A Manifesto for World Cricket
Russell Degnan

Previously: Part 1 a

Part 1b. Playing at the Highest Level

Perhaps more than any other sport cricket is narrow and elitist in relation to its playing talent. But it is worth outlining why because that points to how it might change.

Historically, cricket grew up around the tour, because in a sport confined to summer, international cricket all year round is logistically simpler than an extension of the domestic season. But domestic cricket remained relatively popular until Packer realised that television offered an opportunity to gain an audience day in day out, all summer, with a small but well played group of players, touring from place to place. The local team became the national team and the benefits of cricket's wealth were therefore transferred to the 100 odd players who represent the "competitive" nations.

The problem with this elite system is best exemplified by two Zimbabweans. The first is David Houghton, probably their best ever player after Andy Flower, capable of averaging 40 in test cricket despite beginning his career at 35, and playing in a struggling team. And yet he could have been so much more, had he been able to play at the highest level a decade earlier. That is a tragedy for him certainly, but is at least as big a tragedy for cricket and its fans, denied the opportunity to see a potential great in his prime. Much is written about the tragic denial of Pollock, Rice, Proctor and co. but I think the loss is worse for Houghton or Tikolo, because it is self inflicted and unnecessary, and because it hurts the game most in the places where it is least strong.

The other Zimbabwean suffered less, but cost cricket more, and that is Graeme Hick. A player so talented he could play forgo his homeland to play test cricket and yet he too had a career that was unfulfilled. His talent, which should have bolstered a struggling team, served to make an unequal contest worse, by aiding England, before ultimately weakening the game's strength, when he was cast aside.

If Hick was a one-off then perhaps it would not matter, but in the past few years Amjad Khan, Ed Joyce and Eoin Morgan have all followed the same path, heightening inequalities and hurting the chances of their homelands becoming competitive at test level. Those who claim that Ireland and others should not ascend to test cricket until their cricket is good enough should note the implications of that policy: if any player who is capable of test cricket leaves, then by definition, only players below test standard will remain. Not attaining test strength is a certainty.

Cricket is unique in its elitism, much as it is unique in its emphasis on international contests. Other sports have elite competitions but are open and largely fair in their qualification processes. Great players might never play in a world cup, but only a great cricketer must leave home to even have a chance at the highest level.

The most compelling arguments in favour of restricting test cricket are increasingly irrelevant. Domestic T20 and the increasing number of associate players in first class cricket is expanding the professional playing base beyond a handful of national teams, reducing the need to make tours pay. The future will probably look increasingly like other sports (particularly football) where the best players in domestic competitions for much of the year, before being let out for national duty, and less like the endless grind of perennial tours that we have now.

Cricket has done expansion badly in the past, admitting teams with decent results at associate level but ageing players, that resulted in a troublesome transition. Trying to second guess the future strength of a side in ten or twenty years is difficult, and fraught with potential for lost opportunities. If the next Bradman emerged in an associate today he might never play test cricket. That is bad, for the game, for the fans and for the players. Letting results, not politics decide who plays at the highest level is both the best and the right thing to do.

Cricket - Manifesto 18th November, 2009 15:56:29   [#] [0 comments] 

A Manifesto for World Cricket
Russell Degnan

Previously: Part 1

Part 1a. International Expansion

There are two aspects to the expansion of cricket. The first is that of empire. If you love a sport, you want to see it widely played and keenly contested. Few sports administrators don't have dreams of global domination, and the ICC has been active in pursuing a global expansion policy. So far so good.

Critics of this policy will (and have) claimed that it is a waste of time. That the money can be better spent improving the playing base in the existing cricket sphere. To me, this may or may not be true, but is an irrelevance to issues over structure and itineraries. This is not because I have unrealistic hopes of cricket fields popping up across the landscape, but because recent history suggests cricket has been missing opportunities to expand, purely because of the elitism inherent in the test/associate/affiliate distinction (important as that might be for political reasons).

Because, for so long, cricket has been defined by its powerhouses, we are blind to the vagaries of international competitiveness inherent in other sports. The idea behind test match status is that a team reaches that level and remains there. It hasn't worked like that. It did, for a while, in Zimbabwe, who were on the upswing when they achieved test status in 1992, and peaked in the late 1990s, but Bangladesh were at the end of their run in 1999, and have spent a painful decade rebuilding. Kenya, by contrast, were peaking when their test status was rejected in 2001, and, with the immanent retirement of Tikolo it is hard to say when they might return.

The empire approach to cricket therefore, must reject rigid divisions as fundamentally flawed. The abilities of most cricketing nations will fluctuate with their playing base, and the minor ones cannot be expected to maintain test standards year in year out, as do their larger counterparts. Yet, to deny them top level cricket because of that is to ignore the pressing case they will make when they are strong.

The second aspect of expansion is the logistics of playing multiple teams over some narrow (probably 4-5 year) cycle. The problem is best expressed mathematically. It is reasonable to assume that most teams can play a maximum of 6 tests in a home summer. Even limiting series length to the widely reviled two games, that means three teams per year. With nine playing test teams (as now), you need to play a minimum of 16 home games over the cycle, plus 16 away, which is relatively straight-forward, and leaves some room for longer series. But add Zimbabwe, Ireland, Scotland, Kenya, Netherlands, Canada and Afghanistan to the mix, and we should be planning for this outcome, in light of their progress, and the number skyrockets to 30 games, and a five year cycle even with a two game maximum. Keeping in mind that those teams are themselves, not significantly better than the USA, Denmark, Bermuda, Namibia, Oman, Nepal, Uganda and the UAE and you can see the problem.

A 24 team or more test system is infeasible without an alternative structure to the current FTP. And even if we wee to suppose that cricket is twenty years from achieving that goal, it has been six years since this issue started to gain some traction. Change needs to begin soon, or cricket risks disenfranchising many more teams in the future. That has costs, on their fans, and more importantly, on the future of the sport in those places. There is, therefore, a practical morality for expansion, but I will expand on that in the next point.

Pleasingly, none of this is new. It is widely acknowledged that cricket must expand, the disputes are over how and when, and it is equally widely acknowledged that the FTP is unworkable. The tendency to persist with what is there is what is hurting cricket. That needs to change.

Cricket - Manifesto 11th November, 2009 07:59:26   [#] [0 comments] 

A Manifesto for World Cricket
Russell Degnan

Part 1 a b c d e f g h
Part 2 a b c
Part 3 a b c d e f

Part 1: What to achieve

By dint of coincidence, the (arguably) best two teams in both baseball and cricket faced off in 7 game series this week. But in a year with a bit over 350 internationals, IPL and champions league games, the cricket series has been widely derided as meaningless over-kill that will injure and burn-out players, media and fans alike.

Yet, in spite of their being some 2454 games preceding the World Series no baseball writer has written that there is "too much baseball". And they'd be right, because there isn't, and nor is there too much cricket. In fact, in comparison to most sports there is nowhere near enough cricket, with few cities hosting their local (national) team on more than a dozen days a year.

What there is, is too many trophies. While even a trophy-laden football season is limited to half a dozen competitions, the Australian team will plays for twenty or more a year, mostly in short, meaningless, bilateral contests forced upon them by the Future Tour Program. Judging by the sounds from the ICC, players bodies, the media, fans, and just about everybody else, the consensus is that something must change. The question is how, and more specifically, what do we want the future structure of domestic and international cricket to achieve?

a) It should be amenable to international expansion

b) All players should have the opportunity to play at the highest level

c) It should expand the professional playing base

d) Games and series should be meaningful

e) Marquee (profitable) tours must be preserved

f) For each format, there should be some sort of world championship

g) Regional rivalries should be built upon

h) Domestic and international cricket need clearly defined windows

I'll leave that here and come back to them, because each point is worth exploring in more detail.

Cricket - Manifesto 5th November, 2009 09:01:16   [#] [1 comment] 

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