4 years. 3 balls. 2 wickets. Wayne Parnell.

To fix Wayne Parnell, Vincent Barnes used some rope.

Barnes was at one time South Africa’s bowling coach but now he is involved with the high performance squad, and something had to be done to get higher performances out of Parnell. The young talent had been lost in a sea of professional shirts. Delhi Daredevils, Eastern Province, Kent, Pune Warriors, Sussex and the Warriors have had their piece of Parnell. And he is only 24.

Somewhere between airport lounges, he lost what they all wanted, and South Africa cricket was losing him as well.

Early in his career, which started when he was still 17, it looked like Parnell was going to be a long-term hit. A fast-bowling left-hander who could get movement and bat a bit. Of recent times his batting had disappeared. His bowling had lost its accuracy and movement. And South Africa simply moved on.

Marchant de Lange, Kyle Abbott, Ryan McLaren, Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Rory Kleinveldt have all been used while Parnell was out of Test cricket. Not to mention Vernon Philander, who has fitted 100 wickets at better than 20 into that timeframe. If any team in world cricket could walk away from someone like Parnell, it was South Africa.

But Kallis is gone, so things have changed quickly. So despite only two First Class matches with some success this year, he found himself in a squad to play Australia. And four years and three days after his last Test for South Africa, Parnell was running into bowl on a pitch the Australia bowlers and South Africa batsman had gone out of their way to prove had less life in it than a dime store mannequin. Australia took two wickets with seam, Parnell was the fourth seamer. It could have gone very wrong.

This is a bowler who has found himself in some trouble in the past. He was sucked in by the good life of cricket. He was in the South Africa team at 19, playing for Kent at the same age. He had money and a bright future, you can see how he found himself at a raided rave in India. His heart even had an irregular beat at one stage, putting even more doubt into him coming back to International cricket.

Parnell has changed. Young players who show promise often disappear just as quickly. If they are really good you hope they either find a mentor, or fix themselves. Parnell has had both. With some rope and cones to correct his run-up, Barnes has clearly got him bowling very well. He looks upright and relaxed at the crease, and if you can get movement on this pitch you must have a superior wrist.

But Parnell has also clearly changed himself. He has a new faith, one that means he doesn’t want certain sponsor logos on his shirt. At 24 he has tasted something that he hadn’t at 19: failure. So now the new bowler is back, having seen off two others in the squad who have been used in his absence with only eight first-class wickets this season.

For a seasoned Test bowler, looking at this pitch was like looking at a hard day waiting to happen. For a young guy getting a surprise second chance after being out of Test cricket for a sixth of his life, it must have looked like heaven.

The second delivery he bowled was left alone.

The first ball squared up Alex Doolan from a good length. South Africa had run out of options with Doolan and in one ball the guy with a first-class average of 32.94 and a huge collection of frequent flyer points had taken Australia’s new No. 3.

The third ball was full, it drew Shaun Marsh into a shot, then it moved away, more than virtually all the sideways movement achieved by Australia’s bowlers combined, and he had more wickets than any other seamer in the match.

Later he would come back in and, after wasting an over with short balls to Nathan Lyon, he was right back in there and should have taken this third wicket (making him more successful than Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris and even the mighty Mitchell Johnson combined) only for JP Duminy to drop Lyon at gully. Australia found no edges that carried to anyone, Parnell took three.

In six overs he out-bowled the world’s top four, according to the ICC rankings, including the best (Dale Steyn) and the most in-form (Johnson).

He might not take another wicket this Test but by bowling as well as he did, he has already given his side a chance of winning a game that people were already marking down as a dull and dreary draw. His hair made everyone interested, his wickets kept them that way. Suddenly the option to pick a fourth seamer wasn’t a mistake, but a masterstroke.

It was a long four years. A short three balls. And a glorious two wickets. It might be a long time before he gets four years off again.

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Standing in the shadow of giants armed with a clipboard: the Domingo/allrounder story

When David Warner was dropped for the second time, it became clear there was something really wrong with this South Africa team. Morne Morkel came in, unlike many times when he simply almost came in, and the ball took off one of this Centurion pitch’s many uneven parts and Warner cut hard at a ball that was flying upwards. The edge went very quick, and kept going up, in the direction of second slip.

It was a hard catch, and it went down.

Second slip is where Jacques Kallis stood during the last three decades.

Ryan McLaren and Graeme Smith were quite clear that the reason South Africa chose to bowl first was because of history and statistics. Michael Clarke thought the pitch might play up for a session, then even out after lunch. Australia lost three wickets before lunch, one after lunch. Sometimes you can look at the numbers and read them exactly right, and still be wrong.

Smith would have made this decision in conjunction with the stats-loving Russell Domingo.

Domingo is sitting in the chair that Gary Kirsten used to sit in as South Africa’s head coach.

Old-school cricket wisdom, the sort that leans on bars and tells you why the youngster won’t make any runs against a real attack, tells you that how a side acts in the field shows where they are mentally. Well South Africa acted like a side that didn’t believe in themselves. They fielded like a side without hope. And they did it on day one, before they truly felt the power of Mitchell Johnson.

They held most of their catches that day. But they fumbled almost everything else. Morkel moved around the field terribly slowly, except for the moment he hit the ground incredibly slowly. Hashim Amla walked past a ball in the outfield. There were overthrows. And if they had a plan, Smith’s captaincy did everything they could to hide it.

By day three, when they had already been Johnsoned, they added dropping multiple catches to the overall act.

They did all of it without a fielding coach. Mike Young, fielding coach under Kirsten was gone (to Australia), and had not been replaced. The former conditioning coach, Rob Walter, was also heavily involved in preparations for fielding but he is now the Nashau Titans coach.

There are many who think there are too many people around a cricket team as there is. But surely in modern cricket, fielding is a part of the game that needs a full-time person in charge of it. And it might be too simple to say that South Africa only fielded that way because they didn’t have a fielding coach.

But surely it couldn’t hurt.

India turned up with a new team in South Africa. They played like young men trying to make a point. Their batting line up looked like something that will haunt people for the next ten years. And they handled the South African attack well, although often not all at once. Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane all played top knocks. They went very close to winning the first Test (and then losing it). In the second Test, India made 334 in the first innings. South Africa made 500. Kallis made 115. South Africa won the Test, and the series.

Had Kallis not played in that series, it is possible that South Africa would have lost that Test.

Against Pakistan in the UAE, South Africa lost the first Test and won the second, drawing the series against a team ranked well below them. Kallis took no wickets and made 12 runs in that series. It was the first Test series that Kirsten was not coach for. Domingo had not started brilliantly.

The only thing faster than Mitchell Johnson at the moment is the speed at which sides start to do emergency introspection after he has bashed them. There is something about playing Australia (and by that I mostly mean Mitchell Johnson) that strips every part of your game to the bone. If South Africa were going to play any opposition after Kallis retired, Australia was certainly the worst choice.

South Africa love allrounders. They love them more than any other country, and they provide more than any other country. And they lost a king.

But they couldn’t replace him with a king. Sure they could have tried someone like Obus Pinaar, to see if he was the next chosen one (a double century in first-class cricket and a bowling average of 24.16 bowling left-arm quick). But they didn’t take the chance with him.

Instead they replaced Kallis with two allrounders: McLaren at No. 7, Robin Peterson at No. 8. Two players who have done all they can to get the most out of themselves, who can provide in many different ways. But they aren’t proper Test allrounders. Peterson is not strong enough to bat at seven consistently and in 15 Tests he has taken 38 wickets at 37.26. McLaren has only three first-class three hundreds from 100 matches. He has bowling talent, but he is not in the best five seam bowlers in South Africa.

They are both bandaids over the open Kallis wound. Carrying a partially covered wound is not the way to play Mitchell Johnson.

McLaren batted at No. 7 against Australia, Faf du Plessis batted there against India. In this Test, du Plessis moved up to No. 4 – the Kallis spot.

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Gary Kirsten was a tough son-of-a-bitch cricketer, who put as high a price on his wicket as almost any before him for over 100 Tests. He scored 188 not out in a World Cup game. He coached India to the top of the test Test rankings and helped them win a World Cup. He was a South African playing legend and a winning coach. He was tough, and smart. It would have taken a real maverick, or someone properly stupid, to not listen or follow his advice. He took on the batting coaching himself, as he had done when working with MS, Virender, Rahul and Sachin.

The man who replaced him doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and his name is spelt incorrectly on the South Africa cricket team Wikipedia page.

Domingo was the man who gave Kirsten his first coaching job. He has a good record in domestic cricket, helping the Warriors to limited-overs glory and also a runners-up finish in the Champions League. But he wasn’t a first-class player. He is a career coach. And he has taken over the best group of cricketers on the planet.

Domingo is friendly and personable. Few have a bad word to say about him. But just because he was groomed by Kirsten doesn’t mean he is going to have the same impact. Grooming coaches can go horribly wrong. As an assistant you are a shoulder to cry on, a man of responsibility, but not the man. And it can be hard for everyone to start thinking that way about you. Especially if you’re not the barking type, and the captain is a long-standing leader and legend.

Then there is the basic resentment towards coaches that cricket has. The young players might be used to having them around. But many ex-players still don’t trust most coaches, and they certainly don’t trust coaches who haven’t played at the highest level.

So all Domingo has to overcome is being a non-playing coach who was groomed to replace a legend while ex-players sharpen their swords and whilst being deprived of the most important player his country has ever produced.

It was Domingo who recently stated that Kallis’ maturity; calmness and presence will be missed in his retirement. It was maturity and calmness that could have helped when Johnson almost tore Smith’s head off in the first innings at Centurion.

When Australia made the (very brief) world record score in that eventful ODI at the Wanderers, it was Kallis who joked that Australia’s score was under par to lighten the mood.

A joke like that, from a man like Kallis, could do wonders.

Also the stern nature of Kirsten might have come in handy as session after session South Africa came off having fielded like the game was new to them. Kirsten got on well with senior players but wasn’t afraid to set clear boundaries and demanded the best from his players. While he was there, they often played exactly as he asked them.

Ryan McLaren took a rocket to the side of the head. He turned from the crease and did a slow walk and kneel as people came from everywhere to see if he was okay. Even with a helmet, it looked like brutal treatment. Without a helmet it would have resulted in much more than a small trickle of blood. He faced up to the next ball, and played it well. After tea he faced some more short balls. This time all he could do was find some glove through to the keeper.

There is little coaching you can do to play Johnson. According to AB de Villiers, you have to be willing to take some on the body. McLaren went one better. But he is a tall man with a first class average of 30.26; right now, to Johnson, that is chum. Peterson decided to just swing away, trying to confuse Johnson.

There is no coaching technique or advice from a legend that can help you through that.

Russell Domingo now has a 2-2 record from five Tests with the world’s best team (at least statistically) playing for him. He is playing two more Tests against a team with the seeming ability to burp magic rainbows on demand. If he pulls this off, and turns his team around by surfing into the tidal wave, he might be on his way to legendary status.

Right now, he looks very much like he is standing with a clipboard armed with stats, history and two average allrounders in the shadow of two giants, and doing all of it against a fire-breathing wyvern armed with nuclear weapons.

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#politeenquiries not live and heavily edited on day 2 at Centurion

Here is the latest PE. But if you want more than just a video a day, you can always listen ABC grandstand for my talking about cricket while the cricket is on.

I have swapped George (who is going to the West Indies) for Firdose, who is in Centurion with me.

Johnson and Smith: a short rough love affair

February, 2014

The ball punches the pitch, and cracks into Graeme Smith who seems to react only as the ball leaves him. It loops up slowly and the crowd make noise accordingly. It is just off the pad. Not out. It is the first ball Smith faces from Mitchell Johnson.

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There is not much time to think between the ball leaving Johnson’s hand and the batsman having to deal with it. It is like a camera flash, or a political back-flip.

You can have a plan, you can think it through, but the ball just comes out of his hand and you react. There are some batsmen who revel in that. See ball, hit ball.

Not enough time for clear rational thought. There is not enough time to think about past deliveries, or history, it just happens.

January, 2009

A full ball that that should never have damaged anyone, but spat up and took the left massive hand of Smith. His hand disappeared like he had been zapped by a ray gun. For a second Smith was lost, the pain confused him, he was walking around in a circle towards point. And only then did he eventually find the culprit, which had gone off to fine leg to allow him to get off strike. But the damage was done, and he would only come back into to bat at No. 11, with a broken hand.

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There is a bowling machine that players have used to try and learn the mystery and tricks of certain players, the Pro Batter. You can face Morne Morkel, Lasith Malinga or even Mitchell Johnson.

But you can’t program it with superhuman confidence. You can’t give it artificial menace. And you can’t play against it like it is a real force of nature. It is a computer game with real elements. Nothing more. All you can do is try and pick up a few tricks that you hope the next time you play will come in handy.

South Africa have used the Pro Batter, they have also faced Johnson at his old best. They should know how to play him. Smith has faced him more than most. They have survived him at the WACA, after he took 8 for 61, they milked him on their chase beyond 400 to win, they have played him ten times. They know him.

Well, they knew the old him. This new one is relentless and brutal, like a zombie girl group, or a current affairs reporter. This Mitchell is worse and better than anything that can be made with CGI or the old model.

March, 2009

Off the ground, looking at point, one hand off the bat, the right hand protecting his throat and being smashed into the bat handle. That is how Smith found himself as he just tried to survive a delivery. The ball did not take his wicket, he did end up in hospital.

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Smith is respected all over the world. He has scored almost 10,000 Test runs. He has done that at almost an average of 50. He has 27 Test centuries. He is the captain and leader of the world’s best Test team.

Smith is South Africa’s top order monolith. Strong, calm and reliable. The young warrior who took over the side and pushed them higher than they had ever been. All with a bottom handed technique that makes even his best shots look like a solid uppercut.

His place in the world of cricket is safe and secure, and he could retire tomorrow and be remembered for decades.

In nine Tests he has been dismissed by Johnson five times and sent to hospital twice. Today Johnson tried to do both in one ball.

February, 2014

The ball leaves the pitch with a mission to break the jaw or eye socket of Smith. There is no time. There is nowhere to hide. There is no way out. Smith can ever be hit in the face, or try and play the ball. His body is doing in one direction, his face another. His bat is jerking upwards not like a cricket shot, but like he is fending off a surprise Pterodactyl attack. The ball hits the bat, more by pure chance than design. The ball flies high, and all of the slips, (there are a few, but it seems like hundreds), arch their necks up at once, and watch it float behind them. Shaun Marsh chases, and chases, while the batsmen easily cross, and at the last minute he reaches the ball to barely take the catch.

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Graeme Smith faced two balls from Mitchell Johnson today.

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Crowd or not, here comes the first Test

On a lovely, bone dry Centurion morning, a tune played. “Boom! Here comes the Boom! Ready or not, here comes the boys from the South!”

They are the sort of lyrics, when backed up with punchy nu-metal angst, that should open a heavyweight contest. And it was the first music of the Test. There was no anthem, no parochial song, just Dale Steyn’s personal anthem and the world’s best and third-best Test sides starting a series.

But it was a Wednesday, in February. Much like the band P.O.D., it was not quite as “Boom!” as it looked.

The security was so lax that you could walk straight into the ground, president suite and then press box without any pass or ticket. The sun was hot but not oppressive. There was no hint of rain. No real build-up, the players were just out on the field. Occasionally there was even the Spanish horn that plays in the IPL to awaken people.

There seemed to be more sponsored umbrellas around the ground than people. And every part of the ground was zoned off for something fun. The chill zone, the family area, the Castle Lager Terrace. Even a “maidens bowled over” section where women could watch cricket, meet someone from the South Africa squad and have massages and pedicures. You can’t fault Cricket South Africa for trying. They threw it all out there.

But it was a Wednesday, in February. So the crowd wasn’t really there. It wasn’t horrible for a Test at Centurion, but it wasn’t a cauldron, or massive-event-like feeling. It felt like a big Test series, started on a Wednesday, with Christian heavy rock in the back ground.

There were schoolkids on the bank, sitting in front of a few smart locals who had brought their own shade. The real fans were in the grandstand, a battered warhorse that probably looked ok when brand new, and has looked solid and ugly since. Apparently there was a group of people that some sponsors called “sizzlers”, but I never saw anyone who justified a name that stupid. There was even a Mexican wave, but only when the schoolkids spread out around the long-off boundary did it work.

The cricket didn’t need extra areas or corporate tricks to excite people. Steyn started off against David Warner on a pitch that was supposed to be lots of fun. That doesn’t need a rock soundtrack or marketing tricks. People should just want to see it. Those there saw the South Africa team spend a confusing and frustrating day in the field, and Australia find one partnership that worked and keep it going. It wasn’t pretty.

It was the sort of tough uncompromising day of cricket that metaphors and clich├ęs were made for. The proper cricket fans would have appreciated Shaun Marsh’s doggedness, Steven Smith’s strokeplay and complaining about South Africa in the field.

There were a few proper cricket fans there to enjoy it, not many. Not nearly enough.

But it was a Wednesday, in February.

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Show the administrators you care

The fact that Australia, England and India have formed a cabal to choke the game of cricket is not exactly new. Like a bum with a sandwich board, myself and others have been walking the streets of cricket shouting this message for a long time. During the Champions Trophy I wrote that only the top three in cricket matter. Before that I started making a documentary on the death of Test cricket. And during this Boxing Day Test at the MCG, I was chatting to ABC Grandstand about it.

If you follow cricket politicking at all (and I do, so you don’t have too), you could see this coming. So it was nice that Sharda Ugra showed that it was not just a conspiracy theory by a few nut jobs. That it was a real takeover of cricket by the greedy and wealthy.

But what does this leaked draft actually mean, and is the ICC financial and commercial committee actually run by giant lizards? I tried to answer a few questions that people had.

In a word, good or bad for Test cricket?
Bad, not just for Tests, but for all international cricket.

If there is promotion and relegation in Test cricket, but Australia, England and India can’t be relegated, isn’t that cheating?
It’s not just cheating, it’s organised fixing. Any individual who signs off on a regulation like this is corrupting the game, and should be banned by the ICC for their action. They are ensuring the result of the competition before a game is played. The integrity of the game is corrupted as much as by any huge no-ball. They might as well only let other teams use five batsmen, bowl with beach balls and field with sponsored flippers on. As long as the sponsorship money is split unfairly, favouring the stronger nation.

Who are the people involved in this secret dossier for cricket’s potential kidnapping?
The names of the people on the committee that the draft came from are Giles Clarke (chairman, ECB), Alan Isaac (ICC president), Dave Richardson (chief executive), N Srinivasan (BCCI), Neil Speight (Associate and Affiliate member, Bermuda Cricket Board), Wally Edwards (CA), Dave Cameron (WICB), Campbell Jamieson (GM, commercial) and Faisal Hasnain (CFO).

However, a working committee wrote the draft, not the entire committee. The members of the working committee are not yet known. The winners, if the draft was implemented, would be the boards of Clarke, Srinivasan and Edwards. It is they who will be taking over cricket officially on behalf of their boards. We don’t have the details of who the architects of the plan are, but being that these men and their boards get the best deal, it’s not a big stretch to believe they were behind it and not the chairman of the Bermuda Cricket Board.

What did the FTP do? What does FTP stand for and why does it matter?
The FTP is (was?) the Future Tours Programme. It essentially meant that teams would have to play everyone, and not just who they wanted to play with. It was brought in to ensure that teams had a schedule to play each other and ICC tournaments. It helped sell TV rights and aided smaller nations financially by drawing them up against teams with larger markets and on the cricket field through experience against the best teams. It was a flawed but well-meaning system of sharing the wealth and making cricket fairer.

Wasn’t the FTP ignored?
Occasionally. It was more a nagging aunty than a scary prison guard. I know Australia have played Bangladesh, I just can’t remember when. And Bangladesh have never toured India. Things are moved around on a whim quite often, but it at least meant that if something did happen, like Sri Lanka and West Indies cancelling their Test series, they had to come out and say it, not just silently agree never to play again. No FTP makes it all a bit more covert and easier for board members to ruin things without us noticing.

Why does it matter if the big three countries make more money from ICC tournaments and share the ICC top jobs? Don’t they already own and run cricket?
Yes, they do. But it matters because cricket isn’t limited to three nations, or even ten. There are 106 member nations of the ICC. If this structural upheaval happens, less money and no power will escape this evil cricket cabal. These dirty three will be able to continue to rule cricket forever for their own good. And they’ll have the backing of cricket’s governing body, which will essentially be them in all but name.

Will cricket’s best interests really be looked after by these three nations?
One recently got involved with a fraudulent crook; the second stopped players picking who they wanted to represent them at the ICC level; and the final one wanted all the other nations locked out of the World Cup.

Isn’t the current ICC set-up terrible anyway?
If by that you mean there are no votes at ICC boardrooms, that it’s run by the ten Test-playing boards who are all out for their own good and that India have all the financial muscle, then yes. The Woolf Report, an independent evaluation of the ICC (that the boards never wanted, and of which they ignored all but the bits that helped them keep their stranglehold), suggested that cricket needed to be independently run, instead of by the member boards. But at least the current set-up, as pointless and ignored as it is, gave ten nations a say.

Sport is a business, and this is just a business decision, isn’t it?
It is a business decision. A bad one. A short-term one. Like most decisions made by cricket officials, it follows the money where it is right now. It doesn’t look ahead. It doesn’t grow the game or improve it. It picks cricket up by its underwear and takes what is in its pocket.

Surprisingly, most billion-dollar businesses aren’t run by unpaid men who face absolutely no consequence if they completely stuff up the business. Who would have thought a billion-dollar business run by amateurs with no independent management could be taken over so easily?

Should Bangladesh prepare for a five-Test match tour of Australia, England or India shortly?
No.

Which Full Members outside the trio will be playing Test cricket by 2020?
It is impossible to tell. But this is not a move to lock in the future of the current Test-playing nations. It is a move to lock in the future of three of them. The rest can go to hell, and by hell, I mean more Champions Trophy tournaments.

I’m from outside the cricket cabal but don’t really like Test cricket. Why should I care?
Because the FTP and ICC restructuring isn’t just about Tests. It’s about stopping your country from getting money. It’s about ensuring through financial means that while three countries will have every single advantage, the others will have to live on far less. Money doesn’t guarantee success. But it certainly helps in sport.

I’m from inside the cabal. Why should I care about the other nations?
Maybe you shouldn’t. You’ll have all the IPL, Big Bash and Ashes you can eat. But if the other seven teams stop playing Test cricket, or don’t play enough to make it relevant, you’re going to get pretty damn bored pretty damn quickly. And while you may only watch for your own players, do you really want to live in a world that involves less Sri Lankan mystery spin, New Zealand pluckiness, Misbah-ul-Haq, and the current best Test team on earth?

What will happen to the non-Test playing nations?
Not much will actually change for them. Life wasn’t exactly free beer and endless casual sexual encounters before. If anything, now they have seven new friends who also have no power.

Can saner people in the future undo this mess?
Yes, probably. Even the old veto was eventually taken away from the ICC. Things can change. If the chairmen of the three cricket boards were to change, it could change very quickly. There is also little doubt that at least one of Clarke, Srinivasan and Edwards wants to eventually run the ICC once the main job there is made more powerful. Which means this reign of bullying and grabbing for power may not end anytime soon.

Should these three men step down?
Yes. Anyone who agreed with this draft, whether it was their idea or not, should leave cricket immediately. They won’t, obviously. But they should.

Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?
Someone leaked this draft. Someone who saw it realised that cricket fans wouldn’t like this, and instead of it being announced through an ICC press release, it was blurted out before they had a chance to lock it in. In fact, there are many good people working in cricket all around the world. They don’t like this situation any more than we do. Hopefully more of them will step forward with details. That gives us a chance.

What can I do?
Contact them. Don’t be rude, don’t abuse the people who are answering the emails, calls or letters, but contact them. Tell them what you think of all this. CA can be contacted here, the ECB here, the BCCI here. We have no vote in cricket. All we have is our passion, which is what makes the money that gives these men their power.

They are banking on you not knowing or caring about any of this. Giles Clarke regularly tells young cricket writers to stop writing about administration because it’s boring and fans don’t care about it. What this does is allow cricket’s most important men to run the game while no one is watching. Show them you’re watching.

If you have time to complain about a shocking DRS decision or a terrible cover drive, surely you have time to send an email to the men running the game. Show them you care. Tell them what you think. You have no vote in cricket’s future. But you do have the contact pages.

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