Bowlers of the world unite!

In news that has sent shock-waves through the cosy world of club cricket in my corner of Essex, I have made a return to playing. At the age of 47, my best years surely still lie before me, but clinging to such optimism has been difficult in recent weeks. Stevo’s contract at Kent has not been renewed- which all cricketers of a certain age cannot help but take personally- and as I have offered up my apologetic and very gentle ‘straight breaks’, I have had plenty of time to contemplate the fact that it really is a batter’s game. In our last friendly game of the season, in between getting hit for three sixes out of the ground, I squatted wearily on my haunches and had a philosophical moment, ruminating on the unfairness of the bowlers’ lot, while our long-suffering long-off went looking for the ball- again. 

Of course, I am not alone. Especially in the professional white-ball game, big bats and shorter boundaries really do mean that the delicate balance between batter and bowler- so essential to the essence of the game-is in danger of being lost. Perhaps Deepti Sharma felt she was striking a blow for bowlers everywhere when she ran out Charlie Dean at Lords yesterday in the ODI between England and India? However, I doubt it. She was probably just trying to win a game for her country by any means available to her and for this, she has been confronted with an unedifying avalanche of righteous indignation on social media over the last twenty four hours. It is as if the commentariat feel that if only this dastardly act had not been committed, all would be well in our cricketing garden of Eden. With my curmudgeon’s hat on-and  in no particular order- sledging, racism, sexism, the participation crisis, the unhealthy domination of the ‘Big Three’ cricket nations and the unstoppable rise of franchise cricket that threatens to sweep all before it, would all seem to be bigger existential crises for the game to overcome. Until these issues- each of which has a profound moral dimension- are addressed, I think we should be very wary indeed of pontificating about the ‘spirit of cricket’…

Personally, having read too much Neville Cardus at an impressionable age, I am not a fan of this mode of dismissal. As a teacher, I used to make schoolboy cricketers retract their appeals if they tried it in games I was umpiring. I also have fond memories of Courtney Walsh bustling in with great intensity during the 1987 World Cup towards the end of a tense encounter with Pakistan. Saleem Jaffar was the non-striker and rather than run him out- as he would have been justified in doing- Courtney paused in his delivery stride and stood with arms folded, looking for all the world like a slightly disappointed parent waiting for an errant teenager to arrive home. But, of course, all this was a long time ago. After all, this was a World Cup match with the players in whites- how twentieth century! The broader point is that every player has a moral  ‘line’- as the pre-Sandpapergate Australian mens’ team used to like reminding us- and interpreting exactly where it should be drawn is an inherently subjective business. For instance, is claiming a catch on the bounce better or worse than running somebody out at the non-striker’s end? Is a send-off okay as long as you shake hands with the opposition at the end of the game? Ultimately, as players each of us must answer to our own consciences rather than hiding behind the over-blown rhetoric of the ‘spirit of cricket’; which to my mind only seems to be wheeled out whenever fuel for a bonfire of moral outrage is required.

If you have made it this far in my blog, you will have sensed that my sympathies lie with the bowler rather than the batter in this sort of scenario. Perhaps as a bitter old bowler myself I am biased but I can’t help feeling that the moral opprobrium heaped on those bowlers who do run out non-striking batters is a little unfair. The batters’ stealing of ground- so crucial, especially in short form cricket- often goes unremarked. To its credit, the MCC has done its best to remove the vague sense of immorality from this mode of dismissal and from 1st October it will reside as part of Law 38 ( Run Out ), arguably its right and proper place. In the grand scheme of things the best takeaway from an incident that in many ways was a storm-in-a-teacup,was that both Charlie Dean and Deepti Sharma were able to shake hands as they walked off the field. If there is such a thing as the ‘spirit of cricket’- and even as someone who loves the game, I am not convinced there is- you tend to find it in these little moments between players rather than in the grand vision statements of the higher-ups.

Having helped resolve cricket’s latest crisis, all that remains for me to do is to state my opposition to the term, Mankad. I have tried to avoid using this term in my blog. To associate this mode of dismissal- which is imbued, rightly or wrongly, with our collective moral disapproval- with one player, strikes me as grossly unfair. In life and in cricket, all of us deserve to be judged across a lifetime of highs and lows, ups and downs, triumphs and disasters, rather than for one moment alone. From what I have read, Vinoo Mankad’s actions in 1948 at Sydney- when he ran out Bill Brown- were justifiable given the context in which he found himself. The batsman had previously been warned and Mankad was playing in a struggling Indian team against a team that would soon become known as Bradman’s ‘Invincibles’; one could argue that he was standing up for himself and his team-mates, using all the cricketing means at his disposal. It is objectionable that almost the only time Vinoo Mankad’s name crops up these days amongst the cricketing public is in discussions of bowlers running out non-strikers. When they casually bandy about his name, how many people know that they are talking about one of India’s greatest-ever all rounders alongside Kapil Dev, a genuine Indian cricketing great who shared an opening partnership of 413 with Pankaj Roy against New Zealand in 1955-56 and took 12 wickets in the match when India beat England for the first time in 1952? His name is on the honours board at Lords for his innings of 184, a match in which he also scored 72 and bowled 97 overs! Cricket’s vocabulary is gradually evolving to become more inclusive and I can only hope that Mankad returns to where he properly belongs; in the pantheon of great cricketers.

As ever, if you have enjoyed this blog please tell your cricket-loving friends and family. You can also listen to me talking about all things cricket as part of the excellent ‘Versus History’ series which is available via all your usual podcast providers:

https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/historychappy36647/episodes/2022-05-17T19_00_00-07_00

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The meaning of Bazball

Revolution is an over-used word but it seems an appropriate one to begin a blog about the meaning of Bazball. Just a few months ago, English cricket was so deep in the doldrums that telling parallels were being made with the golden ages of our cricketing ineptitude in the 80s and 90s. In just a few short weeks and amidst a hail of sixes, such ingrained pessimism has been quickly cast aside in this brave new cricketing world that we now inhabit. To risk a historical analogy, the Bastille ( perhaps akin to Lord’s on the final day with Joe Root scoring a masterly 115 not out to guide England over the line? ) has been stormed; and liberté, egalité, fraternité- and Jonny Bairstow’s inalienable right to hit the ball into the stands- have been proclaimed.

Initially, what strikes me about this great re-imagining  of our cricketing culture is that it has taken someone from outside the English cocoon to impose a positivity and a joie de vivre, which in hindsight, were long overdue. I am not sure that this reflects well on the ingrained conservatism of the English game but if one considers some of the great turning points in English cricketing history, they have often been the work of outsiders and new arrivals. After all, it was Ranji and not W G Grace who invented the leg glance. Arguably, it was Tony Greig who for better or worse, dragged English cricket into the modern world in the mid 1970s; and it was the forensic commitment to detail and process of Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower that gave English cricket its most successful era since the captaincy of Peter May in the 1950s. So, the lovely vibes currently being spread by Brendan McCullum merely confirms what I have always suspected; that English cricket is always the better for embracing the outside world. In the process, we have been granted new perspectives on old problems.

As we dig deeper into this revolution and call to mind Joe Root reverse scooping Shardul Thakur over the slips or Alex Lees- who had been masquerading as an archetypal obdurate English opener in the Caribbean- giving Mohammed Shami the charge, a heretical thought does occur to me. Is this revolution quite as revolutionary as it first appears? If you were at Trent Bridge watching Jonny Bairstow hitting the ball into the confectionary stall and out again, you will dismiss this question as nonsensical; but bear with me. Jonny Bairstow’s 394 runs against New Zealand were mostly scored with ferocious, piratical but fundamentally orthodox pulls, hooks, drives and cuts. It is also worth noting that the foundation of his thrilling counter-attacks against New Zealand and India has been a tighter defence; bat and pad close together, keeping the straight balls out in a manner to make Sir Geoffrey smile. Furthermore, in amongst all these batting pyrotechnics, we mustn’t lose sight that the English bowling attack has suddenly started to take 20 wickets in a match again. Some of this success has been built on the current fad for bowling halfway down the wicket to tailenders, although the flaws in this tactic were arguably exposed as Jasprit Bumrah smote his way into the record books at Edgbaston. Anyway, the broader point is that the strengths of England’s Test match bowling this season have been based on broadly traditional virtues. Think of Jack Leach’s heartening 10-166 at Headingley, built on the archetypal qualities of the English spinner across the decades; persistence, guile and accuracy- and it must be said, backed to the hilt by an inspirational captain. The leading English wicket taker in the series against New Zealand was Durham’s Matthew Potts; encouraging proof that players of international quality are still plying their trade in the County Championship, just waiting  to be discovered if the selectors care to look. His 14 wickets against New Zealand and a further 4 against India- that included bowling Virat Kohli- were just reward for a bowler who has already exhibited all the best qualities associated with the English seamer; pace off the pitch, indefatigability and Herculean stamina. As a child of the 1990s, I can think of no higher praise than to say that at times he has reminded me of a young Angus Fraser. All the while, like an underrated drummer in a super-group, Jimmy Anderson, has maintained his steady and insistent beat, managing to overcome the vagaries of the 2022 Dukes ball in order to prove- deep into his 40th year- that his powers really do show no signs of diminishing; 5-60 against India provided a reminder of the fact that one of the foundations of Bazball is Anderson’s mastery of the ancient skills of swing, seam, line and length- which of course never go out of fashion, Bazball or no Bazball.

Some bold claims have been made for Bazball over the last few weeks. It is not a silver bullet  and I can’t help but spare for a thought for some of the more adhesive batters on the county circuit such as Dom Sibley who who will now be under huge and perhaps unfair pressure to re-craft their games to fit the new, McCullumesque imperatives. In my more pessimistic moments, I have even begun to wonder if Bazball might usher in the T20- tification of the Test Match game, as bowlers fall back on wide yorkers and slower ball bouncers to counter batters on the charge. I hope I am wrong on this score and that Test matches remain nuanced enough to retain a place for the epic blockathon. I wonder what would happen to an England player now who batted for the best part of the day for 74 runs off 245 balls, as Paul Collingwood did in the Sophia Gardens ‘Great Escape’ in the 2009 Ashes; just to secure a draw, a result that has never felt more anachronistic than in this new era of English red ball cricket?

 Nevertheless, across a broad swathe of the cricketing commentariat, there is a convincing consensus that McCullum and Stokes have done a great job of re-invigorating English red ball cricket. Suddenly, 4th innings chases of above 250 and even 300 have become eminently and even routinely chaseable; and this may even inhibit sides from batting first by default in a Test Match if it means giving up the glory and excitement of the final innings dash for the line. From our vantage point on the fringes it is too easy to cynically sneer at the emphasis on positive mindsets and ‘see ball-hit ball’  but we should remember that careers and reputations are on the line when these players go out to play a Test Match and the likes of Lees, Crawley and Leach are far from automatic picks; and so to genuinely play without fear, although much talked about, has been almost impossible for an English Test team to achieve- until now. As a fan, it has been wonderful to see a batter like Joe Root- surely our best since Hobbs- playing as if liberated from all constraints and cares; and this spirit of cricketing joy has communicated itself to the crowds and perhaps more surprisingly, the administrators. Huge credit must go to the powers-that-be at Trent Bridge for sensing the zeitgeist and granting free entry on the final day; a precedent that has since been followed at Headingley and Edgbaston. I hope that this has prompted some embarrassed self-reflection in the committee rooms at Lord’s where the MCC saw fit to set the price of the cheapest under 16 ticket for Day 1 of the New Zealand Test at a mere £136. Given the cost-of-living crisis, this was a PR own goal of the first order and grist to the mill for those who believe that English cricket is elitist and out-of-touch.

In conclusion, History teaches us that revolutions can all too frequently end in disillusionment and counter-revolution. I hope that Bazball can avoid this fate but unfortunately, deep systemic problems remain in the English -and indeed world game- despite the heroics of the last few weeks. The ECB’s determination to make a success of The Hundred- whatever collateral damage may occur along the way- and recent expansion of the IPL from 8 to 10 teams, means that the moral and financial pressure on players to specialise in the white ball franchise game, which offers a more lucrative living and a lower risk of injury to pace bowlers, will increase even more. By 2027, it is possible that the IPL may last 2 weeks longer than it does at present and feature an additional 20 matches, compared to its 2022 incarnation. Where, I wonder, will the time be found for the oldest format of the game? If all Test cricket had to worry about was T20 franchise tournaments then I could be more optimistic but a quick glance at the Future Tours Programme that emerged this week shows that in the next cycle, the England mens’ team is not going to play any Test Matches in the West Indies, hardly the best way to reward a board and team that without exaggeration rescued us in the Covid summer of 2020. It should also be noted that England will not be playing any Test Matches against Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan or Ireland in the new FTP. More than ever, Test cricket seems to be retreating behind its high walls and until the ICC start to follow the lead of the players and embrace the Test Match format for women by adding a 5th day to matches, Test Matches in the female game will remain all too rare. Indeed, New Zealand’s women have not played a Test Match since 2004! Thus, problems continue to assail the red ball game and it may even be the case that McCullum ends up being Test cricket’s Gorbachev; arriving just too late, like the aforementioned Soviet leader in 1985, to make his reforms count. I hope I am wrong, but if I am right, there is all the more reason to savour the sheer excitement of Bazball while we can, as the grand old game embarks on one final epic journey to re-invent itself. 

As ever, if you have enjoyed this blog please tell your cricket-loving friends and family. You can also listen to me talking about all things cricket as part of the excellent ‘Versus History’ series which is available via all your usual podcast providers:

https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/historychappy36647/episodes/2022-05-17T19_00_00-07_00

A thousand runs before the end of May- does it still matter?

Six weeks ago, the County Championship’s batters embarked on their first innings of the season. I wonder what went through their minds as they took guard for their first innings of the 2022 season? From my limited experience of back-garden Test Matches and the like, my own thoughts generally turn to desperate hopes that I don’t get another golden duck and wondering whether my decidedly middle-aged hamstrings will stand the strain of another season. Occasionally, as I amble to the middle, I contemplate how much of my life has been consumed by cricket. I must have spent at least 10 000 hours on my forward defensive since 1985 but alas, the straight ball remains my nemesis.  Clearly, I am so far from elite sport, as to be almost anti-elite in my mentality; so I really do have no idea about what goes through the mind of a professional batter as they embark on their first Championship innings of the season. However, I am enough of a traditionalist to hope that a few of those facing up to their first balls in early April still dreamed of emulating the likes of Walter Hammond, Don Bradman and Graeme Hick, by scoring a thousand runs before the end of May. 

Why should we still care about such an anachronistic and arbitrary benchmark? Well, a thousand runs before the end of May has a pleasing randomness to it and more importantly, it is one of the few remaining tenuous strands of continuity connecting the modern game to its Victorian past. Scoring a thousand runs before the end of May- that most optimistic of English cricketing months when all things can still seem possible- means joining a lineage stretching back as far as cricket’s sepia-tinted Golden Age and rubbing shoulders with some of the very greatest names in cricket. W G Grace was the first player to reach the milestone in 1895 and since then, Tom Hayward, Wally Hammond, Charlie Hallows, Don Bradman, Bill Edrich, Glenn Turner and Graeme Hick, have all followed in the good Doctor’s foot-steps. Despite the fact that this statistical peak has only been scaled twice since the end of World War Two, it is a feat that has retained its relevance into the 21st century. On the other hand, taking 300 wickets in a season- as achieved by the great Kent leg-break bowler of the 1920s, Tich Freeman- seems frankly outlandish to a modern cricket fan and as red-ball cricket finds itself squeezed to the margins, there is simply no longer enough first-class cricket being played for a player to reach what was once one of the most celebrated statistical milestones in cricket; a hundred first-class centuries. Even if Sir Alastair keeps grinding out the centuries with Goochian relentlessness, he will need to play as long as Stevo- and probably longer- to have even a slim hope of reaching a hundred first-class centuries. What really needs to happen is that List A and T20 centuries need to be added into the mix. Until this happens, Mark Ramprakash who scored his 100th first-class century in 2008, will remain the last of these particular cricketing jedis. However, as other hallowed statistics fall by the wayside, the ECB’s determination to start the Championship season in late winter ( a thousand runs before the end of February anyone? ) has meant that even in a white ball age, enough Championship games are still played in the early stages of the season to make a thousand runs before the end of May achievable. Famously, Nick Compton came close in 2012, scoring his 1000th run on 1st June but like many a batter before him, he found that the end of May came all too soon.

Like all the best cricketing statistics, the achievement of having scored a thousand runs before the end of May brings together a disparate and heterogeneous group of cricketers and unites them together for evermore in a glorious statistical fellowship. For some like Don Bradman- who managed the feat twice in 1930 and 1938-it was a confirmation of their greatness ; but for others like Charlie Hallows it was a career highlight, propelling their name briefly from the margins. Although immortalised in Cardus’s prose lauding his Lancashire heroes of the 1920s, Charlie Hallows is now little remembered but having scored a thousand runs before the end of May in 1928, his name will be forever bracketed alongside Grace, Hammond and Bradman. Furthermore, like all worthwhile sporting milestones, scoring a thousand runs before the end of May is notoriously difficult to achieve and therefore to do so, is a guarantee of cricketing immortality. After all, following a flurry in the inter-war period, no batter in English cricket has reached a thousand runs before the end of May since Graeme Hick in 1988. If you want a bit of context, back in 1988 Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, the Cold War was coming to an end, apartheid was still in place in South Africa and English cricket was gearing itself up for a summer of four captains. So, trying to reach this milestone has started to remind me a little bit of a noble Arthurian quest, with batters like the knights of the Round Table setting out with high hopes, only to have them dashed; usually by grim-faced seamers and dank April weather. However, just occasionally, as in 2022, the sun shines, the pitches are flat and bowlers begin to gripe about the size of the seam and how it really is a batter’s game ( as a side point, what really does prove it is a batter’s game is that there no equivalent statistical peak for bowlers to scale by the end of May…). In such seasons, the talk amongst county cricket’s fans begins to turn to a thousand runs before the end of May…

Could 2022 be the year? Well, with one more round of Championship games to go before the end of May, it is still just about possible. The front-runner is Shan Masood, the Pakistan opener, and surely the shrewdest of signings by Mickey Arthur at Derbyshire. When he goes out to bat at Trent Bridge this week, he will surely be conscious of the fact that he only needs 174 more runs to get over the line. Such has been his form this season, that this is eminently possible. Other players still chasing this most elusive of cricketing dreams include Durham’s Sean Dickson. As one of the very few batters in English first-class cricket with a triple century to his name, all he needs to do is get within 68 runs of his highest ever score of 318. As an added incentive, he will be playing against Middlesex at Lord’s, the perfect stage for resurgent cricketing traditions to re-assert themselves. Kent’s determined opener, Ben Compton, is also in with a shout and having worked incredibly hard to make his way in first-class cricket and enjoyed a stellar start to the season, he is now only 330 runs away from greatness. Yorkshire’s Harry Brook-surely along with Ollie Pope, a future mainstay of English batting- is 242 runs away and with an average of a mere 151.60 in the first division of the County Championship, he is in the kind of form where scoring a big double-hundred against the County Champions does not seem entirely fanciful.

