For Nostalgia’s Sake

Gideon Haigh’s statement in Death Of A Gentleman can be thanked for this piece and its anecdotal theories. Perhaps because it encompasses all of cricket’s major issues in one sentence, forcing myself, and many others i’m sure, to consider what role we as fans play in the ever-changing cricketing landscape. The statement I’m referring to is difficult to dismiss when you consider what its repercussions may be.

The fan, where he’s considered at all, is there to be monitised and to be exploited.

This statement perfectly sums up the mindset of cricket administrators and board members as they sit in their ivory towers sketching up tour schedules and fixtures. Not only are the fans suffering from quiet exploitation in these instances, the game and what it stands for is being taken for a ride by those who purport to care for it the most – cricket administrators. Take the recent scheduling announcements for Australia’s tour to India next February for example. One day after the final T20 game of the summer is played out at the SCG between what will be a patch work Australian side and Sri Lanka, the Test team will take on India in the first game of a four match test series. Compromise would have been put to good use in this situation, particularly had player welfare and the wellbeing of both formats been considered. But cricket’s power brokers don’t listen to compromise, they listen to whatever can maxamise profit to fill their coffers. Even if that means jeopardising the integrity, and therefore the significance, of a contest by spreading the available players across two nations. This is a small price to pay for significant financial gain. The one certainty is that both these games will draw substantial crowds, most of whom genuinely care about the result at the end of a day’s play. After all, these are the foundations on which cricket’s popularity, and sport in general, have been built. Without competition fans wouldn’t exist, or at least, they would have little reason to feign an interest. People give a stuff about their teams success and cricket’s governing bodies are wise enough to flex their muscles and cash in on their patriotism. This issue is systemic not only among cricket’s governing powerhouses, but on a global scale in a multitude of different codes. Look no further than the NFL Superbowl’s mid-game advertisements. This is fan monetisation on a grandiloquent scale.

Of course, without fans and their monetary contributions, the many systems in place to foster the next generation of cricketers wouldn’t be financially viable. The smaller, low-key domestic tournaments would also struggle to stand on their own two feet. It begs the question, are there other ways to generate revenue that don’t undermine the paying supporter or impeach the cricketing hierarchy? Take a look at the latest revenue figures for the ICC and its members and it’s hard to see how one might go about doing so. The ICC’s total revenue amounted to $453.6 million USD in the year of 2015. Without even so much as a glance towards the annual reports, one can assume a fair chunk of this came by way of television broadcast rights and associated advertising revenue. For the last two years, Australia have hosted India for a meaningless one-day series at the back end of the summer in order to make up the remainder of an exorbitant predetermined revenue figure. One which couldn’t be reached on the interest in the test series alone. On such occasions, CA’s annual balance sheet was reported to be worth up to $100 million more than normal. These figures suggest that games against India aren’t scheduled based purely on what the fan is interested in viewing, but instead on the income that is generated through their perpetual interest. The majority of which is derived from the cricket-obsessed sub-continent where the calibre of opposition makes only a slight difference to the allure of the contest, and hence the revenue garnered from the tour. CA assured us all at the beginning of this year that it would be open to sharing its windfall with the greater cricketing community. If we as fans are to be exploited, it’s good to see that our money isn’t being chauffeured around the hands of cricket’s big wigs and is going towards establishing firmer connections with associate nations. I remain positive that this might be the case despite the well documented corrupt goings on in world cricket; even if my optimism diminishes with every piece of news that serves to justify my cynicism.

I understand how processes at the head of the table work and why some decisions are essential, I’m not naive. I also recognise that cricket boards require financial assistance to cover the games many operating costs, and the easiest way for them to acquire the funds in an efficient manner is by selling us, the fan, to whoever is witty enough to recognise there is significant public interest in this sport. We’re their biggest asset. Their biggest bargaining tool. But the national team also represents the fans. Without our support, or existence for that matter, investors, advertisers and other sources of financial backing wouldn’t bat an eyelid because their portfolio wouldn’t be nearly as lucrative, and not nearly as attractive to the corporate window-shoppers. You know, the one’s who have taken a liking to the IPL. The one’s that crave untapped markets with great money generating potential and a guaranteed rise in target audience numbers. A greater following equals further reach for their company. Administrators know we’re not going anywhere though, no matter how obvious their disregard for our existence has become and how much we’d like them to begin making influential decisions on our behalf. Our love for the game will almost always persevere.

My anger over our treatment as ‘commodities’ reached its peak around the time CA released its schedule for the 2016/17 summer of cricket. Finding out that the GABBA will no longer host the first test of the summer really rubbed me up the wrong way. It may only be for this year, lord I hope so, but as a supporter and regular attendee of the GABBA test, this announcement further emphasised my point that cricket is no longer played for the fans as it once was, it is played for the shareholders and the corporate lackeys. When this trend began was probably around the time T20 cricket started to raise the eyebrows of investors and television broadcasters, even if its ties can be traced back to the Kerry Packer era and World Series Cricket where similar circumstances arose, but on a comparatively small scale.

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Memories of summers past…….This from last year’s first test against New Zealand

I have attended every GABBA test match since 2005 where as a young boy I witnessed the beginning of the demise of West Indies cricket. Brian Lara and Shivnarine Chanderpaul were still playing at this stage, while Mike Hussey was making a belated debut. But I won’t delve into the game or its major contributors too much as it doesn’t serve a purpose in the context of this piece. In 2016, the ritual of attending the first test of the summer has been taken away from me, and many other season ticket holders, for the sake of a day/night test match to be played during peak ratings season, which happens to coincide with the BBL. The GABBA has struggled to attract a crowd of note for some time now, not through lack of interest – although this is part of the problem – but primarily because games have been scheduled during a time of year where cricket doesn’t dominate the headlines. As a result, the first test of the summer has now made way for the first day/night test against Pakistan; the least anticipated test touring side despite their number two ranking. It’s a wonderful spectacle, i’ve written before about how much I think this restructuring will help attract a new breed of cricket viewer which, in the context of this piece, might help explain why the shifting of the GABBA test has finally come about after years of toing and froing and administrators suffering in silence.

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How much longer can we expect test cricket to last at this once widely lauded venue. Is a test snubbing nye? Or are we destined to remain the permanent site of day/night test cricket?

Holding a day/night test, the first of its kind in Brisbane, will not only guarantee a bigger crowd, but ensure advertisers aren’t missing out on what they are owed, and what with the ‘decline’ of test viewing numbers they’ve been deprived of for some time now. This is the whole reason the day/ night experiment was formulated. It wasn’t an edgy, attractive new time-slot aimed to please the masses and breathe life into an ageing format. It was designed to attract a wider audience and, in the process, maximise profit potential. This is fine. If interest in certain non-ashes contests is waining and the next generation of cricket fans are required to be weaned off the format in which they have become reliant, then a new structure must be instituted to ensure cricket survives an apathetic period. It’s the point at which the fans are undermined, and the performances of the national team compromised for the sake of television, that day/night cricket becomes less a quest for fan engagement, which it should be, and more a source of increased revenue in which boards use to appease their confidants. Even if the two are inextricably linked. A vested interest in the revamped day/night tests becomes apparent as soon as the above occurs, and immediately after the placement of these games becomes so sporadic that they are used only to boost profit margins.

The Australian team hasn’t lost a test match at the GABBA since 1988. It goes into this summer against a rampant South African unit that presents perhaps their biggest challenge since the Ashes of three seasons ago. The WACA is another venue in which Australia boast a very respectable winning percentage. Not necessarily against South Africa, and not nearly as impressively as at the GABBA, but the quicks have generally been able to trouble touring batsman through the utilisation of the WACA’s trademark bounce and pace. Australia has enjoyed great success over the years at both grounds, which makes the circumstances around this year’s GABBA shunning all the more conspicuous. Why should one be cast aside for the optimisation of the revenue sum when Australia require all the assistance possible from wickets that will cause the world class South African batting stocks great discomfort. Here’s our first real sign of the financial results being placed above the performance of the national team. A byproduct of day/night cricket’s efficient money making potential. I’ve no doubt that the WACA test would have also been made a day/night game had the time zones been ripe for the picking for broadcasters. They do, after all, seem to have a big say in the layout of the game’s scheduling.

I’ll leave you with this comment from ECB chief executive Tom Harrison, who appeared on TMS last week to discuss the reasons why next winters home series against the West Indies will feature a day/ night test at Edgbaston.

As much as anything, opening up a new audience for cricket is really what’s sitting behind this whole [D/N] proposal. How can we present the game in a way which appeals to different communities, different parts of the public and give them an easier and better way of getting to see cricket when they want to see it, either through television or turning up at games……Everything we are trying to do subscribes to that mantra of making cricket more accessible to more people, more of the time.

Are there ulterior motives at play here? Put the faltering West Indies into the mix and we’re not questioning the ECB’s motives, we’re proving them. The ‘opening up a new audience for cricket’ stance is a convenient facade to disguise the rarely publicised ‘day/ night test as a scantly trialled money spinner’ angle. Notice television was used in a way that suggests it compliments the accessibility factor, not that it was the chief supporter of its creation for reasons that benefitted both parties – cricket boards and broadcasters.

Day/night tests are one successful stint away from becoming the new saviour of cricket boards around the world.

Hughes inquest an unnecessary dredging of melancholy-filled past

Whatever your take on the events of last week’s coronial inquest into the tragic death of Phillip Hughes, three questions must be posed. Why, knowing the inherent dangers associated with the game, did we require a week-long investigation to establish the causes of a freak accident? Why was the apparent aim of the inquest to unveil the perpetrator of an ostensible crime? Why must the ‘nature of play’ and the negative stigma associated with cricket’s culture be attributed, or even considered as reason for Phil’s death? The inquest spent a week digging where it needn’t have. It accepted sledging as due cause and the precursor to the fatal blow when safety protocols and methods of prevention should have been the focal point of unremitting examination. Why for instance did it take two triple-0 calls and the ambulance fifteen minutes to reach the ground?

An inquest was inevitable. Indeed, it was necessary. That is if it had been conducted in the right manner. But for all the counterproductive discourses of blame that took place a piece of intelligible evidence, that could have changed our thinking towards safety, went by the wayside. Evidence that would have allowed something substantial to be taken away from the inquest without it looking like a meaningless witch hunt. The general consensus, considering all that’s been written across various media channels, is that the probing questions asked of the several cricketers served no other purpose than to allocate blame and appoint a scapegoat. This is the point at which the inquest ceased making a contribution towards a balanced conversation on preventative measures and began searching for villains, re-traumatising both the players and the Hughes family in the interim.

First came claims that the spiteful atmosphere, the sledging and the incessant use of the short ball all had a role to play in the delivery that felled Hughes. Whether words to the extent of those purportedly uttered by Doug Bollinger were spoken or not is largely irrelevant and had no bearing on the events that followed. They were contemptiple and border on reportable, but in no way did his spoken words carry their intended meaning. Sledging is a part of the game of cricket and has been for some time now. It’s a component of the game which should be placed under heavy scrutiny and have its morals questioned, particularly when these circumstances arise. But it didn’t contribute to the bowling of the bouncer that struck Phil on the neck. Sledging or no sledging, the outcome would have remained the same.

Hughes had a known weakness to the short ball. Logic tells us that a barrage of bouncers was the best way to counter his fluent run scoring. NSW made note of this and went about exploiting this frailty in a way that would bring about his dismissal. The intention behind a bouncer is not to injure, but to intimidate. It’s a tactic used in conjunction with a yorker to throw a batsmen’s footwork off kilter and bring about a false shot. Devastatingly, this ploy had fatal repurcussions in the case of Phil Hughes. A fatal blow wasn’t planned, it wasn’t an organised scheme, but it has reignited conversation around intimidatory bowling, which in itself has thrown up whole new can of worms. The bouncer rule will not, and should not change as a result of what’s happened. It’s a legitimate tactic, albeit an inherently dangerous one.

The nature of play was in many ways the crux of the issue, and the basis for which much of the inquest was founded. What is, and what isn’t within the ethical boundaries of the game in regards to sledging and behavior in general is even harder to grasp now than ever. The inquest provided no clarity on the matter, even if it attempted to make inroads at different stages. Mike-Graham Smith and Ash Burrow, the officiating umpires during the Shield game in question, were satisfied that the nature of play was not in breach of any laws of the game. Yet we spent a week arguing this point. Perhaps, had there been more trasparency around what constitutes foul-play in the game of cricket, less time would have been spent interrogating players on the sanctity of righteous play and more would have been spent addressing safety concerns. A universal set of safety standards would have better served the game than gossip around cricket’s professed cultural deficiencies. It’s the ambiguity around certain rules that led us to this line of discussion rather than to that of safety. Were some of the questioned players out of line? Under the current interpretation of the rules, it’s difficult to see how. Was the incessant use of the short ball and sledges in breach of any law? Absolutely not, but they might well have appeared so given the current understanding, or lackthereof, of the rules in place by certain sectors of the cricketing public.

The death of Phillip Hughes nye on two years ago affected me in ways too difficult to describe. It was heartbreaking, and made me question aspects of the game of cricket in ways I never had before. His death struck a nerve. Perhaps because his strength and tenacity at the crease is something i’ve always admired and hoped to replicate. There wasn’t a dry eye in my household when the funeral came on the television. Emotions were running high as Phil’s father carried his own son’s casket to its place of burial. That image will forever be lodged in my mind, as will the eerie feeling around cricket grounds in the weeks immediately following. My heart still bleeds for the Hughes family and friends. I wish there was something that could ease their pain. Unfortunately, the inquest didn’t come close to achieving this, even if its finding were never going to provide even the slightest consolation.

Phil was a victim of inadequate safety within the game of cricket, not of foul play. Preventative measures should have been the focus of the inquest. Instead, we were caught up in finding an explanation where there were none.

Vale Phillip Hughes, forever 63 Not Out.