The Guardian of the ECB?

ICC Board Meeting

LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 18: India’s N Srinivasan chats to Giles Clarke during the ICC Board Meeting at The Royal Garden Hotel on October 18, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

Picture the scene if you may. A well to-do chap is slightly down on his luck. Our man likes a bet on the horses from time to time, but there is one horse that never lets him down. A sure-fire winner. Now over time, our man puts more and more money on this horse, it keeps on winning, even when it looks beaten. However other events have conspired against him, his marriage has fallen apart, he has a lot of debt to manage and friends stop popping round, he finds himself isolated. He needs a lucky break, but that doesn’t happen and he suddenly finds himself in real financial difficulty without anyone to turn to. The bailiffs are at the door, he can’t pay the mortgage, he’s in a lot of trouble, and so he turns to the horse that never loses. This is his lucky ticket out of the mess he’s found himself in. He withdraws the rest of his savings and wanders down to the bookies to put it all on “Lucky number 7” at the 3:30 at Sandown. He doesn’t look at the race standings or formbook, he doesn’t need to this horse is a proven winner. The race starts and “Lucky number 7” has a blinder, going way out in front of the field, our man watching from inside the Ladbrokes is relieved, he knew he could count on this horse; however a couple of the field start to catch up during the race and our man is starting to feel a little nervous knowing his whole future rests on the result of this race. Then disaster strikes, in the last furlong, Lucky number 7 is caught and passed and finishes fourth. Our man is crestfallen, he has lost everything and curses loudly that if only he had read the form guide, he’d had realised that there was a quicker more powerful horse in town. He had quite simply backed the wrong horse and now has lost everything.

 

So you may be asking why I’ve written 300 words about a fictional horse race, when this is supposed to be a cricket blog; and you’d be right. However if you replace the horse with “Giles Clarke” and our unlucky punter with “The Guardian”, then I think you may understand what I’m trying to get at with this analogy.

 

The Guardian was once a paper of high renowned. I used to read it in my early twenties and although I didn’t necessary agree with all its’ contents, I could genuinely agree that it was well written and didn’t shirk any of the major issues. Indeed if you have a quick look at the Guardian’s Wikipedia page, it clearly sets out what it believes to be it’s major values:

 

The Guardian is a part of the Guardian Media Group, owned by The Scott Trust Limited. The Trust was created in 1936 “to secure the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity and to safeguard the journalistic freedom and liberal values of the Guardian free from commercial or political interference

 

Now looking at what the Guardian is today, it is clear that something has changed massively from the slightly idealistic left-wing paper it once was. There have been some individuals who have speculated that this was in part down to the seriously bad financial figures that The Guardian Media Group reported in 2013 and hence a shift in positioning itself primarily in the USA and Australia as growth markets, whilst aiming to retain as much as possible from its former days as a left of centre newspaper in Britain. Alongside this new focus, there seems to have been a shift in the editorial tone and focus of the paper, any particularly sensitive subjects often failed to get backed and were quietly dropped and the comments threads are so heavily moderated that only those who are in complete agreement with the journalist/sub editor have a chance to make it through the moderation process. There were also a number of senior editorial members and good journalists that were quietly dumped out of the backdoor whose crime i can only guess being non adherence to the Guardian’s new editorial policy. The Guardian in reality, is no longer the left wing paper it had always purported itself to be and instead has allowed itself to drift right and become far more in line with the views of establishment. This appears to have cascaded itself down the organization, and although there are still some fine editorial teams in the Guardian (their Rugby coverage is up there with the best and they aren’t frightened to shy away from controversy), many parts can no longer be seen as editorially independent. Their cricket coverage is the “shining light” of this unfortunate policy.

 

The Guardian’s cricket coverage has always been pro-establishment under the reign of Mike Selvey, but recently it has become so vested with other outside interests, that it has become unreadable. Selvey’s decision to completely ignore the big 3 power grab and the subsequent events of the past week are at best “willful negligence” and at worst can be seen as “subservient to the whimsical wishes of the ECB.” I simply don’t understand how something that most commentators describe as the “worst thing to happen to world cricket” can simply be brushed under the carpet. The Telegraph ran with it, ESPN Cricinfo ran with it, Laurence Booth (though probably more with his Wisden hat on, than with his Daily Fail hat on) also covered it depth, so why has the Guardian remained stoically silent on this and more’s the question, why have they been allowed to be mute on the single biggest thing affecting World Cricket? Would the Guardian be allowed to simply ignore an election result, because they didn’t like the result? What if the Guardian chose not to cover what was happening in Syria because it was a bit far away? Or if they decided that US politics was not for them? No they wouldn’t because there would be uproar from their readership about their selective news reporting. So why should cricket be any different? Why is Owen Gibson allowing this? Why have there been no questions from Katharine Viner, the Guardian’s Editor in Chief? Is it simply because they don’t really care about something that might be perceived these days as a niche sport?

 

Now despite his rudeness and total disregard for anyone who dares to disagree with him and his iron-fisted moderation of the BTL comments section, Selvey is no fool. I disagree with him on pretty much everything there can be to do with cricket, but you don’t become Chief Correspondent of a national newspaper by being stupid (well unless you’re John Etheridge perhaps, but no-one reads any of his pieces anyway); however one only need to look closely at his ties to the establishment to see who has the most influence on the Guardian’s cricketing editorial policies:

 

https://twitter.com/selvecricket/status/341133502332403712

 

Now one could argue that there isn’t anything wrong with a well known journalist attending the birthday party of the Chairman of the ECB, they would have known each other through work circles and it’s clear they get on (the party sounds like a ball by the way); however it is clear from many of the pieces on the Guardian that this extends to something closer to a “special relationship”. The Guardian has been the fiercest critic of anything that doesn’t seem to be in line with the ECB’s current doctrine – Kevin Pietersen, franchise cricket and the brilliance of Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook are to be written about constantly; however most damningly of all, the sheer greed of the big 3 in their financially motivated tear up of world cricket is to be quietly forgotten, the ECB would rather you didn’t see that side of their organisation. Selvey is one of the ECB’s key attack dogs against any of those who dare question the morals, ethics and suitability of the ECB’s governance, after all remember this beauty from our beloved Board (and more shamefully the PCA) two years ago?

 

“Allegations have been made, some from people outside cricket, which as well as attacking the rationale of the ECB’s decision-making, have questioned, without justification, the integrity of the England Team Director and some of England’s players.”

 

The “Outside Cricket” piece stuck, and Selvey didn’t just go a long with this, he seemed to actually revel in it. The fact that the Guardian’s editorial policy seems to be far too intertwined with that of the ECB seems to me to be too cosy to be merely a coincidence. The Golf days, access to the players and a lovely bottle of Sauvignon Blanc with Giles, seems to be of far more interest than the truthful reporting of what is actually going on with the wider game. Where as Nick Hoult, Jarrod Kimber and George Dobell do write challenging pieces with great insight into some of the wider issues (I must admit I didn’t rate Hoult to begin with but he has been spot on with his Big 3 pieces and commentary around the disgracefully handled sacking of Peter Moores), the Guardian seems happy to produce piece after piece of ECB powder puff to appease their paymasters. Remember this nugget of gold??

 

http://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2014/jan/06/alastair-cook-england-ashes-captain

 

The Guardian is now no longer viewed by most as an independent editorial vehicle, but instead it is seen as the mouthpiece for the Establishment, the mouthpiece for those that know best, bilious inadequates will simply not be tolerated. There will always be a percentage that are happy to accept whatever “pearls of wisdom” that are handed down, but it’s not as many of Mike and his editorial colleagues at the Guardian would like to believe. Perhaps I’m being unfair and there is a viable explanation as to why some of the biggest news in cricket history has not been covered; however unfortunately the Guardian has long since used up its credit to get the benefit of the doubt anymore. In the day of 24/7 news and the growth of social media, no longer can major stories be swept under the carpet because of vested interests, as there are plenty of other news outlets worldwide, which are not constrained by those vested interests. The Guardian has backed Giles Clarke as its’ horse and gone all in, there can be no turning back now, which is not a position I would like to be in after the latest comments and musings from various members of the ICC and one which leaves the Guardian in a hopelessly exposed position should Clarke be ceremoniously dumped by those in the corridors of power. Personally, I sincerely hope Giles falls at the last hurdle and takes his beloved Chief Cricket Correspondent with him. I have a strong feeling that many others wouldn’t be shedding too many tears at that news either.

 

@thegreatbucko

 

Update: this came out after I had posted this – http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/feb/09/shashank-manohar-icc-soap-opera-cricket. It’s fairly puerile stuff and the BTL comments aren’t much better, but I suppose something’s better than nothing. Still no sign of Mike Selvey mind..

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Don’t blame it on the sunshine..blame it on the ECB

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I’ve been somewhat of an interested bystander this week (not to be to confused with Innocent Bystander from Twitter) around the continued arguments between what I will refer to as the “Cook enthusiasts” and the “Cook sceptics” on both the blogs and on social media. After all, this all stems from the wretched remnants of the 2014 Ashes tour, which saw England sink to new depths both on and off the field. I read with interest Dmitri Old’s piece – http://beingoutsidecricket.com/2016/01/25/schism/, in which he highlighted how time hasn’t healed the divides, in fact it is has made them more entrenched than ever before. You only have to read the BTL comments of the national newspapers (or those that haven’t been edited suitably by Mike Selvey and his Guardian chums), that the mudslinging and rancor is greater than it have ever been, which is another reason why I stopped reading BTL comments apart from those on a couple of blogs. How and why is it the case that even after 2 years, we have no sign of peace from both warring parties? Is it really just the sacking of Kevin Pietersen or is it something that goes way beyond this?

 

After the Ashes humiliation 2014, the ECB knew something needed to change to take the heat off them. Andy Flower, a favourite son of the ECB, was no longer in a tenable position to lead the England team; however such was the humiliation of events Down Under, they were also aware that this would not satisfy the fans. They realistically knew that one of the senior team members would have to be sacrificed (Cook, Bell, Anderson or Kevin Pietersen), so they could herald a new start and claim that lessons had been learnt. I genuinely believe that they had identified their main target after Perth, as we all knew which way the series was going by then, which was more than enough time for a new Managing Director to be briefed about the ECB’s wishes. Enter Paul Downton, a creature so hideous and incompetent that I genuinely don’t know which bog the ECB dredged him up from, to do their dirty work. Kevin Pietersen, they decided, was the man to go, as he was the easy fall guy, a man that had completely polarized England fans across the world. KP would be the sacrificial lamb and Paul Downton the bumbling hitman. The ECB probably thought the fallout would last a few months, in which time their pals in the National Media could do a character assassination of him to alienate him from the English public. Except it didn’t quite work out that way, many people were rightly angered and saw past the hacks, and here we are in 2016 with the KP issue still being violently discussed.

 

Now, I don’t want this to be a KP piece, there has been so much written on it, that quite frankly I’m done with it. He’s not going to come back, and as much as I am still angry about that and as much as I would like Strauss to do a U-turn for the World T20’s, it’s not going to happen. You may well be thinking, that if this isn’t a KP piece, then why have I spent the last 2 paragraphs talking about him? Well I needed to put the piece into some context. I believe that the rabbit hole goes far deeper than this. As I alluded to in my paragraph, there are a group of people out there, who think Alastair Cook has had a terrible rep from some of the online blogs and on social media and can’t understand why people in the “Cook sceptic” group would want him to do badly. I will do my best to explain why not all of us hail Alastair Cook, coming from the more sceptical group myself, though I don’t agree with all of the reasons set out below, this is more to try and provide those that think we’re not “England fans” with some sort of context.

 

I’m no great fan of Alastair Cook; however neither am I his biggest critic either. I genuinely hope Cook has a great summer with the bat, England desperately need him to fire owing to the porous nature of our current batting line up for us to be successful in the upcoming series. I think when he has retired, history will look upon Alastair Cook as a good quality international batsman but an average international Captain. He will soon reach the landmark of 10,000 runs, which will be a great achievement personally for him and I will be happy to congratulate him on this; however the stark reality is that the majority of his runs were scored pre-summer 2011 and at that time only could he be rightly hailed as world class. Since the Summer of 2013, Cook has scored runs only sporadically and rarely when we have needed them most. Using the winter as an example, Cook had an average of around 48, which is very acceptable in itself; however if you take away the 250 against Pakistan on the flattest of pitches, his contribution was quite meagre. In South Africa, Cook didn’t manage to score any meaningful runs at all, yet Nick Compton’s match winning knock of 86 in the first innings has been totally forgotten and both he and Hales have been singled out as the fall guys. Aside from his international statistics, I strongly believe it’s not Cook the batsman or even the captain, that has caused any real ill feeling amongst the Cook sceptics, it’s the Cook aura that has led to most murmurings.

 

After the winter of discontent, when “he who must not be mentioned” was given his marching orders, it was decided the Captain Cook was the man that the ECB would lay all its eggs in. He was well spoken, talked about the team a lot and most importantly came from what the ECB would deem as “the right type of family”. As a result, any criticism of the Captain meant that you were automatically deemed as “outside cricket”. It was deemed a hangable offence from anyone inside the MSM to criticize Cook after all, the ECB knows how important it is to relay the right message to the masses – “Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play”. This is actually a quote from Joseph Goebbels, that well-known member of those “lovable rogues” the Nazi’s; however if you replace “government” with the “ECB” then you have a fair idea of the ECB’s views on their approach to our national press. The deification of Alastair Cook that the MSM and Sky have been portraying since the Summer of 2014 has made many of us wary about this continued praise, I would hasten to add that this is not in any way Alastair Cook’s fault, but it is certainly a circumstance of the ridiculous eulogies emanating from our own broadcasters and national press.

 

This, however, is not the main reason why there are individuals out there, who not only dislike Alastair Cook, but actually want him to fail, of which I am not one for the record, despite being highly critical of him at times over the past 2 years. Alastair Cook, whether he likes it or not, is the public face of the ECB. Alastair Cook was both consulted and in the room, when KP was sacked in the full knowledge that this was an opportunity to both get rid of the person who had criticized his captaincy in Sydney in 2014 whilst also ensuring that his failings during that series alongside his captaincy were quietly forgotten about. Cook displayed a ruthless trait by quietly cozying up to the ECB, to ensure his position as “head boy” was unchanged, never mind who else got thrown under the bus. Would I have done the same, possibly, possibly not. This isn’t a one off either, you just have to examine Cook’s words at the end of the South African series to realize that self preservation is of pressing concern to our captain: “It’s been tough batting conditions and it’s not been easy, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions in our top seven batting,” 

“I think at the end of the day results matter and your end column of runs is absolutely vital. So to say they’ve totally convinced me would be wrong, but there have been flashes.

“There’s certainly places up for grabs. Myself and Trevor (Bayliss, head coach) and the selectors will have to sit down and discuss that because the output we’ve had in this series hasn’t been good enough if we’re trying to get to number one in the world – which is the ultimate aim.”

This is from a Captain, who averaged 23 with the bat, but one who was more than happy to pile the pressure of Hales, Compton and Taylor, who are all trying to make their way in the international game, whilst trying to take the heat of himself at his own poor series (also unless I’m mistaken and the Captain is now a national selector, then why would Cook be talking to Bayliss about this). It’s hardly from the Mike Brearley coaching manual of great captaincy. This is another major reason why there are some people out there that both dislike Cook and some that want him to actively fail; however again, it is not just what Cook says or does that garners a distaste for him, which I must again stress is not his actual fault, it ultimately what he represents as the face of his employers, the ECB.

 

The ECB, it would be fair to say, hasn’t covered itself in the greatest of glories over the past few years, unless you mean financial glories, with over £70million sitting in their account at the end of last year (I don’t think Giles will struggle to dine well this year). At a glance, some of the ECB’s highlights (or most probably low lights) over the past few years have been:

 

  • Sacking our best batsman, with a so called dossier of misdemeanors given as the reason; however, much to the embarrassment of the ECB, this dossier has since gone missing (though you would suspect they could call Newman, Brenkley and Selvey to throw some more mud)
  • Hiring Paul Downton, a man so inept, breweries and piss up doesn’t even seem to cover half of it.
  • Telling many English fans that we were “outside cricket” and treating the rest with such a level of disdain, that you wonder why we were ever even allowed to set foot onto a cricket ground to watch our national team in the first place.
  • Requiring Test Grounds, many of whom had been promised international cricket if they invested in their facilities’, to bid so high for Test matches, that they have to raise prices to an unsustainable level to try and break even, which are beyond the means of many.
  • Sticking with a completely antiquated and unsustainable domestic format, with the games and formats being constantly interchanged to try and plunder the most money possible from the T20 competition. I’d genuinely not be surprised if the players turning up to a ground, knew which format they’re going to be play that day.
  • Cozying up with Allan Stanford, a criminal convicted of one of the largest ever Ponzi schemes ever, as the answer to the competition from the IPL.
  • And the coup de grace, selling their souls to the BCCI to ensure that they didn’t miss out on their cut of the riches in international cricket. Never mind those outside of the Big 3, who will see international cricket slowly die in their countries. Giles Clarke is on record saying his priorities are “to put his board first”, stuff the rest of international cricket.

 

This is the ultimate reason, why many individuals do not see Alastair Cook as the shining beacon of hope that he has been portrayed as in the national press. In fact, if anything, it has nothing to do with Alastair Cook himself, more the ruthless, greedy and disdainful organisation that he represents every time he appears in the paper or speaks on television. This is why there are those out there, who have been England supporters all their lives, that are so disillusioned with the sport, that they are thinking of walking away for good; in their eyes, it has become impossible for them to distinguish between the team that goes onto the field with the deceitful organisation in the background. Am I one of these people, no, as much as I despise the ECB, I still want every member of the England team to do well (Cook included) and to win every series possible, but I can understand where these individuals are coming from (much as I do understand, those who choose to think that everything is rosy in the garden of English cricket). This is why I do struggle to both abide and understand the constant mud throwing from both camps, which shows no sign of abating. There shouldn’t be an “us and them”, we are all England cricket fans after all but there is and it is wider than ever before, yet we hear nothing from the ECB to try and unite English cricket under one positive banner like the Ashes in 2005. Perhaps though, it is really not in their interest to unite the English public, as whilst we’re still arguing about what a divisive individual KP is and how he should be nowhere near the England cricket team, the ECB has got in to bed with India and sold international cricket down the river, with a hardly a murmur from the masses. After all, we’re all still shouting at each other about Kevin Pietersen.

 

If I may use an analogy (with the caveat that I’m desperately not trying to sound like Ed Smith): At the battle of Pharasalus in 48BC, Caesar dragged his war-torn armies into one last battle with his former ally and member of the triumvirate, Pompey. After a vicious battle with many casualties, Caesar eventually won and the dead Pompey was brought to him. On receiving the dead body of his former ally, he shook his head and uttered the immortal words “hoc voluerunt” – “They wanted this”. It would be quite easy to interchange 48BC with 2016, and “the Senate” with “The ECB”. I have the very same fear that in a few years time, when we finally look up from our arguments about KP, that we too maybe uttering these words when looking at the barren and parched landscape of international cricket. No-one wins in a pyrrhic victory, except perhaps the ECB and Giles Clarke, and the one thing that we can all agree on is that this would be the worst case scenario for all parties.

 

@thegreatbucko

 

 

The Silent Man’s silent man….

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9th May 2015. The date which most of the mainstream media credit as the day when English cricket finally pulled itself out of the doldrums. To be fair it’s an easy narrative for them to create, the “messiah” Andrew Strauss had ridden his chariot into the offices of the ECB to join forces with our “brave young captain” Alastair Cook to pick English cricket up by it’s shoelaces and turn them into the young warriors who would sweep away the invading Australian hordes from the hallowed gates of the Home of Cricket. The disastrous world cup would be a distant memory, the inability to beat the worst West Indian team in living memory now forgotten and oh yes, Paul who?

 

Of course, I’m being slightly glib here and it would be wrong of me to let me my own personal feelings about Andrew Strauss cloud my judgment of the fact that he has done a pretty decent job since being made Director, English Cricket (see Andrew, it’s actually beneficial not to let one’s personal agenda get in the way of sound decision making – I present Mr. Kevin Pietersen as my first offering to the jury). The decision to sack Peter Moores and appoint Trevor Bayliss was a shrewd move and although the way it was carried out was just horrendous (another fine PR show from the ECB), it was the right decision and one that should have been made 18 months earlier. Dmitri has covered the Peter Moores era in his review of the year, so I don’t want to go over old ground, but it is safe to say that I’m in agreement that Moores, whilst an honourable man and certainly someone who didn’t deserve the shabby treatment he was afforded when being removed of his post, was never cut out for coaching at an international level (my argument was that he should have been made the Lions coach, as he did have a skill for unearthing good young talent). I also applaud Strauss’ thoughts around affording more focus for the one-day and T20 teams, with players like Willey and Rashid encouraged to play in some of the worldwide T20 tournaments to hone their skills and gain experience (perhaps he has read KP’s first book after all). Of course, there was the Ashes victory too, which allows Strauss to justify all his decisions in the lead up to the series and to proclaim England are on the up, even if it was against an average Australian side on doctored green seamers.

 

However, in my opinion, the 2 biggest reasons why there has been progress from the England side, both on the pitch and just as importantly off the pitch (in the eyes of the paying public), were 2 decisions made before Strauss’ tenure had actually begun. Paul Farbrace, though whisper it, who was appointed under Paul Downton’s reign of calamity, has been a vital cog in the new England set up (though I refuse to give Downton any credit, as I believe it was Moores’ who pushed for his appointment). Bayliss and Farbrace dovetail extremely well, and from all the reports coming out of the dressing room, Farbrace is an extremely well liked and respected individual who has played a major part in uniting the dressing room, allowing players to play their own game and promoting a positive brand of cricket (totally alien to that in which we were playing under Flower and Moores). He has sometimes been referred to as the “silent man” but every cricket fan can understand the skills and expertise he has bought to the England set up. Farbrace has undoubtedly been a big cog in England’s success; however the most important decision that the English Cricket team has made in my opinion, came with relatively little fanfare. The date I will remember as being the most important for English cricket in 2015, was 26th March 2015. The date when a certain Ottis Gibson was bought back into the England fold as bowling coach for a 2nd time, although a lot of credit also has to go to the Melbourne Renegades, who somehow saw fit to hire David Saker as head coach (that’s worked out well hasn’t it??)

 

This decision, again in the final death throes of Peter Moore’s reign (they had worked together previously in Moores’ first stint as England coach) was arguably the most important decision made by the ECB last year (although some credit has to go to Strauss for extending his contract). Gibson is the exact antithesis of Saker, an individual who isn’t desperate to be in the limelight (I can’t remember seeing an interview with Gibson since his appointment), an individual who is happy to do his work behind the scenes and let the bowlers take the credit when things go well (it always seemed more than a mere coincidence that Saker would appear at the end of a day when England had actually bowled well) and an individual who has more than one tactical plan when Plan A isn’t working. These character traits dovetail excellently with Bayliss’ and Farbrace’s style of management. I must admit that I almost jumped for joy when I heard the news that Saker was leaving England. This was a man who had made a career living off the glories of one great Ashes series in 2009/10 against an Australian side in complete disarray with an English team who were close to their pinnacle. David Saker generally had one plan and one plan only, let the opposition “have it up them” whatever the conditions – bowl short, bowl hard and show them how aggressive you are (no wonder there were divisions in the English dressing room between the batsmen and the bowlers, Saker probably actively encouraged it). For series after series, England bowled too short at opposing teams with the nadir being reached against the Sri Lankans at Headingley in 2014, where England’s bowling tactics were some of the most brainless I’ve ever witnessed on a cricket field; the macho “let’s show these Lankans who’s boss by letting them have it up them” ensured that we lost the game from a position of strength and without doubt showed David Saker’s limitations for the whole world to see. It wasn’t just that Saker was tactically poor, that was his probably his best quality, it was also the fact that he made all of our bowlers consistently worse and nearly destroyed one of them. Jimmy seemed to lose the ability to swing the ball, Broad was told that he had to be the destroyer alongside Plunkett and then we get to the case of a certain Steven Finn. At the end of the 2013/2014 Ashes series, Ashley Giles commented that Finn “was simply unselectable” – not that I attach any blame to Giles, the real perpetrator without doubt was David Saker, who had tinkered and toyed with Finn’s action so much that he simply didn’t know what to do anymore. I remember when Finn burst onto the scene in 2010 against Bangladesh and Pakistan, there was genuine excitement that we had a bowler who could bowl at 90MPH with the height to trouble even the most adept of batsmen, so to then hear that he had been reduced to bowling throw downs at a single stump at the end of the 2013/14 Ashes series should have prompted some thorough soul searching amongst the ECB hierarchy. This was all on David Saker’s watch, how could one of our most promising bowlers been left in such a situation? Why wasn’t Saker’s part in this heavily scrutinized unlike the batting failures that cost Gooch his job? Oh yes they were too busy throwing our best batsmen under a bus to worry about little things like this. The fact that Finn is somewhere back to his best (I thought he was the pick of the bowlers in the first two tests against South Africa) is testament to both Finn and to Richard Johnson (as well as Raph Brandon for helping him with his run up) and highlights what a simply terrible coach David Saker is.

