.

Obviously many of us are dubious about the possible profit The Hundred might generate. I am curious what Graves meant by a “playing point of view” though. Does he believe that a new format will helps English players in the T20 and 50-over games? The English 40-over competition was removed in 2013 to bring it into line with the international 50-over standard, because it was felt that the slightly shorter length didn’t help develop international cricketers. Has something changed since then?

Wardy: Why so much pushback, do you think?

Graves: I think people, certainly in cricket, don’t like change. I think we’ve been set with a number of competitions over the years that everybody seemed happy with and they looked at another competition: “Do we need another competition?” I don’t think they realise we’re trying to attract this new audience, women, children and families, which we’ve never really had coming to cricket. So that was a big message to get across. When we took it to the vote, to the counties, that went through 38-3 so it was fairly unanimous when it came down to it. And it’s just a change, to be honest with you.

Somewhere, there is a PR person from the ECB facepalming so hard they might have broken their nose. Since the disastrous launch by Andrew Strauss two years ago, in which he essentially said that existing cricket fans don’t matter because The Hundred was for ‘mums and kids’, the ECB have toned down that message with every subsequent appearance. At this point, they are saying to people who attend T20 Blast games that is basically the same, except with better players. This is good marketing. You can’t persuade people who don’t know about cricket to attend cricket games. It is impossible. Whilst those now-legendary ‘mums and kids’ or ‘non-cricket fans’ might see The Hundred on the BBC and decide to attend in future years, the only possible live audience in the first season is the exact same people who already attend T20 Blast games.

If Colin Graves is going to keep turning up on TV and radio telling those existing fans that The Hundred isn’t for them but for families instead, they might not buy tickets and turn up. And the ECB might have to deal with empty seats dominating televised cricket for the second season in a row.

As for English cricket fans not liking change, that’s fair enough. They don’t. But I would say that this is mainly because there is so much of it. Here are just some of the changes to county cricket in the past 20-ish years.

2000: The first Championship divided into two divisions, with a reduction of one game per season.

2003: The 50-over Benson & Hedges Cup is replaced by the T20 Cup

2006: The Sunday League went from 45 to 40 overs per innings.

2010: The 50-over Friends Provident Trophy and Natwest Pro40 are replaced by the 40-over Clydesdale Bank 40.

2014: Points for a draw in the County Championship increased to 5. The 50-over One Day Cup replaces the 40-over Yorkshire Bank 40.

2017: Championship Division One reduced to 8 teams, with both divisions reduced to 14 games per season.

2020: County Championship to change to 10 teams in Division 1, , T20 Blast moved to May, the One Day Cup played during The Hundred, and a new 100-ball competition with new drafted teams.

In other words, every three or four years there is a major change in English domestic cricket. I’ve almost certainly missed out a lot of things from this list. At  some point the ECB has to just leave county cricket alone for a period, a decade or so, to really see what is and isn’t working in the long term.

Hussain: You said there “Fully behind it. People are starting to see the advantages of it.” What do you mean by that?

Graves: I think they’re starting to see that the reasons why we’re putting it together is because of this new audience. I think they’re starting to see the  excitement of a new competition. I think they’re starting to see as well we’re attracting a new broadcaster to it as well as yourselves. You’ve covered cricket brilliantly over the last years, it’s tremendous what you’ve done. And I think they’re starting to see all that thing coming  together. Children really getting excited in The Hundred. And I know even some of the countries abroad, India in particular, are looking at The Hundred. They’ve been talking to me about it for the last year on a regular basis. So around the world it’s created a lot of excitement. I’m just waiting to see what happens.

Who are these people that are seeing the advantages of it?

Besides that, I find the idea that the BCCI would pay the ECB to in order to play The Hundred as pretty laughable. They could enforce over rates in the IPL to bring the game running times under control, or choose a different standard like T10. I suspect what has happened is that the chairmen of other boards have found that a very easy way of buttering up Graves before asking him for a favour is to praise and declare an interest in The Hundred.

Wardy: The new broadcast deal is worth £1.2bn. How much of that, can you explain to people, is down to fact that The Hundred is included in that broadcast deal?

Graves: The £1.2bn was the whole broadcasting deal that we got for five years. That brought a fairly large amount of money for that new competition. And that was somewhere approaching £170m for the first five years from the broadcasters. But it wasn’t only that. It brought another broadcaster to the table who have never been interested in it before. And certainly to get back on terrestrial television, at that level, is certainly going to help. And it’s going to help expose cricket even more, which is what we want.

