The Toss and the T20 Blast

Does the toss in the T20 Blast give an advantage to the team who wins it? The % of games won by its winners  over the years in the competition under its various names is shown in the chart below, together with the % of field first decisions.

In eight of the fifteen seasons its winners have won more games than they lost, in the other seven years the opposite. The numbers bounce around from one year to the next, in most years alternate above and below 50%, which they could be expected to do if winning the toss had essentially no effect on the outcomes of matches. Overall since 2003 the win % is 49.8; a pointer suggesting an answer to the question of quite possibly not.

As to the field first decisions made, the big shift to a preference for fielding first is striking; a previous bat/bowl ratio of around 70: 30 reversed over the present decade; conventional wisdoms about how to apply pressure on the opposition old and new,  from  which a reasonable inference is that captains, and the supporting cast of analysts as maybe, presumably do think there is, or at least might be, an advantage to exploit.

In general terms the overall numbers sit comfortably enough with the simple observation that winning the toss could be decisive in very tight matches, and with the view that a bit of luck should be a factor in sport but that the extent of any advantage be simply not large enough, often enough, to impact the win% figures. But the numbers  do also prompt the question of why the current preference for fielding has gone as far as it has and also whether the decisions that are made are due for another shift?

The second chart shows the % of games won batting first and fielding first. In 2017 in rounded numbers the teams who won the toss chose to field 68% of the time, won 44% of the games, of which batting first they won 47%, fielding first 42%;  which might not unreasonably prompt the thought that there were too many decisions to have a bowl first. Standing a year ago and looking back on the then previous 2016 season, the respective numbers are 69%, 57%, 54% and 58%, which might not unreasonably prompt the opposite thought.

In other words relying on the numbers for just one year could be rather misleading; in the early years of the competition, when the decisions made were  towards batting first,  there was for a time some supporting evidence of teams winning proportionately more often batting first. In the last few years it is hard, or at least harder, to say the same for the current preference for bowling first; not only do the win% tend to alternate from year to year, but  also the breakdowns of wins when batting and bowling first as well.

It is, of course,  possible that there could be a systematic advantage from the current bowl first decisions, even with the numbers above, but that the influence is conflated with other general and/or in-play influences.  Some of which influences may also be measurable and possible to (statistically) model, but absent plausible evidence on this, the question is why is the toss anything more than a way of just starting matches?

 

 

Hove

Sussex versus Hampshire 19th June 1978

Good Old Sussex by the Sea was the reward for a journey involving three slam door trains,  in time to see Gordon Greenidge and Trevor Jesty coming out to bat on a brilliant midsummer morning; two members of a particularly strong Hants team in the 1970s, albeit by the time this photo was taken one that was coming towards the end of its lifespan. The relatively small numbers of mature spectators, in the pavilion, in the deckchairs  not unusual for a weekday in June; numbers tended to rise, to some extent, with those of school-age, their teachers and holiday-makers later in the summer. As for commercialisation in cricket 1978 style, the (slightly bedraggled) sign for Qantas is not all that surprising, even if Barmy Army travels were not to start for more than a decade; more of a surprise, maybe, is the sign for the Burnley Building Society to its right, advertising to cricket-goers in Hove.

In the summer of 1978 both counties had a schedule of 72 days of First-Class cricket of which this match was the fourth of six (3-day) fixtures in June, with, for the visitors, seven to follow in July; 16 days more than in the 2018 Championship, in a season 25 days longer now. It was also a time when the cricket season had a rhythm to it which is simply absent in 2018, the then 17 counties played most of their limited-overs fixtures on Sunday afternoons, when a new audience, younger members included, were most likely to be able to (and did) attend.

Happily Hove has retained the character of a cricket ground over the decades since: more comfortable seating for watchers in 2018,  a better view looking up from the public stand built adjacent to the pavilion, an accommodation made with hospitality boxes and deckchairs there remain at the Cromwell Road end. A ground enhanced by its development, although anyone who can see something of the essence of English cricket in the photos here, or the way the ground is now, would surely see more of it with more balanced fixture scheduling.

