Saturday, June 29, 2013

We need to change our out-dated domestic cricket structure


The debate about the future of domestic cricket in England can get rather rancorous at times! As someone who has argued that the current 18 County system is unsustainable, and that a change to an eight-team franchise structure is desirable, I am often on the receiving end of emotion-driven criticism – even abuse. It is almost as if I am a contrarian challenging the established church and that what I am preaching is heresy!   The reality of where we are is that all too many counties have business models that would see them in insolvency without substantial annual hand-outs from the ECB (some are close to bankruptcy even with the subvention). The need to raise revenues to cover these costs means that the ECB has to charge spectators the highest ticket prices in the world for international games, create a destructive bidding war between the ground owners (counties and MCC) for the allocation of the matches as well as establish long-term arrangements with commercial broadcasters which keeps all live cricket off free-to-air television. With sponsorship becoming more problematic in a difficult economic climate the main source of ECB revenues will continue to be the cricket loving public – and we are getting a rotten deal.

The problem is the assumption that a county structure first established in the 19th Century and little changed since then is right for cricket in the 21st Century. No other sport has the conceit to assume that because there was once logic to first-class cricket being played in the shires as well as the cities and at antiquated venues as well as modern stadia that is a model that is sustainable today. The Premier league in Football and the Premiership in Rugby Union are modern constructs created for modern times. Traditionalists may bemoan the passing of top tier football or rugby from locations and clubs where once they were played – but things had to move on, and they did.

The creation of eight city-based franchises at our Premier international cricket grounds would establish a financially sustainable model that would require overall far less subvention from the ECB than currently exists. The cricket that the franchises played would be of a high standard and the professionals that the franchises employed would be the best in the game – not substandard journeymen hanging in for a benefit or past-it old pros stretching their careers. In this structure the counties would not disappear – some might evolve into franchises, indeed this is the most likely route for some of them. But the shire counties would move into a semi-professional status and merge with the minor counties to create a new second tier regionally based structure on the current Minor Counties model. Good standard cricket wouldn’t disappear from Tunbridge Wells or Arundel or Derby or Leicester – it would continue but without the huge costs being incurred to sustain the current fully professional 18 county system.

One does not court popularity when one proposes to cricket lovers the demolition of traditional county cricket – but I would argue that whilst the change I suggest is radical it does not destroy cricket in the shires but actually establishes a model that means it will continue. Meanwhile the top tier cricket played by the franchises will be world class, will bring in the crowds and the viewing public and be a hugely improved breeding ground for England players that what currently exists. Above all it will be financially sustainable and mean that international cricket tickets can become affordable again and that cricket can return to free-to-air television. What’s not to like?

My intention is to throw down the challenge to those cricket lovers who wish to maintain the status quo to tell us all how that could be made to work. The challenge is not to write elegant pieces about the history of the game in the shires and of the charms of festival cricket. It is not to say that the reason first-class cricket should continue to be played in Kent or Sussex or Leicestershire or Northamptonshire (etc.) is because it always has been. Or about the delights of hearing the sound of willow on leather whilst lazing in a deckchair by the boundary at Tunbridge Wells. The challenge is to describe how an 18 county system can be financed fairly, how spectators can be attracted to a plethora of fixtures, how dilapidated grounds can be renovated when money just isn’t available and what the logic is for employing well over 300 professional cricketers all too many of whom are overseas mercenaries, or of sub-standard talent or just time servers. I look forward with interest to answers to these questions!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Did "working on the ball" at The Oval cross a line to illegality ?

England worked on the ball to improve its potential to swing. They always do. The question is not whether they did this, that's a fact, but whether it was illegal. In other words did "working on the ball" teeter over into "ball tampering". Here we are in the realm of conjecture.

Bob Willis's view is that a line was crossed and that the Umpires at The Oval clearly thought so too. These Umpires couldn't have been closer to the action. But, the allegation seems to be,  the Umpires, remembering Darryl Hare no doubt, went through a pantomimic pretence that they were checking to see if the ball had "gone out of shape" - we are into the use of the passive voice here! The shape changed not because someone actively made it happen but because of some serendipitous act of God (or Satan!).

The Umpires chose to avoid a bigger scandal and there was a cover-up of what really happened - that in essence is what Bob Willis alleges. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

It really is NOT cricket !


