Cricket v rugby

Taking on the school bullies

New Zealand's cricketers lost to India on Saturday - a defeat hidden at home under an avalanche of analysis of thee New Zealand rugby team's defeat in their World Cup

Lynn McConnell

November 18, 2003

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If you were a New Zealand player on the end of a score which was the second-highest in a one-day international against you, and a defeat by a margin of 145 runs, there could not be many better times to do it than when the national rugby team, the All Blacks, have just been beaten in a World Cup semi-final.

The only reason "surprisingly beaten" was not used there was because it was the third time the rugby side has been beaten in a semi-final in five World Cups. Meanwhile the New Zealand cricketers ran slap-bang into the Tendulkar-Sehwag runaway train on Saturday. The only good thing about that was that it was in the last match of the Indian leg of the tour, and hadn't happened earlier.

But the rugby defeat does have consequences for cricket in New Zealand. Rugby is played seriously in even fewer countries than cricket - in fact in fewer countries than make up the West Indies cricket confederation - yet despite that rugby has for too long seen itself as top dog in New Zealand.

Yet, even with the nation's interest behind it, rugby has tried to screw every other rival for the public's attention into the dirt. Cricket has found this out yet again in the forthcoming summer, with more international matches having to be rescheduled because rugby just happens to see where cricket matches are being played and then run their games in the same cities on the same days, often at the same venue, as cricket enjoys. It's school-bully stuff, and it's pathetic.

This is because the battle is supposedly all about market-share, and audience-growth and discretionary dollars, all the same corporate claptrap that has emanated from the mouth of the beaten All Black coach in the months preceding his sport's showpiece. It is difficult in the extreme to believe that the new national cricket coach, John Bracewell, will resort to talking about journeys and outcome and processes. He might think about it, but he won't utter it.

Rugby also talks about its commitment to the grass roots of its game, but it has nothing in place like the dynamic programme cricket is developing for its young people and participants at club level. The scheme has taken time to develop, but is making inroads now that should help the summer sport flourish in the years to come. It should be remembered that cricket was played in New Zealand 40 years before rugby started to make its presence felt.

Because expectations are not so high for cricket, there is not the same pressure on the game from the public that there is for rugby. That is not to say that New Zealanders like to see the cricketers lose, rather they prefer that the side be competitive and give of its best. There's a recognition that it doesn't have the resources of population-base and climate that other countries enjoy.

But rugby union - a winter sport, which is increasingly played in the summer months - has the most precious heritage in New Zealand sport at its core, and passions are roused to a much higher level when the protectors of that heritage fail to play to anywhere near their potential, or with any of the realisation of the history that went before them ... as happened in Sydney on Saturday night.

This sort of recurrent performance failure - it's happened now in four successive World Cups - does have an effect on a public who see players getting paid large amounts of money, by New Zealand standards. In their best form the players deserve it - but it's increasingly seen as creating a soft edge to their game. They are supported by a cast of thousands, and backed by administrators who have trampled all over other sports in their quest to tie up sponsorship dollars as well as venue access.

It is not a pretty sight, and there is a real chance that rugby will suffer because of this. New Zealanders are growing up: the loss on Saturday was received far more realistically than was the case in 1999, although the hurt was probably the same. Meanwhile the cricketers, beset by injuries to key players such as Shane Bond, Nathan Astle and now Stephen Fleming, do their best on what resources they have, in a vastly different world to that populated by rugby. The cricketers face more significant concerns. Bomb threats have a ring of reality to them for cricket, sadly as it may be for the New Zealand cricketers who have been close to three bomb blasts in their recent past.

These are real issues for cricket. Rugby, by comparison, has only the problems of equipping their players with an adherence and knowledge of the basic principles of the game and an ability to change tack (a not inappropriate metaphor given the equally debilitating loss to the national psyche of the America's Cup earlier in the year) when tactics aren't working.

The difference between the two is that cricket can afford to have its team lose, because the game itself can still be played on the back lawn, in the park, or on the beach, by people who genuinely love the game for what it is. The question for rugby is whether their lowliest participants still care enough to do the same? And are they fewer in number than in 1999, or in 1995 or in 1991? One increasingly suspects that there is a diminution in the game's lustre.

Lynn McConnell is editor of Wisden Cricinfo in New Zealand. His Down Under View will appear every Tuesday: Sambit Bal's Indian View has moved to Thursdays.

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