Surrey title would be a fitting reward for Sangakkara’s loyalty

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Sangakkara circa 2015 (Surrey’s last title in division two) – Image: SportsKeeda

In an age where most retired cricketers are pursuing the riches of T20 franchise cricket, there is something special about watching Sri Lankan maestro Kumar Sangakkara weave his magic in county cricket. His twin tons against Middlesex this week were, like every Sangakkara innings, constructed with poise and as pleasing on the eye as they were frustrating for the opposition. Most other cricketers of his age have joined the globetrotting elite. A group of cricketers who were once at the top of their tree internationally, but are now chasing multi-million dollar contracts by offering their services to the numerous franchise sides around the world. While Sangakkara has thrown his hat in the ring and played in as many of these lucrative tournaments as the next man, his artistry is suited more to the intricacies of four day cricket. An indication that, perhaps, he will be around the county scene for a few years to come.

It was fitting that, on the day of the IPL final, a tournament Sangakara could well still be participating in, he raised his bat to acknowledge a small gathering of MCC members at a ground as far from Hyderabad as you can possibly get. There was nothing overly flashy about his celebrations beyond a customary waving of the willow and subtle nod of the head; a sight we have become accustomed to witnessing yet are still gracious to receive. Though there probably should have been given that his century in the second innings was his 6th in a season that is only two months old.

The astonishing thing about these innings in particular is that they came against a quality bowling attack featuring the hero of last years title race, Toby Roland-Jones, and Steven Finn; who is still pushing to reclaim his spot in the English side after a number of failed attempts previously. Sangakara, like the consummate professional he is, punished anything over-pitched; sweated on anything short; and didn’t let the calamity of a run-out temper his spirits. There was a lesson in his innings, as there always seems to be when he surpasses another milestone – if you remain patient and play to your strengths, the only way the bowler is a chance of dismissing you is if they deliver an unplayable delivery. All the rest will take care of itself.

Amazingly, Sangakkara, like a fine wine, appears to be getting better with age. Not long ago now we were marvelling at his brilliance during the 2015 World Cup, where he scored 4 consecutive hundreds and helped Sri Lanka qualify for the knock-out stages of the tournament. Now he is retired and the weight of the world is no longer on his shoulders. He is free to cash in on his talents, like many of the players he played with and against during his time on the international scene have done, but instead insists that he continues playing for the love of the game, not the extra coin. And what a choice it has proven to be both for Sangakkara and Surrey.

This season he has played a crucial role in Surrey’s rise to the top of the championship table, scoring hundreds against Lancashire and Warwickshire in much the same fashion as the two he scored at Lord’s. Now they will be relying on him to take them all the way to a championship crown (again), just like overseas players in the IPL and BBL are relied upon to deliver their side a trophy and the accompanying prize money. Mitchell Johnson did it last night for Mumbai by taking three scalps, including the prized wicket of his fellow countryman Steve Smith, who was, at the time of his dismissal, steering the Supergiant towards victory. Kumar Sangakara is doing the very same thing now for Surrey. Though, there will no doubt be greater reward in winning a division one title, Surrey’s first since 2002, than there is in hoisting the IPL trophy after a few sleepless weeks of wall-to-wall cricket played on pitches manufactured to produce high scoring contests. Which would you rather? One is steeped in prestige and history and the other is guaranteed to make you a millionaire overnight. These days cricketers opt for the latter, and it is hard to blame them given the lack of money circulating around some of the lowly ranked nations like the West Indies and Pakistan. But for players like Sangakkara, the dream is quite evidently to win a division one title and mark yet another achievement off the cricketing bucket list; one that is shrinking with every game he plays.

Surrey have the list to fulfill this fairy tale. Stoneman, the classy left-hander who plays every innings without fear, and Borthwick, who has changed himself in to a dependable top order batsman since making a rather inauspicious appearance at international level as a fresh-faced leg-spinner, are both sorely missed at Durham and there can be no greater compliment than this. They, alongside Curran brothers Sam and Tom, as well as ageless warrior Gareth Batty – who picked up valuable experience in Bangladesh and India last winter at the ripe old age of 39 – are the kind of players that can make or break a season. They offer plenty of potential, but, at times, fail to deliver. If they can all hit their straps at once, they will convert more draws into wins and, with Sangakkara steering the ship, this is a far less arduous task than it appears. That is the value of an experienced player. He mightn’t be getting payed a quarter of what Stokes received for his services in the IPL, yet he boasts one of the finest test and first class records the world over. On top of this, he has rubbed shoulders with history’s greatest cricketers and been coached by some of them too. These experiences and his expertise cannot be measured by any sum of money, because if they were, Sangakkara would be unaffordable. Yet, a player with half his experience, talent and knowledge nets an IPL contract worth in-excess of a million pounds. This is one of cricket’s great injustices.

Day four poses a difficult task for Surrey, who have taken just a 96 run lead with 6 wickets in hand. But one man still stands in the way of a Middlesex rout. His name, like we’ve seen so often sprawled across the Lord’s scoreboard for Sri Lanka, is Kumar Sangakkara, and he remains unbeaten on 116. Can he score his first double century of the season?

