Hardman's Thoughts

Pretty much everything…


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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.


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Falling Behind and Fading Away

Alastair Cook breaching the 10,000 test runs barrier. Alex Hales breaking England’s highest individual ODI score. England setting a new world record in a format at which they’ve traditionally been woefully unsuccessful. All in one summer. Easily the most competitive summer since the glory days of 2005, hope and belief for English cricket was plentiful in 2016. The problem is, even in the absence of the Premier League, and especially following a disappointingly boring European Championships, no one cared.

Nobody was stopping strangers in the street and asking them “did you see Alex Hales score 171?” or “were you watching when Alastair Cook went past 10,000 test runs?” Ask yourself this; have you talked to a fellow Briton about Jason Kenny joining Sir Chris Hoy on six gold medals, or his fiancé Laura Trott gaining her fourth? I’m fairly sure you would have discussed Andy Murray’s Wimbledon and Olympic double, touched upon Max Whitlock becoming the first Briton to win gold in the gymnastics or witnessed Mo Farah’s successful defence of his double double.

When it comes to BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY), all the Olympians above will be on the list. All going well in the Paralympics, Dame Sarah Storey and Jonnie Peacock, at least, will join them. On the list of ten, or even 12 if they expand it again, will there be a place for Joe Root, James Anderson or Alastair Cook? Will there be one for Chris Woakes, whose summer has propelled him from part-time international player to the first name on the team sheet? There wasn’t last year, why would there be this? SPOTY offers a rare opportunity for free exposure. Cricketers are once again finding themselves cast out.

This summer is no different to 2012, or 2008 before it. Cricket takes a backseat when the Olympics come around. For some, the cricket buffs, this prospect is sickening. For most, the Olympics only exist on a four-year cycle. Cricket happens every year, and if you miss one day, you can watch the next. If you miss Usain Bolt’s 100m gold, the same is not true. Cricket loses significance during Olympic summers, and before it could cope with that. But now, every Olympic summer drives another nail in the coffin of cricket’s slow death.

We know that participation levels are falling; we’ve seen that the ECB have had their budget cuts due to failing to meet growth targets. For those without Sky, the only cricket they can see all summer on TV is BBC highlights of wickets or sixes or channel 5’s hour long show every evening of test cricket. And even then, why watch cricket when you can watch the Olympics? I consider myself one of the aforementioned cricket buffs, yet even I preferred the Olympics.

Cricket needs the Olympics more than the Olympics needs cricket. In England, the five most popular sports, by participation level, are swimming, athletics, cycling, football and golf. All five are Olympic sports. Table tennis participation is growing; cricket is falling – yet another feather in the Olympics’ cap.

And it’s not just in England where the Olympics could help cricket. Outside of India and the rest of the subcontinent, cricket has no relevance. When hockey was introduced into the Olympics in 1908, only three countries took part. Argentina didn’t arrive until 1968. This summer they won gold in the men’s tournament. Hockey’s legacy at the Olympics will be introducing more countries to the sport than just Britain and Northern Europe. Cricket could find itself with a similar legacy in 30 to 40 years time.

The biggest criticisms of cricket made by people are that it takes too long, is too complicated, and nothing really happens. But then, realistically, you could argue the same about golf. And that had a successful reintroduction to the Olympics this summer. Also, cricket has a ready-made format perfect for Olympic digestion. Olympic sports are short and snappy, which is what T20 is. But if 40 overs is too long, then why not try a ten over a side shootout, or a five? Would that really reduce the skill set required by the players? Or would it not increase specialisation and allow more youngsters the chance to sample the furious and exciting nature of the sport? Is it not the case that the shorter the sport, the more likely it is to be exciting?

Picture this: a five-a-side cricket match played with five overs each on a pitch with short boundaries. Only three bowlers are allowed to bowl overs, two with two and one with another. In your five, you’d realistically pick one bowler, one batter, one wicket-keeper and two all-rounders.

Wouldn’t it be exciting to see Great Britain sacrificing Moeen or Rashid to gain an extra batter and giving Root an over of spin to bowl? Or South Africa having to choose between Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn? The West Indies, competing, of course, as individual nations, would have all their stars on show. With the shorter format, more matches could be packed into the same session – much like the successful Rugby Sevens. For the price of a ticket to one T20 match in this country, you could see hours of exciting action. The pitch wouldn’t deteriorate; the action wouldn’t let up.

Cricket has been at the Olympics before. In 1900, in Paris, a two-day match between a British side and a French one comprising of mainly ex-pats was a dull affair. The Olympics have moved on since 1900, and cricket has too. The exile has been too long; the need for exposure is now too great. In 2012, this country got so swept away by golden fever that we forgot all about England’s awful summer. In 2016, the country was once again caught up in a gold rush, but this time, we missed an enthralling summer. No longer can cricket be ignored, no longer can cricket sit at home while other sports get the attention, interest and free airing cricket so desperately needs.


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Is a resounding victory the wrong time to pick at flaws, or the perfect opportunity to improve the minor faults?

This summer has been good for the English cricket side. After dispatching Sri Lanka, they bounced back from a defeat in the first test against Pakistan to dominate the second, winning by 330 runs.

It seems harsh to be critical of members of that 11, however the side is far from perfect and certain aspects of it need changing if we want to guarantee victory over a very competent Pakistan outfit.

The Batting
For me, this is the biggest concern. Scores of 589-8 and 173-3 in the OT test might appear to show confidence and class in a batting line up full of potential, however those scores don’t tell the whole story.

Of the 762 runs scored by England over the two innings in Manchester, Alastair Cook and Joe Root rattled up 506 of them. That’s a whooping 66% of the total! Johnny Bairstow and Chris Woakes were the only other batters to get a half-century, no-one else scored more than Ben Stokes’ 34.

The five names mentioned above are all, when fit, guaranteed starters. But we can’t rely on just five batters. The other four in the side (Alex Hales, James Vince, Gary Ballance and Moeen Ali) all have question marks above their heads and on their selection.

Alex Hales, due to his fine series against Sri Lanka, has guaranteed himself the next two tests. However, he needs to improve against good seamers, and needs to relax in the test arena and play like he does against the white ball.

Gary Ballance has only just come back to the side since he was dropped at the start of last summer. In his two tests back, he hasn’t made a 50 and looks nervous. It would be harsh to drop him after such a short run back, however, no international side can carry a passenger, and his fine start in an England shirt looks a long way away.

But Ballance might be saved by the inability of James Vince to learn from his mistakes. Every innings Vince has played in a white England shirt (7, with an average of 18.57) has been exactly the same. He’s walked out to the middle, played a few lovely drives but has eventually got out driving. He hasn’t scored a 50 in 5 tests, and England need to have a serious think about whether he is the man for the job. For me, his time is up, and needs to return to county cricket.

The solution? It’s simple. Bring back Ian Bell. Bell is one of England’s greatest batters of all time, and is the perfect man for this series. During his England career, he batted at 30-3, or 200-3, scoring runs in all situations. He is similar to Vince, in that he has the shots, but he learnt control and when to play them. Vince could learn a lot from watching how Bell has scored his 22 test centuries, and the Warwickshire captains recall might be exactly what Vince needs.

Bell is not a step back. Yes, he’s 34, and yes he’s played before, however why is returning to a tried and tested player a backwards step? Ian Bell has played many an important innings for England, and he is the player who will sure up our batting line up for the last two tests, guarantee the series win against Pakistan, before stepping aside for younger talents in Bangladesh. Bell was unceremoniously dropped from the England side, and this is a perfect opportunity to say goodbye and end on a high.

Other options include Scott Borthwick, Ben Duckett, Daniel Bell-Drummond and Jos Buttler (when fit). All will play test cricket regularly, but maybe this summer is too soon for all except Buttler. I would expect Buttler to play in the next test, if he hadn’t broken his finger.

The Bowling
James Vince might be saved by something else. Ben Stokes got injured again during the Old Trafford test, therefore hurting our chances with both bat and ball.

Chris Woakes has been a revelation this summer (and can I just say how delighted I am by this – he’s always impressed me, and I’m just over the moon to see him bowling so well), with James Anderson and Stuart Broad going nowhere as well. That’s a formidable pace attack, although England like to go with four seamers and one spinner in England conditions – so expect another bowler to come in at Edgbaston.

Maybe expect two. Adil Rashid is knocking at the door, and Moeen Ali continues to underwhelm. For what it’s worth, I want to see Moeen given until the end of the summer, however he needs to pick up wickets in Birmingham. Cook has stuck by Moeen through thick and thin, and needs that faith returning soon.

Back to the pace attack, and Steven Finn seems shot of confidence and out of rhythm. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s a wonderful bowler, however you can’t keep bowling someone in his state of mind. The best bet for Finn would be to return to Middlesex.

So, who will replace Stokes’ bowling? Mark Wood is back bowling for Durham, and he has to be first choice. A bowling attack of Anderson, Broad, Wood and Woakes is about as good as England can offer at this moment in time, and would surely guarantee victory over Pakistan. And all this is harsh on Jake Ball, who did nothing wrong in his first test at Lords, or Toby Roland-Jones who warranted his call-up.

England’s bowling is in better shape than their batting, however, even that can be improved.

Verdict
My side for the test at Edgbaston would be:
Cook, Hales, Root, Bell, Ballance, Bairstow, Moeen, Woakes, Wood, Broad, Anderson

If Buttler is fit, I would bring him in for Ballance and bat him below Bairstow.

So, is a resounding victory the wrong time to pick at flaws, or the perfect opportunity to improve the minor faults?

For me it’s the latter. England need to continue this winning mentality, and perfecting the line up is the best way to avoid complacency and continue competition.

What would you do? Let me know in the comments below!