Australia have named their test squad to tour Bangladesh at the end of August, with a number of familiar faces rejoining the side.
The biggest news to come out of the announcement was that Steve O’Keefe, Australia’s 19 wicket hero in last February’s tour of India, has been dropped from the squad following comments he made about a female cricketer at NSW’s end of season awards night.
This is without doubt the right call. Although, Trevor Hohn’s statement tends to suggest that O’Keefe was dropped on form, not for his alleged ‘booze fueled’ antics that have seen him receive a ban from this year’s Matador Cup; a competition he may not have featured in anyway.
“Whilst Steve O’Keefe bowled well in Pune, he did not maintain this level in the remaining matches of the series and we believe the timing is right for Ashton to enter the set-up and test his all-rounder ability,”
In fact, at no point in Cricket Australia’s article on the announcement of the 13-man squad are his actions mentioned. Disappointing given the progress of women’s cricket in this country. Surely we must at least acknowledge it to show that a precedent has been set and that such irreverence will not be tolerated.
Starc has also been left out of the squad, and while his omission is cited as being the result of an injury, it is hard to think that this is indeed the case given his participation in the Champions Trophy recently.
“…despite playing in Australia’s failed Champions Trophy campaign, the left-armer’s injury has not fully healed and he has subsequently been ordered rest with an Ashes campaign on the horizon.”
I understand him being rested for the Ashes, but to use an injury as just cause after participating in a world tournament that concluded no more than a week ago is unfair to paying supporters and Bangladesh Cricket, who are trying to cement their spot in the test playing ranks and earn more regular fixtures against the world’s leading side’s. Still, though, they are treated like second rate citizens.
It seems to be yet another example of CA refusing to send their best team to play in a test series that is perceived as meaningless and where television rights are purchased at bottom dollar, even though they will look the fools if Bangladesh embarrass Australia just like they did England at the back-end of last year.
Starc’s omission has, however, opened the door for Pattinson to return to the side. Young all-rounder Hilton Cartwright, whose selection before last summer’s Sydney test caused quite a stir, has also been included in the squad, meaning Australia will travel with a total of two all-rounders following the announcement of Agar’s selection as cover for O’Keefe.
Unsurprisingly, there was no room for Shaun Marsh who, it appears, has used up all his credit with the Australian selectors; Khawaja has instead been reinstated after missing the tour to India in February.
This is a big tour for the elegant left-handed batsmen who has fallen out of favor with selectors in recent times on tours to the sub-continent.
Since Graeme Swann got the better of him in the 2013 Ashes series, and following his torrid tour of Sri Lanka this time last year, Khawaja’s susceptibility to the turning ball has seen him miss a significant amount of cricket in Asian conditions.
This tour might finally settle the score and decide what role he plays in future tours to the sub-continent. My tip is that his class will outshine the guile of Shakib and the immense talent of Mahedi Hasan.
The rest of the team is as expected. All that is left to be finalised now is the MOU. Hopefully we receive some clarity on this matter in the not to distant future.
Ah Pakistan. How we love you and your carefree approach to the game.
We had written you off after your embarrassing loss to India, but we shouldn’t have. Clearly we had forgotten your modern-day trademark – to win games when nobody expects you too and when your backs are firmly against the wall.
It’s true. These days, nobody knows which Pakistan is going to show up. The one that plays like a newly assembled group of park cricketers, or the one that is capable of defeating the powerhouses of the international game through grit and determination.
We saw it against South Africa, where a master-class in reverse swing bowling from Amir, Junaid and Hasan saw Pakistan dismiss one of the tournament favorites for a total of 219, before Malik made hay while the sun shone against a South African bowling attack ravaged by Kolpak deals.
It was brilliant to watch. Not simply because reverse-swing has seemingly gone AWOL since the introduction of two new Kookaburra balls, but because cricket thrives when Pakistan is playing like they did in the days of Akram and Imran.
But these occasions are few and far between; only appearing when you least expect them too.
Even against Sri Lanka, Pakistan could have pulled a Pakistan and collapsed short of the finish line like a dehydrated marathon runner. They were already seven wickets down when the game was completed and captain Srafraz had been dropped not once, not twice, but three times in quick succession by an undisciplined Sri Lankan side who fielded as if they were ready to board the plane home. Not like a side that was desperate to give its travelling supporters something to cheer about.
Plain and simple, Pakistan wanted it more than Sri Lanka; they were hungrier for victory.
This approach is evident in the Test Match arena as well. Out of nowhere they have climbed the ICC rankings quicker than a feral cat scaling a telephone pole despite the fact they are a side of lightweight’s taking on the heavyweight champions of the world.
They’re unpredictable and often enter a bout as rank outsiders, but when you least expect it they’ll throw a haymaker that knocks their opponents to the ground quicker than a right-hook from Mohammad Ali.
This is best exemplified by their captain, the enigmatic Sarfraz Ahmed; and their coach, the often misunderstood and unorthodox Mickey Arthur. A man best remembered for being sacked after setting the Australian team homework on their tour to India in 2013. The clincher here is that, if you can recall, he played the role of headmaster and sent a few of his player’s packing for failing to complete it.
Unsurprisingly, Australia lost that series 4-0.
Arthur is like the teachers pet sitting on his lonesome at the back of a dimly lit classroom. He is bullied, bruised and teased for his differences, but makes his peers red with envy when he passes a test he is tipped to fail. Luckily for Arthur, he has made a habit of doing so just when the knives of his doubters, namely those being wielded by members of the PCB, begin to sharpen.
When he rose from his seat on Monday evening to celebrate Pakistan’s progression to the semi-final stage of the Champions Trophy, some of that unbridled joy would have been pure, unadulterated relief. Only a week earlier his job was under threat. India had handed Pakistan their backsides and there were whispers that the waters had muddied in the team camp.
But, like an unpopular high school student, he overcame the hurdles of adversity and passed the test. A sign that Arthur has pitched his tent on Pakistan’s property like a nomadic traveller and doesn’t plan on leaving until those with more power come knocking.
Nothing about Pakistan is conventional. But they always seem to find a way to get the job done.
Shortly before the start of the Champions Trophy, Pakistani opener, Sharjeel Khan, was banned for spot-fixing and yet another strike was put against Pakistan’s already sullied name.
Due to Sharjeel’s absence at the top of the order, Pakistan was forced to draft in a debutant during a major world tournament. Hardly ideal.
Quite clearly, corruption continues to act as a major stumbling block for the progression and performance of Pakistan cricket.
Young opener Fakhar was thrown into the deepest of dead ends and has responded admirably, scoring a half-century against Sri Lanka. But what if he hadn’t. How much could you blame on Sharjeel’s alleged crimes?
How much could you blame corruption for Pakistan’s struggles during the start of the decade, a period spent without whiz kid Mohammad Amir, who was rubbed out of the game along with two other members of Pakistan’s set-up for dealings with an illegal bookmaker.
Mohammad Irfan, a member of Pakistan’s ill-fated 2015 World Cup Campaign, was also banned at the beginning of this year for failing to report approaches by bookmakers linked to spot-fixing. As a result, Pakistan have had no choice but to introduce young, inexperienced seamers whose performances could have seen them exit the Champions Trophy without so much as a whimper.
Pakistan has a worrying association with corruption, but a finals berth at the Champions Trophy would make many players reassess the reasons why they play the game.
Losing to the Poms is always a bitter pill for Australian’s to swallow, but it is made far worse when it occurs in a must-win game at fortress Edgbaston and results in the elimination from a tournament you’re expected to get within touching distance of winning.
Sure, we can blame the rain for ending a game we should’ve won. Bangladesh will go through to the finals but they were totally outplayed by Australia and should consider themselves more than lucky.
They finish on three points having beaten New Zealand at Cardiff, and more thrilled for them I could not be. However, something must be done about the DLS system, because Australia have been robbed of the chance to show their wares beyond a sudden death group stage match-up that for only a fleeting moment they looked capable of winning.
Bangladesh have not played better cricket than Australia. Yet they are the one’s progressing to the finals.
At the Oval on Tuesday, Australia were within four overs of sending the Bangladeshis packing when rain intervened and both sides were gifted a point, much to the delight of their captain Mashrafe Mortaza, who said in no uncertain terms that Australia totally outplayed Bangadesh and were on a collision course for victory.
That’s it. Four overs was the difference between qualification and a plane ticket home. How can this be justified?
Call me a whinging Australian with a God complex, but that Australia, the better of the two sides, cannot progress beyond the group stage despite demonstrating their dominance over the very opponents that will, means there is something seriously wrong with the current system that decides upon a victor in the event of rain.
There are no two ways about it, Australia played poor cricket against England and deserved to be beaten. In fact, nothing about the brand of cricket they played across the entire tournament said they were entitled to a finals berth.
In the games against New Zealand and England, the bowlers lost their radar and were unable to take wickets at regular intervals nor stem the flow of runs when batsmen were set; so inconsistent was their line and length. King of the ODI castle Mitchell Starc was Reduced to a mere peasant, rarely able to hone in on a yorker length as he did so routinely back in the 2015 World Cup. Cummins, for all his star power and raw pace, was more expensive than a three course meal at a Turkish restaurant; the quicker he delivered the ball, the quicker it found the rope.
Only Hazlewood and Zampa can be commended for their performances with ball in hand. The former will return to Australia having bagged nine wickets in just three, rain affected matches, while the latter, often neglected by his captain at crucial stages of the innings, can depart knowing he has made a difference in this tournament.
While he couldn’t match the feats of Adil Rashid, who himself has battled through periods without the full backing of selectors, his craft is slowly developing and he is now apart of the fabric of Australia’s ODI team. Why Smith elected to bowl part time slow-bowler Travis Head before him, a specialist leg-spinner, beggars belief and was a tactic that failed to produce enough wicket taking opportunities for it to remain a viable option. Hopefully Australia have learnt their lesson and will stray from this line of thinking in the future.
It was a strange tournament for the batsmen. We can make all the excuses in the world about the weather preventing them from getting any semblance of match practice under their belts, but they are professionals and we need to see more in the way of adaptability.
Finch, a man who is no stranger to English conditions, looked out of touch in the first two games but returned in the last with a typically defiant innings filled with strokes born of power and aggression. His opening partner was just as fluent, but was dismissed after a promising start which saw him crunch a few boundaries in quick succession to kick-start Australia’s innings. If Australia were to win, he too needed to join Finch in reaching a half century at the very least. A start of 21 was never going to suffice.
Other notable performances came from captain Steve Smith, who continues to tick milestones off his list, and Travis Head, whose late order hitting edged Australia towards a respectable total. The rest were, without sugar coating it, extremely poor.
It was rather stupefying not to see Chris Lynn force his way into the Australian side for their clash with England. Moises Henriques was again given the nod ahead of him and provided nothing after a strong start from the top three, eventually falling to a poor stroke which saw Smith hammer the turf with his bat in frustration, perhaps acknowledging he had made the wrong decision.
There is no doubt Chris Lynn was the perfect man for the situation Henriques found himself in. Finch, Warner and Smith had set a platform and Australia were looking at a total of 300+ which, given England’s track record post the 2015 WC, was a requirement if they were to win and progress to the finals.
Lynn’s free-flowing stroke-play and absence of fear could have seen him capitalise on what was, at the time, some wayward bowling from Plunkett and Stokes. But Smith persisted with Henriques, perhaps hoping that his potential and raw skill would transform into an X-factor that could influence the game and help set a challenging total for England’s batsmen. As it stands, he leaves the Champions Trophy with a lowly average of 9 and his career hanging by a thread.
Speaking of outlandish selections, why was Pattinson, and Hastings for that matter, consigned to the carrying of drinks? For those who are unaware, Pattinson has been playing county cricket for Nottinghamshire and performing admirably in the Royal London one-day cup. Of all the Australian’s, he would’ve no doubt understood the conditions more than his other fast bowling counterparts who have been lapping up the dusty wickets in the IPL, yet he was never given the opportunity.
There is a pecking order in Australian cricket and Cummins, quite clearly, through pace and perhaps a smidgen of extra experience, is currently ahead of the Victorian spearhead.
So where do Australia stand now in ODI cricket? Like I said in my last article, they are far from the side that took the field against New Zeland in the World Cup final of 2015; lacking as they are both in experience and genuine match winners capable of matching it with the Stokes, de Villiers and Kohli’s of the world.
Clarke and Johnson, two of Australia’s finest warriors, have left a hole in the ODI side bigger than those at Gina Rinehart’s mining sites. For this reason, and many others that are within the players’ control but don’t appear any closer to a solution, Australia are now well below the powerhouses of the international game – India, England and, err, South Africa – and languishing somewhere around the middle of the field which is currently occupied by New Zealand and Pakistan. They are powerful at their best and woefully inconsistent at their worst.
Sure, some of the stars of the game reside in Australia’s side, but if we can take one thing away from this Champions Trophy it is that you need substance beyond your top order. New Zealand didn’t have it; neither did Australia. But England sure do, and India, with Dhoni and Yuvraj at the helm, have it in spades. That is why we are set for a repeat of the final of four years ago once again this time around. Bat is dominant over ball in this era and a strong order can atone for the sins of the bowlers.
Buckle your seat belts, folks. We are in for a wild ride!
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?
Todd Greenberg has done much in his time as NRL CEO to confirm that he is the right man for the job. But with just one statement in last week’s press conference to announce the fate of troubled West Tigers star Tim Simona, he immediately undid all his good work.
“Based on the evidence we’ve identified, it is very hard to imagine that Tim Simona will be registered with the NRL at any time in the future”.
Simona deserved a life-ban. His crimes are inexcusable and are in breach of more than just the NRL’s policies. He has broken the law, betrayed his team and should have been rubbed out of the game with not even the slightest chance of ever being allowed back; if for nothing else than preserving the game’s image.
But the wishy-washy nature of Greenberg’s statement, and the penalty, is hard to overlook.
The NRL haven’t taken a tough stance on any indiscretions other than salary cap breaches in recent times. Even the illicit drug policy has come into question by the players during the last week.
Back in 2002, the Bulldogs were fined $500,000 and docked premiership points when they were found to be cheating the cap.
Melbourne followed in 2010 for the same misdeed, but were also stripped of their premiership titles.
When it came time for Todd Greenberg to hand down his decision on Parramatta in July last year, he had a precedent, set by previous administrations, by which to follow.
As far as match fixing, or dealing with breaches in the games gambling code is concerned, the NRL is yet to establish a benchmark. It remains a grey area.
When news first broke that Tim Simona was placing bets on himself and opposition players to score tries against the West Tigers, the length of his ban in the eyes of the public was heavily dependent on an individuals moral compass.
What did and didn’t come under the banner of breaching the game’s ‘integrity’, and to what degree Simona’s actions could be seen as doing so when opposed to something like doping, was up for debate.
But that was before details of his contemptible charity scams and drug habit were brought to light, turning a tale of addiction into something more sinister.
At this point, the NRL had a golden opportunity to deter other players from even thinking of committing the same abhorrent crimes, by handing down a penalty that would force them to risk their careers if they wanted to follow in Simona’s footsteps. But in just one statement, Greenberg left the door open for future occurrences to take place.
A disappointing and undesirable result for the game’s image and culture, which is already under heavy scrutiny from the outsiders looking in.
Greenberg would have done well to express more than simply his personal feelings towards Simona’s actions. They were well considered, meaningful even, but didn’t fulfill their purpose.
Instead of using terms such as ‘hard to imagine’, which are open to interpretation by a future CEO who may wish to re-register Simona if he feels he has served his time, he needed to make an example of the former Tigers winger by banning him for life.
If the NRL isn’t willing to play hardball then we shouldn’t expect gambling issues within the game to disappear automatically.
The same goes for the current protocols in place to deal with players who engage in recreational drug use. The punishment simply doesn’t fit the crime.
We must even question the effectiveness of the education forums administered by the NRL. Clearly, if these issues are systemic, their messages are failing to sink in.
Simona knew the consequences of his actions but still chose to feed his addiction in the most heinous way imaginable, by selling jersey’s and keeping the proceeds, promised to charity, for himself.
He had been through the NRL’s programs, presumably a number of times, but failed to heed their warnings.
The Wests Tigers missed the eight by one point in 2016. An issue that went largely unaddressed while the case was under the microscope.
It should have been the wake up call that kicked the NRL into gear, but it was barely considered.
This very point demonstrates the kind of influence match-fixing and gambling violations can have on the premiership at large.
What must the fan, that forks out thousands of dollars to watch their side play each year, be thinking when the NRL fails to take a tough stance on players making a mockery of their allegiance.
Does he or she still believe in the integrity of a contest?
There will always be question marks over the result of a game until the NRL brings in stringent rules to rub out those who attempt to manipulate them.
Like any test series featuring two sides under great pressure to perform, tensions are beginning to fray and this mornings headlines will likely reflect the darker side of the Bengaluru test match as a result.
This isn’t the first time things have gotten hot under the collar when these two nations have come together. The Monkey-gate saga involving Andrew Symonds and Harbhajan Singh spilled over from one series into the next back in 2008, and the repercussions, it appears, are still being felt today.
The Bengaluru test had numerous flash points, some of which involved heated confrontations between players, but the majority came about following numerous startlingly poor uses of a system that is designed to increase decision making accuracy, not compound the underlying issues.
When Steven Smith looked to the dressing room for advice on whether or not to review an LBW decision that had gone against him seconds earlier, he opened up a whole new can of worms that I’m not sure the ICC or its members are willing to have a conversation about just yet.
India fought and fought for half a decade to keep the DRS away from its side because they believed it contained far too many inconsistencies and was prone to error, but eventually gave in when they felt it was more than just an untested novelty. And now it appears they have no clue how to use it properly.
So when Kohli came flying in to dispute Smith’s actions, understandably aghast at his opposite numbers’ blatant disregard for the unwritten rules of correct DRS use, he was probably more concerned that the umpires decision had the potential to be overturned based purely on the kinks in the system. The very same issues that have led to a few of his dismissals in this series. Of course, he was forgetting one major detail. It had already been given out on the field and therefore needed to be missing the stumps altogether for Smith to be handed a reprieve.
In this case, the technology was far too efficient for its own good, while at the same time, too easily rorted.
The rules behind the DRS, and use of video review by the players and their staff, are too ambiguous at the moment and it’s hard to believe that if Smith had even the slightest understanding of what was, and wasn’t, allowed under the circumstances that he would have made the same judgement call.
Kohli was acting on a hunch when he saw the Australian captain swap a glance and a hand signal with his comrades in the stands. He himself has been on the receiving end of some DRS stinkers this series and wouldn’t want Smith, of all people, to be given a leg up by the very protocols that have seen him wander back to the dressing room time and time again with a befuddled look on his face.
He saw an opening to get public enemy number one into some strife with the third umpire and took it with both hands. I’ve no doubt that, had the roles been reversed, Kohli would have looked to the stands as well. That’s simply a reflection of his competitive nature.
Confusion is the Decision Review System’s single biggest problem at the moment. Whether it be founded on the umpire’s call policy, the 15 second window that is susceptible to human error or the differences in technology used between nations, the lack of transparency as far as the rules are concerned is damaging to its reputation as the world’s leading filter of poor on-field decisions.
There are far too many flaws and they are all beginning to come to light now that a few things have gone against it in a big series.
The television broadcasters are not immune to this controversy either. They too have a case to answer. Had the teams not been equipped with live feeds of the game, which have the potential to change or alter the course of play, this whole debacle wouldn’t have come about.
Video footage is essential in this day and age but the line between what is acceptable use and what is interfering with the contest is becoming increasingly blurred and has gone largely undefined for some time.
Delayed coverage for the playing staff is a means to an end, but there is next to no chance of this happening as immediacy plays a key role in delivering vital statistics and analysis to coaches and players.
A shakeup to the current decision review system is required and the ICC must come to the party in order to avoid further embarrassment. We’re operating on an already dated system and the outcomes are telling.
If there was ever a sign that the NRL no longer have any interest in sending its teams to the UK for the World Club Challenge, this is it. The revamped tournament which began two years ago, featuring three teams from each league in a ‘series’ style format, has been cut to just two this weekend and if recent trends are any indication, in just two years the traditional fixture may cease to exist.
The World Club Challenge has been through numerous iterations since its inception as an exhibition match between Eastern Suburbs and St. Helens back in 1976, damaging the tournament’s reputation as a traditional rivalry worthy of both the fans attention and the respective boards’ resources. The regular reshuffling of the tournament’s structure, as well as the questionable qualifying methods and sporadic scheduling have been just as, if not more damaging, to the competitions relevance and integrity than anything else.
The differences between what the RFL and NRL governing bodies wish to get out of the World Club Challenge are world’s apart and this is at the core of their very one sided tussle for keeping the ageing concept alive.
The Super League bosses are visionary’s who wish to turn the competition into something it isn’t and never will be; their over-inflated sense of the tournament’s self worth is damaging when they come to asses its popularity, but are driven by optimism when they consider what the ‘Big Brother’ can do for Rugby League in the UK. So much so that plans are already being put in place to shift a regular season Super League fixture to Australia to broaden its reach, while negotiations around the NRL moving a game off-shore and into its rival market are also reportedly underway. What benefits this has for the NRL outside of boosted TV ratings on UK cable television, it is difficult to tell.
The NRL, on the other hand, are the churlish, cashed up stepsisters who get what they want, when they want, and aren’t bothered by a total boycotting of the World Club Challenge because they lose nothing in doing so and have already cracked open parts of the Australian market, and as such, can foresee no great financial or profile raising benefits. It’s simply a clogging up of an already cluttered pre-season schedule that is running the risk of injuring one of its major draw-cards. The Nines are a far easier way for the NRL to grow its image and expand its geographical reach, that is, if these are indeed their goals for participation in the World Club Challenge/ Series. It doesn’t require conversations with its English counterparts and can therefore run its own show, hassle free. The single weekend is another rather attractive quality for a board that has bigger fish to fry than organising a pre-season kick-about – even if its worth more than the sum of its parts now that it is established and ready for expansion.
At the moment, they are a couple of sparring partners fighting for two very different causes. The Super League – to grow their brand by reaching out to Rugby League heartlands in the shadow of the EPL, which will, in turn, lead to boosted revenue and an increased playing standard as international talent is lured to the country. The NRL – to give their clubs exposure to an international market. But they are the power brokers in the great chain of Rugby League being and can do as they please. As such, they may prefer to stage a game featuring two Australian sides in the UK from which similar outcomes to those gained though the World Club Challenge will be derived, less the time consuming negotiations and revenue sharing with the RFL.
These are far from the only reasons the World Club Challenge is beginning to dig its own grave, however. When one competition has refused for years to send out its best players and make a decent hash of the innovation, and in doing so, fails to reward the paying public for their interest by treating it like a glorified trial, they single-handedly erode both the fans and sponsors faith in the concept, while also removing the semblance of integrity that has managed to hang around after a long history of mismanagement and miscommunication between governing bodies that stems right back to the rather spontaneous clash in 1976, which occurred just before the concept went into hiding for eleven years. In this regard, the NRL and its representative clubs have stepped up their game in recent times, suggesting that perhaps they might wish to give this competition the attention and recognition it deserves after 41 long and ill-fated years.
Many would be surprised to know that the Super League are the leading title holders of the World Club challenge by 12 to 11; if you can excuse the 22-team tournament played in 1997. But when you scan through the results to relive some of the great Leeds Rhinos and Wigan Warriors victories, you are immediately reminded that the Australian teams were far from full strength outfits. Not necessarily through the mid 2000’s – the Brisbane Broncos took the field with a similar side to their premiership winning team of the previous year in their clash with St. Helens in 2007, as did Manly following their premiership triumph – but most certainly since the formation of the new ‘Series’ format in 2015, even if the results have reflected poorly on the Super League. And yet, there are still claims that the gulf in standards between the NRL and Super League are responsible for the competitions flagging interest. How is that when, historically speaking, the Super League holds a slight advantage in the World Club Challenge stakes.
When NRL clubs have found themselves on the wrong end of a result, they generally blame jet-lag, the climate or the out-of-season fixtures. When they win, the opposition is not up to standard. It’s a merry-go-round of conflicting rhetoric more violent than the frequent changes that have accompanied the competition’s many different incarnations. There’s a stigma associated with the World Club Challenge/ Series and, as hard as it tries to shake it off through innovation and reinvention, it continues to hang around like a bad smell. But without a mutual understanding from all parties involved as to the importance of this competition in growing Rugby League at grassroots level and in general across the UK, the World Club Challenge will never become more than the eh ‘pre/ early -season filler’ it currently is. And that mutual understanding will never be achieved when one organisation reaps little to no benefits whatsoever from the concept in its current form. Compromises, made by the Super League, are therefore a necessity going forward if it hopes to ensure the competitions longevity. It must appease the golden goose in the interim in order for it to take a golden egg. And this will entail World Club Challenge games becoming more accessible and time friendly for the NRL’s biggest asset – fans across Australia.
Three years ago the Sydney Roosters played host to the Wigan Warriors in front of 37,000 fans at the Sydney Football Stadium. It was the first time the competition appeared to gain traction and the first time the fans bought into the contrived rivalry that has now become a tradition. If the two organisations wish to see this competition flourish into the successful, revenue and profile raising product it has always promised to become, but never amounted to, it must travel from country to country, stick to a specified structure and feature only the past years grand finalists in a one off game. Adding extra sides does nothing but detract from the Super League season already in play and undermine the importance of the fixtures that lie either side of it.
It’s a sound enough concept with solid foundations that has worked in other sports and, if treated correctly, can become a prestigious event that the grand finalists use as extra incentive in their quest for a premiership.