Australian sport has been shaken to its very core this week. Much of this is due to the despicable actions of our cricketers in South Africa. As has been reported heavily over the past few days, Australian captain Steve Smith will miss the fourth and final test match of the series after being found guilty of contrary conduct by the ICC.
What is most jarring about this story is that the plan to change the condition of the ball was concocted behind closed doors, and involved the most sacred members of the playing group: its leaders.
During his time as Prime Minister, John Howard quipped that he had the second most important job in Australia. In the last week, this has proven to be the case. The Australian captain, it seems, is expected to uphold the standards and ideals we hold dear as a nation – even more so than those running the country. Fail us in any way and the emotional firestorm that follows will hit you like a ton of bricks.
The pitchforks have come out for Smith faster than they might have done had Turnbull committed the political equivalent of ball tampering. But is all the hoo-hah warranted? After all, this isn’t the first time a cricketer has used a foreign object to change the condition of the ball. And if you listen to the game’s leading voices, the prevalence of ball tampering across all levels of the sport is higher than first thought. Even South African skipper Faf du Plessis has had a crack at scuffing up the ball to make it reverse swing.
The reason the Australians are being placed under heavy scrutiny from the public is partly because they expect more of their national heroes, and partly because it was a premeditated act.
So why then are we not applying the same heat to those at the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, who also engaged in premeditated cheating? Is it because they aren’t held in as high regard as Smith and his brigade of Baggy Green crusaders? Do Howard’s words – that Australian captaincy is the pinnacle of national leadership and those bestowed with this honour are the bearers of an unblemished moral compass – actually hold true?
There are many parallels that can be drawn between the two cases. Both were premeditated acts and both were committed with the intention of gaining an edge over their opposition. Both, quite stupidly I might add, were done under the watchful eye of each code’s respective governing bodies; one in front of the television cameras and the other under the constant surveillance of the integrity unit.
Where the cases begin to differ is on the severity of the punishments handed down and the outpouring of public disgust. Steve Smith has been given a one-match ban by the ICC but may never captain Australia again. Two Manly officials, Neil Bare and Joe Kelly, have received 12-month suspensions, yet the player managers, the players themselves, and the club at large, got off relatively scot-free.
They are very different cases but at their core lies the same motivation. The Australian cricketers changed the condition of the ball to cheat their way to victory; Manly used undeclared TPA’s to lure players to the club with the aim of assembling a superior roster, therefore allowing them to win more games.
A statement NRL CEO Todd Greenberg made during yesterday’s press conference, where he detailed the findings of a nine-month-long salary cap investigation, sums up this point well: “Manly had a financial advantage in securing the services of players who may otherwise have gone to other clubs”.
Right, so why have competition points not been docked? Why have they only been fined $750,000, $250,000 of which will be suspended if the club makes appropriate governance changes, when the subjects of the two previous salary cap scandals had points stripped?
Sure, they’re currently cap compliant. That’s fine. But, as Greenberg himself acknowledges, other clubs “missed the opportunity to secure players because of Manly’s undisclosed deals”. Nothing can reverse this and a small fine isn’t going to provide any closure for opposition clubs. The Gold Coast certainly aren’t about to forgive them for missing out on signing Daly Cherry-Evans because they are playing with a reduced cap. The biggest backflip in NRL history occurred because Manly used third-party deals to cheat – that is the bottom line.
Clearly, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. I feel like a broken record writing something like this in a rugby league article because it seems to happen every second week, no matter the topic. Two salary cap scandals in three seasons shows that the NRL needs to take a hard line on those cheating the system.
If Steve Smith – a man many were comparing to Bradman not three months ago – is at risk of losing his spot in the national team over something like ball tampering, a harsher punishment should be handed down to those NRL clubs who choose to dance with the salary cap devil.
Both are blatant acts of cheating. And both should be treated accordingly to prevent future cases.
As is so often the case in the midst of a crisis, the Australian selectors have hit the panic button and opted to take the quickest route out of the ostensible deep dark hole they find themselves in. The changes they’ve made in the wake of the debacles reflect a selection panel short on ideas and pragmatism, but not on audacity. It exemplifies their burning desire to disentangle themselves from the rut Australian cricket has found itself in these past months. Perhaps, and I say this tentatively, it is an interim selector looking to make a bold statement in the knowledge that he cannot be shot down. At the very least, the mind boggling and unwarranted culling of five incumbents shows that Australian cricket is backed into a corner with nowhere else to turn. But is this really the case?
