The gap between Tests reduces to some extent the frenetic nature of the media as far as cricket goes, and allows a little time for reflection about where we are more generally, and how we got here.
Although it’s fairly rare to offer up any praise for the ECB (for the simple reasons that they tend to both incompetence and duplicitousness, which is rarely a good combination), it is worth noting that Women’s Ashes matches have been scheduled for between the men’s Tests. For once they have it right, as it’s far more likely to gain attention that way. It says a fair bit about the ECB that the overriding reaction to seeing such a piece of consummate common sense is surprise. Generating that interest creates a feedback loop, as shown by Sussex announcing that the T20 at Hove is nearly sold out.
The rise of women’s cricket in England is a fascinating development. It’s one that the ECB pat themselves on the back for an awful lot, and it has to be said they have played a significant part in that, although women’s participation in what were traditionally male sports has shown a significant rise across the board, from the success of the football team to the way the women’s Six Nations is now covered on television and gets decent crowds. In rugby, the RFU have gone as far as to schedule some matches directly after the men at Twickenham, something the ECB have also done beforehand with some England games, and with the same kind of success. As a means of allowing the more casual supporter to watch, it’s obviously highly successful. But what it also means is that cricket is not a discrete entity in this; women’s sport is gaining an attention that would have seemed highly unlikely a generation ago. Quite why that might be is a little hard to pin down, much of it being for sociological reasons as to the acceptability of women playing such sports – good to know we’re in the 21st century at last. The ECB are entitled to be pleased, but when seen in the context that the number of women playing football is shortly to overtake the number of men playing cricket, it raises as many questions as it answers about their role as governors of the English game.
Nevertheless, whatever provided the catalyst, and whatever the context of cricket more generally, the ECB have certainly played their part in helping growth in women’s cricket. Free kit has been distributed to clubs, and free coaching and umpires courses provided for women who wish to make use of them. That does represent something of a contrast in how it is for men wishing to do the same, and the costs involved tend to be significantly higher (and with less given back) than the football equivalents. Many clubs offset that cost themselves, in order to encourage their members to gain their qualifications, but it is still a lot of money.
What doesn’t get mentioned much (and here the ECB aren’t alone by any means, it is taken for granted across both sport and other walks of life) is that any success requires people on the ground to volunteer and give up huge amounts of time to help encourage people to play the game. The decline of schools cricket is often cited as being disastrous in this, yet in comparing what was available 25 years ago to what is available now, the clubs have more than filled that gap. As someone who attended a cricket playing state school, the coaching was non-existent (and the county paid little attention to the state schools there anyway – in that little has changed) while only one local club had a thriving youth section – indeed only one local club even tried to create a thriving youth section. Moving forward to the present day, it is truly astonishing to see medium sized clubs having colts evenings comprising up to a hundred youngsters of an evening, and a plethora of qualified coaches to help them. It is, of course, enlightened self-interest from the clubs; shorn of a supply of schoolboy cricketers, they are producing their own. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that for a child who has shown an interest in cricket (therein lies a different debate), the opportunities for playing are now markedly more plentiful than they were in the 1980s. So far so good, with the obvious concomitant opportunities for cricket more widely.
With both boys and girls cricket, those volunteers are the heroes and heroines. Many clubs simply decided they wished to create a women’s and girls’ section, and worked ridiculously hard to try and make it work. Many male players will be familiar with making up the numbers in the initial stages until sufficient players of the correct sex were available. It is there where the ECB provided some support, a little of it directly, more of it via the counties. Let there be no mistake, that support was and is critical, but it is still the uncredited hard workers that form the backbone of every cricket club who have made it happen, almost always unappreciated higher up in the game. The ECB and the counties have been facilitators of an existing desire, not the creators of it. Given the sheer number of clubs it couldn’t be any other way, but that’s where the balance lies, not in initiatives from the ECB. Like any organisation, self-justification is part of the marketing, but agreeing that they deserve some credit is not the same as allowing them to take it all.
There is another side issue that affects both male and female youth cricket, and that’s the way funding and support is channelled through the counties. Girls cricket provides a fascinating insight into the methods of boys cricket as well, given that it was essentially a tabula rasa upon the foundation of the structures. Some of the counties are excellent, and it’s striking how many cricketers at the top level they are producing, notably Durham. Others are not. There is sufficient anecdotal evidence that some counties wish to work with a very small number of clubs in their Premier League alone, and ignore the rest. That manifests itself in pushing even 12 year olds of promise, boy or girl, to the big clubs in the county, where they can be watched by the county structure. The frustration for the majority is that there is little point in focusing on producing the best players they can, if the first time they come into contact with the county, that county tells them to leave and go somewhere else. It becomes a parasitical relationship rather than one of mutual support. Now of course, as that youngster develops, there comes a point where they need to be exposed to the highest level of club cricket possible, if they are to make it to the professional ranks, and every club is – or should be – fully aware of that. But that isn’t what is occurring in at least some of the counties, they are attempting to hoover up every single promising player and divert them from their home club at the earliest possible age to a bigger one. If this was happening to a tiny village club with one eleven, you could almost understand it, but it isn’t, it applies to clubs who are playing in the county league cricket structure and by any measure are good, strong cricket clubs.
