Look around, Choose your own ground…

In keeping with Dmitri’s musical themes for his posts, I thought I’d add a little bit of Pink Floyd into the mix. ‘Breathe, breathe in the air, don’t be afraid to care’ seems especially poignant when it’s quite clear our governing body has constantly shown that they couldn’t care less anymore and there seems to be only a few of us trying to hold these individuals to some sort of account. I read with particular interest our guest article on the T100 yesterday and if you haven’t yet had a chance to read Steve’s excellent article, then I strongly urge you to do so. It was particularly of interest to me having watched most of what was a tight and hard-fought Test Match and from having headed down to the Oval on Friday night to see the habitual shoeing of Middlesex my first T20 game of the season. I’m not going to lie about the fact that my interest in cricket has waned dramatically since the end of the Pakistan series, as everyone knows on here that I’m not a fan of the 50 over white ball fare that has been served up in abundance this summer and quite frankly it’s hardly been fun following Middlesex’s plunge into mediocrity, hence my lack of output on the blog recently. I’ll also admit that I wasn’t as buoyant about the upcoming Test Series with India last week as I usually am for a high-profile Test Series having been worn down by England’s inability to pick anyone decent in the middle order, coupled with the complete farce that is the ECB’s modus operandi and the disgraceful rhetoric aimed at Adil Rashid from those that should know better, but for whatever reason prefer to personally insult an England cricketer for nothing more than accepting a call up to the national squad.

The first day of the Test was underwhelming from an England point of view and made writing a report of the day somewhat difficult when it seemed that another one-sided Test Match was on the cards. Test Match cricket is not to be underestimated though and the next 2.5 days provided a glimpse into why Test cricket can be so great. Sure there was some poor batting on display, but the regular twist and turns of this match, which is something that can’t be replicated in the white ball game, the unlikely rear-guard action by England, the Kohli Century and the tension of the final morning when both teams could have gone on to win the game, was a joy to behold. I’m sure that we’ll deep dive into the relative strengths and weaknesses of each side’s performance in the preview, but as TLG’s elegant post detailed on Friday, there was more to this than just the final result, it showed yet again why our governing body is so foolish to try to underplay the joy red ball cricket can bring to those who have the means to follow it, young or old. It was also good to see Kohli, whose Indian side has been said to prioritize white ball cricket ahead of red ball cricket in the past, come out and say:

“Test match cricket is the best format in cricket and my favourite. We love playing it and I’m sure every player will agree with me.”

It was also interesting that on my way to the Oval on Friday, the ground and certainly the seats in the playing area were half empty whilst the Test Match was going on and even once the game had started. I’m sure part of these were the ‘after work’ lot who head to the Oval for some sunshine and booze but there were many others who seemed to be more interested in what was going on at Edgbaston. I left work at 4:30pm and struggled to get into the pub next to the ground as it was one of the few places with the Test on and judging by the cheers and groans coming from the pub (I had to move outside as it felt about 90 degrees in there) that the majority were taking more than a passing interest in the Test rather than purely getting smashed in time for the game. I also joined a crowd of a good few hundred watching the Test under the very sweaty Oval covers (this was one of about 10 TV’s and the least busy) again highlighting the myth that all of those who attend T20 are disinterested in the longer format of the game. So why exactly do we need a new competition again? Once again surely access to the game is the main blocker for the audience, rather than a game of ‘comedy cabbage patch cricket’ aimed at a so-called new demographic who the ECB has yet to formally identify (the mother and kids thing is a loose justification as to why they feel the need to completely destroy the game of cricket).

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A packed ground at the Oval watching Surrey hit it to all parts

Now I’m aware that the T20 Blast has it’s faults, that it is too expensive certainly down south (the tickets for the Oval were £35, which is at least £15 too expensive in my opinion), that the English climate is not ideal for holding the competition in a block and that the nature of the 18 teams means that it is impossible to follow all of your team’s games unless you are willing to fork out serious dough (this is actually a blessing as a Middlesex fan). However the mad thing is and at the same time the major nail in the ECB’s plans for a game of cabbage cricket, is that the NatWest Blast set new records for ticket sales in 2017, with official attendance rising to 883,000 overall. Indeed Finals Day at Edgbaston was also a record sell-out, while average attendances among the 18 counties were up to 7500. This doesn’t exactly sound like a competition in crisis. I’m by no means a regular T20 visitor, but I’ll admit that Friday was good fun without being totally memorable (despite seeing two tons on a road of pitch). The Oval wasn’t as boisterous as it could have been, there were more individuals who were taking an active interest in the cricket rather than the contents of their overpriced beer cup and even the ‘after work city-lot’ whilst showing no real interest in the game (the ones in sat in front of me turned up after 8 overs had already been bowled) were at least quite pleasant and I’m a believer that England cricket can not be too stuffy as to turn their nose up at paying spectators. There can be a place where people prefer Test Cricket to White Ball cricket and vice versa, but are still interested in the game of cricket as a whole, rather than the excuse of a game the ECB have designed on the back of a fag packet in order to try to line their pockets whilst they still can.

So we have a growing T20 game albeit with some faults and a red ball competition with a solid base of supporters despite being pushed to the margins of the season (I’m not mentioning the 50 over lark, I’d abolish it if I could). Yet the powers that be in their infinite wisdom have decided that what we need more of is a competition that not only alienates its’ own cricket fans but has no proof of the concept of success whilst at the same pushing it’s current successful short ball competition and the red ball season into such obscurity to the extent that many might not know they exist anymore. The only way they could insult the counties and fans further would be to ask them to build the tusks and then paint the whole thing white. Seemingly no-one has had the sense to ask the common fan what they would like to see, despite many of them knowing more than the stooges at ECB head office could ever know. I’d lay my bottom dollar that many would simply reply with easy access to the cricket both in terms of viewing and visiting and for a successful national team, it seems even Paul Newman is gradually coming round to the idea:

Now many on the Sky side of the argument would argue that their input of finance into the game has allowed English cricket to put the finance into their facilities and paying their best players, though many of us lament the opportunity lost to cater for those ‘new fans’ who had been captivated by the Ashes in 2005. Now I would suggest that FTA on just television is not going to attract swathes of new followers though it would attract some, just as the new competition might attract the odd fool, but won’t be a drop on the ocean compared to the money spent on it. The way we consume media has changed and hence it’s now more about the ability to access the content rather than it running on ITV4. I mention this because the Counties have on the whole done a great job of running live feeds from the 4 day game, yet yesterday when there were a number of T20 games on around the country and no Test Cricket on the TV, not one was being shown by Sky. What a waste! Surely there needs to be an opportunity to screen those games that Sky aren’t showing on a local FTA stream much as they have done with the 4 day games. They could even develop 10 minute highlights packages for the kids who supposedly have no patience these days. Why not take a growing product and properly market it to those who could form a new audience? It doesn’t have to have all the mod-cons and camera angles as Sky provide, just a decent camera view and a local commentator giving their insight on the stream.

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Red Sky & Middlesex at night, Surrey’s delight…

Then we get to the real crux of the matter and the point in which I have been going slightly around this houses with in this piece (I could have written this in about 100 words, but it would have been a rather short and pointless article), which is that you could come up with the most wonderful and weird competition in the world and have the best marketing agency promoting this and it will still mean jack without success on the field.  Why do the ECB think that a large number of people turned up to the game at Edgbaston on Saturday knowing they would at best have 2 hours of cricket or why were so many people transfixed in the pub the previous evening? Let me share a little secret with the ECB, people are interested in Test Cricket especially when we have a competitive team playing good (but certainly not great) cricket. Yet this is the very thing that the new competition threatens, as the county championship which is supposed to be the breeding ground for our Test Players of the future, slowly keeps being pushed to the extremities to the point that the ECB won’t even promote it. What is going to happen when Anderson, Cook and Broad and the like retire? Who is there in County Cricket that has the talent and skill to replace these players and keep England competitive in the coming years? The answer looks like a frighteningly bare cupboard of talent certainly based on the Lions tour, with players who are only used to playing medium dobbers on damp, green pitches. It certainly isn’t Chris Woakes! Do you think there would have been as many people watching the game if England were being curb-stomped in the last Test? I think we all now know the answer to this.

