The vicious circle killing club cricket

This year has been the hardest for me in terms of playing cricket, almost to the point where I’ve considered not playing.

It’s sad for me to say, but I don’t look forward to getting the whites on anymore. I don’t relish getting onto the field, because when push comes to shove – I’m just not that good, and I can admit it.

I’ve never been that good, but now it seems to matter, where previously it didn’t.

I work hard at improving, but really, I’m a bog-standard seam bowler with little consistency. I can’t catch, and I’ve never hit more than 20 with the bat.

Yet for so long, players like me played cricket in spite of a lack of ability.
We fielded poorly, getting a bit better each year, nipped in with the odd wicket, occasionally did something great, then turned up at winter nets to have a chat in February.

But there is an increasing pressure at this base level of club cricket, which has been eroding recreational players’ place in the game.

In the last decade, participation has gone down steadily due to a number of reasons.

No doubt cost is one, weather another, the fact that cricket is no longer on free-to-air TV is certainly up there, and probably, the prevalence of T20, offering fans regular high-octane action to feast on.

There were roughly 430,000 club cricketers in 2008, and in 2015-16, this had plummeted to below 280,000, according to http://www.statista.com, which is almost half of what it was 20 years ago. Admittedly, I saw other stats flying around, talking about recreational club cricketers being in the millions. I certainly haven’t found evidence so far.

As the numbers of players reduce, clubs are forced to downsize, and in turn opportunities dwindle for fringe players such as myself.

Instead of there being three elevens, like there was in my local side when I first started, there’s now only one eleven.

That one eleven plays only on Sunday in a league, which means if I play, I don’t bowl. I’m way down the pecking order. And more often than not, I don’t get to play, full stop.

This is a damaging chicken-and-egg situation.

The more recreational players that stop playing because they no longer get a proper game, the lower chance there is for fringe players like me, to get a game at all; as clubs have less players to chose from, week-in-week-out, in the long term.

This vicious circle makes it increasingly harder to grow local clubs and attract players.

The options for a player like me, is to have uncertain playing time, if I commit to my regular club. Or to not play, and contribute to the decline of participation in club cricket, or I guess, to go elsewhere; severing ties to friends I’ve made over the last 10 years.

In reality, I am just a domino.
I’m one person, in a long line of recreational players, who have reached a point where they don’t feel it’s worth playing.

This isn’t meant to be a self-indulgent sob story, but unless something is done to incentivise clubs to keep fringe players like me, struggling clubs will only struggle more, as recreational cricketers drop off the radar.

For now, I am not going to give up. I love playing cricket, even if at times it’s the most frustrating think in the world. But I know of so many people who have, and even more are considering it, and there is a certain sense of inevitability, that at some point, it may be me.

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Why Anderson can’t be the greatest


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James Anderson’s home-away imbalance doesn’t prevent him being a great, but it might stop him being the greatest.

His achievement of reaching 500 Test wickets will no doubt generate a plethora of think pieces saying he’s either  unquestionably the best ever, or moaning at how overrated he is. The reality his, he’s somewhere in the middle of great and overrated.

His dominance at home makes him, probably, the best quick there’s been in English conditions. But his stats abroad means overall record requires a caveat.

Taking 500 wickets is no mean feat.

It puts him in an elite club, synonymous with being ‘Great’

The question is, whether he deserves to be at the top, even if he surpasses all others.

The simple answer is no.

Currently, the Burnley quick is perched at sixth in the all time ‘most wickets’ rankings, and third in terms of seam bowlers.

Only Glenn McGrath (563) and Courtney Walsh (519) are realistic targets for Anderson to go past, but even passing those two doesn’t mean he’s better than them.

Indeed, it doesn’t even mean he’s better than people he went past a long time ago – such as Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Dennis Lillee.

In England, Anderson is extremely good. He’s taken 19 of 23 five-wicket-halls at home. He has taken 66% of his wickets at home (329 out of 501).

Away from home, he’s simply not world class.

Anderson has just 34% of his wickets – 171 out of 501 away (including neutral venues).

Even his averages are miles, with 24 at home, and 33 away.

In this respect, he’s not as good as his closest rivals, or those he’s gone past in the ‘Most Wickets’ list. You’d still have a bowler of his class in any England side, home or away. But when comparing greats – there are fine margins.

McGrath’s home-away record is far superior than Anderson’s with 51% of scalps at home, and 49% away (with a better average and haul of five-wickets in an innings away too).

Courtney Walsh took more wickets away from home (290/519) and like McGrath, took more five-fers away.

So many of the bowlers Anderson has surpassed a while ago, including Kapil Dev, Sir Richard Hadlee, Shaun Pollock and others, had a more even home-away records too.

This means they were more adaptable.

They excelled in different conditions, and overcame others’ home advantage better.

Maybe Anderson is a better swing bowler than some of these greats – but as an overall record – he’s not on the same level, apart from statistically.

Anderson is  an English great.

He’s probably the greatest English bowler in English conditions ever.

Maybe one of the best swing bowlers ever.

But regardless of where he ends up on the ‘most wickets’ list, he isn’t the greatest seamer ever.

