The county championship season might have finished with a damp squib, but the metaphorical sun shone brightly on English cricket in the summer of 2019. It was an important year – probably the most important year for decades – and it might have finished in disaster had events unfolded differently. Fortunately, however, on balance it was a successful six months. It wasn’t perfect by any means as Australia retained the Ashes 2-2 – a score line predicted by a smug yours truly – but off the field it was a big success. Oh, and did I mention that we won the World Cup?
The World Cup was absolutely brilliant for cricket in this country. It was genuinely emotional looking back. It wasn’t quite the fairy tale finish I’d envisaged as there was some controversy surrounding the rules and a lot of sympathy for the Kiwis, but at the end of the day who cares? The game reached millions of people, many watching free-to-air on Channel 4, and the closest finish imaginable made cricket relevant on a national scale for the first time since 2005.
People who had largely ignored cricket before the final didn’t care about the arcane regulations. They just saw England lift a global trophy at Lord’s in a dramatic spectacle. And they saw what a brilliant game cricket is. The key, as we’ve said all along, was simply to get this amazing product in front of people. The World Cup final did that magnificently. Credit must go to both Sky and the ECB for putting cricket back in the shop window (no matter how fleetingly).
The World Cup was also brilliant for Eoin Morgan’s team, who went from national embarrassment to national heroes within the space of four years. Things didn’t exactly go according to the script – there were too many games on tacky or slow pitches for England to blast their way to glory – but we got there nevertheless, with a little help from lady luck and the undisputed cricketing man of the year, Ben Stokes.
It’s easy to forget that at one point it didn’t even look like we’d qualify for the semi finals. This is because our team was never quite as good as the hype would have us believe. My personal bugbear was our batsmen’s inability to win in conditions that favoured the bowlers. This frailty almost undermined our whole campaign when we lost to Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Australia in the group stage. It could (and perhaps should) have been our undoing in the final too, but Ben Stokes somehow showed the resilience and brilliance to get us over the line when his teammates looked like they’d blown it.
I tried hard at the time to digest and analyse exactly what happened over those crazy six weeks but I’ve since decided that such an exercise is futile. Basically England’s name was on the cup. It felt like destiny. And now our name is now etched upon that World Cup trophy in perpetuity. It took too long, with too many humiliations and disappointments over the years, but we got there in the end. We were lucky but the lads still did us proud.
What’s more, we fully deserved to win the tournament because we were undoubtedly the best team over the 4-year World Cup cycle. We broke numerous records for fast scoring, had the best opening partnership in the world, a world class number 3, a potent middle order, and the best bowling attack in the competition too: there was the ferocious pace of Archer and Wood, the guile of Woakes and Plunkett, plus a more than handy leg spinner in Rashid. It’s funny how the lucky teams are usually the best teams. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
In many ways it was a shame that we couldn’t celebrate the World Cup for very long before the Ashes was upon us. Preparations began almost immediately with a one-off test against Ireland. And perhaps predictably it didn’t go too well.
Our players went into this game nursing what looked like hangovers from hell. Fortunately the humiliation of getting skittled by Tim Murtagh for 85 had the same effect as several coffees and a full English. The team eventually woke up and won the game thanks to some fantastic bowling from Broad and Woakes. However, the warning signs were hard to ignore. On paper our batting line up looked, well, paper thin.
Our fears were confirmed at Birmingham when the Aussies marched all over us by 251 runs. Edgbaston was supposed to be our fortress but Steve Smith, Matthew Wade, and Nathan Lyon merely walked up to the walls, asked us to surrender, and our troops duly obliged. Ultimately they didn’t have to storm the keep because our batsmen essentially left the door wide open for the Aussies to waltz through. 80-2 in the fourth innings of the game became 146 all out faster than one can say “we surrender”.
Although England improved at Lord’s, and we might have won if there’d been a full five day’s play, it was already pretty apparent that Ed Smith’s strategy of picking white ball specialists for the test team (on the basis that they wouldn’t be overwhelmed by big occasions) was doomed to failure. Our fragile top five of Burns, Roy, Root, Denly, and Buttler – arguably the worst top five in our country’s history – failed in both innings yet again and it was only the bowlers that kept us on top. Or perhaps I should say the bowlers plus our world class all-rounder Ben Stokes, who made 115 in the second innings to set up what might have been a winning position.
Unfortunately, our batting woes deepened at Leeds in the 3rd test when we were bowled out for a deplorable 67. It was the fourth time we’d been bowled out in less than a session on Trevor Bayliss’s watch. However, what transpired next was even more shocking – although perhaps I should say astonishing. With the Headingley pitch improving all the time, England somehow managed to chase down 359 to win thanks to one of the greatest innings of all time from, you guessed it, Ben Stokes again.
Although Stokes’s innings ultimately didn’t help England to win the Ashes, which reduces its relevance somewhat, it was probably better than Botham’s efforts at Leeds in 1981. It was also a classic test match in every way. Australia could, and really should, have won the game two or three times before the frantic finale. Marcus Harris dropped a catch, Nathan Lyon somehow couldn’t gather the ball and take the bails off despite having oodles of time, and then there was the umpiring. Stokes was stone dead lbw but given not out less than five minutes after Paine had burned Australia’s last DRS review.
There’s no doubt that England were incredibly lucky at Edgbaston, Australia were incredibly unlucky, but Stokes was just incredible. It was an innings of intelligence (he paced his knock perfectly), considerable skill (he kept finding the fence even when Australia had everyone on the boundary), plus amazing mental strength (he thrived under the most intense pressure imaginable). His innings had everything. And once again the amazing finish resonated with the country at large. And this time, after watching his heroics at the World Cup, the country already knew who Ben Stokes was.
It was a massive shame, therefore, when England’s batsmen again let the team down at Old Trafford. The Ashes were therefore gone, and the team had failed to achieve the second prime objective of the summer. Thankfully, however, a consolation victory at The Oval saved Joe Root the ignominy of becoming the first England captain to lose an Ashes series at home since the Nasser Hussain / Mike Atherton combination in 2001.
Although The Oval test lacked intensity, it ended the summer on a more positive note. It also reminded everyone that there were some genuine positives despite the disappointing series result. Jofra Archer was the find of the summer and took to test cricket like a kangaroo to hopping. Rory Burns also emerged from a brutal shellacking in credit. Have England finally found a decent opener? What’s more, Jack Leach is rapidly turning into a cult hero. His batting was often courageous and his bowling offers both control and a wicket-taking threat. We haven’t had a spinner like that since Graeme Swann swanned off.
Overall then it was a reasonable summer on the field. The World Cup was brilliant and although the Ashes were disappointing I’m somewhat philosophical now the dust is settling. Although England are clearly an imperfect team, we shouldn’t forget how magnificently Steve Smith and Pat Cummins performed. Nor should we forget that Jimmy Anderson essentially missed the whole series through injury. Yes Joe Root’s form is a worry. And yes a number of our white ball specialists, including Jos Buttler, were found wanting at the highest level against a very good attack, but there are signs in Ed Smith’s selection for the New Zealand tour that he might be changing England’s strategy. It will be interesting to see how the likes of Sibley and Crawley perform if given opportunities.
The big positive of the summer however, as I’ve already alluded to above, was the way cricket became relevant again in 2019. Attendances were up a whopping 18%. 3.15 million people attended either domestic or international games. And nearly a third of those tickets were sold before Christmas. This is clearly great news! The problem, of course, is how the ECB plan to capitalise on this positive development.
There’s no doubt that The Hundred’s toxic whiff continues to pollute the cricketing environment – wise and independent observers are worried, and traditional cricket supporters feel angry and alienated. It all seems so unnecessary. The Vitality Blast proved incredibly popular yet again, and finals day at Edgbaston was a suitably thrilling occasion. I just can’t see how The Hundred will beat this.
But it’s not all bad news. Ashley Giles has said that he wants to make test and first class cricket the priority now that we’ve won the World Cup. I have no doubt that he’s sincere. Andrew Strauss – or perhaps I should say Sir Andy (yuk) – is also back at the ECB, and I’m also confident that he won’t let the moneymen completely ignore our first class structure. These two men are not like Graves and Harrison. They are true cricket people who had a strong bond with supporters when they were players. We have to trust that they won’t let us down.
The problem, of course, is to what extent Harrison’s Harebrained Have A Hit ties their hands. It’s all very well trying to move the championship away from the fringes of the season, but I can’t see how this is possible while The Hundred remains in situ like an unwelcome people carrier clumsily and uncaringly positioned across two spaces in a jam-packed multi-storey car park.
As supporters all we can do is keep the pressure up, continue to articulate how we feel about this ridiculous competition, and remind the authorities that cricket has grown significantly this summer without an ill-conceived, convoluted, and confusing fourth format of the game. I doubt we’ll be able to stop The Hundred now but maybe, just maybe, the ECB will come to realise that they don’t need to reinvent the wheel. They just needed to get cricket back on the telly.
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