One of the Boys

There are some things that are beyond all abilities. One of those is trying to put up a blog when there’s a power cut that takes out both normal power and also the mobile phone towers meaning a complete absence of online access. This was a piece that was written this morning, but couldn’t be uploaded during a frustrating day, that involved also a total absence of work. As a result, some observations have been changed…

Cricket is an elitest sport. It doesn’t have to be, but it is. Equipment is expensive, certainly, which is why for the young in particular cricket clubs have always strived to provide kit for those making their way in the game. But like tennis, it has the public perception of being a game that is for the elite, the posh, the wealthy – reinforced by only being accessible to view for those prepared to pay a subscription. There’s a disconnect in that, for the clubs themselves are not, in general terms. They are comprised of people from all backgrounds, and all walks of life from the affluent to the impoverished, the public schools to the inner cities – albeit decreasingly so in the latter case. Yet in the administration of the game, and in the opportunities for those coming up through the ranks, this is anything but the case, and an England team comprised mostly of those from fee paying school backgrounds is illustrative of that.

Thus it is that the appointment of Ed Smith as the new national selector is utterly unsurprising at all levels. He fits all the proper metrics – public schoolboy (not a compulsory requirement as much as good evidence of being worthy of consideration), a Thoroughly Good Chap and thus reflective of the kind of Good Chap the other Good Chaps want to see. The apogee of this attitude was the Odious Giles Clarke’s comment about how Alastair Cook “and his family are very much the sort of people we want the England captain and his family to be”. Note the “we” involved there, this is a pervasive attitude throughout the echelons of the ECB, not just one man’s view. It’s not even deliberate, it’s merely that they consistently go for the same people who reflect their own backgrounds and their own values, and therefore they represent exactly the kind of people they would want in the roles. Thus it is no surprise that someone like Andrew Strauss would consider him ideal, nor that someone like Andrew Strauss would be considered ideal himself. A virtuous circle of a small group of self-appointed officers and gentlemen – Flashman at the Charge.

It’s not to say that Smith is necessarily a terrible choice. He spent most of his career on the county circuit, and it’s perfectly possible that he’s sufficiently in touch with the game at that level to be effective. But it is another instance of jobs for the boys, as long as they’re the right sort of boys. Smith of course has been thoroughly forgiven by those Inside Cricket for his unfortunate episode whereby he was caught out first by Krishna Murali and then the Cricket Couch for being very free and easy with the contents of an Economist article which he passed off as his own work. His employers at Cricinfo tried desperately hard to ignore it, and then eventually pulled the article, offering up a mealy mouthed defence by Sambit Bal to justify their ignoring of the whole affair. What was striking was the total absence of any of his writing colleagues defending him, or commenting on the various snide tweets and posts about the whole affair from the proletariat (see “fans, amateur players and supporters”). Even this morning with the news, it was as if it never happened. Johan Hari must desperately wonder how he ended up in the wrong sector.

The others supposedly in the frame for the role were Andy Flower, Derek Pringle and Mike Selvey – men of differing backgrounds certainly, but who still fit into that “right sort of chap” mentality that infests the ECB as an organisation and the cricketing establishment generally. The jobs move around among the same group of people; doing the same thing, with the same views, and perhaps above all else it’s notable that all those in the frame have sided with the ECB wherever possible in any kind of discussion about cricket and governance. To take one item of note, when the film Death of a Gentleman came out, Smith was critical of it, Selvey and Pringle completely silent (Flower as an ECB employee couldn’t be expected to say anything, so for that one he’s excluded), refusing to even mention its release. In Selvey’s case given his senior role at the Guardian, it was nothing but a complete abrogation of his responsibilities as a journalist. It was, and remains, disgraceful, both in terms of his pathetic sycophancy to Giles Clarke and the ECB generally, and the Guardian’s weak refusal to consider the subject then and since. That the Daily Telegraph became the bastion of the English cricket resistance remains deeply ironic. It is unsurprising that this collection of men from the same background, who have proved their loyalty to the cricket establishment in the most testing of circumstances, are exactly the people who would be considered for a role with them; nor that English cricket, so forgiving of those who go on rebel tours to South Africa but not those who stare out of windows, would worry little about such minor things as the integrity of journalism or the integrity of the game. Indeed, they have recently gone even further than merely supporting those who buttress their own worldview by specifically attacking those who dare to ask awkward questions, to the point a non-compliant journalist in the form of George Dobell is being threatened with legal action by the ECB, presumably for the crime of reporting on them without due deference.

Whatever the legal merits, the money to do this derives from supporters, clubs, players, counties and all who have an interest in the game. It is not the ECB’s, no matter how much they might like to think it is, and no matter how much they behave as though that is the case. The ECB is not the game – a simple, obvious point that bears stating simply because it’s not how they appear to see it, and strikes at the very heart of so much of the fury with and loathing of them: that they consider themselves an end in itself, not a facilitator, promoter and protector of the game of cricket. The appointment of Ed Smith and those others considered is not objectionable because he is incapable of the job, nor because it’s remotely the most important thing this month, but because it so beautifully encapsulates the mentality of the people to whom the care of the game was entrusted. No accountability, no democracy, no say in what they do or how they do it, and best of all, they wouldn’t begin to understand why so many object to them. Bringing the game into disrepute is a charge beloved of sporting authorities everywhere, but when thinking about those words: there is no better example of a sporting organisation in this country that manages that repeatedly than the ECB.

Separately, Talksport announced that they had won the rights to the overseas tours to Sri Lanka and the West Indies next winter. The response was resoundingly negative, to the shock of no one. Their coverage will doubtless be professional enough, yet the presence of endless betting adverts and advertorials will be enough to put many off. The one thing that must be said here is that for once this is nothing to do with the ECB, any more than the Ashes on BT Sport was. This is within the gift of the host boards, not the visitors, though it will be interesting to see whether the ECB behave as contemptibly with TalkSport (owned by their friends at Sky) as they did with BT when throwing them under a Twitter bus last winter.

On the other side of the world, rumours surfaced that Justin Langer will be appointed Australia’s new coach, swiftly denied as a done deal, but still likely. Langer is a coach in the same style as Flower to a fair degree, a martinet who demands total adherence to his methods, which may or may not be a good thing for them right now, depending on just what kind of standards are demanded. Perhaps it might work out, though it remains notable that they appear to be looking to choose someone before the two month review into Australian on field conduct is completed.

Lastly for now, today was the day when this blog reached the landmark of one million views. To do so in little more than three years is something we are proud of, particularly given our position on the naughty step in the world of English cricket. There are a small group of journalists who have encouraged us (and Wisden have generally), and have met with us – a common liking for beer proving apparent. It has been almost entirely below the radar which perhaps best reflects the prevailing view that our particular attitude is considered unwelcome by the cricketing establishment. They know who they are, and that they wouldn’t welcome being named and shamed thanked illustrates the point. Nevertheless, they are appreciated. Internally, we’ve had our crises, and it is those who contribute, read, argue with and correct us who are the main reason for keeping us going. Highlighting the readers and commenters has always been a trite observance in many instances, yet sometimes it’s heartfelt and honest. When we say we couldn’t do it without you, it is nothing but the truth. Continue to challenge us daily please.

Here’s to two million, and the absolute certainty that we’ll still never be invited to any ECB events (nor would we accept), we’ll still never try to monetise this place, and we’ll still do it because we love and care about the game we grew up with, played, watched and paid for. It doesn’t make us right, but it does make us a voice, even if from the margins.

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Athers’ Blathers

Last week, former England captain Michael Atherton published an article entitled “Cricket: it’s where rational, joined-up thought goes to die” on the Times website. It was briefly put on the site for free before being pulled behind the newspaper’s pay wall, so now if you want to read it, you’ll need to at least register a free account with them. The great and good of the English cricket media immediately hailed it as a masterpiece by one of cricket’s greatest writers.

Last Monday, the British Sports Journalism Awards were held at a fancy hotel in South London, where Michael Atherton was given the Cricket Writer Of The Year award for the fourth time in a row. In congratulating him on Twitter, the Times cited his latest work as an example of why he is the greatest cricket writer in the country.

In the article, Atherton lists a series of decisions taken by cricketers, coaches and administrators which he deemed to be ‘irrational’. Now, regular readers here will know that there’s a lot to choose from here. The ECB in particular are prone to making irrational decisions most of the time. It is therefore somewhat incredible to realise that he names virtually no irrational things in the whole piece.

So I have gone through the whole thing, and explained point-by-point why he is wrong.

Alex Hales changing his mind about first-class cricket – Rational. Athers quotes a 2016 interview from Hales where he says he wants to play in all three formats. To put that into the correct context, at the time he was playing in all three formats for England. He said it just before he played in a Test series against Pakistan, in which he averaged 18.12 and was then dropped. Now it’s almost two years later and he seems unlikely to get another chance in the Test team. He did average 47.11 last year in the Championship, but that was in Division 2 and was only the 24th highest average in that competition. If his dream of playing Tests again is dead, why not concentrate on limited overs cricket?

Nottinghamshire changing their mind about offering Alex Hales a white ball contract – Rational. Again in 2016, Nottinghamshire refused to offer Hales a white ball contract. To put this into context, in 2016 he was playing all three formats for England and so would only have been available for his county in April before the international season began. If he wasn’t contracted for red ball cricket, he might not have played a game all season. Now that he isn’t in the England Test team, he will likely be available for large chunks of the county limited overs competitions.

Adil Rashid apparently changing his mind about a white ball contract between December and February – Rational. In December, Rashid gave a standard generic quote about wanting to help Yorkshire regain the Championship title but in February signed a contract which meant he wouldn’t be taking part in that competition. It could be that he changed his mind, or he didn’t think that Yorkshire would offer him a contract without him having to play 4-day cricket. Either way, it’s hardly a sign of irrationality.

Jack Leach bowling more overs than Mason Crane during the Lions tour of the West Indies – Incredibly rational. Jack Leach is a better bowler than Mason Crane. He just is. The England Lions captain Keaton Jennings correctly surmised this, and chose his bowlers accordingly. Mason Crane wasn’t even selected for the third game of the Lions tour.

Mason Crane was selected for the Australia and New Zealand Test tours – Irrational. I’ve got to give Atherton this one. It was a ridiculous selection.

The ECB are offering white ball-only contracts to players – Rational. The truth is, England’s white ball specialists have been getting screwed until recently. Test players have had much more money and job security through their central contracts whilst the ODI and T20I cricketers have largely been relying on match fees. This was a much-needed rebalancing of the scales.

The chairman of the English players’ union and the chief executive of the South African players’ union disagree about white ball-only contracts – Rational. Two people in similar jobs disagreeing about something. Who cares?

Trevor Bayliss believes that there shouldn’t be bilateral T20Is, but the ECB has scheduled more – Rational. This time, someone disagreeing with their employer. Who cares?

Jos Buttler disagrees with Bayliss’ idea – Rational. A player disagreeing with his coach. Who cares? (And seriously, who edits Atherton’s work and lets all this stuff through?)

Trevor Bayliss suggested that Paul Farbrace should replace him as England’s T20I coach immediately – Incredibly rational. Trevor Bayliss has publicly stated that he plans to leave the England job in 2019 after the Ashes series. The World T20 competition starts just 12 months later, which doesn’t give the new coach much time to shape the T20 squad beforehand. Bayliss’ T20 record is also much more shaky than what he has achieved in ODIs so far. Since his appointment, England have won 12 and lost 12 T20Is, compared to having won 36 and lost 15 in ODIs. It seems that either England or Bayliss is not that good in cricket’s shortest (international) format right now, and could use a change.

