Wednesday 31 December 2014

A statement of defiance: Mathews' Headingley masterpiece

Angelo Mathews has never spoken publicly about the Big Three takeover of our sport. At least not with words. But his series-winning Headingley masterpiece in June felt like a statement of defiance.

It was a century that stuck a finger in the eye of the English cricket establishment and proved that off-field clout, and all it pays for, is still no match for on-field nous.

The bare facts of the innings tell a story. Mathews was on 54 when the seventh wicket fell, he ended with 160. He marshalled a 149-run eighth-wicket stand with Rangana Herath, and struck 12 boundaries from the fifth or sixth ball of the over, as he savaged Alastair Cook's tactics.

But it's the context of what came before that made the innings the so memorable.

The year began with Cricket Australia and the ECB helping the BCCI formalise its grip on cricket’s governance. In return for more money, the ECB helped choke development of the global game. Lesser nations, like Sri Lanka, were to be given a smaller chunk of our game’s collective wealth. The Big Three were to keep more money and more decision-making power. Cabal rule, we were told, was simple meritocracy.

In the new regime, however, only some merits counted. Sri Lanka may have had an astounding record: World Cup winners 1996, finalists in 2007 and again 2011. But that was irrelevant. Their board is incompetent (they are hardly along in that regard) and their TV market isn't lucrative enough to compensate.

As if to demonstrate the inequity, England pinched their coach before the tour began. Paul Farbrace had just helped Sri Lanka to World T20 triumph, and still had 18 months remaining on his contract with SLC. Uninhibited, the ECB paid him and the SLC off, and took what they wanted.

The ECB spent over £4m on coaches and development staff in 2014 and its reserves easily outgun the indebted SLC that can barely afford to pay its own players. So adding Farbrace to the gaggle of cheerleaders in England’s dressings room was a easy.

If cricket was decided by balance sheets, an England win was a formality. They could afford more qualified coaches, more backroom experts, youth development pathways, better facilities and a bigger pool of professional, well-remunerated players. Thankfully Mathews’ century showed how the game is infinitely richer. He transformed a first-innings deficit into a match-winning lead and consigned England to their first ever early-summer series defeat.

It was the innings of the year and one of the finest in history. A gripping match needed a followup, but Sri Lanka were only granted two Tests. Meritocracy decreed India deserved five instead.

Second XI: Cricket in its outposts is a new book telling the story of cricket's struggle for existence beyond the Test world. I wrote a chapter about Chinese cricket.

Friday 28 November 2014

Phillip Hughes 63*

Three months ago Michael Brown, an 18-year old black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. I was angry, but only in theory.

On Sunday a 12-year-old black child, Tamir Rice, was shot and killed by police in a playground in Cleveland. I was angry, but only in theory.

This morning Phillip Hughes died. I am gutted.

Sport is weird like that. All I knew of Hughes was a promise soon to be fulfilled, and a leg-side skip/off-side slash that once neutered Dale Steyn.

Hughes is just one of too many, dead too young. Compared to the tragedies founded on centuries of racism, and the world’s daily injustices and ill-fortunes, we shouldn’t need Hughes’s freak death to give us perspective. But it does.

Because tragedies are meant for real life, and the sports field is a sacred space where real life is unwelcome.

Sport should be the great distraction. We may know it’s plagued by the frustrations of real life, but in the thick of action, it feels immune from it.

So for reality to intrude in the most devastating way, while Hughes played with friends and in front of family, is heartbreaking.

His death is no sadder than the many that will take place today, tomorrow and forever, but it sure feels like it.

Wednesday 5 February 2014

KP and the English cricket establishment

They got him in the end. Not before he became England's highest-ever runscorer. Not before he was part of a No.1 team, three Ashes wins, a World Twenty20 title and victory in India. And not before he entertained millions in a way no other Englishman could. But finally, after a decade of mistrust and suspicion, English cricket has dumped Kevin Pietersen.

I say “they” because as collateral from the Ashes mauling mounts, it feels as though an old rift in English cricket is rupturing once more. The establishment, with its management systems, conservatism and ruthless profiteering seems suddenly so distant from the many outsiders whose love and money fuels the sport.

