Tag Archive | The Ashes

Lord Ted’s mission to save the tour

The cornerstone of international cricket competition, the Test match tour, has been transformed in recent decades. The pandemic of 2020 has left little in the relationships between nations untouched and it has pushed the international tour to a new extreme. The West Indies are more billeted than on tour: confined to two grounds with hotels on site, with Tests taking place only at those two venues and a single other tour game, contested by two teams made up of their own squad members.

While change has been recent – the West Indies played eight 3-day tour games in 2000 – the decline of the season-long tour was apparent much earlier. At least it was to those with an eye on cricket’s drift away from forefront of public attention. Ted Dexter had welcomed the introduction of one-day cricket to the English county game in the early 1960s. He led Sussex to the inaugural Gillette Cup final where he managed to defend a total of 169 and then retain the title the following year.

Eight years later, retired from the game (barring some Sunday Leagues appearances), Dexter wrote Wisden’s preview of Australia’s Ashes visit to England in 1972. He acknowledged the bold plan to hold ‘three one-day Tests’ in August, but was concerned that those were the only reference to one-day cricket.

The trouble with the Australian itinerary is that for more than half the time they will be playing what can only be considered friendly games with the counties. Not so long ago this gentlemanly basis of sporting competition was sufficient to keep the crowds amused but with the advent of sponsorship, win-money, man-of-the-match awards, etc., etc., the old format now seems hopelessly outmoded. Honour and glory, artistry and skills are now only given their due by your potential spectator if something depends on the outcome thereof. Not necessarily money; an extra point or two towards some goal may be quite acceptable. On the other hand a dozen or more games following one another in a pattern, each one played in a vacuum as on this tour, gives your cricket fan far too good an excuse to stay away if the weather is poor, if the star players are being rested or for any other minor reason.

The writing was on the wall last time Australia toured England. Since then Illingworth’s team in Australia has signally failed to halt the trend of dwindling gates for State matches. In fact it seemed that neither the State sides nor the M.C.C. could do more than go through the motions when there was literally nothing to play for. In no time at all the lack of interest on the field communicated itself to the watchers and I honestly think they swore to a man that they wouldn’t be taken for suckers a second time.

Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to involve a visiting team in the hurly burly in our own competitions. Points would need to be averaged up to decide how the maverick side was placed in relation to the others — either this or a concerted attempt made to find sponsors to put up prize-money–or, the ultimate in daring, to put up the prizes and promote the matches from within cricket and thus gamble a little on achieving a better return.

Otherwise I fear a situation where already hard-worked county players will be ever more content to take it easy against the tourists; the tourists will be just practising for the Tests and only the hardiest of cricket-watchers will pay to see them do so.

(Wisden 1972, “Welcome Australia”)

It was another seven years before Dexter’s recommendations were addressed. The touring team didn’t get an invitation to the County Championship; nor did cricket put any of its own money at stake to coax interest and excitement from the visitors and their county hosts. But sponsorship was found and Dexter appears to have taken it on himself to secure it.

For those who followed English cricket in the 1970s and 1980s, the names of its sponsors can probably be recalled as easily as those of our political leaders, chart-topping groups and Saturday night television programmes of that era. Gillette, Bensons and Hedges, John Player and Cornhill benefitted from an absence of commercial clutter on the BBC and in the first three cases from being the name of the respective competitions from their introduction. Schweppes, who paid for their name to complement the un-televised County Championship (1977-83), would be a easy-fair standard quiz question.

The name of the sponsor of the 1979 Indian team’s tour matches with the counties is far less well-remembered. Partly, this is because, unlike the other county competition sponsors they were not a household brand, pushing their product in supermarkets and newsagents. It might also reflect the lack of success of the ‘competition’ they sponsored. The name was Holt – not Holt’s the Manchester brewery – but a car care and chemical manufacturer. Wisden in 1979, welcoming the relationship, noted that “The scheme was devised by Ted Dexter and Mr Tom Heywood, chairman of Holt Lloyd International.” In the absence of further detail, I imagine Dexter, former England captain and PR executive, working away at the cricket-enthusiast Heywood until, after one particularly long lunch the corporate cheque book was produced.

That cheque carried the figure of £20,000 (£100,000 in 2020 terms), which would be shared by the Indian touring side and their county opponents, depending on results. The county judged to have given the best performance was awarded a trophy. There were also individual awards for outstanding players. India, across ten county matches, had almost £6,000 to aim for. A county could win £6,000 if it was the only side to defeat the tourists. To place this in its context, the West Indies won £10,000 as World Cup champions in the tournament that immediately preceded India’s tour.

Norman Preston had featured the details of these incentives to the touring team and hosts in his Editor’s notes to the 1979 edition of Wisden. The following year, the Almanack’s coverage of the India tour failed to mention Holt, or the existence of peformance rewards. Preston’s initials are printed at the foot of this tour review. He notes that ten first class games, including three of the Tests, were drawn, that India had a single victory – over Glamorgan – and lost to two counties. Wisden’s encyclopaedic reputation is in this narrow case undeserved.

To find the winners of the Holt Trophy in 1979, I have relied on the Lord’s Museum and its on-line catalogue. Within two folders of material relating to that tour – “Scoresheets, newspaper cuttings, statistics, press releases, correspondence, photographs” – the following examples of content are provided:

Includes spider diagram showing I T Botham’s innings of 137 in the third Test for England vs. India at Headingley, copy of Radio Times article on S M Gavaskar, press release relating to Holt Products’ sponsorship of tourists vs. counties matches, and photographs of the Holt Products Trophy and M J Procter, Gloucestershire captain, receiving the trophy from Holt Products after being chosen as winners of the award in 1979 for the best result against India.

Gloucestershire were the fourth county to play India, with the match at Bristol taking place on July 21-23, one week after England had amassed 633-5dec in their First Test victory. Gloucester fielded a first choice team – Sadiq Mohammed, Zaheer Abbas, Mike Proctor, as well as their home-grown players well-known for their one-day performances. India held the upper hand: underpinned by 137 from Gavaskar, the tourists were 200 runs ahead  with Gloucester six wickets down in their first innings and all their overseas players dismissed. Phil Bainbridge and MD Partridge then put on 116 and Proctor declared 100 behind with the former in sight of a maiden ton. In murky light, Proctor took three quick wickets on the second evening and returned the next day to take four more. “Proctor allowed them no respite, bowling below full pace, but to a testing length and line,” Wisden reported on his analysis of 15.3-8-13-7. The home team’s top order then chased down the target of 203 at more than four runs per over.

That must surely have delighted Dexter: a see-sawing game, enterprising captaincy, marquee names performing to a high standard and contributions from county pro’s. Whether the prospect of a bonus had an influence, we don’t know. Nor do we know if the game was well-attended. Scanning the scorecards of the other nine matches, it appears that counties put out strong sides. The tourists came up against: Allan Lamb, Malcolm Marshall, David Gower, Viv Richards, John Wright, Ken McEwan, Clive Lloyd, Clive Rice and Richard Hadlee. Whether they were taking it easy is harder to tell.

Despite Wisden’s silence and India’s lack of success, Dexter’s initiative may have incentivised the counties to make a contest of their tour matches. Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire were each £3,000 the richer for their efforts. By comparison, Somerset had collected £5,000 for their four match campaign to win the Gillette Cup.

The following year, the West Indies toured and Holt Products continued (or renewed) their sponsorship of the county tour matches. This time there was an eye-catching headline to the deal: the West Indies could net £100,000 if they won each of their 11 first-class county matches. One might wonder if the company bought lottery insurance, or took a calculated risk that such an outcome, faced with motivated opponents and the English weather was improbable. As a twelve year-old, absorbing cricket wherever I could find it, I validate Wisden’s assessment that “interest grew” in the county matches. The existence of the six-figure jackpot is the memory fragment that triggered the research for this article.

The tourists’ quest started, as tradition requires, at Worcester, where they secured a seven wicket victory, with most credit to Malcolm Marshall who took 7-56 in the the home side’s second innings. A curiousity of the game, the description of which takes up almost half of Wisden’s report, concerned Glenn Turner:

Worcestershire were desperately short of resolution in their second innings, which began with an out of character display by Turner, who stepped back and “slogged” at almost every delivery as he made 45 from 24 balls before stepping on to his wicket. The general interpretation was that Turner’s approach was linked with his strong criticism of the West Indians’ conduct on their tour of his native New Zealand in the previous winter. There were also suggestions that he had asked not to be selected for the match because of a back strain. The county’s cricket committee chairman, Mr Roy Booth, later interviewed Turner but an official statement was no more informative than that the club was satisfied that Turner has no grievances with them.

Leicestershire were defeated by an innings inside two days, with Greenidge scoring 165. In the maiden first class match at Milton Keynes, Northamptonshire lost early on the third evening; Richards and Lloyd both recording hundreds. The tourists then paused their challenge to take part in four county one-day matches (Prudential Trophy warm-ups).

Derbyshire, dismissed for 68 in their second innings, were the fourth victims in a nine-wicket defeat. The West Indies moved to Leeds and Lord’s for an international interlude, in the shape of the Prudential Trophy. They had reached the end of May with their hopes of claiming the £100,000 prize alive.

The county challenge was rejoined at Canterbury. A day was lost to rain, but captains Alan Knott and Clive Lloyd made first innings declarations to claw back time. The West Indies bowlers then got to work, dismissing Kent for 84 and setting up a target of 103 which was achieved, not without difficulty, with five wickets down. Another interruption for international cricket followed: the 1st Test at Trent Bridge. The West Indies won a close match by just two wickets. It was both the closest England would come to matching or beating their visitors and yet their only defeat of the series.

The middle game (number six) of the Holt Industries Trophy Challenge was at Hove. More bad weather and, in Wisden’s opinion, “the understrength home side” who had an attack of Imran Khan, Garth le Roux, Ian Greig, Jon Spencer and Geoff Arnold, brought an end to the quest on 16 June.

Three more draws, two rain-affected, left the tourists with a 7-4-0 record, and a string of entertaining innings and incisive bowling performances that entertained spectators immensely and may have raised the sponsor’s profile through radio and newspaper reports of the games.

The following summer, Holt Products again continued (or renewed) their sponsorship of the counties’ games with the tourists: the Australians. I cannot find a record of the incentive structure in place, but it appears not to have motivated the visitors, who managed just two victories. The second of which came late in the summer at Hove, which was again the scene of a significant match in the short life of the Holt Products Trophy. John Woodcock’s Editor’s Notes in the 1982 Wisden were very critical:

Less happily, following a match at Hove in which Sussex fielded a discourteously weak side against the Australians, Holt Products, whose sponsorship had been aimed at making these games between counties and touring teams more competitive, withdrew their support. If Sussex’s action was only partly responsible for Holt’s decision, it was still a pity, in what was a fine season for them, that on this occasion they misjudged their obligations.

Sussex had omitted six players from the team fielded in their previous County Championship match: captain John Barclay, Imran Khan, keeper Ian Gould and bowlers, Garth le Roux, Geoff Arnold and CE Waller. The match fell at the end of the third week of August, one week after the 5th Test at Old Trafford where England’s victory ensured they completed the series turnaround and retained the Ashes. The 6th Test at the Oval was to follow – not only an indulgence, but a dead rubber. Sussex had four matches remaining in the County Championship – a competition they had never won, but for which in August 1981 they were in contention. It appears that they preferred to conserve their star players and captain for that objective. Sussex won all of those four games, but fell two points short of the title which was won by Nottinghamshire.

Sussex were, of course, Ted Dexter’s own county team, which may have made this an uncomfortable denouement to his experiment. Was Dexter critical of his own county’s choice of priority – I suspect not? I also find something odd about Woodcock, a traditionalist, writing so harshly of a county showing such commitment to the County Championship. Barclay wasn’t saving himself and his bowlers ahead of Lord’s final; it was a tough run-in to the first class season that was his focus. The Sussex v Australia game encapsulates the problem Dexter had sought to solve and the dilemma that cricket continues to struggle with: balancing a domestic game with international commitments.

Dexter’s intention had been to incentivise interest and commitment through monetary reward. There is some evidence from these three seasons that the outcome was achieved, but there were also unintended consequences. From the perspective of behavioural economics (1), Dexter’s plan to make the counties’ games with tourists more competitive handed Sussex the permission to be less committed. Woodcock complained about obligations being unfulfilled, but those cultural and emotional ties that bind behaviour are loosened once a financial transaction is introduced. Unwittingly, by offering a performance bonus, Dexter enabled Sussex to, in effect, turn down the financal reward in favour of their other objective.

Touring teams continue to play counties, although with a reducing number of fixtures – Australia met just with Worcestershire and Derbyshire in 2019. The emphasis has shifted to the tourists gaining match practice, but rarely if ever against full-strength opponents. I am not aware of any initiative similar to Dexter’s that would provide context and incentives to perform in these games, whether in England or for Test teams touring other countries. With the benefit of hindsight, Dexter was less a visionary than an unsuccessful conservationist, unable to stem the current of change to international cricket tours.

 

Note

  1. See the Haifa Day Care Centre Study, chapter 1, Freakonomics (Steven D Levitt & Stephen J Dubner)

Stokes rediscovered

On Wednesday, I amongst thousands of others will stand and cheer and applaud. It may be at the start of play, or sometime during the day after England’s third wicket has fallen (1). We will be acclaiming Ben Stokes on his return to the cricket field. While I stand, the noise at Old Trafford persisting beyond the span of any normal welcome, I expect the pressure will build on my sinuses, my neck and scalp will become hyper-sensitive and my eyes will prickle. A few deep breaths will probably quell tears. Many in the ground, like me, will have personal reasons that merit such deep emotion, but it will be the sight of England’s bearded, ruddy-faced batting hero that might draw it from us.

2019 is Stokes’s summer. It started with that catch, leaping, back-handed, out of position, in the deep against South Africa. It has surely reached a peak with Sunday’s match-winning, logic-defying century. Its progression from one to the other is well known, its destination in the remaining two Tests is beyond my powers of speculation. The Headingley innings set new standards, but also was a rediscovery.

Returning to England’s line-up last summer, Stokes the batsman was stodgy. Tight matches against India, England’s fragile top-order and the burden of Bristol, we reasoned, were inhibiting him. Stokes’s template innings were Cape Town in January 2016 and Lord’s against New Zealand in 2015. Free-flowing, power batting. The full-face of the bat meeting ball at the apex of its swing. Boundary fielders unable to intercept cuts and back foot drives that travelled just yards to their side; or their heads tilted upwards as sixes soared above them.

“..I’ll probably never bat as well again..” acknowledged Stokes at Cape Town, suggesting a subtlety of character, admitting a tinge of melancholy at a moment of his profoundest triumph. ‘I’ll probably never bat as well again, again,’ Stokes may be reflecting this week. But for all his success in the World Cup campaign there was little to suggest he would rediscover those heights.

Stokes scrapped for runs through the World Cup. He played mature innings, responsive to the match situation. Once, on his previous visit to Old Trafford, the match situation imposed no responsibility. Stokes came to the wicket in the 48th over, after Morgan’s blitz had lifted England above 350. Ball one: fell over, trying to ramp; two: pulled straight to the boundary fielder for a single; three: beaten, nearly stumped; four: dropped cutting; five: swept for a single; six: bowled behind his legs. Meanwhile, Moeen Ali had added two sixes to England’s record number.

Then that innings in the Final. Stokes prevailed, not losing his wicket in regulation time and pressing England’s total forward in the super over. But Stokes had struggled to score. Buttler rotated the strike comfortably in their partnership; Stokes wasn’t able to reciprocate or keep up with the required scoring rate.

As wickets fell and drama piled upon drama, Stokes was being buffeted, swept up in the vortex of cricket’s strangest final. “Why me?”, he seemed to be pleading, anxiety an unfamiliar emotion to read on his face, in place of the stern focus and leonine grin to which we are accustomed. Too good and too lucky to get out; too inhibited by his own form and the circumstance to grasp the match and take England to a clear victory. Stokes give little sense of relishing this challenge. We admired his resilience and, at key moments, his calculation of risk but couldn’t ignore the good fortune that kept the victory within touching distance.

Stokes’s second great innings of the summer differed markedly from the first in the degree of control that he exerted. In the first, events and a live wire opposition had him reeling, but never falling. At Headingley, Stokes was the agent of misrule, upending tactics deployed by the Australians, bending their exertions to his ends. It may simply have been that, when the ninth wicket fell, England’s situation was so desperate that Stokes felt no weight of responsibility. By contrast, England had always remained within sight of victory in the World Cup Final that a single Stokes’ error would have erased.

The ease with which Stokes accelerated at Headingley, achieving a tempo change that eluded him throughout the World Cup, also felt like a rediscovery. The range of shots and his equable response to a misfire – repeating the ramp the very next delivery and hitting it for six – was evidence of a renewed confidence. Not all strokes were cleanly hit – the lofted drives against Lyon travelled over the long-off fielder like ducks winged by hunters. Square of the wicket, though, Stokes was able to reduce the fielders to collecting balls from the other side of the boundary. Most magnificent of all was the back-foot drive to the straight long-on boundary.

Stokes palpably savoured this innings – not that his relish extended to watching Jack Leach batting. If the World Cup Final was, “Why me?”, then Headingley was, “Look at me!”

Ian Botham’s great innings at Headingley was the first of three consecutive match-winning performances. Will this be emulated and the 2019 series be known as “Stokes’s Ashes?” In the aftermath of Headingley, Stokes’s response reminded me not of Botham, but the father-figure of English all-rounders. WG Grace had, reputedly, returned the bails to the wickets, over-ruling the umpires on the field. Stokes, asked about the Lyon’s LBW appeal showed similar certainty. He acknowledged the three reds on the technology before dismissing our modern source of authority, “DRS has got it completely wrong.”

Note:

(1) Weather permitting

Warm-up matches. It’s just the way it is.

It’s just the way it is. Australians would say the same when they come over to England. Some of the county teams are full of second XI players. Both sides would love to come across a stronger outfit to really be tested out. But you go round the world and it’s the same everywhere.

(Trevor Bayliss after England’s day-night warm-up match at Adelaide)

When something is wrong and the conclusion reached is, “It’s just the way it is,” there is somewhere, perhaps everywhere, a failure of vision, courage and judgement.

Bayliss’s comment has troubled me. It’s a resignation to the fact that national cricket boards care more about stacking the odds even further to the benefit of the already advantaged home team than they do about hosting a competitive series. It’s institutionalised cheating. It’s not quite overt, but it is a deliberate effort to deny opponents an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the challenges they will face in the international contests.

I don’t expect Bayliss to step out of line of this nasty consensus that visiting teams should be tripped and tricked on their way to the opening Test. His position as England’s first Australian manager of an Ashes touring team is liable to attract enough unfavourable reaction without him risking being characterised as tainted by keeping company with whinging Poms.

Compared to BCCI (who, it was widely suspected, were behind the initiative to keep spinners away from England’s three warm-up matches in 2012) and the ECB (who usually muster county sides containing mostly second XI players) Cricket Australia is not especially culpable. England’s warm-up matches coincide with full programmes of Sheffield Shield games, which limit the standard of the players available for the CA XI. But Ed Cowan and Cameron White are amongst the experienced players who haven’t won places in their state sides who could have given England more stretching opposition. When Tim Payne was recognised as a potential solution to the Australians’ wicket-keeping quandary, he was whisked away from his role as CA XI skipper to Melbourne to play for his State.

