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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.

Cricket-Watching Resumed: Part 1

27th July 2021

To Yorkshire for a double-header of cricket-watching: my first for over two years. Last Thursday, Yorkshire versus Surrey in the Royal London One-Day Cup at Scarborough; two days later at Headingley, the Northern Superchargers versus the Welsh Fire in the England and Wales Cricket Board’s “The Hundred” competition.

I selected the two matches in order to juxtapose the (fairly) old and the (very) new. The RL Cup is contested by the First Class counties over 50 overs per side; it is the latest variant on the one-day competitions that they have played since 1962 (when it was 65 overs each). Royal London have sponsored the tournament since 2014.

The Hundred is the ECB’s brainchild (if that’s the word) to attract new audiences to the sport. The then England director of cricket, Andrew Strauss, explained the thinking in an interview with BBC Radio Five Live’s Sportsweek programme when the ECB revealed the format of the tournament in April 2018: “What we’re trying to do is appeal to… people that aren’t traditional cricket fans. We want to make the game as simple as possible for them to understand”.

The Hundred is a city-based tournament, hosted at test match grounds – Headingley being one of the eight chosen locations – the matches comprising 100 deliveries (in batches of 10 from each end) per side. The competition’s first match – the women’s fixture between the Oval Invincibles and the Manchester Originals – took place last Wednesday.

I will nail my colours to the mast. I am a traditionalist on matters cricket. However, I shall park my assessment of The Hundred for the time being and pick it up again in Part 2 of this essay with, hopefully, something approaching an open mind. First things first: the RL Cup.

Of course, whilst putting The Hundred to one side for a day or so, it was obviously the case that its shadow hung over the match at Scarborough. Yorkshire have supplied 11 players to the ECB’s new competition – and Surrey 12 – so the teams on show comprised (for me) some familiar names and a significant number of unfamiliar ones, particularly in the visitors’ ranks.

Surrey’s comfortable victory was based on contributions from both the youthful and the experienced. In his first RL Cup match, the seam bowler Gus Atkinson took 4 for 43, including three of the first four wickets to fall. Later, the opener Mark Stoneman – a regular thorn in Yorkshire’s flesh over the years – batted through the innings as Surrey reached the target of 166 for the loss of 5 wickets with over 10 overs to spare. That Yorkshire had been dismissed in only the 35th of their allocated 50 overs – and on a wicket that was far from spiteful – betrayed a collective misjudgement in the pacing of an innings. The 19 year-old Matthew Revis looked very promising, however, and it was a disappointment when a rash shot truncated his innings at 43.

In the long term, I will probably not recall the match for its detailed statistical outturn. I shall remember it – with affection – for constituting the resumption, after the long coronavirus hiatus, of my county cricket watching with all its quirks and skills The circle drawn in the air by Yorkshire’s off-spinning captain, Dom Bess, at the beginning of his run-up; the urgent skip into action by Surrey’s left-arm spinner, Dan Moriarty, at the start of his; the brilliant diving catch by Jonny Tattersall; the neat efficiency of the two wicket-keepers, Jamie Smith and Harry Duke; the umpire Neil Mallender’s acknowledgement to the section of the crowd that had signalled a 4 (rather than 6) when a lofted shot skirted the boundary rope; the wholehearted aggression of Yorkshire’s South African fast-bowler Mat Pillans – released by Surrey in 2018 – who ended the day with 4 wickets; the skilful way in which the impressive Nico Reifer, another Surrey debutant, evaded a hostile delivery from Pillans by dropping his wrists and swaying out of the way… And so on. It was good to be back.

Indeed, my enjoyment of the occasion had begun even before play commenced. I arrived about an hour before the start and took my favourite place in the West Stand. (I was grateful to be sporting a wide hat in the warm sunshine). The familiar routines unfolded: my initial purchase of a coffee and flapjack; the idle chat amongst some of my near neighbours, some of whom had obviously not met for some time; the volunteer scorecard vendor selling his wares for £1 each; the players warming up on the outfield; the flags drifting in the breeze at the top of their poles; and, this being Scarborough, the seagulls above, circling and observing with a hint of menace. I confess to having felt a pang of emotion. We have all been through a lot and we are now – hopefully – coming out on the other side.

Down to my right stood the hospitality marquee, on the grass in front of which were the rows of deckchairs for the sponsors and their guests. I identified the rough acreage of grass – a couple of square metres at most – on which my friend and I had sat on another hot July day (in 1969) and watched Yorkshire’s Gillette Cup semi-final win over the Gary Sobers-led Nottinghamshire. That had been my introduction to this – my favourite – cricket ground and I was mindful that it had been a long time ago.

After Surrey had completed their victory, I waited for a while before taking a couple of photographs and then making my way to the exit on the far side of the ground. By the time I got there, Mark Stoneman had already emerged from the changing room and, still in his kit, was talking to a couple of acquaintances by the boundary edge. Just along from him, a young boy – I would guess aged no older than 6 or 7 – was facing some under-arm deliveries thrown down to him from a few yards away by (I assume) his father. The boy played his shots with a correctly positioned left elbow and a perfectly straight bat.

As Stoneman started to walk past on his way back to the pavilion, the father stopped him to request a photo with his son. He agreed without any hesitation. A modern – very professional – cricketer with, perhaps, one for the future. It was a touching scene with which to end a very good day.

An Ordinary Spectator Returns

30th June 2021

Yesterday evening, Sweden played Ukraine at Hampden Park in the Round of 16 knock-out stage of the Euro 2020 tournament. It was the first sporting event I had seen for almost 17 months – or, to be precise, 513 days.

I had applied for a ticket at the end of 2019, when they were first put on sale. Although the sides for this particular contest were obviously not known at that stage – one of the attractions for me in seeking out the fixture – I was not successful in the initial allocation. However, I signalled my continued interest if and when a further tranche of tickets became available and I duly secured one at the beginning of last year. What I had not realised in my enthusiasm to land something was that I had inadvertently transferred my interest in one of the cheap(er) seats to a prime location in the front row of the upper tier of the North Stand. Still, needs must in my quest to participate (as a spectator) in one of 2020’s premier sporting events.

That was pre-Covid, of course. After UEFA decided to postpone the tournament for a year, I was given the option of getting my money back or simply rolling things forward 12 months. Having chosen the latter, I then had to trust my luck in the ballot for seats, given the authorities’ decision to restrict the overall attendance to 12,000 or just under 25 per cent of the ground’s capacity.

As it happened, my luck was in and so, last night, there I was.

It might be noted that, having secured my place at the match, the accompanying baggage of entry requirements was substantial. I had been supplied with an electronic ticket, sent to my mobile phone; I had to wear a face mask, of course, and keep at least 1½ metres away from other fans; I had to bring ID; I could take no more snacks than would fill an A5 bag; I could not bring any drinks; I was not allowed any bags in excess of A4 size; I could not bring a brolly; I had to arrive at the ground within a designated 30 minute time slot (which turned out to be 1½-2 hours before the kick-off).

A reminder. This was for Sweden versus Ukraine at Hampden Park in front of a maximum of 12,000 supporters, though – to be fair to UEFA – these ground-rules were clearly set out in the various e-mails that they sent to me. (The official attendance turned out to be 9,221).

My wife would testify to my being unusually tense in the days leading up to the match. Part of that was due, no doubt, to my low-key technophobia: I would happily much rather settle for a paper ticket sent through the post than have to negotiate with the electronic accessory in my pocket. However, I think it might also have been explained by my prolonged – that is, over a period of nearly a year and a half – lack of experience of attending a major social event. I consider myself to be a reasonably rational and well-adjusted person but, until a two-day sojourn in Edinburgh last week, the farthest that we had ventured since the start of the first lockdown had been about 6 or 7 miles. I have no doubt that, for many people, the pervasive lagged effects of lockdown will be felt for some considerable time to come.

How grateful I was, therefore – notwithstanding the angst of the previous days (and weeks) in anticipation of the event – that the delayed Euro 2020 Round of 16 tie at Hampden Park had provided an invaluable staging post on my journey to whatever the eventual “new normal” will turn out to be.

Sweden were probably the favourites in the tie, having come top of Group E in the tournament’s preliminary skirmishes (in which it had taken 36 matches to reduce the 24 teams that had reached the Finals down to the last 16). Ukraine had reached this stage by being one of the four best third-placed sides in the six groups, having finished behind the Netherlands and Austria in Group D. Sweden also had the higher (pre-tournament) placing in the FIFA world rankings: 18th, compared with Ukraine’s 24th.

I was aware, however, that the earlier tournament performances and rankings probably counted for nothing: this was now a straight knock-out (and another reason for my selecting the tie in the first place). As it happened, by the end of the evening, when the full line-up of the 8 quarter-finalists was known, it transpired that 3 of them had come third in their respective groups and only another 3 had actually come top.

The national colours of the two teams were identical – yellow and azure blue – and so the visuals alone from my lofty vantage point did not provide an immediate sense of the relative sizes of support. I judged that it was about 50: 50 with the Swedes in their replica shirts and the Ukrainians much more inclined to favour being bedecked in their national flag. The latter – congregating in the seats below me to my left – certainly won the vocal contest, their continuous chanting seeming to be amplified by the acoustics of the stadium.

As expected, it was a closely fought match. In the opening exchanges, contested in the bright sunshine of an early summer Glasgow evening, neither side took any risks and each defended in depth; at one Sweden corner, Ukraine had 10 players in their own six-yard box with the other one on the penalty spot. However, the game came alive just before the half-hour mark when a sweeping Ukraine move was emphatically finished by the left-winger Oleksandr Zinchenko. Sweden’s equaliser, just before half-time, had an element of fortune about it, as a shot from Emil Forsberg was deflected past the goalkeeper, Georgiy Bushchan. It was a due reward for Forsberg, however, who provided the Scandinavians’ most potent attacking threat throughout the evening.

There were near misses in the second half: Ukraine hit the post and, at the other end, Forsberg had successive attempts that shaved the foot of a post and then rebounded from the cross-bar, but the 90 minutes petered out with a sense of inevitability about the arrival of extra time. The game slowed down further in this period, as fatigue and injuries took their toll. However, it contained a decisive moment when the Swedish defender, Marcus Danielson, who had played with some assurance throughout the evening, put in a reckless challenge on Artem Besedin. After a VAR review, his initial yellow card was upgraded to red.

Thereafter, as Ukraine sought to take advantage of their extra man advantage, I sensed that Sweden were hanging on for the penalty shoot-out. They nearly made it, but not quite. The stadium announcer had just stated that there would be 3 minutes of added time at the end of the second period of extra time, when Zinchenko sent in a tantalising cross from deep on the left wing and the substitute Artem Dovbyk headed the ball home.

Perhaps the Swedes were taken by surprise. For the previous two hours, Zinchenko had consistently declined to attempt to beat his man on the outside and centre the ball into the penalty area, preferring inside to double back and play a conservative pass to a nearby colleague. This time, perhaps sensing there was nothing to lose, he went for broke: a swift, out-swinging cross of pinpoint accuracy for his on-rushing colleague to exploit.

Cue unbridled celebration amongst the exuberant flag-wearers down below me. Zinchenko ran towards them and was engulfed. Meanwhile, on the pitch, at least half the Swedish team were prostrate on their backs.

