Through My Frozen Heart Tonight..

Hello everyone. I am sorry I’ve not been on here recently, and in many ways I feel a little guilty about it. But I hope those that check in every now and then, and those that are regulars, are coping well as they can with the world we live in, and that you are all safe and well, and so are your family and friends. I know that can’t be the case for everyone, but fingers crossed that it is.

I have a confession to make. You may already know it. I do not miss cricket one bit. Not at all. Cricket isn’t on its own in that. I don’t miss football. I don’t miss baseball. I don’t miss F1, the NBA, the Masters, the Grand National. I will not miss Euro 2020 not being played. I won’t miss the Olympics. I love all those things, I have been a sports nut ever since Mum and Dad taught me to read by using the back pages of the newspapers. I don’t miss them for a variety of reasons. At this moment I don’t care who wins. At this moment I am not bothered by gossip, rumour, or even how bloody awful the ECB is, and given Harrison’s open mouth talk nonsense effort this week, they haven’t changed. I don’t want footballers, cricketers, rugby players, athletes to contract a disease that is communicable by asymptomatic people. To themselves, to their loved ones to those they may meet in the shops at the wrong time and the wrong place. Sport is not important right now. Be wary of those telling you it is.

Let’s take some of the suggestions for cricket. You quarantine a load of players in advance of a game to ensure they don’t have it. You lock them in isolation during a test, or a series, and then, at the end, you probably quarantine them again. Now, where do you sign up for that experience of a lifetime? That’s then got to be played in front of empty stadia – remember how we are always reminded that the county championship is no good because it attracts no-one and has no atmosphere? – and here we are only, only talking about elite level, which as Izzy Westbury suggested in her Twitter thread, quite often means “not women”. Then what will we have. A spectacle played to no-one, so that we at home can content ourselves that we are slowly getting back to normal, and the betting industry can pray on those even more vulnerable than they were before. The cynicism of this is blinding. You think they are doing this for their furloughed staff and low-paid ancillary staff. I’ve got some disinfectant as a cure to sell you if you do.

I think for cricket the break will do me good. The whole sport is a treadmill, and a break for players, even in these horrific circumstances, will mean we will love it more, hopefully, when it comes back. Cricket had become mundane, routine. A meaningless test series, usually, but not always, won by the home team followed another. There’s a T20 tournament for someone with an in-demand skill to tide themselves over in some location in the world if the mood is right. An ODI here, another one there. It was such that running a blog commenting on the game was becoming a massive chore. In its absence I have done other things, found filling my time not difficult at all, looking back at great sport and enjoying it again (I think Sky Sports Cricket should be doing more, much more, of that), and also reading, listening to music, watching TV series, and writing, still. I am doing that on my own blog, and if you haven’t read it yet, I am keeping a diary throughout the lockdown. It can be found here – Seven and Seven Eighths II– and it is my hat size.

The guys are doing superb work on Twitter, so please carry on supporting us. We have never been as presumptuous to say we are the voice of the fans, but we are a voice, well four voices as authors and we cover a lot of bases. I gave up Twitter for lent, and found it thoroughly lovely. In fact, I am not actually sure why I returned.

Mentally, for me, it has been tough, but I know a lot of people are a lot more worse off than me. Cricket has been rendered irrelevant by the vast numbers dying, and the fear and trepidation I feel as one of those with the anaesthetised but Orwellian concept of “an underlying medical condition” as if I am someone who should just accept my fate should it come my way because in some shape or form, I deserve it. I’d rather not, thank you. That means you won’t be seeing me at any event any time soon. You can never eliminate risk, but you can do your part to minimise it. That means steering away from the copious amount of ocean going idiots I come across in the park every day when I’m walking Teddy. Stay safe.

One thing on my list is to collate all my cricket recordings in one place. I have loads. I have the entire 2010-11 Ashes series in its entirety. It doesn’t feel bad watching Cook then. I have so much I can do that I’m not bored, and that’s great. I am lucky that my job can be done from home, so I am ok there too. I worry about others. A great friend of mine lost her mum this week (not sure it was of the virus) but she can’t have a funeral as the family would have liked, and how that impacts mentally I don’t know. In all of this, setting up matches in Abu Dhabi to satisfy TV companies and betting outlets seems irrelevant, and even a little distasteful to me. But that’s me. Others can have their views.

Stay safe and well everyone. Let’s dream of the day we can get back to watching sport in safety and for the right reasons. It’s what, I think, we all love.

When The Rain Stops.

This Sunday was due to be the start of the County Championship, a time I look forward to very much each season not just because it means we have cricket in our lives again but it also marks to me the end of the winter slog and the start of Summer. It’s a time when I would open the diary and try to work out which games I want to go to and which games I sadly won’t be able to make due to scheduling. Naturally this is not going to be the case this year.

We are living in uncertain and quite frightening times and hence I don’t want this article to take away from this fact, especially when hundreds are dying in this country from this awful disease; however the fact something we have taken for granted for decades will not be happening has properly hit home today.

I adore sport, especially cricket, even if the actions of the ECB quite often makes me want to tear my hair out. Now too old and a bit too round to play much sport, I often take comfort from watching whatever sport happens to be on the TV and I do enjoy most sport, be it Football, NFL, Darts, F1 or International Rugby. Whatever the time of year, I can normally find something to take my mind of the drudgery of life sometimes by immersing myself in something that I was never talented to play at a high level.

The thing about sport is it can act as a comfort blanket when things are a bit rubbish, it can make you turn from a normal human being into a quivering wreck (see the WC Final and the Headingley Test last year) and it can take you to a place that is out of your reality. The sudden but completely necessary stoppage of all sport both in our country and across the world must feel like a drug taker who has suddenly going cold turkey and is suddenly facing a chaotic and uncertain world without their comfort blanket they’ve always relied on. From personal experience, I like many others have had some serious challenges and blips in my life, but cricket or football or some of the other sports I mentioned, even if it has been for a short period, have allowed me to think about something else, away from the things keeping me up at night. I’m sure many who read the blog feel the same thing.

