Circling the Drain

Has there ever been a more low key build up to a major Test series? As English cricket continues to search for new ways to obliterate any goodwill it once had, and Australian cricket views the comedy W1A as a handbook for how to impress people, it’s easy to forget there is a Test series around the corner in Sri Lanka. The ODIs were sufficiently pointless to lower the bar of contractual obligation fixtures still further, particularly given the blithe excuses for scheduling them in the wet season, but now we come to a Test series that appears to have largely passed even cricket supporters by.

The strange thing about that is that Sri Lanka has always been one of the favourites for followers of the England team, and doubtless there will be impressive numbers of England supporters at the grounds, but the continuing tribulations around governance in both countries are of greater import than the games themselves. When a sport spends more time navel-gazing than playing, it’s a crisis.

Where to even begin with this? The unwelcome headlines around match fixing are one thing, the ECB managing to look indifferent and oblivious are another, testament to their uncanny ability to make any situation worse. The claims might seem a bit thin, but that doesn’t mean that lofty disdain is the right response.

The rumblings around the dog’s breakfast that is the Hundred continue, with the latest potential wheeze being the idea of selling off franchises. Quite why anyone would want to stump up serious money for a competition that has had such a hostile response, and which the ECB have marketed with the sure touch of Gerald Ratner hasn’t been explained, but if nothing else it points to a concern that the money-spinner the ECB claimed it would become isn’t likely to come true.

There are reports that the cost of its operation has now spiralled to £40m a year, a figure that beggars belief, and when added to the subsidy to the counties, it’s more like £70m a year. No wonder the idea of selling it off is now an attractive one – a shortfall needs to be made up.

Of course, a franchise system further erodes any semblance of fan loyalty to the teams, and having made it abundantly clear that the competition isn’t for existing supporters (deliberately telling your customer base to foxtrot oscar remains one of the most extraordinary things a governing body has ever done) we still don’t know who, if anyone, is likely to come and watch. Empty grounds are perhaps the biggest risk to the whole event, not initially (everyone rubber necks a car crash) but in terms of the viability over a few years.

Still, if it doesn’t work the ECB will happily change it – their inability to leave the cricket calendar alone for more than a year at a time is exceptional – but the amount of money already sunk into the thing and committed further is frightening. No business would dream of operating this way and expecting success.

Being committed to a particular approach and sticking to it no matter what is sometimes admirable, but this is seriously going out on a limb, and while expressing disbelief at the ECB has now surpassed cricket itself as a national sport, the worst part of the whole affair is that those who love cricket are placed in the unenviable position of being worried that the Hundred doesn’t work, not that it does. The potential for calamitous failure is now so high, and the consequences so dangerous, that it is a complete unknown what the fallout might be.

The upside is that the game will survive, by ironic virtue of the rather limited support to the grassroots the ECB has provided anyway, but here too the danger signs have been long flashing. Sunday cricket is in crisis, player participation levels reached desperation levels some years ago and the decline shows little sign of abating.

There are efforts to try to support it, club networks to allow players to get a game for example. They are laudable, but that they are deemed necessary is in itself a symbol of the mess the game is in. The biggest problem of all is the inability to see a way out of it. For all the fury at the invisibility of the sport to the public, the grotesque mismanagement of the game by the ECB itself, we are now in a position where the options are narrowing by the day. Perhaps the tipping point will only come when those involved at the highest level start seeing their own incomes under threat, and we are some way off that.

If the ECB’s incompetence is a benchmark few can match, Cricket Australia appear to be doing their damnedest to try. If nothing else, they do appear to have a better grasp of business realities than their English counterparts, but they too are afflicted by the drift away from criticism and towards mockery. The board level machinations are one thing, the ludicrous way the national team is disappearing up its own backside while maintaining an air of staggering pomposity is another.

If elite mateship hadn’t been received with sufficient hilarity, to double down and highlight elite honesty ensured many an aching side. Perhaps it was directed at David Warner, who threw his toys out of the pram when someone dared to sledge him, or perhaps it was directed at the ACA who are pushing for the return of those banned for ball tampering. The punishments for something that has gone on for years (though rarely with such ineptitude) seemed harsh at the time; to try to undo them afterwards is magnificently brazen, particularly with South Africa in town.

And I haven’t even mentioned how WADA are likely to deem cricket non-compliant. Marvellous.

And so we have some cricket on the way. For all the craven disdain for our game that those determined to exploit it for their own ends, the sport itself remains special. Cricket does not deserve the loyalty it receives from those who love it, seeing them as a revenue stream not the marketing team they really are – dedicated missionaries who wish to see it succeed. Those people will watch, buy tickets, travel to watch the team, as I am doing in the West Indies this winter. But patience is being tested to the limit, repeatedly.

It’s not yet too late. But my God we’re getting close.

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Wallcharts at the Ready

If ever there was a day for multi-screening, yesterday was it. Four World Cup matches, a succession of rugby internationals, the US Open golf, a Test match in the Caribbean, and the small matter of an ODI.

