26 May 2018

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

‘The county game is dominated by foreign imports.’ ‘Young people just don’t want to be professional cricketers any more.’ ‘It’s all right being in London where there are loads of young players, but it’s grim up north.’ If you haven’t said one (or more) of these, you’ve damn well heard ‘em. Some seasoned cricket pundits – including some professional ones – seem to speak of little else. But what are the numbers? Has anyone actually gone through all the lists of county players, working out where they were all born, or where they were all coached as juniors? No. Until now, that is, because I’ve just done it.

So, the next time you trot out (or hear) one of those hackneyed phrases, you’d do well to have some of the hard facts at your disposal. I present those facts here. Dispose of them as you wish. I haven’t included contracted, official ‘overseas’ status cricketers in the analysis that follows – just the county playing staff on permanent contracts.


There are 392 professional cricketers in the county ‘system’ and the average county squad size is 22 players. The 392 professional cricketers break down as follows:


  • 164 who play for the county they were born in (or an adjacent non first class county), having gone to school in the county or played through the county’s junior age group teams.
  • 69 who were born in other counties, but moved to their current county before they started secondary school (36 players), or in time to join the county’s junior age group teams (18 players), or in order to join the county’s academy or 2nd XI without a professional contract (14 players). These players are described throughout this article as ‘home grown’ and their number includes eight men – Roy, Dernbach, Meaker, Rafiq, Compton, Singh, Ballance and Qadri – who were born overseas but who progressed through the county ranks as a child.
  • 72 who have switched counties. These players are described throughout this article as ‘transfers’ and their number includes six men – Higgins, Steel, Horton, Howell, Rayner and Adam Rouse – who were born overseas but who progressed through the county ranks as a child.
  • 87 who were not born in England or Wales, and who joined their county as an adult and a professional (in other words, excepting the 14 listed above). 61 of these players had already played for another first class team in another country; for 26 of them their first class debut was in the county system.
These categories are, by necessity, generalisations and I have had to put in place some delineations to enable informed conclusions to be drawn. You could, if you really wanted to, go through the playing staff of your favourite county, seeking to argue that this or that player is in the wrong category. I made the slight mistake of sharing this article with one very well-known cricket broadcaster and Surrey fan, who became quite peevish that I hadn’t categorised Tom Curran (who played for Kwa-Zulu Natal up to U19 level and who was 17 when he came to the UK) as ‘home grown by Surrey’. I ought to point out now that this article is not intended as an indictment of any county’s policy.


We could imagine that a ‘typical’ county squad is comprised of 22 players. Of these, nine were born in the county or a neighbouring non first class county. These nine progressed through the junior age group teams along with a further four boys who were born elsewhere in England and Wales, but whose families moved to the local area. These 13 young men, on being awarded full professional contracts with the county, were joined in the county squad with four players signed from other first class counties, plus five ‘non-ECB area’ players (of whom two are South African, one Australian and one from elsewhere). 

The use of the expression ‘non-ECB area’ is deliberate. The word ‘Kolpak’ is not only emotive but also a very specific legal term, and it excludes players we want to include in this category, such as the dozen Irish and Scottish players in county cricket. Nevertheless, the great majority of our ‘non-ECB area’ players are Kolpaks, and very nearly half of them are South Africans.


This article has no business proffering an opinion regarding the value of such players; it merely seeks to provide information – evidently not previously researched – to inform the opinions of others. 11 per cent of all non-overseas players in the county game are South African imports: there are those who would regard this as a shining example of cricket’s diaspora without boundaries, others who would consider it the natural result of market forces, others still who would lament the ‘inability’ (as they would see it) of counties to grow their own talent.


The research undeniably provides some diverting trivia. We can see that, unsurprisingly given their large catchment areas, Lancashire and Yorkshire’s squads have the highest number of local-born players. And there’s Worcestershire, right up there. Did anyone expect that? And with the best part of six million people to choose from in south London, Surrey and Berkshire, the Oval has only five local players in a staff of 22. Northamptonshire is the first county squad in history to contain not a single player who was born in the county – its three ‘births’ being from neighbouring counties in its catchment area (in case you’re wondering, Keogh from Bedfordshire, Zaib and White from Buckinghamshire).


Where a player is born is, of course, neither here nor there. Families move. That’s why we consider Roy to be a local boy (and Renshaw a foreign one). Rather more telling is the role that counties’ junior age group teams play. Worcestershire, for example, derives 87 per cent of its players from its junior teams; at the other end of the scale, just 32 per cent of Northamptonshire’s current squad played for the county’s youth teams.


Of course, simply looking at the total number of players ‘coming through’ doesn’t necessarily tell us all that much: Worcestershire’s investment in their own young players won them the division two title last year; the same policy has seen them rooted to the bottom of division one this year.

Rather more revealing is to look at the total number of today’s 392 county professionals who are the product of junior county teams: that number is 293. Lancashire’s junior teams have created 29 of them (the most by any county) but 11 of them have since moved to other counties. Hampshire – the county which signs the most players from overseas, as we shall see later – has the lowest rate of retention. There are 16 county cricketers from the Hampshire youth set-up, but only half of them have stayed at Hampshire.


The majority of county-to-county transfers are downwards. 72 of the current county players have switched teams, but only 19 of them have gone ‘up a division’. A clear pattern has been established whereby second division teams sign up the players who were not quite good enough to hold down a place in the higher league. The top five transfer-signing teams are all in division two. Somerset (Davies and Groenewald) and Essex (Coles) have, on their cricket staffs, only three players acquired by transfer out of a combined total of 46 players.


The ECB area is England and Wales, and yet the sole Welsh county – Glamorgan – brings in 45 per cent of its players from outside the ECB catchment area. That reflects the parlous state of Welsh cricket. Glamorgan is officially a county team, but it’s arguably the de facto national team of Wales – the team plays ‘home’ matches at Colwyn Bay, 185 miles from Cardiff, further from home than all the other counties except Yorkshire and Durham. There are ten Welsh cricketers in the Glamorgan squad, and only one more (Harris) anywhere else in the county game.


It is easy to understand why Durham brings in a third of its players from outside the ECB area: it needs to plug the gaps created by the steady and significant exodus of home-grown talent. There’s a ‘chicken and egg’ question at Hampshire. The southern county has the highest loss rate of junior county players – half stay and half leave – and it brings in more Kolpak players than any other English county. It could be the case that such imports are necessary to fill the vacancies left by unavoidably departing youngsters. It could equally be true that the youngsters leave because their playing opportunities are limited by the imports. Either way, Hampshire’s situation is probably not an enviable one.


The final table offers an overview of the status quo. Make of it what you will. Worcestershire won division two last year and has a youth system that rivals that of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, two cash-strapped and low-status counties, substantially rely on hand-me-downs from the high-flying teams. Next time you engage yourself in that weighty – and sometimes impassioned – argument about ‘imports’ and ‘home grown players’ in the county game, you now have the facts at your fingertips. 

19 May 2018

A VISION FOR 2020

At the time of writing, an ECB working group, chaired by Wasim Khan of Leicestershire, is considering how best to put together the domestic fixture list from 2020 onwards. We know and accept that the Hundred is ‘set in stone’ – though we pray for the 10-ball over to be scrapped, for reasons I’ll come to – and we have been told that the introduction of the new and exciting format will provide an opportunity for the rationalisation of the fixture list. I have written on this subject before, and now it’s time to admit that I have worked for sixteen years as a scheduler in fields as various as sport, education and transport. I might not have been invited to join the working group, but I didn’t see that as being a barrier to my attempting to solve its problems. And I have. Like Harry Beck with his underground map, I’ve taken stock of all the weaknesses, gone through the ECB’s ‘wish list’ and ironed out all the creases and irregularities in the domestic cricket structure. Alan Fordham eat your heart out.

Criticisms of the Championship

The cricket-watching public perceives three main flaws in the County Championship as it is currently played. It is not the purpose of this article to discuss the accuracy of this perception, but it seems reasonable that the perceived flaws should be given some credence.

1.         Too many matches are played at the very beginning or the very end of the season.

This is said to have a detrimental effect on the development of batsmen’s skills, specifically their ability to build a long innings. Seaming pitches in April and May, and spinning pitches in September, affect a batsman’s way of thinking: ‘sooner or later a ball’s going to have your name on it, so you may as well score what runs you can.’ They bat in a cavalier fashion and thus play balls they had better to leave.

It has recently been said that the Championship season would be better off with three main ‘acts’: first, seaming pitches on which the fast bowlers prosper; second, flat and hard tracks on which the batsmen can score runs; third, worn and dusty conditions which are conducive to spin. It would be also preferable if each act were of approximately the same length.

2.         The second division is uneven and thus unfair.

Both parts of this assertion are beyond doubt. Certainly it is true that in the second division, some teams meet twice whereas some meet once. As things stand, it is perfectly possible for a team narrowly to win the division having played the second, third and fourth-placed sides only once and to have lost to all of them, but to have played the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth-placed sides twice and to have thrashed them on both occasions. This is palpably not a level playing field and it has no place in a professional sporting league, second-tier or otherwise. All teams must play each other once, or twice, in the same division.

3.         Only eight of the eighteen counties can win the title.

There is a growing view that, as the season begins, every county should have an opportunity to win the Championship – not just the eight teams in the first division. The England test team is currently weaker than it has been for some years, and ‘what good do two divisions bring us?’ is the refrain we often hear. When England started winning the Ashes at home, beginning with the 2005 series, the two-tier Championship was frequently credited with making a critical difference to the strength of first class cricket in England and Wales. But it seems memories are short. A sound compromise would be structure which begins with every team having the same chance, but which ends teams divided into elite tiers – the ‘best of both worlds’.

Why Moxon’s conferences are flawed

The press have been increasingly interested in a system of three ‘conferences’ advocated by Martyn Moxon. This system has various merits which are set out in this article and which do not need to be repeated here. The plan is thus: eighteen counties are divided into three conferences of six, in which each team plays the others twice, home and away (a total of ten games per county). When this is done, the top two counties in each conference will go into division one, the middle two counties into division two and the bottom two counties into division three. In each division, each team plays the others once (a total of five games per county).

There are two significant problems with this system. The first is that each county would play fifteen games, whereas at the moment they play fourteen. The reason they play fourteen is because three years ago the ECB decided that playing sixteen matches was too many. The introduction of the Hundred is going to increase the amount of cricket being played. To add another match to the Championship is – it follows logically – a backward step.

The second problem arises when the counties break from conferences into divisions. Suppose Surrey and Yorkshire are the top two teams in their conference. They will have played each other twice. Now they will both go into division one, and they will play each other a third time. There are eighteen first class counties, and yet every county will play one other county three times in fifteen games. A county will play a fifth of its first class cricket against one other team.

A better system of conferences

The smartest way to retain all the benefits of Moxon’s conferences system, without any of its flaws, is to have two conferences of nine. In each conference, the teams all play each other once (a total of eight games per county) before the split into divisions (a total of five games per county). This provides the following benefits:

1.       There is a reduction from 14 games to 13, which reduces the strain on players, and is consistent with the ECB’s direction of travel.
2.       The conferences could be ‘north’ and ‘south’ if desired, reducing player travelling time and making it much easier and attractive for spectators to attend away matches.
3.       We can at last have the ‘three act season’ we have been talking about: the first four conference matches on seaming pitches in April; the last four conference matches on batting tracks in July and August; the divisional matches on spinning pitches in September.

Scheduling the Hundred

The ECB is introducing the Hundred because its research has shown that T20 cricket has not addressed the three common complaints of those who don’t like cricket: it’s boring, it’s complicated and it takes too long. It is quite understandable that the ECB has chosen to introduce a new, even shorter format of 100 balls per team. It would have gone down a lot better, I believe, if the ECB had decided to simplify the format with the expedient of 20 five-ball overs; the 10-ball over is a brand new complexity, created solely for an audience who are put off cricket because it is complex. That’s illogical.

In due course, the ECB will realise that deliberately complicating the game is not the best way to make it easier to follow, but one thing’s for sure – the Hundred is happening. Various elements of the structure have already been set out, so we already have a good deal of information for our 2020 season. There will be eight teams, who will play each other once, except their local rival, which they will play twice (a total of eight games per team). There will then be three playoff matches, IPL style, between the top four teams, leading to a final.

Based on what is already known, I would recommend the following schedule for the Hundred:

1.         The games to take place during the school summer holidays, in July and August.
2.         The games be mainly during the evenings on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
3.         The games to take place alongside the ‘second act’ of the Championship season, i.e. the last four conference matches on batting tracks in July and August.

Scheduling the Hundred alongside the Cup (50 overs) or the Blast (20 overs) would be hugely counterproductive in terms of developing England’s national ODI and T20I teams. It makes sense to run the Hundred alongside the Championship, but before the break to the elite divisions that will conclude the first class competition. That way, nine of the Championship rounds – and the whole of the Cup and the Blast – can take place without being affected by the Hundred.

The Cup and the Blast

The Cup, the 50 over competition that has so successfully prepared England’s players to be the best ODI team in the world, is working well. It’s not too big or unwieldy; it’s not too small. It can quite easily be fitted into a month.

