Australia cricket December 23, 2011

How do you judge a cricketer by numbers alone?

Lost amid the hype of the launch of the Big Bash League was the suggestion that Cricket Australia might move to a more performance-based contract system

Lost amid the hype of the launch of the Big Bash League has been a much more interesting and significant event in Australian cricket - the suggestion that Cricket Australia might move to a more performance-based contract system. This will be a radical move for a system that has long been rooted in the notion of the aura surrounding the baggy green cap (substitute canary yellow for ODI's). The suggestion is reckoned to have its genesis in the Argus Report but I fear that if taken too far, it will fail to have the sort of effect that similar strategies may have in the corporate arena that Don Argus is familiar with.

To a certain extent, the performance-based system is already in place anyway. A 25-man contract list that is refreshed each year is clearly based on the most highly rated players, though with an eye to the future more than a reflection of the past. If it was based purely on performance rather than potential, there can be no reasonable explanation why Brad Hodge hasn't been in this list for the last few years; his limited-overs form has been nothing short of brilliant in recent times. So clearly the performance-based system that is currently in place is a forward-looking exercise, mindful no doubt of past form but not tied exclusively to such easily measurable statistics like runs and wickets. Just ask Simon Katich. Actually, don't ask Katich - he might speak his mind and that's a breach of corporate protocol apparently. Hell hath no fury like an opening batsman scorned and all that jazz …

It would be unrealistic to pine for a system that was based on the incredibly strong Sheffield Shield structure that has been in place for many years, most notably in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That was a performance-based system too in the purest sense but it had its roots in Grade cricket. There were no real contracts in place, just state squads that you dropped in and out of based on form. If you consistently scored runs in 1st Grade, you got selected for your state team. If your form dipped, you went back to club cricket. With the need to now provide some form of job protection or security for professional cricketers, that system is no longer viable in that pure form. I fear, though, that it might go too far in the other extreme if Australian contracts became performance-driven to a level that creates uncertainty and fear instead of stability and job security.

The problem I have with this proposed new system is that it might make players too selfish, nervous or jealous. It's only human nature to safeguard your own livelihood and that generally works in a normal office or factory environment, where it's not part of the job to run the risk of dropping catches off your colleague, running him out or sacrificing yourself for the team cause. If a pure performance-based system came into operation, there exists the very real possibility that players would naturally become selfish and honest mistakes would harbour lingering resentment.

Take Katich for example - he's been involved in a few run-outs with Shane Watson. Katich has lost his place while Watson is a fixture in the team. Who's to say that if Katich had not been the batsman dismissed in those incidents, he wouldn't have scored heavily and would still be wearing the baggy green? "That's cricket," I hear you say, but it becomes harder to shrug your shoulders and write off your career with that careless catchphrase anymore.

Likewise Mitchell Johnson, who was hanging on by the skin of his teeth in South Africa recently. Not only did he have to contend with the odd dropped catch but he might also start to question why he wasn't bowling downwind or into the rough or at the tail or with the new ball. So many conspiracy theories or bad luck stories can creep into the mindset of these guys who fear that they're going to be judged purely on numbers.

If we had a system based purely on numbers, perhaps Shane Warne may never have got his chance at all. His Shield record wasn't spectacular but the selectors at the time recognised a streak of genius and backed their instincts. Under a new system that is purely performance-based (logically, that can only be retrospective because you can't perform in advance), Warne may have taken a lot longer to be called-up to the Australian team. Nathan Lyon is winning rave reviews now but clearly his selection was based more on nous than on numbers.

The rotation system will need to be scrapped too if performance-based contracts come into play. Which player is going to happily agree to rest against a minnow team? Which top order batsman will volunteer to sit out a game on a green top against Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel? Which fast bowler will complain of some convenient hamstring soreness after he sees a flat pitch at the SSC in Colombo? Unless you can come up with a system that can also measure these variables, including qualities like courage, peer-respect and selflessness, you will have a yardstick that is utterly unsuited to sport. Cricket is not like athletics where you can simply measure someone against the clock or against the rest of the field in the same conditions. Winning or losing a toss can change a career. Team instructions, like "we need to score quickly to set up a declaration" might require a disclaimer to be signed before the batsman agrees to the T and C's.

Cricket, by its very nature, despite being a numbers game that can be measured statistically, has too many variables to be judged by commercially accepted performance or HRM benchmarks. You need a system that still allows for genius and raw talent, and that something special that defies an accountant's scrutiny. It still needs to be a system that is underpinned by runs and wickets, though, because a complete disregard for those fundamentals just leaves players very confused about what they have to do to gain selection. Ed Cowan's selection is great news in that respect - he has done all that can be expected of the next cab in the queue and when another player lost form, the selectors showed every Shield cricketer in the country that there is a unerring logic to their process. That builds faith in the system.

Paul Marsh, the astute and straight-talking boss of the Australian Cricketers' Association, has an excellent point when he asks if anyone else in the cricket set-up is subject to the performance measures that the administrators seem to be keen on imposing on the cricketers. If the 'suits' are keen to bring corporate incentive structures into the mix, does that apply to the hierarchy in Jolimont St too? After all, while the cricket team has undergone significant change since they slipped from being champions in all forms of the game, some if it through natural attrition (Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Hayden, Gillespie, the Waugh brothers) and some of it through culling (Katich, Hauritz, Hodge, Krejza, Hughes, Khawaja, Beer, the list goes on), has the same sword been wielded in management circles?

I genuinely am unaware of the answer to that question so I have no hidden agenda for asking it, but it's merely to make the point that it is disingenuous to commission things like the Argus Report that tries to hold the cricketers accountable for the dip in the team's performance unless all 'team members' also wear the pain. What about the management team that presided over that period of disappointment? Is Katich entitled to ask if they are still holding on to their jobs?

Generally speaking, I'm not a big fan of applying overtly corporatised HRM principles to a 'profession' that is still essentially a sport, with all the glorious uncertainties and vagaries that come with it. I worked for many years at a university where I saw brilliant academics promoted to managerial posts. They might be brilliant at analysing atoms under microscopes but they were woeful at running a business. It's hard to apply one set of benchmarks to a totally different skill-set. Bottom line question - will the new system lead to better performance? I doubt it. Try convincing me that Sachin Tendulkar will score more runs if he is offered more money. Likewise Kumar Sangakkara who hasn't even been paid his salary in full yet - I can't see a man of his calibre trying any less harder in Durban next week just because he received his long overdue paycheque.

There's no easy solution but when business tries too hard to apply text book principles to sport, it just doesn't work. Some things defy logic. Cricket has long been a beast of that ilk. And I love her all the more for it.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane