Category Archives: Cricket

On the toughest job in sport

So who has the toughest job in sport? Some would say it’s the England football manager Sam Allardyce, some would say it is Joe Maddon as he tries to lead the Chicago Cubs to their first World Series title in 108 years, some would say it is José Mourinho and Pep Guadiola as they try to restore Manchester to the pinnacle of English football. But at least these four men are all qualified to do their jobs. My nomination is a totally unique job in sport that you only get if you are not good at what you do.

The job is that of nightwatchman in cricket. For those who don’t know about cricket a nightwatchman is used when a wicket falls and there are only a few minutes left in the day’s play. Nobody in cricket really likes batting for a few minutes at the end of a day – you can only score a few runs at best and at worst you can get out. So a lot of teams don’t use good batsmen and instead use bowlers since most of them are not very good at batting and therefore they are expendable. If they get out it is disappointing but not a disaster as they are not very good. So in effect – totally unlike any other job inside or outside sport – you get the nightwatchman’s job because you are not good. The equivalent in baseball would be using a pitcher as a pinch hitter – which happens far more rarely than the use of a nightwatchman in cricket.

The nightwatchman job in cricket is a tough one because not only is it done by someone who is not a good batsman but the fielding side is inevitably buoyed up by capturing a wicket near the close of play. Also one of the unwritten rules of cricket is the nightwatchman – the not good batsman – has to take most of the strike as he is the one that is expendable – which is why he is out there in the first place. Then if he survives the night he has to go out again at the start of the next day’s play to face fired up fresh fast bowlers who are out for blood and want early wickets.

One member of the “nightwatchman’s union” sums up the role perfectly. Pat Pocock played 25 Tests for England between 1968 and 1985. His career Test batting average was 6.24 which is not good (as in baseball the lower the average the worse the player is.) But because his batting average was so poor – he was in the team as a bowler – he was considered perfect for the nightwatchman’s role. As David Tossell in his book “Grovel! – The Story and Legacy of the Summer of 1976” – put it (Page 119) the role was one that Pocock “frequently filled but rarely relished”.

Here’s what the man himself had to say about the nightwatchman’s role (ibid page 119) “Nightwatchman is the absolute arse end of cricket. Generally the bowlers have had their feet up all day and they are fresh; they know they only have to bowl five overs at you and have a new ball in their hands. It is a tail gunner’s job, the worst job in the world”.

Another nightwatchman story from 1976 appears in the same book (page 38) when batsman Dennis Amiss was hit on the skull by a ball from Michael Holding near the end of the first day of the MCC v West Indies game at Lord’s. Bowler Phil Carrick was sent in as nightwatchman while Amiss’s blood was still on the pitch. The other batsman Mike Brearley greeted Carrick with a line from a “Beyond the Fringe” sketch. “The time has come, Perkins, for a useless sacrifice”. And in fact that’s what nightwatchmen are most of the time. A useless sacrifice whose only purpose is to protect better batsmen from having to bat late in the day (hence the word “nightwatchman”). A truly horrible job.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Sometimes the nightwatchman bats on well into the next day and makes a big important score. The four most famous nightwatchman innings for England are Harold Larwood’s 98 against Australia at Sydney in 1933 (he is more famous in that series for reducing Don Bradman to mere mortality with his controversial “Bodyline” bowling that nearly wrecked relations between the UK and Australia), Eddie Hemmings’ 93 in 1983 against Australia at Sydney in 1983 which helped saved the game, Jack Russell’s 94 against Sri Lanka at Lord’s in 1988 on his Test debut – ironically delayed because the selectors in their infinite (lack of) wisdom thought he could not bat! – and Alex Tudor’s 99 not out against New Zealand at Edgbaston where he was denied a century because his Surrey team mate Graham Thorpe scored so quickly England had reached their victory target before Tudor could complete his hundred.

But the most remarkable nightwatchman’s innings in Test cricket came from Australia’s Jason Gillespie in 2006. Sent in near the end of the first day’s play in the second Test against Bangladesh in Chittagong he was still batting on the fouth day when Australia declared on 581 for 4 with Gillespie on 201 not out. What makes that amazing is Gillespie is not a batsman but has a higher Test score than some of the best batsmen in history – among them famous Australia captains Ian Chappell and Steve Waugh and famous England captains Colin Cowdrey and Mike Atherton!

The Gillespie story proves one thing. Nightwatchman might be “the arse end of cricket” as Pat Pocock called it. I still say it’s the toughest job in sport. It must be the only one you get because you are not good and expendable – a “useless sacrifice”. But sometimes the useless sacrifice can have his day. As Jason Gillespie did in Chittagong on April 19 2006.

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Stick to your season

Time was that in August the only international cricket that was played was in England. All the other Test countries – mainly in the southern hemisphere – were in winter hibernation unless they were touring England.

That started to change in 1992 when Sri Lanka – where the climate was suitable for cricket most of the year – hosted Australia in August. The main reason they did that was the traditional winter months of November to March were overcrowded and countries found it hard to fit in tours to Sri Lanka in that time. For a long while after 1992 Sri Lanka hosted Test series in August and September but they were the only other country to do so (apart from England obviously).

But that has totally changed. This August – apart from England v Pakistan and Sri Lanka v Australia – there have been Test series in Zimbabwe (v New Zealand), West Indies (v India) and South Africa (v New Zealand). Of the ten Test teams only Bangladesh have not been in action this month. To think that twenty five years ago in 1991 the only Test teams that were in action where England, West Indies and Sri Lanka and the only country that Test cricket was played in was England! 

But there are consequences of doing this. This past week saw Test matches scheduled between West Indies and India in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and between South Africa and New Zealand in Durban. Both Tests were the first played in these cities in August and both were total disasters. In Port-of-Spain only 22 overs were bowled-all on the first day – while in Durban only 99.4 overs were bowled-all in the first two days. So combined the two Tests lasted for 121.4 overs – lees than two days – and seven of the ten scheduled days were completely washed out. A total mess.

And an avoidable mess. The game in Port-of-Spain was arranged for Trinidad’s rainy season. So is anyone surprised when it rained? And although Durban has below average rainfall in winter the numbskulls that run South African cricket obviously don’t know that when it does rain in winter it is heavier than in summer. An example : Between 1899 and 2007 there were 135 floods at Worcestershire’s New Road ground – which is on the banks of the River Severn – but only nine occurred during the prime cricket months of May to August. And sure enough Durban was hit by record floods in late July and the wet weather continued into early August.

And another problem with playing out of season is that the grounds are not prepared for rain because they usually play in the summer where there is less of it. In Durban’s case the outfield was relaid recently which made the outfield soft and harder to dry. It was relaid at the end of May after the Comrades Marathon – soon enough if the cricket season stuck to its normal time but too late for a Test starting in August. This meant although there was no rain after overnight on the second day the combination of a soft wet outfield and a weak sun – again Cricket South Africa should know the sun is weaker in winter meaning it takes longer to get rid of water – meant that despite three dry days the outfield could not dry and the Test limped to a watery grave.

And the same thing happened in Port-of-Spain. Again a spell of rain again the outfield could not cope. Again the reason is the people that run the ground are not used to rain since they usually play in the summer when it doesn’t rain so when they were moved to what is normally the off season they were not prepared for it. The rain in Durban and Port-of-Spain is mother nature’s way of telling cricket to stick to its season. 

There is another reason not to play in your off season. The public is not interested. The attendances in both Durban and Port-of-Spain were tiny. Hardly surprising considering cricket was competing with the Rio Olympics where both the West Indies (Jamaicans Usain Bolt and Elaine Thompson) and South Africa (Wayde van Niekerk and Caster Semenya) had significant athletic successes and in South Africa’s case the start of the Rugby Championship featuring the Springboks, the Wallabies, the All Blacks and Argentina – a big deal in rugby mad South Africa. The public were not ready for cricket. Again the authorities should know this. When Australia tried playing winter Tests in 2003 and 2004 the public didn’t want them and the attendances were tiny so Australia had the sense to abandon them and go back to playing in summer.

The fact is cricket has an off season for a reason. In most countries the weather in August is simply not suitable for cricket. Playing cricket in South Africa and West Indies in August is about as sensible as playing baseball at Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium in January. The weather and the attendances in Durban and Port-of-Spain should convince the cricket authorities in both countries that off season cricket is a disaster. Cricket has been a summer sport throughout its existence. It needs to stay that way. It needs to stick to its season.