And so my long-delayed evening at Euro 2020 came to a conclusion. Fervour, skill, endeavour, controversy, drama, winners and losers. In other words, sport. It has been a long time between drinks. But the Ordinary Spectator has returned to the well.

Shuffling into Retirement

16th May 2021

In the UK, a restricted number of spectators are gradually being allowed back into stadia to watch the major sports events. 21,000 fans were permitted to attend yesterday’s FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Leicester City in the Wembley Stadium that seats 90,000. It is expected that some spectators – predominantly on a Members-only basis – will watch some county cricket next month. “Gradually” and “expected” are implicit caveats, of course: it all depends on the Covid-19 statistics being favourable. The original plans for 600 fans to be allowed into Hampden Park to watch the Scottish Cup final between Hibernian and St Johnstone next weekend have been quashed following the outbreak of the Indian variant of the virus in Glasgow.

It is a statement of the obvious that a spectator sport needs the presence of spectators – usually, the more, the better – in order that its full character can be presented and experienced. Over the last year, we might have watched a Premier League soccer game or a Super League rugby match or a Six Nations international on our television screen and admired the fully competitive nature of the encounter being played out in front of us – complete with sound effects, as appropriate – but, deep down, we probably recognise that, without the crowd of engaged spectators in attendance, it is not really the full shilling.

In this essay, the theme I wish to explore is the relationship that is often built up – over time – between a club’s spectators and an individual player and, as a consequence, the adverse effect that the requirements for dealing with Covid-19 have had on the acknowledgement of that relationship when it has come to an end. I am interested, in particular, in the examples of retirement from playing sport that have had to pass under the radar. I shall focus on two of the sports – cricket and rugby league – that should have had full seasons in the 2020 calendar year.

The new Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack’s review of Warwickshire’s 2020 season reports that “Ian Bell, Jeetan Patel and Tim Ambrose all shuffled into retirement without the farewell they deserved”. The threesome had played a total of over 850 first-class matches (including over 150 test matches) and, across all forms of the game, Bell alone had represented his county on no fewer than 383 occasions over 20 seasons.

Elsewhere, those who also “shuffled” away included non-test playing county stalwarts such as Paul Horton (218 first-class matches over 18 years, including 15 with Lancashire), Ollie Rayner (151 matches over 14 seasons, principally with Middlesex) and Graham Wagg (164 matches over 19 seasons, including 10 with Glamorgan)

This contrasted with what had been possible 12 months earlier. Following his announcement in June 2019 that he would retire from professional cricket at the end of that season, Marcus Trescothick made on final on-field appearance as a substitute fielder in the final few minutes of Somerset’s County Championship game against Essex at Taunton at the end of September. He was greeted with a standing ovation by the spectators and he left the field to a guard of honour from the opposition. Quite right too: it was a fitting tribute from those had watched him play over many years.

For some rugby league examples, I go back to the opening day of the 2020 Super League season and the Castleford Tigers vs Toronto Wolfpack and Hull FC vs Leeds Rhinos double header at Headingley (The Return of Sonny Bill”, 7th February, 2020). The eponymous Sonny Bill Williams (SBW) is one of those to have retired from the sport following the announcement that Toronto would not be able to fulfil last season’s fixture schedule and his subsequent return to Australia where he played a further five games for the Sydney Roosters. His retirement could hardly be described as “under the radar”, however, as it received widespread media coverage, including reports that he hoped to resume his professional boxing career.

The Toronto team at Headingley also fielded Jon Wilkin, who was in his second season with the club having previously played over 400 matches in his 16 years at St Helens. My summary of his side’s defeat (“One senses that more will be required from both SBW and Wilkin if Toronto are to hold their own at this level”) suggested – none too subtly, perhaps – that both players were somewhat off the pace in this game. Accordingly, it was no great surprise to me when Toronto’s demise prompted Wilkin’s retirement from playing although, unlike SBW’s, this was a relatively low-key affair, given his impressive club and international career. Jon Wilkin has made a successful transfer into the BBC commentary team, where he is an informative and media-friendly analyst.

The end of the 2020 season saw other high-profile retirements from British rugby league, including James Graham at St Helens, Sean O’Loughlin at Wigan and Gareth Ellis at Hull FC. For the first pair, the final match was the dramatic Grand Final at the KCOM stadium in Hull, which St Helens won in the dying seconds of the game, so there was a significant media send-off, even if the ground itself was largely unpopulated. O’Loughlin is – for the modern era – the unusual case, as all his 450-plus club appearances were for his home-town club. But, as with Jon Wilkin, none of these retirements – Williams, Graham, et al – were major surprises, as the players were in their mid-thirties (apart from Ellis, who was 39).

It was a different story with one of the Leeds Rhinos team in the second match of the Headingley double-header – Stevie Ward – who left the field with concussion after half an hour. It was his last appearance on the rugby field, as 11 months later, in January this year, he announced that, due to the injury, he would be retiring at the age of 27. Ward had been a feature on the Rhinos scene for almost a decade – he had made his debut for the club as a teenager in 2012 – and, notwithstanding a series of injuries, had racked up over 130 appearances.

Retirements can be for many reasons, of course, of which age and injury are the most common. The point here is that, prior to the imposition of the Covid-19 restrictions on attendance, spectators had a known view of the playing universe – of who the participants were and which teams they represented. By contrast, when we (eventually) enter the post-restrictive “new normal” of watching live sport, a number of constituents of that universe will have been permanently removed. There will be a new “now” which will be devoid of some of the participants of the previous “then”, whose departures we will only be able to mark long after they occurred.

It might be noted that it’s not only retirement that will have been affected by Covid-19 in this way. In June last year, Tim Bresnan left Yorkshire CCC – for whom he had first played as an 18 year-old in 2003 – to join Warwickshire. He was a player regarded with great affection by the Yorkshire members and – as evident in many of the comments on the White Rose Forum supporters website – there was considerable disappointment that the absence of a traditional full-length season meant there was no occasion on which this could have been acknowledged publicly.

In the meantime – it is pleasing to know – that are some for whom the concept of retirement means something to be put on (semi)-permanent hold. In September 2019 – with his Kent career apparently approaching its termination – the then 43 year-old Darren Stevens scored 237 and took five second innings Yorkshire wickets in his county’s huge championship win at Headingley. Last year, Stevens followed this up by easily being Kent’s leading wicket taker – with 29 in 5 matches – in the truncated first-class programme. He duly opened his 2021 account with a century against Northamptonshire in the first championship match.

I do respect Darren Stevens’s robust Augustinian approach to retirement: ie not just yet. When it does eventually come, I hope his many admirers are able to acknowledge it in the traditional ways.

The First Rugby International

27th March 2021

The first international rugby match was held 150 years ago today – 27th March 1871 – when Scotland defeated England at Raeburn Place in Edinburgh in front of about 4,000 spectators. Scotland scored two tries and a goal (a converted try) to England’s single try. In modern scoring, that would be 17 points to 5 – decisive enough – and the following day’s Glasgow Herald duly recognised “a result most satisfying to Scotland”.

The respective compositions of the teams reflected the different initial paths that rugby football was taking in the two countries. Apart from one player from the West of Scotland club, the entire Scottish side played for either public school old boys clubs or the universities. Edinburgh Academicals – whose home ground Raeburn Place remains to this day – supplied 6 players. (West of Scotland FC, formed in 1865, were the only open club of the 8 who went on to form the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) in 1873, two years after the first international).

By contrast, English rugby was already evolving around a locally based club system across the country. The Blackheath and Manchester clubs both supplied 4 players and Liverpool 3, whilst West Kent, The Gypsies and Ravenscourt Park provided 2 each. (None of the last 3 clubs survived the 1880s). Incidentally, for anyone counting heads, the first international was 20-a-side.

My own attendance at rugby union internationals covers a mere one-third of their total lifespan. I began with Wales versus England at Cardiff Arms Park in 1975 and, to date, the most recent is the Scotland versus New Zealand encounter at Murrayfield in the group stages of the 2007 World Cup. (On the latter occasion, I was less than impressed when, after I had stumped up £85 for a ticket in the West Stand, Scotland fielded a near-second XV, so that the first-choice players could avoid injury and be ready for the subsequent group match with Italy. The New Zealand captain, Richie McCaw, strolled over for a try in the first few minutes and the All Blacks cantered to a 40-0 win).

During this period, I accumulated a total of 27 spectating caps: 17 for England, two of which were against Scotland (including the latter’s win at Twickenham in 1983, their last – until this year – on that ground) and a further 10 for Scotland against other countries. My success rate for England is low (6 wins in total or 35 per cent) and for Scotland even lower (4 out of 12, or 33 per cent). A total of seven visits to watch England in Cardiff or Paris has resulted in seven defeats.

Of course, my exposure to international rugby union had begun long before I attended a game. I reported in An Ordinary Spectator that I watched games on television from an early age and stored some famous tries in my memory bank – Richard Sharp’s classic fly-half’s try against Scotland in 1963; Andy Hancock’s length of the field effort for England, also against Scotland, in 1965; Keith Jarrett flashing on from the left of the screen to catch a bouncing ball and hare down the touchline in Cardiff to score for Wales against England in 1967. But my actual spectating debut was some 12 years after I had seen my first rugby league international when, as a 9 year-old, I was taken to the ferocious Great Britain/Australia test match at Headingley in 1963.

Whatever celebrations the SRU or Edinburgh Academicals had planned for today’s anniversary have had to be put on hold, of course. How I would have liked to have taken the train from Milngavie to Edinburgh this lunchtime and gone to Raeburn Place either to watch a match or, if not, simply to have walked around the open space in which the historic encounter took place in 1871. Curse this blasted coronavirus pandemic. But I will carry out that mission at some stage in the future.

As the sport’s overall governing body – World Rugby – celebrates 150 years of international competition, there is much with which it needs to engage if the future is to remain bright. The impact of repeated head trauma on the long-term health of players, the legal cases being prepared by some former players against the administrators for the alleged insufficient duty of care, the need to make the game more attractive for spectators to watch… These are all weighty issues.

My own bête noir, which I have noted before (“Nationality”, 7th February 2018), is the ease with which international caps can be won by players whose links to the country are, at best, tenuous or opportunist via either the grandparent qualification or the three-year residency rules. (Of the 46 players in Scotland and Ireland’s match squads for the opening round of this year Six Nations tournament, no fewer than 14 (30 per cent) had been born outside the country they were representing, including 9 (20 per cent) in either New Zealand or South Africa).

What will be guaranteed is the continued ability of the sport of rugby union to evolve. 150 years ago, we not only had 20 players a side… and the need to register a “goal” in order to win a match… and halves of 50 minutes in duration… We also had a different of sartorial preferences.

The Scotland team played in brown shirts, adorned with a thistle, and white cricket flannels.

The Man Sitting Next To Me

16th March 2021

My father – William (Bill) Rigg – features prominently during the many years of sports spectating that I have described in An Ordinary Spectator. It is appropriate that – today – I refer to him again.

In the book, I noted that, when he first took me to the Parkside ground in south Leeds to watch his beloved Hunslet play rugby league, there were three reasons why I would sit on his shoulders as he stood at the back of the stand: so that I could see over the heads of the other spectators; so that he could explain to me what was going on (the points tally, scrums, the referee’s signals, and so on); and so that he could explain to me what was really going on, especially the different roles of the players (the speedy winger, the skilful half-back, the lonely full-back as the last line of defence…). I was six years old and I lapped it up.

