Wisden Almanack editor: The national boards have handed the keys to the self-interested few – it has been a bewildering act of self-harm
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These Notes by the Editor, Lawrence Booth, are from the 2023 edition of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.
From Manchester to Multan, Kennington to Karachi, England’s Test cricketers rewrote the rules and reordered the imagination. Scoring quickly and winning plenty were not original concepts, but the speed and scale of their progress were breathtaking: nine victories out of ten, at 4.77 an over, previously a fair lick in a one-dayer. While Andrew Strauss published the latest review of the English game, full of earnest flowcharts and impeccably crunched data, Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum proved that actions speak louder than words. Channelling Franklin D Roosevelt, they reassured the players that the only thing to fear was fear itself, not an edge to slip or a ropey spell. It may be the most relaxed revolution in sporting history.
The contrast with what had come before fuelled the sense of wonder. England’s Test cricket had grown joyless, producing one win out of 17 and the resignation of Joe Root, an exemplary team man, but with too much on his plate and not enough acumen. Stokes and McCullum – appointed by Rob Key, the bold new MD of men’s cricket – are cut from a more vibrant cloth, and have a clarity of vision. They even picked their best team.
The revolution began in June: from the First Test against New Zealand at Lord’s, they were excited by what might work, rather than anxious about what might not. Pursuit of fun really did trump fear of failure – easily said, but harder to put into practice. And the records England broke told of liberation. In 2022, they hit 89 Test sixes (65 under Stokes) – the most by any team in a calendar year. In 2021, they equalled the most ducks. This was bathos in reverse, from the ridiculous to the sublime.
James Anderson and Stuart Broad were recalled after their lunatic omission from the tour of the Caribbean, but otherwise a familiar cast worked with a fresh script. Ollie Pope moved up to No. 3, Jonny Bairstow to No. 5; Jack Leach got to grips with the new ball, Broad the old; Ollie Robinson lost weight, and grew in stature. Everyone had a smile: they were playing cricket, not tackling the cost-of-living crisis.
When there were newcomers, they shone. Matthew Potts took four for 13 against New Zealand at Lord’s. Harry Brook scored three sparkling hundreds in Pakistan, hitting 24 off an over one day, 27 the next. Rehan Ahmed collected a five-for at an age when tests are normally for French vocab or the periodic table. Even the one batter who was dropped, Alex Lees, shared in England’s two fastest century opening stands, until Zak Crawley went even faster with Ben Duckett. One stat couldn’t be confirmed: has any bygone cricketer been mentioned as frequently as Gilbert Jessop, whose 76-ball hundred against Australia in 1902 – England’s fastest – kept coming under threat? It will be broken before long, if it hasn’t been already.
Convention went out of the window. Root batted left-handed, or reverse-scooped the quicks. Net sessions became six-hitting contests. The forward defence gave way to the reverse sweep, the nightwatchman to the nighthawk. At the toss, the captain talked about “chasing”, as if the red ball had changed colour. “Nothing ordinary ever happened here, nor could it,” reads the motto at Cliveden House, once at the centre of the Profumo affair. Yet it applied just as well to Stokes’s dressing-room. Against New Zealand, his players chased down 277, 299 and 296; against India, a national-record 378. At one point, Bairstow scored 589 from 578 balls, arguably the purplest patch in English history. Then, after a blip at Lord’s, they dismantled South Africa, before heading to Pakistan and conjuring up 506 for four at Rawalpindi, a record for the first day of a Test – and from just 75 overs. This was their most dazzling feat, even more than the 3-0 victory completed soon after. That, like so much else, was unprecedented too.
Bazball was a nod to McCullum’s nickname, but not the slight the players thought they heard. If Test cricket was becoming part of the vernacular, it meant it was being talked about. Above all, they were reappraising a format which had spent nearly a century and a half defying change. Sensing the mood, grounds threw their gates open on the fifth day. For the first time since 2005, Test cricket felt like the people’s sport.
Ben and Baz pulled off another masterstroke, convincing their players they were on a mission – to save Test cricket. Focused on the bigger picture, they stopped fretting about the detail. And Stokes selflessly led the way. Apart from craving more Test sixes than McCullum, he was less concerned with stats than with setting intelligent fields and – at Rawalpindi – an ingenious target which kept Pakistan interested. His hatred of draws was a message, to teammates, opponents, fans. It wasn’t that he preferred defeat, more that he always wanted a crack at victory.
The seamers, too, made valour the better part of discretion, pitching it up in search of a nick – and never mind being driven (in the event, they were no more expensive than usual). They could go to the other extreme as well, bowling bouncers with the new ball. In 19 successive innings under Stokes, England took all ten wickets, their best sequence since the late 1970s.
Naturally, there were naysayers: they would come a cropper; they were having a slog; sixes were for T20; Bazball was all a bit infra dig. But the rulebook has suffocated English cricket too often. Now, they were tearing it up, breathing freely. This summer’s Ashes, against Pat Cummins’s powerful Australians, could be a cracker.
The art of captaincy, revisited
The best leaders command respect by their very presence and, when England’s players were asked how they slipped so comfortably into new roles, the response tended to be brief, but to the point: “Stokesy asked me to.” But charisma alone couldn’t explain the ease of his authority. In the film Phoenix from the Ashes, as Stokes responds with mumbled words and an empty gaze to probing from Sam Mendes, we had an insight into his turmoil following the death of his father, a serious finger injury, and general exhaustion. When he eventually returned to cricket, he was full of empathy – a quality his teammates cherished. After hitting Worcestershire’s teenage spinner Josh Baker for 34 in an over while playing for Durham, Stokes texted kind words. Mike Brearley could hardly have done it better (the empathy, not the sixes). The hard edges have softened, and English cricket is healthier for it.
No longer an elsewhere
With any luck, Bazball will revive more than a team: Test cricket needs the kiss of life, which Stokes kept stressing, without sounding sanctimonious. If anything, other countries commented more freely on England, taking turns to argue it would not work against them, only to discover otherwise. At the same time, they were making notes. Soon after Pakistan had been whitewashed, Babar Azam set New Zealand 138 in 15 overs, which was taking things too far. In the next game, Tim Southee set Pakistan 319 in a day and a bit, which proved spot on: they finished a thriller on 304-9. Before long, South Africa’s Temba Bavuma suggested there was “nothing wrong with us taking a little bit from England”. If Australia doff their Baggy Greens, we really will know the world has changed.
More enterprise is needed to maintain interest in Test cricket, after the international fixture list confirmed a hopeless imbalance: between this summer and the end of the 2026/27 winter, England will play 20 of their 43 Tests against Australia or India; and only those three teams will regularly contest meaningful series. Elsewhere, the fans we were assured would graduate from T20 will have nowhere to hang their mortar boards. New Zealand – the world Test champions – will play only four series of more than two matches in the same period; Pakistan will play three, South Africa two, West Indies one, Sri Lanka none. For many, Test cricket has become jetsam, tossed overboard to make room for simpler cargo.
The national boards have handed the keys to the self-interested few, and lost control of players they nurtured. The Indian franchises have been allowed to take over the house, one T20 knees-up at a time. Private money calls the shots. Other tournaments may become nothing more than feeders for an even bigger IPL, with a Champions League-style qualification process borrowed from football. Players will be employed by Mumbai Indians, Delhi Capitals or their overseas proxies, not by the countries who bred them; the window for most bilateral international cricket will slam shut. It has been a bewildering act of self-harm.
Many will shrug: isn’t cricket simply following the market? But the market has been skewed. The Men’s Hundred – certain to be sold to investors if the price is right – is treated like royalty by the ECB, and taken for granted by Andrew Strauss’s high performance review, as if a fact of life after all of two years. It has done great things for the women’s game, but messed up the men’s schedule. The T20 Blast has suffered, as have the Ashes, all over this year by the end of July, before the summer has cleared its throat. And the race to the bottom is gathering pace: West Indies have launched the 6ixty (a tournament, not a typo), while T10 is part of the furniture in the Gulf, and keeping anti-corruption officials on their toes. Jokes about F5 are no longer funny.
In South Africa, meanwhile, a new T20 tournament has reduced a proud cricket nation to a vassal state, with all six teams bought by IPL owners. To fit it in, their board were happy to risk a 3-0 ODI walkover by Australia. Who cared if they jeopardised the men’s team’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup?
In the Gulf, the IPL-bankrolled International League T20 was nothing if not soulless, played in empty stadiums by cricketers pilfered from abroad. In Nepal, a new competition was beset by corruption allegations; in Bangladesh, the players are grateful to be paid on time. This July, Major League Cricket is set to begin in the States, with consequences for the county game. Every nook and cranny is being plugged with schemes that leave entrepreneurs and the players better off, but diminish cricket’s breadth and depth. Wisden rarely quotes French anthropologists, but Marc Augé – lamenting the global sameness of metropolitan life – talks of “a world where there is no longer an elsewhere”. Test cricket’s many elsewheres are what make it such a tough master: a batter must prosper against English swing and Indian turn, a bowler on West Indian puddings and Pakistani pancakes. But T20 serves up the same product on the same surfaces, the players pausing only to change costume: Warriors on Wednesday, Super Kings on Saturday. To borrow from Augé again: “People are always, and never, at home.” In pursuit of a quick buck, cricket is losing its diversity and identity. God bless Bazball for proving there is life in the dear old dog yet.
Round, like a circle in a spiral
Some administrators are more alert than others. “If the game just chases money,” said Richard Thompson, the new ECB chair, “it will devour itself.” The process is under way: where T20 used to cannibalise Test cricket, it now cannibalises T20 too. Players routinely leave tournaments early, to cash in on some bigger payday. And there are plenty: January 2023 alone included the SA20, ILT20, BBL, BPL and Super Smash. Some of the better games can be fun, and the impact on longer formats is undeniable: sharper fielding, smarter bowling, sassier batting. But even those of us whose job it is to monitor the merry-go-round feel dizzy.
The question of what cricket wants to be is familiar enough – though has never been more urgent. Even Kerry Packer’s World Series in the late 1970s fizzled out once he was embraced by the mainstream. Now, three power blocs are in a relationship that is part-symbiotic, part-parasitic: the T20 franchises, in it for themselves; the ICC, nominally in charge; and the national boards, keen to placate broadcasters and generate their own revenue. The battle for time and space is not sustainable, causing chaos on the one hand, ennui on the other. Four days after lifting the T20 World Cup, Jos Buttler led England in an ODI series in Australia. They lost 3-0, but few could tell you much about it: no one watched, and no one – not even Buttler – greatly cared. If international cricket does not pit one nation’s best against another’s, what is the point?
If there is a solution, it won’t come from India, where Venky Mysore – chief executive of three lots of Knight Riders (Kolkata, Trinbago, Abu Dhabi) – summed up the prevailing wisdom, telling The Cricketer he knew how to “leverage all aspects of running a cricket franchise”. There may be little choice but to bow to the economics. But isn’t one of cricket’s strengths its versatility? Can’t we have red ball and white, five days and four hours?
This Almanack has tried to play a small part by commissioning, with MCC, a new Wisden Trophy, awarded to the year’s outstanding individual Test performance. But the sport needs administrators with a broad perspective. England and Australia have a duty to ensure Test cricket doesn’t shrink to the Ashes plus India. A plea for balance and moderation – including an unrapacious IPL, a better spread of bilateral commitments, and the sense that cricket’s big’uns will look after the littl’uns – no doubt sounds idealistic. Yet it may be the only way to avoid implosion.
Ask what your country can do for you
Not that the players are pawns: you can’t complain of exhaustion one minute, then sign up for another T20 jolly the next. The franchises understand their attraction, since even cricketers on half a million a year convince themselves they risk penury in old age. And the boards are petrified of player power, which is stronger than ever. West Indians stopped signing central contracts ages ago; New Zealanders are following suit. The ECB must be wondering if it’s their turn next. As Mike Atherton has suggested, the time might have come to incentivise players on a match-by-match basis – and to make it worth their while to put country first.
Not dead, just resting
Perhaps hearteningly, the brilliance of England’s Test team pushed their T20 World Cup triumph in Melbourne down the pecking order. But its significance was still startling: for the first time, a men’s side hold both the one-day and 20-over trophies. At the end of a year in which England also beat their own 50-over world-record total, the IPL auction confirmed English cricket was in clover: Sam Curran – the World Cup’s Player of the Tournament – picked up a competition-record £1.85m, and Harry Brook, barely out of international nappies, more than £1.3m. In January, England were briefly top of the ODI rankings, second in T20s and third in Tests – which ticked a major box in Strauss’s review, five years ahead of schedule. After the horrors of 2021, the transformation recalled the pair of headlines in 1967: “Nizam of Hyderabad is dead”, quickly followed by “Nizam of Hyderabad slightly better”.
For a while, Jos Buttler struggled to emerge from the shadow of Eoin Morgan, winning four of 11 completed white-ball games in the home summer. But he grew into the role, with a little help from his friends. In the T20 series in Pakistan, where Buttler was injured, Moeen Ali calmly led England to a 4–3 win. Then, at the World Cup, Stokes – who else? – guided them to victory over Sri Lanka and Pakistan with innings that would have looked sluggish in his Test team: 42 off 36 balls, 52 off 49.
In between, Buttler helped pulverise India by ten wickets, and was aided by Alex Hales, whom he recalled after his exile under Morgan. By the end, Buttler had managed what Morgan never did: a T20 World Cup, and at the first time of asking. If England retain their one-day trophy in India this year, they can call themselves the greatest white-ball team of all time.
The women’s game enjoyed two seismic moments in early 2023. The first came when Viacom18, an Indian media conglomerate, paid £95m for the five-year rights to the new Women’s Premier League, which might have had something to do with similar plans across the border in Pakistan (the sums forked out for players at the auction earlier this year were life-changing). Then India’s young women thrashed England in Potchefstroom to win the inaugural Under-19 T20 World Cup.
Indian success has changed cricket before. Victory in the 1983 World Cup final against West Indies at Lord’s turned heads in a country thought to have eyes only for Tests. And when MS Dhoni’s team won the first World T20, in 2007, the IPL swiftly followed. The game must now hope India’s women can be global citizens, in a way their men – barred by the BCCI from playing domestic T20 cricket abroad – cannot. Good-news stories are breaking all the time in the women’s game, from Brazil to Zimbabwe, Thailand to Rwanda. Over 200 players from 11 countries now have central contracts, according to the Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations. Everyone will gain if India leaven their power with responsibility.
A fading echo
In last year’s Wisden, Tuba Sangar pleaded with the world not to forget the women cricketers of Afghanistan. Sangar had been the development manager at the Afghan board until the Taliban seized power in August 2021; soon after, she started a new life in Canada. Many female players fled too, leaving family, burning kit. Many ended up in Australia, whose cricket board became the first to pay anything other than lip service to Sangar, pulling their men’s team out of a three-match ODI series in the Gulf against the Afghans; that followed their decision, in late 2021, not to host them for a Test.
The mixed reaction confirmed this as one of cricket’s Gordian knots. Some, including high-profile members of the Afghanistan men’s team, argued the decision would make the game even more invisible in an already benighted country.
Others, including the women-in-exile, echoed Sangar, and asked for other female cricketers to put themselves – “for ten seconds” – in their shoes. South Africa were shunned by the international community for implementing one form of apartheid, so why were Afghanistan allowed to implement another?
The ICC have argued it is up to Afghanistan’s board how to spend their money, though none of it has reached the country’s female cricketers since the coup. But with the Taliban hardening against women’s rights – regardless of whether the men’s team are ostracised – why not ensure funds reach Australia, where the women’s team can set up a home away from home, and pick up fixtures against touring sides? It may even bring some joy amid the tragedy.
The leggie’s legacy
On a chilly night in Hobart in January 2022, Shane Warne was enjoying a cigarette outside his hotel. England had just lost the Ashes 4-0, and he was unimpressed by their lack of fight. For Warne, it made no sense. A few weeks later, he was dead, at the age of 52. That made no sense either.
Warne was a genius, but spoke like (and to) the man on the street. He was a playboy who raised money for Sri Lankan sea turtles. He spotted weakness from 22 yards, and bullshit a mile off. And could he bowl. When 100 experts chose Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Century, he alone was still playing, carved into Mount Rushmore, safe in the knowledge he would merit his place when he retired.
His contribution to leg-spin, cricket’s toughest skill, hardly needs restating. Just as immense was the blow he struck for all bowlers. Three of the Cricketers of the Century – Don Bradman, Jack Hobbs, Viv Richards – were batters, and the all-rounder, Garry Sobers, averaged 57. But Warne drew the gaze to the other end of the pitch. He was a one-man theatre, a walking box office.
His ball to Mike Gatting in Manchester earned instant membership of a hall of fame, where stars are indistinguishable from their signature deed: Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute barrier, Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick or Diego Maradona’s Hand of God, Jonny Wilkinson and his drop goal. And, like many who transcend their sport, Warne held up a mirror to his society, exposing the puritanism just below Australia’s sunny exterior. Even before he served a year’s ban for taking a prohibited substance, he was the captain the Establishment could barely bring themselves to anoint. When he did get a brief go, in the late 1990s, he was innovative, provocative, daring. Without knowing it, he was one of Bazball’s forebears. Warne is gone, but not his spirit.
The pedantry and the vitriol behind the debate about bowlers running out batters at the non-striker’s end – and even about what to call it – is a reminder that rabbit holes aren’t much fun. And when India’s Deepti Sharma removed England’s Charlie Dean to secure a one-day win at Lord’s in September, it reignited the culture wars that can make social media so unpleasant.
For Indian fans, English dismay was colonialism in disguise: those who wrote the Laws think they can ignore them too. And advocates of the dismissal offered a simple solution: stay in your ground. Yet the insistence it was as normal as bowled or lbw felt disingenuous: it is still rare, and occurs mainly when things are tense. The argument hit a further snag in December, when the Indian men’s captain, Rohit Sharma, recalled Sri Lanka’s Dasun Shanaka: India were about to win, and Shanaka had 98. “We didn’t want to get him out like that,” said Rohit, revealing his instinct: the dismissal isn’t like any other, despite its legality.
MCC’s latest tweak to the wording of Law 38 was a well-meaning attempt to nail the moment in a bowler’s action when the dismissal ceases to be valid. But there may be an easier solution, that a) stops the non-striker pinching ground, b) doesn’t deprive the spectator of the essential drama of batter v bowler, and c) spares everyone the outrage, of both sides. Simply, the umpire calls “one short” every time the non-striker strays too early from the crease (and a run is taken). In international matches, the TV official is already monitoring the front line for no-balls, so watching the batter too should be straightforward. In club games, the umpire should be able to spot the blatant transgressions, which are the ones that matter at that level. Batters would soon become more watchful, and bowlers could concentrate on the striker’s end.
There would be one final bonus: no more squabbling about whether to call the dismissal a Mankad, named after the great Indian all-rounder Vinoo, who twice ran out the Australian Bill Brown in 1947/48, or – more prosaically but less succinctly – a run-out of the non-striker at the bowler’s end. On this, even Mankad’s own family are divided. Leave things with the umpires, and we can all relax.
Last year, we suggested that Tom Harrison – then the ECB chief executive – hand over his Hundred-related bonus to the African-Caribbean Engagement programme. Reader, it didn’t happen. But ACE have flourished anyway.
The story of racism in English cricket has not disappeared, and the fiasco at Yorkshire rumbled on as Wisden went to press. But too much mud-slinging can obscure the good stuff that has occurred since sections of our game, stung by the testimony of Azeem Rafiq, started listening to those who have felt excluded. ACE and their founder, the irrepressible Ebony Rainford-Brent, have been in the vanguard.
For years, the white mainstream swallowed a lazy narrative: Britain’s West Indian community had outgrown their roots, and now preferred football. In these pages two years ago, Rainford-Brent argued this was a misrepresentation (she was too polite to call it expedient). And she was dead right. Three years after she launched ACE in South London, the charity have spread to Birmingham, Bristol and Sheffield, with plans for expansion in Manchester and Nottingham; there are close ties with seven county clubs. Nearly 10,000 have benefited, with 35 of the 45 schools involved completely new to cricket. Impressively, 44 of the 141 “scholars” engaged by ACE have graduated into the county game’s age-group system – players from a demographic which, until recently, believed cricket was not for them. It turns out they were there all along, waiting to be reached.
Rainford-Brent has drawn another, important, conclusion: class has been as big a barrier to entering cricket as race. Nearly a third of those on the programme are working-class white. But rather than make her point and leave others to pick up the pieces, she has done something about it. There’s been no talk of football.
With eco-friends like these
Despite its monstrous carbon footprint, international cricket has behaved as if the climate emergency is someone else’s problem. Even so, the ICC’s decision to accept sponsorship from Aramco, the fossil-fuel behemoth owned by the Saudi royal family, took some beating. Aramco’s name was everywhere during the T20 World Cup in Australia – even on the machines that recycled plastic bottles while attempting to greenwash consciences.
But just how dirty are Aramco? Put it this way: they are believed to have caused 4% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1965, and show no sign of slowing. The ICC argue that Aramco’s sustainability experts can help them become more eco-friendly, which sounds like giving the fox the run of the henhouse. As for Saudi Arabia’s loose interpretation of human rights, the ICC prefer to see the company as global.
The winner of this year’s Wisden writing competition, Dan Crowley, is a student from Melbourne who describes Aramco’s presence at the MCG with gallows humour. He wasn’t fooled by any of it.
The problem with early retirement
No blame can be attached to Carlos Brathwaite or Samit Patel, who in the T20 Blast fixture between Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire at Edgbaston became the first players in English cricket to retire out for tactical reasons. Brathwaite didn’t fancy the leg-breaks of Calvin Harrison, while Patel – the non-striker – needed to help his partner run three off the last ball, and is no Usain Bolt. (Nottinghamshire lost anyway, by one run.)
But the regulations need a tweak. Bowlers don’t have the option of not completing an over, unless they are injured, so why are batters allowed to cut short an innings with impunity? If they want to walk off, their departure should count as a delivery. One of cricket’s fascinations is watching problems being solved on the go. Passing the buck, without consequence, is no answer.
The game’s lawmakers deserve our sympathy: for every nuanced regulation, some new development demands a rewrite. During Australia’s Big Bash League, Michael Neser of Brisbane Heat parried a shot from Sydney Sixers’ Jordan Silk over the boundary at wide long-off. His momentum carried him six feet outside the field of play, where he caught the ball and tossed it back while skipping in the air to ensure he wasn’t touching the ground at the same time. He then returned to the field, and completed the catch.
In the commentary box, the reaction was immediate: six runs. And you could see why. For all his ingenuity, Neser had engaged with the ball beyond the boundary for an uncomfortable length of time. It was all perfectly legal, as MCC confirmed. But if a fielder’s second contact with the ball takes place entirely – and obviously – outside the rope, hasn’t control been lost? Silk deserved six.
You can stroll along the Yarra to the MCG, or up Marine Drive to the Wankhede; take a tram to Old Trafford, a tuk-tuk to Galle, a ferry to Hobart. But in terms of getting to the cricket, the Netherlands wins first prize. A week in Amsterdam last June, where England were playing three one-day internationals, was a welcome change of pace, helped by the fact that the best way to reach the ground in bucolic Amstelveen was to hire a bicycle – “the most civilised conveyance known to man”, according to the novelist Iris Murdoch. The bike lanes were free of potholes and glass, and the cars gave way; no one called you an eco-warrior. It was all extremely pleasant, even if the “coffee shops” were better avoided.
In tune with the nation
Before the start of the Oval Test against South Africa – delayed first by rain, then by the death of Queen Elizabeth – “God Save the King” was sung, beautifully by the soprano Laura Wright, stirringly by a crowd of 25,000. Every bit as poignant was the minute’s silence which preceded it – a profound show of respect that might have touched the staunchest republican. In that moment, cricket acted as a barometer of the national mood – and continued to do so, carrying on while other sports stopped. Sometimes, our game gets it just right.
Hope spring’s eternal
The breathless end to last summer’s County Championship left us wanting more. As Liam Norwell’s miraculous nine-for against Hampshire at Edgbaston saved Warwickshire from relegation, more than 16,000 tuned in to the club’s live-streaming service – not far off the average home attendance for Brentford in the Premier League. Now, we await the impact of a close-season conversation between Stokes, McCullum and the county coaches, where everyone was encouraged to release the handbrake. Warwickshire have chosen a smart moment to extend their reciprocal-membership scheme to eight other teams. There may never have been a better time to watch four-day cricket.
Lawrence Booth is the Editor of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2023.