The Eagles and the Acorn

17th January 2022

The first round of the 2022 Rugby League Challenge Cup – or the Betfred Challenge Cup, to reflect its gambling industry sponsorship – was played this weekend. 14 ties were contested, involving amateur clubs, with the winners joining 10 of the semi-professional League 1 sides in the next round. The Championship and Super League clubs will enter later in the competition with the final scheduled for the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium at the end of May.

The Edinburgh Eagles versus York Acorn RLC tie was played in the spacious grounds of the Royal High School in the suburb of Barnton in Scotland’s capital city. Beforehand, I had wondered if it might be something of a mismatch. Whilst the Eagles had a distinguished pedigree of Challenge Cup participation, their qualification was through virtue of winning the 5-team Scottish National League in 2021. By contrast, the visitors will play this season in the highest tier of the amateur game in England – the Premier Division of the National Conference League – having won promotion last year.

The early passages of play suggested that my concerns were justified, as the Eagles were 0-10 down after 5 minutes. With their first set of possession, York engineered a three-man overlap on the right-hand side to run in a straightforward try. Then, when they next had the ball, some accurate passing and determined running produced a second try near the Eagles’ posts. At that stage, it looked as if York had a clear advantage in the speed of their play-the-balls and the ease with which their confident passing was stretching the Eagles’ defence.

However, the home side did not capitulate and indeed, for the remainder of the first half, the play was much more evenly balanced. A neat grubber kick by half-back Alex Williams led to confusion in the York rearguard and a try for Roserutabua Tawanayavulala, and it was only just before the interval that York scored again to give themselves some breathing space with a 16-6 half-time lead.

The match was watched by a few dozen spectators, mainly on the clubhouse side of the ground. I viewed the action from the grass bank than ran alongside the opposite touchline, on which I was able to move with the play as it ebbed and flowed. I did take a time-out to sit on a concrete step near one of the corner flags for my lunchtime snack – it had been a 1.30pm kick-off – and was rewarded when this third York try was registered right in front of me.

The game took an unexpected turn in the opening minutes of the second half, when the Eagles scored two converted tries to take the lead at 18-16. The first of these followed a sweeping move involving 5 or 6 players and then a long run by Orisi Waibuta over a combined distance of about 80 yards: a brilliant try, which I suspect won’t be bettered by many others in this year’s Challenge Cup competition.

As the try-scorers’ names indicate, the Eagles’ cause was aided by the presence in their match squad of several Fijians – members of the British Army, I was informed by one of the home officials – who brought a distinct physicality to their running and tackling. It seemed to me that, at that stage, the York side was somewhat rattled and, no doubt, also rather perplexed after the flying start that they had made to the game.

But it was now the visitors’ turn to re-group. With the bustling prop forward Adam Endersby leading the way, they manoeuvred themselves into position to score a couple of short range tries against a tiring defence, aided by the Eagles conceding repeat sets of possession following a couple of needless penalties. This time, as the daylight faded, the lead that York Acorn built up was not to be overturned. They came away with a victory by 38 points to 24, the reward for which will be a home tie in the second round against the London-based Wests Warriors.

It was an afternoon well spent. The match was played without scrums (as a continued Covid precaution) and, given the considerable additional demands that this places on players’ fitness, I thought that both sides did well to maintain their levels of energetic commitment for the game’s full duration. It was soundly refereed, the official maintaining a zealous (but appropriate) approach to any tackle involving contact with the head. And it also seemed to be played in a good spirit, the only bout of brief fisticuffs occurring right at the very end, when, for some reason, the red mist seemed to descend on three or four players following the final tackle.

As noted, the journey’s end for this season’s Rugby League Challenge Cup – its 125th anniversary year, as it happens – will be at Tottenham, rather than the usual Wembley (where the final will return to in 2023). For most followers of the competition, that journey began – metaphorically at least – at the weekend at the grounds of amateur clubs across the heartlands of the sport: Leigh, Castleford, Hull et al. For a select few of us, it began at the Royal High School in Edinburgh.

Cricketing Role Model

27th December 2021

Ray Illingworth, who died last Friday at the age of 89, was my most significant cricketing role model. Here, I draw on a couple of short passages from An Ordinary Spectator to describe the impact that he had on this impressionable young cricketer in his early teens.

At the time of the 1968 Headingley Roses match, I was thirteen:

“The match… followed a similar pattern to the corresponding game of two years earlier. Yorkshire bowled Lancashire out cheaply and then built up a big first innings lead, this time to win by an innings. For me, the striking thing about the Yorkshire innings was how, after a couple of the front-line batsmen had made big scores… the middle order also weighed in with some heavy scoring.

Ray Illingworth was a key figure here: the test match off spinner who could come in at number eight, as he did on this occasion, and play shots like a number three or four. I had the same impressed reaction to his dual skills, with bat and ball, as I had had with Ken Taylor’s ability to play more than one sport at a high level.

Illingworth’s case was closer to home, however: my position in the [school] under 13s team was as an off-spinning batsman who also captained the side. I was not to know at that time – although, like everybody else, I did not have long to wait – that Illingworth’s prowess as a captain would also be revealed”.

Illingworth’s departure from Yorkshire to Leicestershire later that summer was given due prominence in the Yorkshire Post, which was apparently content to give near-equal weight to world geopolitics and the machinations of the county cricket club in presenting the main news stories. The front page headlines for the 21st August edition were “4.00am: Russians invade Czechoslovakia” and “Illingworth can go, says Mr Sellers”. (The timing of the pronouncement by the chairman of the Yorkshire CCC selection committee was not given).

In August of the following summer, the 37 year-old Illingworth captained his new county against Yorkshire in a John Player Sunday League match at Scarborough.

“I watched Illingworth closely. He batted at number 7 and made a quickfire 30. He bowled when he thought it was the right time and the Yorkshire batsmen would not score heavily off him. He positioned himself in the field so that he was not called on to do any acrobatic fielding. He switched his other bowlers cleverly and moved his fielders around so that the favoured scoring shots of the Yorkshire batsmen were cut off.

Through his leadership, Leicestershire were always in control of the match and they won without being seriously threatened. Illingworth was the epitome of a professional cricketer, schooled in the Bradford League and the hard Yorkshire changing room of the 1950s, and, to me looking on from the stand, it showed”.

Elsewhere in An Ordinary Spectator, when I report on my recollections of watching Bobby Moore play an immaculate game for West Ham United against Leeds United in a League Cup tie at Elland Road in October 1971, I note the parallel characteristics of the contemporary leaders in England’s premier sports:

“…both captains of their country; both with a mastery of their respective sport’s essential skills; both in full control on the field of play…”

Ray Illingworth and Bobby Moore. Did we realise at the time how lucky we were?

Raymond Illingworth 1932-2021. RIP

Reversal of Fortune

5th December 2021

Having won all their first 11 fixtures, Lasswade RFC are the clear leaders of the Tennent’s National League Division 3 – the fourth tier of amateur rugby union in Scotland – and are firm favourites to take the league title. The battle for the second promotion place is being closely fought, however, with four clubs – West of Scotland, Berwick, Howe of Fife and Hillhead-Jordanhill – currently in the mix. Yesterday, I went to Burnbrae to watch West of Scotland play Howe of Fife: second versus fourth at the start of play.

I had wondered about the sustainability of West’s league position and not only because their nearest challengers all had games in hand. Some of their 7 wins had come in high-scoring matches, in which they had impressively come out on top (38-28, 31-24, 38-32), but their 4 defeats had been in matches against the other sides in the top 5, when they had conceded a total of 227 points. In the reverse fixture in September, Howe of Fife had beaten them 82-10.

In the re-match, West could not have made a better start. At the first ruck, a charged down kick led to a five-metre scrum from which the captain, Scott Cochrane, forced his way over the try-line. Howe responded with an impressive try of their own mid-way through the first half, courtesy of their skilful and speedy back division, but a second West try and a penalty goal gave the home side a 17-5 lead as the game entered its final quarter of an hour.

At that point, it looked as if the West pack had given them the upper hand. They had the advantage in the set scrums and, following the lead of Cochrane and his second-row partner Gareth Reid, were able consistently to make good ground with the well-rehearsed catch-and-drive at the line-out. These tactics were ideally suited to the conditions: the ground was heavy following a prolonged period of wet weather though, thankfully, the rain held off during the match itself.

However, the contest was then turned on its head. Howe registered two tries in five minutes – one of which was converted – to draw level at 17-17. Apart from the occasional dropped pass, the visitors’ backs remained a significant threat, none more so than the teenage full-back, Gregor Smith – a consistently dangerous runner in broken field – whose 70-yard break ultimately led to his side’s levelling score. The momentum of play running strongly in their favour, Howe must have sensed the win.

But it was not to be. The West forwards re-asserted their control and laid siege to the Howe try-line for most of the remainder of the game. The defence held out until the final play of the match – the electronic clock, showing that the 80 minutes were up, was shining brightly on the scoreboard – when a cynical offside in front of the Howe posts led to a yellow card for the perpetrator and a straightforward penalty kick for West to take the honours. A reversal of fortune, indeed, after events in September.

It turned out to have been a very good round of matches for West. The respective games involving Lasswade and Berwick were postponed and Hillhead-Jordanhill managed only a losing bonus point. West have consolidated their second place in the league table, therefore, though there is much of the season’s rugby still to be played.

West of Scotland versus Howe of Fife was the first rugby union match I had been to see since Otley played Caldy 21 months ago (“Let’s Keep It Up, Otley”, 6th February 2020). The weather was cold and damp, though there was a brief period when the late afternoon sun seemed to illuminate the trees down the main road to the left of the clubhouse. I had a full (and dry) view from the top of the main stand. The players were committed and disciplined, cheered on by their respective bands of supporters and guided by a sympathetic referee (Rob McHenry). It was an enjoyable afternoon of Scottish club rugby.

Twins’ Success at the Emirates Arena

29th November 2021

The Scottish Open Badminton Championship has a proud history. The tournament dates from 1907 and is the third-oldest in the world, the All-England Badminton Championship having been established in 1899. Yesterday, I attended this year’s Finals Day at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow.

The early years of the tournament were dominated by the Englishman, George Alan Thomas (the 7th Baronet Thomas), who won a total of 28 titles – including the Men’s Singles on 11 occasions – in the period to 1926. (He was also a British chess champion and a lawn tennis quarter-finalist at Wimbledon). The men’s title did not leave England or Ireland until 1951, when Eddy B Choong of Malaysia was the first overseas winner.

The only Scottish winner of the Men’s Singles has been Robert McCoig, who took the title 4 times in the 10 years to 1968. However, local success has been seen more recently in other events. The reigning Men’s Doubles champions – from 2019, as last year’s tournament was cancelled due to Covid-19 – were Alexander Dunn and Adam Hall, whilst Kirsty Gilmour won the Women’s Singles in 2017 and 2018.

Although it is part of the European Tour, the Scottish Open does not have the scale of prize-money – and therefore drawing power – available to higher ranking tournaments around the world. However, this does not diminish the competitiveness – and unpredictability – of the tournament. In the Men’s Singles event, in which two of the seeds dropped out before the tournament began, the other six had World Tour Rankings (WTR) between 28 and 63, but only two of these reached their allotted places in the quarter-finals and neither of these progressed any further. Across the 5 events as a whole, the 20 semi-final places were taken by 9 seeded and 11 unseeded competitors with 11 countries being represented.

The tournament took place over four days, the first two of which had crowded – and efficiently organised – itineraries. 176 matches were played on five adjacent courts on Thursday and Friday – from 9.00am until late in the evening – in order to reduce the 216 singles or doubles entrants in the 5 competitions down to the 40 who would contest Saturday’s quarter-finals. (The Badminton World Federation website – – was an excellent source of information on the tournament’s progress and there was also full coverage on YouTube).

In the Women’s Singles, the number 1 seed was Kirsty Gilmour – 19th in the WTR – but she dropped out of the event after only two points in her first-round tie. The beneficiary of her misfortune was Wen Chi Hsu of Chinese Taipei, who then did not drop a game on her way to taking the title, her win yesterday being over Line Højmark Kjærsfeld of Denmark, who was the number 2 seed (and 18th in the WTR).

The Men’s Singles final was between two Malaysians – Ng Tze Yong and Soong Joo Ven – neither of whom had conceded a game in their four earlier matches. It was the former who, 70 years on, followed in the footsteps of his compatriot Eddy B Choong. I was struck by the powerful leaping smashes of both men, though the match lost some of its rhythm in the second game as a result of the frequent stoppages to sweep parts of the court following a stumble by one or other of the players. For some reason, this seemed to occur far more frequently in this match than any of the others.

There was domestic interest in two of the Doubles finals: the English pair Callum Hemming and Jessica Pugh were in the Mixed Doubles and the Glaswegian twins Christopher and Matthew Grimley in the Men’s Doubles. Both pairings were successful. For the Scots, the decisive moment came when they saved a game point in their first game against the Malaysians Junaidi Arif and Haikal Muhammed; the next two points gave them the game 22-20 and a lead that they did not relinquish. (Unfortunately, The Herald – a national newspaper based in Glasgow – could not find room in today’s 16-page sports section to report on the locals’ success nor those of any of the other title winners).

Needless to say, the home victory was enthusiastically received by the spectators in the Arena (apart, perhaps, from the small group to our right displaying the Malaysian flag for the distant camera). Even in this match, however, the crowd was quietly respectful of the play on both sides of the net with the lengthy rallies prompting deserved rounds of polite applause interspersed with the occasional lone “Come on boys” directed at the home favourites.

None of the first 4 finals went to a third (and deciding) game and my reading of the form book – albeit as a badminton spectating novice – suggested that Women’s Doubles final might also only require two games. Not only were the Canadian pair of Rachel Honderich and Kristen Tsai the number 1 seeds, but they had been relatively untroubled in their four wins earlier in the event, registering their 168 points against only 89 conceded. This indeed turned out to be the case. Their opponents Anna Ching Yik Cheong and Teoh Mei Xing (also of Malaysia) put up a brave fight, but the Canadians were very impressive, both players showing both power – particularly the tall Honderich from the back of the court – and subtlety.

On the Saturday, the average duration of the quarter-final and semi-final matches (excluding one in which a competitor retired injured) was 41 minutes, the range extending from 22 minutes to one hour 8 minutes. There is little time for rest and recuperation – mainly a short break once 11 points had been scored in a game and a two-minute interval at the end of a game. The players must therefore combine the speed and agility required for the flurries of rapid action with the tactical nous to manoeuvre their opponents around the court and the stamina of middle-distance runners. (In the case of another Dane, Amalie Schulz, this might be long-distance runner: she played – and won – four matches on the Friday).

The high tempo with which the matches were conducted was firmly encouraged by the umpires. On one occasion, a player was stopped from going to the courtside to wipe his face with a towel and there were other instances when either the server or receiver was told to get ready more quickly. It was noticeable, however, that, on the few occasions when the players were unhappy with line calls, there was absolutely no dissent or disrespect shown towards the officials. The decisive calling and signalling of the line judges no doubt played a part in this.

