County Cricket

Cricket In Zimbabwe Is Thriving.

Zimbabwe’s descent from the top table of cricket in the first part of the last decade was one of cricket’s most saddening and depressing stories, but its comeback since then is surely one of the game’s most heartwarming. Whilst the country itself is still gripped by political instability, the cricket team is leading the way forward.

They made a successful return to Test cricket earlier this year and won their first match back against Bangladesh, and have since re-established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the international cricketing arena.

However, without its revamped domestic structure that came into place in 2009, none of this would’ve been possible, and it is to this that attention in Harare will focus tomorrow as the five franchises do battle in the Stanbic Bank T20. The tournament itself is short and sweet and will be completed within a fortnight - perhaps a lesson here for the ECB and BCCI? – and will welcome some of the best players from all over the world.

Chris Gayle is the star signing – he will play for the Matabeleland Tuskers – but several English county players are also involved. Rory Hamilton-Brown, Paul Horton, Tom Smith, Adam Wheater, Ned Eckersley, Ryan ten Doeschate, Phil Mustard, Riki Wessels, Andrew Hall, Phil Mustard and Peter Trego will all be taking one of the four overseas places in each franchise’s starting eleven. There they will rub shoulders with the established Zimbabwe players such as Brendan Taylor and Hamilton Masakadza, as well as mixing with some of the exciting young talent that is emerging from the country such as promising 18 year-old batsman Kevin Kasuza and fast bowlers Nathan Waller and Tendai Chatara.

Four of the teams are closely matched, with Southern Rocks the rank outsiders, but the Tuskers – led by Lancashire opener Paul Horton - are tipped as slight favourites at this early stage.

Matches begin at 0800GMT tomorrow when the Mid West Rhinos take on the Mountaineers, and Cricket World will have a review of the tournament when it finishes on 4th December.

Are The Internet And TV To Blame For Dwindling Crowd Numbers?

Having seen the final part of today’s thrilling Test match play out on the internet and through Twitter, it is quite clear that Test cricket is not dying and is very much alive and well. It received a fanatical following through websites providing live text commentary and on Twitter, from which it is not difficult to see that claims of its untimely, and seemingly unwelcome, death are overestimated.

However, TV pictures of the ground, along with images posted on those very same text commentary streams and social media websites, appeared to suggest otherwise. The New Wanderers Stadium was deserted. All that could be seen was a militant army of grey plastic seats, upturned in their disgust at what was on offer and apparently painting an entirely different picture.

So which tells the truth about the health of the of the purest form of our summer game?

Well in my view the answer to this conundrum is simply that the way we view cricket is changing. Gone are the days when passionate fans would flock to watch matches and huddle under the umbrellas that would have been necessary in Johannesburg today. Instead, today’s fans dip in and out of the action, perhaps while at work, or on their smartphones while out and about, and soak up the action that way. These modern day fans are no less passionate, it is just that, unlike our predecessors, we are in the fortunate position of being able to follow the action in whatever way we choose.

This is where the similarities with English county cricket are startling. It has never had particularly big crowds and those that it did have have dwindled over the past decade or so. However, I would suggest that it has more fans than ever, especially if we are to believe the web traffic data that leading cricket websites routinely espouse. These show that the figures are steadily increasing year on year and prove those luddites that scoff of ‘one man and a dog’ every April to be palpably wrong.

Can the current lack of ground-going fans be altered?

Perhaps, if administrators were to make attending a Test match itself a more convenient and enjoyable experience (day/night cricket anyone?) then things would improve slightly, but it is unlikely to make too much of a difference as it is impossible to stand in the way of a market-led change that sees people power dictate how cricket is ‘consumed’ to an ever greater extent.

Seven Days Is A Long Time In Cricket

Has cricket ever known a seven days like the ones we have just witnessed? From the ridiculous to the sublime and from ecstasy to tragedy, we have seen most of it.

For just the second time in the history of Test cricket, a part of all four innings was played on the same day when South Africa, having folded to be all out for 96, dismissed Australia for a staggering 47 and it needed a last-wicket partnership to prevent them from setting an unwanted record for the lowest Test score in history.

We then had Shahid Afridi’s latest comeback from retirement and although he last played for his country in May, he said he had spent the ‘long time’ away from the side wisely. Whatever he had been doing seems to have worked as his three wickets earned him the man-of-the-match award in a comprehensive nine-wicket win over Sri Lanka and he struck with just his fifth ball back. Who writes his scripts?

In among that we saw Sachin Tendulkar score his 15,000th Test run but miss out on his century of international centuries and a graceful VVS Laxman guide India to a thrilling win over the West Indies. Their squad was then rocked when news of a horrible bus crash in Saint Lucia – captain Darren Sammy’s home – filtered through and they are paying tribute by wearing black armbands for the second Test.

I have queried elsewhere whether it is the retirement of Tendulkar that will cause India the most problems as for me, Dravid and Laxman are just as irreplaceable. Exciting times ahead for the Indian selectors in the next five years.

At the end of the week, esteemed journalist and former Somerset captain Peter Roebuck committed suicide in South Africa, cricket losing one of its great characters and it is both tragic and sad that he should have chosen to have taken his own life just as too many other former players have done over the years.

Too often, words such as ‘tragedy’ or ‘disaster’ are bandied about when a team is well beaten, dismissed cheaply or a player misses out on a personal milestone. Perspective. Out of focus.

The last seven days have – unfortunately, but perhaps necessarily – reminded us what those words actually mean.

Is Test Cricket Dying And What Can Be Done To Save It?

If there is one thing that should be guaranteed to fill a stadium in India, it is surely the sight of the country’s favourite son, one Sachin Tendulkar, about to embark on his seemingly never-ending quest for his 100th international hundred. With that in mind, one would have expected the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi, capable of holding 50,000 fans, to be heaving with queues around the block, and replete with ticket touts on every corner doing a roaring trade during yesterday’s play.

Sachin Tendulkar. Guranteed to sell-out stadiums?

Alas, that was not the case. Only 8,000 turned up to see what could quite easily have been Tendulkar’s finest hour – he eventually fell agonisingly short – and if a report of one fan’s experience from earlier in the Test is anything to go by it is no wonder. In summary, he and his wife were thwarted at every turn in their attempt to buy tickets, including one laughable excuse that the ticket offices were closed because it was a Sunday. This is a Test match for goodness sake – an international sporting occasion! Can you imagine turning up at Wembley for the FA Cup final only to find it closed?

Anyway, I digress, what the article outlines is what is best described as shoddy organisation and ruthless inefficiency to the extent that if I were to be cynical for a moment, then I might suggest that the cricketing authorities were trying to undermine Test cricket in order to push people towards their favoured form of the game, namely Twenty20 cricket and in particular the Indian Premier League.

However, I doubt that is the case. It is, in all likelihood, simply a case of the shambolic mismanagement of cricket’s purest form of the game; the form which all true cricket lovers most admire; and is where this article ties in with one I was going to write a couple of days ago.

A group of enterprising fans have created a petition called Testing Times which is, I quote, “a campaign for the preservation and protection of Test and First Class cricket around the world.” Their ultimate aim is simple enough (“we want the ICC to stop eroding the importance of Tests by shortening key Test series in order to fit in more limited overs internationals”), but they have decided to start small and the petition itself is one which calls for England’s marquee series against South Africa next summer to be extended from three to four Tests at the expense of a couple of one-day internationals.

The series will undoubtedly be an entertaining one, however long it is, as is demonstrated by the nature of the South Africans’ current series against Australia, but would surely benefit from an extra Test.

As for the campaign itself, well their Twitter account has over 1,500 followers and they have already been retweeted by Jonathan Agnew, Ben Stokes and Lalit Modi among others. They also have 600 likes on Facebook and over 1,800 signatures on their petition – their ultimate aim is 28,000 (the capacity of Lord’s) - so far . Who knows, perhaps if they reach 100,000 they may even get a debate in the House of Commons!

Joking aside, it is debatable whether the campaign can be successful in the era of cricket that is dominated by TV companies and broadcast rights – the reason for the postponement of the Test Championship – but it can’t hurt to sign anyway. Can it?

Fancy Being Kent’s New Coach?

Kent are looking for a new coach following Paul Farbrace's resignation. Could it be you?

Kent CCC have taken the step of advertising their vacant head coach position on the ECB’s website, meaning that we can all apply should we fancyleading a county to Championship glory. I am sure all cricket fans have dreamt, at one point or another, of leading club or country to unprecedented success and have bemoaned the latest selectorial errors made by the incumbents. Well now we can put that right. Sort of.

The brief states that the successful applicant will be, “astute, results driven, have outstanding and demonstrable man/team management skills, be well organised, have a track record of success gained through effective coaching at all levels and will currently be successful ina senior coaching position.”

It even adds for those who may think otherwise given the team’s recent on-field performances, “A knowledge, appreciation and understanding of the game is absolutely critical.”

All of which, for one reason or another, rules out most of us; but if you fancy a crack and are currently in the specified, “senior coaching position” then why not apply? I am sure Jamie Clifford would be happy to hear from you.

For the rest of us – well we can only dream!

Could Somerset Be In The Market For James Taylor?

The identity of James Taylor’s employers come March 2012 is fast becoming one of county cricket’s transfer stories of the winter. Nottinghamshire are widely thought of as the favourites to secure the 21 year-old’s signature, although Warwickshire are also believed to be in the hunt.

However, could Somerset have added their name to the list of potential suitors? Their Director of Cricket Brian Rose was quoted as saying over the weekend, “If one quality player came up this winter, we would be in a position to sign him. At the moment, that’s a non-issue, because, although I have got someone who could possibly fit the bill, it is not that straightforward.”

Could that someone be Mr Taylor and could the complicating factor be that it would require the Leicestershire man to move to a different part of the country – something it is thought that he is reluctant to do and a factor that - along with their financial clout – makes Nottinghamshire firm favourites.

The fact that Taylor also recently visited Warwick only adds to the intrigue and speculation and has resulted in his current teammates indulging in a little light-hearted banter on Twitter.

Finally, don’t be surprised that if, in rather an ironic twist, he ends up staying at Leicestershire to see out the remaining year on his contract, meaning that all of this fervent speculation is for nothing.

Where do you think county cricket’s hottest property will end up for 2012? Let us know in the comments below.

Legspinners – a misunderstood species?

With yesterday’s announcement of leg-spinner Chris Schofield’s departure from Surrey came a reminder that some things never change in English cricket. For those that don’t know, he was widely hailed as the English Shane Warne and cut his teeth at the beginning of England’s professional era when central contracts heralded the new dawn and laid the foundations for the current team’s success.

While most players since then have benefited from the increased security that these contracts and the resulting consistency in selection that they bring, leg-spinners still appear to very much play by the old rules.

Take the example of Adil Rashid – he burst onto the scene during the latter half of 2006 and was immediately fast-tracked into England’s set-up before being discarded at the end of 2009 after a fleeting, and unsuccessful, appearance in limited overs cricket. He has since been overtaken in the pecking order by Scott Borthwick and quite possibly others such as Somerset’s Max Waller.

As for Waller, he could offer the latest example of mishandling. He appeared for Somerset in the Champions League and impressed all, including the notoriously hard-to-please Ian Chappell, before being ruthlessly dropped when Ireland’s George Dockrell became available for selection. The list could go on with Yorkshire’s Mark Lawson and Somerset’s Michael Munday both disappearing off the county circuit in recent times. Sussex’s Will Beer is also sadly in danger of going the same way.

Why this repeatedly occurs is open to debate. Perhaps it is because leg-spinners take longer to learn their craft than other players? Or maybe it is just such a difficult art to master?

Either way it would be a shame if more was not done to encourage them as the sight of a leggie on a worn pitch ruthlessly exposing their victim’s weaknesses is one of cricket’s most harmless and fundamental pleasures. Surrey’s release of Chris Schofield simply provides a neat link between the old era and the new and serves to remind us that some things never change.

Should Cricket Have A Transfer System?

With Joe Denly and James Taylor either having left or predicted to leave their respective counties, the issue of whether cricket should have a transfer system rears its ugly head once again.

Why should Kent and Leicestershire spend thousands on nurturing and coaching these young players only to see them leave when enticed by more money and better prospects elsewhere?

What can be done to help or are we rapidly seeing a two-tier setup emerge in county cricket?

Cricket World discusses the options, please let us know what you think in the comments below.

Muralitharan Signing Gives Gloucestershire Hope

Legendary Sri Lankan spinner Muttiah Muralitharan has signed a two-year deal to play Twenty20 cricket for Gloucestershire in 2011 and 2012.

Fresh from helping one new team – Kochi – launch their IPL career, Murali is set to join his third county as they bid to put behind them a poor 2010 season.

Having lost the services of William Porterfield, Anthony Ireland, Gemaal Hussain and Steve Kirby over the winter, the recent news that captain Alex Gidman has signed a new contract and now the high-profile signing of Muralitharan has given the Bristol-based team a huge boost.

The club hasn’t won a top-flight competition since 2004. Could 2011 be the year that they get back to winning ways?

In 2007, they reached the final of the Twenty20 Cup and they will be hoping that Muralitharan – a man who has won both the IPL and the Champions League, not to mention the World Cup – can produce some of his magic in the two years he is with them.

He has an outstanding T20 record, conceding just 6.16 runs per over, which in the shortest format of the game where batsmen often dominate, is nothing short of world-class.

He may be retiring from international cricket following the 2011 World Cup, but Gloucestershire supporters will hope he can add his name to the long and illustrious list of stars to have played for their club. Even for Murali, living up to the feats of the likes of Mike Proctor, Zaheer Abbas, Courtney Walsh, not to mention W.G Grace and Wally Hammond, will be a tall order, however.