How Not To Market A Product

As The Hundred begins its marketing campaign for next season, it seems like a good time to talk about some incredibly basic things to consider when selling something. It seems like the ECB needs all the help it can get.

The most basic tenet of marketing, at least as far as I understand it, is to always consider your audience. This encapsulates two concepts: The audience you currently have, and the audience you want to attract.

For @TheHundred, the first demographic is very easy to define: English cricket fans. Before a ball has been bowled, or a game televised, the only people who will have any interest in an upcoming domestic cricket competition’s Twitter account are obviously people who already like the sport. They almost certainly follow the England cricket team, and are more likely than not to be familiar with county cricket too. They might be men or women, young or old, rich or poor, but they all have that in common.

Knowing that, the obvious approach would be to use @TheHundred Twitter account to promote the cricketers involved in the competition. “You like this player? You can see him next summer in The Hundred.” The people following the account will already know them, and you might persuade some of those followers who were on the fence about the whole thing to give it the benefit of the doubt. It’s not sexy, it won’t win you an award for innovative marketing, but it works.

One incredibly odd choice for The Hundred is when its tweets and posts give every impression of being dismissive or downright hostile towards county cricket and its fans. I struggle to think of any example where a company has attacked or insulted its own customers whilst promoting a new product. For example: Coca Cola owns both ‘Coke’ and ‘Innocent Drinks’ (or at least 90% of it). Innocent’s Twitter account has never said, “Coke is incredibly bad for your health. Drink Innocent’s smoothies instead!” Literally no responsible company would do that, ever.

But the England And Wales Cricket Board do.

The second group, the Twitter account’s presumed target audience, is the more interesting aspect of The Hundred’s marketing efforts so far. It has been stated repeatedly by its proponents that The Hundred is designed to reach people who might be discouraged by their impression of the T20 Blast as a competition for ‘lads’. To quote Simon Hughes: “A lot of people feeling the Blast is not a game for them because it’s largely middle class and largely white, and particularly a kind of beer-fest. […] It has become a piss-up, actually.

If you look at who responded to The Hundred’s Twitter relaunch positively, and there wasn’t that many, a clear pattern emerges: They are all youngish men aged roughly 25-40. No women, no British Asians, no kids. Just blokes who I would guess like a drink and some ‘bantz’. If The Hundred’s aim was to draw in a new diverse audience for English cricket, they appear to be failing badly.

This is not a surprise to me, although I suspect the same could not be said for many at the ECB. My impression is that children or even the under-25s rarely use Twitter. Instagram, TikTok and Twitch all seem to have a younger user base, and so might be better platforms for attracting schoolkids or young adults to cricket. I would hesitate to even speculate on the best way to draw British Asians into English domestic cricket, but it’s not immediately obvious that the ECB have tried anything beyond creating a franchise-style competition vaguely reminiscent of the IPL/PSL/BPL.

The worse misstep in the ECB’s marketing approach regards women. The tone of The Hundred’s Twitter output could be charitably described as ‘laddish’. The thing to remember about this kind of the behaviour is that it is generally how men act when in the company of other men. Women tend not to participate in it, nor find it appealing. This might be why the vast majority of internet trolls appear to be male. If you were promoting a new competition which proclaimed (falsely, in my opinion) to be based on the principle of gender equality, with both the men’s and women’s competitions inextricably linked, why would you choose to project such an obnoxious and exclusively male personality on social media?

The problem the ECB face is that this is not an isolated problem with regards to their promoting cricket outside of their core white male demographic. If you remember last year’s launch of The Hundred’s website, the stock photo used prominently on the front page was literally the top Google result for “male audience”. When Andrew Strauss first announced The Hundred on Radio Five Live, he implied that the reason more women weren’t cricket fans was because they weren’t able to understand the game. There are two things which these three events have in common. The first is that they all demonstrate a chronic inability to consider the ECB’s output from the perspective of a female audience, which leaves them struggling to connect with roughly half of the UK population. The second (and more damning) commonality is that each of them would have been thoroughly prepared over several months. None of them could be excused as mistakes made in haste. Every detail will have been pored over by virtually the entire PR/marketing/social media arm of the ECB, not to mention a few very well-paid executives, and no one appeared to notice any issues.

Being ‘Outside Cricket’, I must admit to having almost no knowledge of the ECB’s inner workings. That said, I would be utterly unsurprised if I were to discover that the people involved in these debacles were almost exclusively white men aged thirty and above. Particularly when it comes to the senior roles where decisions are made. Whilst perhaps not essential, having a diverse staff must surely help when it comes to attracting a diverse audience. Otherwise you risk seeming out of touch, patronising, and frankly a bit of a joke.

Thanks for reading. If you have any comments about this, or anything else which came up during our extended break, please post them below.

600: Rise of the Umpire’s Finger

Minimal play on the final day, a match ruined by rain and bad weather led it to peter out in a draw, and a 1-0 win for England.  In reality, that was always likely, and as much as anything else it was about whether James Anderson would have the opportunity to bowl and take that elusive 600th Test wicket.  It was more of an issue than would usually be the case, at 38 years old and with the world struggling under the load of Covid-19, there was always the possibility that he wouldn’t get another chance.  All things being equal, he will probably be around for a little while yet, but injury could have intervened, and no one can be entirely sure whether planned tours will go ahead.  Considered overall, it is better to have it out of the way now, both for him personally and to prevent any danger of selectors and public having an eye on him being stranded on 599.

There will always be debate about where particular players stand in the pantheon of leading performers.  It isn’t helped by the tendency in the modern world to assign labels of greatest ever far too frequently, leading to irritation and a push back against it.  It doesn’t matter.  It has never mattered.  Only one person can ever be given that epithet by any individual, making it by definition exclusionary and rarely a considered statement.  Anderson’s overall record is hampered by a difficult start to his Test career, his first hundred wickets coming at an average of 35 meaning that even as thereafter it dropped dramatically it wasn’t until ten years after his debut that it dipped below 30.   It has continued to fall ever since, best highlighted in a tweet from Tim Wigmore:

 

It’s 12 years since he took that 100th wicket, it’s 7 years since he took his 300th.  Longevity is an achievement in itself, particularly for a seam bowler for whom the physicality of bowling is in itself a major challenge, but his record over the last ten years or more is world class and world class over longer than the vast majority of whole Test careers.

His record is markedly better in England than it is overseas, but this is neither surprising nor should it be used as more than an observation, and certainly not a stick with which to beat him.  He is a product of English cricket and his skills are necessarily geared to where he plays most.  He’s not the first to have such a differential and won’t be the last – it is an extremely rare (and great) bowler indeed to be equally successful in all conditions, and as someone who relies on swing, being stuck with the Kookaburra ball abroad will necessarily reduce his effectiveness dramatically.

Moreover, in a time when Test cricket is under ever increasing threat, his only likely challenger as top wicket taker for a pace bowler is Stuart Broad, his long term opening partner.  England play more Test matches than anyone else, but even in England colours it is increasingly hard to imagine someone other than Broad from anywhere matching his longevity, fitness and wicket taking prowess.

Above all else, Anderson on song has been a joy to watch.  If the true pleasure of sport at the highest level is to witness human beings operating in a manner entirely foreign to ordinary mortals, then Anderson’s ability to have the ball on a piece on a string and to make accomplished batsmen look stupid is a rare one indeed.  There is nothing brutal about his bowling, although in his early years he was undoubtedly sharp, but there is the consistent ability to dismantle techniques and cause high quality batsmen to appear to be out of their depth.  Numbers don’t always explain that, but any who remember watching the intelligence of Richard Hadlee’s bowling will see a modern day echo of that in Anderson.

It would have been nice had there been a crowd to watch him do it, it would have been nicer still for him to have had his family there to share it with him.  But above all he got the chance to do it at all, and that is where endless thanks for the Test summer we have had must go to Pakistan and the West Indies.  A rarity on here it may be, but credit should also be paid to the ECB, for back in April any kind of cricket seemed a distant prospect.  Self-interest, of course it was, but self-interest that did provide a glimpse of a path back to some kind of normality, and that benefits us all.

There will be endless tributes to James Anderson from better people than me, some will go too far, some will cause irritation elsewhere in the world at the positioning of him at the head of a pack of great fast bowlers.  I don’t care.  Anderson has been grumpy, sometimes infuriating to watch (too short, too wide was a regular complaint), sometimes excused for actions other players would not have got away with.  But he’s also been a magician with a cricket ball, a player who has lasted when so many fell by the wayside, undoubtedly one of the greatest English Test bowlers of all time, and someone who has got a player out 600 times in Test cricket.  That’s one hell of a lot of raised umpire’s fingers.

 

England vs. Pakistan, 3rd Test, Day 4 – 599*

England went into today’s play hoping for a couple of things, the weather to stay clear and for Jimmy Anderson to get his 600th wicket with the weather looking pretty dreadful on Tuesday. Unfortunately none of the above happened.

Today was one of those incredibly frustrating days where the weather intervened constantly and nothing much happened on what is a very flat pitch. England’s approach to the day was certainly lackadaisical, somehow how hoping that the Pakistani batsmen would give their wickets away with no hope of winning the game and one eye on the flight home, but this was far from the case. England’s bowlers were too short and too wide throughout the main session before rain ended it and they were even worse in the field, with Jos Buttler shelling a sitter from Jimmy Anderson that might yet cost him his 600th Test Wicket. The Pakistani batsmen also benefitted from a pitch that has just got slower and flatter as this Test has progressed, though that’s not taking away anything from their application and determination not to let this tour end in a 2-0 defeat.

Once the rain halted and the players re-entered the field at 3:45pm, England did at least start to bowl with a little more purpose, with Root adjusting his field having recognised that the pitch was not going to do them any favours. Broad struck early on with a delivery that Masood misjudged and got the merest glance of his pad whilst not playing a shot and was given out LBW. It may have only been clipping the stumps but umpires are never frightened to give someone out when not offering a shot. Anderson then removed Abid with a ball that tailed in with a bit of reverse swing and caught him in front and number 599 was in the bag.

Unfortunately very little happened after that with Bess looking pretty ineffective and Root being forced to bowl before the umpires inexplicably took them off for bad light. Again.

In truth today was one of those days that doesn’t do Test Cricket again good. A flat pitch which isn’t deteriorating, bad weather and overly fussy umpires meant that it was at times a tedious watch. It happens at times, but it is still disappointing when it does. We all know that Test Cricket doesn’t help itself at times especially when the umpires had the opportunity to start the game at 10:30am today and decided to refuse; I guess they like their breakfast in bed.

So we move on tomorrow and the forecast is grim. It is meant to hammer down for most of this evening and tomorrow morning in Southampton and best case scenario is likely for a 3pm start if they can clear the ground of the excess water. Unless something very strange happens, then this game is set for a bore draw, but hey Test Cricket can be a funny beast at times. One thing we can all hope for is that Jimmy Anderson does get the opportunity to bowl and take that final wicket to get to 600. I would hate to be in the shoes of some of England’s slip fielders and the wicketkeeper if the weather fails to play ball or if they drop any more chances off him.

As ever, thoughts and comments always welcome.

 

Creeping to Domination

About ten years ago, England had days like these on a regular basis – a powerful top end would build a platform, and the middle order would exploit a tiring attack to lift England fairly consistently to 400 and 500+ totals.  Over the last six or seven years such days have been rare, with 300 more frequently the top end of their ambitions.  One match doesn’t signal a return to those more productive times, but nor should it be ignored when it happens.  England are in complete command of this Test match thanks to a record fifth wicket partnership between Zak Crawley and Jos Buttler, taking the team to a total of 583-8.  Oh heady days.

There is ever a temptation to go overboard about young players when they first make their mark, and Zak Crawley’s 267 will doubtless lead to gushing praise and comparisons to others that don’t yet need to be made.  It is enough to regard this innings as truly exceptional, and the player highly promising.  He remains inexperienced to the point that this was only his fourth first class century in little more than 50 games, with an average of barely 30.  Nothing at all to write home about.  But there is a difference between identifying a young player with a modest record and believing he will develop into a fully fledged Test cricketer and simply persevering with someone for the sake of it.  The modern day descent into besteveritis will likely mean that some of the praise is over the top in terms of the future career context, but that doesn’t, and shouldn’t take away from just how impressive he has been in this match.

It was an innings both of maturity and control – fluent throughout, solid in defence and despite admitting to nerves when in the nineties, seemingly unflappable as every milestone approached.  It is one knock, but a hell of a knock, and if cricket is a game played in the mind, it can only help him believe he has all the ability needed to succeed.  Rob Key, his mentor for many years is, and should be, extremely proud of him.

His partner throughout was Jos Buttler, a player whose own lack of a fine first class record made his initial selection a similar kind of punt, but with the difference that after nearly fifty Tests, he still had only one century to show for it.  His wicketkeeping in the first Test too had shown significant errors, suggesting that the pressure was starting to show.  Buttler isn’t an exceptional wicketkeeper by any stretch, but he is a generally competent one, albeit much less secure when standing up, as his lack of stumpings indicates.  His selection in that role is a choice, a slightly compromised wicketkeeper picked for the runs he can score and the way he scores them.  His shortcomings in his strongest suit were the main reason for his place coming under threat rather than his nominally primary role.

Here he was in control, his shot selection vastly improved compared to recently, and the pace of his innings suggested a player feeling in command for the first time in quite a while.  The calls for him to be replaced were not in error, for stick with a player long enough and eventually they will score runs.  But equally, when those calls are made, it needs to be acknowledged when he has come good, and as this series has gone on, he has looked much improved.  Keeping faith with him cannot yet be said to be the correct decision, but the signs of him learning at last how to compile a Test innings suggests it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that it will need to be acknowledged as a good one.  Only time will tell, though there will be some players feeling that they too would have liked the degree of support given to Buttler, and the chance to repay that faith.

Two days, one innings; two players, two Daddy hundreds.  The future can take of itself for both of them, today was very much their day, and they deserve all the plaudits going.

With a fine sense of crowd pleasing (even if on sofas and in cars up and down the country), Joe Root sent Stuart Broad in for a slog towards the end.  Broad has become something of a national treasure over the last year or so, which is intriguing given that for so long he was a player who divided opinion so much, even when performing well.  It is perhaps the fate of players who can change a match in a session that all too often it is asked why they don’t do it more often than celebrated for what a rare ability it is.  But while his bowling has been of high quality (and seemingly increasing quality) for a number of years, his batting mojo seems to have returned, to some extent at least.

Broad’s batting decline led to it being both sad in itself and worthy of mockery.  His resurrection – not to the near all rounder levels of ten years ago, but to a thrillingly attacking tailender – has changed perspectives from him being a figure of fun to one of adoration.  Stuart Broad batting would empty the bars if they were open.

A short session attacking the Pakistan batsmen was available, and to the surprise of no one, inroads were made.  Anderson picked up three, to take himself to 596 Test wickets, and a decent chance of reaching 600 by the end of the match. At 38, there is always the chance the end could come suddenly, and only the most churlish would lament him reaching such a landmark this week.

If Pakistan are to get out of this one, they will have to bat out of their skins, or hope that the weather gods are smiling on them more than they were in the Second Test.  Conditions are one of the fickle factors that affect cricket, a random occurrence that can be utterly capricious.  The visitors had every chance of winning the last match, and now they will probably need the weather to restrict their defeat to 1-0.  No one ever said life was fair.

One last word on the weather.  For this match the umpires have been given increased latitude in making up time at the start of the day as well as the end, and in moving the sessions around to maximise cricket.  Some of the criticism in the 2nd Test was fully warranted, particularly around the inclination to go off the field rather than stay on.  Yet here they have been proactive, and have learned a lesson.  There was rain this morning, and lunch was pushed back to 2pm.  As it turned out, that probably cost some playing time, with the weather sunny and dry during lunch, inviting more pointed comment.  This was unfair, the umpires were doing their best to maximise play – they are not soothsayers when it comes to when the rain comes and goes.  It was just a trifle unlucky.  On this one, they should be cut a little slack.

England vs. Pakistan – 3rd Test, Day 1 – Scores And Bores

Today was an exceptional day of cricket. An amazing batting performance from Zak Crawley left England very much in the ascendancy after the end of the first day. Rather frustratingly, I missed a large portion of it because I was busy transcribing Colin Graves’ interview on Sky, a long and boring process which took me over two hours to complete.

The day had a mixed start for England, with Rory Burns being squared up by Shaheen Shah Afridi and edging to the slips. This has not been a good series so far for the England opener, who currently has a series average of 5.00. In particular, the left-arm pace of Afridi has taken his wicket three times. That said, I wouldn’t be overly concerned by his form at this moment in time. His average against the West Indies just a few weeks ago was 46.80, and few teams have a high-quality left-handed pace bowler if that is a weakness of his.

Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley saw off the very good Pakistani pace attack with the new  ball, which brought in legspinner Yasir Shah. It had been noted after the first Test against Pakistan that Dom Sibley had the low strike rate against spin bowling of 36.61. What was not mentioned was that his average against spinners in Test cricket was 40.00. His scoring rate was raised during the game in commentary, and afterwards during interviews. During a press conference after that game, Sibley vowed to be “a bit more proactive” against spin. In the two games since that interview, his strike rate against spin has soared to 62.07, whilst his average against spin in those two games is 18.00. Today he was dismissed after being judged LBW after skipping down the pitch to try and hit Yasir Shah out of the ground.

There are two aspects of this that infuriate me. Firstly, since when does run rate matter in Tests? Whilst obviously it might be considered better to score more quickly than not, as it reduces the chances of a draw, I’d much rather have a slow batsmen averaging 40 than a quick one averaging 30. It seems notable that a large portion of those espousing its importance in Tests are those who seem to prefer T20 cricket.

My second, more important issue with this pressure on Sibley to score more quickly is that it seems a wholly predictable result that it will get in his head and lower his average. We saw it with Trott, and Compton, and Ballance. People take their scoring for granted, tell them to accelerate once they’re ‘in’, and it completely screws them up. I want Sibley to be opening for England in five years’ time with a Test average over 40. I think the best way to do that is to leave alone to score at his own pace. England have plenty of batsmen who can score quickly, so they can afford for one or two to take their time. Sibley genuinely seems to me like the real deal, and I don’t want him crashing out of the side prematurely.

Joe Root fell soon after Lunch, edging an unplayable delivery from Naseem Shah which moved sharply off the pitch before catching the edge. With one innings to go, Joe Root has a batting average this summer of 37.33. He hasn’t averaged over 40 in a home summer since 2017. Whilst he is entirely blameless for today’s dismissal, I do think that he could have possibly kept it out in his prime. The same frustrating way that Steve Smith or Virat Kohli just manage to keep an absolute jaffa from dismissing them. I think the time of considering Root one of the ‘Fab Four’ world batsmen, or of worrying that his conversion of fifties was too low, has long since passed.

Pope was clean bowled by Yasir Shah, which left England on 127/4 with Zak Crawley and Jos Buttler at the crease. These are two batsmen who I genuinely don’t rate particularly highly, and so I feared the worst. Zak Crawley’s first-class average is a mere 30.82, whilst Jos Buttler has an average of 32.31 after 46 Test matches with just the solitary century. To my pleasant surprise, they both delivered tremendous performances which took the game completely away from Pakistan and both remain not out overnight.

Crawley’s innings was truly remarkable. Rarely flustered or giving chances, he was scoring at almost 4 runs per over against what is an impressive Pakistani bowling attack. He finished the day on 171 not out, which is also his highest first-class score. He missed two Tests this summer in order to make room for the injured Ben Stokes playing as a specialist batsman. After today, I wouldn’t think that he will be considered England’s most expendable batsman.

There were two notable interviews broadcast today on Sky. Before play, ICC match umpire, Stuart’s dad and former Rebel tourist Chris Broad had a rare interview. Most of it was devoted to the changes in playing conditions for this Test regarding bad light. Essentially, umpires now have the option to start the day half an hour earlier rather than adding the time on at 6.30pm when light is likely to be at its worst. But, after that topic was well covered, the talk drifted to over rates:

Nasser Hussain: In the last five years in England, the over rate has dropped to 13.4 overs. In the last year, it is 12.1 overs when they should be bowling at 15. And yet only two captains have been fined in England by the ICC. Are the over rates at the moment acceptable?

Chris Broad: You talk about this country, you look at the number of crowds, the number of people who come and want to watch Test cricket. If they start falling away, then something needs to be looked at. I feel that there has been some exciting cricket in this series. If there were crowds in here, they would appreciate the fact that there has been some exciting cricket. There have been results in almost every Test match, and I think they’ve had value for money. It’s something that, if you look at stats, they can actually tell a different story. Tell perhaps an unreal story, and the entertainment value of the game of cricket. I think this series, as far as entertainment has been concerned, has been fantastic.

I think one of the most basic things I believe is that you don’t get to choose which laws you follow, or enforce. Unless you’re rich, obviously [/satire]. It is what infuriates me most about slow over rates. I would find it immensely entertaining for Jofra Archer to bowl from 4 yards in front of the bowling crease, if I wasn’t batting, but if he goes a millimetre beyond the bowling crease it’s called a no ball. I think many people just want to watch certain batsmen bat, Stuart Broad for example. But the ICC umpires won’t let him reset the stumps after being bowled while telling the bowler, “They came to see me bat, not you bowl.” Not even his dad.

I also disagree with the contention that enforcing over rates would make the cricket less entertaining. I can’t say for sure that it wouldn’t though, because I can’t recall at any point where it has been enforced. Teams are generally willing to accept the small fines or points penalties that are given and, as Nasser rightly points out, even these minor punishments are rarely used.

The second, more extensive interview of the day came during the Lunch break, with Ian “Wardy” Ward and Nasser Hussain ‘grilled’ outgoing ECB chairman Colin Graves. For your enjoyment, here is the whole goddamn thing:

Wardy: How’s the five years been?

Graves: It’s been challenging, but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it to be honest Ian. And when you look at all those highlights, we’ve come a long way in five years both on and off the field. From a board perspective, we’ve now got an independent board which I think is one of the best things English cricket has ever done. It’s been enjoyable.

Wardy really set the tone for the questions here. It couldn’t be a softer delivery if it was a 79-over old Kookaburra being bowled by Jack Shantry.

Wardy: What’s been your biggest challenge?

Graves: I think the biggest challenge certainly was getting The Hundred off the ground. We had all the pushback initially on that. I think people are starting to see the advantages of it now. So that was really challenging, but I still think it is the right thing to be doing and it will be a valuable asset to the ECB going forward. Both from a profit perspective and from a playing point of view as well.

Obviously many of us are dubious about the possible profit The Hundred might generate. I am curious what Graves meant by a “playing point of view” though. Does he believe that a new format will helps English players in the T20 and 50-over games? The English 40-over competition was removed in 2013 to bring it into line with the international 50-over standard, because it was felt that the slightly shorter length didn’t help develop international cricketers. Has something changed since then?

Wardy: Why so much pushback, do you think?

Graves: I think people, certainly in cricket, don’t like change. I think we’ve been set with a number of competitions over the years that everybody seemed happy with and they looked at another competition: “Do we need another competition?” I don’t think they realise we’re trying to attract this new audience, women, children and families, which we’ve never really had coming to cricket. So that was a big message to get across. When we took it to the vote, to the counties, that went through 38-3 so it was fairly unanimous when it came down to it. And it’s just a change, to be honest with you.

Somewhere, there is a PR person from the ECB facepalming so hard they might have broken their nose. Since the disastrous launch by Andrew Strauss two years ago, in which he essentially said that existing cricket fans don’t matter because The Hundred was for ‘mums and kids’, the ECB have toned down that message with every subsequent appearance. At this point, they are saying to people who attend T20 Blast games that is basically the same, except with better players. This is good marketing. You can’t persuade people who don’t know about cricket to attend cricket games. It is impossible. Whilst those now-legendary ‘mums and kids’ or ‘non-cricket fans’ might see The Hundred on the BBC and decide to attend in future years, the only possible live audience in the first season is the exact same people who already attend T20 Blast games.

If Colin Graves is going to keep turning up on TV and radio telling those existing fans that The Hundred isn’t for them but for families instead, they might not buy tickets and turn up. And the ECB might have to deal with empty seats dominating televised cricket for the second season in a row.

As for English cricket fans not liking change, that’s fair enough. They don’t. But I would say that this is mainly because there is so much of it. Here are just some of the changes to county cricket in the past 20-ish years.

2000: The first Championship divided into two divisions, with a reduction of one game per season.

2003: The 50-over Benson & Hedges Cup is replaced by the T20 Cup

2006: The Sunday League went from 45 to 40 overs per innings.

2010: The 50-over Friends Provident Trophy and Natwest Pro40 are replaced by the 40-over Clydesdale Bank 40.

2014: Points for a draw in the County Championship increased to 5. The 50-over One Day Cup replaces the 40-over Yorkshire Bank 40.

2017: Championship Division One reduced to 8 teams, with both divisions reduced to 14 games per season.

2020: County Championship to change to 10 teams in Division 1, , T20 Blast moved to May, the One Day Cup played during The Hundred, and a new 100-ball competition with new drafted teams.

In other words, every three or four years there is a major change in English domestic cricket. I’ve almost certainly missed out a lot of things from this list. At  some point the ECB has to just leave county cricket alone for a period, a decade or so, to really see what is and isn’t working in the long term.

Hussain: You said there “Fully behind it. People are starting to see the advantages of it.” What do you mean by that?

Graves: I think they’re starting to see that the reasons why we’re putting it together is because of this new audience. I think they’re starting to see the  excitement of a new competition. I think they’re starting to see as well we’re attracting a new broadcaster to it as well as yourselves. You’ve covered cricket brilliantly over the last years, it’s tremendous what you’ve done. And I think they’re starting to see all that thing coming  together. Children really getting excited in The Hundred. And I know even some of the countries abroad, India in particular, are looking at The Hundred. They’ve been talking to me about it for the last year on a regular basis. So around the world it’s created a lot of excitement. I’m just waiting to see what happens.

Who are these people that are seeing the advantages of it?

Besides that, I find the idea that the BCCI would pay the ECB to in order to play The Hundred as pretty laughable. They could enforce over rates in the IPL to bring the game running times under control, or choose a different standard like T10. I suspect what has happened is that the chairmen of other boards have found that a very easy way of buttering up Graves before asking him for a favour is to praise and declare an interest in The Hundred.

Wardy: The new broadcast deal is worth £1.2bn. How much of that, can you explain to people, is down to fact that The Hundred is included in that broadcast deal?

Graves: The £1.2bn was the whole broadcasting deal that we got for five years. That brought a fairly large amount of money for that new competition. And that was somewhere approaching £170m for the first five years from the broadcasters. But it wasn’t only that. It brought another broadcaster to the table who have never been interested in it before. And certainly to get back on terrestrial television, at that level, is certainly going to help. And it’s going to help expose cricket even more, which is what we want.

For those of you who have difficulty with maths, that means that over a billion pounds, over £200m per year, is dedicated to the pre-existing international and county games. Being from the horse’s mouth, this should hopefully put to bed the idea that The Hundred was responsible for the massive increase in the TV rights revenue starting this year.

Wardy: Such a shame that, obviously we can’t do it with Covid, that it hasn’t got off the ground yet.

Graves: Well that was a big disappointment to me. My last year as chairman, and I was going to see it take off, hopefully, and it’s not happened. But that was the right decision. There was no point doing it this year, so to postpone it for a year was absolutely spot on.

I disagree. I think it should have gone ahead. Partly because it would have allowed the ECB to keep more of this year’s TV deal rather than paying Sky back, at a time when English cricket needs every penny. More importantly, playing The Hundred could have allowed 18 extra live games of cricket on the BBC at a time when more people than ever will be stuck in front of the TV rather than meeting at the pub or going on holiday. It was as close to a captive audience as the ECB could have hoped for.

Wardy: Fully independent executive board. When you took over the chairmanship, was that one thing that was a must for you to change?

Graves: It needed changing. One thing which I didn’t expect is we would change it so quick and we got that through in two years. When I took over the ECB board, it had fourteen people on the board. It had four county members, two recreational members and the MCC. So 50% of the board were stakeholders, which was never easy to manage, and you had a conflict of interest and everything that went with it. Now we’ve got an independent board, it’s an entirely different ball game.

I don’t think a board, particularly one for a sports governing body like the ECB, should be easy for its chairman to manage. The ECB is responsible for so many different aspects of the game. Men’s professional cricket, women’s cricket, recreational cricket and so on. Every aspect of that should be represented on the board, so that none is forgotten.

I am particularly uneasy about the way that Colin Graves was also responsible for choosing those new board members as chairman of the ECB’s nomination committee until December 2019. At the very least, it raises questions about the independence of those ‘independent’ board members

Wardy: If you have a list of things you wanted to get through when you first started, you sat down at your desk and wrote A, B, C, and D, and if you had four or five points, how many have you ticked off?

Graves: I did have a list, and I think there’s only a couple left and to be honest I’m amazed how much we’ve done in five years. One of the biggest reasons is because we changed the executive in the first year when I took over as chairman. We’ve now got a fantastic executive led by Tom Harrison. But all the way through the organisation now, we’ve brought young people in, professional people in, people from outside the game. So we’ve brought people in from big companies like Heineken with a strong commercial background. And that new executive has helped to drive the game. Andrew Strauss was brilliant. When we brought Strauss in to be head of cricket, and Straussy fit into that team really well. And that whole team have helped change  very quickly.

Well, I would certainly agree that Andrew Strauss fit into the ECB very well. I do not mean that as a compliment though.

Wardy: The advancement of the women’s game. How pleased are you with that? We had that wonderful day at Lord’s when they  won the World Cup. That was the pinnacle, obviously, but in general how do you think that’s gone?

Graves: When you look at five years. I remember the first board meeting that I chaired Clare Connor came and presented to the board about a new competition that she wanted to put together for the women’s game, and we ticked that box that day. And when you look at where women’s cricket has come in the the past five years, it’s phenomenal. It’s moved very quickly. It’s moved very fast professionally. And it needed to. And I think there’s still a long way to go. The ECB need to keep investing in that, women’s and girls’, because it’s a big part of growth in cricket.

Here, I have to give some credit to Graves and the ECB. In terms of investing in women’s cricket, they are probably the second best in the world. It is a long way below the commitment of Cricket Australia, and I don’t think the current structure (with 8 semi-professional development teams) is sustainable or desirable, but it’s still better than virtually everyone else.

Wardy: Any regrets? Some of the things you’ve said?

Graves: Yeah. I’ve said one of two things that afterwards I’ve kicked myself and said “Why did I say that?” People always  say about me, “Mediocre West Indies team”, and all the rest of it. And the mediocre Blast. Those words were taken slightly out of context, but it was meant on the basis of what I thought at the time. But I’ll put my hand up and say it’s fine. I could have said it better.

So it was both out of context and what he thought at the time.

Hussain: At the highest level it’s been a successful tenure. Men’s, women’s, everything about the main England team. What about lower down? What about grass roots? What about participation? What about the structure, the liaising with the counties? How do you feel you’ve done further down?

Graves: When I look back at the whole game, as I call it. When I took over the board, I can tell you, the recreational game was never really talked about. It was a little bit on the agenda that took five-ten minutes and that was it. Coming from the recreational background, which is what I did. I was a recreational player, I was chairman of a recreational club. I’m passionate about recreational cricket because that is to me the grass roots of the future. So I made sure that we invested in recreational cricket properly, supported it with a pathway, and all the other things that we’ve done. And to me, it’s essential. And the one thing the game I believe, if I leave a message when I go, is “Make sure the investment in the game is right across the game.” That’s grass roots, girls’, women’s, boys’, schools’, everything. That is what we need to grow the game.

I would first dispute the premise of the question. Whilst the 2017 Women’s World Cup win was fantastic, and iconic, since then their star is shining a little less brightly. They lost the Ashes series at home last year, whilst they failed to reach the final of the Women’s T20 World Cup after losing a crucial group game to South Africa. On the men’s side, only the ODI side is dominant. The Test side is ranked 4th in the ICC rankings, below India, Australia and New Zealand. That is an improvement from when Graves was first appointed, to be fair.

As for recreational cricket, what investment has it seen from the ECB? Genuinely. I am stumped on that one. I guess All Stars cricket could be making a loss for the ECB, despite the them taking 87.5% of the fees for each child. The websites, scoring apps, etc. available for clubs seem a total mess from my admittedly outside perspective. If there is money coming from the ECB, where has it ended up?

Wardy: That is going to be the biggest challenge for Ian Watmore, who takes over on the first of September. You want to fund all these things and, in these Covid times, money is not great.

Graves: The big challenge that Ian and the board have got. Fortunately we have the new broadcasting deal, which this year is the first year of it so we’ve got four years left of the broadcasting deal. So yes, they’re going to have to cut back, but they’ll need to cut back right across, not just parts of it, because they still need to invest in all those other parts. I think by prudently looking at it, selectively looking at areas, they can still do the investment right across the game.

Wardy: 20% decrease in budgets, I’ve been reading around the place. In a bizarre sort of way, is it a good time to reset and reflect at some of the expenditure and where you could look at reducing that?

Graves: My last call with the county chairmen was last week, and the last message I gave to all the county chairmen was “What you need to do now with the ECB is to sit down and collectively talk and discuss about how you can remodel what we’ve got. Because it’s a time to do that. I think, if they do that properly, I think the game can grow even faster than what we’ve done.

I’m sure the 6 counties who were thinking about getting rid of first-class cricket to save money had some words for the outgoing chairman. I think the more important question Colin Graves’ answer begs is: Has the game grown? Are more people watching cricket now than five years ago? Are more people playing cricket than five years ago? Because (call me cynical) I think if either of those things were true, the ECB would be putting that out in press releases, tweets and interviews at every possible opportunity.

Wardy: How impressed have you been with the way the ECB have managed to get these games up in these strange times, and how thankful are you to the boards of West Indies, Pakistan, Irish cricket and indeed Australia, who arrive on Sunday?

Graves: When the whole Covid thing started, I must admit, we all sat there at the end of telephones and discussions those days, and we all thought the world was coming to an end. But it comes back to the executive, Tom Harrison and his team, and our board. We sat down and looked at what we could do and asked if we could get behind closed doors cricket running. It was a challenge. It was a massive challenge, because nobody had ever done it before. Fortunately we had a guy like Steve Elworthy, who could pull all that together for us and he did a fantastic job. But the determination of the executive and the board. And I think it’s the relationship we’ve got with countries like West India [sic], Pakistan, Australia and Ireland, around the world, that they have come to play in these environments. And it’s been challenging for everybody, it’s been challenging for you as broadcasters but, at the end of the day, we’ve got live international cricket up and running. Which is brilliant, from everybody’s point of view. I was looking at the broadcast and viewing figures yesterday, right across the piece with The Review, the highlights and everything else. Those figures are tremendous. Absolutely tremendous. To me, it shows that cricket is in the right place that, when we do start getting crowds back in, we’re in a superb place to take it even further forward.

Yep, this has been impressive. Fair play. Steve Elworthy was in charge of the 2019 World Cup, which also went well. A possible candidate for the chief executive job if Tom Harrison moves on?

Wardy: On a broader world scale, ECB, Cricket Australia have got lucrative broadcast deals. The likes of West Indies, Pakistan do not. Would you like to see the monetary playing field somehow levelled out so you don’t really get into the situation we’re having now with the haves and the have nots? Particularly if we’re looking to proect Test cricket.

Graves: I think there’s a way to do that. I sit on the ICC board, and have done for the last four years, and I think ICC could look at the way they share the money out from their pots. Because, I’m not being unkind, the ECB, the BCCI, Cricket Australia are not reliant on the ICC pot, They’re reliant on their own pot. And I think ICC could recut that pot in a different way with all those countries to make sure they are sustainable. Because we need all the countries playing if we’re going forward. Everyone.

