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No 98, July 29 - The Grumbler's County Cricket Newsletter
🔴 Lessons from Bransgrove's legacy 🟣 Yorkshire's empty punishment 🟢 Metro Bank One-Day Cup absences 🟠 What is fair in county cricket coverage? 🔵 Major player moves 🟤 Opportunities and knocks
Sometime back in 1996 or 1997, I cannot remember which, Shaun Udal, Robin Smith and myself were chatting on rough, bleak moorland just off the M27 in Hampshire. We were discussing the future as, apparently, we were standing on the square of the county's new ground. The Ageas Bowl has always held a little fascination for me since then. Last year, on a sunny Friday night in July, I happened to be in the area so I went to have a look. It was empty yet stood majestic in the sunset so I took some pictures.
Back in 1996/97, I was nearing the end of my first sports journalism job. It was at the Aldershot News, covering a patch straddling Surrey, Berkshire and Hampshire. Sport in the south coast county was small but passionate. Quaint almost. Events at The Dell and Northlands Road were covered by the Daily Echo. Local sport by local media for local people. I might not have been there at all but for the paper indulging my passion for cricket and ghosting a weekly column for Udal, who had grown up in Camberley.
The highlight of my first Hampshire press day at the homely environs of Northlands Road was an elderly lady wandering around clutching a framed picture of Mike Atherton with love hearts around it and Winston Benjamin throwing me a murderous look for asking for an interview. I still don't know why. My first game in their tented, pitchside press box saw perhaps the best run out I have ever witnessed by Paul Terry and a brief conversation with Christopher Martin-Jenkins, a memorable moment for a young cricket journalist.
Forgive my scene-setting indulgences but it is important to know who Hampshire were before Rod Bransgrove took the helm, given he announced this week that he was going to step down from cricket duties.
The Ladybird version of his story is - took over a debt-ridden county, kept them afloat, got the Ageas Bowl built, got international games there, developed it further (with a hotel, golf course and other businesses), got an Ashes test there then left with a job pretty well done. In the process, he threw in £15m of his own money, took Hampshire out of the traditional member-led structure and locked horns with the ECB and others over numerous issues.
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I have never met Bransgrove but I am going to read his book because who else has truly changed the story of their county over the past 30 years? In that period, we have seen the ECB bet their chips on various roulette wheels and charlatans yet we have slipped behind other major UK sports in most metrics of success. From a county perspective, Durham have grown into a proper club (despite various ups and down) while Surrey have leapt head and shoulders above the other big traditional counties, albeit most have developed their grounds and, in doing so, diversified their businesses. Despite the usual fluctuations in success, the others (with the notable exception of Glamorgan’s new stadium) have roughly stayed the same in terms of stature and potential, barring adding stands and flats here and there.
But Hampshire have transformed themselves, mainly because of the vision Bransgrove demonstrated in getting the new ground built. (The US game knows the importance of stadiums, look at this ambition despite its issues.)
For a Championship game, the Ageas Bowl can be a little soulless and transport links make it impossible to just nip in, but it is an impressive set-up that has hosted Tests, the World Test Championship Finals, World Cup games, Blast finals days, franchise cricket and, soon, an Ashes Test (albeit at a cost elsewhere). In Covid, its facilities meant was one of the few venues that could host England games.
Bransgrove on the ECB:
"The ECB was established by the stakeholders to become a conduit for bringing outside investment from broadcasting rights and sponsorship into the game, into the counties. For some years, that basic philosophy seems to have been lost in an atmosphere of command and control, creating a massive infrastructure at ECB which started to exist just to serve itself.”
Alas, at the Test venues, the stadium brand is often stronger and more important than the cricket one these days. This is why Hampshire, Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire et al run their county websites through the addresses of their grounds. The latter of these even tweet from @TrentBridge.
But then even some major football clubs see themselves as venues first. Many Spurs fans lament that they have a world-class stadium hosting brilliant concerts, snazzy NFL games and world title fights. As well as a rather average football team.
County grounds like Derbyshire and Sussex have turned themselves into regular summer concert venues. Michael Buble might have played at more non-Test grounds than some of the centrally contracted England stars last year. Leicestershire are a side that unfortunately occupy the gutters of Division Two but they are looking at the stars. Central to their big revival plan is a new stadium. There is risk in such ventures. As those with major overheads found out during Covid. But, after a generation of slippage, there is a bigger danger of falling into utter irrelevance trying to implement the same strategy again and again. Some of the sustainability issues in county cricket could be addressed with multi-sport, multi-use, community-based facilities. But it is a very painful nettle to grasp. You need the will from all parties, the belief in the game and, of course, the money. In reality, often that means a rich, bullish figure like Bransgrove.
My own team, Essex, have a ground something akin to Northlands Road back in the day. It is shabby, not fit for purpose and falling further behind every year. It has been suggested that Dan Lawrence's move to Surrey might have been influenced by the grandeur of playing at the Oval as opposed to a venue using marquees as dressing rooms. After all, Hampshire’s new stadium helped them get Shane Warne back in the day.
That is why, in a perfect world, I would back a move away from Chelmsford, linking up with, say, Southend United (minus their owner and associated nonsense) for a multi-use venue that could be the sporting hub for the region. Cricket clubs can play anywhere in their county and some are situated on prime real estate. I have mentioned this before and it has been fobbed off as impossible. It almost certainly is. But Essex CEO John Stephenson recently said it would cost £100m to move the club so how else can we change our story?
County cricket needs to write a new narrative or its future will be written for it by others. And that will not make for a happy ending.
It is safe to assume many people pushed hard against Bransgrove's idea and the manner in which he pursued it. He also had money, knowledge and total control of the club. But he got it done and, almost 30 years after I stood in that desolate field, his venue and his county cricket club are getting the rewards.
And, assuming his final act is to hand control to someone with cricket in their heart and business in their brain, they will reap them for years to come.
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Player news, moves and contracts
Moves: Du Ploy (Derbyshire to Middlesex), Cox (Kent to Essex), Haynes (Worcestershire to Nottinghamshire), Amir (unattached to Derbyshire), Parkinson (Lancashire to Kent - loan- One-day Cup), Bazeley (Kent - One-day Cup)
These were one-match loans to get Kent through an injury crisis. I am torn on this. Kent are struggling to stay up, their members will moan and jobs may be on the line if they go down but are not these the occasions when your Academy work comes into play?
News, Views and Interviews
Yes, we know this. We know that county cricket does not fulfil a lot of the requirements to prepare players for Test cricket. We know we need to do something about the spinners while the point about Zak Crawley getting better against faster bowling is well-made because, as pleased as I was to see him succeed in the Ashes, it did seem the England brains trust were giving him all the chances he needed until he finally succeeds and, most importantly, proved them right.
Opportunity is essential in everything but especially in areas where supply vastly overstrips demand. I mean Kiera Knightley was so wooden in her early acting roles that she was nicknamed IKEA Knightley but she was bright enough to learn on the job and is now a very accomplished actor. The question is why the chances were given to her rather than anyone else among the vast array of talent coming out of drama schools.
In these days of analysts and cricketing match-ups, I would still argue Crawley needs to be a more complete player. As much as I love England’s approach, it is Australia’s tactics in response to Bazball and the host’s over-devotion to it at all costs that has determined the series. But, sincerely, let’s hope Crawley continues his ascent now he has made a breakthrough.
Likewise, there is a clear need for pace beyond that which can command success in county cricket. Wood is a difference-maker and Tongue has done enough to justify his surprise selection.
But tell me, who spotted these players, who coached them and brought them through? Wood grew up beyond the reach of the big counties while Tongue nearly gave up the game through injury and, oddly enough, a botox injection made the difference. Who brought him back? It was little old Worcestershire, presumably with ECB assistance.
Woakes, another star of the series, said no to the IPL to start the season with Warwickshire and regain his place for The Ashes. It is heartening to see someone turn down the money and get the reward. He deserves everything he gets.
The article is right in that county cricket is not a direct indicator of Test suitability. T’was ever thus. For example, Mike Brearley’s Test batting average was an indication that he must be a hell of a good captain. And he was.
The headline is, one presumes, deliberately provocative. T’was ever thus there too.
But, of course, we were complaining about counties signing Aussies ahead of the Ashes because it helped their preparation. And they did enough to keep the urn while our oh-so-brilliant, game-changing, so-sharp-they-might-cut-themselves side are left blaming the weather.
Long live Scarbados.
I talk about the lack of county cricket coverage a lot. For example, the sports section on Sky News made no mention of Blast finals day in their 8.30am and 9.30am bulletins when 12 hours of coverage was not long from starting one click away on Sky Sports.
One new pressure on the agenda is women’s sport. Quite rightly, it is now given a space in the schedule but, unless more time is allotted, something has to give. My issue that morning was that regular season cycling and rugby league made the cut but the Blast final, county cricket’s day out with 25,000 people paying £100 a ticket, did not.
That said, look at the above. Two screen grabs of the same BBC Sport home page. One tweet celebrating county cricket’s elevation (it is so worrying that our national broadcaster gives the tournament-that-shall-not-be-named great status on the menu ALL YEAR when it only exists for a few weeks) and one flabbergasted how Warwickshire’s skittling at the hand of Middlesex and M’Bappe’s possibly move got the nod above winning a gold and silver in the World Swimming Championships.
We should all remember that websites or news bulletins have transient agendas. These are not weighty decisions. Believe me, when you write a book, you pour over every word and get others to check your work because once it is gone, it is gone. Websites are ever-moving. Decisions such as this are often made by juniors and, of course, cricket does not resonate for so many twenty and thirtysomething because it was taken off free-to-air television screens. And county cricket is nowhere.
The washout debate after Old Trafford was total nonsense. I write about it in my Cricket Paper column this week. But it drew this rapier response from the excellent Gideon Haigh. He’s right.
So after all that, Yorkshire get a £100,000 fine. OK, the headlines trumpet points deductions but they are sixth in the Championship with no chance of going up meanwhile Somerset have been showing off the Blast trophy this week which makes similar punishments in that competition an insult to our intelligence. Meanwhile, £300,000 of the financial punishment is suspended.
So, in terms of real effect, it is £100,000.
I worry that these punishments were more about managing the message than attacking the problem. The bark is so much worse than the bite. They were even published on a Friday afternoon while the Ashes were going on.
Yorkshire have claimed they came close to financial extinction and that may well be true. One of Lord Patel’s toughest and most controversial decisions, the sacking of staff to clear the decks, was due to the desertion of sponsors had he not. This fact is often overlooked.
But Yorkshire’s statement says they are disappointed the punishment affects those who were not there then but are now. This is a nonsensical response. People change, clubs go on. This is a club punishment which needs to send out a message of ‘never again’. However, given the way the debate has gone since Azeem Rafiq blew the whistle, it will not work. Half the country still seems to think he made this all up merely for the money. Then again, the Conservatives won a by-election last week so we should not underestimate the blinding prejudice created by persistent, pernicious messaging.
These empty headlines may be the worst of both worlds - building the walls of division still while failing to truly punish the guilty.
That is why I would have liked Yorkshire to throw that £100,000 into lengthy schemes promoting diversity of race, gender and class in the county. They would work with the ECB to ensure targets are met. Every completed stage pays off a chunk of that suspended £300,000. If they clear everything then maybe they could get the original £100,000 back too. But all these punishments should be more carrot than stick.
And then there are the comparisons with Durham’s penalty, see tweets above.
Speaking of which…
Love this. Durham putting on a record number of the All Stars and Dynamos courses for the summer. A local sponsor is helping with much-needed food for those who qualify for free school lunches because, well, that is what Britain is these days. So much for those sunlit uplands, eh?
Leaving politics aside, those kids amusing themselves playing cricket in the summer holidays need to be pushed into something meaningful, tangible and real. Not a Brigadoon style, three weeks in the limelight apparition of a franchise competition, which then disappears. This is a strength of the 50-over competition, with a long interval that allows kids to play on the pitch. If the schedule were more joined up you could try to excite those first-time players with tickets.
Get them to bring the bat that they got from All-Stars then bash a ball around on a local county ground, make sure they get autographs, have someone explain what is going on and get their parents’ email addresses to invite them back.
All this has little to no cost except for staff time. This is costly but if the ECB were an organisation we fully trusted this sort of scheme would get volunteers.
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