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Interviews

Earl Eddings interview: 'We need 10-20 strong Test playing nations, not three or four'

The Cricket Australia chairman spoke to ESPNcricinfo about the dramas of 2020, the new ICC chair and the future of Test cricket, the BBL, succession issues and the rapidly changing media landscape

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
23-Dec-2020
Earl Eddings has had to deal with a huge range of challenges during 2020  •  Getty Images

Earl Eddings has had to deal with a huge range of challenges during 2020  •  Getty Images

When were you most nervous that this Test series against India wasn't going to happen?
I was always confident we'd get the series away, there was never one time I didn't think we would do it. But there were some sleepless nights. I think when we found out we couldn't quarantine in Brisbane was a big one, but luckily we were able to reach out to the New South Wales government, who within 72 hours mobilised and allowed us to come in. It was always a challenge about where we were going to play, but in terms of India not turning up I was always confident they would turn up and they were just as keen to come as we were to have them. Never thought they weren't going to play, but certainly had some moments wondering how we were going to do it.
For what the people at CA have done behind the scenes to get the summer away, I can't thank them enough. The CA staff, working with states and territories, state governments ... people don't see the long hours people have sacrificed to get this summer away and the players themselves. So I couldn't be prouder of the way Australian cricket's come together to deliver probably the most difficult summer we've ever had.
A bit refreshing in a year where you've had spot fires all over the place that you didn't have one with the BCCI?
The BCCI have been fantastic to work with. They wanted to come, which was the most important thing. They understand the importance of the series, they also understand the importance to Australia, so they've been very good to deal with. I think the investment we've made over the last two or three years in that relationship has really carried through and it's why we do it, they're such an important part of world cricket, they're a great partner of ours, so I think the strength of that relationship has come through. It'll continue to be strengthened as we go through the series.
How much of India's willingness to tour was to do with getting the IPL played in October and also getting the T20 World Cup next year?
They're not connected. As it panned out it was going to be hard to have a World Cup here [this year] so it made sense for them to take that spot for the IPL. We spent long and hard thinking about the T20 World Cup and for a long time we were keen to host it next year, but we were concerned from a local organising committee perspective about whether we would be able to have it here, if you're looking further out where the world might be in 12 months' time. We weren't convinced we'd be allowed to get 16 international teams into Australia, I'm still convinced that would be a challenge. So it made sense for India to hold their position and we'd follow after that. It was difficult decision to make but we weren't convinced we'd have a full, clear run at it.
And India have a regional solution if they can't have it there next year, maybe UAE, maybe Sri Lanka?
They're confident they'll get it done in India and I hope they do, because it'd be a fantastic event. A bit depends on what happens with vaccines, but they've got some options there. We thought at the time we may not have it in Australia.
You had an interminable process for ICC chair, a relief that Greg Barclay finally got the role, meaning you can get back to the cricket conversations you need to have?
The process was drawn out, but Greg's going to be a very good chair. Now we need to draw a line in the sand and focus on what's important, how we help cricket globally through the pandemic and further how we grow the game strategically.
First of all, the primacy of Test cricket is important to all of us. What the World Test Championship does is gives Test cricket extra context. It's in an embryonic phase, we haven't even got through the first cycle, but sadly the pandemic hit and it's thrown our plans into a bit of chaos which we're working through. So it's got context, I still think it's very important, but now it's up to the countries of the ICC to see how we make it most effective and give that primacy to Test cricket.
When you say the primacy of Test cricket, an obvious issue is how few matches are profitable. This series is one of the most profitable, but how do you handle the rest - will we see the return of a Test cricket fund or the pooling of rights?
We want to see a lot of competitive sides playing Test cricket. The last thing we want to see is only three or four countries playing, because that would be the death knell of Test cricket. ICC and member countries have got to find a way of supporting those countries that are either emerging or have been strong in the past and may not be so strong now. We've got to find ways to help in development, we need to help them find a pathway through that. We need 10-20 strong Test playing nations, not just three or four.
Linked to that is the fact Shashank Manohar commissioned you to work through a governance review of ICC. How far down that path are you and when ideally are you going to report back?
Given all the changes that happened recently with the chairman's role, we're looking at how we might redefine some of those committees. We're looking at bringing in strategic planning function into committees as well, because you can't do strategy without governance and vice versa. So get your strategy right first and then build your governance around the direction you want to go to support that. We've got a working committee going through that, we hope to be able to report back to the ICC annual meeting next year.
Is one of the things you're looking at to do with broadening the pool of ICC directors so you don't have to be the chair or president of a member board?
Certainly - we've come a long way in the governance of the ICC, but we've still got a long way to go to get to a more contemporary approach. I think opening up the pool to getting the best possible people running your sport is critical. We've got a very narrow pool of people we can choose from, not saying they're good or bad, but we think if cricket's the best sport in the world, we want to get the possible people running it. So by changing the governance it allows that, but also moves the decision-making towards doing what's in the best interests of cricket, not necessarily the best interests of one or two members.
Indra Nooyi came onto the board as a result of the changes that Manohar pushed through, has she been a good example of what you can bring to the board if you open it up?
Very much so. Indra is a very, very clear thinker, very strategic, very courageous in asking the hard questions, and she's been a wonderful addition to the board.
How conscious are you of Greg being a chair for the whole ICC, as opposed to the perception that he got through with the votes of India, England and Australia?
He got a two thirds majority so a lot of countries supported Greg. The "big three" was there and I think it wasn't in the best interests of world cricket, but the people who dismantled the "big three" were England, Australia and Shashank. So we're the ones who saw that wasn't in the best interests of cricket, and the theory that we are the nations still running the show is not true. Greg has been there across the whole journey of that so he'll lead in the best interests of world cricket.
Do you acknowledge though that the whole idea of the big three came to the fore when the FTP and ICC events were being decided on, India wanted more event revenue and England and Australia wanted to protect their seasons, and all those factors are back into view now for the next cycle?
That's why getting the governance structure right is important. Secondly all the countries I speak to realise the big countries have got a responsibility, both morally and fiduciary, to help the other countries. Australia and India don't want to be playing each other every year. I still believe ICC events and bilateral cricket are symbiotic - you can't have one without the other because you devalue it. My question is, how do you find the right balance? Some want to see more ICC content, but my view is all you're doing is devaluing it. So we need to reframe the question, how do we change the governance and financial models to assist those countries that are struggling to be the best they can be, rather than just throwing more and more content into an ICC cycle.
Something that is going to happen in terms of that crush of content is an expanding IPL with extra teams and probably an extra couple of weeks of tournament length. How carefully does the rest of the world need to keep a close watch on the size of the IPL?
I don't think it's just the IPL, it's a range of domestic T20 competitions. We want countries to have their own events, but that to me is another crush, because it takes so many windows out of the calendar where you can play ICC events and bilateral cricket that, to me, should be far more important. That's another layer of complexity in the program, and you can't keep asking players to play more and more cricket. We've seen issues around the aspects of mental health, particularly with hubs at the moment, that are critical. So we need to remember they're athletes and humans, and you can't keep layering more and more content.
On the domestic front, the BBL is right at the centre of your dispute with Channel Seven. Given that dispute, how do you find a way to have constructive conversations with them about what you do with the BBL?
We've wanted to have constructive discussions all the way about how we improve it. I think it's been a remarkable tournament, but you've always got to keep it evolving and changing. We've made some tinkering this year to look at how we can improve it in the current circumstances. The TV ratings have been good, they can always be better, but it's still a good product. Longer term we always want our partners to do well, so I would have thought that we'll talk about adding value to the BBL. One of our contentions with Seven is that we want to add value to the tournament, because the more money we make, the more we can invest back into the game. We've maintained all along we'll provide the best summer of cricket we possibly can.
If you've got someone of the experience of Aaron Finch saying the BBL expanded too quickly, is that an opinion you listen to closely and acknowledge there's a significant number of people who think it needs to be fewer games than it is?
You always listen to the players, because you want the best players playing, and we work very closely with the ACA as well. So we take that all on board and we're trying to find ways to maximise the window that we have in the summer to play the BBL and get as many of the best players here as we can. This year with the ACA we've got three overseas players, I think the quality has been pretty good so far. Particularly with the Australian Open tennis not being played this year [until after the BBL], we have the whole window of January devoted to cricket. We think that's going to add a lot of value for our broadcasters and our sponsors.
But you're not willing to say that it's too many games?
I don't think so. We look at how we can structure the season, bearing in mind it changes every year in terms of what players are available given the crowded international schedule, which is probably the biggest challenge we have. But like anything we'll keep evolving the competition. Having the BBL in that January holiday period is really important to us.
You had a few conflicts this year around Covid, with the ACA, then with the states...
Let me challenge that hypothesis. Our relationship with the ACA's never been better, they've been great through all this, the fact we've been able to deliver a women's international series, domestic series, WBBL, and we'll get a domestic season in, that can only happen working closely with the ACA. So apart from some discussions at the start, I think we've worked very well together and I want to congratulate them on that. The easiest thing for us to say would've been 'we're not going to play a Shield season, we're not going to play women's cricket', but cricket's our thing and we've got to put on as many games as we possibly can in line with our players' welfare. So I think that speaks to a good relationship in terms of what we've been able to deliver so far.
In terms of the states, seven of the eight states and territories have agreed to taking a reduction in grants, they saw where cricket was and they've all worked together. I don't want to overstate the discussions with the states and territories, most have been very positive apart from one or two and we've worked through that.
Given all of that, what sort of a CEO do you need? You had James Sutherland for a long time and Kevin Roberts for a short time.
At the moment Nick Hockley is doing a fantastic job, he's delivered a summer of cricket when at times we were thinking 'how are we going to do this', but he's done that in very difficult circumstances, so he's doing a great job and so are the rest of the team. We'll start a process early in the new year and we're thinking through what we think the needs are for the next five years for a CEO. Stakeholder management is critical, the depth and breadth of stakeholders in Australian cricket and international cricket is paramount, someone who is a strategic thinker, and given the challenges we're seeing in media rights around the world, where are our next revenue streams coming from, they may look very different in five years' time. Also managing the ICC. So there's a range of different requirements and it's a tough gig. Finding the right person, he or she with the right skill set will be challenging but Nick is doing a fantastic job at the moment.
And in terms of the board and your own role as chair. When the board moved to an independent model, one of the concepts was to create more chance of continuity of leadership. That didn't work out for David Peever, you're coming up to re-election next year. How important do you think continuity is, but also how do you work through figuring out whether you have support to continue as chair?
I'm there at the behest of the board and the members, so it's up to them to make that call. Succession is really critical and we're always talking about succession. My comment around longevity is you don't want to stay around too long, however with the dynamic of the ICC, it takes a long time to build relationships and if we didn't spend time building a relationship with India this summer could have been in jeopardy. but the fact we had spent that time allowed us to have some open discussions that allowed the tour to go ahead. So it takes time to build those relationships. You don't want to be just getting there and then having to start again. You need to balance out the needs of your standing at the ICC to allow Australia's needs to be met.
It's still very much the role of the board to make final calls on the captaincy of Australia. How much discussion have you had in recent times about Steven Smith and his role and what you do next?
First of all we've got three great captains in Meg [Lanning], Aaron [Finch] and Tim [Paine]. We've got some great young leaders coming through. So it's not just about should Steve take over, it's about what's best overall. Steve's a great young man and he was a good captain when he was there. Like any succession there's planning in place. Have we sat down as a board specifically to discuss the next captain, no we haven't, but I think over a period of time we've given a range of people options to be vice-captain, Matthew Wade was already vice-captain, so we're seeing that and it gives us an opportunity to look at the future leaders of Australian cricket. We'll be guided by the recommendations of the selection panel, they always come back to our board at the right time with their recommendation, and we'll go through it in detail when they do that.
There is a bit of speculation around the South Africa tour in February and March. What can you do between now and then in terms of getting the series played but also concern about player welfare? How do you balance all that with the Covid situation in South Africa?
We're watching very closely and we want to be playing South Africa in South Africa, we want to be going back to Pakistan and all these countries. First because we want to play them and secondly because it's great for the growth of the game. But the safety and welfare of our players and staff is paramount, and we'll work out what the scenarios are. South African cricket is also in a bit of flux at the moment, so trying to work out who the best people are to be talking to. While we want to play there as much as we can, I'm not going to be compromising the safety of our players and staff. Our intention is to tour.
Trying to find the best person is difficult, and we've got to be respectful because they're going through a difficult time and their own challenges. As things start settling down again and we get closer to the tour we'll have some more formal discussions. We'll see how that plays out over the next few weeks.
The other thing that is critical is what ultimately happens with the broadcasters. It's clearly important to CA to have a fair amount of cricket on free-to-air, but you've also got a very fluid environment where you need to find ways to keep raising value. Will you revisit having men's white-ball games behind a pay wall next time around?
When we did that last broadcast deal it was very deliberate and we had a price [to put some content behind a pay wall]. We had I think 18% of cricket behind a paywall. But there's more free-to-air cricket now on TV than there's ever been, albeit without men's white-ball cricket. So what that allowed us to do is put a WBBL on, it allowed us to have a standalone women's World Cup final, it allowed us to invest tens of millions into infrastructure in community cricket. It allowed us to put more money into junior formats. That's why I'm happy with the decision we made, otherwise you wouldn't have had the great March 8 scene at the MCG with 86,000 people. We made a deliberate choice to put a small amount of content behind a paywall for those strategic reasons. Would we do it again? I don't know, but the investment allowed us to grow the game.
In terms of how the media landscape is changing, is the principal challenge figuring out where you can go to get that level of money to maintain that level of investment?
All sports around the world are grappling with that now with the fracturing of the traditional media market. We're fortunate in Australia that most of our sport is on free-to-air TV and that to me is critical because it gives you reach. Our penetration rates behind a paywall are very small in Australia, 23%, compared to other countries, so you're never going to get the reach to grow your sport by putting everything behind a paywall and we never would. However, the markets have been challenged so reimagining what the market looks like in five years' time is really difficult. That's why you need to have a strong skillset around your board and then the new CEO, whoever that may be, will need to consider that. I haven't got the answer, no-one's got the answer, but that's certainly the environment we're working in.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig