How have we (the English) got it so wrong when it comes to cricket?

I thought that it’s time for a ‘thought piece’ as the test tour nears its conclusion. A thought piece harks back to when tests had rest days and the journos had nothing to do, so rather then pay them to do nothing, their editors asked for a thought piece to go in the paper the next day where the match report would go. So,whilst I’ve been sightseeing, I’ve also been thinking about the difference between Australia and England and the role of cricket in each country’s culture – don’t worry haven’t been doing that much thinking!

This is my first visit to Australia and I’m amazed at how deep cricket runs through the Australian culture and psyche. Ok…I’ve only seen the five main cities and where the tests were being held but you just can’t avoid cricket even when you try. And if it’s not the tests then it’s the Sheffield Shield (main first class competition) or the T20 Big Bash League or…It’s just everywhere and for all ages from infants to seniors. I’ve met many Aussies on this trip and only one has expressed a dislike for the game. The players are superstars and treated like Premier League footballers, every move, every gesture analysed as if time were endless. Quoting CLR James in that what do they know who only cricket know…well, I’ve spent some time away from the game looking at ‘normal’ Aussie life so hopefully this is a balanced piece.

Why the differences? All sport in Australia is followed to the nth degree- even soccer – so it’s not as if cricket is the only game in town! Nor the only game they play on the world stage to a high level. Everyone knows Steve Smith but how many in the UK can identify Joe Root? Admittedly there is only one job in Australia more challenging and high profile than that of the test captain but I don’t think Smith has political ambitions and in any event as his mum is English he can’t stand for public office!

In no particular order, the areas where they’ve got an advantage are:

Access – all cricket is free to air on TV and radio and interestingly every key match and I mean every key match from grade cricket, women’s cricket, Shield, T20 and Test is available on line – video streaming to every and any device for a minimal sum each month – so you don’t need highlights packages on TV, you watch what you want when you want, live or recorded on line. It’s not expensive and is run by Cricket Australia not some large corporate trying to make money. Is there something which the ECB can do? The new T20 could be a starting point. And if it’s not the visual and social media, then it’s the old fashioned print media which has cricket in high regard and profile. So yes, everyone would know Steve Smith…because he’s everywhere. Are Root and fellow stars all over the media just when the tests are on? You’d be lucky to see a mention of the test on BBC News in the summer!

Free to air on TV – ok the adverts are annoying but you get used to them but as I’ve blogged before no mainstream TV station or company in the UK is going to touch cricket so there won’t be a change there. Tests and ODIs fill the schedules in the summer months when viewing figures are at their lowest but Channel 9 budgets for a $A 40M loss on its cricket coverage and is prepared to keep doing so; TV rights competition is going to heat up as in the UK. Channel 10 has the T20 rights and got them cheap as no one could predict the success of the BBL.

Ticket prices – admittedly tests are played in large stadia – the defunct WACA being the smallest at 23,000 (just under the capacity at Lord’s our largest) – but prices for a days test match cricket start at $A30 or £20 are ridiculously low compared those in England and with the odd exception you can rock up on the day and get a seat – you may be in the sun all day long and roast like a turkey at Christmas but you get my point. How can we change? No sure that we can given the financial structure of the English game

Cricketing knowledge – how many English cricket followers know who the last winners of the Sheffield Shield were, or the BBL, or which Australian players are on the verge of the test side? Yet several Australians I’ve talked to in depth know the answers to the English equivalents! Ok they may be cricket mad but I reckon I have a good knowledge of all things cricket but I’m struggling with these questions. So somehow or other these Australians not only know the answers but can discuss and debate the background in depth so they’re soaking up this knowledge somehow. I need to find out how over the coming days but I suspect the free-streaming has something to do with it.

The impact of the Big Bash League (BBL) as the domestic T20 game has been significantly greater and more wide ranging than Cricket Australia expected or anticipated and when compared to the offering in England, well, there is no comparison. We have one side per county making it an 18 team competition whereas here it’s an 8 team option with each major city/star having one side and Melbourne and Sydney two each. It’s all about numbers through the gates to optimise income but also every game is a family affair…can we say the same for the English version ? How family friendly is the Friday night T20 drinking contest at Chelmsford? I’m not saying that Australia is all sweetness and light but it’s a different game completely! By making it family and children friendly it generates interest from an early stage and has generated its own children’s T20 game/format. Where’s the English equivalent or have I missed it? The Aussie version is everywhere to be seen, the English version…?

This is Blake. He’s visually impaired but still takes a full part in the kids Milo T20 blast competition played all across Australia; Milo is an Australian ‘traditional’ food drink (similar to Ovaltine for my mature readers!) and have sponsored this competition. For the first four days of every test – including school holidays- groups of young children aged 4 to 10 have been given the chance to play or show off their cricket skills on the outfield at each venue, often accompanied by their school teachers or parents who are so thrilled as are the children at being on the outfield at the Gabba, or MCG or the Adelaide Oval. An experience they will remember for a long time. Ok, we do something similar from time to time at the tests but why not every test, every day? Blake was voted the most valuable player on the day and was given goodies in a bag bigger than he was. He was also interviewed by the test match host (another difference to keep the audience entertained) but Blake upstaged him completely and got the largest cheer of the day!

But, looking across Australian society as a whole, there are even more differences. The lifestyle has developed to meet the climate and the landscape – the outdoor culture and approach is the norm; sport or games or just being outside is the expectation but incongruously against this is the obesity issue! Too many Australians are overweight and not healthy so there’s something we have in common but why should this be in Australia?

Australia appears to me to be carefree but not careless. Almost anything goes – not as PC as the UK, Health and Safety is in place but takes a more sensible or relaxed view/approach starting from the principle that you are responsible for your own actions, safety and behaviour and if you did something stupid then it’s your fault first, not any third party in failing to stop you being stupid! Also as part of the lifestyle and culture, children are not as cosseted as in the UK – they walk to school (tend not to be driven), take the bus or train, or just ‘get on with it’

So…there’s some of the issues or concerns we need to address to take our game forwards but how? Perhaps I need to have another good think? But if anyone reading this knows anyone who knows anyone in the ‘cricket elite’ just pass these random thoughts of an avid cricket follower and fan, keen to ensure that cricket in the UK goes from strength to strength.

Sadly…the end is in sight

So we reach the SCG where the Ashes series ends but there’s still five days to go so no need to be downhearted even though the Ashes are gone and the prospect of a ‘consolation’ victory seems a way off. Australia make one change bringing back Starc for Bird (perhaps Jimmy was right about some of the second string Aussie quicks?) whilst England give a debut to Crane (who’s been on and off the field at every test so far as substitute fielder so he’s used to the atmosphere of the tests) but leave Ali in since Woakes is injured – a recurrence of the side strain from last summer when perhaps he came back to play too soon. He’s looked a bit ‘underdone’ this series so perhaps he was carrying a niggle all series long?

This means England will take 20 wickets with a combination of Broad, Anderson (nearly 1000 test wickets between them), Ali who has lost all form and confidence, Curran who’s played one test, Crane on debut, Root (golden balls) and Malan (rated by Smith as the best spinner in the English side) – sorry can’t see it happening!

As for the start, it’s an overcast day in Sydney and the toss and other ceremonies have been delayed by light rain. I suspect there’s no play before lunch but we shall see.

As suspected no play before lunch due to intermittent rain. Toss eventually held…won by England (4 out of five) and will bat. Forecast for drinks break 2/55.

Drinks were taken at 1/39 Cook 11no Vince 2no. Stoneman went for a run a ball 24 chasing a wider one when there was no need. Australian quicks are back to full strength and in doing so have a richer variety than at Melbourne. Pitch looks good for batting, reasonably dry with a few green patches. I expect to see some deterioration over the five days. Forecast for second drinks 2/81

Second drinks 1/86 Cook 36 Vince 24 – consolidation by England in unspectacular style. Vince is looking ok at #3 just like Stoneman is as opener but both need decent and good scores to underpin their places. Perhaps against NZ and Pakistan these chances will come. Forecast for tea 3/131.

Tea 3/122 Root 16 Malan 16. Australia are back in the game after what was, for them with hindsight a reasonable performance at the start of the three hour session. Another looms with 41 overs remaining today. Two more quick wickets and the tail looms…and given its history are current inexperience, then if England are five or six down for relatively little, then the game is firmly in Australia’s grasp but if these two can score (Malan is the second top scoring English batsman) then the revers could be the case. But which way will it go? Forecast for drinks at half way through the allotted time…4/164.

Drinks taken early due to an injury to Khawaja England 3/160 Root 42 Malan 28. Tight control by Australia bowling over 4 maidens in a row just after tea somewhat becalmed Malan but Root broke the shackles in the end. Slow stuff and consolidation as England start to build before the tail does what it does. Forecast for next drinks break 4/206.

Final drinks break 3/194 Root 65 Malan 39 and 14 overs remain. Root is now in his danger phase…he needs to convert his 50s into hundreds so the next two periods will be key. Malan has dropped anchor. Two chances went begging for Australia- a run out to the wrong end and a very sharp chance to Smith off Malan was dropped. Forecast for close of play 3/236 and would make it England’s day…albeit slightly shorter.

Close 5/233 Root failed to convert (again) being undone by the new ball as was Bairstow. Malan remains resolute but with an out of form Ali and the fragile tail to follow, this looks like an opportunity missed but who knows? This game can throw up a wobbly at any time!