Episode 84: Some searing yorkers at wreckers of cricket

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

Jonathan Collett is a devotee of Warwickshire, whom he represented at under-19 level. He was Press Secretary for Michael Howard, then Conservative party leader and later Public Relations advisor for Pakistan’s successful cricket tour of England in 2016. He shares fierce but trenchant views on what’s gone wrong with cricket in Warwickshire, England and the world – and who’s to blame – as the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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They begin by extolling the recently completed Test series between Pakistan and Australia, played in an excellent spirit and with great passages of play from both sides. Australia’s willingness to play a Test series in Pakistan contrasted with England’s miserable cancellation last year of its much briefer T20 tour. The Lahore Test ended in deserved triumph for Pat Cummins as captain and bowler. After 92 Tests for Pakistan it was the first played by Azhar Ali in his home city: from personal knowledge Jonathan salutes his qualities as an ambassador for Pakistan.

They also welcome Bangladesh’s first one-day series win in South Africa, proof of its growing importance in international cricket, based on a major performance by the hitherto unsung fast bowler Taksin Ahmed.

They suggest that the initial Tests between Pakistan and Australia and West Indies and England were reminiscent of traditional Test match cricket, especially in the scoring tempo and the long innings needed to save two of them. But Jonathan notes that over-rates have fallen in Test matches with little intervention from controlling bodies, who, he suggests, give much higher priority to selling TV commercials than providing a better ration of cricket for paying spectators.

Jonathan takes aim at the profusion of short forms of cricket: no other sport besides cricket has invented so many new formats to please people who do not like it. No form of one-day cricket, he suggests, could ever supply the variety in patterns of play and in possible outcomes which makes first-class and Test cricket dramatic and memorable. He cites the case of Warwickshire, who will be playing in five different formats this summer at Edgbaston – and not always under their own name. At the behest of the city council which had supported the redevelopment of the ground they play T20 matches as the Birmingham Bears. Warwickshire were abandoning their history and mission of providing cricket for the whole county.

He is scathing about the corporatization of English cricket and its capitulation to market forces – especially in the England and Wales Cricket Board. Its directors might be those of any commercial company and reflected little past involvement in cricket. They had no commitment to preserving the heritage and ethos of the game. They were continuing to marginalize the County Championship and the counties themselves, which they were clearly seeking to cull. They were treating Test cricket not as the summit of the game but as a niche product and a branding opportunity. Insidiously, they were seeking to eliminate the superior status of first-class cricket – turning it into “red-ball” cricket, a version of the game no better than the many forms of “white-ball” cricket.

The ECB, he suggests, assumed that everything they had done in English cricket was progressive and inevitable rather than a matter of conscious choice. This was especially true of their centralization of control and their desperation to find formats to sell to any possible audience and to any broadcaster or commercial sponsor. He is saddened that the MCC appeared to be succumbing to the same corporate culture and to be too nervous to assert its role as a conservator of the character of the game. He believes that governments will continue to show little interest in the condition of English cricket – having made it a minority pursuit when they allowed its removal from free-to-air television.

The only remedy for the present ills of English cricket will be the empowerment of ordinary cricket-lovers. He sees some welcome signs that they are beginning to assert themselves at county level and even nationally against the prevailing corporate culture.

He concludes that the fundamental appeal of the game will always survive: its special ability to generate individual contests within a team event and to provide opportunities for so many different kinds of people to participate, to travel and to make friendships.

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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