Taxpayers' money must not fund academies
For a proud and successful sporting country, there's a national debate going on in Australia right now that almost resembles a post-mortem of sorts. Football fans are crying foul over FIFA's decision to apparently "snub" Australia's bid to host the World Cup in 2022 and sadly, though not entirely surprisingly, there's the usual talk of corruption, broken promises, lack of transparency etc. Jingoism even pushes some to claim that Australia should have been awarded the World Cup because we are "the greatest country in the world", one of the most pointless and meaningless clichés ever invented. All nations resort to these ridiculous statements in times of national crisis (or triumph) which only goes to prove that they are indeed...ridiculous!
Like the football, our cricket fortunes too are increasingly attracting comment from every man and his dog, most of the commentary focusing on the disappointments currently being experienced in The Ashes. I must confess that I'm not one of those people who feel any great sense of shame, disappointment or surprise. It's sport. Simple as that. The very nature of sport is that there must be a winner and a loser and there's no shame in occasionally being at the wrong end of that equation. If you only want to win, then play with yourself! Australians have a word that describes this singular activity perfectly but I'm not sure why they keep referring to "bankers"!!! Must be something to do with the GFC I suppose.
Speaking of money, if Australia's football bosses can't accept FIFA's decision with good grace, knowing full well that it was a competitive bid process, then don't waste $45 million dollars of taxpayers’ money on a process that does not have a guaranteed outcome. Talk of corruption, transparency, broken promises etc just smacks of sour grapes. No one can pretend that none of this was known before yesterday's decision, yet if we had won the bid, we would presumably have been delighted to host a World Cup that was administered by these same folk. Likewise with the cricket - we've enjoyed more than a decade at the top of world and when the inevitable change happens, as has always been the case, we're now in a state of national mourning, trying to find scapegoats where none exist. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Where is the shame in that?
The Australian cricket team is just going through a bit of a slow patch. We've seen half a dozen 'greats' retire in the last few years so surely it's no great surprise that a period of relative mediocrity might follow. By coincidence, luck, good planning (or all of the above), England have a team that is maturing at the perfect time is playing bloody good cricket. We might not like it but we can still respect them without ripping ourselves to shreds in the process. Qatar may not be everyone's favourite holiday destination but is that really a reason to cast aspersions on their weather, population and anti-drinking laws just because they beat us to the World Cup in 2022? We expected every other nation to celebrate with us when we won the rights to host the Sydney Olympics, we've revelled in winning three consecutive cricket World Cups. I dare say we'd be mighty disappointed if the rest of the world questioned the integrity of our success. That's why I'm not one of those wringing their hands in despair as Kevin Pietersen just celebrated his double-century. It's just part of the cycle of life.
What I do question though is whether professional sport deserves the amount of public money that is poured into it, in the name of "national pride". I'd rather trade hospital beds, better roads, aged care homes and more police on the streets for any number of World Cups or gold medals. Especially for professional sports like cricket or football where the athletes get paid significantly more than nurses, social workers or teachers; these professions have a higher net worth to society than sports stars. Let athletes get paid whatever the 'free market economy" can afford but don't let taxpayer funds get mixed in with that lot.
Where am I going with this? Well, looking at the current Australian team, is there a case to question the public investment in entities like cricket academies? Why should the taxpayer fund the 'education' of a small subsection of the population who might go on to earn millions whereas other high-earning professions (medicine, law, dentistry, engineering etc) expect students to pay their way and then reap the dividends later in life? And don't give me the old 'national pride' thing because that doesn't feed the hungry, anywhere in the world.
Clearly, the success of a cricket team owes more to talent than the fine tuning that comes with the exorbitant public expense of funding cricket academies. Australia is living proof of that right now. Our Centre of Excellence (nee Cricket Academy) has been going for nigh on 25 years now and has never been more full-time than the last few years when it comes replete with a fairly significant bureaucracy and every type of coach, physiotherapist and performance analyst imaginable. Yet, as we're now seeing, the talent cycle is a much more significant factor than any intensive "manufacturing" process. You can't create a Shane Warne, Matthew Hayden or a Ricky Ponting. You can fine tune him, you can try to make him fitter and stronger but you can't create natural talent just by putting it through a factory. If it was that simple, why are we still unable to find another Warne, despite all of the current generation of spinners having been through the Centre of Excellence on numerous scholarships?
By some measures we can't even create fitter and healthier athletes, leaving aside the raw talent question. The modern bowler struggles to get through 90 overs in a full day's play, despite all the latest technological, medical, hydration and clothing aids. The rate of injuries has never been higher, despite the fact that they have an army of specialists who even monitor their choice of pyjamas! Anyone hear the Australian team physio speak on The Cricket Show on Channel 9 the other day? They even get the players to sleep in 'skins' to aid recovery but it still doesn't help them to bowl the required overs in the allotted time.
All the computer boffins and analysts can't help our bowlers to bowl the right lines. The pitch map in England's first innings in Adelaide resembled a pubescent boy's acne - angry little dots all over the place. You don't need complicated software to tell you what good old-fashioned common sense has known for a hundred years. When England passed the 500 mark, only 57 runs had been scored in the V, on a pitch that traditionally favours full-length bowling with short square boundaries. Was that really the length that the bowlers were asked to bowl or were they just unable to execute a basic skill, despite many years of high-tech coaching at the cricket academy? The inability of Test-standard bowlers to bowl one side of the wicket to Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott in the first session on Saturday just underscored the point that Glenn McGrath was the legend that he was despite, not because of, his time at the cricket academy.
I'm not suggesting that such finishing schools have no place in sport. Of course they do. They play an important role in "finishing" off the product but at the end of the day, the natural cycles of talent and maturity will always play a more significant role than anything that can be bought with a million dollars of public funding, not when that money can be spent on more worthwhile things than making rich people even richer. I don't begrudge footballers and cricketers, their talents and riches, so long as they are happy to live and die in the "free market". Just ask the residents of Ireland and Greece or the millions who have lost their homes through the GFC - national sporting pride doesn't pay mortgages or hospital fees. And for that reason alone, I wish Qatar and England well this weekend. Enjoy the moment, bask in the glory and accept that it won't always be like this. Another Shane Warne will be born somewhere in the world and like the original one, he won't need to attend a cricket academy to allow his genius to shine. Copper is a valuable metal and you can refine it all you like but a gold nugget it will never be.
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane