The Day After the Day After Tomorrow

Predicting the future is problematic, it’s much easier to predict the past, although Twitter users might be an example of that not being entirely the case. In wider life there seems to be consensus that while the question of whether the pandemic will make material lasting changes is an open one, it almost certainly has accelerated existing trends – such things as the decline of cash or the continued rise of online over physical retail.

Cricket seems little different – there is no reason to assume that this last year will cause wild changes in itself, but an acceleration of what was coming anyway, that’s a different matter.

Television deals are at the heart of the future and the present, and have been the principal driver of the changes over the last 10 years, whatever the disingenous pontifications from governing bodies about trying to engage people in the sport as more than exploitable consumers. The shortening of formats, first to T20 and then to 10 over equivalents or the Hundred are all about packaging the game into compact segments that fit into programming and allow advertising to be maximised. India is undoubtedly the principal power behind this, because their financial muscle is greater than just about everyone else put together. The rise of the IPL to not just be the biggest short form tournament, but the priority for the game full stop has been inexorable, and the players have been part of that for their own financial reasons. In all cases, it’s not something to particularly blame anyone for, it’s merely a reflection of desires that coincide and aims that correlate – the belief in some quarters that professional cricketers with a short career should sacrifice their ability to earn for the sake of tradition is naive at best. Thus the expectation has to be that not only will the IPL continue, but that it will become ever more central to the global game.

The Hundred is the ECB’s attempt to muscle in on the same thing, having blown their chance of making T20 their central selling point to the world game. There are endless problems with the assumption behind that. Globally, the difference between 16.4 overs and 20 is so minimal as to be not worthy of further debate, and the ever lengthening duration of IPL and Big Bash T20 matches to up to 4 hours implies that the purported domestic desire to have a very short game isn’t one entirely shared elsewhere – perhaps short enough is sufficient. That doesn’t mean in itself that it can’t be a domestic success, but the wish the ECB have for it to be a global phenomenon looks hamstrung from the start. Gimmickry has a place in all sports, irritating as many find it, but a successful gimmick is one that does draw people in, that does appear to have a value. The Hundred lacks this entirely, the hundred balls of an innings doesn’t even work as a deception.

It’s not unreasonable to believe that the Hundred will be a domestic option, and one with limited expansionary appeal. The argument made in its favour that it’s still cricket, and that the difference between it and T20 is sufficiently small for it to have sporting integrity is precisely the reason it’s unlikely to truly take off – why abandon the investment in T20 for a game that offers little extra? If The Hundred does remain an entirely domestic concept, it’s hard to see how it has a long term future when everyone else prefers the ironically more traditional T20. All new things attract attention initially, and whatever the complaints about it, it will have that first flush of attraction as something new. The problem it has is beyond that, years three and four. There comes a time when the question will be asked what the point of it is, and whether a T20 tournament would work better. The Hundred itself looks doomed in the longer term, though it may serve its purpose if it garners sufficient commercial attention to cause that debate to happen.

The 50 over form of the game will continue to be squeezed, but it remains a viable option because it still attracts strong crowds and decent quantities of sponsorship and advertising money. There may be experiments made to widen the differential between it and T20, such as four innings of 25 overs, but it is a format that isn’t particularly broken. The attitude towards it may change somewhat as T20 becomes ever more dominant, indeed 50 over cricket may come to be seen as a long form of the game, which has a certain irony, because for club cricketers around much of the world (there are exceptions) that’s exactly what it is and what it always has been, even if concepts such as winning or losing draws offer a slight level of nuance – though note those kinds of playing rules are on the decline.

Where that leaves Test cricket is another matter. The World Test Championship has been positioned as a way of creating context for Test cricket in order to give the bilateral series meaning. It’s always been a slightly confused position – not because it’s a bad idea, far from it, but because the endless ODI bilaterals lack any meaning whatever, yet continue unabated because of the financial return created by them. There are of course tournaments such as the World Cup, but that’s not really the rationale behind holding so many bilateral series, or they would be considered no more relevant than an international football friendly with all the irritation they cause. Cricket is, and always has been different (and has similarities to international rugby in this regard) in that a match has inherent value in itself, and doesn’t necessarily need that bigger context for everything. That doesn’t mean for a single momoment that tournaments like a World Cup aren’t necessary, they both are, and are wonderful things in themselves, albeit the formats of such things are another question. Therefore a World Test Championship can be both a good thing in itself and also a fig leaf that doesn’t address the structural challenges being faced. There is a suspicion that Test series are often organised as a necessary evil rather than something to be embraced as justified and attractive in themselves, entirely for those financial reasons. Or to put it another way, if Test matches provided strong revenue streams for every board, there would be more of them – England don’t play lots of Test cricket because the ECB adore five day cricket. If there was serious money at hand, the players would be less inclined to abandon the Test arena for the more lucrative white ball forms of the game. The decline of Test cricket in favour of white ball cricket is not because of a particular dislike of that form of the game for sporting reasons.

