England v South Africa Preview – Bazball, Bazball, Bazball, Bazball, Bazball

As England prepare to play Test cricket in August, perhaps for the last ever time, there is only one word on people’s lips. Coined by Andrew Miller, ‘Bazball’ is used to describe England’s freewheeling attacking style under new coach Brendon ‘Baz’ McCullum which has led to the Test team winning all four matches under his leadership so far.

I don’t personally like the term Bazball but, when both Baz and the entire South African cricket team seem to loathe it, my contrarian side insists that I use it as much as possible. South Africa’s coach, Mark Boucher, has even said that any cricket journalist using the term “has to” have a shot of tequila which he will supply. For free. Surely this demonstrates such a poor understanding of human psychology (particularly amongst the English cricket media) that he isn’t anywhere near qualified to lead an international cricket team?

Whilst I have enjoyed the ride, I’m unconvinced that the England Test team is much better than they were four months ago. Since August 2020, England have won a grand total of 1 match in which Joe Root didn’t score a century, and even then he got 86 not out. The key difference between now and last year is that he has received some support from Jonny Bairstow.

Since the start of 2021, England have scored a total of 21 Test centuries. Joe Root was responsible 11 of them. Of the remaining 10, 4 of them have were achieved by Jonny Bairstow in the past 4 Test matches. The significant improvement in Bairstow’s form seems to be the only real dissimilarity between McCullum and Silverwood’s England teams. Whether McCullum was responsible for that, or simply the lucky beneficiary, remains to be seen.

The conditions in England have also been unusually conducive to batting up until now. Hot, dry weather, Dukes balls which have become relatively lifeless after a few overs. Pitches which have stayed hard and true for a full five days. This is not what you would expect in an English summer and, given the rain forecast through part of this game, seems unlikely to be the case this week. To borrow a phrase from football: But can they do it on a cold, rainy day in St. John’s Wood?

England have not, in my opinion, given themselves their very best chance of winning by picking Zak Crawley as opener again. Crawley averages 26.71 in his 25 Test matches. Twenty five. Christ…

Anyway, that’s less than Dom Sibley (28.94), Joe Denly (29.53), Rory Burns (30.32), Mark Stoneman (27.68), Alex Hales (27.28), Sam Robson (30.54), Nick Compton (27.80) and Michael Carberry (28.75), just going through the list of openers who England have discarded for not scoring enough runs, and who (apart from Burns) all had far fewer chances to demonstrate they deserved their place.

It’s not even like he’s improving year on year. This summer, he has a Test batting average of 17.75 from 4 matches for England this summer, and 24.25 in 8 Championship games. It’s frankly a little odd that Kent are still picking him.

I don’t envy professional/degenerate gamblers like InnoBystander going into this series, because I frankly have no idea what is going to happen. England crushing South Africa and England being crushed by South Africa seem equally likely to me. Both teams have a fragility to them which means things could go very wrong, very quickly.

All that said, having predicted England losing every Test this summer, even the possibility of winning this series seems like a miracle to me. Long live Bazball!

If you have any comments on the game, or anything else, please leave them below!

Daydream Believer

England’s first Test victory of this summer was rather routine. Not in terms of the run chase, because that was impressive. But it was also entirely orthodox, relying on a proven world class batsman – their only world class batsman – leading his team home with a superb innings. It didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know, namely that England were a brittle batting line up, but that if Joe Root got runs they might have a chance. At the time it seemed little more than that, no indication in particular of anything especially different, and apart from Root’s majestic knock, England probably had the worst of the game. So sure, a win, and a welcome one after the dreadful run of the last 18 months, but maybe not a whole lot more. It’s with hindsight it appears to have been greater than that, with it granting a degree of confidence and belief in the next step. Since then all hell has broken loose, the batting performances becoming ever more extraordinary and insane. After the conclusion of today’s Test Ben Stokes said a part of him had hoped India’s lead had reached 450 in order to see what England did about it. And you can feel this team is absolutely itching to have a go at a world record chase just to see if they can do it. It’s a world record for a reason, but after the absurdly easy and routine chasing down of 380 who is to say they couldn’t do it?

And in a tactical and strategic sense, this has an effect. Teams will be wary of setting England a total that up to now will have been considered a safe one, particularly with a time element. Leaving England 300 to get at 5 an over has been something that could be viewed as placing the pressure entirely on an England team that had little intent to go after it and a couple of sessions to survive. Not any more, opponents would be viewing it as a risk to do so. Even 400 plus will be treated as though it’s a feasible target. That isn’t to say for a second that the game has been entirely turned on its head – in such circumstances the bowling team should feel they were in a strong position and not all fifth day pitches will be remotely as accommodating as the ones this summer, but the mind is a funny thing, and the nagging thought that England won’t just go for it, but might well get it will be present in many an opposing dressing room from now on. A similar thing happened with the ODI team, where teams would often be so aware that they needed a big total against an England side that made it abundantly clear they thought they could chase anything that opponents overreached and fell in a heap. Test cricket isn’t white ball cricket, true, but the difference so far this summer has been narrower than ever seen before.

Likewise, the disquiet when building a lead will be entirely about the potential doubt of whether it’s enough. It shifts the pressure onto England’s opponents in a way that has never been tried before in the longest form of the game, or at least not to this extent. It’s why the whole Bazball approach is so extraordinarily fascinating to watch how it pans out over the longer term. England haven’t become radically better as a batting line up overnight, but it is the case that the quite incredible levels of belief flowing through them have raised their level to a degree that’s hard to credit.

There will certainly be bad days, when they fall in a heap and collapse. But they are trying this out from a position where it was hard to see how they could get any worse, with endless feeble subsidence of the batting order under the lightest of pressure. When you’re often 100 or fewer all out anyway, why the hell not? In that they are lucky – because it’s not just that this is thrilling to watch, it’s that they have licence to do it from a supporter base that wants to see something, anything, done to show some sign of life.

Stokes again probably went too far, his last couple of innings were less aggression and more rank slogging. But you can see why and how this happened – he is trying to set a particular tone to the rest of the team that he won’t take a backward step and he wants them to follow his example. That will doubtless be pulled back in to some extent in the months ahead because he’s got a decent cricket brain, and he’s got the buy in from everyone, on and off the pitch to a level he doesn’t need to demand they follow suit. An example of the level of commitment was surely to be found yesterday evening, when the nightwatchman padded up was Stuart Broad. Stuart Broad!

It’s really why this morning and yesterday were so impressive. Although England scored at a preposterous rate, they weren’t going all out for trying to hit every ball to the boundary, it was aggressive, but it was controlled. Jonny Bairstow’s twin hundreds were markedly slower than those against New Zealand, yet still rapid by any standards other than his own. Root’s tempo is little changed, but it suddenly looks like part of a bigger plan than just his own ability, oft mentioned, to score quickly without anyone noticing. The ramp shots though – that is someone not just in astonishing form, but someone who doesn’t fear a bollocking if it goes wrong.

And it will. If there’s a certainty, at some point it will. But there is a difference between it going wrong on occasion due to the high risk/reward equation or doing so on a consistent basis because it’s not sustainable in Test cricket, and it’s that we don’t yet know, and that that will be enthralling to witness. Whether they can play like this away from home, whether they can do it against the likes of Australia (if they’ve done it to India and New Zealand I simply see no reason why not) and so on. But at the moment they are pushing the envelope to see what they can get away with, and it feels dangerous and exciting – not necessarily something people would normally think about Test cricket.

And here’s the biggie: Test cricket has been in real and increasing trouble, as the white ball game dominates the cricketing calendar. If England are to try to play like this consistently, and even more so if other teams follow their lead, then the Test game becomes far more than the one that people have loved for decades, it becomes one to really pull in those younger adherents that everyone is trying to chase after. It becomes an attraction in itself to those who happily go to an ODI hoping to see fireworks. That might not be entirely traditional, in fact it’s rather the opposite. But we have been hoping for a way that Test cricket might not just survive, but even thrive, and who knows, maybe this could be it.

It’s anecdotal, sure, but I’ve had plenty of friends who scarcely pay attention normally talk glowingly about how England have been playing. It is the fours and sixes that do it, and however facile many might find that, it’s not a crime to be practical in the approach to the need for Test cricket to succeed.

It doesn’t mean the challenges have gone away, nor the mismanagement by the ECB. Indeed, it would be a truly delicious irony after the millions chucked at the Hundred if the way to entice people into cricket proved to be the Test team instead, especially as Test cricket is, and always has been, the ECB’s main source of income.

Yet we now have a six week gap to the South Africa Test series as the white ball internationals take over and domestically the Hundred rears it’s controversial head. It’s unfortunate, but we didn’t really expect England’s start to this summer anyway, just the opposite. But let’s put it this way, the England Test team are raising all sorts of questions at the moment. There might not be answers, but they’re really, really good questions. And it’s an absolute blast isn’t it?

Balance of Terror

There are a few surprises today. First that we’ve had three days and the match is still going on, secondly that England are still in it, and thirdly that they’ve had a pretty good day. 62 needed and 5 wickets left, and most importantly Joe Root is still there. And that’s the key with this fragile England batting line up, that he’s the one genuinely world class batsman in the side – indeed the one obviously Test class batsman for that matter. If he scores runs, England have a chance. When he doesn’t, and he can’t do it all the time, they fold like a cheap suit. His game awareness pushing to take the second new ball out of the equation was just a small part of his continuing excellence. It really is a pity he’s having to carry this team all the time, because his record in a better one might be even greater.

Only 62 runs are needed, and if he’s there at the end, England will win it. Sure, it’s a statement of the bleeding obvious, but it emphasises how much they rely on him, or upon Stokes. With a normal side, and with so few runs required, there would be strong expectation of victory at some point in the morning, weather permitting, but this is the England team. If Root goes, getting 62 would be a tall order. Getting a dozen would seem challenging. So to that extent we’re learning nothing we didn’t already know – Root is a magnificent player, Stokes is a very fine one, and there’s not a lot else. The first innings collapse will leave New Zealand still confident that one wicket will get five.

That England have any shot at all is down to a fine bowling display in the morning session, particularly from Stuart Broad, who decided to do what he does and ripped a hole in the New Zealand batting order. Yesterday they went 60 overs without picking up a wicket, and the bowlers came in for some criticism for that. But it was a normal enough day, and the opposition are allowed to bat well. The only reason it ever stands out is because of the brittleness of England’s batting that requires the bowlers to skittle the opposition every single time without exception for England to get their noses in front. Let’s be pretty clear on this, the England seamers have been exceptional this match because they know damn well they have to be on their game constantly to have a sniff, and why it shouldn’t be a surprise when they fail to deliver sometimes having seen their own side shot out in a couple of sessions yet again.

Weather permitting, it’ll be a short day but a fun one tomorrow. Low scoring matches are exciting because every ball has a degree of peril attached to it, for both sides. But that doesn’t make this one a great game, it’s been far too flawed, and far too short. But England are still in it, thanks with one exception to their longer serving, class acts. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Magic Roundabout

Here we are again, the start of an international summer, a first Test in the offing, and cricket in England continues to go round in circles with the same issues, same arguments, and fundamentally, the same tone deafness concerning how those crazy, unimportant people who love the game think – and including those who might fundamentally disagree with every word we ever write by the way. Just because some of what they believe happens, isn’t because they’re being listened to. So let’s have a little look through some of the current debating points – even the ones we’ve all talked about a hundred times before:

Ticket prices

It’s not new, and it is a Lord’s thing particularly. Sure, the Oval isn’t cheap, London prices are a thing after all, but Lords is a lot more across the board, and since they have two Tests a year, they deserve all the stick they’re getting. But it’s been this way for a while now, and it’s far from the first time people have complained about it. There is something of a difference in that tickets are still available, but it’s not going to be half empty as some have suggested. 20,000 unsold tickets over 4 days does not equate to that in any way.

Nonetheless, there’s now a fairly substantial group who refuse to go to Lord’s because of the cost, even among those who can afford it. It doesn’t matter to the MCC or ECB at all as long as they’re replaced by others who will, though their argument that the Jubilee holiday has made it harder to sell tickets compared to what would otherwise be a normal work day is a bit peculiar. Sure, there are plenty of options, but people are off work, that increases the potential pool, not reduces it. Arguing that people don’t want to choose the cricket over other things isn’t the killer argument they think it is.

The difference in cost between somewhere like Lord’s and Headingley or Edgbaston is always what grates – though it’s far from unusual across other sports too. The difference in season ticket price between Arsenal and Manchester City is quite astonishing, reflecting local demographics and disposable income differences. But that it prices people out of the market is beyond doubt, while that there are so many who have benefitted hugely from cricket’s largesse bemoaning the cost while continuing to rake in the income and never having to buy a ticket also grates. It’s similar to those who get in for free criticising the Barmy Army – they rub quite a lot of people the wrong way, sure, but they pay their way, which is more than many of their critics do. But let’s put it this way – a family could go to Headingley for a Test from the south, book a hotel, and still save a fair old wodge compared to going to Lord’s. That’s not a great position for cricket to find itself in.

Injured Bowlers

I’m not a sports scientist, I’m not a physiotherapist – on the subject of conditioning and biomechanics, what I know could be written on a postage stamp and still have room for franking. So nope, I don’t have solutions, nor do I have meaningful criticisms about what has gone wrong. But after several years of this, it’s not unreasonable to wonder what on earth they’re up to at the ECB and how come they keep breaking them.

Broad and Anderson

It might be their last summer. At this point, you never know if it might be their last Test. And if so many bowlers weren’t in the garage with the mechanics tutting and sucking their teeth, they might not be playing in this one either. But they deserved to be treated better at least in terms of the communication prior to the tour of the West Indies, and the recent comments from Rob Key about wanting to pick the best team were welcome: If the view is that Broad and Anderson (or indeed anyone else) aren’t part of the best team, there is no problem not selecting them, because that’s a judgment call everyone can argue about. The mire England managed to get themselves into far too often over recent years was in ignoring this basic premise and trying to be clever. The critical point is and always has been that if this is not the guiding principle, you’ll never pick your best side, because there will always be other issues butting in. It goes back a long way, and many will recall the infamous quote asking what Graham Thorpe brought to the England side apart from runs. Speaking of whom, every cricket fan has him in their thoughts.

Absent Friends.

We’ve lost a few of the most precious cricket characters over the winter. What is there to say? It’s dreadful. I will miss Shane Warne’s combination of banality and insight on commentary – I don’t mean that in any way flippantly, he was a magnificent cricketing icon and an infuriating commentator who we all deeply treasured and rather loved. Damn.

New Broom

Rob Key is installed as the Managing Director, while Brendon McCullum is the head coach. What even makes a good managing director when it comes to England cricket? The direction of travel in the organisation comes from the board and the Chief Executive, the much loved Tom Harrison, for whom there will be rending of clothes and wailing from the masses as he steps down having completed his reign of terror over English cricket. The Managing Director – of men’s cricket only, note – can then only work with what he’s given. Take Ashley Giles doing that job. It coincided with England being generally inept, which is rarely a good look, but what did he specifically do wrong? That’s not a defence of him, it’s to say that from beyond the boundary it is difficult, if not impossible to have a good insight into how one individual is performing in the structure and where the fault lines lie.

This is particularly true given the hand dealt. The Hundred, Harrison’s ugly baby, is not the reason for England’s woeful Test run, but it is the culmination of decision making that is behind the decline of England’s Test team. A symptom, not a cause. Key wasn’t about to get the job by stating at interview that the Hundred was an abomination, even if he did secretly think that was the case, and in his role he has to work with the structure as is, not as he might wish it to be. Where the ECB go with Harrison’s replacement, now that’s where it gets interesting.

Suggesting a reduction of first class fixtures from 14 to 10 per season, as he did in a podcast yesterday, has to be seen in the light of the shambles of a schedule across the season and the need to fit in the Hundred and the Blast. What it does say, is that where that pressure is most keenly felt, it is red ball cricket that must give way. That’s not new and it’s not news, it’s how the ECB have operated for a decade or more, salami slicing the foundation of the Test team and presuming it won’t have an impact.

Now, fewer red ball matches don’t in themselves have to have a negative effect on the production of Test cricketers, it may even improve it. The problem is the same one that has been there for a while, that there’s no sense of strategy behind it, it’s simply cutting back where they feel they can.

And herein lies a general matter that we are all guilty of not doing at times – that is listening and trying to understand what the thinking is. Take Kevin Pietersen’s push for franchise cricket in the red ball game. I have a lot of doubts about that, including but not limited to that no one will remotely care about the outcome of any of the games, which is an important sporting requirement, and not just for the county cricket supporters. But it’s an idea worth considering, even if that consideration leads to disagreement. But the kicker there is that it’s extremely hard to understand the logic of why such a system would improve the standards of red ball cricket – it seems merely assertion. And so it is with Key’s comments about reducing the number of Championship games. Plenty will oppose that for very good reason from their perspective – fewer matches to watch or play in. A legitimate objection. But if there is a rational plan as to why this would raise standards, it’s ok to be open to that. It’s just that it’s a bit hard to see what that rationale is. And that’s why people who have been repeatedly whacked over the head by a board that doesn’t seem to care about the actual game of cricket are suspicious and angry. Who can blame them? As one former ECB Managing Director said, it’s all a matter of trust. Rob Key is by all accounts a genuinely decent, intelligent and thoughtful man (our only interaction with him was that he thought our cruel entry about him in the Outside Cricket List was funny, so we’ll love him for that). But he won’t be at all surprised that now he’s stepped into the role, that lack of trust now applies to him. He can earn it though, and that’s interesting thing to watch.

