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. 👊🏻

Same old.

We’re all talking about the same stuff: England’s dreaming. Both in the possessive sense and the *actual*. Plus with reference to a certain J Lydon Esquire, as he snarled at the diminishing future.

England sleepwalking, England, infuriatingly, prepped and cossetted and armed to the gills with i.n.f.o.r.m.a.t.i.o.n. but somehow languidly dopey; as if nothing’s registered. As if either exhausted by all this ‘coaching’, or simply not that arsed.

I’m pretty clear, in fact that both ends of the team (all members of the team, actually) are arsed – are committed. Think Cook and then Wood. Strike you as determined, honest, committed individuals? Course they do.

Cook is about as diligent and coolly determined a bloke as you are likely to find. Wood is ballsy, witty and sharply competitive. So yes they may, in this laughably, loafingly lily-livered era have waaaay too many things too easy but this is not the same as them not caring enough (about test cricket.)

However there is an issue. Clearly. Or some issues.

When Root wafts seemingly lazily outside off, to fatal effect, we all feel both disappointment and anger because we feel let down and because most of us reckon the dismissal is poor – unacceptably poor – given the state of the game. We wonder what the hell he was thinking.

It feels extraordinary, too, that Stoneman (for example) could be so easily befuddled and bowled, when top order batsmen should base their game around impenetrable defence of the sticks. Surely that’s a given: you only get bowled by an absolute pearler? It’s a matter of pride – it’s a kindof rule. Like being watchful and respectful is a rule; or possibly two.

(Ten minutes after I write this paragraph, Stoneman is bowled again).

So, how come we’re seeing so many simple errors? And how come England haven’t addressed what appear to be strikingly recurrent issues? Are they really in dreamland?

Check out all over. Read George Dobell or listen to Michael Vaughan; there’s what we might call an intelligent consensus emerging. George has been brilliantly unpicking both the strategic shortcomings and individual issues for aeons, whilst Vaughan has rather fascinatingly veered from bolshy positivist to Sage of the Old Disciplines more recently.

What’s widely shared, is the belief that white-ball-tastic ‘freedoms’ do not always successfully transplant into the longer form. (Like WOW, who knew?!?)

It may be almost insultingly obvious to some of us, but apparently the relentlessly ‘instinctive’ batting exemplified by Buttler and co may not always be the way to go in Test Cricket. Well – *adopts the voice of his father, from 1974* – bugger me!

I do not mean to slander Buttler – or even knock his inclusion at Lords. The fella’s remarkable, touched by genius, so please understand he is merely a symbol, here. The wider point is that most of us are clear that Test Cricket demands application as well as talent. And it’s mindcrushingly astonishing that this argument seems still to have bypassed Bayliss and England.

How to explain this, though? How could even reasonably dedicated professionals fail to address stuff that’s been so blindingly obvious to most supporters and commentators for so long? Test Cricket is tough, sometimes; you have to earn your right to compete. In England, earlyish, you have to be unsexily dull, to offer more grit than colour, bat long.

The precedence of white ball cricket is surely a factor. In terms of scheduling, there can be no doubt where the ECB see the priorities moving forward. Consequently, we might argue that the majority of England players are unready for Test Cricket (now).

Bayliss and Root are most responsible for selection and state of readiness. In short I expect Bayliss to be relieved of his Test role rather soon: Root in a way is more of a concern, it feeling entirely possible that his confidence and authority are threatened by both his own and the team’s lacklustre performances. He needs not only runs but the sense that he can galvanise his team, to return swiftly.

But back to the precise hows. How can England play such dumb cricket. Unclear leadership? Too much unintelligent positivity? Nerves? That lack of application thing. All of these things and more?

Can I just try to nail something? The idea that if you rail against ‘undisciplined cricket’ you are automatically old, boring and reactionary. That you don’t get and can’t somehow enjoy Kohli or De Villiers or Stokes or Buttler at their electrifying peak. Cobblers. I (many of us) love aggressive, expressive, expansive cricket but are perdy darn sure you can’t play that way whilst wickets are tumbling early, in a five day Test Match. (You may be able to play that way at some stage in a five day Test Match but mostly you grind things out, get comfortable, secure yourself, then ‘play’).

