Missing Morkel

At the end of February, Morné Morkel announced his retirement from international cricket. He would retire at the end of the series against Australia. I was sad for this loss to international cricket but pleased that I at least got the chance to see his last tour to England. He was the leading wicket-taker for South African with 19 and even if I saw precisely two of those wickets across the three days I attended I enjoyed them thoroughly, especially the brilliant bowling to dismiss Cook in England’s second innings at the Oval. The childish glee with which Morkel tormented Cook, utterly hapless in the face of his bowling, was a delight for any cricket fan. Happy memories and a farewell to one of my favourite players.

Morkel-Cook

Morkel Celebrates removing Cook at the Oval ©Getty Images

With 294 Test wickets at the start of the series against Australia he had every chance of making it to 300. But after a less than stellar first Test where he took three wickets for 122 he was dropped for the second. Would he remain on 297 forever more? I don’t believe that players, even big fan favourites, even the biggest fan favourite ever (naming no names), should have their fame, popularity or any metric other than talent override the will of the selectors about whether they deserve to play for their country. But dropping such a stalwart in his retirement series felt harsh to me. I certainly felt very sorry for the gentle giant. 300 wickets be damned, I just wanted to see more of him before the international game loses him.

But a toe injury for his replacement, Ngidi, gave Morkel the opportunity again in the third test and this time against Australia on his home ground he seized it. He took four for 87 in the first innings, giving him his 300th and 301st. As the ball tampering scandal began to break loose and all attention was drawn away from the actual cricket he took five for 23 in Australia’s second innings to polish off the tail and claim his eighth five-wicket haul.

Morkel-Aus

Morkel skips through the Australians at Cape Town ©AFP

He’d bow out from international cricket the week after with a less attention-grabbing performance but a big smile and a huge amount of appreciation from his team and the crowd for his many years of excellent service for the Proteas and that was that. He’d end with career-high rating points and ranked the sixth best Test bowler in the world. An odd time to retire it seems, and also an odd time to drop a player. But such are South Africa’s depth in fast bowlers at the moment. After the fourth Test while being ranked sixth in the world that was still behind two of his teammates, Philander at third and Rabada taking the top honours.

Then on April 10th, just a week after the fourth Test ended, Surrey announced that they had signed him on a two-year Kolpak deal. Exciting news for all cricket fans barring perhaps the grumblers who dislike places being taken away from any young English lad, but especially for me. Surrey is my local and I try to get down to as many days as I can without having to use up all my holiday. I’d get to see him at the Oval again after all! A cynical part of me wondered if Morkel’s ability to demonise the left-hander was part of the reason behind their signing him – Surrey currently have four left-handers in their top four – and it’d certainly be a good idea to prevent him playing for anyone else under those circumstances. But Surrey’s pockets are deep and why wouldn’t they want such an exciting player. The Oval has a record of not being the most exciting pitch, with all but one of the county games played on it last summer a draw. If anyone can liven it up it would be Morkel.

Morkel-Surrey

Morkel dons his Surrey colours

As the county season approached my excitement grew, though Morkel would miss out on the first game with an injury. Surely he would play the second game. He would not, with no news on it that I could see. But attending that match I did manage to catch him bowling during the lunch interval along with a few of Surrey’s (several) other injured bowlers. They also gave his son a go bowling and even if from only eleven yards his ball didn’t quite manage to reach the facing batsman it was still met with the most rapturous applause of the day. So he’s been training. And then this week Surrey posted a few videos of him bowling in the nets on their social media channels. And he was looking absolutely terrifying. Good length balls flying through to the keeper over head height. A spell of practising yorkers that came through so fast they’d startle and batsman and leave their toes well crushed. Surely he’ll be playing this weekend against Yorkshire then.

I waited for the squad announcement eagerly. And it came: no Morkel in the squad and no news. The last of the red ball games that actually occur over a weekend. If I’m going to get to see Morkel play four-day cricket for Surrey at all this summer it’ll be the pink ball day/night game or I’ll need to take a day off work for it. Which I may well do. I’ll continue to wait patiently for the big man. One day soon he’ll take to the field for Surrey and I hope I’ll be there to watch the difficulty he will give to any county player who has never seen a bowler like him. I’ll relish his run in which always seems to me like he’s pretending to be a train and the joy he exudes while playing – far too few players look as if they love playing cricket as much as he does. I’ll still be at the Oval this weekend for the game against Yorkshire but what I’ll be eying most eagerly is to see if Morkel will come bowl in the intervals. The day he next puts on his whites will be a great one to watch, and one I’ll keep waiting for.

