Redistribution but no Growth in Cricket`s Pie
Russell Degnan

If one was to go off the most recent financial reports of Australia or England or India and you'd conclude that cricket's financial health has never been better. Total revenue has been increasing, almost as quickly as in the recent past. But scratch down below and the story is not as pretty. The ICC is scaling back tournaments, denying opportunities for international play to roughly a third of its members. At least five full member cricket boards border on bankruptcy, with another facing a crippling loss if India refuse to tour.

Meanwhile, the BCCI looks at the ICC dividend - a full 75% of revenue amongst the ten most privileged members - does some sums, and concludes that, as Indian fans are the major source of revenue, and as those fans mostly want to watch India, that they are entitled to much more.

The article cites La Liga as a model, referencing the larger tv rights deals negotiated by Barcelona and Real Madrid, for their own home games. It isn't clear if this is the BCCI view, though as Gideon Haigh notes, there is an underlying view that the BCCI's control over revenue affords it the same position as the NBA, NFL or other major sporting league.

The problem is that these analogies are both broken and actively destructive.

Let's start with La Liga. The first thing to note is that the BCCI (and the ECB and CA) already has a better position than either Barcelona or Real Madrid. Not only do they control their home tv revenues, they get to modify the fixture to suit their own purposes. Want to play El Clasico ten times in one season? Done. Over a five period, from October 2010 to October 2015, England, Australia and India will play 47 tests against each other; I don't even want to count how many ODIs. The gradual replacement of other fixtures with those between the big-3 has meant there is now roughly double the number of these matches against any comparable period. European football's giants don't entertain playing that level of glamour fixtures in their wildest dreams.

The second thing to note is that every commentator agrees that La Liga's financial model is hopelessly broken. That the league has become uncompetitive with most clubs mired in debt. That the inequitable tv deal is so bad there was a threatened strike before the start of the season. TV revenues for La Liga are only fourth largest as well; despite the quality on display. And this is a model for cricket?

On the right is what baseball looked like in 1875, before they realised that having one team play six times as many games as another, leveraging their success for solid profits, while others quit half-way through the season for lack of funds, was not in the best interests of the league, the teams in it, and the sport generally. Cricket is a 135 years behind other major sports in terms of the structure of its scheduling and the means by which that structure adds context and financial stability to its participants. And it is getting worse, not better, driven by the schemes of its most secure participants.

The major difference between cricket and other sports is obviously its international flavour. Numerous sports economists - Szymanski is the most cited - have commented on the difficulties of international (representative) sports compared to domestic (franchise) structures. Notably with uneven competition, the waste of talent unable to gain representation and the inefficiency of multiple stadiums being used for a few days per year. The IPL gets around some of these issues, as does the BBL and other T20 leagues. Their success would leave open the possibility of player wages being paid by domestic competition, and the international arm of the sport making only enough money to pay for its structures. But in order to achieve that, they need to be integrated with each other; and that is not happening; instead each tries to cannibalise the other, leaving both poorer for it.

There is another element to these leagues that we are decidedly not seeing in the case of the cricket governance. The NBA, EPL and others care first and foremost about their product, its growth, and development. They are aggressively targeting emerging East-Asian markets; they push to find players in any pocket of the world, and bring them into their league; they work on competitive balance and fixturing to chase market appeal and increase total revenue. Cricket, be it the ICC, the BCCI, ECB, CA or the other full members summarily fails to build its product. They are engaged in a game of redistribution, chasing every last piece of the Indian/Ashes market through whatever means gains them some access, destroying the good-will of fans with endless repetition of fixtures with barely a point.

If the BCCI wants to control cricket then they have that option. They have the market strength and sufficient control over the major stars of its biggest market to pursue that end. But that control comes with a need to actually develop cricket, as a product, not just at grass-roots level or by advancing the prospects of their national team. They have an enormous head start in the Indian market, but as ex-pat Indians return from Europe and the USA, and as the satellite dishes of the youth increasingly turn to what is globally popular, cricket's lead disintegrates.

Cricket's biggest threat won't come from the internecine fighting amongst the boards; it will come from globally dominant sports that have better products to sell. And cricket, great sport that it is, has a rubbish product to sell. Over-long events, uncompetitive structures, no context to fixtures, lack of media access to players, incoherent last-minute fixturing and an obsession with local appeal over the total package.

If the ICC executive board cannot organise itself sufficiently to fix the product and make it competitive; then the players need to realise that their livelihood is damaged from the incompetence above and break with the boards. It was players who invented modern cricket; they remain the star turn, the indispensable part of the appeal; and as with the ATP forty years ago, and twenty years ago, they are not being served by the administrators who ought to be doing the job. And if not them, then who?

Cricket - Articles 18th September, 2013 03:06:49   [#] [4 comments] 

A treatise on DRS
Russell Degnan

DRS controversy has been rumbling along in the background since the ICC introduced it. Whether for umpiring incompetence or bad luck, it has taken on a larger life since the Ashes started. That both teams (and their fans) are committed and experienced in its use has made its errors more obvious and troublesome. Weirdly, although I have quite firm views on the system, and have commented on numerous websites about it, I've only ever written a short piece discussing potential changes; rather than taking the time to write a thorough analysis. Now would seem an opportune time.

The DRS is often conflated with *-eye, or with technology. Properly, it is composed of three parts, and numerous sub-parts: the technology, which comprises *-eye, hotspot, snicko, and naturally, the tv cameras and audio; the player review; and the interface and process by which the review is actually done.

All three are flawed in current incarnations.

Although the technology receives the most criticism, by and large it is the least flawed component. It has limitations, rather than outright problems, and these aren't well dealt with by the system.

  • Snicko is not used because it is too slow to match the image with the audio. The interface of image to picture is never quite clear - is the centre the frame, or one of the edges. And it has unknown reliability - it isn't clear if a ball passing the bat can cause a noise. That's a lot of interpretation, even if it picks up sounds reliably.
  • Hotspot was sold up the river by over-enthusiastic commentators, because it has been clear for years that it cannot pick up fine nicks - though what is a nick, and at what level must we see one: visual? molecular? It also needs a lot of interpretation, as it must match the ball to various heat spots, some of which can be caused by incidental contact. But while false negatives abound, a clear edge that appears hotspot is often definitive, so it has some value.
  • *-eye is probably the most reliable, though Hawkeye is oversold by its proponents. For reasons unknown the exact margin of error is never discussed, nor the circumstances under which it becomes unreliable. The ICC has put forward two interpretations that are both unnecessarily lenient - the 3m rule and the half ball hitting - and inconsistent depending on the decision being made. Interpreting it as "within 95% certainty" would be a big step forward, because the current rules invite ridicule.
  • And lest we forget, a very large portion of the review system depends on television technology not far advanced from several decades ago. Its limitations are plainly obvious, and the lack of energy put into improving them is pathetic: the pictures remain of low quality, confused by shadow, with limited frame-rates that confuse runouts and make deflections harder to see, and the problem of foreshortening on catches near the ground is well known, but continues to cause problems.

In short, the technology is incapable, as presently designed, to provide fast, consistent, and objective decisions. You need only listen to the commentary to see that a dependence on televisuals for decisions is prone to interpretation and error; and not necessarily an improvement on the central umpire. Some of these can be fixed: improved frame-rates and higher definition cameras for runouts and stumpings; the introduction of automated no-ball checking, a trivial problem for computer vision; the use of *-eye systems to track deflections with high frame-rates, avoiding the need for hotspot and snicko. The ICC could easily invest in a proper decision system, and it has failed to do so, leaving the technology in the hands of the television studios, and the money in the hands of people whose primary aim is entertainment, not better decisions.

I've never felt comfortable with player reviews, mostly for aesthetic reasons. I like to see a raised finger and the game move on; I don't like to see extended discussions of dismissals, costing many minutes (and therefore overs) each day; I especially hate waiting around for an umpire the check a no-ball. The absence of any sense of what the umpires are looking for compounds the problem.

The players, needless to say, have reacted to the ability to review some decisions as economic theory suggests they would. While the system was sold as removing howlers, the players treat it as a resource. Reviews are spent on key wickets, and at key moments - particularly the final wicket of close matches, both Hobart and Trent Bridge suffering the indignity. They are overly cautious when holding one review, and reckless with their first; and they play the odds, looking for opportunities where the system will help them, rather than working to improve decisions over-all.

We should expect nothing less, and adding players to the decision making process has had entirely predictable results, which, unless you are a keen student of game theory hasn't added much to the game except extended footage of earnest discussions; and the opportunity to swear at deluded batsmen.

The most misunderstood part of the DRS is the process itself. Expectations have been put on it to make decisions, when it has been primarily designed to augment decisions. This is obvious if one reads the DRS protocol, though judging by the number of journalists claiming the third umpire "over-turns" the decision few have.

We can discuss the system as a series of decisions made based on different information, drawn for observation and the technological output. The central umpire has a set of observed occurrences (call it \(\{O_C\}\)); the third umpire has a different set of observations - not necessarily superior, but consistent with what the viewer at home sees - \(\{O_T\}\).

For the original decision, the central umpire makes a decision, \(D\), by determining if there was a wicket (\(W\)) based on the balance of probabilities - usually giving the batsman some benefit of the doubt, but not required by the laws.

D_C = Decision_C( P( W | \{O_C\} ))

It is important to note here that the third umpire does not make the final decision, but rather it rests with the central umpire. There is an expectation from viewers that the third umpire makes the decision themselves, based on what they see and the original decision:

D_R = Decision_T( P( W | D_C \wedge \{O_T\} ))

However, as the central umpire makes the decision, and the third umpire merely conveys the observations to him, it is actually as follows:

D_R = Decision_C( P( W | \{O_C\} \wedge \{O_T\} ))

This would not matter if the observations of the third umpire always led to a certain value for \(W\), as there is no difference between the two equations in that case. But the absence of certainty means the system produces results that aren't always easy to interpret.

The Trott LBW at Trent Bridge was a case in point. The decision rested on whether he had hit the ball, for which there was no conclusive evidence. Hotspot, as discussed above, can only prove an edge if a mark in the right position, (\(H\)) is detected, otherwise the probability of an edge, \(E\) is an unknown (let's say \(a\)).

P( E | H ) = 1 \\
P( E | \neg H ) = a

The central umpire may have based his determination that there was an edge on hearing a noise, \(N\), holding that opinion with probability b. As hotspot came up negative, the probability of there being an edge is reduced, but there is no set amount by which it might be reduced, we only know that:

P( E | N ) = b \\
a \leq P( E | N \wedge \neg H ) \leq b

If potential sources of the noise are found - the ground or pad being hit by the bat - then it is reasonable for the umpire to re-think their determination of an edge, and therefore change their decision as \(P( E )\) declines - remembering that this may have been the key observation in determining \(D\).

The downside to this process is that in general, the central umpire's faith in their own judgement declines. Further observations are as likely to be inconclusive or contradictory as confirmative. The central umpire is forced to make a decision on their own, and then decide if, based on footage they don't see, but only have relayed to them, that original judgement was wrong.

This is further confused by strict process under which Hawkeye is used, whereby the technology does make a decision, and that depends on the original decision.

D_R = Decision_H( P( W | D_C \wedge \{O_H\} ))

This creates its own inconsistency, in that should the central umpire decide that there was an edge, but was satisfied that the ball was hitting the stumps, the absence of an edge does not change the first decision. And hence a ball clipping leg stump is not out (umpire's call), even if the umpire would have given it out, if not for the edge.

The path forward for the DRS is to recognise that the technology has severe limitations, and focus our attention on those aspects of it that work, and work quickly and without intervention. The central umpire is only undermined by making multiple decisions, and given easily accessible technology, there is no reason they could not augment their original decision with help, rather than a complicated process involving player requests and an interpreted but inconclusive technology. Where the technology is conclusive, and can be relayed to the umpire, the right decision will always be made. Where it is not conclusive, then nothing is lost by ignoring it as in these cases:

P( W | \{O_C\} \wedge \{O_T\} ) \approx P( W | \{O_C\} )

That is, there is no change in the probability of a wicket with more, but useless and time consuming observations.

The central umpire, given a hand-held device to show the results - as now, either out, not out, or unpire's call - of automated no-ball, *-eye, and edge detection could make prompt and unambiguous decisions with confidence that the tv replays would struggle to second-guess them. There would be no need for player reviews because a player couldn't reasonably expect the decision to be over-turned when the primary evidence has already been examined. In particular cases (such as whether the ball hit bat or pad first), when necessary, they could instigate discussion with the third umpire to review the footage. But by and large, there is no reason why in today's technological environment, a central umpire should be subject to review by television footage that is very often inconclusive and adding little.

That sort of system is easily achievable, but some way off. Right now, the ICC needs to do two things: firstly, focus on improving the quality of the technology to meet the requirements of a decision system, and not a broadcaster; and secondly, better communicate the process of decision making, by broadcasting the umpire's discussions to allow people to understand the reasoning behind the decision. Despite boundless good-will from people who believe in technological solutions to umpiring ills, trust in the DRS has fallen to levels where it cannot survive.

Cricket - Articles 9th August, 2013 00:30:38   [#] [4 comments] 

Australia's Relative Decline; The Distribution and Production of Talent
Russell Degnan

When I started gathering these statistics the aim was to put together a post on the difficulties of associate cricket. That will now be part three. Australia's recent, somewhat lamentable, performances have allowed me to retool and add to them to create a broader picture of how talent appears from a playing base, how it improves and declines with age, and the challenges in creating a competitive environment for much smaller teams.

Australia's challenges against England and before that India and South Africa need to be kept in perspective. They are still rated as an above average test team - let alone amongst the ICC's 106 cricket nations; they are the most successful, the equal oldest test team, the second or third richest in annual income, the third largest test team in gross domestic product - one of the best indicators of sporting excellence. The total playing base is 800,000 plus, of which around 500,000 play in club competitions, equal with England and South Africa.

There are good reasons to think Australia aren't adequately developing their talent - on which I will try and show in part two - but these are persistent problems, and problems not unique to Australia: talent must be spotted from within a large pool and this is very difficult; it must be kept in the game while it develops, which in the modern world means paying under-performing youth; and selecting the right players based on a handful of data points means talent and temperament spotting is often as important as analysis and results. The rejoinder that these weren't problems ten years ago is false; they were, but when you have Warne, McGrath, Ponting and Gilchrist, it doesn't matter if selectors choose a batsman with a career average of 35 over one of 45 for several years. The team is starting 100 runs ahead of average. That is not the case when a team is at its normal level.

Likewise, the current Australian team is not that dissimilar to the one that played in 1989. That team had recently, and continued to be until 1993, dismantled by the West Indies. It was youthful, and where it wasn't - Border aside - it wasn't performing terribly well. But it came up against an English side that only beat Sri Lanka and a terrible Australia over a 4 year period. A team most of the Australian batsmen of the era averaged 5-10 runs more than their career average against. That's the luck of the draw, but it is worth remembering.

Australia can't be great all the time. They draw on the far-end of the talent curve, (hopefully) picking the best six batsmen available, and then (hopefully) they perform near to or above their talent. Over the course of test history Australia's population has increased, as have several comparable nations. For the purposes of this exercise I'll compare New Zealand, a nation with roughly a fifth the number of cricketers as Australia, and therefore (at least in theory) they will have a fifth the number of batsmen at each elite level - meaning they'll select a lot of weaker batsmen.

In order to create blocks with sufficient number of data points, I've looked at performance by batting position, not individuals, split into three year blocks. I'll also be looking at the reciprocal of the average - more easily understood as the probability a batsman makes another run before being dismissed - because it better fits a normal curve. Below is the graph of Australia's talent distribution, for batting (bowling is much harder to analyse by position) dating back to the 1920s - when overall averages leveled out to approximately the current level.

The spread was much larger before the war, mostly because of fewer games being played, but the average is broadly consistent: 39.5

The current period is unusual in having two positions in the bottom 5% of historical performances and one in the top (number five, needless to say) but a t-test isn't significant at the 5% level. In fact only four lineups are: the invincibles of 1947-1949 (well above), the mostly all-rounders Laker-bait of 1956-58 (well below), the WSC years of 1977 (below) and 2001-03 (above). Expecting the present lineup to be anywhere near the last of those is crazy, and matches previously weak teams (the mid-80s) or weaker sides playing strong English sides (the 1950s).

New Zealand exhibits a similar graph, but it is shifted to the right. The mean batting average by position for New Zealand in test history is 28.0. They have had very good batsmen, but they draw from a smaller pool. This can best be demonstrated with this graph, also showing England:

This graph shows the historical distribution of three-year position averages for several teams, and some modelled distribution probabilities for different sized playing bases. Needless to say, the probability of getting Bradman is miniscule, but it is mostly interesting for what it says about the effect of playing base size.

Two things stand out on this graph. Firstly, modelling talent is hard, because variation in performance is huge. In theory the worst players in the side should be a mass of replacable pieces - that's not to say you should replace them, merely that most replacements are as good as each other - but players can fail to meet their true talent for long periods - Steve Waugh, after 52 tests, the same as Bradman and Ramprakash, averaged only 34. Hence the long swinging tail, accentuated by the log scale.

Secondly, the first modeled dotted grey lines is fitted to Australia's talent curve. The others, from 100,000 players (roughly New Zealand) down to 5000 (roughly the Netherlands), are calculated from Australia's line. Each average on the 100,000 line has one fifth the probability of occurring as on the 500,000 line. Australia and England have similarly sized playing bases, and both sit quite close to where they ought to be. More interestingly (and the fit is rather remarkable), New Zealand's historical distribution line meets almost exactly where the model predicts.

Any team can luck into having great players, but the bigger the playing base, the higher the probability. Every team is constantly rolling the dice and hoping to draw a collection of high performers - and even small playing bases can produce excellent teams, if intermittently. A nation can also fail to use its vast population - as India has failed to do until very recently, and which may fundamentally change international cricket, if they succeed in doing so. Or not have the money or opportunities to develop what talent they have.

But they are always slaves to their playing base. In the long term, that's the mean they regress to. Unless someone can show something has fundamentally changed in the production of Australia's cricketers, that breaks a hundred years of landing on or near that line pretty consistently, it is safe to assume Australia will find decent batsmen again. Given the comparative youth of this side it may have already, and we must merely be patient.

In the long term Australia and England are evenly matched. In the short-term, development and selection matter in order to get the (probable) best players in the team for each match. There are good reasons to think Australia does this badly which I'll explore in part two.

Cricket - Articles 28th July, 2013 02:59:15   [#] [2 comments] 

Cricket in the Australian Media Landscape
Russell Degnan

There was much self-congratulatory noise emanating from all parties to the Cricket Australia press conference on the new TV deal this afternoon. Channel Nine affirmed their commitment to being the international cricket station; one that underpins their entire summer schedule and something they will never relinquish without a long look. Channel Ten, with a generous bid for the international rights, and an extra chip for the BBL got what they probably wanted in the first place: their rival bid high, and they came away with a risky but promising sporting franchise they can build on. And Cricket Australia got not just a significant increase in cash, but reduced their dependence on Indian TV money from nearly a quarter of their revenue to closer to a sixth. With every day that bigger cushion looks a lot safer to fall back on.

What they also managed to do is get something closer to what cricket's TV rights are actually worth. TV rights in Australia have increased significantly since the last contract was signed in 2006. There must have been some concern that they'd increased so much that no outlet would present a challenging bid.

Comparing the various codes is not straight-forward. Actual value depends not just on ratings, but the length of programs, the total number of ads shown, the number of fixtures and the demographics. We can simplify a little by ignoring the demographics and the ad-rate - which is any-case, once surrounding programming is considered generally works out to around one minute of advertising for every five minutes of programming.

The linked document details the basic outline of tv rights in various codes. Netball, NBL and Super Rugby were ignored because in the former cases no details of rights deals could be found, and in the latter, the international competition makes it harder to calculate.

Two deals - the AFL's $250.6m per year and the NRL's $205m per year are comparable against the programming created last season. Cricket ($90m and $20m plus $8m in digital rights) and the A-League ($40m) have been signed, but the ratings are from the previous season - which for both the BBL and A-League has partially moved from Foxtel to FTA. The Australian Open has yet to sign a new deal, having rejected Seven's low-ball $21m offer (quite rightly). By then calculating the average rating (or total viewers) and multiplying that by the total number of hours broadcast and adding on extra programming (preview and highlight shows) we can calculate a total viewing hours. Dividing that figure by the money offered gives the graph of viewer hours per dollar spent:

A few things can be drawn from this:

  • Either SBS and Foxtel significantly over-spent for the A-League or they are banking on a significant increase in ratings. The latter is likely, as the ratio of viewers to attendance for the AFL and NRL is between 15 and 30 to 1, while the A-League it is 7 to 1. Bringing that ratio in line would also bring the cost per viewer level.
  • Because sport is a loss-leader for other programming the length of season matters. The commentators horrific play-acting aside, the tennis and cricket seasons promote less programming and take up a larger segment of the available schedule than the football codes, which may explain why they cost less per viewer.
  • The BBL is already relatively good value on pay-tv at the price Ten spent. If the ratings increase they will have found a bargain.
  • The pay-tv components of AFL and NRL drag down their average rating, while significantly increasing the programming. Cricket continues to suffer from a lack of content (roughly 200 hours versus 700+ for AFL) which is why it makes less than half the other codes per year.
  • Another factor lowering the value in Ten's eyes is that the BBL ratings carry a significant opportunity cost in the evening time-slot. One benefit of test cricket is that even the weaker weekday morning ratings offer significantly more viewers than comparable programming.

That cricket rates as well as football can be seen from this graph:

The benefits of moving into prime-time and onto the weekend - as the BBL does, and test cricket would if they ever got the right ball - are obvious here. The bulk of cricket programming lies during weekdays when people are at work. Cricket is an immensely popular sport nationally, despite its many problems with context, inequality of fixturing and troublesome scheduling.

The BBL deal may be seen as a bargain in five years time. It represents a significant opportunity for Cricket Australia and Channel Ten, to build up a franchise that ought to be two or three times more valuable - and probably much longer when the next tv rights package comes around. Having it separate from the broader cricketing public on Channel Nine may make that harder in the short-term, but will also allow it to promote a separate coherent identity.

Conversely, Ten's record with sport is abysmal and if they can't increase the ratings they will have over-paid for something that will fill their prime-time schedule and not rate. As changes to the sporting landscape go, this is the biggest since the founding of the A-League. The next five years will bear watching.

Cricket - Articles 5th June, 2013 01:45:24   [#] [0 comments] 

The economics and politics of a tiered Test league
Russell Degnan

Talk about the problems - such that they are - with test cricket, and it isn't long until a two-tier championship is mooted. Michael Vaughan is the latest to propose it, but the ICC investigated as long as a decade ago. A few lessons on why it failed to progress then and will do so again seem to be in order.

Politics 101

The MCC world cricket committee has its problems, but it did at least get this right:

"In discussing the marketing of Test cricket, [David White, CEO of New Zealand Cricket] added that a two-tier Test match championship - an idea involving promotion and relegation which has been raised in some parts - would be catastrophic for the long-form of the game in the nations outside the top four in the world."

There are 13 members of the ICC Executive: 10 full members, and 3 associate representatives. To pass, a vote needs a majority of the executive (7 votes), and 2/3 of the full members (7 votes) to be in favour. The associate votes are therefore irrelevant. The four teams excluded by a 6-team division will not be. An eight team first division might get closer, but even then, two teams are vulnerable to relegation. It is a big risk that more than half the full members won't take.

Finance 101

Over a 4-year period New Zealand generated approximately $130 million USD in revenue. Of that, approximately $35 million comes from the ICC. Around $25 million comes from Indian TV companies, primarily paying to see Indian cricketers; and around $10 million from TV deals to other nations (primarily England). In addition, their primary sponsors come about because they are a global team playing in front of a global - but mostly Indian - audience.

There is no point discussing cricket's structures unless you talk about finance or more specifically, ownership of the tv rights, and how much those rights are worth. Because of the context of the Future Tours Programme and ICC dividends, all full members can negotiate the sale of home matches for between $25 and $70 million over a four-year cycle. Exclude India, England and Australia from that cycle and the value of those matches goes down. If only test matches are excluded the hit might not be catastrophic, but it will hurt, even before they have to sell second-tier matches to their home crowds.

Ethics 101

There is a fundamental unfairness to the calls for tiers. Here is Athar Ali Khan in 2005:

"The annoying thing is that this idea is only ever spoken of when Bangladesh plays poor cricket. If we look back two, three or four years down the line, it was England who were at the foot of the table, but there was no talk of a two-tier system then. I simply don't understand the inconsistency."

Bangladesh ought to have improved more than they have, and Zimbabwe have their own problems. But even Sri Lanka copped the treatment after struggling in Australia this year - regardless that they remain in the top-6. There are people whose views on this are consistent, who'd readily accept India, England or Australia in the lower division, and the consequences.

But they are few on the ground. In the main, people suggest formats that prevent their side having to play low profile fixtures. And in the main, cricket writers emerge from England, India and Australia. Cricket's financial disparity is also reflected in its media disparity and the membership of its high profile committees, despite their laughable claim to diversity.

Ideas to improve the context of test cricket are welcome and needed. Ideas that only help the top-8, top-6 or top-4 are bad for the game, because they will stymie growth and reinforce an inequality that is already test cricket's biggest weakness.

Mathematics 101

There is a tendency in making plans to over-estimate how much cricket it is possible to play in a season or several, particularly given the slow encroachment of T20 leagues. The season of most nations is bounded by the Champions League in September and the IPL in April. Some matches can be scheduled outside that in several nations - Sri Lanka, Australia, South Africa, but not necessarily profitably.

In general, where five of the six sides play in the southern hemispheric summer, the sides will need to play five home series and four away. Assuming a three-test series takes five weeks - a warm-up and three tests over four weekend - that is 45 weeks of test cricket. Squeezing that into two seasons is extremely unlikely - there is a reason Australia has not expanded their home season beyond 5 or 6 tests per summer.

Even if a way was found to schedule them out of season it would almost certainly sound the death knell for the five test series. Some may argue that it is worth it in the interests of rational and fair planning and context. I can't say I see the appeal.

Alternatives are possible. A 7-team tier can almost certainly be accommodated over three years; an 8-team or 9-team division over 4. But that works strongly against having each series carry some context. Football seasons drag out towards the end for mid-table teams. But they still only last 6-9 months.

Conversely, a 6-team competition can be conducted in a single year, if teams played in two groups of three, and time was found for a final home-away series in September-October. It depends what constraints are in place.

History 101

The prevailing opinion in cricket is that international cricket should be conducted as a league where every team plays every other. But it isn't clear why this is the case.

Cricket is, needless to say, mired in mid-19th century exhibition matches, conducted by touring XIs. But the next evolutionary step by professional sports in the late 19th century was the cup competition (FA Cup 1871-72), usually conducted as a challenge competition (as probably only the Americas Cup remains) whereby the previous winner plays off against the winner of the cup competition. This invention gave teams the context for play, and has endured in various forms, but particularly international play ever since.

Professional matches of the early 1870s were organised haphazardly, with a preference for playing the "big" clubs who'd generate a profit. Hence, in the 1875 National Association, Boston played almost seven times as many games as Keokuk. The invention of a league, played on regular and (almost) even schedules came about to protect the financial interests of clubs who couldn't rely on exhibition matches or a decent cup run to generate consistent revenue.

The preference for leagues in cricket stems from the same source: a desire to play certain teams and generate revenue. Except that sports revenue is no longer ticket-driven, and league play, while desirable in a competition between teams unhindered by geography, and therefore playing base, is not necessarily the best option for international teams.

By and large, fans don't really want to see weak teams play strong teams, just to preserve the financial integrity of the weak. A competition structure that allows weak and strong to segment themselves into groups, and then plays most matches amongst the best players is much more desirable. A fact that can be seen by the ever-growing length and importance of play-offs, relative to leagues in professional sports.

It is important cricket moves out of the mid-19th century. But the late 20th century is a better option than the late 19th.

Finance 102

There are three methods by which the financial inequities of a second tier can be ameliorated.

  • As discussed by Michael Wagener, there can be cross-division games, whereby the second division hosts the first, albeit less regularly. The down-side is that it must be scheduled on a much longer schedule - 4 years or more - and it is at best a partial solution.
  • The richer nations can pay into a fund that is then distributed amongst members. This was mooted after the ICC study proposed various changes to the FTP to accomodate a league structure. Neither the BCCI nor the ECB would agree.
  • The ICC can assume control of the scheduling, ownership and running of the test championship from which they fund the various members involved. On a very small scale, this is the model the proposed 4-team 3-match test championship will take; assuming it is not post-poned again.

The third, ownership and control, is how the majority of sporting bodies work with respect to tv rights. The alternative - such as in MLB or La Liga - ends up with vast inequities, because the rich teams have no desire to give up revenue - and why would they? That doesn't matter that much in cricket, because the players cannot switch teams, but will if the players switch formats because test/international cricket cannot afford to pay for their services.

Politics 102

The big-three have no wish to engage in a test league either.

Obviously, the threat of relegation puts at risk their (and cricket's) most valuable properties: the Ashes, the Border-Gavaskar and the Patuadi Trophy. Nor should we discount the value of these series on the grounds of elitism. They are valuable because they are popular. Popular generates income. Context for other series won't necessarily make up the difference losing or diminishing them will cause - by making them 3-test series for example.

This is a problem if some form of monetary distribution is to take place. A test league that reduces the total value of the test cricket franchise makes it unlikely it will come from a surplus, and works against the aim to improve the lot of players eyeing better pay-days.

Nor ought we expect a system to stay in place if it works against the priorities of the teams involved. Were India relegated that financial hit will hit teams in the first division. Under those circumstances it is almost guaranteed that the 6-team division will become the 7-team division or the 8-team division. Or that "extra" series will be scheduled.

That's politics, but given that situation, the design of any new structure ought to reflect the need to preserve these series in their best form: 5 tests, semi-regular.

Economics 101

The premise of Vaughan's article is wrong anyway. T20 domestic cricket is not the same as league cricket attempting to out-bid county cricket for players - as was the case in the early 20th century. T20 domestic cricket is organised by individual ICC members. While it is certainly true that the organisation of these leagues is impinging on test cricket, that is because other ICC members are organising international matches in conflict to T20 domestic leagues, and vice versa.

The basic economic equation of sport: match interest is driven by the presence of star players; the matches with the most star players will over-shadow interest in matches without any. Domestic matches, where stars are spread between teams generally produce more income because they have more matches (more teams and more fixtures) and make more efficient use of fixed resources (grounds for example).

Domestic leagues therefore have a lot of money, but there is no market driven out-competing of T20 domestic leagues over test cricket. What there are administrators in numerous nations who refuse to sit down and devise periods when T20 domestic cricket can be played, and when test and international cricket can be played without conflict. With relatively few exceptions, this is the norm in football or rugby. It obviously doesn't suit the BBL or BPL to have some of their star power outbid by IPL teams, but IPL teams leave a lot of players on the bench.

The sad fact is, cricket is a cartel but is too disorganised to organise and market their games in a way that maximises their resources to serve customers; and therefore leaves enormous amounts of money on the table because of a deficiency of governance.

Politics 200

There is a really good reason I began my manifesto with an extensive discussion of what cricket should aim to achieve. Those goals are in conflict. A path through them that satisfies most parties - administrators, players, fans - while growing the game, adding context to test cricket, and preserving its unique history is very difficult. But it is also the only way that test cricket can move forward from its current scheduling malaise.

A tiered league system for test cricket is a terrible idea. Every person who sits down and works through the consequences agrees on this. It has benefits for the top-ranked test sides and the top-ranked associate sides. But in the former case they are teams that want for nothing, and in the latter, it is at best a marginal improvement, as they will be entering much the same type of competition they just left: the Intercontinental Cup.

It is also a lazy solution, grabbed upon because that is what popular domestic sports have, when those very sports are pushing for a tournament orientated approach that adds more immediate context, while using a distributed ownership model of television rights.

A tournament, played home and away, with a year of qualifying and a year of match play between the best sides - the others playing a secondary or tertiary tournament - would work considerably better than a league. It would allow the flexibility outside the tournament to schedule the marquee tours; the ICC to assume the ownership rights to the non-marquee tours at relatively little cost to the big-three; a balance between key match-up and opportunities for smaller nations; and add immediate context to a range of matches within a time-frame that the public can follow.

Nor is this a new model. The Davis Cup has operated a home or away style tournament for over a century; the FIFA World Cup operates an extensive home and away qualifying model that is far more inclusive (and mismatched) than cricket would ever dream. Although weather is a factor in cricket, limiting the ability to schedule a straight-knockout, both those events are vastly superior as cups than they would be as leagues. A cup format is the appropriate model for international sport and cricket needs to embrace it, instead of chasing rainbows elsewhere.

Cricket - Articles 3rd March, 2013 14:35:36   [#] [1 comment] 

Gideon Haigh and the Fake Geek Girls
Russell Degnan

Cultural activities, be they sport, music, movies or geek-heavy activities always have their high priests and their gate-keepers. Over the last several months, the gate-keepers of the geek community world have been called out for the rampant sexism inherent in the notion of a "fake geek girl"; the notion that girls aren't geeks, and the ones who claim to be are merely pretending for the benefits of male attention. Even though this specific phenomenon is not the subject of this post, it is worth pausing here for albinwonderland to explain how massively offensive the claims are:

There are several factors a play here:
1) The problematic relationship geek culture has with women, their representation in that culture and continually questioned place as participants of that culture. Again, this is somewhat peripheral to this post, but cricket should take note. As this excellent podcast on female fandom notes quizzing and enforcement of acceptable ways to be "a fan" is equally intimidating for female fans of sport. And the representation of women cricketers is pretty bad.

2) The notional control fans have over the culture. A sub-culture that defines itself in opposition to the mainstream, ends up resenting new entrants as it becomes more popular. This is not an issue without foundations either; popularity entails an increase in the cost of access whether that is gentrification of suburbs or EPL football. Money can likewise homogenise the culture and shift towards the preferences of new entrants. Or in cricket's case, price national cricket boards out of the market for their own players.

3) The rejection or promotion of certain methods of fandom, based on the preferences of the gate-keeper(s), by acts of microaggression "that communicate 'hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults' toward people who aren't members of the ingroup". In geekdom this entails the labeling of "real" and "fake" fans according to their mode of engagement. In cricket, it does too, which is where we get to the guts of this post.

Gideon Haigh hates the BBL. He denies this, but it is somewhat undermined by stating "I hate the BBL" about 12 hours earlier. He is of course allowed to hate the BBL. I find one-day cricket nearly unwatchable, although I did go to a very good WNCL game last week. But he has hated T20 cricket for years, never missing an opportunity to scoff at it in any forum he has had a chance too. Jonathan Howcroft made a perfectly valid point that Haigh (and other writers) are out of step with a lot of the cricket being played this summer. Disliking the BBL means disliking a very significant chunk of the season. Aggregate Melbourne domestic T20 crowds will, for the first time, surpass that of the Boxing Day test match; despite being stuck on Foxtel, the total tv audience is larger as well. And cricket writers are not covering it in any detail: as I write the final game of the regular season, one which will decide the finals is tonight, and the relevant article is the twelth story on The Age. Similarly, Haigh's response comes across as objection for the sake of objection, in that he acknowledges that mainstream writers[1] are both focused elsewhere and critical of the BBL, while seeking to downplay the impact of his negativity by stating (correctly) that a diverse range of shills, reporters and online sources are available for fans.

There is however a significant difference between a journalist criticising the BBL based on facts and research[2], and demeaning the competition, and by extension its fans at every juncture with acts of microaggession and outright hostility.

Haigh's ridiculous claim that a pair of serial aggressors with records of drug-cheating and gambling associations have either the wherewithal or self-control to stage an altercation on CA's behalf is based not on reason but the conceit that anyone - player or fan - might care for a franchise or its matches. Hence the Renegades-Stars match "representing two made-up teams" was "crap" even though few in the crowd left early, a respectable score was posted, and only late in the chase was it apparent that the Stars bowling had failed to take the wickets it required; or that the winner-take-all Strikers-Scorchers match "ever had much" interest[4] when clearly anyone interested in the make-up of the finals would take heed; likewise, Haigh will condescend to say that watching Ponting is "cool", Malinga and Muralitharan "thrilling" and Warne "fun" but not acknowledge the existence of team support.

Because the franchises are invented, the players cannot possibly care; even if players in any other sport regularly move teams one day and kiss the badge the next when the fans cheer. Nor can fans, even though those of OKC Thunder are feted as he best in the league only three years after creation, Melbourne Heart fans show plenty of passion for their club and against their cross-town rivals in their second year; and finally, many people at the ground were exhibiting fan-like behaviour whether buying the shirt, painting their face, or cheering their team. Haigh's hatred blinds him to the many reasons Renegades fans might have for not supporting the Stars (Warne, Eddie and the extra marketing shill for a start) or for supporting their own (at least this season, but I liked Afridi). The fact that derby crowds are higher is prima facie evidence that people are following specific teams, not just attending an exhibition where the participants don't matter.

The implied subtext is that there are right ways to consume cricket, and wrong ones. That test cricket is "real" cricket[5] while the marketing that drives the BBL makes it "fake" cricket; and by extension, any fans of it either fake or deluded. Merely pretending to like cricket for the social cachet that comes from hanging around an ageing, mostly white male crowd mixed of elitist nerds and true bogans.

Cricket is a much broader church than that. Few, very few, people get to play test cricket, millions play at clubs, indoors, on driveways, in parks and on beaches. All of these are cricket, because they all combine the fundamental contest between bat and ball that makes cricket the game it is. And thus to paraphrase albinwonderland:

"There is no such thing as fake cricket fans. There are only fans who are at different varying levels of falling in love with cricket. We all started somewhere."

[1] Curiously Haigh doesn't seem to think he is mainstream, as his regular column is pay-walled - even though a 5-year-old can break it in about 10 seconds - and his other media spots include a featured blog, a semi-regular tv spot and a guest podcast on the world's largest cricket site.
[2] There is a perfectly sound business case for the BBL, but despite being from that background Haigh appears completely ignorant of it in his complaints about quality. Stars drive league attendances, as does some level of competitive balance (though less than imagined). Journalists who travel to every game can rightly complain about too much cricket, but fans who see a team full of stars a couple of times per year are not served well by international cricket.[3] A steady flow of individual stars surrounded by lesser team-mates throughout the season generates much more revenue, and many more opportunities to watch and be engaged with a team. The economic literature on this is quite clear. There is a reason cricket has the smallest aggregate attendance and smallest professional base of any major Australian sport despite being both national and immensely popular. The international economic model suits tv stations and monopsony employers working within an international cartel. Similarly, CA would be mad to depend on overseas tv rights and the whims of the BCCI beyond the next decade. Shifting revenue to an under-developed local market is common sense.
[3] A number of authors make the claim that T20 is cannibalising international cricket, built as it was on the test match. This is a perverse reading of history given that the 1880s were full of complaints that the tours were cannibalising first club, and then first class cricket. Far from building cricket, test cricket is a parasite in economic terms, one that eventually made its host dependent on it to survive.
[4] The other curiosity in that post is the utter failure of mathematics and logic, claiming that 50% of participating teams making the play-offs is too many, even though that is (or was) the norm in AFL, NRL, NHL and the NBA, to name a few relative successes; and that teams should win more than 62.5% of games to make said play-offs, even though Tasmania won only 5 (drew 2) of 10 Shield games last season. Binomial distributions are awesome, and informative in the middle and on the margin, as is the basic addition required to realise there is at best 1 new player per team, once overseas and pensionable but very servicable players are taken into account.
[5] As argued before, this attitude will eventually lead to "real" cricket resembling "real" tennis. Elitism is bad people.

Cricket - Articles 12th January, 2013 04:24:40   [#] [0 comments] 

Russell Degnan

Demographers know 1970 as the peak year of Australian births, the year the baby-boomers created their own demographic bump, before declining fertility set in. It is largely coincidental that that year, and those either side of it birthed the single greatest collection of Australian cricketers in an already illustrious history. Pushed through the newly formed academy, great cricketers emerged like golden eggs, faster than the test side could absorb them. A handful of them formed the best test team of their era; most found solace at first-class level, where even uncapped players were historically prolific.

Ricky Ponting was younger. Born in 1974, he forced his way into their midst by weight of runs and obvious talent. Like Messi, an under-sized wunderkind who transcended even the great players he was surrounded by. From youth and talent he also outlasted them all, the final light of an era that Australian cricket will probably never repeat again.

1995-96 was an interesting moment in recent Australian cricket. Australian teams that thrash England are generally granted stability - and vice versa - but by 1995 the Ashes team of 1993 - Taylor, Slater, Boon, Waugh.M, Border, Waugh.S, Healy, Warne, May, McDermott, Hughes - was beginning to fall apart. Border had retired; Langer and Martyn had had a baptism of fire the summer before, missing the Ashes boat, Bevan and Blewett had been tried, but not succeeded. May and Hughes had gone, but McGrath and Warne had arrived; the Waugh twins, freed from the responsibility of bowling, had their most productive seasons, but the rest of the side was less solid. Of the eleven that lined up in Perth with Ponting, four wouldn't play again beyond that summer - Boon, Law, Julian, and McDermott - and Slater would be dropped for recklessness in India less than a year later.

Ponting couldn't have asked for a harder assignment in his first year. Shunted up to three, but without the stability of Slater or Boon, and with Taylor entering a prolonged slump; pressured by the weight of runs coming from Bevan, Hayden, Langer and others, he was quickly dropped. It is a measure of him as a player that he immediately got back to scoring runs: three tons in Shield cricket that same season, a place in the squad to England, and, having bided his time again, a first test century at Headingley.

The next four years weren't memorable ones for Ponting, or even Australian cricket. Sheltered at no. 6, Ponting meshed with the Waugh clean-up machine, but although there were runs, there were few defining innings - 197 vs. Pakistan in Perth, 105 vs. South Africa in Melbourne being the best. Just plenty to clean up. At the top of the order, chaos reigned. No less than seven players were used in the top three after Boon departed; the 1st and 2nd partnerships averaging just 36 over five years. Australia remained number one, but not convincingly; even after 16 straight wins. There was a sense that the golden generation, whose flashy talents had so impressed playing as Australia A in 94/95, lacked the grit to get the job done. England talked up their chances of winning the Ashes in 2001.

They wouldn't, but they did succeed in settling Australia's top-order woes. Australia seemed to stumble onto, rather than choose a top-3 of Hayden, Langer and Ponting; but it worked. For the next six years the 1st and 2nd partnerships averaged 61. Ponting averaged 73 in this period, 62 away from home, a scarcely credible 94 in the 4th innings. On Australia's hard true pitches he drove with impunity, and pulled with a dismissive authority no contemporary could hope to match. Behind them, Martyn, Lehmann and Gilchrist pillaged, rather than cleaned; while Warne and McGrath became such a dominant force that Australia lost just the single match (of 44) where both were playing.

The problem with having a lot of great players the same age, is that they retire at the same time. The problem being younger, is you get to carry the load. The last five years of Ponting's career were a constant struggle, and yet within that struggle his fighting qualities came to the fore. Sometimes in bad ways. He was a poor captain, easily frustrated by umpiring and his bowlers, and lacking trust in a long train of spinners. His own form waned. The tendency to prod forward became more pronounced and he offered the slips and close catchers plenty of chances; particularly away from Australia, when the ball swung or spun; he started getting roughed up by quicks; the tendency to fall over on the drive left his pads and stumps exposed. Facing difficulties he worked harder, off the field and on. He played some of his most important innings, even as his troubles became increasingly obvious. 156 on the last day in Manchester to stave off defeat in 2005; 118* in Fatullah to scrape past Bangladesh; 123 in Bangalore to make a statement of intent; 101 and 99 in Melbourne against South Africa, as his team collapsed around him; 62 in Johannesburg to help tie a series.

What motivates someone to play cricket, also seems to be what motivates them to stay. Of the three great attacking batsmen of his era, Lara seemed most invested in the contest between bat and ball. He played for fun, to entertain, and to dominate, and he quit when the trials of West Indies cricket overwhelmed him. Tendulkar seems to be the ultimate cricketing existentialist; playing on because to do otherwise is to deny himself. Ponting has always played to win. His legacy became increasingly tarnished by failure, causing great angst for selectors who hadn't had to end a distinguished career for half a decade. Ponting, to his credit, if not necessarily to the team's benefit, refused to give up, playing on because he believed he could contribute, throwing off tradition to relinquish the captaincy and play under Clarke, working ever harder. When announcing his retirement, he stated frankly that he no longer felt he was contributing sufficiently, and will leave the crease knowing he gave everything to the cause.

Ponting was the last player of a generation that arrived on the scene just as I grew into test cricket. A generation that grew up when Australia lost as often as they won, and relished every victory. They weren't always likeable - perhaps even none of them were - and I'll always retain much greater affection for the 90s, when they were young players finding their feet, over the early-2000s when they swept all before them. But there was no denying they could play, or that Ponting was the best of a great batting lineup. And while he could have left us much earlier, with an average much higher, any history of that era will need to reserve a special post-script for Ponting, whose quixotic attempt to deny time and the passing of that era will end in Perth.

Cricket - Articles 30th November, 2012 14:52:56   [#] [3 comments] 

The axes of defence and attack; on negative sport
Russell Degnan

I'll confess at the onset that I don't really know what to make of Ed Smith as a writer. He seems to be positioning himself as the Malcolm Gladwell of English sports-writing. This is no bad thing in a columnist. It lends itself to the generation of interesting perspectives drawn from multiple areas of research, and the discussion of novel ideas.

It also, unfortunately, often leads to a confusion of half-formed concepts and stretched analogies that fail to make a proper point. Both those apply to Smith's latest piece on negative tactics. his essential argument seems to be that Spain plays in a negative manner, and wins, and England under Strauss play in a negative manner, and win, and therefore the conventional wisdom is wrong - classic Gladwell, the conventional wisdom is never right. That Spain's win in the final in the least Spanish game of the past four years, failing to even maintain possession has been conveniently glossed over.

The problem comes in his definition of terms, rhetorically asked, but never defined. At various points Smith conflates "negative" with "cautious" and with "boring and "positive" with "aggressive". This ought to have set off alarm bells in Smith's head. These words are not synonyms; an aggressive batsman is not the same as a positive one; the former implies an increase in risk, the latter the taking of opportunities presented.

The portrayal of Spain as negative seems to misunderstand the nature of football tactics - though parts of the media might portray them as such. Football requires a team to be deployed for both defence and offense simultaneously. Not even Spain can rely on keeping the ball when moving forward. As such, the term negative must be understood both in terms of their attacking and their defensive intent.

Spain are not a negative side on defence. They play aggressive defence, pressing high up the pitch to regain the ball quickly. The opposite of aggressive defence is "passive" defence, waiting for the opponent and compressing space as they draw closer to the penalty area: in its purest" form: the catenaccio. Catenaccio has long been considered negative football - not least by Spanish players ill-suited to breaking it down. But that deals with space on defence, whereas Spain's negative play, such as it is, must obviously be defined at the offensive end.

Here English and Spanish philosophies have long diverged, the former preferring to push men forward into attacking positions, and the latter to maintain control and possession. Spain (and Barcelona) have in recent years seemingly drawn their tactical influences from basketball, maintaining possession on the perimeter, switching play and looking for players to make cuts to the goal. Ironically, basketball's best exemplar of this approach, the Spurs, are also considered boring, for their controlled approach and lack of individual play-makers. Spain's approach is not without flaws; a basketball team can look for the corners for shots, and doesn't contend with a goal keeper; Spain's movement off the ball was occasionally found wanting, even as they maintained possession.

But this is not a "negative" approach. It is a "controlled" one, in contrast to an "attacking" approach, where players are pushed forward. The two elements are linked, an attacking approach can lead to defensive lapses if a team over-commits, a controlled approach maintains better shape. But a team can be both attacking on offense, and passive on defence - the classic counter-attacking side; or it can be purely negative, with both a controlled offense and passive defence.

When we turn to cricket it is easy to see that the same elements of attack and defence are contained in the placement of fields. A captain must be both defensive - prevent runs - and offensive - take wickets. Contrary to Smith's claim, the preventing of singles is an aggressive move, and therefore positive cricket. Negative cricket is not containment, but passive boundary prevention - something modern captains, including Strauss are quick to implement. There may be good reasons for this, but many times it fails, not least because it allows a batsman to hit the ball hard into the gap in the field, sure that they won't be caught, and guaranteed at least a single.

Similarly, attacking cricket - the commitment of fielders to catching positions - is the opposite of control, which England does very well. Attacking cricket, like attacking football carries its risks on defence, but it is proven to take wickets in the right circumstances, as Australia's turn around in test match fortunes over the past twelve months has shown. And like football, teams are not constrained to all-out attack, or defence. The counter-attacking spinner who combines close-fieldsmen with protective boundary riders is a different beast to the bowler pitching the ball down leg to a ring-field. The latter might never take a wicket, should the batsman choose a pad-defence.

That winning sides have frequently made use of negative tactics is immaterial, be they passive or controlled, or in the case of spread fields to top-order batsmen playing with a tail-ender: neither, just daft. All captains need some knowledge of when to be attacking, and when to be controlled, when aggression will prevent runs, and when their bowlers need protection. True negativity is the combination of tactics that fails to either prevent runs or take wickets. Or in football, that which fails to score, nor prevent goals.

Sometimes, often, teams have no ability to affect that result with tactics either way. The failure of communication rests in the commentary box, when loaded but meaningless terms are used to describe a field, instead of endeavouring to understand the thought process - or lack of - behind a method. Sadly, in both sports, this is all too common.

Cricket - Articles 5th July, 2012 00:07:52   [#] [2 comments] 

The destructive market delusion
Russell Degnan

By and large, the absence of tv coverage means I am completely ignoring the IPL this year, but a piece by Suresh Menon caught my eye, and is worth commenting on. Unlike most woe-betid-test-cricket pieces, Menon actually works through the mechanism for IPL's increasing influence. The problem is that mechanism, once laid out, is rather underwhelming as a force for change. At least if anyone in influence wanted to prevent that change.

The essential argument runs as follows: players earn more in the IPL and other T20 leagues; if push came to shove cricket boards will lose a legal battle over where players can play; financially weak cricket boards (such as the West Indies or Pakistan) will no longer able to pay market rates for their players' services; players aspire to greater financial rewards over playing test cricket. Therefore, the preservation of test cricket requires greater financial rewards in test cricket.

There are a number of problems with the argument though, starting, most importantly, with the conclusion. Increasing the financial rewards for test cricket to the same level as T20 leagues would require a complete overhaul of cricket as we know it. Boards, small boards, get their money from tours; redistribution occurs via the ICC via major event money. But even with a substantial subsidy, the smaller test boards - the associates are a whole different problem, and an increasingly urgent one - cannot match the salaries of T20 leagues. Paying Gayle, Afridi and so on to pay tests means not only matching the salary of T20 international players, but massive redistribution of tv rights deals currently captured by the host nation. That probably should happen, at least at some level, most likely through the expansion of ICC tournaments, but it isn't going to happen soon, or to a sufficient degree. If test cricket actually depended on equality of incomes, then it would really be doomed. Fortunately it doesn't.

There are two other fundamental problems with the argument being put forward that makes it flawed. The first is this:

"The odd player might still talk about batting (or bowling) for the country and the joys of patriotism, but what really drives the professional sportsman seems to be money, and lots of it for a short period of work."

I've watched a lot of professional sportsmen discuss what motivates them across a wide variety of sports, many very well paid. To the extent that money is a motivating factor it is two-fold: as professional sportsmen, they only have a small window to take advantage of their talent; but as importantly, players are driven by status, they want to be paid what they believe they are worth, relative to other players.

If there was a relatively free market for labour, players would get paid roughly what they are worth by whoever employed them. The IPL is far from a free market, given how the rules favour the acquisition of second rate Indian talent over a broader pool of internationals, but it does allow players to pursue the dual status markers of professional sportsmen. One of those is the biggest contract. The other, just as important, is star status and trophies against the world's elite.

As I've discussed before, test cricket fails badly in this respect. Even were the players in question not being offered contracts ten or even a hundred times bigger for playing T20, the non-monetary rewards for playing test cricket for the West Indies or Pakistan are pathetic. A two-test tour against a major side resting their best players in the tail-end (or start) of a season watched by sparse crowds compares poorly to the IPL no matter what you think of T20.

To reiterate. Players are driven by status, money is only one aspect of status. The others are the importance and context of a competition, the quality of the opposition, and the historical relevance of the contest. Test cricket is failing most of the world's players on those factors, and the focus on money as if the market for labour was the only determining factor in a player's choice is hiding some really important non-market issues of governance and competition.

The second fundamental flaw in the argument rests on the nature of opportunity. Once again, in a free market, players would have a wide choice of possible playing destinations, and possible employers, with various leagues competing for their services. But that is not the case. Every T20 league is organised by an ICC affiliated board; the only T20 league that wasn't, the ICL, was ruthlessly out-competed. Almost every test series is part of the future tours program, which the boards all agreed to. Players have managed to escape the employment monopoly of their own cricket board, but they remain tied to sanctioned competitions.

The starting premise, that domestic T20 and test cricket are necessarily in competition is therefore also false. They are only in competition because the boards, on their own initiative and through their representations on the ICC, allow the two formats to compete. If a window for playing each format was enacted, then players would only be able to choose no cricket at all, over test cricket; and vice versa.

To construct an argument that test cricketers need better pay in order for the longer form to "compete" is a failure of scheduling. Other sports do not offer their stars a choice between international and domestic duties. Domestic competitions - which pay the bulk of their wages - are suspended for international competition. Test (and first class) cricket doesn't need better pay, or even necessarily a better income stream. What they need is space to operate without market competition; the art-house film role to T20 blockbuster. Because, players almost certainly do want the plaudits and status of test cricket success; and it is entirely a failure of administration to force them to choose between that financial security.

Cricket - Articles 29th April, 2012 00:51:53   [#] [2 comments] 

Taming cricket`s wild frontier
Russell Degnan

It is fair to say, there probably no more frustrating nation for those interested in cricket development than the United States. Many associates look at the special attention afforded to them by the ICC - the extra development funds, the promotion without merit into international tournaments - as unfair and detrimental to the game. Doubly so, because its perennial dysfunctional national board, oncetwice banned by the ICC, wastes the advantages it has.

The USACA's problems are well documented, including a failure to hold elections, rampant factionalism, and an inability to host even minor ICC events. Summed up neatly by ICC advisor Inderjit Singh Bandra:

"It's in a bad shape, unfortunately. I don't hold any hope for America. I've given it up as a hopeless case. I normally do not give up, but nothing is going to happen in America because of bad management. It can be the next best market after India, more than England. But we are losing on that. Till those bodies are superseded and the ICC appoints an ad-hoc committee I don't see anything happening in the USA.

Having such pronounced disfunction is difficult to reconcile with a nation with some of the best sports administrators and entrepreneurs. But the history of "initiatives" detailed by David Mutton goes some way to explaining the problem.

The size of the US cricket market, while small in US terms, is big in world cricket terms. The built-in fan-base is attractive to the sorts of quick-buck scam artists that want to scoop the cream off the top without leaving any sort of lasting legacy. The promise of a local product for fans bereft of one has attracted a long stream of prospectors to its proverbial frontier land, without the funds or wherewithal to invest properly to create something substantive, leaving nothing but failure and fodder for literary characters.

Nevertheless, repeated failure of incompetent people doesn't detract from the fact that the market for cricket is huge, and the barriers to a successful cricket league relatively low. If only the right people were involved.

A comparison with football is instructive on this point. Detractors like to point to the long relative failure of the MLS to show how hard cricket has it. I tend to think to the contrary, the MLS overcame enormous structural barriers to create the 9th most popular football league on average attendance. The United States remains a relatively weak football nation, and the MLS a weak league, but these things are relative. That relativity matters a lot for cricket's future there.

Future Prospects for the US National Team

A strong national team is vital if cricket is to succeed in the United States. Sports popularity rests on having star players, and that means local heroes. A large proportion of football supporters in the United States only follow the national side, and its limitations keep the sport in check. Cricket, being a predominantly international sport anyway, will need a similar improvement in fortunes (and a commitment from the ICC to actually play the United States and others in high class competition, as FIFA does). In cricket's favour though, a strong US team is not as distant, nor as difficult as in football.

While a superstar player can emerge from anywhere, in a team sport, the ability to compete at the top level depends on having a comparable playing base to your rivals. Every doubling of the playing base, double the probability of a player of star quality emerging. In football, a comparison can be made with other Western nations (keeping in mind that development also takes money), by looking at their playing base. Germany and the Netherlands are perennial performers at World Cup and European level, the former consistent semi-finalist, the latter more inconsistent.

USA (eq. Ger)31160000063000002.02182%
USA(eq. Ned)31160000010767590.34556%

To succeed at football, the United States needs somewhere between 0.3 and 2% of their population playing football. If we assume that only a fifth of the population plays sport at all, then the German figure requires significant mainstream exposure (some 10% of the population). The United does have that, largely at youth level with some 3 million players, so future success is likely if the talented athletes stay with the sport, but it takes years to build that level of support.

By contrast, cricket is a popular sport only insofar that a few really populous nations play it. The equivalent Western nations to Germany and the Netherlands have relatively small populations and therefore small playing bases (here I'll use adult participation, as I have it to hand).

PopulationAdult Part.%Part.Pop
New Zealand440000058,4741.32895%
USA (eq. Aus)3116000001643000.05273%
USA (eq. NZ)311600000584740.01877%

To reach the level of New Zealand - frequent World Cup semi-finalists, if somewhat weak test team - the US would need only 58 thousand adult participants. Accounting for the proportion of the population that plays adult sports, only 1 in every 500 to 1000 people need to play cricket: roughly two thirds the level of organised participation that US rugby reports. In short: cricket doesn't need to be mainstream for the United States to be competitive. If cricket ever reached the levels of soccer in the United States, they'd be a dominant team.

Future Prospects for an American Cricket League

Starting a league is a difficult proposition. It needs players with sufficient star power to attract fans of the sport, venues in markets with the wealth to support a franchise and the organisational structure for promotion and touring. We'll deal with each in turn.


The MLS struggled and continues to struggle for credibility with its local fan base because it is perceived as a weak league. Faced with competition from European leagues for players and attention it is a sad second best. And that problem can be explained simply: it can't afford to pay market rates for good players.

The table below explains this succinctly. The medium team in the English Premier League has a wage roughly similar to an NBA team (approximately $60 million). Reported survey interest in the two leagues is 30% for the NBA and 45% for the EPL. Dividing the median wage by the interested population gives an interest factor that shows how much money is derived from the local sports market (both leagues make a considerable proportion of their money from off-shore). The US is a more competitive market. For US football to compete with UK football, it needs a similar market awareness to basketball: 30% of viewers, when it is currently at 15%.

PopulationWage%InterestInterested Pop.Interest Factor
UK Football514000006000000045%231300002.59
Aus cricket1000000
US Cricket31160000020000001%31160000.64

Cricket, by contrast has several advantages in breaking the US market with star players:

  • There is limited competition for players: the vast majority of first class cricket is played October to April, whereas the US cricket season would run from May to September. Thus players are available without compromising their existing contracts.
  • Cricket players are paid meagre amounts: The salary cap for the 8-week Big Bash League is $1 million. A 16 week competition in America (which would make it the largest in the world) could afford star (non-English) players for only $2 million.

Applying the factor of interest for the NBA by that wage level gives a interest level of only 1% of Americans - some 3 million fans. A number not far from where some estimates put the American fan base without any American interest at all.

American Players

Nevertheless, a league with no American players will struggle to attract interest outside some narrow confines, so it is important to find players capable of performing close to first class level that can bolster the league. It is often suggested that lesser sports convert college players from various other sports, because a) often their skill sets will more closely match their adopted sport and b) the raw athletic talent from college programs that fails to become professional is very high.

The numbers support this proposition. In the tables below it can be seen from the populations of NZ and Australia, and the number of professional and national team cricketers in each nation that the top 0.01% of Australians (male, young adult) and 0.05% of New Zealanders make it to professional cricket. The equivalents for the a national team squad of 15 players are 0.0007% and 0.0034%.

PopulationProfessionals% Elig. Pop.National Team% Elig. Pop.
New Zealand44000001200.05455%150.00341%

There are around 22 million Americans of college age, so we can translate an equivalent percentage of the population for selected college sports, seen in the second column below. Obviously there is some overlap in the skill-sets of different sports, so the quality of the actual athletes is well below the percentage given. To account for this, we'll consider only the top 10% who'll presumable have the most translatable skills for cricket.

Men's College ParticipationCollege% College Age Pop.Professionals% Elig. Pop.Trans. skillsAus ProfNZ Nat

The number of professionals is an estimate of the total number in various leagues. Basketball includes both the NBA and D-Leagues, but not Europe (although there are Europeans in the NBA, so it balances out). Baseball's league system is massive, even if only major league and triple-A is considered. While there are probably failed baseball players with decent cricket skills, getting them to cross over would be difficult. Tennis and golf are individual sports; every American ranked player as been considered a pro, despite being a gross exaggeration of the number deriving professional employment from the sport. For each sport an estimation of "translatable skills" has been applied: high for tennis, baseball and golf, low for soccer and basketball - although tall strong athletes are potential quick bowlers.

From this it can be estimated that perhaps 112 players per year, mostly from tennis, might be able to transition to Australian level first-class cricket with a system in place; approximately 14 of those might be capable of New Zealand national team representation.1 While a more stable base of players was developed, league franchises could institute a system of invitational training camps following the end of the university year, accompanied by scholarships to play in the Southern Hemisphere in preparation for an April draft.

The take home message: mainstream cricket might be a pipe-dream in the United States (or it might not), but the nation is so big compared to its rivals mainstream penetration is not necessary to find capable American players, whereas in soccer it is.

Markets and Franchises

Assessment of US sports markets are routinely done to discuss expansion franchises. Because cricket is small, and a league relatively inexpensive (equivalent to an MLS team), the number of potential markets is huge, and includes both the obvious (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Washington) and several with significant numbers of existing cricket fans, cricket history and/or no local sports team with a potentially amenable local government (San Jose, Austin, Philadelphia, Hartford, Fort Lauderdale). This is helped too, by the absence of competing sports for a large part of what would constitute the US cricket season. Assuming a May start, the league would kick off during the NBA/NHL playoffs, and middle of the MLB season as it grinds its way towards the playoffs. With an early September finish, it will both avoid the MLB and MLS playoffs and the start of the NFL juggernaut.

Cricket's large ovals have both advantages and disadvantages. The downside is there are no practical venues as of now. Unlike soccer that can use existing athletic or football fields, cricket needs to develop its own grounds, and the only potential ground partner would be Aussie Rules football - an even smaller sport. The upside is they need minimal infrastructure to cater for a large crowd: a grass bank, some corporate marquees, camera emplacements. Light towers are more difficult to organise, but the unique urban forms of the United States offer large tracts of land on the well-to-do suburban fringe, or in a number of cities, a blighted inner area; and in many places former minor league stadiums that could be converted with an expanded playing area and renovations.

Preparing a team and the ground to first class standards requires a different set of expertise however, and there is no evidence those skills are available in the USACA.

Forging Partnerships

Getting a significant number of first class players into the United States in their off season will require a commitment from the full member boards. New Zealand has already signed onto a partnership, but they are a relatively small board; a competition of requisite size to succeed with local fans will need support from Australia, South Africa and India as well. The full member boards are vital because they bring with them skills not found inside the United States that would otherwise cost a significant amount to import: the preparation of quality pitches, coaching, and in India's case: players who can be marketed into cricket's biggest market.

The list of needs particular to the United States is much longer: partnerships with ticket-agents and television broadcasters, internet sites and live streaming capacity, local marketing and researchknowledge, relationships with the press, and experience with making team travel arrangements.

There is some scope for looking at existing American franchises to partner with and provide those services. For NBA teams, specifically, there are several unique advantages:

  • The infrastructure that teams need lies fallow in the off-season. The marginal cost of using it for cricket is quite low.
  • Similarly, NBA teams get almost no value from their brands between June and November. There is precedent in other fields (Real Madrid/Barcelona) for playing multiple sports under the same colours.
  • The NBA has an interest in developing the Indian market; cross-promotion of NBA team brands with a sport with a high profile in India seeds the market: fans of the cricket team become fans of its basketball equivalent.
  • And vice versa, the large existing fan bases would mean covering costs by tapping into 3% of the existing NBA market, as well as cross-promotion through the cricket following American market.
  • As a more long-term matter, winning franchises are profitable franchises; doubling the chance to win each year would allow them to better manage the vagaries of income in a single sport
  • More generally, basketball feels similar to T20 cricket: high scoring but punctuated by spectacular scoring plays (sixes/dunks) and defensive plays (wickets/blocks), the scope for individual excellence to dominate a game, and the major point of interest coming in the last 20 minutes.
  • The potential downsides (cost) are quite low as a proportion of their revenue, while the upsides could be huge: a successful American cricket league and/or significant market penetration in India

It is difficult to see how an American league could succeed without some form of partnership with overseas cricket bodies, and the right people in the United States. Unfortunately the USACA are clearly not the right people, and nor are the types of people who've previously been associated with cricket in the United States. A concerted effort by ICC full members to forge a domestic league using their playing resources would come close to breaking even, and allow a base to build. As with the expansion of the World Cup to allow emerging markets access to the promotional benefits of major tournament access, and the playing of international games against weaker nations, the ICC full members have been derelict in their duty to promote the game outside their own narrow confines.2

The American Market and Cricket

American sports have never shied away from worldwide expansion. Australia got its introduction to top flight baseball in 1888, with a tour from the king of sporting entrepreneurs Albert Spalding. A quote from The Argus at the time is illustrative of how deeply the myths about Americans and cricket run:

"Men who are familiar with cricket and baseball consider that the former is the more pleasant game for those who play it, but the latter vastly more attractive to the spectators when they are as familiar with it as with cricket. The very fact that the great lack of interest in cricket evident in this colony for some time past is attributed to want of sufficient excitement in the game and to the issue being too long delayed, justifies the promoters of baseball in the belief that their game is likely to become popular in Australia. In it the excitement is sustained throughout. There is no blocking or what in cricket would he called "playing" the ball. Every effort is either a full force hit or a miss, and three misses with playable balls put the batsman out. Like football the game lasts for two hours only, so that the match is definitely decided one way or another in an afternoon ; while by calling play at four o'clock, as is very often done in America a match can be got through without any material interference with the ordinary duties of the day. In America it would be utterly impossible to sustain public interest through a four days' game at cricket, and inclinations of lovers of field sports in Australia would appear to lean very largely towards those of the Americans."

All the tropes are there. The length of time to play and the advantages of a short game; the belief that multi-day cricket was dying; the excitement in seeing the ball hit as opposed to defended. The popularity of T20 cricket shows that these are not entirely without merit, but it is worth reflecting on cricket's enduring popularity in spite of its decades of struggle.

Also notable was the reference to the "temperament" for watching a four-day game being lacking in Americans, although here apparently it was also lacking in Australians, and there is no sign that is true. Personally I find it hard to fathom how people can equate a nation that supports seven game playoff series and a very rich golf tour with an aversion to multi-day events. But I also bring this up to note that the native supporters of cricket in the United States I've encountered are invariably fans of test match cricket. Because while they first encountered the one-day game, it is the test match that offers the scope for narrative and unique sporting experience. Thus, while it is quite reasonable, as shown, that America could support a T20 summer league sporting the best players from around the world, and use that to develop their own cricketers, cricket's greatest selling point remains the test match.

As a final note on this, cricket cultures are unique. Test match cricket in the United States will not be test match cricket in England, or Australia, or India. Of primary importance in marketing the game is that it is presented as an American sport. Van Bottenburg's study, Global Games on sports popularity made a very important point on this matter:

"When choosing a sport you are not merely deciding between different forms of physical exertion and competition; you are also deciding between different groups of people."

Cricket failed in the United States in the past because it was the "English village sport", popular in periods of Anglophilia, and unpopular in times of nationalism. Similarly, any modern attempts to market cricket need to avoid it being seen as the sport of immigrants - a problem that has always afflicted football in both Australia and the United States - or a sport of gimmicks (which are fads at best). What American cricket most needs, is for its fans to be treated with respect, not potential gold mines for exploitation.

1 As a side note, the numbers for AFL footballers indicate several hundred players capable of being amongst the thousand odd professional footballers. That's the perfect storm for reality TV: last-chance athletes with reasonable name awareness trying to break into obscure but immensely popular Australian basketball/football hybrid through an international draft after 8-9 months of training, overcoming cuts, injuries and their own incompetence along the way.

2 Somehow this trend has worsened in the past 10 years, progressive initiatives like the Champions' Trophy (yes, dud tournament, but still progressive) have gone by the wayside. The Champions League, for example, is the perfect vehicle for an American audience to see decent, not exhibition, cricket.

Cricket - Articles 19th February, 2012 21:58:38   [#] [4 comments] 

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