Cricket washed down with Australia's mess?
Every so often, a fearless journalist writes a piece that is direct, honest and cuts to the bone. Here is one such article by the admirable Anthony Sharwood, written in the aftermath of yet another sporting scandal in Australia, coming hot on the heels of a controversy with (male) Olympic swimmers, the AFL "tanking" investigation and the report into performance-enhancing drugs, match-fixing and organised crime handed down by the Australian Crime Commission.
As someone who runs life skills (education) programs for many sporting codes, including cricket, I thought it might be useful to analyse these 10 reasons and see if they apply to cricket. This discussion need not be Australia-centric; we can broaden the scope to any cricketing country to see what lessons or parallels we can draw from this. Is there anything cricket can do to proactively prevent or mitigate the likelihood of such allegations being levelled at our sport?
I was struck by the striking similarity to the curriculum that I run for my workshops. It's almost as if Mr Sharwood has pinched my intellectual property except that so much of it just so commonsense. No one can claim intellectual property ownership rights for the bleeding obvious.
1. Cricketers paid too much money? In the context of their net contribution to society, one can argue that cricketers (like most professional sportsmen) are paid way more than they are worth when compared to careers that actually make a difference to mankind's progress. In Australia anyway, we argue that we can't afford extra hospital beds, care for the aged and homeless shelters. The wages of essential employees like nurses, social workers and teachers are a pittance when compared to Cricket Australia contracts. India has an even bigger disparity between the mass populace and its feted cricket royalty. My plea to young athletes is to realise how lucky they are to earn these sort of wages for hitting a cricket ball (as opposed to saving lives or caring for foster kids) and to treat their elevated status with the respect it deserves/confers upon them.
2. Too much time on their hands? Cricket is no different to any other professional sport these days. On one hand you can argue that the international schedule is too cluttered. You can also argue with some conviction that when you compare it to people who work conventional jobs, they get paid a lot of money to work relatively few days. For a generation that reckons they need more "rest" (rotation), they're quick to sign up for IPL duties where the pickings are rich. How many international cricketers are using their spare time (even on tour) to further their education? They will argue they don't need to because they'll retire with millions in their bank accounts. See point 1.
3. Ego? This is very much a case of individuals. It's hard to generalise. Some cricketers have egos that make them utterly disagreeable human beings but it does not detract from their cricketing prowess. Others reach a point of greatness (or humility) that makes them hard to dislike. I think immediately of guys like Michael Hussey, George Bailey and Clint McKay in the Australian set-up who just seem like utterly decent chaps. All countries will have their own nominations in both categories. Take home message to my students? Arrogance and talent need not be mutual bedfellows.
4. Aggro? Yes, generally speaking, I think there's far too much unnecessary monkey business (with no reference to the Symonds/Harbhajan incident). I've always maintained that it is a bad look to see role-models behaving in ways that we would not tolerate at junior cricket. My contention is that if we expect it from junior cricketers with less developed frontal lobes, why can't we expect similar from grown men? I don't buy the nonsense of pressure, competitive juices, passion etc. Lots of other careers have more life-and-death pressures and they don't justify idiocy in those terms. Grow up!
5. Gambling? Yes. It's hard to refute this as a definite problem in cricket. The examples are too numerous to mention. The biggest problems here centre on the hypocrisy of trying to educate young cricketers on this issue when they see their Boards raking in millions from sponsorship deals with betting agencies. Drink with the devil and dance to his music. The argument that a bona fide relationship will prevent it going underground is just ridiculous. Illegal bookmakers will always exist but a hypocrite is a poor leader to follow. Massive problem and no easy fix. Start with your own conscience is my advice.
6. Drugs? That's an easy one. It's a significant problem in cricket, especially the social drugs. It's no worse than in mainstream society except for the fact that perhaps rich, idle cricketers (see points 1 & 2) have the money and time to get into more mischief. When high-profile cricketers get caught, it either goes unpunished or hidden behind the secrecy policy, apparently as part of a rehabilitation process. Reliable anecdotal evidence suggests that cricket is no better (or worse) than any other sport in this respect and that the serial offenders are well known and well protected. Like all sports, matchwinners are rarely expunged from the system unless they happen to be caught by the police and it can't be hidden in-house. I do an enormous amount of work running the Federal Government's Illicit Drugs in Sport program for many codes and this is a widespread problem across society. And I'm not even talking performance-enhancing stuff. Massive problem.
7. Too many hangers-on? I think cricket has far too many of these people who have yet to justify their performance-dividend. I've written extensively on this topic regarding the injury prevention army and their singularly unsuccessful attempts to breed more durable cricketers. Since they've been added to the squad, the rate of injuries appears to have actually increased, coinciding admittedly with an allegedly increased workload (despite rotation, rests and bigger squads - see my most recent ESPNcricinfo blog post). Jackson Bird's latest injury is the latest indignity. His back has got worse after bowling 10 overs in a warm-up match. I rest my case. Too many coaches, managers and other support staff I reckon. When the cameras pan to the dressing-room, it's often hard to spot a player!
8. Lame administrators? I'm sure each country has someone they can nominate in this category. I honestly don't know enough about what they do to pass comment on this issue. I hesitate to pass criticism without knowledge but I can safely say that there are some excellent administrators in places like Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart with whom I have had personal contact. You can only speak as you find - reliable sources tell me there are some State Associations that are incredibly lame and inefficient in Australia. Their recent on-field performances point to the veracity of these sources but it's hard to know for sure. NZ Cricket had its own issues recently with the Ross Taylor saga. Sri Lanka, Pakistan, West Indies and India are perennially being accused of gross ineptitude by respected commentators inside the country. Answer? Probably yes but don't forget there are some good folk too who do a great job.
9. Insufficient personal development? In Australia, I don't think this accusation is true at the top level. Ben Smith of the Australian Cricketers' Association is a dedicated and tireless champion of this cause and his work has led to a strong culture of education and personal development across the country. Some States take the responsibility more seriously than others but that is merely a matter of opinion. I would be interested to hear from other countries. Is there a genuine commitment to this area or do they just accept that these guys are professional cricketers who can make their own choices? I refer not just to formal education but also to life skills training around drugs, alcohol, social media, respect for women, gambling etc? Most of the work I do is around these issues and it is something that needs constant reinforcement (as is the case with all high-profile sports). Cricket is pretty good with taking this issue seriously at an educational level but less good at enforcing consequences when players transgress, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Players soon see through that inconsistency. Is that the same all over the world?
10. Lost that sense of fun? I suspect cricket has largely lost its joie de vivre at international level but there are enough examples to also prove me wrong. I stand uncertain of my position on this issue. Sometimes the on-field behaviour hints at a culture where winning has become all-too-important (which sucks the enjoyment from the game) but to be fair, the international captains tend to be great role-models for the spirit of cricket. Michael Clarke's grace in defeat or victory is apparent. I can't think of an international captain who is an embarrassment to their country in the current era. We've had some notable exceptions in recent times (which hint at earlier issues in point 4 & 5 especially) but I think cricket is in reasonably good shape in this respect. I keep reminding the young cricketers coming through that they have a rare opportunity to use their talent to achieve special things in their life so long as they can avoid just about all the negatives from points 1-10. Simple!
The major omission? Attitudes towards women (by male athletes). Cricketers' attitudes show no marked difference to any other sporting code, from my experience. Frankly, it is awful. It manifests itself initially in social media and then migrates to real-life where attitudes towards females have to be seen to be believed. Some of it may be bravado or showing-off but ask any coach who takes a team away on tour and they'll tell you the same story. Combined with alcohol and impaired judgement, the issues around respect for women is a major concern. Not to be confused with consensual adults doing whatever they choose to do, these problems have got to the point where some teams make it explicit that no females are allowed in hotel rooms. Enforcing the rules may be a different matter altogether but at least the players have been warned. What is the prevailing culture elsewhere in the cricketing world I wonder? Reading Herschelle Gibbs' autobiography left me in no doubt that it is an accident waiting to happen!
Overall, I think Australian cricket shares many of the problems and challenges that face the other sporting codes. The upside though is that there are many good folk involved in the game and they strive to promote good values. I meet these people in the course of my work and their sincerity is plain to see. Globally, I think the future is less certain but to be fair, I'm a long way removed from reality. It would be unfair to judge from afar. I'm looking forward to seeing local responses to these questions.
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane