Progress. I guess that’s the word people will use to describe 2018. Our ODI team continues to blossom, and our test team has finally shown signs of life too. The year started badly with a 0-4 drubbing in Australia, and an unsatisfying 1-1 draw at home to Pakistan. However, things improved thereafter with an enthralling 4-1 win over India (although the series was closer than the score suggests), and a somewhat surreal but surely significant 3-0 win in Sri Lanka.
There’s just one problem: off the field English cricket continues to be run by an aloof governing body that’s completely out of touch with supporters and continues to undermine first class cricket. Consequently I find it pretty hard to be positive about the future, even if the England teams have made modest progress in the last six months.
If the ECB continues to marginalise the championship in order to facilitate a completely unnecessary new white ball format – a vanity project that’s all about ego and money – then any progress the test team makes in the short-term is basically irrelevant. In the long-run our test team is doomed unless we can improve the quality of our domestic red ball cricket. And that’s never going to happen if the championship continues to be an after thought – almost a scheduling inconvenience – to those in charge.
The next two years are therefore going to be crucial. If England win the World Cup and the Hundred proves successful (heaven knows how but I guess there’s a chance it might gain some traction if they throw enough money at it), then the perception will be that English cricket is in rude health. Graves and Harrison will therefore be able to give their critics the finger. The fact that domestic 50 over cricket will only play a very minor role in the schedule moving forward (an irony which will immediately handicap our newly crowned world champions) will be forgotten and successfully brushed under the carpet.
England might also win the Ashes next year too – which I assume will be achieved on a series of green tops specially prepared for Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad – which will entrench the perception that the lunatics currently running the asylum are not completely insane after all. Instead it will be blogs like this one which appear unhinged. At least, that is, until the long term consequences of recent decisions become apparent.
The alternative scenario which might play out over the next two years is too painful to contemplate. Firstly England reach the semis or final of the World Cup but have one of their famous ‘off-days’ at the worst time possible time. We saw this in the Champions Trophy and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if it happens again. Eoin Morgan’s team are brilliantly entertaining but I’m not yet convinced we can win ugly. We play high risk cricket and it looks brilliant most of the time. The problem is that we’re too keen to shrug off bad days at the office.
The pattern we’ve seen in recent times is that England often put together 3 or 4 spectacular wins followed by a terrible implosion. This doesn’t matter on regular tours when we can register series victories 3-1 or 4-1. However, to win a World Cup you need to win many games in succession. And you need to win in a manner of ways: in low scoring games and high scoring ones on all sorts of surfaces.
Can England do this? I’m not completely sure. Our best bet might be to lose a group game, scrape through to the knockout phase, and then hit form at the right time. After all, I can’t see us going unbeaten in the whole tournament with our current approach. A high risk strategy which turns heads but tempts fate is very much our MO. And the management and players seem perfectly happy with this.
Unfortunately if England do come unstuck and fail to win the World Cup then the last 4 years would’ve been a complete waste of time. It might have been an entertaining ride but the bottom line will be that the sacrifices made by prioritising white ball cricket at the expense of our first class game would’ve been for nothing. And then The Hundred will begin with less momentum, less broader interest (as England won’t be ‘world champions’), and even less goodwill.
At this point the huge gamble the ECB have made re: their shiny new competition will become even more apparent. And there will be very little we can do about it. It’s all very well for us to stamp our feet and complain that ordinary cricket supporters have been ignored, but the truth is that English cricket can’t really afford for this competition to fail. Graves and Harrison have mortgaged the future of the game on their vanity project. The set up costs (which were eye-watering to begin with) have already doubled, so the game will be in huge trouble if the tournament bombs.
This leaves critics like us in a bit of a bind: if the Hundred succeeds we’ll look like idiots, and if it fails the game we love will be on its knees. It’s a dilemma Joseph Heller could write a book about.
But perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Rather than speculating about what might happen, perhaps we should analyse what did happen in 2018. After all, a lot has happened. Surrey deservedly won the county championship, Hampshire beat a spirited Kent side in the RLODC, and Worcestershire gorgeously upset the big boys to win their first T20 Blast title. It’s just a shame that the wind was subsequently taken out of the club’s sails by their relegation to division two of the championship, and Joe Clarke’s opportunistic move to Notts (who are making a habit of accumulating other counties’ emerging stars).
It’s a real shame that young players continue to leave the smaller counties in droves. Moeen Ali has proved that you don’t need to become a mercenary to win international recognition.
There were big changes off the field in the international arena too. England finally managed to get shot of the three amigos: Jim, Gus, and Mick, whose hapless performance as selectors made me all nostalgic for the days when Ted Dexter used to rave about ‘Malcolm Devon’ and ‘Martin McCaddick’. The fact Mick Newell was apparently a serious candidate for the Director job was mind-boggling. In their place we’ve now got Big Ed, who was appointed because he’s posh and mates with Andrew Strauss. At least that was the view of fan favourite Darren Gough. Well done Goughie for saying publicly what many of us were thinking privately.
Fortunately, however, the man who allegedly plagiarised an article in The Economist – which led to Cricinfo pulling the article in question and issuing the following statement – has proved a decent choice thus far, even if he can’t help post-rationalising his selections to imply there’s some kind of masterplan behind them all. Which there isn’t.
I’m referring, of course, to the pretence that putting the best 11 ‘cricketers’ on the park (by which he means simply picking all-rounders), is a progressive stroke of genius. Everyone knows (or should know) that it’s pure coincidence that England’s best bowlers just happen to be handy batsmen at the moment. It’s got nothing to do with Ed Smith coming up with a plan that nobody’s thought of before. What’s more, as Mark Butcher points out in this amusing chat with Andrew Miller on Cricinfo, it’s not even a sustainable ploy. England are hardly going to leave out a world class bowler (see Anderson, Jimmy) if he can’t bat.
