As I start on this journey of a piece, it has the makings of being a really long one (and now I’ve finished it, not sure it works, but here goes). It goes to the heart of me as a fan of sports around the world. Of my love for cricket, of my lost love of football, of my hopes to see a team like the baseball champions Kansas City Royals (a team unable to compete financially with the big clubs in the States, but still able to win it all) win the league in England, of my hopes of seeing a team run by faceless wealthy oligarchs get relegated. Of my watching every single sport become a vehicle to make massive amounts of money at the expense of spectators. Of a media in hock to the money-making charade. Of organisations where the only way you can postpone the possibility of jail time is to stay in charge. Of money ruling everything. Of the extinguishing of the commodity every football fan of a club outside the richest in the world possessed – hope. Hope. Sport made you hope.
When Jarrod sent me the copy of Death of a Gentleman I sat there and watched in…. well I don’t really know what my emotions were. I wasn’t surprised. Giles Clarke is an absolute pig of a man, and there would have to be a question of judgement against anyone he’d class as an ally. I wasn’t shocked that India were looking after themselves – after all, that’s what the big clubs do in football here, so why the hell are we shocked at that – and as for not widening the game, well let’s face it, it’s only a matter of scope. Club football loves the expansion of the game because similarly levelled talent of footballers from Eastern Europe and Africa (and South America if they didn’t predominantly move to Iberia) are cheaper than English counterparts. No major English club (and, by extension it seems, their fans) give a flying f*ck about the national team and developing players for it. In many cases, quite the opposite. The club sides were businesses, and the big clubs don’t feel the need for a sucessful national side to keep the home fires burning like they used to.
I wasn’t shocked that some players, like Ed Cowan, would give everything for their first cap, but the counterpart is that they might not feel so enamoured of the game when they get to, say, their 70th. Once something becomes routine, almost an entitlement, then that sheen of optimism wears off and it becomes just a job. But it’s nice to be reminded of the good side of first selections. Then there is the focus on test cricket. It doesn’t make commercial sense, so therefore, because of that it should not be played. It is not entertaining. Sport should not be played in front of empty stadia. We can’t serve up dead pitches because five day cricket is inherently boring. It is a form of the game worth saving because…. and it comes to the ultimate test of skill, technique, concentration and athleticism. However, those qualities sell better if there are more games. Shortening becomes efficiency. That’s what the people want in their busy lives…. So dead pitch test matches are bad. Very bad. They are driving people away.
That’s a line of argument gaining traction whenever we have a pitch where you might have to work really hard to get very good players out on it. I’ve been on this mortal coil now for over 45 years and people have become this way – short-term driven and wanting to tinker. Attention deficit and a generation of tinkerers. You know how it is at work. You can’t stay the same, you have to change. Change is good. If you are not open to change, you are an impediment. What happens now is administrators, managers, CEOs have to change something. There needs to be something done because there is always more to do. Innovate or die. And that’s my problem. Sport now apes business, because it has ceased being about sport, in many case, and more about business. I used to go to, and play, sport to escape business.
What is sport for? Well, actually, it isn’t for spectators, it is for the joy in playing it, isn’t it? Sport in itself is a form of enjoyment, of individual achievement, and when in a team context, of playing with your mates or forming a bond with like-minded adults or formulating friendships as kids. It’s getting the best out of yourself. Doing something that is better than work, perhaps to get away from a daily grind. So sport, at its base instinct, is about the players. When you were a kid, you played cricket until you got out. You might be stopped in street cricket when you made 50, or 100. You didn’t constrain yourself with limiting overs, field settings, who could or could not play. You didn’t care who was watching. When sport was more organised, for me it was Schools cricket and junior clubs, they would put some constraints on what you could play and then you sought to build innings, practice defence, and try to improve.
A key tenet of the debate going on now is that people aren’t developing the same love of the sport as they did when I was a kid. That cricket, obsessed with monetising the talent, is hidden behind a paywall that pays it more than a terrestrial channel. George Dobell, in his latest piece on Moeen, made the point:
At Moeen’s old school, Moseley, 80% of the kids do not have English as their first language; 40% receive free school meals. You don’t have to be a genius to work out the long-term effects of charging almost £100 for a ticket to international cricket or putting it behind a paywall on television. The game is in danger of becoming invisible to a huge section of society.
The role of TV in this piece is all-pervading, but I’m not sure if it’s the illness or the carrier. The fact is that cricket is, in some markets, an important commodity. Indian TV contracts are massive. In England, the absence of an IPL or a cricket equivalent to the football behemoth, means the contract is all about televising England’s national team. In this country it means test matches. I know how much more keenly test matches are viewed, by one look at the hit stats for the blog. ODIs capture nowhere near the attention. We’ll come to why, soon. Maybe. But it needs to start at what sport means to me. What cricket is…
When I was a kid it was all test cricket. No-one really cared about county cricket as a kid, and I didn’t go to my first County Championship game until I was a University student. Cricket was played in the streets by kids back in the 80s, because I was one of them. We played football in the same streets, despite being told not to by the council busybodies. Football is very visible, and yet I don’t see any kids playing it in the street on my council estate. There are less teams playing on Sundays over the playing fields I used to play on. Participation levels appear to be down, even informally. I lived cricket, though, because although I was never really going to go to county cricket, I followed it in the papers. I even purchased a long wave radio so I didn’t have to wait a couple of days for the scores when I was on holiday and could listen in to the snippets of cricket on the World Service.
During my formative years there was a school of thought that televising football live would kill clubs. Yes. People actually fought tooth and nail to keep the FA Cup Final as the only live club game on TV each year. It’s almost unthinkable. TV coverage was totally removed for the first half of the 1985-6 season. Nothing. Not a thing. At all. There was a running joke that West Ham’s Frank McAvennie, recently signed by them from St. Mirren and who was scoring for fun, could walk down the streets and no-one knew him. Football didn’t die. Of course not.
Now to make money, sport has to be about spectators – but it has become about TV spectators now. Players want to get paid for what they do, and they want it in increasing amounts. As those amounts get larger, the people paying them want more bang for their buck, and to try to keep the money flowing. They’ll increase ticket prices, play TV companies off against another to get in more revenue, and still they’ll increase prices, get into bidding wars with other mega-wealthy clubs to get the best players, who play less often because they are increasingly saved for matches against the best teams. Gideon Haigh summed up the role of you, the spectator, in DoaG perfectly – we are there to be monetized.
I’m a little bit of a lefty, you’ve probably guessed that, but I don’t live my life with my head in the clouds. Players want their fair share of the money going around, and that’s understandable. For the vast majority of sportspeople, especially in team sports, careers are short at the top level, and those lucrative media jobs for post-sporting careers are few and far between, while coaching and managing at the top level is both short-term and high-risk. But with money comes cynicism (I know it is not an exclusive relationship, but it’s just worse when high values are involved) both in terms of the superhuman feats a player is expected to perform because he/she is earning amazing amounts of money, and from the players, who might, or who are not able, to perform superhuman feats on cue every time they are asked to. It then means we might feel short changed when we see something that isn’t up to standard from them. That player will be crucified in the press, the braying, baying media pack who want “drama” “stories” and “soap opera” rather than sport. Your team wins some times, it loses some times. We are in the era when big clubs are not allowed to lose. Ever.
It is us, the spectators who are at fault. Most of us aren’t good enough to play at a high level, yet act like we know what it takes. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. Now your choice of football team is often seen as a reflection on you. I support my local club exclusively in England. I don’t care much for any other team. A team with a style of play I like might lose one week and I wouldn’t give the first f*ck about them. My team is Millwall. I was brought up in Deptford. My Dad was a Charlton fan, the rest of my family Millwall. My cousin got me first, and took me to the Den in 1979. I was a Millwall fan, for life.
Now, in SE London, I see people with Chelsea shirts, Arsenal shirts, Manchester United shirts, less Liverpool shirts than you used to, and for the love of all that is holy, Manchester City shirts. Their choice of team isn’t in reaction to their locality – hell support those jokers from Selhurst Park, it’s better than Arsenal – but it’s not just their choice that riles. They pat themselves on the backs as if they’ve backed a penny share that’s suddenly had a good Annual Report. Meanwhile, of the three local clubs, Palace are having a decent run, but it will only take a raid on their best players, and a downturn in form to see them back where they belong; Charlton are now a Belgian league club’s plaything; and my lot are arguably back where they belong – a tier two/tier three yo-yo club. Only diehards support lower league clubs now. We’re seen as an oddity, as if there’s something wrong with us, as if we don’t have the mental capacity to choose a big team.
So it goes for cricket.
I am a Surrey fan, for life. I chose them in the late 1970s. They were my granddad’s team, they were the nearest ground to home, and someone with the same real surname as me played for them (hello Mr Alam). They are my team for life, and believe me, it took 20 years for any glory. But I appreciated it so much more that it took so long. I am also a supporter of the following other sports teams – Miami Dolphins (Superbowls since supporting them – 1, and they lost it); Boston Red Sox (started supporting in late 1990s, when Pedro was doing his thing – they’ve become winners since then); Chicago Bulls (nearest I come to a glory hunter, but supported once I got to see Michael Jordan play on TV – before the Championship run) – and stuck with them through their slumps, which they have all suffered (Miami the 1-15 season, Red Sox bottom of AL East two years on the bounce, Bulls post the glory years).
The modern spectator has more in common with the Bulls following than anything else. They want to win, and they want to see the big stars at their team. Extrapolated to the TV audiences, it means big clubs, more often. Top stars, more often. Money makes the world go round.
In cricketing terms we all know what this means. The biggest money is in India. Therefore, the biggest stars are in India, a nation that remains proud of its own, and yet loves those from outside that embrace the culture and the fanaticism. When this is combined with cynical, money-hunting businessmen, on the prowl for more power, there’s an unstoppable nexus. Feed the fanaticism, make more money. The IPL stands alone as the T20 league to play in. The money, the fame, the adulation. Cricket on a level playing field with football. No wonder players want to play in it, and others worry themselves sick about it. India hold all the negotiating hand here, and everyone knows it.
Anyone in England who thinks this is outrageous, then look at how the Champions League is run. How the Premier league is run. The aim for all is to make sure India keep the IPL away from their turf, to keep themselves sustainable. West Indies have suffered the most. England and Australia, the least.
Again, anyone in England wondering why India want to guarantee nine matches in the 2019 Cricket World Cup, because of a shock exit in 2007, haven’t paid attention to a Champions League that spends 48 games to halve its numbers, with a lovely seeded draw to keep as many big teams apart as possible, and a draw designed to maximise revenues in the big markets by not allowing more than two games per nation on any one day, and by stretching the 2nd round out over four weeks, not two. There was nothing wrong with the old European Cup knockout model, except it didn’t make the big teams enough money. When UEFA had the gall to remove the second group stage, there were howls of derision from the bigger clubs, and many a veiled threat – but fans saw through it and it was almost too obvious in its soaking of the fans. The big club spectators want more of this exotic stuff, not less, but too much damages credibility. India are mimicking big football clubs, and yet we get howls from supporters in this country that they do so. We must be having a laugh……
India has been threatening an IPL2, have been using their international team as pawns in ageo-political money accumulation game for years now. They have the power. Without them, every country with the exception of England and Australia is sunk. Sports authorities, and those making money out of them, rarely look for long-term rewards, because within a few days your corruption might be fatal, your face might not fit, or some younger, or more innovative whipper snapper has seduced your enablers. It’s only going to get worse. I sound like an old codger, I know, but we’ve got a load of twenty-somethings come into our office in the last year or so. I like pretty much all of them personally. But they don’t see long-term. They see rapid development, an entitlement to promotion rather than it being earned in the long run of hard graft. There is impatience. There is practically no dissent to authority. It is not about common good, it is about the pursuit of your own goals. It’s the culture in which they were raised.
That sort of culture, to take an extrapolation if you might allow me to, means sports that take five days, played in empty grounds, are anathema. These are top players who could be earning more. They could be used more. The lopping off of six weeks at a time to play three matches in a desert location makes absolutely no commercial sense. Commercial sense. It isn’t about growing the game, getting more teams involved (after all, we grew it in 1999 by promoting Bangladesh to test status and they still aren’t up to it), it is about getting the best players on people’s screens, in front of lots of people. It isn’t about cricket lovers, certainly us old codgers, because we aren’t the target for advertising – that group between 18-35 is the holy grail – and advertising makes the TV money go round. A modern culture demands a modern way. Death of a Gentleman is more Death of an Attitude.
The film highlighted all it needed to. A governing body doing what all other major board seem to do – hoard power and cash, run the sport on short-termism, pay lip service to development and monetise the best players as frequently as possible – and players moaning about workload in the one instance, but grabbing every bit as much cash as they can whent the opportunity arises (which is why I won’t listen to KP on county cricket, for instance. He made it where he is because of it, not in spite of it. He moved to this country to play it). Giles Clarke is a lovely coat-stand to hang our ills on. Maybe he is right and we should ride India’s coat-tails. Maybe the counties are right for fighting for the status quo, because, let’s face it, their existence in the form of 18 teams playing four day cricket book-ending the limited over stuff is every bit as logical as test cricket in Mohali.
Whether test cricket lives or dies isn’t up to me. The Ashes will live on, as long as we have players capable of playing long-form cricket. There is a lot mentioned about context of tests, and the refusal to have a Test Championship is mind-blowingly short-sighted, but what was the context when the West Indies were ruling the world, or Pakistan played test series against India that would feature a result once in a blue moon? These aren’t new issues. Cricket is more expensive to watch, both at grounds and via subscriptions. So is football. So are most other sports.
I’d like to finish this long ramble up with a comparison to baseball, which I mentioned at the start. You can’t go a week or two without reports that viewership on TV is down. That baseball is a dying sport. That no-one talks about it over the water-cooler. That the NFL now rules everything in the US. Baseball will still be there in decades to come. It is a slow, cerebral game, which I love. It cultivates its base by making its local TV rights, and national shows available. It has a website that was the envy of many other sports which made watching your team outside of market very cheap (£90 for every match in a season, more or less). It plays on its history, a sepia-tinged “father and son” narrative. It’s a sport embraced by the Latino community. It’s also competitive. The current richest team haven’t won a title since the 1980s (Dodgers). The perennial richest team, the Yankees, have won the championship once since 2000. Last week, the Kansas City Royals won the title having been in the finals last year. According to sources, a greater proportion of younger people watched the World Series than in recent memory. It’s food for thought.