In Monty Python's Life of Brian, Judith is fretting over her lover's impending crucifixion. But her colleagues in the People's Front of Judea - faced with a proper test of their principles after endless procrastination - are too busy watching their own backs. "It's happening, Reg!" she wails. "Something's actually happening!"
The opaque world of cricket politics has long been ripe for satire, but sometimes the facts speak for themselves. And, earlier this year, in another corner of the Middle East, something was definitely happening. The boards of India, England and Australia had quietly crafted a document which claimed to safeguard the game's future, while more obviously safeguarding their own.
In sum, the BCCI wanted an even larger slice of the ICC pie, and the ECB and Cricket Australia happily acquiesced, knowing their portion would grow too. The rest were assured they would be better off. And who could object to a world with more money for everyone?
The politicking that followed, defined by self-interest and short-termism, would have done the People's Front proud. Boards excluded by the Big Three professed outrage in public and jockeyed for position in private, forming alliances that lasted only as long as it took India to seduce them with some trinket or other. Even on February 8, when the thrust of the document was voted through by the ICC Board, Pakistan - who abstained, with Sri Lanka - were accusing South Africa of treachery, having apparently regarded them as allies on February 7. "Nothing in life is perfect," sighed Chris Nenzani, the president of the South African board, almost sounding as if he regretted the fact. Here was colonial-style divide and rule. Here was the realpolitik of modern cricket.
Amid the prognostications of a brave new world, a single sentence, halfway down the ICC's press release (and with our italics), hinted at what lay ahead: "Full Members will gain greater financial recognition based on the contribution they have made to the game, particularly in terms of finance, their ICC history and their on-field performances in the three formats."
It was hard to read this any other way: the rich would be getting a whole lot richer. For decades, the rest of world cricket had looked askance at the two phases of the game's imperialism: the veto held until 1993 by England and Australia (based on ancient history), then India's monetary clout (based on a huge population). Now, the also-rans sanctioned a combination of both, knowing they had little choice. Only cricket could move back in time while hailing a revolution.
As the BCCI promised sweeteners to countries who sensed trouble, it was possible to foresee a scenario in which their cricketers actually played more often, though mostly - for the benefit of Indian TV - at home. But the leaking of the document's draft, to journalists at the Abu Dhabi-based National newspaper and the ESPNcricinfo website, had already allowed in more light than the Indians - and their English and Australian lapdogs - intended. After all, a draft may reveal the true motivation, before compromise reins it in.
At its heart lay the BCCI's desire not merely to oust the ICC as the game's governing body, but to wean themselves, eventually, off all but the most lucrative international fixtures, and so create more space for domestic Twenty20. It was no coincidence that one of the brains behind the paper was the chief operating officer of the IPL, Sundar Raman, the world game's Cardinal Richelieu. We await the day we are told cricket's pinnacle is Mumbai Indians v Chennai Super Kings.
Once the initial glow subsides and India have honoured their quid pro quos, the consequences for the less lucrative nations could be catastrophic. Already damned as "uneconomic" - contemporary cricket's death sentence - they will risk losing players in even greater numbers to an expanded IPL. Their ability to compete with the richest sides will diminish, further eroding the first principle of any sport: the need for an opposition. What purpose will the proposed Test-match fund serve if fewer teams see the point of Test matches?
There was actually some sense within the document's pages. The draft suggested two divisions of eight teams, which seemed reasonable; Test cricket is indeed in desperate straits; and it's true that the free-marketeers had not found an answer to the conundrum by which India generated four-fifths of the game's income while subsidising Zimbabwe.
But the idea of two divisions was spoiled by the proviso that India, England and Australia could not be relegated - another slap in the face for good governance. And when Bangladesh objected to their presence in the lower tier, the prospect of relegation was shelved anyway. As for enriching the richest, this seemed a strange way of resolving an imperfect situation. (On the plus side, the likes of Ireland and Afghanistan can now qualify for Test status, though not full membership of the ICC: that would mean less money for the rest.)
It's true that many of the poorer boards are basket cases: Pakistan and Sri Lanka remain hopelessly politicised, South Africa are only just recovering from a financial scandal, and Zimbabwe are in tatters. But this is not in itself reason to entrench plutocracy by dressing it up as meritocracy.
Cricket is appallingly administered, and is vulnerable to economic exploitation by the one country powerful enough to exploit it and the two countries prepared to lend their plans credibility. But it will become less of a sport, more of a business. Its future health relies not only on the willingness of the smaller nations to get their own houses in order, but also on some form of benevolent dictatorship. The benevolence could do with some work.
With leaders like these...
According to their website, the ICC are "the international governing body for cricket". It's a lovely thought. But it doesn't quite tally with one of the "key principles" that emerged from the horse-trading: "Recognition of the need for strong leadership of the ICC, involving leading members, which will involve BCCI taking a central leadership responsibility."
At least this had the virtue of coming clean. And it confirmed what David Richardson, the ICC chief executive, told South African journalist Telford Vice: "The ICC only have as much authority over the members as the members are prepared to give them... At best we can play a facilitating role." What, you may wonder, is the point of a governing body if it can't actually govern?
Part of the answer appeared in October, when the ICC proudly relaunched plans for a World Test Championship in 2017, having failed to implement one in 2013. The marketing blurb came with its own punchline: a consultancy called Bulletproof had created a "WTC icon... designed to be a moving, physical, three-dimensional form that can adapt and reflect its environment". And reflect its environment the icon did: within weeks, the Test Championship was dead. No one had ever explained how it would work, and TV didn't want it anyway.
Even a figurehead such as the Queen has the nominal power to appoint a prime minister or sack a government. But the ICC were losing control of one of their last spheres of influence. And they were losing it to the BCCI, who in 2013 advertised their suitability for power by forcing through the appointment to the ICC's cricket committee of their man Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, making a meal of their own investigations into corruption at the IPL, and bullying Cricket South Africa into submission over the dates for India's tour.
Two days after the February 8 vote, BCCI president N. Srinivasan was being upbraided by India's Supreme Court for misleading the world about the role his son-in-law Gurunath Meiyappan had played at Chennai Super Kings, Srinivasan's IPL franchise. In July, Srinivasan is set to become the chairman of the ICC. As India prepare to take their "central leadership responsibility", international cricket holds its breath.
In early February 2014, four days after the resignation as head coach of Andy Flower, the upper echelons of the ECB let out a sigh of relief. Kevin Pietersen was being thanked for his time, a victim of his tendency to start a fight with his own shadow, and of England's desire to recast what Paul Downton, the new managing director, delicately called their "team ethic and philosophy". It was as much as the lawyers - and sport's omerta - would allow. But it was tricky to resist a mischievous simplification: Flower and Pietersen, English cricket's Holmes and Moriarty, had just disappeared together over the Reichenbach Falls.
Some argued that talent should be accommodated at any cost. But without inside knowledge of England's dressing-room, the debate was just an exchange of business-school man-management theories. A few arguments seemed less contentious: it takes a special gift to rile Alastair Cook; with a new MD, a new chief selector (James Whitaker), a would-be replacement for Flower (Ashley Giles), and a captain in urgent need of a pick-me-up, English cricket was hardly likely to hamper itself for the sake of it; and almost no one close to events wanted Pietersen to stay.
England's relationship with him had worked while both parties were flourishing. But in 2013 he averaged 36 in Tests (the worst of his nine years) and 28 in one-day internationals. To point out that he was England's top scorer during the whitewash in Australia was like praising an Olympic sprinter for winning the egg-and-spoon race. He turns 34 in June, and his knees are giving way. In his pomp, he was the most watchable batsman since Brian Lara. But this was no longer the point. And it was no good reciting past heroics as if they guaranteed future glory.
The biggest losers were the public. This was not because they were necessarily owed an explanation for Pietersen's sacking: as any sports team know, full disclosure is legally fraught and ethically unadvisable. It was because they may now be less inclined to watch a team deprived of their main box-office attraction. The months ahead will be filled by cheap shots, especially if Pietersen dazzles in some Twenty20 league while England's Test team are folding in a heap.
Remarkably, Flower was criticised for failing to manage Pietersen. But the acrimony that had surrounded his departures from Natal and Nottinghamshire, and his set-tos with Peter Moores and Andrew Strauss, offered an alternative explanation: Flower, the latest in a long line of decent men to fall out with Pietersen, had in fact accommodated him through to an England-record 13,779 international runs. Both sides had benefited. But the party was over.
The wrong kind of history
A few months earlier, at a time when the cricket mattered more than boardroom bickering or dressing-room disputes, and England were actually beating Australia, Ian Bell's late cut would have sped to the boundary. But on the last afternoon of the Fifth Test at Sydney - a contest in name only - it flew to gully. In July and August, when Bell could do no wrong and England were doing enough, the stroke told of an elegant, almost casual, superiority. Now it smacked of end-of-an-era decadence.
No sporting defeat is a disaster, but 5-0 against a team that had won none of their previous nine Tests came close. England had unexpectedly surrendered the Ashes before, notably in 1958-59 and 1989 - though even then they managed a draw or two. As for the two whitewashes that had taken place, England could at least offer excuses: in 1920-21, their game had yet to replenish its post-war stocks; and in 2006-07, the opposition were irresistible.
But Australia's latest vintage were made to look more than the sum of their parts: they had one great (Michael Clarke), two men (Mitchell Johnson and Brad Haddin) at their peak, apparently capable of defying the law of averages, and the previously injury-prone Ryan Harris, who was loving every minute.
If these Australians shared with the class of '06-07 a mongrel's thirst and a bowling attack that combined gold dust with salt of the earth, then they lacked their aura. They had to overcome first-innings wobbles of 132 for six at Brisbane, 143 for five at Perth, 164 for nine at Melbourne, and 97 for five at Sydney. Australia deserved their victory. But it was less resounding than it looked. Drawing on the same XI throughout, they were dubbed the "Unchangeables", which was a polite way of saying they were not the "Invincibles".
This, then, was the worst result in England's history, surpassing the home loss to New Zealand in 1999, which left them bottom of Wisden's Test rankings. And it meant their 3-0 victory in the summer vied for another uneasy superlative: the least-remembered Ashes win of all. By January, the bottom line read 5-3 to Australia. It felt like 10-0.
Last year, we argued that ten straight Ashes Tests would dull the magic. We didn't reckon with the half of it. Both sets of players had been asked to scale Everest shortly after conquering K2. Neither side succeeded: only 11 out of the 40 players used across the two series lasted the course. (The miracle was that three of them - Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Peter Siddle - were seamers.)
But Australia paced themselves more cannily, knowing that victory at home would gloss over defeat away, and that the second series would reverberate beyond the first. Pietersen's assertion in Melbourne - that England had struggled to rouse themselves for the return leg - was not so much a whinge as a cry for help, one that will almost certainly be lost on the administrators, who continue to believe that a good thing can be made better, simply by doing it more often.
For the aching body of the England team, it was all too much. Their spine disappeared with the departure of the exhausted Jonathan Trott, and their heart stopped beating with the retirement of Graeme Swann. The dropping of Matt Prior cost them their eyes and ears. Cook was wondering what had happened to his own nervous system. And then it was off with England's head...
Bloom and bust
Flower's decision to step down confirmed two things. In the fast-changing world of elite sport, where a tactical advantage is no sooner established than it is dissected, and eventually ceded, five years in charge must seem an eternity. And job-shares, while a sensible response to an unmanageable workload, can be fragile. Flower did the right thing.
He should move on with the gratitude of English cricket. Moores, his predecessor, had overseen four defeats in seven Test series. Flower would suffer only four in 19 - and the first of those came in the Caribbean, when he was the caretaker, sweeping up the debris left by the Moores-Pietersen debacle. Under Flower, England won three Ashes series and a World Twenty20, topped the Test rankings, and triumphed in India for the first time in three decades. England had rarely had it so good.
With success came expectation. If the first three years of his reign provided a string of good-news stories, the headlines grew mixed. Three hefty losses (in the UAE against Pakistan, at home to South Africa, and finally in Australia) suggested that the pragmatic modus operandi of Flower's teams fell apart too easily against pace and doosras.
Neither was he - or England - helped by his distance from the one-day set-up. Too often, the 50-over side were sacrificed on the altar of rest and rotation after a long Test series. Between the appointment of Giles as limited-overs coach in late 2012 and the one-day defeat in Australia in January, England lost four series out of four when the one-dayers followed the Tests. When they did win, in New Zealand, the one-day stuff came first. And when the 50-over side fielded their strongest XI, they nearly lifted the Champions Trophy. But until England play less cricket, the other option - one man in charge of three formats - is not much better.
It was sad that Flower went out on a low. But throughout 2013, England's cricket reeked of attrition - from the defiant draw at Auckland, via the grim go-slow against New Zealand at Headingley, to the pitches left dry and slow and low for the Australians. When the rain came at Old Trafford and The Oval (where the third day brought them a pulse-slowing 215 runs in 98.3 overs), they were disconcertingly grateful.
Australia sensed England could be thrown off a course whose precise and prescribed nature was central to their success. At home, England's run-rate was 2.99 to Australia's 3.37. Away, the gap widened: 2.89 versus 3.75. This was not so much England as Middle England, curtain-twitching and cautious.
Their demise came with a curious twist. In India, during the last of their three Test trips to Asia in 2012, they had finally begun to look comfortable on turning tracks. A few months later, Australia's own visit to India ended in a 4-0 hammering. England resolved to retain the Ashes by mimicking sub-continental conditions. It was a conservative calculation, revealingly so, for English conditions would surely have sufficed.
Swann's 26 wickets were a vindication of sorts, but it was a short-term gain. In his three Tests on Australia's harder, bouncier surfaces - and with his elbow failing him - he managed seven wickets at 80. And England were now batting like Asian stereotypes, at sea against pace. Having failed to be true to themselves in the summer, they seemed unsure what kind of cricket they should be playing.
Another mistake came after the home series. Behind closed doors, the Australians had discussed the importance of flying back with something in the bag. The Tiddlywinks World Cup would probably have sufficed, but England were far more obliging, resting five of their big guns from the one-dayers. At last, Australia remembered what it was like to win.
The selectors had already goofed. The Oval Test had been their chance to find out whether Chris Tremlett - rumoured to be down on pace - could replicate his 2010-11 Ashes form. But they wasted it, picking Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan. When Tremlett's lack of zip was exposed at Brisbane, England's three-giants fast-bowling policy looked questionable. When the other two were cut down to size - Boyd Rankin by nerves on Test debut at Sydney, Steven Finn by a technical breakdown - it looked worse than that. Australia ended up outwitting England. But England gave them a helping hand.
A headline in the satirical Daily Mash last summer declared: "People who don't like cricket are wrong, say experts". The Mash had a point. But when it came to Mitchell Johnson, so did the experts. Frankly, he was not supposed to have happened. Cricket these days is a batsman's game: sixes are sponsored, boundaries shortened, bats streamlined. Australia had almost washed their hands of him after years of flakiness. And the schedule really ought to prevent a 32-year-old from approaching 95mph throughout a five-Test series. Yet, in taking 37 English wickets, Johnson emitted energy all of his own making - steam, gas and electricity.
Whenever he tore in, the mood changed. This was something visceral: a hush followed by a crescendo. John Arlott likened Ian Botham's run-up to a "shire horse cresting the breeze", so perhaps Johnson was Black Beauty - sleek, dark, hair-raising. Egged on by packed houses and giant screens proclaiming his latest triumph over the speedgun, he took wickets in clusters: four brief spells spread across the first four Tests brought 16 at a cost of 63 and an average of 3.95, less than the cost of a thick edge through the slips. He would have demolished better sides than England and, against South Africa at Centurion in February, he did.
Of cricket's two most physical acts - hitting long and bowling fast - one has become devalued: there were a record 65 sixes during the series. But Johnson could now join an Ashes express-pace pantheon that included perhaps only Harold Larwood, Frank Tyson and Jeff Thomson. Whichever side you were cheering for, it was wonderful to watch.
The Cook report
If there was anything more repetitive than England's mishaps, it was the sound of Shane Warne rubbishing Cook's tactics. Warne has become an Aussie amalgam of Botham and Boycott, indignantly sure of his own views and unafraid to repeat them. It was galling to admit he might have had a point.
England's win three years earlier under Strauss had centred on discipline. In India, Cook had led by example rather than ingenuity. Now, he struggled to read the game, to impose himself, to stem the ebb and go with the flow. While Clarke's bowling changes and field-placings assumed a telepathic air, Cook recalled Dorothy Parker's putdown of Katharine Hepburn, running the gamut of emotions from A to B.
The speed with which his job was rubber-stamped by the board after the Sydney loss seemed out of step with the despondency. Some even thought it smug: no crisis here, move along. But there was a crisis, and the pre-series credit generated by 13 Tests without defeat had vanished.
Since there is no obvious candidate to replace Cook, the most pressing question in English cricket right now is this: could he develop as a tactician, given that half his Test upbringing took place in Strauss's school of grind-'em- down? When England's Test summer starts on June 12 against Sri Lanka, he will be watched closely, probably more closely than a sportsman deserves.
England did win the Ashes
The Australian women's team who sailed to England in 1963 were issued with a memo that left them in little doubt about their place in the world: act like ladies, don't speak aloud in public, keep cabins tidy and make sure "non- drinkers will not become enticed to drink". Some progress has been made and, when England's women retained the Ashes in January, there were not too many patronising caveats: "Sure, but a shame about the men..."
It was a stirring feat, built on the back of a Test victory at Perth and secured, under the new points system, with a Twenty20 win at Hobart. The temptation was to point out that the men lost their own Perth Test and Hobart Twenty20, but such comparisons are part of the problem - even when they favour the women. The two games are different beasts; less power does not mean less skill.
Despite the ECB's support for women's cricket, it remains the poor relation. Their lone Test of the English summer clashed with the climax of the men's Fourth Test, and their win at the WACA went untelevised. Many continue to refer to adults as "girls". And yet there is only one current captain who has won the Ashes home and away. Wisden is delighted to name Charlotte Edwards as a Cricketer of the Year.
The setting of India's son
Sachin Tendulkar's final Test contained all the best bits of Indian cricket - and all its excesses. The nation was on red alert, the hero made a few runs, and the emotion was as thick as the Mumbai air. On the second morning, as he progressed to 74, the Wankhede was in a trance. Don Bradman had once spotted something of himself in Tendulkar's batting. Now, it was as if Tendulkar was righting one of sport's great wrongs - Bradman's farewell duck in 1948 - all by himself.
But it was hard to ignore the whiff of reality TV, with the West Indians the wide-eyed arrivals at the Big Brother house, and the in-your-face ads for skin-fairness cream conveying a sinister superficiality. The result of the game seemed neither here nor there.
Tendulkar's 200th Test should actually have been in Cape Town, but politics and money put paid to that: the BCCI wanted to bloody the nose of CSA chief executive Haroon Lorgat, and there were broadcasters to sate. Besides, Tino Best and Darren Sammy were less likely than Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel to embarrass an ageing superstar. Most conveniently, perhaps, the setting allowed Tendulkar's mother to watch him play for the first time. This was touching, but not a policy found in most textbooks on sporting governance.
The hysteria and the machinations detracted from a cracking human story - of an obsessive driven by a passion, yet grounded by the love of parents wary of letting their son be defined by hundreds or ducks. A survey carried out late last year by the Australian Cricketers' Association claimed that a quarter of those who had quit or retired since 2005 went on to suffer "depression or feelings of helplessness". In particular, the ACA flagged up the link between identity and sporting achievement. Ramesh and Rajni Tendulkar had recognised the dangers many years earlier.
Most cricketers decide they have had enough of the goldfish bowl after a decade or so. Tendulkar played Test matches in front of the most demanding fans in the world for 24 years. If further proof was required of just how astonishing this was, it came at Perth in December, when for a few moments one Cook and one Clarke added up to exactly one Tendulkar: 200 Test caps, 15,921 runs and 51 hundreds.
Sport's pleasure resides in meaning so much to so many, while being essentially meaningless itself. Think about this for too long and you'll get a headache. But Tendulkar came closer than anyone to making sense of it.
The bug stops here
Our older readers may nominate 1953. If you're in your fifties, perhaps it was Derek Underwood at The Oval in 1968. A decade younger, and it might be 1981. And for the whippersnappers, 2005. These are summers when, home from school, you might have switched on the TV and caught the bug.
England matches moved to Sky in 2006, and the coverage has almost always justified the cost. But no one below their mid-teens will have any memory of live international cricket on terrestrial TV, and anecdotal evidence is spreading of youngsters unsure how to build an all-round game. It stands to reason that the Channel 5 highlights include precious few forward defensives: Tests are being made to look like Twenty20. The dedication of coaches around the country is not in doubt, and the vast sums brought in by the Sky deal have acted as English cricket's security blanket; the ECB are proud of the number of children now being taught the game. But there is no substitute for watching, absorbing, and falling for the real thing.
Sky are not to blame for the terrestrial broadcasters' loss of interest in cricket, and they deserve praise for making their own winter-Ashes highlights available on Pick, their free-to-air channel. It is a step in the right direction, but only a step. Sky won't give out their viewing figures, but industry estimates suggest around 1.3m tuned in for the final morning of the Trent Bridge Test in 2013, compared with a peak of 8.4m for Channel 4's broadcast of the Ashes Test there eight years earlier.
Universal access to live sport, and its serendipitous discovery - that's what matters above all else. So why not use Pick to broadcast a county game or two, or even the occasional session of a Test? It would hardly cannibalise Sky's paid-for coverage, and might even persuade terrestrial diehards to fork out for a subscription. Sky have little to lose, but English cricket has plenty to gain.
Matthew Engel once used these pages to stress the importance of the afternoon snooze at Worcester. But, at the start of July, New Road's PA announcer brought mixed news. Spectators were actually being asked to bunch up: the Australians were in town, and there wasn't enough room. The sun was out, the cricket was on, and the locals were engaging with their team. The snoozers would have to wait.
At Taunton the previous week, Somerset supporters had turned out in their droves to watch the Australians' tour opener. And at Hove, between the Second and Third Tests, fans bowling up on the first morning of their three-day game with Sussex were greeted by a sign proclaiming a sell-out. They had all arrived to watch the kind of game we are often told no longer matters. There is no prospect of returning to an age when visiting sides played as many of the counties as they could reasonably manage. But the atmosphere at all three games was warm, welcoming and just the right side of competitive; children will have gone home enthused. Sometimes, cricket's headlong dash for cash misses the point.
Our deputy editor Steven Lynch doubles up as ESPNcricinfo's resident agony uncle, furnishing obscure cricket questions with the kind of answers that can make a Wisden editor feel rather ignorant. But last year Steven was briefly flummoxed. "Sir," began a correspondent, "I need to know who was the first cricketer born since the beginning of time."
It's possible only one other person alive could have stepped in on his behalf - fellow deputy editor Harriet Monkhouse, who turned for help to Genesis 4:8. "And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him." We'll keep doing our best.