Now is the time for reform, not scapegoats

The statistics make for grim reading. One win in the last seventeen Test matches, none in the last nine and five series defeats in a row. This is now surely the lowest depths English cricket has ever sunk to and, by conclusion, we must now admit we are witnessing the worst England team of all time. The side which reached the bottom of the world rankings in 1999 contained three world class batters in Mike Atherton, Nasser Hussain and Alec Stewart and arguably a fourth in Graham Thorpe. It also included world class seam bowlers in Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick.

Who in the current team could that label be applied to? Joe Root, of course and Ben Stokes. I would suggest nobody else. The bowling is toothless and the batting is barely county standard, let alone Test standard.

Now is not the time for scapegoats, however. It is the time for cool, calm heads and a full root and branch reform of the English game. I have already previously put forward my 5-point plan to save the game, but I do not expect much of that to be acted on. A 5-Point Plan To Save English Cricket – The Full Toss

It is too easy to just point and blame The Hundred for all of our sport’s ills. To hear many fans on social media at the moment, it would be easy to imagine that England had never lost a Test match until the summer of 2021 when the dreaded hundred ball competition came into view, that all was perfect in English cricket and the national side was a cross between the West Indians of the 1980’s and Steve Waugh’s Australians.

This is palpably nonsense. Yes, the Hundred has not helped but all of the current England team were still demonstrating appalling techniques and temperaments long before they were dressed up as crisp packets by the ECB. This winter’s debacle in Australia was not a one off, England had lost the previous two series down under 5-0 and 4-0 as well. In fact, the current malaise has been developing for a long time. A 4-1 win against an Indian side unable to play the swinging ball in 2018 masked a lot of problems. Without a once in a lifetime innings from Ben Stokes at Headingly and Australia inserting England at The Oval, the 2019 Ashes could well have finished 4-0 as well.

The argument over free-to-air TV coverage is also becoming ever more irrelevant. The decision to put the game behind the paywall 18 years ago did untold damage to the sport, however reversing it now would be unlikely to make as much difference as people think. As a teacher, I can vouch for the fact that young people do not watch TV anymore. They watch You Tube, Netflix and social media videos. Asking a group of modern teenagers what they watched on TV last night would be like asking them what their favourite gramophone record was. The traditional channels have never been less relevant. Champions League football is not shown on free-to-air and yet has never been more popular.

Formula One has exploded as a global spectacle in recent years, with huge interest across the UK, despite the entire championship having been sold to Sky some years ago. When I was a young person in the 1990’s saying you followed Grand Prix racing would illicit the same bored, withering looks from your peers as proclaiming yourself a cricket fan. Now, young people are almost as likely to be debating Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen as they are to be discussing Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Why? Because F1 has understood the new media. It has a strong social media presence, character narratives, engaging You Tube clips and its own Netflix series. For all of its detractors, The Hundred is the only facet of cricket that I see trying to do something similar.

The English cricket system is not fit for purpose and in reality, it never has been. In the last 20 years, T20 has eroded Test match batting techniques across the globe but countries such as New Zealand still manage to produce batters with the technique and temperament to play long innings, so why can’t England?

England has arguably the largest fanbase for cricket outside of India and yet, since the 1950’s can only claim to have produced one team that was the best in the world, that of Andrews Strauss and Flower. Perhaps two, if one can include the 18 months where Michael Vaughan’s men burned so brightly.

The number of teams in the domestic structure would not appear to be the problem. After all, India’s Ranji trophy comprises 38 sides. However, something is, and always has been, seriously wrong.

Watching the recent documentary, The Fletcher Years, on Sky Sports was very illuminating. The former England coach made the point that, in his view, with the resources available, “England should have easily been the number one team in the world in the 1990’s”. The fact that they were actually the worst raises some serious questions as to what is wrong with the system.

England’s men’s cricketers have actually underperformed for the best part of 70 years. The castle has always been built on sand, it just needed a tipping point to make the whole structure collapse. The plethora of short form tournaments taking away the opportunity for players to develop Test match techniques has provided that. However, it is not the sole cause. We have to be prepared to reform the whole system of the domestic game if we do not want to be having this same conversation in 20 years 

Billy Crawford


  • The Hundred may have started in 2021 but the build up took years. Also the emphasis from the ECB was on white ball cricket since Colin Graves time. Complicit has been the media. The idea of cricket being a business to make a profit took hold. England became a brand. Since then it’s been downhill all the way. We can look back to the deal with Stanford too. Then we had the cricketers claiming that they went out to play attacking cricket whatever the conditions. We would rather lose etc. Well they have certainly been losing and it’s been a sorry sight. No one it appears can occupy the crease and stay in at the top of the order or the middle order. Instead of having an array of responses our players fostered the idea of one response. The Hundred was a game built on that. That’s why it has had a pernicious effect. To try and reverse that means throwing out that concept and treating the game as one which requires batting skills beyond heaving over the boundary. It’s ironic that football has gone in completely the opposite direction and become more complex and more skilful. It shows that it doesn’t have to be simple to be popular. The more cricket has been dumbed down the less skilful our batsman are. Sky commentary has been pushing the populist line. It’s about time real fans fight back for real cricket. It has to be root and branch. Let’s start with sacking the ECB and its bunch of businessmen who devised the idea of EIGHT franchises taking over the height of the summer to the detriment of the rest of the country, County Cricket and Test cricket. Then appoint a coach like Justin Langer who respects the game. Appoint a captain who has a cricket brain and strategic and leadership skills. Batting coach like Ian Bell would be a good start.

    • Australia has a T20 comp and managed to win World Cups while still making a fist of Test cricket.

      Is there a reason Australia can keep those plates spinning but England cannot?

      • Yes ‘Price Tom’. There is a very obvious reason: the weather. There is only a small window of good weather, where pitches are good, in England. But this window (July and August) has been dedicated almost exclusively to white ball cricket. The championship is being played mainly in April, May, and September where batting is a lottery and medium pace thrives on green pitches. Nobody therefore learns how to bat property. This is why the ECB / administrators are at fault for England’s demise.

        In Australia, the ACB can push first class cricket to one side without massive consequences because the weather allows for better pitches for much longer. THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT! Are you really incapable of digesting this extremely basic point?

        Honestly, it’s almost as if you never actually read / take in anything written on this blog. You simply persist with your tedious insistence that England are rubbish at cricket because we’re inherently culturally inferior humans.

        This is why I now edit pretty much everything you ever comment on this site. It’s misinformed drivel that simply ignores basic facts. Now go away. You’re not welcome here. You are the first user I’ve ever effectively banned from TFT in 12 years of running this site. That’s quite an achievement. So take the hint.

        By the way, Australia are currently 3rd in the ODI rankings and 6th in the T20 rankings. So you haven’t mastered all forms. You just won the toss a lot in the recent WorldT20, which is a bit of a lottery as a format anyway.

        • Quite right, James. This guy really is tedious and has yet to make a constructive contribution under any of his aliases.

        • James, it’s not just the batting that suffers from the timing of the County Championship. The bowling does too. Spinners have no chance to develop. The bowling is pop gun at test level on flatter pitches (the West Indies outbowled us by a distance).

          It’s not just the prevalence of short form cricket that’s the problem, even taking into account your valid point about short seasons (India and Australia can both mix successful T20 competitions with test success). The IPL commentators make much of the development of young players (I appreciate that the IPL commentators are hardly impartial, but there is some validity to this point). The Hundred feels like a “me too”, or “that looks like cash: I’ll have some” exercise by the ECB.

          There are a large number of other issues that need to be looked at. There is little access to cricket pitches in cities, which reduces the catchment numbers (the ECB does make some effort to address this). Possible (and possibly unconscious) racism in counties also reduces the availability of top players.

          I think a successful test team needs (at least) two elements: skill and fight (or team spirit). England to me lack both at present. Root’s comments about improvements in team spirit on the Windies tour were interesting, though. Since I think Root is a weak captain (and could get caught up in the Azeem Rafiq issues, given his friendship with Gary Ballance), I wonder whether he means other people had less input. I’d like to see him resign as captain, but I really can’t see a viable alternative (same with Boris Johnson, but that’s a separate issue!).

          The ECB and its predecessors have a long history of misjudgement (the MCC were desperate to send a touring side to South Africa in the late 1960’s, for example), so I would not be confident of anything constructive in the short to medium term.

  • “The side which reached the bottom of the world rankings in 1999 contained three world class batters in Mike Atherton, Nasser Hussain and Alec Stewart and arguably a fourth in Graham Thorpe.”

    Thorpe had the best batting average of all four – so why is he “arguably” the fourth?

    “since the 1950’s can only claim to have produced one team that was the best in the world, that of Andrews Strauss and Flower.”

    England were actually top of the rankings for most of the 1950s. Maybe he doesn’t mean inclusively? Okay, England were also top of the rankings in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Ray Illingworth era. The side won the Ashes in Australia despite not being awarded a single LBW decision by the home umpires. There was one shocker of a home series against WI in 1973 but there was a home win against WI in 1969 and a win and a draw in WI (the latter featuring some epic performances by Amiss, Boycott and Greig).
    England were the best side in the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Brearley and Botham era – except probably the greatest team ever in the all-conquering WI. The WI at that time owed much of their success to English domestic cricket. The impact of Packer makes it hard to be absolutely certain how good England were at that time – but England won the home Ashes in 1977 and 1981 comfortably while losing the Centenary Test and ’82/83 Ashes in Australia narrowly. England beat a full-strength Pakistan in 1982. It’s also worth mentioning England got to WC Finals in 1979 (and 1987 and 1992).
    It’s also highly tendatious to stress the short-lived nature of the Vaughan team’s success and not do the same for Flower-Strauss. If Vaughan’s dominance lasted only 18 months then Flower-Strauss lasted at most 24. Have losing 3-0 in UAE, losing the unofficial WTC shoot-out at home to SA 2-0 and drawing 0-0 in NZ 2012-14 been wiped from the memory?

    I agree on one thing – that free-to-air is too often presented as a universal panacea and that it is not the whole solution. However it was a terrible mistake at the time – and the same body that made that mistake wants us to trust their solutions now? They drove the car into the ditch, they don’t deserve the keys now. The Hundred is a masive step in the wrong direction.

    Congratulations to WI – they still have massive problems but showed good team spirit and someone stood up when they were in a tight spot. They’ve done England a big favour because TPTB were ready to bury the Ashes debacle if England had won. Broad and Anderson managed to pull a Macavity – well, they went on the last two tours of WI and England didn’t win them either.

    We’ll see what it all amounts to when the ECB propose their “solutions”. I fear greatly for the domestic f/c game in England and what will be left of it when the ECB have finished with it.

    • Simon. I’ve edited your post where it get a little rude. Our writers give their time for free. There’s no need to be so dismissive of certain arguments. Please keep the discourse civil. Pretty please (with cherries on top).

  • It’s not rocket science. Ever since the ECB decided to concentrate on white ball at the expense of red, rather than trying to get a balance, standards at test and county level have dropped. The sad fact is that at present there are few alternatives to the Incumbents. Let’s stop making cliched excuses with Root having a press advisor to find positives for the media to dismember. Let’s get angry and recognise the need for a sea change before we lose a whole generation of talent to white ball.
    The marketing men controlling the game’s direction see decreasing attendances at test matches the world over and respond to chase the money. Media criticism of the recent comparative run fests in the 1st 2 tests against the Windies and the Aussie Pakistan series for being bore draws, where runs and wickets had to be grafted for, don’t help reestablish it’s credentials, especially to the millennial generation who want instant gratification in their sport. It’s hard to see light at the end of the red ball tunnel when specialisation is being lost for mediocre versatility. We spend as much time talking about the batting of a Leach, Woakes and even Mahmood as we do about their bowling. Not what they were picked for. Even the much vaunted keeping of Foakes hasn’t exactly shone through this series.
    Initially it’s about backbone, something the Windies displayed more of this series. The present hierarchy have too much recent baggage to carry. We need leaders who know how to create a winning mentality even if the talent pool needs work on the technical front. The only way we respond to pressure is to attack, there is no judgement call about the suitability of personnel, it’s a white ball reflex and there’s no sign we’re learning.

  • TBC: a “scapegoat” refers to someone blamed for something they are not really to blame for, not fat executives whose only real job (to get the strongest possible England team on the field) they’ve miserably failed at.

  • Reform definitely, but of what or whom? The “lets reduce the number of counties” argument is a tired old trope pedalled, amongst others, by the likes of Jonathan Agnew & KP, who either have column inches to fill, contrarian reputations to uphold, or both. There is scant evidence for the argument that fewer counties = higher quality & even if there were the ECB lack the ability to deliver it without creating a terrible, existential schism. No, what needs to be reformed is the ECB itself. Most of the issues with domestic cricket’s ‘failures’ can be laid firmly at the ECB’s door & over a considerable period of time. The examples of their incompetence are many & those who read this blog won’t need me to spell them out.

    In my opinion those who run the ECB have lost sight of its purpose, which is to steward & protect the game in England & Wales. In this regard protection includes the Sport’s legacy & as far as possible its traditions together with the vital beating heart of any sport, the recreational grass roots. I believe they have become too focused on what they like to call ‘Team England’, that all is well if the England teams are doing well; the ends justify the means, whatever damage is done to the rest of the game in pursuit of the objective. This mentality has led to the governing body’s sclerotic efforts to maximise income while maintaining relevance & its delusional attempts to absorb the credit when England teams do well but to lay all the blame at the door of the domestic game when they do not. It just doesn’t wash anymore, if it ever did.

    In this mismanagement they have, of course, been ably supported by the Press (see Agnew above, but he’s far from alone) who are quick to swallow the pronouncements of the game’s ‘thought leaders’ without applying much critical thought of their own. I’m afraid much of what is written, even, perhaps especially, by the so called ‘big guns’ of the cricket commentariat is truly execrable. Players are overhyped then torn apart when they show fallibility & glib pronouncements are made about the ‘state’ of County Cricket, by journalists who watch a handful of domestic matches per season at most, away from T20 or the Hundred.

    So yes I agree, reform, but let’s start where it’s needed most, in the place where the damage is being done.

    • Fully agree Lord Ted. You have to reform top down rather than fiddling around with the Test side.

  • TBH I find the whole T20/Hundred versus test cricket thing to be a red herring. Australia and New Zealand don’t seem to have too much difficulty playing T20, 50 over and test cricket and being good at all three pretty simultaneously. India aren’t far behind either.

    Notably, England pick different squads for the three formats, without too much overlap in personnel. So while I have as much distaste for the ECB as the next cricket-lover, I don’t think the short format of the game can be the scapegoat for the currently abysmal test performances. There are just some utterly brain-dead performances by people who should know better, and probably do.

    My take on this is that there is a cultural issue. The players live in a bubble, surrounded by a phalanx of flunkeys designed to make life comfortable for them. It seems like an echo chamber, where everyone takes the positives, learns from each (negative) experience, builds on every small glimmer of hope – the spectacle of Paul Collingwood saying that he can’t understand the criticism of Root’s dreary captaincy-by-numbers was, frankly, soul destroying. There seems to be a complete absence of honesty and objectivity around the England men’s team, with no one saying “this isn’t good enough”. The best organisations I’ve worked in have honest leaders who tell it as it is, and aren’t afraid of confronting uncomfortable truths, or dealing with sacred cows. I would have loved to see Shane Warne take the helm of this rabble and speak truth to power, but tragically we’ll never know if that would have worked. But I can guess…

    I suspect that when the autobiographies are written, we’re going to learn a lot of grizzly truth and hear how bad things truly are at this phase of the team’s evolution. It feels like a very bad culture within the team and from experience in business, that will always drag everyone down with it.

  • It is a most challenging time to be an English cricket supporter and I agree with many comments related to this article. It is right to question the first class structure, abundance of short-form cricket, promotion and expansion of the game etc. All these should be an ongoing process. What I am grappling to accept is the sort of messaging coming from Marcus Trescothick and Paul Collingwood who apparently took a lot of positives from the West Indies tour. Maybe their comments are intended to be loyal and supportive to the players but it if that’s truly what they think then it is concerning. The propensity for batting collapses has been party of the team’s DNA for several years, to keep churning phrases like “we had one bad day” or “there are positives to take out” or “we are making progress” is, to be blunt, unacceptable. As with any organisation, honest self-assessment is vital. The facts speak for themselves, England are languishing at the foot of the test table because of prolonged poor performances. The upcoming tests against NZ, SA and India who all have fine attacks suggests that there is more pain to come. An honest evaluation from a new Director, Coach and Captain that accepts the frailties that exist and looks for ways of making gradual improvements would be a start.

  • ‘Dressed up as crisp packets’ – I love it. Plenty to chew on in Billy’s piece.

    Everywhere you turn, the captaincy seems to be one of the hottest topics. The consensus seems to be ‘anyone but Root’, although the poor man stills thinks he is the best bet. So many possibilities have been touted. Transfer Morgan’s leadership skills into the test team, Give Moeen a try, restore Buttler for his tactical nous and never mind the missed catches and low scores, this or that county captain, etc etc.

    A few weeks ago, I promoted Sam Billings in a column on here. His name remains on the table remains on the table, but he did little to advance his case during his recent test appearance, and I have cooled off on that idea.

    The other theory that regularly does the rounds is that you pick the team first and then choose the captain. I am afraid this points to either Stokes or Broad. Maybe Bairstow, but for some reason his name never seems to get mentioned in this context. I am reluctant to lumber Stokes, and also suspect that as vice captain he shares the blame for recent tactical failures. No-one doubts his heart, but I believe that his counter-productive solution in times of crisis would be to bowl himself into the ground. That leaves Broad.

    I understand, even share, the widely expressed misgivings, but he is my current favourite, at least in the short term. He is trenchant, experienced, and whole-hearted, all qualities that are going to be needed. I am partly influenced by the outstanding success of Cummings when parachuted into the Australian job. ‘Short term’ he may be, but long-term planning has been markedly unsuccessful and we need to win a few test matches this year. Fickle as I am, I will probably change my mind again in a few weeks, but at the moment, I like the idea of Broad holding the fort while one or two successful county captains, Burns for example or Vince (my next favourite), are integrated into the team with a view to taking up the captaincy in a year’s time.

    As to the rest of the team, I think that we have to patient with our highest quality performers for all their inconsistency so far – I mean Lawrence, Crawley and Pope. Gower was inconsistent too, it took Gooch a long time to establish himself. As to the bowling, in the absence of express pace, let’s go for some variety, which means bring back Sam Curran or another lefty and look for some deadly spinners around the county scene, Parkinson presumably being the next cab off the rank.

    Finally, offer Jason Gillespie a small fortune to take on the management.

    It would be nice to start off by thrashing India in the postponed series decider.

    • The best way to beat India in the final test is to schedule it when there’s likely to be overcast conditions, and have Mr. Anderson champing at the bit by not giving him a game before that (there’s none anyway, if i’m correct?)

      Kohli’s really the only guy who wanted desperately to lead India to a series win in England, and he’s stepped down. For the others, it’s just another match.

      So let’s say it unfolds like that- while it’d be good to get back some confidence, won’t the bigger issues remain unaddressed? Possibly even swept under the proverbial carpet for longer?


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