Batting for Time by Ben Bloom

Another book questioning the future of county cricket? This year’s offering from Ben Bloom is a successor of sorts to Graeme Wright’s Behind the Boundary, organisational matters prominent but brought to life by the people he spoke to. Against a background of proposed reforms to the playing schedule, to the surprise of some blocked by county members, Batting for Time is an answer to  the question who are  these people?

Opening overs on the most invested includes mention of  the love-lives of those in high office at the Oval, Brenda Lower at Hove, a very long-standing member respectfully known as ‘keeper of the balls’; at the end of the book David Griffin, who last missed a day of Derbyshire playing in 2009, flags the game as a coming together of disparate individuals.  Over a 100  were interviewed, as a matter of attitudes towards other people, life, Chris Nash comes across well, as does Kemar Roach, Lancashire media management does not.

But a world set to  be  swept away by franchises, global financiers incoming? Change started at Hants, who as a members’ club lost their way developing the Rose Bowl; baled out by Rod Bransgrove, who iirc took control in exchange for an offer of up to £4mn, and subsequently sustained by Eastleigh taxpayers who by 2015 had filled in with £40mn.

A tale of mis-calculations,  though it is a bit surprising that in 2024 15 counties are still, formally at least, bodies in the hands of their members. Part of the explanation for this lies with the ECB standing behind as well as above the counties,  a funder of last resort, most recently backstopping  for Yorkshire. Some reason for thinking that the 18 will continue, and not to doubt Richard  Gould’s comments on not formalising more separation between the haves and have nots.

The final chapter asks what purpose counties? Good question, Ben Bloom’s book gives the opinions of others, although not his. Stephen Chalke is quoted making the point that county cricket gets the blame when England perform badly, a place to receive exhalations from up above. 2022 was different in that the exhalations went both ways, a better year for those of us who see it as a decent part of English culture and think it worth supporting.

 

Red and White Ball County Players in 2023

A follow-on post from the last one including the white-ball players of last summer.  Overall 55%  came through an independent school although this average is from a long-term trend that is heading up. There is also a high dependence on a small number of schools: around a quarter of the 360+ English players in 2023 came through 20 independents.

Not great from the point of view of drawing from the widest possible pool of players and it’s a picture that doesn’t get better if fathers and sons, other family members, are factored in.  2023 saw a D’Oliveira at New Road for the 44th season since the arrival of Basil in 1964, something to smile at, as with other family connections as individuals, but across the game  70%  were either from a public school or a cricketing family or both

Given  non-recording of some details at Cricket Archive the actual figure was probably higher. So is county cricket heading for a time when there are  no outsiders, just players from legacy independent schools and  families from the game’s history? Literally all from one, the other or both?

It might get (very) close. The county  breakdown of those from independent schools is below and, broadly, is quite similar to  that for CC players in the last post, which counted appearances. Going by either the existence of Durham is one reason why the game will probably stop short of literally all, even if the present trend has another decade to run.

 

Championship Cricketers in 2023

How reliant is the County Championship  on fee-paying schools for players? Just over a half last summer (55%) came through one, not as high a figure as pieces on the England team might sometimes hint at, but still very disproportionate. Alternatively counting appearances gives a similar %, the variation between some of the counties striking if not especially surprising.

The numbers are based on 97% of the 284 who played, self-replies from the players to the archive. Allowing for overseas players around 120 names on the season’s team  sheets is typical for a county,  so a 10% difference between may be just one  player, fuzziness on the detail of who counts as English-qualified.

But the overall average is a reasonable guide to a half of them.  At one end Durham, with more players coming through catholic schools than some; Essex, players significantly drawn from the county and east London. At the other when Somerset played  Surrey last summer 16 of the 18  English players had at some point been to a fee-paying school;  the two not currently on tour with England.

Also in the archive  a record of  Jimmy Anderson taking  wickets for Burnley IIIs as a 13 year-old at Turf Moor in 1996; another world, one where the BBC was covering Test matches. In 2023 he was one of  85  players over the age of 30 who appeared in the Championship: around a third of them went to private schools, among the under 25s (there were 92 of them) the proportion was close to twice that.

