English cricket 'losing touch'
If it was not already abundantly clear that cricket in England has endured a difficult 18 months, then the publication of the 2015 Wisden Almanack this week hammers the point home with a resounding thud. Its editor, Lawrence Booth, has characterised the past year as one in which the game "repeatedly lost touch" and criticises the ECB for a litany of failings, from overseeing the decline of the England team, to mismanaging the sacking of Kevin Pietersen and failing to effectively promote the sport to a new generation.
The greatest fear, voiced in a section about the fall in participation figures at recreational level, is that 10 years after the 2005 Ashes became a national fixation "cricket is loitering at the edges of the conversation". To use the phrase coined at the beginning of last year as the ECB dug its trenches in the Pietersen stand-off - one which has still not been resolved - it seems rather more people are currently "outside cricket" than is good for the health of the game.
Change is already afoot, with Colin Graves set to take office as ECB chairman and a new chief executive, Tom Harrison, working on a wide-ranging review. They will find their mandate strengthened by Booth's assessments - Wisden is a weighty tome, more than 150 years old, and its "Notes by the editor" carry a similar level of authority.
"In 2014 English cricket repeatedly lost touch - not just with things it wished had never happened, but with the basic idea that the national team belongs to us all," Booth writes.
"A few wins might have deflected attention from a charge sheet that would include the mishandling of the Kevin Pietersen affair, worrying Test attendances outside London, a head-in-the-sand attitude to the one-day team, and - not yet a decade after the 2005 Ashes had presented English cricket with a golden chance to attract a new generation to the sport - a fall in the number of recreational players.
"But the wins were too few. Starting with the drubbing in Australia, England lost nine full series out of 11 across the formats in 2014, to say nothing of their defeat by the Netherlands at the World Twenty20. In all, they lost 28 games. Only once had this been surpassed in a calendar year by one of the eight major teams - the dysfunctional 2010 Pakistanis."
Despite that record of failure, only one member of the hierarchy lost their job - and the removal of Alastair Cook from the one-day captaincy was another ECB clanger, described by Booth as "the correct decision, but several months too late". Of those charged with reviving England after the 2013-14 whitewash in Australia, he is equally scathing.
"The power brokers indulged in mutual backslapping. National selector James Whitaker had called Cook 'our exceptional leader'; Paul Downton, the ECB's new managing director, hailed Peter Moores as the 'outstanding coach of his generation'; chairman Giles Clarke trumpeted Downton as a 'man of great judgment'. It was a nexus of self-preservation - yet, as the wagons circled, the wheels kept threatening to come off."
This was never more apparent than with Pietersen, whose PR team ran rings around the ECB in a dance that is yet to reach its conclusion; Graves has hinted at a way back and Pietersen will play county cricket for Surrey to try and force his case. If that promises to further prolong the "fiasco", at least it is a more transparent position than the clandestine manoeuvring of the last year.
Booth writes: "Their comments on the fallout with Pietersen should have been clear and concise: if you're widely regarded as a pain, it helps if you're scoring lots more runs than anyone else. Instead, England botched the PR battle. They hinted that some darker truth about his behaviour would emerge once a confidentiality agreement expired in October. Yet the lull merely prolonged the fiasco. And, when the dirt failed to materialise, the ECB looked rudderless."
Anger at the state of the English game is preferable to indifference, however, and the ECB's own figures for 2014, which calculated the loss of more than 50,000 recreational cricketers, were cause for widespread alarm. With England and the county game behind a TV paywall, Booth, for the second Wisden running, has called for the ECB and Sky to arrange for some games to be broadcast free-to-air - a move that has been proposed with increasingly regularity a decade after cricket's glorious last hurrah on terrestrial television.
"The fall in numbers did not nullify the ECB's claim that their deal with Sky had brought more money into the sport, nor the work that money has enabled the board to do, especially in women's and disability cricket. But the maths queried the claim's relevance," Booth writes.
"The hubbub around the Big Bash at the start of 2015, broadcast in Australia on free-to-air television, was a reminder of a basic truth. Give people the chance to tune into live cricket, and it has a fighting chance of entering the national debate. Ten years on from the greatest Test series of the lot - broadcast to all by Channel 4 - cricket is loitering at the edges of the conversation. If you can remember the celebrations in Trafalgar Square, be sure to tell your grandchildren."
This year's Almanack features Moeen Ali, one if its five Cricketers of the Year, on the front cover. His success prompts Booth to observe that more should be done to bring through Britain's Asian players: "It is perverse to be so reliant on (white) southern Africans and smash-and-grab raids across the Irish Sea, and so ignore the more natural solution on our doorstep."
On a more positive note, there is also room for a leading cricketer award in the women's game. Australia's Meg Lanning is the inaugural winner, while Kumar Sangakkara picks up the now-established men's award for a second time.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick