Yes. We are very late to this series, and for that apologies. We aren’t full time bloggers, we have lives, we have busy jobs. When the pressures of these combine, and where there isn’t international cricket that stirs the blood, we struggle. So sorry to all of you who check in here day in day out for the lack of content. We usually go down for a while at this time of year unless there is something that really drives us.
From my personal circumstances, the last three weeks have been horrendous. First I came down with a pretty naughty virus, which without being too graphic, meant I lost a stone in weight in 7 days. Now the task is to keep those less than marginal gains off – those of you who have met me will know I need to lose a lot more than a stone! But with that stress came something a lot lot worse. Those of you who follow the Lord Canis Lupus Twitter feed will see the picture of my beloved border collie, Jake. He was 10 years old last Sunday. For a couple of weeks leading up to his birthday we were extremely worried he wouldn’t make it. He has long spells, around 12-18 hours, where he is listless, doesn’t eat, can’t move and generally looks terrible. It is heartbreaking to see. The vet has him diagnosed with early kidney disease, but we also fear it is neurological. 3 days between each of these episodes and you wouldn’t believe we have an ill dog. Both my wife and I are stressed beyond belief over this. So if you want reasons for why I’m not even posting comments, and my twitter feed is sparse, or talking about my dog, then you have them there.
So here is a post to comment on the current one day international series. The first game in Dambulla was rained off with England batting, and today’s looks like being curtailed due to the same issue. Despite getting up at 5:40 to walk my stricken pooch, I completely forgot the game had started, so no comments on our innings until I see the highlights. 278 looks a decent total, and the opening salvo, where England took 5 wickets before Sri Lanka got to 80 pretty much proves it. The sixth wicket partnership put on over 60 before the torrential rains interrupted, and for all money ended, the action. England will take a one-nil lead into the third game on Wednesday in Kandy.
Of course, Olly Stone bowled something a little quicker than we used to, bounced out Dickwella, and the media went quietly mad. I love it. We do love a small sample size. That said, we desperately need new bowling talent with our top test bowlers getting on in years. Chris Woakes at the other end bowled very well to take 3 top order wickets and keeps up his impressive record recently in overseas ODIs.
With the batting driven by Morgan (92) and Root (71), England get important middle order runs when we’ve increasingly relied on the top order fireworks or Jos Buttler bashing the hell out of it. It would be nice to see these guys all being able to contribute on the way up to next year’s World Cup.
So, comment away on the ODIs.
Elsewhere, since I last wrote, Surrey have won the county championship, Rory Burns has got an England call up, and more mysteriously to me so has Joe Denly (no, seriously, I don’t have a clue behind the thinking on that one. Joe Clarke has to be miffed. Please tell me he’s not been picked because he can bowl spin). The season even finished with an absolute thriller between Surrey and Essex carried live on Sky. I am biased, I know, as a Surrey fan, but it has been an excellent season for county cricket. The concept of the Hundred gets more and more ludicrous, but one feels, as is typical with pretty much all top management around the world, to admit an error is seen as grave weakness. Top management does not like to admit the hoi polloi have a better insight than them. To admit that would be to admit that anyone could do their jobs, and that wouldn’t do. Despite everything the guardian authority threw at county cricket this year, it threw it back with excellent county games, a really good Finals day with a terrific story (how good was Moeen as skipper?), and a fervent base amplifying their love for the game, not retreating. We all distrust sporting authorities. That comes with being a fan. But the relationship between a lot of supporters and the ECB is beyond distrust. It’s raw, unfettered rage.
And given what the Wisden Almanack review of this blog this year said, I’m probably the angriest one around. Weren’t impressed. The fulsome praise for Chris was absolutely merited. The preamble wasn’t. But hey, if they are talking about us, we’re winning right?
In the test match world we saw the awesomely talented Prittvi Shaw make a blazing test hundred. Only the Sky Sports Cricket Channel, there for all us devoted cricket fans, never bothered to buy the rights. Let me know if it’s available on Virgin Media, anyone. Shaw made 70 this morning as the Indians are just a few runs behind West Indies’ first innings total with four down and Rahane and Pant in full flow. As I said, I have to envision this in my head because Sky Sports Cricket can’t even red button this. Or is it hidden on one of their other channels.
In Dubai we saw classic test cricket. After two days attritional cricket, where “experts” queued up to decry this dull boring test cricket as killing the game, we saw just how great the sport can be. Australia looked to be killing off the game, but collapsed in a heap in their first innings. Pakistan got caught between two stools in their second innings, but still set up an academic 472 target. Khawaja, Finch and Tim Paine played magnificent innings in rearguard, and Australia had 12 or so overs left and five wickets in hand. A flurry of wickets, and it was 8 or so with two wickets. Nathan Lyon stuck it out with Paine for a thrilling draw. A terrific game, a great finish, and all from a test written off after two days as a killer for cricket. You think these people would learn.
I’ve caught some of the Carribean 50 over competition on BT Sport. Blimey its bobbins. No wonder the game is struggling.
So, once again, apologies for the lack of posts. We will try to do better. Hopefully Jake’s condition stabilises and I can think more about here, than on issues outside of here. It’s also MLB post-season and my Red Sox beat the MFYs (the Y is Yankees, you work out the rest) and will no doubt get belted by the Houston Astros in the semi-final stage. There’s a lot going on, and a lot to do.
Comments on all aspects of the sport at present, below. We will back sooner.
Inevitable really. Once he’d survived the new ball, it was written in the stars that Cook would finish off with a century, and while fairy tale endings are rare in sport, this one just seemed like it was always going to happen. Cook batted better than he has done for a couple of years, the mental freedom gained by the decision to retire lending a fluidity and, dare I say it, style that had been absent for even longer than his best form.
Of course, scoring a century meant that some were all too quick to say he shouldn’t retire at all, a superb missing of the context of this final innings if ever there was one. Yet with Cook, this happens all too often – the determination not to allow his record to speak for itself, but to demand and insist that it be recognised as something far more has caused irritation where it was never required. This peculiar demand that “greatness” be recognised without qualification, often by those who insist otherwise when it isn’t a player they are so keen on has managed to generate ill feeling where a final superb innings should have been cause for celebration for all, even those who may have objected to the media beatification of him over the years.
For Cook has been a truly excellent opener for England, with a record that reflects longevity, skill and mental strength. He deserves the plaudits for an outstanding career as a batsman, and if his ability as captain wasn’t at the same level, he’s not the first and won’t be the last of whom that will be said. His achievements do not need artificially inflating, and particularly not if the intention is to try to prove some kind of point about the moral rightness of past decisions rather than a player being judged on his own merits. Any player.
For Cook, the best tribute that can be paid to him is the one he said himself – that he was the best player he could possibly be. There have been many more talented, but few have extracted the maximum from their ability the way he has. As both a statement of record, and indeed as advice and aspiration for any cricketer, at whatever level, it is profoundly important, and the one he may well be most proud about. His weaknesses as a batsman were obvious, his flaws laid bare particularly when out of form and struggling technically. Yet his strengths too were substantial, perhaps nothing quite so much as an extraordinary degree of concentration. He will be partly defined by the fall out that led to the sacking of Kevin Pietersen, and the sides taken in that argument. Both of those batsmen have departed the scene now, but the schism in English cricket remains, and is by far a more troubling and damaging issue than two players. Perhaps both will reflect on their parts in that, perhaps not, but the personalisation of the whole affair reflected badly on all sides.
Today was a day for paying tribute to an excellent player, and deservedly so. If few get the opportunity to go out in style, players of distinction do at least deserve to be recognised properly for their contributions. This appears too much to ask, sometimes.
If Cook was all about saying farewell, for Root it was for smacking down those who complained about his clear pulling of rank in terms of batting at number four. He looked more fluent and in command than he has all summer, and while a dead rubber is hardly the time to make definitive judgements, allowing England’s best player to bat where he feels most comfortable is surely the best way forward rather than trying to patch weaknesses elsewere with him.
The two of them took the game far beyond India, who were already going through the motions midway through the day and simply waiting for the England declaration. The usual fun and games late on added to the total, and with the target an improbable 464, Root finally decided enough was enough.
If India were going through the motions with the ball, they had one foot on the plane home with the bat, as James Anderson threatened to steal some of Cook’s thunder by drawing level with Glenn McGrath on the all time list. There’s an irony here – in the determination of some to do all possible to inflate Cook’s record, a particular line has emerged about him being worth far more due to opening the batting in England against the Duke ball. Yet if that is accepted, it automatically lessens Anderson’s achievements on English pitches using the same Duke ball. Watching certain observers attempt to square that particular circle could prove amusing.
Rahul and Rahane steadied the ship from 2-3, but this game is more or less done, and England are almost certain to win it 4-1. India should be wondering how this has happened, England will just be relieved that it has. The future is an unknown except that at the end of play tomorrow, there’s only one candidate for that Man of the Match award.
The mind is a funny thing. It’s been said often enough that cricket is a game played in the head as much as on the pitch, and while this surface has been kinder to the batsmen that most in this series, it isn’t quite at the Melbourne 2017 levels of slow and flat. Yet Alastair Cook has looked in both innings about as good as he has done for a couple of years. That’s not to say that anyone should be begging him to re-consider his decision, but it is to say that the probable weight off his mind has led him to relax at the crease somewhat. He batted well in the first innings, and he’s batted well here. And those heading to the Oval tomorrow will get the chance to watch him tomorrow, which perhaps will help the attendance figures for a September Monday after the kids have gone back to school. Nothing would quite highlight the way the ECB have managed the game recently as much as Cook departing for the last time in front of a couple of thousand people, and whatever the raging arguments about where he should be placed in the list of England batsmen, that would be an unedifying end.
In some ways, this has been the best Test of the series (albeit a dead rubber which always removes the sense of jeopardy) perhaps because there’s at least half a chance it might reach the fifth day on its own terms, and perhaps because the bat seems marginally more on top than to date. If anything, it appears to be getting easier to bat on, and a day on which only six wickets fell seems quite remarkable given all that’s gone before. Yet the overall patterns continually repeat themselves, a very English set of pitches that produce generally similar cricket, and generally results inside four days. It is less than surprising that teams struggle when they come here, or that England have so many problems overseas. This time at the Oval, it’s the same, just slightly less so.
India had an excellent first half of the day, adding 118 runs to their overnight score with their remaining four wickets, largely thanks to an outstanding unbeaten 86 from Ravi Jadeja. He farmed the strike expertly, the last three wickets adding 55, only 5 of which came from his partners. Few would have begrudged him reaching a century, while in the match context, getting India within 40 made the match far more interesting than it looked like it was going to be. England toiled manfully enough, with the biggest surprise being that Adil Rashid actually got a bowl.
India’s trials by DRS continued when they got hold of the ball, through managing to burn both of their reviews within 12 overs of England going out to bat. It was impressive too, given both reviews were palpably not out without so much as the benefit of a replay. One of the best decisions made by the ICC about DRS recently was to abolish the renewal of the two reviews after 80 overs, meaning that teams need to manage them far better than they currently are. It matters less in England where surviving 80 overs in the first place appears to be a badge of honour, but the carelessness shown means both teams, but particularly India, will have to change their DRS ways on the flatter surfaces elsewhere.
If Cook was playing his final Test innings, many would have thought Keaton Jennings was doing the same, particularly after he left a ball that didn’t so much clip the bails as crash into middle and off stumps. Leaving such a delivery is usually indicative of a scrambled mind, so he will be pleased to have heard Ed Smith indicate that he’s on the tour to Sri Lanka already. Smith appears to have regarded this series win as huge vindication of his selections and his approach, which is fair enough as long as the team does win, though unusually strident to imply personal responsibility for that success. There is more than an element of hubris in his revelling in his unorthodox selections, and repeating a certainty that it is the right way to go. Furthermore, he appeared quite relaxed about the top order difficulties, implying that he was quite content for the runs to come from the lower order. For now, results are in his favour, but his supreme blithe confidence suggests he could probably do with someone on his shoulder whispering “Remember Caesar, you are just a man”.
Root at four showed all the signs of a man delighted to be batting where he wants to be, which in this England side does at least have a rarity value, as we know at least one of the top four for the winter tours. Still, there has to be something said for the concept of batting your best player where he is most comfortable, in the hope of getting the best out of him.
154 ahead, two days to go. England will want to be batting most of tomorrow, but there’s always that England thing of a collapse around the corner. Even with that, another hundred oughtn’t to be beyond their capabilities, and a target of over 250 should be too much for India.
“You are still a whisper on my lips, a feeling on my fingertips, pulling at my skin.
You, you leave me when I’m at my worst, feeling as if I’ve been cursed, bitter cold within
Days go by and still I think of you….”
Dirty Vegas – Days Go By or possibly the UK Print Media (circa December 2018)
After a day at the test it was time for a day watching the test on TV, in between usual Saturday tasks and manipulating / ruining the nearly 200 pics I took yesterday. Danny took care of the review for Day 1 so it seems a bit silly for me to do the same, but I will refer to some points from yesterday in the review today. Plus you’ll get to see some of the pictures.
England resumed on 198 for 7. It was debatable how you could take the day. Sitting at deep backward square / deep extra cover to left handers, the lateral movement and swing wasn’t easily perceptible and I’m not a great watcher of the video boards. Some, like @pktroll enjoyed it a lot, while I felt it a bit dull. Look, I’m not after swashbuckling, reckless cricket, but there is a natural game to be played, and too many got themselves out, or got stuck. Many people thought Mo stuck it out well, despite playing and missing more than you would like. I felt the only one who really did what came naturally was Alastair Cook, and when he was out, 20 minutes after tea, he had 71 out of 133. He was on pace for a hundred plus.
There is a point. This morning, with a new ball, which may be easier to bat against than the older on, England put the foot down and added over 100 runs in the first session. Buttler’s positive approach meant that when he did find the edge to the slips, he had got the field spread and 3rd slip wasn’t there [to drop it]. Rashid and Buttler got the scoreboard moving, and then when Rashid had to go, Broad came in and played as assuredly as he has done all summer. After a session in which England took the game to India, the pitch looking a little better, the swing a little less pronounced than I saw on the highlights last night, England were in charge. 300 looked a good score on this surface, in this era, with this ball, in these conditions, with these teams. After tea Broad was caught brilliantly by KL Rahul, and Buttler was last out for 89, as Ed Smith will no doubt let the world know the genius of his selection as he did with Newman this week. It’s fair enough, I suppose to crow, but Jos has been a success of the summer. Thank heavens, because with this mess of a batting line-up one might think he hasn’t got a scooby!
India’s reply started with an early wicket. Part-time dancer, and casual worker opener Shikar Dhawan was pinned LBW. Cook remains the only opener with a half century, but at least KL Rahul seemed to have more of an idea this time, making 37 before Sam Curran trimmed the top of off with a 79mph beauty. What say ye about all those pace bowlers now. With the Big Two in, it was imperative for India to field a big score from one of Pujara and Kohli, but this hasn’t been a series where consistency (other than Virat) has been a hallmark.
After an LBW had been declined by Kumar Dharmasena which was marginal on outside the line (when I first saw it I said it was outside) but knocking middle and off out, Anderson went on a little tizzy, which Kumar had a word with Root about. In my mind that’s the sort of thing that leads to more – I’m pretty sensitive on this matter after an incident I had in club cricket – and fair play to Nasser for calling him on it. Kohli applied the Kissinger peace methodology to the whole incident, never a man to bring a candle to a burning pyre, but a tanker load of petrol, but all seemed to calm down. Shortly after the incident, Anderson induce a nick from Pujara and he was sent on his way for 37. 101 for 3. Shortly after Rahane nicked to the slips where Cook completed the catch and it was 101 for 4, and the game was now firmly in England’s hands.
The debutant Vihari survived an LBW appeal that was out and not reviewed, then reviewed an LBW that was given out and reprieved by the DRS. Dhawan had coughed one of the reviews up so it was a brave man taking the second one while Kohli was at crease! I hope he got leadership group approval! I then had to pop out and did not expect to come back with him still in. TMS disappeared to the Shipping Forecast (I once read a really dull book on the various areas that are mentioned) and when it came back he was still in. When I came back it wasn’t Vihari falling, but Kohli nicking to slip where skipper Root held on. Kohli left the London Stage to a score of 49, and now neither he and Tendulkar have a test hundred in London in….I’ll look it up… a lot of innings. And with him you sense the test match, as a contest, went up the stairs to the dressing room. England had the game by the scruff of the neck, and the wicket of “what the hell is he doing in the team” Pant at the end, again to Stokes, put the tin hat on it. India finished the day at 174 for 6, trailing by 158, and hoping Vihari and Jadeja can do a passable impression of Jos Buttler.
A round of applause for two things missing today. Bow your heads in remembrance for the five overs lost into the ether. Ravi Jadeja didn’t bowl much today so the one man make the 90 overs quota machine had little effect. Talking of not bowling much today, Adil Rashid wasn’t trusted with a single over. I am beyond amazed. This has all the hall marks of an ostracising. I may be being over-emotional but it’s just not on. When is he supposed to bowl? With the opposition 300 for 1? An over before lunch? Answers on a postcard.
So tomorrow the tears will flow as Alastair will probably bat for the last time in tests. In the audience yesterday, where I was, there was clearly a heartfelt fondness for him. They applauded loudly when England won the toss, reasonably loudly for the 50 and then a big standing ovation on his departure. I’m honest to myself. I stood up when he came out, took pics when he got 50 (see above) and did when he left, but then sat before most. My own reaction is not important, of course, and nor do I criticise those who did. I thank heaven there was something that would lift up the day, though.
England will probably take a decent lead, with a fair bit of time. Cook has all the time in the world to finish his career on the note all his supporters would like.
I’ll do more full posts on my day at the test and on the KP “revelations” (sigh, haters) next week, but for now we have a test summer to finish.
“It was a kind of so-so love, so I’m gonna make sure it never happens again” – Soft Cell
July 2012 – It was half an hour before the end of play. England had been chased around the Oval by Hashim Amla, en route to a mammoth 311 not out, and Jacques Kallis, with his death by relentlessness. The only wicket to fall was Graeme Smith, for a century. I had had enough. Enough of being kicked from behind. Enough of getting up, and sitting down, getting up and sitting down. Enough of not being able to take pictures because stupid idiot that I was, I had forgotten to put the charged battery in the camera. A fact I discovered when I tried to turn the camera on at 11 am. I had had enough of the test match “experience”, the fan who had had his fill of going to watch test cricket with the personal space diminishing. I got up, and I walked out.
That was 2012. Tomorrow is the first time I’ve gone back to the Oval for a test match. What was once an annual pilgrimage now has a sense of novelty returning to it. I’m almost excited about it. And then.
England go into this test match 3-1 up against the number one team in the world. I am a cricket fan who sat through the 1980s and 1990s and saw England struggle to win any long test series. Now I take this 3-1 win and feel somewhat cheated. Every test match in England has to prepare a result wicket. That’s pretty clear these days. Let’s look at this year’s tests:
Lord’s v Pakistan – Ended after lunch on Day 4
Headingley v Pakistan – Ended towards end of Day 3
Edgbaston v India – Ended early on Day 4
Lord’s v India – Ended midway through Day 4 with Day 1 being washed out
Trent Bridge v India – Ended 10 minutes into Day 5
Southampton v India – Ended after tea on Day 4
To me the test match experience is one where all results are possible, including the most thrilling of all – the race to take wickets against time. Now grounds appear so terrified of producing a wicket where real hard work is required to take scalps and being branded a “Chief Executive’s Pitch” that things seem to go the other way. Now the draw only seems to come into play when it rains. The broadcasters, supposedly speaking for me say that the best test wickets are the ones we have been watching. Batting is being effected by T20 revolutions and all that, we know that, but England players especially have stopped making big scores. We have two centuries in this series. Two. By an all-rounder and a bloke batting 7. I loved test matches for the batting. I wasn’t a great fan of bowling as a bad club player, but I watched the game for batting. The eccentric and the orthodox, the pretty and the ugly, the attacking and defensive. Now we look at the batting in tests and think enjoy it while it lasts in England. A knock like Pujara’s should not be an oasis in the desert – not should it be too common – but it’s rare now. Rare here.
So England play in a test match which could end with us 4-1 up in the series. The team we are playing is the number 1 team in the world. When England played India in 2011, on the cusp of taking the number 1 mantle from India, we were 3-0 up going into the final test of the summer at the Oval. At that time India had just been slaughtered in a four day test where England won by an innings and many, racked up 700, saw Cook fall short of 300, and Sehwag get a king pair. Now we go into this match with the team struggling to make 300, a batting line-up with more holes than a colander, a question mark of balance, a wicket-keeper debate, a retiring pit prop and a captain who has finally stamped his feet and said “I’m not batting three”. And somehow, someway, the vanquished have “enhanced” their reputations by not capitulating meekly like the last two Indian test sides to visit our shores. This seems to be because their bowling hasn’t been atrocious, far from it, and Kohli and Pujara have made centuries. The fact is, with the draw out of the equation apart from rain, tests are going to get a result. 4-1 just doesn’t seem as impressive (to me) when the draw is pretty much a non-starter. Some see this as progress.
Of course, tomorrow isn’t really about a contest between England and India now. It isn’t about trying to prepare for a winter where we are going to get slow and low tracks, turning or just dead. It isn’t about seeing who has it, who hasn’t and so on. It has become a valedictory for an England legend, a personal farewell to a man who stood above it all and came out on top. The tributes have been fulsome. The gushing prose forged through misty eyes hangs over the English cricket world. Every praise ratcheted up, eulogies that people want to hang their name to.
I remember the celebration last test for Sachin Tendulkar, who, by common consent was at least two years past it when he had his farewell. Every replay was met with a brief screen saying “Sachin’s Last Test” or something. It was teeth-itching in it’s cloying manner. I thought when he was dismissed for the final time that the catcher might get a death threat for denying him a ton. Steve Waugh’s farewell seemed to follow similar, if lower key lines, but then the oppo pouring 700 on you does that to a man.
I’d seen worse. Derek Jeter, of the New York Yankees, last home game at the New Stadium barely took the camera off the man for the three hour broadcast. There was an actual sporting contest, a close, if not overly meaningful one, going on but you could have been forgiven that no-one gave a stuff. I sincerely hope Sky and TMS get the formalities out of the way, comment at the appropriate time, and keep the test match as the focus.
There will be more on Cook post test, and I am sure you’ll have your say on the coverage of the match. As a test event, England sealing the series has rendered this into “dead rubber” territory so any messages, form or results need to be considered in this context. For example, would a Keaton Jennings hundred mean as much? What about a fifty? We’ve been there with the dead rubber thing, but look, I’m a fan and the tension on the game between us being 3-1 and it being 2-2 is palpable. The former feels like a semi-exhibition, the latter meaning a huge amount. It speaks volumes for that relative importance that Cook felt he could announce a retirement with a 3-1 lead, but not if 2-2, for fear of distracting from the task at hand. Says a lot, Melbourne Manics, doesn’t it? From his own words.
At time of writing there is no outline on either side. I’m rather hoping India pick Shaw as he is an exciting talent, and I would love to see him play. There may be other chances. From the England perspective, Stroppy YJB, Jonny the Teenager (the media have gone to town on this, haven’t they) is set to reclaim the gloves, and Buttler becomes the batsman. Ali is set to ruin his batting stats further by taking number 3 – Newman, for one, not happy that Joe is pulling up the ladder on that role – and is now back firmly in the fold. Jennings has one last chance to nail down one of the two opening vacancies. Woakes, Stokes, Curran can’t all play unless they drop Rashid? 12 into 11 don’t go. I know. I know. As soon as I press send, they’ll announce the team. That always happens.
Finally some Cook thoughts:
His statement of “regret” about KP is nothing new. That it is being dressed up as something it isn’t adds to the dishonesty around this long festering story. I’m sorry if I think it is still important. There’s something like this being stirred up for someone else. Look at YJB’s media in the past week. Open season.
His statement that he won’t reconsider is also worthless, but also file it under “what else can he say”. He can’t say he will consider un-retiring a day or two after he announced he was retiring. Also if he does score a hatful of runs, our opening crisis is not solved, and people asked him to play, if he said yes, would we stop him because he retired. Of course not? On past evidence of form, maybe, but not because he announced it.
I made an error jumping on a Jimmy Anderson “no ego” tweet. My fault. But let’s face it, it’s not as if nonsensical overblown statements have never been mentioned in the same breath as our opener.
When it is over, I might move on, but probably not. I’ll carry on writing an “Anti-Cook Blog” despite hardly writing about him all year (one pet peeve – a blog is the collective writing on an online site. An individual piece is either a “piece” or a “post. Not a blog. No correspondence entered into). There may be a sense of no off limits players after this (perhaps Anderson on his retirement) and we will see how the media deal with Root’s rough patches. What has been enlightening, and why I wrote at such length on the previous post, is the whole circus around Cook (including me). For such a dull, non-social media, cricket man, he invokes passionate discussion. It’s one of the oddest, yet easily explainable things. Establishment stooge v England legend. There’s the rub.
Enjoy the test, I hope my camera works, and although I doubt I will write tomorrow, I’ll be sure to do a test day experience piece, possibly in concert with Trevor (Bogfather) next week in the long run up to the next test.
Thanks, and especially thanks for all the nice words and comments on the Cook piece. This makes me want to do more. It’s reassuring.
Watching sport, being a fan of sport, is always a personal thing. Well it is to me. Early on you partition players, teams, managers into neat boxes. Your personal favourites, your true hates, your quite-like them, to I’m not a huge fan, to those that just stay there, in the middle, doing nothing to stir your emotions. You can flit from box to box, but rarely through your own deeds, rather how events impact upon you.
Each team, or sport, needs the emotions, the love, the hate, and each feeling is individual. But how others react can push the emotions the other way. Take Roger Federer. I’ve never been a fan, but then I’ve never really loathed him. He was just there. Nadal, even Murray, had those rougher edges, and I preferred them, though not to hate Federer or demean his achievements and skill. Then, when Murray got to his first Wimbledon final and the crowd was split, I started on the route of dislike. The lachrymose response to his wins now draws my ire. The over the top, sickly love for everything and anything pushes me further. For no fault of Federer’s own, I now want him to lose. That’s sport. That’s how I react. Back in the day when it was between Borg and McEnroe. It was Borg. It’s not consistent. I hated some mavericks, loved others. I loved dominant superstars like Michael Jordan, whatever their faults, and hated others like Tiger Woods, who shared those faults. There is a point to this, and it will, hopefully, be borne out in the post below. It’s long, stick with me. Long even by my standards. I’ll also be amending it and updating it as well, so typos and thoughts might be changed.
At 12 Noon today, although I had been advised an hour earlier, Cook’s retirement from test cricket was announced. It is now the time for everyone to be super-nice to him. For his “haters” to shut up and acknowledge his greatness. For us to respect the man’s career. For those who deem me a hater, and who don’t want to go on, read the first two paragraphs again and then sod off. You might get the hint.
I’m going to let the press, the TV, the internet sites, other bloggers, fans and not fans, to do the traditional thing and pay homage to a player who has given great services and performance to the England team. For them this retirement may genuinely hurt, may close the end of an era, may even feel a little premature. For those who genuinely loved him as a player, this is never easy. I should know. I know how it feels. It was how I felt on 4 February 2014. The moving on of a rock of the team is hard.
For me Alastair Cook, probably even more than the South African born middle-order batsman, defined my blogging life and it is more that which I’ll concentrate on here, as well as the big issues and some of the myths.
Blogging is about personal feelings, your opinions, your comments on what you’ve seen and what you don’t see – you need to be genuine, to be what you are. People see through you. Sport evokes the passions and we see them on here, and like most of what we read. Like Danny Baker, as he said when introducing 6-0-6 just be “good” and tell your story. We report a little on the cricket, but you can see with your own eyes, form your own opinions, and we don’t need to recall every event, every wicket, every controversy on the field of play as if our coverage reputation and traffic driving depend upon it.
We are here, well I know I am, to say what I think. You can agree, you can disagree. That’s the way the world rolls. But I can say that nothing, and I mean nothing, has had my head banging against the wall, my sanity tested, been the source of more flounces, the reactions been more visceral, than the times I have not venerated Cook at the times I was told I had to. Most recently it was his epic 244 not out at Melbourne, where I was told to defy logic, ignore what professional sportsmen have said, and to basically shut up because Alastair Cook had made a big score in a dead rubber. “There are no dead rubbers, this is a great innings, he is a great player, he should be venerated as a national treasure.” England lost that series 4-0 and it was his only contribution. It avoided a whitewash, so low had our bar been set. To point out that this wasn’t a moment for triumphalism was to be greeted with rage. Pure rage. I packed in blogging for three months. I had no anger left to give. It was destroying me inside. I took a break. Cook, and that schism, had never healed. It will never heal. It can never heal. Not for me.
The Early, Innocent Days
I had no idea, none of us did, when Alastair Cook walked out at Nagpur in the winter of 2006 of the trouble he’d cause! My first memory of him was the reputation at U19 level, but the first true one was his demolition job for Essex on Australia in the run-up to the crucial 5th Test in 2005. His double hundred in a day got people’s attention at a time when the country was in the thrall of test cricket, great test cricket, not this imposter masquerading as it now. But at the time, with Trescothick and Strauss as openers, there didn’t really seem a way in to the team, especially as Thorpe had been shunted aside for SABMOB, and Bell was clearly going to be backed at 3. However, when Tres was unavailable for the 1st test against India at Nagpur, Cook flew over from the West Indies to make his debut with little time to truly prepare. A hugely promising 60 in the first innings was the pre-cursor to a mature, well-compiled, impressive century in the second innings. We were used to debutants starting well for England in those days, funny that, but this seemed different. He missed the “Ring of Fire” test in Mumbai, which would be the only one he would in his career through injury or illness, but was recalled for the following summer. It was there I first saw him bat in person, as I caught the recovery job he did with Paul Collingwood against Pakistan at Lord’s. He had been slotted in at three as a vacancy cropped up in the batting order with Vaughan’s injury.
Cook was never elegant, never truly exciting to watch, but you knew the one thing he had was temperament, and again, in this modern imposter, you don’t see that as much. He had a slight issue in his early days of making small hundreds, but it was certain he would be a fixture for a while to come. I caught his 83 at the Oval later that summer, in a century partnerships with SABMOB, and he had guaranteed himself an Ashes tour and the first “proper” examination of his abilities.
If I had to define early Alastair Cook it would be the innings in Perth that winter. England were in the middle of a torrid tour, the wheels falling off after a destruction in Brisbane and the heartbreak of Adelaide. Having bowled Aussie out cheaply in the first innings, England failed to capitalise, and in the second were murdered. Having lost Strauss late on Day 3, and with a target well over 500 to chase in two days, Cook, not in anywhere like his best form dug in. At the other end Ian Bell flowed, batting beautifully, but gave it away on 80-odd. Cook relentless pursued the end of the day. An interminable time on 99 ratcheted up the tension, but he got there. England fans stood and applauded. Aussies near us did too, although the ones we were with didn’t rate him. There was an announcement that tickets for Day 5 would be on sale with England still only three down. One of our number went to the ticket office to buy them. When he got back Cook got out, knackered but with the great milestone, Hoggard went first ball, and we couldn’t have buyer’s remorse. Even then, he was causing problems!
Cook did not have a good series, save that innings, and the whispers for his place were quite pronounced, if I recall (and I don’t recall well from that period). With Peter Moores now in the coach’s role, and with no Ashes for two and a half years to define him, as that series tended to do, Cook cemented his place with solidity over the next few years. Taking over from Trescothick as an opener, Cook forged the partnership with Strauss that would be the anchor for the next five years. A couple of centuries in the early series against the West Indies confirmed his role, but he didn’t cash in against India later that year. He made a century in Galle after England had crashed in the first innings which showed great technique against spin, and that resilience we needed, but then embarked on one of those spells without hundreds, lasting 28 innings and four series before a 139 not out on a Bridgetown road in the second innings got him back on track (he also made 94 in the first innings). The Ashes later that year provided no centuries, but an important 95 on the opening day of the Lord’s test should not be ignored.
If you took Cook’s early career, we had a man who was sure of his place, in a solid opening line-up, but had not gone to the next level required of greatness. He had moderate success against Australia, had performed capably in the sub-continent, but frustratingly seemed to score centuries only up to around 130, with a couple of exceptions. This was in an era of lots of hundreds, so Cook really didn’t stand out. Not with me, not with people I knew, not with cricket fans I went to games with. Good player. Part of the furniture.
Now I could go on and on, but I think it is important to look at those first four years, because they were the bedrock of his career. Cook was an automatic choice in 2009, no-one really doubted that he and Strauss were locked in, there weren’t enormous numbers of openers banging down the door (something both were fortunate to have in their careers), and he had ascended to vice-captaincy after SABMOB had his spectacular falling out with the ECB. Then we enter the realms of mythology, superheroes, soap operas and the need to take sides.
Those Middle Years, The Myth And Reality
The first myth is, of course, the innings that saved his career at The Oval against Pakistan. First, all have gone on record, those that mattered, that Cook was going to tour Australia, period. Second, although there had been a difficult spell, within it was his best test hundred up until then, against South Africa at Durban in 2009, just eight tests prior to that, and that after that tour, he captained England in Bangladesh where he made two further hundreds. Compared to later barren spells, this was rich pickings. But the media had their eye trained on him. As it was SABMOB got dropped from the one day team on the back of poor form in those tests. Sure, Cook’s ugly ton took some pressure off, but that innings has entered into mythology. He was always going to Australia.
The second myth is that he has a great record against Australia. He doesn’t. He had one great series, and what a series it was, and the occasional high point thereafter. That winter will always live with England fans as they administered a beating to a team that needed it from us on their own patch. His Brisbane hundred, well 235, turned the tide which looked like it might overwhelm us. His Adelaide hundred set the foundations for SABN3 and SABMOB to pound home the advantage, and then after failures at Perth, an 80 odd at Melbourne and another big hundred at Sydney played massive parts in mammoth totals and massive wins. Oh to be alive in those days. Before T20 attitudes made modern test cricket its poor cousin. Cook won man of the series, he had his iconic series, he had the plaudits of a great team effort.
While not at his best the following summer, he still made his highest test score at Edgbaston (294) which, if memory serves, Derek Pringle slagged off for being too self-indulgent. In a summer when England clinched the number one slot, he played a massive role in a team of very very good players. It was a sum of its parts, an orchestra of a team, but built on some iffy old foundations. Loud brash parts like SABMOB and Lovejoy, the solidity of the top three, the beauty of Bell, the confidence of Prior and a bowling attack we knew had a decent chance on most surfaces of taking wickets most of the time.
While not making huge scores during the Little Difficult Winter of 2011-12 (saved by SABMOB’s amazing ton in Colombo) he was one of the brighter lights. But another run of 18 innings without a ton was underway, ended in the first test v South Africa with a 115 before the wheels came off England and the team in the subsequent hair-raising, febrile weeks. It culminated in Cook taking over captaincy from Andrew Strauss and that’s when the whole thing started to spin out of control.
Cook the batsman had been one of the foundations, a solid presence, a regular feature of England when good or bad. He had not been the subject of ire, nor had he been the subject of great love either. Just another good player in a good team playing mainly good cricket. Captaincy changed that. The results of his captaincy changed everything for me. I’ve ended a lot less passionate about England than I used to be.
India and the 2013 Ashes
A lot has been made over the years about the rehabilitation of SABMOB and who did it. Aggers once told me it was mainly Flower’s doing, which is an interesting line. Others say that Cook brought SABMOB back into the fold. It’s important for the narrative. Cook bringing him is used as a virtuous point, and that when it all went tits up it was all on SABMOB because Cook had been so charitable back then. It’s all bollocks, of course. If Cook wanted him back it was because he wanted to win in India (at your least charitable) or Textgate was a load of guff and let’s act like adults (the most charitable). What happened after the rehabilitation is the stuff of legend we may never see again. Cook was great, truly great, in that series. His 176 in a losing cause at Ahmedabad was crucial, telling his team “we can bat on this stuff, come on”. His ton at Mumbai, in league with SABMOB, put England in a dominant position, and then his 190 at Kalkota sealed the deal (where a bizarre run out denied him an almost certain double). It was a magnificent triumph, and while most recall the SABMOB innings at Mumbai, Cook was the main man that series. I have the highlights of that tour on DVD and it gets an airing every now and then. England had won in Australia and India within the space of two years.
The runs still came, with a couple of centuries in five tests against New Zealand home and away, but the away series in particular he and his team were incredibly fortunate not to lose. The one thing with captains is that they can’t score runs every time, and while his Dunedin ton played a large point in averting defeat, and his Headingley ton set up victory (while Trott and Compton saw negative press), we, and the media weren’t to know that the runs would, relatively speaking dry up. Certainly the centuries did.
England’s Ashes winning team of 2013 exemplified the problem. This was a team that had Cook as captain, but no-one seemed to think he had a strong hand on the tiller. Lovejoy, Anderson and Broad seemed to be their own band of brothers, and SABMOB wasn’t about to march to anyone’s drum. Prior was his own one man posture factory, while the coach held the team in a vice-like grip. The 3-0 win is widely unloved in media circles for dull cricket, played on dead wickets, with remorseless win the big moments cricket. Cook wasn’t getting the praise for this, Flower was, what praise there was. The iron man coach, extracting every drop from his ageing team, with a novice captain who could only lead from the front by scoring runs.
The Difficult Winter
We lost 5-0, if you recall and I don’t think “wheels coming off” does it justice. The Sydney test run-up, event and aftermath will go down in legend. Cook has been pretty silent on all these matters, and most of the other protagonists, with one exception, have left the path clear for Cook to give his story, the anti-SABMOB story. It is going to be interesting when, if we ever do, get the chance to pick the bones out of this. It is still important because other mavericks will play for England, are playing for England.
What followed a tour where Cook’s captaincy was just one of the many car crashes is still, in my eyes, scarcely credible. It was summed up for me in the Downton interview on TMS when Agnew asked whether the ECB had ever questioned whether Cook should remain as captain. “Not really, no” was Downton’s reply. I had had a few that night and that got an expletive as I boarded the train on listening to it. Clarke’s “right kind of people” comment had already stoked the flames. The nonsense emanating from our media, all following dutifully the line from the ECB was sickening. This seemed like a public hanging of the man who, despite everything said about that tour, made the most runs for England. In the aftermath of SABMOB’s sacking everything was done to besmirch his actual performance as well as the person. The comparison of the approach to their records, and their last few years of performance is stark. This is the sort of thing that pushes you from the “I don’t mind him” to “I really am not a fan” box as stated in the opening stanzas all that time ago. Did it push me in to the “I hate that man” box subsequently. Yes. Of course it did. You knew that. But for the sake of writing a blog and not getting abuse every five minutes on Twitter, I played it much nicer than I wanted, believe it or not.
And that’s because for every time I tried to be fair, for every time I stated his record, and how the big innings were getting further and further apart, it was met by people who suddenly became Cook devotees. It became incredibly frustrating. Couldn’t these people see his performance was tailing off. A dismal series against Sri Lanka, combined with as abject a day of captaincy one could ever imagine still didn’t shift the resolve. Media rallied to him, few saying the unsayable, and I got more angry. Two more tests without a major contribution, another despicable loss at Lord’s to India, and even some of the hardened fans in the media were about to kill him off.
Any doubt that we were now in the presence of someone with authority and media on his side went with this innings. 95 painful, determined, gritty, damn you runs had even decent people, like Athers, saying he was nearly back to his best. The difference between this and India was like night and day but we were being told to not believe our own eyes. As this happened, my rage, my anger, and that of many on HDWLIA reached boiling point. It came to a head, and I truly was questioning whether I was ever going to love England cricket again. Do you know how hard it was for someone who lived and breathed England and cricket for over 30 years to write that? That’s what people have never got. We don’t want to hate, we don’t want to get angry, because we care about the game. Southampton was a low point. At that time it was also the point when the blog and the reaction to it was ratcheting up. It was new to me, I didn’t know how to handle it. I wasn’t allowed to make the mistakes that I was bound to make, while the media took ECB press releases and regurgitated them, SABMOB was pilloried without a trial by facts, but trial by innuendo. Cook was placed on a pedestal and yet he didn’t deserve it. He’d been made the lightning rod, the totem that the ECB were hanging their hats on, and damn those of you who didn’t care. How much Cook was responsible for this we’ll never find out. Do I put all the blame on him? No. Do I absolve him as a mere innocent bystander in the way of a maelstron? No.
But the schism was evident and Cook did nothing to quell it, even if he wanted to. When the 95 was greeted by arseholes like Swann as one in the eye for his “grumpy git” critics, so called calmer voices, more respected voices, called those questioning Cook and his form as “lunatics and numpties”. Sky had drawn the line and when that someone was the “cavalier” who had been sawn off by a “roundhead” then we knew it was time for sense to wave goodbye. David Gower ought to have hung his head in shame. That wasn’t happening then.
The last four years has seen rinse and repeat. Cook goes through a long lean patch, and if you pointed it out you were the producer of an Anti-Cook blog, and when he did put together a good or better innings, the pro-Cook gang wanted to ram it down our throats. Especially if you wanted to put it into some kind of context.
His removal from the One Day team was much overdue, and in hindsight 100% correct despite the debacle of the 2015 campaign. His presence in the team then now look as progressive as Dad’s Army in today’s light, but Cook did let it effect him, as shown in a number of quotes afterwards. He’s only human, and wanted to lead in the World Cup. In the eyes of the media, many who wanted the decision made, the indecision and subsequent feeling that Cook had been treated badly had a knock-on effect for Downton. Aplomb in 2014, A plum in 2015.
A much awaited century after nearly two years in Barbados was greeted with bunting and street parties, metaphorically speaking, even though we lost the test and the lead in the series in that match. Sometimes personal milestones meant more to those outside than results. The 162 at Lord’s against New Zealand was arguably his best ever innings in England – you know how much I hate saying things like that – and we recognised that and praised it on here. But to those who wanted to believe, it was another eff you after SABMOB had been dismissed again with words circulating that Cook had not merely signed off on the exclusion order, but was a key party in drafting it.
The 2015 Ashes were won on a succession of odd wickets and weird matches where the contest never developed in matches, but from match to match. On the final wicket at Trent Bridge Nasser let rip the feelings of all those on one side of the fence with his “Redemption for Cook” drivel, as if an Ashes win was all for one man and sod the rest, especially Broad, Anderson, Bell, Root etc who had had that humiliation. While it was frequently aimed at me that I looked through the team via a Cook prism, the converse definitely applied. Successes had Cook as a father. Failures found one of his other players as the orphan blamed.
Cook still had the massive innings in him, such as Abu Dhabi, Edgbaston and Melbourne, but his failures in the fourth innings when defeat needed be staved off became more common. More often he would lose his wicket early, or make a doughty sixty or eighty and get out. The big knocks became fewer and further between. His captaincy, especially of spinners, was questionable if we were being polite. He had triumphs as captain – a good win in South Africa with an opening partner that the media did nothing but underming – was brought on the back of good wins in Durban and Johannesburg, but no hundreds were contributed by the skipper. How much effect he had on these wins is hard to tell, but success again has many fathers, and in the eyes of the media, many of them, he was the Daddy.
Is It Him, Or Is It Me?
As I mentioned earlier, Cook, and to a lesser extent Strauss, faced no real competition for the opening slot in the late 2000’s and early 2010s. After Strauss’s form fell apart, and he left the captaincy spitting feathers at SABMOB for overshadowing his 100th test, Cook faced up to a number of replacements. Here are a selection of them:
Nick Compton – probably his most successful partner, winning two series with him in India and South Africa (where he batted 3), and who made two tons while opening with him. A less than subtle whispering campaign did for him, as it undermined form.
Joe Root – Well that experiment worked well. A 180 at Lord’s aside, this never worked. Root was chucked in early in his career, propelled by Shiny Toy as a better alternative to Compton. Ditched in time for Australia away.
Michael Carberry – Not bad on a disastrous tour, but never truly convinced either. Again discarded after he’d not backed the party line on SABMOB or the way he was treated as an unmarried man.
Sam Robson – Century in his second test (this during Cook’s barren run) and then had his technique exposed and media questioning him constantly. The sweet fruit to replace Carberry ended up cast aside at the end of the summer, never to be seen again.
Jonathan Trott – Not one of our media’s finest hours that one. Lobbied for it, undermined him, he jacked it in. Worth a try.
Adam Lyth – Century in his second test, tell me where you’ve heard that before, and then had his technique exposed and media questioning him constantly. Touted much before the season started, tossed away before the winter.
Moeen Ali – Less said about that experiment the better.
Alex Hales – Very good ODI batsman. That worked well.
Ben Duckett – Started with a bang, got found out with spin. Tossed aside for a much younger model.
Haseeb Hameed – Possibly the only opener not kicked out for poor form in the test arena. Instead he was injured, over-praised, over-hyped, fell apart domestically and can’t even get in Lancashire’s first team. Yet still people think he should be picked.
Keaton Jennings – Century on debut, technique exposed and media questioned him soon after because he wasn’t HH. Kept his place, fell apart, dropped. Returned later, given clean bill of health by Dr Sky, then caught same sickness and clinging to a place.
Mark Stoneman – Not a disaster in Australia, but not a Vaughan pick so not likely to succeed. Yes, I wrote that. Confidence fell apart, only just recovering it for Surrey.
You have to ask, some with Cook as captain, some as senior pro at the other end if there is an iota of blame on him. Even a tiny bit. These aren’t all bad players, but they’ve gone to pot in this England environment of which Cook is a key cog. This rarely gets mentioned, does it? Instead it has kept the no alternative narrative in place for so long, even I believe it. I doubt Rory Burns because of this.
The End of the Captaincy
A series win against Sri Lanka followed by an entertaining at times 2-2 draw at home to Pakistan and the missed opportunity to go to Number 1 in the world seemed to start the whispers that it was time for Cook to go. They were not whispers on this blog. A century at Old Trafford had calmed any batting nerves, but England still seemed mightily weak when facing any kind of first innings total. A daunting tour of Bangladesh and then India might provide the kill or cure for Cook. He had an outstanding record in India, and his double in Abu Dhabi proved he could still play on these wickets. The distraction of the birth of a child leading up to the Bangladesh test was amped up as Cook being superhuman – we’d gone past sense at this point – but after a nailbiting, tense first test win, England were steamrollered in the second.
But this didn’t matter, it was a warm up for the main event. For Cook it started well. A second innings ton in Rajkot staved off a possibility of a second innings collapse that could have happened, and England had India concerned towards the end of the test. But the form dipped, the team started losing, and by the time this sorry team had got to Chennai, the wheels had come off the wagon, and Karun Nair ran us over for 303 runs he will never get again in a test match. After Christmas Cook did the honourable thing and resigned. Something I thought he should have done three years before, but hey, there’s nothing like a sinner repenting is there?
Back In The Ranks
Unlike other countries, England have no problems with the captain going back as a normal player, but this wasn’t your normal ex-captain. With the pressure off as captain and with the SABMOB problem long in the rear view mirror, Cook was going to be the old hand at first slip, guiding the young captain, and making lots of runs. The test summer was delayed by ODI nonsense and Cook played county cricket, making runs for the champion team that year. I think it is magnificent that he is going to go back there after his test retirement, but he could do with a break for the last game of the season!
What happened with his batting was interesting indeed. He made some solid scores v South Africa, but when dismissed, Sky in particular were remarking how remarkable the bowling was to get him out – Morkel at the Oval in particular sticks in my mind. It was as if they could not be proved wrong. Cook was doing OK, but the sense was that because he wasn’t piling on century after century now he could just concentrate on his own game was not the creeping of age, or that he was increasingly being found out. For those newbies fighting against technical issues, temperament and aptitude were called into question. With those totemic series in the distant rear view mirror, the harking back to them seemed even odder. We did it with Botham in the 80s, and yet still we do it.
No bother, a double hundred in the day night game against a woeful West Indies attack on those two days put any questions to rest. Cook had his big innings for the summer, one big innings more than all the other openers he batted with for a couple of years, and no-one was questioning his place in the Ashes. We, here, suspected what was coming.
Cook was lamentable in the first three tests. He was the senior batsman and he was in no sort of form. He set the tone with his dismissal at Brisbane on the first morning. In the first three matches he’s made 83 runs. England had lost the Ashes. Batsman like Malan, Vince, yes Vince, Stoneman, Bairstow and Root had at least contributed something in losing causes. When the series was alive, and on pitches or conditions that had something, England lost and their senior opener had been bad. Harsh? Not….at…..all.
Then came Melbourne. A road, a dull dusty dry old pile of crap. A chief exec’s wicket if he fancied a day 7. That Australia were bowled out on it may have proved that they weren’t at the races. No matter. This was a time where no criticism, no mitigation, no sense of proportion was allowed. If I had mellowed over Cook, and I had to a degree that he was no longer captain and was still one of the best two openers in England, this stopped it. The reaction said it all. People lost their minds over it. No it wasn’t worthless, yes it was a really good knock and one Cook could be proud of. It wasn’t as worthy because the series had gone (imagine Crawley or Ramps making that score in that game, for example, or even Bell), and the Aussies maybe took the game too lightly. Journos should have known better. Twitter idiots got muted for that, and I’ve not missed them one jot. It got to me because we were being pilloried just for not enjoying an innings in a test series we had lost to a team everyone accepted we’d lose to, which wasn’t what I was used to. Even in the days of the great teams we enjoyed the token wins against Australia but we were realistic about them. Here we had to suspend realism. I decided to quit the blog, and refresh the old brain in doing something else. Cook had beaten me. His acolytes had done it.
The Final Countdown
The new dawn was a false one, as we suspected it might be. As the pitches livened up, so did the bowling and so went Cook. 5,2,2 and 14 in New Zealand and Stoneman was the one under pressure. A very decent 70 at Lord’s was the pre-cursor to a run of low scores, often beaten or got out by world class, terrific delivery after delivery. Ashwin took him down twice at Edgbaston. The seamers got him after that. The whispers grew louder, the terrific deliveries to get him out became less terrific. Even Newman was hinting it was time for the “great man” to go. I’d long since checked out of the debate – it wasn’t worth it any more, banging my head against the brick wall, but part of me felt a little sad. Truthfully. These guys, who had buffered him up, ensconced his position were being disloyal (except Selvey who kept on about batting at 3, as if that were the cure-all), and now they were bowing their heads and saying their old king was infirm. Why the hell should we listen to you lot?
The Final Comments
OK. Nearly 6000 words in, and sorry for that, but I need to do this justice. Let’s go back to the start and the pigeonholing of sportsmen and women into categories. For 8 years in the test team I veered from the middle ground to quite liking Cook. Affable fellow, unassuming, capable of stretches where he looked invincible. Loved 2010-11, loved India 2012. Never thought he would be a good captain because as a batsman he was too self absorbed – a bit Gooch like – but he won’t be the last who got the job because the face fit. Hardly his fault and who would turn it down?
Of course the Ashes changed everything. There became the them v us atmosphere depending on what side you were on. As I wrote on the post Schism..
Tonight it [the blog – me] has even been accused of being a “bunch of oddballs” and not “real cricket fans”. You know, that might be what you think, but I doubt it. We give a toss. I didn’t spare criticism of Alastair Cook during those times for in my view, he deserved to be criticised. I fail to see how any sentient cricket fan could watch a series losing storm of nonsense like Day 4 at Headingley and not be moved to paroxysms of rage. It was woeful. Whether it was entirely him, his bowlers or Moores, it was extraordinary. There was anger at performance as well as anger at his appearance as being, in part, responsible for the exclusion of KP.”
There are those mealy-mouthed, ride the SABMOB rage wave to have a pop at the ECB people who have said there is no need for this schism. Of course there was. You were either for proper, accountable selection and non-scapegoating, or you supported the captain who benefited it. It was that polar opposite. Sure, I was on the extreme end of the rage spectrum but so were those who called us oddballs (and worse).
I understand people telling us we should move on, that this is a fight that’s over, that he’s never coming back so “get behind this new exciting team”.
I make one request tonight of those on the other side of the debate. Why do you think we’ve not totally embraced this new future? Do you seriously think it is man-love for one player? Because if you do, you are not the intelligent people I give you credit for.
This was it. Cook and his fans wanted us to move on from something we were not being told about. It was frustrating, annoying and downright odd. They could not understand why we just didn’t get behind the team. Cook is a nice guy, trust him. He’s up against a money-grabbing mercenary who wasn’t even born here, and had texted the opposition during a test to tell them how to get his captain out. So if your figurehead, the man you are backing, is a beneficiary of this stuff, how do you expect me to get behind him. At times I did not care if England won or not. At times I thought it better we lose under him than win with him because the nonsense got worse and worse. If you could ignore Day 4 at Headingley v Sri Lanka, you could pretty much ignore anything as a captain. Who were being loyal to England then? Oh, I know, losing at home to Sri Lanka never mattered.
Cook may never have wanted to be in that position, but I saw little to convince me he didn’t. What with the stubborn streak being lauded, his battles against technique wistfully recorded like doting lovers, and every success like Southampton a cause celebre to stick the knife in to those uppity supporters who demanded to know what the hell was going on, as if that were a crime, the pain at this sport grew. Move on was more likely to be move away. Cricket wasn’t as fun any more. I’ve been through losing teams, paid my way to see them, but loved test cricket too much to worry about that. That I had seen SABMOB make a few really exciting tons fed that. Then on the back of a failure of a tour, with a coach that failed and a captain that failed, the batsman that failed least was made the victim. I’m not sitting here taking that. And if the organisation that did that said Cook was the right kind of person, that they hadn’t considered removing the captain, and even calling him “Cookie” as if he were their son they were ever so proud of, was bound to wind up people like me. Who can’t stand that sort of thing.
It’s a shame. The press should be ashamed of themselves. The media should to. A really good England batsman has somehow got a vociferous group of people who actually loathe him, and for a time I did too. How did it come to this? We may have been at fault but I’ve never once thought that they’ve stopped and thought they might be too. So now this blog, of which I am extremely proud, that I love with all my cricketing passion, of which I wanted only to be of good things and good experiences, of indulging my love of the recreational game, the county game and especially test cricket is known by some as the “Anti-Cook Blog”. While I shouldn’t care, I do. And Cook, partly is responsible because he pretended to stand back as an honest broker, but when it came to it, when he had the chance to put his side, either he, or under instruction from the ECB bottled it. And as hard a I want to shake that off, my main memory of Cook, certainly at the end of his career is that of a Roger Federer. The more I hear the fans, the more I hear his friends in the press, then any chance I have of reconciling myself to what happened goes away. And I know that is on me.
A fellow traveller said tonight “what will we have to write about now?” I feel like I’ve scratched 10% of the itch. When he resigned as captain I wrote…
We sat through two years of every mistake and loss the England team suffered being nothing to do with Cook, and every win a reinforcement of how right the powers that be were. The sacking from the ODI captaincy, which should have been much earlier but the ECB couldn’t afford to upset the Cooks or the press bag carriers, at a time when it was too late to really adjust spoke volumes. It should have happened in the test matches, but it didn’t. In both cases he needed talent to carry him through, and the test arena brought that likelihood closer. A 2015 Ashes win was, at the very moment of triumph, announced as “redemption for Cook” and Cook alone. Not Broad who had performed manfully down under and had just bowled one of the great spells at Trent Bridge. Not Anderson who had a chastening, injury-ridden tour. Not Root who had been so poor in Australia that he had been dropped. No, it was Alastair Cook. You want to trace the decline of Nasser in our eyes, and you can look right there. This ceased being about Team England. It was Project Cook.
I have a million things running around in my head, but to do justice to them I need a lot more time. Maybe an end of season thing beckons. But as Cook heads off into the sunset, at The Oval where I will have a dry eye on Friday, trust me, his excellent career, his records and his achievements in the game will always come with the rider that I was forced to turn on him. Events had pushed me into a box I rarely like to go. A player on my team, in a box marked “hate”. And although I am to blame, a hell of a lot of other people are too. Not that they care. Not that it matters.
It’s the longest post I’ve ever written. If you got this far, thank you.
The moment Jonathan Agnew tweeted about a major announcement, it was obvious what the story was going to be – that Cook would retire from Test cricket, but would get one more Test before departing the scene. The timing is probably right, for although his form has declined precipitously over the last couple of years (in particular), it was always the case that he remained the best opener available for England. His struggles this series brought that into question. Cook has had many a technical battle throughout his career, but this looked different – his technique didn’t appear particularly off, he was just getting out consistently to deliveries that he wouldn’t have when at his best.
In his statement he admitted that there was nothing left in the tank, and he’s probably correct. It is the right time for him, and the right time for England.
As for his career, he’s England’s highest Test run scorer and one of England’s best openers in modern history and the most capped Test cricketer for England. His record is deserving of respect and admiration on its own terms, and excessively hagiographical coverage of him over the last few years shouldn’t detract from his success as a player, nor his position in England cricketing history. His batting in Australia in 2010/11 remains a memory for all England fans, as do his performances in India in a rare Test series win there. At his best, he was the rock upon which a powerful England batting line up was founded, and his ability to bat time and demonstrate extraordinary powers of concentrations is a forgotten art in the current side.
Cook has been a fine batsman, and if the “Greatest of All Time” narrative became tiresome, that wasn’t his fault. Respect given for a terrific career, and he will deserve the recognition he will doubtless be accorded by spectators at the Oval. Freed from the pressure of struggling with his game, who knows, a sign off century might be possible. As a way to celebrate his career as whole, it would be thoroughly fitting.
England finish the third day in a fairly handy position all told, a lead well over 200, two wickets still intact, Indian bowlers struggling for penetration (a mild warning note there), and with a pitch that should be starting to deteriorate towards the back end of the match. Naturally, this being England, it’s been done the wrong way around – the top order struggling and the middle and lower order scoring the bulk of the runs.
If England’s defeats over the last 18 months are taken as a whole, it is generally when the middle and lower order fail to bail out the batsmen. Nor can they be expected to on a regular basis, for the normal way cricket works is that the top order score most of them, and the all rounders chip in some of the time. Trust England to develop an entirely different manner of playing. It isn’t a sustainable method for a team to generate continual success, and England’s problems at the top are something that they are going to have to resolve one way or another if they wish to make progress.
Cook failed again, and whether or not he is backed from within, his lean run goes on, and even by the modest returns of the last few years (yes, yes, two double centuries and not much else) he is struggling badly. There remains little evidence against the supposition that he’s coming towards the end, and what he decides will be interesting to observe, for while the Cook of his best years would be a loss, it’s much harder to make a case for him more recently. Whatever the returns in terms of runs scored, he doesn’t look like he’s going to make a big score currently either, and that, perhaps, is the biggest indicator of his plight.
Keaton Jennings in contrast looked rather good today, comfortable against both seam and spin, only to then be palpably lbw when well set. There’s a degree of sympathy for him, for it does show the fine margins at this level, and for all his problems this series, his record isn’t particularly different to Cook’s – the problem for England is two-fold, not just Jennings. He may well join the list of openers tried and discarded permanently.
A surprise was sprung with Moeen Ali coming out at number three. Plenty of speculation ensued about Root dropping a place, with a consensus (which doesn’t mean it’s true) that Root had put his foot down in terms of his desire to bat at four. If so, he’s right to as well, for Root is England’s best batsman, and it is peculiar to use him elsewhere to attempt to cover up for the weaknesses of the team that way. If he scores most runs at four, bat him at four. The roles are slightly different, and if that means another is a slight sacrifical lamb to get the best out of him, so be it – it can’t be said that the current top order is working well at present after all.
Moeen may not be good enough to bat at three, but then who is? It’s not so many years past that plenty were complaining that Trott scored too slowly, even in Tests, but what England would give for that now is immeasurable. It’s also a lesson about those who happily waved off players who they didn’t like assuming that they were easily replaceable. As one selector memorably said of Graham Thorpe, “what does he bring to the side apart from runs?”. More runs. Runs England are consistently short of at the top, and the carelessness with which players have been discarded over recent times is a source of constant wry amusement.