There is no reason to assume this will change in the years to come, rather precisely the opposite. Countries like England play a lot of Test cricket because, at present at least, that is the largest level of spectators – and thus commercial – interest in the game. With big crowds and a big TV deal that has included, in fact focused, on Test cricket, it has been the core of the income of the professional game. It’s not the case elsewhere, and to highlight that particularly, the newer international countries such as Ireland have abandoned Test series because they cannot make them financially viable. Those are two ends of the range, but there are many more countries nearer the Irish end than the English one, and the English extreme is beginning to weaken. Core marquee series will continue, principally between the most powerful boards of India, Australia and England, but Test cricket will wither further beyond that. There is a way to prevent it, and that would be a more equitable wealth distribution globally, and allow the players to choose Test cricket as a viable means of support for them and their families. But let’s be clear – it isn’t going to happen. The handwringing about the decline of Test cricket among the great and the good has no relevance when the actions that could be taken to prevent it are verboten in administrative circles, because of their own narrow interests. Fundamentally, there isn’t a desire within the ICC hierarchy, and particularly the board hierarchies, to save Test cricket. Until or unless that happens, Test cricket is on a one way ticket to irrelevance and extinction.

This also has knock on effects for domestic cricket, not just in England but around the world. After all, the purpose of first class cricket has been largely to provide a training ground for the Test game, something that puts the hackles up for the county cricket fans who see a game that is important in its own right. But it has never been financially viable in itself anywhere since the 19th century, it wasn’t the point of it to be. The diminution in value of first class cricket is a corollary of the decline of Test cricket and its lack of revenue creation has changed its positioning from one that needs support in order to promote the wider game to being viewed as a revenue drain on central resources. This is an important change in focus – county cricket has never been something central in and of itself to the finances of cricket, it has had sporting value and been deemed worthy of support as such. This has changed – the justification for concepts like the Hundred have been to generate financial income in and of itself, and not for the purposes specifically of first class county cricket. This is central to the expectations in years to come, for no longer is it considered inherently valuable.

The arrival of the Hundred has a further likely consequence, in that it introduces franchise cricket to England. It is from a different era that Durham was added to the roster as the 18th county, the desire now is to shrink the base of teams, not expand them. Protests that regional franchises are purely for the shortest form of the game smack of disingenuousness – the strongest counties will survive irrespective, but the weaker ones look like they have no long term future. Formal status is unlikely to be revoked, because it simply doesn’t matter much, they will fall by the wayside as power and money is concentrated in the hands of the few, and the difference between some first class counties and some minor counties will be harder to determine. Salami tactics work in terms of generating change – abolishing counties would invite end of days headlines, allowing them to fade into obscurity will be met with a shrug of the shoulders from all but those directly affected. The protests from county cricket fans will make little difference – they have already been written off as unimportant.

This is not a future that many will relish. But as things stand it is where we are likely to be. Test cricket being in trouble is not breaking news, but the lack of any impetus or desire to change this is what is going to doom it to the margins. First class cricket and county cricket will follow, and the focus on white ball, and particularly T20 cricket is the future to be faced. It can change, certainly, but only if there is a desire to enact what is needed to make that happen. There is no sign of that happening, and no sign of a desire that it should happen. Money has become the driving motivation in sport across the world, but cricket is in a different place, whereby the belief among administrators is that the game of cricket has no future without change, and that the generation of cash is the prime motivation, not the sport itself. Business people can have that view, indeed they always have done, there is no reason to pretend they are other than what they are for good or ill, what is different in cricket is that there are few at the top of the game who believe passionately in the beauty of their own sport, who see their role as primarily to defend and grow it. Instead they consider that change must happen in order to make money, rather than making money to deliver a better sport. Not even the feast of mammon that is football has quite this attitude to their own game – they have a rapacious desire to monetise their sport, not consider the raison d’etre of the sport to be money generation.

