May 9, 2013

Australian cricket's single voice

New administrative reforms mean the board is more equally representative of the states, and that there is an admirable new focus on the health of the national game

All smile for the new set-up: there now seems to be a clearer understanding of what's good for the game in Australia as a whole © Getty Images

"All men are created equal. It is only men themselves who place themselves above equality."
-- David Allan Coe

A good friend of mine, Professor Patrick Weller, a learned and wise man, once wrote a book called First Among Equals. I have long pondered that clever title, long after I forgot the content of the book itself. In recent times, thinking about the changing landscape that is Australian cricket, it strikes me that it has always been thus: first among equals. Until now perhaps.

The recent imbroglio over Tim May, the ICC, and the perceived influence of the BCCI is a perfect case in point. There is no doubt that some countries believe that India's influence in the ICC has got to the point where they, India, are clearly first among equals. While this may or may not be true, it must be remembered that it wasn't that long ago that some other nations were running cricket's agenda, and they clearly had no issue with being "equal but more equal" than the other members. Two wrongs don't make a right, of course, so it will be interesting to see how this diplomatic game plays out. Not all votes are equal; never have been.

For too long, the bizarre voting system that governed the Australian Cricket Board, now Cricket Australia, spoke to this very notion of a national cricket body that was meant to represent the interests of the nation as a whole but was always dogged by the perception that it was a triumvirate controlled by NSW, Victoria and South Australia, probably a hangover from the early colonial days when these established states provided the vast majority of cricketers to the Australian team.

As SA's production line of international cricketers started to wane in the 1980s, coinciding with a dramatic rise in representation from WA and Queensland (and more recently Tasmania), that shift of power was not reflected in the boardroom. NSW, Victoria and SA continued to have more votes at board level than the other states, further fuelling the notion that this was a democracy in name only. It was difficult to understand the reasoning behind a so-called system of equality that allowed equal partners to have unequal voting rights. Some men were more equal than others (if you came from Sydney, Melbourne or Adelaide).

With a system such as this, it was inevitable that accusations of bias were aired, sometimes in whispers, more increasingly in stentorian protest. It did not need to be true - the mere suspicion of parochial bias was enough to undermine the sanctity of the process, making Cricket Australia's job of running the national game an even harder task than was already the case in a country so geographically wide.

The good news, of course, is that common sense has eventually prevailed and the new governance system reflects a much purer democracy. What is even more encouraging is the perception that Cricket Australia has finally appointed a visionary, Marianne Roux, to drive a cultural change that has many sensible administrators nodding their heads in agreement. No surprises that it apparently took a woman to kickstart some cultural changes that 130 years of male governance could not manage. Perhaps intelligent women are more experienced in fighting battles for equality.

From my understanding of the situation, there is now a commendable push for the whole of Australian cricket to operate as "one voice" when looking at the future of the game in a holistic sense. Most of the national football codes have managed to walk this tightrope adroitly, balancing the ambitions of local clubs with the interests (and parental control) of the national body. It behooves intelligent men (hitherto not so intelligent one must presume) to look at the big picture and realise that while it is natural to want the best for your state, the long-term future of the sport is very much dependent on the national team. Especially so for a sport like cricket, which has a profitable and strong national brand but essentially runs a loss-leader program at interstate level, in direct contrast to, say, the AFL and NRL, whose main revenue streams derive from hosting the world's best competition each weekend at club level.

Cricket administrators in Australia have long known that the purpose of Sheffield Shield cricket these days is to foster the production line of talent to feed upwards into the Australian team. Interstate cricket by itself, even allowing for the Big Bash, loses money hand over fist. That in itself is manageable so long as the local administrators, who may otherwise choose to stand in the way of big-picture vision, realise that if the golden goose does not receive the best feed, it will eventually stop laying golden eggs. No amount of domestic triumphalism will pay the bills if the national team is struggling on the world stage.

Cricket has a profitable and strong national brand in Australia but essentially runs a loss-leader program at interstate level, in direct contrast to, say, the AFL and NRL, whose main revenue streams derive from hosting the world's best competition each weekend at club level

Australia's domestic cricket is unlike England's county cricket, where teams have smaller distances to travel, and a long history of loyal membership. It is also not on the same scale as the IPL, which despite being of little interest to most Australians, has enough of a domestic (and expat) following to sustain a localised product. But even the IPL needs more than just the Indian stars, hence the foreign mercenaries, even ageing ones, sail gleefully on Indian trade winds.

What is encouraging about the mooted changes (as far as I can glean from respected and quietly spoken administrators, who can look beyond their own backyards), is that the first tranche of funding will now be equally distributed to all states, so that there is some semblance of a level playing field. After that, extra funding requests can be made by states but on a case-by-case basis, and in a manner showing some synergy with the strategic vision that underpins the notion of what's best for Australian cricket as a whole. No doubt I am simplifying it to some degree but the basic logic of this system cannot be faulted if it truly ends up doing what it purports to do.

If Shield cricket is indeed a nursery for producing better Australian cricketers, then any extra funding for facilities, programmes, coaches, junior cricket and so on should, in a perfectly sensible world, be tied to outcomes that lead to this state of nirvana. No one really remembers who won the domestic tournaments - they used to, but that era has long passed - but as a cricket-loving nation, we still ride the rollercoaster of three consecutive World Cup victories, Ashes triumphs, world domination throughout the halcyon days of the Taylor-Waugh era, and the downward lurch of consecutive Ashes losses and the recent drubbing in India. Let's face it: wouldn't most Aussies still prefer that Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey were scoring runs for the baggy green rather than for the citadels of Hobart, Perth, Mumbai and Chennai?

This "one voice" mantra, though, needs to be disseminated throughout the cricket family, selectors included. That is the only way by which people will develop long-term confidence in the system. Sometimes the selectors will need to look beyond short-term gain and make decisions that reflect a value system that all young cricketers can have faith in. The selection of the talented but "risky" Mitchell Marsh is a case in point. Despite repeated warnings from anyone who saw that train smash coming with both Marsh boys, their continued selection for national honours just undermines any genuine messages to young cricketers that in order to play for Australia you need more than just runs and wickets.

If on the other hand the selectors argue that it is just sheer weight of performances that count, the notion of breaking that "first among equals" perception will apply on the field too in the next few months. Will they simply select the best players on the day, irrespective of other considerations? If so, Chris Rogers has surely batted himself into the team, all things being equal. Given his leadership experience, is it too ridiculous to suggest that he might even be a shock captaincy choice if Michael Clarke is ruled out with injury and Brad Haddin is unavailable (through injury or lack of form)? If Australian cricket is indeed speaking with one voice, anything is possible. First among equals indeed.

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