Sandpaper-gate – If that was justice, I’m a Kakadu plum.

This article first appeared in The Cricketer online in November 2018.

Steve-Smith-apology-1120

Picture credit: Newshub, New Zealand

The Cricket Australia Board met last week [20 November 2018] to consider submissions made by players’ union, the Australian Cricketers’ Association, which argued for the immediate lifting of the sanctions imposed on Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft following the so-called Sandpaper-gate scandal.

The Board dismissed the submissions on the grounds that “the original decision … to sanction the players was determined after rigorous discussion and consideration … CA maintains that both the length and nature of the sanctions remain an appropriate response in light of the considerable impact on the reputation of Australian cricket, here and abroad”. Of course, what CA regards as rigour, appropriate and reputation goes to the very nub of the problem.

As Ian Hislop famously remarked when Private Eye emerged on the wrong side of a libel judgement, “If that’s justice, I’m a banana!” The sanctions handed down by CA in March were equally fruit shaped, and the decision last week to uphold them added a Melba sauce.

At the time, ball-tampering was a Level 2 offence under ICC Playing Conditions, grouped with offences of similar standing, such as time wasting – think Stuart Broad constantly re-tying his bootlaces – or a bowler running on a protected area.

The ICC Code of Conduct imposed a maximum penalty for a Level 2 offence of 100 per cent match fee and/or up to a one-Test ban. Both were imposed on Smith. Bancroft was fined 75% of his match fee. Warner emerged without sanction.

The penalties imposed by the ICC were entirely in keeping with its Code of Conduct and with precedent. Two years earlier, in a similarly high-profile examination of ball-tampering, colloquially known as Mint-gate or Lolly-gate, Faf du Plessis was fined his match fee and given three demerit points – a one Test ban required four – for applying sweet residue to the ball. The case led to a far more forensic look at the practice with just as much hand-wringing and naval gazing without so much as a one-match ban for Du Plessis.

The practice of using substances, from dirt to sugary saliva, in an attempt to make the ball swing this way or that has been widespread at every level of the game for decades. Marcus Trescothick admitted in his biography to working his way through 15 Murray mints a day with the sole purpose of applying artificial shine to the ball.

Lawrence Booth made light of the faux shock generated in some quarters. “Remember,” he said, “this is the same batsman who, during the previous home series against Australia, spilt his confectionery all over the Headingley pitch in front of the square-leg umpire.” On that occasion, Trescothick had a pocketful of lollipops, but the match referee felt no need to wield even a really little stick.

Yet there have been barely a handful of charges for ball-tampering. One of the few was Rahul Dravid, who in 2004 was fined 50% of his match fee for rubbing a partially eaten lozenge on the ball. After Mint-gate, Matt Prior commented “Amongst the players the lines are pretty clear and use of sweets to shine the ball is accepted … EVERYONE uses sweets! You’d have to ban a player every match”.

 

The inevitable perception is the investigatory team flew out to South Africa with Turnbull’s admonitions ringing in their ears and One-Year Ban pre-printed on their luggage labels

 

Perhaps most tellingly, Steve Smith admitted “We along with every other team around the world shine the ball the same way [as South Africa]”.

The ICC and domestic boards have routinely turned a blind eye to the practice and operated a “nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more” approach to policing ball-tampering.  After Mint-gate, the MCC and the ICC took the view that ball-tampering, as an offence, was correctly positioned within the hierarchy of misdemeanours and decided that no changes were necessary. 

Former Pakistan batsman Ramiz Raja, a member of the  MCC world cricket committee, reassured players that it was less the practice that was the issue – “Mike [Brearley] put it absolutely brilliantly … You must not get caught. It is as simple as that”. This is jurisprudential clarity as offered by Eric Idle and Monty Python. 

In terms of the advantage being sought by ball-tampering, there is a belief, wholly unproven it should be said, that keeping one side of the ball shiny helps conventional swing while roughing up the other side will enhance reverse swing.  NASA scientist Dr Rabindra Mehta, who has made a study of cricket-ball aerodynamics, believes the effect of such interventions is overplayed, but let’s focus on intent rather than actual effect. 

Du Plessis attempted to affect the performance of the ball by making one side artificially shiny. Bancroft attempted to change the ball’s performance by making one side artificially rough. In terms of intent and desired outcome, the two events are identical. They differed only in the means chosen to alter the condition of the ball.

So why were Smith and Warner banned for 12 months while Du Plessis merely lost his match fee – a penalty, incidentally, that he considered so unfair that he appealed the decision?

When the scandal was first exposed, there was not the slightest notion that CA had remotely transitioned from that laissezfaire world where ball-tampering was met with a Gallic shrug and a disinterested pull on a Gauloises to one where evangelical zeal held sway. The awkward press conference that followed the capture on television of the inept attempt to rough up the ball was an admit-and-contain strategy that somebody in charge signed off. 

The incident required a quick response and the contrite-brazen-it-out approach looked to have been drawn from a well-thumbed scenario manual that had pretty much worked in the past.

The intervention of an outraged premier Malcolm Turnbull and the Australian Sports Commission changed everything. From that moment, ball-tampering was no longer an endemic but barely policed offence that led to occasional tuts and wrist-slaps. Seen through a political and commercial filter, with the latest round of broadcast rights negotiations at a critical point, it became a national cause célèbre requiring the swiftest and severest action. CA did not disappoint.

Once they were stung into re-evaluating the event, the whole thing, from conduct to penalty, took less than four days. Let’s accept that the players’ early admission of guilt contributed to the speed of it all, but the pace of the ostensibly deep investigation was breathtaking. The investigating team, led by Iain Roy, CA’s Head of Integrity, and high performance manager Pat Howard arrived in Cape Town on the morning of Monday, March 26.

 

Ball-tampering was a subterfuge to which the authorities largely turned a blind eye. It was low art and low risk; a cheat’s charter as much fashioned in St John’s Wood and Dubai as it was employed by the three Australians

 

Chief executive James Sutherland arrived on the morning of Tuesday, March 27. By the morning of Wednesday, March 28 the bans were in place. Justice seemed less summary than flown in. The inevitable perception is the investigatory team flew out to South Africa with Turnbull’s admonitions ringing in their ears and One-Year Ban pre-printed on their luggage labels.

David Richardson, CEO of the ICC, having both missed and dismissed the opportunity to change attitudes to ball-tampering after Mint-gate had a belated epiphany: “We’ve come to realise,” he said, “that ball-tampering goes to the spirit of the game. I must admit this has been an eye-opener for me personally. We need to look at the penalty imposed”.

It may have been an eye opener for Richardson. Little comfort, I imagine, to Smith, Warner and Bancroft, punished for conduct that the ICC openly admitted it never fully realised was an issue. Ball-tampering was a prestidigitation that the cricket world more or less embraced as part of the game. It was a subterfuge to which the authorities largely turned a blind eye. It was low art and low risk; a cheat’s charter as much fashioned in St John’s Wood and Dubai as it was employed by the three Australians.

The ICC has since upgraded ball-tampering to a Level 3 offence, and additionally increased the sanction for such offences to a six-Test ban.  This is now the official penalty benchmark. After considering the impact of Sandpaper-gate, a six-Test ban is where the ICC positions the offence. Smith and Warner, though, will each miss a total of 48 international matches – 12 Tests, 29 ODIs and seven T20Is – plus all other first-class cricket for a year.  CA abandoned the sledge in favour of the sledgehammer.

The damning Longstaff Ethics Centre review into Australian cricket culture, which flowed from the scandal, was published in October and accused CA of being “arrogant and controlling”. It blamed it for driving a culture of win without counting the costs, an approach, it concluded, that inevitably led to Sandpaper-gate itself.  Longstaff’s observations will have surprised no one with the possible exception of CA itself.

Management and executive casualties have included James Sutherland, coach Darren Lehmann, Pat Howard, chairman David Peever, and director and former team skipper, Mark Taylor.

While the arrogant and controlling architects of Sandpaper-gate, doubtless left with their pensions and other financial packages intact, Smith, Warner and Bancroft remain the whipping boys as Australian cricket continues to self-flagellate, their reputations in tatters, their incomes cut off and their careers stalled.

If one thing has emerged from the decision of CA last week to reconfirm the bans on Smith and co, it’s that it has learned little from the whole sorry saga.  The self-proclaimed rigorous discussion and consideration by Iain Roy and James Sutherland, undertaken in the white heat of panic with a something-must-be-done endgame, have been exposed as lacking natural justice or proportionality.

Eight months on, CA has enjoyed a sufficient cooling-off period to consider its own part in the systematic head-butting of lines revealed by Longstaff, and offered an opportunity to reflect a little more dispassionately on the Jeffreysian penalties imposed on Smith, Warner and Bancroft. Instead, Cricket Australia has taken the easy option of letting the bans play out rather than consider what is fair and right.

The actions of Smith and Warner were crass and showed unacceptably poor judgement as skipper and vice-captain. But when we consider the failings of the leadership group, let’s look beyond the Australian dressing room.

 

© Tregaskis, 31 December 2018

This article first appeared in The Cricketer Online in November 2018 – https://www.thecricketer.com

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Alastair Cook: a giant of the game or just a great servant of English cricket?