As for Brendon McCullum, not a clue. He might be great you know. Or not. Or he might be unable to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, which seems more likely. To me, the role of the coach always seems somewhat overblown anyway. Your mileage may vary.

New team, new captain

It occurs to me that when Root was captain, the There Is No Alternative argument always ignored that Stokes was the alternative. Now Stokes is captain there really is no alternative, and for the same reason that it was problematic when Root was captain, namely that no one else is sure of their place. He might be good at it, there’s no certain rule that an all rounder can’t do the job, and maybe he won’t bowl people into the ground which in itself would be a welcome development. Ultimately, captaincy candidates become apparent amongst those who play regularly and have a degree of certainty about their place. If we go back to the team of a decade ago, an argument could be made for about 8 or 9 people to be captain, not because they’d be good at it necessarily, but because they were a fixture in the side. Until the current merry go round of selection changes and there is a settled team – and that needs them to be good enough – this is how it will be.

Cricket Clubs

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence this year that clubs are struggling to fill sides and have players available. This may be indicative of the wider problems afflicting cricket popularity that has been talked about for several years. Or maybe it’s specific for other reasons. None of it suggests a game in rude health, all of it has been flagged for quite some time as a concern. Perhaps the most concerning is that women’s teams have been reporting similar, and since the rise of female participation has been the one bright spot in an otherwise depressing landscape, that’s not good at all.

Everyone ready? Play

We do have a Test match in the morning to watch and listen to. For all the issues in the sport, things do feel slightly better when the international English summer begins. The mess of the India Test will be something to pick up when we get closer to the time, but New Zealand do at least have three Tests this time around, and feel slightly less of an afterthought, so it’s good to have the World Test Champions here first up. Shall we enjoy the next few days and see how it goes?

West Indies vs England – Third Test Preview

It’s difficult to know what to write here, since so little has changed in the past week. The series is still 0-0. Wood and Robinson are still out injured. Matt Parkinson is still warming the bench. The only real cause for optimism comes from the photos of the pitch, which at least look like a little grass has been allowed to remain.

With the fragility of both teams’ batting lineups, that should be plenty to force a result. Whilst some people are talking in hopeful tones about a new era for English cricket, with Dan Lawrence and Jonny Bairstow helping Joe Root lead the team to somewhere near basic competence. They have done well, as did Mahmood in his Test debut, but these performances have to be placed in the right context: The pitches were incredibly flat, and the West Indies are not a good Test team.

As it stands, the West Indies are eighth in the World Test Championship table (England are last in ninth), having won just one Test against Pakistan in the current cycle. It shouldn’t be a surprise that a team with England’s financial resources, England’s first-class depth, England’s unique focus on red ball cricket should be able to bat out a draw on benign surfaces. It should be a minimum expectation.

Aside from the players, the individual who has most obviously benefitted from England not losing two Tests in a row is Paul Collingwood. The interim head coach has apparently put his name forward for the permanent role, and not losing a Test series (as Silverwood failed to achieve four times in the past year) is clearly enough to at least be considered by the ECB. One notable aspect of this is that he has never worked as a coach in county cricket. He had several spells as a coach for Scotland, and has been with the England team for the past three years. This means that he has no experience as a head coach, and almost no track record for his potential employers to examine.

This is a very common trait amongst people who the ECB are considering for their vacant senior positions. It was reported today that Rob Key is in the running for the Director of Cricket position. I don’t have anything against him as a person, but he appears to have gone straight from his playing career to the Sky commentary booth. Whilst he might talk a good game (that is his job, after all), there’s absolutely nothing to prove that he can back it up. He has that in common with Andrew Strauss and Ed Smith, who both transitioned directly from punditry to senior ECB positions.

There are six candidates listed for the Director Of Cricket job in this article: Rob Key, Ed Smith, Tom Moody, Marcus North, Nathan Leamon and Mo Bobat. As far as I can tell, the only ones with any experience of coaching or managing a domestic cricket team are the two Australians, Moody and North. Smith, Leamon and Bobat have all only ever worked worked for the ECB as head selector, analyst and performance director respectively.

It is possible to look at this and say that the ECB are disrespecting county cricket by not recruiting people from that talent pool, but I have to question if there are any candidates who obviously deserve a shot with England. After all, Chris Silverwood was appointed by England after his team won the Championship but failed to make any impression in internationals. Peter Moores and Ashley Giles were also both county coaches before their spells with England. There is a long running and active discussion about how county cricket is failing to develop talented Test batters, but very little time is spent looking at the quality of the coaches and other staff. The two issues may well be linked. After all, poor coaching and management aren’t exactly helpful in helping the next generation of cricketers reach their full potential.

I honestly don’t know enough about county cricket to know if this is an entirely accurate picture, or what could be done about it. It doesn’t give me much optimism for any change in England’s fortunes over the next few years though.

If you have any comments about the Test, the ECB’s recruitment, or anything else, please leave them below.

West Indies vs England โ€“ Second Test Preview

There is a lot to be said for having low expectations, particularly as an English cricket fan. With a sufficiently poor outlook on the Test team, even the remotest evidence of adequacy comes as a pleasant surprise. You’d be forgiven for thinking, having read the press reports about the first Test, that a new dawn was on the horizon for England and the previous twelve months was just a transitional period. Zak Crawley is the successor to Cook, Leach is the successor to Swann, and Bairstow has finally refound his form.

