Dismayed: England captain Alastair Cook after losing the 2nd Test match between England and India at Lord's, 21 July. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Ed Smith: We can’t fix English cricket without tackling what’s wrong at county level

I used to hate it when the failings of the England team were blamed on the counties but there is no way of avoiding the fact: English cricket is getting a very poor return on its investment.

There is a vacancy at the top of English cricket. It is not for the role of captain, but that of chief executive. The psychodrama about Alastair Cook – a decent man dealt a terrible hand – is a relative sideshow. David Collier’s resignation as CEO gives England an opportunity to reform the whole game. This crisis must not go to waste.

Before we widen the lens, the position of Cook must be addressed. No one can lead a team on his own, in a vacuum. Cook’s team consists of five senior players (himself, Matt Prior, James Anderson, Ian Bell and Stuart Broad) and six fairly new faces. The six inexperienced players have held up quite well. For an explanation of the results, look no further than the five senior players – even a genius would struggle to captain a central core that is universally underperforming. Bell in particular, theoretically Cook’s second-in-command, has gone missing. In a conservative shuffle of the pack, he would most likely be the next captain, an example of rewarding failure.

Some shocking statistics emerged from the defeat against India at Lord’s, England’s seventh in nine Tests. Five English batsmen got out to the same short-pitched tactic, delivered by the same Indian bowler, inside one hour of play. But there is a more salient fact. At the start of this season, eight county teams employed overseas captains, all ineligible to play for England. I was commentating at Lord’s, surrounded by frenzied analysis of England’s “lack of leadership”. Yet no one, to my knowledge, mentioned that we demand leadership at Test level without supporting and nurturing it further upstream. Of England’s past eight captains, only Andrew Strauss (among the best) had significant experience as a county captain.

As a county cricketer, I used to hate it when the failings of the England team were blamed on the counties but there is no way of avoiding the fact: English cricket is getting a very poor return on its investment. The structure is internally contradictory. County cricket relies on centralised cash handouts from the England and Wales Cricket Board but county clubs are run and managed to please their members, prone to demanding instant results. Financially, county cricket resembles the subordinate minor leagues that supply top US baseball teams. In reality, they answer to themselves.

There have been various responses to this arrangement. Duncan Fletcher, now managing India but England’s coach from 1999 to 2007, basically cut out county cricket from the equation. A gifted technical coach, he wanted to manage a group of 15 players, in effect removing them from the first-class system altogether. He favoured players he himself had identified, distrusting everyone else. Two days before my England debut in 2003, I met Fletcher at the team hotel. “It’s Ed, isn’t it?” he asked. Even though I was the leading run scorer in the country that season, and had been the third highest in 2002, he wasn’t sure who I was. The physio joined us and the conversation moved to an injury to the England opener, Marcus Trescothick. “Put that Middlesex opener on standby,” Fletcher said to his back-up staff, “the left-hander.” “Andrew Strauss?” I wondered? “That’s the one.”

For a while, Fletcher’s deliberate contempt for county cricket worked. He identified and nurtured a group of players who were personally loyal to him. But such an inorganic attitude to the health of the whole game, eventually and inevitably, turned in on itself. Cut off from the game’s natural blood supply, Fletcher’s later England teams were aloof and underperforming.

There is another approach to reviving English cricket. That is to address the system. This requires more imagination than is on view at present. Mike Brearley, whose captaincy inspired England’s miraculous Ashes win in 1981, was interviewed about Cook’s position this past week. Inevitably, there was great curiosity about what he thought would happen next.

Instead, we might consider the journey that led Brearley to become England captain. Before becoming captain of Middlesex, he was a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle. Only in his sixth season as a county captain (1976) did Middlesex win the championship. Middlesex stuck with him during the five-year wait and he rewarded their trust with four championships in seven years.

This story is inconceivable now. That an academic could return seamlessly to the professional game; that a relative outsider could be invited to captain a county; that he would be given so much time to find his feet and nurture a team. Instead of worldliness, perspective and life experience, most captains now take the job in a context of short-termism and narrowness.

How to fix England? A commitment to nurturing leadership throughout the system; emphasis on developing rounded people as well as accomplished players (let German football be the model); allowing county players to operate in a semi-professional capacity, with careers and lives outside cricket (I know several top players who quit due to boredom); stressing the value of play and self-expression just as much as hard work and sacrifice.

As captain of Middlesex, I attended a meeting about an underperforming young spinner. I recommended we should advise him to get a job in the winter, grow up and come back ready to enjoy his cricket again. I was overruled in favour of a dreary gym programme (translation: two hours in the gym, eight on the PlayStation). He was sacked inside six months. He later told me he became a far better bowler as an amateur.

Dozens of times every day, I am asked if Cook should resign. Instead, it’s time to have the real conversation that everyone is avoiding – there is no one else. Changing that fact must be the focus of the inquiry. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

Show Hide image

Workers' rights after Brexit? It's radio silence from the Tories

Theresa May promised to protect workers after leaving the EU. 

In her speech on Tuesday, Theresa May repeated her promise to “ensure that workers’ rights are fully protected and maintained".  It left me somewhat confused.

Last Friday, my bill to protect workers’ rights after Brexit was due to be debated and voted on in the House of Commons. Instead I sat and watched several Tory MPs speak about radios for more than four hours.

The Prime Minister and her Brexit Secretary, David Davis, have both previously made a clear promise in their speeches at Conservative Party conference to maintain all existing workers’ rights after Britain has left the European Union. Mr Davis even accused those who warned that workers’ rights may be put at risk of “scaremongering". 

My Bill would simply put the Prime Minister’s promise into law. Despite this fact, Conservative MPs showed their true colours and blocked a vote on it through filibustering - speaking for so long that the time runs out.

This included the following vital pieces of information being shared:

David Nuttall is on his second digital radio, because the first one unfortunately broke; Rebecca Pow really likes elephant garlic (whatever that is); Jo Churchill keeps her radio on a high shelf in the kitchen; and Seema Kennedy likes radio so much, she didn’t even own a television for a long time. The bill they were debating wasn’t opposed by Labour, so they could have stopped and called a vote at any point.

This practice isn’t new, but I was genuinely surprised that the Conservatives decided to block this bill.

There is nothing in my bill which would prevent Britain from leaving the EU.  I’ve already said that when the vote to trigger Article 50 comes to Parliament, I will vote for it. There is also nothing in the bill which would soften Brexit by keeping us tied to the EU. While I would personally like to see rights in the workplace expanded and enhanced, I limited the bill to simply maintaining what is currently in place, in order to make it as agreeable as possible.

So how can Theresa May's words be reconciled with the actions of her backbenchers on Friday? Well, just like when Lionel Hutz explains to Marge in the Simpsons that "there's the truth, and the truth", there are varying degrees to which the government can "protect workers' rights".

Brexit poses three immediate risks:

First, if the government were to repeal the European Communities Act without replacing it, all rights introduced to the UK through that piece of legislation would fall away, including parental leave, the working time directive, and equal rights for part-time and agency workers. The government’s Great Repeal Bill will prevent this from happening, so in that sense they will be "protecting workers’ rights".

However, the House of Commons Library has said that the Great Repeal Bill will leave those rights in secondary legislation, rather than primary legislation. While Britain is a member of the EU, there is only ever scope to enhance and extend rights over and above what had been agreed at a European level. After Brexit, without the floor of minimum rights currently provided by the EU, any future government could easily chip away at these protections, without even the need for a vote in Parliament, through what’s called a "statutory instrument". It will leave workers’ rights hanging by a thread.

The final change that could occur after we have left the EU is European Court rulings no longer applying in this country. There are a huge number of rulings which have furthered rights and increased wages for British workers - from care workers who do sleep-in shifts being paid for the full shift, not just the hours they’re awake; to mobile workers being granted the right to be paid for their travel time. These rulings may no longer have legal basis in Britain after we’ve left. 

My bill would have protected rights against all three of these risks. The government have thus far only said how they will protect against the first.

We know that May opposed the introduction of many of these rights as a backbencher and shadow minister; and that several of her Cabinet ministers have spoken about their desire to reduce employment protections, one even calling for them to be halved last year. The government has even announced it is looking at removing the right to strike from transport workers, which would contradict their May’s promise to protect workers’ rights before we’ve even left the EU.

The reality is that the Conservatives have spent the last six years reducing people’s rights at work - from introducing employment tribunal fees which are a barrier to justice for many, to their attack on workers’ ability to organise in the Trade Union Act. A few lines in May’s speech doesn’t undo the scepticism working people have about the Tories' intentions in this area. Until she puts her money where her mouth is, nor should they. 

Melanie Onn is the Labour MP for Great Grimsby.