Sunday, November 06, 2011


On Saturday November 13th 2010  England’s Rugby team played Australia at Twickenham. This reference is not about that match but about the date and the shirts. Take a look at the photograph of Chris Ashton scoring a try. Anything remarkable about Chris-Ashton-celeb-England-v-Australia-2010_2526743it? True England appear to be playing in the wrong colour shirt and shorts but this is the RFU remember and for reasons best known to themselves they often send England out in the wrong kit. No the point here is the flower on Ashton's chest. It’s a rose – as you would expect. Do you see any other flower on display? No? No poppy then.
Now whatever venalities the RFU can be accused of a lack of patriotism or insensitivity to the importance of our Armed Forces past and present is not one of them.  Indeed the military presence at Twickenham is usually very significant indeed as the  “Help for Heroes” charity is often at the match. So if the RFU had thought it appropriate to put a poppy on the shirts of the England players last year because the match v the Aussies fell between Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday you can be sure that they would have done it. Whether it occurred to the Rugby bosses to do this I’ve no idea. But they didn't do it largely I suspect because there is no tradition of National sports teams wearing poppies - and there was no reason to create a precedent.

On Saturday November 12th 2011, the day after Remembrance Day and the day before Remembrance Sunday, England’s Football team take on Spain at Wembley and some bright spark thought it would be a good idea for them to wear an embroidered poppy on their shirts. There is no precedent for this any more than there was last year for the Rugby team. The suggestion has led to an unsavoury and unnecessary confrontation with FIFA who say that it would be against the regulations for this to happen. I have no view on whether this regulation is right or wrong but I do have a view as to whether the idea was a good one in the first place – or not.
Remembering our war dead is one of the annual rituals that helps define us as a Nation (that Nation is the United Kingdom, by the way, not England). I have always respected it and found it deeply moving – especially the service at the Cenotaph. And the Poppy is the traditional and highly respected symbol of our remembrance. “In Flanders fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row…” John McCrea’s 1915 poem was the spur for this. But in recent times there have been occasional media stories about the wearing of the poppy (or not) which have created rather more heat than light. A Newsreader’s decision not to wear a poppy was a cause celebre a year ago and his coining of the phrase “Poppy fascism” really riled some. Aside from my belief that the decision to wear a poppy (or not) is a personal one I don't feel particularly strongly about the issue. I wear a Poppy – but not in October, as some did this year,  and not every time I venture out of the house in early November either!

So what is the objection to the England team wearing poppies on their shirts at Wembley? Traditions have to start somewhere I suppose - but do we really want to create one like this? Because you know what will happen. Next year there might be a full Rugby and Football programme on 10th/11th November. And the England cricket team might be playing a match somewhere. And all of these teams will feel obliged to wear Poppies because the tradition has been established and they don’t want the “Poppy Fascists” on their case. And before long anyone doing anything collectively at this time will feel obliged to follow the newly created rule that poppies are mandatory.   The key word here is “Collectively”. As I have argued wearing a Poppy is a personal choice and it is wholly inappropriate to compel anyone to do so - whether they be sportsmen or anyone else.   

Now some might argue that the beneficiaries of Poppy Day are the Royal British Legion and that anything that helps them raise more money for a good cause is worthwhile. And similarly they could argue that to give the Poppy prominent display on an England team’s shirts will raise awareness of the Legion – as well as being a sign of respect for that cause. Poppycock!   The wearing of Poppies in early November is so widespread that I cannot believe that anyone can have missed it – and if they have eleven footballers wearing poppies on their shirts is hardly likely to make a difference. And will it raise any extra money for the Legion? I doubt that as well. The chances to give to the British Legion are many and varied - and anyway collectors could be present inside or outside Wembley Stadium on 12th November whether the players wear poppies or not.

So why should we invent a tradition that sports teams on or around 11th November should wear poppies? Eric Hobsbawm has said     
“Invented tradition is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past.... However, insofar as there is such reference to a historic past, the peculiarity of 'invented' traditions is that the continuity with it is largely fictitious.”
And that, for me, along with the other arguments I have made in this piece, is enough.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Golden days for British and European Golf

A friend who is a keen golfer and ardent follower of the sport reminds me just how successful British and European golf is at the moment. And for me the top sporting experience of the year was not any of England’s many and deserved cricketing triumphs, good though they were, but the four days my wife and I spent at Royal St George’s watching the Open Championship. This was sport at its peak both in respect of the quality of the golf played over the four days and the wonderful end game in which Darren Clarke was triumphant. Tiger Woods apart all of the world’s top golfers were at Sandwich and is was a delight to see some living legends of the game, like Tom Watson, as well as the impressive and precociously young rising stars like Rickie Fowler and the British amateur Tom Lewis. Oddly the British players who have risen to the top of the world rankings, Donald, Westwood and McIlroy and those close by – Rose, Poulter and Casey all had a poor Championship. But that was swiftly forgotten as we celebrated Clarke’s triumph. Golf crowds in my experience are generous in their applause and well-behaved (I’ve never been to a tournament in the United States) and that was certainly the case at The Open. To this the players responded and there were a few moments which would grace any sport – Tom Watson’s smile at the end of the second round not because of his play (good though it was) nor because of his hole in one at the sixth but because his playing partner, 20 year old Tom Lewis, had followed his opening 65 with a solid 74 to make the cut.

The “Tiger effect” on golf has been good, bad and ugly. Good because it undoubtedly raised the profile of the game. Bad because it detracted somewhat from Tiger’s contemporaries as so much of the media attention was on Woods. And ugly because it eventually emerged that the Emperor had no clothes (or no trousers anyway) and that beneath the commercially burnished exterior there was a disturbed, dysfunctional and struggling human being. Well behaved though they generally are pro golfers are not saints and from time to time they set a pretty bad example. The American team in the Ryder Cup has a simplistic chauvinism about it that is stomach churning to the more urbane European eye. When they had a pre-tournament pep talk from an Army major last year it inspired Phil Mickleson to comment “I feel 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,” Hmm!

The top golfers are multi-millionaires and used to a lifestyle that is beyond the imaginings of most of us. I have no problem with this because below that top tier are hundreds hoping to make it and not living in the lap of luxury whilst they do so. Ian Poulter recently tweeted when someone criticised his poor performance in a tournament You think I'm going to lie here feeling sorry having worked in a pro shop for 7 years earning $200 a week. Enjoy what you work hard for.” A nice piece of honesty from Poults – and few would disagree with his sentiment. Poulter is the archetypical Ryder Cup competitor – fiercely proud and a great team man. Woods never really delivered in the Cup what his talent should have given – and the contrast between the striving for individual glory of Tiger and the authentic team focus of Poulter and the rest of his European colleagues has been marked. Golf is such an individual game that it takes something special to blend rivals together but with Britain and/or Europe holding the Ryder, Walker, and Solheim Cups (and GB and Ireland the Seve Trophy) we must be doing something right this side of the Atlantic! Long may it continue – and let’s hope that Donald, Westwood , Casey, Rose and our other very good British pros can find a way to follow Clarke’s triumph ( and those of McIlroy and McDowell) and bag themselves a Major or two soon.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The tough realities behind the nostalgia for County Cricket


There has been plenty of highly charged and emotional stuff around since Lancashire’s victory in the County Championship. From me included! And this nostalgia, when you come down to it, is a big part of what is wrong with domestic Cricket in England. Its strengths – the sort of honest but blind devotion we see in this blog for example – are also its weaknesses. The irony will have escaped some but at a time when the England team is at its strongest point for years the County system is on its knees. It is ironic, but it is not paradoxical. The England set up has little if any connection with County cricket – its centrally contracted players rarely appear for their counties and County cricket is largely an irrelevance for England. “Hang on”, the cricket traditionalist will cry, “where do the international players come from if they don’t come from the counties?” Well one answer would be “Ireland, South Africa and now New Zealand” but that might be a bit too clever-clever and pat. Of course the England squad have all come from County cricket - where the heck else would they come from – it’s the only game in town! But that doesn’t make it the best game or even the right game – except to those who close their minds to change.

The stark reality is that virtually all of the 18 counties are bankrupt or close to insolvency. They are only kept alive at all by hand-outs of around £2m each from the ECB. And where does the ECB get its money from to distribute this largesse? Well you and me actually. Three big sources of ECB funding are the Sky contract, international match ticket sales and the bids that major County ground owners make to have the right to stage a Test match or a limited overs international. Let’s just run through the implications for the cricket fan of these three ECB income streams.

The Sky contract is exclusive – there is no live cricket on non-subscription television in Britain. None! So a cricket fan who wants to watch England’s Test match triumphs live will have to fork out a minimum of £50 a month across the year to see it on Sky. Our summer sport, unlike to an extent our winter ones (at least the international part of them) , is unprotected from the commercial priorities of Sky – this is regressive of course. The rich man in his castle pays the same to watch Sky television as the poor man at his gate. So if the poor man’s ten-year-old takes an interest in cricket he can’t just switch on the BBC or ITV or Channel 4 – he has to persuade his hard-pressed parents to cough up £50+ a month. Not very likely is it?

Then there is the price of international cricket tickets to consider - they are by far the highest in the world. You can watch five days Test cricket in Australia for the cost of one day at Lord’s or The Oval. And you could watch a couple of seasons for that same amount in India. Why so high? Because the ECB says so - and the ECB says so because it needs the loot for the Counties. A day at a Test match for a family of four this year would have cost around £350 for the tickets alone. Oddly enough I didn’t see many families of four at the grounds this summer.

What about the auction that the ECB runs for the right to stage international matches? Sealed tenders mean that for most of the games the keen applicants have to take a hard expensive punt to stand a chance. This has nearly bankrupted Glamorgan – to such an extent that they had to withdraw from staging a West Indies Test at Cardiff next year despite being awarded it. They couldn’t afford to pay for the privilege! And the MCC, owners of Lord’s, were forced into a trading loss last year by the blind bids they made to host Test matches. Its complete nonsense of course – most of all when you realise that the ECB only does it to gather money for the failing Counties! So Glamorgan bids high to stage a Test which generates income for the ECB who pass it back to the Counties – including Glamorgan. D'oh!

So we pay of the order of £36m per year to keep the counties afloat. But, as this blog correctly says, nobody goes to watch them play - in the County Championship anyway. That we follow it in other ways may be true but that is hardly the basis of a sustainable business! And whilst the final round of Championship matches was certainly exciting through most of the season most of the cricket watching public hadn’t a clue about what was going on. The competition even stopped for a month or so so that the more money-spinning limited overs competitions could take place. Conservatives argue that outmoded businesses that blunder on sustained only by public hand-outs and with out-of - date business models should be allowed to die. That is precisely what we have in our current County system. There is direct public money – via the Sports Council – and indirect via Sky or the ECB’s inflated ticket prices going to County cricket. It may not all appear on Mr Osborne’s public sector accounts – but it’s as much public money as the NHS or the welfare state.

I have argued that the solution for English domestic cricket is to have far fewer top tier domestic teams – about eight seems right - and far better competition. This need not be the end of the Counties (please follow the link to see my argument for an alternative County model). As with so much in life this is a battle between the modernisers who see the realities and the traditionalists who really do think that all is well. Act soon – or those past “Glories” will turn to dust!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Its been a very long wait for Lancashire

Cricket at Lancs0004

My father was born in Stockport a few days before the battle of the Somme in 1916. The town may be technically in Cheshire but then, as now, many of its inhabitants saw themselves as Lancastrians – my father certainly did - not least in his lifelong support for Lancashire County Cricket Club. Like me Dad became a cricket fan at a very early age and by the time he was ten a Lancashire allegiance was engrained in him. Good timing, for in 1926 Lancashire won their first County Championship for 22 years and followed this with further wins in 1927, 1928, 1930 and 1934. A golden age indeed for the red rose County but thereafter, a solitary tied Championship in 1950 aside, no wins at all – until now.

Back in the 1920s one of the lynchpins of the Lancashire side was the Australian Test match fast bowler Ted McDonald. From 1925 to 1930 he was virtually an ever present in the side taking 970 wickets in 193 matches – an average of five per game. McDonald has a firm place in the Briggs family folklore because in 1930 he was photographed giving his autograph to a couple of young Lancashire fans – one of whom (the boy on the left in the cap) was my father. Not only did he sign Dad’s autograph book but he undertook later to get all of his team-mates autographs as well – on the cardboard frame in which the photo was placed. The original of that framed photograph is in the excellent cricket museum at Old Trafford.

Ted McDonald was unusual in playing in County cricket as an overseas player in the inter-war years he had to qualify and for two years he played in the Lancashire League before making his county debut in 1924. This followed a very successful tour with the 1921 Australians when he took 27 Test wickets at an average of under 25. It is intriguing to observe that he was already 33 years old when he made his first appearance for Lancashire and that his in final full season, 1930, he was 39. Not bad for someone described in Wisden as being “…far faster than the average English fast bowler”!

My father would have been thrilled with Lancashire’s success in the Championship this year. I only watched his County with him once but that was in the famous 1971 Gillette Cup final against my own County Kent. I was born in Kent and it was never even a subject for discussion that I chose to support the County of my birth rather than adopt my father’s team. We sat together for that enthralling match at Lord’s when Kent looked to be on the way to overhauling Lancashire’s modest 60 Over total of 224 until Jackie Bond took a famous catch to dismiss the on-fire Asif Iqbal. Lancashire has an astonishing record in One Day cricket with no less than 16 trophies between 1970 and 1998 – though none since. But for all this, in my father’s view, the only domestic cricket prize that really mattered was the County Championship and I am sure that if Dad was around today his smile would have been as wide as it was at Lord’s in 1971 – and he would be reminiscing about the games he saw the last time Lancashire stood unchallenged at the top of the pile way back in 1934.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

That was never a champagne moment !



The atmosphere in the Pavilion, never mind the rest of the ground, was electric at the Tea interval on the third day of the India Test match - the good burghers of Nottingham were sure that cricketing justice was not being done. Hence the booing. Not that a riot was on the cards - but the natives were restless. What we had just witnessed had defied belief. In short when the last ball of the over before Tea was hit towards the boundary the fielder, Kumar, dived over the boundary rope like a dying swallow. Seeing this batsmen, not unreasonably, assumed that a boundary had been hit. Kumar assumed the same. He picked up the ball and tossed it gently towards the wicketkeeper. Meanwhile the batsmen, Bell and Morgan, headed Pavilion-wards for a well-earned Tea. The keeper, Indian Captain MS Dhoni, caught the ball and threw it gently to the bowlers' end where the stumps were broken. Why did Dhoni do this? Well maybe he realised that the Umpires had not signalled a "Four" and that technically the ball was still in play and with the batsmen en route for Tea one of them (Bell) could be deemed to be Run Out. The Umpires then burst into action. Was Bell Run Out? Much radio chat with the third Umpire. Meanwhile Bell and Morgan were barred from returning to the Pavilion by one of the umpiring team! Back at the square the Umpires asked Dhoni if he really wanted to appeal. He said that he did. In the circumstances the Umpires had two options. They could have said to Dhoni that such an appeal was likely to be deemed later not to be in keeping with the "Spirit of Cricket" (unequivocally entrenched in the Laws of the Game). They didn't do this. They took option 2 which was to accept Dhoni's appeal and, inevitably, give Bell out.

There is a real sense of what is natural justice amongst cricket supporters. Instinctively we tend to know right from wrong. And this was wrong. The Umpires and the Indian team were roundly booed as they went to the Pavilion for Tea. It was loud, pointed and not open to misinterpretation. The forcefulness of this reaction no doubt supported the England team as they tried to cope with a gross injustice. Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss elected to go to talk with their opposite numbers Fletcher and Dhoni. And, as the later interview with the honourable and decent Rahul Dravid confirmed, the Indian team thought again and decided to withdraw their appeal. The brief version of what had happened can be summarised as follows:

1. Everything pointed to a four having been scored and the over having being finished – not least Kumar’s relaxed returning of the ball to Dhoni.

2. The breaking of the stumps was almost an afterthought. There was little urgency to it and it seemed little expectation, on the part of the Indians, that a run out had really been effected.

3. Bell and Morgan were already on the way to the Pavilion for Tea when the stump breaking took place. They clearly assumed that it was the end of the Over and the Session.

4. It eventually dawned on the Indians that in fact the ball had still been in play when they broke the stumps and that technically Ian Bell was run out. It was at this point that they appealed.

5. When the appeal happened former England Captain Michael Vaughan’s commentary on television was “[That was] a big mistake by Mahendra Singh Dhoni. I think this is [against] the Spirit of the Game.”

6. The Umpires then asked Dhoni a second time whether he wanted to pursue the appeal. Dhoni said he did. Bell was given out.

7. The Umpires and the Indians were roundly booed off the pitch not only by the majority of the crowd but by I would say a third of the members in the Pavilion where I was sitting.

8. During the Tea interval the Indians discussed the matter and, in the words of Rahul Dravid, they concluded that “If we took the letter of the laws of the game strictly [Bell] was out. But something was not right.”

9. The England Coach and the England Captain asked the Indians to withdraw the appeal which they graciously did. They might have done this anyway without the two Andys’ intervention. Who knows? Dravid’s remarks suggest so.

10. No announcement was made to the crowd and at first the Umpires and the Indian team were booed again. Then Ian Bell emerged and some amongst the members thought that England was playing hardball and refusing to accept the dismissal! Then, slowly, the truth emerged and in time the Indians were applauded for their belated sportsmanship.

Subsequent to this sequence of events the cricket Establishment has sought not only to praise Dhoni but to say that the "Spirit of Cricket" is enhanced by his actions. Well yes - but remember it was Dhoni and his team who created the mess in the first place! As Michael Vaughan correctly put it in real time on commentary the Indians were technically correct to appeal - but that appeal was plainly not in line with the "Spirit of Cricket”.

So to sum up. Technically Ian Bell was run out. But to pursue this offended natural justice as well as undoubtedly the "Spirit of the Game”. Dhoni, initially, pursued the appeal and the Umpires complied. They did not need to do this! Remember again the "Spirit of Cricket" is in the Laws and the Umpires would have been within their rights to advise Dhoni that his appeal conflicted with this Spirit. But this didn't happen. It was only when they were sitting in their dressing room having been booed from the field of play the enormity of the error that they had made dawned on Dhoni and his team that they saw sense (as Rahul Dravid pointed out).

The willingness of MS Dhoni to appeal in circumstances that were clearly suspect and unique was regrettable. The smiles on the faces of his colleagues as they went into Tea were reprehensible. That they subsequently, under some pressure, recanted is commendable. But let's cut out the bullshit. This whole problem came about because the "Spirit of Cricket" was initially, and in the heat of the moment, far from the mind of the Indian Captain. And it didn't feature with the Umpires either. Cricket's spirit has been rescued by England's Flower and Strauss and by India's Fletcher and Dhoni's reconsideration and welcome retreat.

The final (possibly!) coda to this affair was when the Test Match Special team of commentators and summarisers elected to give MS Dhoni the “Brian Johnston Champagne Moment” award for his withdrawal of the appeal. I found this so stomach-churningly obsequious that I “Tweeted” immediately from the ground “BJ Champagne moment choice is sentimental, craven, establishment-pleasing nonsense. Really bad.” On cool reflection I stand by this 100%. It was a match full of genuine champagne moments on the field of play – not least the brilliant third ball of Stuart Broad’s hat trick. That MS Dhoni had the wit and the sensitivity to reverse his appeal was commendable – but in truth I think that he had little choice but to do this if the match and the rest of the series was to progress smoothly. I was right among the cricket fans at Trent Bridge and at Tea they were incensed by what had happened and in unforgiving mood.

The day after these events the establishment closed ranks and the message in the media was disturbingly consistent – Ian Bell was dozy, naïve, careless or worse. MS Dhoni was a hero. The umpires were blameless. Yes, as I have shown, Bell and to an extent Morgan were a bit sloppy but the former had been batting through two sessions under considerable pressure and with the game in the balance. He played magnificently and was certainly entitled to his Tea! He saw Karma dive over the boundary and saw the subsequent body language of Karma and the rest and understandably felt there was no suggestion that a “play” of any sort was on. The Indians initially thought so too and when they appealed a quick word from the umpires to the effect that this was not a very good idea in the Spirit of the Game would certainly have sufficed. The umpires did not do this and this was very bad judgment on their part. It really was!

And Dhoni and the Indian team’s belated retraction of their appeal sullies the good record of Test Match Special – it was no champagne moment! No Way!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Beware the Sporting Trojan horses

“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”. Well I suppose in the current economic crisis in the Eurozone it’s more likely that our friends in the Aegean would be seeking gifts rather than bearing them – but you know what I mean. I refer to the truism that plausible and seemingly generous offers from some sources often have hidden complications – whether (in the case of cricket) it is Allan Stanford or  Sky Television, sport and especially British sport and the broadcasting of British sport, is increasingly beholden to people whose values are not really ours and who can, and do, demand a lot for their largesse.

That the leaders of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) are still in place despite the Stanford affair and other dramas has been a source of amazement – except, that is, to insiders who know that change at the top of the EBC is virtually impossible to achieve. Those who got us into the Stanford mess are still in power because those who put them there choose to keep them there to protect, as they see it, their own positions. Any rational observer of England’s domestic cricket scene could only but conclude that there are more than twice as many teams competing in top tier competitions than is affordable and logical. But on the irrefutable grounds that turkeys tend not to vote for a Christmas annihilation so the leaders of the eighteen First Class counties won’t vote to reduce their number. And they certainly won’t vote for a more radical Chairman who might actually do something about the mess that is English domestic cricket. So there is a Faustian (and probably unspoken) pact between the counties on one side and the current Chairman and Chief Executive on the other which maintains the status quo. The gift that these particular Greeks bear is the promise of funding to ensure that what are otherwise unsustainable “businesses” keep on going. No responsible business entity would pass good money to a subsidiary where they know that it will turn bad. But that is what the ECB does with tens of millions of pounds of money that they extract form you and me – directly though International match  ticket sales or indirectly by way of our Sky Sports subscriptions.

Sky Sports is the jewel in the crown of BSkyB’s properties – a source of income to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp that is invaluable to them. Murdoch’s (now rebuffed) wish totally to control Sky is in no small way attributable to the success of Sky Sports. But for the sports with which Sky has a contract for broadcasting rights the  “Gifts” that this US/Australian “Greek” brings come at a price. True the income from Sky that the ECB receives is considerable but what Sky asks for in return is substantial to. Firstly a total monopoly of live TV coverage domestic and international. There is no live cricket on British television except that on Sky - and to see that you need a subscription that costs at least £50 a month. And if you think that you can get round that by going to the Pub think again. Sky have increased the costs to pubs and clubs to such a level that it is unaffordable for many. That’s why the Red Lion in your village doesn't show the cricket or Premiership football any more!

The second demand that BSkyB makes is on the fixture list. The answer to all the following questions is “Because that’s what Murdoch wants”. Why are there 43 days of International cricket in 2011? Why were there seven One Day Internationals in Australia last winter? Why is England playing five ODIs in India in October when surely the players deserve a rest. Why is the domestic Twenty20 fixture list so crowded? Why is England playing Australia in three one Day Internationals in 2012? Why will the next Ashes series be back-to-back in 2013 (in England) and 2013/14 (in Australia)?  

The third demand is influence. He who pays the piper calls the tune. It is safe to say that no changes will be made to anything of significance in English cricket without Sky agreeing to it. It is indisputable that the income stream from Sky to the ECB to the Counties can only exist if the content for Sky is in place. The ECB has to deliver that content – predominantly Test matches, ODIs and international and domestic Twenty20.  

The events of the past week which have brought the malignancy of the Murdoch empire into sharp relief present an opportunity for those who argue for change to English cricket to act. Because, as I have tried to show, the whole pack of cards is sustained only by the Sky deal. Remove BSkyB from the equation and sanity will prevail. It wont be easy – but it sure is necessary. Let’s run through the plusses. If English cricket returns to terrestrial television then cricket viewership figures would return to the levels they were when it was on Channel 4 in 2005. But there will be less money in the pot – so the ECB will be forced to so something about the unsustainable nonsense that is an 18 County structure. And for the ECB the benefit is that in a more principled media rights environment it would always be they not the broadcaster that called the tune.

Our summer sport should not be in hock to Rupert Murdoch. We should not have to pay £100 for a seat in the Grandstand at the Lord's Test match or £50 a month to watch it on television. We should have competitive cricket clubs at the highest level playing in fine urban grounds with predominantly top English players in their squads. Cricket should be run by and for cricket fans not for the benefit of dubious and squalid commercial enterprises for whom the only measure of success is financial. That’s what the “Spirit of Cricket” should mean.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The wit and wisdom of Graeme Swann

Graeme Swann is a wag – and very funny he can be as well. His video reports from the Ashes tour were often hilarious and Swann’s intelligence as well as his humour shone though. So why would he make remarks as crass as he has as reported in n today’s newspapers? According to Swann Broad is


  “one of the best bowlers in England, certainly in my top two, and I love his aggression and the streak of nastiness about him because you definitely need that as a bowler. I don’t want to see our fast bowlers opening a kitten sanctuary; I want to see them bowling bouncers and breaking people’s fingers.”

Professional cricketers, like all pro sportsmen, have two main fears. One is that they will lose their form and the other is that they will be injured. Either can lead to a loss of place in the team and to loss of earnings – even to premature retirement. For Swann to call on a colleague to break the fingers of his opponents is about as far from the spirit of the game as you can get.  It happens – but I have never heard before one bowler call upon another to injure a batsman. I know what Swann means about fast bowlers – they do need to intimidate but they need to do this fairly and not to aim not at the player’s body or hands with a view to physically damaging them.

Sorry Graeme but this was an ill-considered remark and even though you said it lightly and perhaps didn't mean it  it gives a bad example to all cricketers, especially young ones, as to what the game of cricket is all about.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Play up, play up and play the game


And so the England management decides that one Public Schoolboy captain isn’t enough and they appoint three. The split between Limited Overs and Test Captaincy makes sense only in the context of crowded fixture lists and the giving of respite to the Captain. Strauss discharged his duties admirably in the absurdly overlong One Day series in Australia and in the grotesquely protracted Cricket World Cup after it. What damage to his mind and his family there was from this only he will know – and perhaps Andy Flower. I think that Strauss’s retirement from One Day Internationals is highly regrettable – he can play the game well. Cook is also a one day player of talent but was omitted from the arduous post- Ashes one day games. Lucky him because that decision has ironically brought him the captaincy.

The splitting of Twenty20 and ODI captaincy makes no sense at all. The formats are sufficiently similar for the special tactical nous of the One Day Captain (if there is one) being equally applicable in the T20 area. And there aren’t very many T20 matches anyway – so if Cook is the right person for One Day Internationals there is absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t also captain the T20 side.

With Collingwood’s departure from the scene England has now chosen a trio of men who learned their cricket in Independent schools and whose social background is identical. Maybe that is the background that the blinkered honchos of the ECB, headed by Old Rugbeian Giles Clarke, see as being desirable in a leader. There is also clearly now a hierarchy involved with Test match cricket at the top, ODIs next and T20 as the “apprenticeship” format. This is nonsense as well. In an ideal world the same man – and the best captain – should be England captain in all formats.

If you can play you can play – and if you can lead you can lead. As Geoff Miller put it back in 2008 when Kevin Pietersen was appointed: “In choosing a new captain, we were keen to identify a player who could lead the team in all three forms of cricket and bring fresh enthusiasm and ideas to the role of captain.” Miller was right then and the 180 degree swing away from that now is wrong – workload aside.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

How to run the 2015 Cricket World Cup

The Cricket World Cup 2011 is behind us and it will fade rapidly and disappear from our consciousness. Especially perhaps in England, South Africa and Australia - but even in the sub-continent where there was more to celebrate. Will the lessons of the tournament be learned by the participants and especially the International Cricket Council (ICC)?

For the ICC the 2007 Cricket World cup was a disaster. It dragged on from March 13th to April 28th and India and Pakistan failed to make it beyond the Group stages - unfancied Ireland and Bangladesh took the places in the next stage that had been pre-ordained for these two money-spinning nations. So for a month we had a tournament without India and Pakistan and the sub-continent, Sri Lanka aside, switched off. Never again said the ICC - so for the 2011 tournament no risks were taken. The eight main Test nations were virtually guaranteed a quarterfinal place, which they duly took. Although England made life difficult for a while by losing to Ireland and Bangladesh, which they weren't supposed to do! For India and Pakistan it was mostly plain sailing, as it was meant to be - and as the ICC's sponsors demanded.

So what of 2015 - the next tournament? First, you would think, there has to be an acknowledgement that we have twelve decent One-Day International sides. There is the top ten - the eight big beasts plus Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. The last mentioned might be a question mark but they are full members of the ICC and surely by 2015 their nation will have restored a semblance of normality and their cricket as well? Then there is Ireland who have performed brilliantly in the last two World Cups beating Pakistan and England along the way. And The Netherlands who ran England close this time around and are a team comprised of more then decent limited overs cricketers.

The ICC, however, has decided that Ireland and The Netherlands will be excluded from the 2015 tournament. It is to say the least discouraging to these two cricket nations whose improvement in recent years has been marked. And the decision makes to logistic sense either. There are virtually no disadvantages to having a 12-team tournament compared with a 10-team one. So what is the solution?

In 2015 the Cricket World Cup should comprise 12 teams. Recognising the need for the ICC and the member countries to maximise their income streams there should be a Group phase with the twelve teams divided into two six team Groups. This would mean 30 matches in total in the Group stages which with two matches per day and allowing for travelling and rest time would last about three weeks. Then the top four teams in each Group would progress to the Quarterfinals and so on. Another couple of weeks maximum. A five week tournament - long for sure but much shorter than 2007 or 2011 (19th February - 2nd April). The key would be the scheduling of the Group matches. By playing two matches per day the overall duration is limited - but with Australia and New Zealand crossing five time zones and allowing for a mix of Day and Day/Night matches the television clashes can be minimised. It's perfectly feasible. Over to you ICC !

Friday, April 01, 2011

MCC to sell Lord's and move to Stratford

St John's Wood 1st April 2011

The world of cricket was rocked to its gleaming white boots today by the news that the Marylebone Cricket Club, its most revered institution, is to sell its iconic Lord's cricket ground and move to a ground share with West Ham United at the Stratford Olympic Stadium. Speaking to the media Secretary and CEO Keith Bradshaw said "I'm sure this news will be a surprise but when we looked at the options this was the one, by far, that was best for our members - who after all own the club". Bradshaw revealed that each of the MCC's 20,000 members will walk away with £150,000 as a result of the sale to the new property development company "Warner-Grace Enterprises". "Lord's is a huge site in a prime area of London. The ten twenty-storey blocks of luxury apartments will fully exploit the location. Each will have a £15million penthouse and with the average price being over £5million for the other flats this is an offer too good to be true".

The whole of Lord's will be demolished except the Pavilion, a listed building which will be become a Hotel, Casino and restaurant complex. "The Long Room will become the main gaming hall and we plan to use other rooms, like the dressing rooms, for poker and other games" said a spokesman for the new "Compton Edrich Casino" company. The Media Centre will also remain and become a health and fitness centre and Gentlemen's Club.

The MCC became aware of the development potential of the whole Lord's site as it progressed extensive plans for the Nursery End. What came as a surprise was not so much the very high value of the total Lord's Real Estate but the fact that Westminster Council encouraged the development and said that planning permission would not be a problem. A Council spokesman said that in this difficult times assets must be fully exploited and the current use of Lord's was clearly sub optimum. Lord's future as an International venue has also been under question as a result of the recent decision of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to award Test matches to County grounds like Cardiff and the Rosebowl rather than the "Home of Cricket".

The partnership with West Ham is based on the fact that the football club will only need its new stadium for ten months of the year. "There is a window of opportunity for cricket for nearly eight weeks in the summer" says West Ham Vice Chairman Karen Brady "and the MCC's plans to play lots of Twenty20 matches at our new home should bring the money in". She confirmed that there will, however, not be any Test matches at the ground when the MCC moves to East London.

Welcoming the move the England and Wales Cricket Board said that it would relocate its premises from Lord's to Dubai. "As the ICC has shown the tax advantages of a move to Dubai are very strong" said ECB Chief Executive David Collier "and we believe there may also be some financial benefits to English cricket as well. We will miss Lord's but nothing is forever and I am delighted that the MCC has been so forward-looking in making this decision." The move has also been welcomed by Arts and Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. "This is very much a "Big Society" decision. In the 21st Century we have to work together at all levels to further our society aims. In truth Lord's was rather elitist in the past and I am delighted that much needed housing supply in London will be enhanced and that more productive use will now be made of these acres of NW9."

Construction on the new "Lord's Village" will begin immediately the main 2012 fixture has been completed - the Olympic Archery tournament. Asked when the final Lord's Test match would be played Mr Bradshaw replied "Good question - I'll come back to you on that one. Need to check with the ECB"

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Lets stop raging against the dying of the light of county cricket


TunWells cricket

The subject of the need for reform of English domestic cricket is unlikely to make headline news – even on the sports pages. But in the circles where those of us who obsessively care about the game move there is no question more divisive pitching, as it does, the traditionalist against the moderniser in an often rancorous battle of words. For example in an article in the Kent County Cricket Supporters Club Magazine last summer I argued that the current “18 county model for the county game is broken beyond repair” and that we need an 8 team franchise structure based on established international grounds. It wasn’t a particularly original proposal - the “Cricket Reform Group” and others have been arguing for something like this for years. However to suggest to the Kent faithful that Kent county cricket would have to be downgraded to a semi-professional domestic second tier was tantamount to blasphemy for some. In the next edition of the magazine I was accused, by the County curator (archivist) no less, of being “disingenuous”, “misguided”, “promoting nonsense”, of being someone who doesn’t care about the “history and traditions of the game” or the “distinguished past” of the counties. I am, according to this self-appointed guardian of cricket’s traditions, promoting “elitism” and, finally, “barmy”!

Whilst Kent’s curator knows what he doesn’t like, and uses intemperate and insulting language to let us know about this, he fails completely to offer any alternative suggestions as to how we put right the mess that is County cricket. Ironically Kent CCC is one of the most obvious examples of one of the many problems of the current county system. The county’s finances are a shambles, attendance at many of their matches is pitiful and they simply do not have the resources to compete effectively in the top tier. It was no surprise that they fell back into the Championship’s second division after an embarrassingly unsuccessful 2010 season. Kent has also alienated its most loyal supporter group – its members – by implementing swingeing increases in annual membership costs and failing to respond to members’ complaints about having to pay a minimum of £200 per annum to maintain their membership rights. Kent is not the only County that wouldn’t have any financial future at all without huge subvention from the England and Wales Cricket Board - indeed this is the rule not the exception in our antiquated and unsuitable domestic structure.

Support for the need for change comes from an unlikely source in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph. Shane Warne, who of course played for and captained Hampshire, says that “It is time to cut county cricket from its traditional base of 18 teams back to 10”. He makes the excellent point that a ten team structure with say 16 players per squad would make 160 top cricketers in all compare with the 360 at present - among which, according to Warne, are “plenty of people who don’t deserve contracts” and that some sides in the second division are “not even club standard” ! Warne is right of course – although no doubt he would also be accused of being “barmy” by some of cricket’s old-school. I’d be happy to engage in a debate as to whether ten, eight or even less is the right number for a top class domestic system. William Buckland in his seminal book on the subject of English cricket “Pommies” thinks that a five team domestic structure is ideal – half again of Warnie’s suggestion. Whether it’s five or eight or (at a pinch) ten can be debated. But it sure as hell isn’t 18!

In the article I referred to above I tried to present a positive view of how cricket at England’s beautiful festival grounds like Tunbridge Wells and Arundel might be sustained and evolve. My guess is that the crowds for matches between Kent and Sussex (for example) wouldn’t be much less if the two counties were playing good quality semi-professional cricket compared with playing in the current substandard so-called “first-class” competition. Change isn’t easy and there would be huge regrets that the shire counties no longer hosted matches in the primary domestic competition. But the counties wouldn’t disappear and in the same way that good quality rugby continues to be played at historic clubs like Blackheath, Rosslyn Park and London Scottish despite the fact that they are not top tier any more so it would be with cricket’s counties. The Old Farts of Rugby had to bow to the inevitable and whilst I would not argue that the the 12-team Aviva Premiership is perfect its establishment did not lead to the destruction of those clubs who couldn’t make the transition to the new much more sustainable and commercial top flight. So it would be with cricket and nobody is served by nostalgically clinging to the past and raging against the dying of the light.