Another Restructuring Of County Cricket?

There were 10 overs played today in Southampton, as the game drags itself toward what is now a totally inevitable rain-soaked draw. Elsewhere, in what might have a much greater impact on those of you who have an interest in county cricket, there were reports of a potential huge shake up of the domestic game being considered by the ECB and the counties.

This may seem familiar, because there’s usually a restructuring every two or three years. The number of games in a competition, the formats, the time of year it happens in, the groups teams play in. Barely a year goes by without some major change to the domestic structure which we are all told will be a panacea to English cricket and fix everything. And it never does.

If there is one unusual aspect to these proposals, it’s that it doesn’t even give the new calendar which was due to begin this year a chance to fail. A ten-team Division One in the Championship, the T20 Blast shunted back to June and the 50-over competition being played during The Hundred were all innovations which were going to occur in 2020.

The proposals as Tim Wigmore lists in a (paywalled) article on the Telegraph website are:

  • Making the County Championship structure more like that of the Bob Willis Trophy, which has the teams divided into regions with playoffs to determine the overall winner.
  • Creating a 32-team 50-over competition, including the National (formerly minor) counties and possibly representatives from Ireland, Scotland and the Netherlands.
  • A reduction in the number, duration and cost of contracts for professional county cricketers.
  • Potentially allowing counties to abandon the County Championship whilst still playing white ball cricket.

These are, as it typical for the ECB, absolute bullshit. So I will go through them one-by-one and explain why.

A Regionalised County Championship

The Bob Willis Trophy has been seen by many as a huge success, and so why shouldn’t the ECB extend it so that it’s played every season? You’re guaranteed to see every local derby every year, any team has the potential to win the trophy rather than possibly having to negotiate promotion the year before, and costs for the teams can be reduced with less travel and hotel expenses required.

For those of you with long memories (a nice way of saying geriatrics), the first two already existed before 2000. The County Championship used to comprise of every county playing each other once a year. Every year had a Roses and London derby, and every team began the season on an equal footing. Not coincidentally, the England Test team was terrible for a lot of that period as well. It was determined that the large number of one-sided games featuring poor teams harmed the development of potential England Test cricketers, and the creation of a two-division structure would mean that the best players were exposed to a more consistent and higher level of competition.

This theory has certainly been borne out by England’s Test performance since these changes came in. In the twenty years before it happened, England won 39% of the Tests they played. Since 2001, they have won 63% of the time. There are undoubtedly other factors, central contracts were introduced at the same time for example, but I think it’s fair to say that the introduction of a two-tier league has done its job. Returning to the best teams playing the worst, just because they’re nearby, risks England also returning to the quality of Test cricketer they developed during the 80s and 90s. No one wants that.

Except Australians, I guess.

More generally, I would hesitate to take what has happened with the Bob Willis Trophy this year as proof that it would be a success in 2021. These are unusual times, and there is both a ton of goodwill and a hunger from most English cricket fans for any cricket game happening anywhere at the moment. I watched the European T10 competitions on Freesports in June for example, which isn’t something I would normally have done. There are also a lot of people who are currently working from home, or not going to work at all, who have the opportunity to watch county cricket streams now but won’t be able to next year. It may be worth mentioning that the improved multi-camera video streams and scheduling games on weekends, which I think are also significant factors in the success counties have seen in terms of viewers, could happen next year regardless of the competition format.

A New 32-Team 50-Over Competition

I can’t say that I have a strong opinion about a competition including amateur and foreign teams. Either the non-major county sides are cannon fodder for the professionals, which would be incredibly boring, or they are competitive, which would be a damning indictment of the quality of player county cricket produces. Neither seems a great outcome to me.

The more interesting aspect of it to me is the contradiction at the core of the ECB’s proposals: That they wish to reduce the overall number of professional English cricketers whilst also demanding that counties play a competition in a window where they lose a minimum of 96 squad members to The Hundred. Sussex had eleven players picked in The Hundred draft last year, which means that they will need a minimum of 25 white ball players in their first team squad next season in order to field a side.

You can have two competitions running simultaneously featuring 26 professional teams (8 in The Hundred plus 18 major counties), or you can cut the number of professional cricketers. You can’t do both.

