Uneasy Lies The Head That Wears A Crown

The ECB chair, Ian Watmore, resigned today. It was something of a shock, as it was just over a year since he was hired in 2020. He came into the role at one of the worst times imaginable, with the ECB in an unimaginably poor financial position, The Hundred launch, and the continued spectre of COVID. This should have been the time when these pressures were easing on Watmore, but instead things seemed to unravel in quick succession. The shambolic cancellation of England’s tours to Pakistan, a disastrous meeting with county chiefs, and the lethargic response to Yorkshire’s racism report have meant that he had seemingly lost friends and allies in every sector of English cricket. Ultimately, as Michael Atherton puts it, he lost the dressing room and had to go.

Who takes over the position of ECB chair, and how they choose to approach the role, will have a significant effect on English cricket in the next few years and beyond. There are some huge challenges ahead, and here are some thoughts on a few of them:

The Ashes

The ECB are due to announce their decision tomorrow, but it seems increasingly likely that England’s tour of Australia will broadly go ahead as planned. This was expected, if only because of a cynical appraisal of how important Cricket Australia is to the ECB relative to the Pakistan Cricket Board. It’s certainly difficult to understand the logic behind a declaration that a four-day tour of Pakistan would be onerous on the players and staff whilst a three-month tour of Australia (including over a week just in quarantine) is fine.

But there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip, and the past year or so should teach us not to take anything for granted. A spike in Australian infections before or during the tour could put the spotlight back on the England team’s continued involvement. I personally have little sympathy with Cricket Australia, who have only played ODIs and T20Is away from home in the last eighteen months and can’t really understand the toll taken on England’s Test cricketers over that time.

I also think that the England team will have a lot less patience with Australia’s typical tactic of ‘mental disintegration’, both on the field and in the media, which is part of almost every antipodean Ashes. Joe Root is no doubt mindful of the huge financial pressure Cricket Australia are under, with up to $200m riding on the series going ahead, and might well consider taking his team home rather than copping a ton of abuse from people he is doing a huge favour for.

All of which is to say that the incoming chair will have an important and difficult task to handle, straight out of the gate (assuming they are appointed this year). Ensuring the series goes ahead as planned, holding Cricket Australia to their promises, and backing the players if they pull the plug on the whole thing. Whoever gets the job will have to hit the ground running, so to speak.

Pakistan/West Indies

One of the things which precipitated Watmore’s resignation appears to be the fallout from the cancellation of England’s tours of Pakistan. It would therefore be a good move from his successor to repair relations between the two countries as quickly as possible. Announcing a new tour, or an extension of the already-scheduled tour in 2022, would be a good way to go about this. The 2022 tour to the West Indies was expanded by three games as a similar show of gratitude for CWI touring England in 2020, and the chair should reiterate the ECB’s commitment to fulfilling their promises at the earliest opportunity.

On a broader level, it would be nice if the ECB spent more time touring the less financially or politically powerful cricketing nations. England last played an away Test against Bangladesh in 2016, Zimbabwe in 1996, and have never done so against Ireland. We love Test cricket in this country, but its continued survival depends on it being financially viable around the world. If we could find a way to visit these countries, even with weakened and rotated teams, it would go a long way to rebuilding relationships with cricketing nations outside the ‘Big 3’.

The Hundred

It seemed like it cast a vast, dark shadow over English cricket in the months and years leading up to its launch, but the end result felt decidedly unimpressive. Neither a triumphant success nor an unmitigated disaster. Just ‘meh’. Which might be considered a victory for its proponents, if not for the colossal price tag. All told, it’s likely that the true cost of that first season (including the development, design, and other costs in the years before) amounts to well over £100m. If I were to ever spend that kind of money on something, I’d expect nothing less than perfection.

The new ECB chair will undoubtedly want to make some changes for The Hundred’s sophomore season. Cutting the costs might be a good place to start. If the ECB could slice £13m from its £63m annual spend on the competition, it would at least break even. Cut a little more and it could actually start making the profit that Tom Harrison and others have already claimed. There’s certainly a lot of extraneous things which could be removed with little obvious impact to ticket sales, such as the musical guests at every game.

