Being Boiled

And all around us the challenge of change.” (Tony Blair, September 1999)

In September 1999, with the Millennium imminent, Tony Blair, two years in office, delivered a speech to the Labour Party conference, which verged on the millenarian. He left no doubt as to the enemy – the ‘forces of conservatism’, which were mentioned seventeen times :

‘a New Britain where the extraordinary talent of the British people is liberated from the forces of conservatism that so long have held them back’ …‘modernise the nation, sweep away those forces of conservatism to set the people free’ … ‘to be the progressive force that defeats the forces of conservatism’ … ‘For the 21st century will not be about the battle between capitalism and socialism but between the forces of progress and the forces of conservatism’ … ‘The old order, those forces of conservatism, they held people back’ … ‘these forces of conservatism chain us not only to an outdated view of our people’s potential but of our nation’s potential’ … ‘The forces of conservatism, the elite, have held us back for too long’.

Apart from ‘holding us back’, what had these ‘forces of conservatism’ done?

‘the forces of conservatism pulled every trick in the book … against the creation of the NHS’ … ‘the forces of conservatism allied to racism are why one of the heroes of the 20th Century, Martin Luther King, is dead. It’s why another, Nelson Mandela, spent the best years of his life in a cell the size of a bed.’

The enemy was everywhere :

‘and now having defeated the force of conservatism in granting devolution, let us continue to defeat the separatism which is just the forces of conservatism by another name.’ … ‘don’t let the forces of conservatism stop devolution in Northern Ireland too’ … ‘It would be comforting to think the forces of conservatism were only Tories. But wrong. There were forces of conservatism who said changing Clause 4 would destroy the Labour Party’ … ‘let us take on the forces of conservatism in education, too’

even within ourselves :

‘let’s be honest. When it comes to transport we are all the forces of conservatism.’

Who were these forces?

‘Arrayed against us: the forces of conservatism, the cynics, the elites, the establishment. Those who will live with decline. Those who yearn for yesteryear.’

And, so, you gather, in the decade to come, the ‘forces of conservatism’ would be getting it in the neck.

Anyone still tempted to ‘yearn for yesteryear’ after hearing that speech might have been reassured, that September, when the October issue of ‘Wisden Cricket Monthly’ dropped on to their mat, with a picture of Dickie Bird on the cover, smiling benignly.

If they had turned straight to page 22, expecting to find a celebration of the then enormously popular Bird, they might have been discomfited to read a mild twitting of the man and his collected works (his autobiography had recently become the best-selling sports book ever, and another was about to be published) by Editorial Assistant Lawrence Booth, pointing out the extent to which Bird’s books recycled the same anecdotes. Significantly, Booth quotes his biographer, David Hopps as saying :

‘The great sales of Dickie Bird’s book symbolise the nature of cricket’s audience at the moment : romanticised and elderly.’

So there we can detect the enemy – those ‘forces of conservatism’ – in cricket*: the elderly and romantic (who might also have been mildly affronted to see a review of a biography of Colin Cowdrey entitled ‘Cricket’s Queen Mum’). Apparently gratuitously, Booth finishes by saying, in connection with Bird’s next book being about his experiences on the county circuit :

‘Which is probably just as well. Because, if attendances are anything to go by, there’ll be no-one around to verify the stories.’

Rather than gratuitous, this turns out to be a theme threaded through the issue, as if in response to some editorial diktat : Stephen Fay, for instance, signs off his review of Birley’s ‘Social History of English Cricket’ (in itself, intended as a blow against the ‘forces of conservatism’) :

‘… but English cricket would almost certainly not be run by county clubs principally for their few members. No bad thing.’

