Guest Post – Club Cricket – A Player Writes

My thanks to RPoultz of this parish who has ventured forth and offered his take on the recent Gurney/Hussain/Vaughan et al’s views on how club cricket should be played. Ross has laid out his views on the practical difficulties and re-emphasised a lot of the points Chris and I have made. He’s also brought in other angles which I, in particular, hadn’t considered. It’s a guest post, people, so keep that in mind when replying, but as always, I love reading other takes and this gives us some real food for thought. Maybe Harry will scan it and think a bit more. I doubt it, but you can but hope….

PLAYING MY PART…

This is my first post that I have written so please be gentle in the comments. However, I wanted to write this as, like many, I have been very taken aback by the recent tweets/comments of Gurney and Hussain about club cricket. I think we all know and understand that cricket is contracting due to lots of reasons which have been far better explained on the site than I can manage. The issues of free to air (cricket visibility), youth participation and retention of existing players is one that has no silver bullet. Is T20 the answer to this thought?

Firstly, I can understand the meaning behind the tweets as it is something that we have certainly discussed on those long walks round the boundary in that would a portion of the Saturday League games devoted to T20 be a viable option? I think this idea was talked about due to our side playing Premier Division cricket so half of our games start at 11 in the morning and usually finish between 7-8pm. Taking into account the game time, travel time and preparation for the game you can be out of your house from 9am to 9pm at night, if everything goes to plan. Looking at the appeal of a shortened day and more time with family etc is an appealing notion. When it was discussed though it was clear it is certainly not something that fits in with why the people, at least in the side I play, give up their Saturdays to play cricket. If this were T20 cricket, as you may imagine the bowlers were not thrilled about the possibility of a maximum of 4 overs per game and our numbers 5/6/7 batsmen looking forward to maybe up to 10 balls per game. At worst an opening bowler who bats 10/11 could bowl maybe one over, get hit for 15 runs and then not get another go. Then at the end of it you ask them for their £12 for the day and you can see how this might rankle slightly.

This sort of leads nicely into what was my immediate thought when Gurney suggested that all club cricket should be T20/The Hundred, which was who pays for it? I think this is one of the most overlooked issues with the whole idea of just playing T20 cricket. A vast majority of cricket clubs either play cricket on Council parks/pitches, and pay a fee per season to them for pitches and the preparation of them, or be fortunate enough to own their own ground but pay a groundsman to prepare and maintain their pitches and grounds. The money to pay for the grounds are accumulated through membership and match fees. So as an idea an average membership at a club could be around £100 and a match fee anywhere between £10 and £15. How could this possibly stay the same if all cricket were T20?

At cricket clubs in my area T20 games that are played at the moment range from being free to £5. If you take into account the reduced amount of cricket then both membership fees and match fees will have to come down. A player who either bats low down or bowls 1-2 overs per game probably won’t feel they are getting value for money for £15 a game. So inevitably this is going to leave a very large shortfall in finances at many, many cricket clubs. With a shortfall in finances how are clubs going to keep paying local councils/groundsmen to prepare the pitches? I honestly believe this is a much overlooked part of club cricket whenever the debate about changing to all T20 comes up. Simply without sufficient revenue clubs will not survive.

Of course there is a Vaughan route of organising BBQ’s, bouncy castles etc and making a day of it. As ever with his statements it doesn’t hold up to any sort of scrutiny. This is for any number of reasons such as who is organising these days – do clubs have an endless supply of volunteers to do this? Or that the novelty of having BBQ’s etc all the time will quickly wear off and then what? What do you do next to make the day an event? What about the weather as well? Is every week going to be 30 degrees and bathed in sunshine so all clubs can execute the Michael Vaughan endorsed cricket fetes at each ground in the country?? Very doubtful.

The weather does provide a link to my next point in that everyone says that making all cricket T20 will make the days shorter and everyone will be able to spend more time with their family, or being to go out earlier etc. Say for instance you start all T20 games at 2pm on Saturday. A good number of players will want to get there early to warm up and prepare. I don’t just see this at first team level either and have seen plenty of players do this at a 3rd/4th team level too. Plus many home sides have to put boundary ropes, markers etc. So taking this time into account you might look to get to the ground if at home around 12.30pm. Now, I have a wife and three kids and realistically there is only so much we can do in around 2 hours together in the morning. While this of course is 2 hours I wouldn’t get if we played a standard 50/50 game it still isn’t great deal of time to fit anything into. Going on previous experience of playing T20 cricket a game can last between 2 and half and 3 ours. So we are looking at finishing at 5 o’clock. I won’t lie and say that isn’t appealing because it is but then factor in getting in boundary ropes, markers and showering/changing you might be out the changing room between 6pm and 6.30pm. Again, in relation to my own circumstances, this doesn’t realistically give me a great deal of time to do anything with my family before my children’s bed times.

