Ashes Daily – To follow-on or not to follow-on: that is the question.

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England have been behind the eight ball since Joe Root won the toss and decided to bowl four days ago, but if England go on to win tomorrow the question on everybody’s lips will be ‘gee, I wonder if the result would be different had Smith enforced the follow-on’.

At face value Smith’s decision to bat again after dismissing the fragile English batting line-up makes sense.

The seamers had already bowled 76 overs and when you are carrying just three fast bowlers and a sole spinner through a five-match test series it is wise to give them a rest when the opportunity presents itself.

But consider the message enforcing the follow-on would’ve sent to England, who were bowled out for just 227 after seeing Australia pile on double that in a day and a half.

Had they been sent straight back in while the memories of the first innings carnage were fresh in the mind, England’s batsmen would’ve been low on confidence rather than buoyed by the possibility of a history-defying win for the ages stemming from impeccable swing and seam bowling.

No batsmen at any level enjoys batting after a failure in the first innings because the pressure is on to avoid back-to-back low scores.

Fall cheaply twice in a test match and all of a sudden your career hangs by a thread.

You begin to question facets of your game and technique that were once completed without question while rumours swirl in the press of a likely replacement for the next match.

Four of England’s top 5 failed to go past 20 in England’s first innings; three of those are finding their way in test cricket and, had they been put back in on the evening of day three and dismissed cheaply once again, it might have set the tone for the remainder of the series.

Where is our next run coming from? How can we score over 300 against these bowlers?

Our next game is at the WACA – we could get rolled for 100.

Australia’s bowlers would’ve looked more like the formidable West Indian attack of the nineties and the mind games that are so important in the Ashes would’ve set a cat amongst the pigeons in the English camp, potentially leading to further Overton-esque changes.

By electing to bat again, Smith has inadvertently given up Australia’s stranglehold on both the test match and the series.

All of a sudden the English don’t fear the Australian quicks, while the batsmen, who were previously infallible in their home conditions, are as human as the rest of us after all.

Cracks begin to form in the Australian batting ranks and before you know it the pressure is right back on them to avoid a loss to the old enemy on home soil.

If you need evidence of this, look no further than Peter Handscomb who could find himself out of the side if Australia goes down tomorrow.

Had Smith enforced the follow-on, Handscomb walks away with a score of 36 – assuming, of course, that Australia weren’t required to bat again – and is automatically retained for the third test at the WACA.

A loss under such circumstances, however, shines a spotlight on technical deficiencies that are swept under the rug when a side goes through a series unbeaten.

Smith’s decision has further ramifications that can’t necessarily be quantified. England have gained confidence in their ability to dismiss the Australians, and, if they complete the job tomorrow, their batting is capable of what can only be described as a statistical impossibility.

A stat was flashed up on Channel Nine’s telecast today. It detailed the highest run chases in test history at the Adelaide Oval.

The last side to chase down a score over 300 was way back in the early 1900’s when wickets were uncovered and every delivery sent down by the opposition quicks was a  potential landmine.

If a side can do it in these conditions, it can’t be difficult to replicate such a feat on an artificially concocted drop-in wicket.

Even if the visitors fail, they have been given a huge leg up by a decision that could well decide the path this series takes.

Ashes Daily – Where have we seen this before? Dogged England show fight to keep faint title hopes alive.

 

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Nothing but a memory now…An image from day two of the first 2017 Ashes test at the Gabba.

 

Today’s play showed exactly why the Ashes is seen as one of the most exciting sporting spectacles on the planet.

England’s batting crumbled as many predicted it would, before the Australians, electing not to enforce the follow-on, lost four of their own under the bright Adelaide lights.

Jimmy Anderson and Chris Woakes were the architects of England’s recovery. Both made the ball talk in a way it hasn’t so far this series to give their batsman a chance of saving the test match if – and it’s a big if – they manage to dismiss the Australians for under 150 tomorrow morning.

If the Aussie quicks are let loose on the fragile English batting lineup for any longer than 4 sessions you get the feeling that it will be good night Irene by midway through the final day.

Give the England batsmen a total of 320 though and it’s amazing what confidence from a dogged bowling effort can do.

Australia will need to produce the magic they did earlier today to dismiss proven performers like Root and Cook who have managed to get England out of the woods from a similar position several times in the past.

Both threw their wickets away this morning; Root pushing at a wide half-volley; Cook playing at a rather unthreatening delivery from Lyon with an open blade. Given another chance, it is unlikely they will fall in the same fashion.

Australia will, however, have the advantage of bowling under lights for two sessions before the end of this test match.

If the ball swings and seams like it did for Anderson, Broad and Woakes this evening, England’s junior brigade will have no hope of fending off Australia’s quicks to save the game.

Just as impressive as England’s evening session were the Australian seamers who it appears have finally hit their straps.

Despite winning comprehensively at the Gabba, you got the sense that the quicks were below their best.

Cummins was on the short side for most of the first innings while Hazlewood looked to be down on pace.

Starc produced moments of brilliance but has improved with every over as the series has progressed.

One cannot write an article without mentioning the legend that is Nathan Lyon. It was only a year ago that he was on the outer following a tough series against South Africa and when Australia arrived at the Gabba for the first test against Pakistan, it looked as if Lyon might be left out.

The selectors opted in favour of the spinner over a fourth seamer and, since earning a regular spot, finds himself atop the wicket-takers list for 2017.

Of the top five players on that list, four are spinners.

Lyon has gone past Sri Lankan maestro Rangana Herath and usurped South African seamer Kagiso Rabada.

Joining him at the top of the leaderboard is Ravi Ashwin, who also has 55 wickets. Lyon, however, has played 2 fewer games.

By the end of his career, Lyon will have surpassed many of the game’s greatest bowlers on the all-time leading wicket-takers list.

He is the glue that holds the Australian bowling attack together and has played a role in many of the wickets taken by the quicks down the other end.

They say you should judge an off-spinner on their ability to bowl their side to victory on the fifth day of a test match.

Many Australian spinners have had their day in the sun – Hauritz on the fifth day at the SCG in 2010 against Pakistan being one such example – but few have managed to do the heavy lifting on wearing wickets all over the world like Lyon does on a consistent basis.

If he continues the way he has so far this Ashes series, he might outlast the likes of Warner and Marsh who will step down when younger players with quicker reflexes hit the big time.

No off-spinner is currently putting their hand up for test selection in the Shield competition other than Agar, whom the selectors prefer to play deputy to Lyon on away tours to the sub-continent as he lacks the incumbent’s control.

Jon Holand and Steve O’Keefe are also on the radar but haven’t put their hands up when given the opportunity and are reaching the twilight of their respective careers.

Lyon, much like Warne, is a fan favourite and with this comes an enormous ego boost that helps a bowler’s confidence when stood at the top of their mark.

If Australia are to win this test match, Lyon must stand up once again and their batsmen must push the lead beyond 350. Any less and they are leaving the door open for an Australian like comeback at Adelaide in 2006.

It seems unlikely, but we musn’t forget that Root and Cook, not to mention Bairstow and Ali, have conquered uphill battles like this before.

You have to wonder what the English press would make of England’s bowling performance tonight if Stokes was in the side.

350? Pfft. We’ll do that inside two sessions. Remember Cape Town?

Tomorrow’s morning session will decide the test match.

Ashes Daily – England’s bowling attack requires fire and brimstone

 

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Day One of the first test at the Gabba.

 

The English bowlers were well below their best at the Gabba last week. Broad and Anderson struggled to find rhythm, while Ball and Woakes looked tame at times and downright predictable at others. It seems to me that there is a lot of sameness about the English attack. Where is the out and out quick that strikes fear into the hearts of the batsmen? History tells us that if you want to stay competitive in an Ashes series, you’re going to have to try some short stuff from time to time. It worked for Australia at the back end of the first innings and most of the second – particularly against the tailenders – but England don’t have the bowlers capable of replicating this tactic.

Anderson, Ball and Woakes are all in the team to pitch the ball up and make it swing, but this plan of attack is ineffective when the pitch isn’t offering the sideways movement of Trent Bridge or Lord’s. When playing on flat wickets, the likes of which England will encounter at the SCG and MCG, bowlers must bend their backs and intimidate rather than float it up and pray for seam movement. Broad is the man that posses the pace required to execute a leg-side trap, but Anderson – whose record in Australia is rather disappointing for a bowler of his calibre – Ball and Woakes are all working towards a common goal that in Australia, with a Kookaburra ball and flat drop-in wickets, can be a frivolous task.

England would do well to bring in a Mark Wood, who is currently on tour here in Australia with the Lions, or Liam Plunkett, who appears to have been pigeonholed in the shorter formats. I must admit I haven’t seen a lot of Overton and he could well be the man that adds some variety to an otherwise similar bowling attack. If so, the sooner they get him in the side the better. An attack featuring Ball and Wokes alongside Anderson and Broad is incapable of getting the job done at the WACA, where pace and bounce – and more importantly, who uses it best – often dictates the outcome of the game.

We all knew not having Stokes in the side would greatly weaken the English batting lineup, but it seems it has hurt the bowling unit just as much. Not only does he add the mungrel to get under the skin of the Australian batsmen, he adds variety to the pace attack that can trouble batsmen on flat wickets where swing bowling won’t cut the bacon during the second innings.