Elsewhere, Booth is quoted as saying, in response to an innings defeat for Northamptonshire :

‘At a time when the counties are supposed to be fighting for their lives, there’s a lot of supine cricket going on. … As a Northants fan, it grieves me to admit it, but if five counties were abolished tomorrow, my team would be first on the chopping block.’

and, among the ‘Quotes of the Month’, is this, from E.W. Swanton, in response to ‘our suggestion (WCM Sept) that the county programme should be cut in half’ :

‘Outlandish … touched by the confines of lunacy’

(the implication being that if Swanton, the personification of cricket’s ‘forces of conservatism’, thought an idea was mad, it must be entirely sane).

Flicking back to the cover, our reader would discover the pretext for much of this pre-millennial tension in the headline ‘Bottom of the World’. By losing the last Test of the Summer to New Zealand, England had found themselves at the bottom of the Wisden World Championship (WCM naturally attached great importance to this, given that it was an unofficial championship of their own devising). I can verify Steven Lynch’s description of the last day (I had come on impulse, having heard on the radio that there were tickets available) :

‘On the Sunday, around 12,000 came to roar England on – and suffered in silence, punctuated by the odd catcall’.

My memory is that when Mark Ramprakash was out first ball, and his replacement emerged from the pavilion, the large man in front of me (from Derby, I think), who had previously amused himself by affecting to confuse the Kiwi seamer Dion Nash with the Canadian songbird Celine Dion, stood up (with some difficulty) and, exasperated beyond endurance, screamed ‘**** me, it’s ****ing Irani. We’re ****ing ****ed! … **** off Irani, just **** off!’, before collapsing back into his seat, drained by emotion. At the end of the match, a section of the crowd gathered in front of the pavilion, to sing ‘We’re shit and we know we are’, a sentiment that, more circumspectly expressed, pervades WCM.

Editor Tim de Lisle is critical of Chairman of the Selectors, David Graveney : when first appointed, he was ‘genial, decent and modern-minded, in deliberate contrast to his predecessor, Raymond Illingworth’ (‘modern-minded’ might be pushing it, but Illingworth would be justified in taking umbrage at the other two), but had turned out to be, as the headline puts it ‘a Grav Disappointment’, largely, one gathers, because he had dropped Mark Ramprakash.

Others diagnose deeper causes. Alan Lee, interviewing Graham Gooch (who had just been sacked as a selector) reports his view that ‘the county game … must bear heavy responsibility for England’s decline’ ; ‘if the people who control the game – and that’s the 18 counties – really want to have a strong Test side, everything has to be designed to bring that about … The key is to have fewer players on county staffs.’ This theme is developed in a feature entitled, with a Blairish nod to Martin Luther King, ‘I Have a Dream’, which presents ‘three radical solutions’ to the ‘England crisis’.

The first is by Bob Willis (alive when I began to write this), who, quixotically, traces ‘the root of the problem’, back to the abolition of amateur status, which, he feels, discourages those who ‘have better things to do with their lives’ than play full-time cricket, whereas those who do ‘join the ranks of this clapped-out army’ (of County cricketers) ‘quickly kowtow to the system which hatches [a nice period touch, this] Gameboy and personal-stereo addicts, and mollycoddles the boring and uncommunicative.’ So far, so cranky, but what he goes on to say is more in tune with the reformist zeal of the period. He proposes :

  • The abolition of the First Class Forum : instead the government should appoint a ‘board of directors to oversee a change from self-interested and parochial county-led administration
  • The Counties should be split into three divisions, playing ten first-class matches a season, with the players to be provided from ‘fiercely competitive premier leagues around the country’.
  • The only full-time professionals would be an ‘elite national squad of about 24’ cricketers.

He ends by hoping that ‘Kate Hoey … could galvanise this project and be remembered as the sports minister who saved cricket’ (not, perhaps, what she will be primarily remembered for).

If Willis is Dantonesque, the next contributor, Christopher Lane, who was then Managing Director of WCM, goes the full Robespierre, scarcely less incandescent with rage than my Derby-based neighbour at the Oval. His piece ‘Abolish the County Pro’ is a locus classicus of the kind of visceral hatred for the county game that seems to have animated so many of those with a professional interest in cricket.

‘County cricket is an infectious disease, which quickly takes its debilitating grip on any young player who strays into its contaminated zone. Its mediocrity is not a symptom, but the cause of all the problems in English cricket. The 18 counties have ultimate control of every major aspect of English cricket, and as they will never contemplate culling themselves to eight or fewer, the only chance that English cricket has is for the top current players … to be divorced from county cricket.’

To achieve this, he proposes :

  • Five first-class teams, playing eight four-day games a year.
  • These teams to be made up of 55 professionals, contracted to ‘the controlling body’, 15 making up the senior squad, the others young players at an English Cricket Academy.

Unfortunately, he thinks, the counties are unlikely to give up ‘claiming the subsidies which provide a crutch to allow their hopeless businesses to struggle on’, which would ‘instantly produce a natural cull of their numbers’, and ‘more likely, county cricket will survive to clamp England at the bottom of the rankings for years to come. There is a narrow tunnel out of here. But is anyone prepared to grasp the nettle and lead the way?’ (perhaps grasping a torch might have been more useful).

Just in case we haven’t got the point, the third ‘radical solution’ is entitled ‘Merge the Counties’, in which John Brown (at the time the publisher of Viz and numerous in-house magazines, later the Chairman of the Wisden Group), ‘takes a businessman’s approach’. This would involve reducing ‘the number of professional teams to ten, merging eight adjacent pairs such as Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire’, playing nine games a season (‘admittedly diehard members might be put off, but they should be cancelled out by new fans attracted to the higher standard of cricket’). He also cheerfully admits (a true ‘businessman’s approach’) that ‘half the professionals in the game – from ground-staff to administrators – would lose their jobs, but this would be better than all of them over a longer period of time. Obviously … there would be many disgruntled people, but not nearly as many as there will be when the county game disappears into oblivion – which it will over the next 20 years if it does nothing to revitalise itself’.

Elsewhere in the magazine the dramatis personae of the next decade are beginning to emerge, like daffodil shoots in Winter. Michael Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff (both classed as ‘batsmen who bowl’) are in the tour party for South Africa, as, a premature shoot, is Graeme Swann ; Ashley Giles is in the one-day squad ; Trescothick and Harmison (lauded as ‘very lively’ by Martin Bicknell) are in the A team. In Middlesex’s county notes Andrew Strauss is described by Mike Gatting as a ‘youngster’, who ‘needs more time to get up to speed’ ; a 17-year-old Ian Bell made a reasonable showing for the England U-19s against Australia. It is noted, in passing, that Duncan Fletcher, ‘who officially starts as coach in October’ helped to select the England side for the Oval Test.

There are various other features that might be construed as blows against the ‘forces of conservatism’. Tim de Lisle announces ‘just in time for the 21st century’ a Wisden website, which will offer an alternative to ‘the other stuff floating about, largely unedited, on the great ocean of the web’ (the term ‘blog’ was first used in 1999). This included ‘Ethic View’, shared between Orin Gordon (‘a Guyana-born BBC producer’) and Kamran Abbasi, who also contributes a militant ‘Asian View’ to the magazine (‘Imran Khan has more clout these days in Yorkshire than Lahore’), and a ‘Women’s Page’, by Tanya Aldred, who interviewed some of the ‘few women’ at the NatWest final. Now that the amount of ‘unedited stuff on the Web’ has grown, the comments of Holly Brown, 25, might attract some adverse comment from today’s ‘online community’ :

‘You can’t really blame the authorities. They need women to get off their arses and learn that there is more to life than shopping.’ (#arses #shopping)

The signs of a new dawn (or the shadow falling) are also visible in the Championship table, with half the counties (those who were destined for Division One in the next season) in the light, the others in the shade. (With three games to go, incidentally, Leicestershire, who had won the title the previous year, were in second place).

Admittedly, the ‘forces of conservatism’ were mounting a small rearguard action in the classified adverts, where the Dunkery Beacon Hotel in Wootton Courtenay advertised itself as offering touring teams ‘open-ended bar hours for gentlemen drinkers’ (as opposed to ladies or yobboes, presumably) and ‘comfortable beds (when needed)’, for those gentlemen who did not fancy spending all night in the bar.

Come the new Millennium, the ‘forces of conservatism’ were indeed forced to give ground in cricket, as elsewhere in the country. Central contracts were introduced in 2000, partly satisfying Christopher Lane’s demand that England cricketers should be quarantined from the infection of County cricket. The First Class Forum, as advocated by Bob Willis, voted itself out of existence in 2005, by which time, under the direction of Duncan Fletcher, England’s results had improved to the point where, as you may remember, England beat Australia in a series that was generally reckoned to have been the best-ever.

All of this had been achieved without reducing the number of counties (although WCM had taken its own advice and merged with ‘The Cricketer‘ in 2003) : county cricket had, pace Lane, survived, but England had not been ‘clamped at the bottom of the rankings for years’ ; in fact, although there have been ups and downs, they have generally been one of the better sides. So, given that ‘we’ were all agreed in 1999 that the purpose of the county game was to produce a successful England side, and that has been achieved, it would be reasonable to assume that the counties would now be safe, but in 2019, with the ‘Hundred’ in the offing, that is far from being the case. Reducing the number of counties, for the ECB and some die-hard progressives has, it seems, become less a means to an end than an end in itself, an article of faith.

What was not taken into consideration, or even hinted at, in the October 1999 issue (although it had been mooted) was the largest single threat to the ‘forces of conservatism’, the advent of T20, an invention of the ECB’s Marketing Manager, which was voted through (by 11 votes to 7) by the First Class Forum in 2003, shortly before their voluntary self-immolation. The scale of T20’s success, and its proposed, not unpredictable, mutation into the eight-County ‘Hundred’, has confused the issue considerably since the heady days of 1999, and, although some commentators would only confess to being conservative on pain of death, it is making conservatives of many erstwhile progressives.

One comparison I have previously made is that the introduction of T20 into English cricket resembles that of the cane toad into Queensland : the toads were imported from central America to control the native cane beetle, but, lacking any natural predators, multiplied uncontrollably and wrecked the local ecology. T20, too, was introduced with good intentions, and for a specific purpose, but has now run amok, pushing the native fauna of the Championship to the inhospitable extremities of its habitat.

Another amphibian-based comparison that occurs to me is the fable of the ‘Frogs who wanted a King’. The frogs asked Zeus for a King : he sent them a log. At first they were happy with this, but when they realised it was only a log, they mocked it mercilessly, and asked Zeus to send them a proper King. He next sent them a stork, which ate them. For the frogs, read the cricketing public ; for King Log, the MCC ; for the stork, the ECB. (Perhaps also, for frogs, read liberal commentators ; for King Log, Gordon Brown ; for the stork, Boris Johnson.)

And finally, the – I hope – untested – belief that it is possible to boil a frog without it complaining if you turn the heat up slowly enough. The loud and widespread complaints you can currently hear about the ‘Hundred’, from those who had been happy to applaud the establishment of the ECB, the abolition of the First Class Council, the introduction of central contracts, a two division championship, the Sky deal and the proliferation of T20 as blows against ‘the forces of conservatism’, sound to me like the frantic croaking of frogs who have, at the last moment, woken up to the fact that they are being boiled.

*I am not suggesting that this particular animus was directly influenced by Tony Blair, simply that the gospel of always looking forward, enthusiasm for ‘change’ as a good in itself, and reflexive hostility to conservatism in all its forms, seemed all-pervasive at the time, and Blair was its most prominent evangelist. Twenty years on he finds himself allied with that much-mocked epitome of the ‘forces of conservatism’, John Major, with his much-hated warm beer and long shadows on the county ground (both phrases from a speech urging continued membership of the European Union, which he could have made yesterday, to widespread acclaim from ‘progressives’). The creatures outside looked from progressive to conservative, and from conservative to progressive …

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