I have been watching English first class cricket since the 1950s. During the 2014 season I watched eight days of county cricket. The matches involved ten of the eighteen counties . These counties were evenly drawn from the first and second divisions of the County Championship.
There are many differences between the 1950s and now, but the most alarming changes are the decline in batting technique, scarcity of spin bowling and poor close catching amongst present day players.
Poor batting techniques
The inadequate techniques of modern batsmen never cease to amaze me. They are pathetically vulnerable to the short pitched ball, a failing made all the more dismaying because there is not a bowler in world cricket who could be described as having the extreme pace of a Tyson or Marshall and precious few who are fast in the sense that, for example, Statham was fast, that is quicker than fast medium but not hurtingly fast.
This must be down to the amount of protective equipment they wear, especially helmets. Before helmets batsmen had to make a choice. Hook or learn to sway or duck out of the way of bouncers or suffer serious injury. Some very good players very rarely hooked, for example, Bobby Simpson and John Edrich. Now every Tom Dick and Harry think they can hook and pull and most make a mess of it, frequently getting into trouble through hooking aerially or all too often being hit. All of this because they have never learnt to duck and sway. Most disturbing is the frequency with which even run-of-the-mill fast medium bowlers hit specialist batsmen on the helmet, either because they are inept at the strokes or because they simply do not seem to know how to duck or sway out of the way.
The second major problem with modern batting technique is the modern stance, which incidentally also contributes to the vulnerability against pace. The baseball-style stance is rapidly becoming normal, being virtually universal amongst those under the age of twenty five . For example, in the Middlesex v Warwickshire at Lords this year all eight players who got to the crease on the day I was there can bat and all had variations of the bat waving baseball stance – the Warwickshire reserve keeper McKay was the nearest to having an orthodox stance. Rikki Clarke – an immense and largely wasted cricketing talent – added to the bat waving with a crouch at the crease with legs as wide apart as Desperate Dan in the Dandy. Keith Barker wasn’t far behind him in outlandishness.
The ill result of these type of stances in twofold. First, they lock the player into a position from which he has to extricate himself before he can play his shot. Just microseconds to do that I know, but microseconds is all you have when facing anyone over medium pace. If the stance is of the upright type it puts the batsman in a position where forward play is physically difficult. This is very important because unless a batsman has a sound forward play technique he will always be vulnerable in England to the ball moving, especially off the pitch. Where the stance includes a forward lunge as used by for example Moeen Ali this is particularly disabling, because although it lessens the difficulty with forward play, it makes the batsman a sucker for the short ball.
There is a further problem with the baseball stance. Many batsman who adopt it – the ones with the upright bat waving tendency most noticeably – render the guard they had taken effectively redundant because they move so far from it. The upshot is batsmen often do not know where their off-stump is. (If someone doubts this I suggest that they sit in line with the wicket then next time they go to a county game or watches carefully on television. Both show the failing clearly).
The natural orthodox stance with the bat behind the rear foot both puts the batsman in the best position to form a stroke, keeps the body and head still and maintains the guard they have taken.
The diminishing amount and quality of spin bowling – see below – is also affecting seriously the technical ability of batsmen to play it, with the few quality spinners who have survived often making even the best Test players look rather stupid.
The death of spin bowling
There probably is not a modern county captain who understands how to use spinners. None seem to understand that spinners bowl best in tandem, each one helping the other by strangling scoring. None think of them as attacking bowlers. It is always assumed that they need a helpful pitch to bowl on. This is nonsense. Until the past twenty years or so, spinners would regularly bowl fifty per cent or more of the overs bowled in a day. Not infrequently they would come on as first change on a first morning. They would be expected to bowl for long periods on good pitches and restrain the scoring. Spinners would routinely operate in tandem.
Good bowlers can bowl regardless of the conditions. After the introduction of the new LBW law in 1935, which ostensibly disadvantaged leg spinners and advantaged offspinners, quality leg spinners who were established at the time the new LBW law was introduced continued to be highly successful way into the 1950s, for example Eric- Hollies, Doug Wright, Roly Jenkins, Freddie Brown , Jim Simms and Peter Smith..
Similarly, after restrictions were placed on the number of legside fielders behind the bat in the 1950s to render offspinners and inswing bowlers less capable of strangling runrates, quality offspinners who were established before the law change continued to be successful for many years after the law change, for example, Titmus, Shepherd, Allen, Mortimore, Langford, Illingworth .
In both instances the change in the law resulted the popularity of spin bowling styles changing so there was a decline in leg spinners emerging after the LBW change and fewer quality offspinners making their name following the restriction of leg-side fielders. In both cases the change happened because it was thought wrongly that the law change would make legbreak and offbreak bowlers much less effective.
In the eight days of championship cricket I watched this year not once has 30 overs of spin been bowled in the day and on only one occasion (Batty and Ansari for Surrey) have I seen spinners bowling in tandem for any length of time. A full day’s play between g Middlesex v Warwickshire yielded the first spin at 3 pm. Only 13 overs of spin bowled in the day . At the Surrey versus Derbyshire match at the Oval only two overs of spin were bowled on the day I attended.
All spinners are suffering, but young spinners are hardly being given a chance. This is partly because of the practice of playing only one specialist spinner in most county sides, but it is also a consequence of counties going for the safe option of choosing foreign spinners such as Patel of Warwickshire or an older English spinner, regardless of potential of the young spinner . For example, forty-year-old Gary Keedy played for Notts in the last few Championship matches of the season despite Notts having a very talented off-spinning allrounder in Sam Wood. Or how about Danny Briggs, the Hampshire slow left armer who has played for England in ODI and T20 cricket being left out because the Pakistani Imran Tahir was available.
There are other young spinners who have recently turned in good second eleven performances , but who have not been able to establish themselves in as Championship players, bowlers such as Lilley (ROB) of Lancs, Beer (LBG) of Sussex, Sykes (SLA) of Leicester, Taylor (ROB) of Hants, Craddock (LBG) of Essex, Leach (SLA) of Somerset and MacQueen (ROB) of Surrey. They need to be given a chance soon or else they will simply drift out of the first class game.
It is also worth wondering if spin bowling talent is simply being ignored. Nick Gubbins of Middlesex who made his Championship debut this year , took ten wickets cheaply in a second XI CC match with his leg spin in 2013, yet has not bowled much in second eleven games since nor in any of his first team Championship games.
Returning to uncovered pitches, ending pitch inspectors (see below), ensuring there are reasonable sized boundaries and restricting the weight of bats would all help to reinvigorate spin bowling in England.
Over zealous pitch regulation
A major part of the reason for the decline in spin is the interference of the ECB in pitch preparation. Until the Championship moved from 3-day to 4-day games counties could prepare pitches as they wished without any fear of having points deducted. Counties used to play to their bowling strength by preparing pitches to suit their bowlers. For example, in the 1950s if a team went to play Derby at Buxton they knew the pitch would be a seamer’s paradise to suit Les Jackson and Cliff Gladwin. If a county visited Bristol it was a fair bet the pitch would turn on the first morning for John Mortimer, David Allen and Sam Cook to work on. A visit to the Oval would guarantee a nightmare pitch which helped all of Surrey’s great attack of Bedser, Loader, Laker and Lock. Easy pickings you say? Yet Peter May averaged nearly 50 on it during the 1950s. Demanding pitches sort out the sheep from the goats.
Counties should be allowed to prepare their pitches as they see fit. Doubtless a cry would go up from the ECB that it would not produce cricket which prepared players to play for England. This is simple nonsense. In the 1950s, when bowlers were the most dominant in county cricket they had been since 1914, England enjoyed arguably its most successful decade, with no series being lost from the end of the 1950/51 Ashes series to the 1958/9 Ashes series.
The 1950s saw county cricket producing such players as players: May, Barrington, Graveney, Dexter, Cowdrey, Pullar, Richardson, Sheppard, Tyson, Trueman, Statham, Loader, Lock, Titmus, Illingworth and Appleyard, whilst players established before the 1950s such as Hutton, Washbrook, Compton, Bill Edrich, Bailey, Evans, Wardle, Alec Bedser continued to thrive. If English cricket did not reach the same general level after the 1950s, it was not because of pitches being too demanding for batsmen or overly easy for bowlers.
Pitches which give the bowler a chance do not create a false sense of ability in the bowler because the quality of the batsmen also improves as they learn to counter more difficult conditions. English bowlers had great success at Test level in the 1950s. No England bowler who played more than ten Tests in the decade ended with a Test average of over 30 and only Trevor Bailey (an all-rounder not a specialist bowler) had a Test average of more than 27 at the end of the 1950s. Laker, Lock, Wardle, Trueman , Appleyard and Tyson all had Test averages of under 22. This emphatically shows that having helpful pitches to bowl on in county cricket does not inflate judgements of their ability.
The other objection to doing away with pitch inspectors is that games would be over too quickly. This is easily countered. Many four day Championship games already finish early, a fair number of them within three days. It is also true that when Championship games were played over three days on uncovered pitches prepared as counties wanted to prepare them, a substantial proportion of games either resulted in draws or contrived finishes with declarations. Counties also have a vested interest in games not finishing early because it both reduces revenue at the gate and from catering and devalues county memberships.
There is no reason to believe that allowing counties to prepare pitches they choose would make a radical change in the length of matches. Moreover, by allowing the counties to prepare the pitches to suit their bowlers this would produce much more varied cricket than we presently see. That would be an attraction for the spectators.
The decline of close fielding
The outfielding may have improved in recent times, although I think much of this belief may arise from the spectacular nature of the slide tackle stop rather than any massive actual improvement in overall run-saving. What is indubitably poorer today is the close catching, especially slip catching. Why is this? I suspect the answer is very simple: the death of the specialist close catcher. In the 1950s and indeed for almost all of cricket’s first class history close catchers spent almost all their time in the same position. Who ever saw Cowdrey, Phil Sharp or Bobby Simpson anywhere but slip? This constant practice improved them and kept them sharp. These days fielders are frequently moved all over the place and the skill level in close positions is inevitably lowered. Come to think of it, this practice may also affect other positions. When did you last see a really top class cover?
The bogus nature of two divisional cricket
The introduction of two divisions into English cricket has three drawbacks:
- It is bogus. The oft made claim s by its supporters that the gap between the two divisions is massive goes against the facts, namely, the frequent changes in fortune from one season to the next of clubs, most notably demonstrated by Lancashire winning the Championship in 2012 and being relegated the next year. Unfortunately, many players buy into the propaganda and also think that the England selectors will not choose them if they play into the second division of the Championship. This is causing many of the best players from the smaller counties to leave for counties which are thought to have the best chances of remaining in division one. The move sometimes backfires as it has in the case of Nathan Buck who left Leicestershire for Lancashire at the end of the 2014 season and finds himself in the second division because Lancashire have been relegated once more. Nonetheless, it is possible that over time there really will be a large gap in quality opening up simply because of the propaganda that it already has done and the related idea that the England selectors favour division one players.
- The division of the Championship into two divisions means that cricket followers are deprived of seeing half the county teams if they go top watch the county they support.
- It complicates the fixture list – see below.
The chaotic fixture list
The 2014 fixture list was seriously defective because of the way in which Championship cricket was treated. The Championship season began on 6 April and ended on 26 September, a total of 172 or 24 weeks and 4 days.
Each county had to play only 16 Championship games, so spreading them fairly evenly between 172 days should have been a piece of cake. It did not happen. Instead half the Championship matches had been played by early June. The rate of Championship games slowed , Between 15 June and 24 July a mere 36 Championship games were played . But this was riches compared with what followed. Between 24 July and 15 August only a single round of Championship games was held. The rest of the Championship season was then crowded into September when four rounds were played. This dislocation of the Championship was compounded by many of the games starting on different days.
