English Cricket: Problems, Observations, Solutions?

For anyone unusually young, or with a poor memory, it could seem strange that there was a time within easy recall that English cricket seemed to be in terminal decline.  And in the mid-nineties it became fashionable to look to Australia for the answers, since, at the time, they did everything so much better than we in England did.

In this piece, written for Cricket Lore in 1997, I fell headlong into that trap, but it’s not something that I’m ashamed of.  It was just how virtually everybody seemed to think in those days.

To my shame I have a vivid memory of sitting in a service station on the M5 on the way back from a rugby match in Gloucester a matter of days before England subsided to 2 for 4 on the first morning of their Test with South Africa in Johanesburg in November 1999.  I can hear myself telling my friend that I can’t see England winning the Ashes back in my lifetime.  As I was only thirty-three at the time I may have been tempting fate, but I was probably just getting carried away by the desolation which most followers of the England team felt at the time.  Less than six years later the return of the Ashes was being celebrated in Trafalgar Sqaure.

How the world turns.

Bill was a squat, trenchant Londoner.  You know the type: fifties, early sixties maybe, plenty of opinions.  Nice enough until you get on to the prejudices.  As he forcefully reminded me, HE’D worked in professional sport, so HE knew what the problems of the England team were.  They lacked pride, tenacity and discipline.  I felt that this was a narrow and simplistic view, and told him so.

But what did I know?  He’d been the physio at a ‘sleeping giant’ of London soccer for many years, so, in knowing what made professional athletes fail, he was clearly one up on me.

It was late December, 1994, and Shane Warne had further enhanced his burgeoning reputation by taking a hat-trick to send Mike Atherton’s England side spiralling to a 295 run defeat.  We were standing, with many others, in the middle of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  Some were looking at the pitch, trying to work out if it was as bad as the English batting had made it look (it wasn’t), others sought autographs or made plans for the cricketless afternoon.  I can only recall being too disappointed at that moment to notice much apart from the intimidating vastness of the Great Southern Stand, but I heard what Bill was saying, noted the exasperation in his voice, and made some heartfelt but ineffectual noises about the England players being the unfortunate victims of an outmoded cricket system.

We parted and I left the ground with someone else, cutting through the players’ area, where I noticed that there was a pistol range next door to the England dressing room.  I couldn’t resist making a dubious joke about Keith Fletcher shooting himself which summed up the blackness of our mood and raised a laugh.  I wandered desultorily around the Australian Gallery of Sport for a while, but I couldn’t get the events of the morning and the week out of my mind.  Not only was it transparently obvious that English cricket was stuck in the past, but it was equally clear that the Australian model was far ahead of us and going away.  A couple of days before, during an interval, I’d watched the Victorian Under-17 side mount a display of fielding which would have put virtually any county side to shame.  In the Test, McDermott, Fleming and Warne bowled with accuracy and penetration, while the English bowlers wrestled with the apparently alien concept of getting six balls an over on the cut strip.  Captivated children hung on Warne’s every word and deed and went home to practice their leg-breaks.  And everything about the game seemed bigger and more significant and more classless than it does in England, where football increasingly seems to be dominating the media, culture and national consciousness in an obsessional and unbalanced way (and I like the game).

I thought it couldn’t get much worse than that, but, a year later, in the aftermath of another three-day defeat at Newlands, Cape Town, I felt exactly the same.  Fortunately, I didn’t make it to Zimbabwe in December 1996, but I knew precisely what those who did were going through.

Despite the welcome improvement in the fortunes of the Test side when confronted by very weak opposition in New Zealand, and the encouraging performances during the 1996-97 winter of English teams at both Under-19 and A level, the harsh reality remains that the latter part of the Zimbabwe leg of the tour illustrated once again just how poor England can be, especially away from home.  Many reasons for this have been advanced, ranging from inconsistent and parochial selection to uninspiring and defensive captaincy.  There is enough validity in these views to provide material for several articles, although, for all his faults, I feel that Michael Atherton has chiefly failed to develop as a captain through never having commanded a really penetrative bowling attack nor experienced the confidence that consistent success builds.  The inescapable truth, though, is that England’s players are still not good enough to achieve regular victories at the game’s highest level, and, because of this, the system that produces them must stand condemned.  Nor will the 1997 home season be easy.  The likelihood of defeat by Australia is strong, and, whether or not probability becomes certainty, there is a desperate need to decide on the structural future of cricket in the country which invented the game and nurtured it through its formative years.

The County Championship, the fulcrum of English domestic cricket since the latter half of the last century, stands out today as an archaic survival of an era in which sport was a less lucrative and consequently less serious business than it is today (it can justifiably be argued that it’s all taken a bit TOO seriously, but the clock can’t be turned back).  Although many people, myself included, would subscribe to the view that cricket is fundamentally different and perhaps superior to all those other games people play, it is increasingly required to compete for public attention with a wide variety of leisure interests.  This is a game in which, year after year after year, the same teams play each other.  One side wins the title, one finishes at the bottom, and the rest finish wherever they happen to finish.  Few people, except for county members and any other waifs and strays who fetch up at County Championship matches from time to time, really care.  It is a competition in which many matches – you know the sort of start of September, mid-table, lets-go-through-the-motions game – seem to be played only as a pleasant visual backdrop for the conversations of disinterested businessmen on hospitality binges (and the increase in Wednesday starts in 1997 is hardly going to reduce that).  The overdue advent of four-day cricket has enhanced the quality of the competition, giving rise to such matches as the Warwickshire-Northants epic at Edgbaston in 1995.  But the championship still has too many teams, too many ordinary players and too few really important matches to provide either a good grounding for international cricket (the travails of a succession of modern English hopes, such as John Crawley, Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash, when first exposed to the harsh world of Test cricket, emphasize this) or to inspire any genuine interest among the public.  It may not only be the conservatives that will correctly point out that the championship is an intrinsically valuable competition which should not just be viewed as a breeding-ground for potential internationals.  But, like it or not, what profile cricket still has among the wider public in England is based almost exclusively on the performances – usually bad – of the national side, meaning that, if English cricket is to flourish in the new century, those performances must take priority over everything else within the English game.  I have a number of friends and colleagues who don’t follow cricket closely and who wouldn’t have a clue who won the championship last season, but who know damn well that England aren’t very good.  But numbered among them are sports enthusiasts who probably would take some genuine interest in the game if England could win a few Test matches and if the championship incorporated a greater degree of modern sporting realism, by which, of course, I am referring to promotion and relegation.

Some may be horrified by such heresy, but wouldn’t you rather see a few more matches that actually MEAN something?  And, if there are any county cricketers reading this, wouldn’t you rather play in a few more matches that actually mean something?

A number of alternative options have been advanced for reform of the County Championship and the cricket programme of which it remains the central part.  I strongly agree with the proposals outlined by Eric Midwinter and the editor in an earlier issue of Cricket Lore, which stressed the need for both a two-division championship and the introduction of regional cricket to serve as a bridge between that competition and Test cricket.  These articles also explained how such a comprehensive reorganization of the game might be adapted to the structure of a typical English season.  Such a system would hopefully have the effect of reducing the extent of the physical demands on county professionals, investing each championship match with greater significance and allowing the players more time to work on their technical deficiencies than is currently the case.  Of course, close regulation of player movement would ideally be necessary to ensure that those counties in the Second Division were not denuded of their talent by richer and more prominent neighbours, but, in practice, this would undoubtedly be difficult.  Whatever the case, such clubs would have to concentrate their energies on youth development within their own boundaries to an even greater extent than is now the case.  Indeed, successful youth programmes would become a priority for survival, with the fight for promotion and career advancement providing an additional stimulus to aspiring professionals.

To take a supporting example from a different sport, it is surely more than coincidence that the climb from mediocrity to European pre-eminence of English rugby union since 1987 has run concurrently with a series of radical alterations to the way in which the club game is contested and national representative sides prepared.  Although the international contexts in which the sports operate are different, there is much that English cricket can learn from the recent experiences of rugby, especially with reference to the extended benefits of greater competitiveness and elitism at domestic level.

With regard to the other central part of the English cricket system, I wholeheartedly subscribe to the orthodox view that the amount of limited-over cricket that English professionals play has had a more detrimental effect on contemporary playing standards than anything else.  It is a commonplace that the Sunday League and its relatives have given rise to a generation of bowlers who value negativity and parsimoniousness above the taking of wickets, batsmen who cannot build an innings and a variety of ‘bits and pieces’ all-rounders, who exhibit both these characteristics and consequently struggle to make an impression in the first-class game. Paradoxically, both radicals and conservatives have seemed to be in favour of reducing the number of one-day competitions, but, given their ability to attract spectators and, more importantly, revenue, in a manner the traditional game cannot, the question of how this can be done is a complex one.  There is much to be said for the editor’s suggestions regarding the use of rule alterations to establish a fairer balance between bat and ball, but, while this is especially true of the proposal that bowlers be granted an extra over for each wicket taken, one continues to wonder if this is a radical enough solution.  One can’t fail to welcome the proposed end to the absurdity of playing a one-day game during a championship match, but, at the risk of bringing the wrath of the average county treasurer down on one’s head, it has to be asked whether it might not be possible to abandon the Sunday League altogether.  This is especially true in the light of Stephen Fay’s article in Wisden Cricket Monthly (February 1997), which indicated that, because the preponderance of their income comes directly from the ECB and is firmly based on Test match receipts, the counties ‘do not need the Sunday League to stay in business’.  If this were to happen, the one-day element of the domestic structure could then focus on the two senior competitions (with no zonal rounds in the Benson and Hedges Cup), at least one of which should be played according to the precise regulations currently in force in international limited-over cricket.

In its early years, John Player League cricket had an important effect in attracting a new audience to the game, and, while this is unquestioned, one’s feeling now is that this effect may have run its course, not least because the competition is irregularly covered by terrestrial television.  Regardless of its aesthetic merits, the switch to coloured clothing from 1993 appears to have been a marketing success, but should this have any relevance to the continuation of the league?  If lost revenue from merchandise is felt to be a problem, the NatWest Trophy or Benson and Hedges Cup can easily be played in colours.  Personally, I’m more worried about the quality of the cricket and its broader effects.

If, as one suspects, this would be unacceptable to the counties, a reasonable compromise would be to adopt the editor’s proposed system of one knock-out competition – with a greatly expanded competitive base – and a two-division limited-over league.

With all this said, I’d be guardedly in favour of the staging of more limited-over internationals in this country.  They have wide public support, England currently appear to need all the practice they can get, and they would presumably go some way towards making up any shortfall in revenue caused by the cessation of the Sunday League, while hopefully attracting new spectators to the sport.

Few aspects of the on-going debate about the future of cricket in England excite such passionately polarized opinions as the question of non-English players and their future role in the English game.  It presently appears as though an increasing number of observers are starting to take the view that such players have had a detrimental effect on the development of young English professionals by denying them places in county sides.  My own feeling is that, although this may have been the case in the years when counties routinely employed more than one overseas player, their effect has diminished in importance in recent years.  In any case, I’ve always felt that if a young English player is really good enough he’ll force himself into his county’s first team no matter who’s in his way.  Often those who have fallen by the wayside through lack of opportunity may have been denied those opportunities as much through their counties’ reliance on older English players serving their time and waiting for their benefit as through the malign influence of foreign talent.  The best way to avoid this in future may be through a wholesale re-assessment of the concept of professionalism in the English game, a very broad issue which will be considered in greater detail later.

The crux of the overseas player problem these days is that counties, increasingly unable through the continually expanding international calendar to sign the very best talent from abroad, are content to make do with younger, less established players, whose experiences in England act as a valuable part of their development.  More and more of these cricketers are Australian: they include Michael Bevan, Shane Lee, Stuart Law and Brendon Julian, who was only signed by Surrey in 1996 when a deal with Brian McMillan was blocked by the South African authorities.  Such players, good though they undoubtedly are, are unlikely to provide the type of focus for younger players’ development that Michael Holding and Mohammed Azharuddin did in Dominic Cork’s formative years at Derbyshire, or Martin Crowe did for Somerset’s younger players in 1984.  Nor are their names known to the wider sporting public in the way that those of Richards or Hadlee, Imran or Garner, once may have been, and are consequently less likely to attract additional interest from the uncommitted spectator.

The experience of the former Gloucestershire player Andrew Symonds is slightly different but equally instructive.  Symonds was born in England in 1975, but, because of his prolonged Australian upbringing, he ought never to have been regarded as anything other than an overseas player, certainly after his rejection of a place on the England A tour to Pakistan in 1995-96. However, the accident of his Birmingham birth meant that his county could field him together with their nominated overseas players – Javagal Srinath and Courtney Walsh – in 1995 and 1996, thus reducing again the first team places available to their younger staff members.  With his inevitable and overdue declaration for Australia, this phase of his career has come to an end, but his time in county cricket points to the way in which one county – however naive they may have been – was happy to place short-term self-interest above the development of English talent.

In conclusion, the idea of setting some sort of mandatory minimum experience requirement for overseas professionals is an attractive one, but one has one’s doubts about the practicality of attempting to impose extra regulations on the dealings of counties in this area.  There are too many variables involved, and, in the short term, we are probably stuck with what we have.  But one thing is well worth remembering: players such as Bevan, Lee, Law and Symonds may return with Australian sides in the future to cash in on their experience and bite the hand that fed them.  And, knowing Australians, they’ll do it hard and they’ll do it well.