There will be those of you who would love to see The Hundred disappear altogether, but I can’t see that happening before 2025 (the beginning of the next TV deal). It’s in the Sky and BBC contracts, and there’s no backing out of that now. Aside from anything else, I really don’t like people or organisations who renege on their agreements. Polishing the turd is likely the order of the day, before it can be flushed away altogether in the next round of broadcast rights.

Sky TV Deal

Speaking of broadcast rights, the preparation for the next auction will likely be beginning soon. For all their faults, Colin Graves and Tom Harrison did oversee the first English cricket being shown on free-to-air TV since 2005 (even if it was just T20Is and The Hundred). The new ECB chair will have the opportunity to surpass that by some margin, if they choose to prioritise the growth of the game over the accumulation of money. In other words: Put live Test cricket back on Channel 4.

It might sound like a great idea to us fans, but it’s worth remembering that the ECB chair is elected by the counties who all rely on the cash they receive from the central TV contracts. A debt-ridden club, of which there are a few, might well prioritise getting an extra £2m every year over the exposure that Freeview provides. If the chair can’t persuade the counties to accept a bit less money, their tenure in the job could be as short as Ian Watmore’s.

The decision may not be as clear cut as this. BT has seemingly losing interest in their sports division whilst streaming giants like Amazon have launched their own coverage for events like the US Open in tennis. It’s a different world, which could lead to the value of English cricket’s coverage climbing or plummeting. Given this uncertainty, the ECB chair’s responsibility of ensuring maximum exposure for the game whilst keeping it solvent is not one I envy.

Yorkshire

It’s been three years since Azeem Rafiq first made his complaints known to several people at Yorkshire CCC, thirteen months since the county finally launched an investigation into the matter, and almost two months since they received the finished report. In all that time, the ECB have done nothing. It stinks, especially when you compare it to the high-profile and instant reaction to Ollie Robinson’s old tweets earlier this year. It would be nice to think that the new ECB chair could finally get things moving, although the cynical side of me has its doubts.

To become chair of the ECB, you have to be voted in by a majority of forty county representatives (both the major and minor counties). That includes Yorkshire, as well as any other counties who have their own skeletons in the closet. Quite simply: It would be difficult to see someone getting the job if they were committed to investigating and punishing racism at the counties. This is a short-sighted approach, as allowing the issue to continue unabated will only cause more problems for the clubs later on, but none of the county chairs seem particularly inclined to see it from this viewpoint.

County Cricket

The meeting which reportedly brought Ian Watmore’s tenure as ECB chair to an end was in large part about the future shape of English domestic cricket. There is also considerable tension between the counties which host The Hundred teams and those who don’t. With four domestic competitions and a packed international calendar, it will be no easy feat for his successor to keep everyone happy. In fact, it may well be impossible.

Given that the counties elect the ECB chair, whoever gets the job will have to be persuasive in getting everyone to compromise. It’s something of a tightrope, balancing the interests of all 18 counties, and I don’t have much hope for the outcome being particularly welcomed by county cricket fans.

Women’s Cricket

If the Hundred had one almost undeniable success, it was in the performance and popularity of the women’s competition. It had attendance and viewing figures not far removed from that of the men’s games, which begs the question: What next?

One obvious issue which could be quickly addressed is that of pay: The women were paid less than a sixth of what the men received on average. There is certainly a case for that imbalance to be at least partly remedied. The new chair might also see an opportunity to increase the value to the ECB of these likeable and talented cricketers by encouraging Sky to broadcast women’s domestic games outside of The Hundred.

On a personal note, I would also love to see women’s Test cricket on a regular basis. It baffles me that the women’s team play almost no matches in the format which is by far the most popular and profitable for their male counterparts. If the ECB could see their way to persuading every touring team to play at least one Test, I think it would go a long way towards ‘traditional’ (ie old) cricket fans fully embracing women’s cricket.

Participation

As people often seem to forget, the ECB is responsible for amateur cricket in England and Wales as well as the professional game. Cricket clubs seem to get very little support from their governing body, and are rarely listened to. Volunteers are taken for granted, monolithic schemes such as All Stars or Dynamos are thrust upon clubs, and hours of bureaucratic admin and tech support are inflicted on club secretaries through ClubSpark and PlayCricket.

It would be incredible if the new ECB chair could do something about this. There are two key themes which I think need to be addressed: Simplicity and flexibility. The first is easy: Running a local cricket club should not have to be a full-time (unpaid) job. It should not require expertise in computers, social media and finances as well as (you would hope) some knowledge of cricket. It shouldn’t take months to adapt to the software you use for scoring. These are all long-standing issues which the ECB never seem inclined to tackle.

The second fundamental change I would love to see from the ECB is to recognise the enormous diversity of clubs in English cricket. Some have hundreds of members, some barely have eleven. Some have pavillions, and some don’t. Some are in affluent areas, and some aren’t. Some teams are focused on winning at all costs, some are more social clubs. Whenever a new scheme is released by the ECB, it always seems like it’s a one-size-fits-all solution. Thats fine if your club fits (like, I would guess, most ECB Premier League teams), but it leaves a lot more on the outside looking in. A more flexible, attentive attitude towards club cricket could really help boost participation (or at least slow its decline) across the country.

Restructuring

As I have said several times now through this post, the ECB chair is elected essentially by the counties. This means that the counties’ needs (mostly money) are prioritised over the interests of every other ‘stakeholder’ in English cricket; The players, proponents of the women’s game, people involved in local clubs, and of course the fans. This is just the fundamental structure of the ECB.

In order to break the cycle of counties pressuring the ECB to maximise revenues to prop up their own mismanaged clubs at the expense of every other aspect of the sport, the long term solution is to introduce representatives of everyone the ECB holds sway over as members and decisionmakers of equal importance to the counties. Organisations such as the Professional Cricketers Association, the Cricket Supporters’ Association and the assorted club cricket organisations absolutely deserve to have some say over who makes decisions on their behalf.

It would undoubtedly be a hard sell to persuade the counties to cede some of their power, but it’s difficult to see the ECB becoming a functioning governing body whilst the people running it are beholden to just one interest group.

Conclusion

The more I wrote of this post, the more I felt sorry for Ian Watmore. It’s clear that it’s a virtually impossible job, which explains why no one seems to have particularly fond memories of any ECB (or TCCB) chairman in the history of the sport.

There is, of course, one outstanding candidate: George Dobell. Well liked by many involved in running county cricket, a founder of the Cricket Supporters’ Association and a known proponent for reforming the game. He’s also currently between jobs and presumably available to take over at short notice. If there is one person who can address all of the points in this post, and basically save English cricket, it’s George Dobell.

Otherwise, we’re screwed.

If you want to comment on this post, or any of the dozens of things happening in cricket right now, please write your comments below.

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If a Wicket Falls and Everyone is Asleep, Did it Really Happen?

So there we go, the pitch ultimately won, as always seemed likely, and Australia batted out the day comfortably in the end.  The only point at which it livened up was when David Warner played what must count as one of the worst shots of his entire career, and Shaun Marsh was unlucky enough to get a genuinely good ball.  At effectively 16-4, Australia were in some trouble.  But that was as rocky as it got, and while the play was as turgid as the pitch, it was also a masterclass in saving a Test match.

Probably the area where England do deserve some credit is how well they bowled on the second day, for Australia’s first innings total was ultimately some way below par.  England’s response was excellent, and of course Cook’s innings extremely fine, but the degree of comfort with which Australia batted out the day placed all before it in context.  Losing half a day to poor weather was unfortunate, but there were few indications that it made that much difference given England bowled 124 overs for just four wickets second time around.

On the plus side, England arrested a run of seven consecutive away defeats, although it’s still only their second draw in ten, and likewise a run of eight consecutive away defeats in Australia.  These are pretty small crumbs of comfort and the backdrop of that is hardly cause for much celebration.  Moeen Ali has been fundamentally poor this whole series, and while it’s not so surprising that he’s struggled with the ball, he’s also had problems with the bat.  He must be vulnerable for the final Test, and how responsible his finger injury may be is open to question.  It would hardly be the first time England have picked a player who is unfit and then been surprised they haven’t done well.  England’s batting problems have been presumably the reason for reluctance to pick Mason Crane, but the same old question arises – what is the point of him being on the tour if the primary spinner is struggling so badly that Root and Malan are the ones turned to on the final day.  To put it another way, had either Adil Rashid or Samit Patel been available – and never forget they were both discarded summarily, and it seems not for cricketing reasons – it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have been brought in, if only because both can bat.

Other than that, Stuart Broad was much improved this time around, and while he remains as divisive a character as ever, he was admirably frank about his own shortcomings this series, only to see his words deliberately misinterpreted and used against him in yet another tiresome jab from the Australians.  George Dobell called out the “bullshit” in an unusually annoyed article that rightly mentioned all the times England have been equally guilty of it.

Melbourne usually provides a good Test, and a result.  Here they clearly got the surface preparation wrong, and it ended up the kind of wicket certain to kill any interest in the game and drive viewers to the Big Bash with batsmen unable to score freely and bowlers unable to take wickets.  They’ve had plenty of criticism for that, but c’est la vie, it’s not a normal state of affairs, and in truth England should be grateful for it, as on the showing so far, that was the only way they were going to avoid another pasting. 

Maybe that’s harsh, but with Starc back for Sydney, and a more responsive pitch, it is surely not unlikely normal service will resume.  How Cook performs will be intriguing, not in that it should be expected he repeats a double century, but if he looks as good at the crease as he did in Melbourne.  He’s a funny player in so many ways, when he’s technically off he looks truly dire, and it’s unusual to see a player so visibly battle his technique on such a regular basis.  The SCG will have more pace (not hard) and it may answer a few questions about how much he’s changed his game.  Here he appeared so much more upright in head position and balance.  Irrespective of series position of preposterous media response, that’s as good as he’s looked technically in three years.

After the game there were the usual platitudes from both sides, and the usual statements of regret at not winning, but above all else it was just dull, viewers drifting off to sleep in Australia, let alone England.  

Grateful as they may be for it, 3-0 down with one to play is no position of joy.  The torture tour is not over yet.

Rumbling

So many of you have picked up on the George Dobell / David Hopps piece on cricinfo. Paul Downton’s future appears in the balance. There are rumblings afoot. It comes as little surprise to me that if this meeting was meant to be held in secrecy that information has come out in advance. As it’s George we’ll call it good journalism.

I’m not going to be dancing any jigs, whooping that I told you so, or any of that. This catastrophe could have been written last year. The warning signs were going off all over the place. When, as an administrator, you are the story, and if you don’t have a “terrific year”, you are going to be in trouble. The ECB made their stance clear about this World Cup. It would present us with a great chance to do well, and from a long way out the decks were cleared. It was a disaster. Much was not in our gift, but a hell of a lot was.

This is a sad time for English cricket. It’s not the time for joy or crowing. It’s the bloody time to unite behind a team we can believe in, and with no petty administrative spats. I’ll only believe this is for real when Andy Flower’s shadow isn’t cast over the proceedings. We do have a lot to thank him for, but just like the presence of Ferguson loomed over Moyes, it isn’t doing anyone any good him remaining on site.

Pietersen has been the symptom, and now, finally, we might be coming to a more realistic diagnosis. We may have a very interesting time to watch this play out, but things look to be moving. Given this is the ECB, don’t expect them to do the expected.

Reporting

Ah, with that off my chest, let us turn to the latest by Dmitri #1 George Dobell:

England have lost 16 of their last 21 ODIs against Full Members. The last four of those have been thrashings. In the last five-and-a-half World Cups they have won five and lost 17 matches against Full Member nations. They have not won an ODI series for a year; when Ashley Giles was coach, Stuart Broad was captain and Michael Lumb made a century on debut. They have dropped several chances in recent games, including Aaron Finch before he had scored in Melbourne and Lahiru Thirimanne on 2 in Wellington. Both went on to make centuries. Sunday’s result was not an aberration.

