“The Grabbing Hands, Grab All They Can, All For Themselves, After All” Martin Gore
It seems to me that most sport now seems to exist to relieve the public at large of their money. There does not seem to be that sense of getting things right, striking a balance between the need to fund and the need to maintain the history of where the sport came from. There does not seem to be any real priority in making sport, in totality, for all. It doesn’t seek to inspire through context, it doesn’t seek to exhilarate through tradition. It doesn’t so much as seek context these days, rather than to create it. It looks at the past and turns up its nose. Evolve, change or stagnate.
Tomorrow the third test of what is England’s largest money-spinning series will begin in the last week of August – you could even laugh at the fact that this is a Bank Holiday weekend, yet given England’s batting form, the chances of two of those three days having cricket is slim, unless, weather. Definitely no chance of Bank Holiday finale action. The circus will be on to the Oval for the non-final test of the summer, because, well, reasons for that too. Can’t have a non-working day with test cricket, can we?
There are still two test matches to go, with the series concluding on 14 September. While not quite in Autumn’s full blast, we are not far away. That, in itself, is slightly maddening, with five tests crammed into around 6 or so weeks. Sure, in the past, we played India in three test series – indeed in 1986 and 2007 India won those events – but now money means five test series are back for the mightiest financial foe. Let’s see how many the World Champion test team gets the next time they come over. Put it this way, when India came over in 2018, total ECB turnover for the year was £172m. In 2019, with an Ashes summer and a World Cup it was £227m. The last year without either, 2017 it was £125m and the year before that, £112m. Sorry New Zealand. Big Three and ICC only matter here. Money talks louder than Maces.
To wail against this is to be shaking a fist at a cloud. It doesn’t matter to those up there. It doesn’t even matter really to the players. I have sympathy with top players who cite major hardships in long tours, and especially in this climate of bubbles and Covid. I am not fully aware of the financial consequences of this at this stage – views are that players took a pay cut last year – but that has most certainly not been the direction of travel. Players get a lot more than they used to, and the IPL and increasing TV contract values are major contributors. Top test players in this country are very well rewarded, and to a degree, so they should be. But spare me the “short career” cobblers I hear for the justification. They earn more for providing us with the same content, but we have to pay for it. I am not doubting that they all love test cricket, this England team, and they are all trying their hardest. But for some, failure isn’t quite the disaster it might have been. For Sibley, being dropped, with the voices heard behind him, is a calamity. For KP, being sacked allowed him to become a T20 gun for hire – not deniable – and while being excluded stung, it wasn’t a career, or money-earner, ending decision. Two different talents, two different environment. An even further cry from the days of 2005. The AD of English Cricket.
Let’s take my usual trip to the Oval Test back in the day – ended because the fan experience was too expensive, too uncomfortable and I didn’t fancy doing an impression of a beer towel. Now if memory serves, my Ashes ticket for the Oval in 2005 was somewhere around £50. I could dig it out, but let’s go with that. India used to be considerably less than that – around £35-40 for my seats. Now those prices have, at least, doubled up until now. With inflation bobbing below 3% for all of that 15 year interlude, and sometimes a fair way below that, the cost has increased in real terms. So have the value of TV contracts. Both of these are what we pay for, prices set by the powers that be.
So I’ll get my little moan in first with the players. You have sources of income at the very highest level that were only dreams back in the day. Get an IPL contract and it can be very lucrative. Get on the T20 train, and you can accumulate some nice amounts. Be a red-ball star seems too much like hard work, with only the very top getting the really big amounts. Players, with their short careers, aren’t going to be human if they don’t want to take the shorter route. Why play in tests? The danger is not that they don’t see the value and history – clearly players like Kohli, for all his sins, most certainly do – but that the authorities, our authority patently by their actions, don’t give the first toss about it. Joe Root still hankers after T20 status, while being England’s greatest player in a generation in tests. Why? He’s so good at batting they made him captain!
Tomorrow England go into the 3rd Test with half a squad injured, replacements having had little, if any, first class, red-ball cricket since before England had played the Euro 2020/21 Final (and that seems a lifetime ago) and yet they make no statement to tell the world just how they’ve cocked up this schedule except Covid. How that has meant no red-ball cricket this year, you tell me. If anyone is buying this crap, then don’t open your e-mail account, and certainly not that one from a retired General who can’t get his money out of his homeland. Harrison hid behind this ludicrous fig-leaf while being marginally threatened in an interview with Atherton – I will come to that when I do a full review of it, soon – as if it explained everything. Covid devastated finances last year, and will affect this years to a lesser degree. There is some sympathy there, even gratitude for some cricket last year But don’t push it. Because, as you mentioned back in 2015 old pal, you have serious trust issues with yours truly, your humble scribe, and many others out there. And I really think you need to rebuild that trust with us obsessives before crying in front of us. One might even start to believe there is an ounce of humility in your soul.
And then, Ali Martin dropped the bombshell last night. As part of some cooked-up little earner back in the day, around “six or seven” ECB senior staff are going to share around £2.1m between themselves. It appears to be contractual, so has to be paid. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house to hear that Tom Harrison had taken a pay cut to just over half a million quid (double what Downton was paid, for example) from his astronomical £700k which he got in the 2018/19 accounts. Presumably this was a “reward” for getting Sky to bid against themselves and raise the TV cash. Sky get to keep all the crown jewels safely away from the hoi polloi, and ECB get to tell the world that they are saving the game, and women’s cricket, and disabled cricket and so on.
(Note – According to the 2018 accounts, the highest paid employee received £604k. In 2019 they received £719k. In 2020 they received £582k. 2021 accounts are not due until 31/10 – they can be earlier – and he is reported, it seems to be receiving a basic salary of £512k). In Harrison’s first two years the highest earner was on £341k and £360k. In Paul Downton’s last year, that number for the highest earner was £290k – if interested here is a link to it all – https://find-and-update.company-information.service.gov.uk/company/03251364/filing-history?page=1 ).
Since the high water mark, Harrison has set about county cricket in the same way Liam Gallagher sets about peacemaking with his brother. Making the turkeys vote for Christmas, he and Graves pulled recalcitrant counties into line with bribery and threats. It amazes me, oh well, no it doesn’t that the ECB’s Articles of Association STILL refer to a new Twenty20 tournament to start in 2020, but we’ve been down this line before about how the Hundred was a formatting solution in search of a problem. In doing so, and you know the story, the ECB, guided on this sensitive path by a man with all the subtlety of your average road-builder, various representatives when selling this Hundred revolution insulted county fans as “obsessives”, mums and children as too thick to understand the game in its current form, and promising family friendly fun for 6 hours while the bars will still open. In doing so he created new teams with no roots, players who came from the system he apparantly wants to marginalise, and also laid waste to a schedule so that the current World 50 over champions don’t play it at domestic level, the test team is a sick joke, and all the eggs are in a T20 World Cup basket in alien conditions where a bad half hour can render all planning meaningless.
Since then we have had pundits falling over themselves to call the thing a success, when before the competition, when the ECB were bricking it there was only mention of developing a product, a brand, and the age old scammer’s charter of “long-term engagement” and “raising awareness” with undefined results in public that the old con merchants will set later and meet. Most of these, including pundits long-since bereft of credibility, commentators who appeared to binge on ecstasy before screaming at the populace to be awestruck at another hit-and-giggle fest, paid stooges, laughable social media “influencers”, tweeters we’ll only hear about this time next year, and possibly worst of all, paid “analytical” firms who see this nonsense as a potential entry to flogging their stat-gobbledegook to the IPL.
And boy, there’s a post coming about that lot, so I’m keeping my powder dry there. You are supposedly analysing, not acting as the Hundred’s PR company. The computer-geek equivalent of the know-nothing asking you “who’s winning”. No more.
And then, these people in charge are getting their huge salaries, and they are huge, increased. Having sacked the grunts last year. Having alienated a ton of the core support. Having cast any non-believer into the wilderness and told them to ignore the hundred elephants in the room because it is “not for them”. Having refused to speak to some of the cricket media, because, and I roughly quote “we have given up hope of being given fair coverage by certain media outlets”. They said that to Paul effing Hayward. Hardly a rabble rousing, tabloid lunatic.
These people have crashed and burned, set the fans against each other, claimed that they are the victims of some mad fringe, and then, rewarded themselves with lots of cash to tell them that they were all on the side of right and ability in the end. If I were the new Chairman of the ECB, and having had his experience of consultants and free-loading loudmouths in the procurement arena of the civil service, I wouldn’t just fire this lot, I’d put them in a cannon and fire them into space. Following Clarke and Graves isn’t just going to grant him a honeymoon period – coming on stage after those two should be the definition of an easy ride – but you wouldn’t put it past the head hunted ECB honcho to cock it up. It’s what they do.
Because not only have they done all this sterling groundwork, which Borat couldn’t have scripted, and thought they have been brilliant and innovative in doing so, they then throw out the implied threat, in that charlatan, mealy-mouthed word of “Retention”, that if you don’t pay these magnificent specimens what they deserve, they’ll leave, and their undoubted skills will travel with them, never to be replaced by mere mortals who might actually be able to conduct an interview that isn’t softball and not look like they are confessing to the Great Train Robbery, or not get a quote that they won’t deal with you because you are just so beastly to a magazine edited by a buffoon who once appointed himself number 39 in England’s most important power figures. I like my CEO at work. He turned around a team that were beaten down by an appalling prior regime. I know him well, get on well with him, he respects me, it would be terrible if he left. But leave he will. They all do. And someone takes their place. That is the way of the world. You aren’t paying them to retain them – if the Premier League offered anyone of them a much higher paying role, they’d be gone in a heartbeat. Retention implies a lack of loyalty. A lack of commitment. A lack of long-term thinking. It takes those paying for it, and directly and indirectly, it is us, for mugs. But in the nearly 8 years now since that ill-fated Ashes tour, the ECB have been doing precisely that. We want to retain these people? Can someone give me a good reason why?
