Monday, March 20, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 20th March 2006

from the "Bahrain Tribune"

Cricket fans watching matches on television should be used to it by now, of course, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable. I refer to that common practice of commercial broadcasters (is there any other sort these days?) of using the fall of a wicket for an extended advertisement break. Wickets fall roughly every thirteen overs in a Test match, on average, so one per hour is about what you expect. A pretty rare event and therefore worth treasuring, you might think. Modern technology allows a highly technical analysis of the fall of the wicket, and TV companies employ experts in the commentary box to personally evaluate the footage. A sacrosanct moment then, sufficiently rare and important to merit uninterrupted transmission? But no, because the fall of a wicket is just the moment that the advertisers are waiting for, and the TV rights holder wants to maximise their returns, so that is the moment that we cut to the ads and by the time we return to the live transmission the new batsman will be taking guard.

Some TV companies in some parts of the world are worse than others in their commercial exploitation of cricket coverage. India is bad, and sure to get worse as the new rights holder (who paid over $US500m to the Board of Control of Cricket in India [BCCI] for the rights for four years) attempts to recoup their outlay. The time when ads were only between overs or at the fall of a wicket may seem soon like the golden days. To get a flavour of what it may soon be like let me cite the recent re-broadcast of the amazing South Africa v Australia One Day International in Johannesburg. Having missed the original live broadcast I sat down to watch the re-broadcast yesterday on ESPN (I am in India at the moment). As the climax of the match approached the ad breaks got more frequent and longer. With ten overs to go in the Proteas run chase it seemed that the action and the advertisements were roughly 50/50. It was unwatchable and I turned it off – and remember there are few more fanatical cricket fans than me, and this was one of the greatest games of cricket ever. I’ll buy the DVD!

When commercial considerations dominate then everything else is secondary and cricket in India is entering a period when it is the declared intent of the new masters of the game at the BCCI to exploit the commercial potential of the sport to the full. It all makes the much criticised sale of TV rights in the UK to satellite broadcasters Sky very small beer by comparison. The BCCI will want not only to allow their commercial partners to maximise their returns with advertising and promotion dominating TV coverage, they will also wish to ensure that every match that India plays fully exploits its commercial potential. And they certainly won’t want the international team to play matches that few in India will want to watch.

These dramatic changes will mean not only that the power has shifted away from the ineffable International Cricket Council (ICC) (their own fault entirely) but that it is now in the hands of a body that makes judgments solely on the money earning potential. One Day matches against Pakistan (the biggest of all money spinners) will take place frequently in any venue that can offer a big Asian population to fill the ground and a time zone that works well with peak viewing on the sub continent. This is (incidentally) a model pioneered by my old friends in Sharjah, and whilst the BCCI will take this to a new level, it is the Sharjah model that they will use. If the ICC sanctions the matches and gives their blessing that is fine. But if not they know what they can do!

So the fixture list so beloved of the ICC will be torn up and India will call the tune. The Indian viewer will see more of their beloved team and more of that team against the bigger beasts in the cricket world (especially Pakistan). And TV coverage will be like an electronic souk in which the golden jewels of the cricket will be visible only if you plough your way through the detritus of all the shoddy merchandise that will be so vulgarly on display.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

from the "Cricket Statistician" Spring 2006

I have every sympathy with Bob Harragan’s cri de cœur in Issue number 132 about the inadequacies of the process by which the status of international matches is currently determined.

Those of us with long memories (and I suppose that that is nearly all of us) will recall the controversy in the 1970s over the status of the 1970 England v “Rest of the World” “Test” matches. In 1971 Norman Preston announced in Wisden that he had never regarded the matches as anything other than “proper Test matches” and regretted that “… a small minority have sought to have these splendid matches omitted from the records”. True to his word Preston required that the matches be included as Tests in the records in the 1971-1979 almanacks, and his records Editor Bill Frindall duly obliged. But in 1980 Wisden finally came in line. “Much against my will,” said Preston announcing that he had had to bow to the ICC’s ruling (made in 1972) that the matches “were not official Tests and should not be included in Test match records”.

The point of recalling this story from the rather distant past is to show that there is nothing new about disputes about Test match status, but also to show that the issue had (or so we thought) been resolved. When the ICC, Wisden and others deliberated about the 1970 series there was no precedent that they could call upon so a principle had to be established. Wisden, and some others, took one view but the ICC ruled against them and whilst it took Wisden a long time to agree eventually they did. What is clear from a review of this history is (a) That there was absolute sincerity on both sides of the argument and (b) That commercial considerations played no part at all.

Rolling forward to the year 2005 we again have a match between a Test nation, Australia, and a scratch side comprised of players from other Test nations (just as in 1970). In Douglas Miller’s note on the subject in edition 130 of the Journal we have his report on the ICC’s invitation to the ACS to “comment on the wisdom of granting recognition” to this “super Test” and the ACS’s subsequent advice that Test status should only apply to a “match between two nations”. But, he says, “Our representations did not win the day”.

The matching of the ACS, honourable guardians of the integrity of cricket records, and the ICC, an organisation which in Nasser Hussain’s words[1] is led by a man, Malcolm Speed, in whom Nasser “never detected an interest in the spirit and future of the game” and for whom “the priority was always money”, was an unequal match. Douglas reports a “pleasant lunch” with the ICC’s Jon Long and welcomes David Kendix’s (ICC consultant) involvement with the ACS and hopes for a “more fruitful working relationship with the ICC in future”. A forlorn hope I’m afraid Douglas! We must face the reality born out by the facts of this debacle. The ICC was going through the motions in its “consultations” with the ACS and it is abundantly clear that they were never going to change their minds about the status they wanted to accord to the “super Test” (and to the ODIs of course). They were selling the match as a Test match to sponsors, players and the public at large from the start. Without that status it was no more than an exhibition, and, therefore, of far lower commercial value.

Douglas Miller’s forecast that it would be a series “where the players will really earn their spurs” and that it would be a “truly competitive series of matches” proved, as we now know, to be far from the mark. But that is not the issue. The issue is that if the body that arbitrates over the status of international matches is the same body that has a vested interest in selling them, then commercial considerations will always prevail. Precedents as clear as the one from 1970 will be ignored and bodies such as the ACS will be patronised. Bob Harragan is right - there must be a separation between commercial matters (on the one hand) and status/records issues (on the other). The ACS must not be trampled over by the ICC whose modus operandi and motives conflict so much with the principles which it is our duty to uphold.

[1] “Playing with Fire” Nasser Hussain, 2004

"The Wisden Cricketer" April 2006

ICC all about money
(Letter in “The Wisden Cricketer” April 2006)

SCYLD BERRY lands a few gentle blows on the ICC ("Organisng Chaos" TWC March) but his conclusion that the Council’s “achievements… outnumber its defects” is an assertion that few people would agree with.
The awarding of official status to the absurd Super Series match in Sydney brought cricket statistics into disrepute. The continued lack of sensitivity and lack of moral authority over Zimbabwe shows that the mission to ‘protect the spirit of cricket” is phoney. The insistence that the terminally weak Bangladesh and Zimbabwe teams are worthy of Test status distorts the international calendar and leads to too many grossly uncompetitive matches.
For those cricket lovers looking for a common theme which links the ICC actions TWC associate editor Nasser Hussain gave it in his excellent autobiography. Writing of Malcolm Speed, Nasser says: I never detected [in Speed] an interest in the spirit and future of the game ... the priority was always money”.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 13th March 2006

from the "Bahrain Tribune"

Just occasionally in sport something happens in an event which has consequences way beyond the event itself. In cricket Australia, under Steve Waugh, changed the face of Test cricket with their four runs (or more) an over innovation that some other Test sides now adopt (notably by England at Edgbaston last year when their 407 runs in 79 overs on the first day took the fight back to the Aussies after the Loss of the first Test at Lord’s). Sunday’s astonishing events at the Wanderers in Johannesburg may well be a similarly watershed moment for cricket.

Twenty20 cricket has showed that it is possible to score at eight or more runs an over for twenty overs without any artificial restrictions being placed on the bowlers or fielders. The 872 run feast in Jo’Burg has shown that it is also possible, on a good wicket, to maintain this pace in the longer version of the game. I imagine that Graeme Smith’s talk to his team after they had been hammered all around the park by Australia and conceded a record 434 runs went something along the lines of “If they can do it, then so can we!”. His team believed him, and self-belief in sport is everything. I would have said that it was impossible to score 434 runs in 50 overs against a side with bowlers as good as Ntini, Hall and the rest. But Australia had done it - so the Proteas thought that they might as well try and do it as well. And they succeeded – good for them!

Whilst Twenty20 may have been the model for Australia and South Africa’s approach at The Wanderers oddly the format may be the casualty if the events do set a new trend for the traditional one day 50 over game. Who needs Twenty20 if similar excitement can be generated over the course of a full cricket day? I like cricket in all its forms (I’ll happily watch kids playing in the street using a drinks crate as a wicket) but I am not a big fan of Twenty20. There is an artificiality to it which is jarring and the matches do seem rather trivial - fun but lightweight. There was nothing lightweight about Sunday’s Fifty50 extravaganza. Hectic it might have been, and the bowlers of both sides may now be in therapy, but it was certainly proper cricket.

The proposals for a Twenty20 world cup have not been welcomed by all the members of the ICC – India is against the scheme and I think that they are right. That One Day Internationals had become at times a bit predictable, even dull was true, but the Australians and the South Africans have now crated a new ODI paradigm. How long before the first commentator says something like “India only need eight an over to beat England in the ODI at Goa, this should be well within their capability!” My football team has the motto “Audere est facere” which means “To dare is to do”. Not a bad motto for a team in any sport. The South African’s dared on Sunday – and they didn’t half “do”!