Alastair-Cook4

Alastair Cook’s triumphs were often punctuated with long periods of poor form

With memorable centuries bookending Alastair Cook’s record-breaking international career, there remains a nagging, anti-intuitive, stat-defying doubt whether, in the time between, he has managed to cut, pull or nurdle his way to a place amongst the true greats of the game 

 

It was fitting that Alastair Cook led the teams off the field at the end of the fifth Test against India, leaving Jimmy Anderson, one of the greatest-ever English Test cricketers, to follow in his wake. It’s not so much that Cook’s sense of entitlement is skewed; more that he has, for much of his career, had skewed entitlement thrust upon him.

He has suffered and survived lean and barren spells of such length and regularity that he must have a portrait of Gary Ballance in his attic. He presided over ignominious losses and curated the disintegration of one of the finest England Test teams with no visible accountability; an inviolable, favourite son excused frittering away the family fortune with a shrug and a smile. He led his country with little flair and limited growth. Shane Warne might have observed, rather than captaining the side in 59 Tests, Cook captained the first one 59 times.

It is hard to suspend disbelief. It’s harder to forgive the spin and the puff; to excuse the fear and favour. Even so, there may be no better time than now to strip away the artifice and pull aside the curtain to reveal and acknowledge a man of who gave great service to his country even if he himself was not a great.

Few but the most curmudgeonly would begrudge Cook his fairytale finale. He signed off a record-breaking career with, perhaps, one of his finest, most fluent innings. It’s easy to see why folk gush about his achievements and rush to crown him as one of the giants of the game.

Justifying the claim is much harder. Aspects of Cook’s career are unparalleled. His run tally and 33 centuries are the best-ever by an England cricketer. But these, while notable, are also products of time, and longevity breeds unwanted children.

 

He has survived lean and barren spells of such length and regularity that he must have a portrait of Gary Ballance in his attic

 

While no England batsman has come close to Cook’s 291 innings, his average of 45.35 is rather modest and an awkward fit in a pantheon of giants. On the world stage, Cook’s average barely registers. For England, it’s bettered by 38 Test cricketers (half of whom have played more than 20 Tests); six were openers. Each of the six had a better century-per-innings percentage. Pietersen bettered Cook on both metrics.

Michael Holding on Sky identified the best England Test cricketers he had witnessed as Gower, Gooch and Pietersen. Cook arguably is not the best England batsman of his generation; nor even his team.

Listed among Cook’s top 10 innings are his 244 not out in the fourth Test against Australia in December 2017 and his 263 in the first Test against Pakistan in October 2015. With the Ashes already lost and nursing a series average of 13.83 after three Tests, Cook’s unbeaten double century did little more than muddy a modest, nay, meagre record across six of the seven Ashes series he played in.

His superb performance in the 2010-11 Ashes in Australia will always be recognised as one of the great sporting achievements and for the short period that also embraced a series win in India, Cook indubitably stood alongside the best in the game. Across his long career, the association faded somewhat.

The Pakistan Test neatly highlighted the kind of headlines that have consistently marked Cook’s career achievements; it also captured the hidden, soft statistical underbelly that diminished them.

As the Test finally petered out in the Abu Dhabi gloom, the credulati abandoned objective scrutiny and went about adding a fresh chapter in the ever-growing mythology of Alastair Cook. While the match only came to life in the last hour as the prospect of an unlikely England win began to emerge, it threw up a slew of records that embraced the debutant Rashid as well as Shoaib Malik and Asad Shafiq.  But these were penumbral footnotes as the spotlight was fixed firmly on Cook.

 

Cook’s inability or refusal to change direction seemed psychologically positioned somewhere between his much-lauded steely determination and the stubbornness of a child refusing to eat its greens.

 

His second innings was presented as epic and its heroic provenance underpinned by folkloric statistics. He scored 263 runs over 856 sun-scorched minutes during which he faced 528 deliveries. This was the longest innings ever played for England and the third-longest of all time. His 263 was the highest innings by an England player overseas since 1932-33.

While great efforts of concentration and character were doubtlessly demonstrated, there were no impossible odds. The pitch held no demons.  There was no heroic struggle, no risk of defeat. The missing story here was England’s failure to win.

Cook’s innings was then around the 59th highest score in Tests. Only four of the 58 above him scored more slowly than his strike rate of 49.81. None scored fewer than his 18 boundaries. At one point he went 36 overs without scoring a boundary. Almost half his runs were scored in singles.

The skipper was the heartbeat of a side that accumulated 598 runs at 2.90 an over. Regardless of match situation, bowler, pitch, time of day or opportunity. England missed out on the win by 25 runs.

When Phil Tufnell on TMS suggested to Ed Smith that there may have been a case for thinking Cook could have kicked on a bit during the later part of his innings, Smith dismissed the suggestion, replying “that’s just the way he plays.” The irony will not be missed on supporters of Kevin Pietersen. 

 

Cook is not a gilt-edged limousine cricketer.
He is a 12-year-old Mondeo with 12,472 on the clock
and an economy of 45.35 mpg

 

This match was Cook’s career in miniature. A metronomic, statistical phenomenon, who could accumulate runs for ever but never shape a game like Pietersen, save one like Atherton or mould a team like Hussain.

Mike Selvey regarded Cook’s genius as his ability to fashion a game plan and stick to it with puritan rigidity. But this was also his weakness. Cook’s inability or refusal to change direction seemed psychologically positioned somewhere between his much-lauded steely determination and the stubbornness of a child refusing to eat its greens. It veered from indomitability to petulance. His response to being dropped as one-day skipper was unseemly.

Cook is not a gilt-edged limousine cricketer. He is a 12-year-old Mondeo with 12,472 on the clock and an economy of 45.35 mpg. He may lack the elegance of a Porsche or the class of a Jaguar XJ, but he is reliable and well maintained. There may be neither roar nor purr from engine or crowd. No edge-of-seat excitement or shift through the gears. But Cook has challenged himself to grasp a real but limited talent and take it to the very edge of possibilities.

In many ways, that is his greatest achievement. Cook is the David Beckham of cricket. He falls short of greatness but has risen to the top through hard work, practice and a single-minded determination. Curiously both captained their country on 59 occasions, though Cook lost a record 22 times. Cook is father of notable records.  It’s just that some of them are unwanted children.

 

© Tregaskis, 1 November 2018

This article first appeared in The Cricketer Online in September 2018 – https://www.thecricketer.com

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Jos Buttler- Four Years On

Buttler Century

Just over four years ago, I wrote this comment about Jos Buttler, below the line, to a Vic Marks piece in the Guardian. Looking back, I reckon it has stood up rather well to the test of time. Here it is –

I have met Jos Buttler a couple of times, and, in many ways, he fits rather well the current ECB preferred model of a thoroughly nice bloke. He is softly spoken, polite, disarmingly shy and modest. Athletically built with Steve McQueen eyes, his photo portrait would not look out of place atop the Bechstein in Giles Clarke’s country pile. He even went to a half-decent school.

At the same time, and who knows how this might play out in the future, Buttler has many of the cricketing qualities showcased by the younger Kevin Pietersen. He has terrific hand-eye-ball coordination and lightning-quick wrists. His basic technique is more awkwardly by-the-book than naturally classical and he could be prone to dismissals early in an innings. But Buttler, like Pietersen in his prime, can transform the narrative of a match with a mixed array of unorthodox and brutal shots that can leave the bowlers nonplussed and helpless. He has a good temperament and probably a better judgment than Pietersen as to when to build and when to change gear. But he will get caught on the boundary from time to time, and I hope that Peter Moores does not interfere and curb the qualities and natural instinct that make Buttler special.

Buttler’s keeping is seen as the weak element in his all-rounder skills, but in the matches I have seen him play, he is a remarkable athlete and makes incredibly acrobatic catches and stops. His keeping is obviously still a work in progress, especially standing up to the spinner, but I doubt that he will be tested much in that department in a game captained by Alastair Cook. Nor am I sure if Buttler is worse than Matt Prior was when he first got the gloves gig back in 2007. I recall Prior was dropped in 2008 because his keeping was not thought up to scratch.

Some critics point to Somerset favouring Kieswetter over Buttler and to Alastair Cook’s precipitate observation, after Buttler’s scintillating century against Sri Lanka at Lords in June, that the ODI gloveman was not yet ready for tests. I do not see Somerset’s decision as a lack of faith in Buttler.

In some ways, quite the opposite. The Taunton lad was already England keeper in both short forms of the game and clearly on the radar as a future test keeper. His international commitments would make him an increasing stranger at the County Ground, so Dave Nosworthy’s decision to favour the perennially available Kieswetter, a first rate batter-keeper himself, made absolute sense.

As for Cook, while he has no other kind of form, he does have form in attempting to pre-empt the selectors in order to bolster the position of his out-of-form, injury-ridden mate and lieutenant, Matt Prior. Cook’s statement in June about Buttler was as foolish and misguided as his statement about Prior after this week’s loss to India. That inner steel obviously comes at the expense of good judgment.

I have been a harsh critic of the ECB in its current guise, but I think this is a good call. Bringing back old stalwarts, with Chris Read heading the list, might plug a gap in the short term but it would be a retrograde step in my view. I am sure the issue is clouded only because Cook is a poor captain and scoring no runs. If the team possessed a competent skipper and Cook was scoring runs at the top of the order, Buttler would be a shoo in.

