England cricket supporters are well used to looking forward to the dawn of a new era. The last seismic change came at the end of the last millennium, with the granting of central contracts to leading players, enabling decisions about workloads to be taken away from the counties, and the appointment of a foreign coach, Duncan Fletcher. The results were not immediate, but they were profound: bottom of the pile in 1999, England beat one of Test cricket’s greatest ever teams in the 2005 Ashes. For a few months in 2010-11, when they secured a rare overseas Ashes victory under Andrew Strauss, England themselves were top dog.
What has gone wrong since? We are talking here specifically about Test and first-class cricket – red ball cricket. This is important. Whatever people say about the declining significance of Test cricket in the face of the global short format franchises, it remains extremely popular in England. Test matches are frequently sell outs, certainly in London. Even the much derided four-day red County Championship, where physical attendances are often admittedly pitifully small, is keenly, even passionately followed. One would think that it would be a principal objective of the game’s governing body, the England and Wales Cricket Board, (“ECB”) to protect, safeguard and, yes, nurture, this unique heritage and, dread word, brand. Unfortunately the opposite has happened.
There have been three obvious contributors to red-ball decline in what is, in fairness, a complex situation.The first was the decision, ironically straight after the glorious summer of 2005, to remove cricket from terrestrial television. This decision, like everything else done by the ECB, was driven entirely by money. In a way one can understand it. Professional cricket is an expensive operation. Len Hutton’s team travelled to Australia in 1954-55 with a manager, to sort out the money, book the hotels and organise the cocktail parties, a masseur, and a baggage handler who doubled up as scorer. Joe Root’s 2021-22 team travelled with a back room staff as numerous as the players. Hutton’s team won and Root’s lost, but that’s another story.
People like me, and much younger than me, will have very happy memories of watching Test cricket on the telly. It was just always there. Generations of children and young people have been deprived of this easy access and cricket has suffered as a result. It has had direct and discriminatory results on cricket’s demographic makeup. What with the absence of cricket on free-to-air TV and the virtual disappearance of the sport from state schools, it is no accident that most of England’s young hopefuls – Zak Crawley, Ollie Pope, Ollie Robinson, Harry Brook – are white and privately educated.
A second factor was the direct result of England’s hopeless campaign in the 2015 50-over (white ball) Men’s World Cup, under Eoin Morgan. Strauss, then the managing director of the England men’s team, decreed that there had to be a focus on white ball cricket to improve the situation. An Australian, Trevor Bayliss, a white ball specialist, was recruited as coach. Nobody could say this didn’t work. Right from the start, the one-day series against New Zealand in 2015, the form of Morgan’s newly focussed team was a revelation. Then of course there was the World Cup title of 2019.
England’s Test team remained difficult to beat at home but the warning signs were there. They won the 2015 Ashes, the fourth home win in a row, but they suffered heavy defeats in the two London Tests; they drew in 2019 mainly thanks to Ben Stokes’ amazing innings at Headingley. Even after the World Cup there was often the feeling that Morgan was more likely to be given his strongest side than Root.
The third factor was a direct consequence of the hugely successful Indian Premier League (“IPL”). The English sort of invented T20 and there was a feeling that they deserved a “world class” competition. The Vitality Blast, to use its latest incarnation, didn’t quite cut the mustard, featuring jobbing professionals from the eighteen first-class counties rather than the international glitterati.
The answer was The Hundred, a new format with a new vocabulary, designed apparently to woo mums and kids who aren’t bright enough to understand the traditional formats, including T20. The ECB have spent an absolute fortune on it, and it basically has to succeed. The pandemic prevented its intended introduction in 2020. The ECB couldn’t wait any longer. The first tournament in 2021 seems to have gone quite well, with some fine performances by – well, jobbing English professionals. The women’s tournament was an outstanding success.
The Hundred remains the greatest threat and obstacle to the success of the England men’s Test team.This is because it has accentuated a trend the ECB was already initiating, that of moving red ball cricket to the margins. It is quite often the case now that there is little or no red ball cricket in July and August. And cricket is a summer game. Here we are in the middle of May and the Championship campaign is more than a third completed. Many of the remaining games will be played in September snd October. That cannot be good for the development of Test cricketers.
Anyway, are things about to change. Well, who knows? Things can’t get any worse. In April, after a tour of the West Indies which in its own way had been as lamentable as the catastrophic 4-0 loss to Australia, the English men’s game was looking like cricket’s equivalent to the Marie Celeste. The ECB had no chairman, managing director Ashley Giles and coach Chris Silverwood, had been fired, and Root had resigned as captain. What next?
Well now we know. There is a new managing director of men’s cricket, the former Kent and England batsman and Sky pundit Rob Key.
There was something very refreshing about this news. Some people said he has no truck with corporate gobbledygook, which is probably true. But that is more of an issue with ECB CEO Tom Harrison, who will be stepping down in June, than it was with Giles. (Giles had a really difficult job managing things during COVID, but he made some poor decisions). Key is manifestly sensible, knowledgeable and plain speaking, and he is popular. It really could work. It helps that nobody really seems to know what the job actually involves. Is there a job description? Clearly the right man can make a difference, as Strauss did. One thing the managing director does is appoint other people to do equally important and sometimes equally nebulous jobs. Key has got off to a cracking start by appointing Stokes as red ball captain and New Zealander Brendon McCullum as red ball coach. We await the appointment of a new chief selector.
Of course there is nothing nebulous about being captain of England, far from it. But being head coach is a little more hard to define. I think we can assume that McCullum won’t be sorting out Rory Burns’ technical issues. He is unlikely to be chief selector, not after the Silverwood experience. He won’t be in charge of things on the field, that will be Stokes. Organising nets? Yes, maybe. There are probably all sorts of things he will be doing. What is certain is that, if England keep losing it will be his fault. Generally, as things stand there is a huge amount of goodwill towards all three of them. McCullum was a genuinely outstanding cricketer and a fine leader of a group of very good cricketers he turned into an almost great team with far more limited resources than will be at his disposal now. He has already made an immense contribution to English cricket, because it was he who pointed his great mate Morgan in the right direction after the 2015 World Cup fiasco.
Does it make any difference that none of these three men have any actual experience of what they are being asked to do? (Stokes has captained in one first-class match, McCullum has only coached in the IPL, and Key has been a professional cricketer and media person.) I suspect not. Would Gary Kirsten or Graham Ford, immensely experienced red ball coaches, definitely do a better job than McCullum? Plenty of men have been appointed England captain with very limited experience; Ray Illingworth, arguably England’s greatest captain, had captained his county, Leicestershire, in seven first-class matches when he was appointed to lead England against West Indies in 1969. Of course he had an outstanding cricket brain. People say the same about Stokes. Key is bright enough to write his own job description, and comply with it, unless things really go off the rails.
So maybe things are on the up. But remember what everybody said after the Ashes debacle: there are no quick fixes. The men at the top have changed, and that is a good start. The players are the same.
It doesn’t matter how good a captain you are, if your players are not as good as the opposition you aren’t going to win many matches. Mike Brearley must be Illingworth’s main rival as England’s best captain. He never led England against the best side at the time, West Indies. He did captain in two Ashes series victories, 1977 (3-0) and 1978-79 (5-1). In 1979-80 Australia’s players who had played in Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket returned to the fold and there was a three match series, not part of The Ashes: Australia won 3-0.
Feature image shows (left to right) Rob Key, Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum
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