The profession of cricketer and more, 1991

Notes by the Editor

Graeme Wright

If only the introduction to these Notes could have echoed those written for the 1929 Wisden. A record number of hundreds in the English season under review, success for England in the home Test matches, the Ashes series in Australia already won as the Almanack went to press. It was not to be. Injuries to key England players in Australia, particularly to the captain, Graham Gooch, were a factor in England's failure to regain the Ashes during the winter. But more worrying were avoidable technical deficiencies and the attitude of the team in Gooch's absence. When, early on, the wheels fell off, it seemed that no-one knew how to put them back on, leaving the mule-team to drag the waggon backwards and forwards across Australia on its axles. To those who watch county cricket regularly, and critically, this will have come as less of a surprise than it may have to the gentleman who wrote, in the autumn, A fine season. A settled English captain, settled England openers, a successful team. Good County Championship season. Excellent over-limit season. Not such gloomy introductory Notes next year, please.

The profession of cricketer

At the press conference, in March 1987, at which the Test and County Cricket Board announced the appointment of Micky Stewart as England team manager for three years from April 1 that year, it was suggested to Mr Stewart that England's success on their recent tour of Australia owed something to their itinerary: until the final Test, the first-class matches were uninterrupted by one-day internationals, which were all played at the end of the tour. Able to concentrate on one form of the game at a time, England won the Test series 2-1 and both one-day tournaments. Might it not, Mr Stewart was asked, be more difficult for the players to maintain such form in a domestic programme which required them to alternate between the first-class and the one-day game throughout the season. If I remember correctly, his reply was to the effect that the players were professional cricketers: they knew how to adjust. If little else has emerged from the past winter's tour of Australia, two things have. The Australians made sure that England did not have such a sensible itinerary two tours running, and England's cricketers did not find it an easy matter to adjust. Nothing new there.

They are professional cricketers. What does this mean? I think that today it means they are cricketers who play the game of cricket as a livelihood, as opposed to playing it as a recreation. They are in a job, in the same way that a Civil Servant or a bank clerk is in a job. There is not the same security, of course, but that is a hazard of the occupation - and there is more than there was. The danger is that in regarding cricket as a job rather than a sport, players not only derive a nine to five mentality towards cricket but also become accustomed to defeat. In limited-overs cricket - and there is so much of it - someone has to lose. Given that fact, what is wrong with losing? It becomes part of the job. There is as little discredit attached to defeat as there is to any job done poorly these days. The public, too, becomes accustomed to a winner and a loser, and the value of a draw loses its significance. It is, after all, better than losing, and yet in the County Championship the draw brings no reward other than the negative one of denying victory to the opposing team. I feel it should. Those who can't be winners don't always have to be losers: many of us try to live honourably drawn lives and have to work hard to do so.

What professional cricketers no longer means is that they are professionals as opposed to amateurs. I wonder, though, what kind of professional cricketer Mr Stewart was thinking of. I suspect he had in mind the kind of professional cricketer he was himself: the county cricketer to whom the job was secondary to the enjoyment of playing cricket and to the opportunity to practise his skills against his peers at the highest level. It was his livelihood, it was his work, but it was not just a job.

In modern times the game provides a greater reward. Not riches by any means; but since the advent of sponsorship and income from off-field activities by the counties, the established player can expect better remuneration and greater security. A car is provided; away from home the teams stay in hotels. It is not an uncomfortable life. The player who maintains his average from season to season can remain an average player for a good number of summers. Indeed there is something of the chocolate cream soldier about him. Young players, adventurous and ambitious, come through, but not so many as to upset the order of things. As in the Civil Service, it takes a genuine talent to unsettle the time-servers: a few years of apprenticeship in the Second Eleven knocks off the confidence and cockiness of young and produces in good time the county cricketer - the professional cricketer.

The consequence of this is a county game that rather meanders along from one season to the next with a carefully regulated change of personnel. And while there are some very good cricketers, there are a lot of fairly ordinary ones. It is not surprising that the overall standard of first-class cricket played and occasionally watched is not particularly high. It would be interesting to know how many English county cricketers would hold a place in a first-class side in Australia, the West Indies or in the Currie Cup in South Africa.

