“Drama, delight and despair” – an unforgettable week in English cricket. A cricketing essay.

It is often said that a week is a long time in politics, yet rarely in cricketing circles. However, the past week has seemed like a lifetime in the English cricketing world, full of drama and the whole range of emotions. 
Such excitement with much to admire, yet flaws, misjudgements and errors all round, seemingly in equal measure. 

Where to start ? The biggest news should have been the conclusion of the County Championship which, like last year, proved to be as tense and dramatic as the English and Welsh Cricket Board (ECB) and all the sponsors could have ever wished. 

Whilst Essex had already deservedly been crowned champions and Warwickshire had long since been doomed to relegation, the second relegation spot was still to be determined. There were four contenders for this unwanted position going into the final round of matches and indeed, Middlesex, Yorkshire and Hampshire could have all finished second or been relegated depending on the outcome of results. As exciting and dramatic as this may seem, this really cannot be right. Imagine the furore in football or rugby if such a situation existed. 

The ECB need to take a long look at themselves and their fixture scheduling. The Test team is the pinnacle of English cricket and rightly so. Yet as this summer has revealed, there are now three top order batting slots up for grabs in the Test team and this dilemma has really not been helped by the lack of First Class cricket being played in the summer. The County Championship now seems to be largely relegated to spring and autumn, when the weather and pitches are far from ideal.  Even allowing for global warming and a merging of the seasons, when did a cricket season ever finish at the end of September? 

Understandably in many ways,  the ECB have been chasing the dollar by dedicating a large part of the domestic cricketing summer to one day cricket and particularly to the T20 Blast. There is no denying its success as the tills rattle and punters flood through the gates to watch the thrills and spills of this short form game. ‘Sold out’ signs are appearing at many county grounds where never seen before, yet this form of cricket is not for the purist and is of no benefit whatsoever to the Test team. 

Indeed in this past season, each county has played a minimum of 14 T20 Blast fixtures and 8 matches in the One Day Cup, with more if they progress to the knock out stages of both competitions. Allowing for travelling and rest days, this easily takes up 2 months of cricketing time in the middle of the summer. This will become worse in future years as the T20 game increases it’s exposure in this country with the regional franchised tournament. Furthermore there is even talk of some of the leading English players being given time to play in the IPL to supplement their incomes, which is hard to disagree with in many ways. Players careers can be short and why shouldn’t they have the opportunity to maximise their income when they can. However, it removes them further from English domestic Championship cricket. 

Cricket is now finding that many players are becoming T20 specialists and simply travelling the world, selling themselves to the highest bidder. All a little unedifying perhaps to the cricketing purist but market forces dictate. 

The one real disappointment to come out of all of this is that the likes of Jos Butler, a fantastic talent in so many ways, and others such as Alex Hales and Jason Roy, play so little four day domestic cricket that they are extremely unlikely to be considered for the English Test team in the future. This is potentially a huge loss and may be a lasting regret for the ECB of this current structure. 

Furthermore, whilst the money is exceptional, the world circuit that these players are embarking on is just that, a circuit, when there is little allegiance to the team paying the salaries. Here one year, another the next. Just one big merry go round. The satisfaction and pride of playing for and the desire to represent a player’s country is seemingly becoming a thing of the past and must be addressed and quickly. The situation is far from lost in this country, but the West Indies Test team has been decimated and it has been incredibly sad to witness. 

Publicity for cricket is rarely a bad thing and the more people that watch the game and the more young kids that want to play the better, but a humiliation in The Ashes down under this coming winter will be considered far worse than a slight downgrading and fixture rescheduling of T20 cricket. 

The unlucky losers last week were without doubt last season’s champion county, Middlesex, who were relegated in dramatic circumstances. What a turnaround. A turning pitch at Taunton, controversially prepared to suit Somerset’s twirlers, had Middlesex in a real spin and they were completely humiliated. Congratulations to Somerset who survived from being in a seemingly inescapable position and whilst their spinners, especially Jack Leach and Roelof Van de Merwe did indeed clean up, the century from James Hildreth was worth its weight in gold. Captain Tom Abell described it as ‘ by far and away the best moment of my cricketing career’. This illustrates the power of Championship cricket, and what it means, over and above the slap bang wallop of T20. 

Spare a thought also for the Middlesex trojan, Steve Finn. The previous week at Lords he was lauded for a devastating spell of high quality fast bowling as he took 8-79 to destroy Lancashire, shouldering responsibility for the Middlesex attack following the serious injury to his colleague, Toby Roland-Jones. All of a sudden his Ashes chances were being talked up and, following the signing of a recent contract extension at Middlesex only a few weeks earlier, life was beginning to feel good again for the big man. Fast forward one week and no Ashes selection, no wickets at Taunton and he even suffered the ignominy of being the last wicket to fall, which effectively sealed Middlesex’s fate. 

All was not completely lost for Middlesex as if Warwickshire could defeat Hampshire then Hampshire would be relegated. All eyes turned to Edgbaston but more rain and incredibly dogged and determined batting, especially from Hampshire’s James Vince and Liam Dawson, who shared a 41 run 5th wicket stand compiled over 30 overs in the middle of the final afternoon, led Hampshire to safety. It was described as a masterclass of defensive batting and sometimes such a rearguard performance in such difficult circumstances can be considered just as rewarding, if not more, than a big score. They were definitely Hampshire’s saviours and their resistance sounded the death knell for Middlesex, relegated by one point. Indeed four teams finished within two points of each other, it really was that close. 

Middlesex can feel even more aggrieved that they were involved in seven draws, more than two of their main relegation rivals, many the result of inclement weather, stifling their victory opportunities. In addition, the furore surrounding their abandoned match at The Oval following the bizarre crossbow incident when the match was immediately abandoned did not help them either. Middlesex were docked two points for a slow over rate which they could have easily made up should the game not been so dramatically abandoned, having been informed on the day that there would be no penalty due to the incredible nature of events that afternoon. The ECB subsequently went back on their word following detailed consideration of the law book which did seem somewhat unfair. Inclement weather fine, but an errant arrow ? Those two points now take on huge significance, yet Middlesex appear doomed. Welcome to Derby on a cold Tuesday afternoon next April. 

Yet there is a wider issue here. The conclusion of the County Championship should form a pivotal part of the cricketing calendar.  But sadly it doesn’t. As it was, this grand finale was cruelly ambushed by other cricketing events, all organised by the ECB. 

Firstly, a relatively meaningless series of five, 50 over matches against the West Indies, most of which were disrupted by rain. These day night matches in the cold autumnal weather were clearly not to the liking of the Caribbean players and the majority of supporters. 

Secondly, the non availability of the majority of English test players sent out a wrong message. It really cannot be right that Jimmy Anderson was being paraded as a new voice on TMS when actually his presence in the Lancashire team at Lords and then Old Trafford could have been hugely beneficial to his county and the relevance of the county game to the general public. Player welfare is clearly paramount in these days of excessive demands on players but surely making them available for the conclusion of the county championship would give the county game a huge boost. 

Teams should be at full strength with their England players made available to give the conclusion some gravitas and publicity. When do other top level sporting leagues in this country reach a conclusion without their best players? It would be sacrilege. 

Thirdly, and arguably the biggest ambush of all, was the decision to announce the Ashes touring party at The Oval on the third day of the final round of championship matches, hijacking all cricketing media and discussion surrounding the sport throughout the whole week. As a result, the County Championship hardly got a mention. It was as if it hardly mattered. Surely the ECB should have made the announcement the following week, and there really seems to be no logical reason for them not doing so. Some players’ minds could have been elsewhere in the days leading up to the announcement, rather than in the critical Championship matches in which they were playing. Rumour, speculation and conjecture about the likely touring party may have filled their thoughts when really they should have been fully focussed on their county cricket. All so very wrong. When in other sports is an international side’s touring or World Cup party ever announced in the middle of the final round of matches?  Never. 

It is easy to knock the ECB yet on the whole they are doing a decent job, promoting the game as best they can and trying to look after their players welfare to ensure the ongoing success of the English cricket team in all its various formats. It is not an easy task and inevitably there has to be compromises, yet more careful consideration needs to be given to at least giving the County Championship more credence, importance and publicity. After all, it is this form of cricket that forms the breeding ground for future Test players and cannot be dismissed lightly. The emphasis needs shifting and fast. 

Clearly the ECB cannot legislate for everything and Ben Stokes’ serious aberration and stupidity in Bristol last week has put them in a real quandary, which admirably they have dealt with swiftly and properly. 

On the other hand, resting the very same Ben Stokes from the Twenty 20 match against the West Indies at Durham the previous week was pure stupidity, bearing in mind that this was the only international match to be played at Durham all year and all the local marketing was geared around the appearance of the local hero performing at his home ground. A sell out proved the effectiveness of this marketing campaign. In this day and age, cricketers are so fit that Stokes would hardly break sweat in such a fixture, yet the decision to rest him proved such a disappointment for all those who had booked tickets to get that one opportunity to see him. Simply daft and a decision made without any thought, a PR disaster. 

It really has been no ordinary week for the cricketing world in this country, indeed quite extraordinary in so many ways. Joy for Somerset, Hampshire and Yorkshire plus the Ashes selections whilst despair for Middlesex, Ben Stokes and Alex Hales. 

However sadly, other than for the cricketing devotee, all this excitement, other than the Stokes incident which has gone global, has largely passed by many of the wider cricketing public. The ECB have questions to answer, yet alas their time is now being spent dealing with the Stokes incident. It often seems like they can never win either. 

Who would have thought that the cricketing world could be so crazy? Even politics could not match it last week. 

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