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.


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