Going by the numbers in the 2022 season including white-ball players gives patterns that are broadly similar. Reversing, or even just moderating a trend years,  decades, in the making looks like a long road, the  follow on is how far will  ECB and county managers   be heading along it?

 

 

 

 

 

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Ashes 2023 by Gideon Haigh

In the high sporting calendar of  2023  personally the Ashes came top;  ahead of Manchester City’s treble (hanging on at the end of the  Champions League final) and the Rugby World Cup,  games with  a lot of tactical kicking to the opposition. Test cricket the winner: margins of 2 wickets, 43 runs, 3 wickets, a D and 49 runs; not quite the plot line of 2005, but entertainment that at times was off the scale.

From an England point of view why did they declare on the first day? It was the first first day declaration in Ashes history, Gideon Haigh calls it the ‘Bazballsiest moment of all’. High confidence in four overs of bowling, two bites at the cherry in exchange for two wickets and if trying to to impact the psyche of the Australians was understandable, it’s not difficult to imagine them having given a mental thank you at the close.  In the end the result of the 2005 Edgbaston epic, which England won by two runs after Ricky Ponting had decided to field, reversed.

Freddie Flintoff and Brett Lee shaking hands at the end of that Test is one of the best Ashes photos, and  Gideon Haigh gives solid praise to the players for their conduct, reflecting the maturity of some, maybe seeing their last series. The desire of the Australian fielders  to shake the hand of Ben Stokes at the end of his  heroic effort at Lord’s another standout. Not so good was the author’s experience (an England supporting Aussie) of the the cricketing public, England a nastier place than in 2019;  disorder among MCC members maybe just the most high profile instance of it.

The book also laments rather the shrunken place of the Ashes: a series not a summer; The 100 the guilty party: ‘a 10th rate knock-off of the IPL’,  a cricket schedule ‘that disgraced all those involved in designing it’.  Well quite; as to whether England will be competitive in Australia next time,  they haven’t won a Test down under in the last three series (13 L’s out of 15); it might be different in 2025, but at the start of 2024 it’s hard to think systematically why it will be.

 

 

Cricket and Equity

Multi-year central contracts for England players and the ECB’s response to the Independent Commission’s equity report were in the news last month.  From the MCC museum a reminder, about change, and how well some have done from decades of globalisation and  paywall TV revenues. The 1980 figure equates to around £50k today, that summer  tickets to watch the West Indies in front of the the Tavern bar were within reach of folks with limited means: students, people doing manual jobs.

While the rewards at the top have increased enormously  the number of recreational players has declined steeply and into the world of 2023, an equity report aiming to tackle racism, sexism and elitism in cricket. As a row 30 spectator no experience of the above, it’s not easy to get a sense of how  widespread personal prejudice is: 4,000+ responded to the Commission but the unknowable is just how typical their experiences are of everyone else. It struck me that the aims of the report are admirable but  given their scope very ambitious.

It’s not news that  disproportionate numbers of recreational players  now have a  South Asian heritage or (given the numbers of pros who have) probably been to an independent school; in a way it’s a good thing  that cricket has such a hold on some, where would it be without them. But given the stated aim is to make the sport  more representative overall, would a big, disproportionate increase in women players come with a fall or rise in the  % from independent schools?

Could be either; aims that don’t always rub together are a problem, among others, and at least a de facto set of priorities be needed, particularly when set against the big financial decisions. Private investment ahoy?- billionaires to pay the millionaires more while tickets, even at the Home of Cricket, are within reach for those with limited means, bear some general connection to what they were in 1980?

Stranger things have happened, although if football is a marker that won’t be the story with tickets and, for the profit-minded, given the production line of the best players has increasingly been independent schools, why bother to fund county cricket, certainly the 18-county version? If push came to vote and the downside of the status quo is a T20 competition being ranked 3rd  after the IPL,  personally that’s what I’d vote for.

 

 

 

 

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Grounds 2023 (Sussex)

Hove, Arundel, Eastbourne and Horsham.

Hove in 1978, a small number of mainly seniors watching a slow moving game; no future in that they said. Championship cricket in 2023: some deckchairs still, the tree alas gone, hospitality cabins and the Sharks stand in view at the other end. The PA  referred to the stadium, that way in some corners maybe although to this visitor it feels more like a ground still.

Arundel, timeless, beautiful with its easy aristocratic charm. Southern Vipers v Thunder  below in a September  heatwave, and  for spectators a hose-pipe refilling water containers, which  personally was a first. The last trip I made was for a T20 match in 2007, although its ambience if not everything else, feels more suited to the long(er) forms of the game.

Eastbourne, Sussex returned here before covid after an extended gap with three ODC games. Twinned in a rather particular way with St Helen’s Swansea, two grounds where records were made during the era of dominant WI cricketers; bats different  but not the biggest of boundaries either.  In 2023, essentially, if not entirely, club cricket.

Horsham, as second XI games go a well-supported T20 fixture v Hants, one of three played here this summer. As with Arundel, and Eastbourne for watchers very little changed over the decades, bar an electronic scoreboard. Why would it have done?

Upgraded facilities, hospitality important at the centre, outgrounds used less and no more is a common denominator with other counties. Yet with increased ECB monies from The 100 and the ‘development’ ODC played in August this direction of (non) travel could change, at least to an extent. Question is, will it?

Outgrounds in 2023

In 2023 there have been  57 days in the men’s schedule (the total is 702) allocated to outgrounds;  Chesterfield, Cheltenham and Scarborough still going, a place for county cricket set in public parks, at clubs as well as in public schools.  In 2013, the last summer before Chris Arnot published his book on  festivals the  figure was 81.

Not great,  although there has been an increase in one-day cup games this year, 20 plus played in August and at some new(er) grounds, such as  Kibworth and York. Something similar seems likely again next year and maybe some will take root, although the increase has mainly been the  counties staging The 100 moving games out, the the future which must be about as certain as the  scheduling is stable.

Surrey versus Middlesex women  at Guildford was a pleasant early season trip, and  List A women’s cricket, the Rachael Heyhoe-Flint Trophy, also had 20 plus days on outgrounds when The 100 was not on.  Hopefully venue-wise it will stay that way, the T20 competition is more concentrated on county grounds.

The other side of this is  the continuing disappearance of Championship fixtures,  not  everywhere,  Lancashire played home games at both Blackpool and Southport, but seven counties scheduled their 39 home days at just one ground. As  a counterbalance to the game’s centralising tendencies outgrounds are still on the scales, although it does look like the weights continue to move against.

Grounds 2023(Kent)

Beckenham, Dartford, Gravesend.

Apart from Canterbury past excursions  to Kent  meant Folkestone, in 1985, when a Malcolm Marshall resistant playing surface dented Hants title hopes, Maidstone, for a Sunday League game,  and Tunbridge Wells when Shane Warne was a very big star. Good days out at the cricket, prompting the curiosity  to return last year to what now feel like vacated English idylls.

The cricket map of the 1971 season shows just how local county cricket was at one time, diverse folks watching in diverse places. In Kent seven outgrounds in a home  season of 53 days, even ‘nomadic’ Essex played at just four that year. The cathedral county a power in English cricket during that decade was also among the most local: in 1971 the first game was at Gravesend against Leicestershire, four of the Ashes’ winners three months earlier on the scorecard.

In 2023 37 of the 39 men’s home days are at Canterbury, although credit the fact Kent do have a second ground at Beckenham, one they are committed to:  two ODC matches and a base for the South-East Stars this season. Big, almost farmland big to one side, to this visitor it fell between being a major stadium and the appeal of many outgrounds, a place for others to watch their cricket. The immediate environs are very leafy suburb, which might be one clue to the future  of diversity in Kent cricket.

Hesketh Park, Dartford, on a non-matchday the cricket ground was tranquility itself,  an oasis of sorts given the urban nature of the approach to it from the railway station. It’s on a scale more sympathetic to traditional supporters with a taste for outgrounds, in the years when Kent played here the largest attendance was 3,750.

Gravesend, historic is a good word to characterise the The Bat and Ball Ground,  first-class games played here according to Cricket Archive between 1849-1971. In past the pub of the same name in 2023 a functional nature, but still atmospheric, with club cricket strong enough for a midweek afternoon fixture.

 

Champions by Dave Allen

Dave Allen’s expertly produced pamphlet recalls  a season in which Hants quite unexpectedly became   Champions, all the more favourably remembered because of it. In the years that followed the county arguably became the buzz team: high expectations but impacted by the rain gods winner of only two more trophies by 1978. It was also the start of almost 20 years in which the county’s bowling was spearheaded first by Andy Roberts and then Malcolm Marshall.

The cricket of the 1973 season  had a rather different nature to it: brilliant openers, teamwork among the bowlers that included the slow left-arm of David O’Sullivan and Peter Sainsbury, backed-up by very good fielding. Personally, I got lucky seeing nine days during August, eight of them red-ball. It seems a lot now,  although in the sporting landscape of then domestic cricket was prominent in a way that is hard to imagine in 2023:  sports desk updates on the radio most weekdays in the summer months were racing results and county cricket scores.

The Dean Park pavilion in 1973  was  much as it was when Gary Sanford took his fine photo above years later, and sitting on the green benches to the left was certainly prime listening when an announcement was made on the (just visible) PA about becoming Champions during the Bournemouth week. The cowshed (white) building to the right, the press box,  and Desmond Lynam’s afternoon  radio show was one broadcast of this to a wider world, followed by a report  that evening on the main BBC news. In the days of three tv channels it was probably seen by several millions.

As for messages for 2023: outgrounds are a fine part of the landscape, wherever the Championship(s) are eventually  won. Unexpected triumphs flag  the virtues of competitive balance:  success, spread it.  Since 2000  nine counties have won the title and keeping it on the horizon of those that haven’t should be a priority,   perhaps with  Bazball energies towards the red-ball game it will be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photos from the Past II

A second set of photos taken from the world of county cricket over a six-week period in 1978. Some of them have appeared on this site or social media before, the best of the bunch individually are on the tab above, the ones here though hang together in their own way. There are all told seven ICC Hall of Fame of Players shown on the county circuit, one marker for just how different things were then.

The Oval, Roger Knight leading out the Surrey side  followed by the Hampshire openers Barry Richards and Gordon Greenidge, later that afternoon Andy Roberts with both bat and ball. Top right at mid-on Intikhab, who over six years was Pakistan’s Test captain, an entertaining player to watch.  John Edrich in his final season, bottom right and the wicketkeeper is Cornishman Jack Richards.

Weston, grainy and a bit distant but Vic Marks bowling to  Mike  Taylor, identical twin Derek behind  Two photos giving some idea of the presence of  Viv Richards.  Bottom right concern for the welfare of Peter Roebuck, plainly in something of a daze; a picture with poignancy given his later career at Somerset, and the rest of his life, well-written about by Jon Hotten in his book The Meaning of Cricket.

Cheltenham, green and rather dark images from a game played during a wet-spell of weather. ‘Proctershire’, with Zaheer and Sadiq were a strong side, a contender for trophies, the two counties close rivals.

Bournemouth week; Warwickshire with, at the time, West Indian captain Alvin Kallicharran prominent. Top left shows David Brown bowling, Geoff Humpage keeping with David Rock batting. The pleasure for spectators of watching at the 5 o’clock hour.

Champions-elect Kent the second game, Derek Underwood bowling, Paul Downton behind the stumps with Asif fielding close. Credit the unseen, if not unknown, short-leg fielder in the pre-helmet era, still alive. A century from Trevor Jesty helped Hants to a win; a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1983, in another era he would very probably  have played more ODIs for England.

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