First let me begin on a sympathetic note. When I heard the news that Andrew Strauss would be stepping away from the ECB for a while to look after his wife my heart sank. It must be a horrible time for him and his family. I hope this seemingly unscheduled break doesn’t mean that the prognosis has worsened. I really don’t know the details but we obviously all wish the Strauss family the best. Some things in life are more important than cricket.
I feel bad, therefore, that I feel somewhat compelled to dissect the interview Strauss gave immediately before his departure. I don’t like criticising a man when he’s down, but I found his comments on the future of English cricket a little disturbing and therefore I cannot let them go without comment – especially as they contained what I see as more empty rhetoric and that all-too-familiar management speak.
Give the interview a read. You’ll find it takes him a thousand words to say “we lose away from home because we don’t have anyone who can bowl fast or bowl mystery spin”. I can’t believe it took the ECB as long as two months and a review to reach that conclusion. I can believe, however, that it took them two months to come up with the term ‘point of difference players’. A lot of consultancy work goes into coming up with a term that naff.
What frustrated me most about this particular interview, however, is that Strauss kept saying England need to embrace ‘radical change’ to improve their test fortunes away from home. This seems a tad disingenuous to me. It positions him as someone who desperately wants to improve England’s test team but who is hamstrung by factors outside his control. Unless Strauss is the only good guy inside the ECB, and despite appearances he’s actually engaged in a power struggle against the white ball happy Harrison and Graves, then he’s not really being up front here.
The truth, of course, is that the ECB (and therefore by extension Strauss himself) are very consciously damaging first class cricket, and the only radical change on the horizon is Harrison’s Harebrained Hundred – a competition that will push the championship to the fringes of the season and therefore make it more difficult for England to improve their fortunes abroad. A plea for English first class cricket to embrace radical change therefore seems as empty as the stands at New Road, Grace Road, The Riverside etc will be when the Hundred finally kicks off.
Although Strauss talks boldly about current discussions presenting a once in a lifetime opportunity to restructure the county game for the test team’s benefit, anyone who’s been following developments closely will know that England’s ability to compete in places like India and Australia is the least of the ECB’s concerns. I imagine their biggest problem, especially if one has read George Dobell’s article on the ECB’s falling financial reserves, is to boost their coffers – which I assume is what the Hundred is all about.
The ECB’s real brief, therefore, is surely to make the Hundred as successful as possible whilst mollifying the inevitable damage it will do to the county championship and the England test team. To pretend that current discussions are focused on helping the test team, rather than cashing in on the franchise project, insults supporters’ intelligence.
If you haven’t already read the Sam Collins (of Death of A Gentleman fame) article on Cricinfo this week, I seriously suggest you give it a read. He argues that whilst introducing a new white ball format is fine in theory, the ECB’s execution has been poor to say the least. He also questions the real motives behind the new tournament, which he summarises thus:
It’s clear what The Hundred won’t do (in its current form). It won’t provide the necessary access to the free-to-air audience that the game needs to thrive. It won’t please the cricketing purists. It won’t help the English Test team (beyond allowing the board to pay its players more money). So what will it do? Make money for the ECB.
And there you have it. It’s all about money. Greed if you like. And just for good measure I’ll throw in vanity and jealously of the IPL to boot. Although I disagree with Sam that the Hundred concept has some merit – I don’t think any other established sport would shave off half an hour to suit TV broadcasters – I found myself nodding in agreement throughout his piece.
It’s tempting at this point to return to Strauss’s interview. It’s so full of ambiguities or non-specific pledges that one wonders whether he grasps the problems at all. For instance, when he talks about the prospect of abolishing two divisions (and therefore promotion and relegation) in the country championship, he rolls out the cliche that “we need to develop young England players and give them the opportunity to play”.
I absolutely hate statements like this. On a superficial level his intentions are irresistible – after all, who wouldn’t want young English talent to get a game? – however when one dips beneath the surface his analysis unravels like Josh Buttler’s technique in an Ashes test. For starters, English professional cricket has 18 teams. Far more than any other nation. That means there will always be plenty of opportunities for young English batters and bowlers. The suggestion that England’s struggles in India and Australia are down to a surfeit of overseas players and Kolpaks, signed by counties to stave off relegation, is a complete and utter fallacy.
The problem with English county cricket has always been that the talent is spread too thinly (and therefore the standard is weak). If anything we need more imports like Morne Morke and Kyle Abbott to raise standards and reduce the step up from county to test level. A little overseas stardust will help to increase attendances at championship games too. And it will better prepare our young cricketers for international competition. It’s no coincidence that England’s test team was strong in the early noughties when division one of the championship was a very tough league – in part due to the prevalence of kolpak talent.
I’m massively opposed to demolishing two divisions. People forget just how much the introduction of a top tier helped the England team back in the days of Lord MacLaurin. If the championship goes back to being an 18-team event (or even adopts a conference structure) where the best teams no longer play each other regularly, and sides are simply packed with unproven local players, then England’s test team will be the loser. And Ed Smith’s job of identifying players capable of stepping up to test cricket will be that much harder.
Personally I think the arguments against demolishing two divisions are so strong that if the ECB does actually go ahead with this boneheaded proposal then it can only be to shoehorn the Hundred into the domestic calendar (and no other reason). Of course, they’ll present the introduction of two conferences as a benevolent plan that will breath new life into the test team, but anyone with an ounce of sense will see through the propaganda and realise what the restructuring is really about.
Anyway, before I burst a blood vessel in frustration, I should probably move on to the first test tomorrow. The first day of the first test of the English summer is always a great occasion. It means test cricket with plenty more test cricket to come. It’s like the first sip of your favourite pint. Unfortunately, however, I won’t be able to watch much of the action as it’s my tenth wedding anniversary and I’ll be away for the weekend. Updates on the blog will probably be thin on the ground I’m afraid.
Just looking at the two teams on paper I expect England to win well. This is probably the weakest Pakistan team to visit our shores for some time. They have talent of course, because Pakistan teams always have talent, but there aren’t too many established players with experience of English conditions. If the ball moves around a bit then Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad should prove too much for them. The visitor’s batting looks a tad brittle to say the least.
I’m not particularly convinced by Pakistan’s bowling either. Although they always produce good seamers in that part of the world, this particular attack lacks the pace and star quality of previous Pakistan teams. Mohammad Amir is obviously a very talented lad, but he’s suffered from a heavy workload and we don’t know whether he’ll be 100% fit. The other bowlers are talented but shouldn’t worry England’s batsmen to the same extent that Starc, Cummins, Boult etc did this winter. In fact, our less established players like Stoneman, and yes, a certain Mr Jos Buttler, will never get a better chance to establish themselves at this level.
The worry, of course, is that the likes of Buttler will do well against relatively modest opposition and then get found out when Australia visit next summer. I call it the Gary Ballance rule. This is exactly what happened to Jos in his first stint in test cricket in 2014-15, and my gut tells me that exactly the same thing will happen again.