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.

ECB must face tough questions before launching franchise T20 juggernaut

It has been seven months since the counties voted in favour of a franchise style t20 tournament that will revolutionise and reconfigure the cricketing landscape in England forever. Over this period, the debate around its feasibility has not subsided and the repercussions are suddenly being felt as we travel into a new season that will for the last time, it seems, go uninterrupted by t20 cricket played until the cows come home.

At present, this competition – its groundwork, its structure and how it plans on selling itself to the out-of-favor counties, but more importantly, the fans – is still very much an unknown. What we are certain of is that chairman Colin Graves, who has envisaged the many financial benefits and growth opportunities that a city-based t20 tournament can bring the ECB since he first layed eyes on the Big Bash, is fed up with being the black sheep of the cricketing world; operating a t20 league with little appeal to both fan and player. The ECB, Graves, Strauss and Harrison now have their foot in the door following that grim evening in the Lord’s Long Room that, to this day, threatens to tear at the fabric of English cricket and divide the counties into two distinct categories – the powerhouses and the financially unstable.

Around the time the counties voted in favour of the radical changes to t20 cricket in England by a margin of 16 to 3, Graves was accused of a conflict of interest involving his family trust and Yorkshire County Cricket Club, who owed over $18 million to the organisation in October last year. Earlier that month, Durham were handed a penalty for failing to pay back the 7.5 million pounds worth of debt that the ECB themselves are in part responsible for. Many believed the punishment didn’t fit the crime and the unanimous cries of fans that protested against Durham’s treatment served as the ultimate proof. But one overriding theme endured – Durham would be playing in the second division in 2017 with little hope of returning to the top flight for at least the next few years thanks to the wrongdoings of the ECB.

First, there was the Chester-le-street stadium that the ECB recommended be built away from any other major landmarks, and urban hot spots, in a town with a population of just over 25,000 on last count. Not only does this make little business sense as far as getting fans to attend the ground is concerned – which they are essentially relying on to increase cash flow and cover the construction costs – but it also shows how unreliable and self-orientated the ECB are when it comes to providing financial advice to the administrators of small counties. Which is interesting when you consider that those counties are, if not in the traditional sense of the word, a member of the ECB and the financial decisions they make have flow on effects for English cricket.

Then there was the scheduling of test matches and other international events spanning right back to just after the 2013 Ashes test held at the ground. And this is where Graves’ conflict of interest begins to take shape. Last year, Chester-le-street held a test match between England and Sri Lanka – a game best remembered for Alastair Cook’s milestone surpassing innings – to which few fans attended, leaving Durham to lick their wounds, cut their losses and, you’d suspect, reach out to the ECB for financial support. Only three test matches have been held at the ground since 2009 and this trend is set to continue following the ECB’s decision to strip Chester-le-street of test match status as an add on to their already harsh punishment, leaving Durham with one single source of revenue that will likely originate at domestic level, not international. It also remains unlikely that Chester-le-street will host any Cricket World Cup matches featuring full-member nations, given that it will have little funds available to outbid the well-endowed counties. This has left Durham with but one option to break the cycle of debt without falling into further trouble – accept the ECB’s terms and buy into whatever get out of jail free enterprise they are offering.

Compare the treatment of Durham to Yorkshire, for in which Colin Graves has helped out during times of financial stress, and the conflict of interest concerns become blatantly apparent. Headingley has held test matches year in, year out for as long as I can remember and have almost always featured the likes of India, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. These high profile nations attract crowds of significant size, generate greater revenue, and thus allow the big counties to make a profit, not hemorrhage money in the way Durham and Hampshire do when they cannot cover the operating costs involved in staging a test due to the quality of opposition. And by awarding Headingley with a test match each year, not to mention the occasional ODI or international t20 match, Graves is able to increase the speed at which the repayments are made to the Graves Family Trust by Yorkshire. To top this off, the ECB have also been accused of an uneven distribution of funds.

Bearing the above in mind, there can be no question as to why the smaller counties such as Durham have voted in favour of a city based t20 competition. It is the only way they foresee an escape from the crippling cycle of debt that will affect their county on the field as much as will off it. They really had no other option but to jump on board the good ship ECB, that played a starring role in their demise, and ride it into the sunset in the hope that it may bring them some kind of financial security and see them return to the first division of the championship free of a burdening salary cap that immediately places them at the back of the field. But it could well be an empty promise if the re-branding sees fund distribution reach another extreme.

A colleague, visiting Australia from England, more specifically Kent, once told me that a Big Bash style competition couldn’t work in the old country because, quite simply speaking, it is not Australia; it has 18 counties that must all be represented, not six states. His logic, while simplistic and based solely on opinion, rang true. In this revenue driven cricketing economy the fan often goes unconsidered, or is there simply for the purpose of monitisation. Whether he/ she wants to see their county, and the championship, put on the back burner for the sake of a domestic t20 tournament bereft of context is often dismissed by the ECB, but it is a factor that must be considered if they want franchise cricket to strike a chord with the English public. The fan is their most important asset and ultimately decides whether it goes up in smoke or gains traction like it has in other parts of the world.

Australia expanded its Big Bash competition from six states to eight franchises six years ago, with each state having at least one team for which the local fans could follow. Since, it has not dared look back. Queensland, for example, is represented by the Brisbane Heat. NSW by either the Syndey Thunder, if you live in the western suburbs, or the Sydney Sixers, if you hail from the city. No state goes unrepresented, or stadium unused, and the expansion has in many ways covered more ground than it might have lost. The revenue has of course increased, but it is equally distributed amongst the states given that the franchises are not privately owned as they are in the IPL.

The ECB, with their city based competition, are essentially condensing the playing field and cutting off its blood supply when it should be doing the exact opposite. It isn’t modelling itself of Australia at all. If it was to follow the Big Bash’s blueprint, Cardiff wouldn’t be representing Somerset because, not only are they separate entities, but its fans have never had an allegiance with Glamorgan, where Cardiff would likely play the majority, if not all of their matches. So why should we expect them to start now?

I’ve long been an advocate for the t20 competition remaining in its current form with some slight remodeling, and if the initial plans to run the two tournaments in quick succession does indeed eventuate, I might just get my wish. But it would be ignorant to suggest that both will operate swimmingly along side each other without conflict caused by a competition for supporters and sponsorships. When one features the counties and the other cities – potentially giving one county more exposure and allowing them to operate independently – there is bound to be some friction as far as revenue sharing is concerned. If Manchester, for example, was to become one of the new city-based teams in the, lets call it ‘Super Slog’, taking players only from Lancashire and playing their home games at Old Trafford, would this not upset the balance and ratio of revenue distribution? Why not continue calling them the Lancashire Lightning?

If all counties are equal stakeholders and receive the same amount of money from television rights, sponsorship etc, than fair game. But this seems like an unrealistic expectation. Manchester would play games at Lancashire’s home ground, receive the windfall from ticket, merchandise and food sales, and the other counties wouldn’t see the light of day because the revenue would be divided up among one county. They would also take many of the current England stars playing for Lancashire – the likes of Jos Buttler or James Anderson – and reap the extra benefits from that, leaving the other city franchises, comprised of multiple counties, to fight among themselves for an even distribution of the revenue that would, more often than not, lie with the dominant county – Hampshire if Southampton was to be made up of Sussex and also Kent as The Cricketer has suggested in the past.

The ECB simply would not be able to police or enforce an even distribution of funds when so much is generated by the counties that have access to test match venues, and as such, are the most likely candidates to house one of the new city based teams. Not to mention that a few of these counties will have an entire franchise to themselves, giving them the perfect opportunity to grow their brand while the others are left in the dark. All of this big county favoritism is extremely unsettling and shows that the ECB are handing out special treatment in the knowledge that these counties are the major players as far as the generation of revenue is concerned. This in itself could lead to a seismic shift in the balance of power amongst the counties that would likely cause irreparable damage to the way we currently understand domestic cricket.

The Blast would stick around for a few years following the launch of a city based tournament, but if it was to be hidden behind a pay wall, as it has been for a number of years, and the franchise tournament took off abroad as well as at home, it would die a painful, yet swift death. The ECB would likely push for an expansion meaning extra games are played throughout the year, leaving no time for the Blast to take place. It’s happening in Australia already and their is a push for extra teams to be added to both increase revenue and raise the value of television rights. Oh, and to reach more rural areas in the hope of getting kids involved in cricket. This is something the Big Bash does extremely well.

We mustn’t underestimate the effects a city based league would have on the longevity and popularity of the County Championship either. With players flying in and out of one city and into another to take the field for their franchise, there is the possibility that those particular players, possibly key members of their respective sides, could miss entire games. Apart from bitter feuds between the counties, franchises and the ECB, this has the potential to weaken a county side to the point of relegation from the first division, and you can hardly expect the fans to take notice of the championship if their team’s best players aren’t on the park and struggling to win games as a direct result.

Then there’s the issue of scheduling and the reduction of championship fixtures if the t20 juggernaut takes off in England like it has done elsewhere. What would Graves be inclined to do when one competition is heavily outweighing the popularity of the other? Reduce its size of course. Just like the BCCI has done in India.

There would be a few losers if these circumstances were to arise but the biggest would undoubtedly be the English test side. Keaton Jennings and Haseeb Hameed were uncovered in the championship last year and found themselves on a plane to India soon after. They were fine additions to the England side and will likely take over from Cook as England’s opening pair when father time catches up with the journeyman. But if the breeding grounds to foster young players are no longer in place or dropping in quality, finding future test cricketers becomes increasingly difficult.

The ECB have plenty to weigh up before they make a decision that has the potential to change more than just a few team names and logos. Imagine a world in which Sussex, Leicester and Hampshire played in an entirely different league to Yorkshire and Lancashire; with its own independent board and separate scheduling. Now think about how this would affect the Championship or the One Day cup in their current form as well as English cricket at large, because it just might pan out this way if the ECB lets financial status dictate whether a county has to operate in conjunction with rival clubs, or independently.