With No Emotion, You Can Really Make My Head Spin

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4 Day Test Cricket Would Have Saved Us – And Given Us A True Boring Game

OK. I went off one one last night. As the lagging keyboard on the laptop got worse, so my anger rose. These people, these so called guardians of the game, transient here today gone tomorrow sorts, convinced of their own views to such an extent that they couldn’t give a shit what you think, are actively floating the four day test idea. More than actively floating it, they’ve put a date on it (the year after an Ashes series). I have had a brief read of an article on Cricinfo which suggests this four day idea isn’t particularly new:

The four-day idea has been championed since 2003 by Andrew Wildblood. “Don’t be scared to fail. We’re going to die wondering if we don’t do something soon”

Andrew Wildblood? No, me neither. It seems as though he was a former senior vice-president for International Management Group. Now I wonder who worked there? Who might be in a position of power?

Tom was Senior Vice President for the leading international sports agency IMG…

Original old groupthink, eh. But importantly, according to Lawrence Booth in the Mail today, Costcutter Colin is claiming considerable credit, as he has been its champion. He consulted no-one I know of in the lead up to floating this nonsense, has not consulted anyone I know of since then, and if form goes its way, has no intention of meaningful consultancy with anyone, certainly not paying customers, before we see a final decision.

I had little hope for both these two when they came to power. Yes, Downton and Clarke are a pairing not to yearn for, in any way, but both were bumbling morons with little to suggest they were going to go headlong into a pitched battle with the existing customer base outside a difficult winter and a disinterested player. After that war, and the disaster at the 2015 World Cup both had shown the scars and were taken from the frontline. We heard plenty of nonsense, but good grief, they didn’t think they could do everything.

Harrison shows all the traits of a zealot. Graves shows all the signs of a dictator. Empowered by making the county turkeys vote for Christmas they weren’t going to stop at that. Where those who loved the ECB’s bastard child, the Blast, were labelled as obsessives by these charlatans, now we will see the term “traditionalist” used as an insult. If you quite like your five day tests, with the capacity to absorb some loss of time, to enable results on all forms of wickets, where roads have to be true roads, and still can provide some excitement, then you will gradually be filed under the Luddite category, and not being innovative, flexible or with the times. We aren’t suddenly going to get four day 420 over test matches. Leave off. We’ll get four day 360 over tests if we are lucky. We’ll make the game more exciting by having all the things that get disparaged in county games of yore. Limited first innings. Declarations of a ridiculous nature. The higher the level of the sport, the less teams are prepared to lose in the pursuit of a win, especially in an Ashes series, for example.

So let’s take a look at the quotes in the Guardian I posted last night.

ECB has no firm position on the staging of four-day Test matches. We can see benefits that more compact scheduling might deliver but are sensitive to the potential effects of any change to the traditional format. Careful consideration is required to support the right decisions for the wider game, and on-field matters are key.”

ECB does have a firm position. Both Graves and Empty Suit want them. They put the position, get the others to agree, usually with coercion and meaningless consultation and only something that might cost them their jobs can stop them. The weasel words in this are not those after the first 10. It’s the first 10. No-one I can recall, has really called for 4 day test matches. Many many more have called for a Test Championship, but somehow, some way, a format  has never stuck, and ironically one of the arguments against is “what if the Final is a draw”? Well, to make that event less likely, let’s shorten the game. That should work. Hey, as soon as the Gruesome Twosome open their traps, it’s game on.

It’s not shortening test matches, it’s “compact scheduling”. Or as I call it, taking your punters for mugs. And as far as these people are concerned, they’ve already carried out their “careful consideration”. They don’t just put these things out there by chance. They get a journo, in the same stable as Shiny Toy, an advocate for all these ECB ideas, to put it out there. We have had enough experience of Nick Hoult, a top journo, to know he doesn’t make this shit up. These things seem to be done for a reason. I’d plump for kite flying.

Further consultation will therefore take place before far-reaching decisions are made. “We would welcome more insight on the effects for players and fans in order to help the game make a fully-informed decision on any proposal,” added the ECB’s spokesman. “It is important that cricket is prepared to innovate in all formats of the game where it can help drive interest, accessibility or improvement.

I’d be more impressed with your commitment to consultation if you hadn’t already flagged what you want, haven’t got a firm proposal to put to anyone on over rates, floated this two years ago, been told what was wrong with it, and still have no clue what to do, but you plough on regardless because, let’s be frank, you need your space for the new T20 competition that has hardly grabbed the imagination because we don’t really know how you intend to make it work. Meanwhile you’ve signed a massive deal with Sky who aren’t going to be too impressed if “compact scheduling” means less international cricket. So what precisely are you going to consult with us. A fait accompli from the brains of IMG, in alliance with ISM, and flogged to you by a Costcutter genius. People who are in their posts with not one vote cast by the paying public. Happy days, eh?

Also, when someone innovates and drives accessibility, my hand gets even tighter over my wallet.

Let’s finish with the final words of the ECB on this matter.

“Above all, ECB is committed to a healthy and competitive future for Test match cricket, here and around the world.”

The Big Three money grab never really happened, did it?

Scheduling 15 Ashes tests in 2 years never really happened, did it?

L’Affaire Pietersen never really happened, did it?

Playing injured bowlers never really happened, did it?

If they are committed to it, Lord help us.

Actually, it’s not the end. I can’t let this lie…

Last year Graves said about four-day Tests: “Every Test match would start on a Thursday, with Thursday and Friday being corporate days and then Saturday and Sunday the family days.

There’s your sporting leader (and sounds like there’s plenty of open-mindedness), right there. Care about those corporates, let the rest fend for themselves. It’s as if the “family” days are where these keen fans can take over those wonderful corporate facilities, and stuff you ordinary Joe if you want to be there for the first two days. I can’t believe a man steeped in cricket could ever think like that. The first two days are for low-grade bribery, the last two are for the peasants. What a leader. What a clown.

 

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Let Me Tell You About A Little Situation, It’s Been Testing My Patience

Sport is emotional. I am pretty emotional. Warning – this is a bit of a rant, jotted down in one take, with a duff keyboard and a lagging laptop. By the end, I’ve had enough of all of it. So just a head’s up. My laptop is still intact, although the swear box has been filled nicely. So take it away…..

Lyrics from a song I like this year (well a remix of) but sums up where I am. I’m not writing about an ODI that followed a well-trodden path, even if it contained the sort of century that you can only dream about. Moeen is rightly popular among many – a throwback cricketer in many ways, and someone England should be proud to have. To play an innings like that should dominate my thinking, my prose, my match report. But in truth I barely watched the game. Things to do, places to go, other sports intruding on my time, other chores needing to be done. Devoting a whole day to sitting in front of a screen, commenting on the cricket is a luxury I can have on only so many occasions. Obviously this means you miss hundreds like today.

But the lyrics in the title (from a song called Tearing Me Up) are directed more at the contents of the article by Nick Hoult regarding the ECB contemplating ending the five day test and shrinking the matches into 4. Graves, at about the same time he was talking to KP and then denying he said what he said, mentioned this sack of garbage a couple of years ago, and most of us put it down to the witless ramblings of another useless administrator who might have money, but had no idea. Empty Suit, presumably because two people at the top of the ECB can’t really be disagreeing with each other, backed up this tosh, but no-one else seemed really serious. Distinct hums came into our airspace when Shiny Toy and #39 started to really float this out in the open. Shiny Toy kept the myth going that all five day tests that reside in our memories as classics could all have been the same with 4 days. Because he is floating it out there that there will be 8 hour days at the test to bowl 100+ overs. Good grief. As Jimmy said on commentary today, they struggle to bowl 90 now so “not sure how that would work”.

Then, this week, we heard that South Africa were trying to make the four day match planned for Boxing Day against Zimbabwe a “test match”. You know how these minds work, it’s as clear as day. “Hello, there’s an opportunity out there, if South Africa get this in the books, maybe we can do it.” The reasons are that they will save seven days play a year, that Day 5 being removed will save substantial costs, and it will make the game more consumer friendly. Have they asked those consumers if that’s something they actually want? The ones they care about. Don’t bother. Specious arseholes.

I am, by my very nature, a traditionalist. I don’t care that much for T20. I’m not that massive a fan of 50 over cricket, but can recognise there’s a bit more nuance to it than spinners bowling darts, small boundaries, big bats, and yes, the skill involved is high. But to me the one thing that T20 does that is anathema to me in cricket, is that it makes the sport about individuals and not about teams. A great T20 player, someone who can bat for an hour and a half smashing it everywhere, is fun the first three or four times I see it. It then gets dull. It normalises the amazing. After a T20 hundred, where has that person to go? Make another for another team somewhere around the world? There’s no team allegiance, but rather have bat will travel. A constant complaint about test matches are there is no context. Where’s the context of playing for Surrey, Port Elizabeth, St Lucia, Quetta, Melbourne, Kwazulu-Natal, Delhi, Bangalore, et al. Lord almighty. Hired guns, performing at a cricket ground near you, and hang about, he’ll be playing for someone else soon. Many team sports you know do this? You are one step away from Exhibition Cricket where the result does not matter. A jot.

Test cricket matters to the players. Sadly not to the spectators it seems as they don’t seem to turn up around the world. But five day test cricket works as a sporting endeavour. 4 day test cricket, now we have been used to five days for pretty much all my cricketing life, is another concession to money. That ship sailed years ago and only the collapse of mighty sporting TV institutions is going to reverse it. The five day game works. If players are not going to bowl 90 overs in a day now, I can’t see how it’s going to work in four days. The players are going to be against it. We here are quite zealous about the lack of penalty for slow play, and yet in four day cricket the games could be much more vulnerable to such nonsense. To me, that’s the key problem with four day tests – it is utterly vulnerable to losing a full day’s play. If we get a rain out on Day 1, we have three days to construct a result. The team batting first could be badly punished for batting well – 350 for 2 after the second day and what are they to do? Pull out stupid early and then the game hinges on whether the team batting second makes the follow-on total. If they do, we might as well pack up and go home. Day 4s mean that you can set up a Game 5. Losing a day’s play on Day 2 would mean the same sort of farce, and Day 3 would ruin pretty much most games. You could have a thrilling test where England score 300 on the first day, the opponents could makes 280 on the second and England are 40 for 1 at the end of Day 2. A beautifully balanced test that could finish on Day 3, but looks destined for a Day 4 finish. Then we have a rained out day and…. England are 60 ahead and are going to have to make a daring declaration to win or bat out the day and try again. I think the third day rain out will kill many a test match. What you going to do, make them bowl 130 overs on Day 4?

That was quite long-winded, but test cricket has adapted to five days and the game is brilliant for it. There are many bad ODIs and T20 games. But a bad test has everyone clutching the pearls. But bad tests still have meaningful performances and five days can draw out thrillers from nowhere. Abu Dhabi a couple of years ago, for instance. Four dull days, great performances by Malik and Cook, and then a nervy collapse and we have a chase down. Four days and that test match will be condemned. Five days and pressure brought a top finish. I don’t even need to go down the Adelaide 2006 route. Adelaide 2010 would have been a draw due to the rain. India’s magnificent win there a few years before 2006 would have been a bore draw. Test matches, 90 overs a day fit 5 days well. I see no problem to be solved.

Except we don’t believe in tests any more. Youngsters are not interested (we are doing bad jobs as parents and sellers of the game if this is the case) we are told. Keep telling someone the problem is test matches and then you believe it. The ECB wan more T20 because they want more money. Players aren’t going to be giving cash up any time soon, so the powers that be will need them to play more – and charge us more to watch.

I’m packing this in for tonight – will return to it tomorrow as my keyboard is giving me the hump more than the ECB. You get my drift. I’ll be back tomorrow to rant some more if there is time. Four day test matches will be the end for me. It’s change to accommodate an inferior format, in my view, and like any punter I can choose to watch or choose not to. And I am now about to throw this accursed laptop across the room.

Good night.

UPDATE – A non-denial, denial. Let’s gird our loins for the consultation..

In a statement, a spokesman said: “ECB has no firm position on the staging of four-day Test matches. We can see benefits that more compact scheduling might deliver but are sensitive to the potential effects of any change to the traditional format. Careful consideration is required to support the right decisions for the wider game, and on-field matters are key.”

Further consultation will therefore take place before far-reaching decisions are made. “We would welcome more insight on the effects for players and fans in order to help the game make a fully-informed decision on any proposal,” added the ECB’s spokesman. “It is important that cricket is prepared to innovate in all formats of the game where it can help drive interest, accessibility or improvement.

“Above all, ECB is committed to a healthy and competitive future for Test match cricket, here and around the world.”

Neglect and Decay

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Nine and a Half Years Ago…..

There is a programme being trailed at the moment on Sky about England in the Nineties. Leaving aside that for one glorious Ashes tour, and a freak of nature in 1981, the Eighties were probably more rank than the Nineties, there is something else that is absolutely striking about comparing then to now. The paucity of great teams.

The 1990s had the dying of the West Indian light, but still brought us Lara, Chanderpaul, Ambrose and Walsh. India had Sachin, an emerging Dravid, Anil Kumble entering the scene, and Sourav Ganguly making hundreds in his first two tests. South Africa had emerged onto the scene, with Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Jacques Kallis, Gary Kirsten and a host of quality players. Pakistan were stocked with batting talent (Inzy, Ijaz Ahmed, Saeed Anwar) to augment Wasim, Waqar and Mushy. Sri Lanka were emerging as a force, with Murali and Jayasuriya leading the way. Zimbabwe had some players to reckon with, New Zealand were no mugs and then there was the might of Australia, with one all conquering side about to turnover into another.

