Please do try to stick with me through this. It might ramble a little more than usual. It is related to cricket….trust me.
In the United States, some of you may be aware of a basketball team called the Golden State Warriors. They play in “unfashionable” Oakland to full houses, and until last year, had not won the NBA championship since 1975; and when they triumphed last year it was over the mighty LeBron James. They were probably better known for many years as the team who Michael Jordan injured his foot against (which put him out of his second season in the NBA, by and large), but for the most part they wandered around the lower reaches of the Western Conference, obscured by the monstrous Lakers to the south in LA, an afterthought when marveling at the San Antonio Spurs.
Through a combination of good fortune (picking Stephen Curry (the league MVP last year) up in the draft, the development of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green), good business (trading for really good fits for other starting slots and the bench) and a great coaching team, they are threatening the NBA regular season record of 72 wins set by my hero’s team in the 1995/6 season. They pack out houses across the US, they sell a huge amount of merchandise, and the TV companies can’t get enough of them. They are simply wonderful to watch.
I am also reading a book at the moment called “The Ugly Game” and it is the Times Insight Team’s book on the widespread corruption surrounding the Qatar 2022 World Cup bid. I absolutely cannot get enough of the World Cup. It is, to a large degree, a great leveller. It is still, just about, a meritocracy when it comes to on the field play. England, despite having tons of cash, are useless at it. France can come and go, Germany always seem to do well because their players put international football on a pedestal, similarly Italy, and to a certain extent, recently, Spain have bought in. Then there’s Brazil and Argentina, and even the so-called “minnows” now can put up a damn fine show. It’s a fantastic event, run by a bunch of absolute venal c***s. And I don’t use that word every day on here. Every page of the book gets me more and more angry.
At the weekend Manchester City played in the FA Cup 5th Round. They were three wins away from a major final in a year when the league looks out of reach. Their manager threw a hissy-fit about having to play this on a Sunday and then Dinamo Kiev (a three and a half hour flight away) on Wednesday (and I’ll bet they aren’t going cattle class either) so played a team of inexperienced or reserve players and lost 5-1. No-one seems to batt an eyelid, and yet another nail is put into the FA Cup’s coffin. The same Cup competition that meant the world to all football fans twenty years ago.
So what? What do they have to do with cricket?
For the Golden State Warriors, lets take a slight flight of fancy here and look at the recent performances, if not results, of New Zealand. Here’s a team with very limited resources, unfashionable, but with some excellent new talent allied to the old, and playing in a way that attracts fans. They are immensely popular with neutrals. They reached last year’s World Cup Final. They played attacking, attractive cricket in England. In the NBA they’d be inundated with requests to be on TV. They’d be the talk of the town. McCullum’s century would be played on every media network for a few weeks. Williamson would be feted as a genius, a talent to savour. Australia can even be their LeBron to New Zealand’s Steph. But they are small-fry, “not a big draw”. As far as the ECB are concerned, New Zealand away is now a tour to be tagged on to the end of the next Ashes. Or a prequel to a home series. Bravo!
For FIFA, we have the ICC. I am in no position to cast aspersions on their fiscal probity, but let’s face it, as Death of a Gentleman showed, the secrecy is there. Where curtains are drawn, and the probers kept out, there’s a high correlation that there are people up to no good. Like FIFA, they hold our love of the game in their hands, and like FIFA, they use it to make lots and lots of money. It is not enough to say that we can’t do anything about it, and if we do, we’ll get squashed. Sport may be a business but it doesn’t have to make that its “virtue” (and subsequent vice). The win at the back-slapping, ain’t we all jolly marvellous, Sports Journalist Awards for the film should have shamed all those cricket journalists present. They had done nothing to do what Sam and Jarrod did. OK, very little. Because they are scared of the ICC, and by extension, the ECB. We’ve gone down that line before. Because I hate their actions, I can’t give their public persona, the international team in the case of the ECB, my total support. Maxie puts the case more strongly than me in a lively old post today, but I’m not a million miles away from his view.
And then there’s the Manchester City question and their treatment of the FA Cup (and they are by no means the only ones – see Arsenal). Again, another read across for the sport of cricket. For the FA Cup, read test cricket. The 142 year old history puts it alongside test cricket for longevity. Its history gave it its lustre, and the fans of my age group loved it. My team even made the Final in 2004, a lifetime’s ambition. Winning that semi at Old Trafford was one of the greatest sporting occasions of my life. Three seasons ago we made the semis again. I never went. Didn’t care. We were beaten by Man Utd in 2004, who barely broke sweat, and whose fans treated the win like a visit to the dentists. I remember drawing Southampton away in 2003, and looked back at when we played them in four matches in 1986 (both cups), which contained one goal between them, but in the case of the two at The Den, were pulsating matches, played in front of pretty full houses, certainly for the FA Cup. When we went to St Mary’s, there were a distinct lack of Southampton fans. They’d voted with their feet. This 4th round tie wasn’t important, at all. Sure, they got more into it when they reached the Final, but they’d voted with their feet. Not important enough. The other competition, the league, meant much, much more. Because of money. And that’s what is happening to test cricket. T20 is more important because of money, whether you like it or not, to the players, and increasingly to the fans.
These are three examples of sport to have hit me in the last few days. While I watched most of the T20 match on Sunday and sat there only really enjoying the sheer magnificence of Jos Buttler (and I will always want him to do really well) from an England perspective, I wondered what I’m doing. I saw Hashim Amla’s early assault and loved to see a class player fit right in to this format without the biff bang wallop and realised that this sport has a lot to offer. But that’s just it. When you know that your love and passion is fuelling the cynicism, the money-grabbing, and yes, probably the corruption too (mainly focusing on how India fans devotion to IPL is being abused), it’s soul destroying. For some, this can be separated, for some, it can’t.
Which takes me back to Golden State. I am not a devoted, lifelong supporter of the Warriors (although I liked their team of the early 90s with Mullin, Hardaway and Richmond) but I make sure I record every game of their’s this season when they are on the TV. Without wishing to be a hostage to fortune, it is a well run sport (Adam Silver, the Commissioner, is highly regarded), I know nothing of the Warriors owners antics, and I therefore watch a wonderful sporting team, playing superb, exciting basketball and enjoy the sport. Maybe it’s me deliberately not wanting to know there’s something wrong. It would spoil the enjoyment I’m getting. You can’t un-know what you know. But the general consensus is that this is a good thing. A less fashionable team, through a mix of good luck and good management have a great thing going. It’s lovely to watch.
There’s great sport in many places, but everywhere it is under threat where the principle is to make money before considering what you are putting out there. When sport does this, it loses. When it loads the dice, it loses. When meritocracy and hope are suppressed, it loses. Cricket, and in particular our board, really need to think about it and not take the current slow-ish ticket sales for this year’s international cricket as evidence to retrench some more back to safe, money-making series. Because if you build good sport, and don’t take your fans, your customers, for fools, they will come. One day, that problem may hit the great behemoth that is football. You can never be too sure.