Eoin Morgan offers to play first-class cricket for Middlesex after not being drafted in the IPL – Rational. Morgan had the choice between sitting at home or being paid to play cricket, albeit not where he had hoped to be. He obviously chose the latter.

Australia played against New Zealand at Eden Park in Auckland, which has a field too small for T20Is – Rational.  Atherton even explains that it’s because the ground was already in use before the regulations regarding the minimum lengths of boundaries came in, and so it has a special dispensation. Increasing the boundary sizes on an existing ground would be very expensive, requiring major construction work and other costly measures, and probably isn’t possible at all in dual-use stadiums like Eden Park. Unless the ICC is prepared to pay New Zealand hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new cricket ground in Auckland, it seems fair enough to bend the rules slightly.

Australia and South Africa’s schedules are very congested – Rational. It makes their boards money. The more they play, the more money they make. It’s as simple as that.

Despite major investment, Durham, Hampshire and Cardiff aren’t hosting any Tests from 2020 onwards – Rational. Again, money largely explains this. The other grounds make more of it during Tests, and so are the preferred hosts.

Somerset won’t stage any internationals despite being a well-run county, whilst other counties will – Slightly irrational. The main criteria which Somerset have failed to meet is capacity, the County Ground in Taunton only has space for 12,500 spectators whilst the ones which will host internationals can each hold crowds of at least 15,000. It’s a shame, but perhaps part of what makes Somerset such a solid and responsible county also prevents them from committing to costly expansions to their ground with uncertain financial returns.

Rashid Khan is top of the ICC bowler’s ODI rankings, but might not play in the 2019 World Cup if Afghanistan fail to qualify – Rational. Sometimes great players are on teams which don’t qualify for major competitions. I hear Gareth Bale is a great player, but Wales last qualified for the football World Cup in 1958. (Note: I don’t care about whether Bales actually is a great player or not, so please don’t try to argue this point with me.)

The ICC claim they want to expand world cricket but have contracted the ODI World Cup from 14 teams to 10 – Rational. The ICC (or to be exact, the member boards) were lying. If expansion made the existing members more money in the short term, they’d be doing it. The format of ICC competitions is decided solely on monetary terms.

And yet Michael Atherton is considered the greatest cricket journalist in England. Go figure.

3 years, 900 posts and a million views: Happy Birthday to Us

Writing a blog is a funny thing: you forget what you’ve done, time goes by, and eventually one of the team says something along the lines of “Hang on, isn’t our birthday in February?”.  So it is, although I must confess I initially thought it was our fourth rather than our third, which just goes to show how much attention we pay to such things.  Nevertheless, allow us to be all self-congratulatory for once, as the very idea of lasting more than a month or two seemed fairly daft back then.  It wasn’t really the start, for Dmitri Old’s How Did We Lose in Adelaide blog was the reason so many of us got in contact with each other in the first place, but his opening lines to this particular site are wryly amusing to look back on:

Let’s see how this one goes

The fallout from the Australia tour, the sacking of Kevin Pietersen, the shambolic reign of Paul Downton, the failure of the press to scrutinise rather than regurgitate the inner thoughts of Andy Flower and Giles Clarke – it all seems so distant, yet so recent in other ways.  The schism those events triggered hasn’t healed; if anything positions have become even more entrenched, even if some of the actors have now left the stage.  But when the ECB not only refuse to “clarify”, let alone apologise for the “Outside Cricket” jibe that gave this blog its name (that press release is still up on the PCA’s site), perhaps that no matter how things change they remain the same shouldn’t come as too much of a shock.  They meant it then, and they still do now.

Of course, not everyone agrees with the posts on here, and some have been very vocal about it.  Fair enough too, we have several points of view that people can agree with, disagree with, or ignore, but perhaps the volume of hits for an obscure little blog that’s been pathetically useless in promoting itself (we only got round to using the Twitter address properly recently) suggests it’s not a totally out there line to have taken.

Dmitri’s blog swiftly became a two handed site, then three, and now four.  We professionalised it by buying a real domain name rather than using a WordPress one, and apart from a small issue where some idiot on the team accidentally thought the renewal was a fraudulent payment (now you know why the site disappeared for a couple of days) and cancelled it, it’s been that ever since. With hindsight, outsidecricket.com might have been a better name than beingoutsidecricket.com, but you can blame that same idiot for that as well.

That first year it was all about Strauss, Pietersen, the press, books and subterfuge.  The two posts that attracted the highest volumes were A Matter of Life and Trust and Statement of the Oblivious, both about the sheer duplicitousness of the ECB attempting to pretend their chairman hadn’t said what he really had, and that going back on his word was in no way utterly deceitful and treating people like idiots.  Oddly enough, in the years since, Mr Graves has barely said a word, and could well be gagged and chained in a distant dungeon for all we know.  The most enthralling thing looking back on the first of those is how the focus on trust hasn’t gone away – is there actually anyone who believes anything they say?  Why would they when they are so often caught out fibbing?  Even for matters as small as player injuries the statements range from implausible to outright falsehood.

Both of those posts stand up pretty well in terms of the sentiments expressed, and it should be alarming (but it’s not surprising) that the objections raised have still never been answered.  The joke that the most recent hammering in Australia was probably also Kevin Pietersen’s fault remains as sharp a barb now as then.

Andrew Strauss’s announcement that Pietersen was persona non grata persuaded us to do our first ever live blog – something we’ve fiddled with from time to time since.  The tweets embedded in that particular piece are striking in retrospect – mostly because they’re every bit as true today.  Various of the We Need to Talk About Kevin brigade never did come up with any kind of decent defence, beyond the “Pietersen is a tosser” line.  Unless, that is, we count the marvellously pathetic leaked dossier that was swiftly disavowed once it became clear it was an object of derision.  Note that a real one never did appear – how could it?  That was the actual depth of the evidence against him.

Two other sackings that year also got plenty of attention, firstly that of Paul Downton, with the beautifully titled post Aplomb highlighting the absurdity of all those in the media who backed their mate as someone special despite it being blindingly obvious to everyone else he was utterly out of his depth.  The other sacking was of course Peter Moores, a man who didn’t succeed on either occasion as England coach, but who is a rarity in ECB circles as someone on more than nodding terms with the concept of integrity.  His shabby sacking – leaked to the media as he watched his England team play a one day match, caused BOC to get all angry on his behalf about his treatment.  For all that plenty of people may dislike a Pietersen, always remember this happened to someone who no one thought could possibly deserve such underhanded and unpalatable conduct from his bosses.  The ECB have the sheer cheek to still claim (lie) that they don’t leak.

If 2015’s posts were dominated by the seemingly daily dose of ECB ineptitude, 2016 saw many of the most popular posts being about actual, real life cricket.  The tours of Bangladesh and India towards the end of the year in particular gained a lot of attention, and probably gave rise to the inside joke that this is the Bad News Blog, where readership rises in proportion to England’s cricketing woes.  It’s not quite true, the reality is that Test cricket is what gets the attention, whether England win or lose.  That we prefer watching and writing about Test cricket suggests there may be a hint of self-fulfilling prophecy about it, but it does mirror the newspapers, who also see traffic drop off for the more disposable versions of the game.  This of course makes it thoroughly intriguing how T20 in particular is seen as the future, when attention is so limited, at least in the written media.  This place isn’t representative of anything at all of course, but when it’s widespread across all media, it becomes notable.  The interest is unquestionably there of course, but it’s shallow.

