Field of Dreams: World Cup offers big opportunities for minnow nations

If you’ve blinked at some point over the last few weeks, you might have missed the news that the Rugby League World Cup begins later this week. That’s right, Australia take on England in Melbourne on Friday night to kick off their title defence, but does the Australian public care?

The seasons have changed, the days are getting longer, and the Grand Final has come and gone. This can mean only one thing – rugby league season is done and dusted for the year. Until 2018 arrives, any and all talk about football will be put on the back burner and attention will turn to our summer obsessions: cricket, soccer, the beach and our backyard barbie.

It is no secret that international rugby league has been struggling for some time; its reputation has been damaged by the ‘defectors’ who have made a mockery of what international sport should be about – pride and passion in the jumper, its history, and all it represents.

Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, even the likes of James Graham and little-known players like USA captain Mark Offerdahl, know what it means to represent their country; they cherish the moment at every opportunity and place it up there with the Origin victories and Grand Final triumphs of bygone eras.

 

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The USA playing Australia at the last world cup. Image source: Zimbio.

 

Could you imagine Steve Smith suddenly deciding he’s had enough of the Baggy Green and would rather play across the ditch? What about if Roger Federer, one of the greatest sportsmen of the modern era, chose to jump ship and join up with arch-rival Raffa and the Spaniards. What would world tennis look like? How would the pundits react?

The falling out from any of the above scenarios would be far greater than what we have experienced in rugby league land over the last few months. The reasons for this are simple: international rugby league and the World Cup has long been the dog’s chew toy; the ultimate bartering tool for the respective boards; and a tournament that became a laughing stock so long ago we’ve barely questioned how farcical it has become today.

So when Andrew Fifita dropped the green and gold of Australia for the red and white of Tonga, we rejoiced through lack of caring when we should have been waving our fists in anger at the leniency of the rules that have sent the international game careering towards an early grave.

Then again, rugby league has always been about the battler that isn’t given a chance but somehow prevails against all odds. A working-class game deserves the kind of story that inspires the next generation and empowers an entire nation that rides the highs and lows of their team. Players like Fifita and Taumalolo can provide this for the minnows.

 

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Jason Taumalolo will play for Tonga during the 2017 Rugby League World Cup. Image source: Zimbio.

 

When the PNG Hunters players shed a few tears after lifting the Queensland Cup in September, Australian rugby league fans suddenly grew an appreciation for the international game.

It has been bashed up and thrown to the dogs so many times over the last decade that we’ve forgotten why we still bother to give it the time of day. Australia may dominate every tournament and, in doing so, chip away at the relevance and popularity of the World Cup, but little-known rugby league stalwarts like Mark Offerdahl of the USA are just pleased to put their nation on the rugby league map.

There are plenty of other sporting contests capable of stealing our attention here in Australia during the summer months, not least the Ashes, so the Rugby League World Cup may perish from our memories quicker than it arrived. But for nations like PNG, who have hostage rights for the first time in the tournament’s history and have poured more than $1 million into refurbishing its facilities, it might as well be the FIFA Football World Cup.

Lebanon will play in their first World Cup in 17 years when they take on France at Canberra Stadium on Sunday. To put this into some context, the last game they played at a world tournament came during the year of the Sydney Olympics. On that occasion, they were knocked out during the group stage, and finding their way back into the international fold has been a long and treacherous one filled with many setbacks.

Brad Fittler has already told his players that unless they learn the national anthem, they won’t take the field. Perhaps this was a dig at the players who have been gifted a position in the side through their participation in the NRL; perhaps it was out of respect for the players who have juggled a full-time job and training at some point during their careers to earn a belated international berth.

 

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Lebanon will be coached by former NSW and Roosters great, Brad Fittler. Image source: APRLC

 

We here in Australia may take the rugby league World Cup for granted, but we should seldom discount what it means to the players who aren’t thrust into the limelight for months at a time and paid by the truckload.

Australia should take out this World Cup in a canter; their class and experience is unrivalled competition wide. However, the side that holds the trophy aloft in Brisbane on December 3 will be far from the cup’s only victor.

When PNG took out the Queensland Cup, someone quipped that the country be given a public holiday. If this is the kind of reaction a local competition can garner, just imagine what a World Cup can do for the spirits of the nation and the growth of rugby league. One day, PNG might well be taking on the might of England or Australia in a World Cup final. If this is ever to happen, we must find a way to boost interest in this World Cup and any future editions. That is our duty as a host nation and one of rugby league’s forefathers.

Bangladesh-bound – analysis of Australia’s 13-man squad

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Australia made a few surprising changes to their squad for Bangladesh. Photo: IBTimes India

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.

A post mortem of Australia’s cursed Champions Trophy campaign

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Finch and Smith in the cordon – Photo: Indian Express

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!

ICC Champions Trophy update – guillotine looms large over Australia’s finals aspirations

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Australia must win their game against Bangladesh or face fierce backlash. Picture: DNA India 

We’re three days into the Champions Trophy and already it is becoming clear who the contenders are for the crown. England cruised to victory against Bangladesh, who put up a valiant fight but were ultimately lacking star power at the back end of their batting innings. New Zealand gave Australia a good scare and, had rain not ruined proceedings, you can’t help but think that the Kiwis would’ve won that game given the way they started with the ball. Finch, Warner and Henriques were already back in the shed when play was called, and the run rate was quickly creeping up on the Australians like a Lion stalking a Zebra in the dead of night.

South Africa also got their tournament off to a winning start on a slow, placid Oval wicket. Sri Lanka performed exceptionally well with the ball to restrict South Africa to a sub 300 total, but fell short in the run chase despite a strong opening stand from Dickwella and captain Tharanga. Had a few more batsmen chipped in, Sri Lanka would’ve given South Africa an almighty fright. But the guile of Imran Tahir proved too much for a Matthews-less Sri Lanka who, much like Bangladesh, are missing the star power in their late to middle order, making any chase over 325 a real struggle.

The slowness with which Sri Lanka got through their fifty overs yesterday evening was nothing short of farcical. It is no secret that one-day cricket is withering on the vine and slow over rates aren’t helping its cause. At one point during last night’s game, Sri Lanka had just twenty minutes to bowl ten overs. How the umpires allowed it to get to this point is beyond comprehension and goes to show that the ICC must do something to ensure we are not sent to sleep by batsmen calling for a refreshment every second over.

Banning the captain for one match is quite clearly failing to deter sides from taking their sweet time in setting fields, or from captains talking to their bowler as if they are relaying Chinese whispers. The only way to stamp this out is by introducing in-game penalties which are enforced by the on-field umpires. For example, if Sri Lanka go 45 minutes beyond their allotted time, and the batsmen aren’t calling for drinks at regular intervals, runs should be added to the opposition total. Whether this means adding 5 runs for every 10 minutes the bowling side goes over time, or cutting the innings off at a certain point, is up to the ICC to decide upon but must be made post-haste to ensure we are spared the nonsense that goes on between overs. Bottom line – fail to make a change now and risk seeing fans turn away from the one-day format in their droves.

Now that this little pet-hate of mine is out of the way, we can move on and talk about the cricket. Australia might be just one game into their campaign but already they are under great pressure to progress beyond the group stage. Rain is predicted for their clash with Bangladesh on Monday meaning they are at risk of going into their final group stage match against England with two no results to their name.

The odds are stacked firmly against them, so it is of paramount importance that they get the team formula right for the remaining matches. Last game, Henriques got the nod ahead of Lynn. While I understand that the selectors may have gone this way because Henriques provides Smith with an extra bowling option if things go awry early, as they did against New Zealand, Lynn is too good a player to waste on water-boy duties. He can change the game in a matter of overs and has the ability to send the ball to Timbuktu no matter the circumstances or conditions. Imagine a top order of Finch, Warner, Smith, Lynn and Maxwell. It doesn’t get much better. These are some of the finest one-day players the world has to offer, not to mention some of the biggest hitters on show, and will ensure Australia pass 300 more times than they fail. Take Lynn out of the mix though and it doesn’t look quite as threatening. Henriques is a fine player but he would be better suited down the order. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a spot for him currently, as Hastings showed on Friday how valuable he is as Australia’s fourth seamer.

On that note, I’m not quite sure what to make of Australia’s bowling effort. It was brilliant at times and horrible at others. Hastings and Hazlewood were the pick of the bowlers and changed the game when it looked like Ronchi might take it away from them. But even they were a little expensive and seemed powerless to stem the flow of runs when Ronchi and Williamson were in full flight. If it weren’t for some late innings brilliance from Hazlewood that sparked a lower order collapse, or the constant rain delays that put the game on hold, Australia would’ve been staring down the barrel of a mammoth total that might have ended their campaign there and then.

This is a telling tournament for Australia. They are still champions of the world but a number of the players who took them to that World Cup final are now making ends meat in franchise T20 tournaments around the globe. An Australian attack without Johnson is a weaker one no doubt, as is a batting order missing Clarke, Watson and an in form Bailey. In the two years since the World Cup trophy was held aloft, Australia have been tremendous on home soil in the one-day format and abysmal against the stronger nations away. They thrashed Pakistan at home last summer and India the year before. But were themselves defeated twice in the Chappell-Hadlee series, and against South Africa last October. More embarrassing the latter could not have been.

So there is plenty riding on this tournament for Australia. We will certainly know more about the side following the next two games then we did coming in to the Champions Trophy. Are they still capable of mixing it with the world’s best or are we witnessing a fall from grace bigger than Texas?

Monday’s game against Bangladesh is huge. Lose that and, suddenly, Australian one-day cricket is in a state of flux. I can hear the knives being sharpened already…

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.

Rugby League must escape ‘dark-ages’ mindset and endorse the international game

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The problem for international Rugby League is simple. Unlike many other sports around world, the national competitions, that is the games played between club sides in leagues like the NRL and Super League, are far bigger in scale than any of the yearly international tournaments (of which there are few) and one-off games played across a single weekend of festivities.

The NRL and RFL will tell you the international game is not broken, and hence doesn’t require fixing: a way of ensuring revenue remains unshared. But they are the custodians of the game on a worldwide scale. The ones responsible for ensuring that the health and well-being of proud League nations like PNG, Samoa and Tonga don’t suddenly suffer from tanking interest. Australia, New Zealand and England, though, will rarely play against the ‘minnow’ nations (and I use this term loosely) outside of a World Cup. So when England take the field on Saturday night at Campletown Stadium, they are breaking down a wall of Rugby League supremacy that has stood unmoved since the Super League war.

The demise of international Rugby League lies squarely on the shoulders of the NRL and Super League administrators, who both hold more power than the game’s specialist international governing body, and as such, decide when and where international tournaments are played. Forget about a universal voice, this is Rugby League oppression at its finest. The major players in Australia, NZ and England are the bearers of power and financial superiority, and so the wheels cannot be set in motion by the other associates, let alone the RLIF, until they have signed off on it, because without them, a tournament like the world cup would cease to exist. The governing bodies are well aware of this, and so exercising their dominance by putting on an international Rugby League showcase once a year becomes their best option for giving it a brief and necessary taste of the limelight, without going overboard.

Rugby League is not the only game that appears to be shrinking rather than expanding, however. Cricket, for example, has long been ruled by three superpowers of the international game – Australia, India and England – who have placed their own self interests before the well-being of the sport at large in regions struggling to keep their head above water. Unlike cricket though, international Rugby League seems to be losing (if it hasn’t already lost) its aura among fans in the hot spots, who see the rep round as an unnecessary detour in a long and, at times, misdirected season. This has come about through an over-saturation of club football and an under-appreciation for the importance of Rugby League played at international level.

