Thursday, December 24, 2009

Campaign by Kent members gathers momentum

The campaign by a group of members of Kent County Cricket Club to persuade the County to rethink their 2010 membership structure and subscriptions is gaining momentum. Helped by the running of stories in the national media, including in today’s Times, the campaign is well on its way to gaining the 100 signatures it needs to call for a Special General Meeting of the county to discuss the matter.

The campaign was launched shortly after Kent’s current membership received details of the County’s proposals for 2010. In 2009 you could be a member of Kent for £128 (£115 if you were over 65). For 2010 this was to be increased to £200 with no senior discount at all. An increase of 56% or of 74% for seniors. Various categories of membership were to be abolished including that of Country member, Senior (Over 65) and Student (18-23 for full time students). Within days of the protests starting Kent relented on the Country member category and re-introduced it at a 50% discount but at the time of writing the other categories remain abolished and the minimum membership cost for ordinary members is still £200.

Members have pointed out that neighbouring county Sussex has full membership available for as little as £100 and that most other counties have similarly affordable deals. In the case of Sussex the membership offer is “tiered” with the £100 deal including “only” One Day games and with a top membership category at £210 to include the County Championship games. There is no such choice available to Kent members who are offered a take it or leave it “All matches” membership at £200

The outcry has come particularly from members who, for various reasons, can only attend a few matches each season but value their membership and the right to wear the county tie and sit in the members areas at the grounds when they do attend matches. Many of these members are not interested in Twenty20 so the inclusion of these games in the new package is of little value to them. The opposition is understandably strong from older members who have seen the greatest increase and it is often the case the these members find it difficult to attend more than a few matches each years - and also that they are not amongst the most enthusiastic supporters of Twenty20. Many pensioner members struggle on fixed incomes and the extra £85 they are being asked to pay is unaffordable. This means that many long-standing members will simply drift away from the county and that their membership subscriptions will be lost entirely. The result is that the income generated from the sale of membership may even decrease despite the swinging subscription increase.

The campaign has opened a dialogue with the club on this matter and it is hoped that Kent will rethink their whole 2010 membership offer and avoid the cost of having to arrange a Special General Meeting. The introduction of a “tiered” membership structure similar in principle to that of Sussex seems the likely way forward.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

English cricket should welcome David Davies’ recommendations

It has now been confirmed that David Davies has recommended that The Ashes should be shown on terrestrial television as a “crown jewels” event and everyone involved with English cricket should welcome the news. They won’t of course – expect a strong anti reaction from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) who will their future income streams being under threat. But in fact the news is just the shot in the arm that English cricket needs and not only the fans should celebrate. Because it should prompt a root and branch review of the finances and governance of cricket in Britain so that a fit-for-purpose domestic structure is established along with a far greater spectator/viewer imperative than currently exists.

The ordinary cricket fan has been the principal casualty of the disproportionately commercial bias of the ECB in recent years. Ticket prices for international matches are by some margin the most expensive in the world and with the only alternative for the fan requiring a satellite or cable subscription, which may cannot afford, cricket has slipped in the public interest compared with that glorious summer of 2005. That year, of course, The Ashes were on free-to-air Channel 4 and the viewing figures were huge. This year, although the cricket was almost as enticing as in 2005, the viewers were hardly surprisingly far fewer in number.

Why does the ECB seek to market its valuable international cricket properties to the highest bidders disregarding, in the process, the needs of the ordinary cricket fan? The answer, of course, rests not with the drive for income per se but with the grossly overblown expenditure that the ECB indulges in. This brings us, inevitably, to the subject of the structure of domestic cricket in England and Wales. The only way that an 18 county domestic structure can exist (just!) is if its costs are subvented by handouts from the ECB. These handouts amount to around £2million per year per county and we all know what the counties do with a significant proportion of that money and who the eventual beneficiaries are – and that they are not qualified to play for England!

It may seem slightly perverse to argue that the likely reduction in ECB income that the Davies recommendations will mean is actually good for the game. But if, as is likely, it forces the whole basis of the financing and operations of the ECB to be reviewed then only good can come out of it. And the start point for all this should be the ordinary cricket fan who wants affordable international cricket and, I would suggest, a far higher standard top-tier domestic cricket structure. A structure that is above all a developing ground for players who have the ability to get through to the international team and who are given the opportunity to do so in domestic competitions which are not primarily, as at present, nice little earners for itinerant cricket mercenaries!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The ECB still cagey about it's "staging agreements"

Cricket lovers will be aware that the playing field for the allocation of major international matches to England and Wales cricket grounds is far from level. The ECB’s Major Match Group, chaired by Lord Morris of Handsworth, has confirmed that an Ashes Test match will take place at The Oval in 2013 as a part of their “long term staging agreement” - and Yorkshire also has such an agreement with the ECB which guarantees international cricket at Headingley until at least 2019. It is not known whether any other grounds have similar long term deals with the ECB and the ECB won’t tell! An ECB media spokesman told me “You would need to contact the individual venues. We don't release this type of information” – quite why this should be is not clear. What have they got to hide? The Oval and Headingley’s advantageous arrangements are no doubt linked to their ground redevelopment plans which needed to be underpinned financially by guaranteed international cricket at the venues.

This of course brings us to Lord’s which as it stands may not even get an Ashes Test match in 2013 (although one has been promised for 2016). Lord’s has ambitious plans for its redevelopment including taking the capacity up to approaching 40,000. But these plans can surely not go ahead unless the MCC has some certainty about the long term future of international matches at the ground. MCC members and the general cricket-loving public alike will be wondering whether the ECB and the MCC can do a deal which will allow Lord’s plans to proceed. And visiting sides will also, I’m sure, be hoping for a successful outcome – how many players from around the cricket world would happily forgo a Lord’s Test match in favour of the Rose Bowl, the Riverside or Sophia Gardens!

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Boxing demeans us all...

I wonder how many of those who watched the Haye versus Valuev fight yesterday remember the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 when the shambling figure of Muhammed Ali struggled nobly to light the Olympic flame.

In Atlanta, and since, Muhammed Ali’s suffering from “Pugilistic Parkinson’s syndrome” was visible for all to see. Like other great champions before him – Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson amongst many others – the effects of repeated blows to the head over years in the ring was finally taking its toll. It would be churlish to deny David Haye his moment in the spotlight and no doubt he will now climb aboard the gravy train big time before he throws in the toel for good. But will it by then be too late? It may take up to fifteen years for the damage of repeated concussion to emerge in the way that it has with Ali and countless others.

Defenders of boxing often argue that many other sports are dangerous and that that the death or serious injury rate in the sport is lower than in (say) mountaineering or sky diving. This argument misses the point completely. It is only in boxing where you will have your head pummelled continuously for more than thirty minutes by an opponent whose primary purpose is to knock you senseless. That is the point of the sport – to strive sufficiently to injure your opponent that you beat him physically into submission. The world of professional boxing is an anachronism in modern sport in that attacks by one fighter on the head of another are a normal part of the tactics - and it is this aspect of the sport that is its biggest source of controversy and shame. Whilst contests in many contact sports (like Rugby, for example) can be tough and very physically and mentally demanding there is no legal sport, other than professional boxing, where the primary intention is to put your opponent in a comatose state. Boxing legitimises and glorifies violence. There is a glamour, of sorts, in boxing of course but a pretty vulgar one with “A list” celebrities occupying the ringside seats only intensifying the repulsion that many of us feel that modern society still tolerates this vulgarity.

Estimates indicate that around 900 people have died from boxing related injuries over the past seventy years or so – it is, therefore, no surprise that all medical authorities have called for the sport to be banned. The American Medical Association puts the case very clearly “All forms of boxing are a public demonstration of interpersonal violence which is unique among sporting activities. Victory is obtained by inflicting on the opponent such a measure of physical injury that the opponent is unable to continue, or which at least can be seen to be significantly greater than is received in return. This particularly applies to professional boxing”. But it is the individual cases that really bring the barbarity into sharp relief. Take, for example, that of the former world Middleweight champion, Gerald McClellan, who sustained a brain injury in a fight in 1995 as a consequence of which he is now deaf, blind and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Yes such things could happen accidentally in other sports – but in boxing, as the AMA rightly says, the causing of such injury is deliberate.

There are multi-million dollar purses in boxing at the top and nobody can blame David Haye and others for reaching for them. With money at this level is it surprising that the sport survives, despite all the medical evidence against it? And is it surprising that it is the sport with historically more corruption and criminality in it than any other? The history of professional boxing is littered with the debris of fixed fights, dysfunctional and greedy promoters and crime syndicates. Surely sport should not be part of this shady world at all. Sport should set an example to society not reflect back its darker images. The charter of the Olympic Games says that “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Boxing fails this test.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Brains and Brawn in Formula one

Unless something very strange happens in the Brazilian Grand Prix later today it now looks certain that the Brawn F1 team will win both the Constructors’ and the Drivers’ Championship this season. It is the most remarkable, and in many ways pleasing, outcome in the history of the sport. Remarkable because before the season began nobody gave Brawn a prayer – not the experts, not the fans and certainly not the bookmakers. One preview by a long-in-the-tooth and distinguished writer about F1 said about Brawn that “…they must surely struggle near the back of the field” and The Guardian’s Maurice Hamilton predicted that Jenson Button would finish 14th in the championship and Rubens Barrichello 16th. The bookies agreed - Jenson was 66-1 and Rubens 125-1 to win the Drivers’ title and Brawn were 80-1 to win the Constructors’! The outcome is pleasing because in a sport not over-burdened with people at the top who you would admit to having as friends Ross Brawn has always been one of the good guys.

