Reflections on a decade of cricket blogging
Russell Degnan

On June 2nd 2004 I put up the first article under the Idle Summers label on my blog. It was far from the first post, as I'd been writing on urban planning at Civil Pandemonium for almost a year. But that date marks the start of a project that has carried on for 10 years as of today.

The themes were those I'd return to regularly: that assumptions that a nation would progress to some arbitrary 'test' standard were false; that teams would ebb in performance depending on the availability of quality players (with some prescient comments on Kenya's subsequent decade long decline); and that competitions needed to reflect that, concluding:

"The current rigid caste system doesn't provide for good competition. In fact, it actively encourages mismatches in the name of 'opportunity', while working against the second tier of emerging nations."

The bulk of the posts I've written concern the ratings; their constant fluctuation both a motivator and a chain. I introduced them in April 2005, first monthly, then every test, with relatively few gaps, all things considered. Finding something to say about yet another two test series can be difficult, but they still contain many interesting matches, too soon forgotten in the endless treadmill of international cricket. The ratings themselves are far from perfect. Cricket's uneven and clumped scheduling causes several complications. Various methods have been introduced to work around those problems, detailed in this explanation written in 2010. Ultimately, if the rankings broadly reflect the relative position of two sides, that is sufficient; there is too much noise and not enough data to be exact, and in case, you can't distinguish inaccurate rankings from lucky result when making predictions. This graph of the last ten years reflects the broader trends in performance over that period fairly well:

Any problems in my system are minor compared to the official rankings, the flaws in which I have discussed and which oughtn't be used for qualification. Sadly neglected, but a full list of national T20 rankings was also completed. It wouldn't have been possible without the work of The Roon Ba, and the absence of both an official ICC match list and a working ranking of all members is one of many flaws in that organisation. I shouldn't leave out the blossoming seed of my system put together by TKYC at AFL Footy Maths. Accurate tipping is not the same as accurate ratings, but it makes for interesting problems.

Blogging has changed markedly from its zeitgeist in the first half of my decade of writing. The community of linking and commenting to others work has been replaced by a journalistic writing culture. It is not necessarily worse, as twitter has replaced the bulk of the feedback mechanisms that generated debate, and in a more direct manner. But the considered, lengthy comment is a rarity, as is the close community, outside the odd bastion such as After Grog Blog. It would be remiss of me not to mention the many fine commentators and promoters of my blog over the years, many of whom continue to carry the blogging flame: the much missed Scott Wickstein, Tony T., Bruce, Carrot, Lou, Lolly, David Barry, Jonathan Dixon, Samir Chopra, Rusty Jackson, Brian Carpenter, Chris, Michael Wagener, Troy Wheatley, Devanshu Mehta, Ducking Beamers, David Mutton and I am sure many others.

It was back in that period of less considered posts that my second-most read post, comparing test cricket to Tolstoy found wider attention, bringing to mind the words of Tim Sterne, that "had I known so many people were going to read it, I'd have spent more time writing it". I spent much more time on the only cricket fiction on the blog: Joys of Decision Making, a Play in Three Acts.

The last few summers have seen a renaissance in the meeting internet based people, mostly at the MCG. They were all as delightful and interesting as their online personas, and should all be followed by everyone: Mahek, Subash, Brett, Cat, Dan, Beth, George, Raf and Katy. No matter how global the conversation, it is the friends you make in person that make it worthwhile.

On topics I come back to, and on controversies that recur, articles and ideas get a re-running, but most drift ever deeper into the archive. Some, such as the use of post-hoc analysis of players shots are probably aired on twitter, but not at length. And I tackled at various times recurring questions, such as the benefit of enforcing the follow-on or the value of batting first, or the effect of statistical normalisation on the records of Warne and Muralitharan. Perhaps the most experimental, yet inadequately followed up, was this statistical attempt to distinguish form from quality. As an analytical tool, I've not sufficient use of this piece of the difference between being attacking and controlling in offence, and aggressive and passive in 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."

I try not to comment on something unless I have something to add, which can lead to some odd articles, and non-traditional conclusions. On DRS, I stressed the role automation should play, offered a Bayesian assessment of the protocol and its flaws, and calculated the hawkeye uncertainty for Tendulkar's world cup let-off. On Duckworth-Lewis I identified a very specific flaw in the opportunity cost of not taking wickets. I made one of the earliest calls to remove fielding and bowling restrictions in ODI cricket (which I'd extend to T20). And am in a very small minority willing to entertain substitutes between the 2nd and 3rd innings of test cricket.

One topic I have come back to frequently is the dangers of inequality between cricket's member nations. Most of my writing and work on associate cricket grew out of a sense of injustice at the reduction in world cup size. It was based on unrealistic expectations of competitiveness, and the desire for greater financial rewards from having the big-3 play more games. But it was justified as a better, shorter, more meaningful tournament. Given the broadcasting constraints, none of those were true, and I would still prefer a 20 team tournament where 2nd and 3rd in each group enter the knockouts, and 1st goes direct to the quarter-finals. This attempt to quantify 'meaning' across knockout formats remains one of my favourite pieces for various (mostly nerdy) reasons.

Associate and affiliate cricket continues to struggle with recognition, even and perhaps most egregiously, from the ICC itself. The realisation that, as I wrote very little about associate and affiliate cricket, I was part of the problem led first to some tournament reviews. After recognising that I needed to speak to people who had seen the cricket, in person, I began a collaboration with Andrew Nixon for the Associate and Affiliate Cricket Podcast. It has been an immensely rewarding project across the last eighteen months. It would also be absolutely impossible without Andrew's base of knowledge, enthusiasm and ground-work setting up interviews and sourcing news (and ICC leaks). The list of interviewees is too long to mention, and they've all been great; though none quite so loquacious nor as helpful in getting it running as Peter Della Penna.

There is a lot of nonsense written about development, most lacks either a historical understanding or a sense of perspective on size, and tends towards a whiggish sense of progress that misses the many missteps that nations take. This article, from 2009 marks a transition point on the blog, towards a better understanding of these underlying processes:

"Current development, to the extent that it supports an expansion of the cricket world, rests on two assumptions, both increasingly false. The first is that players will reach their peaks playing for their national side, in international competition. But as we can see from the players above, other emerging associate cricketers, and with comparison to other sports, the top level of sport for players from weak nations is generally the club setups in strong nations. Whereas in the past test nations have been able to (almost exclusively) draw their strength from their local competitions, in the future, any nation could conceivably draw on experienced players from first class cricket and the 20/20 leagues. Much as the Irish football side has no player plying their trade at home, the Irish cricket side will draw strength from the county game. Provided, of course, that the county teams, and English poaching of players doesn't actively prevent that development from taking place.

"The second assumption is that there is a path to be trodden, from dominant associate team, to test whipping boy, to respectability. What we have seen recently though, again paralleling other sports, is that weak teams will have phases of good and bad. A handful of sides will always be competitive (Australia, South Africa, England, India, Pakistan, and maybe Sri Lanka and eventually Bangladesh). But places with limited playing bases will depend on greatness to lift them from mediocre to good, and greatness involves luck. Under the current assumption, test status is a right, gifted at a certain level. In a realistic universe, teams will change from good to bad and back again, moving upwards to better competition when they do well, and downwards when not."

The importance of a playing base for development cannot be understated. For some nations, this is less of a problem. Concerns that cricket is not "main-stream" in the United States are unfounded:

"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."

The historical output of batsmen in Australia, England and New Zealand point towards this fundamental gap. Fears for Australia's future were, needless to say, over-blown.

The great challenge of development is converting junior development cricket into players in clubs. While I'm yet to post on it, it is that figure that determines the probability of a player emerging and strongly correlates with rankings. Cricket has been slow to find a format that is inclusive while still competitive, and less time consuming, but it is a challenge worth pursuing.

Test cricket has its own problems, and the problems of associate nations are, in part, a reflection of the weaknesses in the full members. If I had to save one post from this site, it would probably be The true threat to test cricket is inequality. It ended with a call to arms, one I would repeat several times afterwards:

"Yet, in the very near future, it will be T20 with the largest, most inclusive world championship, T20 that offers the highest pay, and the best opportunities for professional advancement. Unless it quickly changes, test cricket will offer no, or only a small world championship, will continue to be barred to the vast minority of playing nations, will continue to offer to its weaker full members short series seen as warmups at best, and inconveniences to be avoided at worst. If test cricket is to be the pinnacle of the sport it must be the pinnacle of achievement for all its players, not only those in England, Australia and India. And test cricket is not; it was, perhaps 20 years ago, but it is not now.

"There is a widely held belief that test cricket might, soon, be reduced only to "those teams that care for it", meaning those same three, if not those two. This is true, but back to front, test cricket is slowly being eroded back to those three teams, in the pursuit of profit that only playing your fellow rich nations can bring. When there are at least a dozen nations worth of cricketers who would saw off their right arm to play test cricket in the sort of tournament I outlined here, that is not the inevitable result of change, it is wilful destruction.

The logistical issue of a test championship is a significant one, and one I grappled with for several years before laying it out in a manifesto. I hesitated to use that term, because of its connotations with insane men in Montana cabins, but it is the correct term, and I like accuracy. The end result was this:

But as appealing as that is, the important part is laying out desirable attributes, and making compromises. The ongoing support in many circles for a tiered test league shows why compromise is necessary. The financial and playing opportunity implications of relegation are deep, and there are better ways.

I didn't set out to become knowledgable about cricket finance, but it is the inevitable consequence of thinking about governance, tournaments, labour relations and the motivations of administrators. Recognising why domestic competitions, with marketable players spread between teams generate more revenue and make better use of resources is the best way to understand why they represent a fundamental shift in the underlying cricket economy. T20 is more popular is not a sufficient explanation. It also leads to the "free market" myth that denies agency to the administrators who have control over schedules and competitions, and therefore whether players face conflicting schedules, or play for too many trophies.

"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 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."

Much is written about attendances at test cricket, but in Victoria at least they are as high as they've ever been. There is a tendency to blame socio-cultural factors and not admit that cricket often serves up a poor product. Day-night tests would certainly raise revenue, but not necessarily as much as imagined. Australia's media market is relatively easy to measure and understand. Though it is worth revisiting the opening graph and compare the sale price and value of the BBL last season.

The future value of internet streaming is a more interesting problem, but cricket lags behind, leaving it to pirates. Subsequent developments, particularly for free streaming of associate tournaments and Sheffield shield, indicate that all is not lost. But a comparison with American sports is instructive.

Perhaps the most involved single piece I've written attempted to quantify the size of world cricket revenue. The conclusions were hardly newsworthy, but it never hurts to put some numbers on it. The conclusion is worth restating though, particularly in light of subsequent events:

"If it wasn't obvious, cricket's finances are fundamentally unstable. The wealth available to three boards, and their local competitions means that noone else can afford the market rates for their players. While we haven't seen mass defections, it is increasingly clear that international cricket, as currently structured, cannot support the existing nations, let alone provide the investments needed to promote and grow the game elsewhere. Either a substantially larger proportion of the money moving from market to boards needs to be routed through the ICC (which means them taking ownership and control of tournaments), or a substantially larger proportion of the money must direct itself into competitions that will pay players from all nations, with a reduced emphasis on international cricket."

Until the Woolf review, I had written relatively little on governance proper. I made a submission with Samir Chopra which is worth reading, because it is longer and more academically orientated than subsequent rants. The recommendations are hardly earth shattering, but nor have any of them been implemented:

  • The granting of voting power to the administrative arm of the ICC on the executive board.
  • Official recognition of players associations in negotiations over playing schedules and tournaments, with a preference for voting power on the executive board.
  • The establishment of a larger base of ICC tournaments to promote greater financial parity, meaning and context for cricket, and allow the ICC administration to promote and grow the sport beyond its current limitations.
  • The greater regulation of players and domestic T20 tournaments to encourage the sort of club and player devotion that other sports enjoy.
  • The disclosure of ICC Executive minutes and voting to make member boards accountable to their own membership (cricket clubs, players and spectators).
  • To establish a deliberative democracy approach to expand the scope of opinions and knowledge available to the ICC beyond the current mix of former international players.

I had a lot of praise for the report that was released, and some criticisms. Two points made then ring very true now, on power relations at board level:

"The fundamental question on the board composition is: will it be stable. I fear not, England, Australia and India will demand representation on the board, and given their global influence need to have it. There is no nice way to solve that, nor would it be a permanent solution, as relative political strengths are never fixed."

And on the importance of finance and its relation to scheduling

"If that means less money going to boards that don't need it and a significant increase in global development programs then it is definitely a good thing. If it means member boards have to scale back professionalism, first-class programs, or lose more players to domestic T20 leagues, then it is going to be a problem. There is no easy solution to this problem, and ultimately the ICC will be judged on its ability to handle the issue of cricket finance, as that issue underpins many of the niggling scheduling problems that give rise to complaint."

The summer of 2013/2014 saw a glut of governance issues and posts. I should note here the contributions of Jarrod Kimber and Gideon Haigh in bringing them to a much wider audience. The most well read was also the most rant-laden, as I wrote it angrily, and in haste. Perhaps there is a lesson there. The big-3 takeover would be less worrying if I thought they could govern better than they will. In this respect, the poor governance of the smaller full members is a bigger issue, as their incompetence weakens the ICC and enables its detractors. They need the ICC, both politically, and financially. And cricket needs the ICC, because it isn't selling a very good product, not for a broader market. And that is a threat to the game's health and future growth:

"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."

But cricket's governance amongst the boards is now so poor, it may be no internal reform is possible. In which case:

"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?"

I won't end this retrospective on governance though. I don't write many pieces on players, because others do it better, and see things I don't. But when Ponting retired, so did the last of the players from my youth. This piece marked the end of that era. That's as good a reason to put it last.

Cricket 3rd June, 2014 00:43:14   [#] 


Reflections on a decade of cricket blogging
Congrats Russ! Great to reflect on the changes over the course of the last 10 years both with your blog and the whole landscape. Time flies. The Associate & Affiliate podcast is great for the exposure it gives to those who need it most. My favorite post of yours is the second to last one mentioned. Cricket is indeed a great sport, but as you say, one that sells its product short. The list of reasons that you mention afterward sum up my frustrations and I'm sure those of many others.
Peter Della Penna  3rd June, 2014 12:25:36  

Reflections on a decade of cricket blogging
Thanks Peter. I'd much prefer a world where the ICC paid professionals with proper access and more time to report on associate and affiliate cricket; and where governance was a non-issue (or at least minor, in the NBA or MLB sense, not ever-present). A sport retreating from global ambition is itself a strange phenomenon, I can't think of another.
Russ  4th June, 2014 13:30:02  

Reflections on a decade of cricket blogging
With the breadth of subjects you tackle and the depth with which you address them, your blog could be intimidating to the aspirant blogger. But the generosity of your support for other blogs means that is never the case. Thank you.

Idle Summers - such an alluring title, and so far from the truth for someone of your output. Congratulations on your first decade.
Chris Smith  8th June, 2014 08:50:54  

Reflections on a decade of cricket blogging
Thanks Chris. For the praise and for your own work, which is an inspiration to keep attacking challenging questions.
Russ  9th June, 2014 22:58:50  

Reflections on a decade of cricket blogging
Wonderful stuff, Russ. You've set the standards for a very long time; time to a take fresh guard and keep on keeping on.

Cheers, Samir (still hoping we can catch a day of cricket at the MCG sometime).
Samir Chopra  9th June, 2014 23:49:50  

Reflections on a decade of cricket blogging
Thanks Samir, though being a bowler, and a notoriously erratic poster, it is more like a couple of months at fine-leg, then back on for another spell.

You might have hit upon the one upside to a big-3 takeover: there'll be no shortage of chances to come to Melbourne and watch India.
Russ  11th June, 2014 17:11:02