OPINION: To Win Or To Entertain? The Contradiction At The Heart Of Pro Sport

There has been a lot said and written about Australia’s “bore-draw” game-plan during the Women’s Ashes Test – were they just being “professional”? Or should they have tried to contrive an exciting result for the benefit of the fans?

Aussie coach Matthew Mott was vigorous in his defence, telling the media post-match “We’re not a charity!” and @aotearoaxi spoke for many when he said on Twitter: “[Mott] coaches an elite team who is judged on results – anything else is a bonus.”

But even Mott implicitly accepted the dilemma, admitting: “There’s always a responsibility to the fans.”

It is certainly easy to argue for a “result” from the press gallery or commentary box; and it isn’t just English “sour grapes” either – several Australians, including Mary Konstantopoulos and Brittany Carter from the Ladies Who Legspin podcast, and The Guardian’s Geoff Lemon – expressed disappointment that the Aussies didn’t put on more of a show.

Some of the disappointment in the press box stems from the disconnect between words and actions. After the 3rd ODI, I asked Ellyse Perry about the Southern Stars tactics going into the Test, and she had this to say (emphasis ours):

“These Test matches come around once every couple of years and I think it is a big responsibility for all players to play it in a really great spirit and in a way that is entertaining because I’d love to play more of them, and I think there is scope to play this kind of format series against some of the other top teams in the world, but to do that we’ve got to do the Test match justice.”

And that is not what we really saw, certainly in the final sessions of the last day.

On the other hand, say Meg Lanning had declared at a point where England would have “gone for it” and lost? She’d have been torn to pieces by the media and the fans – at least the Australian ones – who would have given her little credit for “doing the Test match justice”.

It comes down to the contradiction at the heart of professional sport – the job of the players and the coaches is to win; but the job of the sport as a whole is to entertain – if no fans turn on their TVs or come through the gates, ultimately the sport dies and the players and coaches don’t get paid!

The sporting reality is that players are paid to win; but the commercial reality is that if they don’t also entertain, they don’t get paid at all – and this may be what we have seen this summer, with slightly disappointing crowds across the Ashes series so far.

Its not Matthew Mott’s job (or Meg Lanning or Ellyse Perry’s) to solve this dilemma; but as a sport, it is a concern.

Perhaps an exciting T20 series can liven things up again, and a forgettable Test can be forgotten? T20 is certainly the format which takes “entertainment” most to heart – it will be really interesting to see if that happens… and how the fans respond.

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Women’s Ashes Test Day 4 – Australia Unsave The Game For Empty “Points” Win

So that’s that for women’s Tests, for another 2 years or thereabouts. Despite being the only team in a theoretical position to win the match this afternoon, Australia were happy to bat-out for a draw on a soporific afternoon in Somerset.

Meg Lanning made no apologies afterwards, telling the press conference that they’d put all their mental chips on enforcing the follow-on, and that once England passed that target, a draw was really the only option on their minds.

Australia certainly could have gone for a win – if they’d declared with around 25 overs remaining, they would have set England a target of around 8 an over – just enough to entice them into having a crack at it.

But Australia decided that was a risk too far, and instead let Ellyse Perry have some red-ball batting practice ahead of her next appearance in whites… in 2021.

Do you blame them? Australia were quick to point out that England had been the ones batting for a draw two years ago and North Sydney Oval; but England then were batting to save the game – Australia were batting to… well… is there even a term for it? Unsave it?

Australia will claim they are the No. 1 side in the world in all 3 formats, and it is probably fair to say that if the last two Tests were boxing title bouts, they’d have won them both “on points”; but they have nonetheless failed to deliver the knockout blow that really settles the argument on each occasion, and have now failed to actually win a Test for 4 years.

Is it fair to criticise them for that?

Maybe not – they did the job they came to do, and you can’t argue with the points tally!

But then you can’t argue with the empty win column either.

And an empty win “on points” is all they’ve achieved here.

Women’s Ashes Test Day 3 – England Playing To Stop The Aussies Winning The Ashes (Yes… You Did Read That Right!)

Ask any member of the England camp about the 2017 Women’s Ashes and they’ll say the same thing – England tied that series.

Talk to Mark Robinson… to Heather Knight… to Danni Wyatt… they’ll all remind you that after the drawn Test at North Sydney Oval, England came back to win the T20s and draw the multi-format series level on points, 8-all.

Yes, Australia retained The Ashes they’ll admit, but only on a technicality – they didn’t really “win” the trophy… and so England didn’t really “lose” it either.

Eighteen months later, as the penultimate day of the 2019 Ashes Test drew to a close, with England finding themselves 6-0 down in the series and in a bit of a “situation” in Taunton, their run rate slumped to less than 1 an over.

The question on everyone’s minds – from the commentary boxes to the stands – was why? Surely to reclaim The Ashes, England needed to go for the win? Smash 600 and bowl ’em out in the final session?

And it’s true – to reclaim the trophy, they did need to go for the win; which by the time they left the field at around ten-to-seven in the evening, they most patently were not doing, with Anya Shrubsole reprising her role as Blocker in Chief from Canterbury 2015.

But… and here’s the important bit… although they can’t “win” the Ashes now, England can still stop Australia from “winning” them.

If England can salvage a draw the Test, and then win all 3 T20s, then the series will be level, as it was in 2017 – Australia won’t have “won” the Ashes, and England won’t have “lost” them either – Australia would merely have “retained” them on a technicality.

Of course, this probably won’t cut much ice with the fans – or the Aussies for that matter – but if England appear to be happy to grind out a draw tomorrow… it might just explain why!

NEWS: Katie George Bumped Up To Full England Contract

CRICKETher understands that Hampshire and Yorkshire Diamonds fast bowler Katie George has been awarded a full England central contract, including a shiny new Kia Sportage.

Twenty-year-old George has been part of the England squad since making her debut in 2018, but had previously only been on a “rookie” contract.

George, who opted for cricket over a potential career in football, played 2 ODIs and 5 T20s in 2018, but was set-back last autumn by a stress fracture of the lower back which kept her out of contention over the winter, and she has continued to suffer a succession of niggles since.

However, the England management appear to have demonstrated a clear show of faith in a player Mark Robinson has singled-out as a potential successor to Katherine Brunt by apparently awarding her a full contract ahead of others, including Bryony Smith and Linsey Smith, who have played this summer but remain on “rookie” deals.

Women’s Ashes Test Day 2 – Women’s Test Cricket Needs A Favour!

Outside the makeshift “press box” in one of the larger hospitality suites in the pavilion at Taunton, there is a framed poster memorialising Somerset’s great undefeated season of 1890 – 13 matches; 12 wins; 1 tie.

Apart from the fascinating array of moustaches supported by the players, one thing that leaps out at you is that all-bar-one of those matches – proper First Class games, of two innings per side – were played over just two days.

So there is precedent here in Somerset for winning a match in the time frame remaining to England in this Women’s Ashes Test… but after Australia’s approach to play today, it doesn’t look like they will be given the chance.

Australia are of course under no obligation to give them that opportunity – they are professional athletes, charged with retaining The Ashes, and that is exactly what they are doing.

You have to feel sorry for the England players out there this morning though – even the wicket of Ellyse Perry elicited little celebration, because England knew in their hearts it was unlikely to make any difference to the outcome of this match, or the destiny of this series.

And to be fair, England would probably be doing exactly the same thing. Indeed, they may find themselves doing so by Sunday – they won’t want to lose any more than Australia do, and they will happily grind out a draw if that is the alternative to defeat.

But nonetheless, for the love of all that is holy, you have to wish someone would try to make a game of it – offer up a sporting declaration, opening up the possibility of turning it into a contest someone might actually want to watch on the final day.

They wouldn’t be doing themselves any favours; but they’d be doing women’s Test cricket a solid… and boy does it need it after today.

Women’s Ashes Test Day 1 – England Lose The Key

They know their farming down in Somerset – agriculture still makes up a significant proportion of the local economy, and “I’ve got a brand new combine harvester, and I’ll give you the key” by The Wurzels is the official team song of the Western Storm, the KSL side based here in Taunton.

So they’ll likely be familiar too with the expression to “bet the farm” on something; but if not… well, it’s pretty-much what England did today – they bet the farm on spin, selecting not just the more attacking left-arm spin options of Sophie Ecclestone and Kirstie Gordon, but the also the containing off-spin of Laura Marsh, while leaving the seam of Kate Cross gathering dust in the shed.

That was their first mistake. Cross might not have taken the most wickets of England’s bowlers this summer, but she has often looked their most likely to take a wicket – there’s been that feeling when she’s been bowling that “something” might happen… and boy did England need “something” as play drifted towards a close today.

England’s second mistake was arguably more forgivable – they lost the toss! This put all the cards in Australia’s hands – their long batting lineup is their real strength, and opting to bat first gave them the chance to dictate the pace of the game, which they did with increasingly mechanical efficiency, losing just 1 wicket as they ground-out 150 runs in the two sessions after lunch.

England had no answer.

Their spinners toiled for 64 overs, taking 2-167; while their seamers got through 36 overs, finishing with 1-92. Neither particularly great returns, though for what it’s worth (which isn’t much) the seamers were the more economical, by half a run an over.

Truth be told, they actually weren’t that bad, some careless fielding aside; but Australia were just clinically good, with only the out-of-sorts Nicole Bolton failing to pass 50.

Australia finished the day on 265-3. Having scored 100-odd in each of the first two sessions, Ellyse Perry and Rachel Haynes were happy to take the evening session at their leisure, scoring just 64 between tea and the close – the game was done by then; the Ashes basically won – it will take a miracle for England to win the match from here, and the Aussies know it. The weather forecast for tomorrow is terrible, and it’s little better for Saturday – there’s simply no time for England to take the 7 + 10 more wickets they need and score the 500-odd runs they’d require in-between.

Is there a “glass half full” scenario for England? If the forecasters have got it completely wrong, and we get 3 more full days, they could bowl Australia out tomorrow morning, bat aggressively for a day and a half to pile-on 500, and then try to bowl them out again on the final day, leaving them a small (or even no) target to chase at the death on Sunday.

Stranger things have happened; but it doesn’t feel terribly likely.

England haven’t got a brand new combine harvester – they’ve got a rusty old one… and they’ve lost the key.

Women’s County Cricket Day: A Reflection

The man behind Women’s County Cricket Day, Richard Clark, reflects on the campaign.

I never expected Women’s County Cricket Day to have a massive impact. I hoped maybe it would encourage a few cricket lovers to take an interest in the women’s game, perhaps even watch a match or two, but there was no serious expectation beyond that.

If it has achieved anything then that is largely down to the support of Syd and Raf, plus Martin Davies at Women’s Cricket Blog and Don Miles at Women’s Cricket on the Net, who threw themselves into it wholeheartedly.

Support came most notably too from Sam Morshead at the Cricketer, Dan Norcross of TMS and Tanya Aldred at the Guardian, as well as others. Thank you, folks.

And thank you to the people in the Shires – far, far too many to list individually – for embracing this idiot who you’d never heard of but who for some unfathomable reason wanted to champion your game. It’s been a pleasure getting to know so many of you just a little.

My original intention at the start of the season was to just support Worcestershire as often as I could, but as the campaign gathered pace and support began coming in from all parts, I realised that was too narrow – I was hearing from all these people involved in the game and I wanted to find out more.

So I’ve found myself at North Maidenhead, at the picturesque Milford Hall CC, at Brixworth, with its intriguing ‘barn conversion-style’ pavilion, briefly on familiar territory at Kidderminster and New Road, and finally in the heart of the Quantocks at Wombat.

I’ve seen Staffordshire beat Derbyshire in a match that ebbed and flowed every bit as much as last Sunday’s, I’ve watched Northamptonshire romp to a 9-wicket win over the Netherlands in a winner-takes-all title decider, and I’ve bitten my nails as Worcestershire pulled off a tense run-chase against Somerset (who will probably be glad to see the back of me!) I could not have enjoyed myself more!

I’ve seen stars of the game dominate (Heather Knight’s century against Worcs was as outstanding as it was inevitable) and unheralded youngsters perform exceptionally under pressure (take a bow, Meg Austin of Staffs).

Not necessarily by design, I’ve watched all my cricket in the lower Divisions. Perhaps there’s a bit less pressure there, a little less intensity, away from the top level where those battling to gain, or hold onto, international recognition are fighting to get themselves to the head of the queue under more severe scrutiny. Perhaps that makes it more FUN? And that’s not to detract or demean in any way – there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the game!

Meeting and speaking to people from all over the country, the same recurring themes have come up time and again.

Commitment, passion and a sense of community.

The time and energy players, coaches, parents and oft-maligned administrators put into the game – without hope, expectation or desire for any kind of “reward” beyond doing representing their county and doing something they love – is incalculable and invaluable.

I could give you so many examples – Hayley Brown at Northants speaking about how much it meant to the team to play at County HQ the week before and the team’s sense of achievement in winning five out of five in Division 3B, or Lisa Scott at Northumberland of her pride in her daughter Lizzie’s five-wicket haul against Scotland are just two that spring to mind.

I sat quietly and listened to a conversation between a group of parents at Wombat on Sunday. Only after a good few minutes did I twig that they weren’t all on the same side, but they were talking about shared experiences and friendships both as parents themselves, and from their daughters’ point of view. It hadn’t occurred to me before this season the extent to which the game – particularly perhaps in the lower divisions – is one big family.

But you know all this.

And now it’s over? My over-riding feeling is that we are losing something which matters to a lot of people. Something which counts. Something which may be a bit off the beaten track, and which some might have you believe “doesn’t contribute to the pathway”, as the modern jargon has it, but which has value all the same. I think that’s a pity, I think it’s unnecessary, and I think it’s avoidable.

But what do I know…?