Sport is not just about the 22 players on the park (or however many there are for each sport), but it is there for millions of people who follow their idol’s (and villain’s) every move. Sport is in our psyche, it’s a chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones, it’s a chance to immerse yourself in the action whether it last 90 minutes or 5 days, it’s a chance to live unfulfilled dreams invested in others and of course it’s the perfect opportunity to debate, dissect or argue about the outcome in the pub following the game. Sport can be the very excuse to meet with friends, be it in the Grandstand at Lords, the terraces of Griffin Park or just down the pub with the sport on TV. The necessary self-isolation has taken this away from us and as someone who lives on their own, I absolutely miss both the chance to see my family and the chance to meet up with friends at a game and chat rubbish for a few hours. It is also what unites me to a 70 year old woman from Harrow, a 23 year old chemistry student from Birmingham and a few hundred in between on Twitter. We just like the game, and hey, we want to talk about it.

Now this isn’t meant to be a ‘oh woe me’ article, far from it, I’ve had symptoms of the virus and my job sector has been decimated by it; however there are people in far worse situations than me and I truly feel for them. I’ve thought about how I could potentially frame this article for the past couple of days and still doubt that I’ve got the perfect tone, but for me it has highlighted how something so simple can have a profound effect on our own mental wellbeing. I also feel for many of our sports men and women, who have had the finger pointed at them for not doing enough to help the cause, even when many likely are without the need to self-publicise. Sure there are still plenty of crass idiots in sport as there are in real lives, but I personally feel that these people are in the minority even if some of them are earning eye-watering amounts of money.

So back to the game of cricket, which is nothing like as bathed in cash as it’s football cousin and you do see the very real possibility of clubs, both professional and amateur, going under with the squeeze in current finances. You have the players, many of whom aren’t earning massive amounts of money unless they are centrally contracted wondering when and if they may play cricket this season or even again. You have the clubs who even if they survive, will wonder if they’ll be able to get 11 men on the pitch once cricket resumes as previous players decide to move on from the game. Then of course, you have the tragics like me and many others (as many a county cricket dissenter likes to call us) who are obsessed with the game and have grown up with the game as a part of our lives coming to the realisation that there may not be a season in 2020. I applaud the Cricketer for their virtual cricket tournament featuring county pro’s but it’s never going to be the same, though there is a good chance I may tune in.

One thing though we can still hold onto is that cricket and sport in general will return at some point, it could be 3 months, 6 months or longer and the world is likely to be a different place when it does, but return it will and when it does, hopefully everything will be returning to some normality in our lives. I for one, will certainly not be taking it for granted anymore when it does return. I would positively chew my arm off at the moment to see Derbyshire vs. Leicestershire live in the Royal London Cup, something I could never imagine myself saying before. It may be seem trivial to some, maybe many when things are so tough and uncertain in the World at the moment. However, I like many, hope better things are around the corner and the resumption of sport when it is safe to do so, will be a much welcomed first step.

This has been one of the hardest posts I’ve ever had to write, so I do hope that people take it in the spirit it’s has been meant to be written in, even if I haven’t necessarily got it right.

Stay safe, look after yourselves and enjoy the Easter period if you can.

Sean

Cricket – How do I Love Thee – Let Me Count the Ways

At the start of the lockdown, we asked anyone who wanted to write something for the site to send in an article. Elaine Simpson-Long took up the challenge with this lovely piece about falling in love with the game of cricket. Enjoy:

My journey from the darkness into the light took some time. 

I found cricket boring.

I was a tennis fan, skiving off school in the summer holidays to watch Wimbledon. When the kids went home to lunch I shot out with them and never came back.  I spent the mornings there so when Wimbledon was over and I returned and the nuns used to say “Have you been in School Elaine I have not seen you” I could answer with a clear conscience, “yes Sister I have” . And I had. But only for half a day.

I remember I used to get annoyed when the BBC would nip off to cover the Test match and left tennis behind.  Those were the days of one channel and cricket actually being on terrestrial tv.

I continued finding cricket a dreary past time for some years and then I ended up sharing an office with a cricket fanatic. During the summer he had his transistor radio (remember them?) permanently playing Test Match Special. Those were the heady days of Brian Johnson, Christopher Martin Jenkins, Tony Lewis et al and gradually this seeped into my consciousness and I found myself listening much though I tried not to.

Looking back I do wonder how this bloke got away with it as he did no work at all and skived all day. But then we worked in Local Government…..

A friend of mine invited me one summer to spend a weekend with her and her family. They lived in Nottingham and her dad, Bill, was a member of the Nottingham CCC.  Oh he was a lovely man. Immaculately turned out. pressed trousers, shirt and tie and polished shoes and courteous and polite. I loved him on sight.

The sun was shining on the Sunday morning and Bill announced we were going to watch a one day  match at the cricket ground. My heart sank, Oh God I thought but being a good guest I beamed and said “How nice” and off we went. Lovely sunny day and I found myself in the member’s enclosure drinking Pimms, eating cucumber sandwiches and strawberries and cream.  Despite myself I began to enjoy the cricket and then with a vague air of disbelief heard myself utter “Oh good shot, well done!” and this went on all afternoon. It was all frightfully British.

A month later and another visit to see Bill. This time it was in the hay fever season, the pollen count was through the roof and I could barely breathe. Bill had asthma even worse than mine so we stayed indoors with the curtains drawn and what was on telly? Yes you have guessed it. A Test Match against Australia.  

Bill and I watched it all and he explained everything to me. And I mean everything. Why a certain bowler placed a fielder in a certain place as he was going to make him play his shot there, the field placings – they took a while to sink in (I still have blank moments thinking about silly mid on)  – and the way individual batsmen played. He made me understand that just saving your wicket and blocking and sticking it out could be exciting (Cardiff in later years proved that) and I ended up being totally fascinated by it all.

(At the same time  I was learning to love cricket I had a boyfriend who loved Wagner and I spent an awful lot of time sitting through long Germanic operas and I honestly think the two were linked. You need tolerance and patience and stamina for both)

It was clear I just needed somebody to explain it all to me and I was lucky enough to find that person. Dear Bill. No longer with us but I will never forget him.

Later when I was married (luckily to a cricket lover) and had two daughters we all watched cricket together. When my eldest child started school I would strap her baby sister in the pram and race round to collect her from the playground in the afternoon, luckily just round the corner, grab her and belt back. No nattering with the yummy mummies at the school gate tarted up in the latest designer gear. I got it down to a fine art and found I only missed three overs.  Nowadays I would probably have only missed one. …

Though my husband liked cricket we did not have Sky and the darkness descended and so I watched an awful lot of tennis. This was anathema to him and  I did get rather tired of my beloved coming into the room and saying “Oh for heaven’s sake you are not STILL watching this crap are you”?

Reader I divorced him.

So I ended up living on my own and I thought ooh goody now I can get Sky with nobody to moan about it but the flats were a Sky free zone and so I languished existing on the coverage from Channel 4 which I thought was pretty good though Ian whathisface began to get on my nerves after a while. Too smooth and urbane by half. Never trust a smooth man is my motto. 

Then Sky came up with the idea of communal dishes and all of us screamed with delight and had it installed and I was in heaven. I now had cricket coming out of my ears and I wallowed in cricket and all was gemutlich and lovely. I was a happy woman.

It was too good to last. 2014 happened.

KP.   Need I say more? 

The answer is no because it has all been said, but I will nail my colours to the mast here and say I was firmly in Kev’s Camp.  I simply could not understand the vitriol and hatred he seemed to generate on social media and the cricketing forums and, of course, the ECB.  You would have to be a mixture of Mugabe and Hitler to justify this reaction. OK I get he was a Marmite person but considering the English team was peopled with the likes of Broad, Anderson and Prior you cannot feel he was alone in that regard.

Along with others during that time, I lost faith with the English cricket team. Not cricket itself, I could never do that, but I found it really hard, if not impossible to support them.  I found myself watching their opponents and willing them to do well. When they took an English wicket I cheered. Now I did not like feeling like this I found it all vaguely discombobulating.

Things got better when the Golden Boy finally retired and I did not have to watch him standing in the field looking gormless and picking his nose while Anderson and Broad ignored him and did what they liked.  Of course, I then had to watch Joe Root standing in the field, not picking his nose thank gawd, while Anderson and Broad ignored him and did what they liked.  

This feeling lasted until last year when the tide slowly started to turn and I found myself beginning to support them again, but I have to say it is still early days and I realised how fragile this feeling was when I watched the final of the World Cup and really wished New Zealand had won.   

Watching cricket over the past forty years has brought me so much joy.  I enjoy one day matches, I enjoy 20-20, I love the IPL with all its razzamatazz and silliness. But oh how I love Test Cricket.  When it is on my friends and family know that I more or less go into purdah and will not answer the phone or venture forth. When four day Tests were mooted last year I nearly had apoplexy.  

And sometimes I find myself watching cricket even when it clashes with Wimbledon. Proof positive I think.

At the moment I am in self isolation as I am an Old Person – my daughters have told me so and said I have to Be Careful.  So now would be the perfect time to watch cricket. And of course there is none. Talk about the law of Sod. It is like being ill in bed and thinking oh I can spend all day reading when the reality is you are feeling lousy and can’t be arsed.  

There are only so many re-runs of old cricket matches one can take, and the picture is square and you have great gaps at the side on your posh new telly and it is all too much to bear. So I have switched off and ponder on the Big Question – are Sky going to give me a refund on my sub to Sky Sports now they are not showing any?  I have my doubts..

So there you have it. My journey into the light. Not exactly revelatory or earth shattering.

It’s quiet at present, otherwise I am sure this would never see the light of day .  So if you have read this sparkling and witty piece through to the end then well done. You deserve a treat. 

Perhaps you should buy a ticket for The Hundred…..

Elaine Simpson-Long @randomjottings1

Idle Nonsense

I posted on Twitter an invitation for anyone who wanted to write an article to while away the time as we all stare at four walls over the next couple of weeks to do so.  I’ll do so again here, and if you want to contact any of us, that’d be great.  For what it’s worth, I’m at tlg@beingoutsidecricket.com

Often people worry about how well they write, how it will come across, and whether they have enough content to make it worthwhile.  Come now, no-one is going to care, anything amusing or entertaining is going to bring a much needed smile to someone, so go for it.  Even if it’s very short, it’s well worth it.

I thought I’d share a tale from many years ago about a cricket tour, about how players on cricket tour are utterly brutal to their friends.  Some will read it and tut, some will laugh or smile.  But these memories stay with you, and for good reason.  Names and locations are changed to protect the extremely guilty.

The Geordie was a passable enough cricketer, and a decent bloke.  Liked a beer, liked a laugh, had an accent that became progressively thicker the deeper into his cups that he became.  But he was a sensible enough chap, inordinately proud of his good looks, utterly horrified at the prematurely receding hairline he would do his best to hide that caused much debate as to how far he would go in years to come when it required winding around his head.

The phrase “kid in a sweet shop” was made for his first cricket tour.  The relatively sensible fellow had become a raging beast, permanently hammered and incapable of any kind of meaningful speech.  My arrival a day in to the tour meant as I said hello to him and was answered with incoherent dribble (no, not drivel) caused a mirthful team mate to pull me aside and advise that “the Geordie you knew is not the Geordie who now exists”.  Obviously there is a fine line between someone being highly entertaining and extremely irritating when they’re like that, and he did his level best to cross that line at every opportunity.

Nevertheless, to the shock of everyone, he still managed to pull.  God knows how, God knows what she was thinking.  In the manner of people who support their friends at all stages, everyone naturally did all they could to wreck it for him.  But she knew what was going on, and ignored us with the disdain and contempt we entirely deserved.  It all went wrong for him when, fed up with the lot of us, he lost his temper and yelled out “What’s wrong with you all, you’re like flies round shit”.  After a brief pause of disbelief, we fell about laughing, she said “Oh, thanks very much” and stormed off.  Job done.

He may have been mildly irritated with us all by that stage, so clearly the only thing to do was to make it even worse for him.  For reasons I’ve long forgotten, one evening he passed me his wallet and asked me to look after it.  Clearly, this was an opportunity not to be passed up, so another team mate promptly stole his credit cards.  In the manner of such things, he was too drunk to notice, and we didn’t volunteer to return them.  The following morning he noticed they were missing, asked around if anyone had seen them, and our complete innocence was beautifully acted out.

Assuming he’d lost them the night before, he returned to the hotel bar, and nope, they weren’t there.  So one of us rang the hotel from a call box (you can tell this is many years ago) claiming to be from the club we’d played the day before and that they’d found them.  Off he went by taxi, using the last of his cash, promising the taxi driver he’d be able to pay via a cashpoint for the return journey.  It wasn’t too bad, only about 10 miles or so away.  He got to the club where the groundsman was working on the pitch, and the Geordie naturally assumed that he’d rung.  Nope, sorry mate, no idea.  Having timed it perfectly, that’s when we rang the club to say terribly sorry, but the person who had found the cards had had to go into town and could he meet him there?  Much grumbling ensued, but he was a spirited bloke, so he walked.  5 miles.  In the opposite direction to where we were.

Clearly, there was no one there to meet him, and no way of him getting any money.  Somehow, he persuaded another of the clubs we played, located in town, to lend him the money to get back to the hotel, hot, extraordinarily grumpy for some reason, and willing to regale us with the horrendous day he had gone through.

“And I still don’t know where my effing credit cards are”.

“These ones?”

“You bastards.  You utter, total bastards”.

And you know what?  He wasn’t wrong.

Feel free to add your own better tales below for our entertainment.

 

 

Netflix and Chill

The unsurprising news of the cancellation of England’s tour to Sri Lanka as the the Covid 19 virus continues its spread across the globe is not even the latest to be afflicted by the desire to limit contagion, as event after event, fixture after fixture is cancelled.

I’m not a scientist, comment on the virus and public policy by those with no knowledge of what is the right thing to do has been a feature of social media over recent days; screaming from a position of scientific ignorance is something I wish to avoid.

But the impact on multiple industries is going to be exceptionally severe, and sport is far from an exception.  The advice from the Chief Medical Officer that the peak level of infection is potentially 14 or more weeks away takes us into June, and thus from an English cricket perspective well into the summer.  This means that at best the Test series against the West Indies must be in major doubt, alongside the early rounds of County Championship and the T20 Blast.  Whether the cancellation of all such events over a lengthy period is sustainable is open to question, for few businesses can maintain shutdowns for any length of time, and whether the public will buy into an absence of much semblance of normal life is also a matter for debate.

The elective nature of the cancellations – as opposed to government compulsion – also means the question of whether insurance cover applies comes to the fore.  Few are likely to have direct knowledge, and by the very nature of it no one is going to want to admit the position publicly, but there must be considerable doubt as to whether the ECB or their counterparts are protected.  Such matters may be thought trifling in a public health crisis, but at some point things will return to normal, and the damage done to that normal life is important too.

It is clearly a big summer from the ECB’s perspective, the launch of the Hundred has been extraordinarily expensive, and while some might teasingly hope that cancellation of that unloved concept is a consequence, any curtailing or abandonment of it would provoke a major crisis in the finances of an organisation that is, like many others, already facing a highly uncertain future.  It is at times like these that the diminution in the ECB’s financial reserves over the last few years begins to look like a risk that has backfired badly.

Furthermore, there must be issues for Sky Sports, who have lost almost all of their content.  Subscriber cancellations seem the likeliest immediate impact of that, though what it means for the various sporting contracts must too be open to doubt.  Given the multi-lateral problems for all parties, one thing that probably can be assumed is that few will be looking to take a hard line.

Of course, the optimistic view would be that the return of sport in the coming months might attract much greater interest than would otherwise have been the case, and there is some reason to hope that once through the worst of this, entertainment may well pick up rapidly from a relieved and probably bored population.  The flip side of that is the financial hardship likely to be faced by many significantly reduces the disposable income for such things as sport.

If the central tenets of the ECB’s most lucrative activities face serious difficulties, it isn’t just the top level that will have questions to address in the coming months.  The amateur game too will be hit by some not wishing to participate, whether or not that is a reasonable response.  Clubs are always on a financial knife edge anyway, and it doesn’t take much to cause them serious difficulties, and with a governing body that even if inclined, would be financially unable to support them.

Supporters too are consistently overlooked.  The cancellation of the Sri Lanka tour was announced by the ECB with no reference to those who had booked to follow the team.  Worse than that, there was still no mention of those travelling in the email sent out to the England Cricket Supporter’s database.  It is clearly not practical for the ECB to offer refunds of their travel, but supporters are highly unlikely to be able to claim on their travel insurance for a destination that remains open to visit.  They are in an extremely difficult position, and it isn’t unreasonable to have expected the ECB to acknowledge that in their communication.  To have ignored it entirely smacks of an organisation that doesn’t care in the slightest about anyone else, and doesn’t even pay lip service to pretending that they do.

What happens next no one knows.  But it seems likely that Netflix, Amazon Prime and similar platforms are doing a decent trade in sign ups, as people either self-isolate or simply don’t have a huge amount else to go and do, or sport to watch.  Sport is always the most important least important thing, and either way the consequences are going to be with us for some years to come.

One thing is for sure, it is far from only sport that is facing these questions, take it from me.  For I work in travel and tourism, and I have had a shit of a month.

 

A Little Learning Can be Dangerous

So there we have it, the second Test tour of the winter is over, and England are in rude health, having dispatched South Africa and found a team.  So runs the more optimistic take after what became a dominant performance in the second half of the series, following a floundering one at the start.  Reading too much into England’s performances at any given time is a perpetual danger, but failing to give them any credit for their successes when they have them is taking a curmudgeonly attitude too far.  There were good things to take from the tour, there were examples of players finding their feet in the Test arena and the kernel of a half reasonable team was more identifiable by the end of the Tests than at the beginning.

It must be noted that South Africa weren’t far short of a rabble by the end, either broken by England or by the circumstances in which they find themselves.  Triumphalism at England’s victory has been limited, given the problems afflicting both South African cricket and the wider game.  Few in the media generally have spoken about it in depth, partly for fear of damaging the product even further, partly because of a lack of detailed knowledge about the particular difficulties faced.  It’s wise not to pretend an awareness that doesn’t exist, but it doesn’t make it any less concerning to see one of the game’s major powers in such disarray, and while there are always local factors or specific challenges (Kolpak in South Africa’s case being one), there is a pattern of struggle off the field among all the nations apart from Australia, England and India.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be good teams produced, but the financial reality of the world game is predicated on ever increasing wealth accumulation by those who already have it, and descent into penury for the rest.  When ideas are mooted to “help” Test cricket (just as there have been lots of initiatives to help the FA Cup that have gone swimmingly) they always fiddle around the fringes rather than examining the fundamental imbalance in world cricket that have led to this point.  Four day Tests are proposed as a means of saving money, supposedly supporting poorer national boards, but their advocacy is from one of the wealthiest – at least before the splurge to support the Hundred drained the bank account – and is indicative of the way absolutely every option must be considered apart from those that have created the major structural mess in which the sport finds itself.