 

Ottis Gibson, on the other hand, seems to do the all of the basics well and without doubt has the full respect of the English bowlers, many of whom he would have worked with at the start of their career. Aside from the West Indies series where we bowled like drains and to be fair to Gibson, he had only just taken up his post a couple of weeks before, England have consistently bowled better than they had done for the four years previous. Anderson (who many including myself, thought might be coming to the end of his career last summer) is consistently swinging the ball again and bowling better lines both at home and away. Broad has suddenly realised that you’re likely to pick up more wickets by pitching the ball up (gone are the macho “enforcer” passages of play thankfully) and as a result is also bowling far more wicket taking deliveries and also with a far better economy than ever before. Stokes and Finn have been allowed to play their natural games and hunt for wickets and not worry about being dropped for not “bowling dry” as they would have done in the past. Moeen also seems to have improved over the past couple of months and he again was very complimentary about working with Gibson – http://www.espncricinfo.com/south-africa-v-england-2015-16/content/story/956105.html. The bowling of the white ball side (Woakes, Willey, Topley and to some extent Jordan) has also improved dramatically.

 

And how have we needed our bowling attack to perform as well, most of England’s victories over the past year have revolved around an excellent bowling performance that has allowed our batsmen to play without pressure (and we have seen what our batting performances can be when suddenly the pressure gauge is switched, the 2nd innings at Cape Town was a perfect example). England’s batting line up still has many holes in it, with only one world class batsman (Root), one other proven international class batsman (Cook) with the rest being talented cricketers (Taylor, Compton, Bairstow, Stokes etc.) either trying to find their way in international cricket or are striving to become more consistent (if Stokes can regularly bat anywhere near to the ability he showed at Cape Town, then we will have a superstar). As a result, for England to be successful in the short term, we need to find an opener (still), get the batting unit to fire more often and pray that the English bowling attack can continue to carry our somewhat stuttering batting line up.

 

This for me is why Gibson’s appointment was the singularly most important news of 2015. We have always had a good bowling attack on paper for the past few years, but 90% of the time we were never sure which version would turn up, the one that bowled out Australia for 60 at Trent Bridge or the one that allowed Sri Lanka to score 457 in the 2nd innings at Headingley? It was a conundrum that neither Moores nor Saker could solve. It is still early days in Gibson’s tenure as bowling coach, and there will be some bad days as well as good, but the omens appear good. We appear to now have a bowling attack where each individual knows the role in which they have to play in it and as a result of this, it has become far more consistent and threatening in a variety of conditions.

 

Strauss and Cook may well get all of the credit in the mainstream media (wrongly in my opinion) and naturally there must be a hefty dollop of praise to both Bayliss and the “silent man” Paul Farbrace who have been instrumental in England’s improvement, but for me the most credit has to go to the individual that has received the least credit publicly since his appointment, one Ottis Delroy Gibson – the silent man’s silent man.

 

@thegreatbucko

 

 

 

 

FTA – The Silver bullet?

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Much as been made recently of the BBC’s decision to omit any of the Ashes winning England cricket team from Sport Personality of the Year this year, and whilst most are in agreement that SPOTY is but a relic, designed to carry favour with the few sports that the BBC still has left, there has also been general consent that this is a worry for the future of the game. There have been a number of excellent articles written about this, George Dobbell’s piece being the best in my opinion – http://www.espncricinfo.com/england/content/story/947713.html, and hence I don’t want to cover old ground by focusing too much on this. However I do feel there is more of a piece that needs to be covered around what we can possibly do to try and breathe live back into a sport, which for all intensive purposes is struggling to win both the hearts and minds of the British public.

 

A sensible and much heralded opinion is that the sport has declined in popularity since the end of FTA coverage and the move to Sky, where only those with deep pockets have been able to watch both domestic and international cricket for the past decade. Don’t get me wrong, as much as I think Sky’s coverage of cricket on the whole is excellent (if you take out Nick Knight and Dominic Cork it would be so much better); however their viewing figures compared to the last major series on FTA speak for themselves – In 2005 an average of 2.5m watched the Ashes series on a daily basis with FTA access on Channel 4, with 8.4m people transfixed by the climax of the fourth Test compared to just over 460,000 who watched the final day of the first (and only vaguely competitive) Test of the 2015 series. That is not just a big drop off, that is a complete haemorrhage of cricket viewers.

 

This has cascaded down further, there are plenty of figures that show the popularity of the sport has also been in sharp decline for the past few years now, with The ECB participation survey highlighting that 844,000 participated in the game in 2014 compared to the 908,000 in 2013 and by Sport England’s own figures that show a decline of just over a third from 2006-2014. I, like most others would welcome the return of some cricket to FTA, even if I think the possibility of this ever happening is incredibly remote (Rupert Murdoch is not renowned for his corporate social responsibility and Sky’s model has always been around locking in big sporting events); however I’m not overly convinced by those arguments that make this the one silver bullet, that will return cricket to it’s heyday of 2005, it seems to be a far too simplistic argument to me. I believe there are a number of factors in place here, some fairly obvious, some far more nuanced, that need to take place before we can see both viewing and participation figures start to head in the opposite direction.

 

I will happily concede the FTA coverage of the England cricket team, was probably the main reason why I came in contact and started to love the sport. I had no real reason to come into contact with cricket whilst I was growing up, my family are Irish (before cricket got popular over there) and had no interest in the sport. My old man loved football and hence I was taken to football to play in a team at an early age. I also went to a primary school with a small concrete playground and no playing fields, so really the signs weren’t promising that I would ever come in contact with cricket as a sport. This is where FTA coverage was great for me. The summer used to be a barren time with no football, wet summer holidays spent in the UK (certainly in my younger years) and an inordinate amount of boredom if I was stuck inside. I would literally watch any sport – cricket, tennis and sometimes even golf (though that was pushing it a bit) to keep me pre-occupied until the football season started again. As with anything, the more I watched cricket, the more I got to understand it and the more I got to enjoy it, even if watching the England team throughout the 90’s was viewed by many as sheer masochism. This was how I got into the sport and I was absolutely delighted when my old man caved in and bought Sky in 1993 as he missed the Premiership too much (we had spent a couple of years pretending Italian football on Channel 4 was the best league in the world), which meant that I could also start to watch some of the Away tests that Sky was showing as well as feeding my own love of English football.

 

However, One of my main complaints about the FTA argument is that we’re basing the argument on our own experiences of coming into contact with the game, which in my case is around 25 years ago and certainly not how today’s generation Y or Z (or whatever generation the children of today are, I’ve lost count) would consume content. If I use an example of my Niece and Nephew, who don’t even watch the TV anymore unless there is a film on or they have been told to leave their iPad’s at home. The generation of today can pretty much download any content at any time they want to and hence as a result, attention spans I would guess are shorter than they once were. If they start watching something or playing a game and get bored, then they can switch to watching something else whereas I had 4 channels and snoopy tennis to keep me amused as a child, so you generally stuck with things more, even the slightly more tedious passages of play when Australia were thumping our bowlers to all parts. The major challenge with all sport, but cricket even more so, is that the cricket players and fans of the future don’t consume information the same way we did at their age, nor looking at Sport England’s figures, do they participate in as much sporting activity as we did 10-20 years ago. I strongly believe you could have shown all of the Ashes tests on BBC One throughout the summer and the demographics of those watching wouldn’t have particularly changed (yes you would get greater numbers with an influx of non-Sky subscribers, but I doubt you would have got too many new fans). I totally agree that we need to open up the sport so more can actively watch games and hopefully look to emulate those at the top of the game (and I believe Sky could help by potentially selling 5 day tickets for £20 on their On Demand Access service) but feel that FTA is but a part of the solution and there needs more focus to stream both live games and comprehensive highlights, especially of T20 games, through the web as it will likely to garner more interest with those who have yet to come in contact with the game. Access is king here and FTA, whilst something I would very much welcome, is only part of the solution.

