THE SECRET CRICKETER
Updated: 3 hours ago
I have just finished reading The Secret Cricketer by….. well, that is the point, isn’t it? I imagine there are a few current first-class players who have made a stab at identifying the anonymous author but I am far too removed in years from today’s game to hazard a guess.
It is a neat idea, shining an unforgiving light on the professional game in England under the cover of anonymity, much more interesting than the bland autobiographies that pack the shelves of cricket books. If I may be permitted one observation on how the book is written rather than what it is about, I would have discouraged the repeated profanity. Don’t get me wrong. I have been in and around dressing rooms all my life and I am not squeamish about swearing. In the Hampshire dressing room of the 1970s, the ‘F’ word was used more as a comma than an adjective or adverb. I just did not think it was wholly appropriate in a book. The style – colloqial and informal – is fine but the tone - the gratuitous use of four-letter words - grates occasionally.
First and foremost, I was struck by how little the game has changed in the intervening 50 years or so. After all, the pitch is still 22 yards long, three stumps are still used, a run is a run and a wicket is a wicket. A score of 100 is still the benchmark of a fine innings, though a score of 50 or 60 on a dodgy pitch can be just as valuable. Five wickets in an innings is still regarded as a good haul but there are days when luck is in short supply and the analysis does not tell the whole story. The game is still recognisably cricket, whether the date is 1920, 1970 or 2020.
And yet….. Before the lockdown, I fell into conversation with my old team-mate from Hampshire, the reserve wicket-keeper, Mike Hill. “We had no help,” he said, “no coaching, no advice, no training, no support, no guidance. We had to work it all out for ourselves.” I could not disagree with him. I wonder how much better a cricketer I would have been with all the support available to the modern player. There is no doubt that they are better prepared, better instructed, better informed than we ever were. It is said, with some justification, that the cricketer of today is much fitter than we were, though I would not agree that this applied to everyone. Some of us were as fit as a butcher’s dog and just as good a fielder.
Coaches…. Let us put aside Shane Warne’s famous quip that they are only good for transporting you to the ground and consider their role in the modern game. There was no such role in the 1970s. Well, there was, but it was a sinecure for a recently retired and loyal servant of the club whose job was to look after the Second XI. As I recall, there was very little in the way of actual coaching; indeed any qualification such as a coaching badge was never even contemplated. Now, according to The Secret Cricketer, there are more coaches attached to a county club than you can shake a stick at. He makes mention of the first team party of 18 being the norm for away trips; we had in total 13 – eleven players, a 12th Man and the scorer. Incidentally, TSC points out the variable standard of hotel accommodation on the road. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, except that the very idea of insisting on a swimming pool and a gym as pre-requisites would have made us snort with laughter.
I tend to agree with TSC’s scepticism of the purpose and the influence of so many coaches. It begs the question that if a player doesn’t know how to play by the time he makes his county debut, the chances are that he never will. He should not have got that far if there are still glaring deficiencies in his technique and his temperament. Barry Richards – always one to think outside the box – has always believed that the top players ought to have their own coach, much like they have in golf, privately hired and on call whenever and wherever, not breathing down their charge’s neck at the end of each day’s play. TSC has rated only two coaches in his long career, both of whom offer advice only when it is required; often just a word or a small technical adjustment is all that is needed. As for the rest of them, with their mantras and their cliches, their PowerPoint presentations and their gimmicky regimes….they can all take a running jump in the nearest river (but which one he is at pains to disguise).
“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” TSC did not quote the respected West Indian philospher and historian, CLR James, but he is clearly in agreement with the sentiment. The pathway system, the academies, the tyranny of the all-consuming age group management…. it is just a means of employing all these coaches throughout the year. Let the kids go off and do other things and play other sports during the winter months, he says, let them develop interests outside cricket and create a hinterland which will serve them better when the time comes – all too soon – for them to hang up their boots. He bemoans the dire straits in which university cricket finds itself; that is surely no way to produce well-rounded individuals who want to play cricket as well as having a decent education.
All this needless to say was music to my ears, the voice of common sense speaking out, even if anonymously. It must be said, however that the landscape that TSC paints is as strange and unfamiliar to us veterans as the surface of the moon. This is not a bad thing. In many ways, much better but, well, different. Money. Cricket fans, enthusiasts and pundits, find the professional cricketer’s obsession with pay a little unseemly, no doubt a throwback to the old amateur ethos. “You’re getting paid to play cricket…and you’re complaining?” seems to be the implication, forgetting that this is his job, and a short and mighty precarious one too. In this regard, TSC’s focus on what should be an fair reward for a day’s work is no different from that of Sydney Barnes, and others (including the great WG), over one hundred years ago. The difference now is the scale of pay. My first contract at Hampshire was worth £900 for the season. Taking into account inflation, that would be worth £9,000 in today’s money. Laughable. TSC says that today’s players could be expected to earn something in the region of £90,000 per annum. That means, in real terms, wages have incresed ten times. Yet, in a sense, it doesn’t really matter. I have never heard an ex-professional of my era utter a word of resentment towards the modern player for the amount of pay he gets. “Good luck to them,” is the cheerful reaction, “We had our time and loved it. This is their time and they deserve all they can get.”
Mind you, there was no such thing as an agent back in the day. The only agents we had any dealings with were estate agents who would be setting exorbitant rents for a six-month let. Another huge change - not exclusive to cricket, obviously - has been social media. On balance, I should say that the cricketer of yore would not have welcomed the intrusive nature of the beast; I can think of plenty of players who would have been horrified if their nocturnal pursuits were the stuff of public knowledge, let alone what they had for breakfast and with whom.
TSC mulls over the different skills on display for the red ball and white ball game. He is perfectly happy with playing both forms but can see a time when the two disciplines might well become separated. There are pundits in the media who claim that the two formats are already two wholly different games and should be considered so – a bit like rugby league and rugby union. Already, there is a cohort of international players who ply their trade in franchises all over the world and for whom Test cricket had become an anachronism. TSC does not desire the demise of the longer form of the game but recognises the financial imperative that drives these mercenaries. Why turn down mega-bucks to bowl just 4 overs in a T20 franchise in order to flog yourself bowling 40 overs in a Test match for a fraction of the wage? As he says, it’s a ‘no brainer’.
I was heartened by TSC’s final thoughts. Cricket is a wonderful game and playing it for a living is a joy and a privilege. The friends he has made will last a lifetime and in this I can reassure him. There is a fraternity, a brotherhood, a kinship amongst cricketers, which lasts long into retirement. I was also cheered by his assertion that 99% of them are honest – in the sense that they would have nothing to do with match-fixing – and that the overwhelming majority are ‘good blokes’. Even the ones who smash you for four or who habitually welcome your arrival at the crease with a bouncer. Once the heat and the dust of battle have long since died down, common bonds forged in combat remain unbroken. He will be surprised. The nasty fast bowler who tried to knock his block off will turn out to be the nicest fellow imaginable. Years after the Civil War in America had been fought, there were social get-togethers of veterans from both the Confederate and Unionist sides, when tales were told, toasts were drunk and old enmities buried. It’s a bit like that when the Professional Cricketers Association have their annual reunion. Perhaps, when TSC retires and joins us in the marquee (nobody ever watches a single ball of the cricket, by the way), he will reveal his identity. He will have no fear; there is no PowerPoint presentation and the sole whiteboard in sight has no more than a large arrow pointing the way to the loos.