Oh us of little faith.

Remember when it got dangerous? Oooh all of a week ago? Loads of us did it. Overtly, covertly, angrily, quietly, seething or braying or tutting. We all knew we were More Right Than Morgan, on this one.

How could England’s myopic Brand of Cricket not lead to some level of come-uppance? How could Eoin’s icy, almost-surly sermonising not breed a nose-thumbing response from the universe? We all knew there would be some payback for his sub-cricketty, soundbitey positivity; for the audacity of the man; for his Irishness, for god’s sakes!

England could never have just the one way. It’s not intelligent enough, not seemly enough – plus nothing can be that simple! Mainly, then, amongst the pomp and bluster, this idea that you can’t be so brittle about stuff.

But then Jonny got mad, courtesy of yet more mouth-shooting from our friend Vaughanie, firing, once again, on all twelve brain cells. And Roy got fit – enough. And the arguments got yaknow, dispatched.

Or did they?

Fact: England are in the semis. Fact: they did it Eoin’s Way. Or did they?

Certainly everything about Roy & Bairstow’s magnificent charges-straight-through-the-effing-mountain spoke of the brand – the utter lack of fear and/or negativity.

We don’t need to have crunched the numbers to feel the step-change back… and forward, on the Brand Express. Both the flametastic Yorkshireman and his returning partner drilled that tunnel again, the former with his diamond-edged fury-disc, the latter with his trusty wonder-sabre.

But it wasn’t all boom. It wasn’t possible. There was scratchiness and (more from India than the Kiwis) there was quality opposition making things tougher… or complicated. So Stokes, for example, had to do some Proper Batting and certain periods needed to be seen through.

Maybe it’s good that England arguably under-achieved a smidge, with their totals. Two truckloads of 400 and maybe the mantra might have to be caveated – if you can do that stepping-back, that re-considering, that qualifying thing to a mantra?

(Maybe the essence of any brand flirts with dumbness, or lack of intelligence, because of this imperative towards the magical brevity/positivity combo? Maybe everybody from Saatchi & Saatchi to Eoin Morgan have known that all along? Maybe we’re just not getting that Captain Boom is a step ahead – that he knows absolutely that 84.6% of his media appearances are 96.5% charade? Interesting thought, perhaps?)

Interesting but nowhere near as much fun as getting mad-outraged and bawling on twitter. Or writing something in the comments section. Or blaming Nintendo, or the Kardashians.

England are in the semis. What’s more, they are in there with momentum. What’s more more, is that significant contributions have been spread across the team; Woakes and Archer, Buttler and Stokes doing something either deeply or supremely validating or actually wonderful and uplifting in the moment. So confidence should have steepled – should be back to the absurdly high level we’ve experienced for the last year or four.

I have always argued against ‘dumb machismo’ and still do. Because sport is predicated on intelligences as much as skills. Because half the fun and half the winning is about responding to fortune or change – and this surely implies, suggests, demands the application of everything in the psychological sector, including, often crucially, the implementation of Plan B or Z. Jeesuss, right now. Under pressure.

Too often, I reckon, players or coaches get caught up in the excitement or ‘flow’ of things: they say stuff about ‘expressing themselves’ which of course has some truth in it but may not be smart enough, either in the teeming, challenging, complicated moment or for the exposition of playing philosophy – brand.

The particulars of international cricket at the mega and micro-level include so many variables, so many forces inputting their fields of influence on the action that it is a) tempting and b) probably right to seek out simplicity and clarity. However, whilst accepting this, is it not prudent to explore, prepare, ‘facilitate’ for life beyond the soundbite?

Whether or not Morgan and England are suss to this is part of the fascination. Whether or not Bairstow blasts and Roy carves, I wish England well.

 

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.

Culture of spin.

Immediately post the Third Test versus Pakistan and all the talk is of the dearth of quality spin bowlers. Or at least in the UK mini-subcontinent it is. Hour upon hour or page upon page of rumination around spin stuff, which in a way… is great. Great that this (arguably) least glamorous facet of the game is in the spotlight.

Whilst inevitably unpicking the issues arising from this (ahem) turn of events, I do wonder if we can turn this moment when both armchair authorities and Cricketing Authorities are acutely engaged… into a positive?

Let’s hear what some influential peeps or tweeps have said. Michael Vaughan has been relentlessly withering on the inconsistencies or raw inadequacies of England’s 3 spinners. Boycott has just described them – slightly absurdly, but as is often the case, we know what he means- as ‘non-existent,’ in a Telegraph article. Robert Croft – from the other angle – has tweeted that

We can’t expect our batsmen 2 be consistent against the turning ball. They never have to face it in this country as no turning pitches!

There’s a comparatively rare consensus around the facts that

a) our spinners (by definition, picked to spin the ball and either take wickets or tie up an end) were ordinary, given the help they received from prevailing conditions and

b) our batsmen were too easily undone by the Pakistani equivalents. There’s a further consensus around the notion that these two phenomena are umbilically linked… to the relative void (as opposed to the fecund womb!) where our spin culture should be.

In attempting to apply my own laser-like intellect to the spin bowling issue only – for now – I’m going to do what any self-respecting bloggerist might do, and reach for a coupla subtitles.

The Individuals.
There’s always context, right? Selection is always about what’s happened before, what’s expected and what impact or contribution a player might make. Remember that.

Moeen Ali.
I was in Cardiff for the Ashes and can confirm that folks were falling for Moeen, rather. He was actually loved, for his smooth, assured batting and his energy round the place. I’m not saying he was Ben Stokes exactly – Mo’s mojo is a whole lot less spikily, edgily brilliant – but he seemed so comfortable in the environment we hoped good things might happen whenever he was involved. Often they did.

That whole Mo batting at eight ruse also worked a treat, felt like a master stroke as he moved stylishly (and critically) to 77 in the first innings. That crowd-lurv, that confidence fed into a decent return from his bowling; in the first innings he winkled out Smith and Clarke and in the second Australian knock he claimed three wickets, including that of Warner. He took a super-sharp caught and bowled (that Clarke wicket) and somehow lifted the crowd with his easy enthusiasm. It may have been the prevalence of Mo masks around the Swalec crowd but something about his quiet presence suggested he may be destined to be the face of the summer.

In fact, whilst Ar Mo certainly contributed to a flawed but uplifting Ashes victory, there was early concern around the quality of his bowling. More than that; it was generally appreciated that the Mo-at-8 thing made sense precisely because he’s not a genuine international spinner… and yet he is more than a mere makeweight. He deserves a slot, he improves the balance of the side and shores up the batting/offers a match-winning threat even, down there. He is – despite the work-in-progress-that-may-not-progress enough-ness of his bowling – a real international.

Mostly, Moeen Ali looks every inch of that but, if you look at his bowling in isolation, he doesn’t.

Samit Patel.
Is viewed as either a proper throwback kindofa cricketer, or a man out of time. Defiantly unsexy, patrolling like some amiable neighbourhood copper dangerously close to the ‘likeably portly’ category. Simply does not have that sprint and dive thing in his locker; in fact looks like he has a ham and chutney bap and a bottle of Sam Smith’s in his locker.

Samit can clearly play – as can the other two spin candidates – but he has been judged to be short of fitness and that true elite-level threat with the ball.

So if Patel is generally and rightly regarded highly and warmly by plenty but few consider him the answer to England’s spin ‘woes’, why was he picked? With all due respect he doesn’t fit the bill as England’s Future. The brutal truth is that he was selected because of injuries around the squad, then geography/’conditions’ and because okaaaaay he mi-ight do a job with bat and ball. This he did. An average job – predictably. It may have been an average selection, given short and longer term considerations.

Rashid…(however…)
is the one.

If Moeen is effectively a batsman who can bowl spin and Patel a goodish alround spin bowler and batsman, Rashid is the one we might look to with the ball.

The fact of his leggie-dom may flesh out the notion he’s a Man More Likely To, in broad terms, than the other two labouring away alongside in Sharjah. He’s different; he’s A Prospect, a threat, a candidate for bona fide spin-king status in a way that Patel and Moeen maybe aren’t – certainly aren’t. Something says he’s more likely to tear through an innings than his compadres… and that he’s young enough to invest in… and we’re entitled to be hopeful and maybe even excited about that.

And yet he proved flawed. As in-out and generally disappointing as Patel and Moeen. As Sir Geoffrey said (of all of them)
they are not accurate or disciplined enough and there are too many easy balls to score off.

Simple but true enough. Rashid, whom we hoped (and still hope?) may bring that X-factor, that extra dimension to the side, underachieved.

General (Brief) Boring Theory thing.
I reckon most of us who have flung the cherry accept that bowling leg-spin is about as difficult as bowling gets: that’s part of its allure. The cocked wrist and the snap or flip of fingers as the ball is delivered from more or less the back of the hand works against easy repetitions.

Leggies tend to really work with their wrists and/or wind up revolutions by (in particular) ripping on the seam with their third finger. It’s (in my view) a whole lot more difficult to do this consistently and with control than it is to (for example) bowl a stock off-spinner, where the clockwise ‘turning the key’ movement of the first finger is a) more easily achieved and b) more easily repeated with the necessary accuracy. At every level it’s rare to find a leggie who is both turning the ball ‘big’ and able to plop it on the right spot time after time after time.

Conclusion thing.
Time to hone your spin-king skills is available, in (UK) domestic cricket – but arguably not enough of it, or not in conducive or even ‘fair’ scenarios.  ‘Special breed’ though they may be, spinners – like everyone else – have to earn the right to play, possibly more so now than in the years when there fewer non-negotiables – when you could be unfit or relatively uni-skilled.

Ideally though things remain unchangingly straightforward; you (the spin-king) just bowl magnificently and/or with monotonous skill; meaning all arguments simply fall away.

#TMS made the point earlier that Tuffers bowled around 800-900 overs a season for Middlesex: this compares to about 300-400 for spinners in the current era. No wonder then, we seem cruelly short of international-grade spinners when the opportunities in domestic cricket are both limited and frequently unrelated to or unhelpful towards producing Test Match bowlers.

Of course the changing nature of the game itself mitigates against the kind of consistency Boycott understandably demands. Especially in Blighty where spinners are used mainly in limited overs games where variation rather than consistency is often the key. Pitches and the surge towards yet more dynamic cricket significantly undermine any spin culture we may have. This is tough; it may even brand us as philistines – myopic no-hopers – but don’t expect too much in the way of revelation or revolution too soon.

The tremendous debate underway during this, the inaugural Spin Awareness Moment is valuable but may not, I fear, amount to much. Changes a-comin’ in the structure of English domestic cricket will not, I suspect, be driven by the need to find a new Graeme Swann – or better still, nurture a spin-friendly environment. More likely we will simply sit and wait for someone extravagantly gifted and stunningly reliable to come along, wheeling in glorious isolation, against the grain.

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.