Jonathan Agnew talks cricket

Thursday 24th July 2014

Who would want to be the captain of the England cricket team? The scrutiny on one of the most prestigious roles within British sport has reached unprecedented levels this summer with, for the first time, social media adding greatly to the debate about the direction of English cricket, and the suitability of Alastair Cook to remain at the helm.

'Despite the honour and the prestige the position brings, being England cricket captain must sometimes make you feel like the loneliest man in the world'


The role of the England cricket captain is more far reaching than in any other sport. The recent World Cup football campaign was nothing short of disastrous, but Steven Gerrard is not held responsible for that. It is the manager that carries the can. The England rugby captain is rather more hands on when it comes to tactical decisions on the field, and can be a truly inspirational figure such as Martin Johnson who led England to win the 2003 World Cup. But even that pales into insignificance when compared to the man in whites who runs the game for up to six hours per day, is responsible for every bowling change and minute alteration to the field and then has to go out to bat.

The best example of the relationship between the cricket captain and the team coach was provided by Bob Woolmer who, when coach of South Africa, attempted to communicate with his onfield captain, Hansie Cronje, via an earpiece. The moment the authorities got wind of this, it was condemned as unethical and banned immediately. 

'The debate surrounding Alastair Cook’s future has been played out much more vigorously than ever before'

The captain must do his job alone. And how the pressure on him has grown. The debate surrounding Alastair Cook’s future has been played out much more vigorously than ever before.

Gone are the days when such matters were the source of a good argument in the village pub; now it is played out all over social media where cricket fans express their opinions both freely and without reservation while high profile former players such as Australian Shane Warne  take to national newspapers to present their critical analysis.

All of this is worse when the captain is out of form. His team mates are able to focus entirely on their own games, free from the burden of decision making. But when England find themselves in a losing streak and the captain can’t buy a run for love nor money, he has nowhere to hide. Despite the honour and the prestige the position brings, being England cricket captain must sometimes make you feel like the loneliest man in the world.

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Thursday 10th July 2014

A Test series between England and India has become one of the most eagerly anticipated battles in international cricket. Long gone are the days when India’s cricketers were viewed with mild curiosity, and tended to succumb meekly to bowling that was even slightly hostile. Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev changed all that, while Bishen Bedi’s beguiling left-arm spin and bright turbans remain for me the best illustration of Indian cricket disarming charisma masking magical skill.

'Duncan Fletcher, the coach widely credited for masterminding England’s long-awaited Ashes success in 2005, returns as India’s coach determined to make amends for his team’s disastrous showing four years ago'

The modern Indian cricketer is very different to Bishen. This is now the sport of superstars who are adored every bit as much as actors and pop icons. The rewards for the top players are immense, while despite allegations of corruption against him, the President of the Indian Board was recently elected as the first chairman of the International Cricket Council. Make no mistake; India is cricket’s powerhouse.

But like England, India are struggling. They have not won a Test match overseas for three years and last time they were in England an aloof, uninterested-looking team was despatched 4-0. Worse still, when England toured India 18 months ago they did the unthinkable by coming back from 1-0 down to win the series 2-1.

Duncan Fletcher, the coach widely credited for masterminding England’s long-awaited Ashes success in 2005, returns as India’s coach determined to make amends for his team’s disastrous showing four years ago.
Only three of his players have appeared in Tests in England before, making this one of the least experienced squads to tour here. But this is the chance Fletcher has been waiting for.

'Alastair Cook was the captain of the first England team to win in India for 26 years, and whose current crisis graphically reflects sport’s wheel of fortune'

For years his hands were hopelessly tied by the presence of truly legendary figures such as Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag. The coach’s position was virtually ineffectual. But with their retirements that has all changed, and now surrounded by talented and ambitious young men such as Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and the dashing Shikhar Dhawan, Fletcher can finally mould the team in his own fashion.

Alastair Cook was the captain of the first England team to win in India for 26 years, and whose current crisis graphically reflects sport’s wheel of fortune. He faced a similar predicament in 2010 when he could not buy a run and was saved by a painstaking century in the last match of the summer. But he was not distracted by the captaincy then. Now England’s current run of six defeats in seven Tests adds greatly to the pressure on his shoulders.

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Thursday 26th June 2014

As if it is not enough that the administration of FIFA, the international governing body of football, is currently facing serious allegations of corruption and malpractice, the headlines this week are likely to be made by FIFA’s cricketing equivalent, the International Cricket Council (ICC).

'Common sense rarely features in the often murky world of sports administration'

At a meeting in Melbourne, the Test-playing countries will accept radical changes to the way that cricket is run, with India, England and Australia setting themselves up as the senior, all-powerful members of a new executive committee that will govern the game and make the most money from it. Most controversial of all is that the man who will be proposed as the first chairman of this committee, and who therefore will effectively run world cricket, is the president of the Board Of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), Narayanaswami Srinivasan, who denies the allegations of corruption he faces but who recently stepped down from his position at the BCCI under the instruction of the Indian Supreme Court.

It seems astonishing that Srinivasan should have any involvement with the administration of the ICC under the current circumstances, or that its members should meekly accept his nomination this week. It illustrates the power that India, which generates 70% of the game’s income, holds over the others, all of whom need to play against India in order to benefit from the enormous sums generated by television.

 

Cricket’s administrators need only to look over their shoulders at the maelstrom of allegations against their football counterparts, including the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, to appreciate what dangerous territory they are dragging cricket into. Sponsors are becoming increasingly agitated about the manner in which Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup with one, Adidas, expressing its concern that the ‘negative tenor of the public debate is neither good for football nor for FIFA and its partners’.

'It seems astonishing that Srinivasan should have any involvement. It illustrates the power that India, which generates 70% of the game’s income, holds over the others'

Blatter is set to stand for re-election next year and unless he resigns in the meantime, FIFA will continue to stave off the allegations that are damaging its reputation. But the ICC still has time to take a step back. The new structure allows only India, England and Australia to nominate one of their own as chairman of the executive committee, which ironically will also be responsible for dealing with corruption within the game, so why not put either the Englishman or the Australian in to bat first and allow Srinivasan time to clear his name? Because common sense rarely features in the often murky world of sports administration, that’s why. 

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Thursday 22nd May 2014

Every regular spectator of live sport knows that there is much more to the overall experience than merely the action on the field. It’s true that diehard fans want their team to win whatever the cost, but when I look down from my lofty perch in the BBC radio commentary box on a sunny afternoon, I see a Test match crowd made up of men, women and children of all ages and backgrounds creating a vividly colourful scene and a vibrant atmosphere.

‘Trent Bridge, Nottingham, is my home ground … there’s no stifling security and, being the closest ground to Melton Mowbray, commentary box cakes are replaced by delicious pork pies’

Clearly the logistics involved with effectively moving office every week as we pack up and move on from game to game can create complications for our producer and sound engineers,but one of cricket’s many attractions is that every pitch performs differently, bringing variety in the playing of every match. The diversity provides a welcome contrast for those of us for whom the summer circuit has become a way of lif e.

Lord’s is the headquarters of cricket and home to the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), formerly a gentlemen’s club that was responsible for the running of the game. I experienced its reputation for being an unfriendly and stuffy place when, arriving early one morning to report live for the Today programme in 1991, I was refused entry by the steward on the gate. It did not matter one bit that I had the correct accreditation; he simply would not let me in. So my scene-set for Radio 4 was filed from a telephone box in St John’s Wood High Street. (I remember vividly shoving in another 10p piece whenever the pips sounded.)
 

Happily, Lord’s has been transformed, coinciding with the long overdue decision to allow women to become members. Welcoming and friendly – none more so than Errol who mans the East Gate and receives our steady stream of cakes from generous listeners – Lord’s has combined its wealth of history and tradition with a first-class spectator experience.

'Word of a pork pie delivery quickly gets out, resulting in a raid by our colleagues, inevitably led by Ian Botham'

Trent Bridge, Nottingham, is my home ground and, although I’m naturally biased, it’s also the favourite for many of my colleagues. There’s no stifling security and, being the closest ground to Melton Mowbray, commentary box cakes are replaced by delicious pork pies. Word of a delivery quickly gets out, resulting in a raid by our colleagues from Sky TV, inevitably led by Ian Botham. This can be used to our advantage – towards the end of a summer during which he had been fed a non-stop diet of our pork pies, Ian reciprocated by arranging for me to interview his great friend Eric Clapton on Test Match Special.

Food is clearly a recurring theme on the cricket circuit. The Ladies Pavilion at Worcester, which overlooks the beautiful cathedral, is renowned for the splendid cakes that are served during every tea break, and if it’s a full English breakfast you need, look no further than the unprepossessing but satisfying Ugly Mugs café at Headingley. Frankly, it’s no surprise that every cricket commentator’s winter is spent on a strict diet! 

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Thursday 15th May 2014

This week would usually see us gathering at Lord’s for the first Test match of the summer. The congested international timetable is the principal reason for playing so early in the summer, but it is also a good opportunity to ambush the opposition who, invariably used to tropical conditions, spend their time in the field clutching the hand warmers that are concealed deep within their trouser pockets. 

'England lacked the dangerous approach of opposition batsmen'

Spectators arrive fully equipped for every meteorological possibility, so it is with relief all round that the switch has been made to delay the Test series against Sri Lanka until June, and kick off the international summer with the shorter, busier limited overs matches. 

In fact, this is a big year for one-day cricket with the World Cup due to be staged in Australia and New Zealand in February and March. England remain one of the few senior teams never to have won despite appearing in the final three times, and it is ironic now to consider that last winter’s disastrous Ashes campaign was brought forward by a year to improve their prospects. Previously the World Cup was played on the back of a gruelling Ashes campaign in Australia and it was argued that the players were simply too tired to recover properly.

Well, there can be no such excuse this time but the bottom line is that England have just 20 matches between now and their World Cup opener on Valentine’s Day to rebuild their team after their 4-1 defeat to Australia and the sacking of their most dangerous one-day player, Kevin Pietersen.

'There will be no more resting of the leading players that I still believe was one of the causes of England’s dramatic collapse last year'


Even with Pietersen in the team, England lacked the carefree approach of many opposition batsmen, which has seriously hampered their prospects in the past. Encouraging an attacking mindset is just one of the challenges facing the recently restored coach, Peter Moores.

One thing is certain: there will be no more resting of the leading players that I still believe was one of  the causes of England’s dramatic collapse last year. The decision to field virtually a second X1 in the one-day series after the Ashes last summer dismayed spectators who had paid up to £70 for a ticket in advance to see the best, and it gave Australia the welcome opportunity to win some matches and regain confidence. The decision also smacked of arrogance and I hope it is just one of many lessons learned as England take their first steps into a new era.

 

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