Reducing The Number, Duration And Cost Of Player Contracts

I honestly can’t see many of the ECB’s suggestions in this area taking place. I am no fan of the players’ union, and they seem to regularly fail their members in several ways, but when it comes to ensuring the players are paid well they are very effective. Whilst there will no doubt be some changes to the agreement between the PCA and ECB to reflect the new circumstances since it was agreed in 2019, perhaps even a significant reduction of wages in line with the money English cricket has lost this year, the more extensive reforms the ECB envisages simply won’t be allowed to happen.

In that regard, the counties could learn a lesson or two from the PCA. The players’ union gets results because they present a single, united front to their employers (the ECB and the counties). The counties, who it bears saying have the power to dismiss the ECB chairman at any time and replace them with someone more amenable, somehow manage to take their unique position of strength in English cricket and throw it away by fighting amongst each other for scraps. Every damn time. It’s incredible.

Allowing Counties To Abandon First-Class Cricket

There are two significant obstacles to this ever happening: Most major counties are beholden to their members, who predominantly favour the County Championship, and it would seem impossible for the ECB to please both potential groups of counties. I would presume that county boards would only consider the option if it left them richer in the long run, with reduced playing staff numbers and less costs in hosting games, but that would ultimately depend on the ECB still giving those white ball counties a significant payment as they do now. Why would the counties who would never even countenance the ECB’s offer allow their rivals the chance to make more money by doing less? Why would counties who would consider the option support it if their yearly ECB stipend was cut?

As an aside, it baffles me how docile the members of the major counties are. Not unlike the counties within the ECB, county members typically have to power to remove their chairmen if they feel they aren’t being well-represented. Given the fury which the introduction of The Hundred received, and the devastation it is wreaking on county cricket, I am amazed that not a single person who voted for it has been forced out. If a  county chairman publicly contemplated leaving the County Championship, I’m not altogether sure that their members would be able to organise an effective opposition in time to stop it.

So, in conclusion, the ECB’s plans for the future of county cricket seem to be unworkable, ineffective, or directly harmful to English cricket.

I guess, in these uncertain times, it’s kind of nice to see that some things haven’t changed.

Any comments about county cricket, the Test which isn’t being played right now, or anything else are welcome below.

Day of Frustration

No play, a Test most likely ruined by bad weather, but plenty of anger and irritation around at the perceived tardiness of umpires, groundstaff and cricket administrators generally.

A grey, damp, dismal day like today was always going to cause problems, and it’s certainly apparent that the irritation is shared by the cricket media, who provided continual sarcastic updates throughout the day at the lack of activity even when it wasn’t raining. Maybe it was a justified complaint, maybe it was a reflection of an awareness amongst all concerned at the ground that whatever they did it was going to make little difference.

But one thing can be noted – it was probably not today’s inaction that drove the annoyance so much as the keenness with which the umpires chose to leave the field on the first two days. Cricket constantly fails to show a determination to do all that is possible to ensure play, meaning that there is little sympathy for umpires or ICC when they might well have a point about it being unsuitable for getting a Test match on.

It’s self-inflicted, as so many things in cricket are. There is no benefit of the doubt, and no sense of earned trust that all are doing everything in their collective powers to get the players on the field. As with so many misfortunes, there are many authors, but none who are prepared to put their names to it. Insisting that cricket has to change, and has to be aware of its need for spectator engagement is true, but requires a lot more than just an edict from on high.

The umpires too often hide behind the regulations, the players rejected the chance to ease the requirements lest it affect the outcome of matches. The ICC rarely seem interested, and the sight of the poor bloody spectators short-changed has never been a subject that attracts much sympathy from within. It’s an inherent problem, and speaks to a core dismissal of those outside the bubble of the game. All too often that can include the journalists themselves – they and the fans are in alignment on this one, but it’s more a marriage of convenience than a deeply held alliance. It’s not new, it’s not likely to change, and it’s forever a symptom not a cause.

Maybe tomorrow will be better. But I wouldn’t put your mortgage on it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts and comments very much welcome.

 

 

England vs. Pakistan -2nd Test, Day 1 – A Day Of Two Quarters

Today’s play has been more a Test of players’ and fans patience, rather than the cricketing skills of the two sides as we hoped. The rain and thunderstorms have meant that our focus has been on the skies, rather than the playing field adjacent to an out-of-town hotel complex near Southampton. In truth, the BBC weather forecast looks depressingly wet for the duration of the game, and so it might be a tough task for the two teams to contrive a result in the circumstances.

