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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • David on January 21, 2011, 11:19 GMT

    Gideon Haigh once famously said that, "T20 is a game invented for those people who do not like cricket!" In the years since I've seen nothing that invalidates Gideon's statement. While the diminishing of techniques was anticipated I doubt many of us expected the decline to manifest itself so quickly. Anyone who saw Steve Smith bottom edge his pull shot onto his stumps in the Melbourne test will appreciate the decline. No foot work whatsoever and he seemed surprised that he failed to control his bat and the shot. T20 at its worst. The best thing T20 can do, and the IPL in particular, is to make some young men very rich, very quickly. It certainly will not improve them as cricketers unless, of course, they decide to only play the shorter forms of the game. Indeed, that has already happened in Australia with the likes of Hodge, Tait and Lee. In ancient Rome there were the games and the gladiators to keep the masses amused - today it's T20! Not much has really changed.

  • Warrick on January 21, 2011, 10:51 GMT

    To suggest T20 or IPL is the cause of Australian cricket or test cricket doesn't really make a lot of sense. England have been bang on with their assessment of the two games thus far. Yardy will never play test cricket for England, but is one of the first picks for T20. Cook doesn't even play T20 for 50 over cricket for his local side of Essex, yet is their best test batsman at the moment. I don't see why you can't pick a specialist T20 side. It would give players who wouldn't ordinarily have the honour of playing for Australia or their countries to do that. Keep these players separate from the test team etc. What's wrong with Warner, Hopes, Hodge, Christian, White, Marsh, Henriques, A.O'brien, Doherty, Hastings, Tait forming the T20 side & understand that 5 day cricket is a completely different animal to one that takes a few hours to complete?

  • Sanjay on January 21, 2011, 7:57 GMT

    @Vishnu27 Whilst I totally agree with you about IPL being a sickness to cricket I think the impact would be more felt by Indian cricket in the coming years.Blaming the failures of Australian team squarely on IPL is rather unfair as there are other T20 leagues operating too,IPL has played its part in specific but its t20 in general that has led to sub standard batting techniques.But yes as an Indian fan I the IPL should be shutdown its sort of like Frankenstein's monster out to destroy its own creator.

  • Paul on January 21, 2011, 3:30 GMT

    Instead of Quality Participation (levels of play for different purposes) we get dumb it down to the lowest common denominator game formats in junior ranks. Juniors who don't get to develop a cricket brain earlier enough provide lower skilled players into the more competitive levels, who are all complaining at the drop off in skills. Ground up and Top down CA has a lot to learn about how to coach individual skills to players. Build skills and games get won. Current Practice is certainly not Best Practice.

    T20 is a new world. GH has missed the point entirely there. CA marketing also missed the mental issues facing a stressed team with some of its VB advertising - the coaching staff should have banned those from getting past the script stage.

  • Cameron on January 21, 2011, 0:37 GMT

    As is often the way, Gideon again tells it like it truly is. Until such time as CA is prepared to tackle its issues from the CEO down, we will continue to see spineless performances such as the recent Ashes series. The CA executive, including Sutherland need a massive shake-up. Reducing the Shield season from 10 games to 8 next year in preference to T20 is sheer madness & Australian cricket will continue to suffer as a result. The IPL (& T20) is a sickness that is really starting to take over a beautiful old game. You merely had to witness Steve Smith's last to batting performances in Australian colours: it was like the kid was playing baseball. Do we really want a world where young boys & girls grow up wanting to be sluggers & biffers, instead of immulating Mark Waugh, Damien Martyn or Usman Khawaja? It is a very ugly time for cricket generally & until the ICC places some level of control over the BCCI & ultimately the IPL, things will only continue to devolve & deteriorate further.

  • Warrick on January 20, 2011, 5:45 GMT

    An excellent article & sums up the way a lot of fans from the 'outer' feel. CA will soon see the imbalance in the balance sheets if the poor performances continue. They rode the wave of the 'retirement bashes' of some of our greats & the tills kept ringing. How can fans in the crowd who fork out a big percentage of their wages to go to the ground, continue the type of torture they went through this summer. How can the fans relate to the M.Clarkes of this world who buy their relatives six figure sports cars? Aussie fans were defenseless this summer, because there was no defence to our visiting counterparts banter. We had nothing to cheer about, nothing to snype back. Something the 'Pups' of this world don't seem to get. Judging by the' collar up smile-athons' they don't even understand they're getting flogged!. They've lost the run of themselves & it's a culture endemic in the current organisation. Where is AB!

  • Dummy4 on January 20, 2011, 1:15 GMT

    @MTrain, If you don't like the Channel 9 coverage, don't watch it. The cricket is /always/ on the ABC radio. It's much better to listen to it on the wireless than on the telly, and if you insist on pictures just turn the sound down on the telly and listen to the radio.

  • Andrew on January 20, 2011, 0:08 GMT

    @Asis Rout - well said mate. The First class system is getting stronger & has built the base for where India is now. IPL brings more riches, but makes super stars out of "flawed cricketers".

  • Dummy4 on January 19, 2011, 22:56 GMT

    Mobeen Zahid - well said man. I agree entirely! Whilst it also think that it is premature to be knocking the Australian Cricket team, yes its great players are indecline but given the right selections they can still go toe to toe with the Saffers & Indians on the test arena. England on the otherhand seem to give them the heebee jeebees!!

  • Dummy4 on January 19, 2011, 21:29 GMT

    @maddy20 and hariahyd IPL doesn't prepare players.The Ranji trophy does.India didn't win anything in two consecutive T-20 world cups after playing the IPL.Most of the Indian batsmen are not even improving on their short ball play say like Ganguly in the latter half of his career.Things which are based on greed doesn't augur well for any of the stakeholders in the game.Now Australian Cricket has slipped in their administration and management than anything else.I am at loss to associate professionalism with this set up.Not so long ago Australian team looked good even after the departure of these greats but Ponting,Hilditch and Nielsen are hurting them bad.The sub-continental teams and fans were accused of backing fading superstars but Australia seems no different to them as well.This palpable gloom and doom in the Australian ranks call for drastic decisions.Ponting should be sacked from his captaincy.Give young players their well deserved chances.

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