In their book ‘Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket’, Stephen Fay and David Kynaston argue that the  changes in the game in  the 1960s and 1970s were more fundamental and far-reaching than any for a century, and that ‘it was essentially money that drove  change’; changing its nature, as distinct from the variety of formats. In other words cricket started to become less like a game.

This seems like a reasonable comment on the way of things then.  On his retirement at the end of the 1980 season John Arlott wrote of his ‘abiding nostalgia’ for the county cricket circuit and the considerable charm the way of life gave its participants, at a time when the jobs available to many outside the game had little or no charm, or much in the way of holidays to recommend them. It could however also be said that more money comes with its advantages,  which at the time included helping to attract many of the world’s finest cricketers to come and play in England.

The Hants team that played in this match had three ICC Hall of Fame cricketers, were led from the field at the end of it by Keith Stevenson, an ‘honest county pro’; appropriate to a  reflection on the Arlott era. As for the financial rewards for playing then,  the Hampshire players’ salaries in 1973, the year of their last Championship, amounted to somewhere around £450K in all (£2018); county cricketers have plainly been beneficiaries from the greater sums of money coming into  the game since, although it could be fairly added, not the principal ones.

 

 

 

The Counties and their Finances III

Gloucestershire, Somerset and Worcestershire

In a recent interview with The Times, Colin Graves repeated his view that he wants to see a thriving 18-county system, mentioning that the proposed new competition from 2020 would  mean an additional £1.3mn  for each county, with a minimum of £3.5mn per year. The ECB’s accounts for the last year refer to  ‘significantly increased’ broadcast revenues from 2020 and however much that might actually turn out to be in £mn, it will be enough, according to those at the top of the game, to future-proof the county circuit as well as fund the new competition. 

 

It is not too difficult to see why the sums mentioned might sway a majority, if not all, of the game’s business minds. All three counties here are substantially funded by the ECB revenues that are shared out across the game; for Worcestershire, for example, over 60% of its income in the last decade has come from ECB funds.

Pooling revenues has a long history in cricket (as with other sport) on the grounds that it makes for more competitive matches, and whether the county game is viewed in its own right, or simply as a proving ground for Test cricket, or something of both, the general rationale for this is solid enough.

What this leaves open is quite how much? Over most of the ECB era the total amounts distributed to the counties from the centre have, broadly speaking, flat-lined and the experience of the three here plainly fits into this overall pattern. The amounts in £mn shared out to the individual counties, though not equal, are quite similar.

A large jump in the minimum raises the question why it would make the  counties here more sustainable? In 2016 they had (loan) debts in the region of £3-£5m, made interest payments of the order of 3-5% of their income, and generally have had salary spends on cricketers that has allowed them to compete with the county teams from the major TMGs.

The combination of relatively equal shares from the ECB pool, and centrally controlled playing spends has, it could be said, been on the side of the smaller counties from a sustainability point of view. Where large extra revenues might go, if large extra revenues there  be, given that all are recipients, is fundamental and also problematic.

The (2016) membership totals in the chart below are also striking, particularly at Taunton where the numbers are greater than at Cardiff,  Edgbaston and Old Trafford. The similarity between those for Worcestershire and Warwickshire is also noticeable. As a % of their respective county populations, Somerset are ahead of the TMGs, way ahead of three of them.

Also apparent is the variation between the TMGs,  about twice the numbers at Trent Bridge, where historically membership has risen, as there are at Edgbaston. There has been a decline and in recent years recovery at Headingley, and a more or less unchecked historical decline at Old Trafford, since numbers of nearly 14,000 in 1997. As for sustaining a new audience, playing at venues where there is experience of keeping an existing one might be thought helpful.

By comparison with football, which in the past certainly had its problems in the aftermath of the collapse of the ITV-Digital contract, but where most of the time this century the revenue numbers from TV have been heading north,  it is arguable that cricket has had a more difficult, maybe much more difficult, time over the years.

The much criticised decision to take Test cricket behind a paywall after 2005 was justified by the ECB by the need to maintain its revenues. Channel 4, it seems fair to say, were not in a position to repeat its previous  contract, and the decision to ‘take the money’  has at least produced a time when  the distributions to the counties have been sustained; which is not to diminish the problems from the decision.

When aiming for sustainability the question that comes with a good  contract is what happens if it is then followed by a less good one?The general, systemic, risk to the smaller and mid-size counties, but really the county game as a whole, from big increases in central funding from 2020 is to whom would the ECB and the game turn, if there was a decline in 2024?

 

 

 

 

 

The Counties and their Finances II

Lancashire,  Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire and Yorkshire

The March issue of The Cricketer  has a strongly worded editorial comment in favour of a city-based 2020 ‘future’, and while to be sure the editor was clearly thinking  in terms of the then expected t20 format, the editorial line was no need for fear, only winners here; before going on to mention that the domestic game is almost £200mn in debt and that the new competition from the ECB is a ‘diligently researched, meticulously constructed attempt to eradicate it’.

Both sides of the argument in relation to the proposed 2020 competition face what is a divide of sorts, if not a fault line, between the counties with international grounds in the cities and the other counties; the  legacy of redeveloping and upgrading venues one side, the risks of marginalising, if not extinguishing, part(s) of the county game on the other.

Yet, when it comes to their financial size, and the debts that are being carried, the differences between the TMG counties, with Surrey at one end of the spectrum, are often greater than the differences between them and the others. In terms of revenues, the four counties over the horizon covered by the chart, for instance,  vary from Lancashire (£258mn) to Yorkshire  (£118mn) with Warwickshire (£183mn) and Nottinghamshire (£153mn).

When TV coverage of Test cricket went commercial after 1998, Channel 4 latterly offered a contract that was so favourable to the game that it was unable to repeat it and the ECB, prioritising (centralised) revenues, traded away FTA coverage; with  risks for the  finances of individual counties passed on from the diminished visibility of the game and in the case of the TMGs, dealing with the effects of having to bid and pay staging fees to hold international cricket.

It is no surprise that the revenues from the middle of the last decade became more variable,  with the  particular years in which Test cricket was staged or not obviously important for the individual grounds. Edgbaston and Trent Bridge both staging four Ashes Tests after 2001, Headingley and Old Trafford two, creating predictable local peaks; as the for the troughs in the case of Old Trafford 2012 was a year of major rebuild, the ground that re-opened a year later, ‘a venue for the 21st century’.

There are, of course, other specifics, which impact the revenue figures, one of which being membership numbers; at Old Trafford, for example, there were  more than 13,000 members at the turn of the century, a number that had declined  to the order 5,000 by 2016, while at Trent Bridge numbers of 5,000 in 2000 have since risen by around 50%. Differences of this sort are not obviously attributable to matters of TV coverage; variations in costs and fixture scheduling, the management of member facilities would seem likely, among other things, maybe.

In a way the revenue figures are also an observation on the argument put forward by some club officials at times that the business in the cricket business is simply there to support the cricket. Centrally set limits have meant that the differences between the counties’ expenditures on their playing staff have been relatively small: the financial records over the last decade show spends by Lancashire of £26mn, by Yorkshire £24mn; the  amounts of support from business involved in putting out a team of  cricketers seemingly varying by a factor of up to two among the counties here, between 2007-16  about £1 in 6 of the revenues at Old Trafford went on paying their county players, at Headingley, about £3 in 10.

As to the debts being carried, the second chart shows the growth in the loan finance by the four counties; numbers that have risen in the last decade with ground developments at Edgbaston, where loans rose from £20K to £20mn between 2008-11 and at Old Trafford, where they rose from £3mn to £18mn during those years and where the numbers have been projected to keep rising, as they have been at Headingley, reportedly up to £40mn with the development of the football stand. As things stand something like a half of the debt in English cricket is carried by three counties, with loan finance at Trent Bridge  having peaked at the end of the last decade since when it has halved approximately.

How much of a problem is this really? Much of  the growth in debt finance in the last decade has an orthodox (and not unreasonable) justification that the cost of the ground rebuilds be paid for on a generational horizon.  Developments aimed at eradicating debts on a shorter horizon come up against the standard (and as far as it goes not unreasonable) objection that they are likely to be either ineffective, for some if old debts are paid off new ones be acquired, or un-necessary, for others manageable debts simply remain that way.

Debts from trading losses are another story and there is a something like common sense takeaway from the first chart that more stability would be a good thing, greater certainty about major match allocations for longer horizons a help and avoiding unnecessary risk-taking, it does seem reasonable to think, likewise; such as a new competition for new spectators where they simply may not exist in noticeable numbers  in one, or several, of the proposed locations for holding it.

Broadly speaking an era of commercialisation, with the centralisation of revenues and arguably more managerial influence throughout the game, has resulted in more debt. There is no obvious outward sign that this is set to change, rather that the 100 ball cricket now proposed from 2020 is the continuation of the same, at least in terms of managerial influence;  which raises the question whether the rising debt levels are reversible without, among other changes, there being larger budgetary spends on the game’s players?

 

 

 

County Cricketers in 2018

The performance of the England team this winter has again led some to suggest that the talent pool for the professional game is in general too reliant on players from overseas and on those who were educated at fee-paying schools. It is not too difficult to point to particular occasions when this might be thought so, the Hampshire team below at the Oval last summer, for example, according to the details on Cricket Archive consisted entirely of players who were one or the other.

Yet the home team in that match, with its base in the global city, put out a side with 10 England qualified players, from a mix of state and independent schools, together with the South African, Conor Mckerr.  As might be expected the backgrounds of the playing squads do vary a fair bit from  county to county and numbers on all the counties are in a file on the stats page above.

What the totals show is that in 2018 76% of the more than 440 players are England-qualified, of whom in turn some 37% were privately educated in this country. There is therefore still a sizeable number who were at a  state school, although many who were have also come from a family of cricket players.

The educational backgrounds of the players now do of course reflect the state of the game in schools a decade and more ago. When Chance to Shine was established in 2005 a commonly quoted stat was that the game had declined over the decades to the point where it was played in perhaps 10% of state schools; to which could be added the simple observation that participation had also declined, but less quickly maybe, in independent schools as well. Whether this decline was bottoming out then or still had, or still has, further to go is central to the likely future direction of the numbers here, but getting anything like a clear picture on this really requires figures over several years.

For what it is worth the % numbers of England qualified players is slightly up this year on last. There are however the not especially comforting stats that 20% of the game’s English players now were educated in just 1% of the schools in the independent sector, and that while the ECB has operated a policy of financially rewarding the counties with age-related payments for those who are England- qualified, in 2018 proportionately greater numbers of those under the age of 26 are the products of  independent schools.

To this there is a something like common sense observation that the relative numbers playing the game in state and fee-paying schools, while important, are secondary to the total numbers playing. The ECB’s efforts to promote the game in schools and at the grassroots certainly deserve to be a high priority, although whether the same can be said for a city-based t20 league as the way to produce a generational shift in interest is another question again.

In the game’s past, before the county structure became established,   W.G. Grace played for a United South of England Eleven, in effect a team of travelling salesmen for the game that took it to many places around the country and across the Irish Sea, showing the best of it to people who had not seen it before.  A United North of England and All-England teams led by others did something similar for varying periods at much the same time historically. A hundred years later, when interest in the long form of the game was dwindling in the decades after WWII, the counties took a shortened (t40) version, played by teams that included the world’s best players, to the round number of 100 cricket grounds on Sunday afternoons.