The Sky Millions question is: how widespread is this? It is dangerous to extrapolate anecdotal experiences with reality, but it is a complaint heard sufficiently to cause deep concern. The trouble is that few people have direct experience of multiple county structures, so one that doesn’t behave in this way would be seen as doing things extremely well by those living in a “good” county without being aware of the circumstances elsewhere – and vice versa. In at least some of the counties, and perhaps more, the club game is treated as something of a hindrance, except as a means of extracting the best players out of it and into the arms of the county.
That attitude towards the clubs at the ECB and the counties is evidenced by the complete lack of representation of the amateur game within its own governing body. It is striking that the much maligned FA has much greater representation outside the professional game than the ECB does. A cricket club needs to be affiliated to the ECB but has no power of influence over it. There is a single representative from the recreational game on the board, and that one person wasn’t elected by any clubs, but is an appointee. Equally, there is little or no oversight for how a county fulfils its obligations to the clubs in its area, which means it is reliant on them doing so in the wider interest rather than their own. The clear decline in participation can be for any number of reasons on an individual level, but when there’s a pattern more widely, questions need to be asked why. It would be easy to point to the loss of terrestrial TV coverage, and undoubtedly that will have played a part, but it is much more complex than that.
Where this has relevance as we move up through the levels of cricket is in terms of affecting the quality of the player base from which the counties and then England can select. As has been pointed out on a number of occasions, up to seven of the England eleven are public schoolboys. In some instances they are scholarship boys, quite possibly because of their cricket prowess in the first place. This isn’t a class based point, or a political one, but the reality is that with 93% of children going to state schools, there is clearly an enormous wastage of basic talent. That has to be balanced with the reality that with excellent facilities, the public schoolboy has likely far better access to cricket as a matter of course. It’s not an either/or and it’s not a straightforward criticism. What it is though, is extremely careless to have failed to make the most of the vast majority, in a way that football tends to avoid. And that’s without taking into account the worrying lack of Asian talent making it to the top level given the proportion of club cricket that comprises. The clubs are developing young cricketers in greater numbers than they ever have before, athought there is inevitably wastage as they grow up, and inevitably some parents will regard it as a useful form of free babysitting. The volunteers and the clubs themselves are more than aware of that, but do it anyway because of the small percentage who will stay with the club into adulthood. If the clubs themselves are providing the basic numbers, then at some point as the standard increases, they are falling by the wayside as a proportion of the whole.
With the Edgbaston Test approaching, the dropping of Gary Ballance for Jonny Bairstow has been accompanied by a sideline that there aren’t too many alternatives to choose from. There is obviously the pachyderm hovering which must not be mentioned, but even in that instance, the point of origin for that player is South Africa. Since he arrived as a 19 year old off-spinner, a strong case can be made that he learned to become the player he was in England rather than anywhere else, yet the formative years weren’t here. Indeed the same applies to Ballance himself who learned his cricket in Zimbabwe. The county system itself looks in both directions, both up to England level and down to club level. If done well, that link can be invaluable, if done badly, it’s a matter of self-interest rather than the greater good. England are always going to have some input from places like South Africa for obvious historical reasons, the number of overseas British passport holders is enormous, and the county game offers the potential for a good living. Some object to the importation of such players who then turn out for England, but given the rules, which are stricter in England than they need to be internationally, there is nothing wrong with England choosing them, and in any case someone who moves across the world to make their career as a teenager is clearly a driven individual.
No, this isn’t about the use of such players per se, but why it is that without them England would be so markedly weaker, why we aren’t producing enough players of the requisite standard ourselves, and why we don’t produce the exceptional players that other countries seem to.
A little over a year ago, an article appeared in Cricinfo from a father talking about the experience of his son, who hadn’t been part of the age group sides, but had developed later on his county trial. For those who missed it, it is well worth reading again in its entirety:
On its own, a single article like that means little, but the trouble was that it very clearly chimed with a great many others. It was a small article, somewhat hidden away, and within the depressingly small confines of those interested in cricket, received a lot of attention.
Even if they can still think for themselves, they won’t be allowed to if they want to progress. Their whole lives will be structured by a battalion of experts for every eventuality, and should they speak up against it, they will be labelled “a divisive influence”, “a rebellious individual”, or most worryingly of all, “not a team player”.
The relentless focus on fitting in with what those above wished, the intolerance of individuality, and the requirement for a player to be coached to meet the narrow definitions of the approved cricketing path, rather than trying to get the most out of them is a complaint heard all too often, even in the national set up. This is the other side of the coin from the counties themselves trying to drive the direction of youth cricketers from a very young age. A child whose parent resists the push to move to a bigger club at an early age is already risking being marked out as part of the awkward squad, with all that entails.
Recently, he trialled with a first-class county, and after a single session lasting less than three hours, he was left injured and demoralised for more than a week afterwards. The injuries were because the session seemed to be less about cricket and far more about physical punishment. If a bowler failed to hit the cone, hurdle or pole that was acting as a target in the drill in question, he faced punishment. If a batsman failed to hit the bowling machine ball back between the cones provided, he would face punishment. If a fielder failed to complete the drill faultlessly, he would go back to the queue, because for the second half of the session, fielding drills were the punishment.
Allowances in that particular article need to be made for someone being a father to his son; the trouble was the lack of outrage from other counties, and the lack of anyone coming forward to say that it was an entirely isolated incident. Indeed, just the opposite, with even some coaches lamenting that their own experiences in the centres of excellence mirrored it exactly. Few allowances are made for players developing at different rates in the first place, if anything it was something of a surprise that an older player who hadn’t been through the county process got as far as getting a trial in the first place.
There’s a degree of irony in this. When England talk about “executing their skills” ad nauseam, what is clear that those skills form a smaller part of the development of young players than might be thought. English cricket – and the clubs are no more immune to this criticism than those above – has a terrible tendency to focus on what someone cannot do rather than what they can. It is indicative that it is somewhat hard to imagine a Steve Smith, with a highly unconventional technique, making it to the top level without someone trying to force him to do what everyone else does, and probably failing. A wise man once said that the skill of coaching was to ensure a player became the best he could be, and that doesn’t mean making that player fit in to preconceived ideas and micro-managing every aspect of their lives beyond the nets.
The danger for women’s cricket is that this template is being duplicated at every level. From a low base, this probably doesn’t matter in the immediate term, but it seems too much to hope that lessons are being learned.
None of this should be seen as a criticism of the selection of Bairstow, his record this season merits consideration, and he is clearly steeped in cricket from birth, both directly and indirectly. It is a matter of closing the circle from the lowest levels on the village green to the Test arena, whereby England are able to select from the widest and deepest talent pool available. Whether it is the bowling attack, or the batting line up, the cry that often goes up is that is all too samey. Yet this is hardly surprising given all the above. Talented players are pushed the same way, to the same circumstances, and the same end result. And ultimately we end up with an England team where the batsmen tend to be very similar, and so do the bowlers. It is perhaps unsurprising in that context, that the county who are often seen as creating a template for producing players who exist on their own merits – Durham – are also the one who create players who reach England level that have quirky personalities and techniques that have been largely left alone. It is furthermore disappointing to see that someone instrumental in that, Graeme Fowler, felt the need to stand down in protest at the direction the university cricket centre was going in.
In recent times one of the more striking things about the England team has been the peculiar joylessness in their play. If the likes of the article above are true about how the various development centres are run, it is unsurprising that this would be the case, players pushed in a certain direction from a very young age, forced to operate with narrow parameters lest they be considered unable to toe the line or form part of the group, and prevented from expressing themselves in their play. Of course, the New Zealand series showed that this doesn’t need to be so, yet the last Test showed worrying signs of a reversion to the mean, although a single match shouldn’t in itself be viewed as any kind of trend. The challenge for Trevor Bayliss and Paul Farbrace would then be far more extensive than simply to allow England players to express themselves, it would be to undo half a lifetime of being trammeled and restricted.
This doesn’t mean for a moment that those players in the England set up are therefore unhappy, but it does take a particular type of person to operate in the kind of environment cricket in England works in. The problem is not those players who have made it, but those who have not. How many talented players are lost at every stage due to it? Falling by the wayside is inevitable, not making the most of what you have is criminal. Whether at 12 years old or 25 years old, a one size fits all approach cannot work, it simply produces those who are pre-disposed to fit the prevailing culture. And that’s all very well, but you end up with an England side who are the products of that, with all the limitations therein. One of the most striking things about l’affaire Pietersen is that he so plainly didn’t fit into the box into which the ECB wanted to put him. When that same perspective pervades the entire game, then suspicions start to arise that the ECB itself is a major part of the problem.
It is highly unlikely that the ECB are doing anything except that which they feel to be the best overall. But the tail wags the dog, with the counties having the overriding power. Where this ties in as at both ends of the game’s spectrum. The wider club game is often viewed as a chore within the counties, hence the desire to compact it to as few clubs as possible, while the England team is not the focus except inasmuch as it benefits those counties, especially financially. That being the case, from youth to senior professional, the counties play their role well, producing significant numbers of county level professionals, of whom England select the best at playing county cricket. The trouble is, that is not the same as producing the best possible players. And this is completely inevitable, because although some would doubtless protest at the way they are being painted here, any organisation will gear itself to the promotion of its primary aim, irrespective of what they might say that aim is. How that translates in terms of the financial distribution of the money brought into will be the subject of a future blog.
Women’s cricket is in an expansion phase where there is optimism about the direction in which it is moving. But by doing it the same way as they are with the men, the potential for the same shortcomings is clearly there. The men’s team will play the best available team (with arguably one exception) who will do the best that they can. But why they are the best we have is a subject that reaches right the way down to the park and the village green, and ultimately, England get what they have worked for since the players were children. The problem is, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.