Brutal World.

So Croft goes, amid that abstracted, high-contrast, impulse-loaded, contra-sense that a) given the standards of the modern day, he had to… but also b) ain’t it a shame, the unpeeling of the romance, the murder of the righteous, the strangulation of the dream. Would that all that undeniable love for county and country had been converted into runs.

It wasn’t; or it wasn’t enough, or early enough. Or it wasn’t remotely, in 50 over and County Champs cricket – not recently, not so you’d notice.

The figures – painful ones for us Glammy supporters – are out there. I’m not searching through them again; too painful, too embarrassing, too brutally evidential of (one argument goes) undeniable failure.

One argument does say the Glamorgan gaffer presided over a shockingly uncompetitive period… period. Forget the wider debate or the responsibility for developing homegrown talent. Forget that. Croft was indulged waaay longer than your average football manager. His Long Term Plan for a Wonderfully Welsh Glamorgan side wasn’t working; so he goes.

A few, (not many, I think) will hold to the contrary, allegedly-truly more generous Long Term Plan, whereby patience and support for an honourable, long-term servant of the club persists. The seductive notion being that ultimately loyalty, that authentic hywl, might or should prevail. But nah. Not these days.

I remember the euphoria around the Croft retirement/appointment period. I was there when he hauled himself up the steps for the last time, his son alongside, to the Glammy dressing-room. It felt a tad staged, to be honest, but there was still a proper lump of Crofty-lurv in the air. I stood and cheered.

His succession to Coach was similarly notably wrapped in quasi-nostalgic goodwill. (Remember that?) But – as David Coleman might have said – goodwill don’t pay the rent.

The promise of real development through coupling white-ball superstars (Ingram, Steyn, Tait, etc) with wide-eyed Welsh Bois never came through for him. There were nearish misses in T20 Blast in particular but too much humiliation of late. We got to a place where the sympathy for a proper Welsh Bloke could not hold back the cruel questions; rightly so.

It’s tough all around when a patently genuine Club Legend is being undermined… but yaknow it’s his job to sort things and there’s inevitably a timescale on that.

The level of trauma (performance-wise) at Glamorgan has been such that my newish mucker, the brilliant ESPN Correspondent George Dobell has not simply questioned their quality but proposed something more powerfully challenging – the outright squishing of the club. He favours a re-boot, under a Welsh national flag, because Glammy have proved, essentially, (he says) to be non-viable. (I have, for brevity, maybe bastardised his argument but you get the point: Glam are seen by some to be a poor, inadequate, unworthy member of the County Clubs club).

Croft – and Hugh Morris – have presided over this. A few days ago, the latter relinquished his Director of Cricket, but not his CEO role. Today marks a further, significant step on. It feels to me both dramatic and appropriate.

I know Hugh Morris a little and find him impressive; tough, focused, loyal, committed, shrewd.

Croft I barely know, having been in a cohort of coaches for a workshop or two under him, and at club outreach evenings which he hosted: never truly in his company.

The man’s contribution over time deserves a certain level of respect so I am not going to repeat the one or two negative things I’ve heard about him, nor where they came from. What I will do is note to the universe that if I had to choose just the one of the two men to carry Glam forward it would be Morris.

Perhaps that’s indiscreet, perhaps it’s unnecessary? (Perhaps I’ll edit it out later).

Given the raw material available to him, it may be that Croft had to be a Pied Piper Plus – to have something deeply inspiring about him. I suspect, unfortunately, he hasn’t had enough of that magic: would Nye Donald have left if he did? Again, maybe that’s a tad harsh. But it’s a brutal world, eh?

 

A post-script.

Where to next?  Following what we can probably assume to be Hugh Morris’s difficult and therefore courageous decision to relieve Croft of his duties, where do Glammy go? Is the retention of Matthew Maynard as Batting Consultant a) erroneous b) smart c) a sign that the Welsh Connection (as it were) remains a force – a value? How far away from appointing TWO key figures – Director of Cricket and Head Coach – are the county?  We can’t know.

Personally I have no doubt that Morris will be looking to retain what we might/he might call Glamorgan’s soul. For him, despite that medium-aggressive business savvy-thing, the development of Welsh talent is more than just a marketing tool; it’s a full-on mission.

This of course doesn’t mean that he won’t be heavily conscious that Glam must now enter a period where they are competitive, where the leadership is authentically top-level. Meaning there is less or no room for sentiment.

But the need for two helmsmen (helmspeople?) may provide an opportunity here. Could he be bold enough to take it, I wonder, by bringing in a genuinely international class Director of Cricket, with Mark O’Leary – curently of Cardiff MCCU – beneath, running day-to-day coaching affairs?

(O’Leary is an ECB Level 4 Masters Coach from the same cohort as the likes of Dizzy Gillespie: he is a personable Coming Man, with verve, ingenuity, great ideas around coaching).

If this sounds a crazy-dangerous notion then consider the following scenario: essentially a triumvirate of senior staff, with a Brilliant New Guy as D of C, plus Maynard chuntering and cajoling and – importantly – at O’Leary’s shoulder).

I make this proposition for a couple of reasons.

1. I know O’Leary reasonably well and feel pret-ty convinced he may be a star in the making – that Glammy should get him into their system.

2. That there is plainly a way for him to be developed under the wings of a cool, authoritative Director of Cricket – particularly if the nuggetty Maynard remains an influence. Longer-term (only actually a year or two down the track), O’Leary might then be an utterly outstanding fit for Head Coach.

Sub-clause XXII. (I get that there are dangers around this).  Yes, O’Leary is Welsh. No, I’m not daft enough to either campaign on the issue,or pretend that going thissaway would be straightforward, for Hugh Morris.  But hey, this morning’s conversational hare… sorted. 👊🏻

This is your banner.

The dawn of another county season does bring that slight relief; that things roll on, without *too much* change. Sure, it’s crazy and unsustainable and the apocalypse may well be coming but somehow we made it through. Unwrap your sandwich – coo, beef, there’s posh! – unfurl your paper; get the gloves and the spare jumper(s) out a-and smile.

Re Yorkshire playing 2 home games in April, two in September and one back end of August… don’t go there. Re the stampede of ‘city-based action’ about to swallow up the shires… don’t go there. Enjoy the glorious understated present in that unique, cricketty way: block the rest.

Okaaay you won’t be able to unthink the universe and probably somebody will want to talk but you could – you could – find a refuge in Row Z. You could be that island.

You don’t have to acknowledge that as with everything, there are the two choices: fight like hell or render yourself immune. In this moment (damn right) you’re entitled to enjoy the uncluttered, beautiful, peaceful, restorative now for what it is.

It is precious. It’s maybe an indulgence but hey – no guilt. Going to County Cricket (and obviously by this I mean the longer format of the game) is a kind of political defiance anyway. Being there at any stage, for a four-dayer, marks you out as a soulful sort. You are silently strident, even when choosing not to (yaknow) campaign. You – unlike most – are there. This is your banner. You – unlike most – are defying the drift to dumbness.

Good shot, son. Four.

Hmmm. Tad smug-sounding? To be clear I mean the universal drift or slump, via gaming/crap tv/the instant hit of faux, colorific joy/the short format everything for the (allegedly) submissively unintelligent. The spawn of Education-by-Numbers crunched by Estyn & Ofsted… and Mackie Effing Dee’s. Erm… is that clearer?

Did I say that out loud?!?

‘Cultural’ dumbness, then. The sort you don’t have to be smug about opposing to oppose… but you may finish up sounding that way, eh? The sort that County Cricket fans defy with every fibre, with every no-ball they note, with every paper they rustle.

Hello mate. Yeh good, ta. 

To be clear I mean precious in the joyful, innocent way and political in the philosophical sense: seeing big pictures, feeling the value of things.

Yeh – heard that. Crazy. Can’t see it, myself – let the man write.

But the world conspires against – and you know it. The ECB is broadening access, demystifying stuff. Understand that, but in the process – or possibly by design – the market (which may never have really sustained County Cricket) has shifted, is diametrically opposed, is storming away.

Just don’t know what the thinking is. That’s why I’m hiding back here – not sure I wanna talk about it!

Nothing personal! Have a good day, mate.

So, if the universe can see no further than family-friendly boomathons which leave Proper Cricket exposed – because an indulgence, because ‘a relic with no real audience’ – what’s to be done? What’s the argument?

Will join you for a pint, later. Watching and reading, first!

Firstly, maybe this idea of the market as god might be unpicked, somewhat. The Market is a woefully unintelligent concept, especially if thought of as Actual Bums on Actual Seats. (That is, even if we accept that County Cricket attendances at grounds are somewhere between poor and pitiful, this does not entirely describe support for the game).

Secondly, crowds do not (either) entirely describe the value of the sport. Things aren’t always either simple or measurable.

Thirdly, how does The Market assess the link between four-day cricket and Tests? Critical? Fascinating? Irrelevant? Does it even recognise the eight zillion technical, tactical, psychological, philosophical step-changes up from one to t’other? Does The Market care?

Eighty-ninethly, surely there are multiple markets and things can be monetised in different ways? And/or parts of the game that are bouyant can support parts of the game that are not – make them better, even – so that they move towards a) being more watchable, maybe and b) being sustainable within the whole?

But… hang on. I swore blind I wasn’t gonna get into any of this! Dave… pass the sandwich. Pass the sandwich.

And County Cricket is already broadening, demystifying, shaping up! Okay, the T20 Blast is not perfect, but it’s good! It’s a strongish revenue stream and it’s county-based – and therefore important to existing supporters. I slightly fear all this spectacular dynamism – all these Spectaculars – are an over-reaction, given the progress that was being made.

Did I say that out loud again?

Here’s something: warning, it may be kinda subtle.

Many of you attending County Cricket on this opening day will not be wholly involved with the cricket… but you will be wholly involved with the experience. I wonder if Ofsted or the Ministry for Sport have an algorithm for that?

Wrong mustard, mate, for me…

Holding out for something.

Rashid. Hales. T20, *I*T20, or not? Fifty overs, forward defensive, The Olympics(!) or not? Spin bowling – or not? Everything Changes & it’s all, frankly, a worry. Or not.

I’ve been living and maybe living off the adrenalin and alround crest-of-a-wave newness of all this for what feels like years. The tumbling towards, the surge and the grasp. Sure I know and have felt the awesome weight and quality of the strategies in place but I‘m nearly ready for some quiet, some relief from the centrifugal force; from the barrage of opinions & corporate messaging; from the sense of divergence.

These cricket revolutions, eh?

Where are they taking us?

It feels clear that we may gain a new audience; this, plainly, is the thrust of the white ball/city-based/All Stars/Cricket Unleashed agenda. But what are the costs, in what I’m tempted to call ‘human terms’, arising from that? In gaining new fans, new families, do we lose diehard county cricketpeople? We would, certainly, if in five years there is no county cricket to watch.

We would, too, if the game retained its longer form but in a way traditionalists received as insulting: if it felt irrelevant in a swashbuckling matrix of colo(u)rific slashes and carves. The protestors would walk.

That, of course, is the extreme case scenario. Maybe there’s no way, despite the widespread fears, that either the County Championship or Test Cricket itself are really threatened. In extraordinary and polarising times, though, with what some feel to be ominous lumps of energy behind the gathering carnival, you can understand the angst and the vituperative urgency.

Part of me wishes we could have our infuriatingly sleepy processes back: decisions after a snooze, maybe? The relentless contortions of today’s tag mud-wrestle (and yes I am talking about the administration of cricket, here!) seeming as incongruously anarchic and therefore un-directed as they are stirring. Nobody seems to know where we’re going or how things might be resolved.

This can’t entirely be true, of course. There is strategy which will survive the clammy interference from Furious of Bodmin.

To be fair, despite the undeniable charge behind white ball action, plenty of ‘ECB Men’ do love county cricket and surely are looking towards the ideal scenario, whereby boomathons co-exist with (or effectively make viable?) the four day game. The lack of clarity is perhaps inevitable; a function of unknowable stuff resulting from accelerating change – from revolution itself.

What feels key is a) whether loyalties to county cricket will persist sufficiently or, more painfully and controversially b) whether it’s already been decided somewhere that County Cricket must be sacrificed.

I don’t think that’s happened… but I don’t know. There is after all, a pret-ty convincing case that County Cricket cannot sustain itself – crowds very often being shockingly meagre, for professional sport. (Ok, I get the argument that crowds in grounds aren’t the only measure of a game’s state of health or value but it would be borderline delusional to deny the issue here. Not enough people are watching live, at most fixtures).

The Big New Telly Deal and better attendances for short format fixtures could theoretically and surely will in practice subsidise red ball cricket. But… for ever? We can only imagine a reckoning must come – sometime.

