Monday, May 21, 2018

How to save first-class cricket (and 50-overs too)

 My writing about English cricket is usually about the past. That about the present mostly concerns New Zealand, reasonably enough as that’s where I have lived these past 21 years. My visits to games in England are confined to a few days every two or three years, though the wonders of modern communication enable me to keep up (as I write this I am watching Tom Kohler-Cadmore of Yorkshire put the Durham attack to the sword). But when it comes to discussing the great issues of the day, I don’t generally like to intrude in private grief. But from time to time…

I can’t get steamed up about “The Hundred” in that way that many supporters of traditional cricket have (“traditional cricket” now including T20, apparently). Of course, it is a marketing rather than a cricketing initiative and has been sprung on the public in a manner that is patronising and comically inept. But does the absence of 20 deliveries an innings make that much of a difference?

After all, one-day cricket in England started with 65 overs, quickly cut to 60; then a 55-over version came along, and 50 overs became the default for ODIs. Meanwhile it was 40 overs on Sundays, except in those years when it was 45. So let’s not be too precious about counting the overs.

The central issue is unchanged: the big slice of high summer that the new competition encloses, driving us peasants off our land. Michael Atherton has been pushing the idea of playing the County Championship in parallel with the new competition so that young players get the chance to develop in the best conditions. That’s admirable, but with so many players taken by the Hundred (or whatever it ends up being), the County Championship in this period would be not much more then a second XI competition.

Here’s a proposal that would reserve a place at the table for a reasonable standard of first-class cricket at the height of summer, albeit in the servants’ quarters.

Parallel to the new competition, I would create first-class and 50-over competitions between ten teams. Eight of these would be a partnership of a county that is the base of a new franchise with one that is not. There are various ways in which this could be cut, for example:
·       Durham and Yorkshire
·       Derbyshire and Lancashire
·       Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire
·       Worcestershire and Warwickshire
·       Glamorgan and Gloucestershire
·       Sussex and Hampshire
·       Kent and Surrey
·       Essex and Middlesex.

Obviously, the point of this is to create teams that are of true first-class standard, good enough to develop international players of the future and to attract spectators. 

So what about the two counties—in this example Somerset and Northamptonshire—that would be left without a franchised partner? One answer would be to invite the new test countries, Ireland and Afghanistan, to send seven or eight players to Taunton and Northampton respectively. I’m sure that we in New Zealand would jump at the chance to send a cohort of our good emerging players to spend five or six weeks playing a decent standard of cricket. Much better value than an A team playing against a virtual county second XIs. Even an established international such as Henry Nicholls might be keen on having a chance to play in the southern winter.

A second aim is to keep cricket going in the shires in July and August, so the non-franchised county would host all the team’s home games. This may be hard on members of the franchise counties but they would get home membership privileges as an incentive to make the (mostly) easy journey to watch their amalgamated team.

There would be two conferences of five teams. Teams in conference A would not play each other, but would play all the teams in conference B. Otherwise, in a five-team group there would always be a team without an opponent. Clearly, some teams would have two home games and some three. This could alternate from year to year.

My plan has a 50-over game on Saturday followed by a four-day game between the same teams on the same ground starting on Sunday. I know that the thought of switching formats overnight might cause the smelling salts to be called for in some quarters, but we are trying to save county cricket here, so sacrifices must be made.

I have included 50-over games as it seems likely that it is this format that will make room for the Hundred, perhaps becoming closer to a straight knockout. As long as there is a 50-over World Cup players must be given the chance to play that format. Besides, who knows? If matches are played at weekends in July and August there may still be an audience for it after all. If there were five rounds of first-class cricket in midsummer, a reduction of the Championship to 12, or even ten games could be borne with equanimity by most supporters, if August replaces April.

The winners of each conference would play in the final. A neutral venue would risk an empty ground, so one of the finalists would be at home (this works well enough in this part of the world). There are any number of ways of deciding this. A side that has staged two home games might host one that has had three. Or what about the better rated pitch (measured against criteria that favour balance between bat and ball) having home advantage? A team that reaches both finals might claim home advantage to maximise the crowd and minimise the travel. Or they could just toss a coin.

Given that the name of every vertebrate animal known to science has already been appropriated for sports team titles, what shall we call them? I’d like each to be named after a player associated with both teams: Norman Gifford v Grahame Clinton. No? So what about water-based names? Trent and Mersey…Tyne, Tees and Humber…Thames and Medway…

What are the risks? Obviously, we don’t want the idea of county amalgamation to take hold, but the reputational damage of counties turning out sub-standard teams is more dangerous.

All a pipedream I know, but I suspect that many readers would turn up to these games rather than either the Hundred or a sub-standard Championship.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Three days at the Plunket Shield

Wellington v Central Districts, Basin Reserve, 17 – 20 March 2018

Over the two weekends before I went down to Christchurch for the test match, I was able to watch three days of Plunket Shield cricket, New Zealand’s equivalent of the County Championship. They turned out to be decisive in deciding the winner of this season’s competition.

Like first-class competitions the world over, the Plunket Shield is the discarded novel of the cricket calendar. Put down at the end of the November, it is picked up again at the beginning of March, without anybody having any clear memory of the plot or the characters.

I was at the Basin for the first of two days of the game between Wellington and Central Districts in the eighth of the competition’s ten rounds It began with Wellington leading the table with Central second, so a home win would be a large step to Wellington’s first title since 2004.

I have preached before about the necessity of getting to the cricket on time. This is doubly the case for cricket at the Basin where the pitch awakes vigorously with the dawn chorus before settling down by lunchtime for a four-day snooze. Returning readers may recall that earlier this season, Auckland were 12 for seven early in the piece and that Wellington were 246 without loss by the end of the day.

Central put Wellington in. Adam Milne, once more of Kent, opened the bowling to Michael Papps:
·        1st ball—edged between third slip and gully for four.
·        2nd ball—diving catch in the gully. Steven Murdoch is in.
·        3rd ball—edged to second slip, keeper caught the rebound, Murdoch is out. Four for two.

Luke Woodcock and Michael Bracewell survived the rest of a testing opening spell from Milne, resolutely leaving on length, even with the ball almost brushing the bails. Jesse Ryder was the surprise choice to replace Milne. Kent people who have seen Ryder regularly run through the county’s order would spot the danger here, but Bracewell did not and lashed out at the first ball, well wide of off stump, to be caught behind. He was a soldier who survived battle but who then succumbed to a dodgy prawn sandwich on the way home.

New Zealand is as replete with young South Africans as English cricket is. Two were important here. Willem Ludick was on first-class debut. The final day of this game was his 21st birthday. He is well on the brisk side of medium and took two wickets as Wellington were reduced to 99 for five by early afternoon.

This brought in Malcolm Nofal, a 26-year-old left-hander from Johannesburg, on first-class debut for Wellington having played a handful of games for Gauteng, the last four years ago.

He joined Luke Woodcock. Has anybody ever seen Woodcock and Darren Stevens in the same room? Both are balding and tending to the portly, yet perform rescue operations of Tracy brothers proportions as a matter of routine. In the morning, Woodcock was a fortress, holding ground that others were conceding. In the afternoon he began to make forays into opposition territory and by the evening was advancing on all fronts.

Woodcock and Nofal put on 247 for the sixth wicket before Woodcock went for 147 near the end of the day. I made a note that it was a long time since I had seen so many cross-bat shots in one day, a measure of the predictability of the Basin pitch, and how the Central attack flagged. 226 of Wellington’s 365 for six for the day came after the halfway point.

Nofal continued to bash away on the second morning, with enthusiastic assistance from Nos 8, 9 and 10—Patel, Newton and McPeake respectively—who bludgeoned 119 between them. Wellington were all out for 530. Nofal was eighth out for 175, which, as we will see, left the Wellington selectors less impressed than might have been thought.

Nineteen-year-old slow-left-armer debutant Felix Murray had begun with ten from his first nine overs while Wellington were still in defensive mode, but conceded 79 from his remaining nine. Murray had stepped into the shoes of Ajaz Patel (who had been called up for the test warm-up in Hamilton), or possibly into Patel’s shirt and trousers, both of which appeared to be three or four sizes too big for him.

Ben Smith fell early in the Central reply, lbw with bat raised. It looked a bowler’s decision, but as Arthur Jepson used to say “there’s a reason tha’s got a bat in thy ‘and”.