For those of you who have difficulty with maths, that means that over a billion pounds, over £200m per year, is dedicated to the pre-existing international and county games. Being from the horse’s mouth, this should hopefully put to bed the idea that The Hundred was responsible for the massive increase in the TV rights revenue starting this year.

Wardy: Such a shame that, obviously we can’t do it with Covid, that it hasn’t got off the ground yet.

Graves: Well that was a big disappointment to me. My last year as chairman, and I was going to see it take off, hopefully, and it’s not happened. But that was the right decision. There was no point doing it this year, so to postpone it for a year was absolutely spot on.

I disagree. I think it should have gone ahead. Partly because it would have allowed the ECB to keep more of this year’s TV deal rather than paying Sky back, at a time when English cricket needs every penny. More importantly, playing The Hundred could have allowed 18 extra live games of cricket on the BBC at a time when more people than ever will be stuck in front of the TV rather than meeting at the pub or going on holiday. It was as close to a captive audience as the ECB could have hoped for.

Wardy: Fully independent executive board. When you took over the chairmanship, was that one thing that was a must for you to change?

Graves: It needed changing. One thing which I didn’t expect is we would change it so quick and we got that through in two years. When I took over the ECB board, it had fourteen people on the board. It had four county members, two recreational members and the MCC. So 50% of the board were stakeholders, which was never easy to manage, and you had a conflict of interest and everything that went with it. Now we’ve got an independent board, it’s an entirely different ball game.

I don’t think a board, particularly one for a sports governing body like the ECB, should be easy for its chairman to manage. The ECB is responsible for so many different aspects of the game. Men’s professional cricket, women’s cricket, recreational cricket and so on. Every aspect of that should be represented on the board, so that none is forgotten.

I am particularly uneasy about the way that Colin Graves was also responsible for choosing those new board members as chairman of the ECB’s nomination committee until December 2019. At the very least, it raises questions about the independence of those ‘independent’ board members

Wardy: If you have a list of things you wanted to get through when you first started, you sat down at your desk and wrote A, B, C, and D, and if you had four or five points, how many have you ticked off?

Graves: I did have a list, and I think there’s only a couple left and to be honest I’m amazed how much we’ve done in five years. One of the biggest reasons is because we changed the executive in the first year when I took over as chairman. We’ve now got a fantastic executive led by Tom Harrison. But all the way through the organisation now, we’ve brought young people in, professional people in, people from outside the game. So we’ve brought people in from big companies like Heineken with a strong commercial background. And that new executive has helped to drive the game. Andrew Strauss was brilliant. When we brought Strauss in to be head of cricket, and Straussy fit into that team really well. And that whole team have helped change  very quickly.

Well, I would certainly agree that Andrew Strauss fit into the ECB very well. I do not mean that as a compliment though.

Wardy: The advancement of the women’s game. How pleased are you with that? We had that wonderful day at Lord’s when they  won the World Cup. That was the pinnacle, obviously, but in general how do you think that’s gone?

Graves: When you look at five years. I remember the first board meeting that I chaired Clare Connor came and presented to the board about a new competition that she wanted to put together for the women’s game, and we ticked that box that day. And when you look at where women’s cricket has come in the the past five years, it’s phenomenal. It’s moved very quickly. It’s moved very fast professionally. And it needed to. And I think there’s still a long way to go. The ECB need to keep investing in that, women’s and girls’, because it’s a big part of growth in cricket.

Here, I have to give some credit to Graves and the ECB. In terms of investing in women’s cricket, they are probably the second best in the world. It is a long way below the commitment of Cricket Australia, and I don’t think the current structure (with 8 semi-professional development teams) is sustainable or desirable, but it’s still better than virtually everyone else.

Wardy: Any regrets? Some of the things you’ve said?

Graves: Yeah. I’ve said one of two things that afterwards I’ve kicked myself and said “Why did I say that?” People always  say about me, “Mediocre West Indies team”, and all the rest of it. And the mediocre Blast. Those words were taken slightly out of context, but it was meant on the basis of what I thought at the time. But I’ll put my hand up and say it’s fine. I could have said it better.

So it was both out of context and what he thought at the time.