Outside of the cricket itself, by far the most popular (in the strictest sense of numbers that is – it was deeply unpopular with many of the targets) post was the collective effort that was the Outside Cricket(er) List, a riposte to the gloriously pompous Power List published by The Cricketer Magazine, the one where its editor (Simon Hughes, just in case you’ve forgotten) decided to include himself – presumably 39th place was as high as he dared and well ahead of the editor of Wisden, for example.  Our own list probably caused more internal discussion than anything else we’ve ever done, mostly involving debates as to whether any of the entries were too nasty.  A few probably were, though in at least one case the response by the victim magnificently made a debatable hatchet job turn out to be nail on head.  Mind you, it was a few days later that someone asked why we’d left out Piers Morgan, followed by the horrified realisation that we really had somehow forgotten the most obvious subject of all.  He may consider that particularly wounding.

It’s long been considered that county cricket is death in terms of attracting attention, but Sean’s post  about the climax to the season, player availability and, that old favourite, the ECB shooting themselves in the foot provoked plenty of comment.  Perhaps there is life in the old dog beyond the Guardian county clique blog.

2017 of course was all about the Ashes, and the spike in hits across that period reflected the way that however hard the cricketing authorities try to undermine the game, certain things still resonate with anyone who loves the game of cricket.  That the series turned out to be once again a mess from an England perspective didn’t alter that, except that both posts and comments tended to range from furious, via despair to withering contempt.  Still, there was always l’affaire Stokes to keep everyone entertained, as writers and commenters worked out the best ways of talking about a subject that couldn’t be talked about.  Some of the Tangled Web didn’t age terribly well, but that’s blogging, and anyone who wants to go back over the output of the last three years and point out where we got it completely wrong is more than welcome to do so.  No need to tell us though – life’s too short.

Alastair Cook is a perennial favourite on here – partly because there’s just so much to say about him (and often very positive, contrary to popular belief), but the day he stood down as England captain (what, you didn’t realise?) was unquestionably a big one, not least because of the length of time he’d held the job.  I’ve always felt Dmitri’s assessment of him that day was one of the best things he’s written, weaving a tale of a flawed captain propped up by an adoring media who wouldn’t brook any criticism of the Chosen One.  The prescience of that piece was highlighted perfectly by the astoundingly over the top media response to what certainly was a fine innings in Melbourne, just not a visitation from the Almighty.

Last year also saw the completion of the Gang of Four (presumably, execution isn’t on the cards for this one) with Danny joining up and posting his analysis of All Stars Cricket, the latest wheeze from the ECB that pays lip service to grassroots cricket and generates lots of positive headlines when announcing it, before anyone has time to really start looking at it properly.

Of course, it’s not just been the four of us, the guest posts have been without exception outstanding – in one instance a journalist got in touch to expressly mention how good it was (they don’t do that for me, damn them) and how well researched.  Furthermore, the comments are always what makes a place like this worthwhile, whether agreeing or disagreeing, praising or hostile.  Like any community, it’s only ever as good as those who make it up, and from a personal perspective, it’s involved meeting a lot of terrific people, and in the case of a few, firm friendships have been forged. I did think about individually thanking everyone who has posted a comment on here, but then I realised how long it would take, blanched and bailed out. Sorry.

We’re three years old, we intend to carry on.  There’ll be hiatuses no doubt, and nothing ever stays quite the same.  We’re never going to monetise it, we’re never going to accept “sponsorship” from a betting company.  We (and I mean all of us, readers, writers, commenters) do it for the love of the game and the burning anger at how it’s being systematically wrecked by those who care for filthy lucre rather than the sport.

Onwards and upwards, and if you can, forgive this one piece of chronic navel-gazing.  So happy birthday to us – all of us.  To answer Dmitri from February 6th 2015, it’s gone pretty well.

Oh one last thing – on the million views claim.  We’re actually 30,000 short.  But as exaggeration goes, we’re not remotely close to newspaper levels.  And it won’t get us a profile in the Cricket Paper either.