England sprang a slight surprise in their selection for this game, choosing Sam Curran over Mark Wood to replace the rested Jofra Archer. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, Curran is probably the bowler best suited to today’s damp and cloudy conditions as well as being a useful lower-order batsman at times. However, both Archer and Wood were selected for the first Test of the summer in a move which was supposed to help England prepare for the Ashes in 2021/22. I love watching Curran bowl in England, but I am very dubious of his effectiveness overseas.

The other change to England’s lineup was Zak Crawley replacing Ben Stokes, who has left for New Zealand due to a family emergency. Joe Root might be a little relieved, returning to his more comfortable sport as number four in the batting lineup, but Stokes’ departure is a huge blow for England. I must admit, I’m not a huge fan of Crawley based on what I’ve seen so far. The other recent batting debutants, Ollie Pope and Dom Sibley, just look like Test players to me. Their batting seems largely confident, assured and technically sound. Crawley, who has a first-class batting average of just 30.51 and a Test average of 26.10, doesn’t look ready for international cricket to me. I would personally have preferred to pick Ben Foakes today, as I think that he’s a better batsman than Crawley as wellas a better wicketkeeper than Buttler.

Pakistan only made one change from the previous Test, with Fawad Alam replacing Shadab Khan. Fawad Alam’s return to the team is notable for two reasons. First, there has been a 11-year gap since his last game for Pakistan in 2009. Second, his first-class batting average is 56.78. That is astoundingly high, and begs the question: Why has he not been playing for Pakistan before now? I certainly don’t regard Pakistan as a team of such batting strength that they can afford to leave talent like that on the sidelines for a decade.

Pakistan won the toss, and did what almost everyone does nowadays and chose to bat first. What play there has been today can be divided into two halves. In the first, before a two-hour rain delay, almost everything seemed to go Pakistan’s way. Jimmy Anderson made a breakthrough in his second over of the day, taking the important wicket of Shan Masood and at least starting the process of backing up his fiery pre-match press conference. What followed was a series of spurned chances as Jos Buttler’s case of the dropsies had evidently spread to the slip cordon. Rory Burns and Dom Sibley both dropped clear chances to take Abid Ali’s wicket from Broad and Woakes’ bowling, whilst a fine edge by Azhar Ali was missed by everyone (including the umpire). It was a truly uncanny period of play, where it seemed like there was nothing England could do to take a wicket. Pakistan’s luck couldn’t hold out forever though, and Azhar Ali edged one from Anderson to Burns in the slips who held on this time.

Soon after, the heavens opened and the players left the field for over an hour. When play resumed, Pakistan’s luck deserted them as England took three wickets in the space of twelve overs. Burns and Sibley both redeemed themselves for their earlier mistakes by holding on to catches at slip from Curran and Broad’s bowling respectively. Fawad Alam’s day 11-year wait for a Test run continues too, as Chris Woakes trapped him lbw for a 4-ball duck.

After a frustating start to the day for England, they’d be pretty happy about the situation at the end of the day. Pakistan are 126/5, and it would be an incredible feat for them to  turn that around and win the Test and the series.

During the  Lunch break, I happened to listen to a small part of Test Match Special. I was surprised to hear Mark Ramprakash’s voice, as I didn’t think he had any media aspirations. What didn’t surprise me, although I obviously made a note of it, was his opinions when it comes to selecting batsmen.

Q: “What is it that makes management back somebody, despite the statistics sometimes?”

Mark Ramprakash: “Well it’s all subjective. It really is. A change of coach can mean that there’s a change of emphasis on the lineup. It can happen in any sport, really. The question I’d ask is, if you’re a number five batsman, yes you bring your batting to the team but what else do you bring to the team? Now sometimes there are leadership qualities that we, looking from outside, don’t see. The importance of someone’s presence, the way they speak in team meetings, the way they are around the group. They may add some other qualities other than their batting. There’s always a balance between stability, trying to build some faith and consistency in your players and in your selection, but also there is a fine line before you can become a bit complacent. You do need to have competition for places, I guess that’s the balance Pakistan will be thinking about.”

