Dmitri Old and the Real T20 Experience (and an American’s first game of cricket)

You know I’m not a fan of T20 cricket. It’s like those 30 second clips you get on Amazon of songs off an album (no, I don’t like streaming, kiddies(. Sometimes you get the important part, the chorus, the hook, the key verse. Sometimes you get the boring guitar solo or nothingness of an instrumental. You rarely get the full picture of a sport not meant to be played like this. To give the potential opportunity to bat for hours, days in pursuit of the undetermined. The variation in conditions, grounds and weather interventions, that form part of the tapestry of the long-form are eliminated more or less from the T20 genre. It’s not what got me into cricket, test matches did, and prominently Viv Richards in 1976 with his double hundreds, but it is still cricket. At least I think it is.

So off I trotted to Surrey v Essex on Wednesday night. Before some might carp, these tickets were bought well before Kevin Pietersen announced he was going to play for Surrey, but the primary purchase was to take my American colleague, we’ll call him Stan, to his first cricket match. It would be his entry point to the sport I bang on about. He also has kindly written his comments on the occasion in a quintessentially American way for us. I hope you find them interesting. His last paragraph is particularly interesting – “even the brash version of the game was unassuming” – didn’t exactly resonate with my experience.

I have been to Surrey T20 matches before, but the last few have been in the Pavilion. This time I was in Block 9. I was in among the legendary Surrey T20 evening crowd. The reputation was of hard drinking, abusive support, and a disregard for the game in front of them. I am a Millwall fan. I’ve been home and away, in fact my 20s and early 30s saw me travel the country watching them. A Surrey home game in the T20 would be a walk in the park. Hardly the razor’s edge.

First of all, getting to the Oval from anywhere in rush hour is an total pain. The Northern Line is a horror, and we had to walk from Kennington Station, which isn’t a massive problem, but symptomatic of some of the sporting difficulties we encounter when a venue has no parking. There’s little point in expanding the Oval to 30,000 if the transport can’t cope with 20,000. But we put up with it. The contrast with my visits to baseball in the States is stark. Once at The Oval the bag search was laughable. I mistakenly left a half-full bottle of water in the bag. She ignored it (it was 1.5 litres so couldn’t be missed), and now I’m sad there wasn’t alcohol in it! Already the concourses were rammed, the queues for beer lengthy, the extortionately priced food less congested but doing (un)healthy business. There is a definite buzz, but not the one you get before a football match. There seems little investment in what is about to unfold. It’s ultimate entertainment. People want to be entertained, far and above caring about the result. Sure, there are Surrey diehards there, like me, but do I care if we lose? Not really. Do you really care if you win the competition?

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Surrey won the toss and batted. This I understood from being told by John, who had bought the tickets and had met his son. In common with most of the night, I didn’t glean this from the public address system which was hopeless. Or it could be that someone sabotaged it because Colin Murray was on the mic. My suspicion is that Jonathan Liew might have done that. He likes Colin Murray. The teams were put up on the scoreboard, and when Ollie Pope was shown, I went “who”? They didn’t have his name and I couldn’t hear the announcer!

Surrey came out with their fearsome looking opening partnership of Aaron Finch and Jason Roy. Essex opened with a spinner. It didn’t work as Finch tucked in to him. I advised Stan that 10 an over through the powerplay (I also explained the 6 over restrictions on the field, after explaining what an over was) was probably a minimum given the high scoring games seen at the venue thus far. Progress was good until Jason Roy somehow hit his own wicket (I couldn’t really see how it happened on the replay) and while expecting Kumar Sangakkara to come in at number 3, we soon realised it wasn’t that maestro.

I have to say that the pervading noise around me was booing. Now I cannot tell how many of them were Essex fans, but I’ll wager they weren’t all from Essex. Now as you know, and as I once wrote at length on How Did We Lose In Adelaide, this thing absolutely pisses me off. Pietersen may be a hate figure, but you pricks wouldn’t have been cheering the parade, rejoicing in 2005 without him. None of your current heroes has done anything near that. Comma has. Freddie has. Ashley Giles has. They haven’t. How dare you boo one of our all-time greats? I wouldn’t boo Cook, and I’ll bet I feel like a lot of the anti-KP mob when it comes to him. It still “boils my piss” as Stan found out!

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KP and Finch dropped the pace a little as the former tried to get into his groove. Finch still let loose a drive or two, but then went himself. So to join 8181 test runs at the crease would be a man with nearly 27000 international runs to his credit. I tweeted about what a privilege it was to see them both at the crease at the same time. T20 in England still has its moments, and both these characters, for differing reasons, are irreplaceable.

Neither player could get into a rhythm and indeed Pietersen was dropped on the boundary when trying to cart Zaidi over mid-wicket. This seemed to galvanise Pietersen afterwards, and I have to say a couple of moments made the evening worthwhile. Simon Harmer came on to bowl, and Pietersen hit four sixes in the over. I’m trying hard and can’t remember ever having seen someone do that at a game I’ve been present at. What’s more, two of them flew straight over my head at long-on. I am a Pietersen fan as a batsman, as a cricketer (more about the lack of fielding later) and to think this might be my last chance to see him play in England made it more special. Even when a little over the hill, a lot out of practice, and seemingly at war with much of English cricket (who, never forget, started the fight), Kevin Pietersen still can surprise and delight with the bat. You’ve seen some of the pics.

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Pietersen was the only one who could get going, while for Essex the sight of Mohammad Amir was also something to behold. He seemed to be the main man to control the scoring as the runs seemed targeted off other weaker bowlers. Surrey kept losing wickets. Kumar holing out to square leg off a sweep shot; Sibley bowled by Zaidi, Pope caught off Walter. KP moved past 50, including 5 sixes, before himself teeing off and getting underneath a Walter delivery, seeing it caught by new England selection Tom Westley on the long-on boundary. The applause going off wasn’t deafening – too many people didn’t have a clue – but this writer appreciated seeing him play. Sitting underneath towering sixes reminded me of the sheer genius that the bloke possessed. Perhaps he still does. Off the golf course, no proper T20 play since the PSL, and he can do that. Yes, he was dropped early, but he capitalised. Only after the match with the next best score being 28, did you realise quite how good a knock it was.

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Surrey’s total was 150, after some stops and starts and no real fluency. You have no idea at the game how the wicket is playing, and although not lightning fast due to the storms the night before, the outfield was not slow. Boundaries were at a premium though. Sibley, Pope, the two Currans did their thing, but other than provide me with a spectacular pic (Sam’s Stumps Splattered), there were few fireworks. I tweeted at half-time that it looked a wholly inadequate score, but doing that I was basing it on the previous two T20 games played there. Where 200 wasn’t enough.

Before getting on to the second innings of the game, I thought I’d make my observations on the client base. I did not move from my seat for the whole game, which was cheeky as beers were being bought, and thus did not circulate. It’s bloody noisy – not that test match buzz which I sort of miss, the low hum of conversations around the ground, but something a level, several levels up. It’s not football match chanting but it is increasingly “weather-worn” folk shouting at each other from the seat next to their recipient of vocal intercourse. As usual, because I’m a grumpy so and so, I was getting more and more irate with the muppets behind me, and I’ll go into that more as the article progresses. But of more interest was to the right of Stan. It was a father with two young kids. Not a great guesser of age, but I’d say 11 and 8 years old. Now remember, this is the target audience for the new T20 competition. They are our future. It was good to see them there.

However, they were kids, and what they saw on the field did not captivate them one bit. First of all, the little blighters couldn’t sit still. We had to let them through on numerous occasions. Dad hadn’t taught them the etiquette that you don’t do it until the end of the over, but he was far from alone in that. When one did sit down he played with his Nintendo portable system for most of the game, while the other played on his tablet. They didn’t “engage” with the onfield action at all, as far as I could tell. It’s a small sample size, I know, but didn’t fill me with hope. Not sure if the Surrey Lions or whatever we might be called will be any different from a super franchise team (and Surrey have a lot of name talent in their squad), but the suspicion is that a new product needs more to win hearts and minds.

After a short interlude, and Stan relates what he thought of the T-shirt shooter, where I couldn’t hear Colin Murray, Essex came out to bat and got off to a decent start. It seemed very much to be a “new ball” wicket, where the batsmen had to make hay early on in the innings. I like Dan Lawrence, and think he has a big future, and he and Chopra set about the total. Sam went for a few in his opening spell, which meant that idiot behind had something to shout when he came down to where we were sitting. Sam had to take the most god-awful, stupid abuse from a tanked up imbecile who clearly was a lot less clever than he thought he was. Unrelated boundaries hit by an Essex batsman were met with “you’ve cost them the game, Curran” or “that’s your fault Curran” even when they went to the opposite part of the ground.

It was also dawning on us (as if it had been announced on the tannoy we’d never would have heard it) that KP wasn’t fielding. The murmurs went round that this was a classic case of “pulling up the ladder! We used to call this a HABAFO (Have a bat and….well work the rest out). He was replaced by Rory Burns. By and large Surrey were hungry in the field. They nicked out the two openers, and then felt they had to get the two real danger-men, Ravi Bopara (who nearly won Essex the game in the first contest) and Ryan ten Doeschate. Also, there was new test selection, Tom Westley, who didn’t stay for the duration. The run rate crept up, the wickets kept falling, with Batty very impressive. Ravi went, Ryan couldn’t hit the boundaries, and Surrey pulled the noose tighter and tighter. They ended up restricting Essex quite comfortably, with Tom Curran being particularly impressive at the death again.

And then 24000 tried to go home. At the same time.

Walking out of the ground is a chastening experience, Very drunk, very noisy and I’m not convinced that many gave a damn about the game or the result. It just seems like a chance to get on the lash, and Surrey are not ashamed to enable this. Service at the bars is efficient. You don’t wait long to get served at all. What I found slightly soul-destroying was the sight of grown adults scouring all parts of the ground for empty beer glasses to earn a pound a pop for returning them. It felt a bit tawdry. Maybe I’m just an old stick in the mud, in fact, I know I am.

Look, I’ll be honest. I’m not a massive T20 fan, and the experience was not as bad as I thought it was going to be (I didn’t see beer thrown, there were no Mexican waves, and the people standing up mid-over had to be excused). You can always get the idiot sat with you (he wasn’t in the league of the Indian fella at an ODI in the early 2000s. It was a miracle I didn’t clock him) but even he just made me mad because his abuse wasn’t funny, clever or, in fact, related to the truth in any conceivable way. Plus, you always have the feeling that he might have been you before. There were some mouthy cricket know nothings on the bus back to London Bridge, but again, I’ve been to so many football matches and met people like this, and it never compared to some of the plankton at the Adelaide Oval. I didn’t take an age to get home, either, but got lucky. I never saw a programmes seller, so never got one. I like that sort of thing. This ground is the exemplar in getting people to part with their money. £5.20 a pint was remarked upon on Twitter as being some horrific price. Do these people drink in Central London pubs? The £1 to return your cup is to deter beer snakes, but instead encourages other forms…. The beer isn’t undrinkable, but not far short, but I can handle Yardbird if it’s on offer. The leg room is garbage, and is why I don’t go to tests there any more.

Did I enjoy it? It’s not as bad as I may have portrayed. I found the cricket enthralling, and isn’t that the point? When Surrey scored 150 I thought this was 30 light, but they bowled and fielded hard. They made Essex work, and they couldn’t keep up the momentum. A game the following Friday followed a similar pattern. My colleague (not Stan) at work said he found both games boring, but they were both contests. The cricket on show more than made up for the duff stuff off it, but not for the reasons the ECB or TV want.

The star of the show, whether you liked it or not, was Kevin Pietersen. The murmurs and outright accusations that he was faking injury not to field were probably put into context by Friday night’s antics. KP is a divisive character, more so since retirement from the test and international arena, and he can say some obnoxious and stupid things. He can also be incredibly prescient. I saw a lot of rust in his play, but then he hit Simon Harmer for 4 sixes in an over. That’s Pietersen. Box Office. You can’t have your cake and eat it. You can’t say T20 doesn’t matter, that it’s just entertainment, and then get huffy when he acts like a diva, but plays shots out of heaven. It was amazing the Twitter response to both matches – the plaudits, the hatred, the defenders, the vitriol. I like him. You know that. For what he does on the field.

It was also a real pleasure to see two quicker bowlers on the top of their game – Mohammad Amir and Tom Curran. This game was not a batting parade, but a chance to see the skills of pacemen in a batsman’s game. Their ability, pace and cunning were on show. Amir tied KP up, as well as not providing the width or length to allow Roy and Finch to really get the game off to the flyer (although they went quickly enough). Curran, T has come on as a death bowler and although I hate that “routine” celebration, preferring spontaneity to something over a prep piece for #39’s lamentable advert, he has real nous now. Jade may well be a very good teacher for all we know. I have to be nice to Jade, he blocked me on Twitter ages ago.

We also got to see two legendary keepers. James Foster is a joy to watch behind the stumps. Utterly capable, smooth, no rough edges. Surrey had Kumar in the gauntlets. Hell, if you are going to retire from a sport that punishes your knees, finish them off with a spell of keeping. Still, he completed a stumping in the game.

Chris, Sean and I have purchased tickets for the 4th August match against Glamorgan. If you are there, or in the vicinity, please let us know and we’ll try to catch a drink or chat with you. T20 isn’t for everyone, but a bad day at cricket is better than a great day at work, and if Surrey are still in the running to make it through, as they should be, and if Colin Ingram is in form like he has been, it could be a really nice night out. If you can put up with the others around you.

And so, to Stan…..

Hey, where’re the Surrey City Dancers?

By Stan

Wednesday I attended my first cricket match ever. More accurately, I attended my first British sporting event ever. I’m an American. Having lived in London for a year now, I had yet to immerse myself into local sport, preferring to keep track of sports across the pond. Fortunately, I work with one of the authors of this blog and I was invited to The Oval. Although I had months of warning, I made a conscious decision to not learn about cricket in advance. I knew that even the most exciting description of a sport would pale in comparison to the experience. (They call it a bat, right?) I wanted a raw first impression. The event, the T-20 Blast, sounds like something pulled from a Red Bull commercial. The name should be partnered with EXTREME! and IN YOUR FACE! and things that are neon and shooting flames. This event was decidedly not that. (Though there was fire, which was cool.) For an EXTREME sporting event, I was expecting more music, and noise, and three jumbotrons, and a team of dancing girls. Nope. To belay the point, even the t-shirt cannon, which is normally designed to knock out the person in the back of the top deck – WHOMP! – barely got past the 6th row – pfft...

However, I learned that the name was not completely inappropriate. This was as IN YOUR FACE! as cricket gets. The T-20 matches are designed to be fast and furious.  The teams are allotted one inning each, with 20 overs, curtailing the game to 3 hours. If you’re reading this blog, this is not news. It was to me. But, realising this, I began to appreciate this sport. This was not a showy sport, and trying to turn it into one could only go so far. This was a restrained game. There were exciting moments, to be sure. There were plenty of sixes hit. (Not home runs?) It was a close game, going down to the last few bowls. However, the ratcheted down environment encouraged fans to appreciate the game for what it was: an opportunity to see some of the best players in the world up close without the extraneous frill that other sports peddle. (He now knows Kevin Pietersen’s back story, as told by Old, D. – Ed)

The stands were filled with business types in rumpled suits drinking beer after a day at the office. Many seemed only casually interested in the match. I was informed that these were not fans that would be at a proper test match. The guy behind was eager to show off his knowledge of the game, taking Sam Curran’s proximity to us as an opportunity to repeatedly critique him with, “Hey, Curran, you suuuuck!”.

In short, this was a less than pure cricket experience, and I liked it. I like that even the brash version of this game was unassuming. In a world that is overcome with a barrage of noise, it is a pleasure to find a sport that is not given to excesses. I hope to see more.

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Champions Trophy – The Final Group Game

OK. Time for me to write something. I’ve been here, I’ve been there. Cologne on Wednesday, Guildford on Friday. Sleep has been a stranger. But that’s life. I’ve been on the sofa for large parts of the weekend watching the two group games that sealed the fates of Australia and South Africa. Yes, if you remember I tipped Australia. I love being wrong. I’ve had a lot of practice.

Today’s game, and I’ll review it if I have to, was a poor old show. South Africa started out at a sedate pace, as they did against Sri Lanka last weekend, but then collapsed into a heap. Nasser has been banging on about how the big players have come forward, but AB de Villiers was the exception. He hasn’t been at the races in this tournament and will now be able to rest up for the summer while his team-mates undertake the test match heavy lifting. I wonder what South Africa’s version of Oliver Holt or Paul Newman would make of that.

Once South Africa had been dismissed for under 200, it was always going to be a walk in the park. They lost two wickets getting there, but there was never really any alarm. Rohi Sharma’s dismissal to Morne Morkel, however, reminded me of a game I saw 10 years or so ago, when Morkel, who was, I think, a bit quicker then embarrassed James Benning in a T20 game as his bounce caused mayhem. Benning ended backing away a little and losing his composure. Sharma is in a different league, of course, but that wasn’t his finest hour. Food for thought?

India will, in all likelihood, meet Bangladesh in the semi-final, while England, who have been incredibly impressive so far, will meet the winners of tomorrow’s clash between Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Frankly, your guess is as good as mine. Pakistan took advantage of dismissing South Africa cheaply but looked woeful against India. Sri Lanka’s batting looked frail against South Africa and then chased down a large total set by India. Strengths and weaknesses….

In other matters I went to Surrey v Essex at Guildford on Friday. I’ll probably put some pictures up in due course. It was a very entertaining day out, even if Kumar came and went in a very short time. I had visited just one session of play previously this season – the opening day – where I saw Mark Stoneman finish his 165. This time I saw him score 181 not out, and he looked magnificent. Sam Curran was also a pleasure, making a breezy half century. All the while though, the presence was too much for me to concentrate on the game. I was too close to the genius, to the aura. I was not worthy seated under the tree.

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Catching a day’s county cricket at an out ground is always fun. Guildford is well worth a visit, with the beer served up of excellent quality and at £4 a pint. It will never catch on. As I said, more on this during quiet periods and when I’ve got my photo-editing software on to some of the pics.

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I did like this one – Dominic Sibley dances down the track and I get the ball at point of impact (almost)

Other heads up for pieces in the future – and you know these aren’t guaranteed – is I’m reading a lot of old books I’m snapping up on Amazon “Used”. I’ve read Bob Willis on Test Cricket. I read Mike Brearley’s regaining the Ashes book from 1977. I am now reading John Snow’s book. It’s tremendous dipping into these old books, because they are anything but andoyne. They are full of forthright opinions, not written with anyone other than their own accuracy and views in mind. I’ve picked up a load of these recently, with books by Tony Greig and a couple more by Brearley to read. I also got Stuart Broad’s recent effort for a couple of quid, as well as the Simon Jones book. Also snapped up the Wisden Anthologies, a few missing B&H Cricket Years from my collection, and now I just have to read them! Any recommendations, let me know.

Finally, not to blow my own trumpet, but more of an explanation. I recently got a promotion at work, which is going to mean that the time I can devote to the blog maybe more restricted than before. I know we are all busy people on here, but given where life has taken me in the last few weeks, I’ve not been able to write as much as I would have liked. It’s life. We’ll do what we can.

Comments on the Sri Lanka v Pakistan game below.

 

“Do SOMETHING! ANYTHING!”

Sean’s excellent piece on Saturday captured the arguments over the plans to introduce a new T20 competition succinctly and accurately. I must put my cards on the table here. I just don’t think T20 is much good. It’s not particularly memorable in its own right, and because it is so frequent, with game after game after game bombarding you, a tournament like the Big Bash just feels like it goes on too long. Which means the IPL has got to a serious “what the hell” phase long before it gets to its knockout phase, or whatever it is that concludes it. I went to the first ever T20 at The Oval, back in the day, where the sheer shock that the ground was almost full and the club had catered for half that, still sticks in the mind more than the game did (Comma made a 50 I see). It’s interesting to see how the articles refer to the same concerns on show now.

Questioned about a shorter format, almost half were against it but of the 34% who expressed approval, most had never attended a county game. And for Robertson and the ECB it was the possibility of attracting new fans – and crucially families – that convinced them to press on.

“I just couldn’t see how it wouldn’t work,” John Carr, the ECB’s director of cricket operations at the time, said in 2004. “But it took a lot to convince the counties. Fair play to [Robertson]. It is one thing to have an idea like we did, but quite another to sell it. And that is what he did. And not only to the public, because I thought that one of the most important things was that it was sold to the players. It would only work if they took it seriously and did not dismiss it as ‘hit-and-giggle’ cricket.”

I used to go to a few of them back then. I remember Andrew Symonds tearing some attack apart at Beckenham (it was Hampshire’s), a very well contested quarter-final between Surrey and Worcestershire when it was skillful bowling that saved the day, and the “penalty bowl out” between Surrey and Warwickshire. I was a member back then, and felt absolutely no desire to go to Finals Day, and I had a culture of following my other sporting love all round the country.

For me T20 was there for a one-off “hope something good might happen” but often disappointed. I got a couple of free tickets to see Surrey a few years back, and KP was playing so it was a rare chance to see him in action, but the games themselves weren’t very exciting to me. I realise I’m not the kind of supporter this new competition is meant to get to, but also I wasn’t a fan of playing it when I had the chance, and thought it wasn’t that great a concept. It was cricket for cricket’s sake. I remember going to a Surrey v Middlesex game on my birthday, and Middlesex barely got 100. It was cripplingly dull. Even the most boring day at a test was better than that. No amount of fire machines, dancing people and loud music could make up for the fact it was a rubbish game.

The clubs saw the chance in the immediate aftermath of the initial success to go from the five games they had planned in season 1, and they continued in Season 2, to more. Remember those lazy hazy first season matches at East Molesey and Richmond Park? This increased to 8 in Season 3 and went up to, 10 in its 6th season. The counties became dependent on it to continue, seeing it as a necessary income, and could not resist the temptation to overkill. In its eighth season, in 2010, it became a league of 16 games, with quarter-finals? Even then they sensed they were killing the golden goose, because it reverted to 10 games after two seasons, before settling on the 14 we have now with the Blast (from 2014).

What that showed is the counties had no real idea on what to settle upon, and I know a number kicked up fury when it went from 8 home games to 5 in 2012. The Blast has seen some improvement in the attendances and there appears a fair buzz towards it this year. The “appointment to view” with a Friday night fixture was actually, in hindsight, a decent idea, but that’s been watered down now we’ve decided to play the fixtures in more of a block.

Then we have the IPL and the Big Bash. Envious glances were cast at these two competitions. Both play in considerably larger grounds than we have in this country, and both, therefore, attract the money makers. The IPL was very much set up as the Premier League of cricket, and the BBL followed with a different kind of league, but in sun-kissed stadia, free to air TV, and the teams playing just 8 games each. Both played one game a day (occasionally two at weekends), but all were televised live, and that’s what has got the attention of the ECB and their influential friends in the media. There wasn’t a Big Bash occasion that seemed to go by without Shiny Toy doing down our competition and bigging up theirs. The aim to copy the IPL wasn’t possible – we didn’t have the money, or the calendar slot for it – hence the waltz down the Sandford cul-de-sac. But the Big Bash? Why not?

I have always said that new leaders have to have a new idea to be remembered by and it has to be a big one. There is no place in this world for staying still, because the world moves without you if you do. For some, the sheer fact that Test Cricket has been in existence for 140 years is anathema in itself. The English football authorities changed in 1992 to the Premier League, which, we are told, has made our competition the best in the world, but in doing so, virtually killed the other main crown jewel, the FA Cup, dead. As a football fan of a non-Premier League team, I despise this. There’s nothing in the top heavy structure for me, and the FA Cup is a joke. We beat three Premier League teams this year, all playing reserve XIs, before Spurs put us out by taking the game vaguely seriously. The FA Cup is seen as a consolation prize now. In twenty years the culture of it being the biggest single day out is now relegated to big clubs saying it is not enough to win it.

What will a new City-based (or whatever it is) do the Blast which seemed to be standing on its own two feet, was a competition anyone could win (see Northants and Leicester – it’s great Yorkshire, the mighty Yorkshire, haven’t won it) and people seemed to genuinely enjoy it? I think there’s an overly rosy picture painted of it, the Blast is not perfect, but it’s working out for all concerned and there is a rise in interest. I wish it were a little shorter, but then I already said I’m not that bothered about it. But when Michael Vaughan is wetting himself every time the Big Bash comes on, it’s hard to resist. If you look at how recent ex-pros, who didn’t play much county cricket towards the end of their careers, react to the onset of a new competition, it’s noticeable how many do their old breeding grounds down.

The new competition is designed to get new followers in to watch the game. Tom Harrison, the Empty Suit, is carving out quite a niche for himself as an absolute weapon. In selling this “vision”, his new management brings radical change “thing”, he’s not just in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, he wants to fit someone else up for the incident. In a series of responses to Sean’s piece, I picked out a few of them, but two stood out.

Obsessive

‘Counties have been incredibly successful having an audience that is obsessive about the game but our county brands are not cutting through so this is all about creating brands that are relevant to our target audience of families and children. We have to connect to their very busy world.”

I know, over the years I’ve been doing this, that I can take a throwaway line and make too much of it. After all, we aren’t called “Being Outside Cricket” for nothing, eh Paul Downton? But the choice of the word “obsessive” here is an interesting one. Obsessive has very negative connotations. As if you shouldn’t be doing something. If you obsess over something the inference is that you shouldn’t, or you should dial it back a bit. So if you are “obsessive” about the county game, maybe you shouldn’t be? Harrison, despite playing some county cricket, clearly has some negative perceptions of the people who follow it. Demographic perhaps, social class perhaps? It’s an issue that won’t go away. County cricket, last I looked, provided all but one England test player in my lifetime (ole Muppet Pringle came from the Universities when he made his debut). The County Championship has, I think many will say, flourished so the top division is now seen as a rival to any first class competition in the world. I watched some last year, and although we’re not getting the top world pros any more, the underlying quality of the home talent is pretty decent. It’s not for all, and it is based on what some would see as arcane old structures, but it kind of works from a cricket perspective. It also instills loyalty in it. That, Tom, is no bad thing. It is a positive, not a negative.

Harrison could, if he had a modicum of charm, had called the denizens of the county game “passionate”, “devoted” or “enthusiastic”. Instead, because they don’t worship at his sharp empty-suited altar, they are obsessive. They are also obstructive. They don’t go on “leaps of faith” or “Futurebrand presentations” but live in the here and now. Many have never accepted T20 but see it as a necessary evil, and their counties have kept the show on the road because of it. Now they see a new competition as a threat to their very existence. And so they should.

Harrison and his cheerleaders and parrots in the media are selling the by-passing of these views as a virtue! Not all of us are “county championship or nothing” fans, but I respect the hell out of those that are. They are the people who will tell their kids, and their grandkids, about the feats of the past, just as my Dad told me about his era. It is they who will tell kids born now of the majesty of Tendulkar, the brilliance of Lara, the dominance of the great Aussie teams, and yes, things like being at Adelaide, or seeing England hit the bottom of the Test table (though for me it will need to be my nieces and nephew). These obsessives are your core support, Empty Suit. Why piss them off even more than you have to? I feel insulted by that statement, and so should anyone who will be there in a week or so supporting their county as the Championship starts. The ECB can call it #realcricket if they want on their mildly annoying Twitter feed, but when the voice at the top thinks it is OK to use “obsessive” I think he gives away what he really feels.

It’s Not About The Game, Dummy

“Twenty20 is short and sharp. The actual game is secondary to the entertainment and fan experience.”

I remember watching Star Wars, the original, back in the day at the Odeon in Lewisham. It’s been long since destroyed. It was smoke-filled, the seats were crap, the service worse, the film quality passable, yet I still remember it. It was shorter than a T20, it was new-ish (I mean, we’d all seen Star Trek) and the thing that stuck out was that it was an entertaining film that I still recall.

I went to see Phantom Menace in a lovely multiplex cinema, massive screen, comfy chairs, all mod cons, expensive food and drink, and the film was garbage. Just because my “fan experience” was good, and there was much more comfort, the “product” itself, what you go for, was ropy. I didn’t go to the cinema to see the next two, or even the new one.

Harrison here is giving the game away. On the one hand he wants a competition to capture the buzz, the excitement, the thrills of the Big Bash. But on the other he says this is “of secondary importance”. What the serious you know what is he on about? What the Blast has, no matter how little you feel about it, is when you get to the latter stages of it, it clearly matters to a lot of people. Northants and Leicestershire should tell you that. They couldn’t give a flying one about a “customer experience” and more about are they going to win the competition, as do their fans. You can’t just, in this country for sure, astroturf supporters. It’s called grass roots support for a reason. Harrison isn’t trying to get new people involved by a meaningful competition, but by some sort of high entertainment exhibition. Again, you watch the Big Bash and there does appear to be, especially with the Perth team, an affinity between the team and the supporters, and they are playing their matches at their worst test ground for amenities.

The argument, it seems the only argument, for this competition is to bring new spectators to the game. Now this is going to be interesting to see how this is done. Let’s say, for instance, that The Oval is hosting a fixture against the North London team. I could see how a rivalry might develop, and both those counties have a relatively short commuting range to get to the grounds. The Oval has a bit of a rep for becoming a drinking den during the T20 games. Up the ante on the supposed quality, and those supporters would be interested in more of the same in the late Summer months. How are you going to keep them out? Because that’s what Tom and co seem to be implying. These guys are good at getting tickets – better, I would suggest, than families, mums and dads. The city boys who make The Oval “what it is” on Blast days won’t mind shelling out a few extra quid. Are we going to make large parts of the ground “alcohol free”? How are you going to police that? How are you going to ensure families get tickets, even if there is no idea if that market actually exists? Are the ECB, in effect, going to take over the running of the ground for that game, something they don’t even do for international fixtures? Why would Surrey let the ECB take over the Oval for 4 or 5 nights a year? And good luck trying that with Lord’s!!!!!

It’s OK for fancy dan presentations by Futurebrand, or whoever they are, telling the ECB how to run things, giving them what they want, but what does Harrison actually want? There’s woolly aims about growing the game, future-proofing it, putting it on terrestrial TV. There’s much out there saying the status quo isn’t an option, and that county cricket isn’t a brand that sells. It’s much like test cricket. If you talk it down enough, you end up with even the supporters having little long-term faith. Harrison has fancy ideas, but no idea what will happen. He’s taking a leap of faith. If you are asking me to have faith in an ECB leap of faith, then you are asking the wrong person. The ECB used up my web of goodwill ages ago. All I see are charlatans at the top, keeping the man who did the most to sabotage long-term growth (Clarke) in gainful employment, and his successor locked firmly in Downton’s cupboard in case he says anything more out of order than the Empty Suit. When you have Comma, with a straight face, saying this competition could produce the test players of the future (yes, lots of “spinners” bowling darts is just what we need), my eyes rolled. They want a Big Bash. Michael Vaughan wants a Big Bash. Nasser Hussain wants a Big Bash. #39 wants a Big Bash.

It would just be the most honest thing to call it Big Bash, wouldn’t it. I can’t wait for the South London Scum to play the North London Toffs, and I hope many families will come for the “customer experience”. Let me hear them make some noise…

Four Sessions, 30 Degrees, Two Currans, One Sanga

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I used to be a Surrey member. I’ve been a supporter since the 1970s, when I followed my deceased grandfather’s teams rather than my Dad’s (Dad was Kent), and thus can’t be accused of the old “bandwagon” tag. But I did become a member for about six years from 2001 onwards, and spent some great days at The Oval, as well as going to Guildford and Whitgift over the years.

I had some leave to take and thought the Lancashire fixture looked like one to be at. For me Surrey v Lancashire will always bring me back to a magnificent tense Day 4 back in 2002, when Ramps took us home against a pretty decent Lancashire attack (Chapple, Flintoff and Hogg). This year’s match saw two teams looking up and down, as the table is very congested in the middle, with only Middlesex, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire really sure of their fate (safety/relegation). All eyes look at Hampshire and what one win might do to the competition, so although Surrey lay in third place, they had played more and could not afford a slip-up. A win would guarantee survival, more or less.

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