Revolution of cricket is here to stay

2008-02-23 00:00

CRICKET is undergoing a radical change, the second in its history. Far from being a passing phase, the franchise system launched in India over the last few months will spread. Eventually Pakistan, South Africa, West Indies and Sri Lanka will have their own franchises in place. Within a decade the entire structure of cricket will have changed beyond recognition. Already provincial cricket is ailing. In most countries Test cricket has been in trouble for years. Debate may rage about the merits of this development, but it is inevitable. Nor will there be any going back. Cricket will be shaken up by businessmen.

Curiously, the ICC will be more important after the franchises have taken over domestic cricket, because it will be empowered not by self-centred countries, but by financiers with independent means and high expectations. Free from impossible responsibilities and the petty politicking that mars this most ungovernable of games, it will focus on matters of discipline and co-operation. Meanwhile the Future Tours programme will be forgotten.

Cricket’s previous critical confrontation between players and officials came in the 1850s. In those days the game was split between professional teams moving around England and playing for money against local sides (a liberation inspired by The Levellers, a political party that stood up for the rights of skilled workers) and “gentlemen” from private schools convinced they had a mandate to direct all operations. Since the craftsmen drank heavily and lacked cohesion, the Lords prevailed and before long everyone was playing county cricket under their direction. Not until 2007/8 had this system been seriously undermined. Now, for a second time, central authority totters under assault from players aware of their market value.

Cricket has always been vulnerable to changes of this sort. The shorter the match, the more popular it is. As in theatre and film, the most demanding part of the activity is subsidised by the more readily approachable. It is not so elsewhere. Draughts and speed chess are regarded as minor amusements. Seven-a-side rugby is an entertaining trifle. These games know themselves, cricket has struggled with its format. Throughout, the problem has been that its most satisfying length has been its least marketable.

Cricket’s other distinctive characteristic is that players made money only when representing their country. In other games, high wages are paid by clubs. Real Madrid, Leicester RFC and so forth are the paymasters for their contracted athletes. International service is an extra. Apart from periodic tournaments, carefully timed to avoid clashing with important domestic commitments, not many internationals are played. Accordingly, these employers enjoy considerable influence in the game. None of them relies on the ruling body for funding. Quite the reverse.

Hitherto, cricket has maintained its old-fashioned structures, with a pyramid including clubs and provinces run by associations and beholden to the national body. In some countries it has worked reasonably well. In others it has been barely functional. Now domestic cricket is in decline. No matter that some of the best players in the world may be taking part, the crowds for an inter-provincial match are small. Cricket has come to regard domestic contests much as a large company does expenditure on research and development. It has opened the door for money makers committed to the game but not responsible for its development.

Previously, the fact that international cricket footed the bill for everything else empowered those in charge. That has changed. Players can make a lot of money alongside the mainstream. Franchises can flourish. Eventually the fact that cricket was played in countries with booming economies, vast populations and growing television audiences was bound to cause an upheaval.

The refusal of Australian players to tour Pakistan in April is part of this process. Andrew Symonds declared himself unavailable before the recent assassinations, and others were like-minded. Never mind that Zimbabwe and South Africa had recently completed uneventful tours of the country. Previously, it was unthinkable that anyone except an irreplaceable player might turn down the opportunity to represent his country overseas. Provided the money is right, and despite the explosions in Orissa and Mumbai, the same cricketers are prepared to play for teams in India. And security will be laxer in the IPL than on an international tour. It is hard to believe that anyone will be safer in Mumbai than Lahore. If the security people give the green light, Australia ought to take its best available team to Pakistan in April. It is an obligation. But, then, so was playing two Test matches against Bangladesh this winter.

In some countries it might take a decade, but change will come. Everywhere else the old ways are dead. It might not be a bad thing. Cricket has been struggling in the Caribbean and elsewhere and Test cricket is played in empty grounds in most places. Gate takings were down. Television demanded a better product. Something had to give. The ICC has been trying to spread the game. Showing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow might help. Test cricket will survive, for otherwise the players will revolt, but fewer international matches will be played. Cricketers are like almost everyone else. Tradition has its place, but they also want to make money. A career does not last long. Might end tomorrow.

• Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands.

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