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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…

Measuring the Moment.

Finals Day. For some, an exemplar of the modern, dynamic game we’re searching for – what with heaving, happy crowds and boomtastically lusty action. For others, including (weirdly counter-intuitively?) the ECB, a still slightly undercooked version of the spectacularly box-ticking ideal. For other others a kind of Nightmare on Lowest Common Denominator Street.

Muggins here was at Edgbaston, having received wider ECB Media Accreditation for the first time. I was both swanning around and working but did make the occasional effort to tear myself away from the outstanding hospitality/catering/Media Bubble to get down and dirty with you plebs.

Of course I didn’t do anything quite so undignified as to break out into song, or drink from a shoe, or do that bungee-rocket-jump thing but I did, yaknow, contemplate stuff.

Mainly I watched the cricket, enjoying the following in no particular order;

Pollock – for finding a zone of near-obscene brilliance (see previous blog) which separated the Bears from Glamorgan. My memory, which I admit may not coincide entirely with the stats, suggesting his hitting was simply more devastating than anybody else’s all day.

At the other end of a long, intermittently intense day I quietly hailed another triumph – and somehow they all feel personal? – for Peter Moore, the Real Good Bloke Who Rode Disappointment. The Notts coach again might be tempted to fistpump the mirror and tell Ingerland Crickit to go eff itself. (He won’t… because apparently he really is a RGB and he just doesn’t need to: he just keeps working to a fine, fine level).

Sodhi, who span the ball as well as splatting it swiftly down, also caught my eye. Having watched from directly behind his arm, I can tell you that yes he did mix things up – T20 needs must – but also he really did succeed in spinning/turning the ball. Entirely get that the spin-bowler’s short-format repertoire cannot afford to focus more than about 12% on that sideways movement but yup – enjoyed that.

Enjoyed Taylor’s knock in the final, too. Despite having aired my concerns on twitter re- his steady progress towards thirty-odd, it was a pleasure to see his craft cut against the expectation for relentless violence. Taylor played a lot of proper cricket shots, only unleashing the beast later on in proceedings, when the situation (finally) did demand it. I rated his measurement of the moment – it was (as they say) class.

Lots of fuss over Samit so I won’t go there. Clearly the guy’s a player but have previously gone on record to say I’m cool with an international coach, or international coaches as a breed demanding high standards of athleticism, in the modern era.

On the fast bowling front I admired much of what Stone did, plus Ball and Gurney with their spidery strafing-from-Mars thing. Woakes, though, was a thing of beauty, when fired-up.

But the story should maybe about Edgbaston… and about the future. Which is where (I don’t mind telling you) I come over all conflicted.

Plainly Finals Day was a striking, all-singing, most boozing success in the modern way. Clearly Edgbaston does an ace job of this. It was colourful, it hosted, it showed-off, it surfed the excess most excellently. The job was absolutely done in terms of an orgasmic, short-format Big Day Out. (Oh, and lots of the cricket was great too – I mean that). So… that other competition; what’s it for, again?

T20 Blast has got better every year and seems on an upward curve in every respect. Accept there are those who claim it’s a significant notch down from the IPL and  Big Bash in terms of playing quality but that gap has closed. Besides, nobody at Edgbaston was complaining. There is a ver-ry strong argument that building, year by year on the Blast’s positives rather than introducing a rival competition makes perfect sense. As we know, that ain’t gonna happen.

I’m slightly fascinated by the ECB’s moves, here. The chosen option, to create an ultimately higher-class, city-based tournament which more successfully bursts or expands the bubble of traditional cricket supporters is a strikingingly ambitious choice, given what we have – what Blast has become.

Based around masses of research, driven in some meaningful part by Australian experiences and expertise, aimed at transforming levels of visibility of the game and joined up with the huge All Stars and Cricket Unleashed projects this is an epic call. Radical; romantically bold; risky.

The ECB are backing it, though, unless something extraordinary happens(?) They’ve found, as All Stars has recently demonstrated, an unlikely bundle of courage and commitment to change the scenery drastically. This is on the one hand rather exciting.

However the general experience of Edgbaston – my experience, the deliriously fabulous experience of many in the crowd, Saturday – challenges the notion of whether another 20-20 is at all necessary. Blast is becoming that good… and seems likely to tick many of the required boxes in good time… and offers no threat to County Cricket. It offers or can offer the gateway to wider exposure and new customer bases that the ECB understandably craves. So why tinker?

It’s a huge call.

It wasn’t just the Hollies Stand that was rocking on Saturday. As I enjoyed my luxury miniature dessert, the whole of Edgbaston was giving it some.

Word on’ tinternet and beyond has been of a longterm agreement to tie #T20Blast to Brum and good luck to them. Most of what we saw would escape funding from the Arts Council but it was great, relatively inoffensive fun. Easy to be cynical about the attention-seeking antics of a certain former England all-rounder in particular but people laughed and joined in and participated in the cricket. Bumble and Freddie were part of the rockin’ whole.

Blast has become a popular success and therein lies a problem, of sorts, for the ECB. We all know really that two UK 20-20s is one too many – the market’s getting crowded, increasingly so. When withdrawing your hottest, sexiest, bravest plan ever ever feels unthinkable and the expendable prototype turns out better than you thought…. what, exactly, do you do? Glad it’s not my shout.

 

 

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.