I do not know what happened to Bairstow, or indeed Kieswetter, but they clearly fell out of favour for random or Stygian reasons with the current dystopian regime. Buttler is now the future, so let it start now. The future has stuttered and stalled these past six months because it has been dragged back and held down by the seniors who are broken mentally and physically. Let’s be honest, English cricket could do with a player who makes supporters edge to the front of their seats when they come to the crease.

There may not be much poetic elegance in Buttler’s strokeplay, but there is some epic grandeur about it that deserves better opportunity than the rather prosaic and predictable English sentiment of sending the bright ones back to county cricket for a year or two and learn their craft. I have an inkling, and hope, that Buttler will take to test cricket rather well and all power to his elbow.

https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2014/jul/22/jos-buttler-england-wicketkeeper-test-cricket-matt-prior#comment-38522358

©Tregaskis August 2018

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The Hundred – the final countdown

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It was a marketing gift for the folk at the ECB that they could launch their new city-based Twenty20 tournament in 2020. There was a simple and perfect symmetry about it. Something families and young children could understand. It was a perfect marketing concept that advertising agencies would charge millions for. And it came for free.

That has all changed with the ECB’s announcement that the new city tournament will not be a Twenty20 format at all. It will be a 15-over format with an additional “over” of 10 balls bolted on. In old money, the new 100-ball format is 16.66 overs, which rather spoils the 2020 launch date, unless the ECB manages to re-calibrate the calendar to start with the birth of Augustine of Hippo. Even then, 1666 is not a particularly auspicious launch year.

I wrote about the ECB’s long struggle to match solutions to problems in an article Dem Bones Don’t Connect : Anatomy of Failure. The piece resonates even more strongly following the 100-ball-format announcement. The critical questions here are how much research, consultation and modelling has actually been undertaken; what do the results show and why have they not been widely shared; how does the timeline of decision-making tie in with the period of research and consultation; and in terms of risk assessment, what does the modelling predict if the city-based 100-ball format fails? How does this compare with the modelling based on reforming the Blast and providing it with the resources now available to the city-based format?

I am all in favour of giving new ideas a chance. Innovation is the life-blood of commercial success. But launches fail far more often than they succeed. Anyone remember Orbitz Soda, Microsoft Zune or the HP Touchpad? The ECB recognises there is a problem. Its bigger problem is persuading the cricket community that they know how to solve it.

The concept of the new T20 competition was first raised by the ECB around 18 months ago. The mission was to create a format that would match the success of the IPL or, more particularly, the BBL. The super-objective was to introduce the game to a new audience and halt the haemorrhaging of participation and the natural wastage of cricket’s traditional fan-base. The ECB needed a gateway drug for cricket and had decided, for whatever reason, the Blast was not it.

Tom Harrison wrote about his thinking in this year’s Wisden. He offered a vision of sorts though it lacked any detailed explanation to underpin it. The Blast is successful, he acknowledged, and will continue to take T20 to all corners of the country, but not in the high-summer window he has identified as ideal for the new competition. He does not explain why this window is ideal for the new competition but not for the Blast, which will now have to give way and accept the lot of a supplicant.

Understandably, Harrison wants England to host a short-form format as popular and successful as the IPL and the BBL. But cricket in England is not a quasi-religious obsession as in India, and it does not have the climate or conurbation of Australia. Neither the IPL or the BBL can be imported to this damp island and be models for copper-bottomed success. Little that has governed the success of those competitions is available to the city-based project.

The ECB announced its media rights deal on 30 June 2017. The rights package was split between Sky and the BBC. This reflected the belated realisation on the part of the ECB that FTA visibility, via a range of platforms, was essential to prevent cricket being, in Harrison’s own words, “the richest, most irrelevant sport in the country”. According to the ECB press release, the BBC have signed up to televise 10 new T20 men’s matches and eight new T20 women’s matches. The BBC is very much the junior partner in the arrangement in terms of the distribution of rights.

On 28 March 2018, the ECB issued a press release announcing the recruitment of a new T20 board of business, entertainment and cricket expertise to help build the new T20 competition. The function of the board was to oversee the design, implementation and operational aspects of the new competition.  Apparently, players, past and present, would be instrumental in shaping the new competition.

Just three weeks later the new 100-ball format was announced.  Fair play to the new board, not just for a speedy consultation but for figuring out the answer and decommissioning themselves in just 21 days – physicists will appreciate them as the francium-223 of cricket. Except George Dobell has reported that only three players – Daryl Mitchell, Eoin Morgan and Heather Knight – were consulted. The notion that the ECB ideas were “enthusiastically received at all of the meetings” as Harrison claimed seems somewhat simplistic said Dobell, forgetting that simplicity is the the new commercial model.

Daryl Michell, a PCA chairman says he was taken aback when he heard the proposals a couple of weeks ago, and his members were consulted for the first time only on the day of the ECB announcement. So who was consulted and how did the epiphany emerge in just three weeks? Some counties claim to have been aware of the proposals for a while. Others have confirmed that they had no idea. At best it looks like a fractured consultation, which had more in common with Noel Coward’s thoughts on vermouth –

a perfect Martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy

It’s a familiar story with the ECB waving consultations in general directions. Andy Nash stepped down as a non-executive director on the ECB board in early March. His withering resignation letter cited –

I’ve recently become concerned that the standards of corporate governance at [the] ECB are falling well short of what’s acceptable and in all conscience I can’t allow myself to be associated with it.

Richard Thompson resigned as the Test-grounds representative on the ECB board on 27 March, on the back of misgivings he had with the £2.5 million compensation payment made by the ECB to Glamorgan. In a short statement published on its web site, Surrey explained –

The resignation follows Thompson’s growing concerns over the lack of transparency in decision making and governance at the ECB after recent news that counties have received compensation in return for not bidding to host future Test matches.

“I’m saddened to have to stand down while still being a board member. I have been uncomfortable with recent decisions taken without full consultation and as such did not feel able to remain on the board,” said Thompson.

Nash and Thompson have revealed a casual attitude to governance on the part of the ECB executive group that aligns with George Dobell’s portrait of a body that is almost feudal in the way it goes about its business, dispensing patronage and non-disclosure agreements as it relentlessly bends all and sundry to its will. One might say, Nash and Thompson are just the latest villeins of the piece.

All which brings into scrutiny the nature and quality of the consultation that took place between 28 March and 19 April, or indeed since autumn 2016.  Dobell has reported already on how the county chairmen were allegedly brow-beaten into accepting the eight-team, city-based competition in the first place –

It should be conceded that several counties were on Graves’ side, but recalcitrant counties were corralled into backing the plans in a notoriously feisty meeting at Lord’s in September 2016. “Back me or sack me,” roared Graves as the meeting began, before putting each of the county chairmen on the spot individually.

 

It raises the question whether the appointment of a new T20 development board in March 2018 was just window dressing. After all, defining the shape of the competition was presumably the new board’s raison d’être. Yet, unless the great and the good on the board were greater and gooder than anyone could imagine, the 100-ball format had been decided already. Sadly, it’s too easy to see how this fits within the recurring pattern of subterfuge and opaque manoeuvring that seems to blight the ECB.

Laurence Booth was perplexed by the timelines. When he set up a debate between Harrison and Dobell on the new T20 competition for this term’s edition of Wisden, Harrison filed his argument-in-favour piece in January. Meanwhile, the MD for the new competition, Sanjay Patel, told Booth during a conference call in April that the new concept had been in the pipeline for six months. That’s two months before Harrison filed his copy and five months before the ECB appointed a development board charged with the design and build of the new T20 competition.

Read the thread to see the utter exasperation of the Wisden editor. In the end it came down to a definition of what “pipeline” meant. Booth rather generously suggests that on re-reading the Harrison article it was very circumspect on defining the format, which is true. The article is big on what now seem revealing terms like innovation and new format, even suggesting LBW could be in the cross-hairs. In retrospect, his argument may well have been framed with the 100-ball format in mind. In fact, it was so guardedly written that not a single reference to the term T20 can be attached to the new competition. Circumspect or specious? Make your own minds up, folks.

If this aspect of the media rights was settled end-June 2017 on the basis of a T20 competition, the unanswered question is what happened between then and, say, November 2017 to drive a complete re-think on format?

Simon Wilde, in the Sunday Times suggests that the driver in this was the BBC schedules.  Apparently, they wanted a 150 minute broadcast window to fit in between, say, 6:30 and 9:00 pm.

David Hopps has pointed out a remarkable turnaround –

English cricket has gone in an instant from not caring about free-to-air to the point where the game departed from the national consciousness to letting free-to-air influence the product to an excessive degree.

I am similarly unclear how the BBC achieved this massive new influence. For the last 13 years we have been told by the ECB and its cheerleaders that lack of FTA visibility has had little impact on participation or interest in cricket. The collapse of cricket as the national summer game has been for reasons, but not that reason. Now, it seems, not only is the BBC’s participation in the media package essential because of its multi-platform reach, but deference to its schedules has led to the creation of a novelty format that even Sky, the senior broadcast partner, will have to accept. 

