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

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Levi Bellfield, Milly Dowler and the story of men’s violence against women and girls

Before she was so inextricably connected to the phone hacking scandal, Milly Dowler was one of many women maimed and killed by a violent man.

The name Milly Dowler has meant phone hacking since July 2011. The month before that, Levi Bellfield (already imprisoned for the murders of Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange, and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy) had been convicted of killing her, nine years after her death. But almost immediately, she became the centrepiece of Nick Davies’s investigations into Fleet Street “dark arts”, when it was revealed that News of the World journalists had accessed her voicemail during the search for her.

Suddenly her peers were not McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy, but Hugh Grant, Leslie Ash, Sadie Frost, Jude Law. People she could only have known from TV, now her neighbours in newsprint. Victims of a common crime. She had attained a kind of awful fame, and remains much better known than McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy.

There is a reason for that: with Milly Dowler, there was hope of finding her alive. Weeks of it, the awful hope of not knowing, the dull months of probability weighing down, until finally, in September 2002, the body. McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy were attacked in public places and found before they were missed. It is not such an interesting story as the schoolgirl who vanishes from a street in daylight. Once there were some women, who were killed and maimed by a man. The end.

Even now that Bellfield has confessed to kidnapping, raping and killing Milly, it seems that some people would like to tell any story other than the one about the man who kidnaps, rapes, kills and maims girls and women. There is speculation about what could have made him the kind of monster he is. There must be some cause, and maybe that cause is female.

Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton (who worked on the McDonnell and Delagrange murders) has said insinuatingly that Bellfield “dotes on his mother and her on him. It's a troubling relationship.” But it was not Bellfield’s mother who kidnapped, raped, killed and maimed girls and women, of course. He did that, on his own, although he is not the first male killer to be extended the courtesy of blaming his female relatives.

Coverage of the Yorkshire Ripper accused his wife Sonia of driving him to murder. “I think when Sutcliffe attacked his 20 victims, he was attacking his wife 20 times in his head,” said a detective quoted in the Mirror, as if the crimes were not Sutcliffe’s responsibility but Sonia’s for dodging the violence properly due to her. Lady Lucan has been successfully cast by Lucan’s friends as “a nightmare” in order to foster sympathy for him – even though he systematically tried to drive her mad before he tried to kill her, and did kill their children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett. Cherchez la femme. Cherchez la mom.

I know little about Bellfield’s relationship with his mother, but one of his exes spoke about him earlier this year. Jo Colling told how he had terrorised her while they were together, and stalked her after she left. “When I knew he was with another woman and not coming home it was a relief, but now I know what he was capable of, I feel guilty,” she said. “I did get an injunction against him, but it only made him even angrier.”

Colling fears that she could have prevented Bellfield’s murders by going to the police with her suspicions earlier; but since the police couldn’t even protect her, it is hard to see what difference this could have made, besides exposing herself further to Bellfield’s rage. Once there was a woman who was raped, beaten and stalked by the man she lived with. The end. This is a dull story too: Colling’s victimisation is only considered worth telling because the man who victimised her also killed Milly Dowler. Apparently the torture of a woman is only really notable when the man who does it has committed an even more newsworthy crime.

Throughout his engagements with the legal system, Bellfield seems to have contrived to inflate his own importance. Excruciatingly, he withheld his confession to murdering Milly until last year, leaving her family in an agony of unknowing – and then drew the process out even further by implicating an accomplice, who turned out to have nothing at all to do with the crime. He appears to have made the performance into another way to exercise control over women, insisting that he would only speak to female officers about what he did to Milly.

It is good that there are answers for the Dowler family; it is terrible that getting them let Bellfield play at one more round of coercions. And for the rest of us, what does this new information tell us that shouldn’t already be obvious? The story of men’s violence against girls and women is too routine to catch our attention most of the time. One woman killed by a man every 2.9 days in the UK. 88,106 sexual offences in a year.

Once there were some girls and women, who were tortured, stalked, kidnapped, raped, killed and maimed by a man. Dowler, McDonnell, Delagrange, Sheedy, Colling. More, if new investigations lead to new convictions, as police think likely. All those girls and women, all victims of Levi Bellfield, all victims of a common crime that will not end until we pull the pieces together, and realise that the torture, the stalking, the kidnaps, the rapes, the killing and the maiming – all of them are connected by the same vicious logic of gender. Then, and only then, will be able to tell a different story. Then we will have a beginning.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.