The loss of Jennings just before lunch was compounded by the first ball dismissal of Bairstow immediately after. It can be a mistake to assume a causation that isn’t necessarly there, but it can’t be said that playing Bairstow with a broken finger has been an unqualified success. Perhaps it’s just one of things, perhaps not.
Root and Stokes batted patiently before Root was run out needlessly, and at 122-5 India were on top, and England wobbling. That they recovered is partly down to Stokes batting well within himself (again) but mostly Jos Buttler doing likewise. Buttler this summer can be put down as a success, and whether he truly makes a go of his Test career is rather beside the point right now – he’s doing well. He also found an able ally in Sam Curran. His dropping for the last Test was harsh at the time, but it is delightful to see a young player ramming the error down the selectors’ throats as he is doing presently.
For India, Mohammed Shami was the pick of the bowlers, but it was hard work throughout. They will feel the pitch has slowed and died somewhat, making taking wickets hard work. If they are correct, then a run chase is more than possible as long as they don’t try to force things, and that too should be at the back of England minds.
There’s every chance the day four crowd will be in for a treat tomorrow, for while England are now ahead in the game, it’s not so far that anyone will be feeling comfortable.
First with the bat, and now with the ball. England’s plethora of all rounders initially got them to at least some kind of score, and then today got them right into the game with the ball. By the time India passed England’s total with 9 wickets down, Sam Curran’s knock had become ever more important, and for India, Cheteshwar Pujara’s century was every bit as critical – though in his case, at least it could be said that it is his primary role in the side.
Moeen Ali was the star man for England, which always provides plenty of entertainment between those who think he’s under-appreciated, and those who point to his away record (not good) as a reason why he shouldn’t be anywhere near an England team. The problem is that both are correct, as far as it goes. Moeen at home has a very decent record indeed, Moeen away does not. Replacing him for away tours is a perfectly reasonable response to that, but there is always a peculiar belief that if done then England’s spinning options will dramatically improve, despite all the evidence to the contrary over the last ten years when discounting Graeme Swann. He bowled very well today, taking five wickets, which both suggested that England may have their hands full with Ravi Ashwin, and highlighted the oddity of England playing two spinners and then only giving Rashid seven overs. Two spinners often looks a luxury in England, and in this instance appears to be more about shoe-horning additional batting all rounders into the side than any expectation about the pitch. Still, it’s always possible the second innings will be more conducive to Rashid’s skills, though leg spinners do tend to need runs on the board to be most effective, something England have been singularly unable to provide recently.
Broad too bowled well, and tested all the batsmen, while Sam Curran was the one who snared the prize wicket of an oddly out of sorts Virat Kohli. But England used seven bowlers, including Keaton Jennings, who must have dearly wished for a bonus wicket to cheer himself up, and it looked overkill, with Stokes too just bowling the seven overs.
Of course, having bowling options is a wonderful thing, and particularly so when labouring in the field. It can absolutely be said that England have a pretty balanced attack, with only a real paceman missing from what ought to be a dream combination of seam, swing, left arm, off spin and leg spin. Whether the personnel are all good enough is a different matter of course.
India’s small lead would have been a disappointment at lunch, and a serious bonus shortly after tea, as this game swung wildly one way and then the other. A mid order collapse of England proportions followed by the tail providing immense support for Pujara when it had looked like England might gain the most unlikely of first innings advantages. Pujara himself batted beautifully, in conditions that slightly favoured the bowlers, though not to the extent that these teams appear determined to portray. His marshalling of the lower order eked out far more runs than it should have, to England’s frustration, but perhaps it should be looked at in terms of praise for him, Sharma and Bumrah rather than anything England did obviously wrong.
As to where this game is going, currently all the pressure is on England’s batsmen, faced with the infamous third innings tension in a tight game. Jennings and Cook deserve credit for coming through a tricky 20 minute spell unscathed, but the deficit is still there, and England will need to bat extremely well to set India a target where they’ll feel confident in bowling them out. For England to be warm favourites, they would need to set a target in excess of 250, and there isn’t too much confidence in the England batting order right now – at least not in the top order.
Jennings may well feel this is his last chance, while Cook’s declining returns have consistently left England a couple of wickets down early on. Either way, if both fail tomorrow England will be in deep trouble, and it’s been a fair old while since England’s openers have truly set a platform for the rest of the team. No time like tomorrow.
After two days, this is a competitive Test match, and may yet go on to be a truly absorbing one. But for that to happen England will have to exceed expectations and get into a position where they have at least the prospect of a win, and a series win. India may well be the more confident, and if they bowl well tomorrow, those with tickets for the fourth day could be cursing their luck once again. These are two brittle sides, and if low scoring matches are often the most exciting, when it happens repeatedly it merely highlights the flaws in the teams.
Nevertheless, a far better second day for England. Whether they can make it a good third day as well – that’s more open to question.
The Board and management team have considered the short and long-term goals of the business in order to support and grow the grassroots game while continuing to strive for success at the elite level with our 24 England teams.
Mission statements can be little more than a sop to marketing necessity, and often bear little relation to what is actually happening in a given sport. Put simply, the role of any organisation that is accredited as the supreme authority for a sport is to act as the guardian of the game, both in the present and the future, in order to ensure it is in good shape for future generations. To that end, the short paragraph above encapsulates rather well what a governing body should strive to achieve, particularly in a commercial world where obtaining financial support for the elite level is an exceptionally important part of what they must do.
The trouble is, this one belongs to the FA.
The ECB does have an equivalent, called Cricket Unleashed, that has five “central pillars” to their intentions. Somewhat ironically, the link defines itself as being in the Men’s section of the ECB’s website, which is both unfortunate and wryly amusing given that when someone tells them they’ll be aghast. The strategy makes interesting reading both in terms of the in depth objectives and the broader aims behind it, particularly when measured against what is actually going on:
The ECB will make the game more accessible and inspire the next generation of players, coaches, officials and volunteers, with a particular focus on families and the young.
The ECB will deliver winning men’s and women’s teams across the international and domestic spectrum that inspire and excite fans through on-field performance and their connection with the public on and off the field.
The fan will be at the heart of our game, our thinking and our events, to improve and personalise the cricket experience for all.
Good Governance & Social Responsibility
The ECB will make decisions in the best interests of the game and use the power of cricket to make a positive difference to communities around England and Wales. Protecting the integrity of our sport is critical and we will ensure we have the right governance and processes to achieve that.
Strong Finance & Operations
The ECB will increase the game’s revenues, invest our resources wisely and administer them responsibly to secure the growth of the game.
So far so good. For if a little PR orientated, it provides a benchmark against which the ECB can and should be measured in terms of their own performance and their aspirations. It can’t be denied that as a set of principles, it’s not too bad. There are clearly some clauses inserted to ensure that no one can possibly point out a gap, but that is the modern world, and no bad thing provided that is adhered to, even in part. The question is whether they do, or in some instances whether they even try.
The ECB will make the game more accessible and inspire the next generation of players, coaches, officials and volunteers, with a particular focus on families and the young.
It’s always been said that the trick of public relations is to get the big lie out of the way in the headline or title – the German Democratic Republic, the Department of Trade and Industry are two examples. Certainly “More Play” would be a positive, yet all the evidence points in the other direction. The ECB have stopped publishing detailed information on participation levels in England and Wales, presumably because they kept showing disastrous falls. One clever wheeze was to start combining the figures of both men and women, which given the rise of female cricket (and here, it must be acknowledged that the ECB have done well, and much as it might grate, perhaps the biggest advocate for it was the otherwise Odious Giles Clarke) has successfully masked to some extent the catastrophic collapse in male participation. Most figures go as far as 2016 so it is always possible that the last two years have seen the trend reversed, however unlikely. Snapshots may have different methodologies, so can’t be compared with the most comprehensive survey available over the last decade, which demonstrated a fall in the numbers of active participants of a quite horrifying 35%. The decline amongst youth players isn’t remotely as marked, but few sports are faced with such a collapse in interest and participation as cricket over that period.
Sport England’s Active People Survey shows a similar level of decline over the same period, albeit with different numbers, also demonstrating that some sports have performed well, and others badly. Cricket is unquestionably one of those that have performed badly, even more so given the rise in women playing to complicate the overall picture. Yet if the figure of just under 2 million women playing football once a week is accurate, then it amounts to approximately seven times as many women playing football as men playing cricket. That can be claimed to be a huge success for women’s sport (and is) but it also highlights rather acutely the problem cricket has, particularly when a fall from just under half a million cricketers to just over a quarter of a million is taken into account. Of course, that doesn’t mean for a second that growing the game shouldn’t be an aspiration, just the opposite, but the record of the ECB in the 21st century hasn’t been a good one, and the removal of cricket from free to air television does coincide with the fall in playing numbers. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, yet it is hard not to draw conclusions from the way the game has struggled for interest at the same time as it was removed from public sight. There is far too much corroboratory evidence to contradict the view that cricket, once one of the three major team sports in the country, is now a minority pursuit in every sense.
Within the body of the clause is a desire to make the game more accessible, and a particular focus on families and the young. This is part of the justification for the Hundred, and indeed reflects a lot of the statements made by various ECB officials in its support. The ECB’s own market research has indicated the cricket simply isn’t on the radar of children, with no recognition either of the game or the key players in the national team. The trouble here is that simply saying this is what it is all for, no matter how clumsily (“mums and kids”) doesn’t mean for a second that the aspiration becomes reality. The social media response to the endless variations on rules and playing conditions has been negative, which doesn’t mean that there is no merit behind any of them per se (nor that social media is representative of anything), but the whole intention behind Cricket Unleashed takes on a rather different hue when allied to the constant refrain that it isn’t aimed at existing cricket fans.
Accessibility can also be inferred to be a reference to cricket on free to air television, and if the omnishambles behind the Hundred to date has any saving grace whatever, it is the tacit admission by the ECB that hiding the game behind a paywall has been hugely damaging. It is vanishingly unlikely that anyone in authority will ever admit that, but the selling the Hundred rights for a relative song to the BBC (and that specific desire that it be the BBC) show that actions speak louder than words.
