Tuesday 21 January 2014

But the market can't count

On Monday, Misbah-ul-Haq angled a single to point to seal Pakistan's remarkable day-five heist against Sri Lanka and one of history's great Test runchases.

A match that had meandered for four days exploded into a classic finish. Great cricket, but was it financially viable? According to the ICC commercial rights working group, probably not.

Their leaked position paper revealed much about the dysfunctional governance of world cricket but it also showed just how impoverished an arbiter of sporting worth “the market” really is.

The paper speaks hopefully of things like “self sufficiency” and “independence” for national cricket boards, but proposes a system where the richest boards take an even bigger slice of world cricket's revenue.

It reasons that the countries with the biggest broadcasting markets – India, Australia and England – are cricket's biggest wealth-creators and deserve the greatest rewards. That's supposedly the law of the market.

A law that decrees Azhar Ali's matchwinning century almost worthless because, in commercial terms, Pakistan playing Sri Lanka in UAE is trivial.

But has the market miscounted? What if Azhar takes this experience to help Pakistan thrive in Australia? What if Junaid Khan uses skills honed against, say, New Zealand to deliver an eyecatching series in India? The kind of series that draws viewers and sponsors in even greater numbers. Where, then, was the value created?

The sporting drama, romance and historical significance of matches like Shajah are easily overlooked by the market. But even in the hard-nosed terms the working group thinks it deals in, the market is a faulty calculator.

Cricket's value is captured when broadcast rights are sold, but it is created well before then. The Big Three feel themselves worthy rulers of the sport because they have a cricket-watching population which advertisers are prepared to pay broadcasters vast sums to reach.

Yet people choose to watch cricket (or follow it online) for its history, its culture, its personalities, its skills and the closeness of its competition. This is where “revenue generation” actually happens and why talk of “independence” is so dishonest.

For all lipservice paid to meritocracy, the proposals also reveal how markets work by limiting, rather than embracing, competition. In the two-division future it suggests, The Big Three can't be relegated. And, despite cricket's desperate needs for global growth, it suggests money be taken from development and funnelled back to the centre.

Given the opportunity, there could be millions of new fans in China for example. But the country has one turf pitch and barely any international fixtures. The ICC reported $1,564 million revenue in its last cycle three-quarters of which is handed back to 10 Test-playing countries. Some of this is money that could be used to foster the sport in countries like China.

Though in the short run a cost, in the future it would provide a bigger cricket-loving population and a sport with a global outlook. The kind of thing advertisers might one day like.

Yet, as Russell Dengan points out, the proposals suggest the opposite. In the 'cost-savings' proposed, if ICC revenue reached $2 billion, the Big Three would pocket 108% of the increase. As usual an appeal for 'market rule' is in fact a call for cartels and cabals.

Apologists for the paper tell the world to take commerce seriously. But it's less about money than it is about power.

Sunday 19 January 2014

Cricket's governance coup: A disgrace but not a shock

We've failed. News that cricket's financial Big Three are planning a coup is a disgrace. It's hopefully a call to arms too. But it's certainly not a surprise.

The signs were clear when the BCCI severed India's tour to South Africa. They were clear when the ECB and CA watched on silently as it happened. They were clear when the only five-Test series being scheduled involved India, Australia and England; when cricket's potential Olympic participation was quietly aborted; when the Woolf Report was ignored.

The Big Three had veto power in all-but name already. Now they are formalising their grip on the game and forcing an even greater concentration of wealth upon themselves. In effect the seven other Test-playing nations – including the best team in the world – are being flung onto the scrapheap with the ICC's other 96 members.

All the while, bar some very determined and important exceptions, much of cricket's fan base and press have stood by idly. Maybe governance just isn't interesting enough, maybe the news cycle is too immediate, maybe it's just easier not to bother. But as a cricketing public we've failed to hold the powers that run our sport to account.

The Guardian's cricket coverage often sets the bar to which others to aspire. According to Mike Selvey, they had this story for a while, but didn't feel it newsworthy. Really!?

There would outrage if the Premiere League proposed a rule preventing the biggest three clubs from ever being relegated. Yet even now there is very little comment on this ICC story.

Broadcasters, meanwhile, are more the partners of administrative power than they are its investigators. Skysports are entirely silent on this news and the BBC have barely raised a whisper.

Maybe it's as much our failure as it is theirs. If we care about our sport we should be screaming from the rooftops. Or at least Tweeting about it.

Jarrod says all that needs to be here. And there is a petition to sign here.

Monday 6 January 2014

Unthinkable? An England team without managers

If the Ashes mega-series taught us anything, it was that management was absolutely right until it was wrong. That Andy Flower's professional, marginal-gains micromanagement was superior to Darren Lehman's more old-fashioned, tell-a-joke; be-a-bloke style. Until the opposite was true.

As England now decide on what to rescue and restore from their wreckage of a winter, there will be much focus on Flower and his squadron of backroom assistants. But where does responsibility lie? Are the players accountable for their own performance or does the environment they're in matter too?

Andrew Strauss articulated the puzzle perfectly when trying to defend England's management team. Flower, he said, deserves support because he has overseen so many successes. Equally he shouldn't be blamed for this series, because it's the players who take the field.

Management science relies on the myth that results can be achieved if the correct processes are developed. The moral of the Moneyball story was that there are no barriers to success. Given enough information and enough analysis, strategies can always be found.

Team England seem staunch believers in the management ideal. It means they place enormous importance in their pre-cooked plans and enormous faith in their ability to control. So better young players develop under their tutelage at Loughborough than out of view with the counties. Better menus are determined by the experts than let individuals decide what's good for them.

Players are required to be automators, delivering the agenda developed by the centre.

It made England incredibly proficient against middling teams. As long as there was no outlier x-factor that could elude management planning, England were ruthless. But whenever mystery struck – a doosra, a counter-attack, Mitch - England got derailed. 

It's not that players took the field and unthinkingly performed Gooch or Saker's instructions. But they imbued a culture of management control that drained them of autonomy, accountability and the ability to think on their feet.

Though England are more extreme in their fondness for managerialism, they aren't unique. It's the direction all teams are moving. But it wasn't always this way.

The plethora of coaches is a fairly recent development in the sport. As Michael Atherton wrote recently: “On my first Australian tour, in 1990-91, we travelled with a manager, whose job it was to sort out travel arrangements and hand out disciplinary fines, a coach, a scorer and a physiotherapist.

“A player... could ask the coach or captain for advice; he could ask a senior player to have a watch in the nets; he could ring home and speak to a trusted adviser; or he could sort things out for himself. It meant that there was no less advice available than now, but it was less structured, less formal.”

The great West Indies and Australian teams got by without the dense layers of management England use. As recently as 2007, an Indian side led by Rahul Dravid and packed with senior pros secured a historic series win in England without a coach.

It won't happen now but as England ponder their new era it's worth wondering what would happen if they did away with a management team altogether.