I guess what I am getting at is a driver behind Gurney’s tweets is that players will have more time with their families which in essence will be correct. However, having three kids you really want to spend a whole day having quality time with them rather than cramming things in either side of T20 game. The game almost gets in the way of a whole day with my family and if others feel like that then I am sure that will lead them to wonder if playing is really worthwhile? I know some of you might say well that time is better than what you will get leaving early in the morning and getting back later than 9pm. I feel like this misses the whole point and is what I disagree with about the argument it will give people more time with their families. Time isn’t the issue its quality time that matters and an extra hour here and there isn’t something to hang your hat on.

The above though is only when things run smoothly and perfectly on a hot summers day. What about rain? That obviously is going to be a factor in a lot of games during the season such as it is now. Are players looking forward to hanging around for hours waiting for the chance for a 5 over smash at 6/7 o’clock in the evening?? Lost balls will happen at plenty of grounds I am sure and how long will they take to replace?? A major driving force behind this T20 and that more people will play/stay in the game is that they won’t have to play much cricket, and will have more time to do whatever they want to on Saturdays. When you commit to playing cricket you understand the sacrifice in time it will mean and to the time spent with your family on a Saturday. If you really look at the time gained it is not a massive amount. I hope that people get into cricket because they enjoy playing it but what we are being told now is that you should enjoy playing less of it. It’s a strange new world. Again, on this issue I am only speaking as a man with a family and obviously those younger and without commitments may think differently to me.

Another aspect which is also not considered is the quality of pitches isn’t really conducive to T20 cricket. I play in a league where the quality of pitches really isn’t too bad but it is a league that is dominated by spin bowlers. A high percentage of the pitches turn very early in a game and there is no great pace in the wickets. With batsman trying to force the game in T20’s I cannot see the ECB dream of high scoring and big six hitting in league cricket coming to fruition. I think scores would be middling to low and the overall quality of cricket suffers for it.

As a cricketer I am an all-rounder who bats middle order and bowls left arm spin. When I first started out my spin bowling was helped along by some good captains who gave me a good amount of overs and helpful fields for a young spinner. I gradually got better over time due to this amount of overs I was getting each week which could range from 10-20. I am in no doubt that had I not bowled this amount of overs as a young spinner I wouldn’t have developed as a cricketer. When I first started there were many permutations that aren’t in the league now such as being able to start with the old ball in the second innings and all games being timed affairs. This is now not the case and I believe the development of younger spinners has suffered for it. Now, with Gurney’s ideals, a young spinner would be limited to 4 overs per week with a basic defensive field. Clearly this is going to lead to a shortfall in the development of skills as a spin bowler. Gurney’s defence of this appears to be that league cricket does not prepare players for 4 day cricket. Well thanks for stating the obvious. Of course it doesn’t but league cricket does assist the development of cricketers playing that standard. Over recent years players to come out of our league are Jamie Porter, Nick Browne, Dan Lawrence to name a few. So I think the league could make a claim that it is not a bad stepping stone to the professional level.

My last point, and I am sure I have missed some, that I wanted to make, is that we already have T20 cricket at club level. Indeed, when I first started playing first team cricket we had a midweek knockout competition which was 16, 8 ball overs which was a local completion and fiercely competitive. However, this has since ceased to exist and the T20 league competition that is now in place, which is played evenings/Sundays/bank holidays is, in my opinion, not very well regarded. This is due to a number of factors due to it not being regional, taking place at inconvenient times and general apathy to T20 cricket at club level and it not being taken seriously. Playing T20 solely on Saturdays would potentially solve a few of the issues but not the ultimate one is that T20 cricket isn’t that popular amongst those who play club cricket. It is still not regarded as proper cricket or equivalent to playing a full days play and earning whatever you get out of that. The players still hold a lot of respect for the challenge of a full day’s play whatever level they play and T20 cannot come close to that in what I have seen and heard from my playing colleagues, both in my team and those we play.

Lastly, I just want to share with you a personal example of why I love club cricket as it is. At my first club, which I was at for 16/17 years, I had an older mentor at the club who looked after me and helped me progress. He wasn’t the best cricketer in the world by any means. He is a back-up keeper, batted 9 usually although he occasionally opened when required and never, ever bowled. However, he more often than not made the first team at the club due to his self-sacrificing nature and willingness to help the team out by getting a TFC most weeks. However, having his experience and advice really helped me develop as a cricket and a person. Without him I doubt I would have continued in the game for as long as I have. If T20 had come in around when I first started there is no way he would have been able to pass on his knowledge to myself and others. He is a cricket purist so I doubt he would have continued to play. I am sure there is a guy like him at everyone’s club that they can relate to and can understand where I am coming from. I feel like all T20 is going to rob the younger generation of these type of experience players passing on knowledge and experience in how to play the game. Maybe, I am wrong and it doesn’t matter as everyone eventually finds their way. But it mattered and still matters to me which is why I will be always grateful to him.


My thanks to Ross for his contribution, which is as drafted (with a couple of tidied up parts). I hope this provides insight straight from someone immersed in the club game. Thanks to all the effort in putting this together, Ross. Great work.

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Playing through the (lack of) pain

One of the more amusing/annoying things about cricket is the perception of those who rarely watch that it is a quiet game, civilised and genteel.

It is the epitome of the English summer, the church or pub team lobbing the ball 22 yards with the (occasional) thwack of leather on willow as the verger/lounge lizard finally makes contact and everyone applauds before making their way off to sample the cucumber sandwiches.

Has there ever been a game so misjudged in the public consciousness? Club cricket is what it has always been, a sport that is highly competitive as is any other. In league terms, winning a division or a cup matters as much to those who do so as any Ashes win in the public consciousness. Yet it is has always been amusing to note the surprise amongst non-initiates when they see it.

Many years ago, my then brother-in-law came down to watch a match for a bit. He pulled me to one side and observed that it was very quick. “What is?” I replied. “The bowling, it’s really quick”. Looking up, I saw a decent seamer and nothing more. I was somewhat baffled and asked him what he’d expected to see because this wasn’t anything out of the ordinary and quicker bowlers played most weeks. He was astonished.

The same astonishment would be there at the sight of bruising, broken bones and stitches. How could this elegant sport be like this?

Patiently explaining that standing 22 yards away from a lunatic trying to knock your head off wasn’t quite what they thought it was, and that if they wanted to know what that was like they were welcome to don the pads and helmet and stand in the nets would then be met with a politely bemused shake of the head.

Certainly A & E departments up and down the land will roll their eyes at the mention of the game, their Saturdays and Sundays being filled with the regular sight of people dressed in white with smashed noses, broken fingers or wrapped in bandages stained with red. Indeed, many a cricketer feeling sorry for himself will be greeted with “Oh for God’s sake, not another one” by the triage nurse.

Players themselves are of course quite proud of this. Pub chat will tend to swiftly turn to the times facing a proper fast and nasty and the numbers of huge purple bruises across the rib cage that were regarded as badges of honour.

In order for it to be a real pub tale though, it requires more than to be just hit by a snarling wannabe Shoaib Akhtar, it must have been sustained in a manner that allows for self-deprecating piss-take.

To that end, if you are sitting comfortably, I shall begin:

As a player who opened the batting and kept wicket for many years in league cricket, the physical peril has always been part of the fun of it. Indeed, I was more or less the last generation to come through and bat without a helmet. That didn’t mean I never wore one, for sometimes you would have those who would be above 80mph on the speed gun. But it did become one of those things getting older that would be an internal war of the brain, one half saying “don’t be so stupid” and the other responding “I don’t do this”.

Eventually a close younger friend tore me off a strip saying that he really hated it, and spent the time watching me bat against quicker bowlers worried about me being hit. That hadn’t occurred to me at any point. Which is why it was selfish.

Walking out to the middle once and being greeted with astonishment by a fielder was one thing.   Saying “why, do you have anyone quick?” when he was already bowling probably wasn’t the most sensible response I could have made. And of course when you’ve gone out without one, pride won’t let you then ask for it as you realise this bloke is a bit sharp. No one ever said cricketers are the brightest, though getting hit on the inside of the knee is far, far more painful than being hit in the box.

And yet the most downright embarrassing injury had nothing to do with the normal risk faced, and the consequences of it still make me cringe to this day.