Except obviously none of this is true. West Indies are a bad Test team, and the pitch was as dead as England’s chances of reaching a World Test Championship final in my lifetime. But such are the depths of the England team’s failings that not collapsing on an extremely batting-friendly pitch against a mediocre Test bowling attack is cause for celebration.

England have already announced the team for today’s game, with Saqib Mahmood coming in for the injured Mark Wood as the only change. It is a little surprising that there hasn’t been more rotation of the bowlers, with three Tests back-to-back, particularly with regards to Ben Stokes. Before the series began, the consensus seemed to be that Ben Stokes would only be used as a last resort bowling option and yet he ended up with 41 overs in the first test.

Alex Lees has the most to prove after a disappointing debut. Opening in Test cricket is always difficult, but he looked terrible in his two very short innings so far. Chris Woakes could also be bowling for his Test career, albeit having scored a useful 46 runs with the bat.

On the plus side for England, the photos of the pitch suggest that it will be very flat again. A cynical person might suggest that the grounds and boards benefit financially from the Barmy Army coming to the ground for five days, and they probably don’t care as much about whether there is an exciting match or result. It’s not a great business model for a sport, but it is what it is. Both sides certainly have the capacity to collapse twice on any pitch, so there’s still no guarantees of a bore draw.

As always, please post your comments below if you have anything to say about the Test or anything else.

Less Is Not Always More

As happens after every England Test series loss, an increasingly common occurrence these days, people have started proposing cutting the number of counties in English cricket to improve the development of Test cricketers.

Proponents of having fewer first-class teams are happy to concede that the County Championship used to be a much stronger competition, which would appear to contradict their argument from the outset as the number of teams hasn’t changed. Likewise, having eighteen teams hasn’t hurt the production of talented English white ball cricketers. In fact, it could be argued that England boasts the greatest depth in terms of T20 players of any country. This would suggest that the number of teams is not a key issue, although this does obviously not prevent people from suggesting it.

The first thing which must be acknowledged is that cutting the number of first-class teams would certainly improve the average quality of domestic red ball cricket in this country. In the short term. This is because it is a statistical trick. Imagine a school expelled the bottom half of its students. Even though the quality of teaching and the intelligence of the remaining children both remain the same, they could argue that their ‘average grade’ had risen sharply. The intrinsic flaw in this approach is that when a new batch of kids comes in, they are back where they started because they haven’t actually changed anything. Indeed, if the school had reduced their permanent capacity by half then there would presumably be half as many students with top grades once the original ones had left.

There are two obvious areas which could improve the number of high-quality county cricketers: Recruiting more junior players with high potential and improving the development of those players in order to meet that potential. At first glance, reducing the number of teams helps neither.

The greatest flaw with trying to adapt the Sheffield Shield format to England is the population density of the two countries. 16 million people, over 60% of Australia’s total population, live in the six cities which have first-class teams there. The number of people who live in the seventeen cities and towns which host county grounds is just 15.7 million, or 26.9% of England and Wales’s population.

In terms of developing Test players, the major effect is the number of children within each team’s catchment area. Looking at the three world-class Test players England currently has: Joe Root and Jimmy Anderson both grew up roughly 30 miles away from their respective county grounds, whilst Ben Stokes had to travel 90 miles each way to the Riverside Ground. This is one factor which restricts working-class kids from playing professional cricket, because they often need a stay-at-home parent with a car and the willingness to spend several hours a week just to attend county age group practice sessions and games.

If the number of teams was halved, that would mean many would have farther to travel and even more potential Test players would be excluded from the professional game. In that it disproportionately affects working-class children, reducing the number of teams might also be considered a diversity issue. Given the focus on that topic at the moment, both within the ECB and from Parliament, it would be a brave move for English cricket to take now.

Once they make their way through the junior teams, the issue then becomes whether these young players would get any opportunities to make the first XI if there were fewer places available. It seems unlikely that promising young cricketers such as Zak Crawley or Ollie Pope would have played as many Championship matches if there were significantly greater competition for places. Increasing the minimum standard of player comes at the expense of allowing youngsters to make their debuts early and gain valuable experience as a result.

The lack of chances to break through into a team was often cited by South African-born players as a reason why they came to England to play cricket, a situation admittedly exacerbated by racial quotas in the country. It is notable that Cricket South Africa have recently reverted from a six-team first-class competition (which ran from 2004 to 2020) to one featuring fifteen provincial teams. It would be interesting to see how those proposing a reduction in county teams explain why it apparently failed to work in South Africa.

So to summarise: Reducing the number of first-class teams in England and Wales doesn’t appear to solve any of the issues regarding developing Test cricketers, and will likely worsen some of them. It is a fundamentally self-destructive and pointless act which will be yet another step towards the end of Test cricket in this country.

The ECB are almost certain to do it then.

As always, please leave your comments below.

Grated Expectations

There’s been a lot of reaction to England’s latest capitulation, and what it might mean. The Australians are gleeful and fair enough too, the English would be the same if it was the other way around. As is ever the case in these circumstances, the more thoughtful think about the consequences of continued one sided encounters, hoping against hope that the English will get their act together. It’s not their problem, any more than it was 25 years ago when they were dominant home and away. What that decade or more of batterings did do was force the nascent ECB into action to do something about it. And with success too, albeit a fairly fleeting, complacent success. This time around, there’s no sense of a determination from the governing body to fix things, more just the opposite.

