More than money – the dark underbelly of Australian Cricket’s pay dispute.

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Image Source: Cricket Country.

We have been told by those in the know that at some point over the next few days the pay dispute engulfing Australian cricket is set to be rectified. This is fantastic news on a number of fronts but the damage, it seems, has already been done. Not to those who are the poster boys of the Players’ Association – who have been unemployed for the better part of a month – but to those on the fringes of breaking into the Australian cricket team.

When news first broke that a settlement between the Players’ Association and CA had not been reached by the June 30 deadline, my mind immediately thought of the upcoming test tour of Bangladesh. Last time Australia were due to travel to the region, back in 2015, they pulled out due to security risks. This made sense because many other teams were doing the same and using the very same tired old excuses. All they had to do was go along with it and they got off touring scot-free.

This time around, however, the ‘security risk’ excuse doesn’t hold up thanks largely to England, and others, who have toured the region without consequence over the last year. So for CA to announce that their cricketers would not be touring again in 2017 due to the dangers posed by the countries citizens simply wouldn’t make an iota of sense. ‘England can do it but not you?’ – ‘Why?’

So Cricket Australia, looking for an out, decided that if the pay dispute was to extend beyond the tour of Bangladesh in August, it wouldn’t have to, let alone be able to, send its players to a faraway land where the chance of losing to a perceived second-rate team before the Ashes is high and the generation of revenue is the poorest of all the test series’ held across the globe.

Part of this conspiracy theory was the idea that the players had already signed an agreement with CA long before the deadline, and were keeping it under wraps until the day of the first test in Bangladesh rolled around.

Why my mind immediately thought of this as a plausible reason for the pay dispute that continues to ravage Australian cricket with every passing day goes to show just how money orientated I believe CA are. It made sense. Sign an under the table deal with the players long before the deadline but keep it hidden from the public until such a time as the tour of Bangladesh can be abandoned. That way the national team can avoid any undue scrutiny before the Ashes, the side will not undergo any reshuffling, and CA aren’t required to splash the cash on a tour that is unattractive to television broadcasters and hence will not fetch top dollar.

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Smith and Warner walking off the Gabba – Image Source: Perth Now.

Every angle you look at this pay dispute, you can tie it back to money. The players want more because they feel they are the ones that have grown the popularity of cricket and are therefore entitled to a greater slice of the pie that CA are currently keeping for themselves. They argue that without the product, the store cannot operate, let alone make a profit. So what would they sell to keep themselves afloat? A sponsor-less BBL featuring club cricketers?

From this stance it seems the players have all the bargaining power in this dispute. Think about it – if the players are still unemployed come a fortnight out from the first Ashes test in Brisbane, CA would lose sponsors, be forced to remunerate the fans the full price of their tickets, face an unwinnable court case with the ECB who will claim that both they and their players have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars (imagine that, a united front – players and administrators standing together for a common cause), and face the television broadcasters both here and abroad that will have also lost millions of dollars. Then there are the travelling supporters that would also be out of pocket. Court cases would pop up left, right and centre and CA would soon go bankrupt. So no, they will not let it get to this stage. Which makes you think, is this all just one big conspiracy?

For a sceptic like me it certainly appears this way. But there is more to this dispute than money. Players’ reputations, their futures in the game, are at stake. And I’m not talking about your Steve Smith’s and David Warner’s, I’m talking about your state cricketers who are next in line to crack the glass ceiling and make their debuts in the Baggy Green.

Most of them are still being payed to this point due to the fact the contracts they have with their individual states were signed long before the dispute began. But they are the ones that are going to suffer the most if it continues to drag out beyond the end of this month. In fact, as I said in the opening paragraph, they have suffered enough already.

Australia A were set to tour South Africa last month but due to the pay dispute, players followed through on their threats and opted against travelling in the interest of their quest for increased salaries. You might argue that, given it was the players choice to call the tour off, they have dug their own graves and now must lie in them if they fail to score runs over the coming season and miss out on ever playing for Australia, or make another A team. This A tour might have been a breakthrough series for some members of the squad. The kind of series that suddenly puts you on the selector’s radar. Whatever the case, the bottom line is you chose not to tour and must suffer the consequences.

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James Sutherland Addressing the media. Image source: Cricket Country.

There are a few reasons why this shouldn’t be how we look at it. Firstly, like workers from the local milk factory on strike, you stand as one. Every member of the factory must fight for the same cause or its messages will be far less potent. Say Bill, Eric and 10 others decide not to stand arm in arm with their fellow colleagues on the main road outside the factory while the other 50 workers are waving pickets and hoisting flags, and opt instead to continue operating the cap sealing machine because they are trying to pay off their respective mortgages. What is the employer likely to do? If it was financially viable, they would either sack those outside picketing on the spot and replace them with fresh workers, or give them an ultimatum – return to work now on the same income or face unemployment. For some workers, just like those state cricketers looking to crack international cricket, they cannot afford to spend their days browsing the want ads. Therefore, standing as one becomes their only option.

So I pose the same question as I did before: can you really blame the players for pulling out of a tour when their peers are pressurising them into doing so?

Imagine you’re a young cricketer who has been selected for Australia A after just a few seasons of first class cricket. This is your opportunity to shine. An opportunity to show the selectors that when Warner and Smith are too old or losing form a few years down the track, you are the man for the job. But the senior players of the A squad are discussing the dispute and that, no matter what happens, we must stand together or miss out on a pay rise that we are more than entitled to. Of course, you’re going to conform. Stray from the group and there is the risk you will be offside with the future captain of Australia, maybe even your future opening partner. As a young player you have no choice.

But opting to accept the views of the group in the interest of remaining loyal to your fellow players is just as damaging to your reputation as not going on that tour at all. The selectors won’t see you. It might be the one and only opportunity you had to make an impression. Injury might strike a season later, slowing down the speed you once possessed with the ball in hand or ruining your timing with the bat.

How can a player possibly push their case if they aren’t playing any cricket under the very structures that have been created to identify cricketers of the future? The members of the Australian A squad are, after all, the heirs to the Baggy Green throne.

This is why the pay dispute is cutting scars deeper than first thought. We can all form conspiracies around why money is the driver of both parties, but this would be to miss the point completely.

The dispute is damaging more than just the players’ hip pockets – it is damaging careers.

The links between television and the games’ growth cannot be understated

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The Kerry Packer legacy lives on today. Photo: Daily Telegraph

Last Wednesday marked 40 years since the Kerry Packer circus revolutionised the game forever. In many ways, Packer and Channel Nine are in part responsible for cricket as we know it today: flashy, colorful, high octance and perhaps most importantly, giving players the opportunity to accrue wealth beyond their wildest dreams. The television rights for the IPL are so expensive that broadcasters in Australia, who have already outlaid a great deal of cash for home test matches and the month-long BBL bonanza, simply cannot afford them. Elsewhere, in countries such as the UK, New Zealand and even the United States, you’ll need to pay a pretty penny for a pay tv subscription to gain access to the marvels of a Rising Pune Supergiant runchase, or to see a young, uncapped Indian spinner being blasted to all parts of the ground by Virat Kohli, much to the delight of an adoring crowd.

The point here is that television, and its vast riches, rule cricket and has done so for some 40 years now. The IPL, BBL and every other t20 franchise tournament around the globe would be nowhere without the revenue generated through exorbitantly priced television rights deals negotiated between cricket boards and broadcasters. Take away the popularity of the shortest form though, and those television rights would be worth a duck egg. Packer, gifted with a once in a generation business mind and the kind of stubbornness that would rarely see him fail to close a deal with favourable outcomes for Nine, identified 40 years ago that the fan should be the television networks biggest priority because without them, he would be at a loss and, though this wasn’t his modus operandi, so would cricket.

So he got to work designing a competition that would suit television and benefit his media empire. Shortly after losing out on securing the rights to Australian test cricket in the 1970’s, he realised that the game was falling behind. Television audiences were down and, for a businessman as sharp of wit and money obsessed as Packer was, saw to it that these circumstances be rectified.

Limited-overs cricket was soon conceived, a format that promised to maximise viewership through its television friendly sessions of play. Unlike a Test match, fans could park themselves in front of the TV and take in a game in just a few hours, rather than having to wait five days for a result to eventually be reached. This made perfect business sense. Nothing would hook the viewer in more than a game featuring multiple flashpoints that reaches a crescendo shortly before tea time. It was a television goldmine, but further tinkering was still required.

Not yet content with the outcomes of his newly formed competition, Packer and his associates at Nine decided they needed to try something rash, something that would completely change the complexion of cricket and dramatically increase viewing numbers to a level that would sustain profitability. They achieved this by introducing white balls, coloured clothing, floodlit cricket and, perhaps most notably, by giving players rock star paychecks to secure their signatures and tie them down to World Series Cricket. To this day we are still seeing large sums of money lure players away from their commitments at county and international level. Ben Stokes was payed 1.7 million pounds at the last IPL auction and missed two matches for England against Ireland just over a week ago, as did Jos Butler and Chris Woakes. They chose instead to stay on with their IPL franchises, a contentious decision but one that is becoming less so as a result of the regularity with which it now occurs.

It is quite clear that the old school values and practices Packer introduced all those years ago as part of his master plan still live on in the t20 age. He was well before his time in this regard, which probably explains why many believed he was the godfather of cricket and the games’ most influential figure. But we shouldn’t overlook what allowed the humble ‘Supertest’ to develop into the world renowned one-day phenomenon that is still in operation today. The links that can be drawn between what made the Packer empire tick, and what is currently allowing the T20 format to flourish and reach the untapped markets, are there for all to see.

Television is, of course, cricket’s single greatest asset and the ECB must realise that the wealth boards around the world have made from T20 has not been gained through sponsorship’s and ticket sales, but through broadcast rights. If they take one lesson from Packer and the success he had, it is this: cricket fans of all classes, as well as those with only a rudimentary understanding of the game, must be exposed to the sport on a regular basis otherwise it will ultimately fail in its pursuit of increasing revenue and garnering interest amongst the general population. Whether this is achieved through airing it on terrestrial television, or by selling subscriptions at a low cost to the owners of smartphones and/or tablets on an app dedicated to county cricket, one thing is certain – Sky can no longer hold the monopoly. For far too long cricket lovers have been forced to pay through the nose to watch Alastair Cook open the batting for England, or to see up and comer Mason Crane master his craft at Hampshire. If not, they might catch a short glimpse of the days play on Channel Five’s one hour highlights package. What this has achieved though is not of benefit to the ECB, nor the marginalized supporter base. How can the game grow if up to two-thirds of the population cannot access it?

While Packer did not have to co-exist with Pay TV in the 1970’s, he still understood that if nobody is tuned-in, the product is worthless to corporate investors or sponsors and will eventually die off. That is the direction the ECB is headed. And that is why they must ensure the new city-based competition is made available to all audiences on terrestrial television. If the fan, or the channel surfer looking for some entertainment over dinner, is not aware that a game between London and Southampton is on because it has been hidden behind a pay-wall, then the outcome for the ECB is an obvious one: the tournament will not earn enough money to continue operation and will be worthless to television broadcasters, which, as we know, play an enormously influential role in the game’s popularity. It’s a loss-loss situation for the ECB.

When the BBL came into existence six years ago, Foxtel, Australia’s number one Pay TV service, held exclusive rights to the tournament. After a brief period of success during the opening season, interest began to fade, signaling the end to a short lived honeymoon period where, despite disappointing viewership figures, CA caught a glimpse of what this league was capable of. In 2013, the rights were secured by free-to-air television network Channel 10, and the potential CA saw in its brief vigil on Pay TV was finally realised. Since its transition to the FTA network, the league hasn’t looked back and interest continues to peak. It is any wonder it took CA close to a decade to realise that making the Big Bash available to just over 50 percent of the population would mean it would struggle for an audience. You have to question whether changing it from a state based competition to a tournament played between contrived and bizarrely named city teams made any difference whatsoever, or whether it was purely the fact that the whole of Australia now had a means by which to watch it. Common sense seems to get thrown out the window a lot these days by cricket boards when it comes to growing the game.

The counter argument to all of this is constantly repeated by cynics: “If the competition is worth the same amount on Pay TV as it is on FTA, what incentive does the ECB have to offer it to a terrestrial network? The answer to this is, of course, dependent on how you define worth. Sure, the monetary value of the television rights might well be equal no matter who purchases them, but its worth to the viewer decreases dramatically when hidden behind a pay-wall. And without an audience, the television rights will not appreciate in value nearly as much as they could if it was televised for free. Just like interest in theater would decline if there was to be a sudden hike in ticket prices, or if certain blockbuster movies were only screened in a select number of cinemas. This is what the ECB is doing – confining it to the households of a small minority, effectively reducing how much it can make at the box-office.

When Channel Ten purchased the rights to the BBL five years ago, they payed just $100 million for a five-year deal. That value has now more than doubled, with the rights expected to be sold for around $250 million when they are put up for sale next year. Exposure counts. Packer realised this forty years ago and yet cricket boards are still in the dark over the fruits of free-to-air television. The T20 game is built for broadcast, just as World Series Cricket was during the 1970’s, so why can’t it be a driver of growth?

Some may say that by taking this approach we risk selling out the game and turn it into something no more attractive or unique than a Wednesday night soap-opera. But the ECB must stop stalling and take a risk that will see them rejoin the pack of cricketing boards who have welcomed the broadcast of T20 on FTA with open arms and reaped the rewards.

BBL popularity a product of Scorchers’ success

It was pleasing to see the Perth Scorchers romp to victory over the Sixers in last night’s BBL decider and lift the trophy for the third time in the competitions six-year history. As a Brisbane fan, you might think that I’m still bitter from Friday nights epic which saw the Sydney based franchise overcome the Heat on their home patch, in front of a record-breaking domestic crowd and during a super-over that had more twists and turns than a Bollywood drama. But I’m not. Last night typified exactly why this competition continues to go from strength to strength in terms of popularity while other t20 competitions around the world are stagnating. Teams like the Perth Scorchers, on beautifully sunny summer evenings at intimate grounds like the WACA, are what defines the competition. The three trophies the Scorchers now have stowed away in their trophy cabinet have not only set a precedent for the other franchises, but layed the foundations for future rivalries, traditions and has given the BBL a sense of history and context.

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Perth Scorchers, three titles in four years.

Given that t20 domestic league fixtures give fans instant gratification, but rarely last long in the memory, shows what the success of the Perth Scorchers in the third, fourth and sixth edition have done to give the BBL a platform from which it can grow its brand, allowing the fan to buy into the history of a contrived competition whose aim will always be to raise revenue and subsidise the less popular formats, but has managed to grow an unprecedented backing simultaneously.

Next year the competition will grow, with CA confirming in the days just past that each team will play an extra game, increasing the competition from 32 matches to 40. This is a win for both the fan, who craves more of the history that this years’ BBL has created, and the administrators, who use it as a vehicle for increased revenue and participation rates. Only one of the aforementioned by-products doesn’t promise to trigger a self implosion.

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A packed Gabba crowd watch the opening BBL fixture.

The Australian Open TV ratings have been smashed by those of the Big Bash this year and this comes as no surprise when you consider how CA have marketed its love child. The casual tennis fan couldn’t recall who won the 1976 Australian Open because its history, while steeped in glory, stretches right back to just after the turn of the nineteenth century and not a lot has changed since. Not the coverage, the fan or the structure. The BBL, on the other hand, is hip, modern and resonates with the young and old because of team’s like the Perth Scorchers, that have given a previously listless competition relevance and delivered excitement around match results in an era where immediacy determines a viewers enjoyment levels.

