Test Match Sanctimony

Back in the day, when I was a mere 19 year old whipper snapper, I ended up getting a job at a garden centre during my university summer holidays. Naturally the pay back then was quite frankly pitiful and I normally responded by turning up half cut after a big night out the night before, especially at the weekends. It was a pretty uneventful and dull job, which tidied me over and gave me some money to throw at cheap booze during the next semester. The one and only perk (so to be speak) was that often on a Thursday and a Monday, I was often tasked with helping out the main delivery driver with his delivery runs throughout the whole of Sussex. This was ideal for me, I could basically sit in the van all day, occasionally getting out to deliver some garden furniture at some remote place in rural Sussex, whilst discovering every road side café within the boundaries of the A27 (my delivery man was not a small gentleman). The best thing for me however, was that the main man was a massive cricket fan himself and so whilst I got to discover some new quaint and wonderful places in Sussex from the comfort of my passenger seat, I was also able to enjoy a summer of listening to Test Match Special on the radio. The travel to rural locations alongside conversations about cricket with the dulcet tones of Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Vic Marks, Simon Mann and Blowers made what was a pretty crappy job into a summer I actually look back with fondness on. I bet there are a number of us with similar stories, who remember traveling by road or listening on holiday to the TMS team cover the often travails of the English cricket team in good humoured fashion. This was long before the ECB turned into a despicable, money grabbing, old boys club; sure they were an old boys club back then, but back then they were far more interested in what Port was being served at lunch, rather than trying to squeeze every penny out of their dwindling fan base.

Test Match Special has it’s place as an institution of English cricket, something that has been cherished by the English cricketing public for a number of years and what the BBC would probably like to term ‘Auntie’s favourite’ in the fact it was highly inoffensive but much admired due to some of the quirky conversations between a number of the commentators. This so called institution though is beginning to fade and quickly, with the advent of Sky (for those that can afford it) as well as streaming sites and the advent of social media, which negates having to listen to long swathes of cricket should that not be your wish and can inform in a moment when a wicket has fallen or when England have collapsed in a heap again. There is also competition now, with TalkSport winning the rights to the winter tours for the next few years. Now I must admit that I haven’t actually listened to any commentary from TalkSport, but from the feedback from those who have, many have said it is a competent operation and compares favourably to TMS. One also has to look at the make up of Test Match special, especially around those who commentate for the show, and it soon becomes clear that ‘Houston, we have a problem’. Boycott is a casual hypocrite who has been banging on about the same stuff for years, Graeme Swann is a legend only in his lunch hour and makes Jay from the InBetweeners look modest, whilst Vaughan is too busy shamelessly promoting his own clients and jumping on any bandwagon that the ECB care to peddle out. It seems like an old boys club, with the emphasis on ‘In Jokes” and ‘banter’ rather than any serious attempt to describe what is going on with the game and so this leads us straight to the door of the ‘so-called face of the TMS’ Jonathan Agnew.

Agnew likes to paint himself as a whiter than white and a real patriarch of the game, but someone who is also approachable and jovial. He is a favourite of the ‘blue rinse brigade’ who can’t get enough of that lovable Mr. Agnew and the BBC paints a picture that TMS under Agnew’s watch harks back to a simpler and purer time. This is a lovely picture in an ideal world, but one that forgets that Agnew is a thin-skinned, foul-mouthed media luvvie, who is likely to snap the moment anyone dares to question his expertise or the way he goes about his business as ‘Chief Correspondent of the BBC’. The lovable Mr. Agnew that he likes to paint a picture around is actually an insecure, paranoid individual who is likely to lose his temper the moment the adoration stops and funnily enough, this doesn’t surprise me in the least. Agnew has kept being told during his time at the BBC that he is doing a great job, that the public love him, that he is right about all things cricket by the army of cricket fans who follow his social media feeds (well not Kicca) and anyone who dares criticize him will face the wrath of the pearl clutching brigade who will jump on anyone at the merest hint of insubordination. This clearly has inflated his ego somewhat, so much so that he saw it fit to criticize Gary Lineker on social media for expressing his political views:

So when a fellow journalist, a TV presenter or one of us ‘little bloggers’ dares to stick our head over the parapet and disagree with Agnew, the man himself is almost disbelieving that anyone on this planet could have the audacity to disagree with him. If was just Agnew’s thin skinned approach or pinch nosed approach to the public, then it really wouldn’t be a big deal as many in the media view the general public as the ‘great unwashed who are there to be preached at’; unfortunately for Agnew this is just the tip of the iceberg.

It has always been fairly easy to be sceptical about Agnew, especially after the Pietersen affair, where he like many others in the media seemed to turn into ECB mouthpieces overnight. I remember the interview the Full Toss blog did with him not long after the infamous sacking of a certain individual from the ‘aplomb one’ and Agnew came across as incredibly dismissive of what were pretty fair questions (I’m sure Maxie can add some insight into this). It also became clear that the Chief Cricket Correspondent of the BBC had struck up a friendship with Alastair Cook, much like he has a friendship with Stuart Broad, whose father was a regular in a pub that Agnew used to visit regularly. Now I don’t have any problem whatsoever with commentators and media hacks having members of the England that they both admire and sometimes are friendly with, but there has to a be line somewhere when admiration has to be put aside in order to produce fair and concise judgements on any turn of events. This hasn’t seemed to bother Agnew one bit, who not only stoutly defended Cook at every turn, but also demanded an apology from the ‘hoi polloi’ on the back of an interview with guess who, Alastair Cook, who was hardly likely to take a ‘mea culpa’ approach to the situation

This is bad enough, but Agnew always seemed to ‘raise his game’ whenever Cook did well in a game and who revelled in the fact that Cook had ended his England career by scoring a century in his final Test. He subsequently used it as an opportunity to take pot-shots at those who might not have quite shared his delight:

Now I really am no Piers Morgan fan, but on this occasion Morgan had been gracious about the end of Cook’s international career, and yet Agnew decided to show everybody who would listen how he was right and how wrong Morgan had been. Except this wasn’t just a pot-shot at Morgan, it was far more than that; it was a pot-shot at any of us who had dared not to buy into the cult of Alastair Cook. It was an us vs. the rest moment, either your inside cricket and rightly bow down to the greatest player who has ever worn the England shirt or you are ‘outside cricket’, someone to be mocked and sneered at by those ‘who really know cricket’. It was all rather typical Jonathan Agnew really, a triumphalist ‘stuff you’ aimed at those who dared criticize him or dared to question ‘his wonderful friend’. This is not what we should expect from anyone who purports to report on the game, let alone from someone with a ‘Chief Correspondent’ job title as this is skewed journalism at best and a downright hagiography at its worst. The fact that Agnew either doesn’t realise how this looks or even worse, doesn’t really care, shows his complete lack of respect to the English cricketing public and that impartiality is something he is quite simply unable to deliver on. It is people like Agnew, Mike Selvey and Paul Newman, who were so quick to peddle the ECB line as Cook being the saviour of English cricket in the hope of garnering favour, which may have actually contributed to the intense dislike some English fans have for Cook himself. Writing or commentating about the game with a neutral outlook seems to be something this is a ‘nice to have’ for the 3 gentlemen above, but not one that necessarily pays in the long term, for that you have plug whatever propaganda the ECB is purporting at the time and Agnew through his loyal friendship with Cook was more than happy to do so.

This wouldn’t be the first time either, as who can ever forget the infamous picture of Agnew cosily dining with Giles Clarke (and surprise Mike Selvey). Now Agnew gets very hot and bothered when this is posted and strongly maintains that he had just given Clarke both barrels (though I doubt he called him a c*nt), but in reality does anyone really believe this? It is far more likely that Agnew was making sure that he got a slice of whatever pie was on offer (figuratively not the literally obviously), by leaving whatever morals he had at the door in favour of personal gain. Naturally this wouldn’t fit with the jovial, whiter than white image that Agnew has tried to cultivate for himself, so Agnew has done whatever he can to both distance and disavow himself from that situation.

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Up until this point though, Agnew in the main had managed to keep his public persona as “Auntie’s face of English cricket’ in tact with some success, this was until last week when the mask slipped and boy did it slip big time. It seems that Agnew and Jonathan Liew have been engaged in a war of words for sometime, but things have been at least civil in the public eye. Agnew was first angered by an article by Liew around Jofra Archer and his perceived integration into the English cricket team, which Agnew believes was accusing him of racism.

https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/cricket/england-cricket-world-cup-squad-jofra-archer-a8887246.html

Now I have read this article a few times, which is highly nuanced (other than that it’s a mightily good article) and I don’t believe Liew is accusing Agnew of racism in this piece as he is also critical of Michael Vaughan, though others are welcome to disagree. Then Liew wrote another piece Wisden, which seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, which says of Agnew:

‘Besides, he’s under the wing of Aggers now, who barely bothers to conceal his disdain for the great unwashed of the written press, like a French aristo pinching his nostrils as he strolls through a peasant market, lest he get an unwanted whiff of rotting chicken giblets.’