What should host nations organise for their guests as pre-Test practice matches? They should not be expected to field their first choice attack or expose a relatively new player who is being lined up for the Test series. That would be giving too much away to the visitors. From the follower’s perspective, it would also rob the build-up to the Test series of a little of its suspense. We want there to be an escalation in the intensity of the cricket and to avoid premature encounters between key protagonists. But an escalation does not mean a step-change.

A clue to the answer has been given by Cricket Australia. The national board did organise a day-night match at the venue where the pink ball Test will be played a few weeks later. The sheer novelty of this event meant that the visitors had to be allowed to acclimatise. The sheer commercial value of the match meant that the tourists could not be abandoned to flounder to a Test defeat inside three days at Adelaide.

But a slow seamer at Adelaide – even under lights with a pink ball – probably presents fewer unfamiliar challenges to the England team than the hard, fast track at the Gabba. For any touring team to be properly prepared for a Test series in Australia, they should be given practice time on a pacy pitch against bowlers of a similar kind, if not the same effectiveness, as the Australian attack. Yet the pitches at Adelaide and Townsville, in contrast to what is looming for England when the series starts at the Gabba, have been easy-paced, even sluggish.

As Bayliss acknowledged, it happens all around the world and he’s counting on the ECB being similarly uncooperative towards touring teams when England next play at home. To break this selfish cycle that cricket has slipped into, it might take an altruistic national cricket administrator to step up and offer a touring programme that puts the visitors’ needs at the heart of the itinerary. It does not happen now and the upcoming World Test Championship, weighted with extra context, may make things worse as each series result will have implications beyond its own duration.

On the other hand, I do see the corralling of (at least some) Tests into an over-arching competition as having the potential to improve the pre-series preparation given to visiting teams. The ICC could make the organisation of meaningful practice matches a playing condition for the tournament. Unlikely, I accept, but penalties could be attached to home sides failing to comply. Defining ‘meaningful practice’ is not straightforward, but in the International Cricket Committee, the ICC has access to an expert group who could set a standard, which match referees could enforce. I propose that the standard would include features such as:

  • Visiting team management involvement in the preparation of pitches that warm-up games will be played on
  • Warm-up opposition to include players with current (or if clashes with domestic fixtures, recent) first-class experience or junior international recognition.
  • Team selection to reflect the bowling style of the home nation’s team (e.g. if two spinners likely to play for the home team in Tests, then two spinners should play in warm-up matches).
  • Climate to be equivalent to that of the Test venues (e.g. don’t schedule a warm-up for a Brisbane Test in Hobart).

Test cricket’s attempt at a global tournament is both overdue and laden with risk. For it to be viewed as a credible competition and so mitigate some of the risk of it not engaging with a wide, international audience, the ICC must ensure that the neglect of the need of away sides to get meaningful practice ahead of Test series must end. All participating countries must acknowledge the importance of promoting closely competitive cricket and take responsibility for achieving it in their own countries. It’s just the way it should be.

Big Nick

It was a toot, like a brass instrument being tuned. Incongruously high-pitched. Strongly, warmly associated with cricket and companionship.

The first time I heard the toot it came from behind me. I had shuffled down the pitch to the off-spinner, mis-judged or deceived by flight. But I had laid a healthy edge on the ball which would be hurtling in the direction of many of my scoring shots as an undergraduate, to thirdman.

The toot was the prelude to a more throaty, but still high-toned chuckle. Turning in the direction of the laugh, I saw Nick, occupying a space between first slip and gulley, with his left arm out-stretched, hand wrapped around the ball, shaking with merriment and enjoyment at his own display of agility.

Three or four years later, I became a teammate of Nick’s. I was now an old boy and the broadest, deepest allegiance that traced back to my student days was being forged. Our group was always happier, ruder, funnier and more generous when Nick was with us. We worried more, mostly about Nick, when he wasn’t.

Nick soon opted to be a non-playing tourist on our annual August Bank Holiday weekend jaunts. His last game left him melancholy. He had taken four wickets, at least two of which were slip catches to his leg-breaks that turned and bounded some way back up to the heights from which they’d been delivered.

While the rest of the team tolerated a slow, uneven decline playing on for a further 15 years, Nick called a halt. The distinctive nasal laugh would have been absent that evening.

Nick had been an unusual and highly effective bowler. At over six foot four, he could spear wrist spun deliveries to a quick bowler’s good length. I only faced him in practice nets and found it almost impossible to play forward. Stepping back, my bat met the ball in front of my chest.

The tooting continued, particularly around cricket. Nick was the most rewarding of companions for a spell of cricket spectating. In 1995, we watched the West Indies together at Lord’s. Meeting in the Grace Gates queue, he was bubbling with anticipation at 9am. Understanding that the ticket was a freebie, Nick undertook to cater the day, which he did with an entire loaf of smoked salmon wholemeal sandwiches. We sat in the lower Warner from where I was despatched regularly to the bar for another round. Just as adjacency to Nick seemed to shrink cricket gear, so pints of beer in his hand looked like, and were treated as, tumblers.

The real pleasure of his company  wasn’t the food and drink (although his knowledge of both were doctoral), but his enthusiasm and appreciation for the game. Lara came out to bat and Nick seethed with delight. “That back-swing, so high. Look at it,” he commanded no one in particular, but I and the dozen or so people in easy earshot complied. Nick wasn’t the kind of voluble spectator that cleared seats. His joy transferred. People in front of us turned and nodded. Those directly behind us didn’t curse this man obscuring their view but responded to him adding character to their day at the Test.

Lara and Hooper batted throughout the afternoon. The run scoring was slow. Peter Martin and Dominic Cork exerted a check so inimical to the pair batting. It was a tense session with few boundaries and fewer wickets. To be honest, it only lives so strongly in my memory because I shared it with Nick and glimpsed the game through his eyes.

A decade later, our old boys’ annual tour coincided with the fourth Ashes Test at Trent Bridge. Since the series began in early July at Lord’s, my mind had been dominated by thoughts of how England might finally defeat Australia. At times, particularly the final morning at Edgbaston, it had been suffocating and it was regularly waking me at night as I computed scenarios and permutations. I was passionate for English cricket, not cricket.

Around our tour fixtures that weekend we gathered in our residence’s living room to watch coverage, live or recorded, of the Test. We came to will England to victory, roaring and cursing, if needed. However, we found an impediment to our partisanship. Nick, occupying the sofa, was cooing, purring over Warne’s bowling. “It’s the top-spinner,” he would divine as an England batsman was about to be hurried in a defensive shot. “Look, look at the wrist angle,” Nick would urge as super slow-mo dissected what Nick had already informed us. At the time of great national release, Nick was our conscience and our analyst, expecting more of us. His high nasal laugh signifying the great satisfaction of watching great cricket played by some great cricketers.

Soon the old boys will gather. There will be no toots and we won’t worry about Nick. There will be the formalities and then we’ll toast him and the pleasure that his company brought to our group and to each of us as his teammate and friend.

Mitchell Johnson – role model

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Weird.

It’s the most disdainful insult (short of cursing) used by the youngsters I know.

Weird.

It’s the term they most fear being attached to themselves.

Mitchell Johnson was weird.

For all but a minority of extrovert youngsters, fitting in is the state they ardently seek, through the games they play, the clothes they wear, the way they speak, the company they keep.

Mitchell Johnson came to cricket late. Drawn away from tennis in his late teens, he would have shown up at nets attended by a tight group of young cricketers with a background of seasons together, nicknames and shared stories. The quiet teen Johnson would have waited his turn to bowl, standing 5 metres to the right of the knot of right-armers. Reaching the crease, without an athletic bound, arm swinging through far from the purist 12 o’clock, Johnson probably flung a few of his early deliveries into the side netting.

Weird is how his new teammates, apprentice bullies for careers in the tough world of grade cricket, would have viewed him. They probably stifled laughs and nudged each other when he bowled wide – maybe nervously, though, given the speed he could already attain. While he had his back turned, padding up, they may have dared each other to impersonate his run up and action.

Whether his peers accepted him, coaches did, including Dennis Lillee. Not committing to the game until his late teens, he was playing for his country before twenty. But like his mentor his progress was slowed by back injuries.

Johnson’s emergence as a senior international cricketer came when we might have expected a lull in Australia’s fortunes following the retirements of many of the team that white-washed England in 2006/07. Johnson seemed to bring to the team something that none of his eminent predecessors offered – a dynamic all-rounder. But it was what happened in the second phase of his Test career that renews my interest in him as a role model.

On the 2009 Ashes tour, Johnson’s pre-series billing as Australia’s spearhead was quickly quashed. As he struggled to bowl straight, expert opinion moved swiftly from the vulnerability of his slingy action to the fragility of his confidence. He was an introvert experiencing intense public scrutiny of his shortcomings. By the second Test, he was spared the pressure of opening the bowling. As each underwhelming, wayward spell passed, the thought occurred that dropping Johnson from the team might be an act of mercy, but also an exit without prospect of return. If only his rhythm could return.

Johnson’s rhythm was weird. At his best, bowling looked effort-ful. His run-up, as his career progressed, became less like the series of movements one would choose to proceed rapidly over grass. It looked like an action adopted from overuse of a cross-trainer gym machine, modelled on Nordic skiing. Johnson’s delivery was force, unembellished by grace. Javelin throwers, belted and bandaged around waist and knee, pour it all into six or eight throws each competition. Johnson flung, with no less commitment, more than 70 of his spears each day spent in the field.

Johnson battled through the tour, and back in the southern summer again took wickets with pace. But a year later, facing England again, Johnson’s bowling deteriorated. The undulations of his career were becoming more abrupt. He was dropped after one Test, returned for the third Test where he bowled Australia to victory, then lost whatever it was he needed for the rest of the series.

And this loss of form had its own musical accompaniment. An Australian quick, on home turf, had the unique humiliation of being sung about in a derogatory, gloating fashion by visiting spectators. Johnson later acknowledged that the “swings to the left, swings to the right” choruses got to him, which is an unusual, but honest admission for an active sportsman. He also said he felt it was a compliment that he was targeted. It’s probably better that he is allowed to think this, although I find it unlikely: he was targeted because he was vulnerable, not because he was feared.

Injury followed and Johnson had a slew of young, quick bowlers whom he would have to displace to get back in the Australian Test team; as well as having to convince that it would be correct to give him a place alongside another bowler much closer to the end than the beginning of his career: Ryan Harris. Johnson did play, but not regularly.

Intimations of what would follow came at the end of the English summer of 2013, when Johnson appeared as a limited overs specialist. While many extrapolated from England’s 3-0 Ashes victory that summer to an easy victory for the visitors in the return series, those who watched the discomfort with which the England players faced his bowling in the one-day series, must have begun to consider how secure England’s hold on the Ashes really was.

That Australian summer Johnson soared. Used by Michael Clarke inflexibly in four over spells, time and again that was time enough to puncture a hole in England’s batting order. Johnson conquered injury, self-doubt and public ridicule. Sporting an extravagant moustache he bristled and attempted to intimidate the England batsmen in his follow through – his least role model-worthy behaviour and entirely superfluous given the grip his bowling had on the opposition.

Johnson is not a cricketer I have enjoyed watching. He has made too many of the batsmen I want to see succeed flinch and duck and succumb. The deepest pleasure I get from watching cricket is see batsman score runs. I have loved to see Johnson hit for runs – the ball tears to the boundary. The camera focuses on his face. The defiant glare doesn’t look genuine. There’s perhaps bemusement, helplessness. Johnson knows what it is like when his form deserts mid-match and that doubt, the potential for another low, is humming quietly.

It is for his weirdness, for not fitting in with our aesthetic expectations of the fast bowler, for being a quiet man performing and flopping on centre stage, for his prevailing over public humiliation, for his return from injury to bowl his arm almost out of its socket for 24 balls at a time that I commend him as a role model. He has shown as much courage as any of the batsmen that have faced him, kept in line, ducked the bouncer and attacked anything loose. And, as we know, he bowled frighteningly fast.

Quick single: Australia touch down at Gatwick

In the 1990s, it used to be said that English optimism for an upcoming home Ashes series would last all the way until the Australian team climbed down the steps of their Qantas plane at Heathrow.

Some things have, of course, changed. Australia have not won a series on their last three visits to the UK. The team’s arrival this week barely made a mark on the news – even the sports news. And within hours of them climbing down those steps from their Jumbo jet on Wednesday morning, English cricket experienced a surge of optimism from completing their highest ever successful run chase in an ODI – against the World Cup finalists, too. The Australia team doesn’t even arrive at Heathrow any more.

Other things, however, seem more in tune with the recent past. In 1993, the Austalian bowling attack comprised: Merv Hughes, Craig McDermott, Brendon Julian, Paul Reiffel, Shane Warne and Tim May. Four years later Julian and Warne returned and were joined by Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Michael Kasprowicz, and Andy Bichel. This year’s crop of Australian bowlers potentially has more menace, if a little less guile (although Ryan Harris has that aplenty), than those predecessors of 17 and 21 years ago. Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle, Nathan Lyon and Fawad Ahmed.

It’s for the best that England cricket fans are kept occupied this week, rediscovering an affection for limited overs cricket, rather than brooding on what these new arrivals to the country may do to their Test team.

Whitewash – the long view

whitewashAn England team has been humbled in Australia, losing five consecutive Test matches. The clean-sweep is a fair reflection of the home side’s dominance. The visiting team can look back at unfortunate incidents, missed opportunities and questionable selections, but a gulf in quality has been exposed.

That’s the predicament English cricket finds itself in at the start of January 2014. 93 years ago, its touring predecessors suffered the same series result. How do the two series and their consequences compare?

England travelled to Australia in late 1920 as holders of the Ashes, seeking a third consecutive series victory. But that provided little evidence of form as the previous encounter had been eight years and one World War ago. The tourists’ batting was thought to be their strong suit. Cardus, reflecting on the ‘wonderful’ summer of 1920 just past, observed (with an analogy that intrigues):

Look at the men who will bat for England in a few weeks in Australia – Hobbs, Hearne, Hendren, Woolley, Fender, Russell. Individualists all – some of them very Lenins of cricket!

The team was led by JWHT Douglas, who had a proven record as a captain overseas with victories in Australia and South Africa, albeit achieved before the Great War. He had not been first choice for the role, though. Reggie Spooner of Lancashire was offered the captaincy, but declined it because of business commitments (1).

Hopes were, of course, even higher for Cook’s team of 2013. Setting out to secure a fourth consecutive Ashes victory, with the first Test at Brisbane starting fewer than three months after the close to final Test of the 3-0 series win on home soil. Cook, himself had never lost a series as captain and had lead England to its first victory in India in 26 years.

Douglas’ squad numbered 16, half of who suffered illness or injury in Australia. The most severe loss was Jack Hearne, who became ill at the start of the second Test and played no further part in the series. Harry Makepeace incurred an injury ‘of its time’ – damaging a thumb when starting a car.

This winter’s tourists also lost a pivotal member of their batting order early in the series, with Jonathon Trott’s departure owing to a stress condition. Graeme Swann’s exit – retiring mid-series – might also be seen as ‘of its time’.

But all touring teams, particularly in the first part of the twentieth century, can expect casualties and to need to select teams from a reduced squad. These matters provide background to stories of thumping defeats, but don’t afford explanations. A fast bowler – the quickest of his day – was where Australia’s superiority on the field was most pronounced. Mitchell Johnson, like Jack Gregory nearly a hundred years earlier, was too hostile for England’s Lenins. Gregory’s pace – “for which nothing in English cricket was adequate preparation” – found its  greatest support not from another fast bowler, but Arthur Mailey, whose wrist-spin took 36 wickets in the series.

England’s much touted batting order faltered, yet found some consolation in the performance of the greatest star of all. Kevin Pietersen was England’s leading run-scorer but could derive but a fraction of the satisfaction that Jack Hobbs could from his performance. 505 runs, with two centuries, despite some injury problems. Pietersen has faced heavy criticism for the manner of some of his dismissals – from press, followers and possibly, coach. I suspect he would need to score more than 500 runs, or travel back 90 years, or find a correspondent as romantic as Cardus to receive this indulgence of a dismissal:

Hobbs, in the moment of crisis, so fascinated by his own art that he heeds not the dangers lurking about him! On this occasion, indeed, he was out ‘leg before wicket’, no doubt attempting to ‘damn the consequences’, with his own hazardous but ravishing glance to leg from a ball on the middle stump, the riskiest stroke, but as sweet as stolen fruit.

The heat of the Ashes contest infected the crowd, who jeered an antagonist in the opposition, then cheered loud and long when he was dismissed. Stuart Broad’s predecessor was ER Wilson, who earnt this reception by cabling complaints about the Australian crowd’s behaviour back to England, from where they bounced back to an Aussie audience.

The local crowd also jeered when they saw an England cricketer labouring in the field, failing to keep the batsmen to a single. The fielder was Hobbs, who was carrying a leg muscle injury. But according to Hobbs, the crowd made amends in “one of the most peculiar incidents in my life.”

The moment I appeared at the door of the pavilion, the spectators rose from their seats and cheered like mad, shouting, “Good old Hobbs!” They even sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” This was undoubtedly intended to make it clear to me that any chaff directed at my fielding had been due to ignorance of my injured leg

Could the team’s leaders remain in positions of authority after such a humiliating defeat? That’s the question preoccupying England cricket followers in 2014. Flower appears to have the backing of the ECB and he, in turn, supports Cook continuing as captain. In 1921, Douglas continued as captain. “Much has been taken from English cricket this winter, but much abides,” concluded Cardus. Yet, two Tests and two defeats later, Douglas was replaced.

Everything about Andy Flower’s role is twenty-first century. The tourists’ manager in 1920/21 was Frederick Toone. His sphere of influence was off the field. So highly respected were his organisational and diplomatic skills and so untarnished was he by the performance and scoreline, that he managed the next two MCC/England tours of Australia.

For precedents to apply to Flower, there’s a need to look to the more recent past. In 2007, Duncan Fletcher remained in charge for the World Cup campaign that followed the Ashes whitewash. Failure there led to his resignation, with a sense that he had contributed greatly to the development of English international cricket but that the team needed new leadership.

Mickey Arthur remained coach to the Australian team deep into 2013, several months after the 4-0 clean sweep to India. Failing to win a game in the Champions Trophy and with off-field controversy buffeting the team he was denied the chance to coach in the Ashes. Both Fletcher and Arthur exited having failed to conjure a recovery in their next assignment after being whitewashed. Maybe Flower is also being given an opportunity to turn around the fortunes of the team quickly.

His situation, however, differs from that of Fletcher and Arthur, both of whom had successors ready to take over, men who also represented changes of direction from the previous regime. Peter Moores was thought to be more consensual than the man blamed for the stubborn selections in the 2006/07 Ashes, as well as having strong connections back into the county game from which Fletcher had distanced his England set up. Darren Lehmann, in England in 2013 with the Australia A team, enabled Australia to end their association with their first foreign coach and replace him with a leader whose style was player-friendly, not technocratic; warm, not aloof. Flower, perhaps as a result of his authority, has no obvious successor who would bring a fresh approach to the running of team.

Finally, returning to the longer view theme of this piece:

The England team fails to rally late in the series. As the fifth consecutive defeat is recorded, the players look drained and trapped in a pattern of repeated mistakes. Time away from cricket, or at least away from Australian opponents, would seem the best best remedy.

It seems cruel on the England of 2014 that many of the key figures in the Test series defeat – Cook, Broad, Bell, Bresnan, Root, Carberry – must stay on for a further four weeks, meeting their vanquishers in eight limited overs fixtures.

Douglas’ England team did get to sail home at the end of the Test series. But any hopes they may have had of putting distance between themselves and their opponents were not to be realised. Amongst the passengers sharing the voyage were the Australian squad on its way to England for the return series in the northern summer of 1921.

Note:

(1) I have also read that CB Fry was offered the captaincy, but turned it down because of injury.

Sources: A Cardus for All Seasons (Neville Cardus); My Life Story (Sir Jack Hobbs); A History of Cricket (HS Altham & EW Swanton); Wisden

Dead rubbers

dead rubbersThe Ashes series is decided. Australia have overwhelmed England at Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. England’s squad is gathering itself for Melbourne and Sydney depleted by the withdrawal, retirement and impotence of first choice players.

Those of us protective of Test cricket laud the extended narrative of long series. We don’t hesitate to point out the unsuitability of the increasingly frequent two-off Test format that leaves so many contests undecided (two Test series = oxymoron). Yet, with the luxury of lengthy series comes the risk of one-sided contests rendering later matches irrelevant to the series outcome. It’s worth considering whether this lessens the significance and impact of the matches played. Firstly, though, a few numbers to evaluate how common the dead rubber is.

I looked at the progress of the 99 most recently completed series up until September 2013. 43 of these were two Tests in length; 41 lasted three Tests; ten of four Tests; and five of Ashes-length five matches. I extended the sample of four and five match series to 25 by adding the next ten most recent longer contests. It is worth noting an important bias in the data: longer (four/five Test) series are unequally distributed across Test playing nations. England contested 16 of the 25 series in the sample; Australia 11; New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh 0.

The frequency of dead rubbers is shown in the table below.

Series length Series (no.) Dead rubbers Dead rubber %
3 tests 41 10 24%
4 tests 18 11 61%
5 tests 7 2 29%
4 or 5 tests 25 13 52%

Over half of longer (i.e. four or five) Test series ended with matches that had no bearing on the series outcome, compared to one-quarter of three Test series. Only one series had the ‘double dead rubber’ we are about to experience – England’s last but one visit to Australia in 2006/07.

One step back from the dead rubber in terms of predictability of outcome, is the series which reaches the stage where only one team can win and the other draw (‘2 result rubbers’). This analysis draws in the two-off contests.

Series length Series (no.) 2 result rubbers 2 result %
2 tests 43 37 86%
3 tests 41 19 46%
4 tests 18 11 61%
5 tests 7 5 71%
4 or 5 tests 25 16 64%

The vast majority of two-off contests saw a positive result in the first Test meaning that only one team could win the series. A much lower proportion of three Test series had one team going into the final match with a lead of a single victory.

Many Test rivalries are played out for a trophy. The convention that the most recent winner only has to draw the current series to retain the trophy means that encounters where only one team can win the series and the other draw it have the potential for great excitement. The Oval Test of 2005, with England needing a draw to regain the Ashes and Australia a victory to retain the urn, was an exemplar of this kind from recent years.

Series that enter their final chapter with all three outcomes possible can be the most prized.

Series length Series (no.) All 3 results poss %
2 tests 43 6 14%
3 tests 41 12 29%
4 tests 18 2 11%
5 tests 7 1 14%
4 or 5 tests 25 3 12%

This eventuality is as equally unlikely a culmination to a five Test series as it is to the abbreviated two-off contest. The three Test series most frequently delivers the ‘everything to play for’ finale. Cricket is a confounding sport, so it’s worth recording that not all series that enter that last match with everything at stake should not be cherished. Two high scoring bore-draws can presage an equally turgid third and indecisive Test match.

To consider whether matches in dead rubbers are a dead loss or are fought to the death, I’ve looked at the actions and outcome of the 23 dead rubber matches in the sample.

The majority (13) were won by the team that had already secured the series victory (included here was the match awarded to England in 2006 when Pakistan refused to take the field after being penalised for altering the condition of the ball). While that provides evidence that the winning team remains motivated to pursue the win, it does suggest that the dead rubber adds little to what we already know about the relative strengths of the two teams.

Four of these matches were won by the team that had lost the series. In early 2009, Australia and South Africa played home and away three match series – virtually a six match series across two continents. In an unexpected symmetry, the host lost the first and second matches of both series before recording a home win. The home teams also gained consolation victories in the other examples: England defeating South Africa in 2008 at the Oval in Kevin Pietersen’s first match as captain; and a thrilling victory for India in Mumbai in 1994 when Australia were skittled for 93 and a 13 run defeat.

The remaining six dead rubbers produced draws. There were some notable matches, including: Lara’s 400* for the series losers; Sri Lanka running out of time 101 runs shy of a world record 4th innings target with six wickets in hand. There is also the strong rebuttal to the notion that dead rubbers don’t matter from November 2011 in Mumbai. India, series victors, were set 243 to win the third and final Test. The match went to the last ball of the final over with India’s tenth wicket pair managing a single to bring the scores level.

While dead rubbers have been the occasion of some very notable cricket, on the whole, the sport would be better without them. In this sample, series comprising three Test matches provided the most sustained uncertainty over the series outcome. Nearly half of longer (four and five Test) series, fulfilled the final fixture with honours already awarded. My recommendation would be that three Test series should be the norm. Longer series should be reserved, as they are now, for the traditional marquee series, but also any contest between, say, two of the top three ranked teams in the world. This would require some flexibility in scheduling, something the BCCI has shown in 2013 is very feasible. Two-off contests should be limited to match-ups between teams separated by five or more places in the rankings.

Later this week, the first of two Tests starts with the Ashes already decided and the rubber, strictly, dead. The onus is on England to breathe some life back into the contest.

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Do leave a comment, or tweet me, with your views of preferred Test series lengths and also of memorable dead rubbers.

Snap

broken fingerIt wasn’t long ago, just a week or two, that I was thinking that you hardly every hear about it these days. It’s something that seems to have left the game, a peril of the past, not a concern of the modern cricketer. Then… SNAP

One day before the third Ashes Test at Perth, Australian all-rounder, James Faulkner was facing ex-patriot English bowler, Aaron Onyon, in the nets. A delivery lifted and struck Faulkner on the right glove, fracturing his thumb. With Faulkner’s trip to the hospital probably went his hopes, after being 12th man at Brisbane and Adelaide, of featuring in the Ashes series.

There was a time in the recent past that England batsmen seemed to be contending with an eleventh mode of dismissal: broken digit. Leading the way, in the vanguard where he belonged, was Alec Stewart. On the 1994/95 Ashes tour, he broke his finger three times: in a warm-up fixture; in the 2nd Test at Melbourne; and then in his return against Victoria ahead of the 4th Test. The following English summer, Stewart made it through the first two Tests of the series against the West Indies before damaging the finger keeping wicket. In other news, Jason Gallian, on debut, was hit on the glove and fractured a finger.

Nasser Hussain, Stewart’s successor as England captain has referred to his own, “poppadum fingers.” One snapped while scoring a century against India at Trent Bridge in 1996. Another cracked while fielding in his second Test as captain in 1999. Ditto in a county match a year later, ahead of the Lord’s Test against the West Indies. The next time, against Pakistan at Lord’s in 2001, Hussain’s thumb was broken by Shoaib Akhtar. He returned for the 1st Test of the Ashes series later that summer. In the second innings, a blow to the hand from Jason Gillespie fractured another finger.

Steward and Hussain were extremes, but others were afflicted, too. Graham Thorpe broke a finger facing a net bowler on the morning of the final Ashes Test at the Oval in 1993. The following year he scored a century with a fractured finger at Old Trafford against West Indies. Robin Smith batted on with a broken finger at Antigua in 1990. Nick Knight’s ODI career was interrupted by a finger injury in 2000. His successor, Marcus Trescothick, missed Tests in 2002 with a broken digit.

I had been wondering what accounted for the quietening of this staccato of snapping bones. Had batsmen (and fielders) adjusted technique? Perhaps bowlers, or the pitches they pound, are less spiteful. Most prosaically of all, has the protection provided by batting gloves developed?

A little research shows that each of these may be true, particularly the glove design explanation, but my ear may just not be as well tuned to the snapping of bones as it used to be. In recent months, Graeme Smith, Eoin Morgan, Graham Onions (while fielding), Moises Henriques have all suffered breaks that make James Faulkner not look so much of a throwback.

So instead of theorising about the decline of a once common injury I’m starting to realise that finger injuries were more noticeable when England weren’t a winning team; when the player absent injured, we imagined, might have been the one to turn the tide. In more buoyant times, these setbacks are easily forgotten as the team motors on.

With England moving towards a probable Ashes defeat, I wonder whether we are about to enter another period of fragile fingered England batsmen.

Highlights

ashes highlightsThe diffidence of British broadcasters towards international cricket highlights surprises me. None of the four main terrestrial channels is showing the daily retrospective of the current Ashes series in Australia. The caché of carrying sporting events live is understandable, but highlights programmes play a critical part in engaging the cricket following community.

The sleep sacrifice (or time shift) required to follow overseas tours live is only for the very dedicated or under-occupied. Most of the hours of play in internationals in the home summer clash with regular business hours, making live viewing out of bounds for many. An end of day highlights programme re-connects to the game these viewers, as well as all of the cricket followers who, for reasons of finance or principle, will not pay to take the channels of the live broadcast rights holders.

I feel I need to assimilate each day of Test cricket played by England: understand the relative positions of the teams, appreciate whose performances have influenced those positions, experience the instances or passages of play that exemplify a player, a contest or a theme. Unable to watch, or follow, most days’ play in real time, the highlights more than any other method have the potential to fulfil this need I have to internalise the day’s play.

In the UK, Sky continue to complement their live coverage with a highlights programme shown at two, three or four different times between the close of one day’s play and the start of the next. Channel 5 are the most recent terrestrial carrier of something similar for home Tests.

Although a fairly frequent viewer of these programmes, I am usually underwhelmed. This is most noticeable when the programme host is wrapping up the show, enthusing about a thrilling day’s play. I am rarely sharing their enthusiasm, experiencing, at best, a warm glow if England have prospered.

Is this distancing from the events of the day inevitable in a condensed, after the event presentation? Does knowing the score and the outline of the day invariably rob my viewing of its excitement? While it seems likely that these are inherent weaknesses of the highlights product, I was interested to see if their current format also played a part.

To get some more insight, I have completed some content and quantitative analysis of the Sky highlights show for day 3 of the Adelaide Ashes Test.

The programme lasted 58 minutes, eight of which were spent on two commercial breaks. I timed how much of the remaining 50 minutes comprised ‘live’ coverage (defined below) and noted how much of the day’s play, using the currency of deliveries, was shown.

By ‘live’ coverage, I mean from the bowler beginning his run up until a break in the transmission to show a replay or advertisement. Included in this category – along with the core bowler bowling, batter batting – would be reaction shots and some visual filler while the commentator completed a comment. There were 27 mins, 21 seconds of ‘live’ coverage – around 55% of the programming time available (net of commercials).

Day 3 saw 518 legal deliveries bowled. 82 (16%) made it onto the highlights show. Most of the 45% of programming time not spent on ‘live’ coverage comprised replays. 35 deliveries (43% of those featured) were shown in replay, most from more than one angle.

More detail is provided in the table below, divided into the three sessions, which conventionally match the portions of the programme separated by the two commercial breaks.

Table 1 – Highlights coverage timings

Programme segment duration (mins) match coverage (mins) live (min:secs)
1 19 16 10:49
2 16 15 08:07
3 15 13 08:25

Table 2 – Highlights content

Programme segment Deliveries in session Deliveries in highlights Runs in session Runs in highlights Wickets Deliveries replayed
1 162 32 81 n/r 3 13
2 122 24 56 44 6 12
3 234 26 132 70 3 11

32 of the 50 deliveries shown in sessions 2 and 3 were boundary hits or wickets. 5% of deliveries that didn’t take wickets or get hit for boundaries were shown – 100% of those that had either premium outcome naturally made it into the highlights.

The broadcast was very effective at showing the top 10% most exciting and significant deliveries (the highlights!). The viewer’s appreciation of these moments was enhanced by replays from different angles, the players’ reactions and the commentators’ descriptions. But is too much of the context of the match sacrificed?

In the morning session, Michael Carberry’s dismissal came after five consecutive maidens were bowled by Harris and Watson. Dot balls do not make highlights. But would that passage of play have been conveyed more effectively if the 17 dot balls played by Carberry had been shown in rapid succession (c.50 seconds required) culminating in him pulling the ball to Warner at square leg?

To do that, the editor must find 50 seconds to take from elsewhere in the package. I have written before about the visual media’s fetish for wicket celebrations. I would trade some of those hugs and high-fives for a little more context in the form of additional ‘live coverage’, even of dot balls.

I doubt the broadcasters will be swayed by my argument. The highlights programme must be compiled rapidly at the end of the day’s play, making a more nuanced presentation unlikely. I also suspect that I – and you as a reader of a cricket blog – am not the target audience. I will return to this subject shortly. In the meantime, do highlights shows leave you a little low, or do you find they hit the right notes?