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