Root, of course, was in an impossible position.

Joe Root was put up as the interview person for the day or so after the loss to Sri Lanka. Many are questioning why Moores wasn’t fronting up. I made many of those same accusations in Sri Lanka (how he came out when we won a game, then didn’t speak until we’d lost the series) and was told I was being unfair. OK. But come on. Root was emotional after the game. This can’t be right, can it?

The man who, at 24, had just become England’s youngest World Cup centurion deserved a better fate than being wheeled out to explain the team’s latest calamity. The ECB might as well have thrown out a piece of meat.

I concur, George.. now to the pay-off.

But their logic was simple. They no longer trust some of those in management to defuse situations – Paul Downton was originally pencilled in to take this press conference and every time Colin Graves speaks he undermines his executive team – and they hoped that, by producing one of the few men who has performed well in recent days, they might distract attention from the wretched performance of England’s most senior cricketers in the field.

Well I never. That’s just so out of character. A trait we were mentioning, what, a week into his tenure?

That’s “guesswork”.

It was a desperate ploy. The ECB knew full well that a report leading with Joe Root’s century would be like leading a report into the sinking of Titanic by noting that the band played beautifully.

It’s why we like you George. You tell us things we don’t know, and you do it as if you are our eyes and ears.

2015 World Cup – Game 14 – England v Scotland

In just over an hour this crunch match for England commences. Given my need for sleep, I think I’m going to make about an hour and a half of it, whereupon I expect to top up the Lordly coffers with contributions to the old Christmas Fund Swear Box. It’s certainly had some replenishment over the last few days as those who told us all last year to quit flapping our gums over the departure of the evil Pietersen, and that all will be right with the new MD, fresh from JPM, and with BFIs, as well as the greatest coach of his generation (and will that clown ever live that down) all on the good ship Iron Rod with a core of steel.

They have to win this one, or the consequences are unthinkable for the hierarchy. Hell, they may even have to talk to the outside cricket plebs for once.

Feel free to comment below, read Maxie’s annoyance on TFT, or just listen to George Dobell’s podcast with Peter Miller one more time to actually convince the weapons grade cretins who think this is all about KP that we weren’t THAT serious about one man, but rather about the leadership and how it runs things. Why is Flower still, according to these sources, so influential when his methods resulted in a total implosion even our losers of the 1990s never quite managed (and they were up against much better teams).

OK. It’s England v Scotland in Christchurch. Have fun.

UPDATE – 75/0. Good start by Moeen, but Bell looks too cautious to me.

I’m getting royally fucked off (a quid for the swear box) by the “only care about the Ashes” mob. Many of this mob have also been the most vociferous when we are supposedly cheering against England, accusing us of all sorts. It’s needling me no end. While I appreciate this country needs something to focus on, and beating Australia is always nice, it should not be the only thing. I’m having Rugby Sevens thrown at me (indirectly) but ask the England World Cup winners in 2003’s rugby tournament, and many of them are most proud of winning in New Zealand a few months before that – not the World Cup. The sevens thing may have its world tournament, but the main format of the game does. Cricket doesn’t have a test championship, so this is its world event. If we go a distance in this, people will be interested all right.

Winning prefaces winning. The great teams don’t opt out of things. I believe these players desperately want to do well.

We have a real problem in this country in focusing on winning the big one every so often, instead of creating a culture of domination. Roger Federer won Wimbledon, won all the hard courts stuff, but desperately wanted to win the French. You don’t think not winning the French eats at Djokovic? They want a culture of dominance. We seem happy if we peak just to win a test match series against one team. I’m sorry, I’m not like that. Most great teams don’t have that mentality.

Killing Puritans

Ah yes. Always going to throw in an Armand van Helden reference where I can. If you thought not, well, you don’t even know me.

