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Editor's notes

Notes by the Editor

Can there ever have been a bigger gap between what English cricket hoped to be, and what it was?

Lawrence Booth
Updated on 20-Apr-2021
Azeem Rafiq gives evidence in front the the DCMS select committee  •  Associated Press

Azeem Rafiq gives evidence in front the the DCMS select committee  •  Associated Press

Can there ever have been a bigger gap between what English cricket hoped to be, and what it was - between reality and fantasy? Early in 2022, a long-planned assault on the Ashes ended with all-out surrender: Hobart was England's tenth defeat in 14 Tests, their most abject sequence in nearly 30 years. Before that, a racism scandal brought to light by the courage of Azeem Rafiq made the game look unwelcoming, and worse. There was little to cherish. Hammerings in Australia are nothing new, but the latest felt especially futile. The players were sent out with one hand tied behind their back, by a domestic structure that takes the red-ball game for granted - 12 weeks between June 7 and August 29 found room for eight days of first-class county cricket - and by an international schedule that reduces athletes to husks.
For all the talk of the pandemic, both issues long pre-dated Covid. Did the ECB really expect anything other than an Ashes thrashing, or imagine it was sensible to allow Yorkshire to mark their own homework on Rafiq? Delusion ran through the game like the Australian attack through the English batting. Only when Joe Root's side lost 4-0, and only when public opinion turned against Yorkshire - and by extension the ECB - were reports promised and 12-point plans devised. The damage, though, had been done.
Early in the new year, the Test team were deep in crisis, while old white administrators peddled racial stereotypes. It might have been the 1980s. In one respect, times had changed. For overseeing the launch of The Hundred, ECB chief executive Tom Harrison and a few lucky colleagues stood to share a bonus of £2.1m. As the annus horribilis took shape, this felt more and more wrong. Harrison, remember, had presided over 62 job losses; he had used procedural excuses to defend his failure to intervene at Yorkshire; and, the Ashes up in smoke, he had blamed the domestic structure on the (usefully anonymous) Professional Game Group, and the international calendar on administrators in faraway lands. Of his own shortcomings, he had less to say.
Shocked by what they had learned about racism in cricket, the parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee threatened to withhold public funds unless the English game "cleaned up its act", and ordered Harrison to appear before them every three months. It was one thing that - after a pay cut to prove we were all in it together - his basic salary topped half a million. But an attempt to justify the bonus as a fact of corporate life was the soulless logic of the suiterati, who regard cricket as a business, not a sport, measured in pounds and rupees, not runs and wickets.
In early February, Harrison - bonus not yet banked - insisted he would not be "running away from the challenges", as if taking one for the team. And though those challenges occurred on his watch, it was others who paid for them: Ashley Giles was sacked as the men's team's managing director, Chris Silverwood as head coach, Graham Thorpe as his assistant. Eight members of the Ashes squad were dropped for the Test series in the Caribbean, including James Anderson and Stuart Broad. The ECB had no full-time chairman, after Ian Watmore came up short; the acting-MD, Andrew Strauss, was passing through. We were down to the bare bones.
The ethics of the bonus scandal were as bad as the optics. But there was an exit strategy, if only Harrison would recognise it: the bonus should either be returned, allowing the ECB to re-employ some of the staff whose work still had to be done, or used to broaden the game's diversity. If, by now, he has resigned or refused the money, we applaud. If not, the African-Caribbean Engagement programme is doing vital work on behalf of the very demographics the ECB say they care about. There is still time to undo at least part of the damage.
Sorry, not sorry
On the second morning of the summer's first Test, against New Zealand at Lord's in June, Ollie Robinson returned to fine leg, earning applause from spectators in the Mound Stand: less than rapturous, more than polite, it sounded like a show of support. The previous evening, he had read out an apology after old tweets surfaced in which he insulted Muslims, women and Asians. And a few hours before that, he and other England players had lined up on the outfield wearing anti-discrimination T-shirts.
For the ECB, scrambling to be on the right side of history, the timing was horrific. Yet this wasn't about the ECB, and it shouldn't have been about Robinson. Because if your first instinct was to wail about freedom of speech, or bemoan the excavation of tweets, rather than appreciate their impact on those they mocked, then you were - unconsciously or otherwise - part of the problem.
The applause was as revealing as it was disquieting. His apology and suspension ought to have been the end of it. But others saw their chance to co-opt cricket into their own battles. They called the suspension a ban - a cancellation by the woke mob. Culture secretary Oliver Dowden said the ECB had gone over the top; prime minister Boris Johnson agreed. The Establishment were rumbling into action. It showed why English cricket's race relations would deteriorate before they could improve.
As Yorkshire's mishandling of the Rafiq affair went from bad to abysmal, the scale of the crisis became clear not through solecisms from the past, but clumsy attempts to navigate the present. Gary Ballance, a former friend and county team-mate, apologised for calling Rafiq a "P***", then suggested he might feel just as bad "about some of the things he said to me". Ryan Sidebottom - hired as an interim coach at Headingley - said the club should "try and forget", and never mind "all the politics". The problem was not confined to Yorkshire. Middlesex chairman Mike O'Farrell told the DCMS committee in January that diversification of the dressing-room had been hampered by an Anglo-Caribbean love of football, and Anglo-Asian preference for education. Both Sidebottom and O'Farrell said sorry.
There were a lot of apologies in 2021; a few were heartfelt. The effect of all these comments was insidious, and the message to those on the game's margins unambiguous: cricket's mainstream remained tone-deaf, even after Black Lives Matter, Michael Holding, Ebony Rainford-Brent, Rafiq and countless others who had been emboldened to speak out. And if they weren't paying attention on a subject as important as this, what else had they missed?
With Mehmooda Duke, until November the only non-white county chair, leaving Leicestershire, and Vikram Solanki, the only non-white head coach, leaving Surrey, the need for diversity - a collection of different perspectives, not the tokenism some imagine - has never felt more urgent.
Weasel words
In "You Guys Are History", a Sky Sports documentary, the former England and Gloucestershire fast bowler Syd Lawrence mentioned the banana skin left outside his hotel room by a county team-mate. Gloucestershire contacted him straight away, issued a statement in which they "apologised unreservedly", and thanked him for going public. It wasn't difficult. Yorkshire - under pressure to release the findings of a law firm's investigation into Rafiq's claims - showed the world how not to do it.
On the day the media were swamped by the cancellation of the Old Trafford Test, Headingley smuggled out a press release. It offered both an olive twig ("Azeem Rafiq was the victim of racial harassment") and a slap in the face (his sacking was not for "anything other than cricketing reasons"). It admitted to instances of racist language and jokes about religion, but said there was not enough evidence to say Yorkshire were institutionally racist. It was a game of semantics, the work of a club passing judgment on themselves.
In October, Yorkshire were still trying to brazen it out, and issued another press release in which the seventh word was "pleased". No one, it said, warranted disciplinary action; the issues raised by Rafiq had become part of the club's "continuing journey". Despite all this, chief executive Mark Arthur soon resigned, after "eight fantastic years". Second on his valedictory list of achievements was a "new contract giving YCCC a 50% share of catering" at Headingley. Fifth was a "six-year South Asian engagement programme". Five days later, Rafiq spoke from the heart in front of the DCMS committee. Poignantly, he said he didn't want his son "to go anywhere near cricket". Roger Hutton, having stepped down as chairman 11 days earlier, said he feared Yorkshire were indeed institutionally racist.
More accusations followed, at other counties too. The situation was made messier by the alleged involvement of Michael Vaughan, who denied making a racist remark before a county game in 2009, even as Naved-ul-Hasan and Adil Rashid supported Rafiq's claim that he had. (Ajmal Shahzad said he could not remember.) Rafiq experienced the fate of many a whistle-blower: canonised by friends, then castigated by foes. Stories emerged of his own tainted past, to the delight of those who believed they invalidated his testimony. If anything, the mud-slinging helped prove a more profound point: this wasn't about one man - it was about a sport's response to a social problem. And while cricket couldn't solve racism, it could at least get its own house in order. Thanks to Rafiq's determination, the support of sections of the media, the scrutiny of politicians, and the resolve of Kamlesh Patel, Yorkshire's new chairman, to break with a toxic past, there is hope. But it has taken some shameful kicking and screaming - and suffering - to get there.
Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble
Before the New Zealand series, it was still just about possible to blame England's implosion in India a few months earlier on minefields masquerading as pitches. The past, after all, was a foreign country - and Joe Root had fixed his gaze on a greater prize. The best preparation for the Ashes, he said, was to win seven home Tests out of seven against New Zealand and India. No matter that these teams would soon contest the World Test Championship final, or that England's Ashes obsession was blinding them to the task under their nose, or that it was all completely delusional.
It didn't take long for actions to speak louder than words, when England declined to chase 273 in 75 overs on the last afternoon at Lord's. Their feebleness set the tone: of the summer's six Tests before India's early departure, they won one. Again, no matter: in Australia, Root repeatedly insisted, England could "do something special".
Once there, rather than treat the Ashes like the climax they had depicted, they kept preparing for a future that never arrived. From Brisbane to Hobart, no tactic was too ill-conceived, no plan too half-baked. Stuart Broad, terroriser of David Warner in 2019, was left out at the Gabba, where Root batted in glorious conditions for bowling (and Warner made 94). James Anderson was absent, too, which meant both new-ball veterans were missing for the first time since October 2016 at Mirpur.
That was also the last time Chris Woakes had bowled England's first over: sure enough, he did so again now. Spinner Jack Leach was ignored all summer, then picked for a Gabba greentop, and mauled for eight an over. Mark Wood, a menace at Brisbane, was rested at Adelaide to ensure readiness for Melbourne, by which time it was 2-0. And at Adelaide, as four years earlier, England picked a bunch of right-arm seamers of similar speed, perhaps keen for a second opinion on a terminal diagnosis. Their only draw, nine wickets down at Sydney, was rain-assisted.
In a crowded field, this was one of England's most hapless tours. Even the few successes were qualified: Ollie Robinson averaged 25 with the ball, only he was not fit enough; Jonny Bairstow scored a century at Sydney, only to miss Hobart with a busted thumb; Dawid Malan began well, only to fade away; Root scored three half-centuries in his first five innings, only to make none in his second five.
Yet even a well-rested team, full of high-quality players and afforded a better warm-up than two rainy weeks in a biosecure bubble, would have struggled. England ticked none of those boxes. Between the start of the Test series in South Africa in December 2019 and the end of the Ashes, their all-format schedule included 187 days of cricket - 37 more than India, who were next on the list, and 83 ahead of Australia, who had not played an overseas Test since September 2019 at The Oval.
In the same period, England had played 17 abroad. They were knackered. The administrators knew this, said the right things about mental health and duties of care, and ploughed on. Before the Sydney Test, Ashley Giles admitted the priority during the pandemic had been to keep the show on the road, an uninspiring ambition that betrayed the ECB's primary goal - the need to protect their income. It left the cricketers feeling like pawns. By the end, they were almost too exhausted to mouth sound bites about putting pride in the badge or throwing punches at the bowlers. These were the exhortations of the school field, not a strategy to regain the Ashes.
Things won't get any quieter. England were due to play a three-Test series in the Caribbean in March. After seven Tests this summer, plus the usual white-ball games, they will embark on another winter apparently designed to break spirits. We may look back on 2021 as the glory days, when they kept the show on the road. Barely a leg to stand on For Root, it was a disorientating time. In August, he had become England's most victorious Test captain, in December their most defeated.
His batting was often sublime, though it couldn't make up for his team-mates' inadequacies, or his own as a tactician (to choose the worst of many examples, India won at Lord's because he sanctioned some witless bowling to the tourists' tail). He had been mainly calm, occasionally angry. He had defended Silverwood, against his better judgment. Now, in a corner of Hobart's Bellerive Oval, a field regarded as foreign even by some Australians, he was trying to solve English cricket. Asked what changes to the domestic structure might benefit the Test team, he replied: "How long have you got?" The points he made - about a lack of batsmen capable of long innings, and of genuinely fast bowlers or world-class spinners - were hardly controversial. But one deficiency couldn't be laid at county cricket's door.