At the moment the ECB, the so-called guardian of the game in all its guises, is presiding over a racism case that it seems steadfastly unable, or unwilling, to chivvy along so that the giant ball of poison that it appears to contain can be addressed. Azeem Rafiq is finding out that justice delayed, isn’t simply justice denied, but humanity erased, as Yorkshire get set to hold its first test v India since 2007. Danny is following this a lot more closely and may well add more to this when he does the match report on Thursday (currently according to our schedule) but as someone not as clued up, I see an accused prevaricating and kicking things into the longest grass they can, an accuser being held out to dry, and a governing body earning its bonus by hiding behind the couch, when real leadership would be, frankly, kicking Yorkshire CCC’s heads in. And they moan that someone might not think the Hundred is being reported on fairly, but stay silent over this horror? That’s leadership for you.
Oh, before I forget, to ameliorate some of the more mealy-mouthed in the reporting establishment. Of course a load of people at the ECB do a good job. A lot of them are totally committed, and possibly chronically underpaid and undervalued. Many of them, after last year, are also out of jobs. They deserve our support when necessary, our sympathy when appropriate, We all know who I am talking about. Those at the top who have sold themselves as cricket’s saviours, the heroes and heroines dragging us into the 21st century and beyond, engaging new fans as if the decisions of the past were made by some other body to take the sport, lock, stock and live barrels, off “free to air”, the single most catastrophic mistake made by the body in causing the current participation malaise. They make themselves sound like Red Adair, but they tap dance around the truth like Lionel Blair (other people with that surname, possibly available), scream nonsense like Ric Flair, and have all the moral fortitude of Yogi Bear (was he a coward? or was that Scooby Doo – well they appear not to have a Scooby*, so that works)?
There’s a test match starting tomorrow. You might not know because you were blown away by a tedious couple of Lord’s finals. Mark Nicholas marvelled at Liam Livingstone you know. Anyway, your guess at the line-up for England is as good as mine. Haseeb to open with Burns, Malan at three? Pope at six? Sam Curran keeps his place because everyone else has fallen over. Saqib Mahmood to debut? Don’t get me on the Mark Wood injury – another winner from the medical marvels. Will Joe Root continue to carry more passengers that the Staten Island Ferry? Are India going to change their team. Will they look for another fight, have another few rows, with the England peace corps? Who knows. It’s test cricket, and no-one will be raving about the DJs or other guff.
This has been a rant and a half, and I don’t think I’ve covered half of it. I haven’t mentioned how Chris Silverwood must be thanking his lucky stars all this is going on, because otherwise we might be asking questions about him and his new all-powerful role. Or how Thorpe is doing a great job as batting coach. Or Kohli being an utter arse in the last test. Or bad light. Or how Lord’s makes People’s Monday a great thing and yet still revels in its exclusivity the rest of the time. And that it is treated as a laugh. Or commentary selection. Or how Vaughan appears to be in two Management teams now, so we can double his conflict of interest accusations. Or how BBC promised a new, invigorating approach to the Hundred and gave us Duffers and Torn. Or how Sibley and Crawley have been cast to the wind in favour of magic beans. Or Jos Buttler giving off warning signs. Ben Stokes being out of cricket. The Royal London fighting for survival and being really really good and the charlatans who strangled it want credit for not killing it. The list just bloody goes on.
Oh. I forgot. The Hundred was marvelous for women’s cricket. You have to say that. First because it is true. And second because if you don’t, you clearly have an agenda.
So enjoy the test match, held at the ground of a club suppressing a potentially devastating report into wrongdoing, governed by a board that rewards its senior staff and wants to keep them because clearly they’ve not done enough damage yet, and watched by us. The poor punter who no-one actually, really, gives a flying f*ck about unless they really, really need your money. Pay up and shut up. Flick on the TV, Click on approved social media.
“Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.” David Byrne
*For some readers this is even more gibberish than the rest of this. Scooby Doo = Clue. So not a Scooby means Clueless. Also known as being Alicia. As in the star of the film Clueless.
PS – Not even read the Ali Martin piece today about the players being unhappy. How about sacked staff or current employees. Anyone going to tell their story?
Oh, and I did forget. Comments below on the first day’s play. On a Wednesday. Just because.