I was reasonably close to Ferrari for a few years in the late 1990s and the early part of this decade. I visited Marenello and met all of the key players including the then team boss Jean Todt and the drivers – Schumacher, Irvine and Barrichello. It was a hugely impressive operation – Schumi was a genius (if a slightly flawed one), Todt a clever and calmly effective leader and Schumacher’s team-mates, first Eddie Irvine and then Rubens, were personable and rightly popular. But the guy I rated most highly was Ross Brawn who was Ferrari’s Technical Director. He was quiet, modest and articulate and when he spoke you listened – not just because he knew what he was talking about but because he seemed to be telling you the truth. My love affair with Ferrari was somewhat tarnished in 2002 when Todt ordered Barrichello to let Schumacher through to win the Austrian Grand Prix – the sort of gamesmanship that gives sport a bad name. I was at the race and Brawn was clearly uncomfortable with what had happened – although he kept his silence.

Ross Brawn is a pleasing exception to the rule that F1 team bosses and the sport’s senior administrators have to have about as many morals as a tomcat on the prowl. So for Ross to triumph this year is truly a delight – and the same applies to whichever of Jenson or Rubens is crowned world champion. My patriotism favours Button, but my heart leans towards the veteran Rubens. He was the loyal number two at Ferrari and this was at times highly frustrating for him – as at the A-Ring in 2002. He has always had the talent to be World Champion, but aged 36 at the beginning of this season and with a drive in an unknown car the bookies weren’t far out in their assessment that it was the longest of long-shots. If Rubens wins today at his home Grand Prix in Sao Paulo, and Button and Vettell fail to score many, or even any, points (the likely outcome) then a fabulous fight to the finish between the two Brawn drivers in Abu Dhabi is a mouth-watering prospect. Whatever happens Ross Brawn has comprehensively upset the complacent Formula one applecart this year and shown that you don’t have to have giant corporate backers and sponsors with bottomless pockets to win in this most commercial of sports – and this surely pleases all of us whose Formula one memories go back to the days when it was possible for the private entrant like Raymond Mays, Tony Vandervell, Colin Chapman or Ken Tyrell to win.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Monty Panesar and the Afrikaaners

Division 2 cricket County Championship side Northamptonshire have been captained in 2009 by the South African Test cricketer Nicky Boje and with him in the side have been fellow Springboks Rike Wessels, Johannes van der Wath and Andrew Hall. In a recent article in The Guardian Mike Selvey suggests fairly unequivocally that England and Northamptonshire spin bowler Monty Panesar has been the victim of a “lack of respect” from the overseas players at the county (all of them South Africans) and he hints that this has been manifested by chats about Monty between these players in their common language - Afrikaans. These chats have been overheard by visiting South Africans from other counties.

Now Selvey has his finely-tuned ear always to the ground when it comes to picking up the scuttlebutt in the world of cricket and I doubt that he would have reported the story unless he had pretty firm evidence that the gentle Monty’s difficult cricket year has not been helped by his being at times in an alien environment in his own county dressing room. The idea that in the once genteel environment of English County cricket, a place that over the years has welcomed players from all over the cricketing world, there is now the possibility of Afrikaner-speaking cliques demeaning fellow players is a pretty nasty thought. At Northants itself many of us will remember with pleasure the contribution that Panesar’s fellow Sikh, Bishan Singh Bedi, made for many years. Bedi was a popular figure at the County Ground in those distant days and he also had a foreign captain, the Pakistani Mustaq Mohammad for some of that time. It wouldn’t have happened in Mushie’s days, but perhaps times have changed and maybe it is now the smart thing to do when two or three Afrikaners are gathered together to put down a colleague. Possibly especially so if that colleague, like Monty, comes from a distinctly different background and wears a Patka.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How's this for Renault's Corporate Social Responsibility?

When in 2002 the Benetton Formula One team morphed into Renault it was clear that what the French car giant was seeking to do was to secure brand value from the move, in return, of course, for funding. Constructors' and Drivers' championships in 2005 and 2006 will undoubtedly have given the brand a major boost and whilst it is never easy to draw a direct and quantified line between success of this sort and brand equity there can be little doubt that Renault's substantial investment will have paid off. But the recent revelations about what Simon Barnes of The Times called "…worst single piece of cheating in the history of sport" will not just have damaged Renault's F1 credibility beyond repair but also have done almost irreparable damage to the corporate brand as well. Let's see why.

Like most major corporations Renault trumpets loudly its commitment to "Corporate Social Responsibility" (CSR). Here is what they say on their website:

"Renault maintains relations with a wide range of stakeholders, including customers, suppliers, local communities and residents, associations, and international organisations… These relations are based on two guiding principles: dialogue and transparent, loyal behaviour. Renault’s commitment also extends to the key social issues linked to the automotive industry, such as sustainable mobility and road safety (sic), and to initiatives for civil society."

Fine words, albeit words that are easy for a skilled copywriter to craft. Much more difficult of course is to walk the talk - to actually put into practise what you say you believe in. Major corporations can always be tripped up by determined investigators who can usually find some Achilles heel where practices don't match up to the high ideals of its stated CSR policy. But in Renault's case this was not some quiet little known business where standards were slipping - it was one of the most visible manifestations of the corporate brand - Formula One.

Now it may be that the big chiefs of Renault feel that they had in a way contracted out the running of the Renault F1 team to Flavio Briatore and that their big corporate hands are squeaky clean. Briatore has been banned from F1 activities indefinitely, and Pat Symonds, the former chief engineer has been suspended from the sport for five years. They even feel that they are clear to continue with their F1 involvement with their reputation untarnished because the World Motor Sport Council has only given the team a suspended sentence - in effect no punishment at all.

But if CSR does mean anything at all surely Renault at the very top must accept that this has been a shocking breach of their CSR policy by one of the most visible parts of their empire? It is reasonable to ask whether Renault's CSR commitment to transparency and to road safety applied to their F1 team. If it did then how to they feel now? And if it didn't then surely it should have!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Michael Vaughan to join a winning Test Match Special “A” Team

On the fallow day between England’s failure to defend a total of 299 on Tuesday and their even more woeful attempt to get a similar total on Thursday, both at Trent Bridge, I had the pleasure of spending some time with the Producer of Test Match Special Adam Mountford. Now attentive readers will know that I have a wee bit of previous with Mr Mountford but he, to his credit, offered an olive branch and we eventually got together deep in the heart of the Vale of Belvoir for a spot of lunch. And very enjoyable it was to for whatever the doubts may have been when Mountford took over from the long-serving Peter Baxter in 2007 can there be any doubt that this has been a bit of an Annus Mirabilis for the programme and its producer?

Test Match Special (TMS) is one of the very few iconic programmes on the Radio where the programme brand is its strength and where the presenters or performers may come and go but the core values of the brand stay constant – or should. The “Today” programme, “Woman’s Hour”, “Desert Island Discs” and of course “The Archers” are among the few in this category and TMS is up there with them. But one of the problems with icon status is that listeners are fiercely defensive about the programme and often very reluctant to accept changes. This was certainly the case with TMS and Mountford was accused of dumbing down and of being too willing to adopt the tabloid style culture of Radio 5Live. These accusations were mainly attributable to the choice of commentators and summarisers that he made in his first months in charge. Radio 5 has been criticised for having “homogenised” voices with one presenter’s accent and tones being indistinguishable from another. There is some truth in this gibe and when Adam Mountford introduced similarly cloned voices to TMS there was adverse comment - can you distinguish your Mann, from your White from your Pougatch? Not to mention the estuary tones of Phil Tufnell – a celebrity superstar replacing our much loved old grump Mike Selvey! Oh my Johnners and my Arlott of long ago – how you must be looking on at it all from on high with horror!

Those of us who remember the early days of TMS can recall how the programme gradually evolved from rather stilted and formulaic cricket commentary into what Jonathan Agnew has described as a “roomful of mates chatting away”. Would this survive in the new regime and in particular how would the Ashes Tests of 2009 be produced – would strict ball by ball commentary endure and would those carrying it out be our old chums – Aggers and Blowers and Jenkers? (Christopher Martin-Jenkins really was called “Jenkers” by Brian Johnston but somehow this didn’t survive the great man’s passing!). So when I sat in my seat in Sophia Gardens on Wednesday 8th July, the first day of the 2009 Ashes, and tuned in to TMS’s build up to that first day’s play it was with some trepidation. I needn’t have worried. At Cardiff we had all three of the TMS heavies as well as the hugely experienced Aussie game-caller Jim Maxwell. Not only that but the “A” team of summarisers was there as well – Boycott and Marks and the superb Ian Chappell. And when Tufnell took his turn he held his own admirably and soon showed that he is a clever reader of the game with an engaging communications style and a strong voice – albeit one that now seemed a bit more “Radio 4” than I remember from when he was crowned King of the Jungle! Mountford says that four commentators is probably one too many in any one match – although it was certainly justified for the first Test. So for the foreseeable future we can expect some rotation between Aggers, CMJ and Blowers and also the occasional match for the very good Simon Mann. The experiment with Arlo White and Mark Pougatch as Test match commentators is unlikely to be repeated – although they will continue to work on limited overs matches. And the summarisers rota will comprise Boycott, Vic Marks and Phil Tufnell – to whom can now be added Michael Vaughan, something that was finalised by the BBC at Trent Bridge where the ex England captain made his debut on TMS.

The Ashes listening figures were, Mountford believes, around six million – more than three times the number of viewers for Sky’s television coverage. It is surprising how vague the listenership figures are for BBC radio and it is virtually impossible to be anything like precise about the numbers that tune in to TMS. Within the BBC itself the programme is high profile with senior suits from the DG downwards listening to and taking an interest in the programme. I sensed that Mountford rather relishes this even though the degree of attention must be a bit wearing at times. Perhaps the uniqueness of TMS and that fact that it is one of Radio’s Jewels in the Crown has ensured that if there ever was a risk of serious dumbing down and absorption into Radio5 Live this has not happened. The innovations are really quite modest, Tuffers for Selvey, on pitch interviews before the start of a day’s play and greater responsiveness to listeners who text or Email the programme. The much reported interviews with Lily Allen and Daniel Radcliffe may be seen as an attempt to go pop but there has always been a tradition on TMS of interviews with those who are famous for other reasons and have an interest in the game - and Aggers is very good at these interviews and for most listeners I suspect that there is no problem with them. Mountford said that 75% of the messages after the Lily Allen interview were positive and given that a fair number of the traditional TMS listeners had probably never heard of her this was a good result.

As with any live unscripted programme there are elephant traps for the unwary and Mountford has had one or two dodgy moments. My own personal moment of disgust came during the New Zealand Lord’s Test Match in 2008 when former New Zealand captain Jeremy Coney said of incoming batsman Ross Taylor that he was “From the South Pacific in the sense that he is not a New Zealander at all” and moments later couldn’t identify “which of the islands” Taylor came from. In fact Ross Taylor, whose mother was from Samoa, was born in Lower Hutt in North Island and is very much a New Zealander. Mountford describes Coney as having made an “error of judgment” and there the matter rests – although I am sure that I am not alone in feeling that there is no place on as iconic a programme as TMS for an expert summariser who reveals prejudice or ignorance, or maybe both, on air.

But whilst errors of the Coney type are unacceptable that does not argue for blandness or over-sensitive political correctness. You want some creative tension and we did get this year from time to time – particularly between Boycott and the commentators and especially Jonathan Agnew. CMJ, Aggers and Blowers are mostly very polite to one and all and so was Jim Maxwell. Vic Marks and Ian Chappell were also very courteous – as was Matthew Hayden who summarised in the later Tests and did an excellent job. The genial Tufnell didn’t really wind anyone up or try and start an argument and on his Trent Bridge showing nor will Michael Vaughan – good though his debut was. So for the future Mountford, who has clearly been treading rather carefully this year, might want to have a bit more attack from time to time in the box and move a little bit away from the blandness-risking “Radio Old Chum” style.

BBC Radio has negotiated a home matches broadcasting contract with the ECB that will keep TMS going until 2014 and most overseas tours will be covered as well. But the upcoming Champions Trophy in South Africa will not have ball by ball and listeners will have to rely on updates from Alison Mitchell on Radion 5Live – or watch Sky. The international matches against South Africa will have the full TMS treatment though and the core “A” team will be in the Republic for the Test matches along with the local commentator Gerald de Kock.

Adam Mountford resents the suggestion that he was a parvenu who was out of his depth when he took over from Peter Baxter pointing out that not only that he had been Baxter’s assistant for five years but that during that time he had produced a number of matches and tours himself. Nevertheless I sense that he was seen as a bit different by the rather cosy, public-school educated and supremely self-confident TMS team that he now had to lead, and that this was a bit of a problem. It may be that he has had to rein in his instincts for change in order both to keep the team together and to deflect the critics who had him in their sights for a while. But his success in 2009 has surely silenced some of the doubters and raised his credibility and profile both within the corridors of power in the BBC and with his TMS “chums”.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

3000 people, no dogs - and precious little sense either!

As a previous winner of “The Wisden Cricketer” (TWC) letter of the month award (note to friends – the Cockspur Rum was excellent and there is none left) I naturally always look at the prize-winning letter each month with particular interest. Now John Stern, TWC’s estimable editor is a sensible sort of chap (I flatter him not because I want a review of my John Shepherd biography in his organ, although that would be nice, but because he is genuinely on the side of the good guys on cricket). Given his commonsensical approach I can only assume that behind his stern (sorry!) and rational facade there is a cove with an impious sense of humour. Why else would he publish Jack Endacott’s hilarious “defence” of the County Championship – I think that on this occasion the editor’s tongue has been not unadjacent to his cheek!

But given the letter’s prominence I had better gently demolish the arguments in it and, whilst I have no wish to be unkind to Mr Endacott, in the search for truth I am afraid that I have to show why he is, on this matter anyway, deluded. Let’s start with the assertion that a “crowd” of 3,000 is in some way something worth boasting about. True it is way up at the top end of the spectator count for County Championship matches – most of this years hundreds of days of Championship cricket will be watched by a ‘“crowd” nearer to the “one man and his dog” than they will be to Taunton’s three thousand. The County Championship is England’s premier domestic cricket competition but compare it with the premier competition in other major sports such as Football, Rugby Union and Rugby League and it is nowhere. Indeed to get crowds as low as this in Football you would have to go down to the lower reaches of Division 2 of the Football League – the fourth tier of the professional game! And comparable matches in the two Rugby codes get proper crowds of at least three or four times the Taunton masses. Limited overs county cricket fixtures do, of course, sometimes attract much larger attendances – but it is the County Championship that Mr Endacott is writing about and which he claims is the “bedrock of the game”.

I have mentioned before veteran sports writer Frank Keating’s mournful assessment of the modern County Championship but it is worth quoting again:

“…another summer of what has tragically become a drawn-out primeval charade, the English County Championship. For decade upon decade it was a cherished adornment of the summer sub-culture, certainly for my generation when heroes were giants and giants were locals. About a quarter of a century ago the championship began fraying and then in no time unravelling. It is now a pointless exercise, unwatched, unwanted, serviced by mostly blinkered, greedy chairman-bullied committees and played by mostly unknown foreign and second-rate mercenaries.”

Keating is right on all counts. Somerset’s eleven for the two matches that Mr Endacott enjoyed contained no fewer than six players who are foreigners and not qualified for England plus a couple of old internationals who won’t play again (Trescothick and Caddick). So the home team had just three players in it that might, if good enough, one day play for England! Yes it is true that “No England player would have made it without starting in [the Championship].” But they had little choice did they – it’s the only game in town! But is it the best that English cricket can do to prepare players for Test cricket – of course not.

The County Championship is the bedrock of only one thing – and that is the County system itself. Without it the structure of domestic cricket in England would unravel, and not before time. The model for the future is indisputably one that has far fewer teams, higher standards of competitiveness, a minimum number of overseas players and which is largely self-financing without the need for huge handouts from the ECB. A six or eight team domestic cricket structure with proper competition in both the four day and the limited overs games with matches played in proper grounds offering spectators decent facilities is what is needed. Our national fondness for nostalgia and sentiment and our often dogged determination not to see the bleeding obvious even when it is staring us in the face has kept the County Championship, a Victorian invention, just about extant even into the third millennium. And the vested interests at the ECB and the eighteen counties are such that the replacement of the “charade” will not be easy – but if England is to be properly competitive, and consistently so, as a cricketing nation the time is ripe to try.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Grim stuff at The Oval and Lord's

For my sins I saw nearly every ball of the first two One Day Internationals live at The Oval and Lord’s – and a pretty depressing experience it was as well. Not because England played poorly or that Australia didn’t play much better but because the matches lacked edge and were almost entirely bereft of memorable moments. At The Oval there were only two innings over twenty which were scored at more than a run a ball (Wright and Rashid) and only Rashid and Bracken bowled well enough to be given ten overs by their captains. In 100 overs there was just one six and fours came at less than one every two overs– it was pretty dire stuff England’s belated run chase excepted. Indeed it was only during the last nine overs of England’s innings that the crowd was stirred up at all – most of the time they were eerily quiet with the monotony only broken by the odd nutter in fancy dress. And so it was at Lord’s as well – a match almost completely without excitement or interest. Not one six in the match and even fewer fours than at The Oval – and only one innings of merit, Mitchell Johnson’s excellent (and match-winning) 43 off 23 balls.

The very first competitive and professional One Day match in England took place in May 1963 at Old Trafford and in the first Innings Lancashire scored 304 runs in 65 Overs – a rate of 4.68 an over – not bad although admittedly there were no fielding restrictions in those days. Forty-six years on Australia and England scored at much the same rate in their two recent matches. So what has happened to the much heralded acceleration in ODI scoring rates which was predicted followed that extraordinary match at The Wanderers in March 2006 when South Africa scored 434 in 50 Overs and Australia chased the total down scoring 438-9? Well I think what has happened is Twenty20. England has played 22 Twenty20 internationals from 2006 onwards and Australia about the same. So whereas pre Twenty20 the 50 Over game was the only limited overs version of the game and it was, therefore, the place where improvisation and attack was rife (there were 26 sixes and 87 fours in that Wanderers match) now it is Twenty20 where the excitement takes place and it is on that stage that the batsmen try and take hard-hitting control.

Frankly at the first two matches of this seven match ODI series neither side really seemed to know what they were doing. Ravi Bopara opened the England innings and presumably he was expected to hit hard in the initial power-play overs. In fact his strike rate was only 56 and his patchy 49 took him 28 overs. Michael Clarke took 72 balls to make his 45 with only three fours and the promising Callum Ferguson looked like a Test player, and potentially rather a good one, rather than a limited overs biffer in his two innings.

Shane Warne said recently that “ODI cricket should go. It has evolved into Twenty20 - cricket only needs two forms of the game.” You can see where the great Australian bowler is coming from and there is certainly evidence to support his view that natural selection has given us Twenty20 and that ODIs are dinosaurs. The cricket aside the two days at The Oval and Lord’s were enjoyable – the sun was on our backs from time to time and there was a glass or two of something cold readily to hand to anesthetise us from the happenings on the field of play. I will always enjoy a day at the cricket not just a few hours which is the Twenty20 model. But if we want spectators to have an enjoyable and competitive limited overs cricket day there are other models worth trying. How about two innings of 25 overs rather than one of 50? Or maybe double header Twenty20 matches like they sometimes play in baseball. Twenty20 is baseball’s bastard cousin after all so perhaps we could adopt a few more of their ways and means.

The next ODI is at the Rosebowl tomorrow and tickets are still available - should you decide to invest £60 a pop I hope you get some decent cricket for your money. I won’t be there. Struggling with the traffic in darkest Hampshire after the match at 11:00 pm was never a good idea so I’ll watch it on TV – unless, that is, I decide to join the vast majority of Sky Sports enthusiasts who will watch England v Croatia from Wembley instead!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sky’s the limit for English cricket

James Murdoch’s recent attack on the BBC will have surprised nobody – anyone who dares to inhibit News International’s ability to make money (and the BBC certainly does that) can expect to be in the firing line. Viewers and listeners (and we must now included surfers) of the Beeb’s output get astonishing value for money and whilst it is part of the national character to diminish our establishment, including the BBC, would any of us really hand broadcasting over completely to the likes of Sky? Which brings us to cricket. On the final day of the Oval Test match in 2005 Channel 4’s free to air coverage got 8.4 million viewers – and that on a working Monday. This year Sky’s subscription only satellite and cable transmission was watched by 1.92 million fans – and on a Sunday to boot. Whilst cost was not the only factor in play it was obviously by far the most important.

At the ICC’s celebratory two day centenary conference in Oxford last month the generally genial tone of the proceedings was only upset at one point. The distinguished and candid Australian cricket writer and journalist Gideon Haigh was chairing a panel which was discussing the role of the media in cricket. Haigh made the point that the move away from free to air live international cricket in Britain meant that the millions of serendipitous viewers – the ones who are not a died in the wool cricket fans but just occasional dippers into cricket if it is of interest – would not be able to do that this year unless they had a Sky Sports subscription. The figures above prove that Haigh was right - literally millions of potential viewers could not see the coverage. Haigh’s point was that if it is part of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) mission to widen the appeal of cricket in Britain (it is) then not to have free-to-air access to live cricket is a funny way to go about it. When Gideon Haigh had made his point he was shouted at by a voice from the back of the room where none other than ECB Chairman Giles Clarke began an uninvited harangue. Clarke’s rant was mainly directed at the BBC and their alleged failure to bid when the television contract came on offer. It was an unpleasant moment which Haigh handled will skill and Clarke eventually shut up – but his bias in favour of Sky and against the national broadcaster was clear to all present.

This summer News International’s flagship British newspaper, The Times, has been the “Official newspaper of England Cricket” – quite what this means other than that spectators at the Test match grounds receive a free copy and that the ECB’s link with the newspaper is advertised I’m not sure - presumably The Times pays for the privilege. If so it does suggest that the cosy relationship between the ECB and Sky applies also to other media owned by News International. He who pays the piper calls the tune and whilst I would not wish to imply that independent-minded writers and broadcasters in the Murdoch stable like Mike Atherton, Simon Barnes, Nasser Hussain and Christopher Martin-Jenkins would ever kow-tow to the ECB party line they are also unlikely to cut off the hand that feeds them. The ECB is the piper and its paymaster is substantially the “Dirty Digger” and his empire – witness the nine limited overs matches between England and Australia which are to take place in the coming weeks all, of course, covered live on Sky. If sporting considerations were paramount rather than television income rights then would there really be quite so many one day matches? Of course not.

There is plenty to criticise about the structure, priorities and administration of English cricket at present and in many ways The Ashes triumph was in spite of rather than because of the best efforts of the ECB’s management team. We need all the media to hold the ECB objectively to account without fear or favour. This includes Sky and The Times and the Sun – and it also includes Britain’s leading cricket magazine “The Wisden Cricketer” which is also now a Sky/Murdoch medium. In The Times 24 page Ashes supplement this week there was no mention of the fact that a major difference between this years Ashes and those of 2005 is that far, far fewer people will have seen them on television. Nor was there much discussion of the dearth of batting options that the England selectors had which almost led to the recall of Mark Ramprakash because the County system is patently failing to deliver. Indeed Chris Martin-Jenkins will have comforted the ECB by his assertion that the County game “…provides the players for a national squad that cannot operate in a vacuum,” and that “Jonathan Trott’s wonderfully composed debut…proved that the [county] system still produces tough cricketers.” I suspect that Trott’s toughness was honed more in the South Africa that he grew up in rather than on the County grind! No - for an objective view of county cricket you needed to go to The Guardian’s supplement where Mike Selvey wrote insightfully that “…the structure of domestic competition has to be raised. A new level created in fact. A proposal might be for a six-team competition…with neither overseas players nor Kolpaks or any other flags of convenience. Each to play the other once over four days. Elite players will be made available where possible. It will never happen…too many vested interests.”

Mike Selvey is right – there are too many vested interests and these interests, the counties and the News International media especially, conspire together with the ECB to ensure that the real structural changes that English cricket has needed for so long will be very difficult to achieve. And the one downside of the splendid Ashes win is that it might allow Giles Clarke and his cohorts at the ECB and in the counties to argue that all is well in their kingdom. It’s time for a proper review of the whole fabric of English cricket and for the ECB at the top to acknowledge that everything they do must be subservient not to their media paymasters’ wishes nor to their eighteen county electorate – but to the overriding need to have a successful England team, not just one that has a few fleetingly happy moments.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Triumph of the Lions not the vanities

Would you Adam and Eve it? You wait a couple of decades for a home Ashes series victory – and then two come along in succession! The disparity between the individual talents of the two teams seemed wide - Australia were by some margin the stronger and arguably only Strauss, Broad and Swann (for Watson, Johnson and Hauritz) would have got in the Aussie squad at The Oval. But when it came to the crunch England was, say it softly and out of Punter’s earshot, better led. Was it Napoleon or Montgomery who when choosing a General asked “Is he lucky?” – probably both. Well the luck did seem to go Andrew Strauss’s way at crucial moments but this was not a series win where chance played a disproportionate role. The two Andys, Flower and Strauss, gelled as a team and their bouncebackability was as much cerebral as it was inspirational. And despite the best efforts of the ECB to fire everyone up with phoney chauvinism England’s coach and captain quietly moulded a good team without needing to resort to flag-waving or clarion calls to arms. If Flower and his players were lions led by donkeys they were lions nonetheless and the triumph was all theirs.

The final day at The Oval was full of real imagery on the field of play which will stay hard burnt on the memories of all who saw it. The extraordinary sight of Ricky Ponting, bloody but unbowed, with visible stitches on both lips and with bruises to match was genuinely moving - for Freddie Flintoff to execute a run out of the Aussie Captain was almost a coup de grace. England’s celebrations whilst understandably wild did not ignore their worthy opponents and Strauss paid Ponting and his team a very proper tribute at the end of the match - Ponting was similarly gracious. Over the course of the series the Australian coach Tim Nielsen and his captain made some puzzling calls culminating in the bizarre decision to go into The Oval Test match without Nathan Hauritz. I also think that they were unwise to jettison Philip Hughes so early in the series and well though Shane Watson played he was never likely to be a game changer – which Hughes could well have been.

England overcame injuries to key players, the loss of form of most of their batsmen and a defeat at Headingley which would have taken the stuffing out of most previous England teams to bounce back with determination and style at The Oval. No praise can be too high for Bell, Trott, Swann and Broad who were the major contributors to England’s Oval victory. But it was Strauss who really set it up by his determined batting (130 runs off 292 balls and nearly six hours at the crease) and above all by his leadership. There are two huge challenges remaining for Andrew Strauss – to retain The Ashes in Australia in 2010/11 and then to take England to a Cricket World Cup victory in 2011. Don’t write off his chances of doing both; he’s unlikely to be distracted by IPL dollars remember!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Cut out the jingoism - let's watch the cricket

The England and Wales Cricket Board’s extraordinary capacity for getting in wrong, and for vulgarity, was on view yesterday afternoon and with characteristically crass timing. Stuart Broad had just had the session of his life, Australia were on their knees at 133-8 and the crowd was buzzing. We were all chatting and supping and clapping and cheering – not necessarily in that order - when from nowhere a singer with a microphone appeared at the Vauxhall end. When I say “singer” in fact he was (allegedly) from the Royal Opera House to which grand institution I fervently hope he has now returned. The last thing we need was an attempt to get us to sing along to Land of Hope and Glory – we’d just seen a smidgeon of glory from young Broad anyway and we were well full of hope it goes without saying. The crowd, to their credit, did not hurl fruit at the hapless Tenor but just carried on as if he was not there. Nobody joined in and he slunk away – not his fault of course; some halfwit at the ECB thought that it was a good idea. Hmmm!

This series has been characterised by attempts by the England cricket authorities to hype it up. Draw a veil over Cardiff – although the singer in the silver suit will surely live in infamy as the worst performer ever to appear at Sophia Gardens. But the one sided nature of the official flag waving is improper in the extreme. At the beginning of play we have had a row of kids waving the flag of St George to greet the players – and opposite them another row of kids… waving the flag of St George. And around the ground it is the same, not an Aussie flag in sight. And before play the big screen has shown a grossly over-the-top video designed (one assumes) to fire up the patriotic fervour of the crowd. Message one to the ECB; when it’s The Ashes we don’t need firing up. Message two to the ECB; the more extreme your jingoism the more it might just fire up the other side to stuff you. Especially if they are from Down Under.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Low Key fun at Edgbaston

Driving home after the Twenty20 Finals day at Edgbaston yesterday it occurred to me that, paradoxically, this was the longest day I have ever spent at a cricket match. I write chronologically not metaphorically – the allegorical “longest day” will always be day five at the Adelaide Test in 2006 – an experience regrettably never to be forgotten (or forgiven). But back to Edgbaston. From 11:30am to around 10:00pm there was some entertaining cricket on display – mostly not of the highest class but enjoyable nevertheless. The crown seemed strangely subdued and the attempts to hype the day up with a “Wild West” theme, curious pyrotechnics and the rest fell rather flat. The IPL it was not! But no matter there was much to enjoy – and much food for thought as well.

The enjoyment first. How splendid to see Marcus Trescothick in such wonderful form. In his two innings he scored a total of 89 runs off only 47 balls and he hardly played a false shot. It was interesting to compare Tres with Luke Wright who superficially has some of Trescothick’s talent – he certainly shares Tres’s confidence at the crease. Wright scored 38 runs off 33 balls but his timing and placement was often awry whereas Trescothick’s was sublime. I like Wright – he has an engaging competitive spirit and plenty of talent. But he is no Trescothick – but then who is? There were also good and patient (by Twenty20 standards) innings from Sussex’s Goodwin and Kent’s Stevens in the semi finals the former in a winning and the latter in a losing cause. Kent lost because they crossed the line from thoughtful aggression in the Power Play overs (which would have been good) to reckless violence (which was not). Rob Key set the tone with his supercilious taking of three paces down the wicket to Willoughby - which on one occasion caused the bowler to pull out of a delivery. This was mindless and rather unpleasant stuff from Key who you may recall was being touted by some as a potential England limited overs Captain earlier this year. Not on this showing he isn’t. Also enjoyable was the terrific teamwork of the Sussex side who were worthy winners and the sight of two twenty-one year old English leg-break bowlers, Beer of Sussex and Waller of Somerset. I am glad they got their chances on the big stage of a Twenty20 finals day and they looked very promising indeed – let’s hope they continue to get the opportunities to develop their skills in the big league.

Now the food for thought. On a long day like yesterday there are plenty of gaps in the day in which to play cricket selection games – not least to try and spot players who might help England develop as a competitive international team. Wright we know about and his young Sussex colleague Rory Hamilton-Brown looks a very good cricketer. Kent’s Denly, about whom many speak positively, lasted only three balls but Tredwell bowled tidily – but the young leggies aside there wasn’t much else for the England selectors to get excited about. Not least because 19 of the 44 players (43%) weren’t even English! Here’s one team that I did pick from the four counties:

Van Jaarsveld
De Bruyn
Kieswetter (wk)
Van der Wath

Not a bad line-up you might think – rather stronger in its bowling than its batting but plenty of all-round talent there – and everyone a South African! Somerset and Northamptonshire led the way with no fewer than six non-England qualified players in their line-ups. Kent had four and Sussex three. It was especially pleasing that Sussex won because not only did they have the least number of mercenaries in their side they also had six young (under 30) England qualified players as well. Well done them.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Where are England's young batsmen ?

Apparently England’s middle order on the evidence of the Headingley debacle ain’t much cop so we need to change it and bring in new batting talent at The Oval. And, it would seem, the cupboard is so bare that we need to consider that excellent “prospect” (c 1990) Mark Ramprakash or the roly-poly promising ex-tyro (c 2001) Rob Key. There is young Trott (a stripling of 28) to throw into the pot and he has the benefit of never having failed at Test cricket – unlike the other two. He hasn’t played Test cricket either – but give him time.

Let’s roll back the years to 1956 – a randomly chosen point in time when the Australians were also around. In that year England’s top order (1-6) included from time to time Peter Richardson, Cowdrey, Graveney, May, Compton, Watson, Sheppard, Washbrook and Trevor Bailey. Not a bad bunch to perm from in the event of injuries – which is what happened. England retained The Ashes reasonably comfortably and all of these batsmen played their part. But what if these batsmen had all suffered a collective touch of the “Boparas” (a bit like the yips in golf but with more sledging). What talent could the England selectors have called upon in extremis? Well there were a few decent batters around in the counties – Brookes, Insole, Wharton, Kenyon, Horton, Mickey Stewart, Parks, Leary, Milton and others – and there were a few promising youngsters at the Universities as well- like MJK Smith, Eagar and Walton at Oxford and Dexter and James at Cambridge. True Washbrook was recalled at the age of 41 which suggests a Ramps-type moment by the selectors (of whom he was one) – but in truth there was no shortage of batting talent all over England in those halcyon days.

So what of the scene in 2009? I have put on my anorak and delved deeply into Wisden and can reveal the state of English batsmanship circa 2008. Please bear with me for some data. 369 players batted in the first-class County Championship last year of whom 96 (26%) were foreigners and not qualified to play for England. A further 94 of the England qualified players were 30 years old or more and most of these had either had their chance or were patently never going to be good enough to get a Test opportunity. This leaves us with 179 players under 30 and England eligble. If we exclude the bowlers and any batsmen who averaged less than 40 in the Championship we are left with the following 22 players who might be considered good enough and young enough to be termed a “prospect”: Clare (Derbyshire), Smith (Durham), Bopara, Foster and Maunders (Essex), Snell (Gloucestershire), Brown (Hampshire), Horton (Lancashire), Cobb (Leicestershire), Morgan and Scott (Middlesex), White, O’Brien and Peters (Northamptonshire), Patel (Nottinghamshire), Trego (Somerset), Newman (Surrey), Prior (Sussex), Bell, Trott and Ambrose (Warwickshire), Moore (Worcestershire) . If we exclude Bopara, Foster, Prior, Bell and Ambrose (who we know about because they have already played Test cricket) that leaves us with just young 17 batsmen who might possibly be potential Test cricketers – less than one per First class county!

The counties differ widely in the extent of their reliance on overseas players in their batting line ups. Top of the list is county champions Durham for whom 54.4% of their runs last year were scored by non-England qualified players. Next are Kent (46%) and Derby (40.2%). The counties which eschewed mercenary batsmen were Worcestershire (just 1.6%), Warwickshire (4.5%) and Glamorgan (5.7%). As far as reliance on the old lags is concerned top of the list were Surrey for whom 57% of their runs were scored by players over 30 like Ramprakash, Butcher and Afzaal. Middlesex also had a bit of a Dad’s Army – more than half their runs were scored by players like Nash, Strauss, Udal, Shah and Joyce all the wrong side of 30.

Of course if you have batsmen in your team who are not going to play for England because of non-qualification or a mixture of age and limited ability they block off places for developing young talent. The Counties which had the highest percentage of their runs scored by English players under 30 were Essex (an admirable 66%), Sussex (60.5%) Hampshire (59.4%) and Glamorgan (55.2%). Those countries who most restricted opportunities for young players either by employing overseas players and/or by sticking with aging professionals were Kent (just 23.1%), Surrey (24.8%) and Somerset (26.1%).

The seventeen players mentioned above are not household names but the circumstantial evidence from 2008 is that they just may be good enough as well as young enough to be considered for England. But the rest of the hundreds of players in the counties, players whose employment is substantially underwritten by grants to the counties from the England and Wales Cricket Board, are either bowlers or if they are batsmen they don’t come into the frame for selection. A very sorry state of affairs indeed!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

KP The Biography of Kevin Pietersen - a review

By early summer 2009 Kevin Pietersen has played 52 Test matches in just four years scoring some 4500 runs at an average of around 50. Whilst for KP to cash in with an “autobiography” in 2006 after just a year in the game was premature for there to be a provisional biography now is perhaps not unreasonable. Except that “KP Cricket Genius” is a “cash-in” as well – clearly timed to appear before the 2009 Ashes series and also to attract buyers whilst the KP England captaincy affair is till fresh in the mind. One day, no doubt, someone will write an in-depth and thoughtful analysis of the phenomenon that is Kevin Pietersen. Wayne Veysey’s ill-written, woefully edited, cliché-ridden little book certainly isn’t that. Full of typos, gratuitous factoids, hero-worshipping hyperbole, needless insults and wearying repetitions the book may appeal to the semi-literate KP fan – but cricket enthusiasts looking for real insights into Pietersen will have to wait.