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Examining the County Championship format

There is a perceived problem with the County Championship and the creation of high-quality Test cricketers. I’m going to take a look at this and explore an idea of an alternative format. The format hasn’t changed too much over time, but there is increasing pressure for it to do so from people who do not see it as fit for purpose. On the whole, I don’t think there really is a big problem with it – attendance is low, lower than it has been, but this isn’t something that I think can be fixed with the way modern life and people’s schedules are. Now, this is going to be a rather long-winded post and I’m not sure if others are as fascinated by tournament and league structures as I am, but here goes.

 

One of the cited reasons for the struggle with creating Test-quality crickets is the games being played too much at the fringes of the season. This certainly makes bowlers who end up performing rather averagely on the international stage appear much more impressive. It isn’t helped that many journalists immediately begin writing articles about how such-and-such has taken 16 wickets in two matches and are they the next Anderson. No – they are an 80-mile-an-hour bowler in April on juicy pitches. If they played in July they would probably take 2 for 200. But the County Championship isn’t played then, and we can only judge on what we see, so what do we do?

To solve this you must either play games in the height of summer or work out a much better way of judging bowlers potential – almost certainly requiring scouts at many of the games. This is beside the point, this isn’t something a format can fix, only scheduling or scouting. If games continue to be scheduled for April and May then average bowlers will take hoards and it will be impossible to tell anything by pure numbers.

Another perceived problem is too many matches. One of the reasons this is a problem was well put by Steve Finn. It sucks the pace out of you. Seeing as this is an area England have frequently struggled where other countries have not, he may have a point, but it applies in general too. It is hard to play at your maximum for such a high number of games. Currently, each team plays 14 matches in a season, with teams in the first division playing everyone else home and away, and the second division seeming a bit more arbitrary. In the Australian First-Class tournament, the Sheffield Shield, the West Indian Regional Four Day Competition, and the South African, the Sunfoil Series, each of the six teams play each other home and away for a total of ten games. The Australian competition adds a final between the top two. In the Indian Ranji Trophy in the last iteration there were 28 teams, divided into four groups of seven. In each group, each team plays the others once for a total of six games before proceeding to an eight-team knockout-stage, so up to three more games for a total of nine.

My proposal is actually quite similar to the Ranji Trophy. I wasn’t very familiar with the structure of other countries’ First-Class competitions so I didn’t know this at the time I thought of it, and only discovered it when I began researching for writing this article. One of those nice coincidences of life.

 

I propose splitting each of the current divisions into two at the conclusion of a season, to form four groups, two of four and two of five. Each of these groups would play a double round-robin, all teams playing each other home and away. After this, the top two teams from each group would go through to eight team knock-out stage. The bottom team in each group would play a knock-out match against each other to eliminate two of them. Then the remaining eight teams, those who placed third in all four groups, those who placed fourth in the five-team group, and those two who won their last place play-off, would all be joined together to form another eight-team knock-out stage. The two knock-out contests are played out concurrently, and the eventual winner of each plays against each other for a Grand Final to crown the county champion.

I’ve chosen this method due to the problem of the larger number of teams in the English competition. Three groups of six wouldn’t work because if you ranked them by skill you make it much more difficult for any team in the top group to qualify for a final, and it’s difficult to arrange who plays in a final with three groups of six. Two groups of nine would have been possible if they were to only play each other once. Otherwise, it doesn’t cut down on the number of games at all, and as in fact exactly how the previous version of the Championship operated. I don’t like the idea of playing a team once due to the home advantage. I’ve taken it as a necessary evil for the knock-out stage. So four awkwardly uneven groups it is. Thanks a lot, number 18.

So with this system the maximum number of games a team can play is now 13, if they start in one of the five team groups, finish last, and then win their way into the grand final. It would be 12 matches for any other team from the group of five, and 11 for one of the teams from the group of four (12 if they finished last and won their way back to the grand final).