The Cup suffers, though, from requiring its teams to reconvene some weeks after the tournament proper for a standalone final some three weeks later. The transient and nomadic nature of overseas players means that a county may have lost the services of its star performers by the time the final comes along. This blog has already shown that the other main cricket playing countries manage to sell out their 50 over final even when it is in the same ‘block’ of fixtures as the rest of the tournament, and there is no reason why the ECB could not do the same. The Cup can certainly begin in May and finish in May as well – final and all. If the competition begins during the early May bank holiday, the final can take place during the late May half term holiday, thus giving the Cup every opportunity to appeal to children and families, and to attract as many spectators as possible.

Something has to give for us to allow the Hundred in, and that should be the most similar competition, the Blast. It’s still important that the Blast should take place in its own separate window, though, and since the ECB has made it clear that the Hundred will now occupy the summer holidays, the Blast must necessarily be moved forward to June and early July. As with the Cup, it’s vastly preferable that the finals should take place in the same fixture ‘block’ with the same overseas players available. More fixtures could be squeezed in, but in this model the structure closely follows that of the Cup: ‘north and ‘south’ conferences of nine teams each, with each team playing the others once. It’s still an attractive and appealing proposition, and there will still be a good deal of T20 cricket for the public to see.

Overseas players

The rationalisation of the fixture list makes it much easier for counties to recruit and retain players for specific competitions. There are essentially five blocks:

1.         Championship I. The first four conference matches (April).
2.         Cup. The 50 over tournament, beginning on the first day of the early May bank holiday, with the final on the last day of half term (1 to 31 May).
3.         Blast. The 20 over tournament, in the afternoon after the school day has finished, with finals day on a Saturday as in previous years (5 June to 11 July).
4.         Championship II and the Hundred. The last four conference matches in the Championship on Mondays to Thursdays, and the Hundred on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings (13 July to 23 August).
5.         Championship III. The five ‘divisional’ matches in the Championship (27 August to 27 September).

England and the tourists

We know now that the Test Championship will be underway by 2020, and we also know how many international fixtures there will be of each format. We even know which grounds will be staging them. The only thing we don’t know is which international teams will be visiting us, but the two teams who will have been absent from England for the longest are New Zealand and Sri Lanka, so it seems reasonable to imagine they will be the visitors.

With a little imagination and planning, it might be possible and even desirable to give the tourists more meaningful warm-up matches (as this blog has previously discussed). The counties winning the Blast, the Cup and the Championship could be rewarded with matches against the tourists, on the understanding that they would field their best available side. And why not have a fixture against an MCC team, made up of players from Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Ireland – the teams not playing in the Test Championship?

The following fixture list would be entirely possible:

New Zealand

30 Apr – Cup winners of 2019 (50 overs)
3 May – 1st ODI (Bristol)
7 May – 2nd ODI (Chester-le-Street)
10 May – 3rd ODI (Lord’s)
12 May – Championship winners of 2019 (3 days)
17 May – England Lions (3 days)
23 May – 1st test (Lord’s)
4 Jun – 2nd test (Leeds)
13 Jun – 3rd test (Nottingham)
20 Jun – 1st T20I (Manchester)
24 Jun – 2nd T20I (Leeds)
27 Jun – 3rd T20I (Southampton)

Sri Lanka

6 July – England Lions (3 days)
12 July – MCC (3 days)
18 July – 1st test (Lord’s)
1 Aug – 2nd test (Manchester)
12 Aug – 3rd test (the Oval)
23 Aug – Blast winners of 2020 (20 overs)
26 Aug – 1st T20I (Southampton)
29 Aug – 2nd T20I (Cardiff)
31 Aug – 3rd T20I (Leeds)
4 Sep – 1st ODI (Notttingham)
6 Sep – 2nd ODI (Birmingham)
9 Sep – 3rd ODI (the Oval)

A vision for 2020

To show how this would all fit together, I’ve created a 2020 fixture wallchart showing how it would all work. There’s also a full fixture list for every county. In all of the competitions, each county alternates playing home and away and the travelling distance for each team is also minimised. What I haven’t done is create a broadcast schedule for Sky, enabling them to televise one Cup, Blast and Hundred fixture each day and to give each county equal coverage though this can, of course, be done. In producing the model here, my aim has been to demonstrate that a good deal more coherence – even attractiveness – can be given to the domestic and international fixture list in future. I just hope that Wasim Khan reads this, and I’ll just wait here by the phone.

Download the 2020 season wallchart [PDF, 211 Kb]
Download the 2020 fixtures for northern counties [PDF, 43 Kb]
Download the 2020 fixtures for southern counties [PDF, 43 Kb]

12 May 2018

OUT WITH THE OUTGROUNDS

We call them ‘outgrounds’. The places where each county plays at home but not at home, taking cricket to the public, at local club and school grounds. There used to be dozens, but in the last 25 years the number has more than halved. All of the counties have made changes to their use of secondary home grounds since 1993, but while there has been growth in a handful of places, the general trend is one of contraction and decline.

Durham’s situation is unsurprisingly the most unrecognisable compared with 25 years ago. One of the conditions they had to meet in exchange for first-class status in 1992 was the construction of a ground of test match standard (an agreement which came back to bite them very hard), but the Riverside ground at Chester-le-Street was only in the planning stage in 1993, and so they played their games at Durham Racecourse, Hartlepool, Gateshead, Darlington and Stockton. They moved into the Riverside in 1995 and gradually withdrew from the others, but in 2016 a plan was hatched with Marcus North, a former Durham player and now chief executive of South Northumberland CC, to play a one-day match north of the Tyne at Gosforth. The aim was not so much making money as an attempt to broaden Durham’s hinterland into its neighbour to the north. This summer, the spring bank holiday weekend begins there with a Cup fixture as the home team bucks the recent trend by introducing professional cricket to new towns.

Middlesex, too, have reduced the number of games played at Lord’s and brought in some new venues. This has partly been out of necessity, to reduce the pressure on the Lord’s pitches which are always in demand for prestige matches. The first class games are all at headquarters, meaning that Uxbridge no longer sees Championship cricket, but it will have the Sunday afternoon atmosphere of a Blast match in July, as will Richmond, whose highly accessible location in south west London guarantees a lively capacity crowd (despite being in Surrey). As far as the Cup is concerned, Lord’s will only be used for the London derby, with the home games against Essex, Kent and Hampshire being farmed out to the characterful grounds at Radlett and – during half term – Merchant Taylors’ School. Another school ground – at Oakham – hosts a one-off Cup game at half term for Leicestershire, who have been visiting their Rutland outpost since 1935 (when Rutland still existed).

It’s considered much easier to create a flat pitch for a white ball game than a lasting, enduring four-day Championship track, and scheduling one day matches in places which families can get to at times when families can get to them is considered a wise move by some counties. Kent’s ground at Beckenham is ideally located, and it is hosting four games this summer – two in the Cup and two in the Blast – during the school holidays. Kent’s south-eastern corner of London represents a considerable growth opportunity and bringing the game to the metropolis is rightly considered a smart marketing move.

Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Sussex have also scheduled ‘one-off’ games in the Cup at WelbeckBlackpool and Eastbourne respectively, either on a spring Sunday or (at Blackpool) on the Friday of the spring bank holiday.

That brings the total of ‘white-ball only’ out-grounds to ten, shared among seven counties: one each for Durham, Kent, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Sussex, and four for Middlesex. Their outlook is progressive. They recognise that the Cup and Blast matches represent their best chance of expanding the reach of their organisations and thus maximising the potential active cricketing population of their catchment area.

Six counties have adopted the opposite approach: their strategy has been to centralise their activities by retreating to a cricketing nucleus at their main ground. Essex, Hampshire, Northamptonshire, Somerset, Warwickshire and Worcestershire have all discontinued the use of out-grounds and have instead tried to focus their resources, marketing and accessibility on their main grounds. It is no coincidence that in almost all of these cases, considerable attention has been given to planning and development of the ground facilities: new pavilions at Chelmsford and Taunton, new corporate space at Worcester, extensive new stands at Edgbaston and a whole new ground at Southampton. Only at Northampton has little investment been possible in recent years. It’s a simple argument, on the whole: spend less money elsewhere and you have more to spend on home improvements.

With this centralisation came the demise of a large number of outgrounds. Twenty-five years ago, county cricket was played at 42 venues; today there are just 19. Some treasured places no longer host the professional game, their final matches proving bittersweet occasions, the individual cricketing successes being written into posterity as a long list of ‘last evers’ as we bade goodbye: White carrying his bat for 80 out of 136 at Portsmouth in 2000; Irani’s unbeaten double century at Ilford in 2002; Pietersen’s immaculate, chanceless 167 at Southend in 2004; nobody scoring more than 39 at Maidstone in 2005; Surrey’s spirited chase of 356 at Bath in 2006; the four-day washout that sunk Abergavenny’s first class status in 2007; Nannes bowling six overs and taking six wickets at Kidderminster in 2008; Carberry and Lumb’s partnership of 341 at Basingstoke in 2010; James Taylor’s career-best 291 at Horsham in 2015; Napier’s swashbuckling 124 at number eight at Colchester in 2016.


There are nine outgrounds that still see first class cricket, five of which have a sole Championship match, no doubt relying on sympathetic scheduling from Alan Fordham, the ECB’s fixture list guru. The ECB doesn’t want Championship matches to be played at outgrounds during the first block of games in April and May, but then the counties wouldn’t want that either. It costs a lot of money to up sticks and relocate first class cricket to secondary venues, and it’s as much as a county can do just to break even. 

This year, the week of 20 to 23 June could be called ‘cricket roadshow week’ with matches for Kent at Tunbridge Wells, Glamorgan at Swansea, Sussex at Arundel and Surrey at Guildford. On the face of it, it seems a fairly eccentric choice of week to take the game out to minor locations, since children will still be at school. It would surely make a lot more sense to schedule these matches in the middle of the summer holidays – that incongruous single block of fixtures from 22 to 25 July, right in the middle of the Blast, would seem ideal. The same point could be made when Lancashire play at Southport and Glamorgan play at Colwyn Bay from 29 August to 1 September: these two games start the Wednesday after the bank holiday weekend, and the children will be starting back at school again. Swansea at least gets a Cup game on Sunday 3 June, on the last day of half term, but it’s the day before school exams start. Whatever the counties and the ECB take into consideration when requesting and scheduling these matches, the school holidays aren’t often in the forefront of their minds, and they really should be. Children need to have the opportunity to watch county cricket.

Only at three outgrounds is county cricket still thriving, but three grounds are better than none. The Scarborough festival has lost a little identity in recent years. It used to stage a Championship game and an exhibition match against the international tourists towards the end of the season. Now the resort has two first class games – one in June and one in August – the latter being designated the ‘festival’ game. It’s still a big deal, taking place in the school holidays at the height of the summer, and for many domestic holidaymakers it’s a sporting highlight not only of the cricket season but of the whole year.

It’s wonderful that a county as ‘unfashionable’ as Derbyshire should make such a big effort at Chesterfield. Smart planning has given this year’s festival the best possible chance of attracting good crowds. A Championship game against rivals Northamptonshire is set in the middle of the summer vacation, starting on a Sunday to ensure a decent attendance. There are then two days off before a Blast fixture against Yorkshire on the following Saturday. Yorkshire is only eight miles away, and on a Saturday a legion of faithfuls can be expected to make the short journey south.

The lesser of the two annual sporting meetings at Cheltenham, the cricket festival is nevertheless the template and model for all other outground occasions. Cheltenham really matters to the Gloucestershire committee, and this year (as always) they are giving it every possible chance of success by scheduling it in the middle of the school holidays with two Friday evening Blast games sandwiching a Championship game (starting on a Sunday).

The organisation of matches at these 19 outgrounds speaks volumes for each county’s priorities and intentions. Essex, Hampshire, Northamptonshire, Somerset, Warwickshire and Worcestershire have all adopted the ‘centre of excellence approach’ for better (if you’re a player) or worse (if you’re a spectator). With a solitary day of cricket away from headquarters, Durham, Nottinghamshire and Sussex have dropped a crumb from the table whereas Kent and Middlesex have really committed to spreading the white ball game around their respective hinterlands – and in Middlesex’s case, in enemy territory too. Glamorgan, Sussex, Surrey and Lancashire have all maintained the tradition of giving a single favoured outground a single Championship match, though seemingly without giving much thought to when this ought to take place. Only three counties – Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Gloucestershire – can still claim to boast a ‘cricket week’ or ‘festival’ in the old style. 

And the expression ‘old style’ really shouldn’t be a criticism. Clearly a balance has to be struck between insularity and spreading yourself too thinly, but at the core of venue planning there has to be a single principle: maximising attendance. The public needs to see cricket, and sometimes the best way to make that happen is to bring the cricket to them.

5 May 2018

THE SPIRIT OF GRACE

The spirit of cricket. Four little words – six tiny syllables – but a single concept so important, so fundamental to our sport that it was enshrined into the Laws in 2000 in the form of a ‘Preamble to the Laws’. It reads thus: ‘Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the spirit of the game. Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself.’