To remind everyone, Ramprakash was England’s Test batting coach from 2014 to 2019. It is one of the truly baffling thing to me about cricket, and particularly English cricket, where there is so much emphasis on off-the-field attributes when it comes to selection. Players who struggle keep their place because they are ‘hard-working’, ‘well-liked’ or “the way they are around the group” whilst stronger cricketers are cast aside because they are ‘lazy’, ‘distrusted’ and ‘like to look out of windows instead of paying attention to a middle manager waffling on’. You can’t imagine football fans accepting their team fielding a weaker sidedue to one of the players being a bit of a knob, because their fans value victories over everyone in the team having a jolly time and being friends off the pitch. Nor with any other professional sport, that I can think of. It genuinely puzzles me, why this attitude remains in  English cricket and the media.

Hopefully there will be a lot more play tomorrow. If you have any comments, on the game or anything else, post them below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Countering an Orthodoxy: Cricket in Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Underdog Day Afternoon: Test Cricket Does it Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

England vs. Pakistan, 1st Test – Day 3 – You Spin Me Right Round, Baby Right Round

So at the end of Day 3, England are still in with a squeak, probably no more than that as a 4th innings score of over 150 has only ever been chased down at Old Trafford twice before, but a squeak nonetheless.

The nature of the line-up that England picked meant that in all reality both Pope and Buttler needed to go on this morning with at least one of them making them a ton; however the Pakistan bowling line meant that this was always going to be a tough ask. Too tough an ask as it proved to be. The morning session was one of those nip and tuck sessions where each of the Pakistani fast bowlers asked some serious questions of the English batsmen, who played and missed at more than a few deliveries. Eventually it took the precocious 17 year old quick, Naseem Shah, to get rid of Pope with a delivery that reared off the pitch and struck the top of Pope’s bat providing a comfortable catch for the slip fielder. I don’t know how and where Pakistan keep finding these young bowling superstars, but it’s a real breath of fresh air to watch someone so young, bowl with such hostility and maturity at this level. Let’s just hope Pakistan provide him with the right support and structure to let him grow and not ruin him like did with Mohammad Amir.

Still England made it to lunch relatively unscathed and with Buttler and Woakes still at the crease there were some hopes that England could somewhere near Pakistan’s total. Unfortunately our ineptitude against leg spin again proved England’s downfall. Buttler, Woakes and Bess quickly fell to Yasir Shah and whilst there was a fun cameo between firstly Broad and Archer and then Broad and Anderson, it was only going to be a matter of time before England were bowled out. The way Buttler got out in particular is a reflection of his time as an International cricketer, failing to pick a straight delivery after a scratchy, but gritty 38. I have been fairly vocal on my thoughts on Jos as a Test player and nothing I saw today has changed that opinion, but I do feel a bit sorry for the guy; I mean he isn’t the one that keeps picking himself. Buttler is a world class white ball batsman, but in truth, even in county cricket, he has never shown much aptitude against the red ball, something that 6 career red ball centuries clearly shows and for me he simply doesn’t look like a Test player. This isn’t to say he isn’t trying as today’s innings showed, where he put away his natural game and tried to grind out a score, but I genuinely feel it’s got to the stage where it’s not doing the player or the team any favours. It naturally didn’t help that Mohammad Rizwan gave him a lesson in how to keep wicket to both the spinners and the seamers, especially considering he gifted Pakistan over 100 runs in the field with his poor keeping in the first innings. Buttler might be a great team man and Ed Smith is definitely a stubborn supporter, but something has to give and now is the right time to take him out of the firing line.

It would also be churlish of me not to give Yasir Shah some rightful praise. He can look innocuous at times and does bowl some absolute dross, but he always seems to have an impact in the game and regularly takes wickets. It just shows the different mentality both sides have with regards to their spin bowling options with Pakistan happy for their spinner to concede runs if he can bowl wicket taking deliveries often and England happy for their spinner to keep it tight and take the odd wicket. Unfortunately that’s always been our mindset and I can’t see it changing anytime soon.

So with a deficit of 107, England needed wickets and quickly and for once they actually got them. Broad strangled Masood down the leg side for a duck, a sobering reminder of the fickle nature of the Cricketing God’s after his first innings and then Bess had Abid caught on the boundary with the sort of hoick that even Shannon Gabriel would have been embarrassed with. Woakes then continued his fine form by removing both Babar and Azhar quickly leaving Pakistan wobbling at 63-4 before a decent partnership between Shafiq and Rizwan steadied the ship. Indeed they looked to be taking the game away from England before a typical suicidal run synonymous with the Pakistani team removed the former before they could do any more damage. Indeed England should rightly be disappointed that they didn’t have Pakistan in a worse position after yet more sloppiness in the field with both Abid and Shafiq the beneficiaries of dropped catches, though one could easily argue that the Anderson drop was a mighty tough chance. Still England will look back at those drops with more than a tinge of regret after Rizwan and Shadab benefitted from some poor bowling from both Bess and Anderson before England desperately turned to a half fit Ben Stokes who did what Ben Stokes does and trapped Rizwan LBW in his 2nd over. Broad then removed Shadab and a visibly limping Stokes removed Shaheen but a few lusty blows from Shah allowed Pakistan to take the lead to an improbable but not impossible total of 244 with 2 wickets remaining.

Pakistan are without doubt in the box seat and England need to take the last remaining 2 wickets in double quick time if they are to stand any chance of winning this match on a pitch that is taking serious turn. This should be Pakistan’s game to win but it’s not quite a done deal yet. We should have those answers on which way the game is going pretty early on Day 4.

As ever thoughts and comments are much appreciated.

England v Pakistan, Day Two

England seem to be in the habit of losing the first game of a Test series. I thought that the situation this summer, where England are coming off winning two Tests in a row whilst the Pakistan players haven’t played a competitive game in about five months, could change this. It now appears that my optimism was misplaced.

England and Jimmy Anderson’s second day started a lot better than the first when a full, wide delivery was edged by Babar Azam to Joe Root at first slip in his first over of the day. Broad induced a edge from Asad Shafiq later in the morning, and Woakes did the same to wicketkeeper Mohammad Rizwan not long later. Pakistan’s issues in the morning were compounded by their slow scoring, managing to score just 48 runs at 1.86 runs per over.

England’s bowlers obviously over-indulged at Lunch, because the Afternoon session all went Pakistan’s way. Bess and Root bowled the first few overs, allowing Pakistan to score freely, until the new ball was available. Once it was, Anderson and Broad wasted it with eight overs of loose and utterly unthreatening bowling which Pakistan took advantage of to score even more. Woakes and Bess tightened things up, but neither looked threatening as Pakistan eased up to almost 300 runs.

Bess eventually made the breakthrough, when Shadab Khan decided to smash him over mid on but instead mis-hit the ball high in the air to Joe Root. That opened the floodgates, with Archer taking a pair (having been left out of the attack for most of the afternoon session) and Broad taking the final two wickets, with Pakistan finishing on 326 all out.

And through almost the entire Pakistan innings, Shan Masood batted. Chris called him “a relatively limited player” in yesterday’s match report, and this is true. Almost every opener is, as the position demands patience and control over other attributes like a flashy technique or a wide range of shots. I must admit that there I really enjoy watching batsmen who don’t score quickly. Cook and Trott, for example. There is just something satisfying to me about a batsman absolutely infuriating the bowlers by refusing to get out. Masood scored 156 runs in total, and hhas put Pakistan in a very good position considering the bowler-friendly conditions at Old Trafford.

Jos Buttler dropped another edge from Dom Bess’s bowling today, after the missed catch and stumping chances yesterday. There’s a lot that’s been written about Jos Buttler’s position in the Test team, and his continued selection frankly doesn’t seem to have much support at all outside the England camp. One thing which might be overlooked is his impact on England’s spin bowlers. Dom Bess created three clear wicket-taking opportunities in Pakistan’s first innings, and Jos Buttler dropped them all. There is a huge difference in how Bess is regarded by fans and the media if he takes one or four wickets in an innings, not to mention the damage to his Test bowling average. Jos Buttler’s inability to catch the ball when up at the stumps could literally ruin a spin bowler’s international career.

Pakistan’s opening bowlers Abbas and Afridi took three wickets in the first few overs, dispatching Burns, Sibley and Stokes in quick succession. All three wickets were from deliveries targetting the stumps, with the first two being lbw and Stokes being bowled. This highlights England’s deficiency in that regard, as they have typically bowled shorter and wider, taking these two methods of dismissal out of consideration. In these conditions, and on a pitch which seems both quick and allowing seam movement, full straight balls which seam or swing can be lethal. Not for the first time this summer, the tourists are showing England how to bowl in England.