If TV schedules were the problem, there are better solutions. The constant reference to the IPL four-hour game is a red herring. The BBC does not have ad breaks. Time-outs are by definition anathema to current thinking. I’d be surprised too if DRS will be introduced. Though it adds drama, it is too closely aligned to LBWs and adds complexity and time to the game. The average Big Bash innings is 90 minutes. The average Blast innings is 85 minutes. Test cricket – which moves along at a supposed tectonic pace – is designed to comprise 90 four-minute overs a day. If the T20 umpires pushed the game along as they should, they would only need to shave off 15 seconds an over and the full 20 could play out in 75 minutes. Simples.

The ECB has steered clear of making the 100-ball format a construct of the BBC schedules, instead referring to a desire to create a clear differentiation from the Blast, building on the game’s history of innovation. While it is self-evidently different to the Blast, it is unclear how this improves the position of either format. Certainly, the Blast will enjoy no better space or money or marketing or visibility or players as a result. Differentiation just feels like a word that’s emerged from a brain-storming meeting tasked with coming up with something positive to say.

The big driver according to Andrew Strauss is a desire to make the game as simple as possible for mums and kids to understand. After all, the new format is not designed to appeal to existing cricket aficionados. Putting to one side the condescension, I am unclear how a 100-ball game is more simple than a 120-ball game, or how 20 six-ball overs can be conceived as more complex than 15 six-ball overs and then a 10-ball over that fits in somewhere, yet to be decided? If Strauss truly wanted to strip the game down and rebuild it for cricket moms, he could have been much bolder and, for instance, taken LBW out of the format, which was evidently considered.

As it is, unless something radical emerges as the development board fleshes out the Laws, or rules as I imagine they will be called, then the format is not more simple, it is just shorter.

If simplicity and time are the real drivers, why not do away with no-balls and wides? These tend to operate at the margins of what is permissible, are hard to understand for a novice and take time out of the game. Let the umpire call them and award, say, four runs, with no extra ball and get on with the game. If the ECB took this radical approach, I would be better convinced that the format was being shaped by a desire for simplicity, even if the format had more in common with Barrington rules than T20.

In the end, all this effort is about bringing a new audience into the game. If the current formats are not strong enough to entice or sustain an audience, I understand the need to innovate. But if the new 100-ball format is designed to be the gateway drug to the other, more traditional formats, I am sceptical that the 100-ball generation will transition to the other formats if these have already failed to interest them? After all, the 100-ball format does not exist anywhere else in the cricketing world, which is too interested in celebrating, marketing and profiting from the exponential success of T20. The ECB may have just invented the Betamax of cricket formats when VHS cricket has already captured the market.

What does any of this matter, if the new format is designed for cricket moms and the What’sApp generation and not for the current fan base? If it takes what David Hopps calls “part sport, part game show” to halt cricket’s decline and increase participation why should anyone get so agitated by it? If the integrity of the 100-ball format is anchored to its objectives rather than the mores of the traditional game, who cares if it works?

I guess it’s the risk and the uncertainty and the lack of transparency.

The ECB is already betting the farm on the back of a hugely controversial city-based tournament. The sudden leap towards novelty is an added unknown. We had a wrangle before. Now it’s wrapped in a rumpus. It will take years for the format to bed in and allow a proper analysis of its impact in terms of reaching its targets. If the project fails, the collateral damage to domestic one-day and T20 competitions will leave us with a pretty desolate cricketing landscape.

I do not doubt that the ECB is taking cricket’s decline seriously, and its key objectives are to sustain the game and keep it relevant. But the perception remains that it behaves like nanny knows best and does not trust its stakeholders to do the sensible thing. Apart from its say-so, no one really knows if it is making evidence-based choices or going with its gut. All this could be resolved by the simple expedient of publishing the research. It’s not as if any of it can be commercially sensitive. Let’s see the data. Let’s see the scope, quality and outcome of each consultation phase. If all this supports the ECB’s direction of travel, the sceptics and naysayers can go hang. But the secrecy and posturing just fuels speculation and doubt. 

The awkward question is – has the ECB these past few years been open and honest and ethical enough to persuade us to trust them to do the right thing at a truly pivotal moment in the game?

@Tregaskis, 22 April 2018

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Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are not dead yet – ball tampering and failure of leadership

cameron-bancroft_806x605_51521902937

 

The story of Australia’s ball-tampering scandal has already been written, regurgitated and premasticated as events emerged in turn as basement comedy and then Attic tragedy. Warner, Bancroft and Smith were the foolish protagonists but, like Rosencranz and Gildenstern, they were agents of a rotten state not the architects of one. And like Tom Stoppard’s eponymous characters, they spent much time wholly bemused and befuddled as events unfolded at breakneck speed around them.

Cricket Australia off the pace

Cricket Australia looked as flat footed as Smith and Bancroft based on that first press conference held following stumps on the third day of the third Test at Newlands. Smith and Bancroft admitted the charge if not the methodology, brushing it off as a dumb thing to have done. Smith’s refusal to step down was de rigueur and so was his positive spin to move on and learn from the experience.

But those two blokes did not just turn up willy-nilly at the presser and extemporise. It was an admit-and-contain strategy that somebody in charge must have signed off. Darren Lehmann? Pat Howard? James Sutherland? Strewth, maybe it was Malcolm Conn? The incident required a quick response and the contrite-brazen-it-out approach looked to have been drawn from a well-thumbed scenario-manual that offered a template for the fuzzy route that had pretty much worked in the past.

Wink, wink – just don’t get caught

Except that day belonged to a different world. A world where ball tampering was accepted by the authorities as widespread and didn’t matter too much. MCC’s world cricket committee reviewed the current Laws in December 2016 and even after examining the complex issues raised by Faf du Plessis and Mintgate decided no changes were required. The ICC followed the MCC lead when revising its Playing Conditions from September 2017 and made nothing more than cosmetic, albeit possibly deeply flawed changes.

Cricinfo captured the muddled thinking when it reported that former Pakistan batsman Ramiz Raja, an MCC world cricket committee member, reassured players that it was less the practice that was the issue –

Mike [Brearley] put it absolutely brilliantly … You must not get caught. It is as simple as that.

This was a world where applying sugary saliva to a ball was OK but if the ball curator applied the mint residue in their mouth directly to the ball – as in du Plessis’s case – it was a chargeable offence. Because the sugar in the saliva was not mint residue, right?

It was also OK to apply these alchemies to the ball provided it was not captured by any of the 30 or so TV cameras standing sentinel around the grounds. It was a cheat’s charter. The challenge had shifted from changing the condition of the ball to not getting caught.

When the argument’s lost, there’s only the residue

In his 2008 biography Coming Back To Me, Marcus Trescothick revealed that during the 2005 Ashes,  he worked his way through 15 Murray Mints a day, generating bucket-loads of sugar-sodden saliva, which “when applied to the ball for cleaning purposes, enabled it to keep its shine for longer and therefore its swing.”

Trescothick got away with it not because the practice was unknown or because he was better at prestidigitation. According to Trescothick, the practice was so central to the culture of the England camp that  –

Once Phil Neale came on board as our operations manager it was one of his jobs to make sure the dressing-room was fully stocked [with Murray Mints] at all times.

Following Trescothick’s revelations, an ICC spokesman told the BBC–

According to the laws this [applying sweetened saliva to the ball] is illegal – but we won’t outlaw sucking sweets … It depends on the evidence and circumstances, so if something is brought to our attention it would be dealt with … But where do you stop, for example, if you start to try to stop everyone who is chewing gum?

Lawrence Booth on The Spin duties at the Guardian also in 2008 recalled Michael Atherton’s jolly anecdote in The Times earlier that year:

Cricketers of my era used sugar from sweets or chewing gum to good effect. During one Test at Lord’s the 12th man brought us sugar-free chewing gum, ensuring his 12th-man career was brief.

If anyone wishes to attempt a distinction between impulsive opportunity and pre-meditation, they should consider the long back story of ball tampering, institutionalised and readily accepted by national boards and the ICC. The supply of Phil Neale’s Murray mints and Mike Atherton’s 12th-man chewing gum were each calculated and premeditated. Trescothick’s finger will have introduced to the ball both sugar-enriched saliva and residue from the mint. Weaselly attempts by the ICC to make such nice distinctions are sleights that reveal a governing body that has tackled a known and endemic issue with a shoulder shrug and a turn of the head.

Here is an extract from my Mintgate article from back in November 2016 –

Extract from Mintgate

It is clear from this that Steve Smith is no stranger to the concept of ball tampering, but he is hardly head-butting the lines. Such is the ICC’s concern with what Matt Prior calls normal practice it has only ever charged Rahul Dravid (2004) and Faf du Plessis (2016) under the artificial substance provisions of Law 42.3 (a) (i) or any of its guises. Barely more have been charged under the old Law 42.3 (b).

As a Level 2 offence, ball tampering has an equivalence to time wasting – think Stuart Broad constantly re-tying his bootlaces – or a bowler running on a protected area. Even after Mintgate, the MCC and the ICC decided that ball tampering, as an offence, was correctly positioned within this hierarchy of misdemeanours.

In the aftermath of Mintgate, I warned that MCC had flunked an opportunity to establish clarity, and Michael Belief QC also failed, in his judgement on the du Plessis appeal, to provide a proper steer to the ICC on the absurd lack of certainty or leadership on the issue. In the end, du Plessis lost his match fee. He did not even miss one Test.

Faint signals from deep space, missed by the largest radio telescopes, have been stronger than the message sent out by the ICC. What hope for hapless cricketers seeking a small advantage that no one has ever proved to actually work and no one has ever said could cost them their career.

Turnbull turned it

When the scandal was first exposed, there was not the slightest notion that Cricket Australia had remotely transitioned from that old, cosy, muddled world to one where evangelical zeal held sway, demanding body parts be dipped in tar and nailed to sight screens across every State.

The intervention of an outraged premier Malcolm Turnbull changed everything. From that moment, ball tampering was no longer a barely policed Level 2 offence that led to occasional tuts and wrist-slaps. Seen through a political and commercial filter with sponsorship contracts to save and TV deals to secure it became a piss-boiling, heinous event that needed quick arrests, certain convictions and heavy sentences to reassure a nervous marketing community.

The process set out in Cricket Australia’s Code of Conduct seems to have been followed to the letter. Though the whole thing, from conduct to penalty, took just four days. One accepts that the early admission of guilt contributed to the speed of it all, but can anyone believe Iain Roy, Cricket Australia’s Head of Integrity (stop sniggering at the back), or James Sutherland, the CEO, properly reviewed or considered the circumstances, the context, precedent, proportionality or even natural justice? It feels as if they flew out to South Africa with One-Year Ban pre-printed on their luggage labels.

It is little wonder that Smith, Warner and Bancroft are likely to challenge the decisions with the full support of the Australian Cricketer’s Association. Others have written widely on what may be rotten in the culture of Australian cricket and Daniel Brettig has covered the subject brilliantly. The Sydney Morning Herald is also reporting that Cricket Australia’s top-down culture is going to be reviewed. Expect a softening of the penalties imposed on the fall guys and some resignations from the executive.

Faultlines in the ICC charges and changes

The bigger question concerns the failure of leadership offered by the ICC and the MCC. I forewarned that the MCC had misjudged its review of ball-tampering rules after Mintgate, and that the muddle and fudge would only make matters worse.

The ICC confirmed in its media statement that it charged Cameron Bancroft under Article 2.2.9 of the ICC Code of Conduct, which relates to “changing the condition of the ball in breach of [ICC Playing Condition] clause 41.3”

The ICC statement continues –

The umpires inspected the ball at the time and elected not to replace the ball and award a 5-run penalty as they could not see any marks on the ball that suggested that its condition had been changed as a direct result of Bancroft’s actions. The umpires though agreed that Bancroft’s actions were likely to alter the condition of the ball and he was therefore charges under Article 2.2.9.

There are a number of anomalies with this statement and the action that flowed from it. First, when Bancroft’s woeful attempts to alter the condition of the ball were captured on camera and replayed on the big screens at Newlands, the umpires intervened and questioned Bancroft. He produced his sunglasses bag from his pocket to suggest he had simply been using a soft piece of cloth to polish the ball.

It was nonsense of course, but they fell for it by all accounts. The Independent reported at the time – the two English umpires appeared satisfied with Bancroft’s explanation. Play was allowed to continue.

In my view, the ICC, in its statement, erroneously conflated two provisions. Clause 41.3 of the current ICC Playing Conditions requires the umpires, at the time, to consider if the player took any action which changed the condition of the ball. They decided that the condition of the ball was not changed. The ICC then compounded the error by bringing into play the likely to alter the condition of the ball note that is attached to Article 2.2.9 of the ICC Code of Conduct.

ICC Code of Conduct Article 2.2.9

There are a number of problems with this.

First, Article 2 of the Code of Conduct explains that –

Where considered helpful, guidance notes have been provided in text boxes beneath the description of a particular offence. Such notes are intended only to provide guidance as to the nature and examples of certain conduct that might be prohibited by a particular Article and should not be read as an exhaustive or limiting list of conduct prohibited by such Article.

The notes do not define the offence. If there is a conflict between the notes and the articles, the articles take precedence, and both Clause 41.3 and Article 2.2.9 only refer to an offence being committed if the condition of the ball was changed. And it was not.

Secondly, MCC and the ICC may have made a hash of the ball-tampering provisions when they updated variously the Laws, Playing Conditions and Code of Conduct in late 2017.

In 2016 (when the Faf du Plessis case was considered),  Article 2.2.9 said it was a Level 2 offence to change the “condition of the ball in breach of Law 42.3 of the Laws of Cricket”. Here is what Law 42.3 said –

(a) Any fielder may

(i) polish the ball provided that no artificial substance is used and that such polishing wastes no time.

(ii) remove mud from the ball under the supervision of the umpire.

(iii) dry a wet ball on a piece of cloth.

(b) It is unfair for anyone to rub the ball on the ground for any reason, to interfere with any of the seams or the surface of the ball, to use any implement, or to take any other action whatsoever which is likely to alter the condition [my emphasis] of the ball, except as permitted in (a) above.

In 2017, Article 2.2.9 said it was a Level 2 offence to change the “condition of the ball in breach of Clause 41.3 of the ICC Playing Conditions. Here is what these say –

ICC Playing Conditions Clause 41.3

While the MCC has also sought to alide Law 42.3 (a) and (b) into a newly worded rule, the ICC has specifically changed its point of reference from the MCC’s previous Law 42.3 to its new Playing Condition Clause 41.3. The problem that MCC and the ICC have created is that Clause 41.3 omits the specificality of the old Law 42.3 (b), which relates to mechanical ball tampering with foreign objects or implements, for instance, sandpaper, and, more particularly, removes from the Law or the Playing Condition the expression likely to alter the condition of the ball.

The use of sandpaper was likely to change the condition of the ball under the old Law 42.3 (b), but, in the event, did not change the condition of the ball under the new Law/Playing Condition 41.3. The note to the current Article 2.2.9 is utterly discredited in this instance because a) it is a guideline only, b) it is in conflict with the stated offence, and c) it makes sense only in relation to the old Law 42.3 and not to the current Clause 41.3.

For these reasons, I am not convinced that Cameron was correctly charged and punished by the ICC, which needs to streamline and dovetail its Articles, Clauses and MCC Laws far more effectively.

Steve Smith was charged under Article 2.2.1 of the ICC Code of Conduct. This is a catch-all provision that is “intended to cover all types of conduct of a serious nature that is contrary to the spirit of the game and which is not specifically and adequately covered by the offences set out elsewhere in this Code of Conduct”. As Smith did not actually tamper with the ball himself, Article 2.2.9 did not apply. But his involvement in the conspiracy meant his was an offence not “specifically or adequately” covered elsewhere in the Code.

This gives us a window to the mindset of the ICC in terms of ball tampering. Articles 2.3.1 (Level 3 offences) and 2.4.1 (Level 4 offences) are also catch-all provisions. They mirror the equivalent provisions in Cricket Australia’s Code of Conduct that specifically define them as catch-all provisions. They relate to conduct that is respectively of a very serious nature and of an overwhelmingly serious nature not specifically or adequately covered elsewhere in the Code.  The ICC, in full possession of the facts, chose to categorise the actions of Smith as serious but not very or overwhelmingly serious. Similarly, it could have thrown a Level 3 or Level 4 charge at Bancroft on the grounds that a Level 2 charge did not adequately cover the seriousness of the offence.

Blind and newly sighted

The governing body of international cricket was just as blind to the seriousness of events as Smith and Cricket Australia were at the press conference following stumps on day three of the Test. The ICC totally failed to grasp or anticipate the maelstrom that was about to unfold. It employed the same lazy, everybody-does-it-but-don’t-get caught muddle that it’s adopted for years. And then passed the problem to Cricket Australia.

David Richardson, CEO of the ICC, having both missed and dismissed the opportunity to change attitudes to ball tampering after Mintgate has now had a belated epiphany

We’ve come to realise that the world — not only Australia — regards ball-tampering in a very serious light. It goes to the spirit of the game.

I must admit this has been an eye-opener for me personally. We need to look at the penalty imposed, specific to ball-tampering.

Around the world, ball-tampering is considered cheating… I think we need to look at it again, and this is what has prompted this review.

Well it is all very well being an eye opener for Richardson. Little comfort, I imagine, to Smith, Warner and Bancroft, disproportionately punished for conduct that the ICC now openly admits it never fully realised was even an issue.

Smith’s and Warner’s actions were crass and showed unacceptably poor judgement as skipper and vice-captain. But let’s be clear, father to their actions was an ICC that has consistently abrogated its responsibilities to establish clear, practical and science-based rules on ball handling. It has failed to police the rules, even as they stand, with rigour or consistency. And now it has failed to take responsibility for creating the woolly world of fudge-fudge and nudge-nudge that has contributed to the downfall of folk who could have been legends. When we consider the failings of the leadership group, let’s look beyond the Australian dressing room.

@Tregaskis, April 2018

 

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Dem Bones don’t connect – anatomy of failure

 

Dem bones

Back in February 2017, a young woman from Canberra posted a video on Facebook pleading for help diagnosing a debilitating condition she has been suffering from that had left doctors baffled. Over the years, she’s been to hospital 50 times, seen 30 doctors, had 20 scans and five different surgical procedures, none of which have got any closer to diagnosing the problem. She has been tested variously for endometriosis, auto-immune diseases, heart disease and psychological conditions. She even had her appendix removed! In spite of every type of medical intervention, her condition remains the same. The internet was the last refuge for this desperate woman.

