“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.
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).