The amateur game is far from immune to the fallout. Sunday friendly cricket has undoubtedly declined in a precipitous manner over recent years, as the player base has shrunk. A push to T20 matches from those viewing it from the lofty perspective of their professional career is to miss the central point that a desire for shorter games is as much a reflection of a smaller pool as it is modern life writ large in cricket. Free to air broadcast of cricket may still be the biggest driver of arresting such an unpropitious collapse in the player base, but it isn’t a panacea for the problems of the game either. Like so many things, it is complex to the point of confusion, but in this arena at least, the biggest change would be evidence that there’s much more than lip service to the importance of it from the centre. Here again, there is little reason to believe that will happen, and the decline of the clubs will continue.

For good or ill, it’s our direction of travel. There is no doubt that many will be aghast, but an attempt to be realistic isn’t an endorsement of where we are headed. And more specifically, it’s where we are meant to be headed. This is not a lament for a passing time, nor a wish that if only a few changes could be made. Too often the debate is framed around a tweak here, a nudge there. A few more pennies for a county perhaps, or throw a bone to a former associate nation. None of it matters, and none of it makes any difference, except to allow the drowning to suck in a last few precious breaths of air. It would require fundamental change to move the trajectory, and it won’t happen, can’t happen, because it is not accidental. It is not a game that has lost its way and is seeking a way back. It is far too much of a conspiracy to assume this is the development of a grand plan to reach this suggested destination, but it doesn’t have to be, it isn’t how it works. All it requires is for an acquiescence with the direction of travel, and that contentment is entirely present. For as long as the approach is one of managed decline of the traditional and a defensive mentality of the long standing, while embracing the new, shiny and above all lucrative, there is little reason to doubt where we will end up.

Sri Lanka v England – 1st Test, Day 1 – A Day Of Two Halves

After almost a five month break for England’s red ball team, there’s nothing like good Test cricket. And, to be clear, this match has not been an example of good Test cricket so far. Loose bowling competing with worse batting has meant that this game seems unlikely to last more than three days, let alone five.

Sri Lanka won the toss in the morning (4am to be precise. Who starts a cricket game at 4am??), which is usually very important in Sri Lanka. In the last 18 Test matches in they have hosted, 14 have been won by the team who chose to bat first. That includes the 3-0 series win by England two years ago.

Sri Lanka were missing captain Dimuth Karunaratne to a hairline fracture and bowler Suranga Lakmal with a hamstring injury, but otherwise were able to field a full-strength team with three spinners. England had to do without Moeen Ali due to the spinner still being isolated with coronavirus and opted for two spinners and three seamers.

The theme of Sri Lanka’s innings was atrocious batting. You would expect an international team to be confident and reassured in home conditions, but they batted like… Well like England typically have done in spinning conditions. Trying to smash balls from well outside the off stump, playing a large number of slog sweeps and reverse sweeps, and generally having no control or consistency whatsoever. Broad started things moving with a few early wickets whilst Bess cleaned up the tail and claimed a five-fer, but it’s difficult to give England’s bowlers or fielders much credit on a day when their opponents seemed very happy to fall on their own swords.

England tried to imitate Sri Lanka’s comedy wickets with Zak Crawley doing his best to run himself out early on, but the host’s fielding was as bad as their batting and they failed to convert their chance. The openers didn’t last too much longer though, with both Sibley and Crawley falling in quick succession. Crawley’s wicket in particular was poor, going down the pitch before mis-hitting a lofted drive to mid-off. His previous Test innings was 267 against Pakistan though, so I’m prepared to cut him some slack on this one.

From that point on, with Bairstow and Root at the crease, the game was actually pretty good. Solid, cautious test batting from England’s batsmen and patient, probing bowling from Sri Lanka. Young left-arm spinner Lasith Embuldeniya in particular was very useful for the hosts, taking the wickets for both openers and drawing a few edges which didn’t go to hand. Whilst Dom Bess was wildly fortunate to take five wickets, Embuldeniya was arguably as unlucky not to take more than two. Root and Bairstow were both a lot more cautious than Sri Lanka were in their first innings, keeping shots along the ground. The captain made 66* whilst Bairstow finished the day on 47*. Jonny’s success might cause a headache for the team if they intend to bring Rory Burns back into the team against India. One of Sibley, Crawley, or Burns will have to miss out, if he stays in the team. England finished the day just 8 runs behind and with 8 wickets in hand. It’s hard to imagine how the day could have gone any better for them after they lost the toss.

As a bit of comedy relief, BBC’s Test Match Special aired an interview during Lunch of Australia’s coach Justin Langer by Alison Mitchell. There’s a clip of it on Twitter here. It really is an incredible mixture of delusion, arrogance, stupidity and outright lies. To be clear, the incidents in question (Tim Paine swearing at the umpire and Steve Smith scratching at the crease whilst fielding) are fairly minor. Both were caught on camera (by their own broadcaster, no less) and both are undeniably against the laws of the game, but the fact that Langer feels the need to vociferously defend either by making the argument that both Smith and Paine are wonderful and virtuous people is both unnecessary and hilarious. He also makes the claim that Tim Paine is “the best wicketkeeper in the world” and that he hopes Paine will still be captain next year in the Ashes. As an England fan, I hope that is what he genuinely believes.

All in all, a good start to the new year for England.

As always, feel free to comment about the game or anything else below.

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Jos Buttler?

Jos Buttler is an absolutely incredible white ball cricketer. That is a statement which even the most contentious or unorthodox cricket pundit would find impossible to disagree with. No player in the history of one day cricket has scored more runs than Buttler at a faster strike rate. Only Shahid Afridi and Glenn Maxwell even come close. A destructive and dominating batsman who instils fear into the hearts of his opponents.

In Test cricket, the picture is more nuanced. A Test batting average of 33.90 is not particularly impressive for a 30 year old after 47 Test matches, especially having played 20 of those games as a specialist batsman. It’s not a terrible record either, but it places him significantly below the top tier of Test wicketkeeper-batsmen (de Kock, Watling, Pant and Rizwan, for example). Nevertheless, Joe Root has come out in the press this week vehemently backing Buttler not only as a batsman but also as the Test wicketkeeper for this winter’s tours.

Buttler’s batting statistics last summer were exemplary. He was England’s second most prolific run scorer in the six Tests, scoring just one run less than Zak Crawley, and finished with a batting average of 52.00. A wicketkeeper with that kind of scoring ability is essentially undroppable.

So here is my argument for why I would drop him from the Test team.

For a start, it might be worth considering why Buttler performed so well this summer. One notable aspect is that he didn’t play any white ball cricket in the months leading up to or during the Test summer. With the IPL postponed, his last T20 was in February against South Africa and his last fifty-over game was the 2019 World Cup final. That represents almost six months with no distractions from preparing for Test cricket.

Few batsmen seem able to seamlessly swap between white ball cricket and Tests, with the transition usually having a negative effect in at least one of the formats, and this is borne out in the statistics. Jos Buttler averages 38 when he has played a Test in the previous 30 days, but only 18 when he hasn’t. Buttler is without doubt one of the best white ball batsmen in the world, with ODI and T20I strike rates which are amongst the best of all time, and there is a T20 World Cup due to be played in India this October. Is it a good selection policy to keep him out of T20Is and the IPL this year in order to have him playing at his best in Tests?  I don’t think so.

Another key aspect to my preference on not selecting Buttler in Tests is his wicketkeeping ability. Specifically, his keeping when up to the stumps is just plain bad. According to CricViz, Jos Buttler was by some considerable distance the worst Test keeper to spin in the period from the beginning of 2018 to the first Test against Pakistan in 2019. I must confess that I don’t exactly understand how CricViz quantifies ‘Fielding Impact’ as their models are intentially opaque, but it is presumably some combination of missed wicket-taking chances and preventable byes and wides being conceded.

One clear example of Jos Buttler’s abilities (or lack thereof) with regards to spin bowling is his record of Test stumpings. In 27 Tests as England wicketkeeper, Buttler has not taken a single stumping. Not one. In fact, in the history of Test cricket only one wicketkeeper has played as many Tests as Buttler without taking at least three stumpings: Former ICC CEO and South African international Dave Richardson (who still took two more than Buttler). This could be a crucial weakness because England’s next two Test series are in Sri Lanka and India.

England have won only one Test series in Asia over the past eight years, and that was their 3-0 victory in Sri Lanka two years ago. The key to this rare overseas whitewash was their spin bowling: 49 of the 60 wickets England took were from their spin attack of Leach, Ali, Rashid and Root (18, 18, 12, and 1 wickets respectively). Seventy-nine percent of England’s overs were delivered by these four bowlers. It is patently ridiculous to me that you would even consider selecting Jos Buttler as wicketkeeper in conditions where he seems almost certain to struggle.

It is worth noting that Buttler was selected as a specialist batsman in the previous Sri Lanka series, and performed very well. He scored the second most runs for England, amassing 250 runs in six innings and was behind only Ben Foakes’ total of 277. There is certainly an argument for including him this winter in that role, but that isn’t necessarily clear cut either.

For one thing, ‘demoting’ Buttler to a mere batsman would lead to him replacing one of the existing batting lineup. I can’t see him playing in the top order, although England did try Moeen Ali once as an opener in the UAE so I can’t entirely rule it out either. England’s middle order comprises of the captain, the best batting allrounder in the world, and Ollie Pope. Pope is currently returning from a shoulder injury, so won’t even be available for the Sri Lanka series. If he does return in time to play in India, Pope is clearly the most vulnerable. He has never played a Test in the subcontinent, and also had a lacklustre summer for England. On the other hand, he is only twenty three years old and he already has a career Test batting average greater than Buttler’s. I’m not sure I’d necessarily opt for experience in this scenario, although Buttler might have the Sri Lanka series to press his case for inclusion.

Perhaps the most important factor regarding Jos Buttler’s selection would be managing his workload in 2021. If Buttler is selected for all of England’s Test cricket this year in addition to the IPL in April/May and the T20 World Cup in October, it is not unreasonable to think that he would only spend a few weeks outside of the England camp all year. In normal times, this would be mentally and physically draining for any cricketer. These are not normal times however, and there seems a fair chance that a large portion of this time will also be in some form of quarantine or bubble.

If three-format players like Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer aren’t given series off, they might well be burned out by the end of the year. You only have to look at England after they had been driven beyond their limits by Andy Flower to see how that might decimate a team. I like my cricket management like I like my TV: Without repeats of the shit stuff.

There is a strong argument that Stokes and Archer are essential picks in the subcontinent. In England’s last series in Sri Lanka, Stokes took five wickets whilst the swing and seam bowlers (Anderson, Broad and Sam Curran) could only manage two between them. Pace and bounce are clearly more effective weapons in those conditions, therefore I would probably look to rest those two during during the English summer instead. Whilst you can certainly make a case for Buttler’s inclusion as a specialist batsman in Sri Lanka and India, his place in the squad doesn’t feel anywhere near as necessary to England’s chances of success as those of the pace bowlers.

Joe Root has publicly backed him though, so he’ll probably keep wicket in all six Tests this winter.

If you have any comments about Jos Buttler, the upcoming Tests, or anything else, add them below.

Hey, it’s Test cricket. Remember me?

The unlikely is the heart of sport and the currency by which it sucks in new adherents, how it grabs hold of a child and retains them for life. All those who love Test cricket can remember the match that first got them well and truly hooked on the sport, and in cricket’s case, it really is Tests that do that more than any other format, even now.

Sri Lanka’s extraordinary victory today over South Africa has had social media ablaze, trending across different countries not involved in the series, but reaching those who care greatly, and beyond them to the casual viewer who will see that and wonder what the fuss is all about.

A Test that in this country at least was at the margins of niche interest exploded into the realms of fascination as an unlikely run chase sank towards failure; just another game and another defeat for a nation struggling against almost all opposition. No one told Kusal Perera, who responded with one of those once in a lifetime performances to snatch an utterly extraordinary victory, with the unlikely assistance of Vishwa Fernando at the end in an unbroken last wicket partnership of 78. And for cricket fans all around the world, a relatively low key Test match became required viewing as word went around that something incredible was happening.

The details barely matter, there are plenty of match reports to read through to vicariously experience the whole thing once again. But the sensation of witnessing something amazing in any sporting contest cannot be beaten, while in Test cricket the unique tension as it unfolds is something that can’t be replicated in many other arenas. The long form that so many suppose is the problem is precisely why even those without a dog in the fight feel their heart thumping in their chest and experience the gnawing tension that grows with every ball. The possibility of something epic, the fear that any second it might be snatched away, the drawn, pinched expressions on the faces of players for whom realisation is dawning that defeat and despair may be coming.

And this is why those who are responsible for the game, who denigrate Test cricket rather than embrace it, are loathed and despised by the strange obsessives who continue to proselytise that this form of the game is the one. Whether it be Edgbaston 2005 or Durban 2019; or even Barbados 1999 when Brian Lara finished with the same score as Kusal Perera in another acutely stressful finish, Test cricket can produce sheer magic, a degree of intensity that few sports can match.

If Test cricket is in trouble, it also falls to those of us who love it to tell everyone else why. If the governing bodies won’t do it, then someone else has to. It doesn’t compensate, it doesn’t begin to make up the shortfall, but in a small way, it helps a little.

And yes, this is an exceptional example. But most sports have their routine outcomes, we watch because of the unexpected, because of the amazing. Because hitting Dale Steyn into the stands in a T20 is routine, but doing so in a thrilling Test match with one wicket standing raises the hairs on the back of the neck.

Because it matters. Because it’s a Test match. And because it is utterly bloody wonderful.

There are highlights on Sky at 6pm this evening. If you missed it, do watch if you can.