The book could be required reading on a sub-editing training course – as an example of what can happen if editors are slipshod. Sensitive readers will be shaken by the frequent use of the abbreviation “X1” for a cricket eleven instead of “XI”, by the occasional use of the term “cricket player” rather than “cricketer”, by the ignorant assertion that in South Africa all black people were called “coloured” and by countless other inaccuracies and solecisms. To some extent this is a shame because to be fair there are some insights into KP’s character and background and the description of (for example) the struggle between Pietersen and Peter Moores is good. But the insults really should have been edited out. To say that Andrew Flintoff was once “…boozing his hefty Lancashire contract up the walls of Preston’s public houses” is crass and Ian Botham’s lawyers might be interested in Veysey’s allegation that Beefy got “fat and complacent in the second half of his career”.

The best thing in the book is Clive Rice’s thoughtful foreword but Rice’s assertion, that Pietersen “knew full well that in South Africa he wouldn’t be given a chance because of the stupid quota system” is as ignorant as it is offensive. KP would surely have made it in South Africa despite the quotas, just as fellow-whites AB De Villiers, Johan Botha, Albie and Morne Morkel, Roel Van der Merwe, Dale Steyn, Paul Harris and others have recently made it. This key aspect of Pietersen’s life demands more balanced and sensitive treatment than it gets in this pot-boiler.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

For England the game is already up at Headingley

Cricket historians might like to suggest when was the last time that the result of any Test match, let alone an Ashes Test match, could be predicted with absolute certainty after the first day. The bookmakers have Australia at 12/1 on and England at 9/1 against and that is about right. With the weather set fair there is no doubt that Australia will win the Headingley Test - I'll go further and say that they will win comfortably within three days. If you have tickets for Monday or Tuesday make other plans now!

Sport is played in the head far more than it is with the ball or the bat or the racquet or the club. From the first ball today (Strauss palpably lbw although not given out) it was clear that the Aussie heads were clear and their minds fully focused. England didn’t really seem as if they wanted to be there at all. They weren't not trying - absolutely not - in some respects they were trying too hard. But the essential connect between tactics, technique, temperament and self-belief was missing. Australia on the other hand had it in spades. They had a plan - bowl line and length and bat with confidence - and they executed it admirably. Ten decent cricketers and one great one combined into a formidable force- only one of the team (Watson) was not involved in at least one England wicket that fell. For England the sum of the parts of eleven decent cricketers managed, not for the first time, to be far less than what their individual talents should have delivered.

And so for England, at Headingley anyway, the game is up. Perhaps the writing was on the wall before the start with all the curfuffle over the fire alarm at their hotel and Prior's injury. With backroom staff to cover every requisite - in numbers that far exceed the number of players - wouldn't it have been ironic if there had been an unfulfilled need for a reserve wicket-keeper? Keepers can get injured just before play begins you know - it happened in the last Test match! But really none of this would have mattered had England's batsmen "relaxed and enjoyed themselves". The clichés always say that no matter how big the occasion sportsmen should "play their natural game" and "go out and express themselves". England looked like they'd been invited to a party where the refreshment was grapefruit juice and there were going to be readings from Proust and music by Birtwistle.

Over much of this Ashes series Australia has played the better cricket. England won well at Lord's, inspired by Flintoff, but Australia was far from humiliated. At Headingley there has been no inspiration at all from an England side who look demoralised and dead in the water. Factor in a motivated and determined Australian team inspiringly led, from the front, by a Ricky Ponting who clearly wanted to answer the drunken, booing rabble in the stands in the best way possible. By performance. Well done Aussie.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

How the ECB gave two fingers to their landlords at Lord's Cricket Ground

Rhetoric and reality in the ECB brand

Dabblers in the arcane arts of Brand management know that a brand is not necessarily valued as the owners of the brand like to think that it should be. A brand's value is the sum of the perceptions of all of those that relate to it. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) would like you to think that the pillars of the ECB brand are:

Effective leadership and governance
A vibrant domestic game
Enthusing participation and following especially among young people
Successful England teams

(It's on the ECB website if you don't believe me)

Those of us perceiving their brand more objectively would see the reality:

"Leadership" which gave us the chaos of the England captaincy.
"Governance" which gave us Stanford.
A domestic game which is overblown, unaffordable and of poor quality
"Enthusing participation" which gave us international cricket thrown off free to air TV.
An England team which fails - or at best flatters to deceive.

As we know the ECB is a self-perpetuating oligarchy absolutely impervious to change - other than changes which in some way "benefit" those that vote at its top table meetings - basically the eighteen county chairmen. It is this reality which explains most of the damaging decisions, from Stanford to the Sky TV deal, of recent years. And it is the only explanation why, post Stanford, Giles Clarke and David Collier held on to their jobs despite the clamour from most of the thinking world of England cricket supporters for them to go.

The ECB turns on the MCC

The ECB's decision-making frequently defies logic and is the antithesis of good governance. And just when you thought that it might be safe to go back in the water the shark that is the ECB decides to turn viciously on one of its own - their landlord at Lord's the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). Now the perception of the MCC is like that of the ECB some distance from the reality. MCC is seen as being a fusty institution populated by ageing old buffers and clinging on to the relic that once they were the most powerful force in world cricket by far. The elitism, the long waiting list, the red and yellow ties and (much worse) blazers seem to communicate that the brand of the club is struggling to get into the twentieth century - let alone the twenty-first.

There is some truth in the charge that the MCC is clinging on to its past. The fact that the "Laws of cricket" are still nominally the province of a British private members club is a silly anachronism. Similarly the MCC's pompous claim to be the guardian of the "Spirit of Cricket" is neo-colonial and arrogant - as well as arrant nonsense. The fact that the MCC spends hundreds of thousands of pounds of its members money on its absurd and self-appointed "World Cricket Committee" - a talking shop and dining club for senior ex players like Tony Lewis, Geoff Boycott, Rahul Dravid, Alec Stewart, Steve Waugh and Mike Gatting - is a ludicrous hangover from the days when MCC really did run world cricket. But ignore for a moment all this hubris. What the MCC does supremely well is run the finest cricket ground in the world.

Lord's is Sans Pareil

My visits this year to the Riverside and to Sophia Gardens completed my full set of seeing Test cricket in every ground in England (and now Wales). I have, over the years, also been lucky enough to see England play (and surprisingly often win) in Australia, New Zealand, West Indies, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India and South Africa. I've been to some amazing grounds - the massive MCG, the charming Adelaide, the scary National stadium in Karachi, the delightful Basin Reserve, the deafening Wankhede
in Mumbai and Cape Town's marvellous Newlands amongst them. But it is not national pride that convinces me that, home or away, there is nowhere to touch Lord's. At home Lord's is by far the biggest ground and by far the best equipped with the best drainage and ground care systems. It has the best seating (a lot under cover) the best catering and the best sight lines for spectators. It has a world class museum, an excellent shop - and so on. And architecturally it is beyond criticism - the Media Centre, the Mound Stand and the Grandstand are fine and, in sports stadia, unequalled examples of modern architecture - and the wonderful and well-persevered Victorian pavilion is a gem. And note I haven't even mentioned the heritage and the history.

Over the years I have with pleasure taken guests to Lord's for Test matches - guests from India, New Zealand, Australia and the West Indies all of whom have loved every minute of the experience. The place is full of history - but it is a modern ground par excellence as well. The MCC is rightfully proud of the achievement that is Lord's. But, as ever, the club is not standing still and detailed plans exist to take the capacity up from 29,000 to nearly 40,000 - double the capacity of any other British cricket ground and nearly treble that of some.

The ECB turns on Lord's

Whatever you may feel about the hubris of the MCC nobody can surely deny that Lord's is England's finest venue by far for cricket - nobody, that is, except the apparatchiks of the ECB who clearly don't believe this - or if they do have other agendas to pursue. In 2012 Lord's has no Test match for the first time in living memory. In 2013 there is a Test match against New Zealand in the run up to The Ashes but (would you believe it?) no Ashes Test match at Lord's (the Queen will have to go to Durham). And so it goes on. Whilst The Oval is guaranteed a Test match every year for the foreseeable future no such guarantee exists for Lord's. This means that the MCC's development plans for the ground will have to be put on hold - any chance that we might get a ground in England offering Australian style ground spectator capacity (perhaps at low Australian level ticket prices) is effectively abandoned. True MCC might still get a Test match in 2012 and an Ashes match in 2013 - but only if they put together a sufficiently attractive financial bid. The "home of cricket" may get egg all over its face if other grounds, maybe backed as Cardiff was in 2009 by funny money from some local government slush fund or by the immense personal wealth of a high roller like Rod Bransgrove at Hampshire who would love to bankroll an Ashes match at the Rose Bowl - and to hell with Lord's.


In trying to understand the ECB we always have to ask the question Why? - and the answer is usually the same. Because the County Chairmen perceive that a particular course of action is in their interests. Vote for Giles Clarke - done! Vote to reject a sensible proposal for a nine-team franchise Twenty20 tournament in favour of the inane eighteen county status quo - done! And so on. So the ECB's facile commitment to take Test cricket around Britain will get the nod - even if it means we have Test matches at Cardiff rather than Trent Bridge and now Durham rather than Lord's. Logical - of course not. Corrupt - I couldn't possibly comment, but you may think so!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Freddie writes his own scripts !

