2015 Dmitris #6 – Andrew Strauss

The next Dmitri is awarded to someone who has, in many ways, defined the England cricket year. On his appointment to replace the incompetent Paul Downton, Andrew, Strauss took the bull by horns, sacked Peter Moores, canned KP and brought in the coach no-one thought was a serious candidate. He set in train a number of events that meant this was a memorable year for the game in England, but also showed that a number of key principles had been put in place.

Strauss Motivator

That Andrew, Strauss has had an eventful year would be a little bit of an understatement. After his retirement from the England cricket team in 2012, he walked into the Sky commentary box for the 2013 Ashes and beyond, and proved pretty much why he should have stuck to the playing side. In a box that contained lightweights like Knight and bores like Warne and Botham, he just did not carve a niche. His whole time in the commentary box was overshadowed when he called a certain someone a certain word when he thought he was off air. In a taste of things to come, the press came to his aid, like Walter Raleigh for Good Queen Bess, and the whole thing was laughed off. Sure, he apologised, but it did rather paint a picture, didn’t it?

When my main source of comedy material was booted out after the World Cup, there became a little bit of a beauty parade to see who might fill the mighty Downton’s boots. Would it be Shiny Toy Vaughan, with his snap judgments, his greatest ever addiction and his “lad” persona on Twitter? Would it be Alec Stewart, a man who carried out the job on offer at Surrey, with a continuous role in the game, gravitas and respect? No, of course not. It was always going to be Strauss. He’d have taken the job at the time Downton took over, but they thought it was too soon. It was Strauss from the moment Downton was ditched. There was no suspense…..

When he was appointed I thought immediately “KP – gone”. While they had appeared to have papered over the cracks in 2012, the bon mot on Sky said that was a lie. I’ve had an independent source confirm to me that the divide runs very deep. That’s not exactly a world exclusive. So when KP scored that 355* there was no doubt it wouldn’t change Strauss’s mind. So while many of us still have grave problems with the way the decision was made, the justification for it, and the premise it was based on (we will not pick our team on merit alone, but on personality and held grudges), it would be unfair to say that’s the only thing he’s done. And I don’t mean the shambolic sacking of Peter Moores, which gave Strauss an early peek at how things work in the ECB Media world. To be fair to them, they’ve tightened up that aspect considerably this year.

Newman Markings
Newman needed convincing on a bit, but clear on his bete noire

Strauss’s clear best move was appointing Trevor Bayliss, which, in hindsight should have been done last year instead of the Moores Mistake. Bayliss has had an immediate impact on the ODI team, so that we have an invigorating, exciting bunch playing cricket we could only dream of. Eoin Morgan’s retention as captain has also been a major plus for Strauss, because received wisdom was that Joe Root would take it on as a dress rehearsal for the big job in a year or so’s time. Under Morgan, Bayliss and Farbrace, faith has been put in Hales and Roy, who both made their maiden ODI hundreds this year, given free rein to Joe Root and Eoin Morgan in the middle order, and allowed Jos Buttler to do his thing knowing he has hitters around him. The bowling looks more tricky, but if the batting is this lethal, some sins can be covered. Strauss has made this a priority and short term rewards have ensued. It does look, though, as if some long-term strategies are now in place, with key players not too old, and a modus operandi being developed for English conditions. That future is bright.

His bonus came in the form of an Ashes win. Now we’ve had some varying opinions on here about this series and its true relevance. The diehard England fan, the sort that thinks this blog is an abomination, believes this to be one of the great triumphs of the modern era, and I’ve even seen it suggested (by one muppet who seems to have disappeared) that it was better than 2005. Those of a more sceptical lean are quick to point out that pitches outside of London were made to suit our attack, and in some cases, to an unfair degree. It is a debate that will linger. To me there should be a balance to the wickets, and that home conditions should be an advantage but not a decisive one. To that degree, although it was slagged off, Cardiff was the best pitch of the series. However, the view of many was that the condition of the wickets were dictated by the ECB and possibly Strauss. He denied it, but there was that thought that England had stacked the deck. I’m not so sure, and even if I was, I’m not so sure I care that much except that no test went five days. Some barely made it to the half-way stage. That can’t be right.

But winning the Ashes gave Strauss important breathing room, an argument to counter the pro-KP faction (there still isn’t a coherent one for not picking him for the T20 team) and the media did their thing by anointing Mr Mindflick as a genius, pouring on aplomb, genuflecting to his genius. Strauss has had a good first year in charge, of that there can be no doubt, but the success of the test team other than the Ashes, and certainly away from home remains elusive. The batting is in a mess, the bowling too dependent on two bowlers with many miles on the clock, the keeper not nailed down, no spin bowler standing up to be counted and no real bright shining lights in sight. They’ve now seen off Bell, and it remains to be seen what happens next. So while the ODI side is full of hope, the test team is a massive work in progress, and quite frankly, not as good away from home as the sum of its parts. An Ashes win, as odd as it was, will only go so far. Strauss has a lot of work to do, but there is no doubt he’s been an integral part of much of this year.


White Ball Priority

You're our only (choice) hope...
You’re our only (choice) hope…

I was researching a piece I intended to write last night, when the news from Paris started to filter in. I find, like most of you no doubt, that stories like this consume you, so the piece took a back seat. Now I’m struggling to remember what I’d heard, so if this doesn’t have some flow, forgive me. Naturally, last night’s events hit home. That’s us out there, eating and drinking, going to concerts, watching sporting events. The world is a potentially horrible place.

This piece is on Strauss and his ODI comments.

I wasn’t concentrating on cricket much towards the end of the week, which is a bit of a problem for a cricket blogger! Work and social stuff took over, but I couldn’t help but notice some of the reactions on here, and on Twitter, to a round of interviews that Andrew Strauss conducted during the 1st ODI (or just before). So last night I listened to the Agnew interview and the one with Nick Knight.

The confusion I had was I thought the line to take from these interviews was that Strauss would prioritise (and he used that word a lot) “white ball cricket” because if we didn’t we would fail again in the World Cup in 2019. Many of you on here took this to mean that players could miss tests to play in the IPL or perhaps the Big Bash to get experience of top quality, pressure-filled cricket (Mike Walters in the Mirror certainly did). This certainly wasn’t dampened down immediately, but then, yesterday Strauss made it clear that he was not suggesting that England would weaken their test team to allow this to happen.

 “I can’t foresee any circumstances in which we would weaken our Test team in order to allow a player to play in the IPL or any other franchise-based competition.” Strauss…BBC

The cynical among us, and that numbers me, might note that the two day period between the airing of these interviews, when the position wasn’t made crystal clear, and the clarification offered yesterday was deliberate, to see how the position went down when allowed to float, or Downton-esque and a cock-up. Whereas Downton was a buffoon from the outset, I’m absolutely convinced that Strauss is, if nothing else, a sharp operator. Leaving that position open (ish) was probably quite an astute move to see if some of the big beasts roared. I don’t think, for one minute, Andrew Strauss wants Joe Root and Ben Stokes to play in the IPL (the only two test certainties that will play international white ball cricket and possibly get picked). Jos Buttler might also be sought to play in the IPL but his status as a test player is in jeopardy. The test team is our money-spinner and to mess about with that, even in the early season test series, opens the door to much in the way of consternation. Remember when we rested our bowlers against the West Indies at Edgbaston a few years ago? Some people went mad!

KP’s interjection at this point, while understandable, probably wasn’t well judged. I’ll leave it there at this point and may return to it later.

The thing that concerned me was Strauss and his non-stop mentions of the word “prioritise”. What does this actually mean? Strauss claims that the model to follow appears to be the Australian one, where they can play well in both formats of the game at the same time. He takes the message that Australia prioritise the game in the right way and his takeaway is that we should seek to specialise our white ball cricket. This, clearly from where I am sitting, means two almost separate units, with very few players playing in all formats of the game.

Let’s leave T20 cricket as an outlier at this time. That’s a format of the game Australia have never succeeded in because they seem to play another different team entirely for that (and pretty much have treated it like a joke – but a productive one – see David Warner). Australia’s ODI winning team lined up as follows:

Warner (current test opener), Finch (specialist), Smith (current test batsman), Clarke (then the test captain), Watson (then the test middle order bat), Maxwell (played tests, but seen as specialist), Faulkner (played tests, in their thoughts), Haddin (then test keeper), Johnson (test bowler), Starc (test bowler), Hazlewood (test bowler).

Arguably Australia had two out and out white ball specialists, and one (Faulkner) who has made his name in that game (but I’m sure is in their thoughts for test cricket). This may change given the retirements – Wade will probably be ODI keeper instead of Nevill, Khawaja isn’t, I think, seen as an ODI batsman, and it remains to be seen if Burns can force his way into the white ball arena. Voges isn’t an ODI player for the future. But what is clear from the above is there isn’t the separation of powers that Strauss seems to think is vital.

Looking at their opponents in the final, New Zealand, the specialists were Ronchi and Elliott. Vettori was playing ODIs to end his career (having been a prolific test player) but all the others are in the test reckoning. There really aren’t that many “specialists” like a Kieron Pollard or a Quentin de Kock.

Strauss wants to bring this specialism to the fore and I think it is dangerous. One of the names he mentions is Jason Roy. At this stage he’s shown ODI promise without delivering the big innings, and it is a great credit that England are going to stick with him. I remember how we treated Ali Brown, and I still get livid about it. We wanted a pinch hitter, but when it went wrong he got slagged off. I think it is too soon to give up on Roy as a potential test player. I don’t think he’ll get there, but in red ball cricket, he has been a bloody important player for Surrey. He plays that innings in Surrey’s line-up that demoralises the opposition. He will fail, but sometimes he will succeed. Strauss appears to be pigeon-holing him as a white-ball specialist very early. The same may happen to Alex Hales. What if we have a new player who comes in as an ODI player, is whisked off to T20 competitions, and yet he could be a test player in the making? All through this I look at how we’ve treated James Taylor to the point that at this stage, we don’t really have a scooby (clue) what he is.

I don’t have to tell you that I’m not a fan of Strauss. I’m also not going to pretend that he’s another Paul Downton. There’s a lot of good thinking in what Strauss is telling us, but he’s a politician to his boot-straps, and management consultancy is in his DNA. The latter seems to make sports journalists go weak at the knees. A man only has to come in, spout out about culture and environment, talk about processes and evaluation, and set low goals, and suddenly he’s a guru to be listened to, a beacon to follow. I call it Lancastrianisation. The aim is stuffed back donkeys years, and when you get there, well……

So much has been written about the Rugby World Cup that it’s almost become a spectator sport. Look at what Lancaster and the RFU did, and do the opposite might be a better lesson to learn. They cut off the talent pool by putting in restrictions on selection, they identified a lot of players (who weren’t good enough), they took multiple second place finishes and close losses as evidence of progress, they then brought in a wild card to show they were innovative, and made last minute changes to the team, and they collapsed in a heap. The journalists in that sport, a lot who make cricket writers appear like meek and humble people, have hardly aimed fire at Lancaster. If half the vitriol that Paul Ackford aimed at Sam Burgess for example had been aimed at Lancaster, well…..we might actually be admitting where the problems lie. Meanwhile, the head honchos in the RFU remain. So while cricket gazed on admiringly at this nonsense, they perhaps need to “refocus”.

What I also found funny was Strauss saying that prioritising ODI cricket for a World Cup would be a new approach. Now it is if you do it a long way out, but in 2014-15 we played no test cricket for six months. We prioritised the ODI game and yet it didn’t work. So prioritisation isn’t new, it is now a different kind. But that’s classic management speak – the past is not to be referred to, and all things have to be new. There has to be change. Change. A word I never want to hear muttered by a manager or administrator again in my life.

Managers also make tasks sound harder than they might be. Strauss sets the bar low (we had a miserable World Cup – while forgetting we got to the Champions Trophy Final last time around) and then makes it sound like the way out is absolutely nigh on impossible. If you fail, well you tried, if you succeed, you are a genius:

“If someone is playing in the Test team or very close to the Test team, then that’s a harder decision to make. But let’s be honest – we’re not going to make massive strides in white ball cricket without making some hard decisions along the way.

“I think we have to be prepared to do that and I personally believe we can make those strides and not do it at the expense of Test cricket.”

So what did we learn. We’ll focus on specialists – so I’m assuming that’s Willey, Woakes, Roy, Billings, Hales, Topley and the skipper, Morgan. Perhaps Buttler if it’s decided that tests aren’t for him, and perhaps Bairstow if he drops out of the test team. The portents are not good – Luke Wright and Ravi Bopara are two that come to mind – but if Strauss is serious about attitudes to the game, then fine.

Nick Knight, in his interview on Sky, raised the T20 World Cup, which seems to be something hardly mentioned in the corridors of power. So the management consultant assured us we had great talent and had a real chance. But the words he spoke at the end of the piece were the ones that sparked the rage in me….

“I think we’ve pretty much identified the group of players we want to work with in the short term. It’s important we give them opportunities to develop.

“It would be wrong to be searching in very different directions right now. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s a closed shop in the long term.”

The World T20 is in March. We have a T20 player scoring hundreds. He’ll have plenty of big game T20 experience. He’s absolute class. He’d walk into this team in normal circumstances. I’ll quote Peter Miller from his excellent podcast with Daniel Harris last night – England would rather lose cricket matches than pick Kevin Pietersen. For that, KP is correct when he says:

We all knew that. That’s why I have no problem in him speaking his mind.

Ashes 3rd Test: Preview

Perhaps to begin with, a few words about the sad death of Clive Rice.  Like so many of his generation, he didn’t get to play Test cricket due to South Africa’s banishment from the international game.  With a first class average above forty and nearly a thousand wickets at a bowling average in the low twenties, had he been able to perform at the highest level, he would have been a great addition in the era of the great all rounders that bestrode world cricket in the 1980s. Indeed, such was his ability, he could have been viewed as the best of them all.

An entire generation will remember seeing him play for Nottinghamshire over many years, and the Sunday League matches were required watching on Grandstand for a child rapidly falling in love with the game in the early eighties.  And while that shortened form of the game may not have quite shown him at his peak, he was plainly one of the main men in the sport.  Nor should it be forgotten that Rice brought an unknown 19 year old offspinner over to England, and was instrumental in Kevin Pietersen’s development.  14,000 international runs later, English cricket can be grateful for that too.

His early passing is a deep blow for the game, and it is to be hoped that a suitable tribute to a genuinely great cricketer can be arranged for the fourth Test, so those where he played and coached for so many years can pay tribute.

Turning attention to tomorrow, England have at least one change with Bairstow coming in for Ballance.  The news today is that there could also be disruption to the bowling attack, with Mark Wood’s fitness in question.  Should he not make it, then Steven Finn will be the replacement.  It was notable that in talking about that, Cook said Finn had been “bowling well in one day cricket”, an oblique reminder that the English summer now limits the first class opportunities to excel when the main Test series is on.

The pitch is of course part of the debate, and Australia have lost few opportunities to play mind games, with Mitchell Starc the latest to lob a grenade at England saying they didn’t know what they wanted or what they were doing.  There’s little doubt from the words flying from the Australian camp that they feel on top of England at the moment, it’s been a remarkable turnaround from the uncertainty afflicting them after the defeat at Cardiff.  The Lords pitch unquestionably offered up a lifeline to Australia, a team that were showing signs of fragility after the first Test defeat.  That Australia grabbed it with both hands and then demolished England entirely merely demonstrates that giving a good team a break like that is as daft as it always is.

The recent rain has hampered preparations in Birmingham to the extent that heaters have been used on both pitch and outfield to assist in drying the surface.  What that means is that even if England had wanted it (unlikely) the wicket could not have been prepared with pace in mind.  What is far more obvious is that after the Lords debacle, it will offer something to the seamers, something the Lords track unquestionably didn’t.  However, what this debate around wickets does show is that for all the noble words upon the appointment of Strauss about it being all about the future, the same short term thinking applies.  English wickets have been extremely slow for a few years now, the idea the Australians have that they are specifically slowed down for them is simply wrong.  But it is still true that they are slow, and looked at over a longer period than the last five years, that isn’t typical of English grounds.  That’s largely because of the recent desire to ensure matches go the full five days to ensure a maximisation of earnings, but it’s hardly likely to benefit England’s development in that longer term to keep doing this.