In conclusion, the wider point here is that whilst English cricket continues to struggle with painful legacies of class and race divisions, we should also remind ourselves that not everything that is old and hallowed by time in cricket is automatically deserving of our derision; revolution is not always the answer to cricket’s problems. There are traditions that are still deserving of our respect, allowing for some kind of fruitful dialogue between the past and the present; and scoring a thousand runs before the end of May is one of these. How wonderful if 2022 could be the year when we celebrate Shan Masood, Sean Dickson, Ben Compton or Harry Brook adding their own little piece of cricketing folklore to what has come before.

Ten Takeaways from Round 1 of the County Championship

The start of the 2022 cricket season has felt like a restoration of the natural order after the upheavals of the last two years. Nevertheless, attending four day games in early April is not for the faint of heart and so, rather than braving the blustery winds that swept across the country on Day 1 of the first round, I hunkered down with the live-streams at home. We were there for Day 2 of the Essex v Kent game though, in amongst the thermos flasks, Playfair Cricket annuals and waterproofs of the ( mostly middle-aged and male ) Chelmsford ultras. As the sun did its best to break through the low clouds, we were treated to some excellent cricket. Matt Critchley scored an accomplished maiden Championship century for his new county, Essex- following his winter move from Derbyshire- and his two sixes will live long in the memory; one, an elegant dink over long-on that raised a ragged cheer from the Essex members and then, a dismissive Richardsesque pull over midwicket. From the Hayes Close End, Stevo ambled in almost apologetically and on a benign track he produced the ball of the match to Rossington, which pitched on the middle stump and moved away marginally but decisively, to trim the bails. In the late afternoon, Sam Cook ran in with purpose and adhered to the ancient virtues of line and length; every ball it seemed arrowing in relentlessly towards the top of the off stump. I even found time to pay my annual visit to the Essex Museum, which nestles rather unobtrusively in a prefab around the back of the club shop. Graham Gooch’s England jumper was still in its glass cabinet, like some ancient medieval relic, which was reassuring.

So, with the season up and running, here are my ten takeaways from the first round of County Championship action:

Hampshire will be hard to stop: having come very close to securing the Championship last season, Hampshire’s three day demolition of Somerset, sent a powerful message to their rivals. In Abbas and Abbott, they have the best pair of opening bowlers on the county circuit. Indeed, with two England spinners in Dawson and Crane also in their ranks, Hampshire arguably boast the most varied and formidable bowling attack in the country, the slightly unsung hero of which is Keith Barker who remains at the age of 35, the best left arm bowler in the country. He never seems to have a bad game and is always on hand to take crucial wickets and chip in with vital runs. Crucially, as a Championship winner with Warwickshire in 2012, he knows what it takes to get over the line. With Joe Weatherley having scored a match-defining 168, they now also have an opener in form. A middle order of Gubbins, Vince, Dawson and Brown will pulverise some good bowling attacks as the season unfolds. In essence, here is a team that appears to be at the peak of its powers and without a discernible weakness. Who then can stop the Hampshire juggernaut?

Will Harmer’s absence harm Essex? : Simon Harmer’s re-integration into the South African Test side in the matches against Bangladesh has been a real success. He has taken 13 wickets at 15.15 and has immediately formed a formidable spin partnership with Keshav Maharaj. Indeed, in the recently concluded two match series, the pair took all ten wickets while bowling unchanged on two occasions. With South Africa touring England this summer it is possible that Harmer might continue to feature for the Proteas as part of a two-spinners strategy. If so, this would mark a radical departure from the traditions of South African cricket and it would also leave Essex without the vital cog of their attack for at least part of the season. If the Chelmsford wicket remains flat, I am not sure that there is quite enough quality in the rest of the Essex attack to guarantee twenty wickets on a regular basis.

Somerset’s fading title hopes: much as it pains me to say it, based on their showing against Hampshire, Somerset’s fragile batting does not seem quite up to the job of sustaining a serious challenge for the title. James Hildreth scored a typically elegant 87 in the first innings but as he enters what is surely the twilight of his career, he needs more support from Somerset’s young guns; some of whom still seem to be working out their method for scoring first-class runs consistently. It may be that Tom Abell’s side reached its peak a couple of years ago and is now in gentle decline. With Leach and Overton likely to miss at least part of the season due to their international commitments, and with Jack Brooks arguably not quite the force of old, even the bowling currently looks a little threadbare.

‘You don’t win anything with kids’ ( most of the time ): having scored 375 in their first innings against Nottinghamshire- including a maiden Championship century for Tom Clark- and then reduced their opponents to 52-4, Sussex must have fancied their chances of springing an upset on the Division Two favourites, Nottinghamshire. What followed was a microcosm of what went wrong for Sussex last season; a talented but very young and inexperienced side lacking the nous and chutzpah to control the game at its crucial moments. Sussex have belatedly realised that they need some gnarled veterans to guide their youngsters. Finn is now there to mentor the likes of Crocombe and Atkins; but how different the final day might have been, if Pujara had been there to shepherd the top order and present the broadest of defensive bats. Much has been made by the higher-ups at Sussex of their exciting youth ‘project’ and the current team certainly has a great deal of potential but how much easier it might have been for the likes of Orr, Clark, Carson and Ibrahim to learn their trade alongside batters like Brown, Wells, Salt and Burgess or bowlers like Briggs and Jordan, all of whom have left the county in recent years. In my opinion, Sussex jettisoned at least some of their experienced pros too soon and are now paying the price.

The pitches conundrum: in the first round of Championship pitches the average first innings score was 373, a statistic which rather explodes the stereotype of dobbers nicking off hapless batters on green April pitches in matches that barely last two days. Instead, the bat generally dominated the ball in Round 1 of the County Championship. This arguably made for some occasionally turgid cricket at Edgbaston and Chelmsford in particular. However, it should be remembered that many Tests are played on rather lifeless surfaces. Chelmsford might not quite have the glamour of Barbados ( I for one would welcome a bit of soca in between overs to liven things up a bit…) but in many ways the pitch at the Cloud County Ground seemed quite similar to the one used for the recent Bridgetown Test; and so it might be argued that both batters and bowlers were being offered an opportunity to hone their skills on the sort of unforgiving deck on which many Tests are played. In that sense it was good practice for players looking to take their game to the next level. For instance, the young Kent batter, Jordan Cox, was able to take 429 minutes and 332 balls amassing 129 runs, an innings of Test Match dimensions. However, if the Championship exists in its own right as a form of sporting entertainment- and this is very much a moot point- the pitches at Chelmsford and Edgbaston were not really conducive to getting the crowds flocking back to red ball cricket, although elsewhere, at Lords, Leicester and Northampton, there were contests that remained compelling deep into the final session of the match. As ever, pace and bounce in the wicket makes for the best cricket but we need to remember that just over two weeks ago, winter still had us in its grip. This really isn’t an easy time of year to produce perfect pitches; hence, the repeated howls of anguish at the amount of Championship cricket packed into April.

Can spinners can prosper in April? : another early season cliche is that spinners are totally redundant in the first part of the season; grumpily running the drinks while greedy seamers gorge on batters and their off-stump guards. Once again, a brief look at the statistics paints a rather different and more complex picture. In the first round of Championship games, there were according to my rough and ready calculations, 553 overs of spin bowled. As a result, young spinners such as Matt Critchley, Josh Baker and Liam Patterson-White- whose 8 wickets in almost 80 overs was a decisive factor in Sussex’s defeat- were able to bowl the kinds of lengthy spells so crucial to mastering the art of slow bowling. In other words, spinners were in the game and not surplus to requirements. On the other hand, we can’t lose sight of the fact that it’s April and that spinners are still battling the elements and conservative think-tanks that favour the four seamer strategy over all others. It should also be noted that some of the spinners’ overs were delivered by ‘non-specialists’ like Muyeye and De Caires because Kent and Middlesex in this case had not selected a front-line slow bowler. It is also disappointing that some of the best spinners in the country such as Mason Crane and Amar Virdi did not get a game in the opening round.

Opening batters are making a comeback: a brief glance below at the 50s and 100s scored by England-qualified openers in Round 1 of the County Championship might suggest that the decline and fall of the English opener has been much exaggerated:

Weatherley- 168

Browne- 107

Cook- 100

Compton- 129

Dent- 54

Patel- 75

Lees- 182 not out

Pollock- 112

Libby- 75

Azad- 104 not out

De Caires- 80

Orr- 68

Haines- 59

 A vast amount of different styles and approaches were in evidence from these openers;   which of course is one of the enduring fascinations of the game. In cricket, one size never fits all. Personally, in amongst the pyrotechnics of Pollock and Patel, I took great comfort from the leaves, nurdles and scampered singles to square leg from the likes of Azad and Sir Alastair. This is the circumspect way in which English openers have always played- especially in April- and it seems on the evidence of Round 1 that this tradition is alive and well.

Write off Leicestershire and Derbyshire at your peril: when it comes to grand plans on reforming/ ruining ( delete as appropriate ) English cricket, poor old Derbyshire and Leicestershire always seem to be at the front of the queue to be purged. Both counties have proud histories, having produced numerous England players ( think Mitchell, Jackson, Willey, Taylor, Hendrick, Agnew, Gower, Habib, Cork et al ), as well as winning the County Championship- as recently as 1998 in Leicestershire’s case. There are also encouraging signs that both counties are performing their core function of providing talented young players the platform to prosper. Indeed, Leicestershire’s England U19 leg spinner, Rehan Ahmed, may be the most promising young bowler in the country. Alas, all this may count for nothing if some of the visionaries/ vandals ( delete as appropriate ) get their way, which made it all the more heartening that both counties have made a quietly positive start to the season. Derbyshire played in enterprising and determined fashion to secure a draw against Middlesex and under Mickey Arthur’s tutelage, they appear to be a committed and cohesive outfit. Shan Masood may also turn out to be one of the signings of the season. Meanwhile, Leicestershire secured their draw against Worcestershire in even more dramatic circumstances, Number 11, Beuran Hendricks, gritted it out for 60 balls but the real hero was Hassan Azad, who held the innings together with a defiant innings of 104 not out from 280 balls, enabling Leicestershire to finish their second innings 9 wickets down and undefeated. Incidentally, with a first-class average of over 40, I am surprised that the 28 year old opener has never really been a part of the England ‘conversation’. Everyone else seems to have had a go.

A golden age of overseas players?: it may not quite be a throwback to the days of Richards, Hadlee, Marshall, Clarke, Engineer and Proctorshire but there seems to have been a noticeable up-tick in the quality of overseas players recruited to play in the Championship this season. There will be some genuine A-listers to be seen playing red-ball cricket in the weeks ahead and in particular, a cohort of the very best Pakistani players- Shaheen Shah Afridi, Mohammad Rizwan, Mohammad Abbas and Naseem Shah- promises to light up the Championship season. Interestingly, the arrival of these elite Pakistani players for the county season is perhaps one area where the IPL continues to do county cricket a massive favour. To add just two more examples, one of the best batters in the world, Marnus Labuschagne, will be turning out for Glamorgan in Division 2, as will one of Australia’s much vaunted squad of fast bowlers, Michael Neser. Fashionable as it is to decry the quality of the Championship, the best players in the world still seem to be beating a path to its door. Perhaps the quality and range of the red ball cricket on offer and the deep-seated support it engenders from spectators, still makes playing in the Championship a unique cricketing experience.

Is the four day game being under-sold?: given that this is the first ‘proper’ start to a county season since 2019, I cannot help but be a little under-whelmed at the efforts being put into marketing the red-ball game and bringing in new spectators. I am pragmatic enough to realise that The Hundred is here to stay but if just a fraction of the hype and hoopla devoted to the white ball was shared with the red ball, the season might have started with a little more excitement and razzamatazz. Little things like allowing spectators onto the outfield at lunchtime ( well done Surrey! ) can make a big difference, especially for youngsters who want to get as close to the action as possible. In these inflationary times, attending county games remains good value for money but the onus remains on counties to be pro-active in terms of attracting bigger crowds to their red-ball fixtures. Other counties should follow Gloucestershire’s enlightened lead and make attendance at the post-tea session of County Championship games free of charge. Who knows, this might even attract an influx of cricket-mad teenagers on their way home from School? One can only hope.

As ever, if you have enjoyed this blog please tell your cricket-loving friends and family. You can also listen to me talking about all things cricket as part of the excellent ‘Versus History’ series which is available via all your usual podcast providers:

https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/versus-history-111-history-of-cricket-with-rakesh-pathak/id1300269710?i=1000509921806

Hope springs eternal…

The threshold of a new cricket season is always a special time of year for lovers of the game; forward defensives are practised in the front of the mirror with extra intensity, fixture lists are consulted with forensic exactitude and the huddled masses/ tea-drinking jedis/ three old men and a dog ( please delete as appropriate ) plot their return to favourite corners of Taunton, Hove and Chelmsford for the first Championship game of 2022.

Well, I didn’t even make it to the end of my first sentence without feeling the need to poke some gentle fun at county cricket. This is very much where we are with the county game in 2022- especially its red ball incarnation. It feels that you need to get in a self-deprecating aside first or somebody else will do it for you; or even worse, abolish some first-class counties or turn a system with nearly 150 years of ‘context’ into a formless mass of meaningless franchises, in less time than it takes for Kyle Mayers to bowl out England’s top order.

In life and cricket, it is so easy to be pessimistic at the moment. However, Spring has always been a time of hope and new beginnings. For well over a century, the return of county cricket after the English winter has done its worst, has done wonders for national morale. It should also be remembered that county cricket seems to have been in a state of existential crisis since the early 1960s and yet like many other venerable English institutions it has always found a way to modestly re-invent itself from time to time- whether with the Gillette Cup or later the world’s first T20 competition and divisional red ball cricket. Such tweaks have enabled the survival of the fragile ecosystem of county cricket but in 2022 I am hoping for something better than mere survival. 

So, what would a really memorable 2022 county cricket season look like? The sun would shine of course, so much so that by June, spinners would dominate the national averages. Rather than moaning about The Hundred or despairing at the ECB’s seeming indifference to the Championship, fans of the county game would support their clubs, queuing around the block to watch red-ball cricket. Alternatively, if this is a bit aspirational, there would just be a few more spectators at Championship games or watching the live streams, helping to prove that Championship cricket still has an audience. Games at out-grounds like Cheltenham would be specially well attended, persuading county CEOs to be braver about hosting matches away from HQs. In seasons to come, aficionados will thus be able to return to the Colchesters and Arundels. At some point during the season, a desperate England team might send an SOS to the shires and Tom Haines, Sam Cook or Tom Abell will arrive in the rarefied air of Test cricket and start reeling off hundreds and five-fers. TV pundits will nod knowingly and praise the county game for producing players of international class. In amongst all this, a new generation of young red ball cricketers will emerge. Naturally, my county, Sussex, will continue to pave the way in this regard but other counties will follow. More importantly, although some of these young players will emerge from the established production lines at private schools, not all will. Instead, this will be the season when all counties’ playing staffs belatedly begin to truly reflect the ethnic diversity of cricket’s fan base. The results may not be immediate but within a few years we will begin to see a far greater number of black and Asian county cricketers. Of course, the cricket will be played in the best of spirits. Recent tragic events in the Ukraine have reminded me that we should avoid the temptation to talk about sport in militaristic terms. Cricket is not a life-or-death struggle nor should it be; indeed, our game is a refuge from these grim realities. Instead, in the 2022 season county players should embrace the ethos and perspective of the great Australian all-rounder and war-time RAF pilot, Keith Miller, who famously asserted that ‘pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, cricket is not.’ As with all the great county seasons, the Championship will go down to the last game and perhaps the last session; and the destination of the pennant will be decided by an unlikely hero; perhaps Dan Lawrence spinning Essex to victory or a Jack Leach century to finally get Somerset over the line.

As a final optimistic appetiser for the feast of cricket that is to come, here is an XI of county cricketers- some of them better known than others- to watch out for in 2022. Win kudos amongst the cricketing cognoscenti at your next Championship game by casually mentioning one of the following players during a lunchtime or teatime conversation:

1) Jordan Cox- although not yet 22, the precociously talented Kent batter already has a first-class double hundred under his belt, as well as being responsible for one of the 2021 season’s defining moments; that leap in the Blast Final. Blessed with an orthodox technique and a range of attacking strokes, a challenge for an England place is certainly not beyond him.

2) Tom Lammonby- it is a big if, but if the Somerset batter can re-discover the form which lit up the Bob Willis Trophy in 2020, he will establish himself as one of the brightest prospects in the English game; and may even help his county secure that elusive first title for the loyal denizens of Taunton. His left-arm medium fast bowling is more than handy.

3) Nick Browne- one of the glories of the county game is the central role played by long-serving stalwarts such as Darren Stevens or Chris Rushworth. Nick Browne might well bridle at being labelled a ‘stalwart’ but the 31 year old opener has been a loyal and steadfast servant of Essex cricket since 2013. I cannot think of a player who scuttles between the wickets with greater intensity and 6197 first-class runs at an impressive average of 37.78 provide statistical evidence of his value to Essex. If Browne continues to churn out the runs with Sir Alastair Cook at the top of the order, expect Essex to be difficult to stop in Division 1.

4) Daniel Bell-Drummond- at the age of 21, Daniel Bell-Drummond scored a 92 ball hundred against the touring Australians in 2015. However, as suggested by a first-class average of 32, he has since struggled to hit such lofty heights consistently. However, he is still only 28 and now established as a pillar of Kent’s batting in all formats, this could be the season where he re-establishes his credentials as one of the best batters of his generation.

5) Danial Ibrahim- one of the most talented of the new generation of young players emerging at Sussex, at the age of 17, he already has one season of county cricket under his belt, which included 3 50s and a top score of 91. He can bowl useful medium pace but it is as a technically assured middle-order batter that you can expect to see him thrive this season.

6) Ben Brown- another cricketing stalwart, as a Sussex fan, I cannot really understand how and why this experienced wicketkeeper and batter was allowed to leave for Hampshire. He averages over 40 in first-class cricket, which makes it all the more surprising that he has never been mentioned as an England candidate. Now with even more of a point to prove, Sussex’s loss could well be Hampshire’s gain.

7) Ben Mike- the likes of Leicestershire are often cited as counties that are surplus to requirements but they are still producing cricketers of quality, as shown by the promising career of Ben Mike, a graduate of their academy. Still only 23, Mike is a lively seam bowler with aspirations to become a genuine all-rounder. 

8) Amar Virdi- not afraid to give the ball a rip and flight it above the batter’s eye-line, the Surrey off-break bowler is a joy to watch, as are his Panesaresque celebrations when he takes a wicket. He is now at the stage of the career when he has enough experience to bowl match-defining spells on a consistent basis if the conditions are right. A return to the dusty Oval tracks of the late 80s and 90s could be just what he needs.

9) Simon Kerrigan- a slow left armer who famously had a harrowing Test debut in 2013, his subsequent career has proven that in cricket as in life, there is always room for a second chance. Released by Lancashire in 2018, you will now find him bowling with all his old guile and control for Northants. He should be a key cog in their attack this season.

10) Suranga Lakmal- an unheralded but shrewd signing by Mickey Arthur at Derbyshire, Lakmal has 171 Test wickets and Derby- rather than Bunsens at Galle- may prove to be his spiritual home. The canny and experienced seamer could yet become the Sri Lankan Darren Stevens…

11) Ethan Bamber- the heir apparent to Tim Murtagh at Middlesex, enjoy watching the young Middlesex seamer and Theology graduate conduct a stern moral examination of batters’ defensive techniques this season. I confidently expect at least 50 Championship wickets and perhaps an England Lions place by the end of the season.

I hope you all enjoy your cricket seasons and that your cricketing hopes are fulfilled between now and September. In the meantime, you may find me in the Tom Pearce Stand at Chelmsford, clad in a bobble hat for the first game of the season; and reading some Neville Cardus…

As ever, if you have enjoyed this blog please tell your cricket-loving friends and family. You can also listen to me talking about all things cricket as part of the excellent ‘Versus History’ series which is available via all your usual podcast providers:

https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/versus-history-111-history-of-cricket-with-rakesh-pathak/id1300269710?i=1000509921806

A spectacular bespectacled XI!

February can be the cruellest of months for the English cricket fan. Usually by this stage of the winter, I have almost lost hope that there might be such a thing as summer or a cricket season in England ever again. Sometimes, the only refuge for cricketing geeks of a certain age- especially when they have had enough of contemplating the return of war to Europe- is to hunker down indoors, take up their copy of Christopher Martin-Jenkins’ Who’s Who of Test Cricketers and select a favourite XI. This week, we will be looking at some of the finest bespectacled male cricketers to ever play the game.

The first rule of cricket geekery when selecting an XI is to avoid selections that are too obvious. So on that basis, Geoffrey Boycott, who famously began his England career in glasses, will not be opening the batting. Perhaps he can commentate instead and in particular, I think he will enjoy the joie de vivre and enthusiasm- if not necessarily the defensive techniques -of our tailenders? Instead our openers will be Imam-ul-Haq, currently the only international batter that I can think of with the chutzpah, to proudly wear a pair of glasses on the field of play. Go on my son! For no good reason other than it reminds me of Vaughan and Trescothick and a lost golden era of English top order batting, I am a fan of left-hand- right-hand opening combinations. As a left-handed opener, Imam will be paired with a doughty right hander from Australia’s bad old days, Dirk Wellham. Notable for scoring a hundred on Test debut against England in 1981, his scholarly bearing was always an interesting contrast to the gum-chewing hard-as-nails stereotype of the typical Aussie batter. I must also admit to a bit of bias in my selection as Wellham went on to a career as a teacher. Given my own background in the profession, that is an obvious plus and proves what I have always suspected; that teachers really do make great cricketers.

The middle-order features two all-time greats and a player who more than any other embodies a certain unobtrusive kind of Englishness. Walking out to bat at number three is the classical Pakistani stylist, Zaheer Abbas; the only Asian player to score over 100 first-class centuries, the maker of two test match double centuries against England in England- and a legend of Gloucestershire cricket. Captain, number four and arguably the only world-class fielder in our XI is Clive Lloyd, one of the towering figures of West Indian cricket; and it should not be forgotten, a great batter in his own right- combative, determined and just a thrilling player to watch in full flow. Imagine a Zaheer- Lloyd partnership on a sunny afternoon, as the bespectacled eleven carry all before them! Our number five, David Steele, is perhaps not quite worthy of being bracketed alongside Zaheer and Lloyd, but as the ‘bank clerk that went to war’, his glasses actually became part of the sporting persona of a quietly determined player, plucked from the wilds of Northamptonshire to battle against the seemingly irresistible forces of Lillee and Thomson. Steele was an unlikely hero and also an unassuming one; thus, almost guaranteeing that he would enter English cricketing folklore; 365 runs at an average of 60.83 earned him the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award in 1975. For what it’s worth, I have several thinly substantiated theories as to why we are so devoted to our cricketing underdogs in this country. The world wars created a powerful narrative of ordinary citizens ‘doing their bit’ against a mighty foe and Steele trying to repel the Australian fast bowlers in 1975 fits this powerful national story. Even more intangibly, I think that sitting uncomfortably alongside the bombast and braggadocio of a people who ( semi-) happily conquered and kept an empire for centuries, is a more laudable strand of Englishness which prizes modesty; and where the ego is hidden beneath many layers of politeness. To risk a historical and political analogy, there is thus a side to the English that is more Attleesque than Churchillian. The former feeds into our empathy for the cricketing underdog whilst the latter rarely seems to appear in an English cricket team these days, unless perhaps one of our all-rounders is trying to win the Ashes single handedly…

Eddie Barlow is probably the most obvious selection for an all rounder to bat at six and operate as a third seamer; but as I am a maverick, our all rounder will be the Surrey and England’s Percy Fender; surely the finest captain that England never had. Crucially, he wore glasses with great panache and elan whilst scoring his runs; most notably a century in 35 minutes against Northamptonshire in 1920. As a bowler, he had a varied box-of-tricks, including leg breaks and googlies; and against Middlesex in 1927, he took 6-1 in 11 balls! In ( yet another ) disastrous English tour to Australia in 1920-1, he was England’s most successful bowler with 12 wickets in the test matches at 34.16. Above all, he embodies the attacking, positive ethos that is the very essence of the bespectacled XI.

I must admit to having a lot of difficulty in finding a wicket-keeper for our XI. I have a vague memory of Paul Downton, England’s keeper when the Ashes were regained in 1985, occasionally wearing glasses; but I may be mistaken? What is certainly true is that very few wicket keepers in the history of the game seem to have worn glasses; probably because the position demands particularly keen eyesight and alert reflexes. Or maybe it is just that nobody ever spotted Alan Knott in a pair of reading glasses at Canterbury in 1975 or Farokh Engineer visiting the opticians in Manchester in 1969? If any readers have glasses-related anecdotes linked to wicket-keepers ( I know that this is becoming quite niche! ), please do let me know.In the end, I read that Paul Gibb, a wicket-keeper who played briefly for England either side of World War Two, wore glasses on occasions; and that was enough for me. He will bat at seven and do his best to shepherd what has the potential to be a truly shambolic tail. His test record of 581 runs ar 44.69 including 2 centuries against South Africa at Durban and Johannesburg respectively in the 1938-9 series, places him statistically in the company of Glilchrist and Pant in the modern age. After the end of his cricket career, he became a bus driver in Guildford.

What was the high point for the bespectacled cricketer? Some may argue for the era of Zaheer Abbas and Clive Lloyd in the mid 1970s when world-class batting and a pair of glasses seemed synonymous for a time but I would make a case for the Third Test at the Oval in 1990 between England and India. This was a time when our next selection, Narendra HIrwani, was enjoying his brief reign as India’s premier spinner. He never quite managed to recapture the glory of taking 16 West Indian wickets on debut at Madras but he nobly flew the flag for cricket’s greatest art until the baton was ready to be passed onto a certain Australian. I never saw Warne play but I did see Hirwani. Over thirty years later, almost the only memory I have of that day at the Oval is of Graham Gooch sweeping Hirwani- who was rocking a frankly legendary glasses and headband combo redolent of a young Bjorn Borg- for single after single on a dry August pitch. It was gritty Test cricket but not edge-of-the-seat stuff and by late afternoon the crowd was becoming beery and there was even some heretical talk amongst my family of leaving early to beat the crowds at Vauxhall. Even I, the devoted  teenaged cricket fan, was sulking because Anil Kumble had been dropped in favour of the Delhi medium-pacer, Atul Wassan. I had thus been denied the unique opportunity of watching two bespectacled leg-spinners operating in tandem, surely a sight to gladden the hearts of all short-sighted, spin-bowling, cricket-loving youths of Indian heritage. Of course, little did I know that what I was witnessing in this series was the last hurrah of the cricketer in glasses; at least until Jack Leach and his little cleaning cloth revived this most noble of cricketing sub-cultures. Narendra Hirwani would soon fade from the scene, Anil Kumble would switch to contact lenses, leaving only Daniel Vettori to fly the flag for the bespectacled spinner as the Millennium approached. Incidentally, the fact that both Devon Malcolm and Eddie Hemmings played for England in this series, may mark out the England-India series of 1990 as that with the highest BBASPITC ( bespectacled bowlers at some point in their careers…) ratio of any series ever played, a statistic that seems to have eluded Wisden

Partnering Hirwani in an all-Indian spin attack is slow left armer Dilip Doshi, who while not quite having the balletic grace of Bishan Bedi, was still undeniably an artist with the ball; and ensured that the golden age of Indian spin continued into the 1980s. Looking at some of the old footage, he really seems to have flighted the ball, a skill that has arguably become rather unfashionable in the modern game. He took 114 Test wickets at 30.71 and a batting average of 4.60 means that he will have to bat below Hirwani, whose mighty average of 5.40 qualifies him for the job of a bowling all-rounder at number eight in our XI ! Interestingly, Dilip’s son, Nayan, was also a slow left armer and enjoyed a successful county career with Surrey in particular.

Opening the bowling is a Yorksire and England stalwart, Bill Bowes, who certainly deserves to be better known. A great exponent of that most English of bowling traditions- indefatigable fast-medium seam- he took 1639 wickets for Yorkshire and 68 wickets for England, including Bradman bowled for 0 at Melbourne during the Bodyline series of 1932-3. Captured at Tobruk in 1942, he was a prisoner-of-war for three years during World  War Two; but still had enough fire left for two more seasons of county cricket after the war. In retirement he was a perceptive writer on the game. His test batting average of 4.66 means that he can more than hold his own in what is fast becoming a team of number elevens. 

Last man in, is Devon Malcolm, without doubt one of my favourite cricketers, and along with Paul Allott, one of the very few modern players who has dared to combine wearing spectacles with pace bowling. Let me at this point also make the case that our tailend quartet of Hirwani, Doshi, Bowes and Malcolm will be gloriously inept enough to challenge even the legendary Mullally-Tufnell-Giddins combination of 1999; one senses that with this particular XI, the end could come with great rapidity. However, in my mind’s eye I can’t help seeing Doshi bravely blocking; while at the other end, Devon tees off and smashes a hundred in twenty minutes. It would be glorious. 

Anyway, Malcolm was first summoned by the England selectors from the spiritual home of neglected pace bowlers- Derbyshire- in 1989.  One of my most joyful Oval memories is of a Devon Malcolm six but despite his gloriously optimistic- but only occasionally successful- hitting, he is of course in the side to bowl and to bowl seriously quickly, in a pair of thick Clark Kent-style glasses. I first saw him open the bowling for England on his debut against Australia at Trent Bridge in 1989. At first glance, he lacked the stealthy grace of a Holding, a Donald or a Steyn. Instead, he rumbled in laboriously- but with purpose- from near the boundary rope, all jutting elbows and pumping knees. The end product on this particular day was the cricket ball being propelled at high velocity towards Geoff Marsh and Mark Taylor; but unfortunately, to no great effect. Malcolm ended up with figures of 1-166 for the innings. I learned many important lessons on 10th August 1989, as the English bowlers toiled for an entire day without taking a wicket. It made for grim viewing, especially in the final session as all hope disappeared; but life and cricket don’t always go your way and sometimes you just have to make the best of things. And on a positive note, the English bowlers did beat the bat occasionally and Angus Fraser managed to bowl 18 maidens, so it wasn’t all bad. 

And better days lay ahead, especially for Devon Malcolm. Sometimes, our ( cricketing ) lives can have true turning points and on 26th February 1990, still at the very start of his international career, a rocket-propelled throw from Malcolm in the deep ran out Gordon Greenidge for 32. Beginning to gain in confidence, Malcolm soon had Viv Richards lbw and he went on to take 5 wickets in the match and 19 wickets in the series; and England had a proper fast bowler at last. Malcolm’s bowling in the early 1990s was inspirational. He went on to have a good international career, taking 128 Test wickets and providing England’s attack with a much-needed cutting edge and always challenging the opposition’s best batsmen. What more need be said of his 9-57, which to my lasting regret I did not  listen to on the radio or see on TV? I was spending the summer with Indian relatives in the Punjab; and it was only via a careful perusal of a day-old copy of the Chandigarh Tribune, that I learned of Malcolm’s exploits. Without a mobile phone and with the internet in its infancy, in terms of mass communication it may as well have been August 1894 rather than August 1994! And yet trying to make sense of the scorecard and to picture Malcolm’s furious spell in my mind’s eye, somehow made it all the more wondrous and other-worldly. He must have been bowling rockets! But all the same, I was sorry to have missed his greatest day. Arguably, there would have been more great days if he had been treated with greater tact and sensitivity. In and out of the side, and increasingly undervalued after the tour of South Africa in 1995-6, the end came at the Oval in 1997, once again against Australia. As on his debut back in 1989, he took only one wicket. He bowled fourteen overs  in the match and he also recorded a pair; cricket can be a cruel game. 

So, there you have it, an XI for the ages! If I can risk ending what has been a rather frivolous blog with a semi-serious point, what all the players in our XI prove is that you don’t always have to be tall, strong or even have particularly good vision in order to be a great cricketer. It is one of the glories of cricket that intelligence, resilience and guile are as important as sheer athleticism, in shaping a great cricketer’s career. Brawn on its own is never enough. Nevertheless, as T20- exerts ever more of a hold, this is perhaps beginning to change. However, if cricket ever stops being a game for people of all shapes, sizes and physical attributes, it would have lost one of the things that makes it special; and this myopic, undeniably unfit 46 year old will finally lose all hope of gaining a central contract…

If you have any suggestions about glasses-wearing cricketers that I have missed or omitted please do get in touch. 

If you have enjoyed this blog please tell your cricket-loving friends and family. You can also listen to me talking about all things cricket as part of the excellent ‘Versus History’ series which is available via all your usual podcast providers:

https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/versus-history-111-history-of-cricket-with-rakesh-pathak/id1300269710?i=1000509921806

Rally Round the West Indies?

The Red Ball Radical sets the upcoming Test series in context…

In what is now a traditional act of contrition following yet another doomed venture Down Under, the defenestrations have begun; and both Chris Silverwood and Ashley Giles have lost their jobs. What I was not expecting was the non-selection of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad in the England mens’ squad for the upcoming tour of the West Indies. As numerous commentators have pointed out over the last few days, almost unbelievably we are tinkering with one of the few constituent parts of the England team that is still functioning. Nasser Hussian- in typically forthright form on a recent vodcast- has gone further and argued that as perhaps England’s greatest ever pair of opening bowlers, they deserve a little bit of loyalty from the officer class; especially as both bowlers have continued to provide snippets of excellence in what has been a wretched year for the mens’ team. Ageing maestros they may be, but it is the fitness of younger bowlers such as Robinson that is under the microscope; and neither Broad nor Anderson has ever shirked the hard overs of bowling futility, when yet another England batting collapse has put the game beyond reach. At the very least, both men deserve a final summer in front of a grateful cricketing public. How unfair, for example, if the last match for Broad is the Hobart humiliation rather than a Cookesque farewell at the Oval on a sunny September day. It really is a batter’s game.

Placed in a wider context, the non-selection of Broad and Anderson- and also moving Root up to bat at 3 where his record is much less impressive- may be an act of hubris. It reeks of arrogance and not paying due respect to a flawed but capable West Indies side. Phil Simmons’ team may lack a Lara-or even a Chanderpaul-but they do have Kraigg Brathwaite; what would England give at the moment for an opener with over 4000 test match runs and 9 centuries! In essence, he is the phlegmatic rock at the top of the order that we once hoped Dominic Sibley would become. Furthermore, there are plenty more West Indian players who are at least the equal of their English counterparts. Jason Holder’s Test numbers ( 138 wickets at 27.13 and 2477 runs at 30,96 ) make him a worthy adversary for Ben Stokes. Whisper it quietly but 2019 might become for Stokes what 1981 was for Botham; a glory never to be recaptured. Without Broad or Anderson, Kemar Roach will be the most experienced seamer on view next month. He currently has 231 test wickets at 27.22 and the canny Bajan pacer will not waste the new ball. Indeed there is a Broad-like relentlessness to the way he operates these days and tempting as it is to hark back to the great days of West Indian fast bowling, Roach will probably end with a record that is broadly comparable to Holding and Garner, to name just two. England will also find that Roach is very far from being a lone wolf. Shannon Gabriel is a proper fast bowler and in 20 year old Jayden Seales, West Indies have a young quick bowler, who if he were English or Australian, would be a household name by now. England cannot even claim to have a superior spin attack. Given the mishandling of Jack Leach- who if he had treated with more sensitivity and selected more consistently, may have emerged as a reliable cog in England’s attack by this stage- West Indies perhaps have a more confident group of slow bowlers for this series. I am sure Roston Chase cannot wait for England to arrive in the Caribbean. England’s batters seem to be walking wickets when confronted with his off-breaks. Remember when he took 8-60 at Bridgetown, the last time the two sides met in the Caribbean!

Chase’s finest hour illustrates a broader cricketing truth; namely, that when the West Indies play England, especially at home, they are underestimated at their peril. Indeed, England have won just one test series in the Caribbean since 1968 and it was not just Chase raising his game and embarrassing England in 2019. In the same game that Chase took his eight-fer, Kemar Roach took 5-17; and Jason Holder scored 202 not out, batting at number eight ( ! ), his highest test score. There is clearly something about the prospect of facing up to England that causes many West Indian players to dig deep and play their very best cricket. In essence, the something is the weight of history. Cricket has been and continues to be at the heart of what it means to be West Indian; just listen to my favourite calypsonian, David Rudder, or Lord Beginner’s Victory Test Match, which tells the story of West Indies’ win at Lords at 1950, to get a sense of this truth. I am trying to think of an English musical equivalent but I am struggling; perhaps if Take That had made a ballad out of the Atherton-Donald duel in the 1990s?  If you want to explore all the nuances of how cricket has both shaped and reflected Caribbean society, I would urge you to read Beyond a Boundary by C L R James; arguably the best book on sport that has ever been written. A renowned historian and political activist, with a vast intellectual hinterland, James writes beautifully on the aesthethics of the game and no writer has better understood how cricket has always been more than a game in the Caribbean but a means of self-actualisation for a people struggling to escape the legacies of slavery and imperialism. Cricket has been and continues to be a way for Caribbean people to make their voices heard. ‘Remember the name,’ as a famous cricket commentator once said…

Given these historical currents, it surely behoves England to do even more to support cricket in the Caribbean. We should not forget that the upcoming tour is a belated thankyou for the way in which the West Indies nobly rode to our rescue; touring England in 2020 and helping to re-start international cricket when the pandemic was at its peak and the ECB was in real danger of financial meltdown. As the pandemic recedes we should not cast West Indian cricket to the margins once more. The red ball game in the Caribbean is alive but hanging by a thread. There was no four day competition in the region at all in 2020-1 and the 2019-20 season was never fully completed. Indeed, at the time of writing, regional four-day cricket has just resumed in the Caribbean after a gap of nearly 700 days. Thus, the ECB should look into practical ways of supporting long-form cricket in the West Indies. What about more England A tours to the Caribbean or incentivising counties to take West Indies players onto their staffs? After all, as far back as Learie Constantine’s career at Nelson in the Lancashire League in the 1930s, England has been a valuable proving ground for West Indian players to fine-tune their techniques and skills in preparation for international cricket. We could go further; we should invite a West Indian team of red-ball specialists to take part in our County Championship, which of course needs all the help it can get! The ECB would foot the bill but by doing so, repay a historical and moral debt; and in purely cricketing terms, the gaping chasm between our domestic game and Test cricket might be reduced somewhat. 

In conclusion, long after the current bout of introspection in English cricket is over, West Indian cricket will still offer the cricketing world something unique and precious; as cricket lovers we should do everything in our power to keep alive the memory of how a small group of Caribbean countries- victims of the worst aspects of British imperialism- used cricket as a means of liberation, helping forge new identities in the process. In doing so, the entire game was enriched and transformed. Cricket has no greater story than this.

If you have enjoyed this blog please tell your cricket-loving friends and family. You can also listen to me talking about all things cricket as part of the excellent ‘Versus History’ series which is available via all your usual podcast providers:

https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/versus-history-111-history-of-cricket-with-rakesh-pathak/id1300269710?i=1000509921806

Lower the Drawbridge!

I spent a disappointingly short period of time this morning watching England lose 10 wickets for 56 runs. In the time that it took our dog to complete her obligatory morning visit to our back garden, England’s middle order disappeared. It was undeniably tough viewing for an England fan.

However, in a probably futile effort to focus on the positives, since my last blog at least England have drawn a match in Australia. So, it may be time for knighthoods all round and to book that open-top bus tour. Of course, this is all straw-clutching of the most desperate kind but at least we have a result to rank alongside Cardiff ‘09, to sustain us in the middle of winter, as we contemplate another humiliation in Australia. Jonny Bairstow’s renaissance as a long-form batter, Mark Wood’s heart, persistence and sheer chutzpah; and of course Jimmy Anderson’s world-class blocking in the last over against the leg-spinning wiles of Steve Smith, do provide some modest cause for cheer; but they cannot be allowed to conceal the decline and fall the England team from the heady heights of a decade ago. Even more worrying, the fortunes of our Test Match team- who have struggled onto Hobart, bruised and battered in body and mind- are part of a broader narrative, that could well end up with red-ball cricket being totally marginalised in this country. In the worst case scenario, looking ahead a few years, if we do not act now, red-ball cricket could become the new croquet or real tennis; an anachronistic pursuit for a narrow stratum of society.

First of all, how did we get here? The origins of the current crisis lie in decisions taken as far back as 2004. This was when the ECB took the decision to sign a TV rights deal that meant that the England cricket team could no longer be seen live on terrestrial TV. Suddenly, the new audience that had been entranced in that once-in-a-lifetime summer of ‘05 by KP’s flamingo flicks, Freddie’s Bothamesque heroics and the sublime skills of perhaps our best ever pace quartet, had nowhere to go. English cricket had pulled up the drawbridge. 

I remember taking refuge in TMS, watching the odd highlights show and using a lifetime of cricket geekery to draw pictures in my mind of what would be happening on the field of play. Newer fans did not necessarily have this luxury. English cricket had retreated behind its high walls, which as a game associated with privilege and empire, it could ill afford to do. By the early 21st century organised cricket had already disappeared from many state schools and now it had disappeared in any meaningful way from our TV screens. Rather than using the glory of ‘05 to broaden the base of the game, English cricket was now stuck with a shrinking pool of players and supporters. It is interesting to note that in the last decade, 77% of English batters debuting for the Test team have been to private school. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this and the public schools have always helped produce the Mays, Cowdreys and Gowers et al. Nevertheless, this statistic suggests that post-2005, the English professional game had turned inwards, relying on a narrow and entrenched production line of talent. The results of this are now beginning to be felt, even in the rarefied air of our Test team.

Meanwhile, little was being done to make the game more appealing to a black and Asian audience, traditionally amongst the most loyal and passionate followers of cricket in the UK. Mark Butcher’s excellent documentary, You Guys are History- The Story of England’s Black Cricketers, provides compelling and emotive testimony of the struggles experienced by a pioneering generation of black British cricketers in the 1980s and 1990s. The barriers broken down by the likes of Norman Cowans, Roland Butcher and then David Lawrence, Devon Malcolm and Dean Headley in the 1990s should have paved the way for more professional cricketers to emerge from black British communities. Instead, you look around the county game today and there are barely any black British professional cricketers. I might also add that excellent and inspiring black British coaches such as Mark Alleyne have been scandalously undervalued in what after all is a sprawling cricketing ecosystem of 18 professional clubs. Surely, within this network, there is room for a few more BAME coaches?

A similar pattern of dilatory, out-of-touch officialdom failing to take inclusivity and diversity seriously enough until it is too late, now threatens the future of British Asian participation in the game. Around ⅓ of players at grassroots level are of South Asian origin but this is reduced to only 6% of England qualified players at county level. Clearly, something somewhere has been going badly wrong over the last twenty years in this regard. To its credit, the ECB seems to have woken up to the scale of the problem- and its 2018 Action Plan includes some worthy and important aspirations such as installing 1000 non-turf pitches in urban areas- but the current crisis in Yorkshire cricket will not have done anything to motivate young British Asians to get involved in the game. 

As a result of these long term systemic problems, we are now left with a frankly mediocre Test Match team watched by a dwindling audience. The ECB has recognised that this is an existential crisis for cricket but thus far its solution has been to introduce The Hundred, which has simply colonised the precious space of high summer that the red ball game needs to survive, let alone thrive.

So, what can be done now to address these problems? Well, quite a lot as it turns out. Better minds than mine have applied themselves to this problem and in particular, I would commend Tim Wigmore’s recent analysis in The Daily Telegraph, for a list of practical and achievable ways in which English red-ball cricket can be revived. Personally, I would start by making the County Championship a three division competition. There is no need to move to a franchise system for red-ball cricket; for in a mania to revolutionise everything about our cricket, we would run the risk of losing something precious; namely the county clubs, which although much maligned, still have their place and are not quite as quaint and anachronistic as their detractors assume. Just look at the number of people watching their livestreams during the summer months! A three division first-class competition would allow for a programme of ten first-class matches for each team per season. Spread across May, June, July and August ( ie let’s actually play red-ball cricket in the summer…), this would allow for matches to be properly spaced out- allowing sufficient time for preparation and training- and would give curators a better chance of producing pitches which offer more than just a chance for our hordes of medium-fast practitioners to prosper at the expense of batters- who have been incentivised to practise white-ball hitting in preference to their red-ball defensive techniques. At this point, I should add that I am trying not to be a cricketing Luddite. The Hundred is clearly here to stay and will play a valuable role in winning over a new audience if the positive momentum of its first season can be maintained. It can also be a vehicle for putting womens’ cricket on an equal footing with the mens’ game. However, it is clear that something has to give; four competitions is just too much and as a result, we are ending up with a schedule that is overcrowded and incoherent. I fear that the 50 over competition may have to be sacrificed in order for red-ball cricket to find the time and space for its ‘re-set’. After all, what is 50 over cricket in 2022 but a slightly elongated version of 20-20? Therefore, arguably, we don’t need both.

Above all, I would urge the ECB to resist the temptation to hide behind the walls it has constructed; hoping that The Hundred will solve all its problems. It is a powerful organisation with a turnover of over £270 million and more of this money needs to be taken from the upper echelons of the game and used to address the systemic issues identified in this article. How about more financial backing for Ebony Rainford-Brent’s and Surrey CCC’s ACE programme which aims to engage young people of African and Caribbean heritage with cricket? Competitive cricket is not about to make a return to state schools; that has been evident since the end of the 1980s. However, what is to stop the ECB from giving more financial support to clubs running youth teams and community outreach programmes, especially in our cities? It is our cricket clubs that can be the means of reaching a new generation and broadening the talent pathways into the professional game. How about payments for each junior XI that a club organises and bonus payments to clubs when their players join the professional ranks? 

I also hope that the ECB will ‘lower the drawbridge’ in terms of the teams it invites to tour England. This can help promote the wider health of Test Test cricket which is in danger of extinction in the 21st century. Since our near humiliation at Lords in 2019, the ECB has seemed indifferent to the ailing fortunes of Irish red-ball cricket. Scottish cricket could also be supported more constructively; what about setting up an annual series of red-ball games between the England Lions and Scotland? I also wonder why it is that Bangladesh has not been invited for a Test tour of England since 2010? Furthermore, it surely cannot be beyond the capacity of English administrators to arrange a Test match for Afghanistan in this country? Imagine Rashid Khan bowling to Joe Root on a dusty wicket at the Oval! We cannot just play Australia and India in an endless cycle; the profit motive cannot always supersede all other concerns. Ultimately, red ball cricket- both in this country, but also arguably around the world, is in crisis; we have a great game, wonderful in its complexity- and a means of bringing together people from a huge variety of backgrounds- but it has no divine right to prosper. It must be nurtured and supported or it will wither and die.

If you have enjoyed this blog please tell your cricket-loving friends and family. You can also listen to me talking about all things cricket as part of the excellent ‘Versus History’ series which is available via all your usual podcast providers:

https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/versus-history-111-history-of-cricket-with-rakesh-pathak/id1300269710?i=1000509921806

Whither English Cricket? ( Part 1 )

1/1/22- The red ball radical analyses whether it really matters that England have lost to Australia and failed to recover the Ashes?

It has been a bleak six months for English cricket. Azeem Rafiq’s testimony has highlighted some shocking institutional failings and how in many respects, parts of the English game remains inclusive in name only. On the field, the England test team struggled through a fog of seemingly endless Covid bubbles and prepared for the Ashes by collapsing ignominiously against New Zealand and India; and then whatever fragile hopes we had were swiftly dashed at Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne.

Firstly, we need to place this sporting pain in perspective. The winning and losing of the Ashes is bound up with some weighty historical and cultural baggage but it is not ultimately a matter of the utmost importance. Instead, for many of us in the depths of an English winter and trying to navigate our way through a pandemic ( which reminds me of one of those ‘timeless tests’ from the 1930s…), cricket has been a precious sanctuary and refuge from ‘real life’; at least until we woke up and found that 68 all out was all that we could muster at Melbourne.

That seemed to tip the cricket watching public into a bout of doom-laden angst, as the shires erupted with the angry and the middle-aged finishing the last of the turkey sandwiches and sallying forth onto social media. Certainly, the rapidity with which the tour unravelled has prompted an outpouring of angry pontificating, which at least has led me to discovering a new hobby- watching’YouTube’ clips of the great and good of the English game trying to dissect what has gone wrong. If nothing else, at least we are the best in the world at sorrowful post-mortems.

My favourites thus far have been as follows:

  • Phil Walker- like a 21st Century Wat Tyler, the editor of the Wisden Cricketer’s righteous anger is the perfect accompaniment to an England batting collapse.
  • George Dobell- amongst the most fearless journalists reporting on the English game; truth is spoken to power in every article.
  • Jonathan Liew- a journalist with the hinterland to be able to view the decline and fall of the English cricket team through a sociological lens; watching him take aim at some of the hubris and insularity that has held our game back is almost as satisfying as watching my DVD box-set of the 2005 Ashes.
  • Yas Rana- the presenter of the excellent Wisden Cricket Weekly podcast has provided a much needed sense of calm and order- cricket’s Chris Whitty if you will- even when discussing the 54 ducks accumulated by Joe Root’s side in 2021.
  • Mark Ramprakash- there was actually a genuine note of pain in Ramps’s voice as he discussed England’s batting woes. How hard it must have been for one of England’s finest batting technicians to watch our batters struggle with the basics!
  • Mike Atherton- his vodcasts are worth watching just for his splendid pair of round black glasses, which make him look like an earnest Oxbridge academic. The gravitas is palpable and when he speaks you listen.

Wallowing in all this pessimistic punditry has been a necessarily cathartic experience for me over the last few days. However, as England fans, we must be careful not to let disappointment turn into bitterness. Have things been this bad before? Well, whisper it quietly but maybe they have…

I certainly don’t recall the summer of 1989 with much fondness as England lost the Ashes 4-0, Steve Waugh batted for an eternity and the prospect of a rebel tour to apartheid South Africa split the English game asunder. So, coping with disappointment is something we were born to do. We also still have a team we can support wholeheartedly, featuring in no particular order, our finest ever quick bowler, our greatest batter since Jack Hobbs, an all-rounder who has played the finest Test innings I have seen in over thirty five years of watching cricket; and a determined, underrated left-arm spinner who has given hope to the army of bespectacled cricket fans-amongst whose ranks I proudly march- that you can wipe your glasses with a little cloth, score 1 not out and by doing so, become a folk hero. These are good people doing their best in trying circumstances. Let’s also spare a thought for the Aussies. Gone is ( most of ) the on-field snarling and if we are going to be brutally defeated Down Under, I could wish for no more likeable nemesis than Pat Cummins, surely worthy to be bracketed alongside Lillee and Lindwall. It would also take the stoniest of hearts not to be moved by the story of Scott Boland, only the fourth indigenous player to represent Australia in Test cricket, winning the Johnny Mullagh medal as Player of the Match for the MCG Test. Barriers are beginnng to be broken down in Australian cricket and we could learn a lot from that.

So, as a new year dawns let us not lose all hope. There is no getting away from it; the red ball game does face an existential crisis in these islands but it has weathered extinction level events before; and can do so again. Somewhere out there in our shires, cities or towns is the next Jimmy, Mo or Joe, practising their out swinger against the garage door or pestering a parent to throw them tennis balls in the garden. The good times can roll again!

I will try and finish each blog with a practical and not always serious piece of advice- entitled ‘Dear ECB’-on how we can improve the English game…

Dear ECB,

One of the most complex challenges currently facing administrators is the mutually exclusive demands of white ball and red ball cricket. At present, the scheduling demands of The Hundred have pushed the County Championship to the margins. But what if both formats could be played at the same ground on the same day? Impossible, I hear you cry! But you have reckoned without the red ball radical ‘brains trust’ ( aka, my son ). If County Championship matches were reduced to 80 overs a day starting at 10am, that would mean a 5pm finish at the latest. The players could then have a quick ice bath and get changed into their franchise clothing. Following a quick concert by a globally renowned pop star, the stage would then be set for a day-night white ball encounter. Of course, the players would be too tired by this stage for 200 balls of frenzied cricketainment along the lines of the Blast or the Hundred but don’t worry, we have thought of this- welcome to the ‘Onesie’. We will distill down the Hundred into its logical end product, a one over per side winner takes all encounter. I imagine it will be much like the bowl-offs we used to occasionally get at the end of B&H zonal matches but of course, with batters and maybe a prize for who can hit the ball the furthest?

If you have enjoyed this blog please tell your cricket-loving friends and family. You can also listen to me talking about all things cricket as part of the excellent ‘Versus History’ series which is available via all your usual podcast providers:

https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/versus-history-111-history-of-cricket-with-rakesh-pathak/id1300269710?i=1000509921806