This system has a number of strengths and weaknesses, some of which I will try to address. Knock-out style cricket for a format with a high-propensity to draw or be rained off is a risky thing. I propose that the points system from the current County Championship is retained, but at any given stage only taking account of a team’s last six results in order to prevent the teams from the five-team groups having an advantage from playing more matches. I’m unsure of this last six games thing as it would favour a team who won their later group games more than their earlier ones. However, I can’t currently think of a better way to reconcile the number of games played. In the knock-out stages of the competition a win advances that team automatically. In the event of a draw or an abandoned match the advancing team is determined by points, first by points gained in that match, then total points. In case of these both being equal further tie-breakers can be devised.

A second problem is home advantage. In the Ranji trophy, knock-out games are played at neutral venues. This isn’t something I think would work in England – I don’t see too many people turning up to watch a Hampshire v Somerset county match at Old Trafford. Instead, I propose that the team with the better record gets the home fixture, taking into account first wins, then points, then further tie-breakers. This also gives a problem to the counties. Hypothetically a team in one of the four-team groups could play only three home matches all season if they always drew to face teams with better records in the knock-out. Conversely, a team in the five-team group could play as many as seven home games. Quite an imbalance! I think this is still the best solution, as determining who gets a home fixture by any other means would be adding in randomness and playing neutral venues would be undesirable.

A third problem is that this doesn’t reduce the number of matches played by enough, not to as few as are played in the other domestic competitions I have looked at. I think this is acceptable in order to achieve some other goals which this sets out to do. First, it does not result in further dividing into divisions where certain teams are practically worthless and unable to win anything beyond promotion. Any team can win the County Championship from the start of the season. However, there are still ten teams which are slightly disadvantaged from the start: those in the five-team groups. They will have to play at least two more games than a team in the four-team group, and they’ll have to get past at least one of them in the knock-out stage. This disadvantage is essentially their division two handicap – they are required to prove they are that much better in order to take home the trophy. This is akin to the home advantage conferred on the team with the better record at the knock-out stage.

A difficulty, though not necessarily a problem is how the groups are determined for the following year. My idea is for the teams eliminated earlier to play an additional match against each other. So each team eliminated in the quarter-final will play against another, each team eliminated in a semi-final plays the other, and each final loser plays the other. This means a team from the four-team group eliminated in the quarter-final will have played eight games, or nine if they also played the last-place play-off. A team from the five-team group eliminated in the final will have played 12 games, eight group-stage, three knock-out games, and then their decider. This means that the further you advance the more games you will play. Then at the conclusion of all these games the two grand-finalists plus the six other teams with the most wins are placed into the two four-team groups for the next year, with the remaining ten for the two five-team groups. This gives a small advantage to the teams coming from the five-team group who will have played at least one more match than a team from the four-team group eliminated at the same stage. This is their promotion opportunity. This also incentivises wins above all else. This aspect of it adds a lot of fiddly detail and I’ve already gone on about it far too much.

You may have noticed this is all quite complicated. It is in working out all the permutations, in working out which teams will be in the four-team groups and which the five- next year. It isn’t in determining a winner. Win group-games to get a good draw, win the knock-out games and win the Championship. It increases competitiveness by the value of every win and the pressure of the knock-out nature. You may think it preferable to be one of the teams in the five-team group as you would theoretically be placing yourself into an easier group. However, if you came in the top two of your group you would now play one of the four-team group teams in the first round of the knockout, as opposed to playing against one of the five-team group teams.

The more I write this the more I’m convinced it’s too bloody complicated. But I do think it would result in some high quality, high-intensity cricket. The format would also result in increased interest as the stakes are raised. This is also better than one of the recently floated ideas, of three conferences (not divisions) of six. Whatever basis those conferences were divided on it couldn’t be on skill, so I think this produces the higher quality cricket by keeping the eight best teams together to play against each other before the competition opens up where it becomes survival of the fittest.

 

I believe this would be a good approach to a format to reduce the number of games while increasing the competitiveness and the interest. However, as far as producing Test quality players goes the best thing that could probably be done to ensure that would be to play the County Championship throughout the summer. I think this format being implemented and that happening are probably about as likely as each other.

100 ways to die in the South-West

“The 100” is the working title of the new proposed T20 league by the ECB. Although it isn’t T20. Instead it will be 100 balls, or 15 overs plus a ten-ball over. According to the ECB this is to make it simpler in order to attract a new audience. Really, this is just as complicated as any limited overs cricket, but with an extra rule regarding how the ten-ball over will be handled. The only actually important thing this format is is half an hour shorter. Good for a TV broadcast that wants to be over by a certain time – unless it rains. Or the over rate is too slow. Or any of the other countless things that can delay a cricket match happen. So cricket will have another format to contend with.

I also don’t see how this will really introduce any budding new cricket fan to other forms of the game that aren’t already accomplished better by other formats. With T20 you can tell someone to try one day cricket, “it’s like that, but it lasts a whole day!” Or even try a Test, “they each bat twice and it lasts five whole days!”. Instead, why not try a T20? “It’s half an hour longer, and there isn’t a ten-ball over” er, what exactly is the point?

You wouldn’t see other sports succumbing to the pressures of TV scheduling in such oddly compromising ways. Sorry lads, the football match has to be 68 minutes and 45 seconds this week as it’s on ITV so they want an extra couple of ad breaks. I do concede the cricket is inherently more challenging for broadcasters than other sports due to its length, and I’m not saying nothing about cricket should ever possibly be changed. I’m just not sure if this is the right change. Is that half an hour really the straw breaking this camel’s back? Could matches not simply start half an hour earlier if you need them to be done by 9 so badly? And it certainly isn’t about making the game more understandable to initiates as it will require the addition of at least one new rule. So instead, why not make it ludicrously more complex and give entertainment that way? Here are a few of my suggestions:

The Accumulator
Any gimmick needs a good name, here is mine. If batting first, every boundary you score you deduct one ball you’ll have to bowl. Score ten boundaries? You only bowl 90 balls when it’s your turn. Lose a wicket and you’ll have to bowl an extra five balls. When batting second, each boundary deletes the last ball from your opponents innings, and the runs they scored with it. Each wicket you lose deducts five balls from the end of your innings. How many balls are left to be bowled at any stage of the match? Who knows. But something is happening all the time, Exciting™!

The Last Chance Saloon
For our ten-ball over why have it be something so dull as just an extra four balls for a bowler to deliver? No, instead, each ball will be bowled by a different player. And each ball faced by a different batsman! Wicket-keepers are excluded because. Each team secretly chooses who will come up next and then they face off. The mind games of who will choose who, the tactics are endless.

Catches win matches. All catches
Crowd catches now count too. Hit a six into the crowd and they catch it? That’s six and out. Backyard cricket rules here. Catches on the boundary where one person catches it and flings it back into play for another person to catch? That’s two batsmen out. I’m undecided as yet if it should be the striker and non-striker or the striker and next incoming batsman. Perhaps the crowd could vote on this – audience participation is always good.

With these changes I think the ECB will have finally hit upon the right balance of gimmick, incomprehensibility and pointlessness they crave. I think it’s probably a good idea they’re trying to do something to differentiate “The 100” from the T20 blast, and it’s certainly a good thing they’re putting cricket on free-to-air TV. But I’m not sure an additional limited overs competition when the T20 blast is improving every year is necessary, and I’m not sure “The 100” is the solution to format problems.

A genuine solution which obviously won’t happen and which has its own great difficulties would be to alter the existing T20 competition to fulfil some more of these requirements. How about splitting the competition into divisions like current county championship, eight in the first and ten in the second. And then why not change the way players are contracted more along the lines of the IPL, so each franchise retains a set number of players and then an auction is held to acquire the remainder including up to three international players per team (as per the proposed “100” rules). You could keep the desired eight teams for the televised programme, the other ten could still take part, probably with increased appeal in any case, and potential promotion to the televised portion of the competition next year. This would probably attract a lot of its own complaints from the counties, the fans, and just about anyone – as any changes do. But, I think it would work a lot better for the counties, the ECB, the fans, the players, the growth of cricket, and just about everything else than “The 100”. I’ll still watch it, and it’ll probably be very entertaining – but is this really the best they could come up with?

Taking on ball tampering with balls

I want to talk about ball tampering. And I know this is something that has been talked about an awful lot. But I’ve not seen anyone say this before, so if you’ve read it elsewhere, damn. Cameron Bancroft was spotted by the camera crew at the Cape Town test working on the wrong side of the ball, and then with something yellow in his hands which he attempted to hide. This turned out to be sandpaper and a plan to get the ball to reverse concocted by Vice-captain David Warner, carried out by Bancroft, and known about by Captain Steve Smith. The official story as a result of the investigation carried out by James Sutherland is that these three were involved and no one else. Some have grumbled about this but few have gone as far as to question it outright. Andrew Flintoff was one of the few I heard outright saying that others, especially the bowlers, had to know.