Now having never been invited into in any commentary box or media briefing, I have no idea whether this is true or not; however the response from Agnew was first one of outrage and then one of pure unabridged anger:

Boom, I certainly didn’t expect that top pop up on my timeline last Saturday, and what of the pearl clutching ‘Agnew luvvies,’ I bet one or two of them nearly went into cardiac arrest when they saw this. Now I understand that Agnew feels wronged and that alcohol consumption may have played a part, but this is completely out of order and can easily be classed as bullying, with Agnew throwing both his weight about and the toys out of his pram too. This ‘colourful language’ is the type I’d expect on a Friday night out in Croydon, not from the Chief Cricket Correspondent of the BBC, a 59 old year man who has made his living from being the squeaky clean face of the BBC’s cricket coverage.

Now I’m not saying that Liew is faultless here, not at all. Liew is a very marmite character and writer, with a number of this parish disagreeing about some of the content of his articles and he is known in certain circles as a ‘wind up merchant’. Liew for me is capable of writing some superb pieces, but also some total dross, where he decides to show everyone how clever he is, with an air of smugness to boot; a bit like Barney Ronay (who coincidentally was also called a ‘wanker’ by Jonathan Agnew). Liew knew very well what he was doing in both those articles and it is clear that there has been some kind of vendetta gathering pace under the carpet between the two of them, which feels rather undignified considering one is the Chief Sports Writer for the Independent and the other the Chief Cricket Reporter of the BBC. It all feels a bit like two 7 year olds fighting for the last bit of cake; however both clearly have enormous egos and are morally sure they are in the right. The main mistake Agnew made was by not being too bright and picking a slanging match against Liew, who is incredibly bright and cocksure and doesn’t mind burning a few bridges in the process. Once those direct messages were out in the open, there was always only going to be one winner, if indeed you would class that there is a winner out of this whole charade.

Agnew on the other hand, is quite lucky that the BBC took a fairly lenient approach despite the ‘bollocking’ that he may have received on the back of this. Memories often fade quickly when someone in the limelight who on the whole is incredibly popular with this English cricketing public and I’m sure Agnew will quickly be forgiven for his indiscretions here (though I’m very sure Liew won’t benefit from the same level of forgiveness). The interesting thing for me is whether Agnew actually learns anything from this event and decides to be a little more humble and to get off the high horse that he has perched himself on. Often it goes either way, so it will be interesting to see what happens when Agnew comes back online.

Either way it seems that irony had developed a sense of humour last weekend and a similar indiscretion from the now chastened Agnew, may result in a far harsher sentence. As one former newspaper Chief Cricket Correspondent once wrote ‘his card has been marked’. It now falls at the feet of Agnew to lay down the cronyism and to actually be a neutral, incisive correspondent for the BBC, which he once was. Whether he is still capable of that though, is most certainly a moot point.

 

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West Indies vs. England – A preview of sorts..

In the not too distant past, an upcoming tour to the West Indies would have garnered a lot of noise and a lot of media attention in the build up to the series. Fortunately or Unfortunately, I was not old enough to witness the almost unbeatable West Indies sides of the late 70’s and 80’s, though they had a pretty handy side during the 90’s though probably not quite on the level as their predecessors and hence there would naturally be a lot of excitement about such a tour coupled with a lot of trepidation from the fans (and probably the players) about facing such a strong side in what used to be a trial of pace on quick, bouncy wickets. I have not so fond memories of Messer’s Ambrose & Walsh destroying the English batting line, with the 46 all out in Trinidad during the 3rd Test in 1994 being the nadir. I remember Lara destroying the English bowling unit time after time and stroking the ball to all and every part of the ground, and it was not just Lara, but also the likes of Carl Hooper, Jimmy Adams, Richie Richardson and a certain young chap called Chanderpaul who regularly put England to the sword. I clearly remember the grubber that Hooper bowled Hussain with, the unplayable pitch at Sabina Park in 98, which even with my medium paced dobbers, I’d have fancied taking a few wickets on and then in 2004 the famous Harmison 7-12 bowling spell back at Sabina Park in 2004.

When I was growing up in the late 80’s and early-mid 90’s, the West Indies were most people’s favourite cricket team aside from England and certainly each series was seen on a similar footing to the Ashes with similar expectations that we were likely to get a hammering in the series. It didn’t matter though, because the West Indies bought their own culture, their own flair and of course a fair share of world class talent to each series and even now I wish that I had managed to find a way to afford a West Indies tour in the late 90’s/early 200’s. There are still those out their that claim the standard of Test cricket hasn’t gone down and that averages of those bowlers and batsmen have improved due to better skill, better train and more longevity in the game. This tends to be the fall back answer from most Sir A. Cook apologists though I would personally have loved to see how he fared against Holding, Garner, Ambrose, Walsh or Marshall – not very well I would guess. I could also say the same for Jimmy and not having to bowl to the likes of Sir Viv, Haynes, Greenidge, Richie Richardson, Lara etc. which would probably merit similar results. The West Indies teams of the 70’s, 80’s and mid 90’s are the type of team we’ll never get to see again in our lifetimes, which is reflects terribly badly on the WICB, ICC and the whole of International cricket and something us true cricket fans continue to mourn.

This brings me back to the upcoming Test series, which unless you were really studying social media or sky, might have passed you by as starting tomorrow. Sure there are no Lara’s or Ambrose’s of the world still playing for the West Indies, but the lack of coverage of what used to be a marquis series up until a few years ago is truly astounding. Then again, perhaps it really isn’t astounding at all. The WICB are skint and incompetent and have struggled to find any sort of world class talent in their ranks for a number of years and generally those that they do find who are international class are normally hounded out by the board or prefer to take the money that the various domestic T20 tournaments can offer. As for England, we have an administration that is so focused on getting a white elephant form of the game through (so much so, that I can barely call it cricket) to supposedly attract new fans to the game, when all of the international and county fixtures are behind a paywall and lost to the masses coupled with the depth of newspaper and magazine journalism is at it’s weakest in living memory. Sure I can hardly call the likes of Mike Selvey, Derek Pringle and Stephen Brenkley investigative journalists as they generally wrote around whatever suited their agenda or in particular the agenda of the ECB, but at least they were writing to a national audience about the sport. Nowadays aside from the likes of Nick Hoult, George Dobell, Ali Martin and Lawrence Booth in his Wisden role there are no other cricket dedicated, serious journalists left in the national eye (anyone who claims Paul Newman, Dean Wilson & John Etheridge are serious journo’s needs their head examined, I mean would readers of the 2 papers said latter people write for really notice if they weren’t there?). Anyway I digress. The main point here is that cricket is becoming such a niche sport that in a few years time will anyone be on hand to write to about it? This is not meant as a slight on the individuals that play for the England team. I think many are talented just not at a world class level, and naturally they still train as hard as ever to keep their places in the side and there certainly don’t seem to be as many ‘dickheads’ floating around as previous tours gone by (Stuart Broad naturally excepted), but I do really find it difficult to both identify with and even like. Maybe it’s just me, but their disappearance from the national eye coupled with the malicious incompetence of our own governing board leaves me very ‘meh’ these days, which is probably another reason why our output on the blog has gone down over the last 6 months or so.

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England go into the first Test as strong favourites for the series and thankfully Colin Graves has been locked away in his cupboard to prevent giving the opposition so more motivation to perform, though Geoffrey Boycott seems to have weighed in on his behalf, let’s just hope the West Indies don’t read the Telegraph! Though England are favourites for the series, I don’t see it being all one way whatsoever as recent past tours to the Caribbean can attest to, as the West Indies can still perform above their level on their day. Shai Hope is a talent and I personally think Royston Chase will have a good series, meanwhile with the ball the West Indies have a couple of quick but very inconsistent fast bowlers as well Jason Holder, who is one on those players who has sucked every ounce of his talent out to be successful in Test cricket and someone I hold in high stead given the way he has handled the basket case that is the WICB.

As for England, they would have hoped that with the modified duke ball, they would have been able to go with their preferred balance of four quicks and a single seamer for the majority of the series with the view that they should be able to do more with the Duke ball than they would with the kookaburra. Having said that the England team having seen the state of the pitch in Barbados, which looks like it had animals grazing on it only a couple of days ago, might well be favoured to go with 2 spinners. One would imagine that the top 7 from the final Test in Sri Lanka will probably be in place for the whole series barring injury or a complete loss of form and one would imagine that Jimmy, Broad and Stokes will be the mainstay of the fast bowling attack with Moeen favoured over Leach should England go with one spinner. The final call I would imagine would be the inclusion of Sam Curran, who has already shown his maturity and aptitude for Test cricket and would be terribly unlucky to miss out or Leach if they think the pitch will take turn later on in the game. Naturally I would very much like to see Sam Curran included in the final XI, but not if it harms England’s ability to put their best side out with regards to how the pitch will play.

