The Development Fallacy in International Sport
Russell Degnan

You can always tell when England is playing Bangladesh. There is a deluge of articles questioning their ability to play test cricket, their speed of development, the quality of their first class infrastructure, and their right to stand on the same field as the flowering manhood of the British Isles (and South Africa).

There are two key fallacies at work behind these claims. The first is that a nation's first class cricket is, and more importantly, will be, the main determiner of a nation's ability at an international level. The second, more important one, is the idea that there is some "standard" that needs to be aspired to, and which teams must reach before they should be allowed to match their betters.

Both of these were addressed briefly as part of the Manifesto; the aim here is to take a more analytical approach, to show that inequality, even deep inequality, is the normal state of affairs. And by extension, that any claim that posits an unequal contest as a reason for not conducting the contest at all is mere elitism, detrimental to the game's development.


The international nature of domestic sport

Let's begin with a question. What is a greater force for globalisation in football: the World Cup, or the English Premier League? On the surface, the World Cup seems the obvious answer, but the case for the English domestic league is in some ways stronger. While all teams were able to contest World Cup qualifiers, only 32 teams will contest the finals, matching their skills against the best. By contrast, according to the EPL some 66 countries are represented in the domestic game. Unlike members of a national team setup, often burdened with limited funding and scant opportunities, the 300 plus foreign players are training with and playing against the best day in, day out. The closer the sporting world gets to a global labour market, the more domestic leagues act as forces for a global game, and the greater the likelihood that teams with limited resources will have an experienced playing base.

Cricket does not, and has not operated in a global labour market. Only county cricket was truly professional until recently, and only county cricket imported foreign players to improve their playing standard. Until twenty years ago, most of those professionals played test cricket, and it is notable that the three best sides of the 1980s: the West Indies, Pakistan and New Zealand, all had comparatively weak domestic competitions, but a strong connection to county cricket. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but in the years since international cricket became a year-round pursuit, those three teams have declined markedly, and the best teams are those with both depth in their domestic first class setup, and experience amongst their second elevens in the county game.

This is likely to change in the near future, however. Domestic cricket, fueled by T20, is now a richer pursuit for players in the small nations, than international cricket. Those teams, not bound by propriety to select from their local playing base, will improve the standard of play far beyond the boundaries of their national base. We can see this already in the county game, with respect to the European associates, where talent is being scouted from Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands and Denmark, taking advantage of European labour laws.

There is a serious consequence to this change however: the domestic leagues of the weaker teams - namely everywhere but India, England, Australia and to a lesser extent, South Africa - will get weaker, as players flood (as the Kolpak players are doing) into richer domestic leagues. Given what we already know about domestic leagues in Europe, based on the development of football, it is incredibly unlikely that any of the European associate teams will ever have domestic leagues of a first class standard. Every player of any skill, will follow the money to England, much as their footballing brethren do.

It is lunacy to expect anything else, and a fallacy to require, as the ICC does, that a team have a quality domestic league before they can be admitted to test cricket. It is perfectly feasible that a European team could be competitive with the other test sides without any sort of first class competition at home, provided they have a sufficiently large pool of players playing in the counties.


The unequal nature of domestic and international sport

It is exceedingly likely therefore, that the big-four domestic leagues will come to dominate the playing stock of world cricket, with the other leagues acting as feeders to the major competitions. This, certainly, is what happens in football, and is borne out in the results of European competition.

Football results are highly unequal, despite it being significantly easier a sport to get an upset in, and despite the greater depth that being a truly global game brings. Suppose we were to take the best seven European leagues: England, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, and (to a lesser extent) Portugal and the Netherlands; and the best three South American leagues: Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. The table below shows the astonishing regularity with which those nations win major competitions.

 Winsnon-Wins% WinsFinalistsnon-Finalists% FinalistsTotal
EC/Champions League51394.4%48688.9%91.7%
Copa Libertadores43786.0%302060.0%73.0%

European Championship9469.2%6746.2%57.7%
Copa America36685.7%291369.0%77.4%
World Cup180100.0%13572.2%86.1%

The last team from outside those few nations to win the European Cup was in 1990-91, when eastern Europe could still put out sides resembling their national team, and England was absent due to the Heysel ban. The European Championships are, by contrast, remarkably equal, for the reasons being argued: that having a high quality domestic competition is not necessary for international success, particularly if results fall your way.

Yet the international game is not much more equal, and it favours teams that can produce good domestic competitions. Not because it is necessary to have a good domestic competition. But because a good, meaning rich, domestic competition needs a large base of supporters, and therefore a large base of potential players to choose from. The same 10 nations mentioned above dominate international football, having won all ten World Cups, and been runners-up in every competition since 1962. The top ten teams in the rankings are not always drawn from those teams, but interlopers never stay there for long. Their success depends not on strength in depth, but in the fortuitous emergence of greats.

We see this in cricket as well. New Zealand is a naturally weak team, able to compete with a Hadlee or Crowe, but struggling badly in between times. Over a long enough time period their results will be no better than mediocre. The fallacy in having "test match status" is that by asking teams to reach and then maintain a standard represented by the best few teams in the world, is the equivalent of expecting footballing nations to match the results of Brazil, Italy and Germany. No amount of time or development money will make Denmark the equal of those three sides, but they can certainly match them, when fortune favours them with Schmeichel and a couple of Laudrups.

Test cricket's supporters must discard the idea that it is somehow special or different in terms of its inequalities, that prevent it from being inclusive of the sports smaller nations. An examination of results against the four largest sides in cricket (India, England, Australia and South Africa) shows remarkably similar inequalities as the results table for teams against rugby's big five (Australia, New Zealand, England, France and South Africa). Rugby is, if anything, less competitive, with no team having a better than 25% winning record, and only five passing 10%. The great difference is that, unlike cricket, rugby's big five occasionally deem it necessary to play teams outside the narrow confines of an elitist club, mostly saving them the trouble of hand-wringing over the performance of their weaker nations (though Italy seems to cop the Bangladesh treatment on occasion).

There is no great benefit in keeping potentially good teams away from test cricket, on the basis that they might not be able to sustain that level of achievement. It is almost certain, in fact, that they won't remain at that level, and any structure must allow teams to have their ups, and their downs, by playing most of their games against nations at their current level. Allowing more teams to play would add colour and interest to the sport, provide a base for growth in previously fallow fields, and allow Bangladesh to stand proud as the 9th best team in the world, not hang their heads in shame at being the worst. More importantly, opening up the competitive structure, will allow teams like Ireland, currently blessed with some talent, to challenge and defeat their traditional betters, even if they remain no match for the sport's powerhouses. A challenge they will never get to undertake, if they continue to be stymied by artificial and irrelevant constraints like the quality of their domestic league, or their future abilities.

Idle Summers 26th March, 2010 16:46:11   [#] 

Comments

The Development Fallacy in International Sport
True. The only reason why Ireland doesn't always summon the necessary strength to beat a top-flight team is 'cos they don't play all their matches with their best XI.

Even if they are given test status, someone will have to coax the likes of Australia and India to play them! :(
Thiru Cumaran  21st April, 2010 23:42:06