But the main reason for invoking the above album name is because of George Dobell. Those of you who have not listened to his podcast with Peter Miller, aka The Cricket Geek, should. End of. Those of you who think the “campaign” I’ve run here and on my previous incarnation, and that The Full Toss has been on too, is one based on bile and rancour need to listen to it. You have to. Choose not to believe George when he mentions when the ECB deliberately leaked misinformation on an individual, and instead believe Selfey with his “anal about leaks” comment. Choose not to believe George when he said that individual items on the dodgy dossier were leaked to journalists, and that when the full document became public property the ECB tried to sue, and instead believe the mainstream media who believe their work is good journalism rather than the beneficiary of crumbs from the table from above.

This podcast has so much to recommend it. Readers of the previous incarnation will not be surprised at my “bigging up” of George Dobell, and also Peter does a superb job of keeping the fires burning. The podcast leaves you wanting more, almost as if you’d just like to go down the pub with the bloke and get the lowdown as he sees it. There is definitely a “I know a lot of what is going on, but can’t tell you” but the fact is, he lets you know a lot more than the ECB line.

The podcast is also good on the current England set-up. From Dobell’s standpoint it is clear to him that Andy Flower remains a key influence in the England firmament. There is some even more damning stuff around the fall of the Flower Empire, which I’ve not seen or heard in such graphic detail, and the story arounf Boyd Rankin, for instance, really needs to be examined if he was told to play with what was a pretty bad shoulder injury. Flower seems to be the sort of bloke Downton is in awe of, and this is worrying. Dobell clearly initmates that it is Flower pulling many of the strings. Maybe, just maybe, we are getting some clarity on the KP exile that the ECB don’t want to admit.

I’ve got a bit of sympathy for the Moores stuff. As you know, I’m not one who wants to plunge the knife into him, but it is inescapable that this team set the 2015 World Cup as a goal, and the preparation was farcical, the late switch of plans a hint of indecision and the current performances are lamentable. Moores is going to be in the firing line, big time, if this doesn’t turn around. The narrative, set by a friendly media last summer, was that he had created a good environment, and that young talent was thriving under him. People ignored the dodgy start against Sri Lanka, leaped on the turnaround of the India series, and put the late season ODI collapse down to end of season blues. Moores had a friendly press after their initial scepticism.

Moores, as Dobell says, doesn’t do himself any favours in press conferences. He does always seem a decent bloke trying his best to me, and if that sounds slightly patronising it isn’t meant to be. Moores was handed a horrible bed of nails to lie on, and he’s starting to show the marks. The latest interviews seem to indicate that the plans are right but the execution is at fault. Fair enough, but the players look shit scared when they go out there. The problem, and I know it is extraordinarily simplistic, is that our lot go out there as if this is a job of work. Many of us who do jobs don’t love what we do, and hence we don’t perform to our best. Some respond to the threat of the Sword of Damocles, and others retrench and play it safe. How many of this lot actually look like they are enjoying playing the game out there? I felt a little bit of that once we turned it around against India, but it needs the team to grasp the nettle before we get into winning positions. Given what we’ve been told about the regime that ended in Australia last winter, it seems fun was well down the agenda. Was it really true that players were asked not to celebrate birthdays because it could disrupt the team? This is sport, not a war. It’s meant to be enjoyable, not a torture. I perform better when I’m enjoying it, not when it is a matter of fear. I have been told of players snapping at journalists for daring to suggest there may be alternatives to them in the team, as if some believe they have a right not to be questioned. They may be a likeable bunch, according to George, but that message isn’t getting through here.

There are so many nuggets in that podcast, that I urge you all to listen to it. So, before this evening’s entertainment, let me leave you with a quote from Nick Hoult’s article…

Michael Vaughan, Paul Collingwood, Cook and now Morgan all found run making difficult while Moores was the head coach. The only one who did not struggle was Pietersen, partly because his tenure was brief, and he probably did not listen to Moores anyway.

But, never forget, KP was the problem. The real problem. The thing that needed to be dealt with.

My thanks to Mr Miller and Mr Dobell. Do it again soon.

On other parish news, here is where a friend of mine has been recently and mailed to me today…

Galle