The self-interest by those who have been tasked with acting as defenders of the game never stops.  South Africa’s own shortcomings on and off the field can’t be directly addressed by the world game, but it can provide a sufficiently level playing field that South Africa have a chance of succeeding, rather than continuing to undermine any prospect of a viable long term future.  This is why the repeated claims that Test cricket is the apex of the game, the highest form of cricket, are met with such scepticism.  It’s not that every action and proposal is intended to wreck Test cricket, it’s just that if that was indeed the aim, it would be hard to see how there would be a great deal of difference in approach.

It’s not as though there aren’t enough warning signs elsewhere, even if governance has been less than stellar in many nations.  The admission of Ireland and Afghanistan to Test cricket was greeted with delight as a rare instance of the game seeking to grow its international footprint, but Ireland have already cancelled scheduled Tests because they can’t afford them, such is the loss making nature of the five day game outside England and Australia.  That the other formats benefit from the presence of Tests is rarely factored into the global reach of the sport anyway, but the point is that concepts such as four day Tests don’t resolve this fundamental imbalance in any way, nor is there any prospect of someone who isn’t a fan of five day Tests becoming one by virtue of removing a day.

All of which is to attempt to provide some context for an England success that showed significant promise, but was against a cricketing nation in real difficulties.  The next tour to Sri Lanka will be against another country struggling to maintain its cricketing base, albeit there too there are substantial self-inflicted woes.  The England players aren’t responsible for the circumstances in which they find themselves, and it can seem churlish to qualify their win by rationalising the circumstances of their opponents.  But as long as the gulf between the haves and the have nots continues to widen, the premier form of cricket is in peril, and the victories against those without the means to develop their own game to the same level has to come with an asterisk, as well as making clear the laughably awful administration in England that can’t even regularly make the most of its overwhelming financial and structural advantage.

This is unfortunate.  For England have a collection of likeable cricketers who may not all be exciting in the sense used all too often by boards determined to reduce every facet of the sport to variations of T20, but who have shown a willingness and ability to grasp the nature of Test cricket itself.  Of the batsmen, Rory Burns, Dominic Sibley and especially Ollie Pope enhanced their reputations as young players with the patience to play the long form of the game at the top level, while Zak Crawley showed flashes of potential that he might be able to do the same.  Added to a core group of players in Root, the estimable Stokes and Broad whose records, whatever the blemishes, speak for themselves and there is the basis for a half decent team.

In Mark Wood and Jofra Archer there is pace to burn, and if fitness is a concern over both of them, then that is still something of an improvement on not having pace at all which has been all too frequent.  The negative comment that Archer attracts continues to baffle, but he does receive a more questioning press, shall we say, than is remotely warranted.  There are suspicions aplenty about the kind of briefing that is being carried out – it may well be denied, it may well be not true, but that suspicion exists because of the track record of various ECB personnel doing just that to certain players.  As someone once said, this is a matter of trust.

Of the players deemed to be at risk for the Sri Lanka tour, two stand out, and for different reasons.  Jos Buttler is under pressure for his place following a fairly long fallow period in Test cricket.  He has his defenders, and his basic talent is not in question, more his aptitude for the red ball game.  He simply doesn’t have the track record in either county or Test cricket to suggest this run of “form” is an anomaly rather than a reversion to the mean.  A wicketkeeper batting at seven and averaging around 30 is no disaster, certainly.  But when that wicketkeeper is primarily a batsman anyway, and when at least one of his rivals is both substantially better in that role, and also probably as a batsman too, it is increasingly difficult to make a case for him.

The other player now under pressure, to the surprise of many, is Joe Denly.  He has certainly been consistent – consistently moderate perhaps, but consistent.  Plenty of starts, plenty of decent contributions, but he’s lacked a big score or two to go with it.  What he has done though is set the tone for those around him, absorbing the new ball, putting mileage into the legs of the bowlers, and providing a platform that the middle order , glory be, have started to turn into decent totals.  To that extent, Denly’s contribution to the team could well be viewed as being significantly greater than his run totals and average might suggest.  Even so, it’s not of a level that would normally make him a certainty to retain his spot, and if Burns was fit for Sri Lanka there might have been some support for thanking Denly and moving on.  It is that the reported change would be for Bairstow to come in at number three instead that provoked some disbelief, both given his own poor performance which led to his dropping, and a technique that isn’t often described as tight.  It is one report, so we shall see.

Prior to the series, indeed after the first Test, an analysis of what might constitute England’s best team, and what changes might be made would have been a problematic matter to debate.  Not because of limited options but rather despair as to where to begin, so many were the holes in the team, so varied were the disasters.  England are a hell of a long way from even approaching being the finished article, but perhaps there is the basis of something with which to work in the years ahead.  All that is needed is opposition comprising more than two other teams for them to measure themselves against.

 

South Africa vs. England, Fourth Test, Day 4 – The Final Cut

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The end came quickly for South Africa after their batsmen at least showed some application and fight in what was always likely to a forlorn cause chasing a World Record score to tie the series. Rassie van der Dussen led the way for the home team with a battling 98 that included some very decent stroke play and whilst England were never truly in trouble of losing the game, the odd doubt might have started to creep into the mind of more than one overly pessimistic England fan. The most disappointing thing for South Africa was that all of their batsmen made a start without being to push on and stick with van der Dussen though it must be said that Bavuma got an unplayable snorter from Broad whilst Faf after engaging in a bit of argy bargy with Buttler, got a ball that cruelly kept low. When De Kock got out trying to have a mow at Mark Wood the game had already gone by that point. South Africa were well beaten by that point and they knew it.

For England and Joe Root in particular, this has been as important series win as it has been for a while for England, despite South Africa looking particularly weak. To overcome a series of injuries alongside illness which affected the whole touring party and still win in South Africa is testament to some newly found fortitude and both Root and Silverwood should both be highly praised for instilling this. I also thought Root’s captaincy was far better than he has shown previously with him refusing to let the game drift or chasing the ball as he has done previously. England were inventive in the field with both their bowling changes and fielding positions without being funky for the sake of being funky and were often able to come up with a plan for many of the South African batsmen, with the dismissal of van der Dussen today a prime example even if it was a rotten shot from a batsman obviously distracted by the nervous 90’s. It does help when you can throw the ball to Ben Stokes when you’re desperately searching for a wicket mind.

There have been plenty of positives too for England with Ollie Pope, Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley and Dom Bess all being young players who have put their hands up this series. Now is certainly not the time to go over the top in their praise as they are all still raw and not without the odd technical fault, but there is promise there and it was encouraging to see them do this away from the conditions that they are most used to. All of the above will have peaks and troughs over the next couple of years, but England will be happy that there is young talent coming through from the much maligned county ranks. Naturally one of the biggest positives aside from Ben Stokes being fantastic, is the re-emergence of Mark Wood, who has bowled with fire and purpose for the last two Tests after many of us, myself included, felt that we would never see him play in an England shirt again. The fact that Wood has got himself fit again after so many horrible injuries and has lengthened his run up is very promising; however the caveat is whether England can keep him fit and certainly there is a strong case for wrapping him up in cotton wool for the next couple of years (I wouldn’t have him tour Sri Lanka). If we can manage his workload and get 7-8 Tests out of him over the next 2 years, then I’ll be incredibly happy, but again this is very much in the lap of the gods. I hope for Wood’s sake that he has seen the worst of the injuries now as he is a joy to watch and is obviously an immensely popular member of the dressing room. There are negatives of course to come of out of the series, but that is for another time, it’s hard enough to win away from home and so England should be proud for winning in South Africa, even if their team resembled nothing like the South African teams of the not so distant past.

As for South Africa, I genuinely fear for them in the short to medium term (and maybe even longer). I appreciate no proud South African fan wants sympathy from an England fan, but it’s hard not to have sympathy for the fans. The South African board has spent far too much time arguing with local journalists and overseeing a T20 tournament that nearly bankrupted them than doing their job and concentrating on matters on the pitch. It is also not South Africa’s fault that some of the richer counties can go and sign some of South Africa’s best up and coming players or players coming towards the end of their careers as kolpak’s with higher wages on offer than they can receive playing for the Test team. I can’t blame the players for wanting to ensure their financial stability as you only have a short career as a cricketer; however it does leave a bitter taste in the mouth and has bled the South African team of their better talent leaving the domestic cupboard dry. It’s also clear that things are going to get worse before they get better with Philander retiring after this game and Faf and Elgar likely to follow suit fairly quickly. This could be a really rough few years for this side and I fear that without better governance and investment in the sport, we could be seeing a repeat of what has happened to the West Indies over the past 10 years. I genuinely hope this isn’t the case as Test Cricket needs a strong South African team, but the omens aren’t looking good.

I’d also like to say a quick word on Vernon Philander, who retired from international cricket today and is going to take up a kolpak role at Somerset. This series was probably one too far for Big Vern, but he has been a great servant to South African cricket over the years. He also helped dispel the myth that you need to bowl 90mph to be successful in international cricket as it was rare that he ever reached the 80mph mark; however his control of the ball and consistent line and length ensured that you could never relax when facing him and his record with the ball (and with the bat) shows what a good cricketer he was. Sure you can’t match the excitement of a genuinely fast bowler charging in and hurling it in and 90mph, but there is still a place in every Test team for a genuinely accurate pace bowler. He will be missed.

As ever, appreciate any thoughts or opinions on the game or series below.

Castle on the Hill: 4th Test, Day Two

The first Test of this series seems an awfully long time ago, and as we approach the conclusion of the red ball part of this tour, England are tightening the screw and exerting ever greater dominance by the day. Having waited a couple of years to score 400 in a Test match, England did it again for the second game running, and on a pitch offering a little more to the bowlers than at Port Elizabeth. It was also something of a bonus – England had batted passably well – although no one scored more than the 66 that Zak Crawley managed – but following a mini-collapse leaving England 318-9, a rollocking last wicket stand between Wood and Broad raised England from a reasonable total to a good one.

Tail end partnerships invariably invoke diametrically opposed emotions from those watching, for the English it was a hoot, both in terms of Wood’s clean striking and also in providing an echo of the days when Stuart Broad was so nearly a genuine all rounder. His batting decline has been precipitous, and given England’s determination to pick bowlers who can score runs, there will come a time when his relegation to number eleven is the determining factor behind him being dropped. More than anything else, that feeling of slight melancholy (allied with giggles) when he hits the ball as superbly as he did today can’t be avoided. It remains mystifying that over several years his decline was accepted as one of those things by the various coaching teams. Ironically enough, in the last year he has looked just a little better, albeit from a low base.

For South Africa, that partnership was a shambles – up to eight fielders on the boundary bowling to numbers 10 and 11 was surely the wrong way to go, even if captaincy and bowler meltdowns when faced with tail end slogging are far from unusual. South African minds are showing all the signs of being thoroughly scrambled now.

If South Africa have been guilty all too often of gifting their wickets this series, England deserve plenty of credit for the way they left their hosts in tatters today. Sure, Dean Elgar will have nightmares about the way he slapped the ball to point, but in general it was English excellence that worked its way through the top order. It’s not to pretend that South Africa’s batting is at a level where it ought to resist, because it has been brittle to the point of disintegration, but today they were trying everything to survive, they just got stuck, strokeless and the pressure ramped up as the run rate plummeted. On this occasion, England did bowl superbly, extracting far more life from the surface than their counterparts and generally just being too good for the South African batting. Wood’s dismissal of Malan was clocked at 94.4mph – the second fastest wicket taking ball by an Englishman recorded (Steve Harmison holds that particular record, a desperately unfortunate Glenn McGrath failing to deal with one at 97mph). One thing England have lacked in some years is bowling variety; with a left armer in Curran, a tall and brilliant seamer in Broad, a genuine pace merchant in Wood (or Archer) and an all rounder at the height of his powers in the shape of Ben Stokes, they have a balanced enough attack. Woakes as the traditional English seamer fits in to this bowling line up in a way that he doesn’t with the four right arm medium quicks they have had all too often.

Stokes offers mongrel to the England side in more than one way, and today was fined 15% of his match fee and handed a demerit point for his curiously old school volley of abuse to a spectator last evening. It was a relatively minor transgression by the Ed Sheeran lookalike, and the punishment is appropriate enough, but it is another reminder that while he remains the MVP in the England team, things like this will be accepted. When he goes through a rough patch, or his powers begin to wane, keep an eye out for the stories starting to appear about him being hard to manage – the modus operandi of the ECB is too frequent to ignore.

England didn’t pick a spinner, to consternation in some quarters, but the evidence so far suggests they haven’t made a mistake. That may yet prove an oversight by day four, should we get there, but as things stand the seamers are being rotated, and rotated to effect. Perhaps the bigger miss was for South Africa, who had no options when Broad and Wood were frolicking in the middle.

The plight of South African cricket – in which England themselves are certainly complicit – provokes a sense of gloom for anyone who loves this stupid game. It makes any praising of England laced with concern as they go about their business of beating up a national team who we desperately need in the world game. But it does need to be said that by one means or another, England are beginning to identify the core of what might be a half reasonable side. If Joe Denly is unlikely to have a long term future in the team, he has at least brought a degree of discipline that has rubbed off on those with more natural ability than him, and to that extent if nothing else, he’s performed a valuable service to English cricket. Likewise, the improved overall disposition has highlighted specific problem areas that were previously just part of an endless list of disasters to be dealt with. Jos Buttler’s struggles with the bat were disguised among everyone else’s – now they are abundantly clear.

We are two days in to this game, and the outcome of this match is pretty clear, barring miracles. The depression of South African cricket lovers, not at the state of this series but at the state of the sport, mitigates the degree of satisfaction their English counterparts at the way their team is progressing. England are not even close to the finished article, but they do at least look like they have a plan. After several years of circling the drain, that is welcome. If only the world game could develop a similar plan to allow all nations to compete on an even basis.

South Africa vs. England, Fourth Test, Day 1 – Storm In A Teacup

It’s rather a shame that a pretty good day’s play of Test Cricket will more be remembered for an indiscretion off the pitch rather than the actual play on it, but then that’s what happens when such a high profile cricketer such as Ben Stokes has a less than cordial chat with one of the fans. There have been people all over the place suggesting at what might have been said to Stokes, but this is pure guesswork as only Stokes himself know what abuse was hurled at him and really the player should know better in getting himself into a situation that was a lose-lose. I imagine Mr. Stokes will be getting an invite into the match referee’s room at some point whereby he’ll be a few quid lighter and a demerit point or two heavier. Anyway enough about that nonsense, no matter how much it’s serialised by the journos.

As for the game itself, it proved to be a rather entertaining day’s play once the rain had cleared with either side in the position to claim that they won the day’s play or not. There were both positives and negatives for England with the main positive being that Joe Root called the toss right on the fourth successive occasion and the main negative being the loss of Jofra Archer to injury with the reoccurrence of his elbow injury. The bad trot of injuries that England have suffered on this tour can’t just be put down to bad luck (except that of Rory Burns) but more the fact the players are being continuously ground into the ground with this crazy schedule. I think we’ll all be happy if England return home without contracting Ebola or something similar.

On a day when there was a bit of cloud cover over the ground, Root chose the correct decision to have a bat when he may well have been sorely tempted to bowl and was handsomely rewarded by his opening pair who scored the first century partnership for England since Chennai in 2016. That it has been this long really does highlight the struggles that England have had at the opening slot for more than a while and the reason why we have so often seen England at 50 odd for 4 on more than a few occasions in the not so distant past. The pair of Crawley and Sibley complimented each other particularly well, with the former playing some majestic strokes against a wayward attack with the latter compact and able to put away the bad ball of which there were many within the first session of cricket we got. Zak Crawley indeed looks like a real talent and a gem of a find as he has got better and more confident with every innings he’s played and now looks like he is starting to believe he belongs in Test Cricket. In fact, he looked nailed on for a century before being hit by a nasty bouncer by Nortje, which in turn gave him a rather ugly egg on his forehead and certainly affected his batting after this. It would not be a surprise to see him declared with a concussion tomorrow morning as he looked particularly shaky after that nasty hit on the head. This is very much in marked contrast with Joe Denly who has admirably tried with every sinew in his body to adapt to the Test game but has never really looked like he belongs at this level. With Rory Burns hopefully returning for the Sri Lanka tour, then Denly may find himself out of the team with Crawley replacing him at 3. It will be interesting mind to see how much sway Clever Ed puts in Denly’s leg spinning filth on pitches that are likely to turn.

For South Africa, the 2 sessions couldn’t have been markedly different. In the first session they bowled too short and too loose on a pitch that was offering bounce but not much else. Indeed it seemed fitting that the only time they made the batsman make an error and play at a delivery they shouldn’t have; it was wiped out by Big Philander overstepping the mark. It was a sloppy session from a team bereft of confidence. However any thoughts that England could steamroller them were so put to bed with 2 quick wickets, firstly a horrible strangle down the legside that seems to get Sibley out too often and then a nothing play or leave shot from the brain frazzled Crawley. South Africa then bowled extremely tidily for the rest of the session with Denly who had looked all over the place the first to go, closely followed by a rare misjudgement from Stokes, who played an overly ambitious shot early in his innings which led to the frank exchange of opinions that I spoke about above.

So onto Day 2 with the match evenly poised. If Root and Pope can take the lead up to somewhere close to 300 then England will be driving seat; however a couple of quick wickets for South Africa could lead to England struggling to get up to 250. The forecast isn’t particularly clever for tomorrow, so we are likely to have another rain interrupted day.

On a final note, I did find it incredibly surprising that neither team picked a front line spinner. I understand that Bullring hasn’t been a great hunting ground for spinners over the years; however the pitch does often break up on Day 4 or Day 5 and so not to pick a frontline spinner seems negligent to me. The only time I would ever consider picking a team without spinner is if the pitch resembled the St. Lawrence Ground in early April or Sabina Park back in 1998! Time will tell if I’m right or not, but I have a suspicion both captains might be rueing their selection decisions by the end of the match.

