Tag Archives: ecb

The ECB must end its south-east Test match bias

THERE was a time when you knew where you were with English Test venues. For so long the old favourites of Edgbaston, Lord’s, Old Trafford, Trent Bridge, Headingley and The Oval held the monopoly on five-day matches every summer. Then in 2003 Chester-Le-Street, now unfortunately known as the Emirates Durham International Cricket Ground, broke the cycle by welcoming Zimbabwe. The visitors were bowled out for 94 in their first dig and lost by an innings and plenty. The RIverside embraced its big moment and a change appeared to be coming – Test cricket would surely now reach more far-flung parts of the country.

Over the last decade, there have indeed been matches played at Cardiff’s Swalec Stadium, Hampshire’s Rose (or Ageas) Bowl – and that’s it. Bristol has hosted One Day Internationals, but none of the other 13 main first-class grounds get a look-in.

When I was growing up, I saw a lot of cricket. I was lucky to live just down the road from Edgbaston, and my love for the game was fuelled by the all-conquering Warwickshire side of the mid-1990s. But the real thrill was Test cricket. My first Test was England v West Indies in 1991. I was six years old. On the third day, Patrick Patterson and Curtly Ambrose demolished a decent England batting line-up on their way to a seven-wicket win. Gooch, Atherton, Hick, Lamb, Ramprakash, Russell, all gone in the blink of an eye.

I squinted across at the blurry city end scoreboard (I had yet to be diagnosed as chronically short-sighted) showing the not out scores of Derek Pringle and Chris Lewis, the latest pair in a long line of auditionees for the role of “The New Botham”. I could never have known that I was in for another ten years of watching England lose in ever more inventive ways. But I knew Test cricket was for me.

Next summer, India will play Tests at Trent Bridge, Lord’s, The Rose Bowl, Old Trafford and The Oval. That’s three games in the South-East, two of which are in London, and just two others in the rest of the UK. Lord’s also gets a Sri Lanka Test in June, along with Headingley. Edgbaston misses out on Test cricket for the second year running, despite being home to one of the highest populations of British Asians.

Between 2010 and 2011, the pavilion end of the ground was completely redeveloped at a cost of £32 million, bringing the capacity to 25,000. A handful of ODIs and a season of one man and his dog watching county cricket is in danger of wasting what has become a top-class sporting venue.

I can make my peace with Edgbaston losing out. This season they were compensated with the pick of the Champions Trophy matches and a sparkling T20 county finals day. Trent Bridge is not so far away, and I know several Brummies who gladly made the trip to Nottingham for this summer’s Ashes and may do the same next year. But the south-east bias shows a disappointing lack of vision.

Every overseas cricketer dreams of playing at Lord’s. Of course, a Test summer would not be complete without a visit to the home of cricket, and The Oval is always a fitting venue for the final Test of the summer. The ECB will perhaps argue London is the most densely populated area of the country and is easy to access. But adding Southampton means three of India’s five Tests will be played within a 100-mile radius.

Not all county grounds are up to scratch, of course. In order to host a high-profile Test between two of the best sides in the world, you must be more than just a pitch and a pavilion. But Durham, formerly a forgotten northern outpost, is a prime example of what can be done with investment and support.

Not everyone can afford to travel to see Test cricket. From where I live in Cornwall, it’s 200 miles to the nearest Test venue. Add in the spiralling cost of matchday tickets, and parents and children will drift away from the game, or decide not to explore it at all. The ECB must look beyond the capital and take a punt on some developing stadiums to inspire the next generation of English cricketers.

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The Ashes: A future without Flower

IN his autobiography, Playing With Fire, Nasser Hussain said his greatest fear for English cricket was what would happen when Duncan Fletcher moved on.  It is now more than six years since “the man behind the shades” parted company with the ECB, and many will find themselves experiencing a similar anxiety over the void that could be left by England’s latest enigmatic Zimbabwean coach.

Andy Flower took on the role in 2009, following the Peter Moores debacle, and was powerless to prevent England’s immediate capitulation in Jamaica, a result of frazzled minds and a lack of leadership. Since then Flower has overseen three consecutive Ashes victories and home and away series wins over India, either side of England’s rise to number one Test team in the world.

Like his predecessor, Flower has developed an inscrutable persona that gives nothing away and a protective shield around his close-knit group. As the press pack grows ever hungrier for a story away from the action, the vicious circle is squared. But Flower’s rare, brief and considered interviews often say more than endless hours of Sky Sports waffle and tabloid speculation ever could.

When the TV cameras caught up with him in the Oval darkness at the end of the fifth Test, as his players and their respective offspring cavorted and gurned their way across the outfield, Flower was his usual calm self. Paying tribute to his players and particularly his captain, he threaded some well-timed remarks neatly through the gloom up to the glowing media centre.

“There’s more to leadership than funky field placings and stuff like that,” he said. “I think Cook’s strong leadership was a key. The players need to trust and respect their leader. He is a man they all look up to and he has a certain conviction and inner strength that will serve English cricket well.”

Flower could just as easily have been eulogising himself. If Fletcher brought England out of themselves and taught them how to enjoy winning, with all the pedalos and open-topped buses that followed, Flower has moulded them into a mature, professional outfit with that “conviction and inner strength” that he showed himself so often as a player.

But how long will it last? Having relinquished control of the one-day side last year, reports are now suggesting Flower will quit for good after the Australian tour. When pressed on the issue during the Oval celebrations, he said simply: “We’ve got to enjoy the moment and not look too far ahead.” It was the diplomat’s response, the equivalent of the embattled MP’s “We’re doing all we can.”

It was not so long ago that English cricket fans, and moreover their representatives in broadcast and print, were simply happy to see their side winning. At the turn of the century, a 3-0 Ashes win would have been scarcely believable. On Monday several back pages chose to dwell on the bad light and inflexible umpiring that denied what would have been a hugely flattering 4-0 scoreline. The fact is, England are good, approaching very good, and have been so for quite some time now. Expectation levels have risen. Performance must follow suit.

If Flower does decide to hang up his laptop in a few months’ time, ideally toasting his departure with a fourth consecutive Ashes urn, he should be thanked and congratulated for all he has done. The ECB, now shorn of outgoing managing director Hugh Morris, will doubtless already be considering his likely successor.

Ashley Giles could take the logical step from one-day coach to full honours, but may be too inexperienced and lacking the toughness and spark required. Graham Gooch might stray the other way – a popular and familiar figure but could he innovate and bring a new approach?

From there the list of names roll off an increasingly familiar merry-go-round. Whatmore, Arthur, Buchanan, Kirsten – perhaps even a return for Fletcher himself. Whoever is chosen, if and when Flower steps aside, will have a tough act to follow. To call it a poisoned chalice would be misleading – the England coach would do well to drink from such a vessel as he ducks, dodges and dives to avoid the venomous darts coming at him from all angles. If one of them hits its target, he could always call for a review. But that’s another story.

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