England face a true Test

In a summer dominated by Euro 2016, Wimbledon and Brexit it is fair to say cricket has struggled to make much of an impression on the nation’s conciousness. It has not been helped by the fact that although England’s victories over Sri Lanka in Test, one day and 20 20 cricket were impressive, the visitors were too poor and the series were too one sided to make much of an impression on the public. Add to that a yawn of a T20 Blast group stage that started back on May 20th and won’t end until July 29th and it is no wonder cricket is struggling for publicity.

However with a window in the UK sporting calendar until the Olympics and the Premier League start in August cricket has a chance to regain its place in the sporting spotlight. And the start of England’s four Test series against Pakistan should allow cricket to take this opportunity. For one thing usually guaranteed in England v Pakistan series is drama. Not all of it is good to put it mildly. In past Pakistan tours of England there has been cricketers found guilty of spot fixing and sent to prison (2010), a team refusing to play a Test match because they were penalised for ball tampering (2006), pitch invasions  (2001), ball tampering allegations (1992), controversy about umpiring (1987 and 1982), controversy about intimidatary bowling (1978), and even a row about rain getting on the covers at Lords (1974). Only in 1996 did a Pakistan tour pass off without controversy in the last 42 years.

The main tour controversy this time is a relic of the spot fixing controversy of 2010. Three Pakistani players Mohammad Said, Salman Butt and Mohammad Amir were banned by the International Cricket Council (ICC) for five years. The bans expired last year but only Amir (who was 18 when he was banned) has been picked for this tour. Now I mentioned Amir in an earlier post (“On the hypocrisy of sport”) but let’s just say I reckon if he was guilty of rape or domestic abuse and white he would have got a far friendlier reception than the one he is likely to get on Thursday.

But fortunately series between England and Pakistan are not just famous for controversy but also exciting cricket. For some reason the combination of England and Pakistan in english conditions rarely  produces dull cricket and it won’t this time either. Pakistan are a cricketing miracle. Unable to play at home since the Sri Lankan team’s coach was bombed in 2009 Pakistan have none the less risen to number three in the Test rankings above England. This is mainly due to the remarkable captaincy and batting of the 42 year old Misbah-ul-Haq who took over a team on its knees after the 2010 turmoil and turned them into a team that punches above its weight especially in Test cricket. Pakistan have a proud tradition of producing world class bowlers and this team continues the tradition with Amir, Wahab Riaz and Yasir Shah who is probably the first world class leg spinner to visit this country since Shane Warne’s last tour in 2005.

This bowling attack will provide a severe examination for what is still the weakest part of the England team the batting. Even against an outclassed Sri Lanka England’s batting was still unreliable. In only one of the five innings where England scored over 100 did the team reach 100 with fewer than three wickets down. The selectors have taken action again. Nick Compton withdrew from first class cricket citing exhaustion but his form was so poor he would certainly have been dropped anyway. Gary Ballance has been recalled and most interestingly Joe Root  indisputably the team’s best player will bat number three. Root at number three and Ballance at his county position of number five gives England at least the appearance of solidity although James Vince who failed to get runs against Sri Lanka and Alex Hales who did have still got to prove themselves against Test quality bowling.

England also have problems in the bowling department. Their leading wicket taker of all time James Anderson is out of at least the first Test with injury while all rounder Ben Stokes can only play as a batsman and thus has not been picked. This means that either Nottinghamshire’s Jake Ball or Middlesex’s Toby Roland-Jones will make his Test debut. Ball really should have been given his debut in the dead third Test against Sri Lanka to give him experience but instead he will be thrown in at the deep end.

England’s bowling is a key in this series as Pakistan’s batting especially in English conditions could be seriously vulnerable. In 2010 Pakistan were bowled out for scores of 80, 72 and 74. It goes without saying that Pakistan must bat better this year but most of their batting is unproven in England. Even Misbah has never toured England before. The experienced Younis Khan who has been a success in England before has a key role both with the runs he can score and also he needs to mentor the other batsmen.

Because of this batting vulnerability England must start the series as favourites but Pakistan are capable of putting England’s batting under pressure. One hopes this series will produce excellent cricket and more importantly will be the first England v Pakistan series in twenty years – and only the second in 45 years – not to be marred by controversy over match fixing, ball tampering or umpiring decisions. But judging by the history of England-Pakistan cricket on the last forty years that could be wishful thinking….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

England need to play without fear 

Well that did not go well (to say the least). Last night England crashed out of Euro 2016 after a humiliating 2-1 defeat to little Iceland a country with a population of just 330000 (to put this into perspective Wayne Rooney has 13.2 MILLION Twitter followers 40 TIMES the population of Iceland!) After this horrific defeat manager Roy Hodgson – like UK Prime Minister David Cameron after his defeat in the country’s EU referendum last Thursday – promptly resigned. Unlike Cameron he is going at once.

Predictably the reaction was hostile with players like Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling being crucified by fans and in the press and the number of foreign players in the Premier League and the high wages in the League. But the fact that another UK team Wales are still in the tournament should debunk the first argument – if foreign players in the Premier League were stopping England from being successful it would also stop Wales but it has not. If high wages in football was the reason England underachieved well Wales star player Gareth Bale is on high wages at Real Madrid but no one has suggested that he is not trying.

To my mind one of England’s problems is fear of failure. English fans and press expect so much of their players – god knows why as for most of their post war history they have not been good. But this expectation can cripple players with fear. If you are scared of failure you don’t take risks. But if you don’t take risks you won’t win – ever heard of the saying “fortune favours the brave?”. But England’s players are scared to take risks as risks can cause mistakes – and if they make mistakes they will get slaughtered. If I had a pound for every time someone on Twitter called an England player a “cunt” I could afford to buy Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo! Frankly if I were an England player I would not play international football. Why play extra games and get grief from the fans when you could stay with your club and be a hero? 

In contrast Wales and the two Irelands have adopted a “we’re happy to be here” attitude and have played without fear. And coincidentally – or maybe not – they have played better. Even when the Republic of Ireland were beaten 3-0 by Belgium and outclassed they were not criticised by their fans. The same also applies to Iceland. They are happy to be there, enjoying themselves and playing without fear.And they are playing well.

Another England team in another sport is an example of what I mean. Last year the England cricket team were pathetic in the World Cup. They got knocked out by Bangladesh – a less embarrassing defeat than the one the football team suffered yesterday but still humiliating. And like the football team the cricket team were safety first and scared of failure – which in a self fulfilling prophecy promptly happened.

But it is what happened after the World Cup that is significant. Since the World Cup the England one day team has been encouraged by coach Trevor Bayliss to be more aggressive and play with no fear. The result is a team playing exciting cricket, playing without fear and actually looking like they want to play international cricket. Ironically their results in one day cricket have been inconsistent – their record since last year’s World Cup is only 11 wins and nine losses which is nothing to write home about but a big improvement on what had gone before. Plus the team is a pleasure to watch and is prepared to take risks in order to win. Neither of which applies to the England football team that played in France last night.

England do have promising young players – they were the second youngest team in Euro 2016. But until England start playing without fear and start taking risks in order to win they are going nowhere. The England team are being crippled by both a fear of failure and traditional british conservatism (manager Hodgson’s selections were very safety first and it is interesting that the England player who played with least fear was the youngest member of the squad Marcus Rashford who came on too late to make a difference against Iceland).

Until England become like the cricket team and play with no fear they are going nowhere. Leicester City won the Premier League last season with the slogan “Fearless”. If you play with a fear of failure guess what? You fail. Until England change they are going nowhere. Playing without fear can lead to defeat. But guess what? England are losing already. So at worst playing without fear means they still fail. But it could very well lead to better results. Fortune favours the brave. And surely England fans must agree it can’t get worse than last night….

How to sort out English T20

Although the english cricket season started on April 10th the season starts for real this week. Tomorrow the first Test of the summer – England v Sri Lanka at Headingley – begins. While on Friday the  English domestic 20 20 competition – the T20 Blast –  starts. So where does the England Test team and the English domestic T20 competition stand at the start of the season?

England’s Test team come into the summer in good heart after their 2-1 win in South Africa in the winter. They play Sri Lanka in a three Test series followed by Pakistan in a four Test series. England are favourites to win both series but they cannot underestimate Sri Lanka after Sri Lanka ‘s famous series win in England in 2014. However back in 2014 England were still in turmoil after the Ashes series whitewash the previous winter while Sri Lanka still had the experience of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. But now Jayawardene and Sangakkara have retired and England are in a far stronger position than they were in 2014 they are clear favourites. What worries me about England is still the batting. Three of the top five – Alex Hales, Nick Compton and debutant James Vince – have played just 17 Tests between them. If England are going to keep improving and build on their South African success at least one of these batsmen must break out and establish themselves as Test class and reduce the dependency on Alistair Cook, Joe Root and allrounders Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes. The fast bowling attack of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Stokes and Steve Finn is the team’s strength and should lay the foundation for Test victories. England should aim to have an unbeaten Test summer which in recent years England have only achieved in 1990, 2004 ,2011 and 2013 but with Sri Lanka and Pakistan ‘s batting both fragile looking England have a chance of going through the Test summer unbeaten.

If only English T20 cricket was in such good health. On the field it is. Had Stokes bowled a better last over England would have won the World T20 in India last month. But England’s domestic T20 competition is a mess. First of all it goes on far too long. It starts this Friday (May 20th). The group stage does not finish until July 29th! We will have had an EU referendum, two Grand Slam tennis tournaments, five England Test matches and the whole of Euro 2016 happen before this bloated yawn fest of a group stage finishes. It takes 126 games to reduce 18 teams to 8…and seven to reduce those eight to one champion. Plainly nonsense…and it must change.

Some people want franchise/city teams in English T20 cricket but as I explained before (see previous post “Why the Big Bash Won’t Work in England”) city teams (for population reasons) and franchises (for reasons of tradition) won’t work. If you were creating English cricket from scratch you would not have 18 counties. But the fact is you do. We have to work with what we have.That doesn’t mean English T20 cannot be improved. It is a shambles. And to quote Adam Blampied of What Culture WWE “And I can do it better”.

First thing first. Reduce the number of games. Currently there are two groups of nine teams who play six teams twice and two once. Which makes fourteen games a team. Which is (a) too many and (b) an uneven and unfair schedule as some teams will play the best team twice and the worst team once or vice versa. The logical thing to do is have the nine teams play each other once which makes eight games per team (as in the Big Bash). It would mean that the total number of qualifying games would fall from a bloated 126 to a more sensible 72.

Secondly T20 has to be played in a single block in the season. India, Australia, South Africa, West Indies and New Zealand all do this. England do not. This causes two problems. It is hard to attract T20 specialists to England when the tournament is so long and there are long gaps between games. It also means that players have to switch from four day cricket to T20 cricket and vice versa which is ridiculous as they are totally different forms of the game. It is like playing tennis on clay, then grass, then back to clay then back to grass and here we go round the mulberry bush…

Some might say when do you play the T20 block? Easy. T20 is meant to bring to cricket the whole family especially school children. So why not hold T20 when school children are on holiday? They do this in Australia – the Big Bash is played in December/January which is summer holiday time down under – and England should do the same. In which case T20 would be played in late July/August (the T20 Blast group stage this year, as you might recall finishes on July 29th just as the school holidays are starting – genius by the ECB!)

Another problem is TV coverage. T20 in the UK is only on Sky Sports – a subscription channel. In Australia the Big Bash is on Channel Ten – a free-to-air (FTA) channel. Now one problem in the UK is that the five main FTA channels – BBC 1 and 2, ITV, and Channels 4 and 5 – will not alter prime time schedules of soap operas and reality TV in favour of cricket. But there is a way round this. Sky has a FTA channel – called Pick. If I was running the ECB I would encourage Sky to show one T20 game per round (a total of eight) on FTA Pick. In return Sky would be allowed to show all 72 games on their subscription service Sky Sports. Subscribers would be able to press the red button and choose which game they want to see – as Sky and BT Sport do with football ‘s Champions League. This gives cricket a FTA platform while also giving people an incentive to subscribe to Sky.

A T20 tournament played in a short block where children can watch and some games are on FTA TV is far better than the convoluted shambolic mess we have now. If they have the sense to get rid of Finals Day – when the Semi Finals and the Final are played on the same day which is far too long for the attention span of children who I repeat again should be the target audience of T20 – and replace it with a best of three Final series – that would be even better.

T20 cricket will never be as big as it is in India or Australia simply because the UK cricket fan prefers Test cricket plus the fact that unlike India and Australia cricket is not the number 1 sport here. But we can do better than the shambles of a tournament we have now. My plan would both preserve the current 18 first class counties while giving England a better chance of attracting the elite T20 specialists and producing a game that children – who I repeat should be the targeted audience – can watch during their school holidays. It is not perfect. But it is far far better than what we currently have.

Political Games

A blog post written by Dennis Freedman in “The Quint” caught my eye. In the post he criticised the governing body of world cricket the International Cricket Council (ICC) for its inconsistent decision making in regard to weak and strong countries. He rightly condemns them for suspending Nepal – a small cricket country –  for government interference with its cricket board but not punishing India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and (especially) South Africa – all big cricket countries –  for exactly the same offence. Freedman is quite right to attack the ICC for its inconsistency on this issue but he misses out on a fundamental point. Not only is  the punishment wrong but so is the ICC’s insistence that governments keep out of the affairs of cricket boards. To be fair cricket is not the only sport that does this – FIFA among others do too – but they are all wrong. And here is why.

Governments govern a county. Like it or not sport is part of a country. It is part of society. It cannot – or should not – be detached from society. If a government interferes in other parts of society – which it does – surely it should interfere in sport too?

Now in an ideal world a government would not have to interfere in sport because governing bodies would be competent and reflect their society. But they are not. In the case of cricket the reason governments in Nepal, Pakistan and India (and in India’s case the Supreme Court) interfere in the affairs of their cricket boards is that they are corrupt. In India for example the Supreme Court ordered Narayanswami Srinivasan to step down as Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) while they investigated a spot fixing scandal. Incredibly that did not stop him becoming ICC chairman. He was eventually forced out of his ICC role too and his Indian Premier League (IPL) franchise Chennai Super Kings was suspended for two years after the Supreme Court found out that his son in law was guilty of placing bets on the 2013 IPL. The BCCI was corrupt but if the Supreme Court had not investigated no one would be the wiser.

Same with FIFA. I’ve gone over FIFA’s corruption problems before but the corruption would not have been exposed if the FBI in America and the Swiss authorities had not investigated it. Can corrupt bodies police themselves? No. Someone has to do it for them. That means government agencies and courts.

Now it is true to say that sport in the UK, US, Australia and Europe (well Western Europe anyway) does not have as much of a corruption problem. The problem here is racism, sexism and homophobia (as this week’s sexism scandal in UK cycling and the resignation of head coach Shane Sutton shows). While that it is true that these problems are in society as well as sport at least society outside sport is trying to do something about it. For example last year a report by Lord Mervyn Davies recommended a target of 33% women on boards of UK FTSE 100 companies by 2020. Has anybody suggested that 33% of employees or board members in UK football, cricket or rugby clubs be female? No. What a surprise. They should. Meanwhile in 2014 then head of BBC television Danny Cohen announced a ban on all male panels on BBC television programmes. But surprise surprise that did not include sports programmes like “Match Of The Day” which still has the same old male, stale panel (even ESPN baseball has Jessica Mendoza). Why were all male sports panels not banned?

The other reason governments need to interfere in sport is accountability. Human beings being what we are we cannot control ourselves. If we are allowed to do whatever we like we will do. FIFA became arrogant and corrupt because it was accountable to no one. Football, cricket and cycling are full of sexism and racism because they are accountable to no one. The UK MPs expenses scandal of 2009 showed that politicians can’t behave themselves and that Parliament needed an independent regulator. The gas, electricity and TV industries in the UK are regulated independently to make sure they are fairly run and prices are kept down (In theory. The energy regulator is awful but that is a different issue). Former Lib Dem politician founder of the homeless charity Shelter and former England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) member Des Wilson once wrote “Is sport accountable to no one? Why should it be almost unique in its ability to be so?”

And he is right. Sport is a part of society must play by the rules of society and must be regulated by society. The way the ICC has treated Nepal is a disgrace. It should stop. And sport should submit to government regulation. The party is over.

Time for fair play for cricket’s minnows

In 1974 the Football World Cup in West Germany had 16 teams. Three of them were minnows who were out of their depth. Zaire scored no goals in three games and lost 14, including a 9-0 defeat by Yugoslavia. Their performance was used to ridicule black African football for years to come (they were the first black African team to play at the Football World Cup). Haiti broke Italy’s sequence of 13 internationals without conceding a goal but still lost their three games scoring 2 goals and conceding 14, including a 7-0 defeat by Poland. While although Australia only conceded five goals and gained a point they failed to score.

While those teams were out of their depth traditional football powers like England, Spain, France, the Soviet Union and Uruguay did not qualify. A lot of people thought it was ridiculous that the three minnows were there when the big countries mentioned above were not. UK football journalist Brian Glanville called Zaire “an African team with little right to be there at all”. People called for Africa, Asia and North America to lose their guaranteed places in the Football World Cup.

To FIFA’s credit (this is 1974 remember!) they did not remove the Afro-Asians guaranteed World Cup places. FIFA were well aware if football was to go global it had to allow African and Asian teams access to the World Cup. And only sixteen years later a black African country Cameroon got to the quarter finals of the World Cup and but for two Gary Lineker penalties would have got to the Semi Finals and embarrassed England. It is fair to say that if FIFA had over reacted to the mismatches of 1974 football might have remained a European/South American sport and Major League Soccer in the US would not exist nor would the African players who grace the elite male Leagues of Europe (including of course Riyad Mahrez star of Leicester’s amazing season and surely a dead cert to be England’s Footballer of the Year).

Now to another sport. In 2007 the Cricket World Cup in the Caribbean had 16 teams. And again some were out of their depth. Bermuda lost games by 257 and 243 runs, while Holland lost games by 229 and 221 runs. But unlike the 1974 Football World Cup there were upsets. On one day – March 17 – there were two sensational upsets when Bangladesh and Ireland defeated and eliminated India and Pakistan respectively. And were those triumphs celebrated? No. Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack 2008 (page 1015) said that “the untimely departure of the two subcontinental giants robbed the tournament of several luminaries”. Well so what? Sport is all about giant killings – which is why Leicester are getting so much support. No one has a divine right to win. Incredibly the minnows in cricket got criticised both for being hammered and for causing upsets. Matthew Engel in Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack  2007 (page 18) called the expansion of cricket an “outright menace”. That remark was cricket’s equivalent of the Glanville remark mentioned above and should have got the UK press banned from any sports event held outside of the UK. How in the hell can it be a menace to have more countries playing a sport?

But unfortunately the International Cricket Council (ICC) unlike FIFA back in 1974 over reacted. The next two Cricket World Cups (2011 and 2015) were cut to fourteen teams and the 2019 one will be cut to ten. Incredible. Most other sports are expanding, cricket is going the other way. Cricket has a dreadful image problem. It’s reputation is that it is snobbish and elitist and out of touch with the real world – a sort of sporting equivalent of the UK Conservative Party. Cutting the number of teams in the World Cup does nothing to de toxify the sport. If anything it makes the reputation appear true.

Nor does the Twenty Twenty World Cup – currently being played in India – treat the minnows any better. In theory there are sixteen teams but in practice there are only ten. The big eight get a bye and the other eight teams have to fight for two places in an event that is a qualifying round in everything but name. But six of those eight had to qualify to get to India. In theory they qualify for the World Cup but in practice they qualified for another qualifying round while the big countries were actually playing warm up games during the Qualifying Round – showing arrogant contempt for the minnows.

The World Twenty Twenty really should be split into four groups of four with the top two in each group going into either knockout quarter finals or two further groups of four either way would produce the semi finalists. The ICC won’t do this for fear of either producing mismatches or having big teams knocked out. Yet mismatches are a short term price to pay for the longer term goal of expanding the sport while giant killing is part of sport. England, Italy and Spain all exited the 2014 men’s football World Cup early and the event did not suffer. No team or player should be bigger than the sport.

Cricket likes to think of itself as a model of fair play. Well it is time for the sport to practice what it preaches. It is time for fair play for cricket’s minnows. For contracting the World Cup is anything but fair.