Following England’s emphatic victory over India at Headingly which has left the series finely poised at 1-1, Compare.bet spoke exclusively to former England batsman and batting coach Mark Ramprakash. The former Middlesex and Surrey batsman gave his thoughts on the remaining two tests at The Oval and Old Trafford, the impact of the ECB on test cricket and Jofra Archer’s future in the test format. Ramprakash also highlighted the importance Virat Kholi’s love of the five day format has in India, as well as expressing his dismay at the downward trajectory his beloved Arsenal have taken in recent years.
- ‘The ECB have done quite a lot of damage to test cricket’
- On Archer: ‘that’s over-bowling and England didn’t get the balance right’
- ‘I’m not sure we’ll see [Archer] playing test cricket again’
- ‘This series is the best I’ve seen Joe captain’
- ‘The key thing with test cricket is you’ve got the India captain Virat Kohli saying he still loves test cricket’
- ‘While that was an amazing victory for Bangladesh… I think we’ll see a different Australia in the World Cup.’
- On Supporting Arsenal: ‘I look at that dressing room and think “Where are the leaders?”‘
BM: England won the third test with a dominance we have rarely seen from them. How do you see the rest of the series playing out?
MR: It’s fantastically poised isn’t it? I’m meeting people at the golf club and they’re enthused by test cricket which is great to hear because we’ve had this new tournament, The Hundred, launched this summer. But we’ve got two very good teams, very competitive teams, but they are inconsistent. We’ve got a real test on our hands. It was an emphatic performance by England led by their bowlers, obviously bowling India out for 78 which for a first innings of a test is unheard of – particularly when Virat won the toss and batted, which was very unusual. But it was led, as so often happens when England have won in recent years, by Jimmy Anderson with his new ball spell, and the others backed him up brilliantly. And I think when you bowl someone out for 78, it then gives your batters a lot of confidence. And of course, Haseeb Hammed and Rory Burns went out and played beautifully and set a great platform for our innings. So that was excellent. In terms of the rest of the series, I normally sit on the fence and I may have to sit on the fence for this one because it’s a hard one to predict. You would say that this thing of momentum is with England, however, I’m not sure what type of pitch they’re going to encounter at the Oval. Now normally it tends to be quite dry which might bring Ravi Ashwin into the India team, who’s ranked number two in the world spin bowler, and the last match is at Old Trafford which has a reputation of being spin friendly. So those sorts of things will play a part. Whether England’s bowlers will be as effective at the Oval remains to be seen. But you know, it’s 1-1 and it’s all to play for so it’s hard to say who is on top at the moment. But I’m due to be at the Oval for the first day and everyone will be fascinated by what type of pitch they produce there.
BM: Root scored yet another century for England on Thursday, but was backed up by far better performances from the top four. Have England finally turned a corner with regards to their batting line up?
MR: Possibly yes. I’m a massive fan of Haseeb Hameed. I was lucky enough to be England’s batting coach when he toured India about four or five years ago now. I think he was 19 or 20, and he batted brilliantly, beautifully. He had a very good temperament, which of course playing sport at the highest level you need good temperament, it’s not like you want to be making a reckless challenge as a central midfielder on 42 minutes and get yourself sent off. And also that you can handle the spotlight of international cricket, and for someone so young, Hameed did that, he ticked all the boxes and he also has a very solid orthodox game which you want from your opening batters because they face the ball when it’s new and moving around. So if you’ve got orthodox basics, they tend to repeat. Now that brings me to Mr Burns, and Sibley and probably one or two others, who don’t have orthodox basics. So while they’ve done well on occasion, sometimes you also feel their idiosyncrasies go against them. Rory Burns has had five ducks this summer, although he got an excellent 100 against New Zealand, so I think Burns has done really well to keep fighting and battling away. But hopefully these two can go well in the next couple of tests and then we will hopefully see the Ashes go ahead and they can continue on in Australia which is usually a good place to bat, because although the wickets are bouncy, it’s normally consistent bounce. So hopefully these two will establish themselves.
BM: England have seen 22 different opening combinations following Andrew Strauss’s retirement in 2013. But with Burns and Hameed, England seem to have found a calm and dependable opening pair. Do you think they can lead England into the Ashes this winter? If not, who else do you think can take the opening slots?
