Category Archives: County Cricket

The Blast

The ECB’s shiny new engine has had its first outing to great fanfare, much expense, approval from passengers. It’s been a visibly good summer for Sir Topham. As for that old favourite BranchLineBlast, parked in the siding and feeling rather neglected, a big weekend engagement this month, although passengers seemingly rather wonder about its future.

Long ago in the days of nationalisation  Sunday League services maintained a regular schedule, One-Day Cup matches were played  on a Saturday. 172 weekend fixtures over the summer at times, in places, to attract newcomers, with weekdays mainly the long format for established custom. Not everything was better in the 1970s,  a lot of things weren’t, although as a way to run a railroad…….

Winds of change came, suits replaced secretaries and county T20 cricket, looking not unlike the second half of many Sunday League games, started in 2003. Aimed more at after work crowds,  the funky innovations of the noughties included spectators in bath tubs. 10 of the 48 games in the first year were played on a Saturday or Sunday.

Station managers  saw the £ signs, the competition greatly expanded in terms of the numbers of games.  By 2019 the figure that was 10 had risen, but only to 35,  25 days for the RLC, a total of 60. While The Blast was unfortunate that cricket FTA paid for by adverts was a loss-maker, broadly the game invested in buildings before a new generation of supporters.

Which raises the question  of whether it will  now invest in encouraging more families, under 10s to come along?  Those that have been on The 100 might find that actually BranchLineBlast has really quite similar carriages, gets up to speed pretty well and runs on the main lines.

It would have be said that in 2021 there was no obvious sign of it, rather a fixture calendar that started in early April, had almost no domestic white-ball cricket before the middle of June, then scheduled fewer Sat/Sun dates than in 2019. From which the question how long  will passengers  be waiting on the platform next season; as for those who do the administration for one engine, and give directions to the other, a pointed question as to which service, if either, will they be sending?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

County Directors

After Exeter City Supporters’ Trust became the owners of their football club I was a visitor to one of their board meetings. One of the directors was a former paratrooper; a supporter since boyhood who at the time had been repairing much of a then crumbling ground. Not remotely distracted management speak, he had the sort of energy that should be on club boards; diversity 2004: elections to anchor those making decisions and the influence of those that do.

As to county cricket and its diversity  now,  30 women directors, about 1 in 6 of the total, just two county boards/committees  all male (Kent, Northants ). The count of BAME directors 18+ maybe, changing times and some progress in the last decade, albeit  more by nomination than member election in some parts.  But as to the influence of those that do,  it seems doubtful that there are any nurses, or van delivery drivers,  among the 180 odd directors of the county game.

Cricket a game within a business and managed by the managerial classes then? The 100 team boards are largely made up of county chief executives together with a small  number of others that include an even smaller number of newcomers. While the counties take a payout, strategically The Blast  and The 100 are substitutes, competitors, rivals and  how those directors (or staff) acting in the best interests of one, will also be acting in the best interests of the other, is a mystery.

For members who put red-ball cricket first,  CC/ODC/T20 as  their order of priorities, 15 of the counties are membership bodies and  members electing other members still looks as a good a bet as any.  The question of what people stand for;  from personal experience credit those at the ‘People’s Home of Cricket’, the Oval, who stood for election this year and expressed an opinion, with some help from twitter what’s supposed to work still did in 2021.

Numbers here

 

A West Indian Legacy

Gordon Greenidge at the United Services Ground, Portsmouth, after making a brilliant Sunday League hundred back in the 1970s; memory fades, but he may well have been the only black man at Burnaby Road that afternoon.  When Hampshire played games in  Southampton then they had  a (one) black supporter, regarded as a socially important person by some, thanks largely to the chair of CAMRA  at the time who dispensed communism during afternoons at cricket.

The era of WI dominance that ran until the mid-90s is largely remembered now by World Cup Finals and brutal Test encounters; Fire in Babylon, WI cricketers doing wins a help to WI folks in England. But not to neglect the impact on domestic cricket and on the attitudes of those who follow(ed) it.

County Appearances of the 1975, 2019  World Cup Winners

West Indies 1975 England 2019
Roy Fredericks (Gla 71-3) 90 Jason Roy (Surrey 08-) 271
Gordon Greenidge (Hants 70-87) 549 Jonny Bairstow (Yorks 09-) 200
Alvin Kallicharran (Warwks 71-90) 574 Joe Root (Yorks 09-) 108
Rohan Kanhai (Warwks 68-77) 315 Eoin Morgan (Middx 05-) 267
Clive Lloyd  (Lancs 68-86) 492 Ben Stokes (Dur 09-) 175
Viv Richards (Som 74-86, Gla 90-3) 519                Jos Buttler (Som 09-13, Lancs 14-) 215
Keith Boyce                          (Essex 66-77) 360 Chris Woakes (Warwks 06-) 230
Bernard Julien                   (Kent 70-77) 163 Liam Plunkett (Dur 03-12, Yorks 13-18, Surrey 19-) 345
Deryck Murray   (Notts 66-9, Warwks 72-5) 252 Jofra Archer (Sussex 16-) 77
Vanburn Holder              (Worcs 68-80) 345 Abdul Rashid (Yorks 06-) 350
Andy Roberts                  (Hants 74-8, Leics 81-4) 208 Mark Wood (Dur 11-) 73
Total Number 3867 2311

Data sourced from Cricket Archive.

Seven of the 1975 WIs played for what were then non-TMG counties, at a point in the history of cricket when List A games were reviving it  WIs were doing a lot of the reviving. Exciting cricketers, liked by crowds at matches that were played at many local outgrounds, those at Portsmouth above for instance, saw a game between Hants and Yorks and  also a  pre-run of sorts to the 1979 WC Final.

The relaxing of the rules on overseas players  gave more WI  experience of English conditions, a lot of it by today’s standards, even allowing for the fact that the England players’ numbers are from  careers-in-progress.  At a time when first-class cricket in the Caribbean, the Shell Shield, involved a total of 10 matches a season, the experience a help in establishing their dominance in Tests against England, if not elsewhere; so an exchange of sorts at work as well. Much the same point could be made about limited-overs cricket: the Gillette Cup in the WI started in 1975/6.

WSC, rebel tours altered the financial incentives but it is very striking how loyal the 1975 team were to their  counties.  Most of the  players who went on to play for the WI in the years between 76-95 also played county cricket,  including all of the quartets of fast bowlers, of whom no-one with a  longer span than Courtney Walsh and no-one with more appearances than Malcolm Marshall.

In 1975 black people in the eyeline of this one spectator were some of the game’s greats, in 2019, at the Oval, they were gate staff.  The game has the support it does in England because of WI cricket past, no question, so what then to make of the sentiment that something is missing now?  In Cricket:The Game of Life  Scyld Berry comments that  ‘We should not wonder at West Indian cricket becoming so moderate, but at it once having been so magnificent’.

It’s  an understandable point view to take, particularly given its setting in an historical context. As to the involvement of black folks in cricket in England now, playing football was a comment heard more than once last year; it is, after all, where the money and the glory is, the game a lingua franca.  But it leaves an awkward question for cricket, as to whether its relative decline among those with a Caribbean heritage is, socially, a problem, or just a sign of progress?

 

 

 

Photos from the 1970s

In  2019 Brian Carpenter who writes a piece on cricket blogs for Wisden mentioned  this one, pointing the way to some photos I snapped in 1978.  Quite a number of them are on this site somewhere, or on twitter, but if you have come this way for a look, ‘a best of the bunch’ are collated here.

Many thanks go to Gary Sanford, a fellow sightscreen committee member from long ago, for his photo of the Dean Park pavilion above  and also to the ‘unknown developer’.  In the 1970s when rolls of film were sent off to be developed, it was not too difficult to imagine that some of those doing the processing also followed the game,  certainly in a couple of cases an enlargement returned was an improvement on the original.

Hove 19th June One of the iconic settings for county cricket then, and now, and happily still ‘a ground’.  Turn left out of Hove station on a Monday morning  and where better to start an extended cricket-watching holiday?

 

The Oval 16th July A Sunday League game: two ICC Greats, Barry Richards and Andy Roberts,  John Edrich, together with David Turner.  Umpire Tom Spencer, who three years earlier had officiated in the first World Cup,

Northlands Road, Southampton 5th August A relaxed-looking Geoffrey Boycott in front of a full pavilion,  hosting a good many tykes on tour. Photograph taken from 40-50 yards away, the awareness of its subject having prompted his response. 

Clarence Park, Weston 10th August A shaft of sun light giving a terrestrial-celestial aspect to the cricket; some of the  other snaps of Viv Richards taken that afternoon  show just what a colossus he was and a dominating presence in this one certainly.

Dean Park, Bournemouth  23rd August Dennis Amiss batting for Warwickshire, a pioneer user of helmets that summer when their use was ‘controversial’.  A man apart rather because of it, generations of cricketers since have had reason to be grateful to him.

Northlands Road,  27th August Gordon Greenidge playing against Kent in a SL game. The Hants Handbook for the year records his frustration with only making  51, a century in each innings followed when the Championship fixture resumed the following day.

Dean Park 3rd September Richard Gilliat with the JPL trophy. A happy ending for a batsman who walked, and who had reached the the end of his playing career that year.  Not everything about cricket celebrations in the 1970s was better then, but they did connect players with ‘ordinary’ supporters, and hopefully some in the picture still follow the game. For those who do QoS,  is the partly obscured figure behind ‘RMC’ a  recognisable one?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sunday League

Darley Dale is a small commuter town just outside Matlock with a population of around 6,000, its cricket club dates back to the 1860s and plays today in  the Derbyshire County Cricket League Division 3  North. In the cricketing summer of 1975, remembered now as much as anything for the first World Cup, it  played host to a Sunday League match, the scorecard for which shows the home county with seven who played Test cricket and the visiting Hants side three of whom have since entered the ICC Hall of Fame. Unusually for the 70s there is a clip of film of the  game on YouTube.

The crowd was around 5,000, those of us who headed straight  into the Square and Compass pub afterwards fondly remember it, even if  Darley might  be seen now as a very small stage for such talented players, the world of cricket before Kerry Packer. Yet no question that the Sunday League did a more than decent job regenerating the game, fondly remembered because of it thanks to  the Beeb’s coverage and  to games played in places that kids could get  to. All told it  was played on 127 grounds.

The  Beeb’s cameras were at almost 50 of them:  in the first season at the Oval, Brian Johnston joining John Arlott and Jim Laker in the commentary box and the Oval, Landudno, where it was Richie Benaud. In the years that followed  games from other smaller places such as Lydney and Tring were broadcast, medium size conurbations such as  Bath and Maidstone and larger ones, Bradford and Portsmouth, among them.

Sundays being the way they were then cricket got a free run on the tv schedules until Sunday Grandstand came along in 1981, WCFs shared coverage with racing and tennis, the 40 over games not. There was a decade and more when FTA cricket was as much the domestic game as Test matches, although later squeezed and then mainly England  before Channel 4.

And the significance of all this for now?  The ECB has recently said the average age of a cricket supporter is 50, the game might have gone more commercial in the 21st century but it is still heavily dependent on those  who took to it in the era when it was FTA. Reducing the age difficult given how little the game is played in schools, and if the experience of the SL is anything to go by there probably needs to be a lot  of domestic cricket FTA for it to impact.

As for taking the game round the country, the Victorians with help from WG  managed it, the SL did something similar, so how good will those  in charge now turn out to be? In their high chatter this lockdown there has been some recognition that The 100 is not really all that much about attracting a new, younger, audience; a certain realism which seems  like one step in the right direction. Step two, play more games on outgrounds? Hopefully they will get onto that sooner rather than later.

 

Numbers compiled from Cricket Archive, the Radio Times listings  from the BBC’s Genome Project.

Sustainable County Cricket

Somewhere the other side of  coronavirus, hopefully, there is a  English cricket season of sorts, however much truncated. Games  behind closed doors in June, streamed, with BBC commentary?  It would be good for the mental health of its listeners if there were. Matches with at least some spectators in attendance by  August? Maybe; but not to doubt that 2020 may turn out to be a season that wasn’t.

As to the capacity of cricket to survive a fallow year financially, the big numbers in the game, ECB revenues,  mainly broadcasting,  and those of the 18 first-class counties came to around £260mn in 2018 and were likely to have been well to the north of £300mn after last summer, which should have left some surpluses. The  ECB’s new TV contract from this year is ‘significantly’ bigger than before, and with help one way and another  from government, it conceivably might be  enough to get the domestic game to 2021.

Quite how long Sky will actually (be able to) fund cricket while showing repeats remains to be seen. But for those of us thinking a future with 18 first-class counties is a marker for the game’s presence, the sustainability  question, if anything, is likely to become more acute. Why struggle to keep a structure intact, critics will ask, if something is not really viable in any event?

Surprisingly maybe county cricket in the time of Sky has, in fact, returned a small profit. The impression from annual snapshots of its financial health in the past has sometimes been rather different, sometimes with reason, but cumulate the 18 financial bottom lines over the years and what you get is shown below.

Legacies and surpluses from ground developments are certainly part of what has sustained the smaller counties, and without the success story of Somerset the trend is close to break-even. Some, of course, have had better experiences than others, but the aggregated line for the non-TMGs, broadly, does not hide great variations within.

Bumpy times at the TMGs; the costs of major ground rebuilds, and expansion to nine when six meant one often missing out problematic, as might reasonably have  been expected. To an extent  this has now been rectified, a major debt write-off (Cardiff), a seriously big capital injection from the  local authority (Southampton/Eastleigh)  and a re-financing (Chester-le-Street) having steadied things.

But a clear and obvious message about speculative excess, the financially unsustainable; from which cue and queue the scepticism over The 100. If the game is about to borrow more against its future, repayment horizons that extend past the current risky TV contract will help. What cricket doesn’t need is more bumpy times of its own making to follow the current uncertain ones.

Charts for the individual counties and other financial details are on the stats page.

 

 

 

 

 

County Umpires

It was a straight one pitching outside the line that did not deviate is a chirp on  leg-before decisions heard every now and again during the cricket season. In the case of  Scott lbw Mahmood 26 during the Middlesex v Lancashire ODC game last summer,  ironic laughter could be heard in the Sky commentary box as viewers were shown the replay, before some understanding, faux or otherwise,  was expressed for the lot of the umpire. Two months later to a cheering nation England’s cricketers were given 6 at the end of the World Cup Final, when, as we now know, it should have been 5.

If a certain ambivalence re wanting the right decision is normal among supporters,  at the umpiring end with the benefit of the doubt given to the batsmen, out decisions when not still seem to be viewed more critically. For the fielding team then the incentive to appeal, loud and appearing sure, is not lessened any by a default of sorts against them.

As a first-up general impression county cricket seems fairly respectful of its umpires and their decisions; at least during the 15 days this one spectator watched, still so. But no question that the players’ body language, facial expressions come with  varying degrees of subtlety and, if much of it is aimed at each other, there are occasions when things get a bit raw.

Whether for example, Sam Curran  in the Surrey-Kent game below had just feathered one and is standing his ground, getting away with it, or the appealing collective for Kent, who were getting on top in the game, were just frustrated from overdoing it, later in the over the non-striker Dean Elgar was given out lb in what was a rather uncomfortable looking adjudication.

Uncomfortable because the umpire  was, in fact, right both times, even if the fielders had  convinced themselves otherwise, managing the energies, perceptions not easy? Or that he was in fact mistaken twice, or just the first time or just the second,  perceptions to manage just depending? Given the frequency with which players appeal, it is not news that some overs  go better than others for the umpires and while doubtless there were  handshakes at the end of the match, as there are, the game is not rugby, at least not exactly.

So if cricket has its ‘Unbelievable Jeff’ moments who would be an umpire? Over on planet football an ex-Premier League referee giving a presentation  in pre-VAR days suggested there were those who did it for the good of the game, those who would have been players, being on the  pitch much of the appeal of it, and those with certain liking for dispensing law and order: saints, frustrated pros and nature’s traffic wardens so to speak.

While  umpiring comes with some traffic management it has in the past been  done by former players, as it very much was in 2019:  almost all of the umpiring done by those who had played the county game and about a third of it by those who have played international cricket.

Numbers on the individuals are downloadable on the stats page, but it is striking how much the game is dependent on officials that cover all three formats: umpires Bailey and Saggers below stood in more than 30 fixtures last summer as did 11 of their colleagues and in overall terms umpires tend to umpire more than the players play. In 2019 there was a pool of 33, comparable to the playing staff of a large county: umpires umpiring  numbered over 700 over the course of the season,  players playing for a county considerably less. The day of the specialist umpire may yet follow a game dividing, although not all that much sign of it just yet.

Sceptics  of The 100 have some good reasons to not believe, to which add the layer of additional stress of a 4th competition  on those who adjudicate. ‘They have come to see me bat, not you bowl’  WG Grace is said to have said, a line that has made it to the game’s present; with the chief administrator of the ECB having declared its new competition to already be a success, good luck to those minded to give Ben Stokes out lb first-ball, whether it pitched outside the line, or for that matter whether it clearly didn’t.

The Counties and ECB Payments

With cricket as with other team sports there are good reasons to  pool the monies that come into the game. In football the Premier League distributes £ sums in nine figures to individual clubs allowing for example,  AFC Bournemouth and Newcastle United, with their respective histories, to compete against each other.

The MCC library holds records of prize and other monies being shared in domestic cricket since before the time of the TCCB in the 1960s. While the numbers then had five digits fewer than in the top tier of English football now, in the more commercial ECB era the amounts paid out to the individual counties come in £mn and have over the last decade, broadly speaking, been pretty equal. Taken together with the game’s salary cap it gives the smaller counties a chance in the three formats of the game.

The fundamentals of this notwithstanding, the sentiment that a small number of seniors sitting on a bench are not enough to keep the county game afloat has been around for decades; and, of course, around for  those decades have been the first-class counties;  in the time since the snap was taken at Portsmouth in the 1970s  Durham added to their number.

But a mistake to think that there couldn’t be existential issues with the county game, that  domestic cricket doesn’t have a problem with excesses that come from the top. The problematic legacy of  rebuilt TMGs to accommodate  international matches has prompted suggestions by some that The 100 will make, or otherwise just cement, the establishment of  ‘8 super counties’, with not so much, if anything, of a future for the others.

Looking at their respective financial sizes the differences between the scale of operations between the TMGs is very apparent, perhaps more striking than the differences between the TMG counties and those that aren’t. Surrey, something of an outlier with its Oval Events £ generator, is approximately the same size as  Lancashire and Warwickshire put together. There is then another sizeable drop down to Yorkshire: who if not a financial minnow exactly before the rebuild of Headingley,  was then comparable to Derbyshire,  since when in the  financial legal table  it has moved up to bracket with the now  ex-challenger TMGs.

The Cricketer magazine last year had an editorial suggesting that the domestic game was almost £200mn in debt and that the new ECB competition  was ‘a diligently researched, meticulous attempt to eradicate it’.  So is ‘one-half’, or more,  of The 100 really a rather underexposed debt relief scheme?

Trawling through the accounts of the 18 counties for 2017  and allowing something for the ECB reserves held then gives a figure of somewhere around £125-30mn. Quite a lot less debt to eradicate  than might have been thought, maybe; much of it, of course, held by the TMGs, Lancashire, Warwickshire and Yorkshire with debts £20mn+. So is much of what lies behind, and in front, of The 100  ‘a small country’ re-exporting  problems  from over-expansion back to a much larger one?

Failure, as the saying goes, is an orphan, but to be sure the disorder from too many TMGs has a lengthy history and could reasonably be traced back to three businessmen and a Rose Bowl; the county of the Hambledon club going in search of prestige, and parking, in the 1980s. The game’s finances might well have been easier to manage since had they gone up the river in a boat.

But the problems of excess are a tale of many other decisions as well plainly.  In 2004  the offer from Channel 4 to continue with FTA coverage of Test cricket during 2006-9 was less good than the then existing contract; a message from the past that the  value of TV rights can go down as well as up to say nothing of the consequences  when they do.

The  decision to (almost) max out on £  over exposure from 2020, comes with a big, if not huge, downside risk  given that the world and the  value of TV rights may very well change again by 2023.  In a game that needs to find some sense of balance the sooner it reverses out of The 100 the more likely it is to find it.

The county by county financial details for this post are  on the stats page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

County Members

Think of county members and what tends to come to mind is mature folks,  generation 60 at Championship matches, not always appreciated by some in the game although not heard as much as they might have been in relation to The 100 either. With cricket set to embark on this highly experimental change in structure next year, there is an important point about county members: they are still there.

So why weren’t or aren’t members’  voices more of an influence? 15 of the first-class counties are membership  organisations and the collective presence, total numbers, of members on the most recent figures is  still in the high 60,000s, and although down in the time of Sky, it would be a bit surprising if they weren’t given what has happened since 2005.

Cheerfully at the Oval, Taunton and Trent Bridge membership has been on the rise over the years and at Lord’s, MCCC numbers appear to have held steady at around 8,000.  Surrey reportedly 13,000 now, followed by Notts and Somerset, the counties with biggest membership bases.

The drop overall since 2005 from around 80,000 is to a very large extent the falls  at Old Trafford, Headingley and Edgbaston; clubs that borrowed big and underwent ground rebuilds  ‘fit for the 21st century’, with corporate facilities to match, during the great expansion of TMGs. The count of members no more is sharp comment on the nature,  success,  of this venture into cricket stadiums; particularly at Lancashire where the decline is very striking.

It is not news that cricket  has a problem with a  legacy of debts to manage. Given the importance of central funding to the counties, and governance changes resulting in directors  nominating cum appointing  other directors, the influence of members and supporters, those below rather than above, is not what it should be.

Or what it needs to be. On the time horizon covered by the charts what members still there points to is a shifting balance of CC/ODC/T20 types,  generation 40 and above who became interested in the game when it was (much) more widely played in schools than it is now. The ‘ECB risk’ to cricket with its new competition, that it loses more established support than younger  newcomers be attracted, is real enough; but for those not feeling any curiosity or attraction, still less duty, to The 100, happily cricket has a rich legacy of ambient outgrounds which seem set to be used more from next year.

There is a table with the numbers for the 15 counties on the stats page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

County ODC Cricket

56 years of Lord’s ODC finals came to an end last month with an occasion played out in front of a rather a lot  of empty seats. While it could be fairly said that  the numbers in attendance were not helped  any by the  same day scheduling  of an England World Cup warm-up match, last year the Mound Stand was pretty much full, the impression that domestic 50-over cricket was  being allowed to wither on its vine was a clear one.

Lord’s for the World Cup Final coming up and later this season host to the National Village and Club Finals, but not any longer a  county ODC (or T20) final;  a decision that seems to reflect a certain petulance as much as anything else. So for those who are not attracted to The 100 what sort of future is there for next year’s ODC?

Messages that it might become a development competition, played by under-25s, now being heard no more and it is a bit surprising that it was ever suggested that it would be. Last year there were around 160 county players under the age of 25 in all three formats of the game, while an 18 team ODC reasonably needs 15 man squads, 270 players (close to 300 appeared this year); the main numbers are just a long way apart.

As for whether those taking to the field will look more like second teams, by no means all 50-over players also play in the Blast to any great extent or indeed at all (from where it seems reasonable to think that most of The 100 players will be drawn).   For what their worth using the 2018 numbers on those who played in both 50 and 20 over formats  an average of 4 players missing  per county is a reasonable guess.

County XIs then rather than first or second teams particularly, although quite how this translates into what spectating will feel like might vary a lot. Not the least of the open questions now is whether there will be a free draft of players into The 100, any player picked by any team, so that it is at at least theoretically possible that the Somerset team who would have started their defence of the ODC title next year will be Welsh Fire and at the other end of the spectrum  some counties lose no  players at all.

Or if not this then what and how much is going to be left to the  managers of individual teams: will the Lancashire Blast players just slip into clothing with Manchester labels?  Sense, rather than a sense of the absurd, may be along at some point, meantime for those  thinking in terms of ambient  outgrounds as well as the cricket next year A is for Arundel.