Decision Pending….

As I ponder the Australian cricket team’s 2011/12 dog’s-breakfast of a schedule, I see a sport undergoing a form of mid-life crisis, a game grappling with its very identity.

 

In the fast-paced, highly competitive world of elite sport, international cricket’s administrators are directionless. Good, decisive governance of the international game is seriously lacking.  The ICC, the nominal controlling body of international cricket, appears to have limited power (or willpower) to decide when, where and how international cricket is played and marketed. 

 

Despite what economists may tell you, unregulated markets rarely operate perfectly, particularly when market power is concentrated among a few players.  Cricket is a case in point.  It is a sport played at the elite level by just a handful of nations.  Of these, onlyIndia, and to a lesser extent,AustraliaandEngland, have the depth of talent, support and financial muscle to seriously influence the game’s destiny.  In the power vacuum that currently exists in international cricket, these dominant players, particularlyIndia, are calling the shots in a randomly self-interested way, with some unfortunate consequences for the long-term benefit of the game.

 

Australia’s 2011/12 international cricket program illustrates my concerns.  It began last September with whistle-stop tours ofSri LankaandSouth Africa, followed by an equally abbreviated visit byNew Zealand.  The main action – the Test series againstIndia– was an enormous anti-climax, with the visiting team seeming barely interested once the first Test was lost.  A couple of T/20 matches are now being followed by a triangular series of  ODIs played at a time when most fans are well and truly preoccupied with work, school, life etc.  Then it’s off to the West Indies to do it all again.

 

In the midst of this, the aptly-named “Big Bash League”, Australia’s answer to India’s IPL, was held around the country.  The BBL featured the mandatory garishly-uniformed “franchises”, populated by an assortment of local up-and-comers, mercenary internationals and superannuated stars of yesteryear.  This “innovation” was deemed important enough to put the entire Australian domestic first-class season on hold for a month.  Yet in a bizarre example of muddle-headed thinking, cricket’s administrators thought it OK to run this circus head-to-head with the Test series against India.

 

The blur of these hectic, jumbled programs inevitably results in meaningless, forgettable matches. The emphasis seems to be on squeezing as many dollars as possible from an increasingly indifferent cricketing public, whilst the contests themselves become ever more devalued.  In a crowded marketplace, relentless action may provide instant entertainment, but only significant, memorable contests truly win the hearts of the sporting public. Moreover, this is the perfect environment for betting-related corruption – which has already tainted international cricket – to continue to flourish.

 

Plenty of cricket writers see T/20 as the problem and have penned damning articles about the evils of this radical format, which read remarkably like those that circulated about one-day cricket during the 1970s.

 

I, for one, am not a critic of T/20 per se.  In my view T/20 is already the preferred short form of the game among players and spectators.  ODIs are slow and ponderous by Twenty/20 standards, but lack the tactical depth and variety of Test cricket. In the advent of a popular, lucrative new form of cricket, some decisive thinking should be happening to accommodate it into international programs.  But here is a prime example of the hesitancy that plagues the game’s administration.  No-one is willing to face the tough question of whether to “kill off” the 50 over version of the game, which has been its cash cow for over 30 years, or retain it as a genuine alternative to T/20. Instead, both short forms of the game are programmed, poorly, with T/20 treated as a radical experiment and ODIs tacked onto international programs as a pathetic afterthought.  In turn, this is forcing the scheduling of short, truncated Test series that end just as they are gaining interest and momentum (remember the South Africa series, anyone?).

 

Under this indecisive regime, the public’s evident enthusiasm and appetite for Twenty/20 cricket is being (sort of) satisfied through the proliferation of franchise-based competitions.  India has again been the dominant influence here, its IPL tournament (itself a tawdry imitation of European soccer’s Champions League), being mirrored by other countries.  Even Bangladesh is about to start a T/20 franchise-based competition.

 

Copying the market leader has long been standard practice in any business, but where is the thinking about whether this model is really in the best interests of the game rather than the mega-rich celebrity backers whose primary motivations seem to be profit and profile?

 

Club competitions may be the bread and butter of soccer but these are based on clubs with lengthy traditions and massive, long-term support, rather than the manufactured “franchises” created for T/20.  Do we really expect the Delhi Daredevils or the Melbourne Renegades to capture the public imagination in the manner of FC Barcelona or Manchester United, or indeed a serious international T/20 tournament?

 

This leads to how the game is being promoted.  Again, indecisiveness reigns supreme.  Attempts to promote cricket as an exciting, action-packed carnival grate on the traditional followers of the game, but are lame and me-tooish to the “new” fans that cricket is seeking to woo from other sports (especially those that are, actually, exciting and action-packed)!

 

In T/20, every promotional gimmick that has been tried ad nauseam in other sports – fireworks, cheerleaders, background music, hysterical announcers – is trotted out with excruciating predictability.  For a brand new form of the game, the lack of originality in its presentation is breathtaking.

 

It’s no better in Test cricket where there seems to be no recognition of the game’s unique features as a key point of difference between it and other sports.  Instead, the promotional hype is a mealy-mouthed amalgam of apologetic references to the “traditional” game, and unconvincing assurances to novice supporters that they’ll see plenty of slather and whack.

 

There is already considerable debate about how these relentless schedules and constant changes between format are affecting players’ techniques and concentration.  The jury is still out on this one, but my reading of it is this.  Flat wickets, bigger bats and shorter boundaries are creating the impression of more powerful, capable batsmen, but this deception is being unmasked in the Test arena when batting lineups regularly fail to cope with wearing wickets and the requirement to value one’s wicket rather than play an aggressive cameo.  Bowlers simply seem to be succumbing more frequently to injury.

 

It is particularly alarming when administrators deem Australia’s domestic first-class program, the envy of every other cricketing nation, to be insignificant enough to postpone in deference to the BBL.  I’m not sure where they think players develop the skills and technique that their T/20 exploits require.

 

Cricket faces a battle for relevance in a modern world in which top-level sport is available on demand.  In the face of this challenge, its administrators are like rabbits in the proverbial headlights, uncertain whether or not to embrace technological, structural and promotional change full-on, thereby risking the game’s century-old traditions.  The result is that cricket is being played as a hotch-potch of different formats, rules, promoted in a lame, derivative style. The game’s traditions are at far greater risk if this impasse is allowed to continue.

 

In its last great crisis of identity, cricket was rescued from its own blinkered conservatism by the advent of World Series Cricket.  Within two years, Kerry Packer forced a set of reforms to the way cricket was played and promoted.  It was a bitter, rancorous upheaval at the time, but it enabled international cricket to endure in a reasonably sustainable manner for the next two decades.

 

Cricket is again at a point where it needs to be decisive.  It must grasp the new opportunities presented by T/20 whilst also preserving and strengthening the traditions of Test cricket that give the game its uniqueness in the crowded market of elite sport.

 

Here’s a few ways in which this could be achieved:

 

  1. Establish a single governing body that has the authority and courage to set the rules and programs for international cricket.  Maybe it’s the ICC, but it needs the teeth to dictate to all cricket playing nations how the game is to be run.
  2. Preserve Test cricket as the pre-eminent form of the game.  Test schedules should be of a meaningful length (3 match series as a minimum), with adequate lead-up times and matches for visiting teams to acclimatize.  A systematic roster of Test matches could enable the results of Test series could go into an overall ranking that would add significance to every series.
  3. Either accept that Twenty/20 is the new limited-overs form of the game and do away with one-day cricket altogether, or restore ODIs to their previous prominence in international programming.
  4. Curb the proliferation of the IPL-style tournaments that are simply excuses for individual players and corporate heavyweights to cash in and are threatening the status of international cricket.
  5. Structure and schedule domestic first class cricket to best fit into this international program model, both in terms of providing the best training ground for emerging international players and ensuring that international players have good opportunities to recover form and confidence when they hit inevitable form lapses.  The domestic cricket hiatus caused by the BBL must never be repeated.
  6. Use DRS technology universally.  No argument.
  7. Set limits to the numbers of international matches that can be played in any given year.  This will not only preserve players’ bodies but will also give each game /series greater significance and prominence.
  8. Eternal vigilance in the face of gambling-related corruption.

 

For most of the above measures, the response will be “easier said than done” and I’m not so naïve as to think any will happen overnight.  However, the adoption of any of these will help reduce the risks to cricket’s long-term viability by at least ensuring that all international contests are played within a meaningful, consistent framework that is devised with the best interests of the game at heart.

About Sam Steele

Stainless (aka Sam Steele) started following Richmond in 1970 when he was 6. This occurred when his mother, under instructions to buy him a Melbourne jumper, found they were out of stock and purchased a Richmond one instead. Despite the decades of heartache and turmoil this fateful decision has brought on Stainless, he is grateful to his mum as he has at least seen his side win a couple of Premierships. After 30 September 2017, his mum is now officially his favourite person.

Comments

  1. John Butler says:

    Sam, you’ve beaten me to the punch on many points that I was just composing.

    Therefore, hard to argue with much that you say. :)

    The interesting point is the complete disconnect between many of cricket’s followers and those who administrate it. The administrators will just point to TV ratings as their response.

  2. Ross Slater says:

    Sam, I agree with these sentiments wholeheartedly but give us some concrete examples of the new fixturing. For example how would you have structured the current summer in Australia?

    Personally I think the structure of Australia’s tours to Sri Lanka and South Africa were abysmal. In Sri Lanka there was a 5 game ODI series spread over nearly 3 weeks with minimum two days between each game and then 3 tests back to back with only 2 days off between each.

    The South Africa tour was worse with 3 ODIs spread over 10 days and then only 2 tests. If the ODIs had been played over 5 days there was room for another test!!!

    In both cases there were more rest days than playing days during the ODI section of the tours and then Tests were played back-to-back.

    My idea is that the ICC should control fixturing and a standard tour should be 1-3 T20s, 3-5 ODIs (no more 7 game series) and 3 or 5 tests in a particular order – building from shortest to longest form of the game or vice versa. These rubbish even number test series (ie 2 or 4) should go. There should be a 3-4 day tour match for the test only players whilst the ODIs are on and then 4 day tour matches (preferably one against the host nations A team) before the 1st test and between the 1st and 2nd tests. Look at how many 3 game series are won by the team that wins the first test. The away country is at such a disadvantage with so few warm up matches being played, plus squad players never get an opportunity to push for selection.

    India didn’t play a single tour match of 3-4 days length on their tour to Australia. No wonder they were easily beaten there was no opportunity for the squad players to push their case for selection. Gaps between Tests for tour matches also helps to build anticipation and interest of the next test coming, its not merley one test after another, one week after another.

    The FTP (Future Tours Program) which is run by the ICC is a mess. How is it that Sri Lanka will tour Australia in some form for three consecutive summers? They were here last summer before the Ashes for a T20 and 3 ODIs, back this summer for a bloated 8-11 game triangular ODI series, then back next summer for tests and i believe ODIs again. Whilst Sri Lanka are a fine team, why so much of them?

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