The dire performance of the England team in Australia this winter is arguably the worst ever Ashes performance by England, both because of the lack of spirit and the mediocre quality of the Australian side. When England lost 5-0 in 1920/21 that was in the context of timeless Tests, a very strong Australian side and an England still suffering from the deprivation of four years of war. When the 206/7 side lost 5-0 it was to a still very strong Australian side with Warne and McGrath leading the charge.
The utter hopelessness of the English display in the current series is something new, arguing for a lack of resolution amongst modern England cricketers. The batting in particular in this series has been flimsy to the point of destruction. The statistics tell their own story. In the 1920/21 series English batsmen scored four hundreds and seventeen fifties with Hobbs scoring 505 runs average 50, with Hendren and Douglas exceeding 300 runs. In the 2006/7 series there were three centuries and eleven fifties by England with Pietersen and Collingwood exceeding 400 runs and Bell scoring more than 300. The 2013/14 series have produced one century and ten fifties by England with no batsnman exceeding 300 runs. After Ben Stokes’ 120, the next highest score is a measly 87 by Joe Root in the second Test. In 1920/21 there was a good deal of batting resolution despite facing one of the most frightening of fast bowling pairs in Jack Gregory and Ted MacDonald; in 2006/7 there were batsmen offering some resistance, but in 2013 the entire batting line-up looked demoralised and embarrassingly unable to cope with a single genuinely fast bowler in Mitchell Johnson.
What has gone so spectacularly wrong? I would suggest this:
1. A lack of first class cricket because of central contracts. This affects the development of players if they reach the Test side early and means that players generally have little practice outside of Tests if they are Test regulars.
2. Central contracts give far too much security. England have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. Before central contracts players were picked and discarded with gay abandon; since central contracts players have been given far too much latitude after they have repeatedly failed. Central contracts are also too generous, particularly for those who do not play Test cricket regularly. Some players will be motivated by playing for England regardless of their wealth, but it is irrational to believe that all or even most will not suffer some degree of loss of competitive desire.
3. The wholesale employment of foreigners in county cricket. This both restricts opportunities for English players in general and young English players in particular and gives foreign players invaluable experience in playing first class cricket in English conditions and of English society at large. This experience is invaluable when foreign players come in touring parties to this country to play England. In addition, the large number of foreign players in country cricket reduces the sense of Englishness in the county sides where the English players must often feel that they are just one ethnic group amongst many. County cricket has not reached the dire state of football but it is going that way. No other Test playing nation allows the wholesale importation of foreigners into their domestic first class game. There is also the fact that foreign players take a good deal of money out of the English game, not least because they are more highly paid on average than English players. That money could be used to employ far more young English players on county staffs than the number of foreigners currently employed because the young English players would be much cheaper.
4. The employment of foreigners in the England side. The likes of Pietersen and Trott cannot by definition feel patriotic when they play for England. The presence of such players will also inhibit any display of patriotism amongst the English players in these pc times. How could Cook say to his team, “Right let’s go out and do it for England? “ The ambience of such a fractured England side will inevitably engender a feeling amongst even some the English players that they are playing for themselves not the country.
5. The employment of foreigners in the management and coaching of English players. This will also inhibit any display of English patriotic feeling. However competent such people are, their desire for English success can only be driven by a desire to forward their own careers as managers and coaches. That will tend to make them more reckless than an Englishman in such posts would be, because they would be lacking the natural rein on behaving recklessly which anyone managing or coaching their own national team will possess. Take bowling coaches. Both James Anderson and Stephen Finn have been persuaded to radically change their bowling styles and in each case the effect has been unhappy. Anderson lost his way for a number of years before reverting to something like his natural action; Finn is still struggling with the new run-up and delivery position he has been converted to. I am not suggesting that the coach in either case has consciously done something which would damage the bowler’s performance, merely saying that a foreign coach will be more likely to behave recklessly than they would be if coaching their own national side.
6. The lack of adequate first class cricket outside of Test matches when England is playing abroad. This means that players who are not regulars in the Test side are reduced to spectators for most of the tour and established players going through a bad patch have few opportunities to recover their form in matches outside of the Tests. The England management should arrange for at least four first class matches before the first Test and one further match between each Test after the first Test.
7. County Championship matches are squeezed into the beginning and end of the season. This reduces the interest for spectators in general and members in particular and lessens the opportunity for spin bowlers. These matches should be spread evenly throughout the season.
8. To ensure that cricketers are not overworked and the season does not become overly long, there should be the Championship (17 games of 4 days = 68 days), a T20 competition played as a league (17 games = 17 days and there could still be a finals day with the top four teams battling it out) and a fifty overs competition on a straight knock-out basis with the bottom four teams in the Championship in the previous season playing one of the bottom four in a preliminary round to reduce the number of teams to 16 (a maximum of 5 days assuming one of the preliminary round winners made the final). That would be at most 90 days of cricket. To that should be added a four day game against the tourists with the strongest side put out by the county both as a courtesy to the tourists and as a bargaining chip to getr proper practice matches when England tour. I would also favour a North v South game (4 days) to occupy the place in the middle of the season . The universities should no longer be first class because they have shown themselves over many years to be far too weak to have any pretensions to such as status. If a maximum of around 100 days cricket in a season was established that could be fitted comfortably in a season starting on 1st May and ending on 15th September, a total of 138 days.
9. The split into two divisions of the County Championship and other competitions operating in leagues two divisions should be ended. If you have more than one division it by definition forms a hierarchy . If there is no serious difference in quality there is no point in splitting it into two divisions. That is the case here. Claims that the first division is considerably stronger than the second division are bogus as can be seen by the success of promoted sides from the second division being successful in the first division immediately and successful first division teams in one season being demoted the next. Lancashire were county champions one season and demoted the next to provide a recent outstanding example. However, the most important drawback of having two divisions is that spectators (and members in particular) will only be able to see at most eight other sides in a season playing their county. That is a great disincentive for people not to take out or renew memberships. Much better to have all the counties in one division to allow members the chance of following their county against all other counties once a season
10. Simplifying the fixture list. Implementing 7,8,9 would allow the fixture list to be greatly simplified. Half the Championship matches could played at home one season and the same fixtures played away the next season. For example, Surrey would play Yorkshire at home in the first season and Yorkshire away in the second season. The same could apply to the T20 League. Indeed, to make things really simple the T20 games could be played in the same week as the Championship match between the same counties. For example, Middlesex could play Essex at Lords over five days with the T20 game taking place on a Friday evening and the Championship match running from the Saturday to Tuesday. Such a change would remove the chaos of the fixture list inflicted on cricket followers in recent years. That might improve the number of spectators generally and raise county memberships. It would also reduce the burden of travelling on players and reduce the cost to the counties of scurrying backwards and forwards.
11. The county pitch inspection regime is too concerned with protecting batsmen from pitches which assist bowlers. There is also a special prejudice against spin bowlers in the inspection regime. If twenty wickets fall to pace bowlers on the first day of a Championship match, the inspectors may or may not deem the pitch unfit: if those twenty wickets fall to spinners you can more or less guarantee that the pitch will be deemed unfit. The pitch inspection regime should be ended and counties allowed to prepare pitches as they choose. A variety of pitches (and more demanding pitches generally) will improve batting techniques and most probably lead to a resurgence of spin bowling which will make the game more interesting.
12. There is a lamentable lack of effort put into promoting the county game. The ECB seems to think their remit is simply to make money from the England side to keep the counties afloat, while the counties lack the money to seriously promote county cricket. Here is a cost free scheme for promoting Championship cricket directly. There are hundreds of thousands of tickets sold in England every year for matches involving the England side. Allow anyone with such a ticket to show the ticket stub at any county championship match and gain a day’s free admission for an adult and two children. It is a beautifully simple scheme which would cost precisely nothing. There would be no further issuing of tickets, no need to take money at the county ground. All that would need to be done would be for someone to take the ticket stubs off people as they entered the county match.
What needs to be done – a summary
– Modify central contracts so that the three-quarters of the player’s income comes directly from playing for England.
– Make those under central contracts play county championship matches wherever possible.
– Ban all foreign players from county cricket.
– Employ only English players in the England side.
– Employ only Englishmen as coaches and managers.
– Make certain adequate first class matches outside of Tests is available to England touring sides.
– Spread Championship matches evenly throughout the season.
– Reduce the number of county competitions to three: the Championship, a T20 league and 50 over knock-out competition.
– Revert to a single division County Championship and T20 league.
– Simplify the fixture list .
– Allow counties to prepare pitches as they choose.
– Promote the county game as suggested in 12.