Monday Melbourne: CLXXX, November 2009
Russell Degnan

The Yarra river, from the Botanic Gardens Taken July 2009

Melbourne Town 30th November, 2009 09:37:13   [#] [0 comments] 

A Manifesto for World Cricket
Russell Degnan

Previously: Part 1 a b c d

Part 1e. Preserving Marquee Tours

Having ended the last post proposing a test championship, now I will retract my unqualified support for same. The bulk of test nations recoil from a tiered system because of 1b - providing access to the highest level, for players, but also teams - where the possibility of relegation to a lower level will prevent them from engaging in tours to the places that pay well, and (ultimately) subsidise the game as we know it: India, Australia, England and South Africa.

Those big four teams are opposed for their own, equally selfish reasons. A proper tiered tournament - not the unholy compromise currently tabled - entails playing equal amounts of cricket in every nation, which will rarely be as profitable as a five game series between the big four. It would also, potentially, prevent those tours happening at all, should one member of the match-up be pushed down a level.

The idea that the Ashes might not happen for several years is anathema to most cricket fans in both countries, and down-right frightening to the administrators in each. The financial ramifications are too great to even risk it, which means, practically, that any test championship must find a way to preserve the marquee tours.

Leaving aside practicality, it is worthwhile for the previously cited reason, to preserve and enhance these historic rivalries, steeped as they are in history. The rivalries have their own, internal narratives that span decades, on which the new histories are built. To destroy, or diminish those would be a great loss to a sport that has made those histories such a central part of its character.

Fortunately, there is a relatively straight-forward way to preserve them, and that is to ensure that any format for a test championship has open windows for them to played. Logistically, that implies that a test championship could occupy no more than two seasons in four, allowing time for the long marquee tours on the traditional rolling four year cycle, and setting aside the periods currently devoted to so-called "meaningless" tours to the championship.

Those teams currently excluded from marquee tours have several options in this period. Certainly, where test cricket is unpopular, they may be tempted to ignore it completely, albeit at the expense of necessary practice. Alternatively, the aim should be to build new rivalries, between neighbours and close competitors. It would not be the end of the world if teams play less international cricket, but all these are problems for a different post.

Idle Summers 26th November, 2009 19:33:26   [#] [0 comments] 

A Manifesto for World Cricket
Russell Degnan

Previously: Part 1 a b c

Part 1d. Meaningful Cricket

The refrain for the age is the need for "meaningful" cricket. But as DB rightly noted, there is no real way of defining what meaning is. In one sense, all cricket is meaningless, as is all sport, and one suspects, all of life. How can one explore meaning is a mere game when one cannot define it for our very existence. That type of question may well be too deep for what this project, being a practical exposition of the game's strengths and weaknesses, but we might practically draw an answer to meaning from philosophy itself.

Meaning must be, I believe, self-referential; drawing on Descarte's idea that he must exist, because he thinks, we can say the same for cricket: it is meaningful when those involved, both on and off the field think it is meaningful. The question then becomes not existential, but one of motivation: why do players play, and why do fans watch?

The answer, I believe, is best conceived by making the analogy between sport and the narrative that underlies all sports. The most meaningful contest in test cricket today is the Ashes. They have meaning because they are steeped in history, the players play regularly, both team's structure their selections and goals around winning that one contest. There is, therefore, a running narrative surrounding the game, starting in discussions over selection a year or more before, and carried throughout a long five or six test series.

Most other contests are not so lucky. The lamentable 7 match ODI series are forgotten almost before they've finished. Despite their popularity their narrative interest exists only in as much as they relate to selection issues and form leading up to the two tournaments where the trophy counts for something. The cricket, as a spectacle, is not to blame, nor is there too much of it, necessarily. The problem is a lack of over-arching narrative, expressed through overkill of short tournaments.

Other sports do better. Perhaps the most astonishing narrative in international sports concerns the elongated process for FIFA World Cup qualification. Each team undergoes it, sometimes playing teams so poor they would never agree to play if not compelled to, sometimes games with more drama than the best narrated movie plot. Australia's seven consecutive failures, normally at the last hurdle, completely captured a nation largely indifferent to the sport. The World Cup itself was an adventure in itself, but it also finished well before the defining games of the tournament.

The important point to take from this is that good narratives relate to all teams. It is too much to hang the whole hat of a World Test Championship on the hats of the top contenders. Meaning for the ranks of second tier test teams, and more importantly, the aspirational associate nations, depends on finding a path that plays tem to the highest level, gives them scope for unlikely progression, historic upsets, and ultimately, in the interests of even competition and financial gain, their disappearance when the business end of the tournament concludes.

Meaning therefore, demands the best possible set of narratives, for each team, the elimination of games that lack meaning - the short bilateral tours that lack history or rivalry - and the development of a new format that develops its own twists and turns as the season(s) progress.

Mooted plans for a tiered system of test cricket, with home and away fixtures between a limited number of nations, and relegation every year or two allow this, to an extent, because there is a lead-up to a final, or competition winner. But it is not the only possible narrative format, and I don't believe the best one, leaving aside the deeper issues that are preventing it from gaining broader acceptance. Nevertheless, meaning, to me, means having a narrative, that puts each game into a context, whether that context is a tournament, or what is possibly the world's longest running sporting rivalry.

Idle Summers 26th November, 2009 19:03:03   [#] [0 comments] 

Season Review: 2008-2009
Russell Degnan

There is always a small pause in the test schedule in September, so, late or not, now is the right time to assess the last 12 months. It also saves me the trouble of extensive series reviews, given they aren't going to happen.

1st: Australia 1219.51 -127.84

A mammoth season, 17 games, 12 of them away to quality sides, 10 of them against teams pushing for the top ranking. A losing record in those circumstances is perhaps unsurprising, but for a team bred on success, this was a bad year, and the ranking drop reflected that. Injuries and loss of form in key players (most notably in Hayden, Hussey, Lee and Clark) haunted the team, and the inexperience and inconsistency typical of a young team stood out. On no less than four occasions good positions were squandered, in Bangalore and Cardiff for costly and series defining draws, and in Perth and Melbourne for soul-destroying losses.

On the other hand, the team that toured South Africa came back with a win and first place in the rankings restored. Johnson proved he could be deadly (if horribly inconsistent), Hughes his potential (if some way off in the future), Siddle, Hilfenhaus, Watson, McDonald and Hauritz as workmanlike but valuable contributors, and Clarke as capable of carrying the batting in times of strife. The loss in the Ashes was a horrible come-down, but the side has potential, and won't stray far from top spot.

2nd: South Africa 1217.08 +13.69

A topsy-turvy year. They played, almost exclusively, Australia. In a striking resemblance to how their foe used to play them, they turned horrible positions around to win the first two tests, before losing the dead rubber in a tight but meaningless draw, to gift Australia their first home series loss since 1992-93. An astonishing performance, but one diminished by the subsequent home loss as their batting fell to pieces in the first two tests. Their youthful team is exceptionally good, but they aren't able (yet) to draw on that strength when required, which would push them ahead of their rivals.

3rd: India 1182.48 +60.51

The stand-out improver of the past year, with a loss-less season across nine games, mainly through their superlative batting that was both aggressive enough to set up wins, and consistent enough to ensure draws when things went awry. There were moments of trouble, against all three of their oppositions, and they ultimately only won a single game more than they drew, which reflects poorly on their bowling (and their home pitches). But their batting has never been stronger, with Gambhir providing the perfect foil to Sehwag's fireworks, and Dhoni the aggressive intent missing from Kumble's captaincy. They might yet take the number one spot before the bating greats retire for good.

4th: Sri Lanka 1129.44 +23.63

Somehow third in the official rankings, but not here, not for flogging New Zealand and Bangladesh, or even overhauling Pakistan across four games, not when their only victories came at home. Sri Lanka are the new India, with four outstanding batsmen in Sangakarra, Jayawardene, Dilshan and Samaraweera, dependent on their spinners, exceptional at home, dismal away, and rarely playing with sufficient intent. The talent is there, even in the fast bowling ranks to do more, but the absence of longer, more meaningful, series hurts their chances of really proving themselves in all conditions.

5th: England 1104.09 -2.37

What to make of England's year? An honourable defeat to India, unable to bowl them out for 387 in the first test, with a draw in the second; but then an inexplicable defeat to the West Indies, with an astonishing collapse for 51 in the first test followed by a succession of draws thanks to lifeless pitches, unplayable surfaces, and spineless captaincy. Yet all that will be forgotten because they won the Ashes, turning three Australian collapses into two victories, and, when the Australian batting did fire, holding out for a draw. Strauss's batting aside, this English side isn't a patch on the 2005 edition, an observation best demonstrated by noting that the consistent but mediocre Cook was their second highest run-getter, and Graeme Swann their highest wicket-taker. The emergence of Broad as an all-rounder and Anderson as a leader bodes well for England, but they continue to give off the aura of a team of journeymen. The South African tour will be very revealing, about both teams.

6th: Pakistan 1073.6 -7.10

An odd year for Pakistan, they played five games, all against Sri Lanka, one of which finished in the most tedious of draws, one finished in a draw when both teams should have backed themselves for victory, two saw them collapse in horrible fashion to lose (once while chasing just 168), and the other guaranteed their home games will be played elsewhere for some time to come. Younis Khan aside, they feature barely at all in the list of run or wicket takers, and saw little change in their ranking. Such is life, one suspects, for a Pakistani cricketer. It should be little surprise that so many of the saw fit to play in the ICL.

7th: New Zealand 945.38 -67.44

After Australia, the worst ranking collapse this year, but from a much higher base. New Zealand played more teams than anyone this year, hosting West Indies and India, and touring Australia, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Yet in 11 games they registered just one win, and a relatively fortuitous victory at that, as Vettori single-handedly pulled a match out from under Bangladesh's nose. Yet, despite looking out-classed n most of their games, the emergence of Ryder, Taylor, Flynn and Guptill with the bat bodes well for a side that has long struggled at the top level. Like Pakistan, New Zealand are a somewhat marginalised team, easily led towards the riches of T20 domestic leagues, and desperately needing more consistent competition.

8th: West Indies 931.79 +15.32

After years of going backwards, the West Indies took one step forward this year, beating England at home (albeit with plenty of luck), but two big leaps backwards, looking hopeless when asked to follow up in the English spring, and then disintegrating (again) into a pay dispute that resulted in a loss to Bangladesh. Like New Zealand, they lack bowling depth, have inconsistent batsmen, and would rather be playing T20 (and in Dwayne Bravo's case, he was). If you ever wonder why people despair for the future of test cricket, point them at the West Indies.

9th: Bangladesh 571.38 +51.77

All it takes is one player to set things right. If New Zealand are a one man band, Bangladesh are a one man orchestra. Sure they are still rubbish, but this is a team moving forward, which is more than can be said for their cellar dwelling rivals. Shakib al Hasan's reputation as a good all-rounder grossly under-estimates his bowling too. Only Mitchell Johnson even came close to him this year, and at a far inferior average: 45 wickets in 8 games at 23.17 with five 5-fors is outstanding, especially when you're only getting one time out in the field in most games. His team still struggled at times, there is a huge gap in abilities between the top five and the bottom; the batting is still weak and prone to rashness, but the change in atitude is palpable, and that counts for a lot.

 2008 Rating2009 RatingChangeWinDrawLoss
South Africa1203.391217.08+13.69503
Sri Lanka1105.811129.44+23.63630
New Zealand1012.82945.38-67.44155
West Indies916.47931.79+15.32164

Idle Summers 24th November, 2009 20:33:04   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CLXXIX, November 2009
Russell Degnan

The Docklands wheel, prior to dismantling. Taken August 2009

Melbourne Town 23rd November, 2009 14:44:32   [#] [0 comments] 

A Manifesto for World Cricket
Russell Degnan

Previously: Part 1 a b

Part 1c. Expanding the Professional Playing Base

The previous two posts dealt exclusively with the need to allow an expansion of access to the international game. The financial realities of cricket, and indeed most sport, don't support an expanded international competition. The IPL, but more importantly, the ICL point to increasing pressures to expand the club based system.

With the current system of international cricket fixture dominating the coverage and therefore sponsorship and attendances, the total number of players making a living off their games (as opposed to being subsidised by their national team) is no more than a hundred. The system scoops the cream off the top of competitive cricket, and distributes the high earnings to an even smaller set of players: the top dozen players in Australia, England, India and South Africa.

This has ramifications for total potential earnings as well. TV coverage is limited to at most a dozen days worth of cricket footage (world-wide) per week, as are attendances, limiting international cricket to each stadium to less than a dozen days per year. By contrast, each major US domestic sport, operating in markets broadly similar in total size, but with closer to 30 teams competing, has upwards of five simultaneous games per day, and closer to fifty games per week (baseball, cricket's closest equivalent averages close to one hundred). Local fans therefore, get thirty or forty days of sport per year, which makes better use of facilities, allowing stadium expansion, producing several times the revenue, albeit dispersed across more players.

The now defunct ICL recognised this potential, and as became quickly apparent, players outside the big-four test sides were extremely interested in making 5-10 times their existing income playing in a league system. That the venture subsequently failed had to do with two things: the restraint of trade (or threat thereof) imposed on those players by their home boards; and the introduction of the IPL to partly assuage the players needs.

Cricket has long been subject to these types of ventures, and a future attempt is not unlikely unless the playing base is expanded significantly, most likely to upwards of 1000 well paid professionals, in at least three leagues (or conferences in a world league). Those types of numbers mean having around 50 teams playing T20 Domestic league cricket, for a minimum of 16 weeks per year.

That type of system has a number of advantages:

  • It reduces the burden placed on international cricket to fund domestic cricket, allowing fewer and more meaningful international fixtures and competitions
  • It gives fans much greater access to the game, making better use of facilities, and building a narratives around a season that will improve local attendances.
  • It gives scope for franchise opportunities in nations with substandard cricketers, allowing game development in those nations.
  • More players at a higher level will improve the general standard, improving international competition.

The economics of team sports strongly favour close contests and locally based teams that play week-in week-out in the same stadium. Cricket has survived and prospered despite itself, but the advent of T20 means there are both good reasons for making a change, and a ground-swell of public interest in doing so. The international game will not die, and may even prosper, if the ongoing grumbles over meaningless fixtures continue to rumble. The alternative is players retiring earlier from the international circuit, and non-international players shifting loyalties to wherever the money is, which is far more likely to damage the international game, and that would be a pity.

Idle Summers 23rd November, 2009 13:27:29   [#] [0 comments] 

A Manifesto for World Cricket
Russell Degnan

Previously: Part 1 a

Part 1b. Playing at the Highest Level

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idle Summers 18th November, 2009 15:56:29   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CLXXVIII, November 2009
Russell Degnan

Myer Music Bowl. Taken August 2009

Melbourne Town 17th November, 2009 11:54:42   [#] [0 comments] 

A Manifesto for World Cricket
Russell Degnan

Previously: Part 1

Part 1a. International Expansion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idle Summers 11th November, 2009 07:59:26   [#] [0 comments] 

A Manifesto for World Cricket
Russell Degnan

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

Part 1: What to achieve

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

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

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

a) It should be amenable to international expansion

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

c) It should expand the professional playing base

d) Games and series should be meaningful

e) Marquee (profitable) tours must be preserved

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

g) Regional rivalries should be built upon

h) Domestic and international cricket need clearly defined windows

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

Idle Summers 5th November, 2009 09:01:16   [#] [1 comment]