In the current inquisition we have to acknowledge Pakistan’s good work. As I write – lunch now, Saturday – they have comprehensively outplayed England (in May, at Lords, with cloud about) in every department of the game. Chapeau.

It’s churlish at best to note that this Pakistan side is not special, that’s it’s merely goodish, proficient – that it’s performing. But Mr Bayliss and his employers do need to factor this in, however ungenerous it may seem.

This inevitably leads to more questions; about how good our best players are, for example. Root seems to be at a tipping point. When he first jogged out as skipper his boyishness, likable funkiness and joie-de-vivre seemed somewhere between encouraging and inspirational. Not so now. Patently, most England players are not as good as Root.

The level of performance in the field – though plainly not all the captain’s fault – reflects poorly on Root. Not only were catches dropped but certain field placings seemed odd (as opposed to challenging, or funky) and the (over-coached, over-discussed?) eternally-vaunted Bowling Plans seemed to fizzle to nothing. England seemed disjointed and almost dispirited, at times.

Hard to know, really, how much enthusiasm players have for their captain or coach, or whether at a deeply subconscious level they see themselves reverse-sweeping Rashid Khan for six in some cauldron on the sub-continent rather than battling it out in The Smoke, for days on end. Body language can reveal a certain amount but hey… we’re guessing.

However, it’s the job of the coach to demand focus, fitness and absolute commitment to the cause: the skipper then polices that on the pitch.  England have work to do on this. Mostly though, they have to prove to most of us that they understand the nature of Test Cricket.

All of this, in particular the widespread disappointment amongst fans, is entangled with concerns or furies about maladministration or player-comfiness or the alleged general cultural malaise. We’re angry or outraged and we really don’t like idleness – what my dad or your dad (or Sir Geoffrey) might have called ‘lack of application’.

Would be great to separate all that stuff out and really consider what’s happening on the pitch. Not easy.

As I finish, Root is re-building.

We need to wax lyrical.

Broad, at the end of the fourth day. Slightly playing to the admittedly rather small Brit contingent. Aware of the cameras. A tad self-consciously gesturing and twitching and rallying himself. Knowing the moment – knowing and relishing the import of this thing. Doing what you would want, in fact; revelling in the sport; in the knowledge that this, right now, right this moment, is the gather of a great session. Getting off on that.

Some of my own highlights come carouselling through. Dramatic spits and bounces and lurches off of the pitch. Engaging chaos. Stoicism. Young lads. Reviews, romance and a fair bit of competitive spite. Action that builds uniquely.

Yup, it’s time to re-wax the waxing lyrical thing – the waltz-along with Test Cricket. Because we need to. We must defy and we must celebrate… because we are the custodians.

Who are? And custodians of what? Maybe we need to think about this?

Forgive me – divert. I have this picture in my head of a ‘Journalism School’ where some dry old git is lecturing about sports. He is joyless and the purpose of the talk appears to be to remove the sparks of life and colour from that which is ultimately to be written. Because these are reports, not columns!

(Divert 2. Apols.) Let’s be clear: I’m a middle-aged nobody and I know that on the one hand this ‘frees me up’ to pontificate about many things  -including writing – whilst fatally undermining any truisms that might, streakily or otherwise, emerge. If I ‘say stuff’ I’m waaay past worrying if it appears ludicrous, plus we all know it doesn’t matter. So relax. Relax but see this thing out. There might be a point, eventually.

Ok so on writing about cricket, or pretty much anything, my in-first retaliation is going to need to be the following statement; that of course I know indulgence is a real danger… but (nevertheless) the scribe’s early duties include being entertaining and loving words. I mention this because I find a fair lump of sports writing to be dull. Dull because okaaay – it’s a report; dull because it’s allegedly sticking to the facts.

I’ve said it before but I’m with David Byrne on this: facts are not just useless in emergencies but sometimes hopelessly boring and figurative in a fabulously abstract world. Thus even writing ’bout sport becomes a diabolical underachievement when all we do is passively (and let’s say it, unimaginatively) regurgitate events.

I can’t, in fact, believe my own fear that journo’s are routinely taught to abhor indulgences like mood and sense when tapping out their copy. But I am struck that lots of what’s published avoids the question of what it was like to be there so completely. I assume this is because stuff like that is necessarily personal – and therefore surplus. Great.

All this waffle is George Dobell’s fault. He wrote, in that genuinely fine manner of his, about the first BangvEng test and then stepped right forward and beyond, to say something unashamedly beautiful and arguably sentimental, about Test Cricket. (Go find out – easily done.) I’m merely shuffling in behind.

George was supporting, making a point. Echoing and re-inventing the poetry of the cricket to send a message to the universe. Bearing witness. Bringing us back, arguably, to our custodianship.

It may not be entirely melodramatic to suggest that longform of the game is flapping in the morgue. Not given the violent prevalence of arguments towards allegedly more vital and more sustainable species. The thrust for change feels murderously powerful (to some) – as though more erotically-charged than considered. If this Horny Blokes Wiv Knives scenario has any basis in truth, then some real brilliance must emerge to counter, to make civilised the carve-up. That’s a job for the custodians.

How then, to oppose beautifully and skilfully and with invincibly good thinking? How to be practical, as well as unashamedly proud of the games’ slow movements? What does The Plan (our plan?) look like, that makes sense of the opposing needs, cultures, life-forces at work? This is the tough stuff, for all of us.

Personally I can simply enjoy and maybe express some of the weirdly, wonderfully incremental pulses within Test Cricket, or the wider game… but I’m not that good at restructuring the whole bloody shooting match. I take huge pleasure in both experiencing and being some (inadequate) conduit for skills and understanding – through either writing or coaching. I get most of the richness and the subtlety and I’m absolutely prepared to wait for that quiet magic to unfold.

The problem is they’re telling us that most of the universe ain’t. Things have to be faster.

Apparently in Chittagong, with excitement running high and ticket prices low, folks weren’t that bothered – or not enough folks were bothered. When a plainly magnificent and possibly historic test is going off but still fails to attract a crowd, those of us in the custodian camp may have to do some pretty smart talking.

Now really is a Big Moment. The alarming, polarising blur of the current T20 developments is just one of the manifestations of the game’s stampede away from the old. That’s not the only Supercharge in town, though. There’s energy brewing – nay massing – within and around the recreational game. We’re in the pre-surge phase of something powerful here too.

Having signed up to a dramatic re-boot, the ECB is fine-tuning strategies around ‘the battle for the playground’ – the significant re-positioning of cricket closer to the forefront of the national consciousness. The aim (I believe) is to massively increase the profile and  relevance of cricket to children and young people, thereby transforming prospects generally. The challenge will be to engineer change, in this peak-testosterone moment, which is both dynamically impactful and serenely wise.

Somehow we must find a way. To both re-invigorate the game in these islands and secure the future for Tests. If this means cricket becomes some outlying bastion against dumbness (and is exposed as such, as the know-all and the reactionary), then fine. Take the flak. In fact wade into it, waxing lyrical. Do that for Test Cricket and make changes too.

In Chittagong, Bangladesh, a young lad bowls spin. Seemingly nervelessly – though he has no experience and the England skipper opposite has just got the record… for precisely that. Young fella name of Duckett watches on. What proceeds is delightful, traumatic, nerve-shredding, complex, simple, beautiful. And not without its ironies.

Mehedi (who is 18, and on debut) torments the England openers. He does it with an absurd comfort – as though it’s just a game! When it would be so-o easy to tighten up, just a touch, and therefore lose his flow, or the freedom of hand so essential for his craft, Mehedi flights it. The seam does its wonderful, enchanting, revolutionary thing. It’s technical but mainly it’s something pure.

Duckett seems struck-down by nerves, but both he and Cook, largely, are gorgeously flummoxed – as though they’ve never encountered anything like this before. It’s hypnotic and almost funny that this off-spin lark seems so new to them…