Alex Massie

English cricket is too glass half-empty for its own good

English cricket is too glass half-empty for its own good
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There is, let us be honest, a certain kind of England supporter who derives some cheerful satisfaction from disaster and weak-minded capitulation. Many England cricket supporters - for it is summer and time to put away minor matters such as Brexit and concentrate instead on more substantial civilisational matters - are naturally crepuscular, forever looking forward to the dying of the light.

And why not? There is much to be said for being an Eeyore, especially if - as sometimes seems to be the case - being a Tigger is the only available alternative.

Nevertheless, it is always a mistake to take things too far. Today’s miserable collapse at Trent Bridge, where England have been beaten by 340 runs, losing twenty wickets inside 100 overs, is a case in point. The Jeremiahs and the saloon bar bores will be out in force, observing that (as is always the case) they were right and there’s no point in maintaining any sense of proportion or perspective on anything.

Michael Vaughan, the former England captain, is one of those saloon bar stalwarts. On Test Match Special this morning he was, once again, bemoaning the allegedly unbridgeable gap in standard between county and test match cricket. The answer, as is always the case, lies in centralising English cricket still further. A smaller county championship, or - who knows? - its replacement by a series of “concentrated” region-based fixtures would do wonders for the standard of English test cricket.

As always, it is important to remember the rules: county cricket much take the blame when England lose but it may never, ever, be allowed even part of the credit when England win. The dear old dame is always the problem, never even part of the solution. We are not producing enough players because there are too many players.

The other rule to be remembered is that if something is done one way in Australia it should be done in some similar way in England. There is a deep-rooted insecurity at the heart of English cricket. One which always assumes solutions must come from elsewhere and acts on the presumption that the peculiar and particular structures and rhythms of English cricket must be anachronistic, illogical, and an impediment to progress.

During the long years of the Australian Supremacy - from Taylor to Ponting - even so-called traditionalists could afford some sympathy with this view. Some reforms were sensible and even necessary. The introduction of central contracts for England players helped; so too did the decision to split the county championship into two divisions, a move that ensured more competitive cricket for more counties for more of the summer. The counties, so often caricatured as stick-in-the-muds, accepted all of this and more.

And the counties, in concert with the ECB, were pioneers too. England created Twenty20 cricket and, despite much mucking about with the format and structure of the English season, the format has thrived. Crowds for this year’s NatWest Blast are up on last year’s - Somerset have sold nearly all their tickets - which in turn were massively up on the previous years. Obviously this kind of success cannot continue which is one reason why the ECB has bought-off the counties and plans to introduce a new “city” or “franchise” based T20 competition from 2020.

This, we are told, will win a new audience for cricket by limiting the numbers of people able to attend cricket. But it took no great powers of analysis to appreciate that where the abbreviated format led, the longer game would follow. If an eight team competition is right for T20, might it not also be right for the four-day game? Of course this begs the question but that’s the way this game must be played.

That’s where we will be headed, however, mark my words. There are too many counties consuming too great a share of English cricket’s resources. Why must we continue to put up with Northamptonshire or Derbyshire or Worcestershire? What do they bring to the table? Well, in the case of two of those, nothing but the development of the last three England spinners capable of actually taking wickets. Would Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann have made it without being able to learn their craft on spin-friendly wickets at Wantage Road? Would Moeen Ali have become a test player without the second-chance he gained at Worcester?

And, blimey, think of the good done to English cricket by the last *expansion* of the county championship: do the names Collingwood, Harmison, Stokes, Plunkett, Onions, Wood and Borthwick mean nothing? Would they all have played for England without the opportunity given to them by Durham’s elevation to first-class status? Perhaps you think they would have; I am not so sure.

Besides, it is not as though English cricket is enduring another of its periodic on-field crises anyway. England have not lost a home series since 2012. They have won five of the last seven Ashes series. They reached the final of the most recent ICC Twenty20 World Cup and the semi-finals of this year’s Champions Trophy. They were, not so long ago, ranked as the best test team in the world. The struggle to find an opening partner for Alistair Cook and the difficultly in identifying a convincing candidate to bat at first-drop scarcely means all is unwell. Besides, almost every other test-playing country has questions of their own to answer and, hell, it is only a week since England routed South Africa at Lords. Fortune, like the press, is a fickle mistress however.

If the counties were not investing in academies and youth development, their critics might be on a better wicket. But they are. Runs - and wickets - in the county game are not the same as, or even a guarantee of, runs and wickets in test cricket but then again they never have been. Sometimes a player steps up; sometimes they don’t and cricket is a game with failure baked-in. That is to say, failure is normal and success is the exception to the rule.

Sometimes, however, you gain the sense that the people who run English cricket know the price of absolutely everything but the value of the square root of Chris Martin’s career batting average. Bugger all, in other words.

Cricket needs exposure more than it needs any structural revolution. Centralisation in cricket, as in politics, brings benefits until the point at which it ceases to and the countering of ex-pros who never much enjoyed county cricket, finding it a pale cousin of the real thing, doesn’t change that. The strength of English cricket should lie in the counties who have, after all, been stewarding and promoting the game for nearly 150 years. Those traditions mean something and have some value; the game and its administrators should appreciate that.

The glass is always half-empty for English cricket but, even as there is pleasure to be had in bemoaning yet another feeble collapse to add to the tottering pile of fondly-remembered past disasters, there’s no need to forget the value of perspective too. The game is not broken; it is not in crisis. The glass is half-full too.

The silly sods just need to bat better.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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