Now look at test cricket. It’s a shambles. While I see the word “context” bandied about as a reason for the struggles in the format, I don’t see that as much as a problem as the sheer lack of quality in test cricket. These teams of today may be fitter, they may be able to hit the ball further, and they may make lots of runs on lovely wickets, or take lots of wickets when the surfaces help them. But one look at Ashes 2015 should tell you all you need to know about where the game stands now. If England hadn’t won, we’d be looking back on the series as two flawed teams battling it out with the home team winning. Tests ending in four days or less as routine. While some welcome this as “exciting cricket” I thought it was just designed to see if we could get results.

Look at the state of test cricket now:

Australia – While they may be best in the world at the moment some of their displays last summer highlighted that they in no way should be confused with their peers of 10 years earlier. Warner is solid at opener, but the other slot is still a bad run away from Burns from being open. Smith is the heart of the line-up, Khawaja is showing some form, Voges is in the stratosphere with his average harvested on flat decks against popgun attacks. The bowling is consistent without having a star presence now Mitchell Johnson having gone (and Starc not doing it so well in tests that he has the aura of his other Mitch). Nathan Lyon is a worthy spinner, but will always pale into comparison with Shane Warne. Australia of the mid to late 90s was formidable – Taylor, Slater, M.Waugh, S. Waugh, Martyn, Healy/Gilchrist, McGrath, Warne, Gillespie….That team would slaughter anything around now.

Bangladesh – It’s been 16 years and still we wait for this nation to pull up any trees in test cricket. If we were being objective here we really should draw the conclusion that if you believe test cricket should be the highest quality and a fair contest, that Bangladesh are the poster child for not bringing countries into the fold. At first they seemed to exist purely to allow countries (and Ian Bell) to post impressive statistics against them. In 2001 it reached the nadir when people actually stopped batting because of the lack of challenge. Here we are now in a distinctly non-virtuous circle. Bangladesh don’t play the so-called top teams away from home at all, and at home very infrequently, so they don’t get to test themselves because they are not competitive, but will hardly get competitive if they don’t play these teams, even if by doing so, the home boards lose stacks of money. The hope was that they would be this generations Sri Lanka. They are more like this generations Zimbabwe. A couple of star players, but not a lot else to write home about.

England – We have a decent team that is talking about being World #1. The actual World #1 team of just four years ago had flaws, but wasn’t anywhere near as flawed as this team. This current team has no world class spinner, a wicket-keeper position in a little state of flux (love or hate Prior, he was a key player in that team), an open door at #2, a hole at number 3, a hole at number 5. I don’t think this team would compete with the 2005 model, and in many ways who would you put your money on in a match up against our 90s best? I don’t think it would be a slam dunk win for this team that aspires to greatness. If it gets to the top it will be through the failure of others, and I think that was shown in the two test series against Australia and South Africa. Also, is it going to win against spin anywhere – it looked pretty bereft in two tests in UAE with India to come later this year. That such a flawed team should be competing for top dog status speaks volumes.

India – You really have no idea what they are doing half the time. A smackdown of South Africa on their own turf followed some lacklustre results away, with it being particularly difficult for us to forget their last two tours to England where they pretty much quit when the going got tough. The demolition job on spinning tops in India of South Africa highlighted a couple of obvious points. First, India will have no objection to creating pitches that will spin from the start. We’ve had that debate but it lends itself to abuse and that can’t be good for test cricket. Second, it proved how fragile the current number 1 was because they’d lost a few players to retirement and injury. India have some world stars, especially Kohli, but does this model compare to the mid noughties vintage of Sehwag, Sachin, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman? Ashwin wouldn’t have made that team – Harby and Kumble would have kept him out. Yet they’ll be challenging for number 1 status.

New Zealand – For all the plaudits over how well they’ve played and what a great team they are to watch, they do rather avoid the “winning thing”. Having lost two series against their closest rivals over the winter and lost their talisman BMac, they find themselves in an interesting position. Kane Williamson is a star, no doubt, and the bowling is fine when fit and on fire, but it still looks a team of talented bits and pieces players scrapping above their weight. This team would barely have merited a look-in in the 90s. Now they are everyone’s favourites because they play cricket in the same manner as a drunk fighting. Keep on swinging. When it comes off, the world rejoices. When it doesn’t, the world patronises. But with McCullum retiring to spend more time with T20 cricket, the alarm bells should be ringing.