Wardy: Fancy the ICC job?

Graves: That’s not up to me. The way the election goes, you have to be nominated. So, if I don’t get nominated then I’ll be nowhere near it anyway. When the nominations happen, all I said to everybody, I’ll look at it and see where  I am.

And there’s Colin Graves’ pitch for the top job in world cricket. You would think that sharing the ICC revenue more equitably would be very popular with nine of the twelve voting ICC members, so it seems a smart strategy. Those boards might want to examine his promises to the counties that he made in order to recieve the ECB chairmanship. They might also note how many of those counties are now in such a bad position after five years of Graves’ leadership that they are considering abandoning first-class cricket altogether.

Wardy: Have you enjoyed it?

Graves: I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, and I’ll miss it. I’ve enjoyed working with everybody, people like you and the executive, the counties, everybody. It’s been a fantastic job. And if somebody said to me twenty years ago that I’d be chairman of the ECB, I’d have said don’t talk stupid because it’ll never happen. But it did, and the rest is history.

Well at least he’s enjoyed himself.

Apologies for the late post. It’s almost 5,000 words, including the interviews, and it just took a lot longer to write than normal.

As always, please comment on the post, the game, or anything else below.

England vs. Pakistan, 3rd Test – open thread

Naturally we’d like to be able to spend all of our time living rent free and writing previews and blogs for the site; unfortunately life hasn’t dealt us these cards and so at times we’re unable to do just that. Today unfortunately has been one of those times (I did enjoy some nice craft ales in a local pub last night mind, which were very nice and it wouldn’t surprise me if Chris and Danny did the same).

It’s the third Test and final one of the summer, so let’s hope it’s a good one. Mind with winds blowing around 50mph in Southampton today, I’d sure be fighting to bowl with wind if batting wasn’t an option. The fight between Broad and Anderson with which end they get to bowl from could be a classic (if they’re both picked naturally).

Hopefully normal service responds tomorrow with regards to our activity. Comments always welcome.

England vs. Pakistan, 2nd Test, Day 2 – Farcical

I don’t know what it is about our game, you know the one we truly love and cherish, that it keeps wanting to shoot itself in the dick time after time. Today was an absolute farce, no doubt about it, and with the world watching after an enforced lay off from the sport, Test Cricket once again administered self-inflicted wounds to itself. Was the light great? Probably not. Was it dangerous? Certainly not; yet the umpires took it upon themselves to take the players off the field at every possible opportunity. It really does make you despair at times that a sport that is fighting for it’s very survival, can openly make such a pig’s ear of everything that you wonder whether it is actually trying to make itself extinct.

An interesting question has to be asked as to whether the umpires would have made the same decision if there were 15,000 paying punters in the ground? Possibly, possibly not, but even so there are many more of us that pay extortionate Sky subscriptions so that we can watch the game we love. Fans as ever always seem to be an inconvenience to cricket unless we’re paying £90 a ticket or buying overpriced food and merchandise and even then the ‘hoi polloi’ are there to be merely tolerated at best.

Also the question of growing the game amongst our youth has to be asked. If I asked my 10 year old nephew to sit through today, I doubt he wouldn’t have held it against me for the rest of my life. How do you explain to someone that is new to the sport that they can’t play because it’s a little gloomy even though there are powerful floodlights in the ground? How can you explain that the light was fine for 9 balls after an early tea but then a bit too dark to play even when Rizwan was hitting a quick bowler over his head for 4? You just wouldn’t get that in any other game on the planet. No wonder football is our national sport.

I could go on all day about this, but for me, this video from George Dobell, ironically at Old Trafford sums it up perfectly:

As for the play that we actually did have, well let’s be kind and say it was hardly a thrill a minute stuff. The beauty about Test Cricket is that it can ebb and flow dramatically from one session to another. You can get a dull session and then suddenly the game explodes; unfortunately this was just a turgid day of cricket. It does amuse me that in other sports like football a 0-0 bore draw would be described as boring yet try and mention the “B” word with regards to Test Cricket and you are suddenly being called heretic. Test Cricket can be wonderful, but at times it can also be dreadfully dull, unfortunately what we got today was a lot of the latter.

England bowled well at times but looked pretty innocuous for most of the day, in fact it was a rare terrific ball that finally got rid of the set Babar Azam. Jimmy got Shah driving and nicking to slip on a pitch where the drive needs to be put away and then we got the classic Pakistani brain fade run out as Shaheen embraced a bit of yes, no, yes, no, oh crap after being dismissed by a direct hit from Sibley. It would be fair to say that the wheels came off for England after that, who time and time again tried to bowl the magic ball and time and time again failed to pull it off. I don’t what it is about the English mindset that when they have a team 8 or 9 down that they forget to bowl decent deliveries to the set batsman in the hope they can dismiss the tailender at the other end. It rarely ends well and today was no different, even if Broad did manage to dismiss Abbas in the 9 balls after tea by actually bowling at the stumps. This is not designed to in any way denigrate the innings that Rizwan played, who looked to have a very solid defence and cleverly picked the balls to go after when batting with the tail, but it was pretty clueless by England. Unfortunately not for the first time.

The result of which is that Pakistan are very much in the game on a tricky pitch with tricky overhead conditions. That is of course dependent of whether the umpires fancy a round of golf tomorrow or just being pampered by the Aegeas Hilton room service, I mean who cares if we get a game on or not??

Test Cricket can be wonderful at times and deeply frustrating at other times, sadly today will not be remembered for the cricketing action on the pitch; instead it will act as a stark reminder that it’s refusal to change is likely to put it’s very existence into question.

Thoughts and comments very much welcome.

 

 

England vs. Pakistan, 2nd Test, Preview – Feeling Hot Hot Hot

So we’re back down to the Bramsgrove bowl for the 2nd Test and thankfully this time none of the players decided to have a little detour. Naturally the headline leading up to this Test has been the withdrawal of Ben Stokes for the rest of the series, which of course is a huge blow, but pales into insignificance when dealing with obviously a serious family issue. I was pleased on the whole with the reaction on social media with the majority wishing him well, which of course they should, cricket is a game that has bought us much joy (and agony too) and Stokes has played a major part in that, but family must and will always come first. I believe I can speak for the collective in wishing the Stokes family all the best whatever they are currently going through. It was also sad to see Dan Lawrence leave the squad due to a family bereavement especially when there was a decent chance he might have made his debut; thankfully there is still plenty of time for that whenever he is ready to re-join the fold.

So with Stokes and Lawrence out, this provides Zak Crawley with an opportunity to try and cement his place in the side, as you’d expect him to slide in at number 3 and let Root go back to his favoured position of number 4. I’ve been a little surprised about how much criticism Crawley has had in absentia, with various people on social media highly critical of him whilst suggesting he shouldn’t be in the squad in the first place. Now of course it’s natural for people to push their own favourites, Gary Ballance and Sam Northeast are names that crop up time and again, but I do find the criticism of Crawley a little baffling. He easily outplayed Joe Denly in the 1st Test against the West Indies and after getting a duck in the first innings of the 2nd Test was then asked to throw the bat in the hope of quick runs in the 2nd innings. Personally I’ve been pretty impressed with Crawley, he looks like he has a natural flow to his game that keeps the scoreboard moving and hasn’t really looked overawed by Test Cricket despite being only 21. I think there is definitely enough there to warrant being given a decent crack in the side and I’d certainly pick Crawley over Ballance, who has shown that he hasn’t the technique or the mental fortitude for Test Cricket, every day of the week.