For wicketkeepers live with mashed fingers, with bruised wrists and chins – as an aside, if the keeper is standing up, and you pad up to the spinner, don’t be surprised if you get a look of unremitting hatred from behind the stumps. That’s when the keeper gets hit, for the ball heads straight up off the pad, you aren’t expecting it and have no chance of getting out of the way. If you’ve ever wondered at the foul and abusive language behind the stumps, that’s why.

What you don’t expect is to get hurt when someone throws the ball in from the boundary. A simple cut down to third man, a jogged single. It happens thousands of times of a weekend. The throw came in, high and loopy.   Moving forward to catch it, it was as routine as it could be. Until first slip thought it a great idea to try and catch it. Misjudging it, it instead flicked his fingers and deflected straight into my eyebrow.

Now this wasn’t remotely a heavy impact, and it didn’t hurt at all, but the thing about the face is that the skin is stretched tight and it tears. The other thing is that heads bleed. A lot. It’s a surprising feeling, one minute you’re standing there, the next a curtain of red is flowing across your eyes.

From there it was chaos, lying on the ground in no pain whatever as bandages are wound round with some team mates walking away because they feel queasy. Thanks lads.

By now bound up like the invisible man, our scorer suggests a trip to hospital might be an idea. You think? And off we go.

Arriving at A & E, the first question asked is whether consciousness was lost. Answering truthfully in the negative mostly from sheer embarrassment at the situation was met with rage from my escort, who pointed out that was adding about two hours to the visit. Sorry mate.

Looking around, I could see I wasn’t alone, indeed there were about three others all with the sheepish look of the cricketer embarrassed to be seen in public in whites. Well red and whites anyway.

After debating the monumental unfairness of life at receiving stitches (eight of them for the record) from a truly stunning nurse while looking like I’d gone six rounds with Mike Tyson, we got out of the hospital and ambled back to the game.

About five miles away, his mobile phone rang. So I answered it (he was driving of course, we’re a law abiding bunch). “Um. Where are you?”. “We’re about 15 minutes away, why?”. “Oh we’re eight down”.

My driver then decided he wasn’t so law abiding after all, while I debated the irony of being potentially killed in a crash trying to get back from hospital. As we pulled in to the ground, I got out and was met by the sight of team mates sprinting to the car carrying assorted pads, gloves (those are right handed ones you idiots) and a bat. Two of them are putting someone else’s boots on me, another two the pads (also right handed – was it so hard to find my kit in the changing room?) as the ninth wicket falls.

Now by this point the opposition are doubled over in fits of laughter at the chaos going on at the boundary edge as a grown man is dressed by people who have clearly never dressed another in their lives. Their skipper stepped in, removing any question of being timed out by saying that since I had actually got there before the wicket fell, they wouldn’t be appealing. Good on him, it was a league game, he didn’t have to do that.

As any cricketer knows, walking out to the middle in someone else’s kit feels really strange. Plus having missed most of the game anyway, the whole situation felt surreal. It occurred to me I had no idea what the score was or how long was left. Ah yes, about five overs, no problem.

There was a short delay as I refused the helmet offered. On this occasion it wasn’t bravado either, for my eye was swelling up and if I put the helmet on I wouldn’t be able to see a bloody thing.

Naturally enough, the bowlers took that as a sign they could bowl bouncers, which I didn’t mind in the least as ducking those is second nature. The bigger problem was my ferret of a batting partner who had spied the 25 to win and was dead set on throwing the bat to try and gain victory. Given the league position (we were top, they were second) not losing was far more important than winning, and after a swift bollocking that I hadn’t come back to watch him get out, he eventually let me have the strike. To this day he insists he would have won it. Let’s put it this way, his highest score in 500+ matches is 20, and he has taken more wickets than scored runs. Which is quite an achievement. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in him, his finest moment was his squeal in another match when a genuine quickie flicked his calves with one down the leg side. I asked him that day if that was the quickest bowler he’d ever faced. His answer was priceless: “I don’t know, normally I can see the ball”.

The rest is entirely routine, the match was saved with few dramas. By now sweating, the next crisis came when figuring out how to shower and keep the dressing dry. Ah well.

I therefore didn’t think too much of events, it had been a bit odd, but nothing more; the pub that evening was full of people wetting themselves with laughter and getting home the same highly amused reaction was received. The day had been peculiar to say the least, but it was nothing that would merit much further consideration.