So instead of trying to re-invent the wheel with 100 balls or 10 ball overs or the batsmen wearing flippers or whatever, how about the dolts at the ECB concentrate on something that might guarantee cricket’s future such as continued success on the field and wider access to all? It’s not exactly rocket science, but I’m still yet to be convinced this snake pit of greed and self serving even cares anymore. Make money whilst the sun shines and make yourselves scarce when the rain clouds gather. It’s only the game and the fans that will suffer.

Still as Pink Floyd once foretold: ‘Run, rabbit run, Dig that hole, forget the sun; And when at last the work is done; Don’t sit down, it’s time to dig another one.’ In truth I may have accidentally downloaded the modus operandi for ‘the hundred’ from the ECB’s PR department instead. I guess there’s no way to know these days…

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Guest Post – The Hundred – A Case of the “Haves” and the “Have-Nots”

Intro

We are always pleased to welcome new writers to our blog, to widen the perspective on cricket on this site. We do know that we do get more interest when test matches are on. But what we also know is that the county game is the pipeline that needs to flow, and the Hundred has raised lots of ire. Concerns we share.

Steve has put together his piece on the Hundred. A regular contributor to the Incider, a Somerset cricket blog, SomersetNorth (as his nom de guerre on here will be) has kindly provided this guest post on the impact The Hundred might have on non-selected counties. It’s well worth a read. (Pictures and captions are mine, not Steve’s).

Surrey v Glamorgan in the T20 Blast last July. Full house, but not enough for the ECB

 

The Hundred – A Case of the “Haves” and the “Have-Nots”

The debate about the “Hundred” continues to rumble around cricket. Hardly a day seems to go by without either another ECB briefing providing yet more surreal details of their proposed new “Hundred” competition or a respected voice adding to the landslide of criticism descending upon the heads of the ECB’s top brass.

Scyld Berry weighed in on the morning of the first test with his criticism of the Board. Writing in the Daily Telegraph Berry sets out his case that the ECB is failing in its responsibility to govern cricket’s future and is not administering the present terribly well either. It is an excellent piece but fails to examine what I believe is the real issue, the relative impact the new competition will have on the 18 first-class counties and the stark differences between those that will host the new franchises and those that won’t.

The starting point for Berry’s attack on the ECB is the latest news that the board is countenancing moving away from the concept of the over in its new competition. Yet another idea which convinces Berry, and with which many of us agree, that a large part of the cricketing summer will in the very near future be taken up by something that, literally, is not cricket.

Whichever way you look at it the England and Wales Cricket Board is at a moral crossroads. One where there is the very real prospect that the decisions it is currently taking will change the face of county cricket forever and end the existence of a number of county clubs while severely damaging many others.

More weight is added to the ECB incompetence argument by the way they handled the selection of Adil Rashid. Whatever your views on the inclusion of Yorkshire’s leggie no one can be in any doubt that the board did not handle the whole process very well. From appearing to sit on their hands while Rashid was not playing in the Roses match prior to selection, through the apparent disconnect between player, his county club and England, and on to their failure to see the damage the selection would do to an already beleaguered county championship.

Am I alone in considering it very strange that the ECB, who in the not too distant past, were commissioning reports with the aim of making the County Championship the best it could be to ensure a healthy English test side, appear now to be actively undermining and marginalising the premier county competition?

But there is a more fundamental point which needs to be addressed. One which to date seems to have received little attention from either the ECB or the media. The impact the new competition will have on those counties that will not host one of the new franchises.

Some might argue that we already have a distinction between the test and non-test playing grounds and that the new competition is merely an extension of this arrangement. Worryingly that appears not to be the case. The financial arrangements for the distribution of funds from the Hundred will almost certainly not mirror the process for test revenues. A funding stream remember which currently keeps many counties heads above water.

Cards on the table time, I am writing this from my perspective of a lifelong Somerset fan. Someone who is very very worried about the financial implications for his county club of the new competition and funding arrangements.

Somerset is a very well-run club. A county which has, over the past 10 to 15 years created a financially stable model of how county clubs should be run. A model which has allied on-field consistency (although disappointingly little silverware to show for it) with the redevelopment of the County Ground. A redevelopment which has retained the feel of a county cricket ground while modernising the facilities to a level that were unrecognisable at the turn of the century.

This development has been achieved within the existing financial structure of the county game and has been adapted to maximise the benefit from the many changes in the structure of county cricket that we have seen in the last decade. The funding model takes advantage of the excellent support the club boasts and increasingly significant off-field revenue streams to operate independent of any central hand-outs.

Based on what we know at present, the new competition is likely to occupy the mid-summer block currently taken up with the Vitality Blast. Scheduling restrictions will almost certainly mean that the Blast will be in direct competition to the new format. If this is the case the financial implications for Somerset and the other “non-Hundred” counties will be severe.

The ECB has stated that they believe the new competition will be targeted at a new audience and, by extension, will generate new cash for the game. This is I believe nonsense. There may be a short-term bounce in revenues but beyond that it is hard to see how sustainable additional revenues will be generated. More likely the devalued Blast will see falling attendances and revenues.

Some clubs, such as Somerset, with deeply loyal, regionalised, hard-core support may be fortunate in retaining numbers for the T20. But this is very unlikely to be universally true across the have-nots.

The obvious source of financial assistance for these clubs is compensation from the centre. But will those counties that are “lucky” enough to host the new competition be prepared to share their new-found riches with their competitors?

Whitgift School – An annual fixture, perhaps a site once the 100 gets up and running. But at what cost?

Clubs such as Lancashire, Yorkshire and Warwickshire will certainly see the Hundred as a solution to the debt burden they have accrued as they have re-developed their grounds. These clubs probably cannot afford to forgo the riches their new franchises will generate even if, altruistically, they want to.

Not only will the Hundred take out a significant chunk of revenue for ten counties but it will further marginalise the county game and most likely the red-ball game that those ten clubs will still be expected to run.

The championship could conceivably become even more peripheral in its scheduling than it is at present. Which in turn would make it harder for those clubs to retain its hard-core membership.

The ECB seems to be blind to how healthy the county game is at present. While the evidence of attendance levels for county championship games does not necessarily indicate a successful product the county game now operates at an entirely different level, being consumed more away from the grounds than at them. The recent developments of live-streaming and BBC local radio commentaries has seen astonishing levels of engagement with those unable to get to as many games as they would like. I cannot, in my lifetime, think of a county championship that better engages with its supporters than the current iteration. And that is despite, I would argue, the best efforts of the ECB in the opposite direction.

Somerset, for the reasons I have set out above, are probably better able to ride out the financial storm that the new competition will inevitably generate. But other clubs may not be so lucky. Counties such as Derbyshire, Kent, Leicestershire and Northants, all coincidentally close to potential franchises, will almost certainly see a drift away of support. A drift which if it is long-term will be severely damaging. If this is the case the current structure of 18 first-class counties is unlikely to survive.

But for those “non-hundred” counties that are able to keep their financial heads above water the challenge of being competitive on the field will be that much greater. Take the example of Dominic Bess. Let’s imagine this is 2021 and that Somerset’s young off-spinning all-rounder has just made his test debut and that the Hundred is up and running.

Bess is drafted to the Bristol Bashers or the Cardiff Crunchers and heads off there for a six-week contract. From a Somerset point of view, will he be selected at the end of that contract for red-ball games ahead of an alternative who has been playing championship or second eleven red-ball cricket for the county? From the player’s point of view, wouldn’t it be easier to move to the county club that hosts the Hundred for professional and logistical reasons?

It’s not a huge stretch to see that within three or four years of the new competition being set up the “haves”, having attracted and retained the cream of the player pool, will occupy division one of the championship. A have-not county will have to punch significantly above its weight in a big way to compete.

So, it is my contention that the consequences of the ECB’s new love-child will be far more far-reaching than have been debated so far. I don’t have any confidence in the ECB’s working party to come up with any solutions to any of the problems this new competition presents. Despite it being chaired by the chief executive of Leicestershire.

Chesterfield – The County Scene In All It’s Glory

Many of us who support the poor-relation non-test hosting clubs will see this as the ECB seeking a way of achieving what it hoped the two-division county championship has failed to deliver. There is no doubt in my mind that they wish to see the counties on the test circuit playing in division one and the “lesser lights” occupying the bottom tier.

It is a source of great pride to Somerset as a club that we have been the county that has remained in Division One the longest and seen all the test host counties go down in that time.

So, the question has to be, will the counties acquiesce with ECB’s plans or will they rebel?

Could we be on the verge of a Premier League style break-away where the counties decide to take control of the domestic game away from the board? It is not as far-fetched a notion as might appear at first sight. Certainly not if the ECB continues its headlong rush toward a new structure which will drive a massive wedge through the county game without consideration of the cricketing and financial implications for all 18 counties.

It will be interesting to see how the ECB wins the support of the host counties for the new structure as this may determine whether this possibility becomes a probability. If the host counties only benefit financially to the extent of the rent of their grounds (while the financial gains go to the separately owned franchises), they are less likely to be supportive. Alternatively, will the eight host counties be asked to take on the not insignificant risk of the new competition being a financial disaster as franchises?

It serves as evidence of how badly thought out this new competition is that, less than two years before it starts, there is the very real possibility that a significant number of the first-class counties will suffer significant financial damage which may irreparably damage the domestic game. As Mr Berry says the ECB is failing in its responsibility to the domestic game.

Outro

You can follow Steve on twitter @stevetancock62 and read more of his writing at www.SomersetNorth.co.uk .

He’s also a Boston Red Sox fan!

Dog days

We’ve been rather quiet on here the last month or so. It’s for a number of reasons: the diet of white ball cricket in the heart of the summer allied with a football World Cup (and England’s progress to the latter stages) inevitably dominates attention. No matter what, it would be the sporting centre-piece, but it can’t be denied that cricket seemed less relevant than ever, a summer afterthought to the main events. Summoning the motivation to write pieces that were only going to echo one another has proved rather hard to do for all of us.

Fortunately, we are now beginning to approach the meat of the cricketing summer, with five Tests in six weeks that will restore somewhat the rhythm and cadence to a season. Yet the future is clearly that the Tests are to be an August feature, and a September one too, given the Ashes schedule for next year takes it well into the autumn. It’s not that this is inherently wrong, and nor is it unprecedented, but the intended sidelining of Test cricket for lucrative white ball cricket, international or domestic, few overs or many, is abundantly clear. This is the future as the ECB see it.

The sheer drivel around the Hundred continues apace. The 10 ball final over idea appears to have been nixed by the players, but now the revised “plan” appears to be something along the lines of 20×5 ball overs, but with the freedom to bowl consecutively, or even all from the same end.

It should be remembered that this was initially sold as being a simple concept, one that would attract non-cricket fans rather than the apparently detested lovers of the game. Yet we’re now in the position that even those eccentrics are helplessly confused about what on earth is going on, what the rules will be and how it helps anything. Even a bank balance. Cricket really isn’t that complicated a game yet if you listen to the ECB you’d be under the impression it was far to the north of quantum physics. But having pushed the myth of this, they now seem intent on making it even more complex in order to apparently make it simpler. This is insanity, a full on Catch 22 approach to the sport.

Of course, the fundamental point here is that they aren’t promoting cricket. They have totally lost sight, by accident or design, of what their role is meant to be – financial rewards are supposed to be there in order to support the game of cricket, not to be an end in themselves. We now have a future summer schedule where red ball county cricket is pushed ever more to the margins, a T20 Blast that is proving highly successful, 50 over competitions, white ball cricket internationally in the heart of the summer, plus a new competition that appears to be being designed to fit into the initial name with no regard for anything else.

Add to that Cricinfo reporting that the ECB are tying up a deal for 10 over cricket, and the flippant comment that what the ECB would really like is to be able to remove cricket from the equation entirely looks prescient rather than amusing. For perhaps the first time in history, a sporting body seems to loathe the game they administer, and to try to avoid it wherever possible. It would surprise no one if the word cricket was deleted from the Hundred, such is the terror of the sport by the administrators. At no point in recent years have they backed the sport, shouted about how amazing it is, how everyone should want to watch and play one of the finest games ever invented. It is all apology, all excuses.

At some point, the question of whether the ECB are fit for purpose to run cricket in this country is going to come up. It’s not there yet, but there are the beginnings of rumblings. Even the press have started to be more critical, although notably it is either those at Cricinfo, or those who are general sports reporters rather than beholden to the ECB access rules. It isn’t much, but it is growing slightly. A governing body that has no faith in its own game really ought to be disqualified from running it on those grounds alone. It is failing from the start.

For let’s be clear: if there’s one thing that anyone who loves cricket wants is that those running the game share that most basic belief. And who really thinks the ECB does any more?