Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A vintage year in Sport? Yes but, no but…


“Prats – talking, writing and pontificating about things of which they know nothing are the curse of modern sport. And I definitely include prominent former sportsmen; in fact they are the worst of all.” Andy Ripley

Andy Ripley, that fine and fearless man of Rugby, and a great deal more, died this year at the tragically early age of 62. Andy was not an establishment man - and yet he did more for sport as a player, commentator and administrator than all of the men in suits he mercilessly mocked put together. Quite what he would have said about the myriad sporting scandals that have grabbed the headlines in the six months since his death can only be conjectured – but you can be sure that he would have had a point of view. There is hardly a sport that hasn’t featured on the front pages as well as the back for all the wrong reasons this year. Drugs, violence, greed, cheating, bribery, corruption, disloyalty and just plain stupidity have been almost daily occurrences and no sport has been free of the whiff of scandal. So I offer below, and to the memory of Andy Ripley, a cynic’s antidote to the Awards season when sportsmen (they are mostly men) some of whom we know to be self-indulgent and avaricious prats, will dress uncomfortably in designer suits to pick up one gong or another. “And the award goes to Bloggs – fresh from kicking the teeth in of another second row forward at Twickenham.” “And the Personality of the Year is Blank – fresh from demanding a 50% rise on his already obscene weekly pay packet”. “And the Trophy goes to Dubbin whose contacts in the world of illegal betting wish him well”. And so it will go on.

If some of the players are hypocrites and the commercial organisations which sponsor the awards short-sighted what about the gullible rest of us who lap it all up? Those of us who paid Sky serious money to watch that grotesque parody of sport that was the Haye v Harrison fight. Those of us who hailed the arrival of new fast bowling talent on the Pakistan tour and paid good money to watch it – only to find that that talent was being paid by someone shady to cheat. Those who paid thousands of pounds to go to South Africa to watch England’s grossly over- hyped and overpaid Football team, incompetently led and devoid of any team sprit or focus fail so utterly and miserably. Those of us who fell for the Tiger Woods brand and watched used his image being used to sell anything from razors to golf holidays – only to find that the brand was bogus. Those of us who were fooled into thinking that an exceptional England bid for the Football World Cup in 2018 would be judged on rational grounds – only for it to be contemptuously dismissed by a FIFA committee with zero ethics and greedy hands. Those among us who remember the glory days of Formula one when brave men of integrity competed fairly for trophies surely look askance today at this scandal-infected pseudo-sport headed up by a man who not only successfully bungs his way with Heads of State and Prime Ministers but also says that Adolf Hitler was a man who "was able to get things done", and that “democracy has not worked out for Britain”. Those of us who played Rugby in days of yore, when the nearest thing to a scandal was the stuffing of a few used fivers into the socks of “amateur” players before a match, will recall that in those halcyon days Doctors were not employed at the Stoop to cut players’ lips. And sometimes they never learn. In 2006 Floyd Landis was being awarded victory in the Tour de France only later to be stripped of his title for a doping offense. Roll forward to 2010 and the “winner”, Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador, may suffer the same fate as Landis if the investigation into his positive test for using a banned substance leads to his guilt being confirmed. This is a sport which has long since lost any semblance of respectability – and yet Rupert Murdoch’s News International has ploughed tens of millions of dollars into “Team Sky” seemingly oblivious of the fact that the whole sport is rotten to the core. British Tennis is not exactly rotten – but what a shambolic ongoing failure there has been over decades to create a domestic structure which produces professional players of even the most modest quality. Great Tennis nations like Lithuania, Ukraine, Poland and Austria are just some of the countries that have humbled Britain’s best in the Davis Cup in recent times. And we await, as we have done most of my lifetime, the day when we once again have a Grand Slam champion. Hosting the world’s finest tennis tournament well is one thing – actually creating a domestic system that produces decent players seems beyond us.

There has always been an element of “If you can get away with it” in sport – its only human nature after all. But it is the scale of the abuse that is breathtaking today. Just as the Captains of Industry condone things that their predecessors would never have tolerated (John Browne and Tony Hayward’s cavalier approach to Health and Safety at B.P. for example) so sporting administrators and sportsmen behave in ways that would have been unthinkable decades ago. Can you imagine that one of Giles Clarke’s distant predecessors at the top of England cricket would have been as comprehensively conned as Clarke was by Allan Stanford? And can you conceive that in the distant days of Alan Hardaker the Football League, as it then was, would have allowed great Clubs to become the playthings of absentee owners in the Gulf States, or Russia or the USA? In the past Football Clubs had businesses which served the sport – today all too many of them have sport to serve the business. That sports need sound financial underpinning is right – but when the raison d'être of a Club becomes financial, just as if it was a commercial organisation no different from a factory, then we get the sort of vulgar shenanigans we have seen at Liverpool and Manchester United with their phony owners wearing and besmirching Clubs’ proud colours and for whom a Shankly or a Busby is probably an item of headgear. And what would those who ran the Rugby Football Union in distant days have thought of the current mob who in recent times have sent England’s team on to the Twickenham pitch dressed in purple or “anthracite” rather than white – not because there was a colour clash with their opponents but just to sell a few more replicas in the shop.

Sport is for all - and major broadcast sport has to be universally available. In 1966 at Wembley or 2003 at Sydney or 2005 at The Oval the nation was glued to its TV sets as English sportsmen triumphed in major competitions at the highest level. But at The Oval in 2009 or Adelaide last week only those with expensive satellite subscriptions could join in the fun – a deplorable failure of governance. The blame is shared between those who run English cricket and a supine Government which accommodates them. Government can be a force for good in sport, and should be. Tony Blair’s successful involvement in the bidding process for the 2012 Olympic Games, and David Cameron’s no less commendable attempt to secure FIFA 2018, are examples of how political leaders can help. But Blair’s venal decision to accommodate Bernie Ecclestone’s peddling of tobacco brands early in his premiership and Cameron’s recent refusal to insist that The Ashes are returned to terrestrial television shows that political expediency can all too often trump public interest. Even worse is Education Minister Michael Gove’s apparent decision to remove funding of £162m which had been allocated to school sport through many hundreds of successful “School Sports Partnerships” – a decision which will not only be bad for the health of the nation’s children but will also largely banish sport to the elite and mainly private schools. And if we can’t trust our political leaders to protect our interests and those of our children we certainly can’t trust our sporting head honchos. To take cricket as one example how do those at the top of the International Cricket Council, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the England and Wales Cricket Board, the Indian Premier League and the rest get away with always putting profit before principle? And that’s in the sport which so ludicrously congratulates itself on having a special “spirit”! Top of this ignoble list is of course the Pakistan Cricket Board which has consistently brought the game into disrepute for as long as can be remembered. The spectacle of mendacious officials of this Board posturing, prevaricating and libeling this summer was in many ways even worse than the sight of the on the pitch duplicity of some of their players.

There are a couple of golfers, Lee Westwood and Graeme McDowell, on this year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year short list and few would begrudge either of them the award if they are chosen. The Ryder Cup was a triumph, in the end, for Europe and these two contributed much to the result – and McDowell also won a Major this year. But let’s not delude ourselves that everything in the garden is lovely in this sport either. At the Ryder Cup we were treated to the unpleasant spectacle of the Captain of the American team using military symbolism to “inspire” his team and an Army Major spoke to the team on the eve of the event “I want these guys to be accountable to each other and have each other's backs, and basically that's what happens in the military” said Corey Pavin. Phil Mickleson commented afterwards, with absolutely no sense of irony at all, that he felt “…proud to be part of a country that cares about the civil rights of people all throughout the world and not just in our own country,”. You couldn’t make it up! Meanwhile these pampered multimillionaires flew around in their private gas-guzzling airplanes from tournament to tournament living a life as far removed from the average golf spectator as it is possible to imagine. The bizarre tendency for sporting enterprise to associate itself with the military is not confined to professional golf. Rugby Internationals at Twickenham now have obligatory military displays and there is a presumption, like that of Corey Pavin, that spectators and competitors should support this. As Richard Williams writing in “The Guardian” put it recently “There is something disquieting about this gradual blending of sporting and military culture, with its underlying assumption that all spectators at any given event…necessarily share the government’s view of the rightness of what our forces are doing overseas.” Indeed!

That some members of FIFA have been corrupt should have surprised nobody – especially those who remember the vices of the International Olympic Commission over the year. Power corrupts – and the opportunity to use one’s position on these bodies to enrich oneself corrupts absolutely. Unlike FIFA the IOC may no longer have personally dishonest individuals at its top – but in its decision making it has long since foregone the moral high ground – if it was ever there. The conspiracy to provide a cloak of respectability around the degenerate gang which rules the People’s Republic of China with Beijing 2008 showed that the IOC hasn’t moved on one iota from Berlin 1936 – and that money echoes far more loudly than principles in the IOC’s fetid corridors. Will London 2012 and Rio 2016 be scandal free? Let’s hope so - but don’t hold your breath.

The further sports move away from their followers and spectators the more likely it is that they will forget that we the paying public have a stake in what they do. The ECB disadvantaged millions of cricket fans at a stroke when they awarded live international cricket to Sky. Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City alienated countless thousands of their fans when they sold the clubs down the river to foreign owners who then, in some cases, incurred massive debts. And they compete with one another in spraying their money around in an obscene way – not helped by the greed of players and their agents. It has just emerged that the Manchester City player Carlos Tevez is paid £286,000-a-week tax free at Eastlands - To do the sum for you this is just short of £25m a year gross (very gross!). Nobody would wish to return to the days of the maximum wage – when Jimmy Greaves (worth ten of Mr Tevez) lived in a grace and favour one-bedroomed flat in Chelsea for which he paid thirty shillings a week out of his £20 a week wage. But Greaves and his teammates related to the supporters who went to watch them in a way that the Tevez’s and the Rooney’s never could. And that matters.

Top level motorsport is the same. The leaders of Formula one have taken the sport a million miles away from the ethos and values of the past making it unaffordable for the ordinary spectator to attend a Grand Prix and increasingly holding races in locations where the coffers are unlimited. So great circuits like Estoril or Kyalami are unused whilst absurd and uninteresting new constructions built with oil or vanity money add congestion to an already overcrowded calendar. If you think that nighttime races around the brightly illuminated streets of Singapore give a bad example environmentally then what about FIFA’s incredible decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar? The Qataris plan to build air-conditioned stadia to allow the matches to take place at the height of a Gulf summer – when temperatures of 50 degrees in the shade are common. Just down the road from the grounds a gas-fired power station or two will be cranked up to maximum to provide the electricity that this scandalously wasteful nonsense needs.

As you settle down to watch the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year next Sunday accept it for the superficial, selective and sycophantic spectacle that it is. Cheer when cheers are due – the England cricket team, Tony McCoy, Lee Westwood and the others who have done us proud. But as a counter-balance remember the wise words of Andy Ripley I’ve finally settled on my little maxim for life. You can earn a living from what you get - but you only get a life from what you give”.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Legends of Kent cricket

Twelve is a magic number – there were twelve Apostles of course and twelve Gods of the Greek Pantheon – and now twelve Legends of Kent cricket are to be commemorated in the redevelopment of the St Lawrence Ground, Canterbury. It’s a nice idea – each of those chosen will have a permanent tribute in stone in the “Walkway” of the new home of Kent cricket. Quite how the 12 will be chosen isn't clear at this stage but as a member of the County for more than 40 years I hope that along with other members I will be in the loop somewhere. Let’s have a first go a putting a list together for others perhaps to comment on. I’ll just list the twelve name that I would select without explanation and see if other Kent aficionados would challenge my choices. So here goes (in no particular order):


  12. ROB KEY


What do you think?

Monday, November 01, 2010

Let’s have domestic cricket that matters in England…

Asking for sanity in Cricket Administration sometimes seems like asking for sobriety in the Drones Club – the call won’t so much fall on deaf ears but on narrow minds obsessed with their own political and personal games and incapable of seeing reason. In his first communication to members of MCC since becoming President Christopher Martin-Jenkins said in relation to the absurdly over-crowded domestic fixture list of 2010 “Happily a more balanced county programme is under discussion for next year…” Unhappily these discussions, as we now know, came to naught and 2011 will be as daft, fixture-wise, as 2010 was.

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has a “Structure group” and those interested will note that this group has recommended shortening the domestic season – but not until 2012. We are in deckchairs on the Titanic territory here. Views vary as to how many of our current counties are in crisis but more than half of them seems a reasonable guess. That crisis comes in some cases from incompetent and even dysfunctional management. But even where the County management teams do know what they are doing their hands are tied by the commercial realities of modern-day domestic cricket.

A day at the India Test match at Lord’s next year will cost you around £100 per head – so a family visit for one day taking account of travel costs might cost £500. Why? Well chiefly because the ECB needs money to recycle to the Counties. We will be denied live International cricket on terrestrial television next year and for the foreseeable future and will need A Sky or Virgin subscription costing £600 to see it. Why? Well chiefly because the ECB needs money to recycle to the Counties. The amounts varied but each of the County P&Ls benefited from around £2million from the ECB in 2010 –remember this is OUR MONEY taken from us in ticket sales (the highest prices in the cricket world by far) and subscription TV costs.

Cricket is the most traditional of games which is why when change comes enthusiasts sometimes go into “Shock/horror” mode. Over my 60 year cricket watching life (so far) the introduction of One Day domestic cricket in 1963, a Cricket World Cup in 1975, domestic Twenty20 in 2003, an International T20 tournament in 2007 and the IPL in 2008 have (inter alia) all been seen, incorrectly, as presaging the end of the “game as we know it”. In fact cricket has proved to be more resilient that the doomsayers believed and Test cricket, for many the apex of the game, survives. County cricket is, however, another matter.

In 2010 there were 151 domestic Twenty20 matches in England mostly between the traditional 18 counties. And despite the fact that all too many of these matches were sparsely attended the same overkill will apply in 2011. In addition each county played thirteen mostly ill-attended 4 Day Championship matches and at least twelve 40 Over games. The rational for retaining this overheavy structure in 2011 is that “that many counties have already entered into commitments to playing staffs and other expenditure for 2011 and that cash flow from membership and ticket sales are vitally important in the current difficult economic climate for the 2011 season”. So despite the fact that the cricket-watching public voted with their feet to stay away in large numbers in 2010 they will be offered exactly the same fare in 2011. If at first you don’t succeed do nothing and hope for the best!

English domestic cricket needs a new, fresh look more urgently than ever and to delay doing this is short-sighted and foolish. From 2012 onwards what is needed is not a tinkering with the fixture lists but a revolutionary redesign to the whole domestic structure. We need a maximum of eight top-class domestic teams playing matches that matter both because of the quality of the cricket and the fact that world-class players (including England players) will be on display. We need far fewer and far better 4 Day and one day matches – 50 (not 40) Overs and T20. Each match should be marketable as an event at a ground with top class facilities in a competition that matters. Some of the eight city-based franchise teams might be built on the infrastructure of existing counties – but they don’t have to be.

This proposal does not mean the end of county cricket – it means that the eighteen counties would revert to being a third semi-professional and amateur tier in regional groupings which would also include the existing minor counties. A new county structure of 38 counties in this way is perfectly viable and would require few if any hand-outs from the ECB. If it took its lead from Australian grade cricket it would provide not just satisfying cricket in its own right but also act as a nursery for England-qualified cricketers who would progress onwards to the city-franchise teams if good enough. We would still be able to watch Kent v Sussex at Tunbridge Wells or Leicestershire v Derbyshire at Grace Road, but within a financial structure that would be viable and would endure.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Thanks Johnners - and thanks Aggers.

Johnners would have loved it. Brian Johnston was a man of comparatively simple pleasures and all were present in abundance at the launch party last night of the new book about him by Jonathan Agnew – “Thanks Johnners”. There were Thesps and entertainers galore: Simon Williams, Roger Lloyd Pack, Tim Rice, Lesley Garrett… his old friends from Test Match Special like Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Peter Baxter as well as, of course, the Author himself – young Aggers. But above all there was family – the Agnews and the Johnstons en masse including Jonathan’s octogenarian parents and Johnners widow Pauline – frail at 88 but with that sparkle in her eye that must instantly have attracted BJ to her when they met way back in 1947. Stephen Fry, who wrote the Foreword to the book, would also have been there but sadly had to attend the funeral of an old friend in Chester.

The unique charm of Brian Johnston is well summed up in Stephen Fry’s contribution to the book “Charming, gallant, funny, courteous, kindly, perceptive, soldierly, honourable and old-fashioned” - old-fashioned in the right way Fry stresses! Everyone at the party had at least one personal Johnners story and each of these confirmed Fry’s assessment of the character of the man. As a schoolboy, back in the early 1960s, I brandished a copy of one of Johnners’ early tomes in front of him for his signature. He looked at me with faux astonishment “Good Lord you actually bought it!” he said.

I must leave an assessment of Aggers new book until I have actually read it – but the signs are promising. I remember when the word leaked out that Agnew had been commissioned to do the book Andrew Johnston, Johnners second son, looked a little doubtful as there had already been a number of very good biographies of his father by Tim Heald, by Johnners’ eldest son Barry as well as BJ’s own various autobiographies and memoirs. But the Johnston family seemed very happy with “Thanks Johnners” and Jonathan Agnew thanked them generously for their cooperation.

Johnners was above all an entertainer and that is a rare thing in sports commentary today. How many writers and correspondents on sport write or talk first about the politics, the money and the darker side of our national sports? Even Aggers, solidly and commendably in the Johnners tradition of entertaining commentary, had to deal all too often this summer with the seamier side of cricket -match-fixing and the like. His distaste for all this was evident but his professionalism in tackling it, which as BBC cricket correspondent he had to, was commendable.

Many cricket fans would argue that cricket is different in that it is rarely predictable who is likely to be an enthusiast for the great game. The theatrical connection is long-standing - even Hollywood has a cricket club going back to the 1930s founded by the actor C.Aubrey Smith - who had played one Test match in 1889. The eclectic nature of the support for the game was shown by the guests at the book launch many of whom has been on TMS’s “View from the Boundary” - originally an interview spot conducted by Johnners and now one of Jonathan Agnew’s favourite parts of the programme. That’s why Lesley Garrett was at the party. By coincidence I had seen one of Ms Garrett’s concerts last week in Liverpool Cathedral, of all places, where it was the highlight of a Pensions conference! She seemed very surprised that there was someone at the book launch who had been at the Cathedral - but she was charmingly pleased that I had enjoyed it so much. Lovely lady!

There is a continuity of style about Test Match Special that enthusiasts like me treasure. The torch has been passed almost effortlessly it seems, from hand to hand: Alston, Swanton, Arlott, Johnston, Mosey, Blofeld, CMJ and now Aggers. None of these great commentators were star cricketers – though Blowers might have been and Agnew was better than his three Test matches and three ODIs record suggests. But what they all have is the special ability to talk to the listener so that it is almost as if the commentator is sitting next to him in a deckchair at the match. On Sky TV we do get very insightful comments from their gaggle of ex-England captains but there is rarely the segue into fantasy that has always been part of TMS’s style. And there is never the geniality and the hospitality either – I doubt that the Sky box is a very welcoming place whereas the TMS commentary box is always an attraction – and not just for the cake.

Aggers expressed his real concerns last night about where the new TMS commentators are going to come from. There are few training grounds any more with commentary on domestic cricket having almost completely withered on the vine. Blowers is 71, CMJ is 65 and even Aggers is 50! True Johnners carried on well into his eighties so we can hope that the “A Team” will be with us for some time to come as well. But isn’t there somewhere an embryo Johnners or Aggers waiting for his or her chance? Don’t tell me we don’t make them like that anymore!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Dachau an inappropriate choice for sports team bonding

It started with Steve Waugh’s 2001 Aussies who visited Gallipoli on their way to defend The Ashes in England. In his autobiography Waugh made it clear why they went – he described the visit as a “true bonding experience”. I thought at the time that there was something very tacky indeed about using a memorial to the fallen as a prop for the team bonding of a sports team. But Gallipoli sits understandably deep in the Australian psyche and although it seemed wrong to me to that a visit had been factored it into the team’s pre Ashes build up I kept quiet. Then in 2009 the England squad under Andrew Strauss made what seemed to me to be a gratuitous visit to Flanders to attend a specially arranged “...ceremony to commemorate the English cricketers who had died there” – as Strauss put it. As with the Australians eight years earlier team-bonding was the objective. And now, in the build up to another Ashes tour, the England squad has again been to a memorial – this time that at the site of the Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich.

I would argue that learning about The Holocaust is essential to the development of a rounded personality for us all and believe that the subject is rightly taught in schools and that it is important that it features in the Arts in films like “Schindler’s List”. The decision to visit sites like Auschwitz or Dachau is, however, a very personal one and many of us would prefer not to do it. If we do decide that it is appropriate for us to go to such a place my guess is that we would prefer to do so quietly, respectfully and with our very closest family – partners and children. For some such a visit might take place as part of a relevant common interest group - the children of Holocaust survivors for example. But surely nobody could conceive that it would be appropriate to expropriate a concentration camp memorial as a bonding tool for a sports team?

It defies belief that the England and Wales Cricket Board should think that it was right for the England cricketers to visit Dachau as a group. Unlike Gallipoli or Flanders, for which some slightly specious Australian or English cricket connection could be found, Dachau has a personal resonance for only a small number of British citizens. That it has meaning for all of us as a symbol of man’s inhumanity to man is undoubtedly true but that is something that we should explore as individuals – using a visit for a team building experience is crass and offensive.

Andrew Strauss said after his visit to Dachau “Following our trip to Flanders last year, this was an opportunity for the players to spend time away from the cricketing environment, learn more about the wider world and develop ourselves both individually and collectively.” Few would question that it is good preparation for a major sporting contest to strengthen the bonds between members of a team and that non cricketing activities can help do this. However the use of a Holocaust memorial site is grossly inappropriate and thoughtless and the ECB should have had the sensitivity to exclude it from the England team’s Bavarian adventures.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Whither the "Spirit of Cricket" now ?

We are used to living in a world where the rhetoric of slogans rarely matches the reality of experience. My old employer Shell had at least stopped using its tag line “You can be sure of Shell” a while before it became quite apparent that you couldn’t. But the LibDems shamelessly propagated their “Change That Works For You. Building a Fairer Britain” as they secretly finessed themselves closer to the Conservatives for whom, as we can now see, “fairness” is hardly a convincing battle cry. And in sport can there be a more dubious motto than that now inculcated into the Laws of the Game and presumptuously adopted by the Marylebone Cricket Club – the “Spirit of Cricket”.

The preamble to the Laws of Cricket says “Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game. Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself. The major responsibility for ensuring the spirit of fair play rests with the captains.” Fine words albeit hugely hubristic ones. The first bit of overweening pride here is the peddling of the myth that cricket in some way sets itself apart from other sports. Its appeal is “unique” and when it is played there is some sort of quasi-spiritual imperative which means that it is played is a spirit which goes beyond its laws and rules. Poppycock! Indeed there is a reasonable argument to say that professional cricket is uniquely dysfunctional compared with other sports. Take sledging for example. Few if any sports have institutionalised verbal abuse of one team’s players by those of the other as cricket has. Perhaps it is marginally less prevalent today than when Shane Warne was ritually foul-mouthing England’s batsmen. But it hasn’t gone away. Examples are legion but Matthew Hayden, A devout Catholic apparently, showed the style with his tirade at Graeme Smith when he came to the wicket a few years ago "You know, you're not fucking good enough. How the fuck are you going to handle Shane Warne when he's bowling in the rough? What the fuck are you going to do?" And former Aussie captain, Steve Waugh, publicly supported the practice of sledging giving it the fancy title of "mental disintegration". I don’t know of any other sport where sledging is an accepted part of the game – but I do know that this practice alone makes a mockery of the so-called “Spirit of Cricket”.

If on the field misbehaviour, not just sledging, in cricket is worse than in many other sports it leaders hardly set a noble example in their behaviour. When financial carrots dangle is there a cricket board Chairman who doesn’t salivate? If the “Spirit of Cricket” had meant anything in practice then the grotesque spectacle of the England and Wales Cricket Board prostrating itself in front of the gruesome “Sir” Allan Stanford would not have happened. And does anyone seriously think that “moral” considerations play any part in the decision making of the Indian Premier League – notwithstanding MCC’s absurd links with this venture? The links were lauded by Lalit Modi the League’s Chairman back in 2008 "I am happy that the Indian Premier League will adopt MCC’s doctrine on the Spirit of Cricket” Modi said at the League’s inception - and the MCC issued similarly pretentious sounding statements at the time. Mr Modi is, of course, currently suspended and answering a raft of accusations of corruption! Some spirit!

The acid test of whether the “Spirit of Cricket” actually means anything in reality is to compare behaviour on and off the field today with how things were before the whole idea was dreamed up. Is there less ball-tampering or sledging? Do batsmen “walk” more when they nick the ball and it is caught? And are cricket’s leaders more concerned with behaving in a principled way than once they were? I would argue that the reverse is the case and that the practical effect of the “Spirit of Cricket” has been zero – PR flimflam aside. This summer the MCC’s “Home of Cricket” was heavily decorated with “Spirit of Cricket” hoardings and Pakistan’s Test matches were overtly branded as “Spirit of Cricket tests”. How ironic, then, that it was at Lord’s that, in the words of ICC CEO Haroon Lorgat, a betting scam which “had the potential to be the worst corruption case in cricket since that of Hansie Cronje” took place.

Defenders of the “Spirit of Cricket” would no doubt say that the concept is aspirational - that it sets a standard of behaviour intention to which all cricketers should aspire. The problem with that is that it is little more than a vague and high-minded slogan which maybe gives a warm glow of comfort to some deluded souls but is largely ignored in reality. What really matters is having clear rules and regulations that are unequivocally stated and properly policed. The ICC does this and it will no doubt be reviewing these rules and their application in the light of the Lord’s debacle. And these rules need to be inculcated into the behaviour of all cricket’s officials not because they relate to some noble cause, like the “Spirit of Cricket”, but because they are non-negotiable conditions for participating in cricket at all. If you can’t manage your players in such a way that they don’t tamper with cricket balls, cheat, abuse and insult opponents and fix matches or incidents within matches then you don’t get a licence to play at all.

It may seem be a sad refection on the modern world that cries of "Play up! Play up! And play the game!" (which is essentially what the “Spirit of Cricket” is) fall onto deaf ears. But it is worth remembering that only 35 years after Henry Newbolt’s Vitaï Lampada, from which this line is of course taken, Douglas Jardine was ordering his bowlers to threaten Australian batsmen with intimidatory bodyline bowling. And that it wasn’t by a reference to some “Spirit of Cricket” that this practice was outlawed but by a change to the Laws of the game. “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!”

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

There’s betting – and there’s betting

Michael Vaughan tweets: “Off to Aussie to film a TV commercial for Betfair... for The Ashes. Quite ironic with what's been going on…” Indeed it is Michael and whilst we can make a clear distinction between what Betfair does (and what you are doing) and the seamy illegal side of gambling that has reared its ugly head the irony that you identify is a real one.

Yesterday I asked John Stern, the distinguished editor of “The Wisden Cricketer”, whether it was time for Sky to drop their slogan “It matters more if there is money on it”. Stern said “…therein lies the massive conflict of interest. Spot/spread betting (legal) [is a] huge backer of pro sport”. Now I am not much of a gambler – I can always find better things to do with my hard earned money than passing it to a bookie. But I can see that sport and gambling are inextricably tied together – and indeed they always have been. The noble sport of Cricket started in an era of gentlemen’s wagers and indeed it is arguable that the game might not have got off the ground at all without gambling.

Today every ground has betting facilities and betting advertising – as at The Oval in the photograph. To regret this development is I’m afraid naïve – as John Stern says betting is everywhere in sport. So if the culture is one in which gambling is encouraged, and it is, then how do we judge what seems to have been going on in the shady world of illegal gambling and the fixing of cricket matches or incidents within these matches? Is there not a tinge of hypocrisy about on the one hand actively encouraging betting companies like BetFair to be involved in cricket (as Michael Vaughan is doing) whilst on the other hand condemning players’ involvements in gambling?

The answer to my question is, of course, that there is a world of difference between legal gambling and the sordid world of match or spot fixing. The boundary is clear between what is legal, if a bit distasteful (the modern obsession with having a punt) and the grotesque negation of the true spirit of sport that is so gruesomely on view at the moment. Personally I have never thought that it is the case that “it matters more if there is money on it” and I find the slogan offensive and insulting. Would England’s win in the World Twenty20 or the 2009 Ashes have mattered more to me if I had had a successful bet on these outcomes – not at all? Others may take a different view – that is their choice – but there are few situations where I would feel the need to place a sporting bet. At a race meeting perhaps – but that is about it.

But what is apparently taking place all over South Asia, and elsewhere, is not the occasional ten quid each way on a horse in the 3:30 or a punt on the result of a cricket match. It is systematic illegal gambling on a huge scale with the prizes so large that it pays the criminals involved to try and fix outcomes. In order to put the fix into effect these people have to have access to the players and have to make it worth the while of the players to do what they ask. So middlemen, like Mazhar Majeed in the current case, somehow inveigle their way into the players’ sphere and manage to recruit some of them to do the necessary. Which brings me to the main point – this is a comprehensive failure of management by the Pakistan Cricket Board. Four years ago at the Oval we saw what happens when a squad of players is incompetently managed by officials. I wrote at the time “The root cause of Sunday’s Oval fiasco was a lack of proper leadership when it mattered most. Inzaman-Al-Haq should have said to his players “Look guys we are not happy about the ball-tampering allegations but the right time to progress this is after the match. Let’s get on and win it”. When he failed to do this Bob Woolmer or Zaheer Abbas or the ineffable Shaharyar Khan should have stepped in and said something similar. Instead there was vacillation and they all bowed to player power”. Four years on and it is self-evident that Pakistan’s cricket management is as useless as it ever was.

Finally let me express some sympathy for the 18-year-old Mohammed Amir whose highly promising career is likely to be ruined by this affair. At 18 you should know right from wrong but if you are in any doubt at all you should have someone to turn to. That someone could not be his Captain as it seems that Salman Butt was himself up to his neck in the spot fixing affair. But what about the team manager Yawar Saeed? One question that should be asked of Saeed is this. “Before this tour began did you hold a briefing session with the players to warn them of the possibility of illegal approaches by match fixing middlemen? In particular did you speak with the very young players on their first big tour, like Mohammed Amir, and warn them of the dangers. And did you say to them that if they saw or heard anything that made them uncomfortable then they should come straight to the team management for advice.” If no such briefing was held by Saeed and his team at least part of the blame for this debacle lies on his shoulders.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Schumacher should go quietly

In Formula one, as in other sports, the statistics can sometimes lie. Look at World Championship successes and you won’t find the name of Stirling Moss – but few would not place him in the top five of F1 drivers. Similarly do Michael Schumacher’s seven world titles make him the best of all time? Perhaps not – my own top three would put him on a par with Senna and Clark - but I wouldn’t want to call the order. And others would make justifiable cases for Fangio (who I never saw) Stewart, Prost and Lauda to be somewhere on the podium.

The case for Schumacher is a persuasive one – he had not only more world titles but also more pole positions, podiums and fastest laps than any other driver – albeit that his career until his first retirement was one of the longest spanning sixteen seasons. Quite how Schumacher maintained exceptional performances over such a long career it is difficult to pinpoint but it was probably a mixture of genius and effort. The effort was his absolute commitment to the cause – an obsession with fine tuning the car to allow him to get the very best out of it. Schumi was the driver every mechanic and engineer wanted in the cockpit – his analysis of performance after a few test laps was exceptional and practical – and at this he got better and better as the years progressed. But it was the genius that really set him apart – it is no exaggeration to say that, all other things being equal, Schumacher was half a second a lap faster than the field. Unbeatable at his best – and he was usually at his best. 91 wins out of 249 starts (36.5 %) is an astonishing record. Senna, by comparison, won 41 out of 161 (25.5%), Clark 25 out of 72 (34.7%).

After his retirement in 2006 Schumacher continued to attend Grands Prix and carried out some ill-defined role at Ferrari. I saw him at a few Grand Prix and the spark was gone and the smile was false. He obviously missed doing the thing that he was obviously on Earth to do – to drive a Formula one car. So when Ross Brawn ill-advisedly offered Schumacher a drive, in the world champion team remember, for the 2010 season it was no surprise that Schumi jumped at the chnace. And Mercedes were deluded into thinking that their name on the car, and Schumacher in it would enhance their brand. In fact the reverse has happened - from being half a second a lap faster Schumacher is half a second a lap slower than the front runners - something he never experienced in the whole of his 16 year career. True the Mercedes is well off the place – how shrewd Ross Brawn was to sell out when he was on a high at the end of last season, and how smart Jenson Button was to fly the coop. But although the car is no great shakes Schumi’s team mate Nico Rosberg has consistently out-driven his much older partner. Rosberg is a decent driver but arguably far from ever likely to be a world title contender – he has yet to win in 82 races. But at 25 he has, unsurprisingly, the reflexes of a still young man whilst Schumacher, at 41 has simply lost the edge he once had. No disgrace there – but modern Formula one is not a sport for old men.

At the Hungarian Grand Prix Michael Schumacher was in a battle for tenth place with Rubens Barrichello and it was doubtless the realisation that he was nowhere near the head of the field and that he was certain to be an also ran once again for the twelfth race in succession that made him squeeze Rubens almost into the wall. Schumi has previous of course and this has never made him as popular a champion as he might have been if he had always been more sportsmanlike. That he was a flawed genius we knew – but the number of incidents was fairly small and in 249 races during which he was mostly competing to win it is perhaps unsurprising that ambition occasionally took over from fair play. But at the Hungaroring yesterday there was absolutely no excuse and Schumacher has tarnished a comeback that was already looking an embarrassing failure. Have a look at the footage of the incident and I’m afraid Ross Brawn’s defence that "Michael was defending his position, trying to encourage Rubens to go around the outside. I don't think for a moment that he saw Rubens there and thought 'I will squeeze him' is phooey. Schumacher knew exactly what he was doing and he should be ashamed of himself. Time to go Michael – sooner rather than later.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Enjoy the 800 Murali - and prepare for disappointment !

"There is also the Frindallian camp of stattos who complain about Murali’s wickets in the ICC Super Series" says John Stern Editor of
The Wisden Cricketer

Not just the stattos John. Cricket historians can find not one shred of evidence to support the view that the ICC XI v Australia was a legitimate Test match:

(1) Every other match of the (to date) 1965 Test matches has been between nations (West Indies a nation for cricket purposes).

(2) When a similar issue arose back in 1970 for the England v Rest of World series the ICC decided that the matches were not proper Test matches. It took them a couple of years to make the decision - but they made it.

(3) The fact that the match was billed as a Test match is irrelevant. So were the 1970 matches so billed.

(4) The ICC has continued to fly in the face of the professional advice they have received from the Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians (ACS) that the match cannot be regarded as a Test mach for records purposes. The ACS hasn't fought its corner on this as strongly as it should - but I know of no member who actually believes that the match was a test match - other then to say that it must be if the ICC says it was!
(5) In the fullness of time the decision will undoubtedly be changed - it is just plain wrong. It was initially taken to pump up the commercial appeal of the event and it has subsequently stayed in the records because the ICC is too stubborn and fearful. Are you going to tell Warne that he has six fewer wickets than he thought that he had, or Hayden one fewer centuries – or Murali 795 not 800? Thought not. But one day someone with balls will do it!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Tri-Nations rugby is a big treat for the Rugby nut

The All Blacks have looked pretty impressive in the first two Tri-Nations matches comfortably beating last year’s champions South Africa in both. With the 2011 Rugby World Cup only a little over a year away New Zealand look to be clear favourites – especially as they will be on home soil. But then the Kiwi side is always the favourite for the quadrennial event but, the first tournament apart, they have contrived to underperform every time and have only reached one other final – that of 1995 when they lost to the Springboks. Mind you the New Zealand public seem to be able to cope with these failures well - partly by going into self denial and partly by declaring themselves the rightful champions anyway (see Photo above "All Blacks Champions of the World" was taken in Auckland a couple of years ago not long after South Africa won the world cup)!

Watching the Tri-Nations is always a pleasure – the standard is astonishingly high and there are no more passionate sporting encounters than those between the three combatants. Pretty it isn’t - and the crowds aren’t exactly imbued with notions of fair play either, winning is everything. The boos from the New Zealand faithful every time a South African took a kick at goal would have given the Twickenham old farts apoplexy but I guess that it is par for the course down under.

Most sports have changed a lot over the years but none more so than Rugby – despite that fact that I was a player for twenty-five years and a fan all my life I have no idea at all about some of the modern rules. But the core skills are the same and players like Carter and McCaw, Habana and Roussouw would have been stars in any era. And did you see the final All Black try by Israel Dagg (crazy name, crazy guy) at Wellington. Wow!

One change which I believe is far from a step forward is the fact that the international game is now a 22 man squad affair. Both sides used 21 players last Saturday and that is now the norm. Call me old-fashioned but isn’t Rugby meant to be a 15-a-side game and isn’t part of the challenge to get your fifteen players working effectively as a unit? And isn’t fitness part of the challenge as well – surely you shouldn’t come on the field at the start if you are not fit for 80 minutes? Of course replacements should be allowed for genuine reasons (injury or illness) but do so many tactical substitutions really add much to the enjoyment of the game? The fact that a player is knackered should hardly be reasons for his substitution – if he didn’t have the stamina for 80 minutes what’s he doing on the pitch? Can you imagine what Willie John McBride would have said about this! I’m told that the pace and physical demands of the modern game are such that replacements are essential – this is, of course, a circular argument. Without tactical replacements teams would have to pace themselves as they always used to – and players would only be picked if they were 80 minutes fit. And, what’s more, caps would be more earned and more valued.

The next Tri-Nations is the Australia v Wallabies match at Brisbane next Saturday – I have a feeling that the two sides will be competing for runners up this year and that the All Blacks might be the first unbeaten winners of the tournament for seven years. They do look a bit tasty.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The British Grand Prix - Forty six years on!

I went to my first British Grand Prix exactly forty-six years ago today in 1964. As a seventeen-year-old obsessed by Formula one it was difficult to contain my excitement that I was actually going to see the stars close at hand. It was a golden age – there were five once or future World Champions in the field – Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, Phil Hill, John Surtees and the man who, for me, was and is the greatest of them all – Jim Clark. Clark won the race comfortably and there was an all British podium when he was joined by Graham Hill and Surtees.

To say that I saw the drivers close at hand is not a romantic memory. The photograph of John Surtees in the cockpit of his Ferrari I actually took in the paddock that day. True I had managed to wangle a pit pass from somewhere – but in those days that was not too difficult. We sat on a grassy bank for the race eating a picnic – and we had a panoramic view of the Brands club circuit where all the action was. And if we wanted a closer look we were able to get within a few feet of the trackside – there were hardly any fences. Jim Clark had won the 1963 Drivers Championship by miles – the first of many for Colin Chapman and his pioneering Lotus team. And he and the other top drivers gave you value for money as well – one of the races was for saloon cars and Clark won it in a Lotus Cortina – every boys dream as an aspirational car!

I don’t subscribe to the commonly held view that “Formula one is not what it was” back in the days of Clark and Hill and Surtees. True it was a much more accessible and affordable sport back in the 1960s and every race mattered more - there were only ten races back in 1964 compared with nearly twice that this year. And it was undisputedly a sport then whereas today it is also a billion dollar business. None of the cars on the grid on that sunny day 46 years ago had any advertising on them – or was there perhaps a discrete Esso roundel somewhere on Clark’s Lotus?

The 1964 British Grand Prix was largely accident free but that was the exception not the rule in those days – and accidents often had lethal consequences for drivers and sometimes spectators as well. Of the 24 drivers on the grid that day a third were later to lose their lives in racing accidents – McLaren, Anderson, Bandini, Bonnier, Siffert, Taylor, Revson and, of course, Jim Clark. The improvements in safety over the years have meant that one can, these days, watch a race without fearing for the lives of the competitors. That was certainly not so in the 1960s. This fact alone makes it difficult to compare the drivers of different eras – you have always needed to be brave to drive an F1 car - as well as skilful. But back in the earlier days of F1 you needed a quite extraordinary courage and a great deal of luck if, like John Surtees or Jack Brabham you were to be able to survive and look back from a decent old age. But Surtees for one would sadly have to argue that there is no ground for complacency – his eighteen year old son was killed in a freak Formula Two accident at Brands Hatch just a year ago.

I have been lucky enough to go to many Grands Prix over the years following that initial event back in 1964 – and it rarely disappoints. Sometimes one is lucky enough to get close enough to smell the oil, the grease, the fuel and the sweat. And to see the tension on the faces because despite its modern complexity, technology and hype it is, in essence, still all about the drivers. If you could have a (part-celestial) dinner party with Fangio, Ascari, Clark, Stewart, Lauda, Prost, Senna, Schumacher and Button at the table you’d find that they have almost everything in common despite their hugely different competitive eras. You might need to keep Ayrton and Alain at the two ends of the table though!

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

A nation within a nation ?

I will be at Lord’s next Tuesday for the first day of the Pakistan v Australia Test match – and I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been a neutral at many Limited Overs matches over the years but this will be my first Test when England is not playing. I’m genuinely neutral and just want to see some good cricket. But whilst I am a neutral the same won’t apply to many thousands of spectators – if the Edgbaston Twenty20 tasters are anything to go by.

At Edgbaston, and no doubt also at Lord’s and Headingley, the grounds will be mainly populated by unmistakable Pakistan supporters. These are not, of course, the equivalent of the travelling "Barmy Army" - here on a cricket supporters’ visit from Karachi or Lahore. No - they were nearly all young people of Pakistani descent who are, I suspect, mostly born, bred and living in Britain - and with British Passports tucked away back home. And when England plays Pakistan later in the summer it will be the same – large swathes of green clad fans will be cheering on England’s opponents. Now in a country with Britain's freedoms these Pakistan supporters are entitled to support whatever sports team they like. That is their right. I just wish that, in sporting terms, they could be committed to the country of their chosen future rather than the country of their ancestors. I wish that they shared the pride of many in their communities when a cricketer of Asian origins (Ajmal Shajad for example) gets into the England team.

Now before anyone tries to "Colonel Blimp" me for holding these Tebbitian views let me explain a little further. If, at my advanced years, I emigrated to Australia (a country I like very much) and even became an Australian citizen it would not stop me from supporting England in The Ashes. Contradiction? Not at all. You do not cast off your personal allegiances of fifty years or more just because you relocate to another country. Once a Pom, always a Pom. But if I had children born and educated and working in Australia I would expect them (encourage them) to support the Aussies.

Sport, even cricket, is essentially trivial but in the case of nationality and allegiance sport can be a force for good, binding people of different backgrounds and cultures together in a common cause. When Amir Khan won a silver medal in the boxing at the Athens Olympics I rejoiced along with him and his family who, whilst of a very different background to me, are all now as authentically British as I am. And there is certainly no more patriotic Englishman than Nasser Hussain (or his late father Jo for that matter) notwithstanding their Indian origins.

So sport can be a force for good in binding people together whether it be in the England team (with their disparate national and cultural backgrounds) or those who support them in the stands. So why if you were born and raised in (say) Bolton of parents who emigrated from Pakistan would you support Pakistan and not England? It is emphatically not the same as your choice as to whether to support Bolton Wanderers or Manchester United. The reason any of us supports one club football team rather than another are many and varied and rarely even remotely contentious. But to openly reject supporting the national football or cricket team - the one that represents the country of your birth and of your nationality is a very different matter. All too often the failure of a young person, born in England and who grew up here, to support our national sports teams is an act of protest and a sign that he is, to a degree, alienated from his country. And yes, notwithstanding the triviality of sport, that alienation does matter and is potentially very disturbing.

Now this argument begins to get a bit heavy. Had the young Yorkshireman (born and bred in Leeds) Mohammad Sidique Khan chosen to express his discomfort with the British way of life by wearing a Pakistan cricket shirt and cheering on Pakistan few would have given his actions a moment’s thought. But that was not Mr Khan's choice - he chose to express his alienation as a suicide bomber on a Circle Line train in London on 7th July 2005. Mr Khan's actions were those of someone on the lunatic fringe of the alienated but they stemmed, nevertheless, from the same basic causal roots as the entirely innocent actions of those Britons who choose to support Pakistan rather than England at a cricket match.

I have never believed that, in Britain, cultures should be subsumed into some bland, generic "Britishness" that is predominately white and Anglo-Saxon and has broadly "Christian" values. I enjoy the diversity of modern Britain and don't want it to change back. But I do believe that this diversity can co-exist with a common pride in our nation and our nationality that all can share whatever our backgrounds. And I also believe that to support our national sports teams, irrespective of our origins or roots, can be a spur to the reduction of alienation and to unity. The less alienated any of us feels the more likely it is that the extreme expressions of alienation, such as that which happened in London on 7/7/05, will be less likely to happen again.

To return to cricket. The MCC is congratulating itself for having sponsored the Pakistan/Australia encounters this summer and in purely cricketing terms few would argue that these are not worthwhile matches – especially as Pakistan cannot play international matches at home at the moment. Having said that did anyone at the MCC think about the broader implications and consequences of this sponsorship? The organisers of these matches obviously chose London, Birmingham and Leeds as the venues because of the large numbers of people of Pakistani origin in these regions. But I wonder if the MCC and others responsible for the matches would agree that they have provided another context for the open expression of a Pakistani nationalism by British citizens? For the vast majority of these people the support will be benign – but moves which legitimise this nationalism in a fairly harmless way for the majority also provide a legitimised context for much less benign expressions of nationalism by a minority. Recently the “Centre for Social Cohesion” released details of the profiles of 124 individuals convicted of Islamic terrorism offences in Britain since 1999. This showed that 69 per cent of offences were perpetrated by individuals holding British nationality.

Now it may be that some of the British Asians so strongly supporting Pakistan versus Australia will switch allegiance to the country of their birth and nationality and support England in the upcoming Test matches. But I doubt that it will be many of them! In effect the Pakistan v Australia matches overtly acknowledge – even celebrate - that we have a nation within a nation in Britain and many of us, however liberal our views and welcoming of cultural diversity we are, will regret this – and worry about it.

This article is a revised version of an article that originally appeared in the cricket fanzine “Yes, No, Sorry” in 2006

Sunday, July 04, 2010

World Cup memories of 1974

One of the great Football World Cup finals was in 1974 when Germany played The Netherlands and won 2-1 despite conceding a penalty in the opening minute. That was Cruyff v Beckenbauer and Neeskens v Muller of course – and was the first of two near misses for that great Dutch team. History might just repeat itself in South Africa. Surely the Holland side will be too good for Uruguay and this exciting German team has a decent chance of beating current tournament favourites Spain?

In refreshing my memory about 1974 I looked at Brian Glanville’s seminal history of the World Cup – and came across this curiosity.
It was a group game between Italy and Argentina and was, as Glanville put it, “…a nightmare and a humiliation for the Italians”. Here is how Glanville described one of the key features of the match:

“Quite what possessed Valcareggi, the Italian manager, …to set his own creative inside-forward, Fabio Capello, to mark [Housman – the Argentina winger] heaven knows. At all events Capello, turned by this error into a full-back, was run ragged by Housman, who scored a lovely goal…Too late Valcareggi understood what was happening [and] pushed Capello upfield…”

Fabio Capello, 2010 version and presumably 36 years wiser, might have remembered his old Manager’s errors when picking his England team and deciding on playing formations. Wasn’t it a lack of creativity, a stiflingly predictable playing system and some curious team selections which helped scupper England? The truly creative players – Walcott, Lennon, Rooney, Wright-Philips even Defoe and Crouch unperformed because they were either discarded or given the wrong things to do. Just like Fabio himself way back in ’74 perhaps? Odd isn’t it?

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Tunbridge Wells - a model for the future of English cricket

Even the most trenchant of critics of County cricket (guilty as charged) would have to admit that a day of festival cricket such as that at Tunbridge Wells yesterday is an unalloyed joy. Writing in a splendid new publication which celebrates the Tunbridge Wells Festival Christopher Martin-Jenkins says that “the county festival weeks are a small but precious part of the English way of life” – nobody amongst the many hundreds at Tunbridge Wells yesterday would challenge that claim.

The sun shone throughout the long afternoon – curiously the match started at midday apparently to allow the Kent players time to recover from their previous night’s journey from the Rose Bowl. But no matter there was plenty to keep the faithful happy in the marquees that stood proud on one side of the ground - how appropriate it is that Shepherd Neame brewery are one of Kent’s main sponsors! We settled early into our comfy seats in the Tunbridge Wells Cricket Club tent and there was a palpable feeing of mellow contentment around well before the Nottinghamshire openers, Hales and Patel, took guard. Hales, a 21 year-old Englishman (hooray!) playing in only his twelfth first-class match is prodigiously talented. He took the Kent bowling apart and it seemed at one point that he would perform that rare feat of a century before lunch. That wasn’t to be and in fact he eventually fell for 95 off 121 balls with thirteen fours and two sixes. But it was festival cricket of the most entertaining kind – as was the rest of the Nottinghamshire innings – they reached 393 for 8 off 103 overs of which more than half were of spin from Treadwell and Bandara. Hugely compelling cricket!

CMJ emphasises the fact that cricket festival days like yesterday’s are about more than just cricket and he contrasts the pleasures of Tunbridge Wells or Arundel or Cheltenham with the “echoing caverns like The Oval or Edgbaston”. These grounds, says the Sage of Sussex, “come alive on the big international occasion but … too often seem glum and empty when they play host to the homespun atmosphere of the County Championship game”. Indeed they do – which, in my opinion, does not however mean that our mainly urban big grounds have no part to play in the domestic game. On the contrary. For cricket of the very highest standard you need facilities for spectators of the very highest standard as well - and that is where the current out-dated and financially unsustainable model of professional cricket in England needs to be radically changed.

If the quintessentially English festival cricket is undoubtedly worth preserving, which it is, but the current 18 county model for the county game is broken beyond repair (also true), then how can we create something that not only maintains the valuable and enjoyable heritage of Tunbridge Wells etc. but also establishes an affordable, high quality and commercially viable and popular structure for the domestic game? The answer is clear. You create eight cricket franchises on the IPL model based on the established international grounds at which world-class Twenty20 and four-day cricket would be played. For example Surrey would be one of the franchisees and through the season there would be regular top flight domestic cricket at The Oval which would pack in the punters for the one-day games and probably produce quite respectable crowds for the four-day tournament matches as well. Only the best of English domestic cricket would be on display and this would be the development arena for future international players – as well as being the home bases of current international players so far as the crowded Test and Limited Overs International calendar allowed.

Below the franchise tier you would, in this model, establish a county structure which combined the counties from the ten non international grounds with the twenty minor counties. These thirty counties, divided into (say) four regional structures, would play the highest quality cricket but they would not be fully professional. An affordable mix of gifted English amateurs, old pros and young Turks - along with one or full professionals (on the League cricket model) would deliver an intriguing and very watchable mix of cricket that could well attract the sort of crowds that we saw yesterday at Tunbridge Wells. The competitions would be worthwhile in themselves both as challenging sport but also as a genuine nursery for young English players who, if good enough, would progress to the fully professional franchises. These new counties, with hugely reduced wage bills and other costs compared the current system, would be financially viable and only require the most modest of subvention from the ECB. And crucially they would offer up festival cricket at some of England’s loveliest grounds which spectators would relish going to see.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dance of the Elephants at the ECB?

The admirable Stephen Brenkley is suggesting in the Indy that Giles Clarke's days as ECB chairman may at last be numbered in the light of the furore over the Indian Premier League's abortive plans to expand into England. Brenkley goes on to suggest that if Clarke is forced out (a very big if) then David Morgan might return to the ECB as his tenure as ICC President expires soon. Morgan was of course Clarke's predecessor at the ECB - which prompts thoughts of the old music hall song "The music goes 'round and around Whoa-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho…it comes out here".

Whether there will really be another dance of the elephants at the top of English cricket we must wait and see. Giles Clarke has the hide of a pachyderm himself and if Stanford didn't account for him, which many thought it should have, will the IMG and the ghost of Lalit Modi succeed? Clarke can pretty much always call upon the County Chairmen to rally to his aid in times of stress - although his power to tempt the more impoverished counties to stand by him by throwing more money at them are much more limited these days. The "IPL in England" plan, although fairly grubby (no surprise there then) had an inescapable logic to it. Based on the Indian model the idea was to create eight or so proper Twenty20 franchises based at England's largest county grounds. There was nothing at all original about this plan - this scribe, for example, has been flogging the idea for years. It makes such sense that only the terminally conservative could disagree with it.

England's triumph in the World Twenty20 surely whets the appetite for a domestic T20 competition of similar quality. In short lets have eight quality teams playing at quality venues in a focused and properly paced tournament that we will all want to go and see. Sound familiar? So if Clarke is soon to fall on his sword what we must hope is not that another friend of the poor and underprivileged shires, David Morgan, returns to succeed him but that someone with the ambition and commercial nous to see that change is necessary in cricket as well as elsewhere in our society comes forward. I'd give the estimable Keith Bradshaw the job - if MCC could spare him and if he'd relish the challenge of sorting out another bunch of Poms!

Monday, March 29, 2010

It's The Sun what won it!

Embargoed until 1st April 2010

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and News International Ltd (NIL) are delighted to announce a new long term partnership to the benefit of cricket. NIL has agreed to provide generous financial support to the ECB for the next five years in return for an exclusive sponsorship arrangement for the England cricket team.

With effect from mid 2010 the England team will be renamed the “Sky England” team and the shirts of the players will carry the “SkyBet” emblem and the slogan:

It matters more when there's money on it!

The ECB is pleased to welcome Mr James Murdoch onto its Board to take up the position of Joint Chairman with Giles Clarke. Mr Murdoch, who is Australian, said at the launch of the new initiative that “Sky is delighted further to cement its relationship with the ECB and hopes to bring a good dose of Aussie pragmatism and endeavour to sharpen up England’s cricket prior to The Ashes 2010/2011. The last thing sponsors and advertisers down under want is another bunch of Pom no-hopers like last time - so we’ll all be working together to try and put England in a position to at least draw one of the Test matches.”

The ECB and NIL have also announced an exciting new domestic competition for 2010. To be called “The Sun Ten10” this will be a new ten over per side knockout cup for the Counties. Explaining the reasoning Giles Clarke said “As the name suggests this is aimed particularly at sports fans for whom the attention span required for the longer form of the game (Twenty20) is a bit too long”. There will be plenty of innovations to make this the most exciting form of the game yet. After the “Power Play” over there will be the “Sun Play” over umpired by two Page three ladies and the innings climax will involve a lucky Sun reader bowling the final over. Each ball will provide a betting opportunity with the odds (“3-1 he hits a sixer”) being announced in the ground and with live betting online and on TV.

The ECB and NIL have also announced the creation of a “Cricket Heritage” department at the University of Essex under the direction of Times correspondent Michael Atherton. James Murdoch explains “Athers will be looking to establish a fully sustainable cricket research and study centre with the highest standards of Corporate Social Responsibility and which will protect the image and reputation of the game far better than that effete lot at the MCC are able to do. The true greats of the game will be immortalised at the university including the “Shane Warne Research Centre into cricket language” and the “Hansie Cronje Department of match result management”.

Giles Clarke added “We are often erroneously criticised for not caring about the heritage and history of the game. This centre will, for example, have a resource about the greats of the past - like David Bradman and Fred Hobbs - as well as lots of old stuff about the cricket games they played in the past – like Test Matches and County cricket.”

Guest speaker at the launch Shadow (for the moment!) Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, said “I’m sure that in years no come the ties between the ECB and NIL will become even stronger. A future Conservative Government (I feel emboldened to say the future Conservative Government!) will stand foursquare behind both of these great institutions who share a common goal in favour of free enterprise not in empty free-to-air enterprise! Indeed in years to come I’m sure that as England moves on from triumph to triumph it will be true to say (as it will surely be for me in a few weeks time!) ‘It was The Sun what won it!’”

Sunday, March 21, 2010

An Open Letter to Ben Bradshaw, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

Dear Mr Bradshaw

Five short years ago the nation was enthralled as England and Australia fought a titanic battle for The Ashes culminating is a nerve-wracking but, for England, successful outcome at The Oval Test match. The final day of that match achieved record television viewing figures of 8.4 million free to air on Channel 4 and there was no doubt that cricket in the United Kingdom received an enormous boost from these events. In 2009 we again had an enthralling Ashes series but by now live television coverage of international cricket in Britain had been with News International’s subsidiary “Sky Television” for four years requiring a subscription of around £600 per year to be seen. Not surprisingly, despite a cricket match of great tension and excitement last August, the live television viewing figures were less than a quarter of what they had been in 2005. In November 2009 an independent report into “listed events” led by broadcaster David Davies recommended that the Ashes join the free-to-air list. We now have the England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) response to this proposal.

The ECB’s “Statement on Listed events” is a statement of such disingenuousness that it demands the most robust of responses. But in a way this long and self-centered attack on Mr Davies’s sensible proposals is helpful because it reveals what some of us close to the game have known for some time – that cricket in these islands is not in safe hands under the inept direction of the ECB. The ECB says that “…placing the home Ashes Test match series on List A would bring about a devastating collapse in the entire fabric of cricket in England and Wales from the playground to the Test match arena” – an astonishing admission of the Board’s governance failure since 2005. It is worth reiterating the point that only five years ago “The Ashes” were on free-to-air television. Over those years, we are now informed, the ECB has placed itself in a position that it is only by continuing the arrangements with Sky that a “collapse” in the “fabric” of English cricket can be averted!

The ECB narrowly avoided placing itself even more in hock to questionable commercial interests when its plans to establish a long-term arrangement with Texas billionaire Allen Stanford were brought to an abrupt end when the American was taken into custody on a fraud-related charge by the FBI last June. The Stanford affair was further evidence that rather than address the very real cost issues faced by cricket in England and Wales in a responsible and courageous way the ECB would prefer to seek funding from any source – however questionable – to try and keep afloat a ship that has been holed below the waterline for a long time. And in cricket as elsewhere he who pays the piper calls the tune – which has led, and will continue to lead, to crowded fixture lists, meaningless matches and player “burn-out” just to provide television events for which advertising can be sold by Sky.

Professional domestic cricket in England and Wales is one of the principal recipients of funding from the ECB and the £137.4m “probable loss” (from “The Ashes” leaving Sky) over four years 2014-2017, alleged in the ECB’s statement, is coincidentally not far away as a sum from the approximately £36m that the ECB hands out to the eighteen first class counties every year. The counties in their turn have a wage bill for players of roughly the same amount. This funding shores up a county system of great historical significance and nostalgic and emotional resonance – but one which is not only unaffordable but wholly unsuitable to the sport in the 21st Century – and in particular to the needs of the England team. Neither Australia nor any other of England’s international rivals has such a bloated and underperforming professional domestic structure as the English county system. The case for a far smaller and better second tier structure for English cricket (international cricket is the first tier) is overwhelming. If the ECB’s income is reduced as a result of the move back to free-to-air television of “The Ashes” it ought to be a blessing in disguise for English cricket. Not only will the numbers able to see international matches return to the level that they were as recently as 2005 but it may force the long-delayed and vitally necessary root and branch review of professional cricket in England and Wales. The outcome might be that the governance of the game in future is not vested in an ECB board overwhelmingly made up of County cricket officials (who bring obvious vested interests to maintain the status quo with them). It might also mean that we move to a more manageable and far higher quality second tier of perhaps six or eight teams (the Australians have six and the Indian Premier League has eight) which would be commercially viable and attractive both for Twenty20 and for the longer forms of the game. And which would be far more focused on being primarily the feeding ground for England at an international level and far less an employment opportunity for players from overseas who are not qualified to play for England.

I hope that the ECB’s response to your Department’s consultation document will paradoxically provide you with ample evidence to endorse rather than to turn down David Davies’s proposals re the televising of “The Ashes”. The case the ECB makes is flimsy and wholly unbalanced and it is worthy of nothing more than rejection out of hand. I hope also that both the tone and hypocritical content of the ECB’s response will inspire you to commission a proper parliamentary enquiry into the governance of cricket in England – not least because, via Sport England, substantial public funds are passed to the ECB and represent the major source of their expenditure on grassroots and community cricket!

Yours Sincerely

Paddy Briggs

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Where I was when we won The Ashes

I’d been to the first three days of the match glued to my seat and not missing a ball. England had been pretty dominant but, as always, and especially against the Aussies nothing could be taken for granted. Australia, chasing 546, were 80 without loss overnight and if they batted for two days they would win. At Cardiff they’d batted us out of the park: 674 - 6 declared in 181 overs with four (nearly five) century makers. These boys could bat and the pessimist in me said that all records are made to be broken. But for me, whatever happened, this wasn’t to be an “I was there” moment. Every year we have a week in the Lake District and Sunday was to be the first day of that week – the day that we drove north for five hours or so to our timeshare near Keswick. There was no choice – we would have to miss the day’s play and rely on Test Match Special.

Now I am a good spectator when I am actually at an England match but a very bad watcher on television or listener to the radio when the match really matters. And nothing matters more than The Ashes especially when we have a chance of regaining the Urn. I’d watched much of the final day at The Oval in 2005 from behind a settee and I wasn’t likely to be a nerveless listener in the car this year either. We are somewhere on the M25 as play begins and Aggers is off. Katich and Watson seem to be coping alright in the first couple of overs. Then huge noise from the car speakers - LBW appeal from Swanney “Looked plumb to me” I cry – it was! Aus 86-1. Three balls later Broad traps Watson – I flash my lights at oncoming cars to let them know that the Aussies are two down! But then Ponting and Hussey dig in to some effect. I try turning off the radio and listening to Puccini to try and induce a wicket but they are still there at lunch. 170-2.

We’re making good progress and are somewhere near Stoke. I’ll turn TMS back on after “Nessun Dorma” in Act3 - "Nobody shall sleep...” sings Pavarotti – “well I bet they aren’t sleeping in Kennington” I quip nervously. On goes the radio – thirteen post-lunch overs bowled and still no wicket then pandemonium in the ether – Fred has run out Ponting! Follow that! Strauss does and Clarke goes for a duck and the car veers dangerously towards the hard shoulder, 220-4 and England are surely now on their way. And so of course it proves. We arrive in Keswick just in time for the last rites, Harmy’s two in two balls, the celebrations and Strauss’s well-urned moment in the sun. Time for Pavarotti again I think –“Vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò!”

Tall tales from Table Mountain

The debacle of the Fourth Test Match at The Wanderers, when England capitulated in a shameful fashion, rather clouds what up until that event had been a good tour in South Africa. Not one player, Collingwood as ever excepted, came away from Johannesburg with any credit at all. The surprise for me was that from what I saw at Newlands England had the momentum after a second great escape to add to their fine win at Kingsmead. The South African squad, officials and supporters were on the floor after Graham Onions played out that final over to save the third Test - but to their credit the Proteas came out fighting in the final Test and thoroughly deserved to tie the series.

With the great and the good

At Newlands I saw much of the match from the comfort of the Presidents’ Suite. Now before my loyal readers think that I have gone over to the other side and joined the free-loading cricket establishment let me explain. André Odendaal, the CEO of Western Province, is a cricket administrator of principle – a man who as a young student in Stellenbosch in the 1970s wrote a precocious and brilliant analysis of the venal consequences of apartheid on the game of cricket in South Africa. This was essential source material for me when I was writing my biography of John Shepherd who was the first black man to play first-class cricket in the Republic in that decade. André read the first draft of the relevant chapter and has subsequently been very supportive of the book. My wife and I were his guest at Newlands and this allowed me to rub shoulders with the “great and the good” of English and South African cricket. These are my impressions.

The ECB leadership was at Newlands en masse including the triumvirate of Giles Clarke, David Collier and Dennis Amiss. They sat together for some of the match prompting the thought "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" as they fiddled with their Blackberries whilst England’s bowlers burned and toiled under the ferocious third day sun. By lunch on the fourth day South Africa were 397/4 and gearing up for a declaration which they undoubtedly thought would give them ample time to bowl England out and win the match. This was the moment when Giles Clarke had to thank his hosts - which he did graciously whilst adding that he confidently expected England to bat until stumps on the fifth day and draw. There was a nervous laugh in the suite from those of us who thought that this was, to say the least, highly improbable - but Clarke added to his many talents that of prescient seer when England remarkably and courageously did exactly what he said they would. At the moment of triumph, as Onions survived the final ball of the match, Clarke stood and embraced Dennis Amiss – rather unconvincingly it has to be said, I don’t think that the two of them had had many “kissy, kissy” moments before.

Our Saffers and their Saffers

The company in the suite was hospitable, cosmopolitan and very interesting. At one point when Trott and Pietersen were (briefly) batting together I turned to another English guest and said “Well Robin it’s our Saffers against their Saffers again!” This prompted an elderly and genial Afrikaner sitting behind me to ask whether I knew where the England team stays when they are in South Africa. The answer, of course, is “with their parents!” – a good joke. The South-Africanisation of English cricket at County and International level was inevitably a subject for debate in Cape Town. Four of the England side were born in the Republic and have one South African parent – Strauss, Prior, Pietersen and Trott - and all could well have played for the Proteas if they had chosen to do so. The same applies to the talented wicket-keeper Craig Kieswetter who is half Scottish and is qualifying for England. It was the Kieswetter case I was keen to discuss and I had the opportunity to do this over lunch one day with the former Proteas vice-captain Craig Matthews who is now a South African selector. He told me that a firm approach was made by Cricket South Africa last year to Kieswetter to try and persuade him to choose the country of his birth and nationality rather than England – especially as Mark Boucher is reaching the end of his career and an opening is around the corner. But the young keeper has plumped for England and there is no doubt that one of the reasons is Cricket South Africa’s affirmative action policy. As Matthews put it if a decent non-white wicket-keeper emerges on the scene he would almost certainly get the nod ahead of Kieswetter. South Africa’s rule is that there must be at least four non-whites in every Proteas team. Matthews supports this affirmative action policy and thinks it is all too easy to blame this policy for the loss of cricketers like Pietersen and Trott to England. I agree with him and whilst there is an inevitable distortion to free selection consequent on the policy it is certain that without it fine players like Amla, Duminy and Prince might have struggled to get their chances. But as there is only one wicket-keeper in any side you can see why Kieswetter would rather take his chances in England - and who would blame him?

Divine intervention?

There was a distinctly ecclesiastical feel to the Presidents box at times during the Test with not just the local Rector an ever-present but a phalanx of bishops and even the Archbishop of Cape Town as well! But sadly I missed the most distinguished man of the cloth of all – the great Desmond Tutu was only there on the first day when I was with the hoi-polloi in the stands! The rector explained to me that cricket and the church are closely interlinked because both require enormous acts of faith from the congregation/spectators. As those final excruciating moments of the Test were underway I noticed that the Bishops were unusually quiet and asked them if they were interceding with the almighty to grant South Africa a wicket. I thought it inappropriate to remind them of the foolishness of this task because as we all know God is an Englishman!

Magnificent support

Andrew Strauss rightly paid tribute to the England supporters after the match and the Barmy Army and the rest were indeed magnificent. The attendance at Newlands was an all-time record for a Test match – bolstered by the thousands of England fans who had made the trip. Who says that Test cricket is dead? The leader of the Army Vic Flowers (aka Jimmy Saville) was as colourful as ever and even agreed to be photographed with Mrs B – a proud moment for her (see picture). The Waterfront was heaving every night and the Barmies had commandeered one of the pubs for their revels which were good-humoured and must have inflated the hostelry’s takings exponentially. I have seen the Army all around the cricket world, even in Karachi a couple of times, and they are a unique and valuable asset to England cricket. They need to be treated in a more grateful way by the ticket-issuing authorities in England – not least at Lord’s which could do with being a bit less stuffy!

And now for the rest of the cricket year…

England are still work in progress. But they have a good coach and an intelligent captain and, Jo’Burg notwithstanding, they have a good team ethic. England are within an ace or two of being a side that has a decent chance of defending “The Ashes” in Australia. Swann has been a revelation but a genuine fast bowler is needed to augment the swing and precision of Anderson, Broad, Onions and Sidebottom. And they still need to find a number 3 – Trott, Bell, and Collingwood are all good but middle order batsmen and Pietersen is a natural number 4. Perhaps Cooke or Strauss should drop down to three and we should bring in another, and preferably right-handed, opener? KP needs to find his form, of course, but after the year he has had I wouldn’t blame him for his less than sparkling tour of South Africa – although I wish he would eschew the IPL – some chance! But the core of a very good team is there and it is right for us to be optimistic.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Why Bill Frindall is turning in his grave

Cricket lovers around the world have always eagerly awaited the appearance of “The Wisden Book of Test Cricket” which records in detail the facts and figures of every Test match played and all the associated statistics. It was in many ways the doyen of cricket statisticians Bill Frindall’s greatest achievement. Bill sadly died a little over a year ago and the latest volume of the book’s, dealing with Test matches played in the first decade of the 21st Century, has been edited by Steven Lynch. In his brief preface Lynch makes an appropriate acknowledgment of Bill Frindall and says that the new volume is “…decided to his memory” and he hopes that “…I have managed to produce a book of which he would approve” – a forlorn hope I’m afraid Mr Lynch.

Bill Frindall would be turning in his grave if he spied page 259 of the book on which the so-called “Super Test” between Australia and an “ICC World XI” is recorded as if it was a proper Test match – which Bill Frindall and all others who really care about cricket statistics and records know that it was not. Bill summarised his views unequivocally in the 2006 Playfair annual which he edited “…simple logic dictates that “international” records should be exactly that – “contests between nations”” – as the International Cricket Council’s regulations had properly stated for decades. Wisden’s rationale for including the match is that it accepts the “…governing body’s right to rule on its status”. This is arrant nonsense of course – if those who are experts on cricket statistics, Bill Frindall and all other respectable cricket historians included, know and can prove that the match wasn’t a proper Test match then that is the end of the matter – whatever the ignorant apparatchiks of the ICC might say!

The ICC should simply admit a mistake and remove Test status from this match which was “…a game bordering on the farcical.” (Frindall again). There is a precedent – the games in the 1970 international five match series between England and a “Rest of the World” side were deemed as authentic Test matches at the time but the ICC swiftly revised its view and in 1972 declared that the matches were unofficial – i.e. that the performances would not count in official Test match records. They subsequently confirmed that only matches between the national representative teams of countries which have "Test status" can be official Test matches. There was no equivocation on this ruling – Test matches are only played between countries (including the West Indies as a surrogate country for cricket purposes). One collateral effect of the ruling was that Test cricket records had to expunge the Rest of the World 1970 series – the principal casualty of this ruling was the Glamorgan batsman Alan Jones who played for England in one of the matches but now lost his status as a Test player. Another was Derek Underwood who would have taken 304 rather than 297 Test wickets if the 1970 matches had been deemed official. Geoff Boycott would have scored 23 not 22 Test centuries and Garry Sobers would have had 588 more Test runs (and two more centuries) to his name.

Alan Jones has understandably always regretted losing his Test match, and Underwood is disappointed that he is not a member of the 300+ Test wickets club, but one suspects that even they would reluctantly accept the logic of the ICC’s then ruling. If the 2005 “Super Test” is similarly retrospectively declared not to have Test match status the implications for the records of the participants are not so severe. Shane Warne would still have 700 Test wickets (just – he would go from 708 to exactly 700!) and Matt Hayden would have to be satisfied with 29 not 30 Test centuries. Those who argue that the participants in the “Super Test” thought that they were playing in an official Test match – for so it had been billed – have a point. But the participants in the 1970 series thought the same – it was also billed and marketed as Test cricket.

Test cricket is, according to some pessimistic observers, under threat from the burgeoning of Twenty20 around the cricket world. But one thing that Test cricket has which any other from of the game lacks is historical resonance. Between March 1877 and August 2009 no less than 1931 proper inter-national Test matches were played - as Wisden’s newly updated Test match records books splendidly record in easily readable detail. By any logic the “Super Test” has no right to be accorded the same status as these 1931 real Test matches and it shouldn’t be there. Time for the ICC to act.