There are a few caveats to be offered up – that England getting trounced in Australia is far from new, and the Australians themselves haven’t won in England in 20 years, while a focus on the Ashes to the detriment of all else has long been an issue in the mentality of too many in England. It’s true of Australians as well, but the difference is that they see smacking England about as a delightful consequence of their overall aim rather than the aim itself. But the suited and booted at the ECB made lots of noise about their two year plan to deliver the Ashes and they have failed quite spectacularly, though it’s unlikely they’ll acknowledge that. This isn’t a surprise to anyone paying attention, England were always going to be lambs to the slaughter (how ironic that was the title of a cricketing book when the shoe was on the other foot) because they just aren’t very good, and are declining from a position of outstanding mediocrity.

So what to write about it? There is no shortage of outraged shock out there, no shortage of lamentations for the latest death of English cricket, and a fair degree of anger. But not so much from us. Which is why this tweet from a sports journalist allowed the writing of a post:

Lee is right. We’ve written far less, what we have written has been more with weary resignation than the molten steel of outrage.

Partly it’s that none of this comes as any kind of bolt from the blue. All of us have banged on about the way the policies of the ECB were going to lead us to this point, not because of our truly magnificent insight into the complexities of the game, but because it was utterly bleeding obvious to anyone paying more than cursory attention. England haven’t just been pumped in the Ashes, they’ve been beaten up by India and New Zealand at home this year as well. They’re two good sides, but that’s only an excuse if the expectation is for England to lose on their own patch to good sides, which is to set sights low enough to be subterranean. There is a fair element of the ECB justifying it precisely on this basis, which is to suspect they accept declinism.

It bears stating yet again that the Hundred is not to blame for this debacle, but the strategy that culminated in the Hundred is. We all salute and appreciate the might of Darren Stevens, but the issue is not a game that allows his longevity, but one where in his mid-forties he wouldn’t noticeably weaken the England team if he was selected. There are only so many times these points can keep being made without us being bored of our own voices, and fed up with screaming into the void given so little attention has ever been paid to it. Not to us, who cares if anyone listens to us, but to anyone in a more prominent position making the same points.

Talk to most cricket journalists and they’ll be saying similar things with varying degrees of emphasis, but little of this gets into the general media because the wider public isn’t interested in the detail of how a successful England team is created, but only that it happens. More than that, they don’t pay that much attention to them doing adequately, but they do tend to notice a complete shellacking and their relatives in Australia sending rude Whatsapps to them. In the specialist cricketing publications the frustration is clear, in the national press less so; it doesn’t get past the sub-editors and the general readership won’t invest the time in learning about the problems, and more pertinently, they shouldn’t have to. Broadcast media, particularly Sky, have revelled in their own domination of the right to watch English cricket, and as a commercial entity have spent more time talking about how good things are than they ever have the likely future coming. They are entitled to do that, for the disaster the ECB have created is not down to them, but it might affect how much they’re prepared to pay for the particular joy of covering England being crushed on a regular basis – their refusal to bid for this series could be a harbinger of the future.

It’s customary at this time to point to a post or a paragraph where we predicted this, but our output hasn’t been one of a couple of comments proclaiming Nostradamus level awareness, it’s been the whole bloody website for years, the whole set of responses in the comments from those who visit. The Pietersen affair, whatever the rights and wrongs, was about an organisation whose prime motivation was no longer putting out the strongest team possible onto the field, and that was the main reason for the rage involved, the justifications on any issue possible except whether the central one as to whether it made England stronger or weaker. It certainly wasn’t the personal tribulations of someone none of us know and aren’t in truth overly keen on.

That is in the past, the anger transmuting in the subsequent years as the ECB continued down a path of prioritising other things, anything, except the fundamental point of their existence in making the game of cricket – ALL of the game of cricket – as strong as it could possibly be. The removal of free to air cricket was a symptom of a complacent organisation that felt they were in a strong position to take financial advantage of their success, irrespective of whether it undermined the foundations or not. The refusal over many years to acknowledge that it might have caused other problems was symptomatic of that shift in focus, but once again, it is not the reason for this series and shouldn’t be said to be, not least because it was fifteen years ago that it happened. It is one of a myriad of decisions and policies that compound each other, year in, year out, progressively weakening the fundamentals of the game, no one item to blame or single out, all of them pushing the direction to where we are now. Even when some things change (such as the new found enthusiasm for letting the public see the sport) they are being responded to in isolation rather than with a strategic approach, a sticking plaster applied to a gaping wound.

The latest excuse for the abjectness of the Test team is that white ball cricket has been prioritised. It’s true, but it’s still not an acceptable rationale. Other countries have piled into the revenues created by T20 without destroying their Test teams, and while there is a wider issue at stake about the increasing domination of the short forms of the game, that doesn’t justify England going backwards relative to the others. White or red ball is a false dichotomy only the ECB seem to get away with. Australia don’t, India don’t, and with the disparity in income to the rest of the world, those are the nations England should be compared to. Only here is this given even the slightest credence. And that applies to all those years when England had a reasonable Test side and a piss-poor one day team too. It wasn’t an excuse then, it isn’t now, and winning World Cups is not a pretext for an inability to put 300 on the board in Tests.

Likewise, the way the debate around the public school contribution to the England team is framed is to miss the point entirely. Having more or less the entire batting order over an extended period of time having been privately educated is not grounds to attack the private sector, but to point out the hideous failure of English cricket to maximise the talent available to itself. There is just no excuse for that – it’s not about the 7% who make up the 94%, it’s about the 93% who only comprise the 6%. It is a total failure of the coaching structure to so appallingly waste the resources available, an abysmal flop in turning young players from an extraordinarily large intake into good cricketers

Shifting the county championship to the margins of the season, on green or tired pitches, undoubtedly has an impact, but it’s not just the hardware of when and where it is played, but also the software of the mindset of those who play in it. It might well be the case that players are choosing to thrash a quick thirty rather than knuckle down and battle through, but calling out a single player for thinking that way is all about that player. When it’s true to an extent of an entire generation, it’s about those in authority who have created the circumstances to allow it to happen.