At the end of it, Australian sport had suffered the kind of day that England fans tend to be grimly accustomed to, with defeat to France at the World Cup, defeat to Ireland in the rugby, and defeat to England in the cricket. Schadenfreude may not be the most attractive character trait, but amusement was both widespread and frankly enjoyable.

Enthusiasm for this series against Australia appears limited, not least among those buying tickets. As much as it was claimed the game was sold out, there were plenty of empty seats on show in Cardiff. Either the Welsh have an awful lot of money to throw away, or someone is gilding the lily. Still, disappointing crowds are not that unusual for internationals at that venue, and it was hardly deserted. But the sense of going through the motions is unsurprising given both the timing of the series and the sense that this nothing other than a financial obligation tour.

England are 2-0 up without giving the impression they are remotely playing at their best, and with Australia missing so many key players there is little to engender a feeling of this being much more than practice for either side. Those players who look dangerous in the short form continue to do so, those who appear to be struggling show little sign of answering the questions about them.

A football World Cup always dominates the sporting environment, and a Test series during it would struggle for attention too, but despite being as relatively inaccessible (pay TV) as the cricket, the rugby summer tours have a greater sense of occasion to them. The sarcastic description of one day games as JAMODIs (Just Another Meaningless One Day International) has rarely felt as apposite as here. The pretence that this is about the build up to next year’s cricket World Cup doesn’t cut it, especially given the absence of Pakistan from the schedule despite being here for two Tests.

With 13 white ball matches across the heart of the summer before the Tests get underway again, we have barely got going. This becomes troubling for a number of reasons – the press themselves in unguarded moments will confess to struggling to write anything new about them, and while that isn’t especially an issue in itself, the translated ennui among cricket followers is. Andrew Strauss obliquely referenced the lack of context with his concept of a points system, which while widely derided does at least draw attention to the fundamental problem.

Ironically, cricket had its solution to this in the past, by making the ODIs part of the build up to what most still consider the main event. The last but one England tour of New Zealand comprised three T20s, then three ODIs, then three Tests. The sense of a build up towards a sporting climax was inescapable, and provided that much needed balance and importance. The same applied to the 2005 Ashes series, where there was certainly no shortage of white ball cricket scheduled, but it felt like part of a wider whole, and by the time the first Test came around, anticipation was at fever pitch.

The problem with this Australian tour is that winning or losing is instantly forgettable for both sets of fans and success or failure doesn’t matter – except to make Malcolm Conn look an idiot, and he doesn’t usually need help with that.

The more dramatic cricket news has still happened in the Test arena, firstly with Afghanistan’s debut, and secondly with the ball tampering allegations concerning the Sri Lankan team in the West Indies. In the former heavy defeat inside two days matters little in the wider sense of welcoming a new team to the Test game, and if the cricket boards show little inclination to support expansion, the same can’t be said of the Indian team. They conducted themselves in an exemplary manner, showing every indication of being fully aware what an extraordinary achievement it was for Afghanistan to have reached this point. They deserve credit for recognising it in such a classy manner.

In contrast, the refusal of the Sri Lankan team to take the field after being accused of changing the condition of the ball offered up plenty of reminders of Pakistan’s similar action at the Oval in the forfeited Test. The problem here is the failure to support the umpires in their decision-making. Already whispers of legal action have begun, which is precisely why umpires are so reluctant to take action in the first place. Whether they are ultimately right or wrong is beside the point, if officials aren’t allowed to make decisions and receive support, then they won’t make them. Darrell Hair’s ostracism and belittling remains a stain on the game whatever his character flaws. The umpire’s decision is not final, and it should be.

England’s next match takes place on Tuesday, the day after their football counterparts open their World Cup campaign. Whatever the result, it is undoubtedly the case that the football will be all that receives extensive coverage. Of course, a World Cup is truly special, but it’s also on free to air television, making it a community event. The audience figures for the Spain-Portugal match are simply astonishing, reaching a peak of over 10 million across TV and online. Cricket may not be able to match that kind of reach, but it highlights for the umpteenth time the absurdity of claiming that free to air doesn’t matter.

Peter Della Penna tweeted that the BBC had made an offer to Sky to broadcast the Scotland-Pakistan T20 on the red button which was declined, as Sky didn’t want it distracting from the England Women’s ODI they were showing. To begin with, the realisation that the Scotland matches were under the umbrella of the ECB contract came as a surprise – in return for England playing them, it had been outsourced. As a result, Scotland’s match wasn’t shown anywhere in the UK when it could have been. Yet it makes explicit the position that a low key international not involving England could be more popular with the viewers, even when online or interactive TV, than a pay TV one that does. The very importance of that can’t be overstated, given it is exactly what is repeatedly denied by those who propound the pay TV model.

Assuming no more shenanigans, there will be Test cricket on later. But let’s be honest, we’re going to be watching the World Cup.

Sympathy For The Devil

David Warner is a massively unlikable person. He’s violent. He’s aggressive and insulting. He’s a cheat. Perhaps worst of all, he’s a hypocrite. It has been pretty amusing to several outside observers, including myself, how his past words and actions in this South Africa series have come back to bite him.

And so, with all of this baggage, it’s somewhat remarkable that Cricket Australia’s actions have led me to feel at least some small measure of sympathy for him. Obviously not much, but arguably a lot more than he otherwise deserves.

Warner was neither directly responsible for the ball tampering nor the man in charge. He hasn’t received any punishment from the ICC, unlike Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft. He is, however, unpopular in the Australian dressing room and in the international cricket press. Even a large portion of the team’s own supporters have tired of his antics, stereotypically Australian thought they might have been. In other words, he is an ideal scapegoat.

Bad Timing

It seems fair to say that the harsh punishments meted out to the ‘Sandpaper 3’ has more to do with Cricket Australia’s financial position than any kind of ethical stance. Within a few days of the ball tampering incident, which itself came after a series of unflattering stories involving Warner earlier in the series, the Australian Test series sponsor pulled out of their agreement. This action potentially costs CA $20m over the next three years. Even more importantly, this winter (at least for those in the wrong hemisphere) was also meant to be the time when new TV deals for Australian cricket were meant to be struck.

Immediately after the Ashes series, Cricket Australia were reportedly expecting to receive $1bn (Aus) over five years for the rights to show Australian cricket on the TV and streaming. That’s equivalent to £550m, or £110m per year. That’s quite a large deal considering that the ECB’s current TV deal up to 2019 was only for £75m a year, in a country with almost three times the population of Australia and where (unlike Australia) no cricket is shown on free-to-air TV.

Except now, with a cricket scandal on the front and back pages of every Australian newspaper, a deal that big seems some way away. Cricket boards have swept most indiscretions and wrongdoing under the carpet or given extraordinarily light punishments. Examples include racial abuse, talking to bookies, touring Apartheid South Africa and instigating what Richie Benaud described as “one of the worst things I have ever seen done on a cricket field.” And that’s just the rap sheet for Cricket Australia’s four-man selection panel. What they won’t forgive is costing them money. Potentially hundreds of millions of dollars, in this case.

In order to bring the story under control, Cricket Australia felt they had to draw a line under it with swift and severe punishments for all involved. Which brings us to the second aspect of unfortunate timing. The incident happened at the end of the Australian cricket season. This meant that any ban shorter than eight or nine months would involve the players missing no cricket in Australia whatsoever. This would seem lenient to some, which CA couldn’t abide.

Had the incident happened in September, three or six month bans would have suited everyone. The baying Australian public would have their pound of flesh and the players would have received punishments vaguely proportional to their ‘crimes’. As it is, two players being banned for a year seems ludicrously long and punitive.

“Fronting Up”

“Full credit to Steve Smith & Cam Bancroft for fronting up and admitting what they tried to do .. I know many teams and individuals who would have gone hiding .. it still doesn’t brush it away but at least they faced the music .. – Michael Vaughan.

Immediately after the press conference at the end of play in Cape Town, where Smith and Bancroft confessed to ball tampering, Michael Vaughan posted this tweet. The responses to it weren’t flattering to him or the Australians, and so he quickly deleted it and posted a new tweet with an almost 180 degree turn in viewpoint.

Apart from demonstrating Vaughan’s propensity to latch onto anything which he thinks will be popular and dumping it just as quickly, it also shows the way in which Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft are being separated from David Warner in the press. Numerous press reports (particularly from the one-eyed Australian journalists who wind us up so much) praise Smith and Bancroft for being honest, sincere, apologetic and so on. The same writers call Warner evasive, insincere and repetitive.

Even Cricket Australia are in on it. If you look at their videos on YouTube, they have Smith and Warner’s tearful press conferences. If you look at the titles, they are “Smith breaks down during emotional press conference” and ” Warner apologises but leaves out the detail”. Clearly CA have picked their scapegoat.

The reason why this division amuses me, other than the simple pleasure of watching the mindlessly aggressive Aussies attacking a kindred spirit in Warner just because it suits their agenda, is that Smith and Bancroft are the only ones who have definitely lied during this whole saga. First they denied everything to the on-field umpires, then told the press at the end of play that it involved “players and the leadership group” and used sticky tape. Finally, they told Cricket Australia’s investigators that it was just the three players involved, and a strip of sandpaper.

Even in their latest press conferences, there are discrepancies between Smith’s and Bancroft’s stories. Compare their answers when asked if it was the only time Australia had cheated. Steve Smith stated categorically that “To my knowledge, this has never happened before. This is the first time I’ve seen this happen, and I can assure you it will never happen again.” Cameron Bancroft gives a much more specific denial, “I have never ever been involved in tampering the ball. It completely compromises my values and what I stand for as a player and as a person.

On the other hand, David Warner has apparently chosen not to lie. For example, when Warner was asked at his press conference whether anyone else was involved his response was this: “I’m here today to accept my responsibility for my part in my involvement in what happened in Cape Town.” A clear non-answer, but also not a lie.

I would argue that part of the reason Dave Warner is being hung out to dry is that he isn’t giving the Australian press the answers they, and Cricket Australia, want to hear. “It was an isolated incident.” “It has never happened before.” “It was just three people.” No one in Australia’s cricketing establishment wants the scandal to widen, and Warner isn’t helping that cause by pleading the fifth whenever these questions come up.

This leads the press the declare that he has an ulterior motive, such as a $1m tell-all TV interview. Whilst I wouldn’t begrudge him that after this incident, especially considering the fairly high chance he won’t play for Australia again, the truth is that he might be the only player in the Australian team who hasn’t implicated someone else in the investigation. He appears to want to protect the team and his former teammates, even after they cast him as their scapegoat.

So Steve Smith, being the first one to cry and telling what are almost certainly lies, is credited with being emotional and honest. 25-year-old Cameron Bancroft is the young, impressionable victim of the senior player’s evil plans. Mohammad Amir without the great hair, essentially. Both of them are already rehabilitated in many people’s eyes, and ready to come back and represent Australia. And David Warner is the villain, who led the other two astray and is now trying to profit from the situation. Except without actually profiting from the situation in any way.

All of which is to say that I feel sympathetic for Warner in this specific circumstance. I wouldn’t be shedding any tears if he had been banned for a year (or longer) because of the other stuff he’s done. The fights, the insults, the send offs, and quite possibly tampering the ball himself. But he wasn’t. If anything, he was encouraged to do all of that even more by being rewarded with the vice captaincy. If he was a bad influence on others, it’s only because Cricket Australia allowed it. Welcomed it even.

I believe that allowing the blame to fall almost entirely on Warner, as appears to be the case in the Aussie media, is unfair and unjust. “Team culture” is defined by what the people in charge allow and clamp down on. For example, in England’s dressing room any kind of dissent is stamped down on immediately. It’s not right, but it is a vivid example of the amount of control administrators exert on a team. Cricket Australia have allowed their national team to become bullies and cheats, and it’s a little late to blame it on ‘one bad apple’. They did this.

As always, feel free to comment below.

Above and Below that Radar

If England showed exquisite timing in being bowled out for 58 the week the Australian ball tampering episode blew up, the ECB must be exceedingly grateful for their own internal issues to pop up now as well.  For while the eyes of the world were focused on Johannesburg and Sydney, there was a second resignation from the ECB Board.  If there was one thing over which The Odious Giles Clarke was entirely correct about in Death of a Gentleman, it was that no one cares about administration – at least not until it reaches FIFA levels of nefariousness.  Thus, there will likely be little attention placed on the carelessness of losing not just one director, but two, in a matter of weeks.

This latest resignation has been painted by the ECB as being of no major consequence, given the reorganisation of the board in May, but it is striking that Richard Thompson of Surrey, someone thought a potential chairman in the future, felt the need to make such a strident point by talking about a lack of leadership and more damningly a lack of transparency in ECB policy.

“I’m saddened to have to stand down while still being a board member. I have been uncomfortable with recent decisions taken without full consultation and as such did not feel able to remain on the board,”

The catalyst appears to have been the payment of £2.5million to Glamorgan as compensation for no longer hosting Test cricket, and how that decision was taken, plus the issue of the ECB’s constitution supposedly being required to ensure all counties are treated equally, but it should also be noted that his county were one of those most vocal in initially opposing the forthcoming T20 franchise tournament.  That particular funding decision was a major reason behind the resignation of Somerset’s Andy Nash, given the awarding of the franchise for the region to Glamorgan on top of the payment for not bidding to host Tests.

The reconstitution of the board in May will remove the counties from direct oversight, something that isn’t in itself a bad thing given the way they have wagged the England dog so successfully for 150 years, but goes far beyond the requirements Sport England placed on them in return for maintaining that affluent relationship.

“I met with the board’s senior independent director and thereafter wrote to him giving detailing reasoning for my resignation. Further, I gave him my permission to share my letter with the full board.

“With two non-executive directors having now taken the ultimate sanction available to them to register their dissatisfaction, I agree with those who say the most appropriate course of action is for an independent external investigation to be set up to consider the matters raised.

“It is in the best interests of the game and the national governing body that the substantial matters raised by the non-executive directors and several counties are considered properly, openly and transparently.

“This is the best way for the game to be able to draw a line under the issues raised, to learn the lessons, unify and move on.”

Where this leaves Colin Graves is an open question; the counties are not exactly in open revolt, but resignations hardly suggests a great deal of confidence in him either.  On the plus side for them all, the board have awarded themselves a salary in future, with the chairman receiving up to £150,000 a year – Graves himself has nobly declined to take it – and for those angling for his job in the future, the appeal in voting it through is rather obvious.  There is no news as yet as to whether election to the board is open to all involved in cricket, but it’s probably just an oversight at this stage.

While the rumblings within the ECB may not be as remotely sexy as those on the other side of the world, it does reinforce the perception of an organisation in a fair degree of chaos, and one that has managed the fairly exceptional achievement of managing to annoy virtually everyone except themselves.

