Down the Tubes: Nations at Midnight

After a break in the series which England seem to have largely spent on the toilet, hostilities resume tomorrow at the Wanderers in Johannesburg. And yet within that break, and in the context of a series finely balanced, the nature of Test cricket itself has come under scrutiny.

AB De Villiers, fresh from his appointment as South Africa’s captain, spoke candidly about the stresses of cricket, and his future within the game. There is no question that he is one of the shining lights of world cricket, a batsman as brutal in the short form of the game as he is stylish in the longer form. For him to openly question his place in Test cricket in the way he has should be ringing alarm bells.

For this is no single player whining about a workload, it is a direct consequence of the way the world game has been mistreated and viewed as an impediment to the making of money.

“I’m still very committed, to the job I’m not sure – obviously the two Test matches for now are all I’m focusing on and then there’s a nice big break of six months before we play Test cricket again” [my emphasis].

This is the Test captain of the number one ranked side in the world expressing relief that the next series is half a year away, during which time he will play ODI and T20 cricket for the national team, before the World T20 and then the IPL.  Ah yes, the IPL, the source of all problems, some would say.  And yet the reality is that his IPL contract is worth ten times that with South Africa.  There is no point in lamenting that players show interest in this, nor that with other tournaments such as the ongoing Big Bash there are other opportunities for earning that attract the attention of the leading players.  When the difference is so stark, players cannot be expected to put that aside, any more than anyone else would in their own chosen career.  It is not greed to wish to be paid commensurate to your earning ability; while De Villiers may be at the top of the game, the same considerations will apply at the levels below, and for those people cricket is a short career with limited opportunities for making a living.

Of course, the remedy for that requires for players to receive an income for what De Villiers recognises as the pinnacle of the game that reflects the wider reality of their position as leading performers.  And this is the problem, for the power grab by India, England and Australia has directly reduced the potential income available to the cricket boards of the other Test playing nations with those three enriching themselves at their expense.  Handwringing about the trouble Test cricket is in while ignoring the elephant in the room about the structure of the ICC and the divisions of the spoils ensures that only the symptoms are looked at and not the cause.  For this is not an arcane possibility, the one sided hammering of the West Indies team by Australia is indicative of the problem, where players who would make the Caribbean side a competitive one, even with all their internal problems, weren’t playing and weren’t available.

Although the problems the West Indies are facing are at least partially down to longstanding structural problems and failures in administration, it remains a fact that one of the great names in world cricket cannot pick their best side because their players are off playing in T20 tournaments instead, and more importantly, the Test team is seen as a step towards achieving that T20 status rather than being the pinnacle in its own right.

Therefore, paying players properly to play Test cricket is the only way this can be prevented, and under the new structure, this is simply not going to be possible for the boards who must now make do with a smaller share of the overall pot. A striking contrast would be with James Anderson, who on the same day as De Villiers was mulling over his future made it clear his priority was Test cricket and not the IPL or anything else.  Anderson is quite plainly a Test bowler first and foremost, but he is also a big name who would be an asset to the marketing of any tournament.  The principal and overriding difference in his case is that as an England Test player, he is well paid for his efforts.

That means that Anderson has a definite choice, the differential is not especially large for him, and he’s never been especially effective in the shorter form of the game anyway.  For younger players, brought up within the T20 era, this is not so true, and the presence of so many English players in the Big Bash is noticeable.

The ICC are doing their usual thing of sticking their heads in the sand and pretending it will all go away – and so it will, just not in the way they mean – with Dave Richardson performing his usual routine of blandly ignoring reality by saying nothing will change before 2019 when the current Future Tours Programme comes to an end.  The Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations pointed to a survey of their playing members considering the route of being free agents in order to play in the tournaments springing up on a regular basis.  This is the death knell of Test cricket if it happens and nothing changes, for it will be impossible to schedule tours at a time when none of them are going on.  Test cricket needs to find an accommodation with these leagues and money is part of that, but so is giving Test cricket a context, as FICA insisted is needed.

“If we wait until 2019 then bilateral cricket around the world is going to be in real trouble.  The engagement and insight provided by players is vital to this process. We surveyed players recently on structuring in the context of cricket. We are using some of our outcomes of that with ICC.

“The worrying thing is that the players are telling us that if things don’t change they will be turning more to T20 leagues. It varies from country to country. Countries where players are well paid and Test cricket is stronger have a big affinity to Test cricket. But in many countries that is not the case. You have to think big picture. You want to keep Test cricket strong in a number of countries so players want to play the format and there is investment in the format.” – Tony Irish, Chief Executive of FICA

The concept of having divisional Test cricket has been around for a while, for it would give context to the format, and meaning to victory and defeat.  The public objections to it tend to revolve around the practicality of arranging series, which is an exceptionally weak argument.  The reality of the opposition is that England, Australia and India are petrified of relegation removing major series from the equation, while the other teams only make money from series against India – or at a push, England – and cannot survive on their meagre ICC percentage without them.  This is of course not that difficult to overcome, for a redistribution of income from all sources would support the countries involved, as well as creating the opportunity for the likes of Ireland to become a full member – the reluctance of the chosen ten to countenance this being yet another illustration of the self-centred nature of avaricious cricketing governance.

This isn’t going to happen.

When writers are talking about the ways of giving Test cricket a viable future, they are talking about the sport.  The ICC and its constituent management are not thinking about the sport itself and haven’t done for years if ever.  It is about power, and it is about money.  At no time have they shown the slightest inclination towards the purity of sport, which ought to be their raison d’etre.  The boards themselves think the same way – the possibility that the Ashes might not happen fills the ECB and CA with horror, rather than considering the best way to ensure that never happens is to develop players and teams to provide success.

This is why at the halfway point of what has all the prospects of being a great Test series there is no celebration of how wonderful Test cricket can be, it’s more of a concern about how long this will carry on in its current form.

As for the Test itself, expectations are that the wicket will be seam friendly, to the point that South Africa will be going in without a frontline spinner.  With Dale Steyn ruled out, England have a real opportunity to take a winning lead.  The Wanderers usually produces a result, and a straight shoot out between the pace attacks is likely.

Comments on day one below