Adelaide and the pink ball will suit the English quicks because the wicket will play into their hands and allow them to gain reward from standing the seam up as they would in England. As soon as they move on to the WACA, they require a point of difference to avoid the embarrassment of the Gabba. That point of difference is someone who can successfully execute a 145 kph short ball directed at the batsman’s badge.

Ashes 2017 – First Test Review

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If England are to take one positive away from the first test at the Gabba, it is that they were in the contest for the best part of three days.

Many touring sides walk away from the ‘Gabbatoir’ with egos damaged, reputations tarnished and careers in tatters.

This was certainly the case in 2013/14 when England came to the Gabba and were blown away inside four days by Mitchell Johnson.

Jonathan Trott and Graeme Swan were left with psychological scars so deep they returned home, while the remainder of the English dressing room were left puzzled as to how they would go about thwarting the firebrand quick for the rest of the series.

They never recovered and went on to lose 5-0.

Years earlier Simon Jones, who had shown signs he could become a prolific wicket taker for England in the few overs he got to bowl before plugging his knee in the Gabba outfield during the first test of the 2002/03 series, was whisked off to hospital and took no further part in the tour.

England also had 350 runs put on them on that first day at the Gabba after Nasser Hussain decided he would make his bowlers toil on a wicket harder than the M1.

To no one’s surprise, England lost that series 4-1, with their only relief coming in the final test of the summer at the SCG.

The first test of this summer didn’t follow the conventional Gabba storylines.

Few England players have been left with deep psychological scars despite the fact they lost by a margin of 10 wickets and many key batsman failed to score runs – Alastair Cook being one of those.

Normally it is the quicks who leave batsmen fearing for their collective futures at the Gabba. But the first test of this Ashes summer belonged to Nathan Lyon, and you get the feeling most of the English left handers will be losing sleep over him rather than Starc and Hazlewood.

Malan and Stoneman were both dismissed in the second innings prodding at a ball that ripped and turned from the footmarks outside off stump.

They had no set plan to the off spinner and spent most of their time plonking their front foot down the line of off-stump, hoping the ball would go straight on to hit the middle of the bat.

Kevin Pietersen made mention in the aftermath of the first test that the English batsmen must go after Lyon or risk being bogged down and eventually lose their wicket without progressing the score.

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Hazlewood to Malan on Day one at the Gabba.

You sense that Lyon was able to contain the English batsmen during the first test because, to put it simply, they were scared to leave their crease.

With the ball spinning and bouncing, the risk of being stumped became far greater and so they reverted to playing with soft hands and a vertical bat.

Taking one method of dismissal out of the equation betters your chance of survival, right?

Wrong.

Nathan Lyon is the kind of bowler that will immediately find a second gear if he gets a sniff.

With many of the English batsmen new to the test arena, Lyon was able to play on their vulnerabilities and improve his chances of taking a wicket by removing the only way he is ever put off his length – the dancing feet of an opposition batsman.

When a batsmen is rooted to the crease, as the likes of Bell and Prior were back in 2013, Lyon fires.

He can build up pressure around the bat and let the rough do the talking while the batsmen push and prod in the hope of survival.

If a batsmen goes after him, as many touring sides have done in the past, he begins to drop the ball short and run scoring becomes far easier.

The sooner the English batsmen realise this, the better chance they are of scoring over 400 in Adelaide and beyond without Stokes.

Of course, there is still the quicks to contend with, but they will be far less threatening if Lyon isn’t building up pressure down the other end.

For the better part of the first innings at the Gabba, Australia’s bowlers were far too short. This could easily be blamed on the slowness of the Gabba wicket, for if it had played normally – as it did in the second innings – the shorter length may well have been effective.

But the Australian quicks, Cummins in particular, were too short too often and went looking for a mode of dismissal that was nigh on impossible during much of the first innings.

Only when the wicket quickened up did the back-of-a-length tactic pay dividends.

For the reminder of the summer, the WACA aside, the wickets will be flat, slow and might even seam from time to time.

The benefit of touring Australia is that you play on drop in wickets that are devoid of life and flatter than a pancake after a day and a half.

If England can win in Adelaide, there’s a chance they can win the series. Lose and there is no coming back with a game at the WACA to come.

Tests at the Gabba and WACA are so often seen as the games that make or break a series because the wickets at both venues play into Australia’s hands.

But Adelaide is now seen as the tie-breaker because the games at the MCG and SCG could go either way.

If England lose in Adelaide, the series is all but sewn up for Australia.

If this scenario transpires, all hell could break lose in England’s camp and we could witness a repeat of the carnage and turmoil of their last trip down under.

Australia have the upper hand but Adelaide will tell us a lot about the direction this Ashes series is headed.