*Update: Barely 2 days after rejecting a review, the ECB have now agreed to one. Arse, meet elbow*

As far as events down under go, so much has been written about it that repeating the same story time and again is beginning to get boring, and not remotely as funny as the whole topic has been up to now.  The 12 month bans for Warner and Smith and 9 for Bancroft are objectively extremely harsh for the crime committed, but entirely expected given the response from the public, and perhaps more notably, the damage to the value of the broadcasting and sponsorship contracts held by Cricket Australia.  It is that damage that is by far the bigger issue in terms of the outrage.

It may not yet be the end of it.  Warner is believed to be incandescent with the verdict, and intending to appeal, and given the punishment, and the likely permanent exclusion from the Australian team, he has little to lose either by that appeal, or indeed by publicly challenging the conclusions in the future.  Inasmuch as this has echoes of the ECB and Pietersen, it is that once a player is hung out to dry, their inclination to remain silent disappears.  Given the exculpation of Darren Lehmann, this could get very interesting, for the narrative of Warner in particular being responsible  and Lehmann knowing nothing about it is something that has invited considerable scepticism.  Equally, the claim that this is the only time it’s happened is rather at odds with the apparently detailed descriptions of how Warner demonstrated the tampering to Bancroft.

Given the storm of outrage when the story first broke, Cricket Australia’s perfect outcome would have been that only the three players at the centre of it were responsible in any way, and everyone else was completely innocent and oblivious.  Imagine everyone’s surprise when the verdict showed that to be the case.  Australia’s bowlers must be remarkably uninterested in the condition of the ball to allow the batsmen to look after it and take no interest in what they’re doing, and the coaching staff amazingly relaxed about what the team are up to at all times.

As a final observation, and indicative of the Catch 22 scenario now in position is the highly amusing punishment dished out as the voluntary community service that’s so voluntary that the three players are compelled to do it.

Once in a while sporting governing bodies surprise.  This is not one of those times, either with Cricket Australia or the ECB.  Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose.

 

All Stars Cricket II: The Quickening

Last May, I wrote a post on a tiny blog I had started to rail against problems in English cricket. This post was about the ECB’s latest initiative, All Stars Cricket, and how I believed it to be a colossal failure. Virtually no one read it though, because I’m a nobody with barely any Twitter followers and I never played professional cricket (which appears to be a prerequisite for cricket journalism nowadays). One of the handful of people who did read it was thelegglance, and he liked it enough to repost it here on BOC. That one post got me in the door here, and I’ve since been lucky enough since to be invited to the inside of Being Outside Cricket.

This week marks the opening of the sign up period for kids to join this year’s edition of All Stars Cricket. Assuming your local club has filled in the necessary forms online, you will be able to register your kids for it very soon. For £40 your 5-8 year old kid can have their own personalised cricket kit delivered right to your door, plus 8 sessions at your local cricket club. This might come as a surprise to you, because there hasn’t been much publicity about it so far. If I wasn’t researching this article, I’m honestly not sure that I would have known.

So it would appear that the ECB have not learnt their lesson from last year, when they failed to market the scheme effectively despite some grand promises made during the launch event last March. So what has changed from last year? The answer, unsurprisingly, is not much.

If your kid still has last year’s kits and you were wondering if they could just use that and save yourself £35, the answer is no. There is a new shirt design, and perhaps more crucially a set of stumps included in the kit bag. There are a few minor alterations to the kits the club can get too, the standout part of which for me was that they are now offering “female specific clothing” for ‘Activators’, the ECB’s buzzword for coaches and volunteers.

As I said at the start of this post, I’ve been lucky enough to be here for almost a year now. In that time, I don’t think I’ve ever sworn on the site. I have only ever gone as far as saying ‘shit’ a few times on my Twitter (and admittedly a few gifs of people extending their middle finger). I am not a person who likes to swear. But the ECB apparently launched this scheme with the assumption that women wouldn’t be a part of their  “major grassroots initiative” to increase participation in cricket. In 2017? Seriously? Fuck these guys.

The Australian Blueprint

As you may know, the ECB’s All Stars Cricket scheme is more or less a direct copy of Cricket Australia’s in2CRICKET program. The ECB even hired Matt Dwyer, the man who had run the scheme for four years in Australia. It costs pretty much the same, it gives the kids pretty much the same equipment, and the activities are probably virtually the same too. It even has roughly the same number of kids as All Stars Cricket, with 35,731 kids taking part in Australia compared to around 37,000 in England and Wales.

Except, of course, that Australia has a much smaller population than England and Wales. Less than half, in fact. In2CRICKET’s participation figures are actually the equivalent of just over 83,000 if you take that into account, far beyond the figures for All Stars Cricket.

So what lessons can the ECB learn from Cricket Australia’s example? There are so many things that I almost don’t know where to start. Obviously the elephant in the room is that the sport is freely available in Australia, with live cricket appearing on free to air television. Kids see the game, like it, and want to play it. They not only like the game, they like the players. Most English players could walk down any High Street in the country with a fair chance of not being recognised. Obviously nothing is going to change about this situation for the next few years, but it needed to be said.

One thing I do wish the ECB might learn is consistency. In2CRICKET launched in 1996 as Have-A-Go Cricket and is now 21 years old. I’d honestly be amazed if All Stars Cricket managed to last 5 years. The ECB seem to have a predilection for launching new initiatives and scrapping old ones with barely a thought. No sooner has a club got themselves familiar with the status quo than the ECB will throw in a new scheme, often with more training and paperwork for the volunteers running the club. I would wager that constantly having to jump through hoops of the ECB’s devising is a major reason for people involved in clubs behind the scenes leaving the sport.

There is also a feeling with Cricket Australia’s youth development that everything is joined together and part of a larger plan. Whilst getting cricket into schools in England and Wales is largely done by the independent (and currently underfunded) Chance To Shine charity, in Australia it is done by Cricket Australia’s in2CRICKET Skills program. Whilst Chance To Shine claims to reach around 250,000 children per year in the UK, the Australian scheme reaches 500,000 every year. If we again consider the differences in population between the two countries, that is the equivalent of 1.16m children in England and Wales every year.

And what happens when the kids turn nine? Cricket Australia has a similar program for them too: the somewhat confusingly named Milo T20 Blast. Although it shares its name with our domestic T20 competition, it is in fact a more grown up version of All Stars Cricket aimed at 9-12 year olds.

All of which inexorably leads me to the conclusion that the ECB have failed to understand why youth participation in cricket is significantly higher in Australia than in England, and why Cricket Australia’s schemes are successful whilst theirs aren’t. Simply copying a single part of what is clearly an effective development framework is no more likely to work than teaching British kids how to speak Portuguese in the hope that it will make them play football like Ronaldo.

The ECB would contend that they do have a master plan for improving English cricket: Cricket Unleashed. All I can say is that if you can pick out a single substantive thing the ECB are going to do to increase participation on their website then you clearly understand business jargon a lot better than I, because the whole thing reads like vague nonsense to me.

Which leads us back to this year’s All Stars Cricket. By all accounts it is fun, and kids seem to love the personalised kit, so if your 5-8 year old kid is interested in cricket and you can spare £40 then there are probably worse ways to spend the money. But let’s not kid ourselves, All Stars Cricket is still not going to do what the ECB want it to do.

As always, comments welcome below.

Money Makes the World Go Round

A curiosity of sports administrators everywhere over the last quarter of a century has been the apparent belief that their drive to monetise the game in every facet would pass unnoticed by everyone else.  The fans, under the misguided belief that the game belonged to them were the first ones to be cast aside, as ticket prices rocketed, television coverage disappeared behind a paywall and the wider game became utterly subservient to the pursuit of manna.  The English (football) Premier League was the first to make the connection, and the pathway to the present can be identified a good decade before that came into being, firstly with the removal of the gate revenue sharing model, then with the abolition of the key rule preventing owners from taking money out of the clubs.  With that in place, it was merely a matter of time before it became an investment opportunity with all that entailed.

In the case of cricket, the most obvious examples were the move to Sky and the creation of T20 at a professional level (as needs constantly pointing out to those who believe it was radical, it had existed at club level for half a century), which then led on to the IPL and its assorted imitators around the world.

In the space of little more than a decade, cricket had become the new sexy for those seeking to exploit commercial advantage in a way never seen before.  To some extent it was no more than the corollary of the Packer Circus in the late 1970s, but the scale and impact on the wider sport was of a new level entirely.

The last few weeks have shown indications that all of these developments have been coming to a head.  The BCCI’s response to the proposal to dramatically cut their still huge proportion of ICC generated revenues was to threaten a boycott of the Champions Trophy, Australia’s cricketers are in dispute with their board over money – even if not necessarily their own – while in England the proposed TV package deals for the upcoming auction of rights have caused divergent opinion on the merits or otherwise in terms of what they might mean.  But there’s a central element to all of them, namely that it is about the money.  Always the money.

There is an important part to this, a central theme that cannot be ignored. That is that the moment a governing body of a sport – and note, a sport – ceases to put the sport itself as the prime, indeed only, focus for its existence, then it stops being about the sport itself.  It becomes a means of creating wealth, no different to any other business.  In itself, that isn’t inherently wrong or evil, but it does change the focus and the strategy and changes the rationale for the game’s existence.  This isn’t a lament for the days of amateurism, but a recognition that it becomes merely another branch of the entertainment industry, with all that entails.  Those who love the game for the sake of it are never going to be important any longer, their value exists solely in the financial contribution they can make to it, and if it isn’t obvious on a balance sheet, then for the purposes of future planning, they don’t exist.  It is for that reason that the thousands of people in any given nation who give up their time to keep the game going are not just overlooked, they specifically don’t matter.  Lip service is paid to them, but nothing more than that.  When they complain that the ECB or their equivalents don’t think they matter, it’s because they’re right – they don’t matter.  All that they do comes to fruition anything up to 20 years down the line and cannot be assessed financially in the here and now, and that is all that is important.

The various stories across the press are not disparate items in the world of cricket, but separate strands of the same wider topic.  The dispute between Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketers Association has been covered in the UK from the perspective of the unlikely possibility that Australia might not have a team for the Ashes, as though that was in any way the principal issue at stake.  Within the Australian media there’s much more nuance about the matters at hand, with Gideon Haigh as so often cutting to the heart of the matter.  The wider issue he addresses is that conduct of CA is such that it regards the players as commodities to be given their orders by their bosses, rather than as integral to the game itself.  Cricket boards have reached the point where the pursuit of money is the end in and of itself, rather than a necessary means to support and grow the game. This about face in approach is critically important, for once understood all the decisions and proposals are much more easily grasped and the reasoning behind all that they do becomes clear.

The best Australian players stand to benefit, in the short term at least, from adopting the CA proposal; their rejection stems, they say, from their concern about the levels below the highest, both amateur and professional.  Even if their opposition isn’t entirely altruistic – which it may well be – they have a very strong case in objecting to the removal of a revenue sharing model.  With all well paid professional sports stars, the cry goes up that they are overpaid, yet this dramatically misses the point.  No one goes to a game or watches on television because of the administrators, it is entirely and totally down to the players.  Every commercial deal is made on that back of that essential point, and the players deserve to paid in proportion to the money coming in.  It’s not even purely the international level cricketers either, for the showcasing of their skills is on the back of those below, right the way down to someone appearing on a Sunday afternoon for their pub side.  In the purest commercial terms, the players are the product, and while the value of a David Warner and an amateur club player is obviously vastly different, they still form part of the same equation.  That CA don’t see it that way at all can be gleaned from the attempt to divide and rule by separating out the top players from the rest to try to force through the changes.  Those leading performers deserve credit for both seeing through the ruse and refusing to solely look after their own financial interests.

Top sportsmen (and overwhelmingly, it is men) are rarely motivated by money once it reaches a certain point.  The difference between coming first and second in a golf major is not a matter of money, but of pride and sporting ambition.  Attempting to set one group against another when the money is already good is doomed to failure.  It’s certainly not just in cricket where there is resistance, in recent times tennis players at the top level have threatened action of those below them weren’t better rewarded for their efforts.

All too often, they are criticised for greed, the question put is how much more money do they want.  It’s a false equation – they deserve to be paid in proportion with how much is generated, largely by them.  It’s nothing more and nothing less.  Boards and owners regard them as employees to be compensated and do not see that the money does not belong to administrators, no matter how much they dislike that fact.  It is also why the boards have a mentality that grassroots funding is a cost, rather than the raison d’etre for their existence.  It’s why they try to minimise that outlay rather than consider it the driving motivation.   As a point of principle, the Australian players need to win this argument, even if the result may not be a community one at the end of the matter.

For this is not a parochial Australian matter, the same arguments will be had around the world.  The ECB are preparing their latest round of media deals for coverage and there has been much comment around the likelihood of some free to air television coverage and even some celebration that it will form part of the future arrangements.  This is misplaced, even though any free access is to be welcomed in and of itself.  The ECB are hoping to play Sky Sports and BT Sport off against each other to maximise the income, and have split the packages with that in mind. Almost all of the meaningful coverage will go to one or the other, since within Package One goes all the international cricket and the country cricket – such as it is in the latter case.  The new T20 league goes into a separate category, doubtless with the intention of it being the consolation prize for whoever doesn’t get the first one, and necessitating a second subscription for those who wish to see it all.  By splitting these the overall value is undoubtedly higher but it can’t be said to be good news for the individuals paying for access.  Which of Sky or BT gets them is neither here nor there in the larger scheme of things, given the Balkanisation of sports television.

Where it gets more interesting is in the free to air packages available, offering two men’s T20 internationals, one women’s T20 international, ten men’s and eight women’s T20 league matches.  On the face of it, it’s a reasonable size too, but it indicates a pure focus on the T20 side of the game for wider consumption. Partly this will be because terrestrial broadcasters have to fit sport around the rest of their schedules, and two and a half hour programmes will fit ideally in contrast to five days of Test cricket.  The logic of the argument that T20 is a gateway to the game more generally can be supported by the categorisation, but equally it can be seen as regarding the shortest form of the game as the only viable one from the perspective of both free to air broadcasters and the ECB itself.  This case has been made many times, most often in the misleading and specious argument that the likes of the BBC have shown no interest in Test cricket.  That is true, and is because the ECB have shown no interest in the BBC, so why should they bother?

Where the free to air packages go will also be indicative of whether the ECB take the wider broadcast of the game as being in any way important.  According to Nick Hoult at the Telegraph, the BBC are one potential home, but so are Discovery, via their Quest channel.  There can be no doubt whatever that the BBC would offer the largest footprint for potential viewership, just as there can be no doubt whatever that Discovery would sign a larger cheque.  Choosing the latter would be incontrovertible proof that money is all that matters to the ECB.  No protestations about the importance of growing interest in the game could ever be believed if they still hid away the free to air broadcast on a minor channel, for make no mistake, Quest is a minor channel, one which most people won’t even be aware.  The reach of the BBC is vastly greater than any alternative, including ITV, although few would complain if it went there instead.  If the ECB do want people to watch cricket, the main channels are the only game in town.

Whatever the outcome of the TV bids, the same processes applying in Australia are going to come to England as well.  Already players are going to miss England matches in order to play T20 tournaments elsewhere in the world, a situation that remains ever ironic given the way the ECB publicly berated and belittled Kevin Pietersen for wanting to do far less than is the now the case.  Those who have bought tickets for the matches in anticipation of seeing England’s strongest team will be disappointed, and are once again ignored as being irrelevant.  In England at least, it hasn’t quite reached the point it did in Australia where two separate national teams were playing at the same time, but the acceptance of the concept of the national team not representing the best available is well established, even before taking into account the ludicrous schedule that necessitates resting players.

England’s players are well remunerated in international terms, but the ECB’s focus on extracting the maximum from the game at the same time as concentrating power to themselves will undoubtedly lead to the same kind of friction seen in Australia.  The gap between the international players and the county ones is vast, the difference between genuine affluence and a barely reasonable living, particularly given the short career on offer.  Boards have opened the Pandora’s Box of commercialisation, and are now attempting to screw the lid back down as the realisation of what that entails begins to dawn on them.  Franchise cricket in the form of the T20 league is merely the apogee of this centralised mentality.  The county game will be sidelined – not in itself a disaster for the wider game were there alternate structures in place but there won’t be.  For many county professionals – let alone smaller counties excluded from the party – there will be a severe chill in the air, the downgrading of both county championship and the assorted one day competitions can’t do anything but damage their livelihoods for it is impossible to imagine the revenues from the existing competitions doing anything but dropping vertically.  More critically for the wider game, the same applies to Test cricket.  It is hard to believe that the ECB will wish for Tests to be running alongside the latest shiny toy, for that would weaken the commercial proposition they have pushed so hard to create.  In isolation, that might not be a disaster, in common with all the other tournaments worldwide, it’s severely problematic.  That T20 is now the prime focus for the ECB, and for cricket more widely around the world is indisputable.  The rub here is that T20, sold as the means of generating legions of new cricket fans, could have done exactly that with some wisdom.

At some point there will be a reckoning in terms of the England players too.  They can earn heavily as free agents and the security of an England contract only has value for as long as they can’t do better as free agents – which would include playing for England, but not under ECB control.  The top down model of enforcing both behaviour and availability works for as long as the boards run everything within their domain.  Their own actions are sowing the seeds of their downfall, yet there is no real awareness that this is the case.  The lack of focus on the sport for the sake of it can be seen with their treatment of the counties as an obstruction to be overcome, while even their initiatives at the lowest level are open to question. Danny’s excellent article about the All Stars Cricket initiative raises a fundamental question about their approach:  While anything to encourage cricket is inherently a good thing, the usual opacity concerning how much the ECB are investing applies.  ASC is a commercial venture first and foremost, and it’s hard to get away from the feeling that the clubs know better how to do this themselves, and would benefit more greatly from financial support to do so.  It smacks of a PR exercise that’s more about the ECB itself than the game of cricket, the cost involved rather gives that away.

Across all sports and indeed outside of sport, there is the danger of harking back to the past and viewing it through rose tinted spectacles.  School cricket was never the panacea some make it out to be, and club involvement in the modern era is vastly superior to what was on offer 30 years ago.  But never has the wider game been further removed from the sharp end of the sport which has transmuted into a money making machine with no regard for outcome nor care about the game itself.  The ECB remains an organisation that primarily looks after its own interests, never better demonstrated than in its structure whereby the non-professional game has no elected representation anywhere within it.  Its authority is self-reinforcing, driving downwards and telling the vast majority of English cricket what to do.  The much maligned FA is by contrast a model of democratic accountability, to the point that much of the criticism stems from it being an amateur organisation trying to manage the professional sport.  Cricket could not be more different.

Given that, it should not be surprising that the ECB (and CA) focus is on its own success, defined by how much money it can bring in and divide up amongst its stakeholders – yes stakeholders.  Not too long ago the ECB attracted derision for forgetting to include match going supporters in that list, but the truth of the matter is that this wasn’t an embarrassing oversight, it was a statement of fact.  You don’t matter.  You might play the game, you might go and watch the game, you might coach colts, you might umpire or do the scoring.  You aren’t important and you are thoroughly and completely taken for granted.  The only time it will be noticed is if the grounds are empty or if the TV deals decline in value and even then it will be a matter of looking at the symptoms rather than the cause.  The only bulwark against this are the professional players, the one group in all this who might be considered to care about cricket for the sake of it.  They are the only ones who might actually stand up for the game, irrespective of how many millions they might earn themselves on the back of it.

What a delicious irony.