My father’s own induction to Parkside had occurred in the early 1930s, when he had been regularly taken to the ground by his maternal grandfather, a Scotsman called Peter McBride, and his uncle Willie McBride. Dad’s father – my namesake, John Rigg – rarely attended, as his duties as a policeman meant that he had to work on most Saturdays.

We shared the enjoyment of Hunslet’s success in the first half of the 1960s – a Yorkshire Cup, a Second Division championship, a Challenge Cup final appearance at Wembley – and then the pain of the club’s precipitate decline in the years to 1973, when Parkside was sold for industrial warehousing and the club folded. Shortly afterwards, I left to go to university, but we made sure that, after the club had been resurrected as New Hunslet – when it initially endured a peripatetic existence playing at a number of venues, including both the greyhound and football stadiums on Elland Road, before settling permanently at the South Leeds Stadium in Middleton – we took in a fixture during my Christmas and Easter vacations. By that stage, mine was obviously a more distant attachment to the club, but Dad remained hopelessly optimistic: at one stage he endured a 12-month stretch without a home win.

My father was never one for shouting and hollering at the players and officials. He would naturally get excited at the creation of a scoring chance or a fine defensive tackle, but his preferred approach was as a more reflective observer with whom I would occasionally share a quiet aside about a team’s tactics or a player’s speed or a coach’s options… The one (fairly) hard and fast rule we had was that the bag of sweets purchased for the occasion – usually toffees or mints – could not be breached until the first points had been scored.

Rather oddly, given that the Chandos Park ground of Roundhay RUFC was situated only about half a mile from home, it was some 7 years after my league spectating debut that we first attended a rugby union match: as it turned out, a full-blooded encounter between Roundhay and Headingley. We had watched the international fixtures on television, of course, but this was our initial live exposure to the “other” code. Afterwards, we wasted little time in analysing what we had seen – basically far more kicking and much less handling than in league – but that did not prevent us making further trips to both the Roundhay and Headingley grounds, the latter in particular to watch Yorkshire in the Northern Group of the County Championship.

I graduated to watching the bigger rugby league matches with my father at an early stage, beginning with the Great Britain vs Australia test match at Headingley in 1963. Subsequently, we regularly took in the Leeds-based league internationals against Australia or New Zealand. Then, for the 15 years or so from the mid-1980s, we made the annual pilgrimage to Wembley (him from Leeds, me from London and then Scotland, joined by my uncle Vic from Hampshire) for the Challenge Cup final, irrespective of who was playing in it. My father liked the spectacle of the big occasion, though I sense he was also drawn to the Wembley events by the attraction of our annual ritual and the repetition of the familiar.

And so to the cricket at Headingley, for which our first visits together even post-dated our joint venture into rugby union. I had been to see both Yorkshire and England play many times – either with friends or by myself – before my father and I started to attend the occasional match.

After all these years, it is astonishing what remains in the memory. I remember us watching Middlesex play at Headingley in 1972 and Dad being enthralled by the idiosyncratic run-up of John Price, who began each of his long journeys to the wicket by running directly towards us in our seats at long-off. A couple of years later, we saw Phil Carrick take some Surrey wickets one afternoon at Bradford Park Avenue. Then, in the August Bank Holiday Roses Match at Headingley in 1979, we watched Yorkshire complete a thrilling victory over Lancashire, the action being interrupted at one point by the sombre announcement over the loudspeaker that Lord Mountbatten had been killed in an explosion on his boat, followed by the gasps of shock from the spectators sitting around us. These were rare excursions, however: Dad was working during the week and I would be playing cricket at weekends.

Our joint visits to the soccer – all two of them – came later still, both Leeds United matches at Elland Road in 1981: a 1-1 cup-tie against Coventry City and a goalless league game against Liverpool. He said after the latter game that he had really enjoyed watching the skill of David Johnson and Kenny Dalglish in the Liverpool attack, but the truth was that he was simply not much of a soccer person. It was no surprise, of course, when he reminded me that his previous visit to Elland Road had been to watch Hunslet beat Leeds in the 1938 rugby league Championship final.

It was after my father had retired that we formed a more regular cricket-spectating partnership, notably for the second and third days of the Headingley test: the former in the lower tier of the Football Stand, the latter higher up in the balcony. He was the man sitting next to me as we watched the centuries being compiled (Gooch, Ponting, Steven Waugh), the five-fors hauled in (Reiffel, Waqar Younis, Mallender) and the ducks lined up in a row (Atherton, Flintoff, Cronje).

We only conversed infrequently during the actual play: just the occasional whispered comment about a change in the field or a dropped catch. Our discussions were primarily reserved for the lunch interval – my mother’s sandwiches consumed in the seats on the other side of the stand, overlooking the rugby pitch – or, later, back at the parental home. We would compare notes on what we had observed: the trim neatness of Alec Stewart’s appearance, the notable deceleration in Mike Smith’s delivery stride (against Australia in 1997, his only test), the impressive urgency of the young Michael Vaughan’s running between the wickets… We were invariably on the same wavelength.

The Indian tourists of 2002 produced a batting masterclass. In the gathering gloom of the Friday evening – as the lights on the scoreboard came on – Sourav Ganguly hit Ashley Giles over the old pavilion and Sachin Tendulkar deposited Andrew Caddick several rows back into the Members’ seating in front of the old bowling green. 628 for 8 declared.

That was the last match that we watched together. Two years later, my father was claimed by mesothelioma.

Who knows whether I will be able to resume my rugby or cricket-watching this year. If the latter, it will not be for a test match – Ganguly and Tendulkar also provided my swansong – but perhaps a Championship or T20 fixture at Headingley. And, if so, it is fairly likely that at some point – probably to the slight discomfort of those in my immediate vicinity – I will find that I am muttering quietly. Nothing serious, just a hushed aside to my invisible neighbour about the altered field-setting or that latest missed chance.

I know that the man will be sitting next to me. And that we will compare notes again later.

Incidentally, he was born 100 years ago today.

William Alexander Rigg: born in Hunslet, Leeds, 16th March 1921; died in Moortown, Leeds, 2nd June 2004.

Edging Up and Down

19th February 2021

The International Cricket Council (ICC) world rankings of test-playing countries are determined via a rigorous statistical process that takes account of all the test matches played over the previous 3-4 years. For a team to reach the Number 1 position requires, therefore, that it has consistent success over a significant period. Last month, it was announced that, following their latest series win over the West Indies, New Zealand had acquired this status.

Congratulations to them. They have three excellent seam bowlers (Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner), a fine wicketkeeper-batsman in BJ Watling and, in their captain Kane Williamson, the batsman currently rated as the best in the world. Moreover, they play the sport in what I (and many others, no doubt) consider to be the right spirit – hard and fair and with a smile on their collective face – to the great credit of Williamson and his predecessor, Brendon McCullum.

As it happened, the announcement coincided with my viewing of the excellent documentary The Edge (Noah Media Group, 2019), which charted the rise between 2009 and 2011 of the England team to be the ICC Number 1 side (having started at 7th) and then catalogued their subsequent decline. The documentary makes for fascinating (and, at times, difficult) viewing, particularly in revealing the tolls – physical and mental – that were exacted of the players in the England squad by the coach, Andy Flower, in the drive to reach the top of the tree.

Much of the material is not unexpected. It is likely that even the relatively casual follower of the England team would have been familiar with the personality traits of the likes of Alastair Cook, Tim Bresnan and Graeme Swann, as respectively described by the captain, Andrew Strauss: “doggedness, determination, resilience”, “a solid, dependable person” and “chief joker, buffoon, pain the arse… invaluable”. In this respect, it is reassuring that our expectations are confirmed.

The Edge spends a considerable length of time on the virtues and flaws of Kevin Pietersen: from his commanding presence and frequently superlative batting through to undermining his captain by texting his (Pietersen’s) friends in the South African changing room during the Headingley test of 2012. There is a noticeably perceptive comment about him from Paul Collingwood: “When he first came into the England side, he needed England. As his career went on, the less he needed England, the harder he was to manage”. However, it is Pietersen himself who, perhaps unwittingly, provides the most revealing insight, when referring to his need to take a break from the non-stop demands placed on him to play the various forms of the game: “As soon as you take your whites off, your value and your brand just … fall off the face of a cliff”. I suspect that, with Pietersen, it was – and is – always about the brand.

We are probably also not surprised – though still made uncomfortable – by seeing the venomous hostility that exists in some test match confrontations, particularly those pitching England against Australia. The sledging appears to be vicious and unremitting with no prisoners taken. I happen to think that the spite-ridden comment made by the Australian captain, Michael Clarke, to James Anderson, as he came out to bat as England’s last man to face the fearsome Mitchell Johnson in the Brisbane test of November 2013 – “get ready for a broken f…… arm” – ranks with the worst type of drugs-cheating in terms of being the antithesis of what international sport is supposed to represent.

[An aside. It appears that the boorish nonsense
consistently brought to the game by New Zealand’s neighbours across the Tasman
Sea is not restricted to Ashes encounters.
Australia’s trite apologia following the exposure of the
“Sandpaper-gate” scandal in South Africa in 2018 seems to have now bitten the
dust, judging by their on-field behaviour in the recent (lost) home test series
against India].

The Edge’s most revealing insights concern the emotional costs that were borne by some of the England players. Stephen Finn refers to bursting into tears during a session with the team doctor, whilst Monty Panesar describes bingeing on junk food in the safe confinement of his hotel room.

However, the most painful – and poignant – viewing concerns the effects on Jonathan Trott who, in his own words, by the time of the same Brisbane test “…was really struggling internally… in tears on the field… [with] banging going on in my head”. Not that his circumstances generated any sympathy from some of those paid to offer their supposedly expert analysis of the proceedings. “Pretty poor, pretty weak” opined David Warner, as Trott left the field after being dismissed.

My main grievance with The Edge is with the hype and inaccuracy attached to one of its core statements. There are several references to England not having reached the ICC’s Number 1 position before – and, indeed, the DVD box states that they “[became] the first and only English side to reach world number one”. To me, this did not sound quite right.

The ICC began ranking teams in 2003 and it is the case that England had not been in the Number 1 position in the period to 2011. But test cricket records date from 1877 – when Australia first hosted England at the Melbourne Cricket Ground – not 2003. In this respect, the documentary’s retrospectively short-sighted presentation of test match history mirrors that of the media cheerleaders of the Super League, who often seem to view professional rugby league as having started in 1996 not 1895, or of soccer’s Premiership, who forget that English football has had a top flight since 1888, not just from 1992.

To examine The Edge’s claims about England’s historical Number 1 status (or the lack of it), let us consider the years from 1950 onwards. As noted in the previous blog (The Test Match World Title,4th February 2021), this was a period in which there were at least 6 test match playing nations, rising to 8 by the time of South Africa’s re-emergence into the international arena in 1991. It was also a period in which England enjoyed lengthy stretches when they either won or drew several consecutive series against all of the other test-playing nations: 14 between 1950-51 and 1958-59, 9 between 1966 and 1971 and 8 between 1976 and 1979-80 (the West Indies excepted in this last period). It is difficult to believe that England were not the Number 1 ranked team for at least part of these times.

And so it was the case. What The Edge did not report was that the ICC itself has retrospectively calculated its own test match rankings back to 1952 and that these are readily accessible. England were at Number 1 in four separate periods (covering a total of 106 months) over the subsequent half century, including for 33 months after June 1955 and 37 months after January 1970.

As noted, The Edge is an excellent documentary and it is recommended viewing for anyone with an interest in the sport. It’s just a shame that it had to play fast and loose with test match cricket’s historical record.

The Test Match World Title

4th February 2021

Forgive me if I report on a piece of slightly anorakian historical cricket research. I blame it on the need to exercise the brain cells, in these continued strange times, as I await my invitation to receive the coronavirus vaccine.

The concept of my “Test Match World Title” is straightforward. It starts with the first series between Australia and England in 1876-77 and allows its winners to be judged as the first holders. As it happened, as the series was drawn 1-1 – thus giving us joint holders to begin with – it would appear that we would have to wait until the next series two years later (when Australia defeated England 1-0) to find our initial title holder. However, at this point, I will make the vital – and totally unilateral – executive decision that, in order to qualify for these purposes, a test matches series must have at least two games. Hence, the first holders of the title are indeed Australia, but only after their 2-0 series win in the 1881-82 series against England.

Thereafter, the rules of the game are analogous to that of a World Championship boxing title (or, indeed, the determination of the holders of the Ashes). Australia would retain the title until defeated in a series that had two or more matches – until 1884, in fact, when England won the series 1-0 with two matches drawn. And so on.

This means that, in order to acquire the title, a side would not necessarily have had consistent excellence and success over a lengthy period of time (which is required to reach Number 1 in the International Cricket Council’s rankings of test-playing countries). Rather, it is sufficient simply to have a single series win, at the opportune time, against the team that held the title.

[An aside. It might not have gone unnoticed that I have employed this historical approach on a previous occasion.  “And the Football World Title holders are…” (7th January 2019) described the corresponding exercise in international football from 1872 to the end of 2018.  The only difference in methodology was that individual match results, excluding the Olympic Games, were considered.  It was seen that the title was initially held by England and Scotland (who drew the first encounter) and ended up with Holland.  In 2019, the baton was subsequently passed to Germany and then back to Holland again.  The current (end January 2021) holders of the World Football Title are Italy].

Since England first relieved Australia of the Test Match World Title in 1884, it has changed hands on a further 55 occasions – most recently last year – which implies an average length of holding of 2½ years. Of course, until the West Indies, New Zealand and India entered the test match arena – in 1928, 1930 and 1932, respectively – there were only two (and then three) contenders for the crown, South Africa having (retrospectively) joined the party in 1889. Pakistan played its first test match in 1952 and Sri Lanka in 1982.

The relatively frequent turnover of the crown has occurred partly because of the frequency of teams winning a home series and then immediately losing a series on its next away tour: this has occurred on 21 occasions. The shortest duration for the title ownership is 22 days in the 1979-80 Australian season, when – highly unusually – the home side played concurrent series against England and West Indies. Australia took a decisive 2-0 lead to relieve England of the title on 8th January before going 0-2 down to the West Indies on 30th January, both series being of three matches.

England and Australia have held the title on 19 and 18 occasions, respectively, although the latter’s total duration of ownership has been considerably longer, largely due to the long period of dominance that Australia had between 1934 and 1953. However, all the other countries noted above have had their turn: South Africa (on 4 occasions, initially in 1905-06), West Indies (3, including for 11 years following a series win over Australia in 1983-84), New Zealand (3), India (4, beginning with the 1971 series win in England), Pakistan (4) and Sri Lanka (2).

The comparison of each country’s relative success in holding the Test Match World Title is perhaps most interesting in the period since (say) 1952, when the competitive environment has been such as to comprise at least 6 test match playing nations, rising to 7 with Sri Lanka’s accession in 1982 and 8 with South Africa’s return in 1992. (The total is now a round dozen with the inclusion of Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Ireland).

England have held the Test Match World Title on 12 occasions during this period. However, there was a long stretch – from 1982-83 (series loss in Australia) through to 2005 (home series win against the same opponents) – when the ownership of the title was held elsewhere. Moreover, no fewer than 8 of the 12 were examples of the short-duration “home series win, next away series lost” phenomenon that was noted earlier.

For England, the lengthier period of title ownership were from 1953 to 1958-59, 1967-68 to 1971 and 1977 to 1979-80. Each of these was part of longer runs of consecutive series – 14, 9 and 8, respectively – that were either won or drawn against all of the other test-playing nations (apart from the West Indies in the last of these periods). England’s status as the Number 1 ranked test team for at least part of these times is a theme to which I shall return in a forthcoming blog.

The current holders of the Test Match World Title are England, following last summer’s 1-0 win in the 3-match series against Pakistan, who themselves had taken the crown from Sri Lanka at the end of 2019. Having enjoyed another series win in Sri Lanka last month, England will resume their defence against India in Chennai tomorrow. A tough task awaits.

Note on data

The details of every series of test match cricket to the end of 2019 are given in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2020.The subsequent series (to January 2021) are given on the website of the International Cricket Council. The specific dates of individual series are available on Wikipedia.

The responsibility for any errors is mine. The results presented here are given in good faith.

One Year On

29th January 2021

It was on this weekend one year ago that I enjoyed a mini-tour of rugby-watching in and around Leeds. Four matches in three days: the rugby union encounters between Yorkshire Carnegie and Nottingham Rugby in the Championship (Arresting Decline, 5th February 2020) and Otley and Caldy in the National League Division 2 North (“Let’s Keep It Up, Otley”, 6th February 2020) and the double-headed opener of the Super League season at Headingley, where the Castleford Tigers played the Toronto Wolfpack and the Leeds Rhinos took on Hull FC (The Return of Sonny Bill, 7th February 2020).

To date, this remains the most recent live action sport that I have watched in the flesh.

When we consider the events of the last year – and the pervasive impact of the coronavirus – it is tempting to think that much of the world has been put on hold. Foreign holidays have been cancelled, weddings postponed, concerts re-arranged for some future date… In the global sporting arena, the Olympic Games in Tokyo and the Euro2020 football championships have been held over from last year to this. For the four rugby union teams noted above, their 2019-20 seasons were brought to a premature halt in March and, later, the start of the 2020-21 season delayed until March at the earliest. And so on.

It was not quite so straightforward, of course. The combination of financial and broadcasting pressures meant that the truncated seasons were completed in the elite sports (The Icing and the Cake, 10th December 2020). Thus, an abbreviated rugby league Challenge Cup competition (involving only the 12 – later 11 – Super League clubs) was conducted (in empty stadiums) and reached a thrilling conclusion at Wembley in August, when Luke Gale’s late drop goal gave Leeds a one-point victory over Salford in the final.

In the league, Leeds and Hull qualified for the Super League play-offs by finishing 5th and 6th, respectively, in the shortened 2019-20 season. (This itself represented the Super League authorities thinking on their feet, as the original plan had been for a top-four play-off). There was the possibility, therefore, of Hull FC lifting the title at the Grand Final having finished the regular season half-way down the division. In the event, although they impressively defeated the Warrington Wolves in their first match, they were then heavily beaten by the Wigan Warriors in the semi-final.

At this point, I should probably own up to one of my occasional “what do I know?” mea culpa. In The Return of Sonny Bill, I remarked that Hull had invested heavily in some big, powerful forwards and that this looked to have been money well spent, given that Leeds had been overwhelmed by 30 points to 4. I noted that, as Hull could also draw on the evident firepower in their three-quarters and the accuracy of Marc Sneyd’s kicking game, there was “much promise for their new Super League campaign”. In the event, the club’s almost immediate slump in form saw the coach, Lee Radford, lose his job in March and it was only a late-season rally that took them into the final play-off place.

Off the field, there has also been action. At the time of their match with Nottingham, Yorkshire Carnegie were hopelessly adrift at the bottom of their division, having taken only one point from their opening 10 matches. Nottingham added to their woes by winning by 62-10. Conversely, in their lower league, Caldy were striding away at the top of the table. The respective relegation and promotion of Yorkshire Carnegie (who have subsequently been re-branded as the Leeds Tykes) and Caldy were confirmed and, when the hostilities are eventually resumed, the two clubs will confront each other in National League 1.

In contrast with my expectations for Hull FC’s prospects for the Super League season, I was more accurate in my assessment of the lower part of Otley’s division. With three teams to be relegated, I did suggest that it would be a close-run affair, as Otley were then fourth-from-bottom and level on points with Luctonians. It did not turn out well. Otley had slipped down a place by the time the coronavirus-induced drawbridge was raised on the league season and, notwithstanding that they and the sides around them still had 5 matches left to play, the Rugby Football Union decided that Otley would join Preston Grasshoppers and Scunthorpe on the downward path to the North Premier Division.

In the Super League, the off-field events have certainly been significant. Toronto Wolfpack lost their 6 league matches before the season was halted in March. In July, the club announced that the “unexpected and overwhelming financial challenges” brought about by the pandemic meant that it would not fulfil the remainder of its fixtures once the league resumed in August. Toronto’s 2020 results were expunged from the records, including the 10-28 loss to Castleford that I had witnessed in February. In November, a formal vote was held by the 11 remaining Super League clubs – plus the Rugby Football League and the Super League Executive – on whether Toronto should be allowed to return to the competition in the 2021 season. The vote was 8-4 against with 1 abstention.

At present, there remain plans in place for a rugby league team from Ottawa to enter the National League 1 (the sport’s third division in Britain) in 2022. Let’s hope so. However, the huge uncertainty about any Toronto-based revival casts a long shadow over the development of regular transatlantic competition, notwithstanding that there are also eventual hopes for a New York-based team.

The sense of events moving on applies in the wider world, of course, as well as in the narrower sporting context. One year ago, the US Senate was conducting the first impeachment trial of the former President Trump, whilst at the same time – on the Friday evening on my rugby-watching weekend, to be exact – the UK formally left the European Union and entered the transition phase for finalising the details of separation. This was to last for the remainder of the year, of course, the denouement only being revealed – like the stopping of the bomb’s ticking clock at the end of a third-rate James Bond film – at the 11th hour.

And what of the predictions that were being made a year ago? The introductory paragraph of the February 1st 2020 edition of The Economist opened with the low-key statement that “[A] new coronavirus continued to spread rapidly in China”. Jerome Powell, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank was quoted as stating that the virus would probably case “some disruption” to the global economy, though it was unclear how far that would extend. Powell, having drawn on the vast armoury of the Fed’s analytical resources, is the winner of our Understatement of the Year Award.

By contrast, an editorial in the same newspaper referred to the “sparse data and conflicting reports” about a disease that was spreading exponentially. “The medical and economic cost will depend on governments slowing the disease’s spread. The way to do this is by isolating cases as soon as they crop up and tracing and quarantining people that victims have been in contact with… If… that proves inadequate, they could shut schools, discourage travel and urge the cancellation of public events”. For an early insight into how events would turn out in the UK, that was impressively accurate.

Likewise, in the section on US politics anticipating the first of the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries (in Iowa later in the week), the publication suggested that, of all the major candidates on view (including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren), the one who would be the most likely to win the election against Trump was… Joe Biden.

I wonder if The Economist has views on Hull FC’s likely performance in the 2021 Super League season.