Archives for the month of: November, 2011

The only thing, said David Morgan, that everyone could agree on about the structure of domestic cricket in England was that it wasn’t right.

The former chairman of ECB canvassed in the region of 100 interested parties about how the county game should change before delivering his interim report to the board today.

The major problem, he says, is that no one knows when games are on. There might be a four-day starting in Worcester on a Tuesday, one in Hove on a Wednesday etc. Every cricket fan recognises that ongoing frustration. Is that likely to change after his recommendations? It’d be nice to think so but I doubt it.

The underlying cause of the bloated mess of a fixture list is the TV deal with Sky in which there is a contractual obligation to provide county cricket available to be televised on pretty much any day there isn’t an international.

So, if you’re happy simply to switch on Sky and watch whichever 22 flannel led fools are put in front of you then it’s fine. If you like to have a bit of context, a bit of definition, a bit of light and shade and even a bit of, yes, downtime, when there isn’t any cricket on, then you’re stuffed.

But within these undesirable parameters, here is how I would tweak the county game. My ideal scenario would be have all three competitions (four-day, T20 and 40 or 50 over) laid out in three identical regional groups (like the old B&H groups) with play-offs and a final.

This is effectively an American sports model where there are certain rival teams who you play every season but then your other opponents come from the other divisions and are selected on a rotational basis so, for example, Kent don’t go for years without playing Yorkshire.

This also allows you to adjust the number of fixtures to suit. We’re too hidebound by our traditional UK sports model of all-play-all so if you have a league of 10 that means you’ve got 18 fixtures whether you like not or not.

With three groups of six, you could play your divisional opponents home and away or maybe just once if that was preferable and make up your desired number of fixtures from playing teams in the other divisions.

I think this is perfect for the limited-overs competitions where results are guaranteed and promotion and relegation does not feature. For the county championship there is the issue of weather ruining play-off matches. But the over-riding thing is that championship works just fine as it is. It has flaws of course but overall it is the one aspect of the county game that everyone agrees works well.

So leave it alone and make the adjustments elsewhere.

 

 

Mickey Arthur is the latest in a long line of South Africans to have struck gold on Australia’s west coast. They came in their tens of thousands in the 1980s, escaping their homeland either for anti-apartheid principle or lifestyle-orientated expedient.

Arthur went to Perth under different circumstances in 2010, though there was an element of escape too. He had ridden the inevitable waves of political interference but felt his position becoming unstable and jumped before he was pushed.

He is a canny operator. He’s smart, personable and very media-friendly though I can imagine there’s an iron fist lurking in there somewhere. He knows that a cricket coach’s most important relationship is with his captain and his bond with Graeme Smith was the cornerstone of his five years with South Africa.

He will have to strike up the same rapport with Michael Clarke which may be easier said than done given Australia’s general suspicion of the role of the coach. But that was a distortion caused by the relentless success of the team through the 1990s and early 2000s and the power that the players had to marginalise the coach. Don’t forget what the axis of Allan Border and Bob Simpson achieved in the mid-80s.

Arthur is not a egotist but nor will he shrink into the background. It’s a good time to be taking over because the only way is up and many of the hard decisions have been taken. There are plenty left to make though with questions over the continued selection of senior players, most pertinently Ricky Ponting.

As a selector Arthur has been given the sort of power and responsibility that was not afforded to his immediate predecessors.

There are plenty of people reserving judgement on the appointment, partly because he’s Australia’s first non-Australian coach and Australian cricket has been an exporter, rather than importer, of knowledge and talent in the past. There are also questions about whether he is all he’s cracked up to be. South Africa’s win in Australia in 2008-09 was a freakish result and they appeared to have taken their eyes off the ball when they hosted Australia in the return series. But there was plenty of excellent progress and results before that: the victories over India, Pakistan and in England.

Cricket coaches cannot be judged like football managers who have a clear role, defined over time with obvious accountability. So it is easy to overplay their influence and that is why Arthur’s relationship with Clarke, and the other selectors (remember Rod Marsh fell out massively with Duncan Fletcher when the former was an England selector) is so important.

Arthur loves coming to England, follows Arsenal (aren’t they French?), but he’s also been pretty adept at getting under England’s skin on the cricket field. Now that he’s Aussie coach, that’s not likely to change.

I’m an unapologetic media junkie. Five Live’s always on, newspapers (or their websites) are scoured daily and plenty else besides is consumed with relish, though I draw the line at Sky Sports News (except for transfer deadline day of course).

And I understand what makes news and why those stories don’t always mutate into the most logical, balanced, rounded expressions of understanding.

But I found myself becoming increasingly infuriated about the Sepp Blatter story last week. Blatter is a wrong ‘un. There doesn’t seem to be much doubt about that. And his comments about racism were ugly, clumsy and utterly foolish for someone who has been in a top job for so many years. Does Blatter hold racist views? I don’t know and I don’t really care. That isn’t the point.

Is John Terry racist? Or Luis Suarez? Who knows? And what precisely constitutes being a racist? Using derogatory, offensive language? Or crossing to the other side of the road when you see a group of young black men? Or the almost non-existence of black football managers in England? Or TV programmes like BBC1′s feeble detective show Death in Paradise in which every Caribbean stereotype is trotted out in the interests of comedy drama?

When Robbie Savage is lecturing us about codes of behaviour, you know that the plot has been truly mislaid. In Friday’s Daily Telegraph John Barnes spoke with exceptional frankness and intelligence about this issue. “We are all racist to a certain extent,” he said. “We all make presumptions about other people based on their colour, culture or ethnicity in variable degrees. We judge people even on their accents.”

Prejudice exists within all of us. It is an unpalatable part of human nature and and it is the job of a civilised progressive society to fight prejudice of all kinds and promote tolerance and greater understanding.

Blatter’s comments exposed him as ignorant and arrogant but I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt that  with regard to the Terry/Suarez issues he was attempting to put those in some sort of context. Though, by belittling those specific issues he belittled the wider problem.

In situations like this players are role models but frankly they are but drops in the ocean of greater prejudice in football. The game promotes bigotry by its very nature. The tribalism that is re-heated to boiling point week after week spawns all manner of unpleasantness: racism, homophobia, you name it.

To obsess about what multimillionaire footballer said to another is to miss the point about a much wider, international problem. Not that I’d expect Blatter to understand that either.

When The Wisden Cricketer launched in 2003 Peter Roebuck was one of our associate editors. The marketing conceit was to select a first XI of writers and contributors who could be touted to readers or potential readers. Roebuck was one of the first names on the team sheet.

His relationship with the magazine didn’t last long, or at least the formal element of it didn’t. He remained very civil and engaging when we met in a press box somewhere in the world.

It took me a while to remember that he was ever formally connected to the magazine because I think he only wrote one piece: on Graeme Smith for the first issue after Smith’s brutishly brilliant series against England.

Even though the magazine had an international reputation and covered the game all over the world, we were a UK publication and for Roebuck that was a no-no. His antipathy towards Britain after his conviction for assault in 2001 had consumed him to a point where he wanted to have no formal connections. He no longer contributed to British newspapers and seemed to spend little time here.

I think he resigned as an associated editor out of the blue. I tried to dissuade him but didn’t hear back. So I just left his name on the masthead and hoped that he would contribute again when the mood took him. At some point he contacted me to ask why his name was still on the masthead. So it was removed and that was that. It was all very polite and businesslike.

I was laughing with Sambit Bal, the editor of Cricinfo, last night about Roebuck’s chaotic manner of email communication: short, unpunctuated statements or thoughts, sometimes barely intelligible. It was, Sambit reckoned, because his career had begun in the pre-electronic era of dictation to copy-takers. It was as if the keyboard was his copy-taker and it was up to the machine to make sense of his words.

I wrote alongside him when he was still working for the Sunday Times and he was always an engaging and interesting colleague though Greg Baum’s acute observation in the Sydney Morning Herald about him “not indulging in such fripperies as deodorant” rang true.

So did Daily Mail cricket correspondent Paul Newman’s frank experience from his time on the Sunday Telegraph, that he was “the rudest, most prickly and unhelpful colleague I have ever experienced”. Not that I experienced that side of him but I always got the impression he didn’t have much time for the editors and sub-editors back in the office, certainly when he was working for UK newspapers.

Steve Waugh called him the “premier journalist” but he’s wrong really. Not that Peter doesn’t deserve the accolade but that he wasn’t a journalist. He was a commentator, an opinionator, a campaigner even but not a journalist in the conventional sense. Not that he had much time for convention in his life, as has been painfully apparent.

But that made him all the more important. His separateness and his individuality created a unique voice, one that had real value in Australia and the wider cricketing world. Cricketwithballs supremo Jrod observes that he was the only dissenting during his youth when no one questioned the all-conquering Aussie side.

Roebuck’s obituary and Derek Pringle’s tribute to him made the front page of the Daily Telegraph yesterday which I found a bit bewildering. I suppose it’s in part due to the horrific and untimely nature of his death, the whiff of scandal but also the regard in which his writing and commentating was held by the cricket-loving public as well as those in the media who obsess about these things.

I am sure someone somewhere is contemplating the publication of a Roebuck anthology. It’ll be a mighty good read.

For all the rottenness of Fifa, its unwillingness to entertain political interference among its constituent members is a sound policy and one which cricket’s global authority happily chooses to ignore.

The escalation of the poppy-wearing row to the point at which the Prime Minister and a member of the Royal Family are badgering world football’s governing body seems a colossal over-reaction, not to mention surely precisely the sort of political interference which Fifa rightly does not tolerate.

The wearing of poppies ought to be a solemn, subtle and personal gesture. It is supposed to be about remembering the fallen, about the futility of war and the price of human life. It is not supposed to become an act of hysterical national ostentation encouraging anyone with half a brain to air their dubious nationalistic sentiments.

The zeal with which the FA and then the government sought to brand a high-profile international sporting confrontation with a label synonymous with war is insensitive and arrogant. Fifa’s point about political and religious symbolism is entirely valid and even one argues that the poppy is not remotely political, which I think is a dubious claim, then you can forgive Fifa their pedantry.

What if Serbia wore some sort of badge to remember their dead in the Balkan wars of the 1990s? Would the English FA happily acknowledge this is simply a gesture of remembrance or would they see it as a grotesque celebration of mass genocide? This is an extreme example and I am not seriously comparing Britain with Serbia but my point is that there are different viewpoints. Yet the FA set their case with such bombastic certainty you can just see the rest of footballing world’s collective eyes rolling.

And surely this is such an unnecessary argument. What does it matter whether the England team wear poppies or not? Does it make them more or less aware of the point of Remembrance Sunday? All that has happened is yet again the England football team has been turned into some sort of weird circus. The tasty prospect of match at a sold-out Wembley against the best team in the world has been soured by a week of idiotic politicking.

“Are you on an earner?” asked a former England captain of a current England player in the Lord’s media centre this summer. The player was off-duty in the sense that he wasn’t playing in the game but he was on-duty in the sense that he was wearing the badge of a sponsor doing some glad-handing with competition winners and generally doing what brand ambassadors in these uber-corporate times.

The question made me wince. Not because I have some puritanical objection to players endorsing brands to supplement their earnings. It was the casual cynicism that got me.

Of the many strands of awfulness that cricket’s fortnight in the dock has exposed, the naked greed of the individuals involved is in many ways the most worrying and the hardest to police. It is a universal vice and manifests itself in many forms.

A few years ago friend of mine used to work on Manchester United’s official club magazine. One of the leading players of the time returned my friends call regarding a pre-arranged interview. The player then insisted that my friend phoned him back again so that he didn’t have to bear the cost of the call. This was a senior, very well-known Premier League footballer who would have been earning tens of thousands of pounds a week.

You can still be corrupt even if you’ve never thought of throwing a match. Agents can still be vile and dodgy even if they don’t lean on their clients to bowl a pre-arranged no-ball.

Sportsmen of all kinds love a punt. Some have even been known to bet on themselves, perish the thought. Legal gambling doesn’t stop it being a highly corruptible influence. “It matters more when there’s money on it,” was Skybet’s advertising slogan for a while. Interpret the double, triple meanings as you see fit.

The ECB recently hooked with a betting partner to add to their portfolio of official endorsements. It feels like they’re on potentially dodgy ground but then they know all about that. Regardless of what was later to become of Allen Stanford the biggest stain on Giles Clarke’s chairmanship of ECB is the entire lack of acceptance that the Stanford episode in any way sold whatever remained of the game’s soul. Once money becomes the sole point of the arrangement of sporting fixtures then the game is up.

It is the administrative greed that creates the fertile ground for corruption. It seems to be taken entirely for read these days by governing bodies that generating income is their primary or even only raison d’être.

And all the anti-corruption units in the world will not solve that fundamentally corrupt mindset.

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