Pakistan – In many ways I think Pakistan are the bellwether for test cricket. That they play no games at home is a disaster for the game. They produce raw talent that isn’t honed until it gets to test cricket, which is why the two younger batting stalwarts, Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali have taken time to come to the boil, and the stability and rigidity of Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq are still so precious to them. I hope they have a great tour on what is sure to be their last test match visit here (thinking about it, is it Misbah’s first?). We can argue all day long about Mohammed Amir’s rights or wrongs, but he’s a prodigious talent and so is Wahab, but compared to what we’ve seen in the 90s and early 2000s it isn’t really the same. Test cricket needs a strong Pakistan and a strong West Indies. When both are struggling, we’re in for a lot of trouble.

Sri Lanka – In their pomp they had a top order to truly fear. Attapatu and Jayasuriya; Mahela and Sanga. They had Murali and the much under-rated Vaas. All the while their governing body was protected when they had these stars on display. Now they’ve all gone and what do they have? Game players, maybe, but outside of Mathews and Herath, test class? Eranga and co may come good on some wickets, and there’s no doubt still talent about but where and how is it going to improve at test level when there’s far fewer opportunities to do so. England lost at home to them in 2014 and are now openly talking about beating them 3-0 this time around. No Sanga, no Mahela, and the confidence rises because succession is tough. No doubting this is as weak a Sri Lanka team as there has been for 20 years.

South Africa – Although the world’s #1 team for quite a while, the behemoths that got them there are falling away. Graeme Smith got old too quickly. Jacques Kallis bowed out at the right time. Dale Steyn is falling apart. Is Vernon Philander even playing… So while the new breed of African cricketer is raising some pulse rate, the team still needs Amla and DeVilliers to shoulder the burden given the openers aren’t really vintage test players. The bowling looked shot against us, other than Rabada, with Morkel really not bowling well too often. Again, you can’t help but feel that their top batsmen are on the other side of the hill, with AB really not at it in the past two series, and giving off more than a few distress signals about his attitude to tests, and that darker days are ahead. Another quality team falling away. It’s a familiar story.

West Indies – A shambles. I can’t even write about it. At least in their decline they had people like Lara. Walsh. Ambrose. Now we have triers and flailing wands. Bowlers without menace playing on pitches as dead as dodos. What the hell happened here, and why is it being allowed to happen? Does anyone actually care?

Zimbabwe – In 2000 they had us worried at Trent Bridge. Murray Goodwin and Andy Flower were strong batsmen. They’d got a half decent bowling attack. Heath Streak was an under-rated cricketer. Now look at them. Don’t play test matches. Disappearing from view. Is this the template for new test nations?

You can see from my run-through test teams, albeit briefly, that the level of play is not good enough. While I see the breathless squeals over the big four “young” batsmen in the world game at the moment – Kohli, Root, Williamson, Smith – you think to yourself that this was about the quality of Australia’s middle order in its pomp, not the world game as a whole. Some will point to T20 cricket as a drain on test cricket’s resources, and in some ways I think you are right. The bowling in test cricket has been drained by the additional workload the bowlers get, and the spin bowlers bowling to contain more rather than seek wickets. There’s a lack of pacy wickets around the world that lend themselves to better cricket, but also there is such a paucity of spinning wickets outside the sub-continent that going to India and Sri Lanka is now seen as a journey into the unknown.

It was said by Lawrence Booth after a certain individual was oft-cited as finishing the Ashes tour with the most runs for England as being like Usain Bolt celebrating a win at a school sports day egg-and-spoon race. Yet we’ll see media meltdown should we hold all nine bilaterals. England, should they make it to number 1, will be beating this lot above. It isn’t a game in rude health, but the achievement will be lauded as if it is the greatest thing ever. Instead of cheering success, maybe we need to look at the state of neglect test cricket is in. Money makes the world go round, and although players may say they all want to be test greats, being a T20 star pays the bills, and what would you concentrate on? Test cricket might need context, whatever that is (could someone please explain) but this generation of stars, as good as they may be, can’t carry the overall lack of depth. You think Voges would be averaging what he is in any other era?

We carry on in our own parochial little bubble. Cook is going to get to 10000, the England team is on the rise. Sri Lanka are being given a real tussle by Leicestershire’s 1st and 2nd XI mixture. Pakistan are coming here for the first time in six years. All will be right in the world. There will be humming noises about winning all seven tests this summer, emulating Vaughan’s team of 2004. Will anyone stop to think precisely what we are beating here, if we do?

So if you catch the Sky programme, watch it and weep for the standard. I’ll bet that ain’t the message that will be portrayed. It wouldn’t be the done thing to do down what is happening now. Sky and the ECB wouldn’t want anyone to be actually thinking about this, would they?