Pietersen is a talisman. An Englishman who epitomises “outsider”. After nearly a decade in the England set-up he is left with no friend in the dressing room and no supporters at the ECB. His restless innovation and calculated daring made him one of the most magnetic batsmen to have ever taken guard, but also an individual utterly convinced of his own way. A self-obsessed genius. Most are.

Though the runs he scored and series he won were gleefully accepted by captains, coaches and administrators whose lofty reputations he helped establish, they never seemed to accept the man himself.

It might well be that his dressing-room presence was untenable. His rumoured put-down of James Taylor offers a glimpse of what off-field life was like with Pietersen. Though it reveals something about the nature and utility of managerial thinking if the best player is sacked for being unmanageable.

But if there is a reason compelling enough to deprive England fans of Pietersen, the ECB has to spell it out. Allowing lawyers to gag them speaks of how far the ECB have distanced themselves from the public. So far, a struggling captain, a new managing director and an unappointed coach have made the decision without explanation.

All the while, the outsider fans that pay the salaries of the suits, coaches and players have been told nothing beyond obfuscation and innuendo. Parts of the paper press, meanwhile, are quick to sanctimoniously remind us of our ignorance, but far less willing to provide the clarity we pay them for.

For the second time in a month the ECB have taken a monumental decision without explanation. When they helped sever cricket's global development and establish the Big Three cabal, much of the print media (Atherton & Berry apart) were silent, before eventually spinning a story about the pragmatic “realities” of the grown-up world. The entire issue passed without the ECB fielding significant public scrutiny.

It speaks of a deeper and more longstanding narrowness in English cricket. The ECB executive board is dominated by well-to-do white men, the England team is dominated by private-school boys, and even in 2014, there is no non-white coach of any county team or in the National Cricket Performance Centre.

The broadcast media may provide the best of any sport coverage in the country, but it is still dominated almost entirely by ex-pros. Test Match Sofa, an amateur upstart, is being quietly suffocated by an establishment needlessly wary of outsider voices.

The danger is that such suspicion creates myopia. From WG Grace to Pietersen -  via Tony Grieg and David Gower – English cricket has long had an institutional suspicion of free-wheeling mavericks. Though, at least Grace et al got a chance. It is the less celebrated, like Maurice Holmes, who really suffer from the reflex for orthodoxy that festers in the English game.

If England want talk of a “team ethic”, “rebuilding” and new “philosophy” to be more than MBA buzzwords, they should look a little deeper and think a little broader about the way they approach the game. A “fresh start” would be to embrace the irritants, freaks and non-conformists.  

Tuesday 21 January 2014

But the market can't count

On Monday, Misbah-ul-Haq angled a single to point to seal Pakistan's remarkable day-five heist against Sri Lanka and one of history's great Test runchases.

A match that had meandered for four days exploded into a classic finish. Great cricket, but was it financially viable? According to the ICC commercial rights working group, probably not.

Their leaked position paper revealed much about the dysfunctional governance of world cricket but it also showed just how impoverished an arbiter of sporting worth “the market” really is.

The paper speaks hopefully of things like “self sufficiency” and “independence” for national cricket boards, but proposes a system where the richest boards take an even bigger slice of world cricket's revenue.

It reasons that the countries with the biggest broadcasting markets – India, Australia and England – are cricket's biggest wealth-creators and deserve the greatest rewards. That's supposedly the law of the market.

A law that decrees Azhar Ali's matchwinning century almost worthless because, in commercial terms, Pakistan playing Sri Lanka in UAE is trivial.

But has the market miscounted? What if Azhar takes this experience to help Pakistan thrive in Australia? What if Junaid Khan uses skills honed against, say, New Zealand to deliver an eyecatching series in India? The kind of series that draws viewers and sponsors in even greater numbers. Where, then, was the value created?

The sporting drama, romance and historical significance of matches like Shajah are easily overlooked by the market. But even in the hard-nosed terms the working group thinks it deals in, the market is a faulty calculator.

Cricket's value is captured when broadcast rights are sold, but it is created well before then. The Big Three feel themselves worthy rulers of the sport because they have a cricket-watching population which advertisers are prepared to pay broadcasters vast sums to reach.

Yet people choose to watch cricket (or follow it online) for its history, its culture, its personalities, its skills and the closeness of its competition. This is where “revenue generation” actually happens and why talk of “independence” is so dishonest.

For all lipservice paid to meritocracy, the proposals also reveal how markets work by limiting, rather than embracing, competition. In the two-division future it suggests, The Big Three can't be relegated. And, despite cricket's desperate needs for global growth, it suggests money be taken from development and funnelled back to the centre.

Given the opportunity, there could be millions of new fans in China for example. But the country has one turf pitch and barely any international fixtures. The ICC reported $1,564 million revenue in its last cycle three-quarters of which is handed back to 10 Test-playing countries. Some of this is money that could be used to foster the sport in countries like China.

Though in the short run a cost, in the future it would provide a bigger cricket-loving population and a sport with a global outlook. The kind of thing advertisers might one day like.

Yet, as Russell Dengan points out, the proposals suggest the opposite. In the 'cost-savings' proposed, if ICC revenue reached $2 billion, the Big Three would pocket 108% of the increase. As usual an appeal for 'market rule' is in fact a call for cartels and cabals.

Apologists for the paper tell the world to take commerce seriously. But it's less about money than it is about power.

Sunday 19 January 2014

Cricket's governance coup: A disgrace but not a shock

We've failed. News that cricket's financial Big Three are planning a coup is a disgrace. It's hopefully a call to arms too. But it's certainly not a surprise.

The signs were clear when the BCCI severed India's tour to South Africa. They were clear when the ECB and CA watched on silently as it happened. They were clear when the only five-Test series being scheduled involved India, Australia and England; when cricket's potential Olympic participation was quietly aborted; when the Woolf Report was ignored.

The Big Three had veto power in all-but name already. Now they are formalising their grip on the game and forcing an even greater concentration of wealth upon themselves. In effect the seven other Test-playing nations – including the best team in the world – are being flung onto the scrapheap with the ICC's other 96 members.

All the while, bar some very determined and important exceptions, much of cricket's fan base and press have stood by idly. Maybe governance just isn't interesting enough, maybe the news cycle is too immediate, maybe it's just easier not to bother. But as a cricketing public we've failed to hold the powers that run our sport to account.

The Guardian's cricket coverage often sets the bar to which others to aspire. According to Mike Selvey, they had this story for a while, but didn't feel it newsworthy. Really!?

There would outrage if the Premiere League proposed a rule preventing the biggest three clubs from ever being relegated. Yet even now there is very little comment on this ICC story.

Broadcasters, meanwhile, are more the partners of administrative power than they are its investigators. Skysports are entirely silent on this news and the BBC have barely raised a whisper.

Maybe it's as much our failure as it is theirs. If we care about our sport we should be screaming from the rooftops. Or at least Tweeting about it.

Jarrod says all that needs to be here. And there is a petition to sign here.

Monday 6 January 2014

Unthinkable? An England team without managers

If the Ashes mega-series taught us anything, it was that management was absolutely right until it was wrong. That Andy Flower's professional, marginal-gains micromanagement was superior to Darren Lehman's more old-fashioned, tell-a-joke; be-a-bloke style. Until the opposite was true.

As England now decide on what to rescue and restore from their wreckage of a winter, there will be much focus on Flower and his squadron of backroom assistants. But where does responsibility lie? Are the players accountable for their own performance or does the environment they're in matter too?

Andrew Strauss articulated the puzzle perfectly when trying to defend England's management team. Flower, he said, deserves support because he has overseen so many successes. Equally he shouldn't be blamed for this series, because it's the players who take the field.

Management science relies on the myth that results can be achieved if the correct processes are developed. The moral of the Moneyball story was that there are no barriers to success. Given enough information and enough analysis, strategies can always be found.

Team England seem staunch believers in the management ideal. It means they place enormous importance in their pre-cooked plans and enormous faith in their ability to control. So better young players develop under their tutelage at Loughborough than out of view with the counties. Better menus are determined by the experts than let individuals decide what's good for them.

Players are required to be automators, delivering the agenda developed by the centre.

It made England incredibly proficient against middling teams. As long as there was no outlier x-factor that could elude management planning, England were ruthless. But whenever mystery struck – a doosra, a counter-attack, Mitch - England got derailed. 

It's not that players took the field and unthinkingly performed Gooch or Saker's instructions. But they imbued a culture of management control that drained them of autonomy, accountability and the ability to think on their feet.

Though England are more extreme in their fondness for managerialism, they aren't unique. It's the direction all teams are moving. But it wasn't always this way.

The plethora of coaches is a fairly recent development in the sport. As Michael Atherton wrote recently: “On my first Australian tour, in 1990-91, we travelled with a manager, whose job it was to sort out travel arrangements and hand out disciplinary fines, a coach, a scorer and a physiotherapist.

“A player... could ask the coach or captain for advice; he could ask a senior player to have a watch in the nets; he could ring home and speak to a trusted adviser; or he could sort things out for himself. It meant that there was no less advice available than now, but it was less structured, less formal.”

The great West Indies and Australian teams got by without the dense layers of management England use. As recently as 2007, an Indian side led by Rahul Dravid and packed with senior pros secured a historic series win in England without a coach.

It won't happen now but as England ponder their new era it's worth wondering what would happen if they did away with a management team altogether.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Finn: England's missing paceman

Cricket doesn't often offer much for adrenaline junkies, but when fast bowlers find fast pitches, it's intoxicating. Pace is the most visceral and unforgiving part of the game. Weakness against spin can be tolerated as a technical failing; falling to pace is invariably a moral problem.

It was Mitchell Johnson's pace that made the first Test the most pulsating Ashes match since 2005. Until Jonathan Trott's departure from the tour, the post-match talk was all about the unique challenges real quick bowling presents. Curious then, that England's fastest bowler – Steven Finn – was entirely absent at the Gabba.

Finn is not quite as explosive as Johnson - his orthodox action means he'll never feel quite as raw - but he's equally volatile and just as potent. Like Johnson he was spotted early, promised much but never seemed settled. And like Johnson his reputation belies his record.

From 23 Tests Finn's strike rate is 48.3, better than James Anderson and Stuart Broad by 10. His average (29.40) also shades England's senior bowlers. He was England's highest wicket taker in the tour matches leading into the first Test but also their most profligate. And therein lies the problem for the selectors. England deem Finn too pricey for their parsimonious preferences.

Yet it is interesting to contrast Finn's development with England's Gabba standout, Broad. Finn made his debut an equally willowly quick in Bangladesh three-and-a-half years ago. Since then he has added bulk to his body and speed to his bowling but has been dropped six times. Some of these were horse-for-course changes where England preferred a second spinner. But many were not and they speak of enormous instability.

It took Broad less than two years to play the same number of Tests and by his own acknowledgement he had to learn on the job. Unlike Finn, he was allowed to. Broad has been dropped for poor form only twice in his Test career. At the equivalent stage to Finn he had 23 less wickets at an average – 36.14 – that was much worse.

Part of the reason Broad was allowed to develop in the team was the presence of a fourth seamer. Andrew Flintoff played in 10 of Broad's early Tests which meant if Broad had a shaky day his overs could be found elsewhere. After repeated batting malfunctions it is unfair to focus on the bowlers, but England miss a fourth seamer. Not just to free Broad and Anderson up, but maybe most significantly to allow Finn to develop.

England's obsessively detailed management has been well documented and their devotion to professionalism has undoubtedly lifted standards. But while they focus on the marginals, Finn is quickly becoming their biggest failure.

He has all the attributes of an outstanding fast bowler. His second-innings spell at Lord's against South Africa last year was every bit as devastating as Johnson at the Gabba and before his difficult Ashes outing at Trent Bridge in July he troubled New Zealand's batsmen.

It's unlikely Finn will be recalled at Adelaide. England are desperate for the steadier Tim Bresnan to return. But genuine pace is a rare commodity. Finn might soon prove more expensive out of the team than he would in it.