Perhaps the time has come for the ECB to launch a similar appeal, after all, they’ve tried everything else. Over the last 20 years, we’ve had Lord MacLaurin’s Raising the Standard report (1997), Ackfield report (2002), Building Partnerships report (2005), Schofield report (2007), the Stewart-Bradshaw blueprint for T20 (2008), Grounds to Play strategic plan (2010), Morgan report (2012), the Strategy Conversation Summary (2015) and Tom Harrison’s subsequent review of cricket’s structure and governance. It’s only missing the Stephen Hawking Grand Unifying Review of Every Bleeding Thing.

The consultants may change and the prognosis may differ, but the aches, pains and debilitating malaise remain resolutely the same. The alleged ailing health of county cricket, the elusive best format for short-form cricket, the under-performance of the national team, player burn-out and chronic injury, the unviable finances and wasting participation are all outward signs of a mystery disease that have confounded administrators for two decades or more.

Back in 2009, the domestic 50-over competition was cricket’s appendix. The one-day format was cut to 40-overs for reasons that made sense at the time to Giles Clarke till David Morgan recommended the appendix be recovered from the clinical waste and reattached. It was just another no-clue, hope-for-the-best palliative procedure.

 

Harrison’s mantra that England cricket is in a good place is extraordinarily complacent and rigid

 

If England’s four-year development cycle is intended to peak for each winter Ashes tour of Australia, then there must be an attic at Lord’s housing a picture of a ridiculously successful England side. The Schofield committee published its recommendations in 2007, following a five-nil Ashes whitewash at the hands of Ricky Ponting’s Australia and the scope of his review was shaped by further something-must-be-done handwringing. But key recommendations were never implemented, in particular reducing the amount of international and first-class domestic cricket. Instead, the playing schedules are more crowded than ever. Unlike the grounds.

There was no review in 2014 and Tom Harrison has made it clear there will be no review in 2018. While I recognise that Harrison will feel that the structural changes put in place over the last year or so need to bed in and play out, his mantra that England cricket is in a good place comes across as extraordinarily complacent and rigid. For Test cricket, it is also palpably untrue, and simply serves to further exasperate ordinary fans, especially traditionalists, who increasingly feel neglected in favour of a mysterious, yet-to-be-identified new audience. There is a creeping concern that Test cricket has been strapped to a gurney and parked in a basement corridor.

Trevor Bayliss was appointed on the coat-tails of his success coaching white-ball cricket, and, to be fair, England has seen some better success in the short form of the game. It was a keystone appointment as Andrew Strauss shifted England’s focus towards building a marmoreal structure to house white-ball silverware. Though, in reaching the final of the 2016 T20 World Cup, it was a little early in the tenure of Bayliss to attribute that achievement to him; at the same time, it would be churlish to deny him or  Strauss a part in a positive start to the strategy.

 

If Test cricket had been a Catholic it would have likely drowned in unctuous oils as it passed from one sacrament or other over the past 150 years

 

What’s less clear is where the white-ball strategy sits with Test cricket. Neither format appears to be a pathway to the other as the ECB too readily labels fine cricketers as white-ball or red-ball specialists.  I simply refuse to believe that, as the same questions continually stack up about the failure to fill certain positions in the Test line up – problems that have endured since early 2014 – the answer could not have properly embraced the talents of players like Rashid, Buttler or Hales. The overwhelming impression is of an ECB that brutally moneyballs white-ball cricket while being incredulously precious with red-ball selection. What’s left is a suck-it-and-see approach to Test cricket that, on past experience, is almost certainly going to suck.

When I debated the impact of T20 on  Test Cricket with James Morgan for The Speakers Corner Trust a year or so ago, I pointed out that the hand-wringers and doom-mongers had moaned and wailed about the decline of Test cricket from the time WH Knight edited Wisden in the 1860s and 1870s. When the Sporting Times wrote its obituary of English cricket in 1882, it really had not witnessed a death throe but merely an early shift in cricket’s evolution. If Test cricket had been a Catholic it would have likely drowned in unctuous oils as it passed from one sacrament or other over the past 150 years. But it has always defied the naysayers and outlived the priests.

Whether we are witnessing just another phase of alarum in the enduring story of a sporting hypochondriac or something more terminal, remains to be seen. But there does seem to be a sweet stench of atrophy in the air and the whiff is being widely fanned by more and more commentators and players. Meanwhile the ECB give every appearance of a clinician that’s abandoned holistic treatments in favour of homeopathy. A great deal hangs on whether Strauss’s white-ball tinctures and powders flow from the delusions of a crank or the vision of a revolutionary.

 

Twenty20 took an axe
Gave One-dayers 40 whacks
When it saw what it had done
Gave Test cricket 41

 

Adil Rashid has eschewed red-ball cricket for white at least for the coming year. Jonathan Liew, in an elegiac piece wrote “Maybe, ultimately, Adil Rashid will make fools of those writing premature obituaries for his Test career”. He may have wondered similarly of Test cricket itself. A year earlier, Liew, who has emerged as a challenging and important thinker about the game, asked this question:

Is it still valid to think of its three different formats as part of a single continuum: three variously-flavoured isotopes of what remains essentially “cricket”? Or are the red-ball and white-ball games diverging to the extent that it is possible to envisage a future where they are, to all intents and purposes, different sports?

It was a debate, suggested Liew, that would define cricket over the next few years. He was right to the extent that he identified the critical question, though we may be witnessing less of a debate and more the inevitable consequences of Strauss’s white-ball obsession. It’s usurped the premium space in the schedules, and, when the city-based T20 competition gets going in 2020, it will enjoy the FTA visibility, marketing and top-down drive denied the county-based Blast. The principle that underpinned fair play between bat and ball or inculcated the so-called spirit of cricket seems to have been abandoned when county well-being clashed with the ECB wunderplan.

With Alex Hales also giving up his red-ball county contract, more are sure to follow as the uncompromising schedule continues to take its toll. It’s hardly a leap to suggest that when county cricket sneezes, Test cricket will catch a cold.

I am unclear whether this strategy is driven by a quest for a new audience or simply governed by the pursuit of money. In accepting the likely reversal in fortunes of county and Test cricket as collateral damage, the ECB has taken a risk that belies its responsibility as custodian of the national game. If the experiment fails, what will be left?

 

Hussain must have revisited his past incredulity and wrapped it in utter disbelief

 

As Bayliss emerged from the Ashes debacle with 12 away losses from 19 played, his assistant, Paul Farbrace came off message with an exasperated analysis that drove a coach and four through Tom Harrison’s Pollyanna view of cricket being in a good place –

A series like this does expose issues in your team … and we have a choice. You either churn out some positive stuff or we can be honest and admit that there are certain areas that are not good enough. That’s every single one of us: players, staff, structures, setup. Everybody needs to look very closely and ask if we have got the right people in the right places, and if we are doing the right things … The honesty and planning for next time has got to start in the next few days.

In appealing for honesty and planning, Farbrace may have misjudged where the ECB’s core strengths lie. Just as likely, he has misjudged its direction of travel.

The issues raised by Schofield in 2007, more than a decade ago, are also the issues now. There was even a plan that future Ashes trips should include two or three competitive four-day matches as preparation rather than 13-a-side practice games. England went into its first tour match against Western Australia this November with 15 players!

Similarly, some of the key performance issues that plagued the 2013-14 tour re-emerged this winter. Back in 2013, Nasser Hussain bemoaned how the England strike bowlers were pitching it too short and lacked fire power. Why, he asked with incredulity, could these experienced bowlers not adapt on field without the intervention of the coaches? When, four years on, and 40-odd Tests later England’s all-time record wicket-taker had a snide dig at the coaches for failing to give him a steer after bowling too short in the Adelaide Test, Hussain must have revisited his past incredulity and wrapped it in utter disbelief.

This time four years ago, Lawrence Booth focused on the failure of the senior players to make a sustained impact.  Three Tests in this time round, while the current series was still alive, the current crop of senior players offered the physiological impact of a placebo. Cook averaged 13.83; Moeen 19.33; Root 29.33. Moeen’s bowling average was 105, later north of 115; Broad’s figures of 142-0 at the WACA were a career low and the second-worst in Ashes history.  Crane’s 193-1 in Sydney was the third-worst in England Test history, and the worst of any debutant.  Moeen’s 190-1, in Chennai a year ago, was, I think, the third-worst and now the fourth-worst in English Test history.  His 170-2 in Sydney is not far behind. The team pattern was just the same in India the year before.

With Colin Graves, Tom Harrison and Andrew Strauss in charge for the entire cycle, the the position is arguably much worse now than it was four year’s ago. At least then there was available a new generation of exciting young players ready to blood, even if we questioned the politics that shaped the opportunities that opened for them. But these young Turks have come and gone like so many new dawns, while much of the team’s spine, Cook, Broad and Anderson are in the twilight of their careers.

 

The damp green-top wickets of early spring may flatter journeymen trundlers who can fill their soggy boots with wickets, but they do nothing to address the dearth of spinners and pace bowlers, who do not prosper in such conditions

 

No matter how much the ECB attempt this or that structural adjustment or tinkers at the edges as it seeks to address this or that fault line, little has changed in 20 years. While the ECB continues to be absorbed and obsessed with financial benefit, the product itself continues to lurch from one set of existential problems to another.

Angus Fraser, in the Independent in January 2012, criticised the Morgan recommendations for making decisions based on financial reasons rather than cricketing reasons. That’s the same Angus Fraser that happily earns a living as Director of Cricket at Middlesex while, since 2014, also an employee of the ECB.

Sadly, the ECB is no stranger to conflicts of interest, most symbolically manifested in Colin Graves’s personal guarantee of a Yorkshire CCC debt of a £1.8 million to the ECB when he is also chair of the ECB. These blights affect trust and the ECB would do well to rid themselves of them.

Every piecemeal proposition for change simply shifts the problem elsewhere. Let’s maximise income stream at the expense of visibility. Let’s focus on winning the ODI World Cup at the expense of Test cricket. Let’s give white-ball cricket the peak-summer schedules and push county cricket to the margins. Let’s create a bells-and-whistles city-based T20 competition and let the county-based Blast wither on the vine. Rinse and repeat.

Since around 2010, the playing schedule has incrementally shifted the start of the county-cricket season towards the start of April, to make room for more white-ball matches. The damp green-top wickets of early spring may flatter journeymen trundlers who can fill their soggy boots with wickets, but they do nothing to address the dearth of spinners and pace bowlers, who do not prosper in such conditions.

The recent introduction of the uncontested toss has yet to convince as an innovative mechanism that counters the problem with April wickets.  The early signs are that it has simply shifted the advantage away from the bowlers in favour of the tail-end batsmen. It may yet be just another ephemeral novelty that misses the point or relocates the problem.

The shifting county schedule has not led to less cricket across the season, allowing more rest and recovery time for the players. The changes have been made to make space for even more white-ball cricket. The red-ball solutions are lopsided and lumpy. Division two of the Championship will have 10 teams, who will only play 14 matches, meaning that each county will play four of the other counties only once during the season. It’s an ugly proposition that lacks symmetry. The second tier is now the Joseph Merrick of county cricket.

 

The ECB’s city-based T20 tournament may be, as Simon Hughes never tires of telling us, diligently researched and meticulously constructed, but none of this is available to see

 

The pathway from school to the international side is structurally flawed and increasingly under attack from salami-sliced cuts. Even if schemes like Chance to Shine get kids into county age-group cricket, and there is little evidence that they do, the most talented young cricketers can miss out because EPP and Academy systems tend to favour all rounders. The MCCU scheme is under threat from cost-cutting and the withdrawal of a major sponsor. Strauss has scrapped the merit-based payments to England players not centrally contracted because white-ball contracts have exhausted the ECB’s budget for player salaries. None of these are proof of an agenda, but they add to the mood music and it’s more requiem than Mambo No 5.

The ECB is rightly alarmed at the continuing fall in participation in grass-roots cricket, particularly amongst children. In common with the woman from Canberra, the symptoms are in plain view but the causes remains elusive. While contributory factors may range from the selling off of school playing fields to the attention span of the WhatsApp generation, the absence of cricket on free-to-air broadcasting platforms is self evidently a huge contributory factor. It is an utter disgrace that folk who should know better have, over a decade or more, denied that dem bones are connected.

Of course, it may be just coincidence that the decline began around the time Giles Clarke bricked the sport behind a paywall. Equally, it may just be coincidence that participation Down Under is at an all time high as Cricket Australia’s participation strategies – cherry-picked, copied and repackaged by the ECB – align and dovetail very successfully with free-to-air broadcasting. Just as the Big Bash does, oddly enough.

The ECB has consistently predicated its defence of the Sky paywall and the cash it generates as the only way to secure the future of county cricket and Test cricket, and increase participation in the sport. With county cricket marginalised and burdened with debt, Test cricket flat lining and participation in free fall, taking the Sky shilling does not seem to have worked out quite so well.

While the current leadership group may, behind closed doors, acknowledge that the Clarke strategy was horribly flawed, there is nothing in its record to date to suggest they have a clue how to remedy the problem. The ECB’s city-based T20 tournament may be, as Simon Hughes never tires of telling us, diligently researched and meticulously constructed, but none of this is available to see. There is a great deal of trust me I’m a doctor about their plans. And to be frank, I am rather unimpressed with cheerleaders behaving like Andrea Leadsom, eschewing visible evidence in favour of drum-banging.

 

“Cricket doesn’t enjoy such strong support as football, and there is a real danger that it will disappear from half the public’s consciousness and youngsters will take up other sports”

 

In the mid to late 1990s, rugby union went professional and the TCCB transitioned into the ECB, each no doubt driven by similar commercial objectives and opportunities.  While rugby has prospered across every metric, the ECB adopted the commercial mind set of a plc whose ambition overreached its purpose; where the bottom line became an article of faith in place of the actual faith. If the market changed – adapt; rebrand; move the supply base to China; shift market position; innovate and transition from apples to pears; create para-legal income streams; repackage the toxic stuff; discard the wheat and invest in the chaff; control the agenda and manage the press. Each strategy more desperate than the last as greater distance is put between actions and the bleeding point in the first place.

But the ECB is a custodian of cricket. It should be operating like a trustee. Its purpose and raison d’être is to protect and serve cricket in all its forms. I am unclear who the ECB considers to be its stakeholders and whose interests it is serving. I doubt the ECB’s latest billion-pound broadcast deal will alter much the point of Nick Hoult’s piece in 2016 headlined Fear and loathing in county cricket: the grim financial realities of the domestic game.  The trickle-down effect is a discredited financial model. Giles Clarke’s absurd internal-market bidding process fleeced both the traditional Test-hosting counties and the ambitious young guns like Durham. It was a wonderful strategy to boost the ECB’s coffers, not so much for the folk it was meant to represent.

It’s hard to suspend belief and think that the dash for white-ball cash is not just the latest pyramid scheme on the Giles Clarke playlist. With trust lost, we need to see the evidence that a city-based T20 tournament is the only way forward, because to date there seems to be little more than wish being father to the thought. The Big Bash model, whose success is shaped by climate, conurbation and FTA broadcasting, shares virtually nothing with the UK version. It’s not as though the ECB and its cheerleaders have not been equally certain in the past about big, single-route decisions that have proven predictably disastrous.

When Sky secured the rights to England’s home Tests in 2004, Labour MP John Grogan – spoke for many when he railed prophetically, “Cricket doesn’t enjoy such strong support as football, and there is a real danger that it will disappear from half the public’s consciousness and youngsters will take up other sports.”

The BBC’s then cricket correspondent Pat Murphy warned, “At stake is the ability of the English game to reach out to younger generations who might be tempted to give up on cricket and find alternative sporting or social entertainment”.

Initiatives such as Chance to Shine and, more recently, All Stars Cricket may be intended to counter cricket’s lack of visibility and falling participation, but the latest figures suggest the schemes simply are not working. Participation amongst five to ten year olds was up slightly last year to 5.2%, which may be due to the launch of the All Stars scheme or it may be a dead-cat bounce.

kids participation in creicket

It is too soon to tell, but the figure is still down on the average over the previous seven years. Participation amongst 11 to 15 year olds was significantly down to just 13.4% – a drop of 5.4 percentage points from 2015-16. That’s a 29% fall in participation, yet, as reported by George Dobell earlier last month, the ECB and Sport England do not provide Chance to Shine with funding for secondary-school cricket.  The charity’s secondary school initiatives, including girls’ only school cricket clubs and the Chance to Compete scheme are in peril. It’s a huge gamble on the part of the ECB to invest the mortgage on a fancy door with no house behind it.

To borrow from Jonathan Liew, the debate that will define cricket over the next few years is whether the ECB is capable or visionary enough to navigate the game to a position where its traditional values can prosper in a modern setting. I fear it’s in no better a position than the poor woman from Canberra, who lamented “We’d be open to all therapies, we just need to know what’s wrong first.”

© Tregaskis, March 2018

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Lemon Zest Serves a Sour Note from the Chef’s Table

Cricket journalist and blogger known for pricking pomposity and satirising the establishment offers a weird piece that comes across as both pompous and pro-establishment

 

A droll theatre critic once wrote of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd “I came out of the theatre humming the scenery”. It was not an original barb, and hinted at soi disant cleverness, but it helped do for the show just as Todd himself did for Mrs Lovett.  I feel the same way about Alastair Cook. Without lyricism or melody, his cricket is Grand Guignol on Mogadon, a heavily sedated anti-exhibition of tortured cricket murdered over ten acts.

When the Demon Barber opened at Drury Lane in 1980, the critics at the time did not get the dynamics of Sondheim’s operatic melodrama, even though it’s since won multiple awards and is widely recognised as a classic. In much the same way, I don’t get Cook, especially the concept of Cook, as in many ways he has become a sporting construct. When he bats, I come away humming the sight screen. It’s probably just me, and, in any event, other views are available.

