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   [#]