Hear that, Bumble.

@BumbleCricket said some stuff earlier that’s got me thinking. (Read it here, on alloutcricket.com – https://t.co/wk7k4mcJgX by all means, but only after hoovering up my own gloriously fulfilling and not entirely contradictory missive.)

Now I don’t think I’m doing the fella a complete disservice if I paraphrase what he said – I know, diabolical and dodgy thing to do – by reporting Bumble’s reminder that there’s always been choice, always been different stuff to do, and therefore the Big Deal we’re making about player retention and/or dwindling numbers of clubs, matches played or whatever might not, in the great scheme of things, be that Big a Deal. Because a percentage of people have always moved on from the game – made other choices – to chase girls/boys/drink sweet Martini and lemonade, work, or set up a punk band. Always there’s been some (what shall we call it?) drift – nah, implies failure – some expression of choice which may or may not indict the game; always.

Clearly, Mr Lloyd has a point on this. His gravy-boat full, milky-creamily-mashed and treble-fabulous good nature impels him to urge us, in so many words, to leave off with the judgemental stuff and gather a little perspective. Maybe cricket’s really doing okay – challenged by more choices than previously, for sure, flower – but doing okay? He cites the example of clubs which are bouncing with smiling Rooty wannabes, thriving community hubs which can barely manage the influx of diminutive but excited scoopers and reverse-sweepers. These clubs certainly exist, defying any sense of atrophy or retreat.

I’ve never met Bumble but I like the bloke. He seems genuinely authoritative and genuinely authentic; never would you question his love for the game – at all levels. Importantly (or incidentally), he’s from pretty much the same latitude as me, the same spiritual place – that Northern outpost of corny-wonderful faith (in people?) and honesty and (blow me down), hope. Like me, he’s daft about sport.

The senior gym bunny and Accrington Stanley fanatic’s seen and is seeing a whole lot of the umpteen-plus faces of cricket around the country, around the world. It’s great that he’s plainly optimistic, that he has a faith in the durability of the sport, acknowledging as he does the competition from outside.

To further precis his argument, Bumble suggests (inevitably, amongst many other things) that maybe we need to get real regarding the viability of tiny clubs; that we should amalgamate plenty and drive quality and competition through continuing the trend for Premier Leagues, where standards and facilities are good. This in itself increases the viability and/or inviolability of club cricket, which he argues is hardly in crisis but which is challenged by choices – like always.

Some contentious stuff there – I’m immediately reminded of the delightfully teeny village clubs in my area which might be snuffed out under any brutalist gathering of that which is seen to be sustainable. Folks who’ve effectively lived their richly undemonstrative lives through the village club might be stirred to militancy by the thought of ‘healthy amalgamation’, I reckon. (Not Bumble’s phrase, I hasten to add.) Mr Lloyd has unquestionably earned the right to proggle away at our condition, mind, even if this process feels like the opening up of some acute or tender hurting – that’s just gonna happen, needs to happen.

I’m not going to try to unpick all his arguments, however; for one thing I (in the contemporary jargon) ‘hear them’ and another I agree… with some. I’m going to put a few other things out there, another contribution, if you will, to the debate, ideally conducted over a foaming pintabeer in a clubhouse with a spirit-lifting view of mighty trees or swirling rivers or smiling kids. Bumble has been my prompt.

As some of you will know I both volunteer and work in cricket and so irrespective of how bright or stupid I am I do know some stuff about migration, retention and maybe how clubs or regions move or think or identify what’s necessary to survive or hold fast or grow. Weirdly, I’ve actually been reasonably attentive and interested when all this gets discussed by members of our Cricket Wales posse. I/we genuinely do grapple with The Issues (or identifying the Real Issues) and genuinely do try to effect change and progress. We have heaps of information and heaps more in the way of opinion, baggage, ‘knowledge’.

And yet I couldn’t tell you how things compare now with some arbitrary idyll way back in the whatevers, when maybe cricket was on terrestrial TV and summers were long and Botham or Gower or Lloyd or Richards or Sobers was bewitching us or giving us the horn.

There are TV figures available but I doubt we really know what migration of 9-11 year-olds into clubs or retention of players in the 13-17 age-group looked like back in that sunny, simple, unaccountably Child Safety Officer-free era. (My point being that it’s perdy darn near impossible to be sure about whether things are better or worse; that (actually) comparisons between eras are relatively meaningless; that none of this makes intelligent discussion over current, ‘durable’ research an indulgence).

I hear the argument that as the sport has accumulated a layer of Development Officers and Community Coaches, so arguments for Development Projects or Community Coach work are bound to spring up. I hear the fear that (as everywhere?) a squadron of pen-pushers has insinuated its way into ‘cricket’ and is (wilfully or otherwise) banqueting on its blood whilst attempting to drive it forward. I hear the argument (or do I make it, being a coach?) that unleashing more great coaches into schools and clubs would sustain and enrich both the game of cricket and a zillion young lives everywhere and that every last possible penny should be invested in funding and improving coaches and thereby (I promise you) changing lives.

But back to that fella Lloyd. I disagree with Bumble that the lack of cricket on terrestrial TV is insignificant. I’m a real lover of sports but as a low earner I can’t justify coughing up the required £30-40(?) a month for the Sky Sports subscription. I simply can’t. And I can promise you (and him) that in schools I go into there are lots of kids who really don’t know what cricket looks like because they don’t – despite what our friends at the Daily Mail might say to the contrary – have Sky.

This is not to say that these same children would all be cricket mad should the Beeb be showing Test Matches… but I can only imagine that it must be a fact that pay TV reduces levels of exposure, hypothetically and in the real world (if there is one). Cricket costs, meaning it’s therefore beyond the consciousness of many, surely? I think this matters.

For balance – and because it’s true – Sky props up the game financially; a factoid that undermines any anti-capitalist revolutionary zeal we may be harbouring here. But you judge on all that.

Broadly I share Bumble’s genial confidence. I think maybe like him I reckon good folks will find a way. And that it’s the good work of individuals, individually changing lives by timely encouragement or technical tweaking that is the unchanging essence of ‘development’. And that therefore the work I/we do as cricket people needs to be conscious and respectful of not just the facts enshrined in our latest review, but of the uniqueness and power of individual experiences, relevance(s) and needs.

The game is gloriously and maybe increasingly diverse. Whether we agree with Bumble that cricket’s central challenges have remained relatively similar or not, we maybe can – maybe should – look at what we can do, in whatever capacity, to support the game – ‘muck in’. This is going to mean different things in different places. It’s also going to mean tough decisions, maybe unpopular ones like the ones that may be looming around the sustainability of village clubs, become necessary.

Strikes me that Bumble seeks to cut through the concept-fest that our cricket administrators are mud-wrestling in. It’s his way to sort things out witha bitta plain speaking. He knows cricket needs good-hearted people, experienced people on board. I wonder if (less obviously and perhaps less comfortably) he accepts that it will need a quota of lateral thinkers too, to separate sentiment from ongoing vitality.

Cross words?

So the Powers That Be – incidentally, what a phrase that is! – have withdrawn the snippers from County Cricket. There will be no change next season to the playing schedule. If it wasn’t patronising in the extreme, I’d echo that there was ‘rejoicing in the shires’ as the news came in. Members from Barry to Barnstaple chinking their glasses to a victory for the common, retriever-owning man. All that. The Daily Telegraph wafted excitedly towards the wife as she brings tea-on-a-tray.

Blow me, we’ve beaten the buggers back, Tess!

Okay, mischief. And surely unhelpful to satirise either side, even when hoping to raise a smile? Better get into this, together, as seriously as we want to – this fabulous tangle of earnest case-making, floppy hats, vitriol and crosswords.

I should maybe start by saying I think the decision to make no change (or wait on change?) is right; politically astute in the sense that (for all my mischief) a genuine clamour has been raised; wise-in-the-round because we all know there will be substantial discussions to come, during the off-season. Discussions which most of us imagine will bring change of some sort next year.

My job ensures I stand on the edge of talks about cricket; I coach for Cricket Wales but often find myself either actively involved in seeking out ‘ways forward’, or ear-wigging our senior blokes as they grapple with either Bigger Pictures or with difficult questions around the detail of national cricket. I have some sympathy now with the difficulties in juggling Irate of Ffestiniog with Serenely Influential of Cowbridge. I totally get that given the wondrous breadth of opinion on (even) the structure of the game, this week’s stay of execution will feel like a minor triumph to some… and something of an insult – #ridiculous, in fact – to others.

On the one hand we have those who may in fact not necessarily be conservative but who want to keep the number of ‘proper’ cricket matches at the current level and on the other we have those who (like @MichaelVaughan and @BumbleCricket) make arguments for change now.

Vaughan, who relishes the role of dynamic tweeter and maker of strong opinion, used that r-word to describe the failure to allow new men in the hierarchy to do their jobs – i.e. make tough decisions/effect change for the better. He has a point, but it strikes me that these fellas, having floated the ideas, have opted for time and the ‘opportunity’ to flesh out their arguments before implementing changes next year. Perhaps(?) I note in passing that the former England skipper may have been less likely to use the argument that the management should be left to manage had he disagreed with what was proposed.

Elsewhere, there are more or less strident concerns about players being under-prepared for championship games because of the allegedly relentless nature of the schedule – fears of burnout as well as erosion of excellence.@AlisonMitchell has thrown in the fear of over-tired players driving long distances after matches.  My own, additional fear is for players who’ve de-stressed with a beer or two before heading out to the motorway.

The schedules in Australia and South Africa – where 10 matches are contested – are much referred to, alongside the notion that this has led to higher quality and certainly the current Test standings do nothing to undermine that view.

But though these are all important considerations, they may be less pivotal than the extraordinary feeling which exists around County Cricket.

Who knows, really, if lovers of County Cricket – and here I mean effectively the longer format game – are a particular breed? Perhaps they are. You’d expect a narrow demographic but that may be less relevant than the fact of their love and understanding (remember that?) for the game.

Certainly they have notable virtues, including the precious capacity to recognise sport (or anything else) as a narrative over time. Sure they love the moments of show-stopping drama but their show – the trickle that is four day cricket – is an experience where their own loyalty, persistence, patience count. It’s sport and time dancing together, often slowly, unobtrusively – demurely, even – as if in a silent, undeclared ecstasy. This is unique.

I have seen this. Seen the magnificently un-dynamic truth that is fans who relax better at a County Cricket match than anywhere else in their lives. They lounge; they watch; they snooze; they appreciate when their attention needs to be utterly committed… and when they can drift. They barely register these joys but joys they are. They may, in their beautiful, gritty, eccentric way be either ‘watching the cricket’ or making a profound statement against the death of the attention span. You choose. Either way they have been heard, these last few days.

But maybe about now Bumble and Vaughany would be saying
Get real, dude!

Quite possible to argue that the pitiful crowds for many fixtures condemn this thing as an anachronism. Do the math. Nobody goes – or not enough people go for it to be remotely sustainable. It is only sustainable because of TV money and because people will come to watch the T20blast. Therefore the quality of lurv shown by these few ‘die-hard’ fans is notable but insufficiently compelling in the argument. It blocks stuff. And anyway they will still be able to do their thing… just maybe ten times instead of fourteen!

That’s a brutalist view but I can see how it may hold sway. Throw in the need to protect players and simultaneously (maybe) improve standards in the longer format (and thereby bolster the Test team?) and you have a decent case. Reduce County Cricket. Reduce County Cricket despite the furore. It would be tough.

I think changes will come and they may not even be the changes we currently imagine. World Cricket is such a lurid carousel these days that anything could come trampolining in. Blasts or Bashes are clearly, undeniably The Force in the game but there is a consensus around the need to protect and/or develop Test Cricket. Which means County Cricket/Shield Cricket etc. etc. have to sustain at a certain qualitative level. In short, cricket is charged with not just the accommodation but the development of two (or three?) spectacularly different formats and I’m struggling to think of a sport with an equivalent challenge.

So anyway, I’m hearing the arguments and my brain hurts. For me there is nothing in the world so special and so precious as that escape into sport – and therefore those County Cricket people are my soul-brothers. I’m neither resistant to change, particularly, nor convinced by the need (necessarily) to ‘grow the game’ via some spookily PR-driven, crassly commercial ‘dynamic development’ that sends me into a fury over The Americanisation of Everything! And yet the world demands of us that we are agile and forward-thinking. It’s tough.

I’ve settled on the idea that no change for now is right. This is less to do with the ten/fourteen/however many County Cricket fixtures than the #T20blast – which may be telling in itself. Blast surely needs – arguably has earned? – another year on that Friday night slot. That may be important – not just in financing half the County Clubs but in pre-empting the 8 city franchises we keep hearing about.

There is a sense that the whole notion of the Counties themselves may depend upon increasing exposure and quality and entertainment in the Blast. I hope it continues to thrive – pretty much as it is. Frankly I’d rather Glamorgan had Glamorgan playing at the SSE Swalec than Cardiff Klonkers. Perhaps this, in itself, is a reason to take a further look at things this winter.