Monday was fun. I had a job interview. By this point the whole of one side of my face had swollen up, I had a black eye to be proud of and marvelled at how the body reacted so strongly to nothing other than a glancing blow.

When trying to get a job, I can recommend to everyone that “don’t worry, I haven’t had a fight” is not the best introductory line to prospective employers. Suffice to say I didn’t get it.

But it was Wednesday that was the worst day. Oh, by far the worst. For that was the day when the county wide newspaper reports on the weekend club cricket came out. And I was on the back page. The horror increased as I saw the angle taken, which was to compare me to Colin Cowdrey, using words like “hero”, “brave” and “courageous”.

It’s a sodding cut for God’s sake.

It got worse, there were 800 words describing the heroic ducking and diving against pace bowling (it wasn’t either heroic nor pacy), and that as my team mates fell to the challenge, I stood tall and repelled all boarders. Alone. Horatio at the bridge reincarnated.

The worst part was knowing this was just the start. The phone buzzed with team mates asking if I’d seen the paper yet, some total shit (you know who you are) thought it a great idea to fax the article to all my colleagues, the mother-in-law spent years teasing me about me being so brave, another total shit (and they were racking up the scores in the total shit stakes) decided to pin the article to the club noticeboard, while yet another took great delight in showing it to everyone in the pub.  Pubs. Oh God, even going elsewhere didn’t save me.
For two bloody weeks I had people coming up to me praising me for the wonderful story they’d read in the paper.  Naturally they couldn’t understand the sniggering next door from a team mate who had plainly primed them with the tale in advance. By this point I wanted to murder my captain who had spun this to the reporter with a skill Alastair Cook could only dream about.

Nearly 15 years later, I still cringe at the memory. I do occasionally get reminded of it, and have to put up with the bloody story being told yet again, with all the sarcasm that can possibly be mustered by the person telling it.  Yes, Graham. You.

All of which says that cricket might not be a gentle sport, but there’s nothing so vicious as when your team mates decide to stitch you up better than a nurse ever could.

Over to you for yours!

@BlueEarthMngmnt

State of Play

The gap between Tests reduces to some extent the frenetic nature of the media as far as cricket goes, and allows a little time for reflection about where we are more generally, and how we got here.

Although it’s fairly rare to offer up any praise for the ECB (for the simple reasons that they tend to both incompetence and duplicitousness, which is rarely a good combination), it is worth noting that Women’s Ashes matches have been scheduled for between the men’s Tests.  For once they have it right, as it’s far more likely to gain attention that way.  It says a fair bit about the ECB that the overriding reaction to seeing such a piece of consummate common sense is surprise.  Generating that interest creates a feedback loop, as shown by Sussex announcing that the T20 at Hove is nearly sold out.

The rise of women’s cricket in England is a fascinating development.  It’s one that the ECB pat themselves on the back for an awful lot, and it has to be said they have played a significant part in that, although women’s participation in what were traditionally male sports has shown a significant rise across the board, from the success of the football team to the way the women’s Six Nations is now covered on television and gets decent crowds.  In rugby, the RFU have gone as far as to schedule some matches directly after the men at Twickenham, something the ECB have also done beforehand with some England games, and with the same kind of success.  As a means of allowing the more casual supporter to watch, it’s obviously highly successful.  But what it also means is that cricket is not a discrete entity in this; women’s sport is gaining an attention that would have seemed highly unlikely a generation ago.  Quite why that might be is a little hard to pin down, much of it being for sociological reasons as to the acceptability of women playing such sports – good to know we’re in the 21st century at last.  The ECB are entitled to be pleased, but when seen in the context that the number of women playing football is shortly to overtake the number of men playing cricket, it raises as many questions as it answers about their role as governors of the English game.

Nevertheless, whatever provided the catalyst, and whatever the context of cricket more generally, the ECB have certainly played their part in helping growth in women’s cricket.  Free kit has been distributed to clubs, and free coaching and umpires courses provided for women who wish to make use of them.  That does represent something of a contrast in how it is for men wishing to do the same, and the costs involved tend to be significantly higher (and with less given back) than the football equivalents.  Many clubs offset that cost themselves, in order to encourage their members to gain their qualifications, but it is still a lot of money.