The highlight of the rest of the day was Jesse Ryder’s 69 from 85 balls, with two sixes. I wonder how much longer he’ll stick around. He is good enough to carry on making runs for another ten years, but can he be bothered with everything that goes with it? Watching him bat has been one of this season’s greatest pleasures.

Central were 226 for three when my two days at the game ended. Unlike Wellington, nobody kicked on to a century and they were 107 behind on first innings. They made no attempt on the target of 372, focusing instead on stopping Wellington for collecting the 12 points for a win, which they achieved with just two wickets to spare. With two rounds to go, Wellington now led Central by eight points.

One other unfortunate curiosity to emerge from the second day was that, though there were no more than 100 watching the game, one of them was ejected for bad behaviour, trespassed no less, with police officers called. Is this the smallest crowd to have one of its number expelled? I suppose we should be grateful that the Plunket Shield still evokes such passion.

A week later I was back at the Basin for the first day of round nine. Northern Districts were the visitors. Tom Blundell returned from New Zealand A duty and Wellington chose to go in with an extra bowler, Alex Ridley. So Wellington’s seventh-wicket partnership was Newton and Ridley. There’s a Rovers Return joke in there somewhere.

The selection meant that Malcolm Nofal’s 175 was not enough to keep him in the side. Wellington’s scorer Ian Smith (no relation to the keeper-commentator of the same name) was prompted to recall that as a boy he had seen Dickie Bird’s famous 181 not out for Yorkshire against Glamorgan at Bradford, after which Bird was dropped as we have heard so often since.  

The spirit of HD Bird was certainly with us today. Twenty-five minutes in, Wellington, put in by Northern, were 15 without loss. It was as uneventful an opening half-hour as we have seen at the Basin for a long time, the pitch offering none of its customary early-morning spite. Then Anton Devcich slipped on the opposite edge of the square to the pitch and it was all on. Umpires Dempsey and Gillies stood over the damp patch with the solemnity of statesmen dividing a small country. The players were sent back to the rooms while deliberations continued.  Dempsey has recent form in the cricket-prevention stakes. He was officiating at Rangiora the week before, when the game was abandoned on the second day because of a pitch so dangerous that Canterbury had scored no more than 485 for six declared a few hours before.

Umpires and groundstaff stood around the quagmire doing nothing that might affect the situation beyond blocking out the sun. Nevertheless, twenty minutes of this did the trick and play resumed. Cricket, eh?

Michael Papps followed one down the legside to be caught behind, but otherwise Wellington proceeded to 90 for one shortly before lunch with no reason to think that the pitch wouldn’t offer up the easy runs that are the norm on the first afternoon at the Basin.

We were unprepared for Ish Sodhi destroying Wellington’s season in a couple of hours. In my view Sodhi should not have been in Wellington; his proper place was in the test team in Auckland rather than Todd Astle, who is a fair leg-spinner, but who could not have treated us to the masterly display of the art that Sodhi offered us here. Bowling unchanged from the southern end, he took seven for 30 from 15.3 overs.

Sodhi didn’t just get the Wellington batsmen out; he made them look hapless and clueless, children bewildered by a magician at a birthday party. He was magnificent. The last nine wickets added only 47.

By the end of the day Northern were 168 for four. Corey Anderson made 61 of these from 65 balls with three sixes. He is a wonderfully clean striker of a cricket ball, and if Somerset can lay their hands on sufficient cotton wool to wrap his fragile physique in between games he will be a real asset in the T20.

I wasn’t there on the second day, which was all Northern needed to wrap it up. Jeetan Patel took five, but Northern still had a lead of 186, which Wellington couldn’t match second time round. Sodhi took five more. Meanwhile in Napier, Central were beating Canterbury by an innings to takeover at the top of the table. Wellington were beaten in the last round, so a draw was enough to secure the Plunket Shield for Central Districts.

Those two hours of magic from Ish Sodhi had cost Wellington the prize. I saw Sodhi play again later that week, in the test at Christchurch. I thought that Kane Williamson might have given him longer spells. His match-saving 56 not out should ensure that his batting will no longer be a negative factor at selectors’ meetings.

As we in New Zealand embark on our annual endeavour to winter well, we hand the responsibility of serious cricket watching over to our friends in the north.

How to save first-class cricket (and 50-overs too)

  My writing about English cricket is usually about the past. That about the present mostly concerns New Zealand, reasonably enough as t...