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.
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