What doesn’t get mentioned much (and here the ECB aren’t alone by any means, it is taken for granted across both sport and other walks of life) is that any success requires people on the ground to volunteer and give up huge amounts of time to help encourage people to play the game.  The decline of schools cricket is often cited as being disastrous in this, yet in comparing what was available 25 years ago to what is available now, the clubs have more than filled that gap.  As someone who attended a cricket playing state school, the coaching was non-existent (and the county paid little attention to the state schools there anyway – in that little has changed) while only one local club had a thriving youth section – indeed only one local club even tried to create a thriving youth section.  Moving forward to the present day, it is truly astonishing to see medium sized clubs having colts evenings comprising up to a hundred youngsters of an evening, and a plethora of qualified coaches to help them.  It is, of course, enlightened self-interest from the clubs; shorn of a supply of schoolboy cricketers, they are producing their own.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that for a child who has shown an interest in cricket (therein lies a different debate), the opportunities for playing are now markedly more plentiful than they were in the 1980s.  So far so good, with the obvious concomitant opportunities for cricket more widely.

With both boys and girls cricket, those volunteers are the heroes and heroines.  Many clubs simply decided they wished to create a women’s and girls’ section, and worked ridiculously hard to try and make it work.  Many male players will be familiar with making up the numbers in the initial stages until sufficient players of the correct sex were available.  It is there where the ECB provided some support, a little of it directly, more of it via the counties.  Let there be no mistake, that support was and is critical, but it is still the uncredited hard workers that form the backbone of every cricket club who have made it happen, almost always unappreciated higher up in the game.  The ECB and the counties have been facilitators of an existing desire, not the creators of it.  Given the sheer number of clubs it couldn’t be any other way, but that’s where the balance lies, not in initiatives from the ECB.  Like any organisation, self-justification is part of the marketing, but agreeing that they deserve some credit is not the same as allowing them to take it all.

There is another side issue that affects both male and female youth cricket, and that’s the way funding and support is channelled through the counties.  Girls cricket provides a fascinating insight into the methods of boys cricket as well, given that it was essentially a tabula rasa upon the foundation of the structures.  Some of the counties are excellent, and it’s striking how many cricketers at the top level they are producing, notably Durham.  Others are not.  There is sufficient anecdotal evidence that some counties wish to work with a very small number of clubs in their Premier League alone, and ignore the rest.  That manifests itself in pushing even 12 year olds of promise, boy or girl, to the big clubs in the county, where they can be watched by the county structure.  The frustration for the majority is that there is little point in focusing on producing the best players they can, if the first time they come into contact with the county, that county tells them to leave and go somewhere else.  It becomes a parasitical relationship rather than one of mutual support.  Now of course, as that youngster develops, there comes a point where they need to be exposed to the highest level of club cricket possible, if they are to make it to the professional ranks, and every club is – or should be – fully aware of that.  But that isn’t what is occurring in at least some of the counties, they are attempting to hoover up every single promising player and divert them from their home club at the earliest possible age to a bigger one.  If this was happening to a tiny village club with one eleven, you could almost understand it, but it isn’t, it applies to clubs who are playing in the county league cricket structure and by any measure are good, strong cricket clubs.

The Sky Millions question is: how widespread is this?  It is dangerous to extrapolate anecdotal experiences with reality, but it is a complaint heard sufficiently to cause deep concern.  The trouble is that few people have direct experience of multiple county structures, so one that doesn’t behave in this way would be seen as doing things extremely well by those living in a “good” county without being aware of the circumstances elsewhere – and vice versa.  In at least some of the counties, and perhaps more, the club game is treated as something of a hindrance, except as a means of extracting the best players out of it and into the arms of the county.

That attitude towards the clubs at the ECB and the counties is evidenced by the complete lack of representation of the amateur game within its own governing body.  It is striking that the much maligned FA has much greater representation outside the professional game than the ECB does.  A cricket club needs to be affiliated to the ECB but has no power of influence over it.  There is a single representative from the recreational game on the board, and that one person wasn’t elected by any clubs, but is an appointee.  Equally, there is little or no oversight for how a county fulfils its obligations to the clubs in its area, which means it is reliant on them doing so in the wider interest rather than their own.  The clear decline in participation can be for any number of reasons on an individual level, but when there’s a pattern more widely, questions need to be asked why.  It would be easy to point to the loss of terrestrial TV coverage, and undoubtedly that will have played a part, but it is much more complex than that.

Where this has relevance as we move up through the levels of cricket is in terms of affecting the quality of the player base from which the counties and then England can select.  As has been pointed out on a number of occasions, up to seven of the England eleven are public schoolboys.  In some instances they are scholarship boys, quite possibly because of their cricket prowess in the first place.  This isn’t a class based point, or a political one, but the reality is that with 93% of children going to state schools, there is clearly an enormous wastage of basic talent.  That has to be balanced with the reality that with excellent facilities, the public schoolboy has likely far better access to cricket as a matter of course.  It’s not an either/or and it’s not a straightforward criticism.  What it is though, is extremely careless to have failed to make the most of the vast majority, in a way that football tends to avoid.  And that’s without taking into account the worrying lack of Asian talent making it to the top level given the proportion of club cricket that comprises.  The clubs are developing young cricketers in greater numbers than they ever have before, athought there is inevitably wastage as they grow up, and inevitably some parents will regard it as a useful form of free babysitting.  The volunteers and the clubs themselves are more than aware of that, but do it anyway because of the small percentage who will stay with the club into adulthood.  If the clubs themselves are providing the basic numbers, then at some point as the standard increases, they are falling by the wayside as a proportion of the whole.

With the Edgbaston Test approaching, the dropping of Gary Ballance for Jonny Bairstow has been accompanied by a sideline that there aren’t too many alternatives to choose from.  There is obviously the pachyderm hovering which must not be mentioned, but even in that instance, the point of origin for that player is South Africa.  Since he arrived as a 19 year old off-spinner, a strong case can be made that he learned to become the player he was in England rather than anywhere else, yet the formative years weren’t here.  Indeed the same applies to Ballance himself who learned his cricket in Zimbabwe.  The county system itself looks in both directions, both up to England level and down to club level.  If done well, that link can be invaluable, if done badly, it’s a matter of self-interest rather than the greater good.  England are always going to have some input from places like South Africa for obvious historical reasons, the number of overseas British passport holders is enormous, and the county game offers the potential for a good living.  Some object to the importation of such players who then turn out for England, but given the rules, which are stricter in England than they need to be internationally, there is nothing wrong with England choosing them, and in any case someone who moves across the world to make their career as a teenager is clearly a driven individual.

No, this isn’t about the use of such players per se, but why it is that without them England would be so markedly weaker, why we aren’t producing enough players of the requisite standard ourselves, and why we don’t produce the exceptional players that other countries seem to.

A little over a year ago, an article appeared in Cricinfo from a father talking about the experience of his son, who hadn’t been part of the age group sides, but had developed later on his county trial.  For those who missed it, it is well worth reading again in its entirety:

http://www.espncricinfo.com/thestands/content/story/717821.html

On its own, a single article like that means little, but the trouble was that it very clearly chimed with a great many others.  It was a small article, somewhat hidden away, and within the depressingly small confines of those interested in cricket, received a lot of attention.

Even if they can still think for themselves, they won’t be allowed to if they want to progress. Their whole lives will be structured by a battalion of experts for every eventuality, and should they speak up against it, they will be labelled “a divisive influence”, “a rebellious individual”, or most worryingly of all, “not a team player”.

The relentless focus on fitting in with what those above wished, the intolerance of individuality, and the requirement for a player to be coached to meet the narrow definitions of the approved cricketing path, rather than trying to get the most out of them is a complaint heard all too often, even in the national set up.  This is the other side of the coin from the counties themselves trying to drive the direction of youth cricketers from a very young age.  A child whose parent resists the push to move to a bigger club at an early age is already risking being marked out as part of the awkward squad, with all that entails.

Recently, he trialled with a first-class county, and after a single session lasting less than three hours, he was left injured and demoralised for more than a week afterwards. The injuries were because the session seemed to be less about cricket and far more about physical punishment. If a bowler failed to hit the cone, hurdle or pole that was acting as a target in the drill in question, he faced punishment. If a batsman failed to hit the bowling machine ball back between the cones provided, he would face punishment. If a fielder failed to complete the drill faultlessly, he would go back to the queue, because for the second half of the session, fielding drills were the punishment.

Allowances in that particular article need to be made for someone being a father to his son; the trouble was the lack of outrage from other counties, and the lack of anyone coming forward to say that it was an entirely isolated incident.  Indeed, just the opposite, with even some coaches lamenting that their own experiences in the centres of excellence mirrored it exactly.  Few allowances are made for players developing at different rates in the first place, if anything it was something of a surprise that an older player who hadn’t been through the county process got as far as getting a trial in the first place.

There’s a degree of irony in this.  When England talk about “executing their skills” ad nauseam, what is clear that those skills form a smaller part of the development of young players than might be thought.  English cricket – and the clubs are no more immune to this criticism than those above – has a terrible tendency to focus on what someone cannot do rather than what they can.  It is indicative that it is somewhat hard to imagine a Steve Smith, with a highly unconventional technique, making it to the top level without someone trying to force him to do what everyone else does, and probably failing.  A wise man once said that the skill of coaching was to ensure a player became the best he could be, and that doesn’t mean making that player fit in to preconceived ideas and micro-managing every aspect of their lives beyond the nets.

The danger for women’s cricket is that this template is being duplicated at every level.  From a low base, this probably doesn’t matter in the immediate term, but it seems too much to hope that lessons are being learned.

None of this should be seen as a criticism of the selection of Bairstow, his record this season merits consideration, and he is clearly steeped in cricket from birth, both directly and indirectly.  It is a matter of closing the circle from the lowest levels on the village green to the Test arena, whereby England are able to select from the widest and deepest talent pool available.  Whether it is the bowling attack, or the batting line up, the cry that often goes up is that is all too samey.  Yet this is hardly surprising given all the above.  Talented players are pushed the same way, to the same circumstances, and the same end result.  And ultimately we end up with an England team where the batsmen tend to be very similar, and so do the bowlers.  It is perhaps unsurprising in that context, that the county who are often seen as creating a template for producing players who exist on their own merits – Durham – are also the one who create players who reach England level that have quirky personalities and techniques that have been largely left alone.  It is furthermore disappointing to see that someone instrumental in that, Graeme Fowler, felt the need to stand down in protest at the direction the university cricket centre was going in.

In recent times one of the more striking things about the England team has been the peculiar joylessness in their play.  If the likes of the article above are true about how the various development centres are run, it is unsurprising that this would be the case, players pushed in a certain direction from a very young age, forced to operate with narrow parameters lest they be considered unable to toe the line or form part of the group, and prevented from expressing themselves in their play.  Of course, the New Zealand series showed that this doesn’t need to be so, yet the last Test showed worrying signs of a reversion to the mean, although a single match shouldn’t in itself be viewed as any kind of trend.  The challenge for Trevor Bayliss and Paul Farbrace would then be far more extensive than simply to allow England players to express themselves, it would be to undo half a lifetime of being trammeled and restricted.

This doesn’t mean for a moment that those players in the England set up are therefore unhappy, but it does take a particular type of person to operate in the kind of environment cricket in England works in.  The problem is not those players who have made it, but those who have not.  How many talented players are lost at every stage due to it?  Falling by the wayside is inevitable, not making the most of what you have is criminal.   Whether at 12 years old or 25 years old, a one size fits all approach cannot work, it simply produces those who are pre-disposed to fit the prevailing culture.  And that’s all very well, but you end up with an England side who are the products of that, with all the limitations therein.  One of the most striking things about l’affaire Pietersen is that he so plainly didn’t fit into the box into which the ECB wanted to put him.  When that same perspective pervades the entire game, then suspicions start to arise that the ECB itself is a major part of the problem.

It is highly unlikely that the ECB are doing anything except that which they feel to be the best overall.  But the tail wags the dog, with the counties having the overriding power.  Where this ties in as at both ends of the game’s spectrum.  The wider club game is often viewed as a chore within the counties, hence the desire to compact it to as few clubs as possible, while the England team is not the focus except inasmuch as it benefits those counties, especially financially.  That being the case, from youth to senior professional, the counties play their role well, producing significant numbers of county level professionals, of whom England select the best at playing county cricket.  The trouble is, that is not the same as producing the best possible players.  And this is completely inevitable, because although some would doubtless protest at the way they are being painted here, any organisation will gear itself to the promotion of its primary aim, irrespective of what they might say that aim is.   How that translates in terms of the financial distribution of the money brought into will be the subject of a future blog.

Women’s cricket is in an expansion phase where there is optimism about the direction in which it is moving.  But by doing it the same way as they are with the men, the potential for the same shortcomings is clearly there.  The men’s team will play the best available team (with arguably one exception) who will do the best that they can.  But why they are the best we have is a subject that reaches right the way down to the park and the village green, and ultimately, England get what they have worked for since the players were children.  The problem is, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

@BlueEarthMngmnt