In 2020, the ECB seemingly expect a new audience to do the travelling to a competition to be played at just 8 grounds. What the 2018 stats on the backgrounds of professional players show is the small numbers who have been educated in Cardiff, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton;  one indicator of the interest levels in the game in those cities in the relatively recent past. If, as must be  quite likely, it is correlated with the potential number of new spectators coming along after them, then a message for the prospects for 2020 t20 getting much traction and being a success.

The Counties and their Finances I

Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Essex

Graeme Wright’s  book is a lively account of the issues attracting the attention of the game’s business minds at the beginning of the decade, some of which have certainly moved on, some of which equally certainly remain, hardy annuals as it were.  The difficulties caused by the bidding war for major matches and the resultant indebtedness of some of the TMG’s, now recognised,  a fixture list seemingly giving little rhythm to the cricket season, still,  and criticism of an over-powerful bureaucratic governing body then, for better or not a new ECB constitution in 2018.

The language of dependence  tends to permeate the references to the smaller counties, downstream from decisions, resistant to the proposed  city-type T20 competition at the end of the last decade and, in the view of some,  leaving the modernisation of the game a  decade and more behind rugby union. What future for county cricket now, with a city-based T20 game on the horizon from 2020,  its Championship watched by the proverbial three men and a dog and calls from prominent figures to reduce the amount of 4-day cricket that is played?

Financial  numbers tell us something about the county game and the revenues of the four counties above in the time of Sky TV are in the chart; the numbers for  Kent, Somerset and Worcester not very different to Derby, Leics and Northants  in 2016, those for Gloucester closer to Essex, Sussex a bit higher.  Once the effects of general inflation have been allowed for, the revenues of the four have, broadly speaking, flatlined, the effects of taking TV coverage behind a pay wall not helping with the general awareness of the game or, it seems reasonable to think,  membership numbers or ticket sales.

In the peculiar, peculiar in the sense of being unusual, economics of team sport, revenue sharing is something that gives smaller clubs a chance to compete, an aid to the overall competitive balance of the competitions that are played. The extent of this varies between sports, although for smaller clubs, their share of pooled funding is, of course, a larger % of their revenues.

Scaling the financial numbers in cricket up by factor of around  30, Leicester City FC, a relatively small PL club, were around 75% financed from TV monies in the year they were champions; in rugby union where the numbers are closer to those in cricket, Northampton Saints, for example, a not so small rugby club, receive about 30% of their funds from Premiership Rugby and the RFU.

When free market economics meets English cricket it could therefore be expected to be on the side of the smaller counties. Cricket has a long history of pooling monies from Test cricket that dates back to the time of the TCCB, and before: in the  Sky era  ECB monies have been of the order of 40-50% of the total revenues for Essex, Northants do not disclose £mn figures, but  have referred to ‘well in excess of 50%’ in their accounts. The % for Derby and Leics are in the chart. 

 

The revenues that the ECB generate are, in large part, derived from Test cricket and concentrating the revenues coming into the game via TV contracts has concentrated the financing for the red ball game. For individual counties more revenue may be generated by T20 ticket sales and the associated hospitality than comes from member subs from those more interested in 4 day cricket, but taking ECB monies with other revenues together the picture of what it is that finances the county game is more mixed.

Whether overall the long form of the game has been used to support the development of T20 cricket by the counties in the last decade or so is moot: but whatever answer be given,  a county Championship that is in large part financed to support the development of the England Test team needs sensible fixture scheduling among other things.

In the 2018 season ahead  county cricket overall will still make some sense economically, Derbyshire and 17 others doing what they are financed to do. Whether from 2020, when the cities are seeking a new audience for the T20 game, more 4-day cricket should be played by the counties at a time and in conditions they often don’t play in now, is another question again, and one that deserves to get an airing.

 

 

 

 

 

T20 Cricket and its Ownership

Both football and rugby union in England prevent the common ownership of teams that play in their competitions, a defence against the conflict of interest when two teams with the same owner play each other. In European football this issue was dealt with by the Court for Arbitration in Sport nearly twenty years ago after the investment company ENIC  bought stakes in clubs in Athens and Prague; since when in England Owners’ and Directors’ Tests have been introduced by both the Premier League and Football League that bar individuals from holding a significant interest in two clubs. The FA has its own separate test.

Despite the very great concentrations of money in football and the advantages it gives to those who have it, there is something to say the integrity of the game is still fundamental, that whatever the pre-match odds,  the outcomes of matches are not fixed. In 2017 the take-over of Gloucester Rugby Club by Mohed Altrad, the wealthy owner of the club in Montpellier, reportedly a good owner willing to invest substantially, was blocked by Premiership Rugby.  In cricket  in the first-class game 15 of the counties are currently registered under the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies  Act; the other three, Durham, Hants and Northants have  different owners. Multiple team ownership within England’s major team sports has either been regulated on the basis that it is to akin to a no-no, or has otherwise just remained a non-issue over the decades.

The new 2020 t20 is different in that the game’s governing body is creating the teams that will be playing in it. While this does not necessarily mean they can’t be independent,  the ECB has so far has consistently maintained that the eight team competition will be  ‘ECB-owned’, which raises the question what does or at least what might this mean? What  here is light, what is shade?

Daniel Brettig wrote a piece last year titled ‘The big argument before the Big Bash’ in which he relates the differences there were within Australian cricket over ownership before not taking  finance from business people involved in the IPL; passing by ‘the free cheese in the mousetrap’. On this subject Michael Atherton also wrote a piece in The Times last summer looking at the different t20 leagues around the world, and also arguing for the advantages of not relying on external funding,  so that the profits that come along are available to nurture its future stars.

While there is plainly a question mark against the existence of any profits from 2020 t20,  this part of ‘the future’ could, with a bit of effort maybe, be seen as light. As to the management of the new competition, a reasonable question is whether the board of the  ECB would pass the FA’s Owners’ and Directors’ Test? The declaration  the FA requires directors to sign has as point number one

“I am not either directly or indirectly involved in or have the power to determine or influence the management or administration of another Football Club”

so after allowing for the specifics of its context, and wording, but given its intention and particularly how widely it is drawn, quite how would the ECB’s directors  (and the directors of a competition board) not fail it in relation to 2020 t20?

A regulatory body that owns the regulated seems likely to have problems from what might be called regulatory capture contraflow. As for t20 cricket keeping its profits within cricket, but avoiding the issues surrounding teams with a common  owner, in England this is, of course, the competition known as the T20 Blast. Given that the ECB is directing the future of the game away from it, the not so straightforward questions are quite why so, and where are they heading?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sundial in the Shade by Andrew Murtagh

For those who saw him bat the talent of Barry Richards puts him with a small group who are mentioned after  Don Bradman: Sachin Tendulkar, Viv Richards and not all that many others. His Test career was almost entirely sacrificed in the cause of ending apartheid in South Africa and prompted, at least in part, by a feeling that cricket goers now are not as aware of him as they might be,  Andy Murtagh’s biography is  a  view of a team-mate that  reveals a fair bit about the man as he lauds the player.

Among the most interesting observations are those made by the author (and also Robin Jackman at one point) on what it was that made Barry Richards such an exceptional batsman: forensic powers of observation from his extraordinary eyesight that let him see which way the seam on a ball was rotating  (and so which way it would it would spin), his capacity to remain still until he had decided to play forward or back and the great speed of his reactions when he had. In short gifts from nature that go with being a cricketing genius; a master technician, an innovator who was temperamentally given to attack.

It was  characteristic that he really excelled when presented with conditions or circumstances that others would find difficult,  announcing himself in England with an innings of 70 made out of a total of 122 when he had just started with Hampshire on a rain affected (‘S shaped’) pitch at Harrogate. The innings that stand out in the memory of this blogger are one of great care, 37 not out, but getting the better of Bishan Bedi in a match that went a long way to deciding the Championship in 1973 and also a brilliant Sunday League century in 1975, against a strong Leicestershire team that anticipated rather the way the game would be played in the T20 era, giving the pavilion roof at Dean Park a difficult afternoon in the process. At his best the effect he had on spectators was electrifying.

His Test career was over by 1970, after a series in which the South Africans defeated Australia 4-0,  playing 4 matches in which he averaged 72,  some happy seasons at Hants followed in which he and Gordon Greenidge formed an opening pairing that might be thought to compare with any in the history of the game; his partner going on to establish himself in the West Indian team that dominated from the mid-late seventies onwards. Towards the end of his time in England it would be fair to say that he was not greatly motivated by playing seven days a week on the county circuit, and his mid-season exit in 1978 while a relief to him personally, could have been  made in happier circumstances than a rain-affected match at Grace Road (above).

Andy Murtagh does a good job making it clear that he was more at home in the Southern Hemisphere, that he had a certain liking for Adelaide that was not felt for 1970s Southampton. It is not a short book and there is quite a lot of detail about the development of his career, the 1970 Test series in South Africa,  his innings of 356 in Australia and later his performance in WSC  which hint at the career that might have been (5 supertests,  an average of 79). Later chapters  remind how good he was as a commentator-summariser, comparable to say Michael Atherton in clarity and sharpness, and also chronicle his career as a cricket administrator.

Those with exceptional talent that sets them apart do not always have easy lives and  the observation that Barry Richards is a private man is made more than once in Sundial in the Shade; at ease with his friends from Durban High School, someone who came to tolerate autograph hunters as part of the job, but who did not appreciate particularly those whose search for stardust or whose curiosity took them beyond the limits of the public realm. The point is made that he regrets not having made more friends in his time at Hampshire, although Andy Murtagh’s essentially sympathetic appreciation  gives readers some understanding of why he did not.

In other circumstances Barry Richards may or may not have scored more runs than Graham Pollock or Brian Lara, or given as much or greater pleasure to those watching as either of them. For those who didn’t see him at all, there is a lot in this book about what he achieved in first-class cricket and if Sundial in the Shade can only go so far in persuading readers about how good he was, the ESPN legends of cricket (on youtube) gives some sense of the extent to which he was respected, revered as a player, by those that did have full careers at the top level of the game.

Darley Dale

Derbyshire v Hampshire 7th September 1975

Sundays in the 1970s  were quiet days, pre the relaxation of the  trading laws and with restrictive licensing that meant that pubs were open for two hours at lunchtime, before closing until the evening. Televised sport in the winter meant Ski Sunday, with its iconic signature tune, and, in the summer months, the Sunday League; a game a week broadcast on the Beeb, commentary by John Arlott and Jim Laker and bat and ball games on the outfield  during the tea interval helping  to breathe new life into the game.

The then 17 counties played each other once with the matches in 1975 being  played at over 50 venues: county grounds, outgrounds and outer outgrounds which that year included the Somerset team of Viv Richards and Ian Botham playing in Torquay,  and Colin Cowdrey and Derek Underwood playing for Kent in Long Eaton. When Hampshire defeated Leicestershire at Bournemouth in the penultimate round of fixtures  they were a win away from claiming the title that year. Interest was sufficiently high among supporters that a coach undertook what was, on the road network of the time, the long haul from Swanage to Darley Dale, ably organised by Joe Goodwin. Joe went on to become the chair of CAMRA, the  body championing consumer choice in beer matters, at the time choice for many was often bitter or mild and the ‘big six’ as they were known were standardising  production. CAMRA today still give an award to local pubs in Joe’s name.

Darley Dale Cricket Club played host to an estimated crowd of 6,000 (more than the population of Darley itself), and the scorecard for the day shows an era when county sides included Test cricketers, supported by decent county pros. Hampshire made 222-8 and won by 70 runs, in large part due to the dominance of their opening pair who put on 90, backed-up by John Rice who took 4-14 in his allotted overs.

In 2018 the T20 Blast is scheduled to be played at 23 venues and with the new city-based competition from 2020  on the horizon (“the future”) the number of venues it uses may well  be down to just 8. The game of cricket, it could be fairly said, has contracted in some important respects since the 1970s, while happily the nation’s choice of beers has widened considerably, and in many cases, gone local.  There are voices in the game suggesting that only the new standardised manufacture should be played in the height of summer in two years time; a message in a bottle, maybe, for cricket goers about the need to exercise their voice.

 

A Beautiful Game by Mark Nicholas

 A semi-autobiography and  the winner of The Cricket Society/MCC Book of the Year for 2017, A Beautiful Game was worth the time it took to read it. Mark Nicholas gives a very readable account  of his playing career, nearly two decades with Hampshire; the early years in the 2nd XIs  running errands for the first team and generally looking up to playing greatness, to the decade when he was captain of his county,  narrowly missing out on becoming England captain in 1988 at one point.

While this part of the book is likely to be of most interest to those who remember him playing, he is frank, disarmingly so at times, about key relationships with his team-mates, a fund of good stories and generally draws the reader into how he sees things well. He is also good on his playing triumphs, Hampshire eventually got to a Lord’s one-day final under his leadership (they were the 17th county to do so), the near misses (a Championship in the mid-80s in particular) and the days when things went badly (most notably in a match against a Pakistani touring team). His account of Robin Smith’s struggles with alcohol and depression after his playing career was over was written with great heart.

The writing is full-on for much of the book, which achieves its dramatic effect in the telling of his encounter with Kerry Packer that helped set his media career on its way in Australia, the re-telling of  the 2005 Ashes series and also in his comments on the game’s greats. In relation to his playing career the built environs of domestic English cricket were, by contrast, sometimes rather modest; the dressing room for the home players at Southampton for example the small cottage in the photos above (the visiting team a room behind opposite the gents used by members).

In a career lasting some forty or so years in the game, some things of course, as the saying goes, could have gone even better. He played a prominent role in Hampshire’s  move to the Rose Bowl, the development  of a purpose built ‘England outground’, a risky venture, that over the years has been rather fraught financially and  overall it seems to have been a less happy change than, say, the relocation of Southampton FC to St Mary’s.

The final chapter, his crystal ball, is thought-provoking. CLR James argued that cricket, its people should be seen in societal context; WG Grace a figure produced by Victorian England, the  market reforms on the sub-continent of the early 1990s and the rapid growth that followed background context for Lalit  Modhi and the IPL. In the last decade the Indian economy has more than doubled in size, that of this country has not and the monies from the media rights deal negotiated by the BCCI  this year were about twice those announced by the ECB; left to market forces the future of cricket, it seems fair to say, is likely to be what the sub-continent wants.

A member of cricket’s global media,  he appears to tacitly accept this and his view of things contrasts rather with those in this country who see the longer form of the game as being above T20 cricket, and who might also see the ECB’s revenue generation from overseas markets as being decidedly two-edged. He comments on a structure for Test match cricket, which seems largely uncontroversial and likely to be quite widely welcomed,  other things, four days for a Test and his support for a city based T20 competition are or have been contentious; England, he comments, desperately wants an equivalent to the Big Bash. The  point of a crystal ball, is of course, to try and shape the future, as much as to see into it, and reading the final chapter does rather prompt the question as to how much of England there now is in the Englishman that wrote it?

 

 

 

 

 

A blog about English cricket