Year Review 2008 /

The Round Table

'Bring sanity to the schedule'

Sanjay Manjrekar, Ian Chappell and Tony Greig on the issues facing cricket in 2009

Sanjay Manjrekar

January 2, 2009

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Tony Greig: "I'm particularly excited by the leadership of MS Dhoni, and the way he is going about his cricket" © AFP
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Sanjay Manjrekar: Hello and welcome to the Cricinfo Round Table.

Two thousand eight has been an eventful year for cricket. Sandwiched between the lows of Sydneygate and the Mumbai terror attacks, there have been several pivotal moments. The IPL made an explosive start; technology in cricket took a leap with the introduction of the review system; Australia found themselves in a full-blown transition phase; and finally, India claimed the most important series of the year, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.

What can cricket look forward to in 2009? Will security concerns continue to disrupt cricket in the subcontinent? Will Twenty20 cricket continue its rapid ascendancy? And can England really win back the Ashes? To discuss all this and more, I have with me Tony Greig and Ian Chappell, former captains of England and Australia respectively and also well-respected observers of the game. Welcome to the Round Table, gentlemen.

The first question, beginning with you Ian, is: The security concerns in the subcontinent have led to serious disruption in cricket tours - Pakistan hasn't played a single Test this year. Do you think that a split in world cricket would happen over touring disagreements because of the political scenarios in the country? Could there be financial repercussions?

Ian Chappell: There is obviously a lot of concern. Pakistan have been facing some issues for quite some time now and there is a real problem with their cricket. Not having any serious cricket in the country is going to have an effect on the future of the game in Pakistan. So that is an enormous problem and I'm not sure how they are going to get around that. I guess there is hope around the world that Barack Obama can do some good things, but that would be putting a lot of responsibility on one man. As far as the financial repercussions are concerned, well they would be serious if India became unsafe, because 70% of the finance comes from India. So there are obviously lots of concerns, but many of them are out of the hands of cricket.

SM: Tony, a few years ago the ICC and many teams pledged their support for countries that were riddled with terrorism and violence. They said that in spite of all that, they would still go and play cricket in those countries to support them and to show that terrorism cannot stop the world from going round. That pledge seems to have fizzled out a bit, but at the same time you can understand teams' concerns to tour countries like Pakistan.

Tony Greig: I can understand. We were targeted with Black September in the 70s and the attitude then was that we won't take notice of these guys and we won't and cannot allow them to pressurise us. But things have changed quite dramatically now.

It is all in the management and this is what the ICC is for. As Ian has pointed out, there is not much that we can do other than resolve it politically. I'm not too sure that cricket has the people who can make the sort of contribution required to change anything in Pakistan. They certainly didn't do it in Sri Lanka. But I really do think there is a role to be played by the cricket countries in looking after countries that have these problems on the home front. For example, Pakistan have got to find a way to generate revenue and the only way they can do it is by playing cricket in a place where teams like Australia will play. Dubai, for example, is one option for them.

Pakistan and Sri Lanka are vital countries because there aren't too many countries that play cricket. Let us not forget that we have had blasts in London also, and who's to say that such things won't happen in Australia? The ICC needs to sit down with all the member countries and work out how they can make sure that some funds - a larger chunk of the funds - go to Pakistan to shore up their domestic competition, because that is one way of making sure that they maintain a decent standard of cricket. Then we need to wait and see and hope that a political solution is found and that some of these nasty things that are happening go away.

 
 
"The umpires need to be told to tell the guys to buzz off when they come on with the drinks every two seconds. These sort of things need to be implemented if they are going to seriously resolve the issue of slow over-rate" Ian Chappell
 

SM: Moving on, the Champions Trophy and the World Twenty20 championships that will be held in 2009. These are two major ICC tournaments to look forward to. We have seen the growing popularity of Twenty20, but what about the Champions Trophy? Do you think it is starting to suffer with an identity crisis, Tony?

TG: Yes, I think it is. I have no doubt that with the popularity of Twenty20 cricket - certainly in the short-term - there is going to be a cutting back of 50-over cricket. We just cannot keep playing as much cricket as is being played around the world. So I see the Champions Trophy being under threat. The World Cup is obviously fine, though. Unfortunately the ICC have taken all the money. There is a huge contract in place for all these ICC tournaments, and that money could be used to help places like Pakistan and Sri Lanka, who have financial problems at the moment. In the short term I'm not sure they are going to give away all the cash that they are getting from ESPN-Star for broadcasting those competitions.

SM: This is a very exciting time in world cricket because so much is changing, and among the exciting developments were the IPL, the ICL and the Stanford Super Series. They became quite popular and the players were so attracted to these tournaments that there have been disruptions in the Future Tours Programme, with Sri Lanka pulling out of the England tour. How do you think the ICC should handle these private tournaments while ensuring that the FTP is not disrupted?

IC: As far as I'm concerned, the FTP has been pretty unworkable right from the start. And the problem with it - as far as I know - is that it is planned out ahead till 2012. To me, that is just unworkable and sooner or later it is going to become a real burden to the ICC. It is going to be an albatross around their neck.

When the IPL was mooted, I thought that would have been the perfect time to sit down with everyone in cricket involved: to get all the stakeholders around the table, including IPL, ICL, Stanford, the players, associations, the sponsors and everybody else to flesh out a plan to make all three formats of the game work together. I have had this feeling now for quite some time that the FTP is just a runaway train with no one at the levers.

As Tony quite rightly pointed out, there are a whole lot of television contracts in place and the ICC is not going to want to disrupt them. But they all need to sit down and work something out properly. I think if you have lesser tournaments that are more prestigious, you could sell that to the television people and make it a pretty good package for them. You could probably bring in the same about of money, but the key is to have some sanity in the programming because at the moment there is absolutely none.

TG: The point, Sanjay, is that the situation with the television companies is also not as rosy as it is made out to be. I can tell you that television companies are seeing a huge downturn as a result of the economic crisis in the world. Their revenues are dropping big time and they are not going to be able to make back the money they thought they would be able to make when they first put these huge contracts in place with the ICC, and for other tournaments around the world.

As Ian points out, there is an opportunity to address that situation. I would have thought that the television companies would be quite keen to have another look at the whole situation, because above all else it needs to make economic sense.

SM: What is interesting to see is that without the ICC planning anything, inevitably market forces have dictated the change. Do you think in the near future we will see less international cricket between countries? I know for a fact that the West Indies-New Zealand Test series wasn't shown in India, despite Sony having the rights to it. So do you think the IPL and Stanford and other such private tournaments will perhaps become sought-after television products? And are the marketing forces doing the right thing by toning down on the quantity of international cricket? Ian?

IC: That is what I would like to see. Sometimes more is not necessarily better. You need to make the tournaments prestigious and then the television companies will be very interested. The competitive side of it is also terribly important as well.


Ian Chappell: "I have been absolutely impressed with the tremendous improvement that Hashim Amla has shown" © Getty Images
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There is another thing the ICC need to look at. To me, a lot of the cricket in some parts of the world is virtually unwatchable on television. The companies paying for the rights are paying such hefty prices that to get their money back they have to sell every second of the game. The ICC have to remember that it might be terrific to have all this money coming in, but if people, particularly young people, who are the future of the game, say: "I can't watch this anymore, it's rubbish," it is not doing the game any good. It has been the perfect time for a while now and it is time to get all the stakeholders around the table and bring some sanity into television programming also.

SM: Tony, one of the points that England made was their reluctance to play Bangladesh at home, purely citing commercial problems. And staying with that, let me have your thoughts on Bangladesh and Zimbabwe and what their future is in world cricket…

TG: I think they both have a very limited future at the moment in terms of Test cricket. I would keep them going in the one-day game and in the Twenty20 format. I have seen some very good cricket by the Bangladesh side in the ICL. That is not real cricket and you cannot make a Test side out of those players, but they are good in the short format.

England have a point. In Australia we have used that situation quite well because we are lucky, we've got a big country; we've taken Bangladesh to Darwin, where almost no cricket is played. So at least there is a positive move there and there is some cricket in that part of the world. It may not be the greatest cricket of all times but the truth of the matter is, they are getting to watch some cricket, and as Ian pointed out, youngsters like to see their cricket stars.

Maybe England have got to think about something along those lines. But the bigger issue there is that you cannot have sides playing if they are not up to it. We have to try and get Bangladesh and Zimbabwe back to where they used to be and that is not going to happen in Zimbabwe while they have the political situation that they have going. I'm disappointed in Bangladesh, to be perfectly honest. They are taking too long and it is just not good enough.

SM: They have played 57 Tests and they have only one win, and that is against Zimbabwe.

TG: It is just not good enough, and that should be part of that discussion Ian was talking about with the stakeholders. They need to say: We need to cut back on cricket. We need to make sure the cricket that is played is good cricket, and therefore, without really being nasty to Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, who need our help, both of them need to be excluded from the FTP. That will give us a few more days by eliminating both of them from Test cricket.

SM: Moving on to cricket, away from the commercial aspects of the game. Ian, slow over-rates, the negative field placements that you see these days, and sledging have continued to be a problem for cricket. What do you think needs to be done to ensure that cricket in 2009 is not affected by such problems?

IC: Slow over-rates are just ridiculous. The ICC haven't done anything, and though they make it out like they are doing something, they really have done nothing at all. In fact, they have contributed to the slow-over-rates situation. The talk I'm hearing suggests that the ICC is going to get serious about some of the things you just mentioned. Slow over rates will obviously be very high on the list; sledging also will be high on the list. It would be terrific if the ICC are going to get serious about it, but for god's sake, why has it taken them so long?

SM: How do you think that should be tackled, Ian?

IC: As far as I'm concerned, and I've talked about it often enough, the administrators have got to give the players something if they expect them to get off their backsides and bowl the overs quicker.

There are four or five very simple things that the ICC could do. You could have full sightboards so you don't have to move them. Get rid of the stupid advertising on the sightboards, because it always causes a problem. Don't have replays for boundaries, because if the ball doesn't hit the rope, it is whatever the batsmen have run and it doesn't really matter where the fielder's feet or hands are. Also, they should go back to the back-foot no ball rule. So you need to make all these concessions, and then you say to the players: You have to bowl the number of overs that have been fixed, per hour. If you don't bowl those many overs, and come up short in the day, then the captain is suspended for two Tests or five one-dayers, depending on what format of the game you are playing. The umpires need to be told to tell the guys to buzz off when they come on with the drinks every two seconds. The umpires need to be given some authority or power, and if they don't use that authority, get rid of the umpires and get some people in who will. These sorts of things need to be implemented if they are going to seriously resolve these issues.

The fact that this has been going on for so long with the ICC doing nought about it doesn't fill me with too much confidence. But now I'm at least hearing that the right noises are about to be made. I don't want to hang by the neck waiting for them to be implemented, but I'm hoping it will happen.

SM: Tony, what about negative field placings? How would you want to tackle that? You see strong off-side fields that sometimes seem negative…

 
 
"With the advent of Twenty20 cricket, a whole new market for gambling has been created. Twenty20 is very vulnerable in that regard. I think the ICC should quadruple the amount of money they spend trying to make sure it doesn't get out of hand" Tony Greig
 

TG: Field placings are not particularly a great worry for me. People would like to see attacking cricket and attacking captains will prosper. Those who set negative fields and play negative cricket give us an opportunity in the commentary box to have a go at them.

I'm not as concerned as Ian is about slow over-rates. I'm not too sure that the ICC are going to do anything about it either. I've sort of got used to them, and I don't think the general public sitting out there is saying: "It's all too slow for us." I just don't get that feeling.

As far as sledging is concerned… just take Andrew Symonds as an example. He gets cheered on to the ground every time he walks on and every time he does something. He has been in a spot of bother. Shane Warne was a similar sort of character. Some of these guys accused of sledging don't do it very nastily.

So I'm not too worried about those things. One area that I'm concerned about is that the ICC should be quadrupling its anti-corruption activity. That really does worry me. With the advent of Twenty20 cricket, a whole new market for gambling has been created. I'm not talking about any particular tournament but about Twenty20 cricket everywhere. It is very vulnerable in that regard and I think they should quadruple the amount of money they spend trying to make sure it doesn't get out of hand.

SM: Moving forward on to what 2009 holds for world cricket. Another key on-field development in 2008 - Tony, you and I were there following that series closely - was the umpire review system. We know your thoughts on it - you like it - but let us get Ian's thoughts on what he saw in Sri Lanka. Does he see more technology coming in to play to enable the umpires to make better decisions?

IC: I don't think you can stop it now that they have got the ball rolling, though I don't agree with it. The one thing I would like to see happen, and Tony has been saying this for ages, is that the responsibility should be with the third umpire and not with the players.

Daniel Vettori made a very good point the other day, referring to Daniel Flynn's lbw decision which was a marginal decision and could have gone either way. Vettori said that the system wasn't put in place to decide such marginal decisions. The system was put in place to get rid of the absolute shockers. I think if you put the responsibility back on the third umpire, if he sees something, he should on the walkie-talkie tell the on-field umpire to reverse the decision. It won't take very long that way. Sticking with just three challenges is a joke, because you have a team game with 11 players and you will find that the top-order guys in the batting side are going to use up the referrals, and the lower-order batsmen won't get an opportunity to challenge the shockers because they have exhausted their chances.


Ian Chappell: "Ashley Mallett understands offspin, and if he thinks Jeetan Patel has got exceptional talent, I will be keeping an eye on him" © Getty Images
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The responsibility should be put back on the umpires, and I would rather see them go down that path instead of giving authority to the players.

SM: Tony, do you want to add to that?

TG: Lately we are seeing that umpires forget there has been a wide and they call an over one ball short. It takes no time to get the message across that there is another ball to go and you've just called a five-ball over. That way they're back in position straight away and we finish it there. I think that is the way to go. I agree entirely with Ian and I wouldn't like to see the players involved in the decision-making process.

SM: Coming to the end of our discussion, we just have a couple of questions left. We have seen a couple of great Test matches in 2008 involving England, Australia, South Africa and India. These are the top teams fighting against each other and there will be a few clashes in 2009 as well. How do you see these contests shaping up and what do you think the hierarchy is going to be?

IC: It is terrific that we got such terrific Tests. We had two shocking series with Australia playing New Zealand and playing West Indies. But then suddenly we had India playing England and Australia playing South Africa. They were fantastic matches and there is potential for such similar clashes. The only disappointing thing, for me, is that it has taken Australia to come way back into the field to have this situation. India is the only team that has really challenged Australia - with the exception of the 2005 Ashes. India was the only team that on a regular basis challenged Australia, even when they were at their prime.

Looking at the programme, England have a hell of an opportunity now to push ahead and get to No. 1 because they are playing a lot of Tests in 2009. They play West Indies in the Caribbean, then they play West Indies at home, and then they have the Ashes. So they have three big opportunities to push ahead. South Africa have got a big opportunity here in Australia and then at home playing Australia again. So they have tremendous opportunities to move to the top of the list. India doesn't have much of a chance because they play New Zealand in March, so India's opportunities are going to be a little restricted.

The two teams that have a wonderful chance to push towards the top of the ladder are South Africa and England.

TG: Ian is right as far as the table is concerned. If you ask me which team is the best in the world right now, I would say India. They have the most balanced attack and they still have some fantastic batsmen there, who are aggressive as well. So India are probably the best side in the world.

The Australian attack looked very ordinary against South Africa in Perth.

If Kevin Pietersen can keep firing up Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison and get a spinner to keep taking wickets, England and South Africa are fighting for a No. 2 spot. So for me it is India first, England and South Africa second, with Australia slipping fast to third.

SM: That is incredible. I think that is the first time that I'm hearing a neutral observer put India right on top.

It is truly an exciting team led by Mahendra Singh Dhoni. This is perhaps the first time that an Indian team has been put right up there as far as the cricket pundits are concerned.

Final question. Going back to individuals we saw this year, we saw some sensational players coming into the fray - Ajantha Mendis from Sri Lanka made a real mark, Ishant Sharma from India is an exciting prospect, and so is Morne Morkel from South Africa. Who is the one that excites you the most, whose performance would you be looking forward to in 2009?

IC: I think, of the batsmen, the guys who look like they are about to break through are Hashim Amla - I have been absolutely impressed with the tremendous improvement that he has shown; Gautam Gambhir, who probably has already made the leap to the next level; and Jean Paul Duminy - he is a bit of an outsider but I was really impressed with him in Perth. He's a young man with a terrific temperament. He is probably not at the point of making a breakthrough, like Amla will and Gambhir already has.

Of the bowlers, Mitchell Johnson has had the breakthrough and has moved to the next level. It's the same with Ishant, who is a tremendous bowler. Mendis is unfortunately not going to get many opportunities in Test cricket, but he is at that stage where he is pushing through to the next level. Morkel certainly has some potential and Dale Steyn has probably made his breakthrough.

 
 
"The ICC needs to sit down with all the member countries and work out how they can make sure that a large chunk of funds goes to Pakistan to shore up their domestic competition, because that is one way of making sure that they maintain a decent standard of cricket" Tony Greig
 

One name I'm going to throw in, just based on something I heard the other day from Ashley Mallett, former Australian offspinner in Adelaide. He said that he had been doing some work with Jeetan Patel from New Zealand and that he was staggered by the ability of Patel. He said there were a couple of issues, but if Patel fixed them he could be something really exciting. I noticed that New Zealand played him in the last Test against West Indies and he took some wickets. So he may have made that bit of an improvement, and Mallett is a guy who understands offspin bowling, and if he thinks the guy has got exceptional talent, I will be keeping an eye on him.

Just to throw another name in there as a wicketkeeper - Brad Haddin. He is a very exciting young player in Test cricket.

SM: Tony, you have the final word on the exciting talent that we will see in 2009.

TG: I agree with all of those people Ian has mentioned. I'm particularly excited by the leadership of Dhoni and the Indian side and the way he is going about his cricket. He is a nice, aggressive player who is a good captain as well. I love Mendis and he is causing all sorts of problems to everyone he bowls at in every form of the game. Ishant is just fantastic, no doubt about that.

I was a little disappointed in Morkel. Someone needs to say to him: "Listen, when you step onto that ground, you've got to get a little bit nasty." There aren't many nice fast bowlers around, certainly not on the ground!

Amla was fantastic and Duminy playing only his first Test was outstanding. The South Africans must be over the moon with him. These are two previously disadvantaged guys and I think the South Africans should be very proud of themselves. It is not easy when you go through what they have been through in terms of change while maintaining a high standard. While they haven't always played the greatest cricket, and they have been a little defensive at times but they are now looking a decent team and they have maintained their standards. The people responsible for that should take a bow because it is very important.

The rest are the people Ian mentioned. Gambhir is playing beautiful cricket. As far as the fast bowlers are concerned, apart from Ishant it seems the rest of them are going off the boil. Brett Lee seems to be going off the boil a little bit. But it is just fantastic to be in world cricket at the moment, sitting in the commentary box where, at last, we have four sides that are playing against each other - there could be five or six even - who are much closer together in terms of standards.

SM: On that note I thank you, gentlemen, for joining us on the Cricinfo Round Table as we look forward to year 2009.

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