The Product

“I had to be convinced because when I started out I was massively against it [four-day Tests], but I am for it because with Test cricket there is a risk of us loving it to death. We have to adapt.”
It’s been a tough time on the blog. Sean has been unavailable, Chris has been on his travels, and I’ve had the ongoing family issue in the States which thankfully looks more bright. It has also coincided with a period of limited England action. The ODI series in West Indies ticked the ICC Tours and England tour company boxes, but had little relevance to any future games. I really couldn’t care a dime about this North v South competition, played, as it is, in the Emirates. The quiet period is actually bloody important because England play far too much and any break is to be welcomed. Flogging a few of our players through all three formats for years on end is going to end careers prematurely.

For someone who has been on the blogging treadmill pretty much non-stop (we’ve had a few interludes here and there) for three years it has been a chance to actually take my eye off cricket for a while. I made little effort to watch anything while I was over in the USA, and I’m very much concentrating on getting out of the house quickly in the morning so don’t even switch on the India v Australia games. It’s on now, but it is hardly the most thrilling passage of play.

So last night, when I was struggling to get to sleep, I was thinking about what I could possibly write about. So I thought I’d probably concentrate at being an old man barking at the moon, and railing against something or other. It’s a vain person who quotes himself, but please let me have this indulgence. I replied to a Mark comment last night about the scriptures passed down by The Empty Suit (Tom Harrison) on the future of cricket in this country. In it, as is frequent in those circles, the sport of cricket, in whatever form it is played, is called a product. Now I’m sure I’ve referred to it as a “product” in the past,  but not in these egregious terms. It’s all about marketing, and image…. buzz if you like…. and actually not about the sport. Empty Suit was all corporate bluster and it pissed me off (and Mark too)

Harrison’s utter bullshit, invoking my favourite word “unique” (that’s a red flag indicating “charlatan” in my warning book) and as you say, Mark, “product” rather than “sport” or “competition” might fool some loyal followers of the used car salesman management text books, but it will never fool me when it comes to sport. Sport is not a product. It is sport. In essence, people playing. Wouldn’t it be nice if we got back to that?

Something has happened in the past weeks which has had me all wistful. It started with Millwall being drawn against Leicester in the FA Cup. It took me back to when we drew the same team in that competition in 1985. I went to that game with a friend from the same estate I lived on. He was 13 at the time, and we were great mates. We played football, we played cricket, we loved sport to death. He moved away a few years after, but I see him in on Twitter and he has a prominent-ish role in sport journalism now. I genuinely didn’t want to bother him with my nonsense for a while now, dropping a couple of hints if he wanted to follow them up, and yet he didn’t, and I was quite comfortable with that. This was because he is a journalist and I can’t say I was too keen on any journo knowing who I was at that stage.

Anyway, to cut a boring long story short, I got in contact after the Cup draw, and we are now talking a lot on line. It’s private conversations, but fascinating nonetheless, but I will quote one part. He said that what we have in common is a “childhood appreciation of sport” and I railed at this a bit. But then, on reflection, you know he is right. Sport is about playing, as I said to Mark, when you are a kid and that’s all that should matter. Playing, to the best of your ability, pushing yourself to improve, but to enjoy it. Like blogging. If this becomes a job, then I’m failing, and you’ll know it. When reading Empty Suit’s comments, you wonder what he thinks about the sport. It’s all about product this, experience that, context this, importance that. It’s a study in sport economics, not sport itself. Why should test cricket die if there isn’t money involved?

Sportsmen and women are, by and large, a lot like most of us. If we were offered a lot of money to do a job, and by so doing we would have to work shorter hours and less days, we’d bite that employer’s hands off. Why should cricketers, offered the riches of T20, be more predisposed to a gruelling five day game in the baking sun, than to a game usually played in the evening and lasting half the time of a normal day’s first class cricket? Gideon Haigh says in Death of a Gentleman that “T20 needs something to be shorter than”. The legends of the game aren’t really going to be forged in the white heat of a hit and giggle competition, but by efforts beyond the mere mortal, those of longevity, of perseverance. If you struggle to bat in T20 you aren’t given time to right yourself, as you are taking up time that others in better nick could better utilise. In test cricket it is part of the skill of the game that you can play badly, struggle, but work through it, blossom and triumph. You are given time to establish yourself.

The longer T20 goes on, the less I like it. I have always believed the worst thing that happened to the game was India winning the first T20 tournament. At that time India were sniffy about the game, thought it wasn’t right for international cricket and that they were above all that. Once they won the tournament, and with Yuvraj in great form smacking sixes for fun, the genie flew out of the bottle and we had the IPL. Players could earn fortunes, more than they got for playing for their international team, just by being great players, whether they were any good at T20 or not. The IPL may be the finishing school of cricket, as KP once mentioned (well, more than once) but it’s got little to do with what is happening on the field. T20 lends itself to betting. T20 lends itself to those with less attention spans.

Chuck D, one of the greatest musical lyricists of my time, commented that the black community seemed to want to infantilise itself, and have black adult artists appeal to kids as their primary selling aim, and so act childish. All that happens is the kids think that it is adult behaviour. I’m generalising, and Chuck D is a far better wordsmith than I ever will be, but his main point about those artists was that should concentrate on what they were, adults, and not talk down or dumb down for the sake of the corporations that run them. On a more trivial, sporting scale I see some likenesses. How many times are we told the T20 competition in the UK is necessary to “attract the kids”? Great. But you aren’t going to attract those kids to cricket. You are going to attract them to T20. In my view, it’s a bloody different sport! Kids won’t be playing test cricket, they will be seeing people smash balls over boundaries as the only measurable currency. This isn’t like baseball where pitchers are valued every bit as much as batsmen, but a game where the bat rules everything. Top quality test bowlers are rendered powerless by short boundaries, wickets made for runs, and a game that only seems to be “entertaining” if it is about peerless batting. The occasions when a bowler has been lauded from the rooftops for their performance? Tell me them.

T20 is a game with considerable skill, and I’m not diminishing that, but it isn’t about quality, it’s now about quantity. It is seen as the chance to make money by having another T20 competition that might secure some of the talent around the world. It is more and more being portrayed by the powers that be that it is the only way to secure the future of the game. A sort of gateway drug to the purity of test cricket. It’s nonsense. The Rugby Sevens aren’t taking over from test cricket. It’s almost a specialist sport in its own right. Five a side football is shorter, more accessible, the game we played as kids, yet it isn’t a thing in any way shape or form at the top level. Yet cricket is absolutely obsessed with changing its core characteristics, of what made it a sport that has lasted, in varying evolving forms for 140 years at least. A desperation to change, a desperation to seem relevant is taking us to a new unchartered territory. I think Empty Suit’s most relevant comment is this one…

“The balance between international and domestic cricket will change. We have to be careful about that and that is my fear about private ownership. Controlling private ownership will be difficult and controlling the ambition of very successful tournaments will be difficult.”The balance between international and domestic cricket will change. We have to be careful about that and that is my fear about private ownership. Controlling private ownership will be difficult and controlling the ambition of very successful tournaments will be difficult.”

Just read that and weep. This isn’t about developing future talent. It is about control. The ECB as our knight in shining armour, protecting English cricket from the marauding arms of the corporate raider is, quite frankly, rib-tickling in its chutzpah. So while we “watch the birdy” as Empty Suit prattles on about his conversion to four day test cricket, and that gets the headlines, what we are really looking at is a way for ECB to stop another body, like a Premier League, to go it alone and devil take the hindmost. The ECB, in all its generous cosy bosom, will cosset the cricket loving people of England and beyond in its tenderness. But if you disagree with that, you are bound to pay for it. That’s some stick for a puny carrot. The Premier League started off under the control of the Football Association – remember Graham Kelly and all that – before it spat that out and took on its own life. Now football is an oligarchy, a sport of totally entitled supporters, sacking managers who perform miracles to get teams into places, only to dismissed after a bit of a losing streak. It’s an out of control behemoth, in place to make money, more money and even more money.

Cricket has its own money issues. The top England players are on, conservatively, if the leak about Cook’s salary were correct, in the many hundreds of thousands. To pay these wages we need to make a ton of money. County teams also, we know, have players on salaries that are well above those that revenues can sustain. We know that the ECB has a war chest for seasons when India and Australia aren’t in town, but don’t seem to like using it (and if you might assume you could, ask Durham). The new T20, with these millions of TV viewers and punters waiting to follow the Big Bash model if only the ECB could come up with something, and the nonsense research put up to tell them what the want, and if it doesn’t, it’ll be spun that it is, is the only game in town. And there is no way anything is going to get in the way of it.

I still have some old fashioned, naive thoughts about sport being about people playing. It isn’t. Of course it’s not. It’s business. It has been for ages now. Childhood appreciation is a misguided construct. Cricket isn’t about that any more. It’s about a power grab. Trying to sell it any other way takes the punters for mugs. But they’ve been doing that for a while. There’s more on T20 to follow. But I for one am right behind our patrician authority, fighting the good fight against those corporate raiders! I never had Empty Suit as a modern day Arthur Scargill!

Have a good week everyone.