MR: That’s an amazing stat, isn’t it? And what that is, is it’s a reflection of the scheduling of county cricket being put in April and May when the weather’s not great and then again we’re seeing four 4-dayers in September. So we’re seeing the bulk of our four-day cricket in conditions that suit medium pace wobblers. It’s quite difficult for batsmen and spin bowlers, so as a result we’re struggling to produce those players, I think. I think that the batting line up, I’m pleased that they’ve recalled some experience because it looked as if they were putting all their eggs in one basket with Crawley, Sibley, Pope and Lawrence. But why is it that experienced players who have had a taste of international cricket can’t come again? Dawid Malan has shown run making ability in different formats for England, he’s an experienced guy, I thought it was a really good decision to go back to him. We shouldn’t discount someone like James Vince who made something like 83 in the first test of the Ashes four years ago, he’s still a quality player. But ultimately, for these experienced players, if they want to do it, if they still have the drive, desire, and ambition to play test cricket, the selectors should sound them out and they shouldn’t be excluded from selection. We tend to say that your peak years as a batsman are between 25 and 35, so we shouldn’t discount these players. At the same time, you’re also looking at what talented players are coming through. I’m a massive fan of Ollie Pope and Zak Crawley and I think they will have excellent international careers. But they both need to get some runs, but that is not easy given the scheduling. It’s kinda almost if they do well it’s in spite of the scheduling, not because of it.
BM: England’s batting certainly improved during the last test, thanks largely to the reinstatement of Dawid Malan at number 3. But given that he was brought in to replace the ailing Sibley and Crawley, do you think Chris Silverwood and selectors have been making the best decisions, especially with regards to squad rotation?
MR: Well I didn’t like what they did in India, I didn’t get that, I was critical of that and what I mean by that is that they had preplanned rest periods for certain players in India. Now, if we go back to the winter, they had two tests against Sri Lanka and four against India. Now playing India in India is probably the toughest challenge right now that an international cricketer can have so why on earth would they not pick their strongest team? But they decided not to, they picked their strongest available squad for the one day series, and I think that kinda tells you where the ECB and Chris Silverwood are at. They are prioritising white ball cricket, white ball trophies, and Joe Root has not been helped by this prioritsiation. So he’s got to fight his corner as England captain, he’s got to try and push to make sure he has his best cricketers available for test matches. Now Moeen Alli, he was unfortunate with covid, and then he was brought back for one of the England games, but then there was a preplanned rest period for him, which was ludicrous in the circumstances. I think it was the same with Johnny Bairstow, he did quite well against Sri Lanka, and then had a preplanned rest period in India. So that didn’t work for me. The selections in this series, I watched Hameed bat at lunch time during the New Zealand test match at Lords, he wasn’t in the team, but he was practicing at lunch, and as I said he’s got such good basics, he just looks a very good orthodox player, so for me he had to play the first test against India, he should have played that first game. Eventually, he’s got himself in the side, so let’s hope has as long a run and as much support as the others have like Sibley and Crawley, but I think they’ve got their in the end. It would be easy for someone to say they feel the progression with the England test side looks disjointed at the moment, but hopefully they’re coming along to a formula that might work for the winter.
BM: James Anderson and Stuart Broad are defying their ages by continuing to lead England’s bowling attack. But with both of them now well into their 30s and many of England’s quicks riddled with injury, how do you think England’s bowling attack can cope when they retire?
MR: Well it’s hard, isn’t it, to see that day when they aren’t leading the attack. But you’re right it will come inevitably. But I think to some degree, when I was involved in the team, watching Broad and Anderson opening the bowling with the new ball and often opening sessions and bowling at the best times to bowl because they were the best bowlers, sometimes that can restrict opportunities for development of other players in the team. Now when they’re not in the team, as has happened when Broad has been missing, Robinson has got the opportunity to open the bowling with the new ball which obviously is a responsibility, but he has clearly risen to it and been really accurate and done it really well. So it might be that when Anderson finally hangs up his boots, we see other bowlers step into those shoes and take on that responsibility and then grow because they have the opportunity. I’m a big fan of Craig Overton, he’s 6 ft 4, he’s very accurate, he hits the pitch hard, he’s got plenty of character, plenty of aggression. He was in the Ashes four years ago and I think he showed a lot of character. And I think there are other bowlers around. I know that there’s a lot of talk about Archer, I’m not sure we’ll see him playing test cricket again given the severity of his injury. Mark Wood they’ve got to look after and hopefully he can play a part in the Ashes. And then you’ve got people like Chris Woakes to perhaps come back and help out. But there are spots in the next two years that you think would provide opportunities in that test match bowling line up, which if you’re an aspiring young quick, that would make you feel if you do well you can put your name in the hat.
BM: Kohli has struggled in England again, averaging 27.15 for this calendar year. What are his biggest problems when batting in England?
MR: Well he’s not alone, his problem is basically the same problem that everyone has and that is knowing where your off stump is. And so far, Virat has not been able to replicate what he did four years ago. I think he scored over 500 runs in the series three years ago and Anderson didn’t get him out. And he owned the top off stump. Essentially all seam bowlers, they bowl a lot of balls around the top of off stump, and as a batsman, if you own that area, you’ll inevitably get bad balls. And Kholi did that three years ago, he was so solid and decisive about what to play and what to leave and that earned him a lot of bad balls over time. And if you see his dismissal at Lords against Curran, or his dismissal again at Headingley, he’s pushing out at balls that aren’t threatening the wicket. So why is he playing defensively at them? If he was going for an aggressive shot, ok he’s looking to score off it. But if you’re defending a ball that’s not going to hit the wicket, why bother. And that’s the trick for any batsman really in a test series is to try and know where your off stump is, what to play and what to leave.
BM: Before the series against India began, Joe Root enjoyed a 50% win rate as captain. There are some, however, who feel that he hasn’t achieved everything he could have done in that time. How would you rate his time as captain?
MR: I think that when he was made captain, I was in favour of it because he was the overwhelming obvious candidate. Joe has many qualities, he’s a world class batsman and England’s best batsman. He’s a very popular guy in the dressing room, he can easily move in different circles. He can easily go for dinner with Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali, he can go to dinner with Jos Buttler or Jimmy Anderson, it doesn’t matter, he gravitates to different people and personalities very easily, he’s a very popular guy. But when he took over the captaincy for England, he’d done very little at county level and I think he was learning on the job. When I was involved, I wasn’t sure how much support and help he was getting from the management. For a young captain, I think you need one or two people whose opinions and feelings you value to reflect on a test match or a day of a test match with, to be able to talk to and think about if certain situations arose again what would I do. So I think his captaincy has been a bit of learning on the job, I think it’s getting better, in fact I think as a captain – despite the mad hour at Lords – I think in this series this is the best I’ve seen Joe captain because I think a lot of the time, with his field placings and bowling changes, he’s been ahead of the game, whereas very often in previous years, I felt he was behind the game and being reactive. And I think he’s growing in confidence as a captain. So often we think of captains and what they can’t do, but Joe Root has a lot of qualities and a lot of attributes, and there’s a lot of things he does very well.
BM: Do you think then that someone like Alister Cook might have not given him a good enough chance in handing over the captaincy?
MR: Well you know when captaincy comes along, you don’t know when it will be available. It can come along very quickly at international level, when you think about Hussain, he gave up pretty much on the spur of the moment after one particular test. So sometimes you don’t know when that captaincy will become available. But I think part of management’s job is to have succession planning and to make sure that there are other leaders in the dressing room who are capable of taking on the mantle. And the thing is if you have a test side that’s in transition with a lot of young players, you look around at potential captains and there might not be that many there. So without Ben Stokes in that England environment at the moment, there aren’t a lot of candidates. I think we look back to that mad hour England had at Lords and really you would have thought that Jos Buttler, standing behind the stumps, would have said to Joe Root, ‘hang on a minute, have we got this right?’ And I’m surprised he didn’t.
BM: ECB chief executive Tom Harrison has said that he is “confident” the Ashes series will go ahead in Australia this winter, despite Covid concerns. How realistic do you think this claim is with players such as Jos Buttler still unsure about his participation?
MR: Well I guess you can’t blame Jos Buttler for voicing those concerns, especially in the current climate. He has to be a little bit careful because if people are going to the IPL and being away from their families to earn a lot of money, when it comes to playing for your country and you express reservations, then people might start to think, ‘hold on a minute, have you quite got your priorities right there?’ They may question that. But on the one hand I think it’s good that he feels he can voice those concerns as a senior England player and it can give other players confidence that they can also give their opinions. And I think with someone who plays all formats like Jos Buttler, he could potentially be away for a very long time and you can understand why he would want to know and have reassurances that his family would be able to accompany him for at least part of the time. So I think that is important and hopefully, the Australian cricket board can speak to the Australian government and say, this is quite important, because the test series is so iconic and because it’s going to be so great for both countries and great for sport to continue the best it can in these challenging times. But I understand the players’ desire for assurance on that part. But look, I hope it goes ahead and if it does it’s going to be a fascinating test series.
BM: England have won just one series in Australia in 25 years. Do you think our current crop of players are good enough to reclaim the urn this winter? And if not, where are your areas of concern?
MR: Well we do have areas of concern and I think if we were to retain the Ashes, you’re going to have to see two to three players really establish themselves and have breakthrough series. So for example if an Ollie Pope were to get selected and bat number five, for England to win the Ashes, we need another player who’s going to get 450 runs in the series. We would need a bowler, potentially a spin bowler like Moeen Ali or Jack Leach, we need a spin or seam bowler to take 25-30 wickets in the series to back up Anderson. We need two or three players to have breakout series, perhaps Rory Burns to get 500 runs in the series, something like that. Because right now you have to say we are a side in transition, it’s pretty obvious to see that. We’ve still been managing to remain strong at home in our home conditions, but it always tests us when we go away. I mean the Australian side are by no means a finished article either – they’ve got areas of concern that England can certainly exploit. So I think normally I would say going to Australia our batters could enjoy it because the conditions are drier and there’s a bit less lateral moment, but it’s a test for our bowlers to penetrate and get 20 wickets, because the last time we went there we could not get Steve Smith out – that was tough.
BM: Australia aren’t in the best of spots currently with Justin Langer courting a lot of criticism from both inside and outside the camp. Do you think the Ashes is his last chance to rescue his job?
MR: I don’t know whether it’s his last chance, but it’s certainly a high profile series and there’ll be a lot of scrutiny. I haven’t followed the comments and what’s been happening really closely. I understand that there’s been some things made of Justin perhaps fluctuating in his moods, or, I would say being passionate. It’s not always easy as a coach, especially at the highest level, to conceal your emotions. It’s important and you don’t want to transmit any sort of fragility or anxiousness to the players. But at the same time, the Australians should know that Justin Langer was passionate and very determined as a player – that’s him as a bloke. He’s very authentic as a coach. He’s got so much knowledge and I think very highly of him. I think he’s a very good coach. Some of the players in the Australian outfit in the past, I feel that when they have criticised coaches, there may have been some merit in it but at the same time it often comes from players that perhaps haven’t been performing that well. Ultimately as a player, it doesn’t matter who’s coaching the team. When you cross that white line it’s down to you, you’ve got to take on that responsibility.
BM: Steve Smith is a player who England struggled to get out during the last Ashes series. As a middle order batsman yourself, where would you rank him in terms of the best ever?
MR: These guys have all had patches. Kohli, Root – Root is in the middle of an amazing patch of form, we’re seeing something very special from an English player right now. The guy is sublime, he’s doing it on a different level. I can’t remember an English player playing like this, ever – having this consistency and this level of absolute class. Steve Smith has had periods – that Ashes tour when we just couldn’t get him out, we threw everything at him but he was just so consistent. He had his own method worked out and in those conditions, we couldn’t get him out. In England, where the ball moves a bit more, there was a little bit more vulnerability, not a lot, but a little bit more. The thing I’d say about Steve Smith – you look at the best players in the world right now – Kohli, Root, Williamson. They’re pretty orthodox. If you had any young player and they said to you, ‘how do you bat?’ and you said, ‘ok watch these guys’. They’re all pretty orthodox and do the basics well. Steve Smith’s different, he’s got his own method, his own way. It’s a very individual way of playing. Clearly it works for him, but it’s something that is innate to him. He’s worked that out. So that’s the only thing I’d say about his method, that it’s different to the others. I think that’s great – the fact that in cricket, you can have a lot of people that do the basics well, but you have plenty of room for the unorthodox. Bumrah is an example of that and Steve Smith is also a great example of that.
BM: Australia’s fast bowling unit was one of the best we’ve ever seen when they toured England two years ago and they will undoubtedly be even more threatening at home. How should England’s batters set up to take them on?
MR: There’s no easy answer. But when we went there four years ago, they had Starc opening the bowling. Now you know with his new ball spell, there is a high percentage of balls that will be pitched up and will be looking to swing into the right hander or go across to the slip cordon. So you know a lot of balls will be pitched up at you and what that means is that you can almost set yourself for those, and then you only have to put a couple away and you’re getting fours. So that’s his style of bowling with the new ball. Hazelwood is completely different, right arm, hits back of a length, very accurate, he’s not a very easy guy to get on top of. Cummins again is a very different guy. He has a high percentage of balls that are short, but also full, and he can mix up his lengths quite a lot. So you’ve really got to be on your toes because he’s quick, he’s aggressive, and it’s not just the short balls it’s the follow-up balls that can be the real danger. So I’m assuming those three will be fit and around. Nathan Lyon of course, they tend to play four bowlers and Nathan Lyon plays a huge part. I don’t think we’ve played him well enough, we need to be busier, more proactive. Of course, if you’re three or four down by the time he comes on that never helps, but I think all of our players need to work out how they’re going to score off Nathan Lyon and how they’re going to be quite busy towards him, knowing how they can rotate the strike. And if they can do that, he tends to bowl a high percentage of the overs, so if they tick him over and don’t allow him to completely control the run rate, then at least we’re scoring at one end.
BM: England’s wicket keeper position bears a little bit of uncertainty going into the Ashes. Obviously with Buttler uncertain about whether he’ll play and Johnny Bairstow’s difficulty in the position himself, how do you see someone like Ben Foakes, injury permitting, forcing himself into the team?
MR: I’m a big fan of Foakes. I felt that about a year ago, it looked to me like England were going to go down the road of picking Burns, Crawley, Pope and I thought Foakes might come into it. I thought they would go with players that they felt got out of bed in the morning and thought ‘how can I be a better test cricketer?’ Because there’s so much white ball cricket played, and it’s not easy to go between the two formats. I wondered whether England were trying to grow a young group of players that would be primarily test match players. I felt that Foakes, as a wicket keeper-batsman, was someone England could invest in, because he’s clearly the best with the gloves, hands down. He’s the best wicket-keeper, clearly. As a kid he was a very good batsman, and he’s made a test 100 hasn’t he, on his debut, so he’s clearly got a very good temperament. He’s just been really unlucky with injuries. I think, as so often with wicket-keepers, their batting comes under scrutiny. So England will probably think ‘how are we going to get the most runs as a batting group?’ So Ben Foakes needs to make sure he has the game that can be successful at test match level, and that means being able to play 85-90 mile an hour bowling, and can he score off it? So maybe a cut, or pull and can he cope with good spin? Those are the things he’s going to have to show to break past Butler and Bairstow. Bairstow is probably the best all-rounder package I think they gave the gloves to Butler because Bairstow, fair enough, took his eye off test cricket as he was so preoccupied with opening in white ball cricket when England prioritised trying to win the World Cup. He was very much at the forefront of that and was very important there, but I still think he’s the best all round package for test cricket. Butler still doesn’t seem to know how he’s going to approach it when he walks out in test cricket. Still doesn’t seem happy with how he’s going to approach his test match betting. I think Bairstow is the best option as wicket keeper-batsman – he got 100 in Perth in the last Ashes test match and he’s a good character to have in that England dressing room.
BM: England have struggled to find a consistent spinner for some time now, cycling through Jack Leach, Dom Bess and now Moeen Ali. Who do you think is the right choice for the drier and dustier wickets of Australia?
MR: We don’t have loads of spinners. I could bang on about it, but our scheduling has been terrible in attempting to produce young spinners and give them an opportunity in four-day cricket, so domestically, it’s no wonder the cupboard is bare. Moeen Ali has taken close to 200 test wickets, so he’s a good cricketer. I’m glad to see Dom Bess doing well at Yorkshire and playing a prominent role and getting overs under his belt, that’s really important. I watched Jack Leach bowl at the Oval earlier this year in Somerset v Surrey and he bowled really well. I thought he looked like he had improved. He looked more confident, more rhythmical, more accurate. As a left arm spinner, if it does get dry, he’s someone we can throw the ball to and we have to back him in those conditions. New Zealand are in a similar position – their wickets don’t turn much and they don’t have spinners with huge wicket-taking records. But when the ball turns, they bring them along, set the right field and try to bring them on at the right time and back them and help them grow as bowlers. We have to do that with Jack Leach. So often, the balance of the team depends on whether you make runs. If your first five or six batsmen are in form and getting runs, it becomes so much easier to play your best or most threatening spinner. So Moeen Ali, an all-rounder, is in there because he can bowl and bat, but Jack Leach takes the ball away from the right handers. If you look at the India batting line up, it’s quite a lot of right handers, so he might come into the equation for the Oval and Old Trafford and I think if he plays he’ll do a more than competent job.
BM: England will be without Jofra Archer for the remainder of the year through injury, meaning he will miss the Ashes and the T20I World Cup, as well as the IPL. Do you think he has been overworked by Joe Root and the England selectors?
MR: There have been a couple of instances where I’ve been surprised at how much he’s bowled. The first would be his debut at Lords against Australia. Joe Root was like someone with a new toy, it was like someone playing outside with a new remote control car. Jofra Archer bowled far too many of the opening 25 overs from the Pavillion End – that’s not right, that’s over-bowling and England didn’t get the balance right there. I was in New Zealand watching the test side there and he ended up bowling an awful lot of overs in very tough conditions, so it’s a tricky one. There’s been periods where Jofra has played a lot of one day and twenty over cricket where they actually don’t bowl that much, but you come into two tests in New Zealand on flat wickets, and because they are flat wickets, they end up bowling a lot more than they previously have the last five-six weeks. So they’re not necessarily conditioned for it, it’s also part of the problem we’ve seen with Anderson and Broad approaching this test match series as they’ve hardly played any four day cricket before the series – it was difficult for them to be conditioned leading into the series. This injury that Archer has, I’m not sure we’ve got it right either. England are very lucky with top people in the medical profession but if I remember rightly they made him play through it, then took him out and he had an injection and they tried to bring him back, now we’re told it’s a fracture and needs more time to heal – this is the same injury that’s been going on for a long time. I’m not sure we got the diagnosis correct at the start of it and the way we looked to bring him through it. It’s easy with hindsight but it’s turned out to be a very serious injury. There have to be questions asked if in the future he can bowl for long periods, and once there’s a weakness in one particular area that’s clearly from bowling, weather it’ll reoccur.
BM: With The Hundred now over, what do you think it’s lasting impact on the game will be?
MR: I think the ECB have pushed it through – the benefits to me are there’s a men’s and women’s competition running parallel and it’s back on the BBC. The ECB have spent an absolute fortune to push this competition through and it has to work. I think it’s been very well received by and large. It’s not really aimed at the existing cricket fanbase – so it’s not really aimed at me, it’s aimed at young people and a different audience that hopefully will see it and like it so that’s good for the game. I’ve also said when T20 comes in I hope T20 and Test Cricket can coexist, and I feel the same about The Hundred. There’s a congestion in our scheduling, there’s too much cricket and too many competitions really and you have this battle between the counties that own the T20 Blast and get the revenue from it, and then you have the ECB saying ‘Well actually we want to have our own competition because we’ll get the income from that’. So we’ve had this power battle going on, whether that’ll sort itself out in years to come I’m not sure of the ramifications – will some counties see their best players leave? Sussex have seen two of their best players leave in Jordan and Salt to go to supposed big counties or places where The Hundred is played at those grounds. So what the longer term ramifications of the tournament will be domestically we’re yet to see.
BM: For all it’s qualities, The Hundred remains another short form of the game. Do you think it can co-exist alongside tournaments like the T20 Blast and what will its effect be on test cricket?
MR: The key thing with test cricket is you’ve got the India captain Virat Kohli saying he still loves test cricket and he’s still very passionate about test cricket – that’s really important because 1.3 billion Indians are the main market for cricket. So as long as the Indian captain is saying that, there’s hope for test cricket. Joe Root is of the same opinion, that test cricket is still the ultimate pinnacle of the game. We need our top players to recognise that, to keep promoting test cricket because as far as I can see the ECB have done quite a lot to damage test cricket. We saw the prioritisation of trying to win the world cup for four years, and now we’ve won it they’ve completely sidelined the 50 over tournament. A lot of the comments coming out of the ECB are that no one’s watching test cricket and at the end of every test match day they’re promoting The Hundred instead of dwelling on the fantastic entertainment we’ve seen on that test match day. So I feel test cricket is fighting to retain it’s fanbase and place in the game. So as long as the top players are fighting that cause, it’s a good sign. In every other country it’s T20 franchises. So the ECB have taken a huge gamble with this Hundred concept. Whether it’ll be played just in England or other countries I don’t know, but T20 and The Hundred is essentially the same thing, it’s quick entertainment, it’s action cricket that’s over in a limited amount of time and you get a result, and that’s very appealing.
BM: One of the best effects of The Hundred was the increased coverage the women’s game earned. What do you think can be done to take women’s cricket to the next level?
MR: I don’t know a huge amount about the women’s game, I have to be honest. I know that the ECB abolished the women’s competition a couple of years ago, or one of the competitions so that it could run this new competition in parallel to the men’s, with The Hundred. It seems that the women’s game is growing very quickly, and that’s great news. There’s a huge market there, and hopefully there are a lot of young ladies that are looking at cricket and thinking, ‘Yeah I can do that, I’m going to enjoy that’. So, it’s the same old thing really – if it’s being promoted on the BBC then that’s great because it’s going to reach a much bigger audience. In terms of schools, that’s tricky because private schools are miles ahead of state schools at the moment. State school cricket is almost non-existent and the facilities I see in private schools are amazing. That’s a tricky one. In terms of clubs, and I learned my cricket through my local club, so clubs have a huge part to play. Hopefully the ECB, the governing body, will continue to channel resources into club cricket.
BM: With the IPL just around the corner, many English players will be leaving their domestic teams to compete in the tournament. Do you think the ECB needs to clamp down on this in order for formats such as county and test cricket to survive?
MR: Well, you’ve got a very tricky thing here because it’s hard to tell our best players that they can’t play in this high-profile competition and earn lots of money. It’s a very difficult thing and the ECB doesn’t want to do that. I think they’ve tried to take the attitude that it’s actually to England’s advantage that our best players play in this competition, because they then go back to play for England and they’ve had experience of playing against other international players in the intensity, with the big crowds, and all of that. So that’s the attitude they’ve taken. But, I agree, there is a place to retain the integrity of domestic competitions, and that is a difficult balance to have. Clearly, the IPL in April and May cuts across the English season and at the moment we’ve had to relent and basically let our players go to that competition. When we played New Zealand at Lords this summer, we were missing some of the IPL players who probably would have played in that test match. So you can see where the power lies and I don’t know that there’s a lot right now that the ECB can do about it. I suppose, in terms of the counties, they have to take the attitude that it provides opportunities for other players to come in and play at county level. So, for example, if Joss Butler is not there to play for Lancashire early-season, it’s an opportunity for another player to play.
BM: The T20I World Cup is only a few months away now. What do you reckon England’s chances of recreating their success in 2010?
MR: I think they’re pretty strong. You know, Stokes… hopefully we’ll get back to seeing him enjoying life on the cricket field again. He’s an important character in that dressing room. The fitness of Archer, we don’t know about. But let’s remember that England got to number one in the world without Archer in the 50 over format, and I think they’ve got enough players now with tournament experience in other parts of the world that they can go use if Archer’s unavailable. I think, if you look through that dressing room, there are some very experienced players. Bairstow, Roy, Buttler, Stokes, Morgan… When other teams look at England, they will see a very experienced, successful outfit with no real weak links.
BM: Liam Livingstone was imperious with the bat throughout The Hundred, while Tymal Mills showed amazing control with the ball. Do you think they deserve a place in the T20 World Cup squad, and if not, who else should be called up?
MR: Yes, yes, absolutely. Livingstone and Mills, definitely. You know, to break into that England team is very difficult. Even to break into the thirteen or fourteen best players is very, very difficult, and they’ve got such strength in depth. But absolutely, I think Mills is looking fit again and is bowling well. Livingtone’s form in that format, the short format, has been outstanding. I think he’s got the X-factor. I mean, it’s such a good team. Alex Hales is still a fantastic player, but is he going to get back? At the moment it doesn’t look like he is, so I think those two would have a great shout to be included in the squad.
BM: Australia recently suffered a humiliating 4-1 series defeat to Bangladesh, which included them being bowled all out for 62. Do you see this as ominous for them heading into the tournament?
I kind of take that as a sort of, you know, a one-off thing. Away from home, in Bangladesh… I think back home, in Australian conditions, the swagger will return and I think they’ll be a different proposition in their home conditions. So no, I think they’re still very much a player. When it comes to tournaments as well, I think they know how to get it done in tournaments. While that was an amazing victory for Bangladesh and all credit to them, I think we’ll see a different Australia in the World Cup.
BM: It’s no secret you’re an Arsenal fan. It’s been a tricky period for the club since Wenger left – what are your thoughts on this current side and Arteta’s performance?
MR: It’s interesting you say ‘Since Wenger left’ because there were so many people who were so determined to get rid of Arsene Wenger. I guess sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for, and the club has never managed to stop that slide out of the top four. When you have success in sport, it’s a fragile thing. It’s so hard to create it, but sustaining it is so difficult. In football, with the amount of money flying around, it’s incredibly difficult. Wenger did it for so long and we had so many good times as Arsenal fans, but now some reality is hitting a little bit and they’ve been struggling. I think Arsenal spent some money in the transfer window and we’ve yet to see the impact of that money spent.
I was surprised with the 2-0 loss against Brentford, and the 2-0 loss against Chelsea. I was surprised at the lineup he put out against City, of all teams. I don’t know how on earth Elneny didn’t start. To me, he can play in a defensively-minded way. To play Smith-Rowe, Odegaard, and Saka, offensive players in midfield… I wondered, when we haven’t got the ball, who’s going to plug the holes? I was disappointed with that. I think it’s really disappointing as a fan when you see the same mistakes year in year, year out. And that’s what we’re seeing, you know. You could literally drive a bus down the middle of the pitch and not get tackled. Then there was the reckless challenge from Xhaka – yet another sending off in his Arsenal career. I look at that dressing room and think ‘Where are the leaders?’ I compare it to cricket: I was very lucky to join an Essex dressing room with a lot of great players, a lot of senior role models, and as a young player that was fantastic for me. I knew that when the pressure was on we had some senior boys around the room who would take it on. But I look at Arsenal and I don’t know who’s leading that dressing room at the moment. I’ve got no idea. And if Xhaka is supposedly a senior player and he’s doing that it’s just… it’s no good to anybody.
Where is the progression? There’s only one team that can win the league, you can accept losing to a degree, but it’s the progression. The money spent, you move to a new stadium, the income from that, and then where is the progression? I think that’s where Arteta has got to start showing the team he’s moving forward. Hopefully that’s by winning matches, but can you go away from home and defend well? We’re not seeing enough of that. I also think he made a mistake as a manager because, when Xhaka walked off, I think he patted him on the back or something. Along with the contract extension, I think for a lot of fans that sticks in the throat. You’ve got to be careful as a manager. Does that deserve a pat on the back? I know he wasn’t condoning it, but you have to outwardly portray to the fans and other players that it’s not acceptable. Once you get a man sent off, it’s very difficult to win the game. As a manager, as a coach, I think the selection was interesting, but I think the reaction to Xhaka… I’d like him to be a bit stronger and blank him as he comes off, and let everyone know, including him, that for Arsenal that standard… There has to be certain things you’re looking for from a team, like character, work rate… at the very least those are the things that you’re looking for, and we’re struggling to see that at the moment.
BM: Do you think there’s an attitude change required, then, to compete with the top four?
MR: It seems to be systemic in the club. It would seem to be that, although he’s moved on some players, it seems to be systemic within the club that there is an attitude. Last year I think it happened by accident that some senior players weren’t available, so he put on Saka, Smith-Rowe, and Martinelli, and all of a sudden, bam! There was a difference, a no-fear attitude, and they went for it. There was an energy to it. This high-intensity football; I thought that’s what Arteta was about. We saw some of that when the youngsters came on. I think if you’ve spent that kind of money in the transfer window you have to back the manager, because otherwise what’s the point? You sack a manager ten matches in, and where are you then? I guess, having spent all that money, you have to give him the season.
BM: You won Strictly Come Dancing in 2006 – do you still keep up with the show?
If there’s a sportsman on it, yeah. I had a great time on it. It was a long time ago, but I had a great time. You know, Michael Vaughan’s been on it, Phil Tuffnell… and if I see other sports people it’s nice to follow them. The show has changed quite a lot and the people on it have changed quite a lot, but it was a tremendous life experience for me. I was very out of my comfort zone, but I had a great time. I was partnered with a great lady. It’s something I look back on very fondly, but the hips don’t move like they used to. I’m a bit older now.
BM: How do you think this year’s group of celebrities will fare? Any favourites?
MR: I must admit I don’t know who’s on it this year, or if there are any sports people or cricketers or… I haven’t heard that there’s a cricketer on it. I live in hope we’ll see a Jimmy Anderson or a Freddie Flintoff go on it, but we’ll see.