Hardman's Thoughts

Pretty much everything…


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All About Prevention

How can you tell when someone is suffering from mental frailties? The human mind is difficult to read, even when it’s our own. Body language gives a clue to someone’s emotions, however will never tell the whole story. Even if you’ve known a person for many years, subtle changes can mean any alteration in mindset becomes difficult to spot.

“It’s often very hard to pick up on any signs, however, it’s important to look out for uncharacteristic behaviour patterns.” Russell Discombe explains: “So players losing their temper, suddenly being more introverted, taking the easy way out of situations (e.g. fitness drills or gym work etc.).

“I think it is more noticeable to staff and players who know the individual well than it is to an outsider or the media.”

For the last five years, Russell, a lecturer at the University of Winchester, has worked as an applied performance psychologist at a professional cricket academy, as well as playing and coaching the sport. He’s contemplating how to notice if someone is struggling with mental illness. The behavioural patterns are the clearest sign, although, they usually come after the illness has manifested.

Russell likes to nip it in the bud before then: “We monitor all athletes on numerous occasions throughout the year using mental health questionnaires in order to try and highlight early if there are potential issues. If any issues are flagged then the psychologists will have a conversation. If these issues are deemed clinical, then the athlete is referred to a clinical psychologist.”

The questionnaires that Russell uses are called PHQ9 and GAD7. Both are similar forms that ask the participant to look back over their last two weeks and ask themselves a series of questions based on their anxiety levels in that period. The forms become quite personal, with enquiries such as ‘How often have you been bothered by thoughts that you would be better off dead?’

People can answer “not at all”, “several days”, “more than half the days” or “nearly every day” with scores nought, one, two and three applied to each individually. Based on the score, the form recommends action ranging from support to seeing a clinical practitioner.

That last step is particularly crucial for Russell: “I believe it is important that the athlete sees a qualified clinical practitioner rather than a coach, sports scientist or even a sports psychologist.” Russell explains that as a psychologist he knows he is not properly equipped to be dealing with mental illnesses such as depression.

Over recent years, English cricket has seen a handful of high-profile stars pulling out of England tours due to struggles with their mental health.

Despite this, former England opener Graeme Fowler believes the sport is doing more than others. During a BBC radio discussion on depression, which Fowler himself lives with, he said: “Cricket encourages people to be open, honest and to deal with it. A lot of other sports don’t really acknowledge it, they are frightened and it’s easier to shove it in a cupboard.”

Nevertheless, can the ECB do more to help prevent that number rising?

Russell thinks so: “They should introduce mandatory Mental Health Screening at all county and minor counties. This could be something as simple as getting players to complete a five-minute online survey twice a year. While this is obviously not ideal, if it helps one person then it will be beneficial.” He says that this should be a “centralised minimum requirement” rather than the current system of deciding who to screen and when.

Of course, it is worth noting that this wouldn’t have a 100% success rate. Currently, players might not be as honest as they should be because they don’t want to admit issues, or maybe they can’t recognise signs, as Russell believes cricket has an image problem concerning depression.

“There is definitely still a stigma attached to mental illness.” He tells me. And how do we lift that? “We need to keep educating athletes and the general public about the issues. Encouraging more athletes who have suffered from these issues to talk about their problems publically will definitely help this process and help people suffering from these problems. There is nothing to be ashamed of.

“We need to move away from the sentiment of ‘Just get on with it…things will get better’ or ‘Stay calm and carry on’.”

Russell believes the reason these issues have only just begun appearing in the public eye is because of “the traditional ‘old school’ attitude of suck it up and stop being so weak”.

A perfect example of this attitude was found when England spinner Michael Yardy left the 2011 World Cup due to his struggles with depression. Concerning the issue, former England opener Geoffrey Boycott went on radio and declared that Yardy was a liability, and clearly not good enough for that level, implying matters were cricket-related and not health orientated. More than that, Boycott used menial words such as “upset”, highlighting a severe lack of understanding of the illness.

Over recent years, the situation has improved – mainly because of honest and chilling books by Marcus Trescothick, Fowler and most recently, Yardy. All detail their battles in an open and refreshing manner, lifting some of the myths associated with depression.

In all of their cases, they found help too late. For all of them, their international careers were effectively over. Nevertheless, Russell firmly believes that a cricketer can be open about his or her struggles and still have a fruitful career at the highest level: “If people deal with the issues correctly then there is no reason why they can’t continue to have a long successful career.”

The theme throughout our chat on how to help cricketers revolves around the importance of seeking help early. For any youngster beginning in the sport who might be struggling, Russell recommends finding a professional to listen as soon as possible, adding: “Admitting that you have a problem takes guts and shows how tough you are.”

As the years go on, it should become easier for cricketers to find a safe environment in which to discuss such issues. Every professional side travels with a full-time sports scientist these days, although in Russell’s experience these are more “physiology based rather than psychology based”.

While he says the sports scientists are helping to improve the game, and making athletes mentally tougher, he stresses they should never be used for clinical help. His message is the same, when in doubt seek a clinical practitioner rather than anyone else.

But then, like all things, there is always more than one way to help someone. For example, cricketers have used hypnosis and holistic therapies in the past as ways to de-stress and release negatives. Yet even then, as Russell confirms, having a chat with someone you trust and value, and eventually a psychologist, is the best way to find the optimal method of help for the individual.

To say that the first step is the hardest, and that the first step is admitting you have a problem is both a cliché and not. For matters revolving around depression, it’s obvious from my chat with Russell that even a small change in mental well-being can signify something more serious.

If you’re reading this and think you can relate to some of the emotions and experiences detailed here, Russell recommends that you seek professional help as quick as you can. But above all else, Russell stresses that you shouldn’t be ashamed about your problems – you are not alone; a lot of people have suffered what you’re experiencing.


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No panic necessary – why betting shops aren’t worried by cricket scandals

In the last six years since Pakistan toured England, a new word dominated coverage of the sport. So, how are those handling money dealing with potential corruption?

Any cricket fan can tell you where they were on the morning of the 29th August 2010.

England’s Lords Test against Pakistan that year should have been remembered for the host’s first innings, as they recovered from 102-7, to post 446. Mohammed Amir, then 18, had ripped through an impressive top order, before Trott and Broad rescued England, with the latter scoring his first (and to date only) test century.

Pakistan collapsed when replying. And by lunch on the fourth day, England had won by an innings and 225 runs, yet the mood was far from celebratory.

Why?

Just a few hours earlier, three members of the Pakistan side – Amir, fellow fast bowler Mohammed Asif and captain Salman Butt – had been accused of cheating. The News of the World ran a sting operation against a Pakistan agent, who claimed that certain balls were going to be no balls.

Spot fixing.

The term, relatively unheard of away from the subcontinent before, has dominated cricket news for the last six years, culminating in Mohammed Amir’s return from his ban. In a coincidence to end all others, his first test match just happened to be where he played his last.

All sports fans want to watch a contest, trusting that every moment is genuine, that no battle is decided prior. So, need they be worried? Is the integrity of cricket beyond all help?

Rupert Adams, the media relations officer at William Hill betting company, has a reassuring message for worried followers: “It is extremely hard to defraud the industry for certain sums. The reality is, the turnover is tiny.”

William Hill, and Rupert assures me they aren’t alone, have a method for detecting and flagging suspicious bets.

“We have risk systems which are extremely good. They are based on an algorithm which knows what average bets and payouts are likely to appear from every outcome.” He explains: “If there is a deviance, even of not that much, the bet is red flagged.

“We put these in front of our senior compilers and see if they can find a reason. If there is no explanation, we speak to our competitors and see if they are witnessing an abnormal pattern. If they are, we speak to the gambling association and say the bet is not up to scratch.”

If that is the case, the company will suspend betting. Rupert describes these occasions as “rare”.

Even so, recent years have shown that spot fixing happens at the highest level. Essex bowler Mervyn Westfield admitted to accepting money in return for conceding a certain number of runs during an over of the Pro-40 match against Durham. Over in India, numerous editions of the IPL have been hit by spot-fixing allegations, suspensions and arrests. So clearly, despite Rupert’s confidence, spot fixing still goes on.

He concedes that his assurances are only valid for professional, legal bookmakers: “The illegal bookmaking side is where it happens. The illegal bookmakers are run by gangsters.”

Organised crime. A murky theme that has run through sporting contests for generations; one which is yet to fade.

As recently as 2014, the director of the World Anti-Doping Agency, David Howman, told a conference that criminal groups control “at least 25% of the world’s sport”. Ranging from drugs to fixing, it’s a shadow that will be hard to cast.

Nevertheless, Rupert’s overall message can be summed up in his line: “We think it’s a lot less endemic than people think.”

But what is the view within the game? Alastair Cook caused some controversy this summer when, on the eve of Amir’s return, he declared: “If you are caught match-fixing you should be banned for life.” He later confirmed that he was fine with Amir playing, as the Pakistan bowler had served his sentence.

There are, however, huge waves of support for Amir. Simon Goodley, wrote in The Cricketer: “Amir made a reprehensible mistake – but which of us does not regret any actions at that age?”

He went on to say that the story has been reported wrong – that it isn’t a betting scandal and that without the News of the World’s intervention, nothing illegal would have happened.

While possibly a fair point, it won’t undo the damage that the last six years have done. Has the fall-out turned punters away from betting on cricket?

Rupert doesn’t believe it has: “We feel largely comfortable with all sports. If people are betting on sports, they know what is going on.”

Indirectly referring to the Amir incident, he states: “We don’t bet on no-balls, but if we did, even £15 on the next ball to be a no-ball would be too much, and we would red flag it.”

At any one time, William Hill will have as many as 30 live markets running on cricket matches. These include outright winner, first or second innings score, lead by and next dismissal.

Rupert said that they don’t bet on the “minor moments” which could be fixed, adding: “A batsman could potentially impact on how he gets out, but it would still be difficult to make sure he’s caught or bowled etc.”

In a summer dominated by a major doping scandal before the Olympics, Rupert recalls a meeting with the IOC during which “a man stood up and said fixing was the biggest threat the Olympics face, not drugs”. Rupert remembers thinking that none of their evidence suggests that. Interestingly, Rupert can’t recall ever having a meeting with cricket’s authorities regarding any suspicious betting patterns.

Overall, Rupert Adams is very confident that punters can continue betting on, and watching, sport, without fear that their money is being wasted on an already decided outcome. More so, he doesn’t believe that continued scandals will turn people away from sport. The only worry comes from illegal dealings.

Mohammed Amir accepted money as an 18-year-old in return for bowling no balls. It will almost certainly happen again in the future, but the message from bookmakers is clear: there is no need to worry; these incidents won’t affect the future of cricket.


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Three sports, three players, three hundred words

Romelu Lukaku has now scored more league goals than any other Everton player in the history of the Premier League. People are, ridiculously, making a big deal about it. Let’s put this into some perspective. He’s scored 61 goals, one more than Dixie Dean scored in the 1927-28 season (yes, football existed before 1992). Everton have been in the top flight since the PL was created, along with Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham. Their top goal scorers have 175, 180, 128, 147 and 97 goals respectively. Yes, Lukaku breaking Ferguson’s record is a little bit of history but that doesn’t mean we should be celebrating it.

Eoin Morgan scored another one-day century this week. Only seven players (four from South Africa) have scored more runs than him in the format this year, and only one from the same amount of innings. Our captain is fourth on the all-time list for English players, while the century in the first match against West Indies pulled him level with Kevin Pietersen. It means only Marcus Trescothick has hit more tons. Trescothick’s 12 centuries is well within reach, as is Ian Bell’s record of 5400 runs (Morgan is about 900 behind). England’s greatest? Possibly, at least until Joe Root catches up!

Andy Murray has remained at number one for the 18th week in a row. That makes it sound defensive, the truth is he’s comfortable there – at least until the French Open! Djokovic has points galore to defend at the next two tournaments – Indian Wells and Miami, where Andy lost in the third round at both last year. Andy won in Dubai last week as Djokovic lost to Kyrgios in Mexico. Djokovic will almost certainly still finish the year top of the pile, but March is a great chance for Murray to continue cementing his place in tennis history.


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The Struggles of Cricket

The walk to the crease is a long one. There is so much that can go wrong. Even before you get to the middle. Not easy on a good day, if you are a batter struggling with form, the walk can feel like a marathon. Every step will pose a new question, every breath a new worry.

When Jonathan Trott quoted stress as the reason for leaving the 2013-14 Ashes, he followed Marcus Trescothick and Michael Yardy as England players leaving overseas tours in the past ten years. But then, every sport has stresses. Every sport will produce struggles. If that’s true, why do more cricketers seem to stumble and quit at the highest level?

“I think the nature of the sport means that players are away on tour, or travelling a vast amount of the time.” Russell Discombe is a lecturer in Sport and Performance Psychology at the University of Winchester, working in cricket for the past 15 years: “Cricketers are used to living in hotels and having to make do with Skype or phone calls to loved ones for a large amount of the Summer, if not year round.”

The reality is, we’ve heard all this before. Why, despite years of coverage, does nothing appear to be changing?

Russell describes cricket as a “unique sport” when it comes to the length of tours, but believes the concerns do not stop with visiting foreign countries. He explains: “You are an individual within a team environment. You are part of the team, yes, but there is a lot of pressure for you to produce individual performances. It is also a lot easier [nowadays], with stats for example, for the media and fans to pinpoint players that might be letting the team down.”

The format hasn’t changed, the sport hasn’t altered, and therefore the problems still occur.

Does the combined pressure of being away from families for long periods of time and being out of nick in the public eye make cricket mentally a tougher sport than others? Russell pauses for a moment to consider that: “That’s a hard question to answer. The game is much longer so you might argue that this is more challenging than other sports.”

When this question has been approached in the past, the tendency has been to look at cricket and where cricket can go wrong, rather than compare it to other sports. A comparison with other team, and individual, sports could be necessary to understand as to why cricketers face more battles.

Again, Russell considered this for a minute before answering: “I think all of the on-field challenges are very similar. You still have an opposition doing their best to try and beat you, and you still need to be mentally prepared to perform.” This would imply there is something fundamentally different about cricket, which Russell goes on to explain: “Having said that the games can last for up to five days, so the ability to manage concentration – not switching on and off – is vitally important.”

Concentration. It’s the buzzword of cricket psychology. Alastair Cook, England’s highest run scorer of all time, is renowned for his concentration whereas the opening partners he’s had since Andrew Strauss retired have all suffered from vital lapses in it at crucial moments.

Retaining concentration for one ball is a little thing, however, when repeated for hours on end can become a huge problem. It’s along this path where Russell believes cricket is fundamentally different to other sports.

“I do feel that there are a lot more organisational stressors placed on cricketers. Things such as travel, living in hotels, living with teammates, short contracts, training all winter indoors, the hectic schedule, switching formats etc. These can all impact on the mental health of the individual. They might seem like small things but after years of doing this they can be impactful.”

Short contracts are an interesting factor. Rarely mentioned in most discussions regarding mental struggles, Russell believes they bring uncertainty, explaining: “Unless you are a well-established player or international you might go through your career and not receive a contract longer than two years.”

This factor is made more worrying given Russell’s belief about when complications are more likely to manifest: “I think these issues can happen at any point during a career. However, I believe they are particularly prevalent during transitions within the game. Changing or uncertain times can certainly add pressure or worries to the players.”

Russell points out that depression can have a disastrous effect on a player’s career, adding: “It can bring careers to a premature end.” And that is a terrifying prospect, given that Russell believes not every sufferer is aware of his or her problems.

Why is this? “I think in general the public knowledge of mental illness is very poor, and there is a lack of awareness and stigma attached to mental illness.” Russell adds that more education is needed. He even makes hints during our conversation that this is necessary within the game itself.

A, not entirely unexpected, recurring theme during my chat with Russell was the issue of family. Touring takes the player away from their, sometimes young, family, and it is the family who has to deal with the brunt of the illness. This means a stress-related illness can have a negative effect on life at home.

“Mental illnesses don’t just affect the on-field performances; these issues encompass all aspect of the individual’s life.” Russell explains: “It can affect relationships, jobs/careers; sleep patterns, general health and fitness etc.”

On top of his lecturing, Russell is a coach at a local cricket club, where he also plays regularly. As part of these roles he has played with, and coached, many youngsters looking to make their way in the game.

I asked whether he thought the fact that cricket publically struggles with mental health is putting children off taking up the sport. In positive news, he wholeheartedly believes it doesn’t, but warns that more needs to be done.

“I feel that numerous younger players view travelling as one of the exciting ‘perks’ of the sport. They often don’t realise, however, that the novelty of it and being away from family can soon wear off. I think we could do more to educate younger players about cricket’s stressors.”

So, why do cricketers seem to struggle more than other sportspeople? When disclosing their troubles, Russell doesn’t believe that cricketers are necessarily more honest than other athletes. So, this could mean that the answer lies with the unique nature of the sport. This may lead to challenges that other athletes don’t face. While it can be said about most sports, the difference in cricket is, as Russell mentioned, the organisational stressors stemming from long tours and three formats.

From the travelling involved with international cricket, to the media pressures that come with being out of nick, to the short contracts handed out to the young professionals right down to just switching formats. Through the eyes of a psychologist, cricket’s problems are prevalent everywhere and at every level of the sport.

Russell clearly does not believe that cricketers are born more vulnerable to mental illness. However, for every bad shot, or every drop, the walk to the middle gets longer, the struggles, as Russell referred to, become greater. Yet, the question still remains – how do we help those who are suffering? Is the sport doing enough? How do we make sure that another promising career doesn’t come to a devastating, premature end?


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Ramble #15

The English are coming

Nothing quite splits opinion in the sporting world like the Indian Premier League. Similar to marmite, you either love it or you hate it. Personally, I’ve always loved it but have been disappointed with the lack of English players. 

That has now all changed. Traditionally, Eoin Morgan and Kevin Pietersen were regulars with Andrew Flintoff playing the first season. But outside of those three, who let’s be honest, are all pretty box office names, no English players were ever represented. 

At the latest auction, taking place as I write, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Alex Hales, Jason Roy, Tymal Mills, Chris Jordan and Jonny Bairstow joined Eoin Morgan in putting themselves forward. Only Hales and Bairstow haven’t been sold, with Ben Stokes becoming the most expensive overseas player. 

With Jos Buttler and Sam Billings being held on by their franchises from last year, the vast majority of England’s T20 outfit will now be plying their trade on the biggest T20 stage of all. And most of them can expect to be regular overseas picks for their franchises.

The most important two will be Stokes and Tymal Mills. Mills was a priority for Royal Challengers Bangalore, who were willing to spend as much as possible to get him. He’s a T20 specialist, with genuine pace which will suit the tracks in Bangalore. He can’t play first-class or 50-over matches so the England set-up will be delighted he was wanted. The more games he plays in this environment, the better for England. 

And I’m delighted that Strauss has convinced the England bosses that the IPL is the way forward. Played in front of consistently big crowds, the teams can only field four overseas players per match (but can have a max of nine in their squad). Therefore, the competition for places is high. The English contingent will have to be at their absolute best in every training session to secure those all important places, while competing with huge names such as Chris Gayle, AB de Villiers and Trent Boult. But while these players would have expected in the past to breeze into the side ahead of English players, it is no longer the case. 

Our revolution started with the Bayliss/Strauss/Morgan trio of leaders. It showed potential with a surprise appearance in the final of the Worlds last year and now it’s affirming itself on the world stage with the level of demand in English players at the IPL auction. The competition may not be your favourite, but the sudden acceptance of English players can only be good for the game in this country. 


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Saltire-ra?

Following an overdue victory at the latest World T20, how can Scotland use the experience to propel themselves towards a brighter future?

Nagpur, India, 12th March 2016. Scotland were playing Hong Kong in front of an almost empty stadium in the World T20. Both teams had already been eliminated from the tournament and rain had reduced Scotland’s run chase.

Scotland, donning bright pink shirts, required four to win from 13 balls with Sussex batsman, and part-time spinner, Matt Machan facing Hong Kong’s spinner Nadeem Ahmed. Machan, not wanting to hang around, placed his back knee on the crease, put his front foot forward and sent the ball over midwicket to end the match with a six.

For most of the world, it had nothing riding on it. For Scotland, that six was the shot that sealed their first ever victory at an ICC tournament. At the 20th attempt. All those involved with Cricket Scotland were delirious.

Machan came to the crease after Matthew Cross, Scotland’s wicket-keeper, was dismissed. Matthew made an important, brisk 22 that sent Scotland to the verge of victory: “I think the biggest feeling was relief that we had won our first World Cup game. I think it was a matter of when, not if, and we had deserved to win.”

Malcolm Cannon has been Scotland’s CEO for just over a year, hence that tournament was his first in the role. He recollects: “The tournament was a great learning curve and opportunity for Associate members.”

The tournament saw eight nations split into two groups of four, with one from each progressing to the next round, when the test nations joined. The early matches, those involving the Associates, were all played in less than a week.

The format meant that every run was crucial, every dropped catch fatal. In their second match, Scotland found themselves 20 for four. The pressure of the situation had told.

For Matthew, the experience brings back a mixture of emotions. He describes playing in India as “great”, but adds: “The only disappointing aspect was having won the original qualifying tournament [to get to India] to have to go through another qualifying group.”

Malcolm acknowledges this, but still sees the tournament as a success for his nation: “Scotland got themselves into winning positions in all three games and got over the line in only one – frustrating or not this is progress.”

At all major tournaments, Associate nations usually come in and leave with their heads held high. There are the occasional drubbings, but in most matches they provide more of a test than most people think they will.

In the 50-over edition, it is usually Ireland who produces the biggest splash – who can forget flame-haired Kevin O’Brien’s inspirational knock to dispatch England in Bangalore?

For T20, the traditional giant-killers have been Netherlands, but in 2016 it was the sport’s newest nation that picked up the mantra. Playing an aggressive, no fear form of cricket, Afghanistan won many friends as they toppled test nations Zimbabwe and eventual champions West Indies.

Eight runs. Two fours. For Netherlands, that was the difference between progression and an early flight home. Their captain, Peter Borren, gave an emotional press conference after the tournament, which included a plea for more opportunities. He went on to say: “There is a lot of money in cricket. [It’s] just not really being spent on expanding the game.”

More money would lead to more opportunities. But, with the money that Cricket Scotland receives, Malcolm has an idea about where he intends to spend it and how it will improve Scotland’s quality of cricket.

“We have a strategy, which we published in January this year, looking to grow the sport at grass roots level, growing the number of girls and women involved in the sport significantly and improving our world standing in both the men’s and women’s game.”

The strategy is focused very much on improving the stature of the sport within Scotland. Statistics on participation levels of sports played in Scotland are hard to come by, but a survey by SportScotland in 2008 found that only one per cent of 8-15-year-olds play cricket once a month. For girls of that age, that figure drops to 0.5 per cent.

While slightly out-dated, it proves there is a lot of work to be done to improve the profile of the sport. How does Malcolm intend to get more youngsters active?

“We are working with clubs and schools and recently won the Global Development Award from ICC for our schools and clubs programme. We are also raising the noise level around both men’s and women’s cricket through traditional and social media all the time.”

Their programme includes support to cricket clubs from professionals, and a scheme to improve local facilities. There is clearly a drive to recruit more grassroots cricketers.

Malcolm already believes they have some “very strong” prospects in the next generation, with his vision looking to provide a better structure through which to nurture Scottish talents.

At the professional level, Malcolm hints at the potential for expansion, but the desire to become a Test nation is never explicitly stated. And then, how easy is it to improve when you’re not reaping the rewards of being a full member?

Scotland’s status within the game is a consideration when setting future targets, however Malcolm doesn’t see it as a hindrance: “The ambitions, while a stretch, are achievable as they focus on realistic targets which are not attached to being a Test-playing nation, but more on developing our footprint on the global game through the greater amount of contextual cricket played at all levels in the shorter formats.”

And that vision has been handed a boost at the ICC conference in July, hosted by Cricket Scotland in Edinburgh. A revamp of the ODI structure was on the agenda, with a 13-team league over three years discussed. While Scotland aren’t guaranteed a slot in this, at least to begin with, it opens the potential for playing more regular matches, including away ones, against Test nations.

At this stage, Matthew thinks the idea has merit and that Scotland would “deserve to be there”. However, he adds: “It’s more a question of whether the big teams would co-operate.”

Edinburgh’s agenda also brought to the table the tantalising prospect of two divisions for Tests. Peter Borren could be grinding out a draw in the Caribbean, as Ireland blow Bangladesh away in overcast conditions during the first morning in Dublin. Scotland, initially at least, would be waiting in the wings for their chance to shine in white.

“The ICC has some very exciting plans to introduce more context to all three formats of the game, and we are wholly supportive of these ideas.” Malcolm tells me: “These proposals enable existing members to play more cricket and to be ‘promoted’ up the ranks while exposing existing full members to potential ‘relegation’.”

This new push for globalisation seems to have been a direct result of the failings of the World T20. Along with Peter Borren’s comments, Irish captain William Porterfield told a press conference: “It is a shame that the ICC at the top level insist on cutting teams … It doesn’t happen in any other sport. Every sport grows.” He went on to claim that Associates’ requests fall on deaf ears.

It’s a statement that Matthew agrees with, ruefully admitting Scotland play “nowhere near enough games against the top ten teams”.

However, just a few months after the World T20, Porterfield got his wish. Barring injury, he will become the first Irish captain in history to lead his nation out at Lords, as early as next summer.

What about Scotland then? Is a similar event on the horizon for them? If it is, Malcolm is keeping it secret.

“We work closely with the ECB on England and England A fixtures. We will be playing England in 2018 in Scotland.” He goes on to tease that the future tours programme “should offer all nations some exciting opportunities”.

This is important, as all the talk about growing the game at the grassroots level will be futile if the professional sides can’t get regular cricket. Fixtures are crucial, including regular playing time for their cricketers.

So, how many fixtures would Scotland play in an ideal world? Malcolm is unsure: “It’s still to be decided what the ideal amount of international cricket is – there are vast discrepancies even between full members.” The tone of his answer suggests that he feels Scotland could benefit from more.

In Nagpur, on Scotland’s fateful night, Matt Machan took a couple of wickets before hitting that winning six. He’s one of the few members of the side to turn out regularly for a county at grounds up and down England.

With a stint at Nottinghamshire behind him, Matthew is currently on Essex’s books. He was enthusiastic when I asked him if he would recommend the system to young Scottish players: “Playing against different and professional opposition every week improves you and brings different challenges.”

Malcolm is also a fan of the system: “We feel this is a good way for our players to get high-quality games and coaching in a well-tested structured environment.”

Matthew has felt the effects of the different coaching: “Training with Scotland is more specific to our certain roles within the team, whereas county training is a bit more relaxed and guys are usually given the freedom to train what they feel they need to.”

It’s quite clear to see how, with Matthew being an all-rounder, the two methods have been beneficial to him.

When pressed about how they will get more players through the system, Malcolm can’t see things changing much from how they are, stating: “We will work closely with counties over the coming years.”

Currently using the system to his advantage, Matthew has plans to play regular county cricket, aiding his attempts to help Scotland win more matches.

Currently, only ten nations play international cricket at the highest level. In a world with over 200 countries, the potential pool of recruitment for cricket is low. With the popularity, and global nature, of sports such as football continuing to grow, cricket is in real danger of being left behind.

With continued impressive performances on the international stage, and a renewed emphasis on equal opportunities from captains, this year feels groundbreaking for Associate nations.

The winner of the ICC Intercontinental Cup will play the lowest ranked Test team for the chance to become the 11th Test nation. It’s a carrot gladly gobbled up by nations hungry for the chance to progress. But it wasn’t enough. Edinburgh offered another light at the end of the tunnel; the wheels of revolution had begun to roll.

This year’s World T20 was initially a poisoned chalice for the Associates. They had next to no time to make their mark. At the time, the next World T20 wasn’t scheduled for another four years.

When Matt Machan hit that six over mid-wicket, the Scottish players went crazy on the bench. As Matthew explained, it was probably an outpouring of relief. But if any of them were thinking about their future, their country’s future, they might have considered one where that six was the last taste of major tournament cricket they would experience. Back then, it felt like a possibility.

Through moments like that, Borren and Porterfield and the reaction to the passion of the Associates, the ICC have announced the next World T20 will take place two years earlier than planned. They’ve even expanded it to allow more Associates the chance to impress.

Matthew wants to play in more World Cups, and the ICC finally look ready to commit.

Nagpur, India, early March, a half empty stadium. It wasn’t the most glamorous of settings. On the surface, it was proof that the Associates don’t bring in the crowds. Scratching underneath, however, reveals two countries locked in a battle of importance for eras to come.

Machan’s six altered the course of Scottish history, and potentially the Associates’ future.

It just might drive a generation of Scottish cricketers to an endgame where they don’t play to survive; they compete to thrive.


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My dejection at England’s victory

Before we delve any deeper into this piece of writing, I can guarantee you that, if this was published somewhere of slightly higher profile than Hardman’s Thoughts, at least one whackjob on Twitter would read the headline and declare me anti-English.

(Also, if you are here expecting a rant on Brexit then you will be bitterly disappointed.)

I would like it known, although it needn’t be said in all honesty, that I am not anti-English. I will always support England, in all sports, and will always want them to do well. Next month I will be attending England v Scotland at Wembley, and while my loyalties aren’t as clear cut as when we play Germany or Slovenia, I will still want the Three Lions to take the three points.

But some things transcend supporting.

Or maybe my emotions after England’s 22-run victory over Bangladesh in the first test are exactly what supporting feels like.

Not supporting England necessarily, but supporting cricket.

After some mediocre, ok that’s too kind – dreadful, top order batting from England, but some even worse lower order stuff from Bangladesh, the Test was, cliché or not, in the balance on the eve of the fifth day.

Bangladesh needed 33 runs to pull off a famous victory; England needed two wickets to avoid embarrassment.

Famous victory? Embarrassment? Bangladesh have only won seven of their 94 tests. Five were against Zimbabwe (so, and no offence to Zimbabwe, can be discounted) and two came against weak West Indies sides (again, we can probably discount these).

Beating England in the first of a two-match series would not only guarantee their first victory over a big nation, it would also mean they were in with a genuine shot of winning the entire series. Now, that’s impossible.

Whenever I considered the situation on Sunday, I admit I was worried. Worried that England were about to lose to Bangladesh, worried about the headlines, needless inquests and snarky comments from ex-pros that would follow.

When I woke the next morning to see England had triumphed, a moment of relief was followed by unexpected dismay.

It had hit me that cricket had missed a glorious opportunity to improve (not to put too much pressure on Bangladesh’s final pairing of Sabbir and Shafiul – thankfully I doubt they’ll ever read this).

I spent a lot of time this summer writing about cricket. My whole final project was dedicated to it, and a lot of that regarded the globalisation of the sport.

Test cricket is the pinnacle of the sport. Only ten nations contest it. Although, it’s worth pointing out “contest” is a tad misleading. It suggests equality. And equality is far from the situation cricket finds itself it.

Of the ten, you can only argue seven are competitive. Zimbabwe hardly play and almost never win. West Indies have lost interest in it and are ruined by contract disputes regarding their best players. Bangladesh play, and try their best to compete, but are seen as pushovers and easy targets. A series against any of those is, sadly, a chance to blood some youngsters in and rest the senior players.

Bangladesh are, beyond doubt, an improving nation. England beat them in the recent one-day series, becoming the first team to achieve that, in Bangladesh, in seven attempts. Recently, South Africa, Pakistan and India have all been felled. Positive signs.

But back to the point, only ten contest Tests.

Ten nations. There are over 200 nations in our world. Only ten play cricket over five days. That’s equivalent to only ten nations playing 11-a-side football over 90 minutes, while only some of the rest play 5-a-side over 20. Sure, they meet every couple of years in World Cups, but their performances are chirpy, spirited and occasionally thrilling without ever truly threatening triumph.

It sounds ridiculous right?

It’s not just me who thinks there is something fundamentally wrong with that?

And how can we realistically expect it to improve if three of those ten aren’t pulling their weight?

So, imagine if Bangladesh had dragged themselves over the line against England?

Imagine if they went on to win the series?

Bangladesh already have an exciting crop of youngsters (and if you want a positive spin on Monday – read James’ excellent blog), a victory would have given them encouragement and something to say, “Yeah, my country did that”.

Instead, they continue to be the plucky losers. The history books won’t regard this as a close loss; instead it will always go down as just a loss. If they won, the margin wouldn’t have mattered – the “W” it produced would.

Bangladesh will win a test match against a big nation one day. They might even do it in the second test. But this year has already seen an upsurge in support for smaller nations of the cricketing world, kick-starting a test series with a victory to shake up the existing order would have been just perfect timing.

Of course, I would have preferred it if England weren’t on the receiving end, however, I am a cricket fan first and foremost and an England fan after that. I would rather see England lose in 2016 and have the sport exist for generations to come on a global stage than see England win in 2016 and have the same global situation in 2026, 2036, and 2046.

Alas, the moment has gone and the time passed.

It’s very possible I’m being too dramatic here (a recurring theme in my writing), and positivity has to be the order of the day in the Bangladesh dressing room (again, I doubt any of them will read this), however caution needs to be had at every turn. Every moment in sport can change the path we are on, and this, to me at least, felt like one.

It’s not dramatic to say at least it shows test cricket is alive and well in corners of the globe we thought it was lost.

So, congratulations England but my heart goes out to Bangladesh. I, subconsciously at least until the result was confirmed, was willing you to create history and I’m gutted another opportunity was lost.

And just in case you are reading this, keep your heads up and come again. You’ve played too well on this tour to go away with nothing to show for it.