Investment in Moeen shows way forward for top-order conundrum


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The trust and persistence placed in Moeen Ali is how England should approach their top-order conundrum.

After a decade of success, English cricket demands instantaneous results, but this approach has cut off the side’s nose to spite their face.

Selection policy has become impatient and short sighted when it comes to the top order.

Alastair Cook has gone through 11 opening partners since the retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012, now compounded by more gaps at numbers three and five.

Yet in the midst of chaos, Moeen Ali has emerged as a reliable and increasingly threatening allrounder.

But, it’s easy to reflect on his 25 wickets and over 252 runs against South Africa with rose tinted glasses.

It hasn’t always been plain sailing. Moeen Ali has batted in every position from one to nine, only scored one century in his first 20 Tests, and was averaging more than 50 in 2016.

England stuck with him, because they believed in him. They wanted Moeen because of the potential he offered. Perhaps the biggest seal of approval, was the bringing in Saqlain Mushtaq to assist him. Moeen has now said he wants him there permanently.

Ali has been an investment for England. His form has been changeable, but the concept is right.

The question, is why have England openers not been invested in? They have been tried and trashed. Quickly.

It ultimately lies in trust.

England have picked openers because of county form, with the hope they’d continue that. But they couldn’t, or at least not instantaneously.

But, It takes time to adapt. Keaton Jennings, like Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook scored a century on debut, and now he looks frail. But, no more frail than how Moeen himself looked in the first two years of his career – when he showed inconsistency.

They kept him and trusted him to recover. The investment was seen as worthwhile.

Jennings, and the hoard of other openers, haven’t been trusted to be able to adapt.

Within five or six Tests of his debut hundred, there are calls to drop Jennings and replace him with with yet another cab-off-the-rank from county cricket, with no-doubt, an impressive domestic record.

Why pick them in the first place if they aren’t going to be trusted?

England set a precedent in May 2013 when they dropped Nick Compton for the first time, and they’ve been doubling down ever since. They’ve been too afraid to change course.

Nick Compton had success opening for England. He scored two centuries in New Zealand, and had a good partnership with Alastair Cook. He was experienced, and in form. He needed to work on his game, but who doesn’t?

Dropping him set the ball rolling for England’s opening policy.

Openers are disposable, not investments.

Until a new Andrew Strauss comes along, domestic performers can be used once and thrown away.

This is a ruinous policy. England need an opener. They need one that will work in the long run. They may struggle at first, but Moeen Ali’s progress shows what can be done with hard work.

Stop the separation of sixes

If Test cricket wants to survive it must claw back its name as a diverse format in which hitting sixes is a vital part of its fabric.

Test cricket has an image problem. It’s image is one of competition with T20, the infant of cricket that’s taking the world by storm.

T20 has successfully branded itself as the home of sixes.

Fans want to see big hits and crashing fours, and will pay big money for it.

This makes the format lucrative, especially as the games are so short. You can come after work to indulge in a short sharp burst of power hitting.

The association has become so strong, that when someone like Ben Stokes smashes a hundred, such as his 258 off 198 balls in South Africa, the murmurings on social media was about the influence of T20 on Tests. And I’ve heard it before when David Warner has batted like that, or when Chris Gayle or Ab de Villiers have.

Instead of it being seen as a rapid Test innings, some were saying it was fundamentally a T20 knock.

They’re wrong. Hitting sixes is as much a part of Test cricket as blocking and leaving is.

Some of the greatest opening partnerships ever have been a mixture of aggression and caution; such as Strauss and Trescothick, Gibbs and Smith, Langer and Hayden, Greenidge and Haynes.

Time is rarely a constraint in Test cricket, so the need to bat aggressively is for a purpose.

Either to accelerate an innings, capitalise on poor bowling, or simply put pressure on.

For that reason, Test cricket has always had a place for aggression, as part of a strategy, not as a prime way of scoring.

It’s part of the fabric of the game, and it give Tests the subtlety that T20 can lack.

The problem, is if aggression and caution separates exclusively in to the T20 and Test forms.

Test cricket must fight ensure it has a space for big hitting. Or at least, that it’s perceived to still have that space.

Especially with the rise of year-round franchise cricket, T20 is shepherded onto younger fans as having to ‘compete’ with Tests. The likes of Ab de Villiers and Aaron Finch are unwilling to dip their toe in the pond of Test cricket, and others like Alex Hales are ignored.

This separation is being formalised by cricket boards and players, and it ultimately it leads to the horrible question nobody wants to ask:

What would happen if a Kevin Pietersen or Chris Gayle.. or Viv Richards, turned up right now?

Would they really, honestly, want to play Test cricket over IPL and Big Bash? It would certainly be a dangling carrot.

If Test cricket starts to lose its aggressive stars, it will lose its subtlety.

It will become one dimensional and boring. If aggression and caution is allowed to separate out into T20 and Test, then cricket’s oldest format will quickly die out.

Post edited and re-published from Jan 4, 2016

Don’t get hung up on the Stokes-Flintoff comparison


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As Ben Stokes continues to rise in stature, his numbers are matching and surpassing another allrounder in Andrew Flintoff, but it’s unfair to compare them on numbers alone.

Measuring Ben Stokes against Andrew Flintoff’s success is not an outrageous thing to do, either due to their playing style, or charismatic, occasionally hot-headed, nature.

But when you compare their numbers alone, Ben Stokes has already reached Flintoff’s level.

Over the course of Flintoff’s 79-Test match career, he struck five centuries and took three Five Wicket Halls. Ben Stokes has already reached these feats in 35 tests.

But, does that mean Stokes is better? Not necessarily.

After the most recent Test match at the Oval against South Africa, Stokes was asked about emulating Flintoff. He said: “I am trying to produce certain moments in a game so it can swing our way but I am not trying to live up to anyone else’s reputation. I am trying to do what I do and trying to keep putting in good performances.”

It’s undeniable that numbers show Stokes achieving more at a better rate, but it’s not just about numbers. There’s a reason why Stokes would talk of trying to ‘live up’ to Flintoff.

Everyone could see how good Flintoff was, but it never really translated in the record books. Regardless of that, given the option of having him or not, you’d take him.

Why? Because he was a talisman. He didn’t take lots of five wicket halls, or convert enough fifties into tons, but he got out big players, and was a game changer.

And, he balanced a team; a very different team in a different era, in different playing conditions, and against arguably better oppositions.

Fred was part of Duncan Fletcher’s England, who battled a mighty South African side and defeated one of the best Australian teams in history. Who knows what Stokes would do if he had to face Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath? Would he have run down the pitch to Murali, like he does to Keshav Maharaj? I don’t think so.

Whilst Flintoff was at the heart of a settled team, Stokes has had more opportunity, and necessity, to take responsibility. Stokes is part of a side which has been searching for a number of permanent positions in the top order.

This means that Stokes is not coming in to hit a nice cameo, he’s arguably England’s best batsman, now.

And, let’s face it, by the end of Flintoff’s career, he was batting at seven or eight. He was a bowling allrounder, and Stokes is a batting allrounder.

Here’s Flintoff bowling all day on his last Lord’s Test. Unplayable:

Lastly, the game has changed considerably. Whether the impact of T20 affecting risk-taking, or using DRS in taking wickets that would never have been given 10-years-ago, there are lots of variables.

Whilst it is disappointing Flintoff’s numbers don’t represent how good he was, Stokes inevitably surpassing his statistical achievements don’t tell the whole story.

Anyone who watched Flintoff knows he was a lot better than his record suggests, and anyone who wants to compare England’s current allrounder too him, should remember who Stokes are up watching.

Younis Khan: The most underrated great


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Younis Khan’s retirement will see one of the last true greats of the last 20-years leave the game, and perhaps the most undervalued and underrated.

Pakistan’s leading Test run-scorer is rarely mentioned in the company of other legends, unfairly.

He’s not got the flair of Brian Lara, so he doesn’t get bums on seats.

He doesn’t have the signature shots of Ricky Ponting, that make you watch hours of footage.

Nor does he have the technique of Rahul Dravid, that coaches study to pass on to the next generation.

Younis is scrappy, hap-hazard, and unorthodox. But what got him through so many innings has been his mind.

His feet might not have been moving.

Maybe he played a missed a few times.

Maybe he nearly ran three of his partners out in a twenty minute period.

It didn’t matter. Push through, and if there’s a landmark to reach, it’s all the more frustrating for a fielding side when he gets there, having given chances.

In some respects, Younis’s game-plan was to lure oppositions into a false sense of security.

He made them think that they could get him out because of the holes in his technique.

It was a clever ploy, and allowed him to be the perfect decoy to other Pakistani greats who were more flamboyant, or perhaps technically sound.

At one end, you had Younis jumping around and flapping outside off stump, and the other end, such greats like Mohammed Yousuf, caressing the ball effortlessly, or Inzamam Ul Haq, and in more recent times, Misbah, crashing the ball to the boundary.

He is the scrappy supplement to aesthetically pleasing batting, but this isn’t meant to be patronising. Nor, is it meant to imply he only had success because of others.

Ahead of the West Indies series, he averages 53 in over 115 Tests, which is phenomenal. Indeed it’s ’s a higher average than Inzamam (50) and Yousuf (52).

Currently, he stands on 9977 Test runs, which means bar a rotten series’, he should become the first Pakistani to reach the historic 10,000 mark.

Younis will also go down as having an exceptional conversion rate and therefore reliability. He scored 34 centuries and 32 fifties. Not many batsmen retire with more hundreds than fifties. Sachin had 51 tons to 68 fifties, Kallis 45 to 58, 41 to 62, and so on. But not only that, on 19 occasions his tons have been in a wining cause.

He scores important runs, and no more so was this apparent in the U.A.E, away from home. In 27 Tests in the U.A.E. Younis cracked 11 centuries and seven fifties.

Oh, and he scored a ton in 11 countries, which is an incredible feat.

All-in-all, Pakistan are going to lose a character.

They are going to lose their leading run scorer, possibly their best ever and most reliable performer.

He, alongside Misbah, will leave a gaping hole in the side, and for international cricket, one of the last true modern greats of a generation will depart.