As with all such occasions, the apprentice spectator quickly becomes familiar with the rituals and routines: the umpire’s formal introduction of the players to the spectators; the short yells of some (though not all) of the doubles players – a call and response, it sometimes seemed to me – immediately before and/or after a point; the short lifespan (a few points usually) of the shuttlecocks prior to a player politely asking the umpire’s permission to take a new one from the courtside stock…

To these could be added the ceremony of this particular Finals Day: the players’ entrance into an arena temporarily cast in semi-darkness; the parade of the winners and runners-up (accompanied by Scotland the Brave) to collect their trophies and medals; and, poignantly in these Covid-related times, the finalists’ presentations of those medals to themselves or each other.

About midway through the afternoon, on my return from a coffee break, I asked the friendly steward registering the number of spectators on her hand-counter what her current total was. The answer was just over 300. The day’s events drew to a halt just before a quarter to five. As I left the Emirates Arena, I therefore joined the early leavers from the Celtic-Aberdeen soccer match that had kicked off at 3.00pm and was drawing to a close no more than 200 yards away at Celtic Park. I realised that the attendance at that game would have been over 50,000.

I knew that I had had an interesting and enjoyable afternoon; I hoped they had too.

Of course, we always need to be careful when interpreting headline numbers. The attendance inside the Emirates Arena might have been below the 500 or so that the organisers had perhaps been hoping for. But, as noted, the 2021 Scottish Open Badminton Finals Day is available in its entirety on YouTube. And by mid-day today – 24 hours after the start of the first match – it had registered 181,000 views.

Same Time Next Year (Perhaps)

19th November 2021

I had a ticket for the match scheduled for this evening – a good one too, Category B for £70.

Today should have seen the first semi-final of the 2021 Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) with, if the seedings had worked out correctly, Australia playing New Zealand at Elland Road in Leeds. However, following the withdrawal from the tournament of the two countries’ rugby league authorities on 22nd July, the RLWC Board announced on 5th August that the event would be postponed for a year until the autumn of 2022.

The chairman of the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC), Peter V’landys, stated that: “[W]e must put the best interests of our players and officials first. Protecting them is our absolute priority. In the current environment, the risks to the safety, health and wellbeing of the players and officials travelling from Australia to participate in the tournament this year are insurmountable”.

For some, the immediate reaction to the Australia/New Zealand announcement – apparently done by app to the RLWC organisers with a few minutes notice before a confirmation deadline – was one of apoplexy. The Chairman of the Rugby Football League, Simon Johnson, stated that it was “selfish, parochial and cowardly”. One has to suppose that relations between the sport’s principal international administrators will be more than a little strained for some time to come. However, with most of the dust now having settled, it is interesting to consider the overall circumstances of the postponement of RLWC 2021.

Mr Johnson – and others – were quick to point to the inconsistency with the approaches taken by other Australian sportsmen and women and their administrators. For example, it had been an Australian, Ashleigh Barty, who had won the Women’s Singles Title at Wimbledon in July and both Australia and New Zealand were about to compete in the Olympic Games in Tokyo (where Australia would eventually come 6th in the medal table with 46 medals, including 17 golds). The latter comparison is perhaps more easily defended, as the Olympic athletes were only in Japan for a relatively short time and obliged to leave within 48 hours of completing their event. More damning comparisons are with the Australian rugby union side, which has played Scotland and England at Murrayfield and Twickenham over the last two weekends and will meet Wales tomorrow, and the New Zealand All Blacks, who have included matches in Cardiff and Ireland on their autumn tour.

I was interested in the initial take on all this by Phil Gould – a respected and influential commentator on rugby league in Australia (and, formerly, a highly successful coach at club level and for New South Wales) – whose interview on Channel 9’s Wide World of Sports programme the day after the Australians’ withdrawal is accessible on YouTube. Gould referred to a daily infection rate of 30,000 new cases in the UK – it had actually averaged over 41,000 in the previous two weeks – and, in relation to the sport, the fact that a number of Super League matches had been cancelled in 2021 because of Covid-19 outbreaks within clubs.

Gould then noted that “[I]t will only back them [the players] up into next season. We had a short preparation for this season. We can’t do it again. Just postpone it”. He then expanded on this line of thought: “By the time they come back and quarantine and then they have 8 weeks break [part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the Australian authorities and players]… they don’t start training until February. Can you imagine what that’s going to look like next season… the quality of our competition?”

This is revealing, I think. It adds weight to the argument that, whilst there can be no doubt about the Australian authorities’ desire to safeguard the health of the players under their jurisdiction, the impact of their country’s Covid-19 restrictions on the pre-(2022) season preparations of the National Rugby League (NRL) clubs was also a key factor in the decision to withdraw. In its extreme form, this argument has been presented by some as Covid-19 being used as a smokescreen by the Australians to preserve the timetable of their domestic season. The Chief Executive of RLWC 2021, Jon Dutton, has referred to the “competing priorities from others” as a key reason for the postponement of the tournament.

In the period after the Australia/New Zealand announcement but before the RLWC 2021 was officially postponed, Dutton stated that the decision on whether or not the tournament would proceed this year was 50:50. At that point, it might have seemed that there were arguments for and against going ahead as scheduled; in reality, however, I suspect that the die had already been effectively cast.

One option might have been to plough on regardless. To say, in effect: ok, Australia and New Zealand are absent, so we will find two more teams instead (and make a virtue of the fact that it is a global competition). The next two teams in line might have been the United States and Serbia.

An alternative had been to field a team from the Australian and New Zealand players currently featuring in the Super League. At first, I was against the latter idea, thinking that the tournament should be for national teams only, but then I remembered that there is a good precedent. In the 2000 RLWC, my father and I had attended the match between Scotland and the Aotearoa Māori at the Firhill ground in Glasgow: a “good, hard-fought game” as I recorded in An Ordinary Spectator (which the Māori won by a single point).

In the event that RLWC 2021 had continued on schedule, England would have been the top seeds for the tournament. Had they then won it, the predictable response would have been “but Australia and New Zealand weren’t there”, to which an appropriate counter-reply might have been “whose decision was that?” However, there is little doubt that the absence of Australia and New Zealand would have hung over the tournament with consistent references to this being made in the media coverage. (Since Great Britain last won the World Cup in 1972, there have been 8 such tournaments. Australia have won 7 of them; the other – in 2008 – was won by New Zealand).

On the plus side, there would have been opportunities for the sport accruing from the fact that the absence of Australia and New Zealand would almost certainly have meant that two other countries would have reached the semi-finals that otherwise would not have done so. Let us suppose that one of those had been France, currently placed 8th in the world rankings. This would have given scope for a major promotional boost to rugby league in the country and something to supplement the recent successes of the Catalan Dragons in reaching the Super League Grand Final and the Toulouse Olympique XIII in winning promotion from the Championship.

Other factors might also have played into the thinking that the 2021 RLWC should have proceeded as planned. One was obviously the enormous amount of preparatory work that had been undertaken, not only for the Men’s event but also for the Women’s and Wheelchair tournaments. Moreover, unlike the Euro 2020 football tournament and the 2020 Olympic Games, the organisers were not certain that they could simply move things forward by 12 months without any great difficulty; some of the arrangements – the use of football grounds for the major matches, for example – were not guaranteed in a year’s time. (In the event, only 5 of the planned 61 fixtures across the three tournaments have been affected in the re-scheduling for next year).

Related to this is the pride of place that the 2021 RLWC organisers had obtained within the television schedules; the BBC had signed up for extensive coverage of all three tournaments in a period in which there was relatively little competition from other sporting events. In 2022, the autumn sports schedule will be more crowded with the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham (which are scheduled to end on 8th August) and the FIFA World Cup in Qatar (which kicks off on 21st November). This has still provided a window for coverage of the postponed RLWC – the 3 tournament finals of which are now scheduled for a year today (19th November 2022) – but it is not yet clear that there will be the same amount of attention from the national broadcaster.

Against this background – and given the precise circumstances of the withdrawal by Australia/New Zealand – it must have been tempting for the 2021 RLWC organisers to have sought to confirm their pre-eminence in matters relating to the tournament, rather than seeming to have had its fate at least partly determined by the pre-season training schedules of the clubs in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL).

It was here that the matter was resolved, however. Yes, the NRL clubs hold the cards as far as the participation of the Australian and New Zealand national sides are concerned (via the NRL’s obvious influence on the ARLC). But they are also the employers of the core of other national sides which, whilst they might still have entered the tournament, would have been substantially weakened if their NRL-based players had not been allowed to participate. It was the undermining of the full-strength sides from the Pacific Islands – Tonga, Fiji and Samoa – that, in addition to the complete absence of Australia and New Zealand, dealt the fatal blow to holding the RLWC this year. (There would also have been significant absences of players drawing on their heritage to represent Greece, Italy and the Lebanon). In the announcement of the postponement of the tournament, the RLWC organisers referred to the “non-release of up to 400 players, match officials and staff members from the NRL competition”.

It is the case, of course, that any discussion of the postponement of the RLWC must acknowledge the vastly different approaches to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK and Australia/New Zealand. The day before the official postponement of the tournament, the official number of deaths in the UK of those who had contracted Covid within the previous 28 days reached exactly 130,000; in Australia and New Zealand, the corresponding figures were 925 and 26, respectively. In contrast with the UK’s apparently ever-changing set of regulations governing social distancing and (especially) overseas travel, Australia and New Zealand have attempted to maintain what have effectively been national bubbles – especially once the Delta variant of the virus took hold elsewhere – with, within that constraint, several strict lockdowns in the major cities.

Although it was the case that the UK initially saw much faster rates of take-up of first and second vaccinations, Australia and New Zealand have now caught up. As of yesterday, according to the three national statistics offices, the proportions of the populations aged 12 and over in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, who had had the second jab, stood at 80.1 per cent, 82.9 per cent and 82.1 per cent, respectively. In the meantime, the infection rate in the UK remains high: it averaged over 36,000 new cases each day in the first half of this month. Who is to say that the Australian rugby league authorities did not make the correct decision?

It is clear from the world’s near-two year experience of dealing with Covid-19 that making accurate predictions about its future incidence and mortality rates is very difficult. The RLWC has been postponed until the autumn of 2022, but, at this stage, we cannot be confident about what impact the pandemic will still be having on the state of global health in 12 months’ time. More specifically, can anyone guarantee that the Australian and New Zealand rugby league authorities would still not be arguing that the risks to the health and safety of the players and officials travelling from Australia would be “insurmountable”.

One final thought – and another regret – with regard to the postponement of the RLWC 2021. In the union code, the much-hyped event of the summer was the British Lions three-match test series in South Africa (which commenced a couple of days after the Australia/New Zealand withdrawal). It is generally agreed, even by the keenest supporters of the 15-man code, that, as spectacles, the first two matches in this series were absolutely awful, both sides seeming to rely entirely on kicking the ball to gain ground and compete for possession in the opponents’ half of the field. The third match was little better. (The former Scotland coach, Matt Williams, spoke for many when he referred to “a horror series”). What a shame that the advocates of the league code have not had the opportunity to spotlight their sport this year by making the comparison with their brand of international competition and its much higher incidence of running with and passing the ball.

Let’s hope that opportunity re-presents itself in a year’s time.

Batsmen and Batters

4th October 2021

Oh dear.

I fear that, for some, this essay might appear to have been written by an anti-woke curmudgeon who has no tolerance of progressive thinking. That has not been the intention.

Should I be fortunate enough – courtesy of good health and fine weather – to watch Adam Lyth and Gary Ballance in action for Yorkshire CCC next season, it will be the case that their principal roles in the team will have changed. This is because the Marylebone Cricket Club – the custodians of the Laws of Cricket – announced towards the end of last month that, with immediate effect, their skills will be employed not as batsmen, but as “batters”.

It is the case, of course, that women’s cricket is making rapid strides. This has been aided by the increased media coverage being given to international matches and, this year, the introduction of a women’s competition in The Hundred that ran in parallel with that of the men. This is a healthy and hugely welcome development.

It is against this background that the MCC has decided that the term “batsman” represents an unacceptable gender-specific term that does not sit happily with the direction of travel of the game and of the wider society. Its official statement in announcing the change was that “MCC believes in cricket being a game for all and this move recognises the changing landscape of the game in modern times”. Hence “batter”, which has now been written in the laws applying to all forms of the game.

In her accompanying statement, Clare Connor – the new President of the MCC – drew on her experience as Director of Women’s Cricket at the England and Wales Cricket Board: “Where the game is now, an eight year-old girl doesn’t want to be a batsman, or a policeman, or a postman, or a fireman – why would she want to be anything that has the word man in?”

I think this is a mistaken approach – for three reasons.

First, although the word “batter” might sit happily with “bowler” and “fielder” (though, even then, “fieldsman” was commonly used until relatively recently), the word is unattractive, if not downright ugly. I know that it was formally employed in the promotion of The Hundred – and uniformly used in the consequent hype of the television coverage. However, I have to say that when its usage was then transferred to the BBC’s evening test match highlights programme – especially by Michael Vaughan – it jarred horribly. As reportage on the highest level of the game, it was the equivalent of the fingernails being scraped down the blackboard.

It is here that the MCC’s official statement is particularly revealing. It refers to the last redraft of the laws in 2017 when it was agreed, following consultation with key figures in women’s cricket, that the terminology would remain as “batsman” and “batsmen”. It then goes on to say that “[t]he changes announced today reflect the wider usage of the terms “better” and “batters” which has occurred in cricketing circles in the intervening period”. I am having difficulty interpreting this as anything other than The Hundred tail wagging the game as a whole’s dog.

This leads to the second reason. The synonyms for “batter” include “bludgeon”, “pummel”, “abuse” and “clobber”. Its all-embracing use in a cricketing sense is inappropriate. Ok, it might apply to Liam Livingstone hitting the ball over the Football Stand at Headingley, but there is surely far more to batting than that.

During my lifetime, the great batsmen have included Graeme Pollock, Tom Graveney and David Gower – to name but three. To my mind, they were not “batters”. They played with elegance, grace and panache. They were craftsmen. They were batsmen. Kumar Sangakkara, VVS Laxman, Zaheer Abbas…

And so back through the earlier generations. To give the retrospective label of “batter” to Victor Trumper, KS Ranjitsinhji or Wally Hammond – and countless others – seems to me to reveal a disturbing lack of respect for the game’s history. (And this from the MCC, let us not forget). Was Herbert Sutcliffe a batter? I don’t think so. Besides, what do I now do with his How to Become a First Class Batsman, purchased when I was in short trousers for three shillings from his sports store in Leeds?

My third reason is a practical one. There are several sports – for example, tennis, triathlon, darts, show jumping and eventing – in which men and women compete for the same prize in the same arena. It makes sense for gender-neutral terminology to be applied in these spheres. But cricket is not one of these sports. The men’s and women’s games are separate, as emphatically demonstrated by The Hundred’s double-headers.

Accordingly, I can see no reason why the nomenclature used in the laws of the game has to be exactly the same in both cases. Put simply, why not “batsman” and “batswoman” – to be used, as appropriate? The latter might initially seem a little clunky, no doubt, but that is surely a function of its unfamiliarity. (I note, incidentally, that, in American court and field sports, “linesman” and “lineswoman” are each widely recognised terms for the relevant officials).

I recognise that I am swimming against the tide with all this. In cricket, the “third man” fielding position and the tailender batting as a “nightwatchman” will surely be the next to go. Indeed, in the case of the former, I’m already surprised that it has survived the combination of Harry Lime selling adulterated penicillin in post-war Vienna and Kim Philby being denounced as the next in line of Soviet spies following the defection of Burgess and Maclean.

I also fully acknowledge that the interests of the “eight year-old girl” identified by Ms Connor should be taken into account. I would like as many eight year-old girls – and boys – as possible to take an active interest in the game. But this doesn’t prevent me from putting forward a point of view from the perspective of a different member of the cricket family: the 60-something, who has followed the game for half a century and who played it for 20 years, but whose interest is now waning and/or moving elsewhere.

Of course, it’s only a word. “Batter” for “batsman”. So what? Nobody will die as a result of the change.

But, for me, it all represents another tear in the fabric. It’s another (small) step in the current journey of English cricket that appears to be characterised by the search for transient populism, the abandonment of subtlety and tradition, and the easy recourse to dumbing down. And, after all this time, I’m afraid that it’s also a further strain on my attachment to the game.

Still, here’s hoping for 2022. I look forward to watching Adam Lyth and Gary Ballance at Headingley or Scarborough and being reminded that they are – that they remain – two really good batsmen.

Queen’s Drive

12th September 2021

This year, I have been a regular viewer of the evening television highlights of cycling’s three Grand Tours – Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España – via the Eurosport, ITV4 and/or Quest channels. The quality of the respective presentations has varied – notably the editing and post-race analysis – but each event has been good to watch over its gruelling three-week duration. I am probably no nearer than I was at the beginning of the summer to donning the Lycra and sitting on a bike myself, but I do now know a little more than I did about the tactics of a breakaway or the timing of a sprint finish.

(An aside. When the various 2021 Sportsman of the Year accolades are being awarded, I suggest that those who decide these things look beyond the Olympic Games and Euro 2020 to consider the case for the Dutch cyclist, Fabio Jakobsen. Just over a year ago, he was near to death in a Polish hospital following a horrendous crash at the Tour de Pologne. The catalogue of the injuries he sustained makes for very grim reading. At this year’s Vuelta, he won the Green Jersey for the race’s overall points competition. A heroic and uplifting story).

ITV4 has been the broadcaster of the AJ Bell Tour of Britain, an eight-day race that ended today. (Another aside. My search on Google revealed that AJ Bell is a “public limited company that provides online investment platforms and stockbroker services”). It has to be acknowledged that the Tour does what it says on the tin – the start was in Penzance and the finale was in Aberdeen – albeit with some sizeable jumps between stages. Yesterday, the penultimate stage was of 195 kilometres from Hawick to Edinburgh and I duly took up a place to watch the final stretch down Queen’s Drive at the foot of Arthur’s Seat.

As with my journey to the football match in Cumbernauld earlier in the week (“A Commitment Made Good (Partly)”, 9th September 2021), I drew on the resources of public transport to make the journey from Milngavie. This can be risky at weekends. I had known that there would be a replacement bus service at the start of the trip (though I hadn’t anticipated that the driver would lose his way on the short journey between Bearsden and Westerton stations and start making his way back to Milngavie), but it was a surprise when I reached Queen’s Street station in Glasgow and learned that the flagship train service to Edinburgh would also involve a replacement bus from Linlithgow.

As the bus crawled down the A8 through Corstorphine on the outskirts of the capital, I was anxiously looking at my watch and fearing that I would arrive at Queen’s Drive to see the peloton disappearing into the distance. However, to my relief, it turned out that I had about 25 minutes to spare before the first riders came through.

My vantage point was just inside the last kilometre at the start of the final slight incline that led straight up towards the finishing line. This had been my intended spot: it enabled me to see the riders as they came around the long curve of Queen’s Drive and then head into the distance. As if to recognise my neat bit of scheduling, the dark threatening clouds overhead started to be replaced by the bright sunshine that would last for the remainder of the afternoon.

I waited next to a couple in late middle age who were both cycling and walking enthusiasts. The man told me with some pride that the cottage they had hired as the base for a walking holiday in the Pyrenees had been on the route of this year’s Vuelta. In common with some others around me, he had been following the progress of the day’s stage on his mobile phone and he told me that the numbers in the breakaway had been whittled down to five, though none was in contention in the General Classification to win the overall Tour.

The leaders passed in an initial group of three – Matt Gibson, Yves Lampaert and Matteo Jorgenson – followed, after a few seconds, by Davide Ballerini and Pascal Eenkhoorn. The peloton swept by about a minute and a half later. (The Belgian, Lampaert, was the eventual winner). Whilst acknowledging that I was not witnessing a severe mountain climb or a frenetic sprint finish, I did think that there was something smooth and elegant about them all.

All the riders were greeted by warm and polite applause from the spectators behind the barriers on both sides of the road, the clapping seeming to complement the soft purr of tyre on road. This support was replicated for the stragglers who came in a little later – perhaps delayed by a crash or a “technical” (which, I understand, usually means a puncture) – including the young rider from the Great Britain team who, at the foot of the incline, inadvertently followed one of the support cars down the wrong road before being redirected on to the correct route.

Not surprisingly, many of the spectators – including whole families – were dressed for the part in their cycling gear, most of whom, in turn, had brought their own bicycles. It is not difficult to sense that this sport is healthy (in both senses) in Britain and one, moreover, that encourages participation as well as spectating.

Many of the spectators remained for some time after the race, hoping to catch a glimpse of the riders as they returned to the team buses, which were parked not far from where I had watched the race. The area was cordoned off to respect the current Covid-19 regulations, but this did not prevent Mark Cavendish – Britain’s greatest sprint cyclist – from patiently working his way along the line for a series of selfies with his fans before he boarded the Deceuninck-Quick-Step bus. He did this for several minutes: an impressive effort, I thought, from someone who must have been close to exhaustion after another demanding 4½ hours in the saddle.

As with all cycling competitions on the road – and particularly the various Tours – there was a large entourage of accompanying vehicles: organisers’ car, team directors’ cars, cars racked with spare bicycles, police motorbikes, ambulance, and so on. In addition, the staffing requirements on the route are significant, of course, with each potentially dangerous item of street furniture requiring someone to man it and wave a warning flag. After the race, I passed the group of police outriders – is there are collective noun? – as they gathered together by their vehicles near the entrance to the Queen’s Gallery of Holyrood Palace. From the north country English accents that I overheard, they were clearly drawn from across the country.

I waited for a few more minutes before crossing Queen’s Drive to look back at the views. The team buses – their sponsors’ names and riders’ photographs prominently displayed on the outside and appropriately led by Jumbo-Visma – started to leave for Stonehaven in preparation for today’s final stage of the Tour. I decided to re-cross the road and head for the Starbucks on the Royal Mile for (as it turned out) a flat white coffee and a slice of chocolate caramel shortbread. One of the officials in high-viz jackets was manning the crossing point. “You can cross now”, he said, his back to the traffic. I waited. “You can cross now”, he repeated, as if both surprised and impatient at my non-movement. “There’s a bus coming, mate”, I replied, as the vehicle containing the combined ranks of Deceuninck-Quick-Step – including Cavendish, no doubt – sped towards us.

Today’s stage from Stonehaven to Aberdeen was won in a sprint finish by another Belgian, Wout van Aert of Jumbo-Visma. This gave him the overall victory in the 2021 Tour of Britain by six seconds from Britain’s Ethan Hayter.

A Commitment Made Good (Partly)

9th September 2021

I reported last year (“Unfinished Business at Petershill Park”, 22nd August 2020) that the 2019-20 UEFA Women’s Champions League quarter-final between Glasgow City and VfL Wolfsburg, which had originally been scheduled as a conventional two-legged affair the previous March, had been an early casualty of the coronavirus in the sports spectating itinerary that I had planned for 2020. (The match was eventually played 5 months later as a one-off fixture in San Sebastian, which the German side won 9-1). As its title suggested, I ended that particular blog with the acknowledgement that I had some unfinished business with the Glasgow City club and the hope that, at some future date, I could take in a match at its home ground at Petershill Park in Springburn.

I have now – partly at least – made good on that commitment. This season, Glasgow City have been playing their European fixtures at the Broadwood Stadium in Cumbernauld and yesterday afternoon I attended the club’s 2nd round 2nd leg tie against the Swiss side, Servette FCCF (Servette FC Chênois Féminin).

From my starting point in Milngavie, it knew from a previous visit – for the Clyde versus Stirling Albion fixture in the Scottish Professional Football League 2 in May 2016 (recorded in Still An Ordinary Spectator) – that it would be a train journey and then a bus ride to get to the stadium. The latter was provided at no cost to me, thanks to the largesse of the Scottish Government (and the UK taxpayer). Moreover, in order to attract a sizeable home support, the Glasgow City club had decided on a free entry policy for the tie. I was reasonably confident, therefore, that the afternoon’s spectating would provide good value for money.

It was a very hot day and I was glad to take my place in the shade at the back of the main stand. The view beyond the stand on the opposite side of the ground gave me a sliver of Broadwood Loch to the left and, in the sun-drenched middle distance to the right, a lengthy stretch of the Kilsyth Hills.

To reach this stage, Glasgow City had had to play two first round matches – against Birkirkara FC of Malta and BIIL Shymkent of Kazakhstan – though the travel requirements had been relatively light: both matches were played at Broadwood last month.

There was all to play for in the Servette tie. The first leg had finished 1-1 and the reward for the winner would be a place in the group stage of the tournament’s last 16. As Glasgow City are number 16 in the UEFA rankings, they would have been the favourites, given that Servette are at 71, though the latter rank is perhaps distorted by the Geneva-based side’s relatively recent appearance on the European stage.

In the event, it was clear from an early stage that these were two evenly matched sides. In the first quarter of an hour, both teams kept their defensive shape and there was a competitive edge in midfield. It was something of a surprise, therefore, when a long clearance down the middle by the City goalkeeper, Lee Alexander, was flicked on by Niamh Farrelly and Priscila Chinchilla was able to take advantage of a clear run on the Servette goal and coolly register the first goal. “Route 1” it might have been, but with some skill attached.

The match was decided in the ten minutes on either side of half-time. Just before the break, Alexander – who otherwise had a fine game – lost concentration for a moment and picked up what the Dutch referee judged (correctly, in my view) was a back-pass from one of her defenders. The result was an indirect free-kick to Servette on the line of Glasgow City’s six-yard box.

The whole of the City team took their places on the goal-line as the Servette players, Sandy Maendly and Jade Boho Sayo (who is generally known as Jade), stood over the ball. After one false start, in which a couple of City defenders prematurely charged from their line, Maendly tapped the ball forward and Jade drove it emphatically into the roof of the net. My immediate reaction was that this had been a well-rehearsed routine: the two Servette players had not rushed the opportunity, but had kept their cool and taken full advantage of the lifeline presented to their side.

The second – and decisive – Servette goal came three minutes after half time. After chasing what looked to have been a fairly innocuous-looking clearance down the right wing, the centre-forward Marta Peiró Giménez won the ball and released Amandine Soulard into space from which she delivered a cross to the far post, where it was attacked by Daina Bourma. Alexander made an excellent save but, unfortunately for City, the ball rebounded from the crossbar to the supporting Maendly, who headed it home.

These Servette players all gave impressive performances: Giménez played a tireless striker’s role, on several occasions skilfully holding the ball up for her supporting colleagues; the right-back Soulard was a feisty competitor who, in front of her goal in the second half, produced a couple of timely defensive headers from threatening City crosses; in the midfield, Maendly delivered a series of well-weighted passes and, with one exception, a number of dangerous in-swinging corners from Servette’s right-hand side, which the City defence consistently found difficult to deal with. Maendly would probably have been my choice as player-of-the-match, though it would have been a close-run contest with Chinchilla who, in addition to her well-taken goal, was a continual threat to the Servette defence with her close control and sharp acceleration.

The draining conditions did not prevent both sides from demonstrating the speed of their counter-attack. In the first half, after the visitors had made a hash of a short corner, Chinchilla won the ball and released the pacy Ode Fulutudilu for a long run on the Servette goal. It was defence-to-attack in a matter of seconds. It took a smart save from the goalkeeper, Ines Pereira, to prevent the scoreline reaching 2-0: a decisive moment, one feels, in retrospect. Near to the end, the roles were reversed and a run and pass by Jade led to Elodie Nakkach squandering a chance in front of a near-open goal. I had expected that the demanding conditions would mean that the overall pace of the game would slow dramatically in the second half, but this was not the case: a tribute to the players’ fitness and the timing of their coaches’ substitutions.

As with the men’s counterpart, the players in the UEFA Women’s Champions League are drawn from around the world. By my calculations, 15 different nationalities were represented in yesterday’s two match-day squads. From the Glasgow City team, Chinchilla and Fulutudilu are Costa Rican and South African internationals, for example, whilst their opponents Pereira and Jade have represented Portugal and Equatorial Guinea, respectively. There was still room for domestically produced talent, however, with 4 Scots and 3 Swiss in the starting XIs.

One obvious area in which the men’s and women’s tournaments differ, of course, is in the financial rewards. The Herald reported yesterday that the winner of the Glasgow City-Servette tie could look forward to £345,000 in prizemoney for reaching the group stage. This might represent less than a week’s wages for Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United, but it would have been a sizeable windfall for the budget of Glasgow City FC.

It was a very good afternoon’s entertainment. The crowd – a few hundred perhaps – supported their team to the end, recognising the efforts and skills on show. We were a mixed group – male and female, of all ages – with a sufficient number of young girls for one to be confident that the groundwork is being laid for the next generation of women players. I also have to say – at the risk of appearing unduly prim and proper – that it was nice to attend a professional football match that was not accompanied, in the stand, by the usual tribalism, foul language and lack of respect for the opposition.

The focus of Glasgow City will now be on the domestic agenda and the attempt to qualify for next season’s European competition. For these matches in the Scottish Women’s Premier League, it will be back to Petershill Park.

A Fair Outcome

19th August 2021

On 19th August 1961, I attended my first live sports event. I sat on my father’s shoulders at the back of the stand at the Parkside stadium in the industrial heart of south Leeds for the Northern Rugby League encounter between Hunslet and Whitehaven. The Preface to An Ordinary Spectator describes my recollection of the 6 year-old’s experience: “The rain pours down. But I do not care. I am hooked… on the experience of the sporting event, viewed live and in the flesh”.

It was 60 years ago today.

The Hunslet RLFC has played its home fixtures at the South Leeds Stadium in Middleton since 1995 and it was a visit there last month – for the Hunslet versus Keighley Cougars fixture – that I thought would be appropriate to mark the anniversary. More on that below.

60 years is a long time in any sport. In 1961, the Northern Rugby League comprised a single division of 30 teams, of which 16 were in Yorkshire, 12 in Lancashire and 2 in Cumberland. (This was before the major local government re-organisation of the 1970s, of course). Three of those clubs have folded (Bramley, Blackpool Borough and Liverpool City) and whilst others have come and gone in the meantime – Carlisle, Kent Invicta, Mansfield Marksmen et al – there are currently 36 teams in the three divisions of full-time and/or semi-professional British rugby league.

The geographical spread across the divisions is now more extensive with two clubs in each of France, Wales and London and other sides in Sheffield, Newcastle and Coventry. However, there has been a marked widening of the gap between rich and poor: at the extreme, between the wealth and resources that now underpin some of the Super League clubs such as Leeds and St Helens and the fragile existence of those at the lower end of League 1 (the third tier) that are reliant of attendances of a couple of hundred spectators and the determined efforts of local volunteers.

I couldn’t resist looking at the rank order of the 30 clubs in the 1961-62 season (as determined by the end-of-season league table, given that August marked the beginning of the campaign) and the 36 clubs of the present day (as given by the league tables following last weekend’s matches). Interestingly, of the current 12 Super League teams, only 7 finished in the top dozen of 60 years ago. Those that have now risen into the elite group are the Warrington Wolves, Hull FC, Salford Red Devils, Leigh Centurions and – of course – the Catalan Dragons, whilst the clubs that have fallen out of the old Top 12 are Featherstone Rovers, Widnes, Oldham, Swinton and Workington Town, the last of these by no fewer than 22 places.

For the statistically minded, it is possible to undertake a more formal analysis of the rank orders of the clubs in the two years (1961-62 and 2021) in order to examine whether there is a relationship between them. To do this, one can look at the two sets of ranks of the 27 clubs (or their successors in cases such as Hunslet and Bradford Northern/Bradford Bulls) that have survived since 1961 in order to calculate Spearman’s Rank Correlation Co-efficient. (Charles Spearman, 1863-1945, was an English statistician and psychologist).

The range of possibilities for the Co-efficient lies between +1 (a perfect positive correlation) and -1 (a perfect negative correlation) and, by examining how far the figure is from zero for a given sample size – our sample is 27 – we are testing the “null hypothesis” that there is no correlation in the two rank orders.

In our case, the figure is +0.48. In other words, notwithstanding the shifts in fortune noted above, the clubs in the higher/middle/lower parts of the spectrum in 1961 tend also to be found in broadly the same positions today. Examples include Wigan (1st in 1961, currently 3rd), Halifax (14th and 13th) and Doncaster (26th and 24th). The positive figure is perhaps not surprising – I think I might have expected it to have been somewhat higher – and it allows the statistician to reject the null hypothesis in favour of the conclusion that there is a “moderate positive” correlation.

And so – our heads suitably cleared – to the immediate matter at hand: Hunslet vs Keighley in League 1. At the start of play, only one point separated the fourth-placed visitors from their seventh-placed hosts in the 10-team league table, although both teams were some distance from the competition’s then pacesetters, Barrow. For Hunslet, it was a match of some significance as, in the previous month, they had not only lost their previous three games – which included an embarrassing collapse against the lowly-ranked Coventry Bears – but had parted company with their coach and then seen the resignation of the club chairman (although the latter decision has subsequently been reversed).

I watched the game in the company of Peter Todd, the former General Manager of the Hunslet club. He has a deep knowledge of rugby league, not only of the backgrounds of many of the players in action directly in front of us, but of the sport’s history and its former participants. At various times, our conversation referenced an eclectic list of ex-professionals – Ken Rollin of Wakefield Trinity and Leeds, Colin Tyrer of Leigh and Wigan, Chris Joynt of St Helens – as well as covering current issues affecting the game, notably the decisions of the rugby league authorities in Australia and New Zealand not to participate in the (subsequently postponed) 2021 Rugby League World Cup. It was a very pleasant afternoon.

On the pitch, the teams were evenly matched. Keighley scored an early try and then, after half an hour, a second one to give them a 10-0 lead. However, Hunslet recovered well in the period before half-time and two short-range charges from the powerful prop forward, Jordan Andrade, produced a 12-10 interval lead. This had been extended to 20-10 until five minutes before the end, at which point the game looked secure for the home side. Not so. Two late Keighley tries, one of which was converted, produced a final score of 20-20.

Had this been a Super League fixture, there would have been “Golden Point” extra time, in which the teams played on until a winning score was achieved. However, in League 1, this does not occur: a drawn match is considered a legitimate result. And quite right too. Hunslet and Keighley had produced a whole-hearted and entertaining encounter that had swung back and forth. After 80 minutes play on a hot afternoon, there was nothing to separate them and both sides were out on their feet. The division of the spoils was a fair outcome.

Cricket-Watching Resumed: Part 2

28th July 2021

It is difficult to exaggerate the general opprobrium with which “traditional” cricket supporters greeted the announcement in the Spring of 2018 by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) of the format which its new “The Hundred” competition would have. (I acknowledge at the outset that, as things stand, I am also in this camp). The tournament – which had been scheduled to begin last year, but which commenced at The Oval last week – is being contested by 8 city-based sides playing matches of 100 deliveries per innings over a month in the middle of the summer.

The main difficulty I have with The Hundred concept is that it has been parachuted in from above. There is neither a sense of tradition nor of history – the emphasis is entirely on the “new”. By design, there has been an abandonment of the county-based structure of the sport, in which a significant number of players come through local clubs and academies and where followers of the game can enjoy a sense of reflected pride when some of those players go on to the highest level. As a consequence, I was bound to wonder if there risked being only a fragile identification by The Hundred’s spectators with their “local” side.

On the last of these points, the ECB – through its combination of an auction system and the central allocation of players – appears to have attempted to have things both ways. Hence, whilst the Northern Superchargers have 7 Yorkshire players and 4 from Durham in their 16-man squad, the two Yorkshiremen with currently the highest profile (Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow) have been allocated elsewhere (to the Trent Rockets and the Welsh Fire, respectively). Likewise, Ollie Pope (Surrey and England) finds himself in the Welsh Fire squad, the Lancashire captain Liam Livingstone is lining up with the Birmingham Phoenix, Steven Finn (a Middlesex player since 2005) is one of Manchester Originals and the Welsh Fire have a total of one Welshman in the whole of the men’s playing squad. And so on. It all feels a bit arbitrary.

At a more general level, the traditionalist’s ire is raised by The Hundred’s domination of the central part of the summer, which further relegates the 4-day County Championship to the season’s margins, diminishes the identity that has been established by the (successful) T20 competition and effectively reduces the Royal London One-Day Cup (played over 50 overs per side) to an under-nourished exercise for county Second XIs – or, at least county 1½ XIs. It’s also reasonable to suggest, I think, that, given The Hundred’s stated aim of reaching a new – and younger – cricketing audience, its overall image might not have been enhanced by one of its major sponsors being a firm of crisp manufacturers.

The cricket correspondents of (some of) the national media captured this overall perspective. In The Guardian (8th September 2019), Simon Burnton reported that “[the ECB] is convinced that cricket’s fortunes will be transformed when the players are finally free to wear truly garish colours and the logo of a popular prawn cocktail-flavoured snack…”. He was particular damning about what he had seen on the tournament’s official website: “In particular, the final team names and the descriptions of their characteristics were so extraordinarily inane… Manchester Originals are “celebrating a global city of firsts” and “laughing in the face of limits”. Birmingham Phoenix are “a celebration of the strength in diversity, because different is good”… .[The] ECB, which had been repeatedly criticised for using ludicrous marketing-drivel during private meetings, had used even more ludicrous marketing-drivel in public”.

The critical theme was picked up in the same newspaper the following month by Matthew Engel: “The ECB’s strategy of forcing their new hyped-up contest…on an unwilling game is completely incoherent, staggeringly expensive and potentially disastrous… [The Hundred is] made-up teams playing a made-up game to sell junk food to children. Me, I hope it rains solidly for the next four Augusts”.

This general stance continued through to the eve of this month’s launch. George Dobell on ESPNcricinfo (15th July 2021) stated that “The [Hundred teams] have no pathways, no academies and no existing support base. They are parasites feeding on the players and supporters the county game has produced”.

I reproduce these quotes here not for dramatic effect, but because their sources are amongst the most respected commentators on our national summer sport. Engel is a former editor of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. He and Dobell (and others) are writing about a game that they know about, care about – and fear for.

The effects of the global Covid-19 pandemic continue to be felt on the tournament, as the various travel and quarantine restrictions around the world have prevented the participation in this year’s competition of many of the overseas stars who had initially signed up. This has noticeably applied to the Australian contingent: Steve Smith, David Warner, Mitchell Starc, Ellyse Perry et al. Their presence had been a significant feature of the organisers’ initial hype, not least in the televised auction programme on Sky Sports which in style (according to Engel) “was aimed at the nine-year-olds who are the alleged target audience”.

So much for the background context – as can be seen, generally critical from my perspective – in which I attended my first matches in The Hundred last Saturday: the women’s and men’s encounters between the Northern Superchargers and the Welsh Fire at Headingley. Of course, I recognise that the ECB would probably have been fairly indifferent to any pre-match suspicions (or, indeed, cynicism) that I might have had. As noted, I am a self-confessed cricket “traditionalist” and, accordingly, I am not in their “target demographic” (with apologies if that is not the correct marketing phrase). Nonetheless, I trust that I approached the event with an open mind in attempting to assess the validity of the whole concept.

The women’s match was the first up and, accordingly, presented an interesting test. If the new target audience is genuinely being sought, this game clearly warranted some attention.

I reached the conclusion quite early on in this first game that The Hundred is T20 on speed. Not only are the innings obviously shorter – a maximum of 100 deliveries rather than 120 – but time is saved by changing ends every 10 deliveries (rather than every 6) and then only allowing 50 seconds for that changeover to be made. At the mid-point in the 10 ball batch, which is signalled by the umpire waving a white card, the fielding side can choose to change the bowler. The fielders do have the option of a two-minute “strategic time out” during the innings, but otherwise the general feeling is one of getting on with it, undoubtedly driven by the timetabling requirements of the television broadcasters.

The sense of urgency is complemented by the incessant noise. At the risk of stating the obvious, a match in The Hundred is not the place to go for a peaceful session of cricket-watching. Rather, at Headingley, the breaks between each batch of 10 deliveries – an “over” is not in the vocabulary, apparently – was marked by a update (in the respective first innings, at least) of the runs scored and balls bowled, the on-site DJ blasting out one of her clubland favourites (not all of which were known to me, I must confess) or one of the two roving MCs conducting (yet another) short interview with one of the 9 year-olds in the crowd. I felt that the MCs had a touch of the Butlins’ Red Coats about them, as they led the communal countdown of the last 10 seconds before the first ball was bowled and, later, sought to find out if the spectators in the East Stand could shout louder than those on the Western Terrace (which was hardly a competition between equals, I thought).

In the respective second innings of the two matches, the main scoreboard went into reverse: runs required and deliveries remaining. It was here that the “make the game as simple as possible” mantra was fully revealed. Although the smaller scoreboard at the end of the Western Terrace gave slightly more detail, I could only see part of it because of my viewing position near the front of the Emerald Stand. The main scoreboard focused on runs and deliveries – not even total wickets, let alone the runs scored or conceded by individual players. The announcer did give the name of each new bowler but, when a player was dismissed, the attention was entirely on the incoming “batter” (sic) rather than any summary of the mode of dismissal or the runs he/she had scored.

I think this represented a significant gap in the presentation. Cricket is a game of several disciplines – batting, bowling, fielding, wicket-keeping – and it would have aided everyone’s understanding of what was happening (including mine) if we had been told how many runs an individual had made or what the bowler’s analysis was at the end of his/her maximum 20-delivery allocation or who had held the steepling catch on the boundary edge. If The Hundred’s organisers were to take my advice, I would suggest that they look very hard at the excellence of the in-stadium commentaries undertaken in the National Football League or college American Football matches in the US: in my experience, these are fully informative, without being intrusive, and significantly assist the spectator.

While I am on the subject, I also think it was a mistake not to have had any form of match programme. I know that I am swimming against the tide here – many football clubs no longer produce such items – but, again thinking of the target audience, I do recall the pleasure which I derived from sport-related programmes and magazines when I was aged 9 or 10. If well-produced, they represent a well to which one can regularly return; if nothing else, they are a souvenir of the event. On this occasion, they might also have informed me who the umpires were in the two matches; I do not recall that their names were announced at any time.

The Welsh Fire batted first in both the women’s and men’s matches. In the former, I was particularly interested in seeing the visitors’ wicket-keeper, Sarah Taylor. She is undoubtedly one of the most distinguished women cricketers that England has ever produced, her international career stretching from 2006 to 2019 and including 10 test matches as well as over 200 one-day or T20 internationals. She announced her arrival at the crease by reverse sweeping her second ball to the boundary and thereafter looking completely untroubled until she was stumped for 18, skilfully beaten in the flight by the left-arm spinner, Linsey Smith.

The Northern Superchargers looked to be making a bit of a hash of attempting to reach the victory target of 131, when they were reduced to 19 for 4 after 18 deliveries. However, their cause was rescued by a delightful innings of 92 not out by Jemimah Rodrigues, a 20 year-old who is already an experienced Indian international. She played a series of classic shots – drives through extra cover, deft cuts behind square on the off side, wristy whips to the vacant leg side boundary – and was a pleasure to watch. The Superchargers won with 15 balls to spare: a comfortable victory.

The Welsh Fire’s men’s side posted a higher total – 173 for 4 – than their female counterparts, having been given a predictably flying start by Jonny Bairstow (56 from 36 deliveries) with useful contributions from Ben Duckett and James Neesham. (The accompanying photograph, skilfully downloaded by my daughter from the television coverage during Bairstow’s innings, confirms my role as a media superstar – or, at least, “attentive spectator in blue jacket”).

The visitors’ score proved to be just sufficient. Although the Northern Superchargers had fallen well behind the required rate at the half-way stage, they were brought back into contention by the Yorkshireman, Harry Brook, who struck 62 from 31 deliveries. 11 runs were required from the final 5 balls, but the bowler Jake Ball held his nerve impressively and, at 168 for 7, the hosts fell 5 runs short. As in the women’s match, it was a 20 year-old – the Afghan leg-spinner Qais Ahmad, who took 4 wickets for the Welsh Fire – who was the “match hero” (or man-of-the-match in old-speak).

I will end by returning to an issue that I raised at the outset: the extent to which The Hundred’s spectators would identify with their “local” side. I was given a clue about this when I was waiting outside the ground before the start of play. I chatted to a middle-aged woman from Durham who had come to the match with her teenage son. He was fully kitted out in a Northern Superchargers sweatshirt and he enthusiastically relayed to me the members of the squad who hailed from his neck of the woods. She explained that they were looking forward to supporting the side in their matches this week at Trent Bridge and Old Trafford. When I (rather presumptuously) asked if they were regular cricket-watchers, the woman replied that they were both season ticket holders at Durham CCC.

Inside the ground, the size of the crowd built up during the afternoon and early evening to reach something just over 10,000. For the vast majority, there was absolutely no doubt whom they were supporting, given the loud cheers that greeted the announcements of Ben Stokes and Adil Rashid in the hosts’ line-up. As the men’s match reached its climax – and the succession of Brook’s 4s and 6s seemed to be leading the Northern Superchargers towards an improbable victory – the volume of home support was ratcheted up even further. The DJ’s interventions in the breaks in play added to the vibrant party atmosphere. People were here to have a good time. And they did.

The questions remain, of course. How many spectators were attending their first cricket match, rather than temporarily amending their allegiance like the mother and son from Durham? How many will return next time? Or the time after that, when the likes of Ben Stokes have returned to the England test team? Or the time after that, when there might be a much colder evening than we had on Saturday? And, not least – over the medium to long term – what will be the effects of The Hundred on the playing standards of (and attendance levels watching) the England test match and 50 over sides? The jury is out.