News Analysis

Howard's end should mark major Cricket Australia shift

Will the exit of CA's team performance boss put an end to an era in which domestic cricket was subservient to the interests of the national team?

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
Pat Howard makes a final exit from his office at the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane on Wednesday. It has been seven years and one month since he was unveiled as Cricket Australia's general manager team performance, a period of enormous change for Australian cricket. Much of it has been driven by Howard, and not all of it has been taken to kindly.
Part of the reason Howard gained a week more than his fellow executive Ben Amarfio was to undertake a brief handover period with his interim replacement, the game development executive Belinda Clark, who is widely understood to prefer only to keep the seat warm until a longer-term replacement is hired. Numerous names have already been touted, among the most credible including the Western Australia high performance manager Ben Oliver and the former Sydney Sixers general manager and now NSWRL executive Stuart Clark.
In assessing who should replace Howard and how they should do so, it must be noted that those who created his role description never intended Howard's brief to be as broad as it became. These creators were the panel - chairman Don Argus, Malcolm Speed, Steve Waugh, Allan Border and Mark Taylor - who penned the Australian team performance review in 2011, long since referred to by the surname of the chairman and former BHP supremo Argus.
While the review made a big deal of creating Howard's position as a "single point of accountability for team performance" and duly "devolving" accountability to the chief executive above him and the captain and coach of the Australian team beneath him, its pages also made a strong case for keeping the role as focused as possible. "The GM Team Performance will (obviously) focus solely on team performance, with accountability increased accordingly," it read.
Less understood at the time of the review's release, nor in the months and years that followed, was how many other functions of cricket in Australia were meant to be retained by the general manager cricket operations, a role filled at the time by Michael Brown, and subsequently by Geoff Allardice. Critically, the review did not indicate any hierarchy where one general manager was to be more senior than the other, simply recommending that the GM cricket position "be split in two".
"This role is different to the current GM Cricket role in that it is singularly focused on team performance," the report stated, "rather than the numerous operational responsibilities the GM Cricket must also attend to, for example competition management, umpiring, programming, security, anticorruption, team logistics, industrial relations, the COE redevelopment, operations budget management etc.
"The GM Team Performance role will have a strong emphasis on: People selection, development and performance management; Execution of agreed plans in coaching, team leadership, culture and selection; Development and execution of the elite cricket pillar of CA‟s Strategy for Australian Cricket. This includes linking with the Centre of Excellence and the States' High Performance programs."
When Howard's appointment was announced on October 13, 2011, in Melbourne, he duly became part of CA's senior management team under the overall leadership of the CEO James Sutherland. But it was only a matter of months before Howard was doing more than the Argus panel had envisaged - his role in 2012's MoU negotiations was an early sign of mission creep.
His elevation, and the elevation of team performance in general, was not to take place until a far lower profile corporate restructure in May 2012. It was authored, chiefly, by CA's inaugural "head of people and culture", Marianne Roux, who devised an additional layer of executive management that reported directly to Sutherland and took on a more "strategic" brief with an outlook of between two and five years, while other senior management were relegated to "operational" tasks that lay between six and 24 months ahead of the governing body.
While Brown, criticised in the players' submission to the Argus review panel having held his role since 2002, had decided to exit at the end of the 2011-12 home season, the shuffling of Allardice and cricket operations into a role subservient to Howard as the executive team performance "strategist" raised plenty of internal eyebrows. It was only a matter of months before Allardice departed CA to take on the role of general manager of cricket at the ICC, a position he still holds.
The message of this restructure, placing Howard's search for a winning national team above CA's most fundamental role as the organisers and administrators of the game down under, was a powerful one. It meant that each of Allardice's successors, Sean Cary and Peter Roach, were left largely to carry out the instructions of Howard, with most considerations divided into either "team performance pathway" or "fan-facing" categories. In the case of the state competitions, this meant that 50-over and first-class tournaments that had long since ceased to be profitable of themselves became increasingly subject to micromanagement.
As Dr Simon Longstaff wrote in the Ethics Centre's independent review of CA: "Unfortunately, the focus on winning and the success of the Australian Men's Team has pushed the rest of Australian cricket into a subservient role. For example, that national HPU has been given virtual carte blanche in its quest to produce a winning national team. For example, the sensibilities of Sheffield Shield teams can be overridden - with State players edged out of their places in a Shield side (sometimes for just an innings) to give an Australian player a brief outing - not for the benefit of the Shield side but for that of the national team.
"This kind of behaviour speaks of gross disrespect to those who are not natives of the 'gilded bubble'. It sets an example in which the ends appear to justify the means. It invites the development of a culture of exceptionalism in which the normal standards of decency do not apply. Those living within the 'gilded bubble' would probably be horrified to realise that this is how their conduct is experienced and judged. They might assume that others understand that none of it is meant to be 'personal', that all is done in the service of a greater good - the success of cricket as a whole.
"That is the tragic circumstance of those who live within the bubble. They are blinded by their noble intentions. They are desensitised by the logic of their arguments and the science that informs their practices. They believe that they are the clear-eyed realists and that others are deluded. They just cannot see the unintended effects of what they do - yet for which they are ultimately responsible."
[...] it may be time to flip team performance and cricket operations, so that the ranking officer for the running of the Sheffield Shield and domestic limited-overs tournament has a wider responsibility than simply to pursue a winning national team. Such a change would help encourage robust, independent club and first-class competition, the better to school players not only in terms of performance but also the spirit of cricket.
Howard's industry, passion and energy can never be questioned. Nor his willingness to debate his ideas fully and frankly. But the combination of his rugby background, his forceful personality and the enormous power ultimately invested in his role made it increasingly difficult for others to push back at him - a feeling especially prominent and recurring among the state associations who resented the notion that their teams and players were becoming little more than a farm system for the national team. Australia's international sides will always be a representative collective rather than a club team.
"Many of the people interviewed wonder if a day will ever come again when an Australian Test Cricketer plays four or five Sheffield Shield matches - and even a couple of Grade games - as did the likes of Allan Border when captaining Australia," Longstaff wrote. "Might that kind of connection help elite players to keep their bearings? Might it help them to understand that winning is always important - but not at any cost?"
That 2012 restructure, which initially created six executive general manager positions, was to spin out into all sorts of unintended consequences, not only for Howard, Allardice and the domestic system. The exclusion of the head of strategy, Andrew Jones, from the strategic executive team, saw him depart CA and ultimately become the NSW chief executive. The head of media rights, Stephanie Beltrame, would focus successfully on the operational task of broadcast rights negotiations, resulting in successive major windfalls for the game. And, with considerable irony, Roux would depart CA less than 18 months after drawing up a structure supposedly geared at ensuring the top executive tier was in it for the long haul and not distracted by "the six to 24 month tasks".
As part of the rebalancing clearly required in terms of where CA stands relative to the states, a reconsideration of the Argus review's original intent for the team performance role is worthwhile. In fact, it may be time to flip team performance and cricket operations, so that the ranking officer for the running of the Sheffield Shield and domestic limited-overs tournament has a wider responsibility than simply to pursue a winning national team. Such a change would help encourage robust, independent club and first-class competition, the better to school players not only in terms of performance but also the spirit of cricket.
Clark, perhaps in advance of taking on the team performance role himself, put it this way. "That's why we need Shield cricket to be strong," he told Sky Sports Radio. "We spend 90% of our time worrying about the Australian team. We should spend 10% on the Australian team, 90% on Shield cricket. If they're getting runs and wickets, then we've got plenty of players to choose from for the Australian team."
Many CA staffers, particularly those based at the NCC, may well quibble with the percentages raised by Clark. But after seven years of Howard, who grew into a role far larger than originally conceived, a significant shift is undoubtedly required. This was acknowledged by Kevin Roberts, the new CEO who called time on his tenure. "It's a time for reflection and for learning, a time for us to deepen our relationships," he said. "It's important that we show leadership and show that we're not about words, but we're about actions."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig