The Craig Simmons Conundrum and the Singapore Sling

“Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth and merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard” – Cormac McCarthy

“I feel stupid and contagious, here we are now, entertain us” – Kurt Cobain

“The best things in life are free, but you can leave it to the birds and bees, now give me money, that’s what I want” – Barrett Strong, The Flying Lizards, and many others

 

Five overs remain on the final day at Cape Town. South Africa have held out for 134 overs in the last innings of the series. Australia still need two wickets. Ryan Harris is struggling on sore knees, only days away from an operating table. He has bowled 24 previous overs in the innings when team medicos expected barely a dozen would be possible from him. Somehow, he manages to hit the stumps twice in his next three deliveries. Australia and their hosts have thrown  everything at each other over three tests crammed into 22 days, and the contest is finally decided with 27 balls remaining.

If anything noble can be ascribed to the Colonial game played with bat and ball, it is most likely to be found amongst some of the actions by both teams on that final day. In response, Cricket Australia was even moved to suggest future series between the two countries might warrant a fourth test.

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We generally accept the logic that behaviour in any given system will be influenced by the incentives provided by that system. Our economic theory relies upon this notion. Since the Indian Premier League exploded into our consciousness in 2008, world cricket has been wrestling with the consequences of an enormous, uncontrolled experiment in changed incentives. Even now, we have only the slightest understanding of where that experiment will take us.

Australian cricket’s initial reaction to the IPL was gob-smacked astonishment (and envy) at the sums of money involved. This was fair enough. Cricket had never before dealt in the billions of dollars thrown around in IPL circles. There must also have come the sobering final confirmation that the weight of influence in world cricket now lay with India. Most likely forever.

Taking a while to absorb these developments, CA’s primary response (after several missteps) was the newly rejigged franchise version of the Big Bash League. This summer saw BBL03* grace our free-to-air TV screens for the first time. In the manner CA seems to understand success, this must be said to have gone pretty well. Having spent two years in ratings purgatory, host broadcaster Network 10 pounced on the BBL as a starving man would a meal. Ratings were respectable (by 10’s standards outstanding) and the heavily targeted younger demographic seemed reasonably on board with proceedings. CA will receive $20 million per year for five years by way of TV rights. This will help to recoup the losses previously incurred as the BBL spent two years as a business in search of a model.

The only thing BBL03 failed to do was convince anyone it meant much. Marketing has its limits after all. You can invent a franchise called the Thunder but can’t guarantee it will have a natural constituency, especially when the playing list changes from year to year and it can’t win a game. Even the competition’s structure serves to undermine meaning. It’s real prize is not to win the final, but just to make it, thus obtaining admission to the even bigger financial honeypot of the Champions League. Whilst no one would doubt the Perth Scorchers enjoyed their victory, no one would seriously suspect any of them would take it in precedence to the chance at a test cap, or even a Shield trophy. At least not yet.

Which brings us back to that question of incentives. The fairy-tale story of BBL03 came in the portly form of Scorcher journeyman Craig Simmons. In the course of a couple of truly pyrotechnic centuries, Mr Simmons played himself from grade cricket obscurity to dreams of a big IPL payday. As it turns out, that dream didn’t eventuate. But the implications of that dream will linger. When considered alongside the epic journey of Chris Rogers to an eventual test cap, and all the selection vagaries that have forestalled other careers, how confident can we be that future cricketers mightn’t see Craig Simmons as an example worth remembering.

The ability to earn in a few months of T20 cricket what previously took a career to achieve will continue to weigh on the minds of individual cricketers in all countries. Some have already found no dilemma to weigh.

Australian cricket’s chief defence to this quandary thus far has been the talismanic properties of the Baggy Green. Generations have been schooled to regard it as the ultimate in cricket. In this regard Australia has a sturdier test cricket culture than many other countries. But signs of instability are already present at lower levels of the cricket pyramid. Amongst its numerous woes this season, Victorian cricket has faced the suggestion of internal squad division based upon divided BBL team loyalties. Outside the cricket realm, most of us accommodate the idea of working in jobs we may not have chosen, for bosses we may not necessarily like, because of the money. It would seem naïve to suggest cricketers couldn’t arrive at similar choices.

If CA is to be believed when it claims to still prioritise test cricket above all else it will be called upon to make some difficult decisions when it comes to future priorities. Given its recent response to the upheaval of world cricket governance, many might doubt its resolve.

For those coming late to this tale of back room power plays, the International Cricket Council has essentially been usurped as the preeminent decision making body of cricket by a triumvirate of India (very much first among equals) supported by England and Australia. The other seven test nations plus associates have been thrown the bone of a rotating fourth position in a notional ‘Big Four’ committee that no one is really pretending won’t in effect be a ‘Big Three’ plus guest.

Whilst no one will particularly lament the passing of the ICC, the way in which India engineered this takeover hardly encourages those who favour hopes of democratic governance. The details of what was to be delivered as a fait accompli leaked out ahead of the proposed meeting in Singapore. This enabled time for tentative voices of opposition to be raised. These voices were slapped down in no uncertain terms, as India informed dissenters they could forget any tours from the game’s biggest money spinner if they maintained their position. Unsurprisingly, by the time everyone assembled in Singapore unanimity had mysteriously emerged.

It remains to be seen if India governs any better than the ICC. To be fair to the ICC, it needs to be pointed out that many of its inabilities to resolve issues were largely owed to Indian intransigence. India can presumably rule free of that impediment. But many of its other justifications essentially boil down to the idea that what’s good for India will be good for cricket. Which is really just a variation on the old promise of trickle down economists that all will eventually see benefit if the few prosper. This, in turn, was never much of an advancement on the ancient idea that what’s good for the King is good for the Realm.

Australia’s attitude to all of this would seem to be akin to the old saying ‘the Lord helps those who help themselves”. By supporting India we have at least ensured ourselves a place at the main table. It remains to be seen if this implies influence, or merely first proximity to receiving riding instructions. Wally Edwards has justified the decision with grim warnings that the Indians might have gone it alone had they been thwarted. Maybe. Or maybe, even in the rarefied air of the BCCI boardroom, the novelty of playing with yourself would eventually wear off. Others have pointed out that England and Australia were best placed to lead other countries to call India’s bluff. We might now never know how this would have played.

The emergence of India as an economic power is one of the momentous developments of the modern world. It will hopefully release hundreds of millions from poverty in time. The rise of India as cricket’s dominant power is an unavoidable consequence of this larger picture. The IPL is a singularly Indian phenomenon: an expression of emerging Indian consumerism, a reassertion of nationalism in a post-colonial society, all mixed together with the unique Indian flavour of Bollywood entertainments. It is up to the Indians to decide how they balance the internal demands of the IPL with their broader responsibilities to international cricket.

It is also up to other cricketing nations to determine their own priorities. Australia is better placed than most in terms of finances to act independently from Indian agendas. We have choices available to us that others lack. As the new cricketing world emerges, it remains to be seen if we have the will to make those choices.

Come what may, lovers of test cricket will hope that those in charge of cricket never lose sight of the value of those events on a long March afternoon in Cape Town, or those of so many other afternoons before.

 

*Marketers love to rewrite history. This could only be BBL03 if you disregard the previous state based version of the Big Bash League. What this really should have been was BBL2.03 (at least in computer-speak).

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Livable Car Park and now habituates the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. Can anyone spare a warm coat?

Comments

  1. Your analysis is spot on JB. But I think you are offering a diagnosis when we are just about at the autopsy stage for Test Cricket.
    Last summer was the final gasp of the dying patient who props himself up and asks if Bradman is still batting, before dropping off the perch.
    Players like Finch and Maxwell are the way of the future. Millionaires who have the attention span of gnats, and the technique of Evel Knievel.
    The nursery of Test Cricket – the Sheffield Shield Final – now has the God’s waiting room feel of a nursing home.
    This is a Dead Parrot.

  2. John Butler says:

    I don’t think it’s as done a deal as you say PB. Few things are a done deal as long as people don’t just roll over.

    Test cricket is still the money spinner in England and Oz. Australia has choices to make.

    Though I don’t mention it, I was prompted in part by way the Shield final was played to a chorus of disinterest in the media. Cricket season is actually still going at club level, despite the best efforts of footy to drown it out. If CA are worried about encroachment they don’t seem to do much about it.

  3. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Excellent summary JB cricket has seemingly switched from the toothless tiger of the ICC to the dominance of Indian power ( the entry of Bangladesh helped India in this regard ) and test cricket is a huge concern where crowd wise it seems only in Aust and Eng to have fervent interest . Surprise surprise test cricket has effectively become a pay tv game . We wait with baited breath re future developments and entirely agree if only ,
    EVERY nation would have the guts to stand up to , India world cricket may I repeat may progress to advantage . Personally give me state based big bash teams instead of this franchise crap yes population wise it makes sense for, Vic and NSW to have two teams but that is it . What Aust cricket needs is some kids to pick cricket over football and have real success ( will always have the opinion Horlin Smith was a future Australian captain ) I am not convinced India have the interests of world cricket at heart and just have too much power with seemingly spot fixing and gambling in general just waiting to happen cricket now has a dose of cynicism to every result which will never go away .
    A thought provoking very interesting read JB thank you !

  4. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Totally and I mean totally agree with your comment above unfortunately my team is not playing in GFs this week end but it is well and truly still cricket season in my book

  5. John Butler says:

    Onya Rulebook. Thanks.

    I don’t think we can say with any great confidence what India will do in the longer term. Much is in flux. It’s possible the IPL may turn out to be a time and place thing. In 20 years we may be looking back on it like we do Molly Ringwald films.

    At present the uber capitalists hold sway there without doubt. But the IPL may find its audience more fickle than first thought. Theater goers tend to move on.

  6. If you’re looking for a contemporary cautionary tale of sport renovating itself to a corporate with no conscience, then how about FIFA? How about Qatar?

    By the time they finish building those stadiums up to 4,000 foreign workers may have died for Sepp Blatter’s sins.

    If you want an idea of just how discgraceful this is, read here – http://deadspin.com/report-qatars-world-cup-expected-to-take-more-lives-t-1550257688 (an issue largely ignored by the press here, who are more interested in running John Ralph’s speculative bullshit across its back page – an by speculative bullshit I mean not one source and not a single quote).

    While literally and figuratively a thousand miles from the sort of awfulness in Qatar, things aren’t terrific at an AFL level either. At least Demetriou has feigned interest in broader social issues. From all accounts, his likely successor has one aim for the AFL and one aim only. Dollars.

  7. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:
  8. To quote Stephen Marche iat esquire.com today: “Watching sports now tends to require a suspension of moral judgment.”

  9. E.regnans says:

    Terrific and timely article, JB.
    Agree with the sentiments of OBP Rulebook and yourself.
    Brilliant line (among many) “even in the rarefied air of the BCCI boardroom, the novelty of playing with yourself would eventually wear off.”
    What does this say about the US and their baseball “World Series”?

    This all reminds me of Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”.
    There are many things to learn out of many-headed India.

    Great call JB.

  10. John Butler says:

    Litza, you really have to wonder how much more debased the whole sports extravaganza big event cargo cult has to get before sponsors get the jitters.

    Then again, we’ve known for 20 years that the IOC is nothing more than a posh Tamanny Hall but cities still bid and we all watch when the Games are on.

    Suspension of moral judgment would seem to be spot on.

  11. John Butler says:

    Swish, it’s probably harder to find a day where there isn’t a corruption story about someone connected to Indian cricket. If nothing else, they are keen advocates of the Keating maxim about self interest.

  12. John Butler says:

    Thanks E Reg

    On the subject of India in general and its cricket in particular, I highly recommend ‘The Great Tamasha’ by James Astill. Most enlightening.

  13. Rick Kane says:

    “Money doesn’t talk, it screams” – Dylan

    “You’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past” – Springsteen
    (I was going to use the Springsteen quote: It was more’n’all this that put that gun in my hand)

    “The way in which India engineered this takeover hardly encourages those who favour hopes of democratic governance” – Butler

    I think an argument that examines India’s power (in cricket) requires a deep and critical reference to colonialism, the rise of capitalism and the Industrial revolution.

    While I too wonder why Test cricket isn’t accorded greater respect, I’m not sure that Indian capitalism is to blame. England (and Australia) had plenty of decades to develop the game as a business. That it didn’t (or didn’t with any great regard for Cricket nations of a lesser standing) is a significant part of the current day quandry.

    I remember the cricket world had similar feelings of doom and gloom when, er, Australian capitalists stepped in to make a killing. While the avarice was evident everywhere, the game itself didn’t die and in fact did get some lasting benefits from the upheaval.

    Cheers

  14. John Butler says:

    G’day Rick

    If it’s ‘a deep and critical reference to colonialism, the rise of capitalism and the Industrial revolution.’ you want then the book quoted above is a good place to start. A bit beyond the scope of 1600 words. :)

    There’s plenty of respect for test cricket in India. It’s the attitude of the few running the show at the moment that’s in question. But they have tended to come and go pretty regularly. Just ask Lalit Modi.

    I agree with the comparison to Packer. We can’t be sure what will eventuate but it’s unlikely to be all bad. Test cricket has proved pretty resilient so far.

  15. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Good points Rick and JB

  16. Luke Reynolds says:

    Well written John.
    Malcolm is right about Bangladesh’s ascension to Test status being the moment where India’s takeover of the ICC began. Its just formalised now, but hopefully Australia and England can keep it in check, and some positive moves have been made in regard to the possible rise in status for some associate nations.
    Test cricket has had a wonderful 12 months on the field, whether the stands have been full or empty. Very heartened to see plenty in attendance in Cape Town and right throughout the New Zealand home Test summer. There’s still plenty of life in the grand old game. It won’t be long before we see if loyalty and interest in manufactured ‘franchise’ teams is lasting. I’ve found the T20 World Cup most enjoyable, with real teams playing. “BBL3″ indeed…..
    Loved the the first paragraph detailing the finish of the Cape Town Test. Wonderful moment.

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