James Sutherland October 26, 2011

'Unity in Australian cricket is really important'

James Sutherland on Cricket Australia's new strategic plan, the future, and his own personal vision for the game

In the midst of reviews of the Australian team, Australian cricket's governance and also its finances, Cricket Australia's chief executive James Sutherland is about to unveil the body's strategic plan for the next four years. In its goals and means of achieving them, the plan reflects a rapidly changing landscape for cricket, and also an acknowledgement by CA that the game must adapt or risk slipping from relevance. Sutherland spoke to ESPNcricinfo about the plan, the future, and his own personal vision for the game.

This strategic plan appears to be a quite fundamental redefining of Australian cricket's goals.

When you do re-visit your strategy it's an opportune time to see where you're up to and what the lie of the land is. There's a lot of things that have changed in cricket over the last four, five, six years. Particularly the advent of the third generation game [Twenty20] and third format. That has created its own challenges but I prefer to look at them as opportunities. This review for us is an opportune time and certainly we've got a strong foundation to work off.

Most significant change in this plan as against earlier editions?

The big thing about the game and perhaps the world and the economy is that we're dealing with, everyone in business and in sport, layers of ambiguity or uncertainty that have perhaps never existed before. In that environment, planning and clarity about what you're trying to achieve is even more important than ever before.

Which pillars of the plan herald change to what you need to do and have to do to keep the game healthy and sustainable?

The three that are reasonably fundamental and obvious are trying to ensure Australia has the best cricket teams in the world in all formats, increasing participation and inspiring the next generation of players and fans, and growing investment and generating revenue. Those three are fundamentals that I don't think have changed. The other two that I think we've really developed and thought about a lot is the importance of the fan - we see a really strong nexus between a participant and a fan, that's why the pillar around participants talks specifically about recruiting and inspiring them not only as players but as fans. That's a much sharper focus than we've had before. The other one we've really developed a stronger focus is around leadership and management and looking for ways in which we can develop the leaders within our organisation so that cricket can remain strong. A lot of that is recognition of Australian cricket being all on the same page. The fundamental thing is that this is not a strategic plan for CA, it is a plan for all of Australian cricket. Unity in Australian cricket is really important.

On the topic of growing the game, one of the key reasons for the BBL seems to be making Australian cricket as self-sufficient as possible; not so reliant on the money to be gathered from overseas?

There's no doubt we can look at some other sports in Australia and they have an element of self-sufficiency about them or putting it a different way, having an ability to be in greater control of their own destiny. Not to say we're not, but there is a reliance on the global scene, on international cricket, on the ICC, on member countries and on inter-relationships and bilateral relationships between everyone. It's been something that has stood the test of time in cricket, but at the same time you do see situations where there are obstacles to things happening, and we see on one hand a mitigation of risk, but on the other hand as well, we don't have to the same extent as the AFL or NRL our own national league that offers high levels of fan engagement.

We really believe the BBL is a great opportunity to take that step of having a league that engages cricket fans but also to broaden our reach. One of the critical parts of putting fans first is realising we've got a vision to be Australia's favourite sport, and to be that you need to be a sport for all Australians. If we want to lay claim to that, then we need to be able to boast a fan-base that is diverse and covers males and females, young and old and people from all backgrounds, cultural and others. We see the BBL can do that in an even better way than international cricket can and perhaps ideally it can also serve as an entrée to an appetite for cricket in other forms.

How self-sufficient can Australian cricket become?

It is difficult to say. It's important to understand the BBL is not simply a revenue-creating opportunity. Sure we hope it will, and by that we mean direct revenue, the big thing about it is it has been designed and introduced for the purposes of trying to engage fans around the country or generate fans around the country in a more emphatic fashion than cricket has been able to do before. That's the No. 1 aim of it. If as a consequence we create opportunities to generate more income then that will be fantastic, but we genuinely see there's an opportunity here for T20 cricket to complement what happens with international cricket, and not compromise it. At times there will be an element of striking that balance and people may see the two forms of the game - domestic international cricket and the BBL - are at odds, but ultimately we see them as being complementary and we're looking for a greater level of fanbase.

The performance of the national team is still a high priority, and that's been addressed by the Argus review and other changes to the structure over the past year, but this plan seems to view that success as more a means towards building the strength of the game in Australia than the end in itself?

A sport like cricket, or rugby for that matter, where the national team is verymuch the flagship of the sport in the country, there will often be a temptation to judge the success and health of a sport by the performances of the national team. To a certain extent that is true, but we see the success of the Australian cricket team as being incredibly important, but not the only thing that is important and yes to some extent it means that it is a means to an end. In a more general sense we see ourselves being a genuinely national sport and a sport for all Australians. The real health, the real indicators of how strong cricket is and how healthy cricket is, is the extent to which cricket engages with the Australian community and it does that on all sorts of levels, not just through the Australian team. Whether its a junior participation program or the BBL or the Boxing Day Test, engaging with cricket fans and the Australian community is what we're all about.

You've mentioned diversity. Are you really trying to connect with parts of Australia that don't look at the Baggy Green in the same way cricket's traditional followers do? It may only be a surface change but the strategic plan itself is no longer called 'From Backyard to Baggy Green'.

There's an element of truth that comes through in our research that shows there are a whole lot of people in Australia who don't necessarily relate to the Australian cricket team in the way that many other cricket fans do. That's largely because of their background, culturally in terms of coming from a different country or alternatively just that they didn't grow up with cricket as a sport and develop an affinity with the team. That's not the only way a fan can connect with and relate to cricket, there are lots of other ways. It could be in terms of grassroots, club or school cricket, or it could be in terms of entertainment, perhaps engaging with or supporting a BBL team and going along on a Thursday or Friday night to watch a BBL match and have a bit of fun and enjoy the game and follow your team.

Regarding sustainability, Australian cricket now seems to be charting a firm path that recognises things are changing and cricket has to as well. Do you foresee a shrinking of the game without action like this being taken elsewhere?

The world's changing quickly. Its diverse, its competitive, we as a sport just like any sport or business for that matter need to be conscious of the needs and wants of our fans, our customers, our supporters and adapt to those. We need to be prepared to innovate and look for ways in which we can satisfy people's needs. We all know and understand very well that people have less time on their hands, more discerning in terms of decisions they make about spare time, all those things are great challenges for us and reasons why cricket needs to relate but also to diversify its support base. The broader or more diverse the nature of the community, the more challenging it is to be a sport for all Australians. But that's our vision, our aspiration and that's what we've set our sights on. Our mindset is to be thinking big, recognising the need for diversity, the need for us to be agile and efficient in delivering on the needs of our fans and building the performance of Australian cricketers.

Junior cricket is another part of the plan. What needs to be done there to make sure the kids who get funnelled into the game via schools and junior competitions develop a deep enough understanding of and love for the game that they become active participants later on?

I'm a keen observer of this because I see it with our children who are all at primary school stage and being exposed to cricket with their friends. It's a lot about striking the right balance of giving kids a great time but also giving them a feel for the game so they can develop their skills. Cricket is not an easy game to play at a junior primary level, it requires quite sophisticated hand-eye co-ordination to do that. That's one of the challenges for us, to endeavour to make sure the activities kids do are fun and not too difficult and all of that. We've got a captive audience in many respects in primary schools around the country. My view is that our ambition should be to ensure every primary school kid in Australia gets a bat and ball in their hand every year and we find the best way to show them a good time. That's the best way we can inspire them to play the game more regularly and follow a lot more closely as a fan as well. It is incredibly important because our research tells us and it isn't too difficult to work out that if you don't give people that opportunity in primary school then the opportunity to get them into the game as a player and a fan once they get into secondary school, is far more unlikely.

'There's an element of truth that comes through in our research that shows there are a whole lot of people in Australia who don't necessarily relate to the Australian cricket team in the way that many other cricket fans do. That's largely because of their background, culturally in terms of coming from a different country or alternatively just that they didn't grow up with cricket as a sport and develop an affinity with the team'

CA is in the midst of a governance review, and there is prominent space given to unifying the game in the strategic plan. How much of that is your own personal vision, based on what you've learned over the past decade, both at CA and the education you've sought externally?

The analogy for me on that comes back to sporting experience. I'm a great believer in team and I believe the best teams get results because they identify with what they're trying to do, set goals for themselves and then co-ordinate themselves in a fashion that gives them the greatest chance of success, and they work that way. That's one of the great challenges for Australian cricket, we are set-up organisationally in the way that we are, but one thing we have done is set ourselves a strategy for Australian cricket, a shared, agreed goal with extensive consultation with the states, and through boards and management, to arrive at this plan. It has its pillars, it has its vision. The next step from there is to implement it. That might mean along the way there are certain things that were seen to be important in the past that no longer crack the list of priorities. Very important that we dedicate resources in a prioritised fashion to deliver on these outcomes. That's one of the things I like about the strategy is that it is very clear and very pointed and gives an opportunity to filter some of the things we do, to say 'this is important and nice to do but not as important as the big picture'.

I firmly believe that as leaders we need to teach and co-ordinate people around the country to have a strategic mindset. So it's not just about 'this is the strategy' and then you go and put it in the bottom drawer, it's about having a permanent mindset around strategy that says 'this is the big picture, this is why we're doing it and if what I'm dong today isn't helping us to achieve our vision, then maybe I shouldn't be doing it, maybe I should be putting my hand up here and saying is there a different way or a better way'. I really believe it is important for everyone who works in cricket, everyone involved in cricket, and that includes the players and down to community level where players are amateur and volunteers are the same, we all have a line of sight to our vision for cricket and what we want it to be. We want it to embrace the community, be a place for people to go to have a good time and enjoy friendships and enjoy the virtues of the game.

It sounds like a cultural review on your part in addition to the team performance, governance and financial reviews.

I think that's fair enough. That's part of the leadership aspect, the pillar around leadership, providing world-class leadership and management. As leaders we need to, and I've talked to my team about this and state CEOs, we need to teach the people around us to have that strategic mindset, encourage them to always have a line of sight to the vision, and encourage us all to be focused on that, and to be prepared to challenge. It isn't just about telling people but empowering them so they feel that way. That's one of the things in cricket, everywhere I go around the country I see people who are absolutely passionate about the game and their role in the game and what they're doing, and that is so inspiring. What we have to continue to do is make sure their love for the game transforms itself into a sharp focus and energy into what is going to lead to cricket growing and achieving the objectives we're setting for it over the next four-five years, culminating in the World Cup in 2015.

I wanted to ask about the World Cup, as planning for it continues. How much government assistance is going to be needed to carry that event off successfully?

There's no doubt we will need the support of governments around the country, federal, state and local government as well, as we seek to put on a really successful World Cup in 2015. We're joint hosts with New Zealand but this is a global event, which is among the top three or four global sporting events in the world and for us as a country to be co-host is a great honour. It only comes around every 20-odd years and it is something we've coveted and looked forward to for a long time. Now we have the opportunity to do something about it. We can draw inspiration from New Zealand and what we've done in hosting the Rugby World Cup. Whatever they end up with in visitor number,s it look like it'll be more than 100,000 visitors from overseas, it shows that for New Zealand and Australia we're not at the end of the earth and people are prepared to come and watch. I'm sure a cricket event in February/March 2015 will be similar. Within the life of this current strategic plan, we see it as an incredible opportunity to engage the whole Australian community around an event.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo