Long term readers of TFT will know that it used to have two editors rather than one. There was me, and then there was Maxie. A couple of years ago Maxie stepped down because he didn’t have time to contribute anymore. He was also (I’m sure he won’t mind me saying) completely disillusioned with English cricket and was finding it almost impossible to support the team.
I haven’t quite reached Maxie’s levels of despair but recent events have started to make me question my loyalty to English cricket too. After all, as Maxie used to remind me, the team is employed by and represents the board. Therefore any success they have on the field makes the board look good. I’m not saying I’m about to do a runner and start supporting Australia quite yet – I’ve got too much affection for our players – but the ECB don’t half make it hard sometimes.
The introduction of Harrisons Hare-brained Have A Hit has really depressed me. It’s completely unnecessary vanity project that’s an existential threat to the county game we know and love. The way the ECB apparently forced the tournament through, with reports of counties essentially being coerced, made the blood boil.
The ECB’s determination to improve England’s white-ball fortunes, even when this damaged the test team, also gets under my skin. Nobody wants England to fail at World Cups, and I’m obviously glad out ODI team is playing much better cricket, but yet another Ashes thrashing down under suggests they took their eye off the ball as far as test cricket goes. In fact they completely botched the four year cycle since our last trip down under. And it’s no compensation whatsoever that we won a few subsequent ODIs.
However, disillusioned as I am with all the above, three recent developments have really hurt. They make me want to walk away from cricket altogether – which is saying something for a person who has devoted almost ten years of his life building up a cricket blog. Although the news that TMS have lost the rights to broadcast England’s winter tours to TalkSport is very sad, the following three developments are far worse, and they’re all the result of ECB decisions I simply cannot accept.
The first issue was the chilling news that Colin Graves is suing George Dobell for defamation. I found this development quite sinister. Dobell is a first class journalist, has done sterling work (as far as I’m concerned) trying to unravel the inner-workings of the ECB, and in many ways he’s one of us: he cares deeply about the game and isn’t afraid to ask difficult questions. I find the fact he’s being sued both remarkable and offensive. There are no other words for it.
The second development was reported by The Times yesterday. It left me staggered – although on reflection perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’m talking, of course, about the news that Ed Smith, perhaps my least favourite cricket journalist and a man who has generally supported all the controversial things the ECB have done, was to be named England’s new national selector. So now we have someone I couldn’t be more philosophically opposed to picking the team. He is, after all, the man who tried to challenge the premise of Death Of A Gentleman on TMS and in the process ended up somewhat defending the Big Three stitch up at the ICC. Talk about establishment-friendly.
Now I’m sure that Smith makes a good impression at interviews. He’s intelligent, well educated, and had a long career as a county pro who represented England one summer. However, this appointment looks bad on so many levels. For starters Smith is the archetypal public school boy and he used to play with Andrew Strauss at Middlesex. Therefore this move will just reinforce perceptions that the ECB is an old fashioned organisation with a ‘jobs for the boys’ and ‘right sort of family’ philosophy.
Of course, it should escape nobody’s attention that whilst George Dobell, a prominent critic of the ECB, gets sued for writing unflattering articles about the authorities, Ed Smith, a prominent cheerleader of the ECB, gets made national selector. The suits do realise how awful this looks, right? It’s interesting to note that the other reported candidates, Derek Pringle and Mike Selvey, are also journalists who tend to leap to the administrators’ defence. If this is a coincidence then it’s a pretty remarkable one.
The final development that has left me questioning whether it’s best to just pack it all in, are recent reports speculating how Strauss and the ECB are going shoehorn this shitty, sorry city, T20 into the domestic calendar. Many of us feared whatever they did would damage the test side and now it looks like we were right.
According to this report in Cricinfo, the ECB are seriously toying with the idea of demolishing two divisions, abandoning promotion and relegation, and splitting the championship into two conferences instead. The mind boggles at how stupid this idea is. What’s more, there’s a good chance that first class cricket will be played at the same time as the new T20, which means the championship will get absolutely no coverage and many of the best players won’t even be involved. It’s almost as if we’re deliberately trying to sabotage our red ball prospects.
Everyone who has followed county cricket for years knows that the introduction of two divisions dramatically helped the England test team. It made the championship more intense, games counted for more, teams usually had something to play for until the end of the season, and there were less meaningless fixtures with nothing riding on them.
What’s more, the creation of a top division narrowed the gap between county cricket and test cricket because the best teams were playing against each other more regularly. The system wasn’t perfect, and England players occasionally emerged from division two, but it’s generally agreed that the standard of division one cricket back in the early noughties was excellent. It was perhaps the premier domestic first class competition in the world for a short time. And the England test team benefitted big time.
Although some will argue that two divisions increased the gap between the haves and have-nots (and there’s certainly truth in this) it’s worth stressing that the new conferences are not designed to help the poorer clubs. In fact, the Cricinfo article reports that smaller counties might actually begin to priorities white ball cricket regardless of the reforms. So what’s the point in the bigger clubs playing them?
Unfortunately the arguments being used in favour of two conferences are the same hackneyed bollocks we hear in other sports (particularly rugby union) all the time. The argument goes that reducing the threat of relegation will allow clubs to invest in young English players without fear, and reduce the need for Kolpak signings.
These argument have more holes that a piece of Swiss cheese that’s been attacked by a power-drill. For starters, the counties already receive incentives for playing young English players, and this hasn’t stopped counties from signing Kolpak players anyway. What’s more, it’s actually the presence of Kolpak players that keeps the standard of championship cricket (relatively) high.
The truth is that there simply aren’t enough good English players to populate eighteen first-class teams. And the good players that do come through the ranks benefit enormously from facing the likes of Kyle Abbott and Morne Morkel. Although too many Kolpaks can be a bad thing, eradicating them would be a disaster.
Sadly I believe the eradication of two divisions will be the final nail in the championship’s coffin. It will take us back to the late 1980s and early 1990s when first class domestic games lacked intensity, there was an even bigger jump between county and international cricket, and the England test team was crap as a result. Even worse it will be like the late 1980s and early 1990s all over again but with the added problem of a City T20 competition overshadowing everything (and robbing the tournament of its best players to boot).
I’m afraid that domestic first class cricket as we know it is dying my friends – and no effort is being made to save it. I fear it won’t be long before England’s test team will be on life support too, and it’s all because the ECB falsely assume that T20 is the answer to everything, and everything else has to fit in around it.
These are really sad times. And I really don’t know what to say. But you can guarantee one thing though. Journalists won’t be saying it too loudly in case Colin Graves’ lawyers are listening.