4/26/2018 0 Comments
By Bob Bowden (@54Bobb)
So, let’s get this right out there from the outset. I’m a traditionalist at heart and now I’m in my sixties I get confused easily. At least that’s my excuse for how I’m feeling about the dizzying array of whizz-bang ideas flying out from the ECB, all designed to save the future of cricket in the long term, and in the shorter term address the fact that the England team can’t play test cricket as soon as they get any further than Calais. Where to begin?
Let’s start with the Test team. County cricket has always been the bedrock for producing test players, so when the head-scratching in the ECB wonders why England batsmen and bowlers struggle on pitches that don’t resemble my back lawn in springtime, it seems that playing the County Championship more or less solely in Spring and Autumn doesn’t seem to produce a Eureka! moment. Well, perhaps except in the mind of England Selector Mick Newell who apparently thinks it would be a “blooming good idea” to start the Championship in March with matches kicking off the competition in the West Indies and the UAE. This, seemingly would give our players exposure to different pitches not encountered in England. The possibility that similar pitches might exist in dear old Blighty in July and August is well….you know the rest.
The other problem with County cricket is that it’s not competitive enough. After 18 years, it seems to have finally dawned on the ECB that two divisions has manifestly failed to do what it set out to achieve. Far from creating a healthy competitive edge whereby promotion and relegation would stimulate interest and improve standards and ergo produce test talent we have seen counties paralysed with fear at the prospect of relegation and the possibility of sinking inexorably into the black hole of second class citizenship; a transfer system without transfer fees has been created and certain counties such as Leicestershire have seen players, developed and nurtured take a one way ticket to other bigger, richer counties without a penny finding its way to the county that has invested so much time and effort in them. It’s easy to arrive at a conclusion that such counties have pretty much abandoned all hope of winning the county championship and resign themselves to a life in Division Two and an occasional tilt at a one day title. I have even heard it said there may be a handful of counties - those with test venues which can maximise revenues from big one day attendances - who would be happy to not have the bother of having to play red ball cricket at all.
So the idea of a three conference competition has again surfaced, (originally mooted I believe by Yorkshire - not known for imaginative flights of fancy normally ) to address these issues. No promotion or relegation and the principle that each county is a first among equals. Actually, I quite like the idea in principle although to understand the concept fully it helps to have a Masters in Algorithms and Data Structure. It goes something like this. The 18 counties get put in three conferences of six teams - A, B, C initially based on their 2019 Div 1 and 2 finishing positions; each county plays 10 matches - 5 home and 5 away; from these three further conferences are established - D, E and F based on where teams finish in A, B and C (e.g. the top two teams from each go into Conference D, the next two in to E and ….well, you get the idea and whereupon the teams play each other once i.e. 5 games. With me so far? Come on keep up at the back. So….after 15 games ( so much for the need to reduce the number of county matches argument) each county will end up with a points total that will form one complete county championship table, from which one presumes the one finishing top will be crowned County Champions. Oh, and this final table will determine which county goes in which conference the following season. There…..go have a lie down in a darkened room with a cold towel wrapped around your head, I know I am.
Now, somehow this new county championship has to be shoehorned into the season schedule, and given that the prime summer months will still be given over to the T20 Blast and the new franchise ( there, I’ve used the F word) competition then we’ll be watching county cricket just after Christmas and just before the next one. However, it’s an interesting concept and one which could work providing that it is played throughout the summer months. Michael Atherton thinks it could happily co-exist with the one-day competitions which presently have sole use of July and August, providing we accept that the 4 day game during these months becomes a development opportunity for aspiring younger players whilst the bigger boys are lining their pockets in the one-day biff bang formats. I fear the shift in thinking required for this to happen is so gargantuan there’s more chance of dinosaurs roaming the earth again - (jokes about the ECB on a postcard please).
Anyway, dear reader, I digress. So to the next batch of mind-bending ideas.
The oft-repeated mantra of “We must attract a new audience” in order to sustain and grow cricket has been echoing around St. Johns Wood of late. Said mantra produced T20 in 2003, and has been pretty successful in that regard. Particularly if you like a Friday night or Sunday afternoon drinking copious amounts of lager and singing football songs that is. It brings the crowds in, the Counties like the money it brings in, Sky shove it into their schedules and the breweries see healthy spikes in profits. But what was designed as a family-friendly, quick format of the game has morphed into something slightly different and longer than intended. Traditionalists grumbled a lot about it not being proper cricket, gnashed dentures that it shoved 4-day cricket to the margins of the summer schedule but grudgingly accepted it put much-needed spondulicks into county coffers.
However, despite its success, the T20 Blast (as we must now call it) was not enough for the ECB marketing maestros and accounting whizkid. Locked in a room, it can only be surmised these young bucks had a brainstorming session driven by gallons of strong coffee and other nameless substances. After what I imagine was minutes of inspired crackpot white-boarding they emerged triumphant with………”The Hundred”.
Much of the concern the counties had about the new F-word competition being a fancy dan T20 designed to obliterate the ‘Blast’ was assuaged in one fell swoop by a new 100 ball competition that will provide “a clear differentiation” and “really capture the imagination”. Received, apparently with unanimous approval when presented to the counties, or alternatively, they were so stunned into bemused silence they were unable to pick their jaws off the table to object, Messrs, Harrison, Patel and Strauss have been preaching the idea with all the zeal of Texan evangelical preachers.
“We must attract a new audience” they cry….sounds familiar. “We need to simplify the game so people can understand it.” Which gets us to one hundred balls counted down with a clock (yes, really); possibly doing away with a scoreboard except for the total of runs and wickets (scoreboards are it seems too difficult to understand), and of course a ‘wildcard’ ten ball over. Never mind the laws of the game will have to be re-written, we shall be treated to a ten ball over at a time of the captain’s choosing which might be bowled by one, two or even three bowlers (3.33 overs recurring I assume). It’s quite possible I’ve missed a fourth alternative which is a spectator pulls the winning lucky dip ticket out of the umpire's hat and gets to bowl it to add to the family fun theme.
Unsurprisingly, amongst cricket enthusiasts the reaction to the “hundred’ has been….ahem…..less than positive shall we say. Reaction has ranged from apoplexy to derision to indifference (well in my pub at least), but I suspect the brains behind the concept would be more worried if traditional lovers of the game reacted with cartwheels of joy and skipped down the lane with hats on the sides of their heads. Because this new competition isn’t for old curmudgeons like me, not even for people who quite like cricket a bit. No, this cricket version of Countdown is aimed at a new audience - families, you know the ones supposed to be going to the ‘Blast!’ Actually, more specifically according to Andrew Strauss it’s aimed at women and children - presumably, his idea of families is that there are a lot of absent fathers these days - and those with the attention span of a gnat. To accommodate this it will start at a family-friendly hour, or one that fits nicely into free to air TV broadcaster schedules not crossing the forbidden nine o’clock watershed.
Now, to be fair the ‘Hundred’ is still in the concept change, and given much of the initial public outrage time will tell what the finished product will look like but don’t expect much to change. The suits at the ECB have got far too excited at broadcasting revenues to backtrack now. Talk of the world’s best players and megabuck salaries rather suggest players who would perhaps have gravitated to the ‘Blast’ will head for the new money mountain. The ‘Blast’ may well, over time, be allowed to wither and die as a second-rate competition, not that the ECB would dream of saying such a thing.
And I haven’t even mentioned the Royal London 50 over Cup which will meander it’s way gently through May and June. I hadn’t forgotten it, it just feels like no-one gives it much thought at the moment. It’s rather got lost amongst all the hoo-ha around T20, 100 and the County Championship. I can see a time when the 50 over game is the format that bites the dust, but only if and when the ICC drops its International tournament equivalents. Meanwhile, it will continue to be shoehorned into an ever overcrowded domestic schedule.
Its cricket Jim, but not as we know it.
In 2016 Leicester City shocked the sporting world to lift the English Premier League title, now in 2017, Essex County Cricket Club are attempting to write their own sporting fairytale by winning the Specsavers County Championship for the first time since 1992.
Before the season started the Essex members would scarcely believe that their team would find themselves top of the tree passed the halfway mark of the season, but now there is a genuine belief that maybe, just maybe this is their year.
But this story doesn’t begin now it began two years ago, the Chelmsford-based county were struggling in Division Two stagnating into a run of the mill Second Division team, it was then when former Essex skipper Ronnie Irani was appointed as Chairman of the club, and since that point the Eagles haven’t looked back.
A series of shrewd signings and coaching changes have made the club nothing short of formidable, in the hardest season to get promoted to the top flight they brushed off their hoodoos of missing out in previous years to romp to the Division Two title giving a fitting farewell to two of their favourite sons in the process in Graham Napier and David Masters.
It was a crucial winter for Ronnie Irani, Chris Silverwood, and his coaching staff as the club looked to equip itself to be competitive and survive an immediate drop out of the top flight and back into Division Two. They brought back some familiar faces in Adam Wheater and Varun Chopra to the club that is in the main very much a local lads brigade. Many of the starting eleven have plied their trade in the Essex Premier League and/or have come through the academy ranks, and that family like atmosphere about the team and the strength of that bond and team belief has given the Essex playing staff a ‘never say die’ attitude and that mental state has turned probable draws into unlikely wins.