In times past, the pitches offered a much greater level of variety, one that simply isn’t there any more with a uniform turgidness about them.  That Strauss, according to Nick Hoult at the Telegraph, sent an email requesting that the pitches be slower rather than faster as a general rule makes it abundantly clear it’s about the here and now.  The contradictions between what England say and what they do never seem to stop.

England will certainly have to play much better than they did at Lords to even compete, because any kind of similar performance is going to result in another hammering.  Yet there’s no reason they shouldn’t do.  Cricket teams do sometimes have matches where everything seems to go wrong for no apparent reason.  England are not as bad a side as they looked at Lords, and Australia are not as good either.  One of the recent trends in Ashes matches has been for them to be one sided, whoever wins.  Even the narrow Trent Bridge win of two years ago owed more to a freak performance narrowing a gulf between the side than anything else.

What England do have to do is come up with a method to combat the left armers, and that means showing a degree of aggression.  This is the test for England’s brave words about the way they want to play the game, because no side reacts well to being successfully attacked.  An England who try to sit in will play into Australia’s hands, as they rotate the bowlers knowing that wicket will follow.

That said, Australia have to be seen as favourites, and if they get their noses in front in the series, it is hard to see England coming back, especially after two consecutive defeats.  This Test is likely to prove pivotal in the series, how England handle the challenge this time will tell us much about where they are going as a team.


The Gathering Storm

Less than a week to go before the Ashes begin, and the news today that Ryan Harris has announced his retirement is an unwelcome development for Australia.  Harris probably wouldn’t have been in the side for Cardiff, mostly because his fitness was questionable anyway – and clearly rightly so – but to lose a player of that calibre from the squad is unquestionably a blow.  For Harris himself, he’s had perhaps four more years of a Test career than seemed likely when he limped out of the 2010/11 series, seemingly into retirement.  That he came back, and proved so effective a bowler, is greatly to his credit.  A shortened career at international level perhaps, but 113 Test wickets at 23.52 represents a fine return even so.   And there’s little question that a certain England captain will be delighted that there’s no prospect of his technique being picked apart by such a clever bowler.

He has said himself that he’s played 27 more Tests than he thought he would, and it’s probable that is at least partly down to Cricket Australia’s relatively careful management of him, providing space for recuperation.  They received a lot of stick for their policy of resting and rotating their pace bowling attack, yet it may well have ensured that in Harris’s case, they truly did get as much out of him as was possible.

Pat Cummins has been called up as his replacement, which is an interesting choice, as he hasn’t played first class cricket in almost two years.  His talent isn’t in doubt, but given his own injury record, it has to be questionable whether in the event he needed to play, he’d be able to last five days of a Test.  Even if completely injury free, he’s very much out of practice at the longer format.

Australia have had a decent workout in their two warm up matches, and perhaps the one area of concern for them has been that their spinners have come in for a fair degree of stick.  A warm up is a warm up, so not too much should be read into it, but it does perhaps detail a line of attack that England could look to adopt when the phoney war is over.

And a phoney war it certainly is.  David Warner picked the build up to the Tests to repeat his claims about Joe Root from the tour two years ago which resulted in Warner throwing a punch.  This is trivial stuff, but it indicates that the sledging game is well and truly on.  Australia themselves are something of a known quantity anyway, much of the series depends on how England play.  The one day series raised optimism that England would look to be aggressive, but the Test side and the one day side are two distinct entities.  An obvious difference is that the captain is Alastair Cook, not a skipper renowned for going for the throat of the opposition.  Indeed Shane Watson specifically referred to that issue recently:

“I’m not sure if that’s exactly in Alastair Cook’s DNA, to be really able to put a game on the line. It’s going to be interesting to see how now that Alastair Cook comes in and takes over the Test team, how they continue to evolve as a team, because it’s very obvious in the one-day series they’ve played how they’ve really started to take on the game.”

Watson hits the nail on the head there.  Partly of course it’s a case of trying to undermine England, which is normal enough and fair enough.  But the question itself is one that England followers have raised several times.  Putting aside the merits of the teams for a moment, the style of play is going to be interesting to watch.  It remains extremely hard to imagine England adopting the mentality of the first innings at Edgbaston in 2005.  That contradiction has been observed by the incoming coach Trevor Bayliss:

“The way the game has been played over the last five or ten years, you could argue that maybe we haven’t kept up to date maybe as some of the other teams. Whether you like it or not, the T20 format and the one-day format do have a bearing on the way the game is played at Test level. It’s that philosophy of being positive and aggressive.”

And yet Andrew Strauss doesn’t seem to be on the same page.

“As I said at the start of the summer, I think Cook is very much the man to take the England Test team forward

Perhaps there’s an element of having to say that, but the innate conservatism of Strauss is looking somewhat out of kilter with the approach of both the new coach and of the stand in.  It was certainly noticeable that Bayliss was very quick to praise Morgan and Farbrace for the way the one day team played the game, as was the much more non-committal remark about Cook:

“I’ve not seen him up close or worked with him before.”

It is of course entirely possible that despite the initial appearance of them being chalk and cheese, they might get on like a house on fire.  It wouldn’t be the first time that has happened – perhaps most notably in the instance of the taciturn Duncan Fletcher and the fiery Nasser Hussain, who proved to be an outstanding partnership.  But it still has the feel of end of term about Cook’s captaincy, particularly so if England lose, as so many expect.

And will England lose?  It was quite amusing to see Glenn McGrath react at the terming of Australia as “Dad’s Army” when it was actually Jason Gillespie who made a point of describing them as such.  And yet it is quite clear that this is indeed a fairly old Australian side.  One thing that shouldn’t be ignored is that sides never look past it until they actually are.  Although more sensible observers noted that England in 2013/14 were a side running out of steam, few anticipated the collapse that followed.  A side can look old very quickly.

Where Australia do clearly look to have the edge is in the fast bowling stakes.  Starc and Johnson are a potent opening pair, though Johnson does blow hot and cold.  If he were to return to the 2009/10/11 vintage, then Australia have a problem.  Of course, if he’s more like the one from the last Ashes, England could be in for a fearful hiding.  Even then, Starc looks a more obvious – and more consistent – threat in any case.

So where do England have to perform if they are to have a chance?  Cook himself is pivotal.  His technique was dismantled by Australia’s bowlers in the last two series, and should that happen again, England will do well to compete.  Cook bats long, and blunts opposition attacks when all is going well for him.  His technical approach is vastly improved over the recent vintage, both in terms of playing much straighter and his judgement of line.  The strength in England’s batting is in the middle order, but for that to be a strength they need a platform.  Lyth is at the start of his career, it’s asking a lot for him to provide it consistently at this stage.  So it hangs on Cook himself.  If England are consistently 30-3, then to call it an uphill task is an understatement.

Equally, there are question marks over other players.  Ballance’s sophomore difficulties need to be resolved and fast.  Ian Bell’s relative drought likewise.  There is ability throughout, but as things stand too many of them have dubious recent records.

The England bowling attack is simpler to assess.  Broad and Anderson are a fine new ball pairing in English conditions, the doubt is over whether the latter will be ground into the dirt and asked to do too much.  Broad might blow hot and cold almost as much as Johnson, but Australia does seem to bring the best out of him.  Perhaps the key might be Mark Wood, who has shown serious promise in his brief career to date.  That doesn’t mean he’s under pressure to deliver, it means that he’s a wildcard that may just come off.

Bayliss also made an interesting comment that Moeen was the number one spinner “at the moment”, and suggested that he had no problem with selecting two spinners for Cardiff. It seems unlikely, but it’ll give Adil Rashid a degree of hope he might be more than a drinks carrier in future.

One of the fascinating elements of this series will be how Steve Smith performs.  He’s had an outstanding couple of years, but his idiosyncratic technique is likely to receive greater examination with the Duke’s ball moving around.  He certainly didn’t do that well on the last tour, and while that doesn’t reflect the player he has become since, the same could be said of Joe Root.

And so it comes to the time of actually making a prediction for the series.  I don’t think it will be as one sided as some others do, but I do think Australia will have a bit too much for England to beat them.  Being optimistic, a 2-2 series result would represent serious progress for England, but the head says Australia will win 3-1.


The Ashes 2015: A review

So there we have it, the Ashes are done, the teams are exhausted and now it’s time to look back on the series.