There can be no questioning the significance of the third test match in Adelaide; despite its status as a dead rubber. South Africa will be seeking to replicate similar feats to those achieved by the great West Indian touring sides of the 1980’s. They have the chance to white-wash Australia on home soil; an opportunity not to be passed up. On the other side of the ledger, Australia will be trying all they can to recapture the form they held on home soil last year, while also attempting to manufacture a winning culture among the newest owners of the Baggy Green – in just one game. This is typical of the selection panel’s mindset of late. There is great value placed on immediate results, which is compromising the time afforded to a debutant to find their feet in an increasingly cut throat environment. The patience and faith the selectors once had in a player struggling to find his niche at test level was rewarded when he eventually cracked the code. Today, the side is result driven and looking for a one hit wonder who, it is hoped, will steady the ship and immediately curtail the influx of negative conjecture. They didn’t find that in Callum Ferguson, and they certainly couldn’t pin their hopes on Joe Mennie to fulfill this duty. So, it appears they too can now be added to the growing list of players in the one-test graveyard. But this trigger happy approach and lack of consideration for circumstance is where Australia’s problems originate. And they certainly haven’t done themselves any favours in anointing Trevor Hohns as a front to contrive a fresh start. Australian cricket is a shambles at the moment. It requires a long-term solution and for selectors, players and administration alike to be held liable for their missteps. Change was inevitable. But the magnitude of the changes and the swiftness with which they were made, along with the constant reshuffling of the line up, will not allow the side to settle on a winning formula.
Matthew Renshaw’s selection is perhaps the boldest of them all. He’s played a total of 12 matches at first-class level for an average in the forties, but is purportedly cut from the same cloth as Matthew Hayden; at least as far as technique is concerned. He’s an enormous gamble- particularly given he didn’t play the opening two games of the Sheffield Shield season – but one selectors are confident has the ability to cope with Rabada, Philander and Abbott. What’s most concerning, though, is his lack of exposure to world-class swing bowling. It appears the selection committee have shifted their thinking with the long sought after change in chairman. They prefer the exuberance and untapped talents of youth over the trialed and tested techniques of the ageing Shield population. But this is more a case of selectors taking the path less traveled. Experience hasn’t payed off lately, and a shift to picking youngsters, while no doubt a last resort, was most likely a forced decision rather than one made voluntarily. Either way, there can be only one outcome, and given the selectors track record in this area, Renshaw must make a good first impression or risk being shunned from the side for a good chunk of his career. He faces a tough initiation. Players tend to be placed under greater scrutiny when the team is under performing and has its back to the wall.
A less surprising selection, but an equally confusing one, was that of Matthew Wade. Personally, Peter Nevill has shown his glove-work to be far superior to Wade’s at both international and state level. But it wasn’t his keeping prowess that saw him axed from the side, it was his lack of runs, which is the most despicable disregard for the art of wicket-keeping since T20 cricket revolutionised the traditional technique. If you look at Nevill’s previous ten innings in isolation, you’ll also notice that he was required to bat during a period following top order failures and was therefore handed a mandate to score a flurry of late order runs. What this selection ploy indicates is that the Australian team currently desire a keeper who bats, rather than one whose role is to keep wickets as a first priority – as was the case in the Rod Marsh and Ian Healy days. This has stemmed from Australia’s trouble at the top, and will no doubt change when the top order is settled and back scoring plenty of runs. But in the meantime, selectors must decide which is more valuable. Late order runs, or a keeper with a penchant for saving them and taking every opportunity that presents itself. Given Wade’s notoriously hard hand’s and crude one -day methods, it’s difficult to see the latter being achieved.
More frustrating, though, are the Chinese whispers which suggest that Wade’s ‘mongrel’ was a factor in his selection over Nevill. If this is the case, and I dearly hope it’s not, the selection panel have lost all dignity and credibility in my books. Sledging is an age old tactic designed to put off batsman by troubling their mental fortitude. But how adept one has become at using it should not be considered grounds for selection. I’ve got a feeling this is nothing more than a cheap joke, but the fact we are bringing up such delusional lines of thinking indicates they needed an extra factor to make Wade’s selection appear incontestable. Most of all, it shows that Australia’s selectors really are struggling to establish what makes a test player.
I do hope the selectors are yet to put a nail in the Voges coffin. His Shield stats alone across the previous five seasons earns him a spot almost automatically, while the records of those that are about to usurp him (Maddinson 37.65, Peter Handscomb 40.56), as well as those that are on CA’s radar (Patterson 42.01), pale in comparison. Voges is a victim of a struggling side, there’s no doubt. When the chips are down, as they were in Sri Lanka and now against South Africa, he averages just 14.8; most probably because the bowlers weren’t blunted by Warner and Smith on these occasions. While when the going is good, as it was against the West Indies and New Zealand at home and away, he averages a monumental 162.28. Figures which make him indispensable. A run of ten innings in which he greatly underachieved means we’ve probably seen the back of Voges, though. It’s a shame that from a guy who promised so much at state level, and for a brief period on the international scene, we’ve received so little.
I won’t touch on the Day/Night element of this third test, mainly because I think the game will play out in a similar fashion to last year. The wicket will have some grass left on it, Rabada and Starc – the bowling king pins – will have a field day and the test will be over inside just three days. The result will be different when we reach Brisbane for the third edition of the day/ night phenomenon (in Australia), but we haven’t yet, and we’ve got a tough task ahead of us to avoid humiliation for a third straight game.
I think we can now place Australia in the mediocre category alongside New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. In fact, we’re about as mediocre as it gets. We struggle our way to defeat in England, bully the minnow nations, get trounced in the sub-continent before erasing those scars with a comfortable series win at home. Except, this time round, there’s been nothing remotely comfortable about the first two test matches, and when you view the batting performances in isolation, you uncover the true extent of the damage.
I’m not here to dish the dirt on the Australian batsman. For the most part, their embarrassing performances can be put down to some highly unconventional decision making at the top. They’ve been thrust into this position through the board’s inability to establish a regime that prioritises the needs of test cricket, as I made mention to over the first two days of this test match. The dismissal’s of Adam Voges and Callum Ferguson showed just how little progress the Sheffield Shield is making in creating ready made, adaptable cricketers. Both players forged very respectable careers at first class level prior to their selection for Australia, and both had no answer when the South African bowlers hit their straps. We need changes, as I mentioned a few days ago. Whether or not CA are awake to these deficiencies and are willing to forego a chunk of their t20 broadcast rights to squeeze in extra Shield and second XI matches, as required, is yet to be seen. We travel to India in February. At this stage, given the lack of scheduled preparation, Australian cricket could assume the mantle as international cricket’s new whipping boys.
But not all of Australia’s issues can be pinned on the management’s lack of awareness. The tenacious cricketer tag that for so long followed the Australia cricket side around seems to have gone missing. The dogged determination at the crease and a debonair approach to batting introduced by forefathers Waugh, Border and Bradman – players that embodied each and every value synonymous with the Baggy Green – have also been shunned in a similar fashion by the playing group.
If Sri Lanka was Australia’s graveyard during August, this is surely a manifestation of hell. Both Australian innings were riddled with technical flaws. The top and middle order looked as adept at keeping out the swinging ball as Lyon and Hazlewood down below. The South African bowlers have great skill, but the Australian capitulation made them look far better than they are. Let us not forget that Steyn was injured and replaced by what you could essentially call a second string option. What they did so brilliantly was bowl to a plan. They didn’t try anything particularly adventurous and managed to put the ball on a consistent length that the Australian batsman had neither the patience, nor the temperament, to endure. Sure, there were some unplayable deliveries mixed in among an abundance of wickets that fell to poor strokes. But for the most part they were patient, resilient and had a captain that would persist with them if they erred in line for an over or two, or cut them from the attack if the batsman were at any stage settled enough to play them with ease. You couldn’t fault Faf for any of his decisions as captain thus far, and you might as well say the same thing about the team as a whole. They are thoroughly deserving victors of this series and a team that will cause some sides great trouble over the coming years. When you look down their team list, it’s difficult to spot a weak link.
Changes are imminent in the Australian top order, this we know for certain. If they’re not made in time for the Adelaide test, they will be by the time Pakistan reaches our shores. There are four players in the Australian side who are currently immune to an axing on account of either their current form, or the fact they hold an authority position. The remaining positions are open slather.
Burns, Voges and M. Marsh are all one poor innings away from playing their last test in Australian colours, if they haven’t already, while S. Marsh, Nevil, Hazlewood, Lyon and Siddle aren’t yet dead in the water, but are firmly fixed to the selectors hit-list. Whether or not the players in waiting will stem the bleeding is a separate argument and one I don’t wish to have right now. There’s plenty of talent there, but again, if they haven’t been given adequate preparation, talent is just that, talent.
You wouldn’t be scoffed at for suggesting that Australia have close to no chance of winning this game. Stating that they are still in the hunt also wouldn’t be far off the mark. A win looks highly unlikely at this point given Australia’s propensity to loose wickets in clumps and the strength South Africa posses in their batting ranks. Any lead over two-hundred, which is still an unrealistic expectation, seems almost a bridge too far at this point for the Australian batsmen and is total that may be easily attainable based on South Africa’s red hot form. But the wicket is starting to play tricks and the Hobart weather has proven more unpredictable than the Australian batting line up. Is there a twist still left in this tale?
Australia haven’t made it easy for themselves though. Some erratic bowling early in the days play from Hazlewood, Starc and debutant Mennie gave Bavuma and de Kock far too many opportunities to score, and that they did. De Kock showed us all just how talented a batsman he is, and how valuable a competent wicket-keeper batsman can be. His innings oozed class. The runs he compiled alongside Bavuma were of crucial importance and enabled South Africa to reach a target that might yet ensure South Africa bat just once. But de Kock’s innings was constructed around capitalising on the loose delivery, rather than a display of patience and elegance. He mistimed drives that would usually cause a batsman great frustration on a seaming wicket. But these lapses in concentration were immediately relieved by a boundary which was hit, more often than not, off an over pitched delivery. All of Australia’s bowlers were to blame, not one can be excused. We own a very talented group of fast bowlers, and these errors in line and length are to be expected at stages when you consider that this one of our most inexperienced attacks in recent years. There’s no Harris, no Johnson and no Siddle. Communication between Smith and his bowlers also seemed to be restricted to the intervals in play. If there is no guiding, mature, level-headed influence, Australia’s young attack won’t recognise their faults. And they certainly won’t attempt to make the necessary adjustments, nor perfect their field placings.
Smith and Khawaja remain at the crease. Burns and Warner are back in the shed. This Australian order has plenty to offer yet but even more to prove to both the public and themselves. Conjuring up a total over 500 to put themselves in with a chance of pulling victory from the thralls of defeat would restore their lost dignity and repay the selectors faith. There’s a long way to go to reach that point yet, and many hundreds to be made if they hope to get near it. A lot will depend on how they approach batting on day four and whether or not mother nature has a say, as it has so far. The innings of 85 in the first dig showed us that Australia are approaching batting with great trepidation. They realise there’s a problem, whether it originated in Sri Lanka or not is irrelevant, and they are batting in a way to ensure these circumstances never rear their ugly head again. Many of the first innings dismissals were representative of their inclination to never overcommit to a stroke. This is the cause of their problems, not the solution.
There’s great pressure on certain players in the middle order and it’s hard to see them making a large contribution to the run tally. A lot rests on the shoulders of Smith and Khawaja to pick up the slack and wear out the bowlers in order to make it easier on the players under pressure. If Australia can press for a lead of 250+, a draw might be a possibility. But the stars must align for this to occur.
Australia’s first aim must be to bat the entire day. Maybe then we will bare witness to a highly unlikely Australian comeback.
Let us forget, for a moment, the usual discourses surrounding the performances of the Australian cricket team and instead dig a little deeper. Much of the blame has been placed on the shoulders of Steve Smith, which is to be expected. The captain takes the flak in the midst of a crisis, even if there are circumstances beyond his control that are partly to blame for on field performances. These issues often arise at a management or administrative level. The paper pushers, who are parked out of sight and out of mind when the axe is right for the swinging, are more to blame for Australia’s declining form than they might seem. Consider for a moment the scheduling. This is left up to those in positions of power, who devise a plan that will maximise profit. It’s in the hands of those who barely seem to consider the repercussions of their decision making. The players have no input in this process, nor any of the others that have an influence on performance. If they did, their pleas would have been answered, and this South African series would have begun at the GABBA, before moving onto Adelaide and then to either the WACA or Hobart (no great advantage at these last two venues, it seems). But there is more money to be made when these fixtures are manipulated based on a criteria that prioritises crowd numbers over sustained success.
Then, of course, there’s the selection committee who, in my mind, stand at the forefront of this whole dilemma. Let’s consider for a moment the players they’ve brought in over the course of the last three years, a period which hasn’t been as productive in the test arena as one might have hoped. Since the i’ll-fated tour of India some three years ago, Australia have have had 15 test debutants. Seven of those have played less than five games. The issue isn’t so much a lack of faith from selectors though, as these figures might suggest. It is instead the age at which the players have begun their careers, a problem which has been brought about by the selectors themselves, and will be left up to them to rectify. The average debut age, 27 (rounded up), is concerning, not because they haven’t managed to extend their careers beyond a few games – this has been occurring for decades, and is an issue based on ability, not age. The concern here is that their career longevity is reduced with every passing season. Their physical fitness will begin to falter while the natural deterioration of vision will eventually catch up with them, compromising their ability to perform at the level required. There are, of course, some exceptions – Steve Waugh springs to mind – but retiring at age 35 means that a career which began at 27 will last just eight years. And that’s notwithstanding the negative effects a form slump can have in cutting it short, especially when they are approaching an age where greater scrutiny is put on each and every performance. That’s without even considering the young players knocking the door down in the Sheffield Shield, and the pressure they put on the selectors to drop the ageing incumbent.
This is the trend the selectors appear to have adopted for reasons unbeknownst to many, perhaps even to them. But in doing so, they shoot themselves in the foot, over correcting the misdoings of older players by blooding youth at an age where success is often dependent on whether they are prepared mentally for the rigours of international cricket. So often, they are not yet finely tuned to the degree required, and a string of failures can result in an axing from the side, perhaps never to return to the international game (Ashton Agar played two tests aged 19 and hasn’t been on the radar since).
The selectors have made some rash and perhaps unwarranted selections this tour and they’re paying for them through the backlash found in the morning’s papers. I’m not devaluing the worth of a few of these selections, but suggesting that these players (Voges and Ferguson for example) should have been given an opportunity a few years earlier during their pomp. They’ve all got plenty to offer the national team, but their age is a major factor which the selectors will act on swiftly when the public grows weary of their ineptitude.
The Australian selection panel are yet to discover the perfect formula. What age is too young? Is it worth selecting ageing players? How they can get the most out of a player of any age lies in how they are trained and nurtured. Our current Sheffield Shield competition isn’t doing enough to facilitate success, let alone prepare our future Ponting’s, McGrath’s and Warne’s. It has been led astray, multilated and used as an arena to experiment and tamper with different features that will benefit CA’s self interests – the balls, day/ night games etc – at times when its aim should have been to enable ‘first-class’ contests. Its standards have slipped, but not to the point where we are unable to discover talented needles in a generously sized haystack. But how capable is that haystack in comparison to others around the world. The administrators aren’t heading the warnings given off by the Australian test side currently. They continue to treat the players like guinea pigs and the national team are suffering the effects.
There was plenty of time from the end of the tour of Sri Lanka to the beginning of the summer to ensure there were enough shield games scheduled to allow the Australian players time in the middle. But it was once again decided in the halls of power that only the single round was required. It simply wasn’t worth overdoing it in the early stages of the season, primarily because there was a great deal of cricket to be played this year across all forms. We should have suspected that in an era where the lure of t20 cricket is such that much of the summer revolves around it, we wouldn’t see a great deal of time afforded to the staging of shield games.
Steve Smith is expected to take the blame for things which are beyond his control, as are the playing group. But the criticism which has befallen the side should be allocated elsewhere. The administrative big wigs are failing to uphold the systems that benefited the Australian test team during its glory days. It’s impossible to clone the superstars of yesteryear when the Sheffield Shield has witnessed an appreciable fall in interest from those who hold the key to fulfilling this very cause. Please, CA, keep throwing money at this competition, it’s the beating heart of domestic cricket and an essential test player production line that will serve its purpose if treated correctly. It’s essential that changes be made before we’re left to lament the rotting carcass of a competition that once churned out superstar after superstar with greater than reasonable success.
Gideon Haigh’s statement in Death Of A Gentleman can be thanked for this piece and its anecdotal theories. Perhaps because it encompasses all of cricket’s major issues in one sentence, forcing myself, and many others i’m sure, to consider what role we as fans play in the ever-changing cricketing landscape. The statement I’m referring to is difficult to dismiss when you consider what its repercussions may be.
The fan, where he’s considered at all, is there to be monitised and to be exploited.
This statement perfectly sums up the mindset of cricket administrators and board members as they sit in their ivory towers sketching up tour schedules and fixtures. Not only are the fans suffering from quiet exploitation in these instances, the game and what it stands for is being taken for a ride by those who purport to care for it the most – cricket administrators. Take the recent scheduling announcements for Australia’s tour to India next February for example. One day after the final T20 game of the summer is played out at the SCG between what will be a patch work Australian side and Sri Lanka, the Test team will take on India in the first game of a four match test series. Compromise would have been put to good use in this situation, particularly had player welfare and the wellbeing of both formats been considered. But cricket’s power brokers don’t listen to compromise, they listen to whatever can maxamise profit to fill their coffers. Even if that means jeopardising the integrity, and therefore the significance, of a contest by spreading the available players across two nations. This is a small price to pay for significant financial gain. The one certainty is that both these games will draw substantial crowds, most of whom genuinely care about the result at the end of a day’s play. After all, these are the foundations on which cricket’s popularity, and sport in general, have been built. Without competition fans wouldn’t exist, or at least, they would have little reason to feign an interest. People give a stuff about their teams success and cricket’s governing bodies are wise enough to flex their muscles and cash in on their patriotism. This issue is systemic not only among cricket’s governing powerhouses, but on a global scale in a multitude of different codes. Look no further than the NFL Superbowl’s mid-game advertisements. This is fan monetisation on a grandiloquent scale.
Of course, without fans and their monetary contributions, the many systems in place to foster the next generation of cricketers wouldn’t be financially viable. The smaller, low-key domestic tournaments would also struggle to stand on their own two feet. It begs the question, are there other ways to generate revenue that don’t undermine the paying supporter or impeach the cricketing hierarchy? Take a look at the latest revenue figures for the ICC and its members and it’s hard to see how one might go about doing so. The ICC’s total revenue amounted to $453.6 million USD in the year of 2015. Without even so much as a glance towards the annual reports, one can assume a fair chunk of this came by way of television broadcast rights and associated advertising revenue. For the last two years, Australia have hosted India for a meaningless one-day series at the back end of the summer in order to make up the remainder of an exorbitant predetermined revenue figure. One which couldn’t be reached on the interest in the test series alone. On such occasions, CA’s annual balance sheet was reported to be worth up to $100 million more than normal. These figures suggest that games against India aren’t scheduled based purely on what the fan is interested in viewing, but instead on the income that is generated through their perpetual interest. The majority of which is derived from the cricket-obsessed sub-continent where the calibre of opposition makes only a slight difference to the allure of the contest, and hence the revenue garnered from the tour. CA assured us all at the beginning of this year that it would be open to sharing its windfall with the greater cricketing community. If we as fans are to be exploited, it’s good to see that our money isn’t being chauffeured around the hands of cricket’s big wigs and is going towards establishing firmer connections with associate nations. I remain positive that this might be the case despite the well documented corrupt goings on in world cricket; even if my optimism diminishes with every piece of news that serves to justify my cynicism.
I understand how processes at the head of the table work and why some decisions are essential, I’m not naive. I also recognise that cricket boards require financial assistance to cover the games many operating costs, and the easiest way for them to acquire the funds in an efficient manner is by selling us, the fan, to whoever is witty enough to recognise there is significant public interest in this sport. We’re their biggest asset. Their biggest bargaining tool. But the national team also represents the fans. Without our support, or existence for that matter, investors, advertisers and other sources of financial backing wouldn’t bat an eyelid because their portfolio wouldn’t be nearly as lucrative, and not nearly as attractive to the corporate window-shoppers. You know, the one’s who have taken a liking to the IPL. The one’s that crave untapped markets with great money generating potential and a guaranteed rise in target audience numbers. A greater following equals further reach for their company. Administrators know we’re not going anywhere though, no matter how obvious their disregard for our existence has become and how much we’d like them to begin making influential decisions on our behalf. Our love for the game will almost always persevere.
My anger over our treatment as ‘commodities’ reached its peak around the time CA released its schedule for the 2016/17 summer of cricket. Finding out that the GABBA will no longer host the first test of the summer really rubbed me up the wrong way. It may only be for this year, lord I hope so, but as a supporter and regular attendee of the GABBA test, this announcement further emphasised my point that cricket is no longer played for the fans as it once was, it is played for the shareholders and the corporate lackeys. When this trend began was probably around the time T20 cricket started to raise the eyebrows of investors and television broadcasters, even if its ties can be traced back to the Kerry Packer era and World Series Cricket where similar circumstances arose, but on a comparatively small scale.
I have attended every GABBA test match since 2005 where as a young boy I witnessed the beginning of the demise of West Indies cricket. Brian Lara and Shivnarine Chanderpaul were still playing at this stage, while Mike Hussey was making a belated debut. But I won’t delve into the game or its major contributors too much as it doesn’t serve a purpose in the context of this piece. In 2016, the ritual of attending the first test of the summer has been taken away from me, and many other season ticket holders, for the sake of a day/night test match to be played during peak ratings season, which happens to coincide with the BBL. The GABBA has struggled to attract a crowd of note for some time now, not through lack of interest – although this is part of the problem – but primarily because games have been scheduled during a time of year where cricket doesn’t dominate the headlines. As a result, the first test of the summer has now made way for the first day/night test against Pakistan; the least anticipated test touring side despite their number two ranking. It’s a wonderful spectacle, i’ve written before about how much I think this restructuring will help attract a new breed of cricket viewer which, in the context of this piece, might help explain why the shifting of the GABBA test has finally come about after years of toing and froing and administrators suffering in silence.
Holding a day/night test, the first of its kind in Brisbane, will not only guarantee a bigger crowd, but ensure advertisers aren’t missing out on what they are owed, and what with the ‘decline’ of test viewing numbers they’ve been deprived of for some time now. This is the whole reason the day/ night experiment was formulated. It wasn’t an edgy, attractive new time-slot aimed to please the masses and breathe life into an ageing format. It was designed to attract a wider audience and, in the process, maximise profit potential. This is fine. If interest in certain non-ashes contests is waining and the next generation of cricket fans are required to be weaned off the format in which they have become reliant, then a new structure must be instituted to ensure cricket survives an apathetic period. It’s the point at which the fans are undermined, and the performances of the national team compromised for the sake of television, that day/night cricket becomes less a quest for fan engagement, which it should be, and more a source of increased revenue in which boards use to appease their confidants. Even if the two are inextricably linked. A vested interest in the revamped day/night tests becomes apparent as soon as the above occurs, and immediately after the placement of these games becomes so sporadic that they are used only to boost profit margins.
The Australian team hasn’t lost a test match at the GABBA since 1988. It goes into this summer against a rampant South African unit that presents perhaps their biggest challenge since the Ashes of three seasons ago. The WACA is another venue in which Australia boast a very respectable winning percentage. Not necessarily against South Africa, and not nearly as impressively as at the GABBA, but the quicks have generally been able to trouble touring batsman through the utilisation of the WACA’s trademark bounce and pace. Australia has enjoyed great success over the years at both grounds, which makes the circumstances around this year’s GABBA shunning all the more conspicuous. Why should one be cast aside for the optimisation of the revenue sum when Australia require all the assistance possible from wickets that will cause the world class South African batting stocks great discomfort. Here’s our first real sign of the financial results being placed above the performance of the national team. A byproduct of day/night cricket’s efficient money making potential. I’ve no doubt that the WACA test would have also been made a day/night game had the time zones been ripe for the picking for broadcasters. They do, after all, seem to have a big say in the layout of the game’s scheduling.
I’ll leave you with this comment from ECB chief executive Tom Harrison, who appeared on TMS last week to discuss the reasons why next winters home series against the West Indies will feature a day/ night test at Edgbaston.
As much as anything, opening up a new audience for cricket is really what’s sitting behind this whole [D/N] proposal. How can we present the game in a way which appeals to different communities, different parts of the public and give them an easier and better way of getting to see cricket when they want to see it, either through television or turning up at games……Everything we are trying to do subscribes to that mantra of making cricket more accessible to more people, more of the time.
Are there ulterior motives at play here? Put the faltering West Indies into the mix and we’re not questioning the ECB’s motives, we’re proving them. The ‘opening up a new audience for cricket’ stance is a convenient facade to disguise the rarely publicised ‘day/ night test as a scantly trialled money spinner’ angle. Notice television was used in a way that suggests it compliments the accessibility factor, not that it was the chief supporter of its creation for reasons that benefitted both parties – cricket boards and broadcasters.
Day/night tests are one successful stint away from becoming the new saviour of cricket boards around the world.