For now, the Big Bash will be in the back of our minds as the end of the cricket season signals the rather swift transition into the marathon football season which begins to warm up next weekend. But as soon as the 2017/18 competition rolls around – with its new look and expanded geographical reach that keeps it from becoming repetitive and hence unattractive to the viewer who tunes into the cricket for one and a half months every year – all of the memories of season’s past return to give the competition context, prompting excitement in a way that only test matches against the big three have been able to previously.

Technological innovations are both a blessing and a curse for t20 cricket

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Brad Hodge on the mic during the IPL – Photo: Wisden India

Cricket has a lot to thank for the introduction of various technological innovations that have made the t2o format a more engaging and entertaining product. From helmet cams – that were brought in as a way of allowing the viewers to share the players view from the sanctity of their own living room – to on-field mic’s – which have allowed each and every person that tunes into the television coverage to get a sense of what is going through a captains mind, or what area of the ground a batsman is looking to target – cricket has gone through many different stages of development and now looks more technically savvy than ever. These have led to some of the most memorable moments in the brief history of t20 franchise cricket. But just last week, BBL host broadcasters Channel Ten crossed the fine line that divides entertainment and contest integrity, which must be upheld if the hit-and-giggle format is to maintain a semblance of legitimacy and be taken seriously.

The access to the players that Channel Ten and their viewers are granted during each contest is groundbreaking and undoubtedly one of the great pleasures of tuning into a franchise slog-fest. Listening to Kevin Pietersen as he describes his approach to the art of batting, albeit in the t20 format, is as close as you can get to a money can’t buy experience and gives both the casual observer, who mightn’t have the foggiest idea about the intricacies and strategies behind scoring runs, and the traditionalist a unique insight that helps one study their own approach against that of a well-trained professional who has succeeded at the top level. But the on-field mic, which was designed for t20 cricket and has become a mainstay ever since, is a gimmick that should remain exclusive to t2o cricket. There is no place for it in the longer formats where a players attention must go undivided and where, like stealing pages from the playbook, on-field comments could be noted down and used to strategise in the oppositions next team meeting. Fancy having David Warner or Alastair Cook micd up during the first over of an Ashes test match. The players piecing together their thoughts and emotions like a jigsaw puzzle in a pressure cooker environment would be a remarkably insightful experience, but its hard to argue that it would not have some kind of influence on their concentration levels or put their decision making off kilter. And that’s without even mentioning how tacky and modern it would make the coverage of a traditional rivalry, which thrives off the charm of its history, appear to the millions of viewers that expect the cricket be played in its purist form.

The events of last week, which saw a Channel Ten commentator deliver statistics to the micd up Brad Hodge at a crucial junction during the BBL clash between the Thunder and Strikers, caused a stir amongst fans and led to CA issuing a rather candid statement, but, quite strangely, failed to mention that they would be taking any action on the matter. It is also the perfect example of why player mics, helmet cams and anything that may influence or change the course of events should be limited to the shortest form only, ensuring that the integrity of a game is never compromised by stats, dossiers or otherwise.

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The scene of the crime

The comments made on air rolled heads at the time they were made, including that of Kevin Pietersen who has been vocal on the need to ensure that the entertainment factor of t20 cricket is upheld at all times as this is, by and large, what has allowed the format to reach out to a new audience. But even his umbrage towards the exchanging of information was plain to see when he repeated the phrase ‘very naughty’ and began to giggle uncontrollably as Brad Hodge signalled to Ben Laughlin that he would be bowling to his ‘bunny’ Shane Watson in the very next over.

Of course, players are given access to the kind of data that was disseminated to Brad Hodge by the Channel Ten commentary team before each game and its hard to imagine that he wasn’t already aware that Shane Watson had a weakness to the off-pace bowling of Ben Laughlin. Particularly when the statistical outlier is so obvious it would be staring the teams’ statistician in the face when he runs through the ‘Form Guide’ in the lead up to the game. But the fact that the information which passed hands changed the course of events, and was given during a crucial period in the game by a third party that has no business in relaying information to players, makes this an easy case to solve.

Setting up a network between well informed commentator and under pressure captain is not what we want to see the player mics used for. Just like we wouldn’t want our footballers to be tipped off about a goal kickers record from a particular angle prior to a conversion attempt by Ray Warren or Phil Gould. Not only would it detract from the legitimacy of the game, it could change who steps up to take the kick.

The role of the broadcaster is to educate the viewer if they manage to stumble upon a statistical anomaly in their dimly lit commentary box that looks more like the Big Brother confession chamber than a place of opinion filled by those who are most qualified to comment. They mustn’t abuse their access to the big name players or have that privilege taken away from them like a misbehaving spoilt child who has their favourite toy confiscated by their parents. Channel Ten have done wonders for the game of cricket in this country and their coverage and commentary is to be applauded. But their ignorance and inexperience in this case has shown that cricket’s broadcasters must tip toe with caution across the tightrope that divides technological innovations and the integrity of a tournament that is quickly gaining validity amongst fans, but continues to have some of the traditional rules and regulations bent because its primary goal is to entertain the masses and maximise revenue.