 

A post mortem of Australia’s cursed Champions Trophy campaign

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Finch and Smith in the cordon – Photo: Indian Express

Losing to the Poms is always a bitter pill for Australian’s to swallow, but it is made far worse when it occurs in a must-win game at fortress Edgbaston and results in the elimination from a tournament you’re expected to get within touching distance of winning.

Sure, we can blame the rain for ending a game we should’ve won. Bangladesh will go through to the finals but they were totally outplayed by Australia and should consider themselves more than lucky.

They finish on three points having beaten New Zealand at Cardiff, and more thrilled for them I could not be. However, something must be done about the DLS system, because Australia have been robbed of the chance to show their wares beyond a sudden death group stage match-up that for only a fleeting moment they looked capable of winning.

Bangladesh have not played better cricket than Australia. Yet they are the one’s progressing to the finals.

At the Oval on Tuesday, Australia were within four overs of sending the Bangladeshis packing when rain intervened and both sides were gifted a point, much to the delight of their captain Mashrafe Mortaza, who said in no uncertain terms that Australia totally outplayed Bangadesh and were on a collision course for victory.

That’s it. Four overs was the difference between qualification and a plane ticket home. How can this be justified?

Call me a whinging Australian with a God complex, but that Australia, the better of the two sides, cannot progress beyond the group stage despite demonstrating their dominance over the very opponents that will, means there is something seriously wrong with the current system that decides upon a victor in the event of rain.

There are no two ways about it, Australia played poor cricket against England and deserved to be beaten. In fact, nothing about the brand of cricket they played across the entire tournament said they were entitled to a finals berth.

In the games against New Zealand and England, the bowlers lost their radar and were unable to take wickets at regular intervals nor stem the flow of runs when batsmen were set; so inconsistent was their line and length. King of the ODI castle Mitchell Starc was Reduced to a mere peasant, rarely able to hone in on a yorker length as he did so routinely back in the 2015 World Cup. Cummins, for all his star power and raw pace, was more expensive than a three course meal at a Turkish restaurant; the quicker he delivered the ball, the quicker it found the rope.

Only Hazlewood and Zampa can be commended for their performances with ball in hand. The former will return to Australia having bagged nine wickets in just three, rain affected matches, while the latter, often neglected by his captain at crucial stages of the innings, can depart knowing he has made a difference in this tournament.

While he couldn’t match the feats of Adil Rashid, who himself has battled through periods without the full backing of selectors, his craft is slowly developing and he is now apart of the fabric of Australia’s ODI team. Why Smith elected to bowl part time slow-bowler Travis Head before him, a specialist leg-spinner, beggars belief and was a tactic that failed to produce enough wicket taking opportunities for it to remain a viable option. Hopefully Australia have learnt their lesson and will stray from this line of thinking in the future.

It was a strange tournament for the batsmen. We can make all the excuses in the world about the weather preventing them from getting any semblance of match practice under their belts, but they are professionals and we need to see more in the way of adaptability.

Finch, a man who is no stranger to English conditions, looked out of touch in the first two games but returned in the last with a typically defiant innings filled with strokes born of power and aggression. His opening partner was just as fluent, but was dismissed after a promising start which saw him crunch a few boundaries in quick succession to kick-start Australia’s innings. If Australia were to win, he too needed to join Finch in reaching a half century at the very least. A start of 21 was never going to suffice.

Other notable performances came from captain Steve Smith, who continues to tick milestones off his list, and Travis Head, whose late order hitting edged Australia towards a respectable total. The rest were, without sugar coating it, extremely poor.

It was rather stupefying not to see Chris Lynn force his way into the Australian side for their clash with England. Moises Henriques was again given the nod ahead of him and provided nothing after a strong start from the top three, eventually falling to a poor stroke which saw Smith hammer the turf with his bat in frustration, perhaps acknowledging he had made the wrong decision.

There is no doubt Chris Lynn was the perfect man for the situation Henriques found himself in. Finch, Warner and Smith had set a platform and Australia were looking at a total of 300+ which, given England’s track record post the 2015 WC, was a requirement if they were to win and progress to the finals.

Lynn’s free-flowing stroke-play and absence of fear could have seen him capitalise on what was, at the time, some wayward bowling from Plunkett and Stokes. But Smith persisted with Henriques, perhaps hoping that his potential and raw skill would transform into an X-factor that could influence the game and help set a challenging total for England’s batsmen. As it stands, he leaves the Champions Trophy with a lowly average of 9 and his career hanging by a thread.

Speaking of outlandish selections, why was Pattinson, and Hastings for that matter, consigned to the carrying of drinks? For those who are unaware, Pattinson has been playing county cricket for Nottinghamshire and performing admirably in the Royal London one-day cup. Of all the Australian’s, he would’ve no doubt understood the conditions more than his other fast bowling counterparts who have been lapping up the dusty wickets in the IPL, yet he was never given the opportunity.

There is a pecking order in Australian cricket and Cummins, quite clearly, through pace and perhaps a smidgen of extra experience, is currently ahead of the Victorian spearhead.

So where do Australia stand now in ODI cricket? Like I said in my last article, they are far from the side that took the field against New Zeland in the World Cup final of 2015; lacking as they are both in experience and genuine match winners capable of matching it with the Stokes, de Villiers and Kohli’s of the world.

Clarke and Johnson, two of Australia’s finest warriors, have left a hole in the ODI side bigger than those at Gina Rinehart’s mining sites. For this reason, and many others that are within the players’ control but don’t appear any closer to a solution, Australia are now well below the powerhouses of the international game – India, England and, err, South Africa – and languishing somewhere around the middle of the field which is currently occupied by New Zealand and Pakistan. They are powerful at their best and woefully inconsistent at their worst.

Sure, some of the stars of the game reside in Australia’s side, but if we can take one thing away from this Champions Trophy it is that you need substance beyond your top order. New Zealand didn’t have it; neither did Australia. But England sure do, and India, with Dhoni and Yuvraj at the helm, have it in spades. That is why we are set for a repeat of the final of four years ago once again this time around. Bat is dominant over ball in this era and a strong order can atone for the sins of the bowlers.

Buckle your seat belts, folks. We are in for a wild ride!

The links between television and the games’ growth cannot be understated

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The Kerry Packer legacy lives on today. Photo: Daily Telegraph

Last Wednesday marked 40 years since the Kerry Packer circus revolutionised the game forever. In many ways, Packer and Channel Nine are in part responsible for cricket as we know it today: flashy, colorful, high octance and perhaps most importantly, giving players the opportunity to accrue wealth beyond their wildest dreams. The television rights for the IPL are so expensive that broadcasters in Australia, who have already outlaid a great deal of cash for home test matches and the month-long BBL bonanza, simply cannot afford them. Elsewhere, in countries such as the UK, New Zealand and even the United States, you’ll need to pay a pretty penny for a pay tv subscription to gain access to the marvels of a Rising Pune Supergiant runchase, or to see a young, uncapped Indian spinner being blasted to all parts of the ground by Virat Kohli, much to the delight of an adoring crowd.

The point here is that television, and its vast riches, rule cricket and has done so for some 40 years now. The IPL, BBL and every other t20 franchise tournament around the globe would be nowhere without the revenue generated through exorbitantly priced television rights deals negotiated between cricket boards and broadcasters. Take away the popularity of the shortest form though, and those television rights would be worth a duck egg. Packer, gifted with a once in a generation business mind and the kind of stubbornness that would rarely see him fail to close a deal with favourable outcomes for Nine, identified 40 years ago that the fan should be the television networks biggest priority because without them, he would be at a loss and, though this wasn’t his modus operandi, so would cricket.

So he got to work designing a competition that would suit television and benefit his media empire. Shortly after losing out on securing the rights to Australian test cricket in the 1970’s, he realised that the game was falling behind. Television audiences were down and, for a businessman as sharp of wit and money obsessed as Packer was, saw to it that these circumstances be rectified.

Limited-overs cricket was soon conceived, a format that promised to maximise viewership through its television friendly sessions of play. Unlike a Test match, fans could park themselves in front of the TV and take in a game in just a few hours, rather than having to wait five days for a result to eventually be reached. This made perfect business sense. Nothing would hook the viewer in more than a game featuring multiple flashpoints that reaches a crescendo shortly before tea time. It was a television goldmine, but further tinkering was still required.

Not yet content with the outcomes of his newly formed competition, Packer and his associates at Nine decided they needed to try something rash, something that would completely change the complexion of cricket and dramatically increase viewing numbers to a level that would sustain profitability. They achieved this by introducing white balls, coloured clothing, floodlit cricket and, perhaps most notably, by giving players rock star paychecks to secure their signatures and tie them down to World Series Cricket. To this day we are still seeing large sums of money lure players away from their commitments at county and international level. Ben Stokes was payed 1.7 million pounds at the last IPL auction and missed two matches for England against Ireland just over a week ago, as did Jos Butler and Chris Woakes. They chose instead to stay on with their IPL franchises, a contentious decision but one that is becoming less so as a result of the regularity with which it now occurs.

It is quite clear that the old school values and practices Packer introduced all those years ago as part of his master plan still live on in the t20 age. He was well before his time in this regard, which probably explains why many believed he was the godfather of cricket and the games’ most influential figure. But we shouldn’t overlook what allowed the humble ‘Supertest’ to develop into the world renowned one-day phenomenon that is still in operation today. The links that can be drawn between what made the Packer empire tick, and what is currently allowing the T20 format to flourish and reach the untapped markets, are there for all to see.