Joe Root and Ollie Pope settled things down for a while, but Root eventually edged one from Yasir Shah to the wicketkeeper (who, unlike Jos Buttler, caught the ball). Pope and Buttler saw England through to stumps, but England are in a very precarious position and must do very well tomorrow to avoid a large deficit.

As always, feel free to comment below.

Babar So Really: England v Pakistan, Day one

The weather forecast for this Test is quite reasonable, so today’s curtailed play should hopefully be the exception rather than the rule for the remainder of the game.

What play did take place was something of a throw-back, at least in the first session.  England bowled well, Pakistan repelled all that was thrown at them.  The importance of opening batsmen who can soak up the pressure has been ignored all too often over the last few years in favour of assuming that Test cricket is the same as one day cricket, full of blazing strokes and where batting time is of lesser importance.  Shan Masood demonstrated the value of occupation of the crease.  He may be a relatively limited player, but that’s been of little consequence for many an opener who has gone on to a successful career.  Although Pakistan did lose a couple of early wickets he, in consort with Babar Azam saw Pakistan through to lunch at 53-2.  Barely over 2 runs an over, but unquestionably a fairly successful first morning in challenging batting conditions.

After lunch, things became easier.  England bowled poorly, Babar began to cut loose.  It’s intriguing to see articles written about how he should be considered the fifth member of the Test batting exceptionals, not because he isn’t worthy of being bracketed with those, but because the list invariably includes Joe Root, who hasn’t been performing at that kind of level for a couple of years now, and to many observers, isn’t even currently the best batsman in the England side.  Still, it might be nit-picking to make that observation instead of accepting Babar’s right to be considered in the upper echelons of Test batsmen at present, and he certainly looked the part today.

England did have chances to take a third wicket, firstly when Jos Buttler dropped Shan Masood off Dom Bess’s bowling.  For all the debate around Buttler’s place, his wicketkeeping has been perfectly acceptable for most of his time in the England team, and it is his batting that has been most under scrutiny.  The dropped catch can be put down to just one of those things – any keeper is disappointed when a fine edge goes down, but always for different reasons to those the non-wicketkeeping commentators state:  It’s a question of technique, not reactions, for no keeper reacts to edges when standing up, the ball hits the gloves before the brain is aware an edge has been taken.   The missed stumping he will be more annoyed with, for being hit on the shoulder with the batsman that far down the pitch tends to suggest he was caught watching the batsman rather than the ball – something he will work long and hard on avoiding at all costs.

Standing up to the spinners might be something we see a fair bit of this Test if day one is anything to go by.  Bess got reasonable turn and significant bounce from the start, which may well be of concern to an England team likely to be batting last, against a team who have selected two leg-spinners.  Whether the pitch quickens or dies over the coming days will define their effectiveness, but, forced to bowl spin by bad light, both Bess and Root looked mildly threatening on occasion in the short evening session.

Whether the light was poor enough for the umpires to have forced England to bowl spin in the first place is an open question and goes to the heart of the competing demands of professional sport – the potentially litigious nature of the modern world and the importance of duty of care, versus the requirement that play happens.  Cricket always seems to struggle with this – and too often gives the impression that being on the field is considered a nice to have rather than an imperative of the game.  All too often resumptions are leisurely rather than urgent, meaning there is scepticism in those circumstances there ought to be trust.  It appears to be a congenital problem afflicting the game in too many areas.  Yet the commentators by the end did state that even with floodlights it was rather dark, but going off for bad light on safety grounds when the fast bowlers are operating is one thing; doing so when the spinners are on is another matter altogether.  The defence is usually on the grounds of fairness, but it’s hard to see how that is any different to being put into bat on a green seamer or having to bowl in baking heat.  Unless the fielders are in danger, there’s little excuse for it.

With an unbroken third wicket partnership of 96, Pakistan are in decent shape going in to day two, and any total in excess of 300 has put the England of the last few years under significant pressure.  Choosing to bat may or may not have been a marginal call, but there enough observers urging the captain who won the toss to bowl to make it clear it can’t have been entirely clear cut.  As ever, day two gives a greater indication of where this game is going.