England Victorious On The Field. But Defeat Off It Still Likely.

Hi folks. It’s been a while since you heard from me, your elusive editor, so I thought I’d quickly give my thoughts on the current situation in English cricket. Big thanks go to Billy, Rob, Chris, Thomas, Jon, Sam and Brian for holding the fort in my absence.

Firstly, it was great to see England bounce back so strongly at Old Trafford after an abject display in the first Test. I was particularly pleased for Ben Foakes, who has now scored the same amount of hundreds in 16 Tests as Jos Buttler managed in 57. Their averages are level-pegging as well. Obviously this debate is now settled. So let’s see how Foakes develops while Jos sticks to what he does best: smashing white ball bowling to all corners whilst keeping the short form advertisers and marketers happy.

As for the nature of England’s victory, I’m not quite sure what to make of this series to be honest. I can’t think of too many series where fortunes have oscillated so dramatically, so quickly. It’s bizarre that one team can win by an innings one week and then lose by an innings the next. My obvious thought, therefore, is what this says about the merits of the two teams? Are they mercurial outfits capable of brilliance or just two teams with incredibly flakey batting line-ups (with bowling attacks good enough to exploit those weaknesses if conditions suit)? I’m inclined to think it’s the latter.

Consequently, although I’ll probably sound like a crusty old codger when I say this, I’m worried that the standard of Test cricket simply isn’t what it used to be. After all, when conditions dictate that the batting sides needs to sit in, fight, and weather a storm, they simply don’t know how to do it anymore. We shouldn’t be seeing so many games ending within three days.

Although I wasn’t able to watch too much of the game – I was keeping an eye on the live cricket scores online while at work – it seemed to me that South Africa got their decision badly wrong at the toss. Their batting simply wasn’t able to cope with Anderson, Broad and Robinson (who are all more than handy in seaming conditions). However, neither do I believe that England’s brittle batting would’ve coped any better had we batted first.

Basically, England clearly got the best of the conditions. Some venom had certainly disappeared from the surface by the time that Stokes and Foakes were amassing their match-defining partnership. Maybe England would’ve been 0-2 down at this point had South Africa inserted them rather than taking the bold / foolhardy decision to bat first themselves? It could be that I’ve got the wrong end of the stick here, as I’ve become more of a casual observer this year, but that was my impression from afar.

My other observation is that the intensity of this series seems much lower (or rather the stakes just don’t seem to be as high) as they were in past titanic struggles between England and South Africa. Therefore, I haven’t found the action anywhere near as absorbing. Although it’s great watching Rabada bowl to Joe Root, the hairs on the back of my neck don’t stand up like they used to when Allan Donald was running in to Mike Atherton or Andrew Flintoff was bowling to Jacques Kallis. Something just doesn’t feel the same.

The problem, I suppose, is that the current crop of batsmen on either side (Root aside) just aren’t particularly good. Both batting line-ups are possibly the worst they’ve ever fielded in Test cricket. This is clearly because Test cricket is no longer the priority for either the ECB or SA Cricket. And that, my friends, is another reason why this series just hasn’t grabbed me.

Test cricket used to be the pinnacle of the game – I bet most TFT readers still wish it was – but it’s hard to pretend this is still the case when neither country’s boards are prioritising the format. Surely, something can only ever be the apex of a sport if both participants are channelling everything they can into actually being successful in the format?

Test cricket used to be the ultimate battle between two national systems vying for supremacy. But now it’s not. That’s why there were so many shrugs when England got thrashed in the Ashes last winter. The ECB weren’t even trying to win (as evidenced by their complete lack of effort after the last thrashing). And this, belatedly, brings us to Andrew Strauss’s so called High Performance Review.

The naïve amongst us probably believe that Strauss’s brief was to create a structure designed to make England the No.1 Test team in the world. But sadly, in reality, the high-performance review is essentially a damage-limitation exercise to mitigate the inevitable negative effects that The Hundred will have on both our Test and ODI sides while somehow (probably futilely) trying to limit county member’s anger so they can get some of the proposals through.

Just think about it. If you really were trying to make England the No.1 Test team in the world, the very first thing you’d do is bin the Hundred. But instead, the Hundred is the one sacrosanct aspect of the calendar that Strauss isn’t allowed to (or doesn’t want) to touch – even though it’s slap-bang in the middle of August when pitches are driest and spinners and exponents of reverse-swing should be coming into their own.

If the ECB were really serious about Test cricket then they’d actually be ring-fencing August (or much of it) for the County Championship. But they’re not. They’re rather let Rome burn than admit that The Hundred is unnecessary (or a problem of any kind whatsoever). As a result, it’s hard to take either Andrew Strauss or his review seriously.

So this is where English cricket currently stands:

A. They’ll move the domestic 50-over competition into April, where the ball will move around so much that it will be impossible to play shots. The result? Our world champion 50-over team will probably be the worst in the world in four to eight years time.

B. They’ll cut the number of first class games to 12 or even 10 with most of them still scheduled for May and September when medium pace bowlers will ‘use the facilities’ and batting will be a lottery. We’ll therefore surrender one of England’s key advantages over rival nations (playing more red ball cricket) whilst limiting our young batsmen’s ability to face good spin bowling and reverse swing before they step up to Test level.

As Strauss knows this is a massive problem – he’s not stupid, after all – apparently he’s suggested another red ball tournament to run alongside The Hundred. But we all know this is a futile idea. Any red ball competition played simultaneously will be just like the current Royal London One Day Cup: a devalued development tournament containing many 2nd XI cricketers.

Although there are some statistics doing the rounds that England’s best red ball players don’t actually play in the Hundred, ask your this: who are the next cabs off the rank for Test selection? Brook, Clarke, Vince, and Lawrence immediately spring to mind. Well, guess what? All of them play in the Hundred (as do all the best middle-order players). Any bowlers with pace will inevitably be playing in it, too. Basically, therefore, this idea might benefit Dom Sibley and, erm, that’s about it.

So there we have it people. The situation in English cricket isn’t very pretty: the arguments on social media are relentless, the spin from above is still all-pervasive, and the ability of some cricket supporters to swallow whatever propaganda the ECB puts out there never ceases to amaze.

Therefore, for the time being at least, I’m still very much out. I just hope that incoming chairman, Richard Thompson, can reverse some of the damage.

Help us Obi-Wan Thompson. You’re our only hope.

James Morgan

11 comments

  • I totally agree about the “Hundred”. It seems bizarre that the 50 over competition is still going on (sporadically) when many of the county players are off playing for “franchises” (horrible concept). If Test cricket is to mean anything, there must be a commitment to a signifcant red ball competition.
    I’m a bit more sympathetic to SA’s choice at the toss, though – having picked two spinners, they needed to make England bat last, if possible.

    • Harmison’s comments on the 100 merit further discussion and show the folly of Strauss basing his review on the fact that this ‘competition’ is sacrosanct and that everything should be built around it.

  • Could not have put it better myself, for those running English cricket it’s all about the money. But if people lose interest in Test cricket the counties will lose a lot of income.

  • I think it is noticeable, and despicable, that theECB – under temporary leadership – has both extended the Sky deal, when the only urgency was that the present incumbents probably wouldn’t have been in office by the time the old one ended, and gone ahead with the Strauss review for the same reason. Both the new Chairman and CEO should have been the people to handle both issues, instead of being subject to this blatant attempt to limit their room for manoeuvre once they do take office, by this cosy Cabal of self interested, sycophantic, mutual back slappers.

  • SA not only don’t prioritise test cricket, they are playing the bare minimum the ICC allows them. They’d play less if they could.

    As for the match, the visiting team again made bizarre team selections. One of their best players in the previous got dropped and if they wanted to bring Harmer in then Maharaj or Ngidi should have made way. It went beyond incompetence into the frankly dubious.

    On the CC, the “Review” is obviously a stitch-up with the conclusions largely pre-determined (fewer f/c matches and teams). The ECB’s own figures show the problem is not so much matches in April but the matches in September. It’s these that have been the low-scoring seamer fests. As for the CC in August, it’s not so much that we won’t see the CC again in that month but that we won’t see test cricket again.

    Finally, how is the 16.66 going? I’ve heard that TV audiences have halved on the first season. The defeaning silence from the ECB and their media stakeholders suggest this is probably the truth or something very near it. The ECB’s solution no doubt will be i) double the number of matches and ii) introduce more gimmicks.

  • The test batting problem is not about innate talent, it’s about lack of application and technique which are both redressable. Because of the preponderance of white ball skill sets amongst modern day coaches batsmen at the top have precious few opportunities to practice those skills outside the test arena. Even with the bowlers where are the up and comings to replace Anderson and Broad. Robinson looks good in this country but how will he fair adapting to the different conditions abroad, where you can’t rely on helpful conditions. All our quickies seem to be perpetually injured, surely that must be the fault of coaches and fitness freaks with their ridiculous obsession with gym bodies and our spinners just don’t get enough practice bowling long spells. To me it’s not rocket science to correct any of the above, it just requires the will to rebalance the formats. As long as short term finances govern policy the game as a whole will degenerate into a mediocre entertainment sideshow, just like TV, movies and music. Pandering to the masses at the expense of potential will dumb everything down.

  • A very good article James but it seems a tad harsh to call the English batting lineup as ‘flaky’.. Apart from the two openers who look very insecure all the batters down to Foakes have had their moment in the sun this summer. It is ironic that England’s one batting superstar ie Joe Root hasn’t turned up in this series yet. It was lovely to see a much fitter version of Olly Robinson bowl so well and how we have missed him.

  • The trouble with modern test cricket is that batsmen lack patience and don’t know how to build a useful partnership such as grafting an innings but instead play a hairy fairy shots which can cost the team very dearly, secondly technique also plays its part such as keeping your head still not shuffling around. As for the bowlers in England it tends to favour seamers bowlers so spinners don’t really get much of a opportunity as this is due to the pitches more in favour for the seamers as the weather is quite cool in spring.
    There is too many T20 leagues across the world, the hundred, T10 and CPL very own T10 version called the sixty what a bunch of jokers. This is why the quality of cricket is pretty shoddy due to franchise cricket across the world and really test cricket should be played more as it will test your batting, bowling and fielding technique this is one of the reason why test cricket will always be the best ever format.

  • When all our best young batsmen want to play in shorter and shorter slogfests, our red ball batting will almost inevitably not be very good. Phil Salt is about the only young batsman who plays in a fairly orthodox manner, and might make the transition, but very few others have a technique to permit them to stay in for any length of time. What a mess.

  • James, I’m surprised that you watched any of the current series. Has your boycott of English cricket ended?

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