As for the rest of the side, the batting line up now picks itself with Buttler remaining at 6; however the bowling line up is one to watch with interest. Despite the heroics of Buttler and Woakes at Old Trafford, our tail looks awfully long against what is a very good Pakistan bowling line up, so I do wonder if England are tempted to pick Sam Curran to shore up the batting and to offer a bit of variety to the attack, but then who do you leave out with Woakes, Broad and according to Joe Root, Jimmy Anderson all set to play. Jofra Archer seems the most likely to be left out, but if so, there must be a temptation to play Mark Wood, to give England a proper pace option. It was interesting that Root has come out already and said that Jimmy is going to play considering the back to back nature of these matches and the fact that a 38 year old Anderson hasn’t played particularly well all summer. Could it be thought of as misconstrued loyalty to a player who has been England’s finest fast bowler for over a decade but perhaps is no longer in England’s top 3 pace bowlers these days? Naturally it would be wise not to write to Jimmy off as he has proved time and time again that he is a quality bowler, but there will certainly be added pressure and scrutiny if he does indeed play at the Aegeas.

As for Pakistan, it will be interesting to see how they respond after losing a match they both dominated and should have won. Certainly Pakistan teams of the past may have let that affect them mentally after such a loss, so Misbah and his coaching staff will have needed to do a lot of work with the team to get them back in the right frame of mind. I have the upmost respect for Misbah, so if anyone can lift this team back up after Old Trafford, then he would be the man to do it. It will also be interesting to see what the make-up of the Pakistan team is in Southampton, as they looked a little top heavy with Shadab batting at 7 and then not really contributing much with the ball. Dependent on the pitch they made decide to go with the extra batsman, a certain Fawad Alam, who despite having an average of over 50 in Pakistani domestic cricket, has consistently been overlooked for selection. It will also be interesting to see if they shuffle their quicks, as playing the same fast bowlers in 3 Tests in such a short period of time is draining. If they do, then I’d expect Naseem Shah to drop out, not because he isn’t a fantastic prospect, more that they don’t want to injure a 17 year old proper fast bowler by over-bowling him. The last thing Pakistan need is for him to pick up a stress fracture and be out for a long period of time.

So fingers crossed that the storms stay away from Southampton, though I’d quite like them to come to London and we get a full day’s play tomorrow. As ever thoughts and comments are much appreciated.

Countering an Orthodoxy: Cricket in Schools

There are certain things everyone holds to be true. They are rarely challenged, and when they are, the views tends to disappear into a hole and be forever ignored. It’s therefore with no expectations at all that I decide to take on a known truth in cricket and argue that it doesn’t hold up. Namely that the major problem in cricket development is the lack of cricket in schools, and that things were so much better 35 years ago. It’s something you hear from every quarter, a lament for a golden age of youth cricket that has disappeared, to the detriment of the game overall and preventing the young from taking up the sport.

It’s a complex matter, open to debate, and isn’t, or shouldn’t be, clear cut. Yet it is always stated that the loss of schools cricket is a fundamental causal effect of cricket’s problems with engagement and rarely challenged. So I will.

I went to a state school, but one that played cricket. Even in those days that was fairly unusual – it was certainly the only school in the town that played, and matches were against others in the wider county rather than anyone in the immediate vicinity. Many of those were state schools, but by no means all – the idea that cricketing schools were a common thing isn’t true. Matters have got worse in the intervening years, that is not in doubt. Equally, the prevalence of school cricket varies dramatically by region and by degree of urban area. Yet in no sense in the state sector can it be argued that things have got better, cricket in schools is a much rarer sight than it was in the 1980s. To what extent that can be applied in an overall discussion of the state of play is a more complex matter.

Individual experience is not indicative of a wider truth, and nor is the plural of anecdote data, so when arguing any case it must always be borne in mind that experiences differ, and differ significantly. But it is also the case that the regular media commentary on schools cricket is driven by the fact that cricket journalism is driven by a largely privately educated reporting base. Their experience of school’s cricket is fundamentally different to that of the wider public, of whatever generation, and their fondness for their memories of their own experience is significantly out of kilter with the 93% not privately educated. It is simplistic to translate their own experiences and ethos to the wider topic, yet when they do so it is rarely argued with on the basis that it is stemming from a false premise.

While the private education sector often has exceptional facilities, focused coaching and the desire to develop ability, state schools are more prosaic about what is on offer, if anything. Teachers have neither the time nor (often) the skills to coach, and nor should they be expected to do so. In that supposed golden age of the 1980s school’s cricket it amounted to the odd session in the nets and representing the establishment in games. Little more. But the difference then was that relatively few clubs had an organised colts set up either as an alternative or a supplement. In my own case, when starting out only one club in the area had any kind of formal youth structure, and they played very few games a year. I saw the change happening – at 12 years old it was that one and only club in the area, by the time I was 19, there were half a dozen in the immediate vicinity, all with a youth section. For me, in order to play cricket, school was essential, the club exposure amounted to what will be a familiar process to many of starting out in the Sunday 2nd XI playing against men rather than regular age group cricket.

One area to note where school’s cricket did have a huge importance though, is that it was then the means for being put forward for the county age groups. Clubs were almost entirely ignored as a route into the county structure until eventually, in Kent at least, a structure was set up to allow that to happen.

This is entirely different to the position in the 21st century, where thousands of clubs provide a quite exceptional level of youth development, and also a pathway for the best into the county structure. Club coaches were non-existent 35 years ago, they are now widespread and able. To put it another way, and given that teachers were not filling that gap then or now, the standard and availability of coaching is so much better now that it barely qualifies as a debate. Equally, the number of youth games, whether internal to a club or against others, is vastly higher in 2020 (with allowances for Covid-19) than was ever the case when I was growing up. Equipment, always an expensive element of the game, is relatively plentiful and of good standard, compared to a school kitbag – if it existed at all – that was usually a relic from a decade or more earlier. And on a personal note, finding anything left handed was nigh on impossible.  If left-handers, or wicketkeepers wanted to play, they needed to beg their parents to buy them equipment.

By almost any measure you care to choose, for those who do play cricket, the clubs in the modern era offer a vastly superior experience than state schools ever did in the past. It therefore cannot be the argument that the nostalgia for some kind of golden era of cricket in schools was based on a better playing incidence, it has to be something else.

Cricket has faced a challenge in inspiring youngsters to take up the game in the first place, and it is here that the schools argument is on stronger ground. By exposing children to the game in the first place, it is suggested that more were inclined to take it up and to become cricketers, potentially life long ones. But although a firmer argument, it remains relatively flimsy when set against the opportunities now available. In my own case and those of my school team-mates, school didn’t introduce us to cricket, it was a pre-existing interest that school provided an outlet for. For children with that pre-existing interest, clubs now offer that much higher quality offering, but even for those who didn’t go on to play for either school or club, their initial exposure was less a matter of an organised games session and more a matter of using a bat and a tennis ball in the playground, the park or for those lucky enough, the back garden. The role of education in firing that initial spark of interest is a very open question. Even in my cricket playing school, organised activity for the wider pupils was highly limited; it did exist, but it couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be compared to sports like football or (in my case) hockey, which were established school activities. This will clearly vary from school to school, and personal experience to personal experience. Yet there are grounds for scepticism when even an established cricket playing school such as mine (and they still play, incidentally) didn’t provide the grounding for an introduction to the sport in any meaningful sense, only a focus for that wish to play.

With the truth that the number of schools playing has declined dramatically, one way that the clubs have attempted to pick up the slack is to go into state establishments to introduce the game to pupils. Where the question lies is whether this is because of a lack of opportunity, or because the game has become invisible with the retreat to showing the sport behind a paywall. Most surveys have indicated a general lack of awareness of cricket, but it is a leap to suggest that the primary reason for this is the lack of potential to play while being educated, it may be much more about the lack of access to seeing the sport at any kind of meaningful level to instil that first curiosity of cricket. And therein lies a related point, that even those in favour of subscription-based television coverage accept that free to air is a highly effective way of reaching people and inspiring interest, in their case, the argument is about the revenue loss involved were free to air to be the choice made. That being the case, while an argument can be made for hiding the game to generate income can be made, it is only acceptable if allied with a large scale push to create interest at youth level, and that has been entirely missing. The ECB continue to invest a relative pittance in youth cricket.

There is ever the temptation to see the past through rose tinted spectacles and assume a time where a particular circumstance was better. Times and our society has changed dramatically in the intervening years, but a simplistic view of where the problem lies doesn’t help anyone, particularly when the chances of that specific perceived flaw changing are minimal. Clubs have not only filled the gap, they have expanded the range of options exponentially. Anybody intrigued by cricket has a much greater chance to play, and more particularly, the range of abilities catered for is significantly enhanced beyond the position of around 13 people in a year group being given the chance to play.

A further objection to this hypothesis is the degree to which the professional ranks are increasingly drawn from the private schools, and particularly so in the case of the batsmen, with that being evidence of the impact of lack of state school cricket. Perhaps. But it may also be a matter of the overall increase in a focus on coaching per se, with the private schools being the only education outlets to provide for that. In other words, it is less about the state school coaching offering, which hasn’t changed at all in the last decades and more a matter of a substantial uplift in private coaching provision, alongside the increasing coaching focus of the game more generally. If that were to be true, then a trebling of the coaching levels in the clubs would still be a relative drop when matched against a quadrupling of the same in the public schools.

Cricket does have a lot of problems, but the increased interest over the last 12 months thanks to a World Cup win and the current England team’s apparent ability to pull off successful but preposterous run chases has helped enormously.  Yet it cannot undo several decades of malign indifference. This piece gives no answers, and only asks questions, but it seems reasonable enough not to simply accept a truism purely because it is widely held. Very few complex matters invite simple solutions, and perhaps this is an example of that.  This is an argument made from a position of powerful uncertainty, Strong disagreement with the case being made here is welcomed, because this is a subject that needs considering more deeply than it has been if we are to find a way of bringing the game back to the young, and to provide the next generation to fall in love with cricket.

Underdog Day Afternoon: Test Cricket Does it Again

The ECB are the lucky organisation.  They’ve done remarkably well to get Test series on this summer, with the help of the two visiting sides, but over the last couple of years they have been rewarded with some quite extraordinary finishes to international matches.  Overall, it’s hard to make a case that they deserve their exceptional fortune, but this summer, perhaps they do.  For today was one of those days that cricket can throw up, and which few sports can match.  It’s not just the drama of sport, it’s the elongated nature of it that is, if not unique, unusual.  Tension builds over time, over days.  A five day Test match is a special beast, and one to be cherished, particularly in these times where the whole concept is under threat.

The lack of crowd means that it’s not quite the same, it is a facsimile of the sport we know and love, but it is entirely forgivable and a price worth paying for the time being to be able to see it on television or listen to it on the radio.  That it can raise spirits in a time that needs spirits raising is an added bonus, but perhaps speaks most centrally to the value of sport itself, whatever the money men may insist.

The narrative of a Test match twists and turns, winds and loops, offering succour to those who need it, and exacerbating the pain of struggle for those who are finding sporting life difficult.  That England owed their win most of all to the twin innings of Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes added a delicious twist to the summer, for Buttler has been rightly under pressure for his place, both due to a lack of runs and his indifferent keeping in this match.  One swallow never makes a summer, but irrespective of the wider issues about the best choice for the wicketkeeper/batsman role, today was very much his day.  He played with freedom, confidence and aggression – his natural game, certainly, but one he’s struggled to display throughout his Test, and indeed county, career.  It is forever the case that selection and choice is wrapped in the paper of a thousand dilemmas and agendas, but on the day a player performs like this, only congratulations are needed, and only pleasure derived – both for a player and a human being.

In the post match interviews, Jos Buttler said that he felt that if he didn’t get runs today, he might have played his last Test for England.  Professional sport can be brutal, and the truth is that he may well have been right.  The personal tales weaving through a team game are endlessly fascinating.  Irrespective of merit, Buttler can enjoy his moment, while Joe Denly never got to experience his.  Such are the narrow margins, and Buttler’s quietly spoken charming nature makes it hard not to be anything but delighted for him.

Chris Woakes hasn’t been under remotely the same kind of pressure, for he is a bowler first and foremost, but his lack of runs had been noticed, most particularly by Shane Warne who demonstrated his usual monomania on a subject he’s newly discovered.  If runs had been hard to come by for him, today he was exceptional, as though he’d shrugged off any doubts and simply decided to play his shots.  Sometimes it works, and today was one of those days.  As is so often the case, when a player succeeds so dramatically, it’s hard to understand why they’d been having problems up until that point.

Pakistan should have won this match.  They outplayed England for three days, and added sufficient useful runs this morning to be in a strong, if not quite unassailable position.  Yet even that should have been a disappointment to them, for at times during this game England looked outclassed by their opponents.  England had a shot at victory today alright, but they really shouldn’t have been that fortunate.  If there’s one side-effect of the Ben Stokes absurdity in the World Cup final and at Headingley, it is that this England team will genuinely believe anything is possible, that they can win from anywhere.  It is a heady mental state to possess, and one that can materially change outcomes in a tight situation.

At 117-5,  the game seem almost up, Ollie Pope had just received a ball that had burst through the top and exploded off the pitch to give him no chance of avoiding gloving the ball in the air.  With a deteriorating surface and only Buttler and the bowlers to come, Winviz sternly informed the world, who couldn’t possibly have seen the evidence with their own eyes, that Pakistan were strong favourites.  What happened though was that as the ball got older and softer, the turn was still there, the bounce still inconsistent, but much more slowly off the pitch.  It was enough for the batsmen to cope.

There will be regrets from the tourists.  England got closer to their total in their first innings than should have been the case, largely due to Stuart Broad taking the long handle at the end, and in Pakistan’s second innings their overwhelmingly dominant position was steadily thrown away.  England bowled well, certainly, and gained a toehold in a game they had little right to be considered an equal party.  It remained profligate to toss away wickets and offer up a chance that oughtn’t to have been there.

It remains to be seen whether this first Test will be Pakistan’s best chance and if they wilt in the remainder of the series, but they have the talent to defeat this England team, they arguably have the greater obvious talent of the two.  Perhaps with two such mercurial sides nothing should surprise anyone, and if they both live up to the reputations for cricketing madness they have garnered, the next two matches might be a lot of fun.