Paul Marsh June 14, 2011

'There's been an artificial push towards youth in Australia'

Australian cricket is undergoing a major review of its structure, and Paul Marsh, the players' association chief, talks about its outcomes, the academy's identity crisis, his hopes for the new Big Bash League, and more

Strong opinions run in Paul Marsh's family. He is the son of former Australia keeper Rod Marsh, and his brother Dan made his name as a fighting first-class cricketer for Tasmania. Paul, meanwhile, ventured into the corporate and sporting worlds, and has been the chief executive of the Australian Cricketers' Association since 2005. In that time he has worked closely with Cricket Australia, most recently thrashing out the compromise deal over the MoU for player payments. He has trenchant views about Australia's decline in world cricket, and spoke to ESPNcricinfo at the end of MoU negotiations.

Your relationship with Cricket Australia is a functional one, despite frequent differences of opinion. How important is it to keep that state of conciliation?
At our core we have both got the best interests of the game at heart. I think CA would say that about us, and we'd certainly say it about them. There are times, however, where we have differing views on how to reach that objective, and we do have our moments where we don't agree. But the one thing we have always been able to do with CA is find a way forward. We have never had a situation where players have gone out on strike. I think that's a real credit to the relationship between the two organisations.

What, to you, are the major problems that have caused Australian cricket's slide from the top of the global game?
I think there are two major issues. I think we lost 10 players from the Australian first-class system to the ICL, and those players were, in most cases, our senior state cricketers. So we lost the likes of Jimmy Maher, Michael Kasprowicz, Jason Gillespie, Ian Harvey, Stuart Law, Michael Bevan - those types of players, who were year in and year out making nearly 1000 runs and taking close to 50 wickets. They were the core of experienced players in our state system who improved the standard of state cricket. You take a number of senior players out of the state system and the standard has to drop.

Those guys were the ones who were maintaining that standard, and therefore the experience that guys like Steve Smith or Phil Hughes are getting is not what it used to be. Those guys have missed out on the development opportunities that the generation before them got.

There have been three periods in Australian cricket in my lifetime where we have had below-par results: the first one being World Series Cricket and the Australian Test team around that particular time, the second being the rebel tours to South Africa, on the back of the retirements of Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh and Greg Chappell. And in recent times the players going to the ICL.

There are very similar circumstances in each case, where a group of experienced players were taken out of our state system, and you could only choose your state teams and your Australian team from what was left.

The second issue is this push towards youth in our system - I think an artificial push towards youth. I honestly believe you need to have a mix of youth and experience, and we have gone too far towards youth. The Futures League, with the restriction of only having three players over the age of 23, has made that a very weak competition, and the players would say almost universally that the gap between grade and first-class cricket has never been larger than what it is now. So the Futures League or second XI competition, which sits in between those competitions, is more important than ever, yet it's being made artificially weak by these age restrictions.

One of the outcomes of the playing conditions committee meeting was that they will lift that restriction to allow six players over the age of 23, which is a step in the right direction. From our perspective I'd prefer to see no age restrictions in there.

You only need to have a few good young players coming through your system, but you want to make sure that they are getting the best possible development opportunities. If we are filtering one new player into the Australian team every year, you'll have a very strong team. You want them to have the best possible development through that pathway. I think we have gone away from what has made us strong through our grade system and through our first-class system.

I think we've got a responsibility to make sure each one of the pathway competitions is as strong a standard as it can be so that these players are getting the best possible development they can get. I don't think that's happening as well as it used to.

Do you feel the ambivalence towards the group that disappeared to the ICL, and then the introduction of measures like the Futures League by Cricket Australia, result from the comfortable feeling that comes from being the world's best for a long time?
What you're asking me is: did Australian cricket become somewhat complacent, and I think the answer to that is yes. I know my dad, having run the cricket academy for many years, when he left, one of the things he said to CA was that he had real concerns about the quality of batsmen we had coming through, and his view was that that wasn't taken on board seriously. I think what we have seen in recent times would back up the concerns he had at that time. I think there was a view certainly that "we're going to keep on keeping on, we have the best pathway system in the world" etc.

But it's international sport, it's competitive. There are international boards, particularly the Indians, who have far more money than we have got, and it was only a matter of time before they started to get their act together.

"The Centre of Excellence really needs to be offering a programme that is a level above what the states are offering. Then the states will want to send their players there, because they will be getting a better development experience than possibly what they are getting at the moment"

I think CA have now recognised that and this review they are going through is very comprehensive. They have got good people involved in it, and I know they are trying very hard to get to the bottom of what the issues are. I'd expect there are going to be some very strong recommendations that come out of that review.

Your father's close involvement with the academy was at a time when it was used as a finishing school for talented juniors who were on the cusp of first-class cricket. Was that a better model than the present one geared towards preparing state players for the international arena?
There are some really good people at the Centre of Excellence (CoE), but I would say it's got an identity crisis. Ask 10 people what it is supposed to be doing and you're quite likely to get half a dozen different responses. And that makes it very difficult for the people who are running it. My view is that it needs to go back to what it was initially set up to be, which was to get the best players from the Under-17s and Under-19s and prepare them for first-class cricket.

One of the issues we have got here now is that when it first started up, we didn't have the contract system we have now got in place. That complicates things because the state associations are contracting players on an annual basis, and they are questioning why they should send those players to the CoE, when, what they would say - it may vary a little from state to state - is that the CoE is basically replicating what they can and are doing in their home states.

I think by going back to these younger players who aren't contracted, you kill two birds with one stone. You're then getting kids of the right age into the programme, and you don't have the complications of the contract system, where you've got this ongoing arm-wrestle between CA and the state associations over the CoE.

The CoE really needs to be offering a programme that is a level above what the states are offering. I think that needs to become part of their focus. Then the states will want to send their players there because they will be getting a better development experience than possibly what they are getting at the moment.

Concern about the governance structure of Cricket Australia has manifested itself in a review of that governance. What do you think needs to change there?
We have major concerns - and I wouldn't just limit this to Cricket Australia, but with Australian cricket's governance model. I think this governance review needs to look at not only CA but the state associations as well. Our very strong view is that cricket needs an independent governance model at both CA and state levels. This is just about making sure that those organisations running the game are making decisions in the best interests of the game, and not just along state lines or at a state level along club lines. You want to get the best people into a structure that's making decisions with the best interests of the game at its core.

If we can get to that point, I think first, you're going to see Australian cricket move ahead very quickly, and second, all the key stakeholders are going to be happy. I don't think we're getting that at the moment. There's a fundamental flaw, putting aside the composition of the boards of the states, in that to be on the CA board you have to be on a state board. Straight away there's a conflict of interest there that is unavoidable. The people who are on these boards are all decent people, but when you have to make a decision on the state association board and the CA board, you've just got this automatic conflict of interest.

Secondly, because of that structure, where you have to, in many cases, come through the club structure to get on the state board to then get on to the CA board, it's just too hard a pathway for some quality people to want to go through. I think we're actually missing out on the calibre of board member we could be getting because of the structure and the path they've got to go down to become board members. We would certainly like to see an independent commission at CA level, where you've got a good mix of cricket people, commercial people, financial people, legal people etc., covering all the skill sets the game needs. Then we'd like to see at state level a similar structure, where you've got independent expertise on all the state boards.

We have seen a very dramatic week surrounding the removal of Simon Katich from the list of CA contracts. Michael Beer, the incumbent Test spinner, was also missing. Did the re-jigging of the rankings to include Twenty20 cricket come at a cost to Test specialists?
I don't think that's a fair conclusion to draw. The rankings for players are still weighted heavily towards Tests. So if you're ranked 10 in Test cricket and you don't have a ranking in one-day cricket or Twenty20, or you're ranked No. 10 in limited-overs cricket, but don't have a Test ranking, you're going to get more money as a Test player. The second point is, I don't think there are any of the players you'd consider Test players who won't also get a Big Bash contract. Simon Katich or Marcus North or Phil Hughes - each one of those guys will get a Big Bash contract, assuming they want one.

The total player-payment pool is going up by 10%. There's a 6% reduction in the CA retainer pool, the state retainer pool is reduced by about 30%, but then you've got this new pool of Big Bash money. So everyone will get two contracts: the traditional contracts are going to be less, but they will get a Big Bash contract on top of that. So all things being equal, players are going to push forward here. We have thought of all these different scenarios, and I honestly think we have maintained that prioritisation of Test cricket as well as we can. There is a market force here for Twenty20 cricket that was unavoidable. The BBL is an important future competition for CA and the players and we can't ignore that. But we have tried to balance Test and one-day cricket in this model so players are still motivated to play all three forms of the game.

A lot of money and time is going into the expansion of the Big Bash League. The introduction of city-based teams means abandoning a state versus state structure that has the benefit of history.
State cricket, for the last three decades or more, really hasn't had any cut-through with the public. This new format has been reinvigorated to a degree, but I think that's been largely to do with the format rather than necessarily the identity of the teams. So, in short, yes it can work. If we had launched this competition with six teams, there was nowhere to go from an expansion perspective - you can't introduce a seventh state to Australia. So going to city-based - they have gone to eight teams and there's no reason that can't increase going forward - means you can get teams into the Gold Coast, far north Queensland, Geelong, or wherever it might be, and get cricket to new audiences.

The trick is going to be how well this is promoted. Now that we have signed off on the deal, there'll be a player recruitment period coming up. From there the challenge for CA and the franchises is to make some noise and get the public excited about what's coming. Once players are linked to the teams, it's going to be an easier thing to do.

There is a heavy use of the Indian Premier League as the example for the BBL to follow. Yet the reasons Australians and Indians go to cricket in their countries is quite different. How optimistic are you about the new competition?
You can draw on how successful the Big Bash has been over the past few years. I don't hear anyone who has been going to Big Bash games say they're not going to watch the new format of the Big Bash because they have changed to city-based teams. I'm not hearing that from people, so I'd like to think we will at least continue at the levels of interest we have. But more optimistically than that, you'd think it's going to grow, and I would expect high-quality overseas players in this competition, now that we have got money to attract them. And we're going to have Australian players hopefully available for parts of the competition in the short term and for the whole thing in the longer term. There's plenty of optimism and opportunity around this competition.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo