November 12, 2012

Business jargon in cricket: who's accountable?

All sports, not just cricket, are in the habit now of obfuscating the plain truth with jargon that has probably been borrowed from a business text book

All sports, not just cricket, are in the habit now of obfuscating the plain truth with jargon that has probably been borrowed from a business text book and twisted into something that sounds remotely like it is meant to mean something. There. I hope that confuses you.

It is with some amusement, now bordering on mild curiosity, soon to graduate to outright irritation, that I listen to athletes and players speak about things in a way that I just don't understand. I was reading a newspaper article yesterday about the NSW cricket captain, Steve O'Keefe, talking about his team's attitude shift this season. This is some of what he had to say:

''Looking back on last year, there were many things we needed to improve. The most obvious being communication and accountability for ourselves and our actions. We've taken that on board, and I like to think the culture is in a very good place. I'm fortunate to have a talented group of guys who are looking to improve. I believe each player could represent Australia and we've put expectations on ourselves. That keeps us accountable, it stares us in the face. We know if we don't live up to those expectations we can call each other on it, and that helps us improve.''

Even for someone like myself, who works in this industry, running education and mentoring programmes for young athletes, I struggled to grasp exactly what was going to improve in NSW. This notion of "accountability" is a word that is thrown around willy-nilly but I'm not quite sure what it means in this context. Perhaps someone more educated on these matters than myself will do me a favour and shine a torch on this management-speak but I am still in the dark as to exactly how this relates to scoring more runs, taking more wickets etc. I heard similar murmurings from the Australian bowling ranks leading up to the first Test in Brisbane and judging by their performance, I'm at a loss to figure out whether they're now more or less accountable after South Africa scored 450 on a flattish pitch that nonetheless had something in it on the first day.

Did someone not "communicate" to the bowlers that they were bowling too short and too wide? They conceded later that they bowled the wrong lengths but did it take till the press conference afterwards for highly-skilled professional cricketers to realise this? Surely someone else on the field might have whispered something in their ear about "being more accountable if you can put it in the right areas". In other words my friend: "Oi. Try pitching it up so we can get 'em nicking to the keeper or slips". Or is that against the team's communication culture to suggest a change in tactics before they've had a chance to review the footage after the springbok had bolted?

The other interesting word that keeps being used ad nauseaum is 'group'. No longer do we have batsmen or bowlers but we now have "the batting group and the bowling group". Is that another word entrenched in some sort of MBA-speak that protects individuals from blame or praise in equal measure? When a bowler takes five wickets, he very humbly talks about the efforts of the bowling group. Sydney Sixers did a good job of this after they won the Champions League last month. Ben Hilfenhaus referred to this bowling group when he described the lacklustre performance at the Gabba last night. Is it too hard to say something like "we bowled poorly today"? Do they feel somehow that referring to the collective softens the blow or is it just a figure of speech that has just crept into the "system" (there's another word that is used to good effect)?

Speaking of words and the Gabba, former Australian batsman and dubious comedian Greg Ritchie has waddled into the spotlight with his own choice of inappropriate gags apparently. His brand is largely built around humour that walks the fat line between being funny and being distasteful, so this incident comes as no surprise. As a very young cricketer, both Kepler Wessels and Ritchie were club-mates of mine so this latest story takes on even more relevance for me. Some comedians get away with blue murder and others just try one gag too many. I wasn't at Ritchie's latest event so I can't comment on context, appropriateness or the atmosphere in the audience but having spent a lot of time in South Africa, it seems to me that some jokes are, well … they're just not jokes. Using the 'k' word in any South African context would surely be off limits, you would have thought. It's just not being accountable to yourself and your audience.

I've been to a few of these types of events, Test Match breakfasts, lunches, dinners … Most of them are mildly funny, some of them are surprisingly revealing, while the odd occasion has me wondering what excuse I could use to escape this cure for insomnia. A lot of the humour is base and the laughs are at somebody else's expense, usually playing to what the audience would laugh at in public but would never agree to in private. That's just the way these gigs work - lots of beer, lots of macho stories and aim for the lowest common denominator.

I was once invited to a Test Match breakfast hosted by a prestigious private school. The guest speaker was Rodney Hogg, who was as blunt as his reputation suggested he might be, and I found his attempts at humour remarkably crass but I was definitely in the minority as he was apparently doing something right. Eventually I made an excuse about having to make an urgent phone call and took my leave, not because I was offended by anything he said but purely because I had better things to do with my time. I did not realise that my exit had been noticed and a good friend of mine who was a senior teacher at that school hunted me down the next day and offered his apologies for what had been said at the breakfast. Decent chap that he was, I assured him that I was not in the slightest bit offended but chose instead to make better use of my time than to listen to somebody who just missed the mark for me. What surprised me was that despite the laughs he got, clearly someone else other than myself also recognised that some of the jokes were not all that funny to the "listening group". Not long after, Hogg had to issue a public apology when his Australia Day Twitter humour missed the mark again.

Clearly someone like Ritchie operates in a marketplace where he has found a niche for his brand of humour. He is witty, dry, clever and can be genuinely funny at times. He can be merciless on whoever is the subject of his humour, but he is also not above poking fun at himself either, which is a refreshing thing. It appears now that he may have cooked his goose in terms of Cricket Australia's tolerance of his brand of humour, especially considering that he is not prepared to compromise his sincerity by offering trite contrition where no remorse genuinely exists. Not a bad business strategy though, because in an ironic way that might actually make him more in demand from some other clients who value him even more now for his new-found notoriety. I'm not sure if he'll get a lot of bookings in South Africa but he doesn't particularly care. Nothing matters when you're only accountable to yourself.

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