Under the auspices of the TCCB and the National Cricket Association, a programme has been launched to develop and maintain higher standards. Cricketers are monitored in their age-groups, the aim being to build a sound base for a pyramid, the apex of which is the England team. Inherent in this, however, is that to reach the apex, the young cricketer has to commit himself to the life of a professional county cricketer. And on the pyramid, county cricket is not so much the final step to the top as a broad plateau which many cricketers traverse summers after summer. It can be argued that the greater the number who are on the plateau, the better are those who go on to reach the apex. The evidence suggests otherwise.

Time to think anew

Perhaps the plateau should be smaller, making the competition for places on it greater. For this to happen, the structure of county cricket would have to change. And while at present it is inconceivable that the first-class counties would agree to any such change, it is possible that the coming years will show change to be inevitable A lot will depend on how English cricket views its role on the small stage of international cricket: a star performer or a player of supporting parts.

It will be said that this reflects undue concern with Test cricket; that the County Championship serves a purpose other than being a nursery for Test cricketers. Perhaps, and then again perhaps not. Without the income that international cricket produces, and the interest it arouses, the subsidy to first-class cricket would be cut drastically and the diet one-day cricket would be increased. That the economic health of English cricket in its fully professional form depends on the image the game projects, on and off the filed, should not be in dispute. I am surprised sometimes that the players themselves are not more aware how important this is. International success is part of that image.

The intended elevation of Durham from minor county to first-class status in 1992 brings with it an opportunity to reshape the County Championship more radically than merely by an increase in the number of counties for the first time since 1921. One possible change is the introduction of a Championship consisting of seventeen four-day games per county; this, basically, is the recommendation of the TCCB's England, Cricket and Marketing committees, which was rejected by a majority of the counties last spring. Whether this is sufficient to bring about a more competitive Championship is another matter.

What about dividing the counties into two leagues of nine, with the teams in each league playing the others home and away? Worthwhile prizemoney, plus the prospect of promotion and relegation, might provide the keen competition which to me seems to be missing from much County Championship cricket. The nature of the cricket would demand a higher standard from the leading players: the potential England players. It is élitist, no doubt, but the alternative is mediocrity.

Another possible change is in the way cricketers are employed. No doubt Durham, the newcomers, will be hoping to attract experienced players from other counties. It would not be unexpected if some of those who retired at the end of 1990 were to reappear in Durham's colours in 1992, their absence from the game in 1991 having anticipated the obstacle of contested registrations.

What would be enterprising is an initiative which opens the way for young cricketers who want to try themselves in the first-class game but do not wish to commit themselves to a career as a professional cricketer. Durham have sought, and must continue to seek, sponsorship to pay their players. But what if companies were to provide that sponsorship in players rather than in money? A cricketer, in the employ of a local firm, could be available for the season, while at the same time having a career outside cricket which offers him long-term prospects. Indeed, his employment need not be dependent simply on his cricket but also on his other skills. The sponsoring company, in turn, would benefit from the presence on its staff of a county cricketer. The county cricket club would have a cricketer who could look to playing his natural game and not to maintaining a good enough average to keep his contract. It would, I believe, give more cricketers the opportunity to pursue every boy's ambition to play for his country.

Attitude as well as ability

Whatever their value, such thoughts are meaningless if the cricketers themselves are found wanting. It is worrying that young cricketers, who look to have had a good grounding in the basics of batting and bowling, pick up and retain technical faults between youth cricket and first-class cricket. What are the county coaches doing? Impressionable youngsters are being allowed to ape their seniors without the period of consolidation which has led to the senior player developing his particular style. Gooch, for example, did not start out with his raised-bat style: that was a development, not a beginning. For a young batsman to emulate him because he is successful is rather like a writer setting out to write in the style of James Joyce's Ulysses without even having the mastery of the Joyce who wrote Dubliners.

But it is in their running between the wickets and their fielding that cricketers reveal much about their approach to the game and their coaching. In his tribute to Sir Leonard Hutton on pages 53 to 55, John Woodcock writes: Studying under Sutcliffe in his early days for Yorkshire would have shown him the need for conviction in calling and let him into the secrets of the short single. Few batsmen today look to have learned how to take the pace off the ball; to make the fielders come in for the ball while the batsmen run their single quickly. Perhaps heavier bats have cost them that touch; they give the ball away to the fielder. If so it is poor cricket, for it has taken from the batsman the tactical advantage of upsetting field placings. Similarly in the field: too often one sees fieldsmen waiting for the ball to come to them rather than attacking it and putting the batsman under pressure when judging a run. Such things come naturally to a few; for most they require practice and awareness. Both appear to be at a premium.

That bowling skills are in short supply was demonstrated starkly last season. In time they will return. In an age when spelling is not considered important by some teachers, it is hardly surprising that the standard of spelling has deteriorated. So it is with the skills that bowlers need. The TCCB has acted positively to make the bowler, and not the ball or the pitch, the wicket-taker. They should be commended, not criticised, for acting decisively and for having the resolve to resist the cries for leniency. Their determination to maintain acceptable standards of behaviour is also correct. If some cricketers find the disciplinary measures repressive, it is probably not too late for them to become football hooligans.

It used to be said that when English batting is at a low ebb, look first at the strength of English bowling. And English batting, over the seventeen counties, is technically poor. Good bowlers show it up, as they did even in the batsmen's conditions of 1990. Sadly for England's selectors, none of those bowlers was eligible for England. And that is the problem to which the TCCB has addressed itself.

Getting to the pitch

In 1928, when there were 312 first-class games, there was an aggregate of 1,000 or more runs in 72 of those games. Last summer, 1,000 runs were posted in 108 of the 241 first-class games and there were 428 individual hundreds, which passed the previous record of 414 in 1928. However, the 32 double-hundreds in 1990 did not quite match the record 34 in 1933, another summer when good weather produced an improvement in conditions for batsmen. To what extent the balance swung from the bowlers to the batsmen last summer can be seen from a comparison of County Championship aggregates: 154,232 runs and 5,260 wickets in 1989; 179,360 runs and 4,632 wickets in 1990. Perhaps to encourage the endeavours of the bowlers in the coming years, the TCCB might limit the weight of bats. In addition to widening the range of strokeplay, this would reduce the instances of the bat making up with power what the batsman lacks in skill.

Although in 1928 the heavy run-getting struck the dominant note for the editor of Wisden, the outstanding achievements were accomplished by a bowler and wicket-keeper, A. P. Freeman taking 304 wickets and so beating Tom Richardson's record of 290 (made in 1895) and Leslie Ames disposing of 121 batsmen- a total upgraded to 122 in recent years, I notice. Freeman, a leg-spinner, bowled more than 1,900 overs that season and averaged a wicket every six and a half overs. But of greater significance than the number of overs he bowled was the benefit he received from the hard wickets of that summer. I doubt that he would have had quite the same strike-rate on the pitches of 1990. Despite all the sunshine, they were in the main slow enough for batsmen playing from the crease to watch the turn and adjust accordingly. England's batsmen, although inexperienced against this kind of bowling, illustrated that against the Indian leg-spinners.

In an attempt to find a more uniform, ideal pitch, experimental pitches have been laid down at ten county grounds, using several different combinations of loam and grass seed. The TCCB hopes they will be ready for use towards the end of the 1991 season. What is needed, I suspect, is a break from cricket to give groundsmen time to relay not just a pitch here and there but the entire square. Since the end of the Second World War there have been 45 summers of cricket: 45 autumns of top-dressing and remaking, with the result that layers of soils have been pressed together, binding in some places and not binding in others. This irregular binding, it seems, is a major cause of uneven bounce. Another problem is that to keep the pitch together, groundmen have to water more, with the result that matches start on pitches containing too much moisture to provide pace early on or help for the spinners in the later stages.

Last year there was a move by Derbyshire, Kent, Northamptonshire and Yorkshire for a return to uncovered pitches in Championship cricket. It was not supported by the other counties. Given a summer such as that of 1990, and the difficulties which some groundsmen have in getting topsoil to bind, it strikes me that if pitches were not covered overnight, the players could arrive on the final day to find that the surface was blowing away. If it did rain, in all probability the ball would go through the top so quickly that batsmen would be calling for their heaviest bats, not to hit the ball with but to bash the pitch into some kind of shape. It sounds like a groundsman's nightmare.

As to the argument that batsmen would improve their skills on such pitches, I agree in theory. In practice I am less than certain. From what I saw last summer when pitch and ball had a chance to conspire, a good number of batsmen are more likely to get out than grit it out. Mike Gatting's innings at Derby was an example of how to bat in such conditions, but it was also a rare exception.

Pity the poor umpire

It is not as if the players aren't capable of making life difficult for themselves. Groundsmen have noticed an increasing tendency among batsmen to run on the pitch and damage it with their spikes. And such was the umpires' concern at the practice of roughening one side of the ball that the TCCB last summer felt it necessary to bring in stiffer penalties for the offence, in line with those for picking the seam. In either instance the umpire can now replace the ball with one of inferior condition to that previously used. It make one wonder whence the provenance of the malpractices alleged by the New Zealand and West Indian touring teams in Pakistan late last year. In England last summer there were one or two bowlers who swung the ball much more effectively in their second spell than in their opening one. It is yet another example of how the spirit of the game, as well as the Law, is violated. It is yet another item to tax the umpires' vigilance.

When I first wrote the editor's Notes for Wisden, in the 1987 edition, I advocated an international panel of umpires. It would, I wrote then, cost money, but Test matches are cricket's money-spinner. They are also the world's window on the sport. Just how little money is spun by Test cricket, and how much an international panel of umpires would cost, has become apparent in recent months. A sum of around half a million pounds a year has been estimated (less than £75,000 per country), but without sponsorship that is beyond the budget of world cricket. Sponsorship not being forthcoming, nor for the present is the panel of umpires, even though the International Cricket Council voted six to one in favour of its mandatory use in Test cricket. Australia opposed the motion, partly because of the cost and in part because they did not believe such a move would raise the standard of international umpiring.

I was disappointed that ICC's proposal precluded members of the panel from standing in matches played by their own country. It had seemed to me that it was not neutrality that was so necessary as the umpires' independence from the national boards of control which have appointed and paid them, and will not continue to do so. It was my conjecture that placing the umpires under the auspices of ICC would give them the security to control the game without any kind of outside pressure. It was not my thinking that an Australian should never stand in Australia, or that a Sri Lankan umpire could not take part in a Test match involving Sri Lanka.

An incident at Melbourne in January 1990, in the tour match between Victoria and the Pakistanis, highlights the problems facing an umpire who stands by the grace of a local governing body. After a final warning for following through on the pitch, the Pakistani leg-spinner, Mushtaq Ahmed, was barred from bowling by the umpire following a further transgression. This resulted in the Pakistani team, with their manager, Intikhab Alam, at the head, walking off the field, and the match did not resume until a compromise was reached which allowed Mushtaq to continue bowling. On the face of it, the authority of the umpire was undermined. Let us assume that something similar had happened in a Test match there, and that the touring team had threatened to go home, not only with the Test series unfinished but with the crowd-drawing World Series one-day games still to be played. Would the umpire feel more confident of making a similar decision (and being appointed to stand again) if he had been chosen by the Australian Board or if he was a member of an ICC panel?

Although for the moment there will not be an independent panel of umpires, ICC will have a paid referee at all international matches from October 1991. He will have powers, including the imposition of fines and the suspension of players, to discipline anyone who contravenes the Code of Conduct being drawn up by ICC. The referee, it has been stressed, will be there to support the umpires and will not be able to overrule a decision or interfere with the course of a game. It would be interesting to know what action he could have taken in the aforementioned hypothesis, or what he will do in the event of pitches being prepared to enhance the prospects of the home country. The Code of Conduct will cover sledging, dissent, over-rates and, one hopes, short-pitched bowling. But it is a sad commentary on the game's players, and on those who have administered the game nationally, that the Code of Conduct has been deemed necessary. Such are the times in which we live.

© John Wisden & Co