Eng vs NZ, Lord’s 2021: Shortchanged or short memories?

The first of a series of first-person reflections on experiencing cricket in 2021.

“Home, home again. I like to be here when I can.”

Pink Floyd’s lyrics from The Dark Side Of The Moon were not, presumably, written about the Home of Cricket™, but after a nigh-on two-year pandemic-enforced exile from Lord’s, they seemed applicable. The last time was the incinerator that was the England vs Ireland match in July 2019; this year, same stand, different model: the new Compton stand.

The heat was there, though not to the same extent. (I still can’t understand why the new stands haven’t provided more than cursory cover.) So were the exceptionally friendly stewards. And so was, naturally, the criticism of the home team.

Poor old England. Battle away for ten sessions, keep a foothold in the game, and then find yourselves blasted for caution, for “shortchanging” spectators. I’ve checked my ticket and nowhere did it guarantee a result. Nor did it promise a run chase. (An issue more relevant to shortchanging relates to failing to get the minimum overs, one I’ve discussed elsewhere.) It promised, conditions permitting, a day’s Test match cricket, and a hard-fought day’s cricket was what we received.

More than anything, it reveals our short memory as cricket consumers; or maybe Stokes’ 135* has permanently spoiled us. The facts should, however, have spoken for themselves:

  • England had played 36 Tests in the previous 3 years. Of them, 31 ended in an outright result. Four, all rain-affected, ended in a draw.
  • Two Tests ago at Lord’s, England were bowled out for 85.
  • A successful chase of 276 would have been the third-highest of 38 at Lord’s. Had NZ set a target seven runs higher – as presumably they would have, had not rain intervened and an early lunch prompted Williamson to declare sooner than anticipated – 276 would have been the second-highest, only eclipsed by the Greenidge-powered outlier of 342.
  • Williamson’s action was not a “sporting declaration”, as revealed the the fact that immediately following it, England’s WinViz nudged upwards by just 4%, while New Zealand’s jumped by around 8%. This is no criticism of Williamson, but is meant to demonstrate that it was hardly the game-opening act of generosity that it might have seemed on the surface.

Scyld Berry compared this series to the 1945 Victory Tests (I’d have preferred the Vectory Tests, after the PM’s memorable and hastily withdrawn 2020 description of a cricket ball), and suggested that ECB management should have instructed Root to go for the runs. With all respect to the learned Berry, however, unlike the Victory “Tests” (which weren’t Tests at all) these weren’t simply high-profile first-class games. Real Test runs were being hunted; averages built or eroded; careers launched or perhaps concluded. Although they lay outside the World Test Championship, they counted towards ICC Test Rankings: a series win for NZ would have returned them to No. 1, while a 2-0 England win would have lifted them to No. 2. Furthermore, the captain and his team have to make their own decisions regarding the game: it would be quite unwarranted and unwelcome for the management to attempt to interfere.

As a spectator, naturally I was hoping that England would go for the runs, and even in hindsight there’s no question that it would have been more fun – but more because England would have, in all likelihood have been clinging on 7 or 8 down rather than 3 down. It’s odd that a team that does the former, despite performing measurably worse, is more likely to gain plaudits for demonstrating “character”, than a team that does the latter and avoids getting into such a situation to begin with.

It wasn’t thrill-a-minute action, but I found it heartening, in a perverse sort of way, that England dared to be dull. That the phrase “attacking brand of cricket” would be unlikely to feature in the press conference. That Sibley relentlessly accumulated, blocking out both ball and jeer from ostensibly England supporters. Come future overseas tours, we’ll be glad of his granitelike obduracy.

Most of all, though, by the end of the day, I was glad to be home.

All hail the Bob County Willis Championship Trophy

There’s something very English about the compromise that has been struck for the 2021 red-ball season. On the one hand, you have those who wish to preserve the two-division structure; one the other hand, those who wish to move to conferences and an end-of-season showpiece final.

In a triumph for the Department For The Simultaneous Retention And Consumption of Baked Goods, the ECB have come up with a solution that incorporates both the Bob Willis Trophy and the County Championship into one mega-cake. What’s more, it’s not actually too bad a wheeze.

Conference supporters are probably the happiest of the two camps. Yet defenders of the two-division format may also welcome the realisation that this set-up means that the Champion County, whoever it is, will have had to prove itself against a greater number of opponents. In a nine-team division, the Champions would play only eight other counties, a minority of all possible opponents; in this format, they will play nine, a majority. Arguably, then, they will have greater authority to declare themselves the foremost county that year.

There’s one change I would make to the recipe (aside from renaming Group 1, 2, 3, to A, B, C to avoid confusion with Divisions One, Two, Three). As it stands, the Bob Willis Trophy final will inevitably be contested by the Championship-winning team and the Championship runner-up. This strikes me as both rather unimaginative and superfluous: it could easily result in a re-run of the final divisional game.

Why not instead make the Bob Willis Trophy Final a contest between the County Champions and the highest-placed team from the group stages? Or the County Champions vs the county with the most wins in the season, regardless of division? Or the most runs/wickets? Of course, if the Champions were also the highest-placed team, etc., then the opponents would be the next-highest-placed, etc. With two different qualification routes to the final, it would almost have something of the flavour of a World Series, or a Super Bowl.

If the first option were chosen, teams that started strongly would be rewarded with the chance of an end-of-season bonanza – even if they were to suffer a mid-season slump. This would be particularly valuable to sides that found themselves depleted through international call-ups during high summer.

Conversely, if one of the latter options were chosen, teams in Division Two (and possibly Three, although it would be unlikely that after such a poor start they would amass the needed number of wins/runs/wickets to pose a real challenge) would have added incentive, beyond mere prize money, to perform strongly despite their struggles in the first part of the season. The Championship pennant would be safeguarded for the strongest team across the season, but the Bob Willis Trophy would provide the chance of a knockout bonus for a plucky contender.

Obviously, despite either modification, the Bob Willis Trophy Final might still end up being County Champions vs runners-up. If nothing else, though, the run-up to the Final wouldn’t have been entirely straightforward and unimpeded. A bit like Bob’s run-up, in fact. How appropriate that would be.

Cricket World Cup 2019: week 2, update #3—The Cup runneth over

The third of an informal weekly (p)review of the 2019 Cricket World Cup – or, as I like to call it, the #Champ10nsTrophy.

More precisely, the UK runneth over with rainfall. To almost everyone’s (no-one’s) surprise, the World Cup has coincided with unseasonal, protracted deluges. Already we’re into record-breaking territory as regards numbers of abandoned games.

It’s a bitter blow to Gloucestershire, in particular, who are reportedly down around £10,000-20,000, thanks to the two games they were scheduled to host being scuppered. For the first time ever in recorded history, we may be counting on better weather Up North, as the centre of the tournament gyrates towards the northern counties, with Headingley, Old Trafford, and Chester-le-Street all yet to record their first game.

It’s not all bad news, however, as the rain has at least revealed that what we all believed to be a truly awful format, the #Champ10nsTrophy 10-team round robin, to actually be a stroke of genius on the part of the ICC. Why? Because with 9 games per team, losing one or two to weather isn’t necessarily terminal to that team’s chances. In fact, it’s probably done Sri Lanka something of a favour, and allowed South Africa to finally record a point. Pakistan and West Indies may see things somewhat differently, of course.

Never mind that it would have been amusing to see a couple of teams eliminated having only completed one match, as Australia were in the 2017 Champions Trophy. Furthermore, there may be a few naysayers quibbling over the minor inconveniences of the format: the total lack of Associates, the crushing alienation of any developing cricket nation, the bloated 46-day schedule. However, I, for one, now welcome our new ICC overlords.

Some would observe that the World Cup isn’t meant to be a league to determine the best over time: it should primarily be a tournamant to determine the best under pressure. Such ones would doubtless claim that though a balance needs to be struck so that single results (especially at the beginning of the tournament) do not have devastating consequences in and of themselves, the current 10-team league is weighted far too heavily towards the other end of the spectrum.

Presumably they’d also recommend Russell Degnan’s 20-team, 36-day format. (One notes in passing that (coincidentally, presumably) his post ID for that piece is 2007, the year of the 16-team World Cup that put paid to more equitable formats down the line.)

What do they know, however? Fourteen days in, the composition of the top four is just as might have been predicted two weeks (years?) ago: NZ, AUS, ENG, IND. So far, so good for the Indian broadcaster; ergo, so good for the ICC; ergo, so good for cricket.

It’s all going swimmingly, in fact. Which seems appropriate, considering that that sport might have a better chance of play.