 

Another major aspect (and in my opinion of far greater consideration) is how do we get people playing the game again. Football has the monopoly here. It is a sport that is supported across the world and on the whole easier and cheaper to get kids playing it, even with sport participation dwindling massively over the past few years. I started playing football when I was 6, partly because my parents enjoyed the sport and partly because it was a lot cheaper to buy me a football and some football boots and to let me run off some of my youthful energy. You can also play football pretty much anywhere and me and my friends did as kids. Cricket is more difficult, it is more expensive to buy equipment, less prominent in the majority of schools and has less of a fan base to operate with than say football, as most children will take up the sport of their parent preference. Again, If I go back to my own experiences as a child, I had never really had that much urge to play the game despite enjoying watching it on FTA. We never had a cricket games at primary and secondary school and my only real experience was playing it in the large garden of mutual friend, whose father was passionate about the game. In the end, I was lucky enough to befriend the captain of the town’s under 12 cricket team, who were always on the look out for more players and was invited down to see if I could play (thankfully I had pretty good hand-eye co-ordination and was lively in the field, which meant I got in the team fairly quickly, although my dream of being the next Shane Warne never really made it past first base). I played cricket all the way through my teens and then in various 2nd XI’s into my late twenties, as although, I wasn’t actually that good but could bowl and bat a bit, I still really enjoyed playing the game and was happy to give up parts of my weekend to play. My point here is that I wouldn’t have had the exposure or chance to play if I hadn’t made friends with the captain of the local team as the access to the sport, especially at state school level where most don’t have a chance to play cricket, is incredibly poor. The crux of the matter is that we will continue to see participation drop, if we do not give more opportunities to those not from the previous hotbeds of cricket (i.e. those that might not have been traditionally viewed as prime cricket material) and this in turn will result in fewer people taking up the game, more cricket clubs closing because they can’t field an XI and eventually a mighty old headache for the ECB, when people stop paying top dollar to attend England test matches as people lose interest.

 

As much as I find the ECB an insipid and quite frankly an out of touch organization, even they are beginning to wake up to this fact. David Hopps’ article on the appointment of Matt Dwyer, the ECB’s director of participation and growth is an interesting piece –http://www.espncricinfo.com/england/content/story/950475.html, and highlights some of the real challenges that the sport is currently facing. Cricket more than ever, is the preserve of the wealthy and those that can afford to send their children to Private School. Without doing any particular research, I would guess that most of those currently playing in the England cricket team went to Private School and thereby had access to the facilities that those of us who didn’t, would only dream about (I remember as a kid, my team managed to negotiate 2 winter net sessions a season at the local private school and we felt lucky that we were able to do so.) The Chance to Shine programme, though laudable, has yet to really take off and has only really scratched the surface in engaging children to start playing the sport and needs to be ramped up significantly. We need somehow to get this on the national curriculum otherwise cricket will continue to be a sport of the elitist and local facilities and clubs will continue to be ripped up and shut as many local authorities and schools look to cut their cloth in a world of continued financial hardships. This is both the biggest challenge and opportunity for the ECB, although whether Matt Dwyer and the ECB are up to the challenge is a question in itself, I do wish them good luck though.

 

The final piece of the puzzle in getting more people engaged in the sport is also by having the opportunity to watch it live. I went to my first test match in 1999, when I was studying at University (or supposed to have been and was lucky my next door neighbor suddenly found himself with a spare ticket) and have attended at least 2 games per year for the last 16 years since. I’ve also been out to watch England tour a couple of times, which I’m sure the ECB are grateful to me in help swelling their coiffures during this time, even if there gratitude normally extends to raising the price of tickets for the following summer. My main observation though is that now it is pretty much impossible to take a family to a Test Match these days unless you have a lot of money to burn (circa £250 for a family of four is mind wateringly expensive). It is getting rarer and rarer to see a parent and their children at one of the test games these days and unfortunately I really can’t see this changing in the short term. The ECB, like myself, understands the metrics of supply and demand and in the majority, though perhaps not this year, the demand has outstripped the supply, hence the ability to charge obscene prices for both tickets and refreshments in the ground. This is where I feel county cricket can come in and help fill the void. As my article earlier in the year suggested, I don’t feel that county cricket is in the rudest of health and I certainly don’t think it helps itself in many cases. That said, I do think that this is the easiest, cheapest and most accessible place to get more people involved with the game (and not just those that turn up on a Friday night at the T20’s to try and shove as much beer down their throats as humanly possible) with a few changes to the schedule and structuring.

 

Now I hadn’t planned when I was first thinking about writing this article about wading into the T20 debate, but the more I think about it, the more essential I feel that this is to the health of the game. As I mentioned in my last paragraph, the T20 blast, which should be the easiest way of getting kids into watching the game, is now largely a no go because of the scheduling of all games on a Friday night. I went to 5 T20 Blast games last year and many of them (especially those at the Oval) would be the last place where I would want to take young children as half of the crowd have decided that it’s a prelude for heavy drinking and as a result, increasingly we are starting to seeing more drink induced episodes of violence, which has no place at the cricket, or anywhere else in my mind. Now don’t get me wrong, there are a number of games that I attended in my twenties where some of the action after tea was a bit of a blur, but it was all pretty good humored and very different to the atmosphere at some T20 games (interestingly, I found the out-grounds to be far more welcoming with a nice mix of young and old, make of that what you will). Nor do I blame the Counties in driving through their desire to have all of the T20 blast games on a Friday, as it’s a great money spinner and indeed essential to some for their continued survival; however the current format of the tournament is a logistical nightmare for Players and Broadcasters alike and in my opinion is of a lower quality to those T20 leagues player around the world (and judging from the comments of the England ODI captain, it looks like the players are in agreement). The more I think about it, the more I feel that we need to embrace a franchise league played in 5/6 weeks over the Summer holidays. Now I understand that this might be seen as heresy in some quarters, but my the two main reasons underpinning my thoughts on this are that:

 

  • Firstly every game can be aired on TV including some kind of FTA/streaming capacity to be able to better reach the masses so that we don’t get the farcical situation of only a couple of thousand people being able to see Chris Gayle smash the ball around at Taunton or watch Glen Maxwell, Brendon McCullum and other world class T20 players that could inspire a generation.
  • Secondly, by basing this tournament around the Summer holidays and with games scheduled at different times of the day with a sensible pricing policy, then there will be opportunities for all types of cricket fans to attend the games, not just those who see it as a chance to drink a lot of beer on a Friday night.

 

This I believe would help open up the sport to a whole different range of supporters especially with the carrot of being able to watch and hopefully then try to emulate more world class superstars who I feel, would be far more attracted to come over and play in a shortened tournament as well as likely increasingly the skill level of the competition – a win-win for both fans and players alike.

 

I also believe the four day game has a part to play in this too, although the scheduling and cost doesn’t help at all at the moment. There has to be a movement by the counties for getting the majority of the games back to starting on a Saturday, when they are most accessible for both those that work and those that have families. The move to Sunday or even Monday starts has meant that it is increasingly difficult to view county cricket, whether you are sold on it’s merits or not, and seems to me to be completely at odds with trying to attract a new audience to the game (as well as increasing attendances for the most difficult format “to sell” to the public.) It’s all very well pointing to increased attendances in cricket http://www.skysports.com/cricket/news/12123/10076035/cricket-attracts-record-crowds-for-domestic-and-international-games, although I think there are many factors here with these statistics (and some that aren’t as perhaps as wholesome as we would like), I’d be very surprised if the demographics of those attending those games, especially the county games, have changed at all. I also believe that the pricing for the games is wrong, with it being relatively expensive for a family to come down and watch a day of county fair (£20 for adults and £12 for children, I believe at Lords). Why not introduce a family ticket for £30 whereby 2 adults and up to 2 children can come and watch the cricket for a day? This would surely make more sense as it will firstly mean a fairly inexpensive day out for a family, build more atmosphere inside the ground and most importantly, provide access to live cricket of a decent quality for a broader audience.

 

In summary, there are a few fundamental changes that need to be made in my opinion, some of which can be done in the short term and some that will take longer, mainly due to contractual obligations:

 

  • A franchise T20 competition to take place over 5/6 weeks during the Summer holidays with fair ticket pricing and ability to watch free of charge over YouTube or another similar site
  • Most county games to start on a Saturday with a fairer pricing policy including family tickets
  • The ECB to commit to double it’s spend on grass routes cricket inclusive of investing in pitches and equipment to both cricket clubs and also to show a commitment to invest in cricket at state school level
  • FTA access to at least 1 ODI and 1 T20 International per series – this can be done via one of Sky’s intermediary channels such as Pick TV
  • £20 Sky Access TV tickets to watch a test match in its’ entirety, £10-£15 tickets for ODI’s and T20 Internationals

 

Now these are simply my opinions and many may will disagree with them, but one thing is for certain is that we can’t simply sit back and hope the current status quo magically produces a new wave of cricket fans, it simply isn’t going to happen, even in Colin Grave’s wildest dreams. The foundations of the ivory towers in which the ECB currently presides are starting to look as unstable as they have ever been and one only needs to look at the current state of West Indies cricket as a reminder that blind faith counts for very little when you ignore the most pressing of problems. Now I do hasten to add, that I’m not trying to directly compare the current situation of West Indies cricket with that of English cricket, the WICB has the unenviable position of making the ECB look like a bastion of a sensibility and a well run cricket board in the extreme, an unenviable achievement in itself; however both have had the same problem, albeit the West Indies on a far quicker scale than in England, in that they are governing a sport that has experienced a serious decline in popularity. The ECB aren’t staring at the precipice just yet, but the cliff is beginning to crumble beneath their feet.

 

Giles Clarke may have blustered “that Test cricket was in rude health” in the film Death of a Gentleman, but it was just that, desperate bluster. I believe that his decision to sell most of the other cricket nations down the river in his support of creating the big three is almost a “King Canute” situation, desperate to repel the tide, but who’s only strategy is to play against Australia and India more in the hope that it might buy them a few more years and boost the coiffures. It indeed might, but I’m not sure it will, it seems like a desperate attempt by an increasingly desperate board to make as much money as they can whilst the sun shines; Very soon, the cricketing public will become blasé about another Ashes series or another series against an uncompetitive Indian team (I think it’s closer than anyone at the ECB actually thinks) and will vote with their feet. As I mentioned earlier on in the piece, the ECB has a rudimentary grasp on supply and demand and this may well spring them into some much needed action, after all, no punters, no queue of companies offering to sponsor “Hydration breaks” and a big hit in the ECB’s pocket. The strong ivory tower that the ECB thought they constructed might well have foundations made out of sand after all.

 

Cricket in England is in decline unfortunately and whilst not in a death spiral just yet, there are plenty of reasons to be very concerned. Unless there is radical and fundamental change in the way cricket is administered in England and in the way that new fans are brought into the game, then cricket risks becoming a relic, mourned by the traditionalists, but largely irrelevant to the rest of modern society. Over to you Colin and Tom, no pressure chaps…

 

@thegreatbucko

Punishment or Rehabilitation..

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I don’t normally feel the need to comment on any of the various T20 league tournaments because there are so many of them around and they also seem to blur into haze of mediocrity with the odd T20 specialist bought in to flog the most average of attacks. As a result, I rarely watch any of them unless they happen to be on TV and I’ve seriously got nothing better to do; hence the fact that I’ve written a small piece about the BPL of all tournaments, shows there are other “outside factors” that have engaged the cricket community this weekend.

It is no surprise that my focus in on Mohammad Amir, who returned to the cricketing limelight (or cricketing despair depending on your opinion) today with 4/30 in his first game outside of the Pakistani leagues since his conviction for spot-fixing in a test match between England and Pakistan. This has naturally led to some fairly frank and forthright views on Twitter for those in the “he has served his time” camp and those in the “he should never have been allowed on a cricket pitch again” camp. Now I can see both sides of the argument here, those pleading clemency highlight how the fact that Amir was an immature 18 year old boy, hailing from a poor family in Pakistan with limited education and this is a strong argument. I can see that he was likely in awe of both Mohammad Asif and Salman Butt, who was his international captain at the time and senior player within the Pakistan dressing room and that the pressure he would have felt as a junior member to obey the captain would have been immense. I can also appreciate that after initially denying involvement, he quickly came clean and served his ban in a pretty unblemished manner and most of all, I can understand the overriding sentiment of this group that everyone deserves a second chance, whatever they have done previously. I can see all of these things, I really can, but it still doesn’t change or alter my own view that none of the three, including Mohammad Amir, should be allowed near a cricket pitch ever again.

Match fixing (or spot fixing), although I would class the two as the same, is probably the biggest threat facing Cricket in the current era and quite rightly, a punishment is needed to deter those who contemplate entering that murky world from ever doing so. Going back to Amir and looking back at the events leading up to that Test Match in 2010, there must have been a point in the young man’s mind when he realised that what Salman Butt had asked him to do was wrong and downright illegal, after all Amir was 18 when he made the decision to bowl those no-balls, and unless I’m very much mistaken the legal age of criminal responsibility is 14. I find it inconceivable that being offered a truck load of money in a plush hotel room to bowl a series no-balls in a test match, didn’t set alarm bells ringing especially since he had been playing the game at a decent level since the age of 11. I also find it hard to believe that he didn’t realize the consequences of getting caught, and whilst I accept that Amir was poorly educated and from a background of poverty, the fact that the ACSU had been operating since 2000 and clearly spreading the message that “if you cheat, you will be caught and will be banned” makes it hard to believe that they didn’t have some communication with Amir prior to what happened in September 2010. My point here is this, Amir despite being young and impressionable, decided that it was easier to make some quick money by bowling a deliberate no-ball on the command of his captain, in the knowledge that what he was doing was utterly wrong and was bringing the game into the highest of disrepute in the hope that he didn’t get caught.

So we now fast forward to the events of today, and it really did strike me what some of Amir’s teammates were thinking as they strode onto the field in Bangladesh? Perhaps they all accepted that he had made a horrible mistake in the past and that he had paid for that mistake with his ban; somehow I doubt it, I bet there was a nasty, lurking feeling somewhere in their minds that perhaps he shouldn’t be trusted and what if he is on the take again? the BPL, very much like the IPL has an extremely chequered past and if you don’t believe me, just ask Darren Stevens, who nearly paid with his career for not reporting an illegal approach last year. Indeed, only yesterday, Mohammad Hafeez came out and said that he turned down a well remunerated offer to play in the BPL because he didn’t want to play alongside Amir because “he had shamed his country” which in literal translation means, he has bought shame on the whole of cricket and I will never be able to trust him again. Equally Kevin Pietersen has also argued the case very eloquently, around why Amir alongside Butt and Asif, should not be allowed in the hallowed grounds of international cricket again. It is clear that there is a deep unease in the cricket community that a known “cheat” is back playing the game that they have worked so hard at and made many sacrifices to be able to play at the very top level and rightly so, after all once you cross that white line and walk onto the cricket pitch, you need to know that everyone is pulling in the right direction in aid of the team. I also firmly believe that it is also vitally important too for the image of the game that the fans have the complete faith in the players that they so often idolise, certainly in a country such as Pakistan but this can easily apply to any cricketing nation in the world. It sends shivers down my spine down that somewhere in Pakistan, a kid watched that game today and turned round to his parents and asked “who is Mohammad Amir? I want to bowl and be like Mohammad Amir”. How do you explain that this is the guy, who got caught trying to fix the outcome of the game to make himself and an illegal bookmaker rich? How do you explain that this was only the beginning, to test the player to execute their demands with a view of bigger fixers and better rewards in the future? Mohammad Amir deserves to be idolized by nobody, full stop. However I have a real fear that by allowing him back onto the international stage, that the enormity of his crime will soon be swept under the carpet in the fervor of nationalistic pride at the talent of Amir the bowler (and nobody can doubt he had the potential to be a player of a generation.)

This is the crux of my argument, which is around the need to have a “punishment that fits the enormity of the crime”. What message does it send to players young and old, county or international professionals, those earning good money and those struggling to make ends meat, that a convicted cheat is allowed back into the game and allowed to make a living from playing it? How does this not water down the rhetoric of the ACSU that corruption from outside influences is the biggest threat to international cricket and one that all players need to both be aware of and also must report any suspicious approaches for the good of the game? Where is the deterrent now for a player who against his moral judgement, is considering succumbing to one of these approaches to make a quick buck? There simply needs to be an edict from the ICC and ACSU, one that is applicable to every single player in the world, that if you try and fix any part of the game then it is a ban for life, no ifs, no buts and no extenuating circumstances, it’s totally black and white for every player in the world to see. This is the only way that we have any chance of stamping out this cancer that is threatening our game.

I’m all for one for letting Mohammad Amir have another chance in society, but what I do not accept is that he should be allowed to earn a living from the game he let down so badly, the game that millions of people in the world love to watch, the game in which those spectators would have given their right arm to have the talent Amir had and with it, the chance to play at the highest level.

 

@thegreatbucko

Death of a journalist?

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It has been a interesting few weeks again in the life of international cricket, England have lost another series in sub continental conditions, which has created more questions than answers around why we can’t seem to produce an opening batsman or a decent spinner. South Africa were blown away in 3 days on a suitably prepared raging bunsen, designed to play to all of India’s strengths and negate an even game of cricket and lately we have seen the beginning of the demise (hopefully for good) of N Srinivasan, a man who seemed to have every finger in every pie across domestic and international cricket.

However there has been one key issue that has been gnawing at the back of my mind throughout the summer and into the winter (one that not even a glorious Ashes victory, or something like that, can gloss over) and that has been the paucity of coverage given to the carve up of international cricket by the big 3 and the internal maneuvering to ensure prime slots at the ICC to make sure that remains the case. In fact apart from the odd murmuring from the some of the nationals and press (tellingly though, mainly from non-cricket specialist hacks, Nick Hoult apart) the only real noise was made by the tremendous film, Death of a Gentleman, which has painted a clear picture of what those running international cricket don’t want us to see i.e. their naked greed. This, for one, dumbfounds me. How can possibly the most important (and quite frankly) disgraceful decision in the history of the sport be relegated to nothing more than a few columns, a couple of side-stepped questions from the authorities (yes Tom Harrison I’m looking at you) and a small segment on CWOTV when half the panelists hadn’t even bothered to watch DOAG? I’m genuinely struggling to comprehend why the press are not giving sufficient airtime to consider the ramifications of this – the relegation of the Associates back to irksome minnows, the big 3 choosing what revenue they would like to make and likely when they will play each other most to guarantee the pound coins raking in. Seriously what can be more important than trying to rally around and protect the game we all love?

I am not a journalist and have never had the preference or the skill to be one; however I have worked closely with a number of journalists over the past 15 years across National newspapers and B2B press and the most common value that these individuals have had Is the ability to understand the levers of power, break important news stories and most importantly to have an undeniable personal integrity that cannot be swayed by outside interests. I look at some of the journalists across other sports, such as football, who have been constantly criticizing FIFA for being a corrupt sham of an organization, or for criticizing the clubs for refusing to field English talent in their first teams. I look at political journalism and there is rarely a decision or a policy that isn’t vigorously debated in journalistic circles, and certainly when Jeremy Paxman is involved, in the face of said politician. So why is this not happening in the world of cricket? Why has the terrible decision to basically carve up cricket for “the haves” in the world not been criticized on a daily basis? Why has the constant bad decision making, terrible PR and subsequent rift that has spread amongst many fans emanating from the decisions of our own board not been regularly dissected and questioned? Is it the quality of the journalists or more an edict from our own board around what is acceptable to say in public circles?

Now I want to be clear that is not a sweeping attack on cricket journalism, the likes of George Dobbell, Jarrod Kimber, David Hopps and Nick Hoult are all excellent journalists in their own right and regularly get under the skin of the most pressing issues affecting English and world cricket; and they have at least, tried to cover most of these incidents with a degree of journalistic intelligence and inquisition that I would expect; however there are a number of the more established MSM journalists who seem happy in their own cozy little world, distrustful of outsiders, where they let make it clear to all and sundry that they know best and anyone else who dares question their views is a bilious inadequate or an idiot and most definitely “outside cricket”. Is this a symptom of current cricket journalism or a reflection on a community who mistrust social media, have never had to deal with negative feedback before and as a result, kick out at many knowledgeable England fans and call them muppets or idiots for having the cheek to question their opinion? Is this really acceptable? Twitter, for example, is now a necessity for those looking to promote their work to the masses and whether they like it or not, social media is here to stay (hence why when one of them storms off in a huff, they are normally back within a week), so why use it as a tool to berate inquisitive fans who question in the right way? Why not embrace it as a forum to connect and get under the skin of what many fans are actually thinking?

A major bugbear of mine is that it appears there is no real urge or inclination from this group to hold their paymasters to account and they seem especially fearful of upsetting Chris Haynes (who is now the Director of Communications at the ECB and strangely enough, was a senior ranking individual at Sky beforehand). Is there a genuine fear about upsetting the ECB and thus having their access to the players withdrawn? And as a result do they feel they cannot and therefore will not, stick their head above the parapet to step away from the prescribed ECB line?

What particularly strikes though me is the insular and almost incestuous nature of many of the cricket insiders, very much like an old boys club for ex-pros and those that have garnered favour from the ECB. Is this something that has come about by chance or something that the ECB has actively fostered? After all, since most of the nationals have cut the number of journalists who actively write about the game (they generally rely on the press association or the odd freelancer to cover county cricket) there seem to be few young budding journalists appearing on the scene, more the occasional deckchair re-arrangement of the old guard. It also seems to me that the Sports Editors have very little interest here either, football is their main money spinner, so it appears that they let the cricket hacks have free rein as long as they can secure an interview with Rooty, Jimmy or Cooky occasionally to justify their existence and to highlight that they still are still committed to covering the sport.

This has set a dangerous precedent, which was clearly highlighted in the negative press towards Kevin Pietersen when first Paul Downton (remember him) and then Andrew Strauss decided that they didn’t want our best player in the side as he was a bit troublesome, had a funny accent and wouldn’t adhere to the strict ECB protocols set out. Now I understand that KP is someone who polarizes opinion and will continue to do so; however the nature of the attacks have been personal in the extreme, full of inconsistencies and at that their worst, bordering on xenophobic and this has carried on intermittently for the last 18 months. I very much doubt that Freddie Flintoff, who arguably was as much as a disruptive character as KP in the dressing room, would have received the same level of negative press. The edict seems to be that everyone in their cozy clique needs to report how the “brave, new England” under the superb tenancy of Captain Cook is a team on the up. Never mind that we don’t have an opener, a number 3, a number 5 or a spinner and our best player has been jettisoned for non-cricketing reasons, that doesn’t quite fit the script the ECB would like to be played out.

There is a smidgeon of hope though, that things have got so bad and rotten at the ICC that even those who you could class as “institutionalized” have started to speak out. I was heartened to see Jonathan Agnew’s comments on Twitter the other night, calling for someone at the ICC to take accountability and sort this mess out. Whilst I don’t readily accept that he has been fighting the cause from the beginning and would question his timing i.e. why choose to broadcast this now when there was plenty of opportunity throughout the Ashes series as events were unfolding and especially during the interview with Tom Harrison, who was basically allowed to answer “yeah but we won the Ashes” to every question; it is still heartening to see someone as high profile as Aggers step out of the shadows and openly question some of the working practices of the elite.

I genuinely hope that this can be the touch paper for the media as a whole to take a proper look down the rabbit hole that is the inner workings of the ICC. The ICC and N Srinivasan look rotten to the core (comparable to FIFA rotten in my opinion) and who has been pulling the strings alongside Mr. Srinivasan, oh yes, it’s our wonderful leader and ICC president “elect”, Giles Clarke. Surely there is an opportunity here to start digging into the legality of the amended ICC constitution? A chance to look into the behind closed door deals that removed any hope for the Associate nations to further cricket in their own countries? A chance to look at some of the “below the table” commercial deals, especially where there is a clear conflict of interest? Surely there is an opportunity to raise some noise around Giles Clarke’s position as both un-appointed and unopposed leader of World Cricket? I genuinely hope someone can take the lead in holding the various establishments to account, but as a realist, I fear that this is a step too far for the old boys club. Once stuck in a rut, it is always hard to dig oneself out of it.

On a final note, If you can’t embrace social media or the view of the everyday fan, then at least stop calling us idiots or muppets when we legitimately question a piece or your opinion on a fact, it reflects not only badly on you but also the industry as a whole. Most individuals who engage on Twitter (and yes I accept there are plenty of idiots out there) are committed England and World cricket fans, with a genuine fear of what is happening to our game and I would guess that if you were more approachable and willing to engage, then you might even be pleasantly surprised at the outcome and what’s not to like about that. But hey what do I know, I’m just “little Seanie who blogs and thinks he knows everything about the game.”

@thegreatbucko

County Cricket – The tail that wags the dog

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So we’ve won back the Ashes in glorious fashion and repelled those dastardly Australians’, so all is rosy in the garden of English cricket, right?? I think we might all agree on here (being as we’re most definitely outside cricket) that whilst the MSM might want us to think this, this is about as far from reality as it comes. This English team lacks the consistency and players to become number one, so why is this the case and who is to blame? The ECB? County Cricket? Or is it simply a mixture of the two?

Now don’t get me wrong, I love county cricket. I’ve been bought up with it as a staple for the past 25 years and am a staunch Middlesex fan, but the hard truth is that it is no longer fit to do what it is designed to do, which is to produce test quality individuals ready to go straight into the England team and perform. There I said it and I do not expect this view to be universally popular (I’ve already had my view branded on Twitter by one of the more well known county cricket apologists as “utterly nonsense”); however the stark facts of the current county cricket regime is that we play too much cricket, lurching from one form to another on different days, and this has led to a noticeable drop in quality of the four day game compared to that of 10 years ago. I also feel that the reduction in Kolpak qualified players has adversely affected the standard across both divisions, as the pool of good English youngsters gets smaller each year (it is a well known fact that less kids are playing cricket competitively now compared to 10 years ago). Now I’m not advocating a return to the darker days of county cricket, when anyone who had a South African passport and a cricket bat could get a gig (yes Sven Koenig, I’m looking at you), but I don’t buy the line that these players are blocking young English talent from getting a game. The likes of Peterson, Prince, Hogan and to a lesser extent Franklin are very good players in their own right, have been picked on merit and can help mentor some of the younger members of the team. The bottom line should be if you are good enough you will play, English qualified or Kolpak.

If I take a look back at this year’s Ashes series, the reality is that Adam Lyth, who was really the only opener we could pick based on county cricket form, was nowhere up to the task technically or mentally. Johnny Bairstow, who has murdered county attacks all year wrong, looked all at sea against better bowling and we are currently placing our spin hopes on a batsman (and one I rate) who up until a couple of years ago was most definitely a part time spin bowler. The sad fact is that those cricketers who have genuinely been a success at International cricket (Root, Broad, Anderson, Cook, & Buttler to an extent) have generally been whipped out of county cricket and thrown into the international set up long before they have started to pick up bad habits. On the flip side, those that have had to genuinely make their way in county cricket before elevation to the England side, have more often than not failed (Matt Prior & Paul Collingwood are the two notable exceptions). So why is county cricket currently failing to produce cricketers that can cut it on the international stage? I believe there are two major points that need to be addressed here:

  • We play far too much County Cricket and even worse, we mix and match the formats sometimes from day to day
  • The pitches we play on are so alien to those that are played on the international arena that the first time many of these cricketers face a non-seaming, spinning pitch is on their international debut

These I believe go hand in hand, the current format means that we start the season in April when there is likely to be green tops (and nothing for the spinners) and then we flog our cricketers until late September, which means there aren’t going to be too many 90MPH bowlers left charging in at that stage.

In particular, the two areas that concern me most are that there are simply no incentives for an up and coming county cricketer to want to bowl fast or to bowl spin, as the counties are preparing pitches for 70MPH trundlers who can get the ball to nibble both ways (no offence to the individuals, but a little part of me dies every time I see a Jesse Ryder or a Darren Stevens 5 wicket haul). Indeed, this is my major bugbear and this is where the Counties are just as blameworthy as their paymasters. The fact that it is far easier to stick with an old pro bowling slow accurate seaming deliveries on a green pitch than to prepare a good track and to put faith in a raw quick or a young spin bowler, hence the lack of these talents available to the England team. It makes me so angry that Scott Borthwick has had to reinvent himself as a number 3 batsman to even get a game (I remember the first time I saw him bowl, I said that he would get at least 50 England caps) or that Will Beer and Max Waller can no longer get a game in the four day format. These were the bright young hopes of English spin and county cricket has ruined them.

No wonder Lyth et al failed to make it at international level, it was probably the first time they had probably ever faced a left armer bowling at 90MPH or a decent test level spinner. How can you attach blame to them for that? You simply can’t. The question should be why had they have never faced this type of bowling in the first place?

The simple answer is that the quantity of county cricket is directly of detriment to the quality being played. We need a mandate from the ECB that divides the season into:

  • 3 divisions of four day cricket playing 10 games a piece
  • A window for the England Lions to play against each of the touring teams thus exposing them to international cricket
  • A strictly enforced pitch inspection team encouraging a fair contest between bat and ball and not penalizing pitches that turn
  • A summer window for a T20 tournament, whatever the format
  • Two knockout 50 over tournaments at the start and end of the season

This is very much my opinion and many will disagree, but this is the only format in which I can see County cricket raising the quality of it’s top divisions whilst reducing the workload of our county players. Three divisions are absolutely necessary to do this, as it will strengthen the talent available for the top division and there will be less games but of a higher quality as a result (mostly the two teams that come up from Div2 normally go straight back down again), especially if the England management team only look to pick individuals from the top division. I appreciate that this will make it hard for teams in the third division as many of the top teams will hoover up their best talent; however the standard at the bottom of the current Division 2 is as poor as I can remember, which is another reason why the promoted teams struggle so much the following season.) I would prefer a stronger Division one and Division two, comprised of 6 teams each, rather than keeping the status quo pandering to those teams who have hardly won a game of four day cricket in the past couple of years.

I would start the four day season in May (after the first 50 over cup), when hopefully the pitches would have dried out a bit from the winter with a window between the first and second games to allow a full strength Lions team to play the touring opposition. The four-day competition would potentially go on until the 20/20 window in late July/early August and would then wrap up in early September (I would imagine the last couple of games of four-day cricket would end up here as it’s impossible to schedule them elsewhere unless we start in April, which I am totally against). We would then wrap up the season with another 50 over knock out tournament. The other law I would like to bring in is that the pitch inspectors would have full power to dock points for overly green pitches or those that are not a fair contest between bat and ball. Although it is exhilarating to watch 16 wickets fall on a day (it has happened to me twice this year), it is not conducive to high quality cricket and encourages teams to pick medium pace dobbers, rather than players that can make things happen on a flatter pitch, which is the very thing I am trying to get away from.

So why are we still stuck with the status quo? Well that goes back to my point raised in the first paragraph about the way the ECB tippy toes around the problem.

Nick Hoult’s piece in the Telegraph last week showed how the ECB had again allowed the county chairmen to walk all over them in negotiations and had needed to water down their vision of reshaping county cricket to such an extent that is practically obsolete from the original version and achieves precisely nothing. So what are Tom Harrison and Andrew Strauss actually doing apart from basking in the glory of a home series win and selling new commercial deals (Hydration breaks – please give me strength)? They are certainly not doing that which they should be doing, which is creating a platform that can allow England to produce high quality international players whatever the format.

I have the horrible feeling though, that I am simply being horribly naïve. Why bother to pick a fight with the county chairmen, when you can carve up international cricket in a way that allows you to make the most money? Why bother lowering the price of international cricket to engage fans or allow FTA coverage when you can sell out highly inflated hospitality boxes to high worth individuals? Why bother taking the time out to clearly set out a plan for the betterment of England team, when the MSM will buy any bullshit that’s on offer and tell you it’s gospel?

The stated aim to reach the pinnacle of International cricket by reshaping county cricket is simply a smoke and mirrors job to occupy the chuntering masses. It’s the money stupid and don’t you ever forget that.

@thegreatbucko