The series got off to a bad start when the Australian team were held at border control at the Severn Bridge on the M4.  Protesting that “but we’re in England, right mate?” only seemed to make things worse, as Darren Lehmann asked the High Commissioner to issue a formal protest over the visa charge of £6.50 per head.  David Warner was seen looking baffled as explanations about the difference between England and the United Kingdom were made, and matters weren’t helped when Alex Salmond somehow got hold of Darren Lehmann’s mobile number.  Steve Smith was briefly detained due to an unfortunate mix up where they found his name on a watchlist, being released only when it became apparent he really did know nothing about rugby.

So it was a petulant team who finally arrived at the Holiday Inn, Cardiff. An annoyed Mitchell Johnson went off to check the pitch only to return after 10 minutes complaining that while very big, the ground was the wrong shape for cricket.  Given such a start to the series, the ECB felt it appropriate to mend some fences, and sent their best diplomat, Giles Clarke, around to smooth things over.  Rumours that Tony Abbott subsequently approached the USA about buying Trident can now be safely dismissed as untrue and entirely unrelated.

The morning of the first Test dawned bright and sunny, catching out Stuart Broad, who assumed the first day would be rained off and turned up late.  A capacity crowd of at least 750 were in the ground eagerly anticipating the toss.  It’s probably after this point that England fans noticed things starting to go wrong.

Certainly being 65-6 at lunch wasn’t in the plan, though journalists were quick to highlight how brilliantly Cooky batted for his 14 runs.  Indeed, Stephen Brenkley received a British Press Award for his 3,000 word treatise on how he played and missed “with aplomb”.  Straussy wrecked any chance of a Pullitzer by calling the committee “c****s” (except in the Guardian, where they printed it in full – Selvey saying it was the “moment of the series”) for their outrageous decision to exclude it from consideration on the grounds of not being American.

Joe Root was exceptionally careless to be timed out, and his protest that he was waiting for that tall South African bloke to go in at four cut little ice with the critics.  England did at least improve a little after lunch, with Jos Buttler skilfully marshalling the tail before being left high and dry on 2 not out.

As would be seen throughout the summer, England were far from out of it.  With hindsight, making Anderson bowl from both ends all day probably didn’t help his longevity in the series, but it wasn’t until Edgbaston that the umpires had to step in claiming that crawling to the crease on hands and knees was slowing the over rate down too much.

Yet with Australia teetering on 372-5, Stuart Broad spoke to the team at length during tea, berating his colleagues for failing to follow the plan.  Thereafter things went much better, as Brad Haddin was in all sorts of trouble to the short ball, finally being put out his misery for a mere 137 with 19 sixes.

With an uphill battle to save the game, Cooky strode to the middle.  A dazzling array of plays and misses and edges through the slips led to criticism that Michael Clarke had failed to learn the lessons of 2013.  Mike Gatting on Radio Five took one look at the wagon wheel of the innings and concluded it was ten past one and went for lunch, wondering why he had such a craving for marshmallow covered in chocolate.

England fought valiantly, and nearly got away with the draw.  Anderson and Wood were left with a mere 193 overs to survive and got 4 balls into that before Wood was wrongly given out lbw off his fetlock – Stuart Broad having blown the reviews claiming that his leg stump wasn’t on the ground at all.

It was a chastened team at the presentation, Trevor Bayliss being seen muttering to himself while reaching for a pack of Benson and Hedges.  Cooky spoke well about not executing their skills, learning from the game and taking the positives – particularly Stephen Brenkley, who he felt was the right kind of journalist with the right kind of newspaper.

In the Sky Sports studio, Atherton confused Shane Warne by saying that England were losing to win, although Warne’s response was sadly edited out by the ECB Media Compliance Committee producer before anyone could see it.

Media reaction was swift and merciless.  Mike Selvey wrote that the main problem was that Adil Rashid was causing discontent in the camp by scoring an unbeaten century and taking 23 wickets for Yorkshire on the same day, while Paul Newman wrote that Kevin Pietersen’s “morning, lovely day” tweet had divided the dressing room, with born and bred Lancastrian Jos Buttler taking particular exception – his reply of “It is, isn’t it” being scanned for underlying hatred.

And so the second Test approached.  With four days between matches, Andy Flower intervened, sending Jimmy Anderson on a walk from John O’Groats to Lands End as a warm up.  It certainly had an effect, and England were an entirely different side. After an unfortunate injury in the warm up, where Ian Bell was shot with a champagne cork from a local miner on his day off, England had to make a late replacement.  A mystery player known only as Kay PeesorryQueueoopsmadeamistake was firstly drafted in, before Director Comma Cricket Andrew “Straussy” Strauss leapt up from his sedan chair, saying the accent was a bit iffy.

Winning the toss, Australia were soon in trouble.  David Warner was arrested for starting a fight with some of the schoolchildren present, his defence that he thought it was Joe Root sledging him not being accepted by the local magistrate.  Anderson ripped through the top order, using the conditions to good effect as the ball rolled down the slope.  Numerous swipes in vain saw the batsmen bowled time and again, while Shane Watson was lbw.

After such a troubled and controversial start, relations between the teams improved thankfully, Ryan Harris crouching low, putting an arm around James Anderson, adjusting his oxygen tank for him and offering him full use of his knees. Alastair Cook then picked up a suspended ban for not completing the 90 overs in the day as an hour’s delay ensued with the crowd helping the two bowlers back to their feet.

With England feeling in the ascendant, they went on the attack with the bat.  Ben Stokes destroyed the Australian bowling, pinging them to all parts for 260 not out – though quite rightly the press focused on Cook’s admittedly fine 84.  Their partnership of 260 was a sight to behold. England’s dominant position was enforced as the tail wagged, and Jos Buttler reached the heights of getting to 4* before the innings closed.

Darren Lehmann, clearly unimpressed with Australia’s efforts, called for a traditional Aussie approach, and certainly Warner’s day release from custody attached to a ball and chain indicated his words had gone home.  Despite the enormous first innings deficit, they attacked.  There was a slight hiatus when Warner hit the ball attached to him into the pavilion by mistake, but since it landed in Giles Clarke’s champagne George Dobell was seen to laugh so hard he had to be taken to hospital.  In his absence, Jarrod Kimber simply added 350 to the Australian score on Cricinfo.  Peter Moores rang up the ECB Sky pointing out that the data didn’t add up, but unfortunately no-one there could remember who he was, and so Australia got away with it.  Malcolm Conn was the first to react tweeting “That’s for Bodyline, you filthy pommie bastards” before writing an article titled “No offence”.

With England set 200 to win, Cooky decided to get out his inner funk.  Graham Gooch had pointed out that he was far more vulnerable to getting out if he batted, and so taking that on board, reversed the batting order.  Channel 5’s highlights included a 24 minute section of Simon Hughes in the tactics truck moaning with pleasure at the genius of the idea.   England scraped home, mostly thanks to Anderson’s 99.  It got tense towards the end as Australia fought back, but fortunately Jos Buttler stood firm, finishing 6 not out as wickets tumbled around him.  The captain scored the winning run, and was promptly knighted by a grateful public.

With the series so finely poised, it was a great shame that the next two Tests were washed out.  No refunds were given to spectators, as it was considered that highlights of the 2005 series on the big screen were now to be assumed as being part of play.  Some complaints were made that the series as shown was incomplete, but the ECB’s PR department pointed out that the last day of the Oval Test had been sadly cancelled in 2005 and they’d not missed anything.

For the denouement there were a few debates to be had in selection.  Mitchell Johnson had made himself unavailable after Brian May had called him up for the forthcoming Queen comeback tour, but Lehmann had rubbished criticism of the timing by stating that Australia had endless stocks of interchangeable Mitches and the side wouldn’t be affected. With England wondering about their batting line up, the selectors were seen in discussions long into the night.  A conclusion was reached when Straussy Strauss was seen carrying a trowel and smiling as plaintive Afrikaans cries were heard behind a bricked up wall.   England had one other question mark over their side, as Wood unfortunately fell at the fourth fence at Haydock two days before the game, but having been given a clean bill of health by England assistant physio Jimmy Herriot he took his place in the stalls for the start.

Alastair Cook scored a fine hundred, causing Aggers to squeak for an hour on air, so overcome was he.  Pope Francis resigned, David Cameron announced to a hushed Parliament that he was giving way to a much better man, with a much better family, and the US Congress passed what became known at the Cooky-wooky Act allowing foreign born Gods people to stand for the Presidency.  Perhaps the greatest tribute of all came from Geoffrey Boycott who stated to a shocked nation that he was nearly as good as his granny.

