A Confederacy of Dunces* (Pt 1)

 

Poor governance is as integral to the folklore of cricket as WG Grace’s girth and Spofforth’s demonic gaze. For every cricketer who ever thought Yes I Can, there’s usually been an administrator coming up with a reason why he couldn’t. The rule of egg-and-bacon-tied buffers from Lords became entrenched in the Victorian era and the codes of Empire were still being applied long after that empire had gone the way of all others. With respect to individual exceptions, the game has flourished due to its innate strengths and fascinations, not because it has been brilliantly run.

Australia adopted the same attitude to running our cricket as we have traditionally done for our foreign policy. That is to say, we took our lead from overseas. Amateur officials administered in amateur ways until a certain TV mogul rudely introduced them to the realities of modern commerce. Once they got over the initial shock, these fine gentlemen decided they rather liked the money after all. The affection has only grown stronger through the years.

There then emerged a generation of brilliant cricketers and Australia ruled the playing fields. As is the wont of administrators through time, this success was seen as the fruit of their obviously superior arrangements. The Australian Way of doing business was clearly the way. “Do as we do” was the message we proudly proclaimed to the cricketing world. “Follow our example and you will prosper”. The Australian Cricket Board became Cricket Australia as further proof of our endless inspiration.

Then that fabulous generation of cricketers could play no more. It turns out we weren’t particularly clever after all.

The sleek, shiny sports car that was supposedly the Australian cricket machine has more recently resembled a jalopy. And not a particularly reliable one at that. It took the cataclysm of last summer to finally provide the inevitable catalyst. Someone was going to lose their job if things didn’t improve. Turns out some have. The jalopy is now up on the hoist with various parties of eminent persons gazing at its entrails.

You know it’s going to cost a lot.

In seeking to assess the game’s woes, it was only sensible that CA should turn to the corporate world. After all, what have the last few years in corporate affairs been about if not sound governance? Two of the eminence grises of that realm were charged with conducting reviews – Don Argus to look at the playing side, David Crawford to reprise the role he has previously played in looking at sporting governance structures.

Mr Argus delivered his report first. Eventually. We still await the judgements of Crawford. Argus’s  findings are already much discussed and they weren’t pretty reading.

The first striking thing about these findings was how few of them really should have required a review. If CA had bothered to wander into any local club for a beer after play they could have been told many of the same things.

That the selection panel was dysfunctional was perhaps the one matter unanimously agreed upon by all Australians, regardless  of creed or political persuasion. To understand Andrew Hilditch was the most disastrous public communicator since Saddam’s Media Minister (Gulf War 1) needed only a set of ears. Wanted to know if Tim Nielsen was the man for the coaching job? They only required the evidence of the man’s own words. No man in authority has ever sounded more like a passive observer to his own demise than Mr Nielsen.

In many respects Argus was required to find on matters that should already have been dealt with. Cricket Australia is supposed to be newly modernised and professional. Expenditures have quadrupled in the decade James Sutherland has been CEO. That they still required outside advice to rectify core performance matters is instructive in itself.

So what of the remedies Argus proposed?

All the significant new appointments have now been made. Those named have been warmly received. But surprisingly little public debate of the merits of some of these recommendations has occurred. I doubt I’m the only one wondering if the Argus corporate sense of accountability, when welded to cricket culture, has entirely understood what it was getting into.

The lack of “a single point of accountability” for team performance was the reason cited for creating Pat Howard’s new position of General Manager, Australian Team Performance (pithy title that). Formerly, the Australian Captain was regarded as a sufficient point of accountability. Now the captain shares a dressing room full of coaches and fitness staff, with selectors and Talent Managers hovering in the background. It is possible the new role is required to wrangle what has been created into shape. But by suggesting the need, aren’t you admitting that your previous appointments lacked planning and coordination?

The logic of yet another appointment to control your appointments follows that of other large professional sports. Payrolls seem to only expand. It’s enough to reconfirm our big sports as the last great socialist enterprises left in Australian society. Perhaps Government should seek the advice of Sport for future job creation schemes?

As we leave Mr Howard to figure out who will have to report to whom and on what, we move to the matter of selection. Here, the fact that the name A. Hilditch no longer appears on the list has been enough for many to award a big tick and move on.

The new names Inverarity, Marsh and Bichel deserve to be judged on their decisions henceforth. But we also have to factor in the names Clarke and Arthur. That the coach and captain rejoin the selection panel is in line with the Argus mantra of accountability, but ignores all the previous occasions this arrangement has been found to unacceptably blur the lines of both roles. Players will, as before, still likely feel less comfortable fronting captain or coach on sensitive issues knowing they will have a direct say in selection. And what if the captain’s batting form should again falter? His role as selector will only complicate matters for all.

Continuing the theme of accountability, Mickey Arthur won’t just be responsible for the national team. He will now be required to lead the “overall coaching strategy and function” for all of Australian cricket – states, Centre of Excellence, “High Performance Programs” and individual PONI’s (Players Of National Interest for the uninitiated). It is also envisaged he “resolve the role of coach and coaching philosophy” across the land. If Mr Arthur can achieve all of that, and additionally coach the national team, I suggest his talents are wasted on cricket. Loaves and fishes await.

The Argus review has some questionable suggestions, but in between all the flowcharts and acronyms there is at least a restated commitment to the notion that test cricket is the foremost form of the game, the form that should be the focus of aspirations and the primary benchmark for recognition and remuneration.

The problem is that the report has been delivered into an environment that does anything but honour this notion. Messer’s Hilditch and Nielsen were hardly the beginning and end of cricket’s dilemmas. They didn’t create the current cricketing culture. Rather, they were formed by it.

Next, we’ll examine that culture more closely.

 

* With apologies to John Kennedy Toole, wherever he is.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has been a Carlton member for more than 30 years.

Comments

  1. JB

    Fascinating read – you’re right in that cricket’s problems run a lot deeper than the personnel at the top of the tree.

    By the way, you’ll find John Kennedy Toole in the Greenwood Cemetery in New Orleans.

  2. John Butler says:

    Thanks Litza

    That’s if you’re game to venture into Greenwood Cemetery.

  3. JB – great read. You’ve touched on something that seems to pervade sport AND the corridors of power; empire building. Its rife. Organizations and government departments, once established, become laws and institutions that exist for one reason – to make themselves irreplaceable (note I said irreplaceable not efficient). They become cash vacuums, bloated on self importance and banality.

  4. John Butler says:

    Yeah Dips, I don’t so much mind them spending the revenue if they make it. But it’s what they spend it on…

    Which I’ll touch on next…

  5. JB – outstanding piece. Someone should get it into The Age. That McArdle bloke seems to know how to get his Almanac gems into the big paper.

    A fair bit of corporate double-speak was of course pilfered from sport, and then picked up by, or forced upon, the public service, depending on your view.

    One of the “great questions” that used to put me to sleep in meeting rooms was: “How do we measure success?” This IS however a legitimate starting point for sporting pursuits. I haven’t read the Argus Report (and will rectify this failure soon), but I take it from your comments that Test Cricket is reasonably high up the totem pole. If so, I worry that not only is the environment hostile, but the “restructure” not obviously pointed in this direction. As you hint, any proposals that do not include an ICC upheaval appear doomed from the start.

    Maybe we just need Dave Warner to make a patient 183 opening the batting for Australia in a Test Match.

  6. John Butler says:

    MOC

    One of the obvious lessons of recent times is that a successful team masks most sins.

    The dire contradiction between rhetoric and action is what I’ll look at in pt 2.

    Cheers

  7. JB – one of the issues with big time sport (and governments) is also how they make their revenue. The common denominator is the screwing of your average punter. I don’t believe the review looked at this aspect of cricket? It should have. No respect for the punters hard earned (and none for the taxpayers’ dollar).

  8. John Butler says:

    Dips, that’s the inevitable result when you start equating revenue with success. You only want more revenue.

    To an extent that’s inevitable in a ‘professional’ sport. But running a sport isn’t the same as selling potatoes.

    The AFL seems to regard its fans as a captive market. Cricket is working its way towards a situation where it can’t, if its not careful.

  9. John Butler says:

    PS: you’re right. Argus had to largely confine himself to matters relating to the national team.

    It will be interesting to see what areas Crawford’s governance review will cover.

  10. David Downer says:

    Great insights JB.

    It is a shame when consultants and reviews and corporate style governance palaver is required for what was well recognised by every bloke who lobbed on a bar stool in most pubs around the country. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck…

    Look forward to Part 2

  11. John Butler says:

    DD

    I suspect this stuff says something deeper about how we generally do things and why nowadays.

    But it’s probably too deep for the likes of me. :)

  12. John Butler says:

    I think that recent events have already vindicated some of my reservations about the Captain and Coach having dual roles as selectors.

    They are required to hold frequent press conferences, which effectively puts them in the position of holding running commentary on team selection. That would be great for morale.

    Not claiming any prescience on this. It’s precisely what has happened before.

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