Hussain: At the highest level it’s been a successful tenure. Men’s, women’s, everything about the main England team. What about lower down? What about grass roots? What about participation? What about the structure, the liaising with the counties? How do you feel you’ve done further down?

Graves: When I look back at the whole game, as I call it. When I took over the board, I can tell you, the recreational game was never really talked about. It was a little bit on the agenda that took five-ten minutes and that was it. Coming from the recreational background, which is what I did. I was a recreational player, I was chairman of a recreational club. I’m passionate about recreational cricket because that is to me the grass roots of the future. So I made sure that we invested in recreational cricket properly, supported it with a pathway, and all the other things that we’ve done. And to me, it’s essential. And the one thing the game I believe, if I leave a message when I go, is “Make sure the investment in the game is right across the game.” That’s grass roots, girls’, women’s, boys’, schools’, everything. That is what we need to grow the game.

I would first dispute the premise of the question. Whilst the 2017 Women’s World Cup win was fantastic, and iconic, since then their star is shining a little less brightly. They lost the Ashes series at home last year, whilst they failed to reach the final of the Women’s T20 World Cup after losing a crucial group game to South Africa. On the men’s side, only the ODI side is dominant. The Test side is ranked 4th in the ICC rankings, below India, Australia and New Zealand. That is an improvement from when Graves was first appointed, to be fair.

As for recreational cricket, what investment has it seen from the ECB? Genuinely. I am stumped on that one. I guess All Stars cricket could be making a loss for the ECB, despite the them taking 87.5% of the fees for each child. The websites, scoring apps, etc. available for clubs seem a total mess from my admittedly outside perspective. If there is money coming from the ECB, where has it ended up?

Wardy: That is going to be the biggest challenge for Ian Watmore, who takes over on the first of September. You want to fund all these things and, in these Covid times, money is not great.

Graves: The big challenge that Ian and the board have got. Fortunately we have the new broadcasting deal, which this year is the first year of it so we’ve got four years left of the broadcasting deal. So yes, they’re going to have to cut back, but they’ll need to cut back right across, not just parts of it, because they still need to invest in all those other parts. I think by prudently looking at it, selectively looking at areas, they can still do the investment right across the game.

Wardy: 20% decrease in budgets, I’ve been reading around the place. In a bizarre sort of way, is it a good time to reset and reflect at some of the expenditure and where you could look at reducing that?

Graves: My last call with the county chairmen was last week, and the last message I gave to all the county chairmen was “What you need to do now with the ECB is to sit down and collectively talk and discuss about how you can remodel what we’ve got. Because it’s a time to do that. I think, if they do that properly, I think the game can grow even faster than what we’ve done.

I’m sure the 6 counties who were thinking about getting rid of first-class cricket to save money had some words for the outgoing chairman. I think the more important question Colin Graves’ answer begs is: Has the game grown? Are more people watching cricket now than five years ago? Are more people playing cricket than five years ago? Because (call me cynical) I think if either of those things were true, the ECB would be putting that out in press releases, tweets and interviews at every possible opportunity.

Wardy: How impressed have you been with the way the ECB have managed to get these games up in these strange times, and how thankful are you to the boards of West Indies, Pakistan, Irish cricket and indeed Australia, who arrive on Sunday?

Graves: When the whole Covid thing started, I must admit, we all sat there at the end of telephones and discussions those days, and we all thought the world was coming to an end. But it comes back to the executive, Tom Harrison and his team, and our board. We sat down and looked at what we could do and asked if we could get behind closed doors cricket running. It was a challenge. It was a massive challenge, because nobody had ever done it before. Fortunately we had a guy like Steve Elworthy, who could pull all that together for us and he did a fantastic job. But the determination of the executive and the board. And I think it’s the relationship we’ve got with countries like West India [sic], Pakistan, Australia and Ireland, around the world, that they have come to play in these environments. And it’s been challenging for everybody, it’s been challenging for you as broadcasters but, at the end of the day, we’ve got live international cricket up and running. Which is brilliant, from everybody’s point of view. I was looking at the broadcast and viewing figures yesterday, right across the piece with The Review, the highlights and everything else. Those figures are tremendous. Absolutely tremendous. To me, it shows that cricket is in the right place that, when we do start getting crowds back in, we’re in a superb place to take it even further forward.

Yep, this has been impressive. Fair play. Steve Elworthy was in charge of the 2019 World Cup, which also went well. A possible candidate for the chief executive job if Tom Harrison moves on?

Wardy: On a broader world scale, ECB, Cricket Australia have got lucrative broadcast deals. The likes of West Indies, Pakistan do not. Would you like to see the monetary playing field somehow levelled out so you don’t really get into the situation we’re having now with the haves and the have nots? Particularly if we’re looking to proect Test cricket.

Graves: I think there’s a way to do that. I sit on the ICC board, and have done for the last four years, and I think ICC could look at the way they share the money out from their pots. Because, I’m not being unkind, the ECB, the BCCI, Cricket Australia are not reliant on the ICC pot, They’re reliant on their own pot. And I think ICC could recut that pot in a different way with all those countries to make sure they are sustainable. Because we need all the countries playing if we’re going forward. Everyone.

Wardy: Fancy the ICC job?

Graves: That’s not up to me. The way the election goes, you have to be nominated. So, if I don’t get nominated then I’ll be nowhere near it anyway. When the nominations happen, all I said to everybody, I’ll look at it and see where  I am.

And there’s Colin Graves’ pitch for the top job in world cricket. You would think that sharing the ICC revenue more equitably would be very popular with nine of the twelve voting ICC members, so it seems a smart strategy. Those boards might want to examine his promises to the counties that he made in order to recieve the ECB chairmanship. They might also note how many of those counties are now in such a bad position after five years of Graves’ leadership that they are considering abandoning first-class cricket altogether.

Wardy: Have you enjoyed it?

Graves: I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, and I’ll miss it. I’ve enjoyed working with everybody, people like you and the executive, the counties, everybody. It’s been a fantastic job. And if somebody said to me twenty years ago that I’d be chairman of the ECB, I’d have said don’t talk stupid because it’ll never happen. But it did, and the rest is history.

Well at least he’s enjoyed himself.

Apologies for the late post. It’s almost 5,000 words, including the interviews, and it just took a lot longer to write than normal.

As always, please comment on the post, the game, or anything else below.

Another Restructuring Of County Cricket?

There were 10 overs played today in Southampton, as the game drags itself toward what is now a totally inevitable rain-soaked draw. Elsewhere, in what might have a much greater impact on those of you who have an interest in county cricket, there were reports of a potential huge shake up of the domestic game being considered by the ECB and the counties.

This may seem familiar, because there’s usually a restructuring every two or three years. The number of games in a competition, the formats, the time of year it happens in, the groups teams play in. Barely a year goes by without some major change to the domestic structure which we are all told will be a panacea to English cricket and fix everything. And it never does.

If there is one unusual aspect to these proposals, it’s that it doesn’t even give the new calendar which was due to begin this year a chance to fail. A ten-team Division One in the Championship, the T20 Blast shunted back to June and the 50-over competition being played during The Hundred were all innovations which were going to occur in 2020.

The proposals as Tim Wigmore lists in a (paywalled) article on the Telegraph website are:

  • Making the County Championship structure more like that of the Bob Willis Trophy, which has the teams divided into regions with playoffs to determine the overall winner.
  • Creating a 32-team 50-over competition, including the National (formerly minor) counties and possibly representatives from Ireland, Scotland and the Netherlands.
  • A reduction in the number, duration and cost of contracts for professional county cricketers.
  • Potentially allowing counties to abandon the County Championship whilst still playing white ball cricket.

These are, as it typical for the ECB, absolute bullshit. So I will go through them one-by-one and explain why.

A Regionalised County Championship

The Bob Willis Trophy has been seen by many as a huge success, and so why shouldn’t the ECB extend it so that it’s played every season? You’re guaranteed to see every local derby every year, any team has the potential to win the trophy rather than possibly having to negotiate promotion the year before, and costs for the teams can be reduced with less travel and hotel expenses required.

For those of you with long memories (a nice way of saying geriatrics), the first two already existed before 2000. The County Championship used to comprise of every county playing each other once a year. Every year had a Roses and London derby, and every team began the season on an equal footing. Not coincidentally, the England Test team was terrible for a lot of that period as well. It was determined that the large number of one-sided games featuring poor teams harmed the development of potential England Test cricketers, and the creation of a two-division structure would mean that the best players were exposed to a more consistent and higher level of competition.

This theory has certainly been borne out by England’s Test performance since these changes came in. In the twenty years before it happened, England won 39% of the Tests they played. Since 2001, they have won 63% of the time. There are undoubtedly other factors, central contracts were introduced at the same time for example, but I think it’s fair to say that the introduction of a two-tier league has done its job. Returning to the best teams playing the worst, just because they’re nearby, risks England also returning to the quality of Test cricketer they developed during the 80s and 90s. No one wants that.

Except Australians, I guess.

More generally, I would hesitate to take what has happened with the Bob Willis Trophy this year as proof that it would be a success in 2021. These are unusual times, and there is both a ton of goodwill and a hunger from most English cricket fans for any cricket game happening anywhere at the moment. I watched the European T10 competitions on Freesports in June for example, which isn’t something I would normally have done. There are also a lot of people who are currently working from home, or not going to work at all, who have the opportunity to watch county cricket streams now but won’t be able to next year. It may be worth mentioning that the improved multi-camera video streams and scheduling games on weekends, which I think are also significant factors in the success counties have seen in terms of viewers, could happen next year regardless of the competition format.

A New 32-Team 50-Over Competition

I can’t say that I have a strong opinion about a competition including amateur and foreign teams. Either the non-major county sides are cannon fodder for the professionals, which would be incredibly boring, or they are competitive, which would be a damning indictment of the quality of player county cricket produces. Neither seems a great outcome to me.

The more interesting aspect of it to me is the contradiction at the core of the ECB’s proposals: That they wish to reduce the overall number of professional English cricketers whilst also demanding that counties play a competition in a window where they lose a minimum of 96 squad members to The Hundred. Sussex had eleven players picked in The Hundred draft last year, which means that they will need a minimum of 25 white ball players in their first team squad next season in order to field a side.

You can have two competitions running simultaneously featuring 26 professional teams (8 in The Hundred plus 18 major counties), or you can cut the number of professional cricketers. You can’t do both.

Reducing The Number, Duration And Cost Of Player Contracts

I honestly can’t see many of the ECB’s suggestions in this area taking place. I am no fan of the players’ union, and they seem to regularly fail their members in several ways, but when it comes to ensuring the players are paid well they are very effective. Whilst there will no doubt be some changes to the agreement between the PCA and ECB to reflect the new circumstances since it was agreed in 2019, perhaps even a significant reduction of wages in line with the money English cricket has lost this year, the more extensive reforms the ECB envisages simply won’t be allowed to happen.

In that regard, the counties could learn a lesson or two from the PCA. The players’ union gets results because they present a single, united front to their employers (the ECB and the counties). The counties, who it bears saying have the power to dismiss the ECB chairman at any time and replace them with someone more amenable, somehow manage to take their unique position of strength in English cricket and throw it away by fighting amongst each other for scraps. Every damn time. It’s incredible.

Allowing Counties To Abandon First-Class Cricket

There are two significant obstacles to this ever happening: Most major counties are beholden to their members, who predominantly favour the County Championship, and it would seem impossible for the ECB to please both potential groups of counties. I would presume that county boards would only consider the option if it left them richer in the long run, with reduced playing staff numbers and less costs in hosting games, but that would ultimately depend on the ECB still giving those white ball counties a significant payment as they do now. Why would the counties who would never even countenance the ECB’s offer allow their rivals the chance to make more money by doing less? Why would counties who would consider the option support it if their yearly ECB stipend was cut?

As an aside, it baffles me how docile the members of the major counties are. Not unlike the counties within the ECB, county members typically have to power to remove their chairmen if they feel they aren’t being well-represented. Given the fury which the introduction of The Hundred received, and the devastation it is wreaking on county cricket, I am amazed that not a single person who voted for it has been forced out. If a  county chairman publicly contemplated leaving the County Championship, I’m not altogether sure that their members would be able to organise an effective opposition in time to stop it.

So, in conclusion, the ECB’s plans for the future of county cricket seem to be unworkable, ineffective, or directly harmful to English cricket.

I guess, in these uncertain times, it’s kind of nice to see that some things haven’t changed.

Any comments about county cricket, the Test which isn’t being played right now, or anything else are welcome below.