England were certainly confident having scored over 400 (Jos Buttler 8*) but Australia weren’t out of it by any means.  Chris Rodgers had escaped from the McCarthy and Stone sheltered accommodation where he was staying, and set about clearing the deficit.  There was one flare up when he accidentally trod on the umpires toes going for a second run, and Stuart Broad squared up to him asking if he was having a go at him.  Rodgers quietly pointed out that it wasn’t the square leg umpire and calm descended, but it was an awkward moment.

A mid innings collapse (Shane Watson, lbw 0) left Australia with a small deficit, and England were back in to bat.  A hush descended on the ground, punctuated only by the occasional South African accented “let me out” heard in the direction of the OCS Stand.  Cooky-wooky-woo-wah headed out to the middle and as one, they all rose and sang the oratorio from Handel’s Messiah – fortunately the ECB had been prepared and issued all spectators with lyric sheets as part of the Conditions of Ground Admittance.

Ben Stokes was the star of the innings, having sneaked out to bat when no one was looking.  Paul Downton – special guest of the ECB – was overheard to say that this bloke looked rather good, and why hadn’t he been around when he was MD?  Giles Clarke was equally confused, having seen no reference of Cockermouth in the Independent Schools List.  Joe Root gave valuable support, making Boycott declare unilateral independence for Yorkshire during the tea break, while Jos Buttler’s quickfire 9 not out added to the swelling total.

With Australia set 300 to win, the game and the series was in the balance.  All was going well for the visitors, with England’s bowlers unable to take a single wicket.  Fortunately for them, Shane Watson ran out 6 batting partners and burst into tears in the middle.  With the tension building, Australia 9 down and with victory only a hit away, there came that moment.  And we all know what happened then.



Well, hello all.

Can’t stop long. Work been really hectic, taking me on a day trip to Monaco on Monday (seriously not as glamorous as it sounds) and then picking the beloved up from the airport on Tuesday. Work is a serious problem at the moment as a year long project comes to fruition and is on a knife edge, and sleep is deprived. Add to that, an important interview early next week which I seriously need to prep for, and cricket is a bit of a way down my list of priorities. A really massive thank you to thelegglance for all his work this week. Without it, the blog would have not given the last test the attention it deserved.

I’m not in the habit of saying “I told you so” but I did tell them so, and so did many here. In the headlong pursuit of shutting down the debate, and in so doing rubbing those who dare to criticise noses in it, the acclaim for the first test victory was ridiculous. Look, it’s not as if we’ve got an event long before to instruct us is it? After Grenada, won on the back of a ridiculous individual performance by Jimmy Anderson, England flopped, when in a decent position, at Barbados. Here again, a wonderful England win, fuelled by great individual feats by Ben Stokes, and a top hundred by Captain Invincible, was followed up by England getting in a good position with a great opening stand, and pissing it up the wall. Yes, New Zealand bowled well to restrict us, and batted even better, with little or no fear. But England need to press those positions home.

There’s a crowd out there that say “well played New Zealand” and they are bang on. But that doesn’t absolve England from blame. Come off it. We were 170 for no loss and couldn’t get past their 350. We bowled like clowns in that second innings. You have to hope, too, that fourth innings efforts could be a bit better than falling to Williamson and Craig. I didn’t see the 4th day’s play at all (and not yet watched the highlights) but you didn’t need to be buried in an office in Monaco to know that it was awful.

I’ll do a more full review, maybe, if I get fed up working out a marketing strategy or deciding whether I’m competent enough, over the weekend. Can’t imagine I’ll be doing that 24/7.

I read that KP is now going to play in the Caribbean T20 and leave Surrey. I’m just about had it with a country who decided to chuck that talent away while watching what has happened in a number of our last test matches and thinks it is OK. I would not blame him if he turned his back on England and I won’t forgive the powers that be that decided this was the thing to do. I’m really sorry if this offends anyone who just backs those in the shirts. I’m glad that’s fine with you. You are a better person than me. Andrew Strauss could pull a rabbit out of a hat but that decision, based on that premise, and supposedly with the backing/ultimatum of an entitled skipper who should be thankful he’s still in the team after 2014, will define him in my eyes. Even if we won the Ashes, the World Cup, the World T20 and managed to avoid defeat this winter.

Enough of this wibbling. I am fully aware I am now four centuries behind on the Century Watch – Stokes, Lyth, Watling and tonight’s by Adam Voges. I’ll do what I can, when I can.

Good night.

England v New Zealand: 1st Test preview

And so after all the talking, double dealing and flat out fibbing, we come to the first Test of the summer and the beginning of the international season.

When the schedule was put together some years ago, New Zealand must have seemed the ideal opponents to provide a warm up for the main event of the summer.  A side with a bit of talent, but no real challenge to England, allowing players to ease back into Test cricket, find a bit of form and then move on to a real challenge.  It hasn’t worked out that way.

New Zealand are riding a crest of a wave.  A little over two years ago they appeared in meltdown, a new coach had come in – one without any kind of cricketing background in terms of playing incidentally – sacked the captain and the ructions in New Zealand cricket were deep and ongoing.  The best batsman was sufficiently hurt and humiliated as to drop out of the side, and the criticism was long and extensive, while the team were humiliated in South Africa.  Yet there was talent in the side, and the installation of Brendon McCullum as captain, however clumsily done, did seem at least to show some indications of forward thinking.  Ross Taylor returned, with all sides admitting that a lot of work needed to be done to heal the wounds.  That this was largely achieved is a credit to everyone involved, and the irony of the difference in terms of how New Zealand have addressed such matters and certain other sides.  New Zealand Cricket even had the gall to er, well admit they hadn’t handled things well.

Since the low point of being 45 all out, the team has gone from strength to strength. They had much the better of a 0-0 draw against an England team showing the first signs of the terrified negativity that’s become all too familiar, and although they were comfortably beaten in the return fixture in 2013, that was the last series in which they’ve been defeated.  A home win against India was impressive given where they’d come from, while an away win in the West Indies was their first overseas series victory against a top eight side in over a decade.

Perhaps most impressive of all was drawing with Pakistan in the UAE, by no stretch of the imagination an easy place to get a result.  Reaching the World Cup final in the 50 over format showcased an attacking, vibrant team unafraid to take risks.  They take it into the Test arena too – McCullum might set the tone with his batting, but he is hardly alone.

Not all of the Black Caps batting order is in prime form, and the late arrival of some of the team from the IPL is less than ideal, but they do bat deep and they are dangerous.  Martin Guptill for one  has a modest Test record, but is pushing hard for inclusion on the back of good form in England this year.  Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor are quality players, while Hamish Rutherford has flattered to deceive in his career to date, yet is clearly talented.  Yet perhaps the key player may turn out to be the combative wicketkeeper BJ Watling, the antithesis of the flaky player.

It is the bowling where England will be in real danger.  Test series in May often prove far too much for visiting sides to handle – precisely why the defeat to Sri Lanka last year was so abject, no matter how some try to pretend it never happened – yet in Trent Boult and Tim Southee the suspicion is that New Zealand have a significant advantage in the new ball stakes.

England have a fairly settled side, which is somewhat surprising given the shenanigans of the last month.  Lyth will almost certainly make his debut at the top of the order, and given that the pitch appears the day before to be exceptionally green, it will be challenging conditions in which to make a debut.  Despite claims that Cook is somehow in exceptional form on the basis of a century against modest opposition who were also missing their spearhead, the combination of a potent opening attack, cloudy overhead conditions and a damp track will ensure that he is under pressure from the off – not even taking into account his reported actions concerning the composition of the side.

The middle order is one area of solidity in the England team.  Ballance, Root and Bell really ought to be a good combination.  Bell himself has struggled somewhat since his aestas mirabilis in 2013, despite not looking out of touch.  He needs runs.

The bowling looks to be extremely reliant on Anderson.  Conditions should suit him down to the ground; the fear in his case is of being overbowled or getting injured.  Without Anderson, England really would be in the mire.  Broad did look to be returning to some kind of form in the Caribbean – with the ball anyway – and perhaps what he needs more than anything else is overs under his belt.  Even so, his pace was patchy at best, and surely he won’t be looking to bang the ball in to the deck in such conditions.

The support seamers are a problem.  Although it is a Good Thing to be patient with young players, neither Stokes nor Jordan looked especially penetrative in the West Indies, and it may be that Mark Wood gets the nod.  England are casting about for a magic bullet here, and Wood is the latest to solve all difficulties no doubt.  But if he is selected, then it should be for both Tests and the first couple against Australia.  Like with Lyth, he’s been given something of a hospital pass by being overlooked for any of the Tests last month, and now will have to come in against markedly stronger opposition.

The question of the coach rumbles on, with mixed opinions on whether Gillespie was showing interest in the England job, or indicating that he would politely turn them down.  Strauss has let it be known that there is no rush to find a coach, even if it involves going into the Ashes without one.  In a sense this is reasonable, taking time to find the right one is a good thing.  Yet if there was no rush, why summarily sack Peter Moores with no replacement lined up?  It’s more muddled thinking and behaviour.

This is a defining summer for Alastair Cook.  Appointing Joe Root to the vice captaincy has signalled that failure this summer will be the end of him as captain.  By affirming his position England have effectively served notice on it.  Winning is the only way he can survive, and scoring runs is an imperative.  It’s the end game, and now it’s up to him.


21 Days

Secret Photo From The Kremlin
Secret Photo From The Kremlin

I feel a a bit melancholy, to be honest. I’ve been out of the UK for the best part of three weeks and will be returning in the morning, weather permitting. I’ve had such a great time out here doing very little that the thought of returning to the office on Thursday fills me with dread.

It also got me thinking. There’s been a hell of a lot going on in those three weeks, those 21 days, and we’ve come a long long way in that time. I thought I’d jot down a few points to tide you over until the next piece (hope Vian can put one up in the next day or so) but also see where we were, and where we now are.

1. Grenada (Act Like You’ve Been There Before) – I left just after victory was secured and the growing clamour was that England had turned the corner and were continuing their form from the India series having got that “awkward first away test of the series” out of the way. Those who sought to belittle us doom-mongers were in full cry, and the reaction was less than pleasant. We had all that “real England fans” codswallop that cheeses me off. I don’t doubt their desire to see England do well and succeed in the long run, so don’t doubt mine. Also, it has to be said, the media went totally overboard, as if this was one of the great England test wins of recent memory. It reeked of what it was, a good win against a team that got into a slide they couldn’t arrest, and in Anderson, they came up against a bowler in a purple patch. Relying on miracles isn’t a long-term route to success.

Hate Weekly

2. KP (170) – Pietersen had made a flying start against the Universities, but had not set the County Championship ablaze with one half century in four knocks (albeit with two not outs). The anti-KP were as comfortable as they could be, as this was not the form of someone pressing for selection.

Cooky Macho Captain

3. At last, a century for Cook – A couple of days into my holiday, and outside a massive department store in Mays Landing, NJ, I got the signal that told me that Cook had ended his long wait for a test century. This was his first century in England’s first innings, when the big boy runs are supposedly made, since Kolkata in 2012. His first international ton since a century to set up a run chase against New Zealand at Headingley 23 months ago. Just as Grenada proved England were back, this century, on the back of several more solid knocks, provided those who had waited with the ammunition to fire at those who had been right the last year. Cook was back, and no-one seemed to mind he was out to the last ball of the first day’s play because England looked like they had scored enough on a tricky wicket.

4. Mediocre – Then the West Indies scrambled back, with Blackwood keeping them in range of England’s first innings. I couldn’t watch it so lord knows what the captaincy was like. Then England, on that second evening, collapsed. In a heap. They tell me this middle order is set in stone, and yes, collapses do happen, but that’s a few times now against some of the less threatening attacks in world cricket. Buttler tried to get the score up, but the tail was abject, with Broad’s decline now reaching the almost “feel very sorry for him” stage. Still, it was just under 200 to win, but the WIndies did it. Suddenly a mediocre team had just had a rocket put up their arse (presumably said rocket doesn’t go off in Anitgua or Grenada) and a tag used by the Chairman Elect to describe the WIndies was now the greatest motivational thing ever, in the history of the world. A pity the press weren’t so hot on “outside cricket” eh?

Dinosaurus Vexed

5. Losing Minds – Suddenly, a week after Grenada, it appeared as though the appeals for calm and rational assessment after Grenada went as unheeded after Barbados. People started to just go bonkers. Suddenly a team every press member thought we should beat easily had been galvanised by Colin Graves. This despite the fact that the Australian media and punditry and players give England enough bulletin board material to last decades and it doesn’t seem to matter then. Geoff Boycott lost it with Alastair Cook, and the divine Cooky had a gentle pop at Yorkshireman in an interview – the sort of thing that is called ill-judged, or fanning the flames if someone else does it – and Boycs went nuclear. Aggers and many others in the press were going overboard on “mediocre” and meanwhile in an incredibly dignified and thoroughly professional manner, a man who has had his mental health picked apart for nigh on 18 months retired in a classy, decent way. Oh, and then there was Selfey and Smiffy, waging campaigns against bilious inadequates and social media minorities. But compared to what was coming, this was child’s play.

Ed Smith Is Really Clever

6. The Curious Case Of The Non-Leak – Peter Moores went to Ireland with a scratch England ODI team, and by the end of the day had been humiliated. This is the ECB. I don’t care how the story got out, someone at the ECB told someone, who told someone, who told someone else. It’s a leak, no matter how you deny it. A leak doesn’t have to come from the ECB directly, but as this was their information, their decision, that it got out in advance of when they wanted it to is their fault. In doing so they humiliated Peter Moores. It was wrong. Horrendously wrong. I was no fan of his appointment, and in test cricket it has to be said, he assimilated Ballance into the team, got Root in a place where he has made hay, brought in Buttler, and tried to get Jordan and Stokes firing. He’d not done an awful job with the test team, but was beyond awful in ODI cricket. Despite the massive workload required of a full-time, across-all-formats coach, Strauss (more of him in a minute) wants one man for the job. Remember when it was KP “alone” who wanted shot of Moores and no-one stood behind him. By his actions, one might judge  the craven “leadership” of Strauss back in 2009. Hey, let’s go out there and say Strauss could possibly, even then said “you go ahead KP, I’ll be captain if you fail” to himself. His attitude to Moores was evident in the rapidity of his dismissal. Also, did he leak? So poor Peter Moores had people feeling sorry for him.

Moores Not Wanted

7. The Appointment of King, Andrew – After an exhaustive head hunt, which seemed to be of one person after Vaughan said this wasn’t the job he was looking for, the decision to appoint Andrew Strauss as Director, England Cricket was a poorly kept (leaked) secret. He pulled out of commentary for the Moores Debacle game, leaving Nick Knight to spill the beans, and was confirmed as the man for the job in one of those hastily compiled, corporate speak load of old crap we’ve got used to in the past few years. You didn’t need to be Einstein to work out this was bad news for KP. A lot of white noise was created over his educational background and potential political leanings, but you only had to watch how his successful teams won matches. Graft not glamour with individuality contained within a strict structure. With a strong captain this works, to a degree, but only for so long. With one perceived weak captain this is a recipe for disaster. Oh, and he called KP a c*** and had a big feud he would never have picked him for after if he had stayed on. So we knew what was coming. Even if some said that Strauss might surprise us.

You're our only (choice) hope...
You’re our only (choice) hope…

8. It’s All About Timing – The Sunday night saw KP in the 30s not out v Leicestershire, who on a pitch that was supposed to resemble a road, had been bowled out in a day upon. 24 hours later, and much glee up and down the Garden State Parkway, and in Atlantic City, KP finished the day 326 not out. Then we found out there was a meeting due that evening with Andrew Strauss and Tom Harrison, ahead of the formal launch of Strauss as Director, England Cricket the following day. Within minutes of that meeting the information leaked, and TMS was saying KP had been told it was all over. Frankly, you know the rest. We’ve done it to death. It’s all about trust. Andrew Strauss cannot trust KP. The ECB cannot trust KP. Senior players, supposedly, cannot trust ECB. Oh, and KP’s lack of trust with the ECB is a sideshow. An organisation that constantly leaked against him, most notably the heinous leaks of 2009, is not relevant. Only KP has to build the trust, no-one else, despite it being no-one to blame. It’s all a load of old nonsense.