Test cricket is and always has been a game in which specialists thrive. You pick your best batsmen and your best bowlers and hope you can come up with a balanced XI by including the odd all-rounder if he’s good enough. Packing the side with bits and pieces players has never worked and never will. England are just lucky that the all-rounders they currently possess just happen to be better batsmen than the so called specialists available.
Smith’s strategy (if it is indeed a ‘strategy’ as he claims) is therefore flawed. He’s just getting away with it at the moment. The Sam Curran and Dom Bess experiences sums it up. These young players were picked to make an impact with the ball but ended up making a better impression with the bat. Had young Sam been picked as a number 6 or 7 batsman and a second or third change bowler then I’d be more inclined to give Smith credit for his inclusion. But he wasn’t, so I won’t.
The success of Ben Foakes and Jack Leach also shows that Smith is a somewhat lucky selector – a good attribute to have. He’s been praised to the rafters for including these two hugely promising cricketers, but the truth is that Foakes was actually left out of the original squad (which is incredible when you think about it) and only got his opportunity because Bairstow got injured playing bloody football. Talk about serendipity. Meanwhile, Smith has proved very reluctant to pick Leach and ignored him last summer even when he was fit. No doubt Adil Rashid was preferred because he’s a better batsman, even though Leach clearly emerged as England’s best all-round slow bowler this winter – the only one capable of providing both wickets and control.
Having said that, Smith has also made some very canny selections. He jettisoned Dawid Malan at the right time, recalled Jos Buttler, recalled Moeen Ali, and the inclusion of Olly Stone shows that he recognises the need for pace and aggression – something England badly lacked last winter in Australia. I wouldn’t have picked either Jos or Mo so kudos to Smith for making these brave calls. Buttler has clearly improved his defensive method massively and now looks like a proper test batsman. I still worry that he’ll be found out against the pace of Starc, Hazlewood, and Cummins, but thus far one can’t fault the impact he’s made.
The belated inclusion of Rory Burns, who has been the best opener in county cricket for some time, also shows that county form will eventually be rewarded – something we worried about when Adil Rashid was inexplicably plucked from the white ball wilderness after giving up championship cricket for Yorkshire. Although I really don’t understand what Big Ed sees in Keaton Jennings, I’m encouraged that he’s thus far resisted the temptation to pick more white ball specialists like Jason Roy.
Consequently, although I have some reservations, I think that Smith is definitely an upgrade on the hapless Jim, Gus and Mick. And that’s one of the big positives of 2018. My problem, however, is the process that led to Smith’s appointment. It just smacks of ECB jobs for the boys and their preference for people with a certain background and education. And this clearly isn’t a positive.
One of the reasons I didn’t like Smith as a journalist (along with his penchant for using overcomplicated language to dress up essentially simplistic arguments) was his obvious reluctance to criticise the authorities. He even appeared on TMS when Jonathan Agnew interviewed Jarrod Kimber and Sam Collins about Death of A Gentleman. Smith basically challenged the film’s thesis and defended the big 3 stitch up at the ECB. Consequently cynics saw his left-field appointment as chairman of selectors (a job he was approach to apply for) as a reward for his loyalty.
The appointment of Ashely Giles as Director of Cricket will also entrench the view that the ECB only employs people cut from a certain type of cloth. Giles has played the political game really well over the years. He never criticised the board as a pundit (which made him remarkably bland) because he probably realised that he’d never land a big job with England if he did so. Although he might have been tempted to make a fuss when he lost his job as ODI coach, Ashley wisely kept schtum hoping that another opportunity would arise down the road. And boy has staying loyal paid dividends.
In my opinion Giles was chosen to replace Strauss – another establishment man through and through let’s not forget – because he could be relied upon to toe the party line. The ECB would’ve seen him as the ultimate safe pair of hands: a team man who won’t say or do anything controversial or radical. Giles won’t challenge his superiors in the slightest. And that’s just the way the ECB like it. Therefore his appointment is an extremely comfy fit. Too comfy in my opinion. A shrewd man might be inclined to put a few quid on Alastair Cook eventually replacing Giles when the time is right.
Finally, the other big news of the year is that Trevor Bayliss is going to step down after next summer’s Ashes. This was hardly a surprise as (a) he’s had a somewhat turbulent tenure in test cricket, and (b) the Ashes represents the end of a cycle. The World Cup will also be over and one almost expects a foreign head coach to do an Eddie Jones and move on at this time.
Personally I wish Trev all the best. He’s a likeable bloke, he has taken us forward in white ball cricket like no English coach could’ve done, and I’ll miss his laid back and typically Australian view on things. Although the test team hasn’t performed particularly well on his watch, it’s not his fault that he’s had a flawed group of players to work with: an underperforming senior opener (Cook), a captain who doesn’t always make the big scores he’s capable of (Root), a bowling attack that lacks genuine pace, plus no spinner who could take wickets overseas until recently. At least we’ve usually done ok at home I guess.
I’ll be interested to hear your views on the year that was, and what you think might happen in the next 12 months. Obviously the journey begins in the West Indies, where England will be expected to win. It will be interesting to see how we cope with the conditions. The Lions got their behinds handed to them on a plate in the Caribbean not long ago, and it won’t be easy if we see the same dry pitches that spin sharply. We coped with the slow turn in Sri Lanka but the Windies might present a slightly different challenge.
Happy Christmas y’all.