When I put together my stuff before the “Champions Trophy” semi-final at The Oval next Wednesday I will be packing an extra item. A pair of good quality ear plugs. At the England v Sri Lanka match yesterday I had my usual seat three rows back from the boundary at the Vauxhall end. I bought the debenture for this seat before the 2009 Ashes and have used in with pleasure for international matches ever since. The view of the play I like and I often meet the same people around me – which is convivial and fun. But for the “Champions Trophy” the seat has lost some of its charm. The view is still good but situated right in front of me is a huge loudspeaker. And throughout the long day this loudspeaker was blaring out hideous “music” at an unbearable volume. Now I am a bit deaf (probably a bit deafer after yesterday) but this affliction offered no respite - I could hear every blasted banal note of the racket and there was no escape. Let me stress this was not just in the break between innings or at other moments when there was no play. Oh no! At the end of every over on came the row. And at every drinks break. And when a wicket fell. Indeed whenever there was a brief moment of downtime from the cricket my ears were assaulted. You can get a feel for it from this brief video – imagine that every few minutes of a long, long day!

The “Champions Trophy” is an International Cricket Council (ICC) event. The ICC is one of the many governing bodies in sport that exercises rigid Orwellian control over events. So The Oval was transformed so that only the ICC’s sponsors' names were visible. Even the official name of the Ground (The “Kia Oval”) has to be discarded for this tournament. There are no brands nor names however innocuous (“Fred’s Burger Stall” for example) on display at all. Every hoarding has to be removed or covered up. Even the toss is sponsored – the “Pepsimax toss”. Some of the brands don't even have a significant presence in the UK – Reliance Commuications for example is an Indian communications company and Star Sports the broadcasting partner isn't here either. No matter - the ICC decrees that these brand names, and only these, will be on display at the ground and that is what happens.

Back to the noise. My guess is that The ICC, dominated as it is by the Board of Control of Cricket in India, takes its lead on all things from the Indian norm – and these days that means the Indian Premier League (IPL). The IPL, a Twenty20 event, is full of noise and razzmatazz. So that is the way the ICC thinks its tournaments should be as well. Drummers at the IPL? Better have drummers at the “Champions Trophy” too.

The cricket yesterday was of high quality and absorbing throughout. There was no need at all to invade our senses with noise all the time. I realise that there is a risk of being a tad “Old Fartish” here and I accept that this was not a five-day Lord’s Test match. But it is a serious competition and the 50 Overs game is indisputably “proper” cricket. At its best (and that was yesterday) it offers something very special to the cricket fan. The hype and the noise were a distraction from the cricket and I deplore it.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Kiwi humour–or something worse?

When the New Zealand cricket team was last touring England in 2008 I got in a bit of a tizz about something said by their commentator on “Test Match Special” Jeremy Coney. Coney had said that Ross Taylor was “not a New Zealander” because he was from the “South Pacific. In fact Taylor was born in Lower Hutt, near Wellington to a white New Zealander father and a Samoan mother. He is as Kiwi as they come  and to suggest otherwise I found offensive – even borderline racist. I complained to the BBC and eventually received a letter from them part of which which I reproduce here:
Coney 2BBC

As far as I was concerned the matter was then closed and it still is. I have subsequently visited New Zealand and toured extensively and spoken there with Kiwis from all different backgrounds and broadly found it a tolerant and welcoming country and if (as some claim) there is a “racist underbelly” I saw no sign of it. That said I have encountered extreme prejudice among one or two New Zealanders living here in Britain which it is difficult to shrug off. I do not lay that charge at Jeremy Coney’s door – his commentaries this year have been fair and balanced and I enjoy listening to him. I think that he made a silly mistake back in 2008 – a mistake made out of ignorance rather than prejudice - although I did feel at the time that it came across very badly indeed.
As I say I did not wish to raise the issue again until I saw today a tweet from Coney’s fellow Kiwi commentator Bryan Waddle. Here it is:
Some suggested to me that Jeremy Coney’s remarks in 2008 were an attempt at humour. Well maybe Bryan Waddle was being “humorous” this time – but I don't think so. No doubt in London, Leeds and Nottingham where the New Zealanders have played their international matches Waddle did encounter taxi drivers and waiters and others who were (like Ross Taylor) not of white Anglo-Saxon appearance. And maybe (unlike Taylor) the odd one or two were recent immigrants whose mother tongue was not English. So what? English is the first language for well over  90% of us and to suggest otherwise is either bizarrely ignorant – or worse. Perhaps Waddle doesn't  like that fact that we have moved on as a Nation and that our population is mixed and multicultural. Well that’s how we are Bryan and as the success of London 2012 showed many of us relish our diversity and benefit hugely from it. Safe journey home.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

A Sonnet for Jos Buttler after yesterday at Trent Bridge

Jos Buttler

Can I compare thee to a Summer Wind?

Thou art more lovely and more bold

Rough winds do shake the Kiwi calm of June

Whose summer's lease had all too short a date;

Sometime too bright the eye of floodlights shined

But never did your gold complexion dim

Though early doors the Albion cause declined

Your force of nature changed the innings' course. 

We pray your youthful summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;

Nor shall Trott brag thou wander'st in his shade,

When with eternal drives to time thou grow'st:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

Trent Bridge still lives and this gives life to thee.