It’s that time of year when newspapers and blogs publish their various reviews of the last twelve months. They all get a bit repetitive after a while so I’m going to try and freshen things up somewhat.
I’m not going to do a chronological report, and go over stuff we’ve done to death in detail a million times already, I’m just going to write a few lasting impressions, and conclude whether (a) it was a good year for the England team, and (b) whether it was a good year for English cricket in general. I’m not going to win any awards for originality but hopefully you’ll get to the end without putting a pistol to your mouth and pulling the trigger.
So let’s crack on with the first part. Overall it has been – spoiler alert! – a very mediocre year for England. Anyone who’s been paying attention knows that. Our results in all formats were as follows:
Tests: Won 6 Lost 8 Drawn 3
ODIs: Won 11 Lost 5 Tied 1
T20s: Won 5 Lost 5
The year started brilliantly with a test series win in South Africa (although the hosts obviously missed Steyn and Philander) but went downhill pretty rapidly thereafter. The only subsequent test series win, during a year in which we played a whopping 17 games, was a predictable 2-0 victory over the cold and miserable Sri Lankans in May / June.
The other summer series was a disappointing 2-2 draw at home against Misbah’s men – press ups and all – which has since been put into context by their recent defeats down under. Obviously, the less said about our performances in Bangladesh and India the better. Dhaka, Mumbai and Chennai were lower than most low-points I can remember. It’s almost like these performances were trying to outdo each other in some kind of limbo tournament.
I suppose the form of Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, plus the emergence of Haseeb Hameed, gave us something to smile about in 2016. However, the ineptitude of our selectors, bowling injuries to Mark Wood and Jimmy Anderson, plus a succession of catastrophic batting collapses, has left a nasty taste in the mouth. The general theme of the year was therefore teeth gnashing and gratuitous grumpiness.
Moving on to our T20 specialists, the obvious highlight was unexpectedly reaching the final of the World T20 in India. I was pleasantly surprised by our performance over there – which exceeded the performance of the Indian organisers by a country mile. However, although we finished with a won 4 and lost 2 record in the tournament, we only won one more T20 during the rest of the year: we lost to South Africa 0-2 and to Pakistan 0-1. Our overall record was therefore 5-5. You can’t get more mediocre than that.
Our 50 over side, on the other hand, was a shining beacon of hope in an otherwise miserable quagmire of middle-of-the-roadness. To win 11 games was a pretty decent effort considering where we were after the World Cup. The team has more batting depth than it’s ever had – with talented guys like Bairstow, Billings and Duckett waiting in the wings – and the seam bowling also held up better than expected (although I still don’t think it’s particularly great on paper).
Although we’ll learn a bit more about our 50 over specialists in the coming weeks and months the signs are definitely good. We’ve always been able to win games at homes – even going back to the golden age of the Texaco Trophy – but our somewhat unexpected win in Bangladesh, when conditions were pretty slow and spin-friendly, suggests that Trevor Bayliss, Graham Thorpe and Co are taking things forward at last. I imagine we’ll lose 0-3 in India now I’ve said that.
What I really want to get to, however, is the number of off-the-field issues that raised their ugly head in 2016. The first thing that really concerns me is the ECB seem determined to prioritise white ball cricket over red ball cricket. When I first heard that Andrew Strauss wanted to take ODIs and T20s more seriously I thought it was a good thing. After all, we’ve been a complete joke in global tournaments since 1992. However, I didn’t realise that doing so would not only jeopardise our test fortunes but possibly endanger the survival of first-class cricket in England in general.
Just look at the conclusion of the county championship this year. It was an absolute cracker. Who can forget that final day when Yorkshire threw wickets away in a desperate but inevitably ill-fated run chase against Middlesex at Lord’s? However, although the championship finale really captured the imagination of sports fans across the country – apparently BBC statistics showed that the county cricket page was the fourth most visited section on their entire website that day – the ECB seem to have little interest in reinvigorating the competition.
Next year we’ll have a lopsided structure, with a reduced division one and an expanded second tier, and once again the vast majority of matches will be played at times when kids are at school and adults are at work. This isn’t anything new – as counties have put on limited overs games at weekends for ages – but what exactly is the plan for breathing new life into first class cricket? I would say that the marketing of championship games in this country is absolutely pitiful if there actually was any.
The ECB’s only plan, it seems, is for T20 cricket to fill everyone’s coffers. However, while I don’t blame the authorities for exploiting the windfall that is T20 cricket, I feel very uneasy about the way they’re going about it. For starters, what exactly is wrong with the NatWest Blast?
Blast attendances were up again in 2016 – even though the tournament didn’t attract all the world’s greatest stars and wasn’t played in a month-long window. So why, exactly, do we need a city-based (franchise) system played in a short window containing the likes of Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo and all the other ‘stars’ that play in every other bloody tournament around the world? Honestly these guys are just becoming a circus act in my opinion. Do we actually need them to make cricket watchable? The Blast is already very popular and profitable without being an IPL or Big Bash style event.
Although I’m somewhat open-minded when it comes to franchise cricket – I’m unsure whether it will take off but I’m generally in favour of trying things – I’m very worried about the identity of our smaller counties. What’s more, it seems bizarre that the Blast will run concurrently with the city-based thingy. Talk about a surfeit of T20. Everyone knows we play too much cricket in this country so why do we need even more limited overs matches when – and this is my primary beef – it messes around with the championship?
Did you know that from 2020 there will be no first class cricket played in August? It absolutely beggars belief. How are we going to produce proper test match spinners, and proper test match batsmen, if we don’t play when wickets are traditionally at their driest? I’m all in favour of away teams choosing whether to bat or bowl, but measures like this are tantamount to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s the bigger picture that counts.
The current proposals, which clearly reveal the ECB’s priorities, simply have to change. The moneymen might say they’re doing all this to ‘save cricket’ and make the sport sustainable in the modern world, but in my opinion this is an overdramatic and somewhat disingenuous argument.
As I argued in my debate with Tregaskis for Speakers Corner Trust, sports that take a long time still have a place in our sporting culture. The Tour de France takes about three weeks but it has still attracted sizeable TV audiences keen to watch Bradley Wiggins (and to a lesser extent Chris Froome). Meanwhile, NFL is becoming incredibly popular in the UK despite the fact that it’s quite stop-start and can take three and a half fours to finish a match. Some games at Wimbledon can also drag on for hours yet attract record-breaking audiences. People at home simply dip in and out of the action. The result? Andy Murray gets a knighthood while Joe Root remains completely anonymous to anyone who doesn’t subscribe to Sky Sports 2.
Cricket in this country isn’t dying because human beings are now too busy or stupid to comprehend it; it’s dying because it’s been hidden behind a pay wall for a decade. What the ECB are really doing is trying to keep the sport as relevant as possible within the context (or perhaps I should say disadvantage) of flogging the television rights to a relatively niche provider. In other words, they’re fighting with one arm behind their back and trying to solve the problem by tinkering with the one good arm they’re prepared to use. It makes no sense. What the game really needs is a holistic overhaul.
What annoys me most, and I’ll leave you with this thought, is that the ECB seem to have such little faith in the first class game. They seem to think that because kids now have PlayStations and iPads, they’ll have no interest in cricket unless it involves big men with big bats whacking the ball over tiny boundaries.
This assumption seems entirely false to me. When I was a kid I was addicted to my Spectrum 48k computer. Games like Paper Boy, Bomb Jack, Monty Mole and Chucky Egg were my world. Yet I still found time to pop down New Road and watch first class cricket because (a) it was (and still is) a fascinating game, and (b) I wanted to see my heroes like Ian Botham and Graham Dilley in the flesh. And why were they my heroes? Because I’d seem them play for England on BBC2.
Happy New Year!