The spirit of ages past

We think of the gentlemanly spirit of cricketing sportsmanship as being as old as the cricketing gentlemen themselves. Cricket in its current form began in 1864, as auspicious a year as the game has ever seen, witnessing as it did the dawn of overarm bowling, the first appearance of the Wisden almanack, and the beginning of W. G. Grace’s cricket career. How sporting and decent those Victorians were. How honourable and trustworthy. How unimpeachable in their honesty.

Total bollocks, of course. W. G. Grace was very probably the greatest and most complete cricketer the game has ever known, but he was also the most pathological and accomplished cheat. Charlie Connelly’s book Gilbert (available here) describes a notable moment in the match between Gloucestershire and Essex in 1898. Grace was 50 years old and facing the fastest bowler the game had yet produced, Charles Kortright. Grace was palpably lbw but the umpire was intimidated by cricket’s first superstar and did not raise his finger. Grace edged the following delivery behind but stood his ground and the umpire reprieved him again. The next ball sent two stumps spinning and Grace at last left the crease to Kortright’s rejoinder: ‘Surely you’re not leaving us, Doc? There’s one stump still standing.’

Grace was the pioneer of ‘not walking’, as evidenced by three oft-told stories: the dismissal from the first ball of the day (‘I never was any good at the practice ball’); the delicately dislodged bail (‘windy day today, gentlemen’); the tentatively raised finger (‘they’ve come to watch me bat, not you umpire’).

Let us walk in the spirit

‘Not walking’ is widely regarded as cheating – or at least as unsporting – despite not being a transgression of any Law. There are two essential schools of thought: the traditionally English (‘if you know you’re out, you should walk’) and the traditionally Australian (‘you do your job and let the umpire do his’ – a more refined and civilised evolution of Grace’s ‘the umpire’s decision is irrelevant’). Do we define cheating as simply breaking the rules? The Laws forbid ball tampering, so when Bancroft, Smith and Warner did that they were cheating. That much seems simple. But do we include a more nuanced definition, which includes any conscious act of dishonesty intended to gain an advantage?

Amateur cricketers often play cricket without the luxury of a dedicated umpire: the batting team’s players take turns to officiate. Clearly, a batsman who knows they’re out but doesn’t walk is transferring the responsibility to their team-mate in the white coat. There can only be one reason for not walking: you hope your team-mate will reprieve you, which is the same thing as asking your team-mate to cheat for you.

Today’s professional cricketers don’t walk. This is, on the whole, not regarded as cheating. They are professionals, this is their job, failure can have significant and negative consequences, the umpires are highly qualified and paid to be there, so let them decide. There’s a pragmatic logic to this. Here’s a textbook example: David Boon not walking in a 1989 test match at Adelaide. There’s a snick, the ball doesn’t deviate, the fielders go up, the batsman sticks around to see what happens, and gets away with it. It’s the template for not walking. 

Experience has taught us that there is a critical difference between not walking for a catch behind and not walking for a catch to slip. In the latter case, the instructive examples are Stuart Broad, Justin Langer, and A. B. de Villiers. These three were absolutely pilloried for not walking – Darren Lehmann absolutely went to town on Broad – and the c-word was trotted out repeatedly. Their crime? A thicker edge, a bigger snick, a greater deviation. Lehmann called it ‘blatant’ cheating, rather implying that cheating is a lesser offence if it’s done furtively. When professional players universally accept the principle of not walking for a catch to the keeper, but openly accuse each other of cheating when it’s a catch to the player standing next to the keeper, the spirit of cricket starts to look like a phantom: transforming, transient, translucent. It’s not a case of doing the decent thing so much as doing the decent thing only if not doing the decent thing will be your undoing. Most cricketers are not moral philosophers.

The spirit is catching

The equivalent crime for the fielding team is claiming a catch when you know the ball has bounced. Just as the batsman tries to justify not walking by claiming ‘I didn’t know whether I hit it or not’ – a disingenuous claim that pulls off the impressive trick of implying that both the speaker and the hearer have never played cricket before – the fielder can sometimes claim that they can’t tell if the ball touched the grass or not. Slow motion replays reveal this to be a persuasive point: fielders often take their eye off the ball at the last minute, and the interface between blades of grass and fleshy fingers is not as clear cut as that between hard bat and hard ball. If the fielder’s wearing the gloves – see M. S. Dhoni claiming this catch off Kevin Pietersen at Lord’s in 2011 – it becomes harder for the fielder to judge than for the umpire. 

