Domestic cricket may be far from the minds of many in this country as Christmas approaches, but work never stops for Angus Fraser.
The County Championship finished for Middlesex on 26 September, but the off-season has been a busy one for the club’s managing director of cricket.
“From my perspective summers are spent putting out fires and the winter is doing all the logistical organisation, which hopefully allows the summer to run as smoothly as it can without too many major issues,” he tells City A.M.
“During the winter in my position you get a chance to sit back and reflect without being emotionally pulled at times. What are we doing? The way forward and things we want to try and introduce, plus lots of conversation with the coaching staff.”
After a disappointing 2019 season, those conversations have not all been positive ones. With three promotion places up for grabs in Division Two, the squad, which contained many of the same players who so memorably captured the 2016 County Championship title, would have been hoping to return to Division One.
But three wins from 14 games produced an eighth place finish as the established players failed to hit the heights of which they might be expected. Middlesex qualified strongly from the group stages of both white-ball competitions, but were ultimately left with nothing to show for it, as Lancashire and Nottinghamshire knocked them out in the quarter-finals of the One-Day Cup and T20 Blast respectively.
Failure for a traditional powerhouse was bound to have repercussions.
“Sadly it [change] is slightly inevitable when you finish the season on a disappointing note,” Fraser says. “We fell away a lot and when that happens there tends to be a lot of soul-searching and agitation around the club, which is understandable when you finish the season like that.”
In this case it was the captain, rather than the coach, Stuart Law, who moved on because of that agitation.
Dawid Malan, who had been with the club since 2006, stepped down as skipper in September before requesting to be released from his contract, which still had two years to run, so that he could join Yorkshire in November.
Malan was Middlesex’s top run scorer in the Championship, with 1,005 runs and four centuries coming at an average of 47.86, while he has also become a fixture in England’s white-ball sides this year.
His move to Yorkshire turned plenty of heads, but Fraser says the recruitment of Australian batsman Peter Handscomb as his replacement will make up for Malan’s departure.
“From both parties it’s the right thing,” Fraser says of Malan’s move. “I do think it’s quite easy when someone has captained the club and that hasn’t worked as well as everyone would have hoped, to slip back into the team and be involved in everything that is going on and be supportive.
“And that’s not having a go at the person, but there’s an element of frustration and some bits and pieces that arise. That happened with Mark Ramprakash and Owais Shah, when he had a go at being captain. At times like I think the best thing to do is to go our separate ways.
“We’ve lost his runs, but having Handscomb in is going to make up for that and hopefully the better, positive environment, and the freshness of that, will allow younger players to thrive. Everyone at the club is quite optimistic and looking forward to things moving forward, rather than it being ‘oh it’s Middlesex’, which may be the perception looking in from the outside.”
Giving youth a chance
The winter months, at the moment, are all about building fitness for the players. Training continues throughout the winter, but Fraser admits the club “can’t dictate their lives completely.”
Bowler Steven Finn has been away with Test Match Special recently, commentating on England’s tour of New Zealand, while plenty of others, like opener Sam Robson, like to spend time in Australia, playing cricket and seeing family.
After more skills-based sessions across January and February, pre-season starts in March, when the players will go to Oman for 10 days. Once back they will train under the marquee at Merchant Taylors School before warm-up games give way to the season beginning on 12 April against Worcestershire.
For Fraser, however, the winter months have been about recruitment. As well as Handscomb, Middlesex have already secured the services of West Indies seamer Miguel Cummins on a three-year Kolpak deal. Mujeeb Ur Rahman will return for the T20 Blast, while AB de Villiers is also being sounded out after an explosive campaign in 2019.
It is hoped Toby Roland-Jones will follow Robson in signing a new contract, but Fraser says they are not looking to bring in any other red-ball players.
“There’s a temptation after a disappointing season to say: ‘You’ve had your chance, we’ll get someone else in.’ But then you sit back and reflect and you think: ‘We’ve made a commitment to giving our youngsters a go and we’re going to stick with it’.”
The summer of 2020 brings with it major changes in the domestic game, with a fourth format arriving. The Hundred is the England and Wales Cricket Board’s great hope, with eight city teams set to compete in 100-ball innings in an attempt to attract a new audience.
Starting in July, it will sideline the One-Day Cup, which will become a “development competition”, in the words of ECB county cricket managing director Gordon Hollins. There has been plenty of criticism about the plans but Fraser believes the 50-over competition can still thrive, playing at out-grounds and bringing through the younger players.
While he remains focused on Middlesex, rather than London Spirit – the Lord’s-based Hundred team – he is cautiously optimistic about the new competition.
“I think people were wary about Twenty-20 when that came around and look what happened there,” he reasons. “I think people’s worries are not ill-founded – but let’s not judge it until we’ve seen it because people would have written T20 off and look at the positive impact that has had on the game.
“The game needs to work. A lot has been invested. Many of us in the game are a bit wary. How is it going to look? Where is it going to take the game? Is it too gimmicky? Will it not resemble the game that we love?
“But the people who have made the decision to go ahead with this tournament, they’re not trying to mess the game up. They’re trying to help: they’ve done their research and come up with this plan, so we need to get behind it, support it and make it work, because if it doesn’t work the game will have financial problems moving forward.”