Naturally, we will try to cover each day’s play throughout the series, but that might mean that some reviews are posted the next morning (or not at all if we’re all tucked up) owing to the late finishes. Please feel free to comment below with your thoughts on the game or anything I have commented on above…

I Won’t Forget A Single Day, Believe Me

Whilst England were in the process of finishing the year on a high in Melbourne (#39’s words and not mine), something a lot more important for the fate of Test cricket was happening in South Africa. For the first time since 1973, there was a four-day Test match. Whilst Zimbabwe collapsed in an embarrassing heap and lost within two days, it gives us the clearest idea yet of what the future holds for cricket’s longest and oldest format.

In October, the ICC agreed to allow four-day Tests for a trial period until 2019. The main argument made at the time by ICC chief executive Dave Richardson was that it would help the smaller Test nations like Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Ireland to find gaps in the schedules to get them much-needed games. In reality, it’s obviously all about money. Many Test series are not particularly profitable, and cutting the length of the games also reduces the costs for the home board.

The game in Port Elizabeth, whilst massively one-sided, did give us a look at the playing conditions for the latest variation of Test cricket. The main highlights of these are that play is extended by half an hour with 8 extra overs, and the follow-on target is reduced from 200 to 150.

In all of the arguments which have been made in favour of shortening Test matches, none of them appear to even come close to suggesting that it will make Test cricket more satisfying for people to watch. Really the only compelling case I have seen is that it might make the difference between teams scheduling one Test match or none.

Win, Lose Or Draw. But Mainly Draw.

The most obvious downside of four-day Tests is that it would appear likely to increase the number of drawn matches. Drawn games, particularly when there seems no prospect of any other result, are arguably the worst thing about the format. You can just look at the reaction from journalists and fans to the lifeless pitch in Melbourne.

Nick Hoult’s article in the Telegraph says that roughly 58.25% of the 794 Test matches from 2000 onwards went into the fifth day, and during that period only 23.30% of games ended in a draw. This means that potentially as much as 34.95% of Test matches over the past 18 years, 277 games where a team won on the fifth day, would have instead been a draw if they had instead only had four days.

Of course things are not necessarily this clear-cut. It doesn’t factor in the 32 extra overs that could be bowled in days one to four, or the teams using more aggressive tactics whilst trying to achieve a result. Conversely, teams who are outmatched could perhaps be more likely to try to hold out for a draw than go for a win or collapse when all hope is lost.

There are things you can do to increase the likelihood of a result within four days, but it’s unclear whether the ICC has the will or ability to enforce them. The most obvious solution would be to play every game on a pitch which helps the bowlers, but for this to happen the various cricket boards around the world would have to cede some control of their home grounds and I just can’t see that happening.

One way of inducing results would be to copy the County Championship which already has four-day games, where the points system is used to motivate teams to play aggressively. A team which wins half of their games and loses the other half would get 42 more points than a team which had 14 draws. A team has to score at 3.64 runs per over in their first innings to collect the maximum number of batting bonus points, which may make batsmen more likely to play risky shots and therefore lose their wicket.

But for all of these measures, 24 out of the 56 games in Division 1 last year ended in a draw. There are some reasons why this would happen which wouldn’t relate to Test cricket. The majority of matches are played at the beginning and end of the season, when they are more likely to be interrupted by rain. They’re also more likely to be on used or sub-par pitches with the better ones being reserved for televised games. But the fact that over 42% of games in a competition with four-day games end in a draw is hardly a compelling reason to roll it out for international cricket.

I also have my doubts about whether the use of points would have much effect on international teams. Fans, players and administrators never seem to care about the current ICC Test rankings system unless their team is in first place. There is a new ICC World Test Championship being introduced in 2019, but in its first two years it will be restricted to five-day Tests only. Even if it did allow shorter games, I have my doubts whether anyone would risk losing to force a result within the allotted time. That simply isn’t how any Test team approaches the game.

All of which is to say that it’s a dumb idea. It makes Test matches cheaper, shorter, and almost undeniably worse. If Test cricket is to be made more popular and therefore more profitable, surely the emphasis has to be on making it better to watch. Otherwise, what’s the point? We might as well consign it to the dustbin of history and get used to a future of T10 cricket.

So on that cheery note, we at BOC wish you all a Happy New Year! Enjoy yourselves tonight, and we’ll hopefully all see you again in 2018.

UPDATE – Just to emphasise, and the last few days have not changed things, I am so grateful for all the support this year, and wish everyone all the best for 2018. I apologise for not doing my usual roll call of commenters, but I think you might understand why. I am looking forward and dreading 2018 in equal measures, but what matters most is the great community we have, the vibrant blog, the excellent writers, the new talent (see above) and the ethos carrying forward. All the very best to you and yours, from Honolulu to New Zealand, South Africa to Quebec, Kyoto to Santa Catarina.

Dmitri.

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.

 

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?