Something else that I saw spoken about a little, but not a lot, was that the camera crew at Cape Town had been tipped off to look out for something by the camera crew at Port Elizabeth. This seems to have disappeared from the consciousness and not been looked into at all by the investigation, which concluded that this was the first time that any players of the team had done any ball tampering.

The punishment the players have received seems severe enough that you would think it is a sign of how much the administrators abhor cheating and ball tampering. However if they truly abhorred it to a degree matching the punishment they handed out surely their investigation would have been more thorough? It seems to have lasted all of one day, and as far as I can tell consisted of asking the players if they did it, or knew about it, and stopping there.

Mitchell Starc is proclaimed as a wizard of reverse swing. He is masterful with his control and execution of it, demolishing tailenders in particular. It is also something he has especially improved at in the last year or so. In the Ashes he was certainly too much for England’s tail. Something else noteworthy about his reverse swing is how early he manages to get it. As early as twenty overs in some cases. This is a time when the ball could often still be swinging conventionally under normal circumstances.

So my question is this: if you have probably the best bowlers in the world at reverse swing, why would you attempt to tamper the ball to create reverse swing? Was he suddenly unable to generate it for the first time, and his team mates couldn’t tolerate this? If that is the case they apparently didn’t think to tell him about it. How kind of them to protect what must be a very fragile ego. They were willing to sacrifice a year of their career and potentially all international hopes to try and win a Test and prevent Starc from ever failing in reverse swing.

Now I’m being a bit of a conspiracy theorist here, but indulge me. What if they weren’t as inept at ball tampering as first appears? They look very inept because of the manner they were caught and the embarrassing way they tried to cover it up. But what if they were actually very good at getting away with it and were merely deer-in-headlight fools when actually caught? What the camera crew said certainly points to the Australians doing this in at least one earlier match where Starc did reverse the ball. What if Starc’s improvement in reverse swing came about by the Australian team hitting on their method of ball tampering? I would love to look at stats on Starc’s reverse, especially in future when he returns from injury. Just one more tidbit of conspiracy – he was injured immediately after the ball tampering scandal broke. Unfortunately I don’t have or know of any way of examining or comparing stats on this, but if anyone does then do let me know.

I’m not saying this is the case. I don’t think that Starc is a decent fast bowler propelled into greatness by ball tampering. I don’t think the Australians have been systematically doing this for a long time. I don’t think the punishment handed down was really a fair and just punishment in proportion to the crime committed. I do think the investigation was rushed and very few avenues could have been explored with any kind of depth. I also concede that it would have been very hard to prove anything if there is no video evidence from any prior matches and the players all agree to a story as simple as these three knew, no one else. I also think Warner’s announcement that he was going to challenge his ban, and then subsequent withdrawal of this seemed suspicious. His international career seems pretty much over, so why wouldn’t he tell all in a fit of fury? Perhaps Cricket Australia were able to convince him with a promise of potential reintegration with the team or something else that he needn’t do this.

 

In conclusion, I really don’t know the answer to a lot of these questions. I think ball tampering is bad, but probably not a one-year-ban bad. But if you think it is one-year-ban bad I’d like you to back that up with the rigour to fully understand it and prevent it from happening again, and I don’t think that has happened. As it is I think it has been swept aside as brusquely as possible, and the punishment reflects the damage to the image of Australian cricket not the harm of the cheating itself (the ball not being deemed bad enough to change by the umpires after all, but this could simply mean they were very early into their tampering when caught). For all their talk of culture needing a change, I don’t see any evidence of this and if Justin Langer is indeed confirmed as the next coach that will confirm it. It’s not the culture or the cheating that CA has any interest in changing, it’s the loss of sponsor, the loss of the match, and the getting caught. The message seems to be merely “don’t get caught, stupid”. Still, I’ll look forward to when Starc next plays a test. He’s an exciting bowler no matter what, but I will be keeping an extra close eye on his reverse swing, and how early he gets it.