They remain the only team in the top flight to remain unbeaten and deservedly sit on the top step looking down at other Counties who are in theory far superior both in terms of stature and financially. The likes of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Surrey and Middlesex are all on the coat tails of Silverwood’s men.
But just what has been the key to the Eagles success? Here is View From the Outfield’s Essex Correspondent David Bowden top five reasons why the Eagles are soaring high this summer.
1. The Alastair Cook effect: So often have Essex missed their talismanic opener due to his England commitments, but since giving up the captaincy at international level, the Gloucester-born man has been filling his boots for Essex. The former England captain has brought a degree of calmness to the top of the Essex order striking three centuries at an of average 66.7. 'The Chef' as he is affectionately known around Chelmsford has also rubberstamped his reputation by averaging a century every 3.5 innings better than any other player in the county set-up. He has guided Essex to wins over Somerset early in the season hitting a vital ton to guide his side over the winning line, and was involved in a mammoth opening stand with Nick Browne in their last win over Middlesex in the inaugural Day/Night fixture at Chelmsford, he struck 193 (his highest score of the season thus far) as he shared 373 for the first wicket, to create another bit of personal history beating a previous record which had stood since 1994. His loss will hit the Eagles hard but in Varun Chopra, they have a more than adequate replacement.
2. Runs from all areas: When Chopra struck his rapid century last week against Middlesex he became the eighth Essex batsmen to reach a hundred this season. It was always believed that Essex had a strong looking line-up on paper with a mixture of experience in Cook, Ravi Bopara and Ryan ten Doeschate, but they also have a number of talented youngsters in Dan Lawrence, Nick Browne and Tom Westley all of whom have heard whispers from England selectors. Cricket coaches and pundits around the world will tell you if you can get runs on the board your chances of winning improve ten-fold and that is exactly what the Eagles have done time-after-time this season.
3. The rise of Jamie Porter: Here at View From The Outfield we have always seen the potential of the young seamer picking him out early on as one to watch but I think even we are surprised at how well the fair-haired youngster has adapted to Division One. The Leytonstone-born man has collected 33 first-class wickets thus far, the second highest for the county, and his canny habit of picking up early wickets with the new cherry has opened up many a game for the Eagles. Porter has recently received a Lions call-up and continued to impress on the bigger stage, he really is one to watch.
4. The quality of recruitment: As an Essex fan I can tell you that I have seen some shocking overseas imports in my time. Lonwabo Tsosobe just to name just one, but since the arrival of Ronnie Irani, the Essex signing policy has been superb. Last season they realised they needed younger blood in the bowling ranks and brought in Matt Quinn and Matt Dixon, okay Dixon hasn’t worked out just yet, but Quinn certainly looks like a shrewd signing. But it was this winters recruitment that has impressed me the most, the signings of Neil Wagner and Mohammed Amir have proved a success. Wagner quickly became part of the Essex family, and took the dressing room by storm; you would think he has had an influence on Porter’s and Quinn’s game. When the chips were down Essex could always rely on a long spell from Wags to help the boys out. But perhaps most importantly the arrival of a class spinner in Simon Harmer. Every Essex fan knew we needed a decent spinner, in truth the Eagles have lacked one since Danish Kaneria departed the club under a cloud. Harmer, though, has been a revelation since joining the club. The South African Kolpak has quickly become a fans favourite and impressed so much that the Eagles tied him down to a long-term deal just a couple of months into his Essex career. So credit must go to Irani, Derek Bowden and Chris Silverwood on some top class signings.
5. Lastly, that man Harmer again: He is so good he deserves his own section. Not only has he added vital balance to the bowling attack with his canny ability to take wickets but he is willing to bowl mammoth spells, and as a bowler myself I cannot tell you how important that is to have a player the captain can turn to when the front liner seamers need a break. Harmer hasn’t just offered balance as was first thought upon his arrival he has turned himself into the leader of the attack taking a phenomenal amount of wickets. The South African is currently going through a purple patch having picked up 28-wickets in two matches bowling Essex to success over both Warwickshire and Middlesex. He claimed astonishing figures of 9-95 in the second innings at Chelmsford on Thursday night to give Essex a late dramatic win that stretched the Eagles lead at the top of the table to 29-points. You would have to say that Harmer is causing some serious harm to Division One batting line-ups right now and he is crucial to the Eagles title push.
They couldn’t win the whole thing, could they? Well, the Essex faithful are certainly starting to dare to dream.
Written by David Bowden (@Bowdenwhu)
David Bowden, Site Owner - Grumbler, Cricket fanatic and Sports Journalist