Why The Hundred Must Be The ECB’s Priority This Season

No one could confuse me for being an advocate for The Hundred, nor a fan of either its concept or execution by the ECB. I have written posts here about its lack of simplicity, its patronising marketing towards women, its sycophantic press coverage, the ‘research’ which allegedly led to its creation, the ECB’s own justifications for its creation, the dumb team names, and the huge gender inequality inherent in the new competition. I have even written a Dr. Seuss parody about it. Last but by no means least, I have written a post with a hundred reasons why I think it’s a bad idea (Spoiler alert: I am also 82% through writing a second post with a hundred more reasons, although many of these may have become redundant based on current events). All told, I’ve written well over 25,000 words here on the subject. None of them complimentary.

Which is why it may surprise some of you to discover that I genuinely think The Hundred must be the ECB’s first priority when (or if) domestic cricket returns this year.

I’m no more a fan of it now than I have been before. Its a bad idea, made worse by the people running it. The rationale for it is flawed, and it risks alienating cricket’s loyal customers in order to attract new people. And I don’t even like any of the crisps. But none of that matters now. In light of cricket being essentially closed at the start of the season, there are two basic reasons why I think it should be the first domestic competition to return.

The first reason is that the competition format is literally made for television, which is important because it seems possible that people won’t be able to attend games in the near future. The main reason counties want T20 Blast games is their profitability, but a large portion of that money comes from attracting fans to the grounds. If large gatherings are banned (and the average T20 Blast crowd last year was over 7,000), then I think it might quickly become expensive for the counties.

The Blast’s format is basically designed to have as many games in as short as a period as possible in order to maximise attendance, with 126 group games played over 44 days. Sky Sports Cricket can typically only show 2 matches per day, and that includes the international cricket which will be almost certainly be happening in the same window. Without serious changes, such as a dramatic reduction in the number of games coupled with an increase in the competition’s duration, it seems likely that county cricket fans would only be able to watch around a third of the competition at all.

The Hundred, on the other hand, has 32 group games scheduled over 28 days. Ideal for Sky to fit around a Test series (which most of us will hopefully be watching), as was the original plan for this year anyway. If the women’s games were all made double-headers with the men’s, as the rationale that women’s cricket wouldn’t attract large enough attendances to be sustainable seems pointless if there are literally no fans present anyway, Sky might even be able to show all of them too. And that’s before we consider the BBC, who have the rights to show 10 men’s games and 8 from the women’s competition. With no Wimbledon, Olympics or European Championships this year, The Hundred might be the most high-profilelive sports they have this summer.

It may be possible that the English cricket season starts early enough to play both the T20 Blast and The Hundred, but even in that situation I would have The Hundred go first. The later the Blast is scheduled, in my mind, the more chance there is that people will be allowed to go to the grounds.

The second, and perhaps more important reason, is money. It’s been that the ECB is concerned that “Sky Sports will withhold part of this year’s £220million television contract if [The Hundred] is postponed“. If people can’t attend the games, then that is already a huge amount of money lost from English cricket in terms of gate receipts and beer snake ammunition. Other revenue, such as sponsorships, might also be affected. This is not a time when we can afford to be picky about where the money to fund English cricket is coming from, or what it is paying for.

This crisis could hardly have come at a worse time financially for English cricket. The £220m Sky TV deal meant that everyone blew through their 2019 reserves with the secure knowledge that a huge pay cheque was waiting for them this season. The ECB’s funds got to such a low point that they couldn’t even afford to pay their white ball international contracts for four months. The players received generous pay rises going in to this season, as (I would guess) did the coaches and many other staff behind the scenes at the counties and ECB. This means that English cricket is now more expensive to run than ever before, and needs as much money as possible to continue as it is now.

That £220m wasn’t a gift from Sky, but a payment for the ECB and counties providing cricket games for them to air. Specifically international cricket, the T20 Blast and The Hundred. If the ECB fails to deliver all of those competitions, then Sky would presumably be well within their rights to withold their next payment. They might even be be able cancel the contract altogether, and that could be a real disaster. With Sky Sports and BT both having lost subscribers during this sporting hiatus, it seems very unlikely that the TV rights for English cricket from 2021 would be worth anywhere near as much to them as the current deal offers.

Will The Hundred be any good? With few overseas players and likely no crowds, I wouldn’t have thought so. And, like I wrote at the start, I can think of plenty of reasons why it was going to suck even before all this happened. That said, people might be sufficiently starved of live sport by the point it starts not to care about such things.

In summary: I think the ECB should prioritise The Hundred, and it should be the first domestic competition to take place this year.

And no, this is not an April Fool.