Almanac Cricket – Questions of legacy

The international domestic summer has opened with more of a whimper than a bang, the actual cricket feeling like a decided anti-climax compared to the off field distractions of the preceding week. With so many key decision makers at Cricket Australia now recently or imminently departed, it seems an appropriate moment to contemplate the varied legacies they leave behind.

 

In terms of duration of service, the most significant departure is that of long standing CEO James Sutherland. Sutherland’s 17 year tenure predates the Indian Premier League, beginning with Australia’s test team riding the ascendant wave of a golden generation of players. In some senses, the only way was down, as it has largely been since the retirement of Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist and co,  but Sutherland’s legacy is more complicated than just the fortunes of the test side.

 

World cricket this century has been dominated by India’s inexorable rise to commercial dominance. Any Australian decision maker was going to be forced to respond to events and decisions beyond their direct control. This needs to be considered in any assessment of Sutherland, who has at least maintained a working relationship with the BCCI as it underwent its own ructions. In the instance of the Big Three agreement,  Australia (like England) protected its own interests by siding with India to the cost of other test nations. The wisdom of that in the longer run is far from being determined. Some memories may prove long.

 

Modern sports administrators inevitably point to the bottom line for justification of their decisions, particularly if that bottom line appears favourable. In terms of revenue, Australian cricket has certainly grown during Sutherland’s time. But it has also become accustomed to spending increasing amounts of that largesse on itself. The bureaucracy in charge of cricket only grows with each report. How that positions the game should finances become tighter is hopefully exercising the thoughts of some at CA. A leader’s real test often comes when it is time to cut, rather than spend.

 

Sutherland would doubtless claim the establishment of the Big Bash League as a major achievement of his time. it has been no mean feat to create a major financial drawcard out of a competition that is largely populated by domestic players, with a few international ring-ins to add flavour. CA can likely point to research which also suggests success in appealing to younger fans. This is no bad thing. But the birth of the BBL was messy in its early days, and even in its success has done nothing to resolve the tensions within the modern game.

 

Cricket’s biggest looming fault line isn’t between national boards, but the contest for superiority between international cricket and increasingly powerful private interests. The IPL franchisees are just the most prominent of a growing group who currently act within the sanction of official boards. That isn’t a guaranteed permanent situation, as players become used to the idea of playing in colours other than their national team’s. We have already seen Kerry Packer force the old ACB to a settlement largely on his terms. Who is to say he is unique? And who is to say that the current parlous state of West Indian international cricket couldn’t be replicated elsewhere? In this context, the many impacts of accommodating the BBL, with their subsequent cost to Australian first class cricket, may yet contain a longer term sting in the tail.

 

The growth of women’s cricket under Sutherland’s stewardship is a much more clear cut success. If a sport’s health is to be measured by participants, rather than dollars, then only good can come from the encouragement of the game in half of our population. CA has been much less ambiguous in its support of the women’s game than its AFL rival, providing realistic pay structures and increased opportunity to play. In doing so, it has stolen a march on football. In terms of the game’s long term health, this is a most promising development.

 

It will be interesting to see how kindly hindsight treats Sutherland’s time at the helm. Inheritor of a happy circumstance initially, he found the going understandably harder as playing fortunes declined. He more often seemed a follower, rather than a shaper of events. Perhaps that was the secret to his longevity.

 

It’s doubtful David Peever has left the legacy he imagined when he became chairman of the CA board. Then again, Peever’s apparent estimation of himself usually exceeded the impression he left on others. His time at the helm will be remembered for a botched pay negotiation and a big-dollar television deal. The CA approach to the pay negotiation had all the hallmarks of an old fashioned attempt at union busting. That soon led to war with the players, which blew up in the board’s face, resulting in a settlement largely on the players’ main terms, but only after the game itself suffered significant reputational damage.

 

With the pressure now on, a new television deal had to be negotiated. As the subsequent Ethics Centre report characterised  it, CA had an acute sense of “price” in its manner of conduct, without an accompanying sense of “value”. The finalised deal certainly brought more money, but also opened a breach in the anti-syphoning legislation that had previously kept international cricket on free to air TV. Just as the English Cricket Board was concluding that having their game behind pay TV walls wasn’t healthy, Australia is resolving to follow them down that path.

 

The fiasco in Cape Town proved the catalyst for Peever’s undoing. CA chose to outsource the subsequent review of the game’s culture. The enduring counsel about reviews is that you should never launch one unless you can already predict the conclusions. Yet Peever seemed unprepared for findings which described CA’s conduct of affairs as “arrogant”, “controlling” and “dictatorial”. In spite of that review inviting him to fall on his own sword, Peever attempted to manoeuvre his survival. So successful where his efforts that he didn’t see out the week. It felt like an appropriate conclusion to a forgettable tenure.

 

The announcement that Pat Howard was stepping down in 12 months came with many attendant ironies. The man who owed his job to the Argus Review’s desire to have “a single point of accountability” for Australia’s playing fortunes has once again, by setting his own time of departure, avoided any direct consequence of his notional accountability. In truth, most cricket followers would to this day struggle to coherently describe where Howard’s responsibilities began and ended. And given the current state of affairs, it’s hard to mount much of an argument that Howard’s role has had any significant positive impact. Once he departs, it should be an active point of discussion as to whether any replacement is actually required. It could be fairly argued the money would be better spent elsewhere.

 

In spite of the efforts and intentions of these three men, the legacy they leave Australian cricket was on display on Sunday evening. In front of a quarter-full Optus Stadium, Australia continued a long string of 50 over defeats by comfortably losing to South Africa. The lacklustre event was available only to a small pay TV audience. With the 50 over format already pronounced struggling, it is hard to see how fixtures like this are any help at all. The Australian team faces a difficult home summer in general without its best three batsmen. Those problems are exacerbated by a domestic cricket scene almost no one believes to have  prospered in recent years. Not all of these issues can be fairly blamed on these three men, but the fact remains they leave behind a game richer in revenue, but poorer in other significant respects.

 

There has been much discussion of culture in Australian cricket circles of late. Even without the efforts of Dr Simon Longstaff’s review, much of that culture, if we are honest, has been in plain view for a long time. All in positions of responsibility chose to ignore some fairly predictable consequences of behaviours that had become endemic at the top level. In the wake of that golden generation of players, Australian cricket has floundered in significant and costly ways this last decade. It is well past time we were less fixated on the value of winning, and paid some genuine attention to values in general.

 

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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. Dave Brown says:

    Interesting time for Mark Taylor to step away as a director, too, John. The thing that troubles me about the discussion of culture is its linking to on field performance. Not necessarily that poor culture doesn’t lead to poor on field performance, but the reverse that strong on field performance means there is nothing to worry about. One of reasons Peever survived the botched pay deal was Australia went on to comfortably win the Ashes, poor culture and all. I’m getting pretty much used to the idea that as a large, corporatised organisation (much like the AFL) Cricket Australia will not meet my expectations of it. But it would be nice if they got a bit closer.

  2. John Butler says:

    Dave, they are leaving so fast it’s hard to write a piece that stays current.

    I think Cricket Australia have become a textbook exhibit of the limits of money in the bank and wins on the field. Short term gains at a longer term cost have become something of a theme.Sport should always be about competing. Hopefully winning as well, but context always matters when weighing results. I’d value the draw we managed in Dubai over any of those easy kills against England last summer.

    But we’ve become too obsessed with winning as THE measure. I think the price of that could be very heavy this summer. And beyond.

    Cheers

  3. As always, a very thoughtful analysis, JB. Thanks.
    It is truly remarkable just how little responsibility D Peever took for the clusterf*#k which was the past 18 months (beginning with the pay dispute). To say he had a tin ear would be to denigrate the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz.
    I could write a whole piece and bring up a host of different issues, as I am sure you could. But there is one person who has thus far escaped scrutiny, and his name is GS Chappell. His post-playing legacy is questionable (introduction of Futures League at the expense of Shield 2nds, etc).
    Even given the off-field issues, I am surprised at just how far the ODI team has fallen. On Sunday, the team was missing only two players. Two great players, yes, but only two players nonetheless. Apart from those two, the team was at full strength. A tough summer beckons.
    As Confucius was want to say, “May you live in interesting times”.

  4. John Butler says:

    Smoke, if you really want to talk about the culture of an organisation, let’s talk about the way Peever was able to be reappointed whist withholding the culture review findings. Ridiculous that he would even try, let alone succeed (albeit briefly).

    A bit hard on GS Chappell. But not without basis. I think he showed in his captaincy days that he lacked some of the people skills Ian had. A focus on youth isn’t of itself a bad thing, but it needs to be balanced within a healthy broader picture. CA seems to struggle to get that balance of views, and GSC has probably been given too much rope to hang himself with at times. He seems a man inclined to stringent aesthetics. He needs other views to moderate him.

    The national team was never going to remain immune to the decline of the Shield. Have all the pathways you want, but the long term foundation of Australian cricket was always that tradition of hard cricket against experienced players. That has been compromised in the desire to accommodate the BBL.

  5. The BBL faces an interesting future in regards to the recruitment of international players.
    As Gideon quite rightly pointed out recently, the Bangladesh League is played concurrently and lasts half the time of the BBL. For their efforts, players are paid twice as much as in the BBL. Players such as Gayle and Warner(!) are playing BPL this coming season.
    The decision to extend the BBL was one born of pure greed (surprise, surprise). Apart from its continued negative effect on the first class season, this decision will preclude many overseas players from taking part as it goes for too long a period (a point which many players pointed out when it was first mooted).

  6. John Butler says:

    And why would the Bangladeshi’s do us any favours? Seeing as we sold them out in the Big Three agreement.

  7. JB thoughtful peice yes Aust got so focused on winning that it ignored every thing else and thought that would fix all evil.When Pat Howard got mixed up between Mike Hussey and Ben Hilfanhouse batting in the nets early on it showed he was not a cricket mastermind.I am with Smokie on Greg Chappell for mine both him and Rod Marsh fantastic cricketers but both are more than questionable apart from that.
    Very balanced re Sutherland legacy thank you

  8. I am wondering why I am taking such schadenfreude delight in the demise of the despised Peever, tepid Tubby, and hologram Howard. And the absence of any skill, grit or passion in the ODI performance on Sunday.
    Self validation? Really there should be no pleasure in a noble sport drawn low. Except that it seems so inevitably self inflicted. CLR James “what does a man know of cricket, who only cricket (and money) knows?”
    I wonder if Foxtel will experience buyers remorse? Planning to downgrade my package to the minimum until the footy season. Equally impacted for me by their loss of Champions/Europa League soccer.
    Didn’t watch any of Sunday’s debacle, but found myself wondering if Starc/Hazelwood/Cummins could really be bothered putting in on such a hopeless task. Heard Terry Alderman (old soldiers never die) on ABC Radio trying to talk up the game on the basis of DK Lillee’s bowling out Qld for 62 in an ODI semi final in 1976.
    Made me think of how much less cricket was played in those days and how wickets were not just flat tracks (particularly for short forms).
    A quick bowler having to pace himself for the long haul in more important games would just be going through the motions. Media and CA give us circuses because they have sold all the bread.
    Maintain the rage JB.

  9. Luke Reynolds says:

    Spot on JB, what a whimper of a start. Interesting to note that the crowd at Optus Stadium (24,342) was bigger than the average Australia v South Africa Perth crowd of 19,801, albeit those games were at the much smaller WACA Ground. But the TV ratings on Foxtel were horrendous. Where was the promotion?
    Sutherland always seemed to me to be too nice to be in such a pivotal role. Women’s cricket has gone ahead in leaps and bounds under his watch, though I still think they could’ve/should’ve put more in earlier. The BBL is a magnificent, souless success. At least Test cricket is still on free to air, unlike in England.
    The cleanout at CA is welcomed by me, looking with much interest to see who the replacements will be.

  10. Dear Mr Butler,
    I write on behalf of the RSPCA.
    (Ratbag Society for the Prevention of Cricket Australia).
    Every time you write these articles another CA exec dies.
    Keep up the good work.

  11. John Butler says:

    Thanks for the comments gents.

    Luke, “a magnificent, souless success”. Couldn’t have said it better.

    Rulebook, it appears the “single point of accountability” finally got held to account after all.

    PB, it has become impossible to write on this subject without the piece becoming outdated before the sun next goes down. It’s making the actual cricket seem positively dull.

  12. JB- previous Australian cricket doldrums seem to have been natural troughs (most of the 1980’s) but this tumble appears to be largely orchestrated from within.

    I trust for my well-being and that of our country, the national summer side can regain quickly our faith and admiration. Like many I can’t recall the first XI being so psychologically remote.

  13. John Butler says:

    Mickey, that 80’s slump wasn’t entirely natural. Australian cricket took a long time to reconcile from the division of WSC. Christian Ryan’s ‘Golden Boy’ is a pretty good reminder of that. Then there were the South African rebel tours that followed.

    Officialdom (and its intransigence) played a big role in WSC. Then Ali Bacher’s efforts were not a million miles away from what might be possible again, except this time centered on money rather than politics.

    It’s an interesting period you raise. Are we about to experience something similar?

    Cheers

  14. Good work JB. What did you think of Chappelli’s take down of Peter Fitzsimons the other day? He got him a beauty.

  15. Admirable dedication, JB.

    Between your Carlton FC and the Australian Cricket scene you continue to plough fertile, though challenging fields with aplomb.

  16. Susan Steele says:

    JB
    Rumour has it that Australia actually won a match yesterday, but I’m not sure if anyone was watching to validate this?
    As always a solid analysis. Thanks.

  17. Good stuff John. Where to from here with Australian cricket: cricket per se?

    Plenty of others have already commented on the demise of grade/shield cricket, the nursery grounds of Australian cricket. The BBL is now the primary (sole) focus outside of the Australian team. As you point out so well John, the BBL is a major financial drawcard, reaching a younger, actually more diverse, audience. But what is its impact on on-field performances?

    It hasn’t enhanced batting techniques. Watching our ODI team, none seem to build an innings, more so focus is on the big hit. Watching the batting in the first 2 ODI’s against South Africa, there didn’t seem to be a coherent approach to building an innings, or shot selection. How has the BBL enhanced our bowlers?

    With the history of Australian teams undergoing a run of bad years and the constant ructions, we can recall WSC coincided with the end of the great Chappeli era. One of the reasons the term struggled was the retirement of players who did not find it financially viable to remain in the Baggy Green, though the extra $$ under WSC allowed them to continue their career longer.

    The mid 1980’s tours of the veldt coincided with a team that had not been so great, though it retained 3 of the greats from that previous era. Once they retired , there was no leadership, and a team that was at best middle of the table, became increasingly vulnerable.

    This will be an intriguing summer. Great win in the second ODI, but how the team fares in the test arena remains to be seen. I’m happy for another 1977-78 home series.

    Glen!

  18. John Butler says:

    DB, I missed that. Was that on Nine’s Sunday sports show?

    E Reg, at least I can reasonably say the only way is up. Eventually.

    Susan, don’t shout that too loudly. I gather from the (non-existent) marketing the game got, CA were trying to keep it a secret.

    Glen, there’s clearly a place for the BBL, but they’ve sacrificed too much in making it a success. They need a better balance for the summer schedule. It’s doable, but do they really have the will? And don’t expect to have another golden generation of players without fixing the Shield.

    Cheers all.

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