Homework-gate Confidential – #02 – the selection circus returns

If we were to judge the Australian selectors on the success rate of their last five years, what grade would they receive? Over this period, the Ashes have been lost three times and won just once. The tour to India in 2013 had more scandals and selection backtracking than Australia had wins. And there seems to be less understanding now around why a player is selected, and the grounds on which he was given an opportunity, than ever before thanks to the decline of Shield cricket and the failure of selectors to acknowledge and reward standout performers with a spot in the test side. Which probably explains why their hit-rate, as in the number of players they’ve unearthed who have found success at test level versus the number that were unsuccessful in their attempt and subsequently dropped, has reached an all time low and the out of favour fan looks at their selection methods as if they were made on a bingo card under a big top – intended of course, as they are, to find competent test cricketers, not irritate fans to the edge of enrolling in an anger management class.

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Trevor Hohns – Australia’s interim chairman of selectors

The sixteen-man squad to tour India, which was announced yesterday morning, included another selection that has the potential to make the selectors look foolish, being that this particular player – Mitch Swepson – was selected based on his performances in the BBL rather than his fourteen game first-class career, which, might I add, looks promising, but by no means prolific. Just as Matthew Renshaw’s did at the time of his selection. As much as it may appear like a huge gamble with all the makings to turn sour quicker than out of date milk and throw the series into a crisis situation, it could also turn out to be the straw that breaks the back of an established Indian side that has been troubled by touring spinners on just one occasion in their past twenty home series. So, you’ve got to try something, right? And this approach just about sums up the happy-go-lucky selection committee, who take more risks than a gambler but manage to stumble upon the odd winner from time to time. Mitch Swepson’s selection, though, may be based more on logic than any of those made in the aftermath of the Hobart test which saw Australia slump in a humiliating fashion to their second loss in a three match series.

I mentioned in the first Homework-gate confidential that Australia needed to consider taking a leg spinner to India if they wanted to challenge them. England gave Adil Rashid the opportunity on their most recent visit in December of last year and he let no one down, including those who were advocating he be left out of the side for reasons ranging from ability and discipline, to personal vendettas. 23 was the number of Indian wickets he took in a series that exhibited to the world that Kohli and his men can be beaten at their own game.

There is also little vision on Mitchell Swepson, other than the odd Big Bash over, and in an age where much of the teams preparation relies on visual examination, the lack of footage may unsettle the Indians and the element of surprise will pay dividends for selectors.

But just as you’re about to praise them for their bravery in taking the path less traveled by selecting a mystery leg-spinner, they go ahead and second guess themselves by leaving out Sydney test bolter Hilton Cartwright and re-selecting Mitchell Marsh in a move that makes them look less confident in their ability to choose a side than they do in finding a permanent chairman. Why choose Cartwright for a sole test match when your intention was always to go back to Mitchell Marsh in India? Maybe he was selected so that they could prove themselves right, by proving themselves wrong. Or maybe his white ball form for the Perth Scorchers was so red hot that it would look idiotic to leave him out now that t20 cricket forms the ideal barometer for test match selection. If that is the case, they must have missed how he was dismissed at the Gabba in the first ODI game against an off-spinner who would struggle to spin the ball less than a tenth of what Ashwin or Jadeja can in conditions that barely resembled the Indian dust bowls he will have to negotiate with his hard hands and penchant for scoring at a quick rate that, by virtue of the alien conditions, is fraught with danger.

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Australia’s selectors are putting their money on red and riding their luck when it comes to picking players for the Indian test tour.  

If this bizarre conundrum isn’t enough to make you think twice about the selection circus, maybe this will. The man who turned heads three and a half years ago at Trent Bridge, where he waltzed out to bat at number eleven and showed up the Australian batsman by thrashing the mighty English seam attack around the park to finish on 98, has also been included in the squad. Ashton Agar’s inclusion all those years ago will go down as the most brazen and unanticipated selection moves of the last decade, if not all time. The selectors went weak at the knees when they heard about this fresh faced off-spin bowler England had never heard of and took a huge leap of faith, handing him a Baggy Green in an Ashes test to give him a dose of reality. And now, as if by clockwork, he’s making his return after a few seasons plotting a career path back into the Australian side with Western Australia where he has taken sixteen wickets at 27.81 in the first half of this year’s Sheffield Shield. Only John Holland has tallied more wickets as a spinner, but the chance he was given in Sri Lanka, and the unfavourable results he produced, has made him undesirable in the sub-continent this time round.

All of the above says we should be saying kudos to the selectors for their rewarding of sterling performances at domestic level. Because at times this season, it seemed as though they were going with their gut feel when deciding between two potential candidates rather than using Shield performances as the deciding factor. Nic Maddinson being picked over Kurtis Patterson and the desperately unlucky Callum Ferguson is a case in point.

