January 18, 2011

Cricket Australia, look at yourself

Australians used to pride themselves on having the best cricket governance. Not anymore, now that the board seems bent on casting itself as a marketing organisation that dabbles in the game on the side

Cricket boards are like wicketkeepers, most effective when least conspicuous. By this measure Cricket Australia is having a summer every bit as bad as its cricket team. It's one thing to fail during the Ashes, another to fail so abjectly that the whole surrounding structure is called into question. But such has been the riot of arse-covering and buck-passing since the end of the Sydney Test that it almost seems the cricketers themselves will get off the hook.

It started with a disastrous press conference in the immediate aftermath of the fifth Test in which chairman of selectors Andrew Hilditch announced himself satisfied that he and his three colleagues had "done a very good job as a selection panel". Worse, his response when criticised for unwarranted self-satisfaction took him to new heights of unintelligibility: "To the extent that someone thinks that we're not disappointed with the result, I'm disappointed those comments were taken that way. The reality is nobody could be more disappointed than the national selection panel. We picked what we thought was a squad capable of winning the Ashes and it wasn't capable of winning the Ashes, so that is disappointing." Hilditch is a lawyer. You have to wonder what his advices read like.

That same day Australian coach Tim Nielsen gave a press conference little less odd. Asked whether any members of his team had improved over the last year, he responded: "It depends on how you measure improvement." Well, Tim, it's not rocket surgery: wickets and runs might be a start. "If we sit back and look at the series results," he added, "it would be easy to say none of us have." But it's far from obvious that the view would vary according to the posture from which it was made. Were Nielsen a coach in any other sport, he would only have avoided the sack by resigning. In fact, thanks to a fortuitous extension of his contract last August, he will be around for the next Ashes.

Chief executive James Sutherland has promised a thoroughgoing review of the season. So far, however, the only parties he has criticised have been Phil Hughes and Michael Clarke for the heinous crime of briefly attending a charity breakfast of the Shane Warne Foundation on Boxing Day. "That was a supreme error of judgement on their part," Sutherland said last week. "The players decided that of their own will. I would be surprised if we see that happening again."

Players attending a breakfast is a "supreme error of judgement"? Come again? It's not like they launched a line of lingerie or read the weather on Sunrise wearing a tutu. Was Sutherland seriously contending that the performances of either Clarke or Hughes were compromised by attending a function raising money for charity? If so, if their games are so sensitive that they can be derailed by having their vegemite in the wrong place, then arguably neither player should be in the side. Sutherland is normally supremely circumspect in his public utterances: three weeks ago, for example, he shrank from criticising Ricky Ponting's obnoxious harangue of Aleem Dar. One would have thought that Clarke's and Hughes' hardly compared as a breach of protocol.

If we're going to start talking judgements, in fact, it's best not to look too closely at Cricket Australia's. Test match watchers this summer would have been forgiven for drawing the impression that CA is now a marketing organisation that dabbles in cricket on the side. The barrage of idiotic distractions, the desperate attempts to look hip and youthful, the overexposure of the fading Doug Bollinger, the involvement of players in customer-friendly rigmarole - hitting balls into the crowd, shaking babies, kissing hands etc - all of them have added up to a sense of a cart so far ahead of the horse that no one has noticed the horse turning into a three-legged, one-eyed camel. Players can just get away with being advertising billboards when they are winning. When they are losing, so are the products. To paraphrase Bjorge Lillelien: "Commonwealth Bank! Vodafone! Betfair! Colonel Sanders! Can you hear me Colonel Sanders? Your boys took one hell of a beating!"

It's CA's marketing services department and its general manager Mike McKenna who have been responsible for the summer's bamboozling cycle of stunts, from projecting Ricky Ponting's face onto Big Ben to the 17-man squad shemozzle at Sydney Harbour Bridge. It's McKenna, too, who whenever he spruiks the Twenty20 Big Bash League suggests that he has spent most of his five years in cricket caressing his BlackBerry rather than absorbing anything about the game. McKenna recently suggested that the objective of the Big Bash League was to "enable us to make a hero out of Shaun Tait or David Warner, two great cricketers currently not playing for Australia [in Test cricket]." If a "supreme error of judgement" has been perpetrated in Australian circles lately, it's been the promotion of such permanently stunted mediocrities as Shaun Tait and David Warner as "great cricketers".

Why is it that when Australian cricket administrators talk these days, they sound like that they have no confidence in their game's enduring fascination or charm, and as though they really wish they were selling something else?

In fact, CA has chosen an unfortunate time to become infatuated with Twenty20, the game's bitch goddess. It will be striving to regenerate its team in the most complex, challenging and longest form of the game, an effort requiring a sense of common purpose and shared mission, even as it carves domestic cricket into a city-based competition involving cricket's shortest and crudest variant. Not the time to be dividing one's energies, one might have thought; not the time to be pandering to parochialism, populism and short-term greed either.

McKenna justifies this by appeal to other sports: "Every other sport makes its money from their league format, whether they are rugby or football, from a club-versus-club competition. That's where the passion is." Hmm. So cricket has had it wrong all these years. That passion we felt for our country, our state, or even just for the game… well, it felt like passion, but it must have been something else - indigestion, perhaps. Where cricket's administrative circles were once a bastion of the idea of their game's difference, specialness, uniqueness, now the obsession is with making cricket look the same as every other sport. Why is it that when Australian cricket administrators talk these days, they sound like that they have no confidence in their game's enduring fascination or charm, and as though they really wish they were selling something else?

So crummy a summer has CA had that some are even questioning its future. Two of the most influential voices in the Australian cricket media, Peter Roebuck in the Age and Malcolm Conn in the Australian, have argued for a total governance makeover, replacing the existing system of a board composed of representatives from the six state associations sitting in long-fixed ratios with something more like the commission that runs the Australian Football League.

The chief executive of the Australian Cricketers' Association (ACA), Paul Marsh, added his voice to that clamour at the weekend, by calling the current model "fundamentally flawed" and demanding a group composed of "captains of industry and other highly qualified people": "You've got a situation where directors of the Cricket Australia board also have to be directors of their respective state boards. This produces an unavoidable conflict of interest, where directors have responsibilities to CA and their state associations."

It's pretty hard to disagree with the proposition that a system basically devised in 1905 is ripe for renewal; that South Australia's votes, for instance, are hopelessly out of proportion with its net contribution to Australian cricket when set against Queensland's two and Tasmania's one; that the Buggins' Turn principle of the chairmanship is a recipe for mediocrity; that a distribution system in which Cricket Australia simply disgorges its profits to the state associations militates against long-term planning; that an organisation with no say over who sits on its board is a weird archaism; that an organisation claiming to reach out to non-Anglo communities and women but without non-Anglo or female members among its directors is a nonsense.

On the other hand, it's not so long since Australians flattered themselves that they had the best cricket governance in the world. CA's board may not be a dream team of commercial and cultural nobs and nabobs, as fantasised of by Conn, Roebuck and Marsh, but the direct connection between it and Australia's under-performance in the Ashes is pretty hard to establish. It's not like Shane Watson can't run between wickets because South Australia has three votes on the CA board, or that Tait is an overhyped non-entity because he's confused by CA's financial distribution model.

Australian cricket has a federal structure because Australia has a federal structure, and because nation and game arrived at their modes of governance at roughly the same time. It is arguable that a key virtue often claimed for it, that it is representative of and in touch with cricket at its lowest levels, has weakened, that market research, onto which CA holds like a drunk to a lamp post, has been substituted for actual direct bottom-up input into the formation of national will. But any substitute for the existing model, even if the personnel were more talented, would almost certainly be less representative. At least with football, members can go to their clubs, vote for whomever and feel as though their view counts. Where is that mechanism in cricket? The best represented constituency in Australian cricket at the moment is the players, as evinced by the loud voice in all matters of Paul Marsh. Mind you, based on current performance, it's far from clear that the players deserve such eminence; it's even arguable that the ACA is part of the problem. Twelve years since the first memorandum of understanding between CA and the ACA, which placed first-class cricket on a full-time professional footing, players have never been wealthier, more cosseted, more protected. Yet over that same period, partly because you can earn a tidy living these days being not very good, standards in the domestic scene are widely regarded as having fallen. Thanks to the IPL, meanwhile, perversely discrepant pay and incentives are turning the Australian playing community into an every-man-for-himself society of haves and have-nots, with neither rhyme nor reason: one hopes, for instance, that the next time Daniel Christian and Steve O'Keefe run into one another during the Aussie summer, $900,000 Christian at least shouts $20,000 O'Keefe a drink. What sort of trade union is it that condones rewards bestowed so unevenly?

As for the rest of us in Australian cricket, a contagious and debilitating cynicism is spreading: there is a feeling that something is amiss, that something is being lost, that the players are overpaid numpties and/or B-list celebrity haircuts, that the administrators are beige bureaucrats and/or shonky spivs, and that those who care about cricket, who have it in their blood, who think it a fine thing and worth fighting for, are being marginalised and excluded, because they are at odds with the fast-buck mentality, because they object to being slotted into demographics of "cricket consumers'".

Such impressions are visceral rather than fair or reasoned - at all levels of the game in this country can be found able, well-motivated people who care a great deal about what they do. But they are impressions too widely felt to be ignored. Relations between Cricket Australia and its players might be tense at the moment, but they face parallel challenges, both having a lot of work to do to restore their respective credibilities.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer