Already, the plane crash feels like it was a long time ago. Yet at the start of the year English cricket was a mess, a twisted mangled wreckage and, while the blackbox was never found, you assume it recorded little more than management speak and an insistence on ‘taking the positives’.
Today, it can be hard to even remember the men that went down in that crash. We’ve arrived somewhere new, a place where the sixes are long, the slip cordons enormous and the managing director comprehensible. Yet Ashley Giles, Tom Harrison and Chris Silverwood represented a curiously English phenomenon – and one that risks returning unless recognised.
Check the eulogies of Silverwood and Giles and each is recognised as a ‘good bloke’. Criticism is light, despite the Test team’s appalling performance last year and the raft of bad ideas, particularly those spouted by Giles, that led to the mess.
Harrison burnt his reputation with some fans by launching The Hundred and with all fans by gouging out a bonus from the ECB’s then-skint coffers. However, he was seen as something similar to all the others at the time of his appointment: a safe pair of hands, a reliable bloke, a known entity.
All three were from a long line of familiarity and complacency. Indeed, the history of English cricket can be seen as one long battle between the good bokes and the outsiders, between (often vested-interest) conservatism and an ability and desire to think.
The good bokes are amiable, affable chaps. In lieu of speaking intelligently, they opt for the bland and the cliched. Instead of conflict, they seek resolution. They like their conservatism with a small ‘c’ and their Duke’s ball with a large seam .
Once they were the Gentlemen, but today their type is less clear, though they seem to always be white and are always in agreement with each other. Good blokes are good at getting onto, appeasing and managing committees. Good blokes agree with good blokes, good blokes hire good blokes, good blokes like good blokes.
Unsurprisingly then, the main problem with good blokes is groupthink. At its most benign, this leads to the Ashes fiasco in which over-planning caused muddled selection, stupid tactics and another drubbing. It can lead to long, slow failures or quick, sudden ones. Either way, good blokes tend to lead badly.
English cricket is saved by outsiders. Its best teams have been led by Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower, outsiders not afraid to tell the good blokes where to go and only appointed after disasters that fully exposed the previous good bloke regimes. At each point their work ruined as the higher up good blokes appointed the same good bloke, Peter Moores, to replace them.
Perhaps the best example of the outsider is Eoin Morgan. Nowadays it seems inconceivable that Alastair Cook was kept as ODI captain for so long. While world cricket moved forwards, England’s ODI cricket stayed stuck and stodgy.
But remember, then-Chairman Giles Clarke said that Cook ‘and his family are very much the sort of people we want the England captain and his family to be’. Cook was a good blow. Sacking him was too disruptive and only happened, as change always happens, after an utter catastrophe. Morgan thankfully burnt Cook’s ODI legacy and, in doing so, shaped a team full of outsiders and diverse talent.
England’s current potential saviours, Brendon McCullum, Ben Stokes and Rob Key, are similarly outside of the good bloke mold. They think differently and speak clearly. Like the others, their appointment was only made possible by the team’s complete breakdown. Hopefully, like the other outsiders, they lead English cricket to new highs.
The risk, though, is that they will one day be replaced by the good blokes. English cricket tires of outsiders. Yet it can no longer afford to. The events of the past two years show what happens when a good bloke culture is dominant.
Middlesex’s chairman, Mike O’Farrell, who seems every ounce the good bloke, can tell a Parliamentary Committee lazy racial stereotypes because that’s what he’s heard from other good blokes. Jofra Archer can be roundly accused of ‘not trying’ by the good blokes, even as he bowls his elbow to dust. Good bokes can go on apartheid tours then fall comfortably into semi-retirement in Lord’s committee rooms.
These are just a few examples and aim not to suggest good blokes are themselves racist. Rather, they show how good bloke culture leads to bad outcomes.
Good blokes can oversee institutional prejudice because to do otherwise would disrupt the friendly good bloke atmosphere, and to know that such prejudice exists would require talking to people outside of the good bloke bubble. Good bloke culture is unknowingly exclusive, because it rests on shared assumptions and behaviours, and is reinforced by a shared reluctance towards being challenged.
Most importantly, the huge, disruptive change that is required to combat cricket’s racism problem will be hard to achieve within a world led by good bokes. Rather, good bokes are likely to stick to writing buzzword quotes for CSR reports and holding Moments of Unity.
Similarly, what can good blokes really do about cricket’s growing eliism? How can they really understand what’s required when their world is so familiar, secure and within cricket?
We need something bigger, and we need outsiders. The hope is that the situation is dire enough that it leads to this change.
English cricket can no longer afford to be run by good blokes, either on or off the field. Good blokes’ lazy thinking, tendency to speak in muddled terms rather than act, and desire for comfort are just too limiting to allow for real, significant change. Let’s hope this time they’re gone for good.