Never mind the smart analyses. Never mind the psychobabble. Never mind the medical theories and the insider stories. Freddie writes his own scripts and the Flintoff clan, massed in numbers throughout the Lord’s Test, seemed not surprised at the heroics. And nor really were the crowd for whom he is way beyond folk hero status. The timing of his announcement about this being his last Test series just before the second Test match seemed a bit crass and a diversion from the real business at hand. I wasn’t the only commentator to think that perhaps Fred might have waited until the end of the Ashes. But little did we all know that in the honest and straightforward world of Andrew Flintoff once he has made up his mind about something he wants to tell us all about it. And little did we also know that far from being a distraction this would be the motivator that drove Fred on – and which was one of the key factors in England’s splendid Test win.

Fred’s 5 wicket haul finally shut the door on a tenuous Aussie fightback – and it got his name on the bowling honours board at Lord’s for the first time as well. And the only time that I saw Ricky Ponting smile today was when he went over to Freddie and shook him warmly by the hand after the presentation ceremony. Andre Flintoff is not the greatest batsman of his era nor the finest bowler. But his happy knack of playing the vital innings or taking the vital wicket, combined with his unaffected charm and his lack of pretension have made him, if fit, the first name on the teamsheet through most of his career. We have three more opportunities, we must hope, to see Fred in England’s Test match colours – don’t bet against him playing a pivotal role for the rest of the summer aching and sore though he may be for much of the time. Nobody puts bums on seats like Andrew Flintoff – and no-one is more deserving of our thanks both for his achievements and for his unique and utterly beguiling style.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The ECB has killed their Golden Goose

When Michael Vaughan resigned as England’s Test Captain, and simultaneously Paul Collingwood stood down as limited overs captain, Kevin Pietersen was the obvious if courageous choice to replace them both. He was by some distance England’s best batsman and commentators close to the game all agreed that he was a thoughtful cricketer with a good tactical brain. The skunk-haired tyro had gone and KP’s personal life had settled down with his marriage to the sensible and supportive Jessica Taylor. That is was a choice that required courage came not from the risk that Pietersen would not be worth his place in the team, nor that he lacked tactical awareness, although his captaincy experience was minimal and he would clearly have to learn on the job some aspects of the role. The risk of Pietersen’s appointment was the mirror image of its potential potency – KP is utterly unlike anyone who has ever been an England cricket captain in the past. His fellow South African Tony Greig had a similar southern hemisphere approach which was the reverse of the Cowdrey/May tradition – although his style was not dissimilar to that of Hutton or Illingworth. But Greig grew up in a Cape Province and his father was Scottish – this was the world of English speaking white South Africa and although the culture was obviously different to that of the old country those differences were not huge. Kevin Pietersen, on the other hand, grew up in Pietermaritzburg which was in the heart of Voortrekker country – and that is very different indeed.

To those who may be unfamiliar with white South Africa the differences between those of British Isles origins and those who are Afrikaners are enormous. Language and religion – those most decisive of differentiators are different and so are attitudes to life in general. It is no exaggeration to say that someone like Tony Greig would have far more in common with the British than he would with his Afrikaner fellow South Africans. And Kevin Pietersen, his English mother notwithstanding, grew up in a solidly Afrikaner environment. His strong father seems an archetypical Afrikaner and the values that he instilled in the young Kevin must have been much more South African Dutch than they were South African English. Far more Hansie Cronje than Graeme Smith.

When the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) appointed Pietersen as captain they could not have been unaware that his personality and style were completely un-English. True KP had proclaimed his allegiance to England and had an England cricket tattoo on his arm. But one of the reasons that he had already sharply divided opinion among the cricketing chattering classes was that inbred into him was an “in-your-face” competitive style which came in no small measure from his Pietermaritzburg upbringing. This is seen as arrogance and a bit show-poneyish by those for whom Peter May or Colin Cowdrey were the epitomy of how a cricketer should behave. But those on the other side of the argument argued that this was exactly what England cricket needed. In the same way that England only won an Ashes series when they appointed a Southern African coach if we were to do this again, and maybe even win a Limited Overs tournament as well, we need the shock to the system that Kevin Pietersen would bring.

So the ECB took courage in their hands and appointed the very foreign Kevin Pietersen as England’s captain. Results came in immediately with a Test match win and a One Day series victory against South Africa. KP also handled the communications duties of an England captain with aplomb and he looked to be an inspiring captain on the field as well. His body-language was excellent and the England players were clearly responding to the KP enthusiasm. The tour to India was more difficult on the field but Pietersen did well in the hugely different circumstances post the Mumbai attacks. But KP wanted to be in charge, which is what he was taught as a child - there can be only one leader in a team. The trouble was that the England coach Peter Moores thought that he was in charge as well and he was not only a hands-on manager but he had a personal style that was anathema to Pietersen. Moores had been comfortable in the supremely English and rather deferential world of Sussex and this, combined with a pride and bloody-mindedness which came perhaps from his North-country upbringing was a recipe for conflict with Pietersen. The ECB had to choose whether to back their captain or to back their coach – and in the end they backed neither! KP was sacked and Moores dismissed as well.

From the moment that Kevin Pietersen lost the job as England captain he has seemed a totally different person – hardly surprisingly, nobody likes being humiliated. True his natural talent has seen some decent performances but he is indisputably not the same man he was. The smiles, when they come, look forced and in the interviews what were once self-confident statements of intent now sound like parroted platitudes. And at Cardiff we saw a side of Pietersen that suggests that the ECB have more than just the loss of an original and potentially inspiring captain to answer for. KP’s first innings showed that he still has the ability to play a long and careful innings if the circumstances require it – 69 runs off 141 balls is snail-like but it was appropriate, up to the point when he got himself out. Petersen’s shot against Hauritz was not a misjudgment – all batsmen do this from time to time. It was a predetermined unorthodox swipe at an innocuous wide ball that would have been out-of-place on a school playground let alone in a Test match.

It would take a combination of Freud, Jung and Brearley to even begin to understand what is presently going on in Kevin Pietersen’s mind. His second innings dismissal was bizarre not because of the foolishness of the shot, as in the first innings, but because KP usually knows well where his stumps are. Leaving a ball, which then bowls you happens of course but rarely to someone of Pietersen’s natural cricketing talents. Was it fear that led him to leave a ball he could easily have blocked? Who knows – but what is clear is that England’s best batsman has lost the plot and that his mind and his emotions are in turmoil. And the cause of this malaise is clear as well. In the world of competitive sport in which young Kevin grew up you have to win and you have to take personal responsibility for your actions. If you make mistakes you learn from them. Draw a line and start again. That Pietersen made a mistake in his feud with Peter Moores and in the near ultimatum that he gave his employers at the ECB is true. But the ECB, and especially Hugh Morris the ECB’s “Managing Director”, should have been far more understanding and considerate and should have reflected that the change in England’s cricket fortunes that they wanted from the Pietersen appointment would not come if they summarily dismissed him. If they had wanted the May/Cowdrey style of Andrew Strauss the ECB had a couple of earlier occasions when they could have appointed him but they chose the very different Andrew Flintoff and then Kevin Pietersen instead. Strauss’s captaincy at Cardiff has been uninspiring and has been a contributor to England’s downfall. Would things have been different if Kevin Pietersen had still been in charge - I have not the slightest doubt that they would. Not only would Pietersen’s leadership style have been likely to make the Aussies think more that the rather diffident and apologetic Strauss. But KP would have led from the front and by example. If he had been captain it is inconceivable that he would have played the shots that led to his dismissal in both innings.

So the ECB have not only denied themselves the chance of having a competitive Ashes series with Pietersen and Ponting standing foursquare up to each other at every match. They have also turned off and discomforted their best batsman and it is by no means impossible that we have already seen the best of Kevin Pietersen and that instead of being the force that leads England to real international success he becomes little more than a long footnote in modern English cricket history. And if that happens the suits in the ECB offices at Lord’s should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Five counties down, thirteen to go for Marcus North

“Look mate, you have to be patient if you want to wear the Baggy Green” says Marcus North* when asked how it feels to make an Ashes debut at the age of nearly 30. North impressed with his solid innings of 54* yesterday in a partnership with Michael Clarke which finally killed any remote chnace that England might have had to force a win the first Test match at Cardiff. Asked whether his County experience had helped him North was clear: “Look, my time at Durham in 2004 definitely taught me how to bat on English pitches like this one at Cardiff, then my move to Lancashire in 2005 helped me develop further. Obviously also my spell at Derbyshire in 2006 was very valuable. In 2007 I moved to Gloucestershire and put some firm roots down and played almost a full season for them in 2008. I am also grateful to Hampshire for letting me play for them this year in preparation for the Ashes”.

Asked what he thought of the English county system North was very enthusiastic “It’s bonza mate. Most of us are at a bit of a loose end during the Aussie winter which is our “off-season”. Professionals need to hone their skills and you only have to pick up the phone to one of the counties and offer your services and they jump at the chnace. Mike Hussey showed me the way. He played for Northants, Gloucester and Durham before he played for Oz and reckons that without this experience he might never have got the call-up. Obviously the standard isn’t that high and the games can be a bit of a bore but it’s quite tough now that there are so many South Africans at the counties. I suggested to young Hughesie that he give it a go at Middlesex before The Ashes got underway and they were only to pleased to help. Watch Hughesie go next week on familiar ground at Lord’s!”

* Marcus North's words were crafted for him by Paddy Briggs

Friday, July 10, 2009

Never mind the cricket - try the Chardonnay

The self-congratulatory air in and around Sophia Gardens this week, from Simon Jones to Max Boyce and every Taff in-between, has been stomach churning. Add in the truly ghastly singing by all the male singers who couldn’t be prised away from the microphone (Katherine Jenkins was wonderful though) and you have an event of cloying sentimentality to remind us English why we only under duress cross Offa’s Dyke. That Glamorgan has a cricket tradition I happily acknowledge and that from time to time they have delivered quality players for England (even an England Captain) I thank them for as well. But in truth this tradition gives them no more right to host an Ashes Test match than Gloucestershire or Leicestershire or Sussex or Kent or any of the other counties which play at small country grounds. Quite what the economics of the Welsh Development Agency’s decision to subvent the redevelopment of Glamorgan’s ground are will no doubt remain opaque. In Cardiff this week in the media there was plenty of unaudited bombast about how much money one Ashes Test was bringing to the City. Unaudited and unchallengeable like most of these things it will no doubt become an urban myth that the millions spent on the SWALEC stadium will be covered by all the English and Aussie fans that descended on the city and tried to drink it dry. The Glamorgan board is congratulating themselves about how little the SWALEC cost compared with other grounds – maybe so but surely they could have spent these millions more elegantly; this is a modern ground utterly devoid of any architectural merit. The Pavilion looks like a 1960s secondary modern school.

At the ground my impression was that by far the majority nationality was English and that the Aussies outnumbered the Welsh comfortably. Plastic daffodils and leaks were not much in evidence but there were plenty of Kangaroos. Now this may all sound churlish and bigoted and I apologise for that. But whilst it is true that the organisers have put on a decent show (the flat wicket aside) so they should have – that is a necessary condition of hosting a Test match anywhere. Had this Test been at Trent Bridge or Old Trafford (with their historically far superior claims and their bigger grounds) then of course we know for sure that they would be well organised – they’ve done it for a hundred years or more. And had it been at Durham with their bigger ground and far stronger claim (they have after all already successfully hosted Tests) then few would have complained. There was even a strong argument that the Rosebowl was well ahead of Cardiff in the queue to host a Test. The process by which Cardiff was selected to host an Ashes Test ought to be thoroughly investigated – not by the complicit members of the England and Wales Cricket Board and all their past and present Morgans and Morrises but by an independent body concerned about the way public money is spent. But I doubt that it will happen.

Underpinning the finances of Cardiff’s Test match adventure, aside from public money, was the determined pursuit of commercial sponsorship and of corporate hospitality in particular. That’s the modern world of sporting profit and loss - offensive though it might be for ordinary fans to see hundreds of guests at events who are there to be entertained not by happenings on the field of play but by the food and drink in the corporate lounges. At Cardiff these free-loaders have been given the best seats in the “Really Welsh” (sic) Pavilion and when one of the best passages of play was underway after lunch on the second day, with Freddie Flintoff challenging young Philip Hughes, these seats were virtually empty (see photograph). So were the rows of the pavilion occupied by cricket fans eagerly anticipating the Ashes Test match? Or were they there for the food and the wine and only eventually returned to their seats to sleep off their lunches. You decide!

The Ponting and Katich masterclass


I hope that Kevin Pietersen and the rest of the England top order were watching intently as events unfolded at Cardiff yesterday. Not just at the Ponting and Katich batting masterclass during the last two sessions of the day but also the splendid attack launched by the England lower order in the morning. In their vastly different ways Broad, Anderson and Swann (for England) and Ricky Ponting and Simon Katich (for Australia) showed how to bat on a pudding of a pitch. There are two approaches and international batsmen of quality should be able to follow either. If the wicket is benign and the attack no better than adequate then depending on the state of the match you either get your head down, use your technique and experience and quietly graft your way without taking any risks to a decent score. If, however, you want to dominate the bowling and the state of the match requires that you do this then you can become more adventurous and try and take the attack apart.

On Wednesday afternoon with England 97-3 at lunch Pietersen and Collingwood needed to restore their side’s position so grafting was necessary. They did this well, survived the next session and took England to 192-3 at tea. A few overs later Colly lost his concentration when on 64, and with an Ashes hundred for the taking, he edged a catch to Haddin off an innocuous ball from Hilfenhaus (228-4). Then with the score at 240 Kevin Pietersen played the most gormless shot I have ever seen in cricket at any level to put England back in trouble. All the good work of the afternoon session was undone in two shots – one ill-advised and the other just plain brainless. Back in 1965 the great Ken Barrington was dropped from the England side for taking seven and a half hours to make 137 against New Zealand. And a year later Geoffrey Boycott suffered the same fate for his exceptionally slow batting against India. Pietersen’s wilful, self-centred and grotesque dismissal at Cardiff was surely just as culpable as Barrington and Boycott’s tardiness. Will the England selectors of 2009 have the courage to follow the lead of their predecessors of forty years ago? They certainly should.

Back to the masterclass. Ponting and Katich soon realised that the much hyped slow turner apparently due to appear at Sofia Gardens was either a myth or was a long time a-coming. England were bowling OK but nothing was helping the swing or pace of Flintoff, Anderson or Broad and there was nothing in the pitch for Panesar or Swann either. If they kept their heads they could put Australia into a decent position by the close, and knock on to biggish personal scores as well. Where Colly and KP had blown it from a similar position Punter and Kat clearly weren’t going to do the same. Today if the weather holds and there is no sudden deterioration in the pitch there is no reason at all why Australia can’t push on entertainingly and have a lead of perhaps 150 by the close – and they can win the match from there.

This Cardiff pitch is not fit for competitive Test cricket – at least on the evidence so far. It seems that fears that the pitch would break up and Glamorgan would be shamed by a three day Test (or less) lead not only to the sacking of a groundsman but to a gross over-compensation by his successor. You could play a Durban 1938 length Test match on this pitch and not get a result. Just like in Adelaide in 2006 when after four days the curator was lambasted by all and sundry for the run-rich and bowler unfriendly pitch he delivered in the second Test of the 2006-7 Ashes series. Well we all remember what happened on that fifth day – the pitch didn’t crack up but England did! And don’t write off the possibility of the same happening at Cardiff 2009. This Test match is far from over!

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The 2009 Ashes begin at last!

Mock ye not! Certainly I won’t be laughing at Glenn McGrath for his 5-0 (to Oz of course) Ashes whitewash prediction – not with my record as a Nostradamus anyway. Only a few weeks ago I predicted confidently that The British Isles Rugby team (aka The Lions) would be beaten by at least 20 points in each of the Test against the Springboks. The final points tally over the three Tests was Boks 63 Lions 74 by the way in case anyone forgets to tally it up. And how wonderfully well the Lions played from that moment in the first Test when they looked down and out at 7-26 early in the second half. Moral victors in the series? Well not quite – South Africa perhaps just about deserved to win but The Lions did all of the inhabitants of our little group of British islands proud didn’t they?

And so to Cardiff. Well I’ve vented my spleen enough about the iniquity of the choice of venue for the first Ashes Test – so now I’ll just head for the M4 and hope for the best. Having discovered laverbread on my last visit to the Principality I’m looking forward to breakfasting again on this mouth-watering dish. At the opening ceremony we are apparently going to hear “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” along with “Advance Australia Fair” with the British National Anthem with its reference to Her Maj (Head of State in both participant counties in The Ashes contest) not featuring. I wonder if this is the first sporting occasion when not one member of the home team could understand a word of the “home” anthem – let alone sing it.

Rumours abound about the Cardiff wicket and whether there is a cunning plot underway for Panesar and Swann to roll the Aussie over with their twiddlers. Decent bowlers both but I really do doubt that they strike fear into the hearts of our friends from down under. There will be one or two young Australian batsmen appearing in an Ashes Test for the first time – as a certain Don Bradman did 79 years ago at Trent Bridge. Wisden wrote of the young Don that summer that he was “A glorious driver, he hit the ball very hard, whilst his placing was almost invariably perfect. He scored most of his runs by driving, but he could cut, hook, or turn the ball to leg with almost the same certainty.” Bradman was 21 years old that summer – about the same age as the tyro Philip Hughes this year. I’ll try and put the mockers on Hughes by making the comparison with the Don but it really does seem that he has the same range of shots as his illustrious predecessor. Has he the nerve as well? We shall see.

It is customary to say that bowlers win matches and so it is on the bowling attacks that many commentators are concentrating in there pre-Ashes pieces. I’ll do the opposite and suggest that the key players, other than Hughes, will be the indisputably great Ricky Ponting, the reliable and solid Hussey, the now in-form North and the almost Gilchrist- like Haddin who could be the reason that Australia will have the edge. Mind you if Strauss, Bopara and Pietersen all strike form on the same day – backed up by Cook and Colly and the rest England might post the occasional formidable total themselves. I also have strange gut feel that Ian Bell is going to feature some time during the series and that he will do well – but that as near as I’ll get to a prediction.

Well “Iachydd Dda” to you all – let’s hope for some fine cricket this week!