A further facet of the debate on the future development of English professional cricket is the question of how, by whom, and indeed whether, the players are employed.  Another handicap against which English Test sides have increasingly struggled is the fact that the players that comprise them are employed by their county cricket clubs.  The teams opposing them – Australia and South Africa are good if well-worn examples – often consist of players who are contracted to their national cricket authority, which therefore has the power to dictate how much cricket they play when they are not representing their nation.  When England were touring South Africa during the winter of 1995-96, attention was drawn to the fact that the home side’s leading seam bowlers, Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock, were prevented by the UCBSA from playing for their respective provincial teams, Free State and Natal, when the sides opposed each other in an important Castle Cup match that happened to fall between the second and third matches of the Test series.  In England, by contrast, the national board has no authority over its members in this area, and, although there is clearly an increasing awareness of the problem, it remains to be seen whether the ECB’s offer of compensatory payments to clubs if they rest Test players has any effect.  Much will depend on where the counties concerned are positioned in the table at the time: if Derbyshire are in contention for the title again in 1997 they’ll want Dominic Cork to pound the Racecourse Ground turf as much as possible, regardless of what the England management think.  Cork, a tremendously enthusiastic natural cricketer and proud competitor, will doubtless be happy to do so, but, as a man of just twenty-five who has already suffered a number of injury problems, his long-term fitness for Test cricket ought perhaps to be a more important consideration than the short-term success of his club.  I firmly believe that a system of national contracts to accompany the concomitant alterations to the system discussed earlier is worthy of serious consideration, but, again, the chances of the counties agreeing to it appear remote.

However, while accepting this, I would go further by suggesting that a movement towards the centralization of the employment of our leading players could be accompanied by a more radical examination of the way in which their wages are paid at county level.  Too many ordinary players who would have little chance of earning a living from the game in a less protected cricketing environment are cushioned by the sinecures of the county contract, the benefit system and the sponsored car.  An extensive de-professionalization of cricket at county level, accompanied by the alterations to the County Championship discussed earlier and an upgrading of England’s appallingly weak recreational game, could go some way towards encouraging the development of the type of ultra-competitive system that exists in Australia, with greater emphasis likely to be placed on the development of youth than on the maintenance of mediocrity.  Australian district cricket contains many very good players who have played Sheffield Shield cricket but have rapidly been replaced by younger counterparts when their form has faltered at first-class level.  Often, the mere suspicion of greater potential seems enough for a young, talented and technically proficient Australian to be given his opportunity in preference to an older player.  A ruthless system, but one that encourages excellence and allows the replaced player a possible route back into first-class cricket via consistent achievement at club level.  In England, many relatively poor players continue to draw an income from the game because clubs are happier to trust their consistent ordinariness over the longer-term potential of an emerging youngster.  It is my contention that a combination of the county contract system and the innate conservatism of the English cricket administrator tends to influence the actions of counties in this area, and, if steps can be taken to reduce the influence of either of these factors, they should at least be considered.

To sum up, the root of the problem, as in most aspects of the decline of the English game, is the fact that the interests of the counties are required by the system to be placed above those of the national team.  Although the traditions of county cricket demand respect, it has to be remembered that the continued financial viability of the clubs is dependent upon what happens at international level.  Unfortunately, the counties have largely been able to ignore the decline of the England team because the fairness and appreciation of the English cricket-lover has meant that there has not been a pronounced fall in Test match attendances in England, despite the poor quality of the national team.  The last two Ashes series contested here, in 1989 and 1993, have seen Australia dominate to a vast extent, but the grounds have always been packed to the seams (and they weren’t all businessmen looking for a free lunch).  Things seem likely to be much the same in the summer of 1997 and beyond, meaning, regrettably, that the chances of meaningful change (unless the much-vaunted Lord MacLaurin can succeed where others have failed) in the near future appear as slim as ever.

Central to any discussion of the problems and dilemmas confronting English cricket is the subject of youth development.  The fact that the performances of England sides at Under-19 level, after years in which they were mediocre at best, have recently begun to improve, appears to suggest that the state of the nation is relatively healthy.  Results on recent A team tours have also been impressive, having improved sharply once the selectors realized that the best way to ensure success was to pick young, hungry players rather than older time-servers.  The impression created is not entirely illusory, and it is certainly true that, for most of our best young players, the problems really start when they join county clubs.  There are, however, various ways in which the structure and effectiveness of our youth development can be improved and numerous worries that need to be addressed.

As Eric Midwinter has noted, the fact that few state schools now play cricket is of less importance in the decline of English cricket than is usually thought to be the case.  In reality they probably never did play as much as people think, and any loss of opportunity that has occurred has been compensated for by clubs that ‘…have taken seriously the responsibility of building youth and junior sections’.