Like I said in the opening remarks of this column, Rugby League is one of the few sports across the world that has a larger presence at national level than it does at a representative one; primarily in the areas which have national competitions. The AFL, of course, is one exception, because it too seems content with the following it has gained in Victoria and does not feel the need to break free of its own little bubble. But they have both missed the bus. Cricket, Soccer, Union, Hockey, and a large majority of every non-American-centric sport has realised that their respective national competitions are but a drop in the pond. Each conduct international tournaments in their own way, using their own structures (some of which are a little too exclusive), and others do not give the sport the coverage it deserves in nations that mightn’t have the same opportunities as far as funding and infrastructure are concerned. But they are making an effort to ensure the international game remains the highest level any player can aspire to represent. Rugby League must follow this blueprint.

This means establishing routine tournaments at the conclusion of the world’s major leagues, even if this solution still prioritises club football. The benefit here is that both the NRL and Super League conclude at almost the same time, opening the door for an international schedule to be put into effect around the late October/ November period. This would of course take a huge commitment from the respective governing bodies, who must at some stage ensure their players are given a rest in between seasons. They must also be satisfied that the games would rate well on television and receive adequate fan attendance figures, otherwise the concept could quickly go down the drain. Most importantly, though, some fixtures should be taken to areas such as Port Moresby in PNG or – now that the the City/ Country concept is coming to an end – to Mudgee, Lismore or Wagga Wagga where the bush Rugby League community can be re-engaged.

The Northern Hemisphere mustn’t be neglected either. England is the birthplace of Rugby League and interest in the Four Nations tournament last year shows that it is a country falling in love with the game all over again. The Catalans Dragons involvement in the Super League cannot be overlooked. They have gained a substantial backing since their debut season in 2006 and their charming venue in Perpignan, which creates a uniquely intimate atmosphere under the setting sun, is readymade, if ever so slightly small, for international hostage rights.

The final step, and this goes without saying, is ensuring more than 20 international teams, from Fiji, right down to the lowly ranked Cook Islands and a few of the affiliates, are in some way included. If this means setting up a division system, than so be it. It could hurt teams ranked 10 and below in the current RLIF rankings, who are next to no chance of defeating sides with a greater player pool and financial stability, but at least they would be given an incentive to boost participation rates and seek financial backing from their local governments, who will not act without reassurance that this sport will bring them some kind of economic return.

The intrigue of a promotion and relegation system cannot be denied either. It works so well in the Super League, giving sides in the championship hope of returning or debuting in the top league and obtaining the perks that go along with it, so why shouldn’t it at least be trialed at international level. It would, at the very least, see international Rugby League take on board greater context, while the competition between teams ranked between 5-10, and those hoping to crack the top division – which will bring with it an instant raise in match payments – would immediately lead to a more exciting spectacle.

The remaining issue with all of the above changes is still whether the powerhouses are willing to take a leap of faith and a financial hit, or whether they will continue to assert their dominance over the RLIF and uphold what seems to be a suppression of the international game. These are exciting yet confusing times for a sport still emotionally invested in club football.

The green and gold of Australia, black and white of New Zealand, and everything that goes along with it should be the greatest privilege a player receives and a prize they cherish no matter how long their representative career may last. But still there is an underlying presumption that the international game is far less important; on its last legs and struggling for meaning (even if this view is rarely, if ever, adopted by the players of our great sport). And until this ideology changes on behalf of the boards, international Rugby League will struggle to break the shackles that are holding it back.

Regions in PNG, Tonga and Fiji, to name but three, have contributed a great deal to the NRL over the years and deserve to reap the rewards of being a vital cog in the wheel of the world’s strongest club competition. Each week we marvel at the exploits of Suliasi Vunivalu, the speed and power of Marika Koroibete and, not long ago now, the spellbinding pace of Noa Nadruku. To showcase and commemorate their sheer talent, international rugby league must expand. Waiting is no longer an option.

 

Lack of transparency responsible for Smith’s brain fade

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.

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Kohli consults DRS. Photo: Hindustan Times.

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.

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If looks could kill. Photo: Indian Express.

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.