As ever thoughts or comments are always welcome.

All I Got Was Cigarettes And Alcohol – The 4th Test Preview (of sorts)

Welcome to the 4th Test match to be played at the Wanderers, Johannesburg. Been there!

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I really enjoyed my time there, back in 2005, when I saw a badly rain affected Day 2 (where Vaughan batted very well and I got my first look in the flesh of the great Dale Steyn) and then Day 3, when Herschelle Gibbs made a century. I flew home that night and missed that match’s conclusion – you know, Trescothick, Hoggard, the South African coach smashing a ball at Smith’s head. That sort of thing. I’m not bitter.

But even recalling these days, a more innocent time in my cricket and life experience, is melancholy. Test cricket was the thing. Test cricket mattered. Two strong teams battling out a thrilling series. England in their pomp, on the crescendo up to the 2005 Ashes. South Africa in a little turmoil, but with players coming through, none more exciting than Steyn. T20 was an embryonic entity, just started in county cricket, with other versions similar to it in other countries. No-one worried about the future of test cricket – strong teams, great competition, many, many great players.

This series, for all its feel good moments in the last two matches for England, has not got that lustre. England are middle of the pack, inconsistent, with some match-winning performers, but all the while bedding in players, with a thinner reserve base to pick from. If the exit of the U19 team from the World Cup isn’t a canary in that particular gold mine, I don’t know what is. Sport doesn’t need to be top class to be entertaining, but an occasion does need to have top class performers. So while this is enthralling sport, it doesn’t have that sense of occasion. England are winning against a team being rendered from inside and out, and with, what looks to be, a bleak future. Yes, three weeks ago after winning in Centurion there were optimistic noises. They have evaporated now, with talk of Faf retiring, of Bavuma coming back despite not establishing himself on form, the bowling about to lose Philander, and whoever a county might want to take on a Kolpak. So while we have a crisis in confidence in England about the future of test matches, South Africa are staring down the barrel of a long wilderness, to mix a metaphor or two, and that’s not good. It really isn’t.

I thought I’d refer to the title of the piece here for some reflection. I’ve written many, many times about how my love for the game is ebbing away. Of how a test match devalued is a sport destroyed. Of how people in power only seem to care about the monetary side of the game, and not the future. They are not the same. A lot of my writing in the past six years, hell 11 since I started How Did We Lose In Adelaide, has been about my concerns, even hatred, at what has been going on. After 2014, writing became an addiction. HDWLIA was an addiction. Like the time I was a smoker, I enjoyed it, it was something I liked, even though I knew it was doing me harm. 2014-16 especially was like starting smoking. But then you realise what a toll it was taking. So you try to give up, but you can’t for long, and you start again, saying you’ll cut back, but then you go back to where you were. You get the tortured analogy. I finally stopped when I was coughing up blood in an overseas hotel, but in blogging terms, I’ve not had that moment!

Days like the last three, though, make me wonder what’s the point? There was the KP interview with Martin Samuel. I’m not sure if you’ve read it, but you know, many of the points we made here about the scandalous briefing against him, how he was the symptom, not the disease, are now entering the mainstream. You know how Flower’s regime was actually a destructive one at the end of the day. You know how the ECB leaked like a sieve, not being paranoid about it. And about how whether we liked it or not, KP was not going to constrain his earnings and now all follow behind him. There’s a lot wrong with KP, of course there is, but he blazed the trail others follow and yet don’t seem to want to acknowledge that. Many of the wounds are healing it seems, but for the Daily Mail, of all rags, to print that and for KP to give an interview to it (even with the sumptuous dig at “other writers at that paper”) is maddening. They did the most to get you out, and now you talk to that? I really do wonder.

Then there was this today.

He didn’t address him directly, but this is in reaction to Michael Vaughan saying Tom Banton should get first class experience and then be fast tracked into the test team, to bat at 6. To do this, he would need to not play in the IPL. Gurney, of course, turning rapidly into the Katie Hopkins of Cricket Twitter, thought he’d make one of his pointed observations about this, and in the process, slagged off county cricket fans once again. Whether it is being funny, or in this case, not, Gurney is being crass. We get it, big shot. There’s a market for your left arm seam in T20 cricket, with your changes of pace and so on. Some days it works, some days it doesn’t. You are more than entitled to earn your crust in the way you see fit. But you start this with supporters. Not us. You can’t have a pop at the pensioners, when they supported you in your early days, and then get wounded when they pop back. To claim the tweet is in response to Vaughan, a person we hold in the deepest contempt for his views post-playing career, is one thing. But when it comes to one moron having a pop at another, we aren’t required to take sides. We can, and do, think you are both morons who seem to have contempt for those that paid for tickets, played your game, and love it from before. Gurney doesn’t bother with the likes of us, and evidently wouldn’t give a shit if he does. But maybe, Harry, just maybe, show some class. You could have made your point without denigrating fans in the process. But you just can’t help yourself.

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This sort of thing makes me sad. It makes me, in some way, long for the day when the addiction to blogging will go, and a normal life not getting angry at these people can take over. Where I can just sit back, and watch the 4th Test, hope England win, hope I can see a special performance, and yes, hope to see one or two from South Africans too. Where I hope England resist the temptation and play a spinner. Where Jofra Archer might return, or have people briefing against him that the elbow injury is in his head. Where Sibley and Crawley make runs. Where Denly might get that elusive hundred to get the yoke off his back. Where Root or Stokes might take to the skies, run amok in Joburg, backing up their talent. Where Jos gets his mojo back, Pope flows like Bell Mark 2. Where Mark Wood bowls like fire, where Stuart Broad reprises the last time at this venue. And where we can enjoy cricket, and not the ceaseless rubbish that accompanies it. Of Crisp-less Hundred Shirts. Of talking about whether a suspension catered for under the rules is merited. Of anything but the game.

I was looking for some action, of magnificent shots, and fantastic bowling. It don’t scan, but who the hell cares?

I am away from Day 4 onwards, having a work trip to South East Asia, (much of which will be spent in legal offices), so I will be leaving you in the capable hands of Sean, Danny and Chris. As always, comments on the first day’s action below. Thanks as always to the readership who keep me going, and are the equivalent of my 20 Silk Cut. Do they still even exist?

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