Thursday, November 12, 2009

English cricket should welcome David Davies’ recommendations

It has now been confirmed that David Davies has recommended that The Ashes should be shown on terrestrial television as a “crown jewels” event and everyone involved with English cricket should welcome the news. They won’t of course – expect a strong anti reaction from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) who will their future income streams being under threat. But in fact the news is just the shot in the arm that English cricket needs and not only the fans should celebrate. Because it should prompt a root and branch review of the finances and governance of cricket in Britain so that a fit-for-purpose domestic structure is established along with a far greater spectator/viewer imperative than currently exists.

The ordinary cricket fan has been the principal casualty of the disproportionately commercial bias of the ECB in recent years. Ticket prices for international matches are by some margin the most expensive in the world and with the only alternative for the fan requiring a satellite or cable subscription, which may cannot afford, cricket has slipped in the public interest compared with that glorious summer of 2005. That year, of course, The Ashes were on free-to-air Channel 4 and the viewing figures were huge. This year, although the cricket was almost as enticing as in 2005, the viewers were hardly surprisingly far fewer in number.

Why does the ECB seek to market its valuable international cricket properties to the highest bidders disregarding, in the process, the needs of the ordinary cricket fan? The answer, of course, rests not with the drive for income per se but with the grossly overblown expenditure that the ECB indulges in. This brings us, inevitably, to the subject of the structure of domestic cricket in England and Wales. The only way that an 18 county domestic structure can exist (just!) is if its costs are subvented by handouts from the ECB. These handouts amount to around £2million per year per county and we all know what the counties do with a significant proportion of that money and who the eventual beneficiaries are – and that they are not qualified to play for England!

It may seem slightly perverse to argue that the likely reduction in ECB income that the Davies recommendations will mean is actually good for the game. But if, as is likely, it forces the whole basis of the financing and operations of the ECB to be reviewed then only good can come out of it. And the start point for all this should be the ordinary cricket fan who wants affordable international cricket and, I would suggest, a far higher standard top-tier domestic cricket structure. A structure that is above all a developing ground for players who have the ability to get through to the international team and who are given the opportunity to do so in domestic competitions which are not primarily, as at present, nice little earners for itinerant cricket mercenaries!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The ECB still cagey about it's "staging agreements"

Cricket lovers will be aware that the playing field for the allocation of major international matches to England and Wales cricket grounds is far from level. The ECB’s Major Match Group, chaired by Lord Morris of Handsworth, has confirmed that an Ashes Test match will take place at The Oval in 2013 as a part of their “long term staging agreement” - and Yorkshire also has such an agreement with the ECB which guarantees international cricket at Headingley until at least 2019. It is not known whether any other grounds have similar long term deals with the ECB and the ECB won’t tell! An ECB media spokesman told me “You would need to contact the individual venues. We don't release this type of information” – quite why this should be is not clear. What have they got to hide? The Oval and Headingley’s advantageous arrangements are no doubt linked to their ground redevelopment plans which needed to be underpinned financially by guaranteed international cricket at the venues.

This of course brings us to Lord’s which as it stands may not even get an Ashes Test match in 2013 (although one has been promised for 2016). Lord’s has ambitious plans for its redevelopment including taking the capacity up to approaching 40,000. But these plans can surely not go ahead unless the MCC has some certainty about the long term future of international matches at the ground. MCC members and the general cricket-loving public alike will be wondering whether the ECB and the MCC can do a deal which will allow Lord’s plans to proceed. And visiting sides will also, I’m sure, be hoping for a successful outcome – how many players from around the cricket world would happily forgo a Lord’s Test match in favour of the Rose Bowl, the Riverside or Sophia Gardens!

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Boxing demeans us all...

I wonder how many of those who watched the Haye versus Valuev fight yesterday remember the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 when the shambling figure of Muhammed Ali struggled nobly to light the Olympic flame.

In Atlanta, and since, Muhammed Ali’s suffering from “Pugilistic Parkinson’s syndrome” was visible for all to see. Like other great champions before him – Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson amongst many others – the effects of repeated blows to the head over years in the ring was finally taking its toll. It would be churlish to deny David Haye his moment in the spotlight and no doubt he will now climb aboard the gravy train big time before he throws in the toel for good. But will it by then be too late? It may take up to fifteen years for the damage of repeated concussion to emerge in the way that it has with Ali and countless others.

Defenders of boxing often argue that many other sports are dangerous and that that the death or serious injury rate in the sport is lower than in (say) mountaineering or sky diving. This argument misses the point completely. It is only in boxing where you will have your head pummelled continuously for more than thirty minutes by an opponent whose primary purpose is to knock you senseless. That is the point of the sport – to strive sufficiently to injure your opponent that you beat him physically into submission. The world of professional boxing is an anachronism in modern sport in that attacks by one fighter on the head of another are a normal part of the tactics - and it is this aspect of the sport that is its biggest source of controversy and shame. Whilst contests in many contact sports (like Rugby, for example) can be tough and very physically and mentally demanding there is no legal sport, other than professional boxing, where the primary intention is to put your opponent in a comatose state. Boxing legitimises and glorifies violence. There is a glamour, of sorts, in boxing of course but a pretty vulgar one with “A list” celebrities occupying the ringside seats only intensifying the repulsion that many of us feel that modern society still tolerates this vulgarity.

Estimates indicate that around 900 people have died from boxing related injuries over the past seventy years or so – it is, therefore, no surprise that all medical authorities have called for the sport to be banned. The American Medical Association puts the case very clearly “All forms of boxing are a public demonstration of interpersonal violence which is unique among sporting activities. Victory is obtained by inflicting on the opponent such a measure of physical injury that the opponent is unable to continue, or which at least can be seen to be significantly greater than is received in return. This particularly applies to professional boxing”. But it is the individual cases that really bring the barbarity into sharp relief. Take, for example, that of the former world Middleweight champion, Gerald McClellan, who sustained a brain injury in a fight in 1995 as a consequence of which he is now deaf, blind and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Yes such things could happen accidentally in other sports – but in boxing, as the AMA rightly says, the causing of such injury is deliberate.

There are multi-million dollar purses in boxing at the top and nobody can blame David Haye and others for reaching for them. With money at this level is it surprising that the sport survives, despite all the medical evidence against it? And is it surprising that it is the sport with historically more corruption and criminality in it than any other? The history of professional boxing is littered with the debris of fixed fights, dysfunctional and greedy promoters and crime syndicates. Surely sport should not be part of this shady world at all. Sport should set an example to society not reflect back its darker images. The charter of the Olympic Games says that “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Boxing fails this test.