This unsatisfactory state of affairs was partly down to the wilful disregard for the Championship as a valuable thing in its own right. The limited overs completions were given unashamed priority. This showed most blatantly in the placing of the 50 overs competition in August which was the reason so little Championship was played in August. But the existence of two divisions in the Championship and the group organisation of the T20 and 50 over competitions also played a large part because they complicated matters. A team in one division would often have to play a T20 or 50 over game against a team from a different division of the County Championship.
What would be a better fixture list? I suggest this.
- The season should begin on 1 May and end on 18 September, a total of 140 days or 20 weeks.
- The Championship should revert to being a single division. With each county playing the others once.
- The T20 competition should be a league with each county playing the others once.
- Each of the seventeen championship games and seventeen T20 games to be played together. The T20 game would be played on the Friday immediately followed by the Championship game starting on the Saturday. For example, Yorkshire would play Lancashire at home with the T20 on a Friday and the Championship game on the Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. That would allow the players two days off on Wednesday and Thursday. Such a regime would capture the end of working week audience for the T20 and give two normally non-working days in the week to the Championship match.
As there are twenty weeks in the season there would be three weeks free . Those could be used to fit in a 50 overs knock out competition at the end of the season and a few matches against touring sides.
Championship cricket has a value in its own right
The County Championship has become diminished in the public’s eyes because the counties and administrators have too often taken the view that the completion is purely a breeding ground for the England team from which most of English cricket’s funding now comes. This attitude has been increasingly taken up by the mainstream media which has remorselessly concentrated ever more on the rapidly expanding number of international matches England plays whilst greatly contracting the coverage of county matches. The tabloids have more or less stopped covering Championship cricket , whilst even the broadsheets such as the Daily Telegraph no longer have match reports on every Championship game as they used to do. The one bright spot in the media gloom has been the BBC’s extensive commentary of Championship matches on Radio 5 extra in the past few years. However, there is no guarantee that will continue, or that BBC local radio will continue to cover matches.
The idea that the County Championship is simply or even primarily a training ground for England players is unsustainable. It may do service for a another decade or so but eventually it will die if that is the only message which goes out to the public. That is because it is an uninspiring idea which suggests that the Championship has no value in itself.
If County cricket dies it is difficult to see where the supply of players for the England side would come from. Out of city franchises? Regional teams? Back to the future with All-England elevens of various descriptions simply drawing players from club cricket and touring as a cricketing version of the Harlem Globe Trotters? ? Hardly viable? All of those possibilities would have far less resonance with supporters than the counties.
If the healthy condition of county cricket is the best guarantor for English cricket to be healthy, what can be done to keep it safe? At present Championship cricket is effectively never advertised to the general public or even to the cricket loving part of it. The ECB and the counties need to realise that spending a substantial part of the money they get from broadcasting rights on promoting Championship cricket would be money well spent. Make it more publicly visible not only would attendances rise but the mainstream media will be more likely to take an interest.
There is also a simple way of boosting Championship attendance which would cost next to nothing. Allow free entry to a Championship match for a day on the production of the ticket stub from an England game of any sort, Test, ODI or T20. As several hundreds of thousands of people go to watch England in England every summer , this could potentially boost Championship attendances very substantially even if people simply take the free day’s Championship cricket and do not go to other days for which they paid. Although there would be no entry money such spectators would boost sales of refreshments and purchases from the club shop. Moreover, the experience of a free day’s spectating could well result in people coming back to pay for entry in the future or even to take out county memberships. The scheme is worked out in detail here .
Increased attendances would make Championship cricket more attractive to the mainstream media and to sponsors. That is the bottom line both in terms of economics and the long term health of English cricket
But if Championship cricket is to be successfully promoted, it is essential that the counties ensure that they have the facilities to cope with decent size crowds, that the games are played throughout the season not crammed into the beginning and end of it, entry prices are reasonable – counties are starting to get too greedy – and the catering is both decent and not priced to cost an arm and a leg.