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