At the crossroads

Just like Labour after the election, this is a time for soul-searching. The Lord’s test match has wrought a paradigm shift. Sage observers detect a change in the national mood. To semi-quote the Scorpions, has a wind of change blown through English cricket?

Cricket means different things to different people. English cricket followers come in many stripes, all equally valid. For some, a day at the cricket is a once-yearly treat – an opportunity to catch up with old friends, enjoy a few beers, and (hopefully) watch England do well. They neither know nor care who the administrators are. Cricket is for fun, alone: an escape from the drudgery of real life.

For others, cricket is a more serious pastime – they keep a regular eye on the scores, subscribe to Sky Sports, and find themselves pulled into the gravitational field of the England team.

And for another group, cricket is a maddeningly indispensable tier of their lives. They follow every single detail and identify with the national side as if it were an extension of their own being. They attach to each machination the same importance as their own health and livelihood.

Among followers who take part in the earthier debates about English cricket, opinion is heavily fractured. Simon Hughes is wrong to speak of a ‘silent majority’. Ed Smith was also mistaken when he said “fans are not divided…social media is divided and social media is a poor reflection of cricket”. Any watercooler conversation will tell you there many shades of grey. As an anecdotal example, at my village cricket club this weekend no two players had quite the same view.

It must all seem a little simpler to England followers who are children – an integral tier of cricket’s constituency and a notable feature of Monday’s crowd at Lord’s. Children can watch cricket through enviably innocent eyes, insulated from recriminations, their sleep undisturbed by nightmares about Paul Downton.

Innocence is the key. The defining feature of the last eighteen months, for me, is the loss of that innocence. Cricket has felt like it might never be quite the same again. We always vaguely knew the view behind the scenes was generally unsavoury, but we closed our eyes and pretended not to see the workings. But then a series of events savagely ripped away the curtain, Oz-style, to reveal the workings in all their gory detail.

Since then I have struggled to take an England match at face value. During play, you witness what certain people want the side to be, not what it should be. It feels like a sham. Try as I might, I can’t dissociate the cricket from the people who are pulling the levers backstage. Others will find it much easier.

But can innocence be restored? And has Ben Stokes’s miraculous performance already achieved this?

In the wake of Lord’s, influential media commentators have unilaterally declared War Is Over. And in a way, who can blame them? They must be bored to the back teeth of reporting failure and strife. Their editors demand a narrative which will put a smile back on readers’ faces. Cricket writers have no readership if that readership has lost interest in cricket. Lord’s – and its vague evocation of the 2005 Ashes – gave them an opportunity to reconnect with a patriotic audience starved of good news.

After the fourth day, Jonathan Agnew wrote:

For some time we have heard of England’s need to reconnect with their fans, to make the public care about them. On the fourth day of the first Test against New Zealand at Lord’s, the brilliant Ben Stokes delivered exactly the sort of performance required to do that.

And the following the result, in a piece headlined “‘Fantastic’ England repay goodwill of their ‘tremendous’ fans”, he also said:

I’m not sure if there was ever a great deal of ill-feeling towards the England cricket team, in fact there was goodwill. Perhaps if the noise around the team is removed, a deep breath is taken and we let them play, we will see more performances like in the 124-run win against New Zealand at Lord’s.

They were right behind England, which clearly did them good. It proves my point that there is goodwill towards the national team. At Lord’s, it was reciprocated and appreciated by the players.

Agnew seems to imply that supporters have a responsibility to wind down the negativity for the good of the team. I find this analysis unappealing – it almost suggests it’s our fault they played badly in the first place – but maybe you think he has a point.

In the Telegraph, Jonathan Liew had this to say:

Perhaps we will look back at this Sunday as People’s Sunday: the day when we all fell in love with English cricket again. Sure, there have been rumblings of affability over the last year or so; forecasts of an impending charm front arriving from a northerly direction. And for all its managerial idiocy, none of us ever actually wanted England to lose. But for those of us who have invested our happiness in this team, this was the moment when it finally kept up its side of the bargain.

In the same paper, Nick Hoult reported that the “England team won back the public after a tough eighteen months”, while his colleague Scyld Berry believes supporters now stand firmly behind their captain:

Cook will surely treasure the ovation when he reached his hundred as a seal of public approval for himself, his philosophy and his team.

A caveat is essential here. Cook was applauded by people who were prepared to pay (and handsomely) to attend the test match. Followers who feel alienated from the team did not, by definition, turn up. And the crowd were surely more likely to be clapping Cook’s runs than his philosophy.

Elsewhere in the Telegraph was an un-bylined piece entitled ‘Five reasons we love England again‘:

A young, vibrant team and all-round superstar Ben Stokes have helped fans rediscover their passion for Test cricket. There is a freshness and vibrancy to this England team which has automatically endeared them to their supporters – it is, after all, much harder to hold grudges against wet-behind-the-ears rookies than gnarled veterans.

For all the agonising over the shoddy treatment of Kevin Pietersen and Peter Moores, the poor results and curious selection calls, it was impossible not to feel some sympathy for Alastair Cook. He is a decent man, thrust into a treacherous situation, and the applause which echoed around Lord’s as he conducted his post-match interview on Monday was heartfelt, not least because of the central part he had played in it.

I can’t let that go without pointing out that, in fact, Cook thrust himself into a treacherous situation – and one partly of his own making. This was revealed not by a rabid conspiracy-theorist but the ECB themselves, in the ‘due diligence’ dossier. To point this out isn’t making a dig, but simply stating a fact. If Cook feels hard done by, he should come out and tell his side of the story.

But let’s return to the main point. Have we  – as the press suggests – fallen back in love with England again?

As far as I can tell, the great majority of English cricket followers hugely enjoyed the match. They were very impressed by the spirited nature of the team’s performance. Many, probably most, forgot about the misery and conflict and for a few days simply enjoyed the cricket. Those who made the journey to Lord’s looked like they were having a great time. And a sizeable chunk of the public now scan the England team sheet, see the new and newish faces, and increasingly view the team as a new entity, untarnished by the past.

All of that said, one inspirational test victory does not wipe the slate clean. The heroics of Ben Stokes have not pressed the ‘reset’ button. It’s not just that the wounds run too deep. Linking affection with success misses the point and misunderstands supporters.

Loyalty to England has never been about results. We faithfully followed England all through the period 1987-1999 – thirteen long years in which we won just a single major test series, against South Africa in 1998. During times of on-field disaster – 2006/07, say – our reaction was less anger than sorrow. It wasn’t the catastrophe of the 2013/14 Ashes which alienated us, but what happened off the field, afterwards – and the subsequent series victory over India did nothing to repair the damage.

English cricket’s civil war was never about the team’s performance. It was about enfranchisement. It was about belonging, and knowing that we were wanted and respected. It was about the relationship between administrators and supporters. It was about the way they view us, the way they treat us, and the rights they believe we should have.

None of that has changed.

The England team may be evolving but the establishment it represents has not. It’s run by the same kind of people, in the same way, with the same captain. If Colin Graves, Tom Harrison and Andrew Strauss desire a different relationship with the public from their predecessors, they’ve yet to demonstrate it.

It’s easy for a sceptic to imagine Harrison and Graves gleefully rubbing their hands as they walked away from Lord’s, thinking “that’ll shut the buggers up for a bit”. They probably regard Ben Stokes as the equivalent of drugging the water supply to pacify the proletariat.

In his TMS interview last week, Andrew Strauss said:

This is a good time for us all to come together and try and work out a path forward. Rather than being in completely estranged camps from each other. So let’s hope we can do that.

Which is fair enough, but how does he plan to achieve it? If he wants everyone to come together, he and the ECB must take specific action to make that happen. Otherwise, his words only mean ‘stop complaining – why? Because I told you to’. Basically he’s saying “move on”, like Giles Clarke did, but in politer language.

The ECB recently published their annual report for 2014. After a year of unprecedented turmoil and supporter alienation, this is what they had to say in the section entitled ‘Engaging with the fans’. It tells you everything you need to know.

ECB’s social media channels are playing a vital role in helping the governing body achieve one of its main strategic goals – to encourage more people to follow cricket. Video is a key part of the ECB digital team’s armoury as it seeks to boost the game’s online following. The team created a host of eye-catching and engaging videos which were designed to bring out the personalities of the England players – and show the public a different side to familiar cricketing faces.

Highlights included England wicketkeeper Jos Buttler trading tips with fellow England glove-man goalkeeper Joe Hart; England fast bowler James Anderson and captain Alastair Cook going head-to-head in a darts exhibition match; and batsman Joe Root showing off his strumming skills on the ukulele.

England’s triumph at Lord’s may have changed the cricketing dynamics, but there’s plenty else it won’t change. Lord’s won’t put cricket back on free-to-air television, reduce ticket prices, or give grass-roots a bigger share of the ECB’s revenue. Neither will it change how the ECB regard the public: as an indentured underclass.

I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom. The second test begins in twelve hours’ time, and many of you will be looking forward to another excellent match and perhaps an England series victory. Enjoy the cricket. But let’s not forget the bigger picture.


  • Another good piece. I have personally been very critical of the new regime at the ECB. I was pretty critical of the old one too! You’re right in that one test match doesn’t change what’s been done and certainly doesn’t put right the wrongs that have been perpetrated. What people like Agnew and other don’t seem to understand is that we are critical because this really matters to us. I have supported England through far more years of utter mediocrity than excellence. The nineties were a very painful period to be an English cricket fan, almost as painful as the 06/07 and 13/14 ashes defeats. Anyone who can support a team through those periods and still have a love of the game like we do is not a naysayer or a doom merchant in my book. We have a right to be critical because this is OUR team, not the ECB’s. They are the body who govern OUR game, not theirs. When they act unilaterally in a way that is so obviously not in the teams best interests it hurts. None of us want to see the team fail. None of us want to see Cook fail and most of us would be made up to see him succeed as Captain. It’s our right to question when things go badly. It doesn’t make me any less of a fan if I critisise the hierarchy, it means I care enough to voice my opinion and that I want things to be better.
    For what it’s worth I think different opinions are healthy. I can appreciate a persons point of view even if I don’t agree with it. I hope that the last test match is a sign of things to come. I would love nothing more than to see Ben Stokes scything through the Aussies and Alastair Cook and Joe Root plundering runs for fun. I support England regardless of the results, I just like it a whole lot better when they win!
    Winning won’t change my feelings towards the ECB management, just like losing won’t change my opinion of the team.

  • I’m sorry but after 40 years6,the thrill is gone. A good win in Grenada meant everything was ticketyboo, followed by Barbados…. This last win was down to Stokes and root…..

  • It seems just like more of the same old bi-polar disorder that the English press suffer, There are either tearing people to shreds or buoyantly optimistic and it changes one day to the next.

    Teams have good days and bad days (and good tests and bad tests) you have to read them in the context of the over all performance.

    • Spot on. I simply couldn’t believe the hyperbole after one single victory, following the pathetic display in Barbados. It’s almost like Strauss has got in their ear.

  • “All of that said, one inspirational test victory does not wipe the slate clean. The heroics of Ben Stokes have not pressed the ‘reset’ button. It’s not just that the wounds run too deep. Linking affection with success misses the point and misunderstands supporters.”

    I think that sums it up pretty succinctly.

    Winning papers over a lot of cracks – look at Australia and the issues between Clarke and the Australian board.

    If England lose to NZ in the second Test or have a poor start to the Ashes, will there be the same feelgood factor?

    On the flipside, if England claim the NZ series 2-0 and then reclaim the Ashes, will the likes of Strauss, Graves, Cook and their defenders be entitled to claim vindication?


  • It was a great game but this is essentially the same side that struggled against the West Indies and didn’t endear themselves to anybody. There are some young, exciting players in this team and I am cautiously optimistic about the future (I’m tempted to say pessimistically optimistic about the future as that is the kind of cognitive dissonance required of an England supporter). However, I am curious to see what the media says when Stokes goes cheaply to an aggressive shot.

  • Great piece Maxie.

    I agree. I think it’s fine to be able to enjoy what was a brilliant test last weekend. I was lucky enough to go along on Thursday and had a brilliant day out. Off to a day at the Oval test as well. It’s an horrific expense but it has been a feature of my summers since I moved to London 10 years ago and it’s a great way to get friends together.

    A defining characteristic of humanity, is to be able to hold a number of different opinions and points of view, at the sametime (I know Ed, surprising isn’t it?); thus I can still thoroughly enjoy a day at the cricket with friends, enjoy the cricket on display and yet still harbour concerns for the way cricket is run and long for a day when the team is picked purely on merit, the captaincy isn’t a right or a privilege and the sport is adminsitered with the best interests of the players, fans and amateur game at heart.

    It’s bizaare how supporters clapping a England palyer agetting a home century, at a test they’ve paid to attend, after having more than a few shandies most likely, is somehow conflated as unanimous support for a players captaincy by the TMS equivalent of Statler & Waldorf. Maybe they were just applauding someone scoring a hundred, rather than implicit praising everything this man has done over the last 18months…? Frankly the state I was in by the end of play on Thursday, if Gheghis Khan had gritted out a 300 ball 100 I would have cheered wildly.

    But yep, the attitude to fans, if it has changed from the adminstrators has yet to manifest its self and until the things you mention start to happen, then I think, for the obseesive amongst us, it’s right to keep on bangning the drum that it’s all of our game, not just theirs.

    This team I think is going to be characterised by up and down performances for the foreseeable, we’re still a bit too dependent on one or two players finding an exceptional performance to get a win. That is not how to get consistent results. Maybe a new caoch and apporach will help, but we’re a long way from being a truly competitive team every single time we take to the pitch, yet.

    Still, as others have contested, I’m cautiously pessismistic now about the team, rather than downright furious, so that’s an improvement. The jury is still very much out on the new mob at the top, but the early signs point to them being similar to the last lot.

    Ramble over.

  • I agree Maxie, I’d love to see cricket return to ‘Free-to air’ or at least certain tournaments/series, I suspect Sky simply want it more and are prepared to pay handsomely for it. That opens another can of worms right there, but the ECB wouldn’t be the first and only governing body to accept the $$’s so they can *ahem ‘invest into grassroots’ – grassroots is being inspired from what you watch then playing a great innings in the back garden.

    As depressing as it is, I got hooked on the game when I was a kid, so whoever’s in charge be it Graves or the Dark Lord Blatter, I still love the game come what may.

  • Good article. The Cook 150 has replaced the Ageas Bowl 95 as the ultimate proof that the public are behind Cook as captain and the ECB. As mentioned above it is just people applauding someone who has passed a milestone not a public rubber stamping of what has been happening. I was there for the 95 with about ten other friends all on different sides of the KP debate but all of us there were pleased for Cook the batsman not Cook the captain.

  • The innocence won’t return. At all. Ever.

    Maybe if they brought KP back, apologised to him, sacked Flower, Graves, Harrison and Strauss, sacked Cook as captain, and replaced them all with better candidates, and if England then went on to become the number 1 team in the world again, that would probably restore most, if not all, the innocence.

    But none of that’s going to happen, is it?

    However, if England really are turning the corner as a Test team, and if Bayliss can whip our limited-overs sides into shape, there might still be some reason to be an England fan.

  • “The innocence won’t return. At all. Ever.

    Maybe if they brought KP back, apologised to him, sacked Flower, Graves, Harrison and Strauss, sacked Cook as captain, and replaced them all with better candidates, and if England then went on to become the number 1 team in the world again, that would probably restore most, if not all, the innocence.”


    Or how about even explaining the following:

    1. In 2009, why did they ask KP for his opinion on Moores and then leak it?
    2, In 2012, why didn’t Strauss or Flower do anything about the @KPGenius twitter account?
    3. After the 2013/14 Ashes, precisely why was KP the only player to pay for the 5-0 drubbing, despite being the top scorer?
    4. Why did Whitaker tell the press that KP would never play for England again?
    5. Why did Graves tell the media that the door was open for KP, only to slam it shut when KP made 355 not out in a county game?
    6. Why did Harrison meet with KP in May 2015 to tell him that he will not be picked for England again, when KP had told him that he didn’t want a meeting if it was only to tell him that he wouldn’t be picked?

  • Maxie, that was an incredibly, beautiful and poignant post. I felt your emotion behind every word. It was like learning Santa didn’t exist and losing your first love, both at the same time. You are right that even though the team might improve and start winning again, it will never be the same again. I’m very proud of the way the young players seem to be playing without fear and genuinely look as if they are having fun out there, spearheaded by Root and Stokes. flowers/moores management ethos obviously wasn’t working. When moores went it was like a mist lifted off the team and they could smile again. Hopefully with the arrival of Bayliss, this will continue.

    The turmoil that FIFA are experiencing, shows that if left to its devices, any organisation can become corrupt unless challenged vociferously. That is what us “outside cricket” have attempted to do for the past 16 months, because the media certainly wouldn’t do it. We were vilified for it by both the ECB and Media. The team find their form and suddenly we are vilified by pro ECB and cook supporters for daring to question as it was always going to turn out allright, wasn’t it !!!. Like you Maxie, I fear the day Root or Stokes have a bad patch. It won’t be pretty.

    Whatever happens with KP now and whatever your opinion of him and his book, he was proved right!!!!!

  • Thank you, thank you Maxie, for writing this, which damn well articulates the conflicting feelings of what a lot of us must be about at the moment after that surprising turnaround on Monday last.

    Listening to the Power-That-Be at the moment, it’s like seeing and hearing Mrs Thatcher when she ordered us during the Falklands War to “Rejoice, Just Rejoice.”

    I do resent being virtually ordered to either applaud Cook for his fantastic Century or suffer the eternal damnation of the TMS crowd et al. (God, how I’m scared at that!)

    As others might know, I have suffered sarcasm for not following the ECB/TMS dictat on Twitter – Water off a ducks back when I have to work for the partner that I have at Work – but it’s what’s called a Democratic society – If 3-Test Ed and others can’t cope with that – may I suggest they move to North Korea where failure to follow The Dear Leader results with execution by Anti-Aircraft Missile!!

    I do regret not following Stokes’s fantastic contribution – It had echoes for me of ITB’s excellent 149 No at Headingley in 1981 and the Superlative 118 that he got at Old Trafford later that Season – I wish I could have paid to see it but I don’t want to drink Andrew Strauss’s Kool-Aid- such is my antipathy towards the Cricket “Establishment” these days.

    Ian Botham shows below hows to get the crowd on your side in 1981. Alistair Cook thinks that he is a legend in his own mind, but he will NEVER get into the public’s affections like this – No matter how Ed Smith et al seems to think he has done already.

  • Great post Maxie. From my point of view it was especially good to see the young players contributing to a really good win. A win that imo has been tarnished by the triumphalist MSM articles and the self righteous attitudes of some on Social media.

    Like you say I question the actions of the ECB because I care about cricket and want my England team to be run progressively, picked on merit and not run like an old boys club who treat the fans with disdain. A point that seems lost on a lot of people in the media who expect blind obedience, or others who seem to think you’re a poor fan if you question the ECB or the team.

    There is hope for the future and would love to see the likes of Buttler, Stokes, Root develop, and I hope Trevor Bayliss is not hamstrung by the ECB suits as think he could do a good job if left unhindered. We will see!


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