The trouble is that this particular aspiration collides headlong with many of the others, and that’s where the trouble begins. It is indicative of the mess the ECB have got into that the five pillars are tending towards the mutually exclusive. They needn’t have been.
The ECB will deliver winning men’s and women’s teams across the international and domestic spectrum that inspire and excite fans through on-field performance and their connection with the public on and off the field.
Of course. Wouldn’t anyone want that? Yet despite the statements from the ECB that Test cricket is their priority, this statement is suitably vague in terms of what it might actually mean. They could certainly argue that they are delivering on success in white ball cricket, both male and female, but it provides a nice free pass for the areas that aren’t going so well. It also places a lot of importance on the World Cup next year, and England’s hopes of winning it. A bad World Cup would seriously call into question the entire strategy on its own merits, let alone from the perspective of the Test game. Equally, the reference to domestic cricket being “inspiring and exciting” could be held to be indicating a white ball focus rather than red. The continued marginalisation of the County Championship certainly implies as much, and in the short term at least, the call up of players to the Test team who aren’t even playing red ball cricket for the counties is not a matter of protest so much as an obvious concomitant of the ECB’s own strategy.
The addition of a fourth limited overs domestic competition at the same time as reducing the importance of the County Championship (how else can its being shunted to April, May and September be viewed?) indicates plainly where the priorities lie. At the same time, they have financial imperatives that strongly point to what they are doing now, but ones that are on shaky ground in future given the fall in interest in cricket in the first place – if cricket loses interest, those TV rights become much less valuable. Hence the need for the Hundred, which may increase awareness of the game without directly impacting on the existing domestic and international finances.
The fan will be at the heart of our game, our thinking and our events, to improve and personalise the cricket experience for all.
This perhaps of all the five pillars of ECB wisdom will have the cricket supporter chuckling away most. The ever increasing ticket prices alone are hardly an indication of the fan being at the heart of anything other than the ECB’s wallet. To be fair to them, at least on this occasion they managed to include cricket fans in their list of stakeholders rather than ignoring them entirely, but nothing highlights the lack of trust in the organisation more than that even those not overtly critical of the ECB strategy will find this particular clause something of a joke.
It’s not even just the obvious issues that vex many a sporting fan (said ticket prices, food and drink costs, stadium access and so forth), it is also that the cricketing schedule is a mess to the point that fixtures are arranged with no thought whatever for the spectator. Bank Holidays empty of cricket, four day matches with no consistency on start date nor even falling over weekends, even entire swathes of the summer with no cricket in some formats at home grounds.
Naturally, paying lip service to supporters is a common complaint in all sports, but cricket has a particular problem in that the people who have supported the game over a long time are very often the same people who volunteer at clubs or schools to try to promote the sport itself. Treating traditional cricket spectators with contempt has a far greater impact on the game than is the case in previously comparable sports simply because there’s neither depth nor competition for attendance.
Of course, for T20 in particular, crowds have been strong, and some counties such as Surrey have invested heavily in a procedure known as “marketing”, to the point that they have demonstrated consistently high crowds, despite not having the assistance of the Hundred to do so. This might be thought to be worthy of credit, yet the silence from the ECB on this subject has been deafening. Of course, the whole tournament is restricted to Sky subscribers in the first place, and the unwillingness of either the ECB, the counties or both to countenance a drop in income is precisely why an additional tournament has been deemed necessary.
However, the nature of the crowds attending is rather open to debate. T20 cricket is neatly packaged into three hours (this has stretched somewhat – at the beginning it was two and a half, while the IPL has suffered from some games going as long as four hours), and attracts the casual spectator. This ought to be a good thing, for the shortest version of the game – so far – can and should be a gateway to developing an interest in cricket. However there are anecdotal complaints that people attend for a night out rather than game itself, which still isn’t a problem, for it provides much needed revenues from the bars. What is a contradiction is that the ECB have promoted the upcoming Hundred as being a family affair, while repeatedly stating it isn’t aimed at existing cricket fans.
They have a problem here: firstly in that no one has any idea where these prospective fans will be coming from, and secondly the often raucous atmosphere of a T20 is hardly conducive to being a family affair. It is impossible to believe that they will restrict the sale of alcohol for a start, meaning that without a currently entirely invisible to cricket demographic flocking to grounds, the chances are that it will simply replicate existing audiences, at best.
Good Governance & Social Responsibility
The ECB will make decisions in the best interests of the game and use the power of cricket to make a positive difference to communities around England and Wales. Protecting the integrity of our sport is critical and we will ensure we have the right governance and processes to achieve that.
The opening line of this clause is in some ways the most controversial statement of the lot, even more so than the one about fans. For it is beyond question that this should be the primary role of a governing body, the question is whether it actually is.
Is it truly in the best interests of the game to marginalise red ball cricket? Is it truly in the interests of the game to weaken the Test side (for there can be little argument that this is the effect)? Was it truly in the best interests of the game to oversee a sport that has become invisible and that participation has plummeted?
No one has ever said balancing the needs of a sport is easy, and certainly the ECB’s equivalents are subject to plenty of criticism. Yet even an organisation as institutionally controversial as FIFA could argue that they have significantly grown the sport around the world. The ECB can’t even arrest the decline of theirs in England and might well be directly responsible for it. Over the last 20 years or so there have been repeated opportunities to take decisions that were in the interests of the wider game, yet time and again the perception (at the very least) is that this has not been the motivation.
The creation of the Hundred is entirely at odds with the statement that “protecting the integrity of the sport is critical”, as more and more outlandish ideas are bandied around in order to provide a differentiation for what is already there. Whatever the length of a game, the fundamentals of the game of cricket remain. Considering abolishing the lbw law (as they were reported to have done) drives a coach and horses through the very idea that the integrity of the game is sacrosanct. It isn’t going to happen of course, but the very fact that it was even up for consideration is highly indicative that anything, including the game of cricket itself is very much up for grabs when commercial desires apply. Too many people have made the observation that the ECB is the only sporting body to hate its own sport for it to be given the benefit of any doubt. All of which leads to:
Strong Finance & Operations
The ECB will increase the game’s revenues, invest our resources wisely and administer them responsibly to secure the growth of the game.
This is one area the ECB can (and do. Oh my word, they really do) point to success. The move behind a paywall has seen the revenues rise consistently over the last 15 years, albeit some years are better than others. But there appears to be little scope for significant growth as things currently stand, without something such as the Hundred, and that relies on it being a success.
There is a central question here which the ECB have never been able to plausibly dismiss, which is whether the purpose of the money is to support the game, or whether the game is there to generate money. The former should be the sole focus of any governing body – the suspicion is that the latter is specifically what drives the ECB.
What is the money actually for? It is highly questionable whether the revenues have reached the recreational game for one thing – indeed many clubs might not notice much difference were the ECB to disappear entirely, such is the distance of the relationship between them. The clubs themselves have no say whatever over anything the ECB do. In contrast to the FA, where elections occur at every level of the pyramid, the ECB appoint someone to be a voice of the club and village game, with no reference whatever to it.
Likewise, although there are initiatives such as Chance to Shine and All Stars Cricket, much of the funding comes from elsewhere, and most of the work is done by club volunteers. Indeed, in the latter case the degree of subsidy is rather open to question, in terms of whether there is much if any at all. It should always be noted that the various England youth sides are included in the grassroots funding of the game. They are worthy recipients of money, naturally, but grassroots? No.
How well they operate as initiatives is a more open question. Chance to Shine appears to have performed well, in at least trying to stem the losses in interest and participation (sometimes success is measured in managing decline), but All Stars Cricket has had a mixed reception, and it is impossible to know whether the claimed figures represent a genuine uplift in junior interest, or whether it is largely those likely to be involved anyway measured twice.
The county game of course relies in large part on the TV deals done and the subsidy derived from the ECB themselves. Counties haven’t been self-sufficient for much of their histories, but the justification has always been that they are the proving ground and development centres for the international teams. As the ECB imperils the Test team by their strategy, that justification becomes just a little weaker.
Equally, those desiring terrestrial TV coverage, whether of county or international cricket are constantly met with the response that the drop in funding would damage the county game. At this point, the difficult question needs to be put: So what?
All businesses cut their cloth according to their income, the idea that counties would not be able to cope with a drop in subsidy implies that they are unable to run their basic affairs. Football teams cope with relegation, because they address the cost base to reflect the income differential. To suggest that county cricket is the sole industry totally unable to handle this is to say that it is akin to a heroin addict unable to function without their latest fix. It certainly would be difficult, it certainly would involve job losses, and it certainly wouldn’t please players who saw their income level drop. But it could and would survive, unless those who are running cricket are entirely incompetent.
This is why the central question of what that desire for ever increasing revenue remains to ask what it is for. It doesn’t remotely appear to be for the betterment of the game of cricket, it appears to be for the betterment of a subsection of the game of cricket. The amateur game barely notices whether there are rises or falls, only the professional game would, and it is a valid question as to whether that is a price worth paying for a sport now in deep trouble.
Whether a reduction in income in return for vastly greater television exposure would be worthwhile depends entirely on where an observer is standing. Within the upper echelons of the game, it would be viewed as a disaster. Elsewhere, perhaps not so much. Yet this strikes at the very essence of the reason for the ECB’s existence. If it is not for the benefit of the game of cricket itself, but for the benefit of those employed within it, then the ECB haven’t just failed to abide by the terms of their own mission statements, they have demonstrated thoroughly that they don’t deserve to run the game.
And here lies the ultimate irony: Having presided over the transition of the game from one that managed to become a national icon in 2005 to one that barely registers in public consciousness, cricket has become so lacking in importance that the conduct of its governing authority passes without much notice, and without much interest. Giles Clarke once said (smugly) that no one cares about administration. He was correct, but not entirely for the reasons he was suggesting. No one cares about administration when the sport being administered has become irrelevent. And that’s why it’s not the failing of the ECB’s Five Pillars that is the problem, it’s that they’ve made such a monumental mess of it this century that few people any longer care enough to challenge them on it.