From my own experience I can cite Sunbury Cricket Club, on the fringes of south-west London, which has operated an increasingly extensive and successful series of age-group teams since the late seventies, recently producing for Middlesex players of the quality of Richard Johnson and the hugely promising David Nash.  However, one suspects that the majority of children who attend such clubs have some prior family association with, or interest in, cricket.  This means that, unless they are fortunate enough to attend an independent school or one of the few state schools that still plays cricket, a large number of potential cricketers may have little or no exposure to the game and its charms, especially given the number of alternative pursuits competing for their attention.  It’s hard to escape the impression that those in charge of the English game don’t realize how hard they need to work to win and maintain the interest of the young.  And their task isn’t going to get any easier.

At a more exalted level, the efficiency of the system of talent identification that currently exists is clear.  However, there would appear to be persuasive arguments in favour of both the greater use of extended matches at junior levels and the establishment of a national cricket academy similar to that which has operated with conspicuous success in Australia since 1988.

Although there have recently been some limited moves in the right direction at Under-19 level, too many junior representative games are still subject to over restrictions on both teams and bowlers.  It is crucial that young cricketers are introduced as early as possible – Under-13 would certainly not be too soon – to the concepts of the longer bowling spell and the two-innings match, together with the tactical variations that accompany them.

As has been said, regardless of the quality of cricket that they have played as juniors, the development of the best such players is often retarded when they reach their counties, where they find themselves occasionally appearing on a Sunday while they wait for a senior player’s benefit to come round.  Cricket is a particularly technically and intellectually demanding sport, and, rather than stagnating in their county’s second team, it is vital that the best players produced by such organizations as ESCA and the wider Development of Excellence scheme – currently Shah, Nash, Sales et al – should have the opportunity to accelerate and broaden their development as they reach the most important stage of their careers.  The academy would provide technical advice and guidance on fitness, nutrition and media relations but, perhaps most importantly, it should allow its players the opportunity to compete regularly against good quality opposition in prolonged contests, something which they will frequently lack if they stay with their counties.  The Australian academy conducts an annual programme of both limited-over and three and four day matches, typically against state second elevens and colts sides, in addition to an annual match with a touring team and often an external tour.  I would envisage something similar for an English academy: tours and tourist matches would be a pre-requisite and it could also take over the matches against counties that are pointlessly contested by the universities, whose continued first-class status is another archaic shibboleth which should be consigned to posterity as soon as possible.

Such an institution would be part of the proposed national sports academy, and could be supported by a network of regional centres based on county clubs, of which Somerset’s Centre of Cricketing Excellence could be the prototype.

However, such a system would have to be supported by an increased willingness on the part of the counties to field younger players whose chances of success in the short-term may be uncertain, in preference to older ones from whom a certain level of performance, however ordinary, is easier to guarantee.

The problems of English cricket are based upon the conservatism of its administrators and the fact that any radical change to its structure has proved impossible to achieve because of the inordinate influence of the counties, which, not unnaturally, look to protect their own interests whenever possible.  There is also, in too many areas of the game, an impression of head-in-the-sand old-fashionedness which seems designed to say to outsiders: ‘This game’s our affair. People like you don’t understand it. Now keep out’.  As an example, regardless of one’s views on the democratic merits of the influence which MCC still wields within the game, how is anyone supposed to take seriously an institution which, in the 1990s, continues to deem women unworthy of membership?  Such attitudes represent a microcosm of what those of us who believe that the English game needs to be modernized (and who believe it can be done without losing sight of the values and inherent beauty that make it the greatest game of all) are confronted with.  It remains to be seen whether the formation of the ECB and the appointment of Lord MacLaurin will alter this impression of decay and inertia, but it appears vital to me that those in charge of the game become aware of the need to place the success of the England team above all other considerations and to create a more positive and youth-orientated image for the sport.  That this is desperately required is confirmed by the experience of an Australian colleague who has recently come to live in England.  She has told of how her young son has lost much of the passion for cricket built up during his Sydney childhood because none of his new friends is remotely interested in the game.  Of course, they’re all obsessed with football, and it saddens me deeply to compare this with the enthusiasm for cricket that I witnessed among the young in both Australia and South Africa.

Maybe, one day, I’ll return to Australia to see a young, dynamic, England team regain or retain the Ashes.  I’m not particularly confident, but I hope it happens sooner rather than later. England beating Australia on their own soil?

I’m sure Bill would drink to that.

Cricket Lore, Volume 3, Issue 1, June 1997