From Sports Fans TV Cricket Fan Show: a perspective, from decades of watching the game in England, on where English red ball cricket goes from here - beyond the attractive but cosmetic changes that often follow an Ashes disaster.
For English cricket fans, whether they reflect on the latest Ashes tour through numbers and data, via historic comparisons or by just how the damn thing makes them feel, England’s inability to compete with Australia has been numbingly total; the shambolic nature of the tour is evident from all angles.
It is a cricketing Mandelbrot set of failure: you can zoom in or out to any level and see the same pattern of mistake and miscalculation.
At the most detailed layer there’s the litany of failures of individual technique, then out a little and the unmistakeable sonar beep of disharmony coming from the camp: the ghost-written columns and body language during the anthems leaking the tension and fear of the players. They are not, it is safe to say, having fun.
Further out still and there’s the hand-to-face embarrassment of batters practicing on one leg whilst a congregation of coaches offer platitudes about heart and playing a natural game.
Out again and we see the organisational millstone of the tour itinerary itself, where players played no pre-Ashes cricket except occasionally against each other — akin to asking a football team to play headers and volleys in the park with their pals by way of preparation for the World Cup Finals.
But then, the widest view of all: the shape and standard of red ball cricket in England. Put simply, the red ball game in England can no longer produce a consistently winning Test team. The players who emerge and can play red ball cricket at the highest level are a bug and not a feature of the domestic game.
The usual sackings of captains, coaches, selectors and so on will therefore not make much difference. There’s a case to do some or all of these things, of course — and the one-legged batting guy can leave with my blessing — but the issues run deeper, much deeper.
Without considered change to the fundamentals of domestic red ball cricket, England will only be good again temporarily and by accident - if others have a dip and there’s a coincident crop of naturally good English red ball players.
This might never happen. Or it will be so fleeting that it is no real solution at all, just a temporary uptick momentarily masking a long, long decline.
I believe there are three changes that can be made relatively quickly. They will make a difference — but they are predicated on a deeper change that is arguably less palatable and much harder to implement.
We’ll get to that, but first….
Change one: higher stakes county championship matches
The English domestic game was the proverbial lobster in the pan, soaking away its aches and pains in the enticing bath of white ball excitement. Inexorably, over time, the white ball game warmed up until, penny dropping, our alarmed red friend could barely be seen beneath the bubbling froth of The Hundred. What started as comfortable treading water in the warm brine of bigger crowds (and their wallets) suddenly became a frantic drowning-not-waving.
The red ball game in England has been pushed to the margins of the summer. The reasons why are for a whole other article, but this must be reversed; county championship games must run throughout the cricket season.
But there is no use pretending April fixtures replaced with August ones would itself be much of a fix: county cricket has allowed itself and its standards to drift too far away from Test cricket, and that must be addressed too.
Domestic to Test cricket should be a natural progression; a qualification that prepares you to go on to the next level. At present county cricket is handing out Eleven Pluses then thrusting people onto degree programmes. The odd prodigy will swim whilst most mortals sink.
So: what to do? A three-division county championship. Six teams per division with annual promotion and relegation. That’s ten four-day games per county season. 40 days required in the schedule.
Why not two divisions? Because with three there’s little mid table mediocrity with nothing to play for, making virtually all matches meaningful right throughout the season. Ten matches — up to twenty innings — is plenty. Average over 50 and you might get to 1,000 runs.
But it not so many chances to bat or bowl that it feels like a treadmill. Each innings will have to count — and that sounds like a big step towards preparation for Test cricket to me. The divisional nature should also, over time, concentrate the best players and sides into the top division, which should provide the core group from whom Test sides are selected (without, of course, being blindly absolutist about it). Again, concentrating the best without it becoming a closed shop should drive up standards.
A ten-match season would also allow for Test matches to be scheduled between rounds of county games. This will of course mean the county championship isn’t directly competing with Tests for attention but, more importantly, means Test players play for their counties throughout the season.
This will increase the quality of the county game as the best domestic players, including the world class ones, could play all summer. Recognisable names would also add further interest to the county schedule — though a deficit of interest is not one of county games’ current problems.
Alongside these structural changes I’d suggest two amends to squads: firstly, fixed squads of 16 or 17 players for each county — though I’d be open to the possibility that it could be resubmitted after the first five rounds of matches.
I’d also limit each county to two overseas players in their squads at any one time. We must stop this nonsense of internationals dropping in for one or two games and then flitting away again. No-one should take a Harlem Globetrotters approach to fielding ringers. It does nothing for the integrity of the competition and must be to the detriment of the players they replace.
Taken together, English cricket would need to find something like 75 days every summer for red ball cricket. Or, spread a game a week across 15–17 weeks. There’s time to do that. The best players would play in each of those weeks in matches with something to play for.
Change two: embrace the Lions
English cricket suffers from many things, but it doesn’t suffer from a lack of potential Test players. The county game produces players, even if many find the gap to Tests too hard to bridge. So, let’s use the Lions to help do so. If we can run Tests so they do not clash with championship matches, then we can similarly run a Lions series each summer too.
One benefit England has is the heart of the season does not clash with any other major Test nation’s summer (no offence Ireland), meaning there would undoubtedly be takers to send an ‘A’ tour each year. England could also do its bit to support associate nations drive towards Test status too, with red ball matches against Scotland, the Netherlands and others.
This should all be supplemented with as much effort going into scheduling Lions tours — meaningful ones — every year too.
This seems like an absolute open goal for English cricket. A more serious approach to the Lions would add a mezzanine between the county game and Test cricket.
The standard of other nations ‘A’ teams would be variable, of course — but then so are the Test sides. A domestic Lions series would also allow players to play together where they hadn’t before, giving players the domestic ‘call up’ experience too so they learn how to handle the ‘playing against one week, playing alongside the next’ feeling. Coaches would also get a closer look — I just can’t see any downsides.
Change three: early development programmes for red ball spin, pace and batting
England do run a series of development programme, but these tend to be for players already plying their county trade. That seems too late to me, and such players would be better off given Lions experience.
I would advocate for a set of three pre-professional — so genuinely emerging talent — development programmes. These would take annual cohorts of promising players, provide them with top class coaching and opportunities in exchange for performance targets and guaranteed central contracts for everyone who makes it out the other side.
I’d have one for spinners. Let’s get them specialist coaching before they turn up in a county dressing room (and probably don’t get specialist coaching). Let’s get them opportunities to play in Asia and Australia. Let’s get them thinking about the different modes a spinner must have to be successful in Test cricket.
Then for pace. And I don’t mean seam and swing. I mean 140kph-plus stock ball pace. Get them before the April green tops get them. A key part of this programme would be biomechanics; understanding their bodies and fitness needs — as would getting used to a Kookaburra ball and bowling in different conditions. But, whatever and however: bowling fast.
Finally, a batting scheme to develop top three batters. Play long, play straight. Concentration and mental toughness. We don’t want cookie cutter technique, but we do need to develop sound technique and the right attitude. The batters who will take more pleasure in seeing out a maiden when times are tough than scooping their first ball for six.
The few batters per generation who can get to the top with funky approaches on the strength of their supernatural hand-eye coordination will get to the top anyway. This scheme is not for them, the Messi-type, it’s for the Ronaldo: the player who will hone skills and work harder than anyone else.
If we took six players per year into each programme, from the first completed cohort we’d have eighteen players who had received a heap of investment and hopefully developed into very promising players. Extend that investment by giving them central contracts for two years and allow the counties to select them through a draft, with bottom of division 3 getting first pick.
Not everyone would work out, of course, but it would be a structured approach to developing top three batters, out-and-out quicks and rounded spinners into county squads where they would have to sink or swim on their own merits, gaining the vital part of their game coaching cannot provide: out in the middle experience.
For this to really work, though, it will have to look beyond the playing fields of Millfield and Manchester Grammar School. It will have to plug into club cricket around the country. Invest the effort into finding the best talent wherever they play. Make the talent identification programme the most professional and comprehensive in the world. If football can find players from the concrete cages of South London, so cricket can find young players in clubs in Cornwall, the Lancashire leagues or wherever.
Deeper change: you might not like this.
This would all work if there was no white ball cricket. Finding 17 weeks to play red ball cricket between May and September would be a doddle.
But there is white ball cricket.
For fundamental changes to make any difference, English cricket is going to have to embrace a de facto split into two codes. It can do this in a managed way, or it can see it forced on it in the long run.
A two-code approach would allow for matches to be scheduled at the same time. The county championship could carry on through the Hundred. The Blast could run during Test matches.
The wrench, certainly in the beginning, would be the players. Although there are plenty of players who are effectively white ball or red ball only players there are a number — often the most talented — who play both. I don’t think this is sustainable anymore, not in England at least.
So, we’re looking at a near future where the likes of a Stokes or a Wood must choose between the two codes. A Malan and even a Root. That’s undeniably hard, and maybe the very best will be able to negotiate their way through both over the next few years as a temporary state of affairs until the new reality beds in. Maybe that’s the fairest approach for current internationals.
But if we accept that the long and short forms of the game require the same basic skills but applied in very different ways then it becomes a natural evolution of the game to have wholly separate red- and white-ball players.
And if we accept that then we have more flexibility with the calendar and we can restore the county championship to the centre of the picture every summer without contorting ourselves to fit different formats into too few days.
This keeps lots of what people seem to value
This model retains counties and with it their supporters and deep histories; both or which can feel seriously underappreciated today. Retaining counties means retaining eighteen centres of first class cricket across England and Wales; it retains festival out grounds and second XIs and the rivalries of decades.
For the white ball game too, players and supporters can get on with enjoying it without the nagging feeling they’re somehow letting cricket down. New types of batting, fielding and bowling can be enjoyed for what they are — in the context they belong — without the fear they’ll somehow infect and warp the game’s DNA.
The white ball specialist player will be able to be a 12 month a year franchise player if they wish, with no more balancing IPL franchise demands with early April county matches. They will be able to make a lot of money, so the rewards for sticking with the red ball game will have to match too.
Yeah: money. There are undoubtedly some underlying economics to work through: where the money comes from and where it goes. Can the ECB and the counties find a way to make this work? Who can tell, but everyone should, surely, get something out of this arrangement: counties get to continue to play both codes for their members to enjoy (and, increasingly, watch online), the ECB keeps the Hundred and stops being seen as the enemy of the Test format. It really could be the best of both — if we can ensure the right amounts of money get to the right places and both codes remain attractive to players.
In the beginning, this will be tough. But as new generations of players come through so English cricket, by leaning into the situation, will be able to embrace the whole game in all its forms and all its history and future.
These suggestions are presented as a contribution to the debate rather than as an all-encompassing solution. That’s not our style on the Cricket Fan Show.
There are other things too — notably the type of pitches we play on, and also following recent comments , the type of coaching professional players get — that I know less about in detail but can see need to be part of the picture. So please see our suggestions as something to add to.
Steve is usually joined by Tony for cricket chat all year round; the guys have been watching cricket for a serious number of decades between them and bring thoughts and opinions on the game in all forms.