Monday, August 29, 2011

Cricket Australia: Sitting on the Fence

"The time is coming where you have to choose between what is easy, and what is right"
Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

It didn't take a rocket scientist - or a banking executive - to figure out that Australian cricket has both structural and talent issues. A 4-1 thumping in our last Ashes series, mediocre World Cup campaign and a captain with a positively Reiffel-esque batting average over the past three series (21.5) is proof enough for anyone with even half an eye and a tenth of a brain that Australian cricket has reached its lowest point since 1985.

While Ricky Ponting's tetchy leadership, Mitchell Johnson's latent outswinger, Greg Chappell's insistence on youth and Andrew Hilditch's residence in a fantasy world have contributed to this state of affairs, the root cause lies with James Sutherland and Cricket Australia. For too long they have tried to have their cake and eat it too by chasing the financial gains of Twenty20 and also lauding a the benefits of a competitive Australian Test squad.

By chasing both, they will achieve neither.

On one hand, commissioning Don Argus to report on their cricket management structures sounds good, even curative. But doing so while the other hand throws so many resources into the nascent Bigh Bash League (BBL), Cricket Australia is endorsing two policy decisions which negate the other. It is another curious leadership decision from CA whose actions indicate they are chasing the Goose that lays the Golden Eggs while paying only lip service to Test standards.

For much of the past twenty years as pitches become more standardised worldwide, cricket has degenerated into two groups: the "haves" and "have-nots". The "haves", fuelled by television revenue, good attendances and growth economies include the regular suspects: South Africa, England, India , Australia and perhaps even Sri Lanka. The second tier includes fallen powers West Indies and Pakistan, as well as New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.

More accurately, these two groups could now be defined by the cricketers they produce. The West Indies' best now favour the shortest form, while the best of New Zealand, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe often eschew their nations to tour the world as T20 guns-for-hire. The fundamentals of creating world-class players in both formats require player pathway systems so different that only the mega-wealthy institutions in world cricket can afford the time it takes to do so.

World cricket hasn't so much been divided along lines of Test quality, but on the type of cricket on whcih each nation has focused. If kids are developed where T20 is prioritised, it results in a bunch of individual talents and a poor Test team. Where a Test technique can occasioanlly benefit T20, the reverse is rarely, if ever, true. To acknowledge any speculation David Warner has what it takes to play Test cricket exists is to question the value of life itself - the man bears as much resemblance to a Test opener as my 94-year old grandmother.

By dividing it's attention between a Big Bash league with privately owned franchises (eeeugh - I hate that word in relation to cricket) and an Argus report recommending that the best 66 players play Sheffield Shield cricket at any one time, Cricket Australia is, dividing it's resources in an attempt to promote the game. By doing so, they've ignored the great rule: punters love success, and in Australia that means a strong Test team.

If Divide and Conquer still applies on the battlefield, so too is it effective in the marketplace. CA has already done the dividing, leaving it now open for conquest by a crowded Australian sports market which asks supporters to invest more than ever.

Let's not forget that private ownership as a model has only worked in Rugby League and never in the long term for any other sport. In fact, News Limited, after pioneering SuperLeague, now still owns the entirety of the Melbourne Storm and North Queensland Cowboys, as well as 69% of the powerhouse Brisbane Broncos. Rupert Murdoch, like Packer before him, got what he wanted out of setting up a rival competition. The hideous failures far outweigh that partial success as the names Christopher Skase, Dr. Geoffrey Edelsten, Eddie Palmer and his beloved Brisbane Bullets and the Victoria Titans weigh heavily on Aussie fans' consciousness.

The heavily-publicised BBL, intent on chasing dollars, imports the likes of Kieron Pollard and new fans will involve suspending first-class cricket during December, Australia's busiest Test month. How can Australia rebuild with the best First Class talent they have when that talent is not receiving games?

Cricket Australia has been forced into a position that all cricketing countries now must face: chase dollars, or what you feel is important. It's a nice coincidence when those options are one and the same. In Australia's case, that is unfortunately not the case. While paying lip service to the importance of Tests, CA has done everything but say "we're here for the dollars" by instituting a flawed BBL model at the expense of First Class cricket.

Only four years ago Austrlaian domestic cricket was the strongest on the planet - now no more, as players chase the dollars (and no-one's blaming them). Australia simply can't follow the Indian model (IPL) because there isn't enough support - or money - to go around. That Australian domestic cricket - or more crucially, given how many eggs are in it's basket, the new BBL - can't get a look-in on free-to-air television is a damning indictment of what Australians think about the grass-roots. Cricket captures the imagination in the backyard, when Australia plays and never through the likes of Gary Putland and the Melbourne Stars.

CA, to use the most cliche of cliches, is trying to have it's cake and eat it, too. Rather than committing - by dint of playing talent (like England has with Tests) or financial need (as the West Indians have done with T20), Australia continues not to choose its battles and try to succeed at everything.

The smaller countries of the world faced this challenge first, as New Zealand and Bangladesh have all but admitted for years that their best chance of attaining any success has been in the One-Day arena. Why else would players like Scott Styris choose to retire from Test cricket but not from the short format? Pakistan and the West Indies are already producing more guns for hire than good quality Test players. It's saddening to realise that the same is true of Australia.

As India wrestles with the impending doom brought about by Tendulkar, Dravid, Sehwag and Laxman's respective entries into Valhalla, even that powerful nation will, in time, face the same challenge. While England will not remain immune forever, the structures in place around the game in it's birthplace may allow a defence against the irrepressible schism that threatens to divide cricket.

It's true of any business struggling in a crowded economy that you should choose either to expand your services, or focus on doing what you do best. For 125 years, Australia has produced the best Test cricketers in the world. Over the past decade, that trend has been reversed as players are seduced by the quick runs and quicker bucks available.

In a recent revealing podcast on Test Match Sofa, Australian cricket writer Gideon Haigh revealed that the first priority of the Australian cricket team wasn't to win matches but to publicise the sport in Australia. When it comes to branding - the honeypot into which Cricket Australia has fallen - it is a simple fact that Starbucks produces coffee, Asics produces quality running shoes, Sri Lanka will deliver turning pitches - and Test cricket has been elevated to its highest form by teams from the Great South Land.

For Cricket Australia to forget that would be shameful.

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