Astonishingly – and with an impressive absence of shame – several fielders have picked the ball up off the ground and claimed it as a catch, apparently caring little about the presence of television cameras and even less about their reputations. There are some remarkable examples of this: Saleem Yousuf catching Ian Botham in 1987; Roger Harper catching Michael Bevan in 1996; Ahmed Shehzad catching Lahiru Thirimanne in 2015. Even in cricket’s complex moral maze of ‘unwritten rules’, there are times when everyone can agree on what constitutes cheating: when it’s ‘blatant’, as Lehmann would put it.

Getting in the way

The batsman’s biggest crime always used to be ‘getting in the way’ accidentally-on-purpose. An obstructive move towards the ball in play made a batsman’s behaviour look – at best – rather dubious (take a look at this subtle but significant move from Rod Marsh). The worst instances could leave commentators speechless (such as this audacious bout of criminality from Mohammad Yousuf) but the batsman always got away with it.

In the last twelve months, the International Cricket Council has tried to clamp down on ‘getting in the way’. Three batsmen – Alex Ross of Brisbane Heat and Ben Stokes and Jason Roy of England – have been nailed by the umpires for only very slight obstructions. The International Cricket Council has clearly (and recently) asked its umpires to apply the rule with considerable exactitude and strictness. The three dismissals created an inordinate amount of publicity. Obstructing the field is no more a wicket than lbw or caught behind, but when someone is given out for obstruction it’s almost as though they’ve been ‘accused of cheating’. Ross, Stokes and Roy might be forgiven for feeling hard done by when players in the past, such as Yousuf, got away with so much more.

It’s very rare, though, for a member of the fielding team to be penalised for obstruction. If a fielder obstructs and then runs out the batsman, it’s quite legitimate if the aim of the obstruction was to get to the ball (a classic example of this being Jeff Thomson’s run out of Derek Randall at Nottingham in 1977). But back then, it was entirely possible that bowler (such as Lance Cairns) could simply push a batsman to the ground if they were suitably riled or frustrated. Indeed, Colin Croft once did it to an umpire – physically, deliberately shoulder barging him because he had not given the decisions Croft wanted – and got away scot-free. The question of what was right and what was wrong was so ‘up in the air’ it never came down to earth.

Can we legislate morality?

Occasionally the fielding team would decide for themselves that some action of theirs was unprincipled – Daniel Vettori did this in 2012 – and in doing so they would attract praise and criticism in equal measure. The moral question was left to mob rule on one occasion, in 1999, when Australia played the West Indies in Barbados. Brendan Julian got in the way of Sherwin Campbell – not necessarily deliberately but also not entirely accidentally – and the Australian team were not inclined to invite Campbell to continue his innings. The Bridgetown crowd became so angry that the umpires had to lead the Australians from the field. 

Obstructing, catching and walking account for almost all of the moral decisions a batsman, bowler or fielder have to make – and make in a split second when they are under considerable pressure. There are a couple of outliers worth mentioning. Every now and then a fielding team manages to transgress cricket’s ‘unwritten rules’ more than once during a single play. 

Mohammad Nabi managed to lie about saving a boundary and run out a batsman who thought the ball was dead in a match against Ireland in 2016. That would certainly fall into Lehmann’s category of ‘blatant cheating’ (the kind of cheating he believes is wrong). The greatest example of malevolent cunning, though, comes from Australia. In the field in Colombo during March 2004, Adam Gilchrist noticed that the bail had come off. He enquired of the umpires whether the batsman might be out hit wicket. There was a lengthy discussion. Shane Warne helpfully added ‘nobody else was near it, I just saw a bail on the ground.’ It transpired that one of the Australian fielders had flicked the bail off surreptitiously a few moments before. Crafty, eh? And not blatant at all. Lehmann would approve. A pity he’s resigned on account of his team’s cheating. His successor? Justin Langer (the bail-flicker himself).

The spirit of cricket may exist in theory – and even on paper since 2000 – but the idea of what constitutes an actual breach remains as nebulous as it was in the age of W. G. Grace. But every so often – not often, but every so – the spirit of cricket is personified in the actions of a player who does something undeniably noble. When Adam Gilchrist walked in the World Cup semi final. When Imran Khan reprieved Kris Srikkanth. When Marvan Atapattu brought back Andrew Symonds. These moments are rare and valuable. They prove that the spirit of cricket can be kept alive in the 21st century by what we choose to do, if we choose to do it. W. G. Grace sure as hell wouldn’t.