The selectors have also gone with a spin-heavy squad, which suggests that they have learnt from their mistakes and are looking to make amends for their past errors in judgement which have seen Australia on the receiving end of multiple sub-continent maulings. On the flip side, however, they’ve given a lifeline to Glenn Maxwell and, as previously mentioned, Mitchell Marsh who have both been poor in the sub-continent when given an opportunity previously. This says three things about the selectors: they’re more forgiving of past sins than a Catholic saint; have memory spans akin to that of a gnat; or perceive a lack of all-round depth at first-class level and are unwilling to explore all their options during a series against the other two big three nations because the fourth estate guillotine looms large and threatens to drop in a heartbeat if things go wrong. Even though they have taken this risk in the past and have come out the other side wounded, but alive to tell the tale. Maybe this is another example of them righting a past wrong in the most obscure way possible.

They’ve made it difficult for themselves to be liked by a rapidly disillusioned public who are sick to death of seeing them dig in the same spot without striking oil, but persevering anyway. If the slipper doesn’t fit, it generally means they aren’t right for test cricket. Even if the prevailing illusion is that their Prince Charming can squeeze into the mould and make it work with Cinderella if given enough opportunities.

At the moment it feels like the selectors are working on the notion that a successful selection call counteracts the devastating effects of a draw dropping and unwarranted one. Take, for example, the selection of Matthew Renshaw and the picture his early detection paints of the panel that threw him into the middle of the Indian Ocean with nothing but a life preserver named David Warner and told him to find his way back to dry land. Of course, it looks like a masterstroke, but it could have so easily gone haywire if Renshaw was not up to the task given that he was contracted to repair a sinking ship as an apprentice, under lights and in a test match that would have sent shock waves through the Australian camp and put them on high alert for the series against Pakistan if it were lost. You even forget for a moment that he was replacing Joe Burns, who was thrown a lifeline following an injury to Shaun Marsh for the second test against South Africa in Hobart, only to be sorting through the wreckage of a South African torpedo three days later. But how long can the pin the tail on the donkey exercise of squad selection remain and how many nauseating swings and roundabouts will we go through before things change? There’s no such thing as perfection when it comes to selection, but there should be consistency and a willingness to cut players loose if they’ve been given multiple opportunities but have never stepped up to the plate as far as performance is concerned.

2016 Christmas Review – Australia’s roller-coaster year and other musings on the game

It’s that time of year once again where we must take stock of the past 12 months and look forward with renewed optimism to 2017 and the challenges that lie ahead.

Australia have had a relatively unsuccessful year across all three formats and next season – which includes a home Ashes series, a tour to India and a Champions Trophy in England – doesn’t look like giving them any respite whatsoever. Smith, Warner and Khawaja have been at their usual best while the rest of the side is almost unrecognisable when compared to the XI from this time last year. As I’ve written about extensively in these pages over the past 12 months, Australia is in the middle of a transitionary phase and we must embrace every change no matter how mind boggling and unjustified they may seem at first. It had to happen eventually, and 2016 will forever be remembered as the year it did, which isn’t so bad when you consider that it occurred at the end of a three-match test series against South Africa, and not three games into an Ashes series played in England. The outpouring of grief would have been far worse and the series far longer had they occurred in these circumstances, I’m sure.

We’ve seen two players come out of this changing of the guard who are more than capable of forging long and prosperous careers at test level and another who couldn’t find it within him to convert his first-class form into a glimmer of hope at test level, but will almost certainly find his way back into the Baggy Green in future. That being said, the real test will lie in India where they’ve probably not toured before and will be unsure of what to expect. Ashwin is the gift that keeps on giving and the form he’s shown this year verges on superhuman. Australia don’t have the batting depth nor the experience to score match winning/saving totals when Ashwin is let loose on the bunsen burners that will be requested by the Indian side. Let’s not pretend that we do. When half the side hasn’t yet played a test match in the sub-continent, expecting Australia to win is like backing a group four horse against Black Caviar during her pomp. A victory is nigh on an impossibility.

Sri Lanka hurt Australia’s hopes of returning to where they were and what they achieved for a brief period under Ricky Ponting’s guidance in the sub-continent a few years back and the players that are left from the last tour to India four years ago – and there are very few – wouldn’t have the fondest memories, nor a burning desire to return to the scene of their mauling on similar terms.

England showed fight in India, at times, but they have a more established and settled side than Australia and still couldn’t put together a complete, match-winning performance. This is a danger sign that must be heeded. What state Australia will be in at the conclusion of a four-test series that could feel like a 10 kilometer marathon for the players is anyone’s guess. But the pessimist in me says more reshuffling is on the horizon.

This has gone away from the point a little, though, and I’m probably looking too far ahead given there is still two crucial games to play in the test series against Pakistan and a mountain of one-day cricket, at home and away, to get through before India should even be considered.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the trend-setting BBL as it is without a doubt, as my piece yesterday confirmed, the cricketing equivalent of the Mardi Gras festivities and has major implications for the future of cricket, and sport at large, in this country. From the five games I’ve seen so far, the Renegades and Hurricanes look to be the front runners while the Heat, with their strong top order bolstered by NZ’s Brendon McCullum, are the quiet achievers that will sneak up on the marquee clubs and challenge for the crown.

The Renegades didn’t win a single game at their home ground last year and it was this statistic that probably cost them a spot in the finals. They romped to victory over the Thunder at Etihad two nights ago to break this hoodoo and start the ball rolling. How they manage when they lose Aaron Finch and his other henchmen to the Australian ODI side will dictate how deep they go in this tournament.

Hobart haven’t experienced great success across the five years of this competition to date but looked like genuine contenders yesterday afternoon at the SCG. Hobart’s top order – Paine, Short, Sangakkara and Bailey – are the key’s to their success and will make the final if they can bat in the very same fashion as last night. Paine and Short sparked the fire at the top and it was continued by starts from each of the remaining batsman, allowing them to pass 200 – a score that is barely chaseable in the shortest form unless the opposition gets off to a flier in the powerplay. In Tait they have an experienced and wily fast-bowler with a knack for taking wickets at regular intervals. He is more important to this Hurricanes side than many would have you think.

It is such a difficult tournament to predict, the BBL, because the very nature of t20 cricket can swing momentum against a side that is seemingly ahead in the game, while the margin between a sides best and worst performances are generally world’s apart from one day to the next because of these small, yet influential, moments. Test and One-Day cricket cannot be decided by an over or a single wicket. But t20 most certainly can. We’ve already seen evidence of this in the opening round of the BBL. Hobart are a side without too many Australian representatives and will hence go without interruptions for the entire season. But again, a lot rides on ‘the Wild Thing’ Tait and their experienced batting line-up to chip in each game.

There are also a number of rule changes set to make their mark in 2017 and it will be interesting to see what differences, if any, they make to the ever-evolving shape of cricket. The monitoring and policing of bat width, size and depth is a major change from the MCC who have remained steadfast in their approach to the farcical bat size debate for some time. I doubt it will make much difference if these restrictions do come into effect, however, as the reduction of width to 35mm will still allow players to clear the ropes as often and as far as has become the norm. But could we see the miss-hits, that so often sail for six, be caught by the boundary sweepers? It would make the death overs in the shorter forms a far more interesting phenomenon.

We wouldn’t see, however, the kind of unrestrained late innings assaults from the likes of AB De Villiers and MS Dhoni that have given one-day and t20 cricket a significant fan base. The game deserves a form of balance between bat and ball, there is no question. But we must tread carefully if we wish to see a continuation of the current shots that bring about big sixes and scores of over 200 in the shorter formats. These are, after all, what brings the fans to the ticket booths. If players start to question their ability to clear the fielders patrolling the fence and cease playing these strokes out of fear for loosing their wicket, there will be a worldwide change in mindset and a major shift in how to approach an innings. T20 cricket would be but a shadow of its former self and interest would follow suit as a direct result. The shorter forms are designed to accommodate big hitting and the excitement. Let the bats remain as they are now.

Without further ado, here is the best Australian XI for 2016. Players have been selected from all three formats (I feel like this shakes things up a bit more) based on the following criteria:

  • Performance (Runs, wickets, catches). Game situation has been considered.
  • Consistency (how often has the player made a contribution in a winning side).
  1. David Warner (ODI, Test, T20). Had another outstanding year with the bat in all formats and is quickly becoming one of Australia’s finest opening batsmen. Much rides on whether he sets the tone during the opening test matches of the bigger series against India and England. Has a big role to play in developing his young partner Matt Renshaw who he must guide through the minefield that is the Indian tour and Ashes.
  2. Aaron Finch (ODI, T20). Comes in at the top of the order due to the axing of the inconsistent Joe Burns and injury to Shaun Marsh. Is well down on form in the ODI format and hasn’t produced the fireworks that we’ve come to expect in the t20 arena which has seen him without a game since the beginning of the WT20. Still, due to a lack of options, he earns his spot atop the batting order in Australia’s best XI for 2016.
  3. Usman Khawaja (Test, T20, ODI). Struggled in Sri Lanka and has a big job on his hands in India where he was dropped by then coach Mickey Arthur for misbehavior. Is achieving Bradman-esque feats on home soil and was a match winner in the series against the West Indies (January 2016) and New Zealand (February/ March 2016). Might stake his claim for re-selection in the ODI squad later this summer if his Test form continues.
  4. Steven Smith (Test, ODI, T20). Is under a bit of pressure to perform as captain following a close call in Brisbane but has shown that he is Australia’s most indispensable man with the bat. The fact he couldn’t lead his side to gain the all-elusive WT20 crown, and his recklessness at times during the Sri Lankan tour, are the only marks that can go against his name. His one-day form is crucial going into a year that includes the Champions Trophy.

The final seven will be posted in the days leading up to the new year. The crick-eter of the year award will be unveiled during this time as well. For now though, Merry Christmas. I wish you all many happy returns in 2017.

Here are some of the photos I took during 2016. I’ve no doubt you would have seen some of these before, but they are here again for your viewing pleasure with slight variations to the filters.

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Ok, this one is from 2015, but I thought it was the ideal photo to begin the gallery. Australia v New Zealand 2015 – first test. 
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This one is also from 2015. Australia v New Zealand – first test – Brisbane.
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Queensland in the nets ahead of their Day/ Night shield clash with NSW in round one 2016.
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Fans outside the nets watch on as the players prepare for day two. Australia v Pakistan.
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A panorama of the Gabba during the evening session of the test match between Australia and Pakistan.
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A grainy photo of Starc delivering to one of the Pakistan openers on Day two at the Gabba.
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The Gabba at tea on day two – Australia v Pakistan
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Night descends on the Gabba for the first time in the history of test cricket at the ground. Australia v Pakistan.

 

 

 

Feel free to post your team of the year in the comments section below.

 

How the BBL’s unprecedented rise is endangering the popularity and relevance of test cricket in Australia

Andre Russell’s black painted bat, which he brandished during the Sydney Smash three nights ago, is another blatant example of cricket’s bold journey into uncharted territory.

The t20 format’s brief history is rife with groundbreaking innovations that have made the game a more attractive product that appeals to a wider range of audiences and Dre Russ’ colourful blade, when the chinks are worked out, will undoubtedly continue this legacy.

Zing Bails, boundary-side dancers, music played after each delivery, flamethrowers and rocket men are just some of the features that have made the shortest form as unique and flashy as many of America’s major sporting codes. And these are the components of cricket that will become commonplace amongst each and every format of the game when Australia’s next generation – who will be totally unaware of how the Big Bash rose to prominence after its humble beginnings on pay TV as a state based competition – are introduced to the game.

Channel Ten’s advertising campaign sprouts the idea that the beginning of the Big Bash season marks the true start of summer, just as the Boxing Day test once put a punctuation mark on the festive season. And they might just be on the money with this assumption.

It’s no longer test cricket that steals the limelight at this time of year and any matches played prior to the beginning of the t20 season are in danger of loosing their relevance in the not to distant future. After all, most concertgoers skip the front bands in favour of the local pub because they are only really interested in the main event.

Can you name the fights that preceded the Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather bout in 2015? No? That’s because they held far less importance in the context of the event as a whole.

The Australian reported recently that BBL player payments will increase under CA’s new payment scheme in a move that is likely to have major ramifications for the Sheffield Shield and Matdor BBQ’s ODC competitions.

When the BBL television rights are once again put up for sale next year, the $20 million price tag Channel Ten snapped them up for last time they were on the open market is tipped to increase astronomically.

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Cricket’s bold journey into a new and uncertain decade. Getty Images

A raise in BBL player payments, to a level that well and truly supersedes the average retainer for a state cricketer, will force players to question which career route is the most viable for them and what benefits the can derive from participating in all three formats. A decision that may be affected by a number of variables.

The short life span of fast bowlers in the longer forms of the game is likely to sway their thinking while living arrangements and age are two other factors that will influence a players career move.

Expanding the competition into other Australian regions and increasing the number of fixtures played across the summer is the ideal way to grow the competition, expand its geographical reach and give more players the opportunity to compete at a professional level. But cricket is a case unto itself. Other popular sports around the world don’t have multiple formats and are incapable of cutting off their noses despite their face in a way that cricket can by giving the most profitable format all the resources and attention it needs to outperform the others. And this is exactly what CA are risking by increasing the number of games in a season and by giving its players greater incentive to pursue a lucrative career in the shorter form of the game, which is over in just three hours and provides as many opportunities as a long career in the Baggy Green, less the injuries.

The West Indies is home to a swathe of specialist franchise players and the national side, in all formats outside of t20 cricket, has seen sharp declines in performance as a result of the unavailability of their star players, who have been lost to the world’s biggest tournaments.

Gayle, Bravo and Russel, some of the West Indies most gifted cricketers, have spent their careers traveling from country-to-country like cricketing gypsies to take part in the various franchise competitions and have made as much, if not more, than their test-playing counterparts in doing so. In this case though, it was the board’s failure to pay its players an adequate wage that set them on the rebel path to franchise stardom, it wasn’t a matter of the governing body putting all their eggs in one basket and leaving its other formats to die off without anyone raising an eyebrow – although there are multiple parallels that can be drawn between the irresponsibility of the two cases.

Australia does not want to experience a mass exodus on a West Indian like scale.

CA has created a popular product and deserves to lap up their new found fortunes but could make minced meat of test cricket’s popularity in this country and its major breeding ground (Sheffield Shield) if the Big Bash continues to grow without restraint.

Television and t20 cricket are a more dynamic pairing than Starsky and Hutch and this partnership doesn’t look like taking a dive anytime soon. The NRL and AFL received in excess of $1 billion following their last broadcast rights deal and by the time the Big Bash manages to eclipse these numbers the cricketing landscape will have experienced dramatic rearrangements and scheduling changes that benefit both the broadcaster and CA, who require the revenue generated by the Big Bash to subsidise their investments in the Shield and domestic one day competitions – the running of which provides CA with little financial gain.

The BBL has become far more popular than test match cricket in Australia and this is a truth the traditionalists must accept.

Its move to FTA television three years ago has given it the legs to overtake the traditional form in terms of TV viewership and crowd figures. But we risk diluting the pool of talent at state level and test cricket’s importance if BBL games are let to spread across the summer like a super virus.

CA’s new found admiration for the shortest format is obvious but it must allow all formats to coexist if we are to maintain interest across the board. And that starts with keeping the schedule as it is – so not to disrupt the Sheffield Shield any more than is currently the case – and keeping player wages equal across all formats to disparage specialisation.

T20 innovations have made an imprint on test cricket and are the precursor to a entirely different cricketing landscape that is already beginning to take shape.