In short we need a plan and I’m sure there is one and also not sure at all.

Will we/they conclude that County Cricket is a lovable financial nonsense which can and must be supported – by white ball cricket, if necessary – despite its own, fundamental failings? Or will Independent Directors – all the rage in administrations for the modern, accountable era – shorn of a lifelong love of cricket, bring a sharp, fatal dose of fiscal realism?

I may personally be hanging on to some quasi-religious dream, in which the holistic, historical and magnificently amorphous value of four day cricket wins out, triumphantly, against the shallow grain of the day. Certainly I’m holding out for something.

All of which brings us to Test Cricket.

Almost universally accepted, even now, as the *theoretical* jewel in the crown, Test Cricket may be unthinkable without County Cricket: that may be the saviour of them both.

How could players prepare for the epic grandeur of five days at Lords without four at Taunton, Old Trafford or The Oval? How does any batsman get into Test Mode, without first occupying X hours at the crease, honing (amongst a zillion other deeply specialist qualities) the patient brilliance essential for the task?

In brief, in other words, no Tests without County – and vice-versa.

This, though, despite the comfort it may bring to purists, is surely a dangerously brittle notion?

The time may come, for example, when four day cricket is cut completely and players and coaches simply have to engineer a way across that great divide between short forms and Tests. The unsympathetic or independently-minded – in or out of the game or in other sports – might argue that this is tough but do-able; just another elite-level skills challenge. If County Cricket is mad-disfunctional, it goes: players just need to flick that switch between the formats and get on with it.

There’s scope, let’s be honest, for a whole lot of hurt. Partly because people really love this game… and because not everybody (obviously) gets the finer/dafter/more ‘symphonic’/whatever they are points of attraction enough to slap a preservation order on it.

Lots about liking cricket is untranslatable, unexplainable but the deep reservoir of understanding for and loyalty to the game amongst long-term, long-form fans is a phenomenon. That feels undeniable. Mostly.

I personally know some truly outstanding and genuine people in places of real influence in the game. People who are ambitious but also deeply conscious of the uniqueness of Proper Cricket. Currently, the drive is on towards bursting the bubble, breaking the boundaries, bringing new blood into the sport. (The people I know are right behind this; they think we do need a new, ‘broader’ audience).

That drive is where it’s at at the moment. And I find little to argue with on that All Stars/Cricket Unleashed front. The ECB are going really BIG on raising the profile of the game – with youngsters, with new families. It’s the links that are understandably being made (by diehard fans) between this monumental investment and the incoming T20 that are problematic.

County Cricket People fear a betrayal, a dumbing down. I think they can tolerate All Stars (and expansion) but they fear the age of the boomathon for what it might bring to their beloved four day/five day cricket. None of us are sure; revolutions are happening – yes, plural!

While life continually throws up the most appalling examples of Morons in Power, I am hopeful. 1. County Cricket fans have and are giving a good account of themselves. 2. It’s obvious that Test Cricket is unique and powerfully influential in a way that goes right past mere fascination. It has a historic weight that must mean something. 3. There are some Good Guys at the top. 4. Change is gonna be challenging.

I am hopeful. As well as concerned.

 

Vaulting forward.

The ebbs and flows of cricket admin. Presumed soppy or soapy or almost ludicrous in their becalmed niche-markethood, but sometimes challenging, dynamic – stormy even.

We’ve got big waves at the moment. In the case of the #AllStarsCricket/CricketUnleashed Projects, maybe it’s once-in-a-generation stuff, a time for courageous plunges. Or not?

Meanwhile, around the boomathon – the #T20Blast or City Franchise (or both) – there is similarly a gathering of conflicting surges. For or against the fierce carnival? Anti the lurid populism thing in principle and/or protective of the counties, or wet-suited and booted and charging teeth-bared with the contemporary tide – surfing into the cities?!?

Rarely, surely, can the knitting together of cricket in Ingerland and Wales have been so stacked with tumult? It’s almost exciting.

I go to an #AllStarsCricket Roadshow this week, committed not just out of loyalty to my employers, Cricket Wales but more because my sense is the central notion around which the campaign is constructed (that we cricketpeeps have to ‘break out of the bubble’) is undeniably valid.

There are always a zillion micro-reasons why things stall or fail or are superceded by cultural mores but the blunt truth of this is that too few people get cricket, know cricket, understand what cricket means. And the ECB are (it would seem) absolutely backing a programme designed to genuinely transform levels of contact with, familiarity with and appreciation for the game. #AllStarsCricket is absolutely about making cricket known at a different level.

This talk of ‘presence’ and ‘visibility’ inevitably leads to cynicism – if nothing else because it means we’re in the hands of Market Researchers, Salespeople and career Sports Development Officers. True that it is them who have largely built and/or co-opted the strategy. Untrue – or too simplistic – to make the assumption that there’s something un-cricket and therefore unconvincing or even suspicious about that, although there is no question that some in the game fear that research is no match for time spent in clubs or on pitches.

Dwyer’s Posse have obviously been challenged and no doubt guided by Proper Cricket People at the ECB (and yes I do think there are some. To be fair there are unquestionably cricket people from within that posse, too.)

The framework they’ve come up with hangs upon that idea that cricket functions (or malfunctions) in too small a sector of the population; the bubble is simply too feeble and too small. By implication it is also probably too similar (and too conservative?) to be viable, to be healthy, to feel right, to be attractive in 2017 and beyond. So #AllStarsCricket is about vaulting forward, about increasing numbers simply by exposing more 5-8 year-old youngsters to the game.

The jargonistas talk rather dangerously of ‘winning the battle for the playground’, something I – as a lover of many sports – feel (as we tend to say these days) conflicted about.  I hear the message but think it unnecessarily provocative. I’m in playgrounds alongside rugby coaches or tennis coaches and whilst I am motivated to be the fabbest sportingest bloke my particular dollop of kids have ever come across, this is non-adversarial; I’m neither looking to oust nor undermine any other sport.

In fact, what happens at clubs is more key to the success of #AllStarsCricket than the gathering of the new gang through Primary Schools. I don’t, aim to get into the methodology of all this right now, more the frisson or the philosophy; this may change after I hear more from the ECB in midweek.

Questions, of course, remain. About how clubs will cope, how activators will work, about the quality of coaching and how ASC sits with existing coaches. Most crucially the issue (pointedly felt here in rural West Wales) around how many families will fork out the proposed wedge needed to sign up. But because I totally get that loads of kids need to know who the England captain is (and want to be him or her) I’m in – well in.

We all know that ideally a raft of things should be in place, from free-to-air cricket on telly to fabulous, appealing kit. We have also clocked that this is not Australia. However, having slung the pros and cons (and ill-disciplined metaphors) around the room, around my head for some months, the weight of water behind #AllStarsCricket – investment from ECB, doubling up of Chance2Shine resources – suggest this will be really powerful. That once-in-a-generation monster-wave thing is sounding convincingly BIG: it needs to be irresistible.

Over the weekend a couple of stories have emerged, coincidentally, I imagine, which may suggest that the relentless flow towards city-based cricket may yet be held up.

Firstly Freddie Flintoff – a man who does have a meaningful hinterland and still an active role in the game – came out very forcefully in favour of an admittedly improved, counties-based T20. He made an argument that does have some support and some credence: essentially that #T20Blast wasn’t a million miles off the tournament we need and that fans (Proper Fans?) are (or would be) loyal to their county in a more profound way than they would be to cities across their cultural boundaries. Scousers won’t support a Manchester Marauders – but they would get behind Lancs.  Most of Yorkshire (like the rest of the universe) ‘all ‘ate Leeds and Leeds and Leeds.’

Freddie is right with some of this. Tribal is beautiful.

Then we learn (admittedly via The Mail, which o-kaaay, hardly counts) that an allegedly significant majority of current pro players want to retain that link with the 18 counties into the new era of T20. (Previously it had seemed that the noise was more in favour of the BBL-style city thrash). This is news.  This is heartening to those of us who accept that white ball cricket is going to be key but not that an entirely new audience must overwhelmingly benefit from our attention, to the detriment (or worse) of County Cricket.

I’m sketching again. But what feels true is that dizzyingly crazy waves are slapping around us. It would be easy to pitch in – either through carelessness, or over-ambition, or lack of that steady hand. Who would have thought that so many defining moments could be piled up so high, so tightly?

Being a do-er, not an organiser, I confess to a(n) habitual lack of sympathy for them stuck in the office. Right now I don’t envy the pen-pushers their choices. Let them be bold and also sagacious.