KP In Flames

9. 355 – The fact is that there are few who could have played that innings, despite some absolute fucking morons trying to – and yes Dominic Cork, you are an absolute fucking moron who should be slung off cricket punditry if that’s the wretched sort of analysis you are coming up with, you absolute cretin – and although he fell two short of Surrey’s all-time record, the statement made Strauss look rather stupid. We’ve debated it for days, and will do for days more. But, in the words of Hal Holbrook in All The President’s Men, Deep Throat could have been talking about KP, rather than Haldeman:

“you’ve got people feeling sorry for him. I didn’t think that was possible.”

Because this was all about a clean slate, giving up the IPL, and making a fist of county cricket. He’d been lied to. People like KP don’t give up £250k on a whim. If he did, it’s rather noble, don’t you think? It sort of smashes the selfish, money-grabbing tosser meme apart? The anti-KP media, while trying (and failing in the main) to be ever so fair, all fell in line. A non-playing suit with an ill-defined role will always be more important than a man capable of what KP did. Because, in the history of county cricket, only five people, is it, have scored more?

A Matter of Integrity
A Matter of Integrity

10. The Graves Delusion – The press statement issued on Friday was eerily similar to some that had gone before. We had questioned his integrity, and that no guarantees had been offered. We hadn’t really questioned the first, and no-one I know thought the second. The statement showed that in the 15 months since Paul Downton released the infamous “outside cricket” press release, one which raised barely a murmur among our stalwarts in the press at the time (some have woken up, most notably the Editor of Wisden), the ECB have learned nothing. They remain distant, aloof, dismissive, arrogant and supercilious in the extreme. Graves has become the media lightning rod now, and each press man is taking it in turns to line him up now Clarke is out of the way – how tremendously brave of you – either for betraying KP (which he was only a part of) or for opening the whole thing up again “needlessly” which he did, and for which many applauded him for reverting the policy, we thought, to picking on merit.

So, not a lot, eh? I’ll be back on line possibly tomorrow, although I’ll be getting over whatever jet lag I get, or Friday. We’ll have the usual posts up for comments on the game on Thursday, and until then, I’d like to thank all of you for saving me a ton of money by giving me much to read and not going out as often to drink such rot as Miller Lite. It has been a tumultuous 21 days.

Pipe Down Week

Closing Ranks

It’s been quite striking the last couple of days how those who adore the establishment that is the ECB have adopted a “move on, nothing to see here” approach.  As usual, they do not answer the questions or objections that have been levelled by the hoi polloi, but instead repeat the same old lines about it being about the future, and that for undisclosed reasons, this is the right decision, and indeed the only decision.

Strauss should be trusted to do the right thing, Colin Graves is an honourable man and certainly didn’t intend to mislead, and we all know what Kevin Pietersen was guilty of (I can’t tell you though) and therefore deserves everything he got.

It’s nonsense though.

Colin Graves’ self-serving statement did nothing but use the lawyer technique of picking something no-one had accused him of, and denying it strongly.  No one ever claimed Pietersen had been guaranteed a place.  No one.  Not Pietersen himself, nor anyone else.  Claiming that private conversations had been talked about in the press deliberately ignored his own public statements which no matter how the apologists try and squirm, were absolutely clear and repeated on more than one occasion.  It was in any case more than slightly hypocritical given the BBC announced the outcome of the Pietersen/Strauss/Harrison meeting within minutes of it being over.  Since then we’ve had reports that Pietersen went out “in a blaze of glory” shouting expletives at the other two.  Since there were only three of them present, that means that if true, the information has come from either Strauss or Harrison – probably via a third party who likes to pass this on.  It’s a matter of trust you see.

Ian Bell’s press conference statements appear to have been largely glossed over.  But they are important because of who it was saying it, and what he said.  One of the constant refrains in the whole affair has been about what the players think about it all.  But the players won’t think about it overly because they will be thinking about themselves.  For the batsmen, no Pietersen means that they are just a little bit more secure in their position.  All players will first and foremost be interested in themselves and their own careers.  Bell was telling the absolute truth when he said they didn’t think about it much when they were in the West Indies and nor should they either.  Very few people in any walk of life are prepared to put their heads above the parapet for another, they prefer to keep their heads down, focus on themselves and hope it doesn’t happen to them.  That’s why the ECB got away with it initially – not because of some overwhelming support in the dressing room, which seems to amount to two or three players, but because the others would not stand up and object when it risked their own position and own careers.  It’s not malicious, it’s simply human nature.

Yet what Bell said contradicted so much of the ECB line.  He didn’t come out firing, he quietly and firmly had his say and deserves credit for doing so.  Much was made of his backing for Strauss in his new role, but again this should come as a surprise to no-one.  Players will accept the hierarchy in which they work because they can’t individually change it, and the public comments will always be in favour, no matter what their private feelings.  Yet there’s no reason to doubt that Bell absolutely meant it, because the players – especially the senior ones – will want stability.  The problem is that the behaviour of the ECB does just the opposite, and that has been the criticism all along.  Ignoring the rest of what Bell said, which runs so counter to the official line, simply reinforces the dim view taken of the way the ECB conduct themselves.

As much as the press obsess over Pietersen, they continue to miss the point about the whole matter and simply store up the resentment and indeed the story for later.  The termination of Pietersen’s chances does not provide closure on the whole affair; it might do to an extent were England to carry all before them this summer, because as much as it might fester amongst the supporters, it gives the press something different to write about, and the lack of trust amongst the supporters that has been so vocally put forward would reduced to a rumble.  That’s still damaging, especially when they don’t buy tickets, but it wouldn’t be front and centre in the media.  That is unlikely and there is the distinct possibility the summer could be a complete cricketing calamity.  If that were to transpire, every single one of these issues is going to be highly visible once again.  The fundamental point the ECB cannot address, no matter how much they try and obfuscate, is that their new policy is not one of selecting the best players on cricketing merit.  And that means should England lose Tests, the same questions will be put to them, as to whether England would be a better team if Pietersen were in it.  They’ve managed to turn the whole issue of a single player into a fundamental question of how they operate, in which Pietersen is simply the catalyst for questioning that approach.  At some point a player will step out of line.  They don’t dare drop him without inviting the same opprobrium.

The same applies to the question of who they will appoint as coach.  There have been enough indications that at best Gillespie is uncertain whether he would want to take a role where the Director, Cricket (that writing that title is in itself an instance of sarcasm demonstrates their problem) has already decided who can’t be picked and who is captain with no input or apparent authority from that coach means that there is the distinct possibility that the most able candidates will rule themselves out.  And if that happens, and we are left with another Peter Moores – presumably whoever gets it is at most the second best coach of his generation – then they have indeed sacrificed the England cricket team’s ability to succeed on the altar of their dislike of Pietersen.  This is a critical point, which has not been directly addressed in the discussion around the whole debacle.  If the unqualified removal of Pietersen from consideration results directly in being unable to engage a coach of the highest quality, that is not acting in the interests of the England team, and undermines the repeated claims to be acting in the medium to long term.

With the gift for timing that we have come to expect from the ECB, Tom Harrison chose this week of all weeks to effectively kill off the prospects of cricket appearing on free to air television:

“Sky have been a great partner for English cricket, going forward, we need to be very careful about the way in which this argument is understood. Is there a role for terrestrial television post the current deal with Sky. Terrestrial is becoming, frankly, less relevant every single year in the context of how people consume media. I don’t think we solve all our participation concerns by terrestrial television.”

Again, it’s using an argument advanced by absolutely no-one to defend the actions of the ECB.  No one has ever claimed putting cricket on free to air solves all problems, but it doesn’t mean for a second that at least some on there wouldn’t help.  All comparable sports make the effort to put some of their output on terrestrial TV, even those who took the Sky shilling long ago like rugby league.  Most sports try to ensure there is a balance – the money from Sky is undoubtedly important, but so is exposure on as wide a platform as possible.

Everyone is aware that consumption of audio visual output has changed and will continue to change over the years ahead, but failing to take into account how people discover the game is potentially crippling.  Cricket tragics will tend to eventually pay up if they can so they can watch.  The casual viewer will not, unless they are already interested in other sports and the bundling of content gives them cricket they would not specifically pay for.  Yet the ECB consistently tries to ignore the wider issue in favour of re-writing history.  Colin Graves – a man of integrity so he claims vociferously said:

“It would be nice to have some cricket on terrestrial television but the problem we have got is terrestrial television does not want cricket.  It certainly does not want Test cricket. We have to get best of all worlds, but if terrestrial broadcasters don’t want cricket, then what can you do?”

This misses the point and is completely disingenous.  It is hardly surprising terrestrial broadcasters are uninterested when it is abundantly clear that they have no prospect whatever of winning a contract to show it.  Why should they invest time and effort in thinking about where they could fit it into their schedules when they know perfectly well they have no chance and that the ECB will go with the highest bidder – which will be Sky unless BT Sport decide to jump in.  If the ECB were to state that they wanted Test cricket on terrestrial television and then no broadcaster showed an interest, then they could claim that.  Unless that happens it’s simply more mendacity from an organisation that seems to find telling the truth challenging in all circumstances.

The argument has been made that young people consume their media in  other ways than television these days.  That is true, but whether via X-Box, Playstation, iPad (other tablets are available – they really are) or anything else comparable, you still need that Sky subscription to watch it.  Unless you access illegal streams.  One would presume the ECB are not advocating that approach.

In any case, it pre-supposes an existing interest.  This does not happen by default, in order to develop an interest in a sport initially there must be some kind of exposure to it.  That may be from a parent, in which case all is well because that parent may imbue the child with the enthusiasm for the sport, but what if the parent hasn’t the finance or the interest in cricket in the first place?  The child will never casually come across cricket if the household does not have Sky Sports, and the idea that media output from the ECB will compensate for that is nonsensical – only those with an established interest will seek it out.

Cricket has become a niche sport, and the focus of the ECB’s response to criticism has been in terms of the England team.  But that is not their whole role in cricket, they are responsible for it at all levels.  The loss of cricket in schools has to some extent been offset by the clubs who have made astonishing efforts to drive interest; indeed the clubs have been instrumental in taking cricket into schools themselves.  As much as the ECB like to congratulate themselves for that, much of the funding comes from Sport England, who have expressed serious concerns about the decline in participation and warned their funding cannot be taken for granted, and most of the effort comes from people down at club and village level, who despair of where the next generation of cricketers will come from unless they do it themselves.

Cricket Australia have taken a fundamentally different approach.  The media position there is not radically different to the UK – and the point about youth televisual consumption is identical to here.  CA insist on cricket being free to air, and even take out advertisments promoting the game on Australian television.  By the ECB insisting their approach is the only one for the UK, they are directly saying that the Australian one is not the way.  There might be differences in the structure of TV between the two countries, but they are not so vast a comparison cannot be made.

Whether it be on the continuing fall out from the Pietersen omnishambles, the question of the coach, the matter of Alastair Cook being affirmed as England captain, or the subject of cricket on television, it is possible the ECB are right, and others wrong.  And in the last case, I would dearly like to be wrong.

Trouble is, I fear I’m not wrong at all.

UPDATE: Since this post was originally put up, the press have released articles concerning what Stuart Broad said about Pietersen.  Essentially it amounts to saying he’d have no objection to Pietersen playing, that the differences between them have been exaggerated, and perhaps most tellingly that he’s not spoken to anyone above him in the ECB about it.  Can anyone find anyone else in the England team apart from Cook who has a problem with him?  Because it seems to be narrowing the field by the day.


Trust – 2

First of all, I have some bad news.

It is time to have an honest conversation about thelegglance. After Wednesday morning, with his blogging equivalent of a 355 not out under his belt with his post A Matter of Life And Trust, it was decided, unanimously, by the blog board, that he would no longer be retained by Being Outside Cricket. I cannot trust him not to overshadow me again, and he’s also upset my support staff, Armand the Rubber Duck, and my border collie (although I’ve not asked him yet, being in a different country and all that) and have decided that in the short term, Being Outside Cricket will move forward with a fresh and exciting skipper at the helm (me). HE IS NOT BANNED. DEFINITELY NOT. We’ll see, if he agrees to be utter crap in future, whether we can get that trust back. Until then, he can get on a plane to Dubai and write for The Full Toss for all I care. I just want the best for Being Outside Cricket, as long as they aren’t more talented than me.

Seriously, my thanks to Vian for the post. It meant I didn’t have to write much the same thing, but in a much less focused manner, and it was one of the best posts I’ve read anywhere. I’m biased, but as he knows, when we had that legendary Krusovice evening that I’d wanted him to come on board, and knew what an asset he’d be. He just better not do it too often!!!!

I thought I’d do a little bit on some of the side issues. I listened to the two podcasts on Tuesday night. The Switch Hit was interesting principally for David Hopps nailing the Alastair Cook issue. I hear many times that “no-one dislikes Cook” when there is a growing element that do. Hatred is too strong a word for me. When he said that the continued, repeated backing made Cook sound entitled, you could have heard the cheer from my mother-in-law’s kitchen. He got it. He actually got it. The rest of the podcast was a bit nondescript to me, missing a Butcher or a Dobell, and Jarrod went a bit OTT. But it got a damn sight nearer to the points we are making than most.

Then came the TMS podcast, weighing in at a brutal one hour and 45 minutes. At the end of it I felt thoroughly crushed. What the hell has happened to Phil Tufnell? He’s about as rebellious as Marks & Spencer. Is it too simple to ascribe his views to becoming a paid-up member of the Middlesex Mafia? “When I did wrong, at least I said sorry” he said. Phil Tufnell was a rebel who on his day, and I was there for one of them, was a brilliant bowler. He was a maverick. He didn’t seem to do well with authority. What possesses him to side against someone you would think was in his sort of field? I was surprised how willing he was to side with the authorities.

Jonathan Agnew was blaming it all on Graves. At the time Colin Graves reached out to KP, England were performing appallingly in the World Cup. Downton was a dead man walking. There, presumably, was no fixed thoughts on the way forward and who would be the new personnel. Moores was also probably a dead man walking, because I’m not 100% convinced this was a Strauss decision in its entirety, much as the KP one wasn’t either, in my view. He may have been too hasty, but lord, he thought he was dealing with adults, not children. Now he’s in a hell of a spot, probably, again as a mere “guess” because I don’t believe Giles Clarke is going to be a silent partner, but a very influential back seat driver (I must find where he was referenced in the decision making process) who has made sure, before he left that KP wasn’t getting back. (It wasn’t the book, I think, on that, but when KP listed who needed to go before he got back – Downton, Moores and Clarke). Agnew did admit that KP is entitled to feel let down, but that it was Graves’s promise, not Strauss’ nonsense that was the problem.

The other point that Jonathan made was one that’s really itching at me. He said that he speaks to other players in the team who feel that the support isn’t there for them from the fans. Instead of really focusing why, Jonathan seemed to be exhorting us to get behind the lads. I’ve heard the same from George Dobell, put in a slightly different way. The fact is that this is down, fairly and squarely to the ECB. I understand those people I see on Twitter who say the team matters more than any individual, and certainly more than any organisation. I understand, but I do not agree. I’m at an age where I’ve been taken the mickey out of enough by authorities to know they don’t care about me. If I disagree with them, I will tell them, and I will fight and get angry if needs be. The ECB couldn’t give a stuff whether I support them or not. They’ve shown that by their attitude to those of us “outside cricket”. Those who don’t care about that, fair enough. I think you are wrong not to.

The ECB sacked one of their best players in February 2014. They did not tell us why. They clearly believed over a short period of time we’d die down. They were wrong. They thought that a decent test series win against India would calm it down. They were wrong. They thought that the silent treatment of the book would mean the England community would turn against KP, but they were wrong. They thought that he might be permanently finished as a player on the basis of a poor T20 Blast season and a disappointing IPL. They were wrong. They have one hope left. That time will calm us down. 16 months on, and with the events of Tuesday, there’s absolutely no sign of that.

The Cook issue is for another post, but Jonathan ought to realise how much many of the angry brigade don’t like the way he’s been reinforced at every turn, and now, it seems, having a veto on selection. It’s hard to pull for a team, even with really exciting players like Buttler and Root, and really promising talent like Ballance, Stokes, Jordan and Moeen, when their positive results keep Cook in his position. I can’t betray my feelings, Jonathan. I really can’t.