James Fenton tore Sweeney Todd apart. American theatre critic John Lahr once received death threats after not liking a Sondheim musical. Fenton and Lahr may occasionally offer dissonant views, but that hardly defines them as ephemeral effluent dwellers. From a personal point of view, I think Sondheim is the greatest composer of musical theatre since Leonard Bernstein and the best lyricist since Oscar Hammerstein, but I recognise that not everyone sees genius or the greatest ever as I do. So why is such plurality of thought dismissed so casually or treated with such outrage when it comes to Alastair Cook?

 

Without lyricism or melody, Cook’s cricket is Grand Guignol on Mogadon, a heavily sedated anti-exhibition of tortured cricket murdered over ten acts

 

Geoff Lemon did a hatchet job on Cook naysayers as the embers cooled in the old year and it sat uncomfortably with me in a number of ways. His opening paragraph set the tone –

When regarding the internet, one might draw parallels with an open sewer. It’s a useful conduit, but don’t dwell too closely on what goes floating by.

The subs reinforced the theme with the headline –

Dead rubber’ Ashes talk only reveals those who don’t understand Test cricket

In a sense, it no longer matters what Lemon’s piece is about, he has already established an anti-intellectual context in which those who disagree with what he had to say are charged with not understanding cricket and, worst than that, are like turds floating by in an open sewer. Lemon can be brilliantly tart and brutally effective when he hits the right targets. Here he somehow misses the mark. He’s too angry. Too mainstream. Too Giles Clarke. This an is act of punter alienation redolent of Mike Selvey or Brad McNamara.

My first pain point here is remonstrating with Lemon at all. He is one of my favourite cut-through-the crap writers. His Guardian piece, back in February 2015, where he dismantled the jock-culture of Channel 9, is a masterpiece of understated destruction of self-serving idiocy.  The Guardian version, for reasons only they can explain, edited out Lemon’s original reprimand of Channel Nine’s executive director of cricket, McNamara, for having a go at a blogger (referencing a similar, very pithy,  Gideon Haigh admonishment)  —

Replied a bemused [Gideon] Haigh [to Brad McNamara], “I find it curious that you can be so contemptuous of my point of view, yet at the same time let it bother you so much. It’s slightly … unhinged.

Unhinged was the word after cricket fan Daniel Gray posted to The Roar’s reader-submitted article stream. A one-sentence joke about Nine saw McNamara appear in the comments again, bollocking Gray as “a whining, faceless and totally irrelevant blogger consigned to a life of obscurity operating on the outskirts of mainstream media just wishing and hoping one day to be noticed and made relevant”.

Lemon’s shift, then and now, to ground previously occupied by McNamara and Selvey is deeply disappointing and suggests, in his own words, he knows which side his party pies are sauced.  I’m giving Lemon a rain check on this one, because he’s been so bleeding good and so unafraid of challenging conventional wisdom and tired orthodoxy that I want to continue reading what he has to say. Every talented voice from the edge that gets invited in to the mainstream inevitably loses their bloody-minded independence of thought. Please let it not be so here.

 

Lemon in suggesting Cook’s performance should not be played down sees no contradiction in offering three good reasons why it might be

 

Introducing my second pain point, Lemon helps segue to my top-of-the piece allusions by referencing Phantom of the Opera

The dismissal of “dead rubber” results is not new, but it’s something that seems to have gained traction. It is rhetorical and logical effluent; a mixture of arrogance, assumption, elision and dismissiveness as pungent as anything the Phantom of the Opera went wading through.

Of course, dismissals rub both ways, and a preremptory dismissal of, er, dead-rubber dismissals must, as Newton’s third law of motion insists, attract an equal and opposite reaction. At best, Lemon’s view should take its chance as every hackneyed opinion jockeys for position. At worst, it’s a rather fractured, straw-man argument that misses the bleeding point.

Lemon, with the zest of a reformed satirist, systematically rubbishes some crazy ideas that no one has ever made: (1) nothing mattered in the series as the Melbourne and Sydney matches were dead rubbers; (2) Australia no longer cared because they had already won; and (3) Cook did not try for the first three matches so he could mock his detractors in the fourth. These are Trumpian Alt Facts. No one has said these things. None of these notions make any sense unless the start point is “how do we prevent context taking some of the lustre from Cook’s johnny-come-lately score?”

Lemon should perhaps have a word with his stable mate, the ever dependable Ali Martin writing in The Guardian after England lost to South Africa in the last of a three-match ODI series in May 2017 –

After losing their first six wickets for 20 runs in five overs – the fastest top-order collapse in one-day history – and being bowled out for 153 in 31.1 overs, they have received a significant size 10 up the backside on the eve of the tournament, albeit in a dead rubber.

Lemon, in this current state of mind, would have found these final five words deeply alienating. Five turds. Why did you do it Ali? Don’t you know the concept of a dead rubber does not exist? Geoff has explained it all to us now and I hope he was not as cross with you when you wrote this as he has recently been with the rest of us.

OK, Lemon may have been angry at what he saw as a casual dismissal in some quarters of Cook’s unbeaten 244, and he responded with a visceral swipe. But social media is not good at nuance or context. It’s brilliant at diminishing a vast range of thought and opinion into simplistic binary tags – good or bad, like or hate, sweet or sour. How many journalists have sighed with weary resignation as their carefully crafted copy is undone by a sub-editor with a snappy headline to write? That is how social media works. Lemon’s sweeping dismissal of the internet, and by implication the folk that inhabit the platforms that support his career, created an odd anomaly. He was given a thousand words to write a thought piece yet gave it the quality of a 280-character Twitter rant.

A week later, suffering from tonsillitis or something equally debilitating, Lemon wrote an empathetic piece on England’s loss at Sydney. It was more subdued and more thoughtful. He warmed to Joe Root’s predicament as a fellow traveller to St Vincent’s Hospital, where the will to fight was somehow sucked dry as circumstances just stacked up against each of them –

It seemed appropriate that Root’s last day of a difficult tour should involve the bleary confusion of tiredness, the discomfort of ailment, and the numbing realisation that there was nothing left to save.

But here was a realisation, too, on Lemon’s part, that maybe every match does not matter just the same. The acceptance that when there is nothing left to save, folk do not always perform as they might when there is. Maybe a week earlier it was the ague speaking.

 

Social media is not good at nuance or context. It’s brilliant at diminishing a vast range of thought and opinion into simplistic binary tags – good or bad, like or hate, sweet or sour

 

Geoff Lemon admonished all us more cynical folk when he observed –

Discrediting performances when you don’t rate the player is a time-honoured cricket tradition. You can say that one century is rubbish because of a dead match, another was made on a road, a third against weak bowling.

Lemon in suggesting Cook’s performance should not be played down sees no contradiction in offering three good reasons why it might be.  Ironically, here is one of my favourite Lemon moments, dismantling a Mankad moan –

Selvey chipped in on Twitter. “I know Buttler was being dozy, had been warned, and it was in the laws and it was his fault. But is that really how we want the game played?” he asked, seeing no contradiction in using four good reasons why the bowler did the right thing as an argument that he didn’t.

I am fully in favour of all things being considered on their merits. The single-most important factor in the unfolding events of the fourth Test was the Melbourne pitch. The Melbourne Cricket Club and Cricket Australia have each apologised for it being variously dead or moribund. It offered nothing to the bowlers and each captain condemned it. It would have played the same after a fortnight’s holiday in Ibiza. It had more in common with a Norwegian Blue than a Test wicket.

Yet, according to Lemon, no one is allowed to offer this as context without being a shit bloke. On challenging pitches against a full strength Australian attack, Cook scored 83 at an average of 13.83. When the Ashes were already lost, on a pitch that was deader than any analogy of a dead thing that Richard Curtis could come up with, and Starc injured and Cummins ill, we are meant to applaud the achievement without thinking, shame it was all a bit too easy and a bit too late to make a difference.

 

Given 1000 words to write a thought piece, Lemon gave it the quality of a 280-character Twitter rant

 

While it was indisputably a great innings, it seems to me to be a perfectly acceptable proposition to ask why did Cook’s return to form not happen when it mattered or against an opposition at the top of their game? I, for one, would have better applauded his 244 not out had it been delivered in one of the first three Tests. Reading the press, one would think this was some kind of absurd heresy. Every Test should be considered only on its own merits, says Lemon and others. So does a 244 not out in a so-called dead rubber have the same value as it would when the series was still alive? It doesn’t. It is disappointing. And we are allowed to be disappointed. It is of course a personal triumph for the ailing Alastair Cook, and adds to his statistical legacy, but please do not tell me it is redemptive or has anything to do with the success or onward development of an England Test team that’s been in stasis for years.

I accept that Alastair Cook is like Dr Who’s psychic paper. All folk project their own values on him and each come away with something very different. His achievements stand on their own merits. But they must also be examined in a wider context. My thoughts on Cook are well documented on this site; they are sometimes admiring, sometimes cautious, and sometimes caustic. I may be wrong. I may even be very wrong. But I am entitled to think differently and not be dismissed as a dead opinion, sewn in a cheap hammock and slipped into an ocean of shite. If Geoff Lemon is entitled to think differently, so am I.

I remain a fan of Geoff Lemon. It’s just that on this issue, to pick up the Sondheim theme, it is not something where We Merrily We Roll Along.

@Tregaskis, January 2018

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