Television is, of course, cricket’s single greatest asset and the ECB must realise that the wealth boards around the world have made from T20 has not been gained through sponsorship’s and ticket sales, but through broadcast rights. If they take one lesson from Packer and the success he had, it is this: cricket fans of all classes, as well as those with only a rudimentary understanding of the game, must be exposed to the sport on a regular basis otherwise it will ultimately fail in its pursuit of increasing revenue and garnering interest amongst the general population. Whether this is achieved through airing it on terrestrial television, or by selling subscriptions at a low cost to the owners of smartphones and/or tablets on an app dedicated to county cricket, one thing is certain – Sky can no longer hold the monopoly. For far too long cricket lovers have been forced to pay through the nose to watch Alastair Cook open the batting for England, or to see up and comer Mason Crane master his craft at Hampshire. If not, they might catch a short glimpse of the days play on Channel Five’s one hour highlights package. What this has achieved though is not of benefit to the ECB, nor the marginalized supporter base. How can the game grow if up to two-thirds of the population cannot access it?

While Packer did not have to co-exist with Pay TV in the 1970’s, he still understood that if nobody is tuned-in, the product is worthless to corporate investors or sponsors and will eventually die off. That is the direction the ECB is headed. And that is why they must ensure the new city-based competition is made available to all audiences on terrestrial television. If the fan, or the channel surfer looking for some entertainment over dinner, is not aware that a game between London and Southampton is on because it has been hidden behind a pay-wall, then the outcome for the ECB is an obvious one: the tournament will not earn enough money to continue operation and will be worthless to television broadcasters, which, as we know, play an enormously influential role in the game’s popularity. It’s a loss-loss situation for the ECB.

When the BBL came into existence six years ago, Foxtel, Australia’s number one Pay TV service, held exclusive rights to the tournament. After a brief period of success during the opening season, interest began to fade, signaling the end to a short lived honeymoon period where, despite disappointing viewership figures, CA caught a glimpse of what this league was capable of. In 2013, the rights were secured by free-to-air television network Channel 10, and the potential CA saw in its brief vigil on Pay TV was finally realised. Since its transition to the FTA network, the league hasn’t looked back and interest continues to peak. It is any wonder it took CA close to a decade to realise that making the Big Bash available to just over 50 percent of the population would mean it would struggle for an audience. You have to question whether changing it from a state based competition to a tournament played between contrived and bizarrely named city teams made any difference whatsoever, or whether it was purely the fact that the whole of Australia now had a means by which to watch it. Common sense seems to get thrown out the window a lot these days by cricket boards when it comes to growing the game.

The counter argument to all of this is constantly repeated by cynics: “If the competition is worth the same amount on Pay TV as it is on FTA, what incentive does the ECB have to offer it to a terrestrial network? The answer to this is, of course, dependent on how you define worth. Sure, the monetary value of the television rights might well be equal no matter who purchases them, but its worth to the viewer decreases dramatically when hidden behind a pay-wall. And without an audience, the television rights will not appreciate in value nearly as much as they could if it was televised for free. Just like interest in theater would decline if there was to be a sudden hike in ticket prices, or if certain blockbuster movies were only screened in a select number of cinemas. This is what the ECB is doing – confining it to the households of a small minority, effectively reducing how much it can make at the box-office.

When Channel Ten purchased the rights to the BBL five years ago, they payed just $100 million for a five-year deal. That value has now more than doubled, with the rights expected to be sold for around $250 million when they are put up for sale next year. Exposure counts. Packer realised this forty years ago and yet cricket boards are still in the dark over the fruits of free-to-air television. The T20 game is built for broadcast, just as World Series Cricket was during the 1970’s, so why can’t it be a driver of growth?

Some may say that by taking this approach we risk selling out the game and turn it into something no more attractive or unique than a Wednesday night soap-opera. But the ECB must stop stalling and take a risk that will see them rejoin the pack of cricketing boards who have welcomed the broadcast of T20 on FTA with open arms and reaped the rewards.

ECB must face tough questions before launching franchise T20 juggernaut

It has been seven months since the counties voted in favour of a franchise style t20 tournament that will revolutionise and reconfigure the cricketing landscape in England forever. Over this period, the debate around its feasibility has not subsided and the repercussions are suddenly being felt as we travel into a new season that will for the last time, it seems, go uninterrupted by t20 cricket played until the cows come home.

At present, this competition – its groundwork, its structure and how it plans on selling itself to the out-of-favor counties, but more importantly, the fans – is still very much an unknown. What we are certain of is that chairman Colin Graves, who has envisaged the many financial benefits and growth opportunities that a city-based t20 tournament can bring the ECB since he first layed eyes on the Big Bash, is fed up with being the black sheep of the cricketing world; operating a t20 league with little appeal to both fan and player. The ECB, Graves, Strauss and Harrison now have their foot in the door following that grim evening in the Lord’s Long Room that, to this day, threatens to tear at the fabric of English cricket and divide the counties into two distinct categories – the powerhouses and the financially unstable.

Around the time the counties voted in favour of the radical changes to t20 cricket in England by a margin of 16 to 3, Graves was accused of a conflict of interest involving his family trust and Yorkshire County Cricket Club, who owed over $18 million to the organisation in October last year. Earlier that month, Durham were handed a penalty for failing to pay back the 7.5 million pounds worth of debt that the ECB themselves are in part responsible for. Many believed the punishment didn’t fit the crime and the unanimous cries of fans that protested against Durham’s treatment served as the ultimate proof. But one overriding theme endured – Durham would be playing in the second division in 2017 with little hope of returning to the top flight for at least the next few years thanks to the wrongdoings of the ECB.

First, there was the Chester-le-street stadium that the ECB recommended be built away from any other major landmarks, and urban hot spots, in a town with a population of just over 25,000 on last count. Not only does this make little business sense as far as getting fans to attend the ground is concerned – which they are essentially relying on to increase cash flow and cover the construction costs – but it also shows how unreliable and self-orientated the ECB are when it comes to providing financial advice to the administrators of small counties. Which is interesting when you consider that those counties are, if not in the traditional sense of the word, a member of the ECB and the financial decisions they make have flow on effects for English cricket.

Then there was the scheduling of test matches and other international events spanning right back to just after the 2013 Ashes test held at the ground. And this is where Graves’ conflict of interest begins to take shape. Last year, Chester-le-street held a test match between England and Sri Lanka – a game best remembered for Alastair Cook’s milestone surpassing innings – to which few fans attended, leaving Durham to lick their wounds, cut their losses and, you’d suspect, reach out to the ECB for financial support. Only three test matches have been held at the ground since 2009 and this trend is set to continue following the ECB’s decision to strip Chester-le-street of test match status as an add on to their already harsh punishment, leaving Durham with one single source of revenue that will likely originate at domestic level, not international. It also remains unlikely that Chester-le-street will host any Cricket World Cup matches featuring full-member nations, given that it will have little funds available to outbid the well-endowed counties. This has left Durham with but one option to break the cycle of debt without falling into further trouble – accept the ECB’s terms and buy into whatever get out of jail free enterprise they are offering.

Compare the treatment of Durham to Yorkshire, for in which Colin Graves has helped out during times of financial stress, and the conflict of interest concerns become blatantly apparent. Headingley has held test matches year in, year out for as long as I can remember and have almost always featured the likes of India, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. These high profile nations attract crowds of significant size, generate greater revenue, and thus allow the big counties to make a profit, not hemorrhage money in the way Durham and Hampshire do when they cannot cover the operating costs involved in staging a test due to the quality of opposition. And by awarding Headingley with a test match each year, not to mention the occasional ODI or international t20 match, Graves is able to increase the speed at which the repayments are made to the Graves Family Trust by Yorkshire. To top this off, the ECB have also been accused of an uneven distribution of funds.

Bearing the above in mind, there can be no question as to why the smaller counties such as Durham have voted in favour of a city based t20 competition. It is the only way they foresee an escape from the crippling cycle of debt that will affect their county on the field as much as will off it. They really had no other option but to jump on board the good ship ECB, that played a starring role in their demise, and ride it into the sunset in the hope that it may bring them some kind of financial security and see them return to the first division of the championship free of a burdening salary cap that immediately places them at the back of the field. But it could well be an empty promise if the re-branding sees fund distribution reach another extreme.

A colleague, visiting Australia from England, more specifically Kent, once told me that a Big Bash style competition couldn’t work in the old country because, quite simply speaking, it is not Australia; it has 18 counties that must all be represented, not six states. His logic, while simplistic and based solely on opinion, rang true. In this revenue driven cricketing economy the fan often goes unconsidered, or is there simply for the purpose of monitisation. Whether he/ she wants to see their county, and the championship, put on the back burner for the sake of a domestic t20 tournament bereft of context is often dismissed by the ECB, but it is a factor that must be considered if they want franchise cricket to strike a chord with the English public. The fan is their most important asset and ultimately decides whether it goes up in smoke or gains traction like it has in other parts of the world.

Australia expanded its Big Bash competition from six states to eight franchises six years ago, with each state having at least one team for which the local fans could follow. Since, it has not dared look back. Queensland, for example, is represented by the Brisbane Heat. NSW by either the Syndey Thunder, if you live in the western suburbs, or the Sydney Sixers, if you hail from the city. No state goes unrepresented, or stadium unused, and the expansion has in many ways covered more ground than it might have lost. The revenue has of course increased, but it is equally distributed amongst the states given that the franchises are not privately owned as they are in the IPL.

The ECB, with their city based competition, are essentially condensing the playing field and cutting off its blood supply when it should be doing the exact opposite. It isn’t modelling itself of Australia at all. If it was to follow the Big Bash’s blueprint, Cardiff wouldn’t be representing Somerset because, not only are they separate entities, but its fans have never had an allegiance with Glamorgan, where Cardiff would likely play the majority, if not all of their matches. So why should we expect them to start now?

I’ve long been an advocate for the t20 competition remaining in its current form with some slight remodeling, and if the initial plans to run the two tournaments in quick succession does indeed eventuate, I might just get my wish. But it would be ignorant to suggest that both will operate swimmingly along side each other without conflict caused by a competition for supporters and sponsorships. When one features the counties and the other cities – potentially giving one county more exposure and allowing them to operate independently – there is bound to be some friction as far as revenue sharing is concerned. If Manchester, for example, was to become one of the new city-based teams in the, lets call it ‘Super Slog’, taking players only from Lancashire and playing their home games at Old Trafford, would this not upset the balance and ratio of revenue distribution? Why not continue calling them the Lancashire Lightning?

If all counties are equal stakeholders and receive the same amount of money from television rights, sponsorship etc, than fair game. But this seems like an unrealistic expectation. Manchester would play games at Lancashire’s home ground, receive the windfall from ticket, merchandise and food sales, and the other counties wouldn’t see the light of day because the revenue would be divided up among one county. They would also take many of the current England stars playing for Lancashire – the likes of Jos Buttler or James Anderson – and reap the extra benefits from that, leaving the other city franchises, comprised of multiple counties, to fight among themselves for an even distribution of the revenue that would, more often than not, lie with the dominant county – Hampshire if Southampton was to be made up of Sussex and also Kent as The Cricketer has suggested in the past.

The ECB simply would not be able to police or enforce an even distribution of funds when so much is generated by the counties that have access to test match venues, and as such, are the most likely candidates to house one of the new city based teams. Not to mention that a few of these counties will have an entire franchise to themselves, giving them the perfect opportunity to grow their brand while the others are left in the dark. All of this big county favoritism is extremely unsettling and shows that the ECB are handing out special treatment in the knowledge that these counties are the major players as far as the generation of revenue is concerned. This in itself could lead to a seismic shift in the balance of power amongst the counties that would likely cause irreparable damage to the way we currently understand domestic cricket.

The Blast would stick around for a few years following the launch of a city based tournament, but if it was to be hidden behind a pay wall, as it has been for a number of years, and the franchise tournament took off abroad as well as at home, it would die a painful, yet swift death. The ECB would likely push for an expansion meaning extra games are played throughout the year, leaving no time for the Blast to take place. It’s happening in Australia already and their is a push for extra teams to be added to both increase revenue and raise the value of television rights. Oh, and to reach more rural areas in the hope of getting kids involved in cricket. This is something the Big Bash does extremely well.

We mustn’t underestimate the effects a city based league would have on the longevity and popularity of the County Championship either. With players flying in and out of one city and into another to take the field for their franchise, there is the possibility that those particular players, possibly key members of their respective sides, could miss entire games. Apart from bitter feuds between the counties, franchises and the ECB, this has the potential to weaken a county side to the point of relegation from the first division, and you can hardly expect the fans to take notice of the championship if their team’s best players aren’t on the park and struggling to win games as a direct result.

Then there’s the issue of scheduling and the reduction of championship fixtures if the t20 juggernaut takes off in England like it has done elsewhere. What would Graves be inclined to do when one competition is heavily outweighing the popularity of the other? Reduce its size of course. Just like the BCCI has done in India.

There would be a few losers if these circumstances were to arise but the biggest would undoubtedly be the English test side. Keaton Jennings and Haseeb Hameed were uncovered in the championship last year and found themselves on a plane to India soon after. They were fine additions to the England side and will likely take over from Cook as England’s opening pair when father time catches up with the journeyman. But if the breeding grounds to foster young players are no longer in place or dropping in quality, finding future test cricketers becomes increasingly difficult.

The ECB have plenty to weigh up before they make a decision that has the potential to change more than just a few team names and logos. Imagine a world in which Sussex, Leicester and Hampshire played in an entirely different league to Yorkshire and Lancashire; with its own independent board and separate scheduling. Now think about how this would affect the Championship or the One Day cup in their current form as well as English cricket at large, because it just might pan out this way if the ECB lets financial status dictate whether a county has to operate in conjunction with rival clubs, or independently.