Like England's Ashes points haul for the World Test Championship - minus four, thanks to a terrible over-rate at Brisbane - many of their batsmen had gone backwards. Dom Sibley, after averaging 47 the previous year, became a sitting duck. Zak Crawley hit 267 against Pakistan, then averaged under 11. Haseeb Hameed scored two sixties against India on his comeback, then suffered six single-figure dismissals in a row at the Ashes. Rory Burns was Player of the Series against New Zealand, a flurry of nerves and limbs thereafter. Ollie Pope shone in South Africa in early 2020, then flopped in Australia. Since Jonathan Trott's debut in 2009, the only newcomer to average over 40 has been Root, which helps explain England's results on the toughest tours: from the start of the 2013-14 Ashes, they have won one Test out of 28 in Australia, New Zealand and India, and lost 22.
An absence of quality in the county game was compounded by the England set-up: the sight of Burns and Hameed batting on one leg in the Melbourne nets was not immediately reassuring. It was right that Silverwood went, and not simply because of the coaching. He lost the faith of the players, and his public utterances invited ridicule. He is a good man, but he was out of his depth, thrown into the open sea with a deflated lifebelt. It was right, too, that Giles went with him, having lumbered Silverwood with the extra burden of selection in an era of multi-format cricket - and Covid. The further England moved from Ed Smith, sacked as national selector in April, the cosier the dressing-room became. He had not been to everyone's taste, but he was bright and - crucially - independent. Root and Silverwood, whose shared placidity deprived the selection process of creative tension, allowed things to drift.
It said little for the county game that there was no obvious successor to Root, and no Englishman crying out to replace Silverwood. 'Twas ever thus: the men's sides' greatest achievements in the era of coaching have all come under a foreigner - the 2005 Ashes (Duncan Fletcher), the No. 1 Test ranking in 2011, sandwiched by wins in Australia and India (Andy Flower), and the 2019 World Cup (Trevor Bayliss). Can England really succeed only when an outsider, unencumbered by the English way of doing things, comes in and shakes things up? Most importantly, it was time to end the fiction that one man could do it all. Not only is there too much cricket, but England's teams have become different beasts. While the Test side are light years adrift of their main competitors, the white-ball teams have led the way. The case for separate coaches has never been stronger.
Who did you say they dropped?
If saving the Sydney Test proves the last thing James Anderson and Stuart Broad do together on an England tour, it will be a symbolic exit - two old bowlers bailing out their batsmen one final time. Of those dropped for the West Indies, they alone had good reason to question the selectors' sanity. Andrew Strauss has got much right during his career, but this smacked of England's favourite mistake: they wanted a glimpse of the future before the present had run its course.
Anderson, in particular, has reached the point where an opponent's first thought is survival. In 2021, his Test economy-rate was 2.12, his lowest in a calendar year since he started in 2003. Only one other Test regular was meaner, by a fraction - Indian spinner Akshar Patel, who played only at home. Broad is less of a natural athlete, but even more of a competitor. Left out at Brisbane and Melbourne, he responded with a five-for at Sydney (in a total of 416 for eight) and six wickets at Hobart. He reads the game more instinctively than Root, and talks about it with passion, not in platitudes.
If these two were dropped with one eye on the next Ashes tour, in 2025-26, more fool England: injuries last year to Jofra Archer and Olly Stone confirmed how easily circumstance can scupper the best-laid plans. But they can't have been dropped for performance reasons, and it's a nonsense to punish them for their age, since younger team-mates aren't nearly as fit. Yet again, England placed a vague vision of the future over the needs of the here and now.
The people's champions
Things seem so much simpler for New Zealand - fewer players, less cricket, a domestic structure not drawn up by a sadist. And, with a fraction of the resources available to the English game, their men's team keep reaching finals. After the 2015 and 2019 one-day World Cups came two more last year: the World Test Championship, where they won a seam-bowling shootout against India at the Rose Bowl, and the T20 World Cup, where they lost a vital toss to Australia in Dubai. With a scintilla of luck, they might now be champions in all three formats, and their captain, Kane Williamson, even more loved.
They won friends in defeat, too. At Mumbai in December, India beat them by 372 runs, though not before New Zealand's left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel became the third - after Jim Laker and Anil Kumble - to take all ten in a Test innings. He wasn't picked for their next game, which barely raised a murmur. New Zealand have cricket in perspective. There's a lesson in there somewhere.
You say "jump", we say "how high?"
England stayed in India during a Covid spike, and never considered leaving Australia, where the virus was a constant threat. But a white-ball trip to Bangladesh was easily ditched, and so was a goodwill tour of Pakistan. In both cases, the reasoning was hazy.
The Pakistan fiasco generated plenty of heat, since England were snubbing a team who had visited them twice during the pandemic, and had just seen New Zealand cry off at the last minute because of unspecified security concerns. England's decision was one of the most ungrateful they have ever made. Ramiz Raja, the energetic new chairman of the Pakistan board, gave them both barrels, and didn't waste a shot.
The Bangladesh decision had shed light on England's kowtowing to India. Their tour of Bangladesh clashed with the delayed second half of the IPL - a problem for the BCCI and so for the ECB, who didn't want to jeopardise a treasured scenario: the participation of India's male stars in The Hundred. It would not be the last time England fell into line.
A month later, Virat Kohli's Indians pulled out of the Fifth Test at Manchester only hours before the start, ostensibly because of a Covid scare. It just happened to be a game they never fancied playing in the first place, since its scheduled finish was only a few days before the restart of the IPL. According to Dinesh Karthik, the former Indian wicketkeeper whose ear was close to the ground, they were "tired". Then, as if on their behalf: "How many more bubbles can they do?" And so India left for another six-day spell in isolation in the UAE, just in time for the IPL. Economists shrugged: the IPL was reckoned to be worth £400m to the BCCI, a lone Test £40m to the ECB. Tom Harrison said he did not believe "for a second" that the IPL was behind the cancellation. If he fooled anyone, it was himself. And when Sunrisers Hyderabad were soon struck by a Covid outburst, everything carried on as normal - because of course it did.
Spheres of influence
It used to be said you could walk between Oxford and Cambridge on land owned by their universities. Now that the IPL has expanded to ten teams, it won't be long before franchise cricket can plot an unbroken path from January to December - with devastating consequences for the international game.
Harrison's reluctance to analyse Manchester was not the only symptom. In the West Indies, three Caribbean Premier League franchises have been subsumed by IPL teams - the cricket equivalent of the Belt and Road Initiative, China's global land grab. Trinidad & Tobago Red Steel became Trinbago Knight Riders after investment in 2015 from Red Chillies Entertainment (parent company of Kolkata Knight Riders). Last year, St Lucia Zouks became St Lucia Kings (after Punjab Kings), and Barbados Tridents became Barbados Royals (after Rajasthan Royals). This is where cricket's cutting edge now resides, where the money circulates.
Rashid Khan, the Afghanistan leg-spinner, earned almost £1m for 56 overs in last year's IPL; for nearly 100 in the Second Test against Zimbabwe at Abu Dhabi in March, he picked up roughly £1,000. Unless you receive a handsome central contract from one of the richer boards, there is no reason beyond loyalty or pride to make the international game your priority. The schedule tells a similar story: in this year's Wisden, only one Test series not involving England (South Africa v India) comprises more than two matches. Remember that, next time an administrator stresses the sanctity of Test cricket.
Yes, she can
For those in search of good news, it helped to be at The Oval on July 21. Admittedly, the first ball of the women's Hundred did not bode well: Oval Invincibles' Marizanne Kapp sent down a wide which wicketkeeper Sarah Bryce fumbled; in between, Manchester Originals opener Lizelle Lee fell over. After that - all the way to the final a month later - the ECB hit the jackpot.
Fears that spectators might be unmoved by the contrivances of the new competition gave way to something rather wonderful: girls in the crowd, told for so long that women were cricket's second-class citizens, could watch their heroines on the big stage. By the end of the evening, they were jumping around - for a home win, yes, but also for the realisation that someone had taken them seriously.
Covid restrictions encouraged double-headers, which brought the men's and women's events closer together, and drew bigger crowds. New faces embraced the spotlight: 16-year-old Alice Capsey blazed a fifty at Lord's while she awaited her GCSE results; peroxide-blonde Isabelle Eleanor Chih Ming Wong charged in for Birmingham Phoenix; team-mate Abtaha Maqsood, the Scotland leg-spinner, wore the hijab with pride. It felt like a game for everyone.
Similar claims had been made four years earlier when England won the women's World Cup, but the impact of that victory, obscured by the satellite paywall, dribbled away. The recent Ashes series was a reminder of how far England's women have fallen behind Australia: Heather Knight's team came close to victory only once, after a generous declaration by Meg Lanning. But The Hundred showed what was possible, and research by the Women's Sports Trust highlighted the benefit of even part-time free-to-air coverage.
All domestic women's sport in the UK last year was watched by nearly 33m, of which free-to-air TV accounted for 19m; cricket alone made up 41% of viewing hours. And a quarter of those who watched the women's Hundred did not watch any men's cricket: the competition can help the women's game achieve autonomy. Then again, the revelation in December that The Hundred's best-paid female cricketer would only now earn more than the worst-paid male underlined how far there is to go.
Another truth from the opening night at The Oval was even simpler: cricket is a damn good game, more so when staged at the height of summer, backed by expensive marketing and cheap tickets, and broadcast freely. Of the Royal London Cup, which began next day, not a peep was heard. And that's why some of the claims made on behalf of the men's Hundred, mainly by commentators and executives with vested interests, wouldn't have been out of place in North Korea. Shots routinely seen in the T20 Blast were hailed as groundbreaking, players nurtured by the counties as unearthed gems.
There was little attempt to attract newcomers to other domestic competitions. On the day of the final, the tournament's Twitter handle posted a photo of a couple of players languishing in a dugout, and the comment: "When #TheHundred is over and you don't know what to do with yourself for the next year." Still to come was the climax to the England-India Test series and the County Championship, the men's and women's T20 finals day and the second half of the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy. So much for the gateway drug.
The Hundred's appointment-to-view format, with a game per gender per night, certainly encouraged a narrative stronger than an 18-team county competition can manage. But instead of working out how better to present the Blast to the public, the ECB tried on the emperor's new clothes: why say "over" when you can say "set of five"? And, at a stroke, they compromised the first-class, 50-over and T20 formats. They believe The Hundred will one day be sold abroad, protecting them from a collapse in broadcast rights for international cricket. By the time anyone is daft enough to cough up, the impact on our men's game could be incalculable.
Not forgotten
Last year's Almanack was 1,248 pages, roughly 20% down on the norm - because of Covid. This year's edition is its usual chunky self, though that doesn't tell the whole story. The obituary section in Wisden 2021 included at least 16 who died, as far as we know, because of coronavirus. In Wisden 2022, that figure rises to 24 (and probably more). Cricket and many of the countries who play it did their best to move on, but the pandemic wasn't for budging.
Jargon neutral
In 2003, Wisden put a photo on the cover. This upset a few, then became a talking point, and finally an honour. Its unveiling on social media is part of the Almanack's cycle. That's the thing about change: it's ensconced before you can remember why you objected. Language evolves more quickly. Some felt replacing Man of the Match with Player of the Match was, well, political correctness gone mad; now, it seems normal to use a phrase that works for both genders, and harms no one.
The same outrage has greeted batter, even though it is the perfect linguistic companion to bowler and fielder. Nightwatcher has already been road-tested; third man may be for the scrapheap; Sussex and Gloucestershire recently advertised for a groundsperson. There'll be spluttering. But the game will go on, and future generations will wonder what the fuss was about.
The odds couple
William Goldman had the film industry in mind when he said "nobody knows anything". But the County Championship can make mugs of us, too. On page 454 comes a reminder that bookies offered 16-1 on both Warwickshire and Sussex. Warwickshire won the title, Sussex the wooden spoon.
And having writ, they moved on
It's hard to imagine three more contrasting cricket writers than David Foot, Martin Johnson and John Woodcock, who all died last year - and were masters of their genre. Foot explored the human condition, Johnson cracked high-class jokes, Woodcock watched the game with a discerning eye, and reported in 24-carat prose. Asked if The Times troubled him during the long boat trips to Australia, he would reply: "They wanted 200 words by Ceylon." How might they have fared if starting out today? Rolling deadlines and shrinking budgets have created a breed of cricket journalist expected to write match reports, features and news stories, for paper and web, while tweeting and podcasting. It is the age of the all-rounder - and homogeneity. Thank goodness Footy, Jonno and Wooders could play to their strengths.