Three days before the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne, chief executive Tom Harrison sat down to outline the ECB's "five pillars of strategy". Was he about to reveal plans for a mystery spinner or a reliable No. 3? He was not. Instead, with England on their way to a 4-0 defeat, and their supporters looking for answers, we got bullet points: "More play. Great teams. Inspired fans. Strong finance. Good governance."
An old rule of journalism says a headline is not worth the ink if its polar opposite - less play, rubbish teams, bored fans, penury, corruption - is more startling. But this is an age when matters other than the cricket need trumpeting. The ship may be going down, but feel the quality of the lifejackets! Harrison is presiding over a make-or-break era for English cricket, and the board have made some brave calls. But to claim 2017 was a "very good year" suggested a changed landscape - either that, or he couldn't see the wood for the eucalypti. Time was when a thrashing by Australia might have provoked questions in Parliament, which was barmy but strangely reassuring: Test cricket was part of the national debate. Now, it sounded like an inconvenience.
It sounded as if surrendering the Ashes was being taken for granted. The 2017-18 edition, it's true, was a stinker: one-sided, often boorish, and dulled by pitches stripped of their old character. Even Cricket Australia's marketing hashtag (#BeatEngland) smacked of the back of an envelope as executives watched reruns of the Big Bash. When giant hands - one holding up four fingers, the other none - appeared on the podium at the SCG to confirm the score for those who had lost count, or interest, or possibly both, one of sport's oldest rivalries felt more like It's a Knockout! The gimmicks are in keeping with a format that still talks a good game but is no longer sure of itself. Once, the Ashes needed neither explanation nor justification: they simply were, because they always had been. People do care.
But, one suspects, not as much as they did. In late January, Michael Vaughan asked his Twitter followers whether they would rather England won the next World Cup or Ashes, both in 2019. This might not have been the most rigorous of polls, but the result was startling: of more than 21,000 who responded, 58% said the World Cup. A decade ago, this would have been heresy. It then emerged that BT Sport's viewing figure, for the Big Bash were higher than for the Ashes. Again, this merits caution.
For BT's audience, the Ashes were mainly on in the middle of the night, the Big Bash at breakfast. But it all left an uncomfortable feeling. Time is moving on, faster than Test cricket realises. Perhaps you shouldn't blame the marketeers for manufacturing some of the fun, because the story has grown stale: only once in the last nine Ashes have the visitors won. In the other eight, stretching back to 2002-03, the Test ledger reads 28 home and five away wins - only three in live matches. Not since 1982-83 have the teams arrived at the venue of the final (usually Sydney, one of the game's great theatres) with the urn still at stake. Though the crowds flocked in, there was a curious sense that these were the most invisible Ashes of the modern era. People came for an event: the floodlights in Adelaide, the farewell to the WACA, the festive spirit in Melbourne. But did they come for the cricket?
As a contest, the Ashes need shaking up. The world game needs it too: if England v Australia sleepwalks towards the retirement home, what chance South Africa v Pakistan? The administrators continue to protest that Test cricket is inviolate. Yet the ICC's proposed Test Championship for 2019 is essentially the current one, with a couple of tweaks. The inclusion of Afghanistan and Ireland will generate feelgood stories for a while, but the absence of promotion and relegation - an indictment of the more powerful Full Members' instinct for self-preservation - has deprived Test matches of the context they badly need.
There is another problem. It's not so much that the ECB and their fellow boards have taken their eye off the ball - just that the ball has changed colour. How else to explain the continued marginalisation of the County Championship, shoved mainly into April, May and September to accommodate the new Twenty20 tournament? There will be more seaming pitches, less incentive for counties to produce fast bowlers and spinners, and even less hope of England competing overseas. And despite the reduction of the Championship programme, there is still too much cricket. When Steven Finn complained that the county circuit grinds down young quicks, the alarm should have rung. Louder still, when Adil Rashid, whose leg-breaks had earned 30 wickets in seven subcontinental Tests in 2016-17, opted out of four-day cricket for Yorkshire this summer.
Overseas, England's Test team are already going backwards. Too many games at the wrong time of year will only hasten the process. By the end of the Ashes, they had taken 20 wickets just once in ten Tests abroad - at Visakhapatnam, where India, momentarily stunned, won easily. That sequence includes the highest total they have ever conceded, plus two of their three highest in Australia. Not since the first decade of the 20th century have they lost four Tests on successive tours; back then they even won a game or two.
This was a new low. Selection, too, suggested a shrug of the shoulders and a roll of the dice. Moeen Ali was the first-choice spinner in Australia, despite a mauling in India, and has now paid 81 per wicket across two tours. His inability to penetrate or contain meant England in effect had four bowlers, not the five they had touted as an advantage. Nathan Lyon, by contrast, attacked as expertly as he defended; by doing so in long spells, he gave Australia five bowlers for the price of four.
When Hampshire's Mason Crane, a promising 20-year-old leg-spinner, took one for 193 in the Fifth Test, we were almost pathetically grateful. James Vince, meanwhile, got a second chance in the team on the flimsiest of evidence, having averaged only 32 in the Championship. Gary Ballance used up a place that might more profitably have gone to Jos Buttler, and was never seen at all. A lack of red-ball cricket would have made Buttler's selection a risk, but since when has playing safe succeeded in Australia? England fell back on their old conservatism, with predictable results.
They will take part in their 1,000th men's Test this summer, and deserve a slap on the back for leading the way. But if they refuse to address their inadequacies on pitches that don't help 82mph right-arm seamers, and if the ECB treat another away Ashes defeat like a spot of bother in the colonies, fans will look elsewhere long before they reach 2,000.
Blinded by the white
The one-day series that followed the Tests provided more proof that the English game has had its head turned. This need not be a concern per se: the ritual underperformance at World Cups has made England a laughing-stock, grandads at the rave. But their thrilling 50-over progress has come at a cost.
The Ashes left them with only 15 wins from 38 Tests under coach Trevor Bayliss, and 18 defeats - a losing percentage of 47. During Peter Moores's two (often derided) spells in charge, that percentage was 28. The one-day numbers tell a different story: Moores won 40% of his games, Bayliss - after the 4-1 win in Australia - an impressive 70%. To make matters more delicate, no one can say where the one-day game is heading after the next World Cup. And concerns that it will become the black sheep of the white-ball family grew even more acute over the winter, when the Emirates Cricket Board - presumably bored with the uneventful middle overs in Twenty20 - sanctioned a T10 tournament in Sharjah. England, then, are mastering a tongue threatened by extinction - all the while forgetting the vocabulary of Test cricket.
They are hardly alone. In early September, Rupert Murdoch's Star India paid nearly £2bn for the worldwide rights to the Indian Premier League until 2022, and changed cricket for good, or possibly ill. The value of a single IPL game now surpassed that of an Indian home fixture - a decisive moment in international cricket's battle to hold back the tide of franchise T20. A couple of months later, with the Ashes fast approaching, Cricket Australia's chief executive James Sutherland put it another way: the value to the all-important Indian market of a Twenty20 international was the same as a Test. The financial hierarchy could not be clearer.
Nor could the players. When Australia's vice-captain David Warner warned his board that their pay dispute could endanger the Ashes, he did so - symbolically - from the IPL. When South Africa's former captain A. B. de Villiers attempted to relocate his joie de vivre, he briefly gave up Test cricket, at a stroke devaluing the quality of last summer's series in England. When West Indies named their squad for the World Cup Qualifiers in March 2018, four of their biggest names - Darren Bravo, Sunil Narine, Kieron Pollard and Andre Russell - were absent, preferring the lure (and lucre) of the Pakistan Super League.
Back home, no sooner had Sam Billings been named captain of Kent than it emerged he would miss their first few Championship matches because of the IPL. Rashid's decision to concentrate on white-ball cricket was then taken by Alex Hales - with others, no doubt, to follow.
The cricketers are entitled to their slice of the pie. But without making Test matches more financially attractive for those outside England, Australia and India, the claim that the three formats can harmoniously coexist rings hollow. For all the talk of pink balls (a good idea) and four-day games (the jury's out), Test cricket looks like the frog in the saucepan of boiling water: it won't react until it's too late.
A winter of ifs and butts
One figure lay in a street in Bristol, another in the dressing-room at the SCG. Each was flat on his back, and neither - it's fair to assume - was thinking happy thoughts about Ben Stokes. "Supine" and "English cricket" have often featured in the same sentence, usually as a metaphor-cum-insult. This time it was a statement of fact. When Stokes allegedly punched a man to the ground in the small hours one Monday morning, it was as if he had starred in the opening exchanges of a Netflix box set which would end - 10,000 miles away and three months later - with Joe Root downed by gastroenteritis and wrapped in towels. If it hadn't been the England cricket team, you wouldn't have believed it possible.
In between, we had the weird sight of Stokes taking part in a quiet net session with Canterbury in the New Zealand backwater of Rangiora, only hours before England embarked on the first floodlit Ashes Test, in Adelaide. The sky was pure blue, the picket fence virgin white, and the TV crews less chippy than their Australian cousins. When Stokes asked them to move from behind the bowler's arm, they actually apologised.
Back in England, two days before Bristol, he had media coverage of a different kind, glaring out through his helmet's grille on the cover of the Times magazine, the better to convey his billing: "The hit man. Don't mess with Ben Stokes - he's fast and furious." When he did appear to hit a man, it was unclear whether life had imitated art, or vice versa. In February, he pleaded not guilty to affray.The ECB had already lost control. To suspend Stokes while he awaited the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service was reasonable. To lift the suspension the moment he was charged was perverse. And the story took another twist when he was summoned to attend Bristol magistrates' court on February 13, the date of his planned international comeback in New Zealand.
And for what? A few beers and a night out. It was all so sad. The chances are England would have lost the Ashes with or without Stokes. But the Bristol brawl burdened an already difficult tour with an impossible load. It meant Jonny Bairstow's harmless - if odd - headbutt on Cameron Bancroft could be used as further evidence of a team with behavioural problems. When, in the same bar in Perth, Ben Duckett poured a pint of beerover James Anderson, the outcry suggested he had emptied a vat of boiling oil.
And when one of England's few teetotallers was spotted sprinting back to the team hotel in Adelaide minutes before a new midnight curfew, it told of a trip dancing to the tune of media outrage. It's traditional for England captains to collapse in a heap, but Root may have done so in record time.
Quirk of history
None of this detracts from the performance of Steve Smith, who attached his name to the Ashes as surely as Ian Botham in 1981 or Mitchell Johnson in 2013-14. Only under lights in Adelaide did he look anything less than what he is: the best Test batsman since Don Bradman. If Virat Kohli is the more complete all-format package, Smith has mastered the rhythms of the five day game.
His value lay not just in his runs - only Bradman, in 1930, has averaged more across a full Ashes series than his 137 - but in their impact. On the third day of the series, England limited him to 17 before lunch by keeping the ball out of his reach, and felt they had done their job. They had merely delayed the inevitable: Smith made 141 not out. From there, they had no obvious plan, leaving Root to cling to an old piece of sportsman's logic. Without his opposite number, he pointed out, things would have been closer.
And it made you wonder. Would Smith have enjoyed the same success had he opted to throw in his lot with England, the country of his mother's birth? He began his Test career as a lower-order leg-spinner. His first Ashes series, in 2010-11, brought mainly mockery. He didn't score a Test century until 2013. But between that game, at The Oval, and the end of the 2017-18 Ashes, he averaged 73, with a conversion-rate - 23 hundreds, 18 fifties - to make Root drool. Through it all, he has maintained the quirkiest technique in world cricket. He was lucky he didn't choose England, where they would soon have squeezed the originality out of him. Smith didn't just see off his opponents. He
exposed the difference between two sporting cultures.
It is only 12 years since Leicestershire chairman Neil Davidson sent a gloating text message to his Somerset counterpart Giles Clarke after a one-day win: "I can see why Somerset is the home of girls' cricket." To the criticism that ensued, a Leicestershire spokesman responded with weasel words typical of the time: "It was meant as a light-hearted comment and not an insult to women." Of course it was… As Anya Shrubsole - from Somerset, naturally - tore in at Lord's last July and wrenched the World Cup from India, Clarke might have been enjoying the last laugh. Thanks to the broadcast deal with Sky Sports, his subsequent chairmanship of the ECB had coincided with huge investment in the women's game, and paved the way for a world in which sentiments such as Davidson's belong in the Mesozoic Era. Clarke and Sky have not always featured favourably in these pages, but for this they deserve credit.
Of the 26,500 who turned up at the women's World Cup final, an estimated 60% were attending cricket for the first time. Champagne and Pimm's yielded to coffee and cake, and the crowd were happy to spectate, not make a spectacle. Only the long queues - Lord's is not flush with ladies' toilets - harked back to the days when dinosaurs roamed St John's Wood.
Shrubsole is Wisden's cover star, and one of three women - with England captain Heather Knight and all-rounder Nat Sciver - among the Five Cricketers. When the cover was unveiled in January, it generated seven times as much social media interest as its predecessor, which depicted Virat Kohli, the most marketable player of the world's best-supported team. Wisden shouldn't be too smug: we have often been slow to acknowledge the women's game. But, thanks to Shrubsole and her team-mates, the case has become unanswerable. There were few cries of tokenism.
Partly, this was because there is more to enjoy. There were 111 sixes at the 2017 World Cup, hit by 38 different players; in 2013, it was 67 by 28 - and in only six fewer games. Sciver, who hit four against Pakistan alone, also played the most memorable stroke of the summer: a deliberate flick between her legs, once called the draw, and widely considered extinct. Resurrected, it was rechristened the Natmeg, and even brought Sciver to the attention of readers of The Sun. These are the things that happen when boards invest properly in both halves of the population.
But there are constant reminders that more must be done. Recently, to no clear purpose, a senior journalist asked his Twitter followers: "Do you like having female commentators on men's cricket?" And in a heartfelt piece in this Almanack about sexism in the sport, Tanya Aldred points out another sin of omission: the absence, as far as we know, of a meaningful monument anywhere in the world to a woman cricketer. The Sporting Statues Project lists 58 connected to the game, including six to Don Bradman alone. But if Barnsley and Hobart can honour Dickie Bird and David Boon, Lord's can find room for Rachael Heyhoe Flint - preferably in the Coronation Garden behind the Pavilion, casting a mischievous eye in the direction of WG.
If the city-based tournament in 2020 follows the lead of the women's World Cup and unearths droves of new fans, all other objections to the ECB's revolution will be null and void. It is a big if - yet the board had little choice. Cricket is withering in the public consciousness: privileged and venerable, rich but invisible, British sport's Miss Havisham. When Sky lost the Ashes rights to BT, splitting the pay-to-view market, the problem was magnified. Despite the traditionalists' objections, the new tournament really is the ECB's last chance to see if there is anyone else around willing to join the fun.
One incident last summer ought to give critics pause for thought. It came when Worcestershire's Ross Whiteley hit Yorkshire's Karl Carver for six sixes in an over during a T20 Blast group game at Headingley on July 23, providing a fresh take on the old question about a tree falling in a wood and no one being around to hear it. Because unless you were in the crowd at Leeds that afternoon, the chances are the noise escaped you altogether. It's true that it was the day Shrubsole roared at Lord's. But, more to the point, six other Blast games were on at the time. For the casual fan - and how the sport needs casual fans - Whiteley's feat was lost in a sea of other cricket. He should have been waving, not drowning: Yorkshire v Worcestershire had to be the only show in town.
The new tournament will address this problem by staging 36 games in 38 days. As at the IPL and the BBL, each can leave its mark. The Asian equation There has been widespread delight that 21 Twenty20 matches, including internationals, will be broadcast by the BBC from 2020. That figure should be higher but, since we have been told for years by men in suits that the free-to air debate was dead, we should be pleased the corpse has twitched. This alone will not reverse cricket's decline, but the good news is the ECB know there are other vital matters - which is why, after years of neglect, they are treating English cricket's South Asian question seriously.
This is about more than doing the right thing, and bringing a passionate group in from the cold. It is a matter of survival. A report commissioned last year by the board confirmed discrepancies cricket can no longer tolerate. While less than 5% of the British population is of South Asian ethnicity, the figure among recreational players rises to 30%. Then, at first-class level, it drops back to 4%. The ECB are so concerned that they want to provide "unconscious bias awareness training" for recruitment within the game. Unpack the jargon and there is an overdue acknowledgment that Britain's South Asian cricketers have not always been made to feel welcome. That's putting it generously.
There is something else. While 39% of this demographic say they support an IPL franchise, only 8% support a county in the T20 Blast. And while crowd figures for the Blast have been on the rise, this suggests there is room for improvement. One other point. The ECB's report underlined the love of big names among fans of Asian extraction: 40% were more likely to attend domestic matches featuring international stars (the national average is 16%). Since the new tournament - down from 18 teams to eight - will spread the talent more thickly, the appeal is obvious. If it can make this country's most passionate fans believe English cricket is for them too, the ECB will have earned our thanks.
For the second time in less than a year, Pakistan's cricketers left The Oval smiling from ear to ear. In 2016, they squared the Test series. This time, even more improbably, they won the Champions Trophy, having made the transition from hopeless to irresistible in a fortnight, thrashing India in the final after India had thrashed them in the group stages. As if to underline Pakistan's penchant for boom or bust, their next two 50-over outings produced a 5-0 win against Sri Lanka, and a 0-5 defeat in New Zealand. It was all very Pakistani, and utterly uplifting - rather like the euphoria that greeted three events in Lahore either side of the Champions Trophy: the final of the Pakistan Super League, a Twenty20 series against a World XI, and a one-off 20-over game against Sri Lanka. The security bill was huge, but for Pakistan's long-suffering fans - deprived of major home fixtures following the terrorist attack of 2009 - it was money well spent. In one way or another,
Pakistan still tug at the heartstrings like no one else.
A flutter each way
Ever since 1694, when a "wagger" of two shillings and sixpence was placed on a match in Lewes, cricket and gambling have snuggled together. Yet as the CC step up their fight against corruption, the game seems unable to kick its addiction. Click on ESPNcricinfo, as millions do every day, and you see that the page is "presented by bet365". Drag the cursor over the potted score of each match, and there are two options: a "summary" of the game, and a chance to "bet now". Cricket's most visited website is in good company. During BT Sport's Ashes coverage, no ad break was complete without the actor Ray Winstone encouraging viewers to have a flutter, but urging them with a straight face to "gamble responsibly".
And spectators at major matches in this country do well to find their seat without walking past an in-stadium bookie or two. This is all legal, but so is tax avoidance. Last year, the UK's betting industry took a record £13.8bn off the public, and the Gambling Commission estimated that two million Britons were either "problem gamblers" or at risk of addiction. Cricket is guilty of cakeism, ostensibly policing the game, while at the same time encouraging the onearmed bandits. And when, in late January, footage went viral of dodgy goings on in a UAE tournament calling itself the Ajman All Stars, some of the reaction brought to mind Captain Renault in Casablanca, who was "shocked - shocked!
- to find gambling is going on in here", before pocketing his winnings. At least the All Stars helpfully showcased the latest threat to the game:
matches made for bookies and (mainly gullible) gamblers, and broadcast back to the subcontinent for a brisk trade. The ICC are on to it. In the meantime, cricket feels like an enabler.
Hungry for more
Some believe over-rates are a media obsession. So what if a county team bowls only 94 in a day? Worse things happen at sea. But last season two sides did pay a price. Middlesex, the 2016 champions, were relegated by two points, the size of their penalty for bowling their overs slowly against Surrey at The Oval. And Northamptonshire missed out on promotion by five - the size of theirs after transgressing at Trent Bridge. Nottinghamshire, their opponents, went up instead.
Middlesex earned some sympathy because a crossbow bolt had been fired on to the outfield, ending the game and depriving them of the chance to up their rate. On the other hand, spectators were spared the sight of bowlers hurrying through meaningless overs simply to avoid punishment. They shouldn't have fallen behind the (reasonable) demands in the first place.
There was a wider issue. Had the penalties been more immediate, Middlesex and Northamptonshire might have been less inclined to dawdle. Losing the odd point here or there over the course of a long season does not focus the mind. Monetary fines and occasional suspensions make no difference at international level - the players are sometimes quietly thankful for a breather - while the application of penalty runs during a match has had some success in limited-overs cricket, but can produce bad blood and chaos.
The answer has to be to hit players - and umpires, who bear some responsibility - where it hurts. Make them stay out there for as long as it takes, every session, until the overs have been bowled. If that means shorter lunches, so be it: the fielding side will soon get a move on. And it will spare us the hardluck stories come September.
Bridging the divide
There was a whiff of charm in the air at Chelmsford, where the new county champions drew extensively on local talent: the Essex averages on page 445 tell us that ten of their players in 2017 are from the county, and five born in Leytonstone alone. At last, Alfred Hitchcock and David Beckham are in good company.
It wasn't long ago that Essex were the protagonists of a dismal tactic: prepare a greentop, win the toss, unleash the medium-pacers. But the new regulation, giving the visiting side the chance to bowl first, has kept that in check. And besides, Essex's 2017 record at home and away was identical: five wins, two draws. Just as gratifyingly, they won the title by a landslide in their first season back in Division One, which encouraged the thought that the gap between the two tiers was not the chasm many feared. It was quite a story. Yet there is work to be done on English pitches - and prejudices to address. Old-timers noted, for instance, that surfaces at The Oval were once so hard that boot spikes were more hindrance than help; Sylvester Clarke would bowl in flats. The bounce provided some of the best cricket in the country. In 2017, by contrast, Surrey won only two Championship matches, yet still finished third, over-rewarded for being hard to beat, and by an archaic bonus-point system that places too much emphasis on the first innings at the expense of the match as a whole.
When Somerset produced turning pitches that won Taunton an unexpected nickname - Ciderabad - opponents were up in arms. The argument has been made here before, but it needs restating: unless we allow one or two counties to become havens for spin, we will never produce world-class slow bowlers, or batsmen capable of flourishing in Asia. And an 18-team tournament will become even harder to justify. That is the last thing defenders of the status quo are after.
Would you credit it?
It was, screamed a commentator, "the best catch you'll ever see". For once, Twenty20's ingrained hyperbole sounded about right. When Dwayne Bravo launched Rashid Khan towards deep extra cover at Melbourne's Etihad Stadium in January, the best the fielder Ben Laughlin could surely hope for was a run-saving interception. But he clung on with two hands, before flicking the ball back into play as he tumbled over the rope. Jake Weatherald was running from cover point, though his initial aim, he admitted, had been to congratulate Laughlin. Instead, he found himself diving forward to complete the kind of relay catch that makes you wonder what cricketers will be capable of in the years ahead.
The scorecard could not possibly capture the excitement. Yet cricket fans are good at interpreting this list of names and numbers to assess a game, so why not make things even more vivid? Football has used the assist to reward the player who has dribbled round three opponents before setting up a simple tap-in - and the assist should become part of cricket's lexicon too. The scorecard would read: Bravo a Laughlin c Weatherald b Rashid Khan 4. Fielding has long bent the knee to bowling, and especially batting. Twenty20 urges us to reconsider.
December 31 threw up one of those dates that splits the world. On that day, and that day alone - with apologies to the sticklers who regard 2001 as the first year of the millennium - anyone born in the 20th century was an adult, and anyone in the 21st a child. As so often, however, cricket had got there first, thanks to a more complex method of making some of us feel old. Against Glamorgan at Cardiff in June, Hamidullah Qadri - a 16-year-old off-spinner born in Kandahar, Afghanistan - took a second-innings five-for on his first-class debut for Derbyshire. He also became the first county cricketer born in the 21st century. If that didn't instantly add a wrinkle to your brow, worse was to follow in September, when Nottinghamshire captain Chris Read called it a day, aged 39, signing off with a promotion-clinching century at Hove. Read's claim to fame? He was the last remaining English first-class cricketer to have played a Test in the 1990s. The baton is passed again.