The England hierarchy have encouraged it, the media have amplified it. Jason Roy was selected to open in Tests and the selectors applauded for their daring by far too many. There are still those calling for Liam Livingstone to be in the side, not because he might make a Test cricketer (for all I know, he might), but because he plays sexy cricket, hits the ball a long way and gains the pundit plenty of column inches to push the case.

What did anyone expect? There is no plan, except to make as much money as possible, not for the wider benefit of the game of cricket, but for the bank balances of those involved in the game professionally. Don’t expect those who rely on it for their living to come out and be publicly angry about it, because their livelihood and comfortable income is dependent on more of the same. The ECB officers have seen huge rises in salaries (well, apart from the expendables at a lower level who they made redundant) and it’s impossible to avoid the suspicion that lining their own nests is the principal reason for far too many ECB acolytes, as each big deal provides yet another large bonus, yet another big pay rise. Consequences? There are none. If they go, it’s with a fat cheque. If they play, they earn more and aren’t going to complain in a short career.

All of this was expected. All of it was coming. This is not accidental, it’s a consequence of repeated decisions made by those in power who remain entirely unaccountable to anyone outside the small circle of people for whom the mutual financial benefit overrides any other consideration. Sure, we can call out the players, who haven’t been good enough and have folded repeatedly. We can call out the coaching team who have made baffling selectorial decisions. And many of those will pay the price for this debacle, for sacrifices are demanded. What will it change though? What material difference will it make? England can get a better coach, but Duncan Fletcher had far more to work with than whoever takes over from Silverwood, and had the backing of an organisation that was determined to improve the quality of the player base.

Yes, I’m still angry. But not at the results, I’m angry it has taken this entirely inevitable shoeing for too many to wonder what has been going on. What the bloody hell did they expect to happen? What the bloody hell are they going to do about it? Because if the answer is to tinker around the margins, to call for the latest flavour of the month to be shoved into the team or to debate which bang average opener needs to replace the other bang average opener, then get used to more of this. Far too many people have been warning of what would happen and dismissed as cranks and extremists, well the ECB and all those who hang on to their coat-tails and line their pockets accordingly have made this. They should own it, they should take responsibility. But they won’t, and that, above all else, is why I might be still angry, but most of all, I’m contemptuous of them.

Down the Only Road I’ve Ever Known

I suppose it’s always possible England will pull this one out of the fire. I suppose it’s possible that for the rest of the series they’re competitive, and even in losing, do so while having their moments. Knee-jerk responses to a Test disaster can make fools of anyone, when in the following match a team roars back and batters their opponents. It’s always possible. It doesn’t feel that way here, but if that happens this time, feel free to thumb your nose at me.

Getting walloped in Australia isn’t especially unusual either. Anyone who is reminded of their advancing years constantly by being referred to as Covid-vulnerable (who knew that was going to a signifier?) is pretty used to it, the exceptions in ’78/9, ’86/7 and 2010/11 being glorious interludes in a regular diet of being flogged and receiving gleefully abusive messages from friends and family who have unaccountably chosen to identify as Australian. But there’s always been a particular narrative around the reasons why and the happenstance that led to it. Throughout the nineties England were a moderate team, but Australia were extremely bloody good, and consolation could be found (to a degree) by the way they rampaged across the planet hammering almost everyone – which is another reason why we were all West Indies fans.

By the early years of this century, England were losing, but they were fighting – they were merely completely outclassed. We can accept that, and the way England were progressing generally meant that there was hope things might change. The 2006/7 whitewash was infuriating, but that was a good England team against a good Australian team bent on revenge, and England imploded. Sporting meltdowns happen without having wider ramifications, and in a team environment that sense of doom can spread like wildfire. 2013/14 felt like the end of an era, and it proved to be as well, and in any case the fallout from that swiftly moved off the backpages and onto the front, as the ECB embarked on a civil war with their own game’s supporters. In that, the sheer sense of anger (on both sides) left everyone engaged in the fight and what would happen next. Whatever the wrongs of what happened – and we may have said one or two things at the time – it was a body of cricket followers thoroughly invested in what was happening.

There was a degree of hangover from that four years ago too, though the fire had faded. Some of the media clung to the wreckage as though a few floating planks comprised part of the ship of English cricket, but the emperor (nothing wrong with a metaphor transition) was as naked as the day he was born, the pointing of fingers amounted to demanding to know what was going to be done about it.

This time around we know what was done about it. To make things worse. It’s not just that this is a poor England team, because God knows we’ve seen enough of those, it’s that there is no way of thinking anything other than that this is likely to be routine. The Hundred isn’t to blame for England’s Test woes, let’s put that to bed right now. But the decision-making process and strategy (loosely termed) adopted by the ECB that led to the Hundred as the culmination of their intentions is, and those behind it will be moving on soon enough leaving the trail of wreckage in their wake.

What did they expect to happen? Increasing the focus on white ball cricket was a reasonable enough aim, as English cricket had certainly undervalued it for a long time. It gave us a World Cup, sure. It’ll likely give England a shot at another one in the coming years, and maybe a T20 World Cup or two as well. Fine. But the either/or mentality of it has never made a great deal of sense when other countries have managed to create good Test and short form teams, and in any case England’s historic ability to have truly crap Test teams at the same time as truly crap 50 over teams was a notable achievement in itself.

But this team can’t bat. The best bowlers, even taking into account the loss of key personnel through injury, aren’t that far off the point where they too move into more vulnerable Covid categories, which is a damn fine tribute to their longevity and skill, and maybe it is the case that when they are gone we’ll appreciate their replacements more. But it’s the batting, stupid. The batting. We can all pile into Rory Burns for his series to date, but it’s not like there’s an 8,000 Test run replacement obviously in the wings. Sure, some will read that and say Sibley was discarded too quickly, or that Sam Robson ought to be given another go (a fair point too), but it doesn’t change the material shortage in players who might be expected to turn into Test level batsmen entirely because the structure of English cricket isn’t going to create them.

We have Joe Root, a batter who is genuinely outstanding and deserves all the praise he gets, and that’s it. Ben Stokes? In a stronger team he would be the wildcard, someone to come in and devastate the opposition, to be that special cricketer who can change a game in a session. In this team he’s the second best batsman. Stokes is wonderful. He should not be head and shoulders above all bar one of the batting line up.

The same applies to the role of spinner. We keep moving from one to the next, and the next will always be the solution and never is. They’re all ok, looked at in the right light and playing in the right conditions. None of them are going to change the world, because English cricket isn’t going to produce anyone who does. Shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic doesn’t even begin to cover it.

And then there’s their heads. We’re one and a bit Tests into this series and England look completely gone. It’s not just the clear awareness of impending collapse when they bat. The dropped catches, the disparity in no balls bowled, the frankly weird tactics (let’s bowl Joe Root as dusk falls in a pink ball Test) are not indicative necessarily of anyone in charge having odd ideas about cricket as much as evidence of a team and coaching staff whose minds are in a whirl and unable to think straight. That kind of bewildered groupthink is easy to see from the outside, but very hard to get out of on the inside, until someone yells “Let’s get back to basics”, which always goes swimmingly anyway.

All of which means the most probable outcome here is that things are going to get worse. Not just this series, though if there’s something to truly envy about Australian sporting teams it’s their manner of emulating their local sea fauna by hunting down their prey once it’s flailing in the water remorselessly. But beyond this series, indeed for the forseeable future. Many a fan in past series has considered a thrashing by our warmest enemies as the price worth paying for change. It’s not the same as wanting the team to lose, which has always been a lazy accusation when this subject comes up, but it is about wanting to see action on resolving the problems.

The ECB aren’t going to change.

That, in a nutshell is the despair felt by many, and the more problematic indifference and ennui felt by others. If England get the kind of tonking that looks distinctly possible, we are unlikely to see a Lord McLaurin institute a root and branch reform in order to stop this happening in future, we’ll instead have an ECB expressing disappointment along with a fair supply of platitudes about the lessons that will be learned. It’s not that the cupboard is bare, it’s that English cricket governance took an axe to the cupboard and turned it into an iced water dispenser.

It’s what happens when that reality dawns more widely than among the hardcore cricket fraternity that is the big question. And that, in itself, is the fight to come.

England vs India: 4th Test, Day 2 – Hanging on the telephone

An abiding memory of this Test, for occasionally they happen, will be the increasing irritation within the household with the fall of every wicket, English or Indian. Perhaps this is not how most will see what has unfolded over the first two days of a match that has threatened to go at fast forward, but then not everyone lives with someone who has a ticket for day four. In the same way I recall a drive up to Edgbaston in 2015 listening to day two shouting at the radio as to whether any Australian, any Australian at all, could bloody bat. As it turned out, Mitchell Starc and Peter Neville could, somewhat, so we did get some play to watch. Still, with these two teams, hoping for a full fourth day is always going to be a bit of a gamble, and there remains the distinct possibiluty that tomorrow could see the game done and dusted. And there will be sulking if so, but the good news is that the pitch appears to be becoming easier to bat on rather than harder, certainly judging by fewer wickets falling today.

England did reasonably well with the bat, pleasingly so given the lack of any contribution from Joe Root this time around. Ollie Pope was the top scorer, batting fluently and with purpose, to the point that his dismissal, dragging one on to his stumps was a real surprise. Of all the more recent England batsmen, he is the one that looks most at home – when he’s going well. Or to put it another way, his trials and tribulations leading to him being dropped were perhaps the most disappointing, because his batting envelope looks a lot larger than many others who have come in. Still, there’s no harm in being dropped, it’s all about how a player comes back. Let’s see.

Primary support came from Chris Woakes, last man out for 50 to go with his 4 wickets in the first innings. Much discussion centres around the disparity between his performances at home and those away from home. His batting average in England is around 36, away it is 19. His bowling average at home is 22, while away it is 52. It’s hardly unusual for any cricketer to perform better at home, but the gap is so huge it is hard to understand. Sure, his style is very much that of someone you’d expect to do better in English conditions, but it’s extremely disappointing how poor his away record is. And yet another way of looking at this is to wonder why he isn’t a permanent fixture in the side at home, when fit. His away record might well be poor, but his home one is astonishing. So far this Test, he’s shown why.

Decent support came from Jonny Bairstow, before being trapped lbw to a ball coming back into him for 37 – a depressingly familiar weakness. Moeen Ali did what late career Moeen has done a lot, which is to say played some gorgeous shots, and then got out to one that was….agricultural. But from 62-5, a lead of 99 will have been in wildest dreams territory, especially so given the batting fragility so prominent in this series.

India’s turn to bat again, and surely they would do better than first time around. And so far they have done, it would be too much to say they saw the day out without any alarms, but nor did England look like they were about to run through them either. Which is why it’s fair to say they have batted well, and have reduced the deficit down to 56.

More of the same is required, in fact much more. To be in with any kind of chance in this game, India still have to be batting by at least tea tomorrow, and to be in with a realistic chance, they have to bat the day. In normal circumstances this wouldn’t seem the most onerous of requirements but both these sides have demonstrated a quite exceptional ability to fall in a heap with the bat, which is why a lead of 99 feels so significant. Still, it’s also true that most would have expected India’s batting line up to outperform England’s, so maybe this match will be the one where they show their capability. England are certainly on top, and India now lack any margin for error. But a normal day’s play tomorrow and it means a happy camper who can head up to the Oval on Sunday to watch some cricket. This, more than anything, is the priority in this corner of Outside Cricket Towers.

Oh yes. Short of overs. Again. No one cares, we get it.