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Commercial Pressure of International Cricket

Commercial Pressure of International Cricket

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I don’t think there is actually all that much to be said about Australia’s batting performance. They are going to cop the treatment in every form of media across the world, today and right through the night. And so they should.

There are obviously not enough expletives to describe the collapse from a fans point of view. It’s a tough pill to swallow, all this talk about this being our grand finale, and we will come prepared…pffft.

It did get me thinking about our preparation.

Preparation to play bowling like that on pitches like this doesn’t happen between the third and fourth test. It happens in a batsmen’s growth and development in their earlier years.

How long have we known that these are English conditions? How long have we known that in England on seeming, swinging wickets you have to play the ball late, with soft hands? Never pushing hard at it. The highlight reel is basically on repeat. Broad comes in, releases the ball, batsmen pushes hard at it, straight to the slips. The only change is which slip catches it and left to right handed batsmen.

So what the hell is going on? Why, after 120 odd years of playing in England, haven’t we figured out how to prepare our batsmen for the challenge?

Stay with me here, I’m going off road for a bit. I’ll be jumping around, but will try to tie my thoughts together somewhere towards the end.

I think so much comes back to the business side of the sport. It doesn’t matter if we are purists or don’t give a shit cause T20 rocks, but cricket is big business. It obviously competes against other sports for market share, including merchandise, ticket sales, participation rates etc.

As cricket developed from semi-professional to professional to bloody well paid, the influence of business’s invested in it grows also. Whether it’s the advertisers or broadcasters, there’s not many parts of our game, like most sports, that aren’t up for negotiation for the right price.

In the last 20 years, there has also been dramatic changes in the way test cricket is played. It’s become more and more aggressive. More runs and more wickets in less time. The amount of tests being decided in three or four days is definitely becoming more regular than in the 100 years previous. To me, the parallels with the money injection would have to be worth having a look at.

I know we all remember the days of dour, five day draws with average run rates of 2-2.5 runs per over. These days if a test goes five days, there has probably been 1500 runs scored on an absolute belter. So in one sense it hasn’t been boring viewing, at least not to our newly recruited T20 fans.

The second benefit is ticket sales, at least every chance is given to maximize ticket sales which is how individual Cricket grounds make their major profits. A live sporting event increases business in the area, so the longer people are flocking to that ground the better for the city. If you’re getting 25-30,000 people a day, every day short is a lot of lost business.

Looking further ahead, the broadcast has taken up the maximum amount of time, therefore giving advertisers bang for their assumable large buck. Given that advertisers and broadcasters are central to pretty much any decision made about the direction of all sports, the longer the game goes, the better for the hip pocket. Sporting associations all over wonder ‘How to best present the product to gain a better deal for when the contracts are next up for tender’?

Which is where the problems lies….

It’s not limited to cricket, but when any sports first focus is on better deals related to adverts and broadcasts there is every chance that the sport will suffer.

T20 has obviously had an impact. It’s given modern day cricket the same shake up that pyjama cricket did for the sport all those years ago. New fans are flooding to through the gates, and they want to see sixes and fours.

The game of cat and mouse, session after session, day after day is lost on so many modern fans, and where do our future players come from? The fans. As a fan and as a public we are naturally drawn to what gets us pumped up. If you watch Gilchrist come in at seven and blast a century as easy as the rest of us walk to our car in the morning, that’s what you’re going to want to replicate. There just isn’t the same glory in grinding out a hard fought 70 on green top. You might as well hit your runs quick and have something make the highlight reel.

A great recent example is on the 2013/14 Ashes tour. Joe Root was dropped for the fifth test at the SCG. Of all the English batsmen, he was one who wasn’t freaking out when Johnson was charging in. Root had made a few starts through the series, but got bogged down in his scoring rate. From where I was sitting, here was a kid, batting wherever he was told to in the order, against a pace attack that Alastair Cook later described as the best he had faced, and was the only one holding up an end while the rest of the batsmen were looking for the plane home.

Root’s noticeable innings included 26* (86) in 121 mins, 24 (82) in 116 mins, 15 (80) 114 mins, 87 (194) in 269 mins and 19 (88) in 125 mins. Five out of his eight innings lasted close to two hours. Despite not going on to make any big scores, a guy doesn’t survive against that attack for so long without having the right skills. In a series lost 5-0, Root had weighed up the situation and decided that survival was the best thing he could do, make the bastards work hard to take his wicket and grab the runs when they turned up.

That’s test cricket in a nutshell. It’s tough, its time consuming and requires hours of focus.

Unless you have a superstar quick bowler like a Mitchell Johnson or Daly Styen that can create something off the flattest of tracks, there is no money in having the bowling attack completely dominate. It’s that simple. If you provide a green top on the first day, there is every chance with the way test cricket is played these days the game will not last past day three. That is a lot of lost revenue, so why risk it by producing the green top?

We have seen what happened in the first two test matches of this current series on flat tracks. Neither lasted the distance and both wickets were absolute rubbish for bowling on. Whichever team had bowled the best has won. Both batting units haven’t looked convincing, in fact they both have looked pretty fragile when the bowling is right. Unfortunately for Australia, while the batting has been terrible, the bowling has been dead set frustrating. There can be no underestimating how much the loss of Harris has unbalanced this attack.

After the lords test, we saw a change in the pitch preparation. With all the media build up and public unrest about the wickets, there was a bigger problem than making the tests last through too day five.

When a home team gets slapped by 400+ runs the brand takes a hit. If that happens two or three games in a row, the flow on effects can be huge. When a brand takes a big enough hit, or successive hits, people get turned off buying merchandise because who wants to remember that team, that series, those players who lost by a record amount. Sponsorships and broadcast deals can decline as well.

Public interest is the number one priority, need to keep fans engaged. Then once you have them engaged, you need to make sure it’s a positive engagement. The public were not happy with the pitch preparation strategies for the first two tests, despite the score being one all. Throw in the English bowlers pleading for a wicket that reminded them of home and it means that change had to happen, or risk facing backlash, which all comes back to lost money.

So, to bring this argument back together somehow…

The demand for entertainment, generated from the financial windfall of providing it, has started a spiral staircase of decline in areas of test cricket. It seems strange to be saying that batsmen are losing their way, but it’s true. Despite the shorter form being heavily weighted to the batsmen’s favour, the art of grinding out runs is getting lost, especially in Australian batsmen. All over the world wickets are prepared to best suit the commercial needs of cricket, (whatever that current requirement is) as opposed to serving the purpose of highlighting the wickets natural characteristics. If it’s generally a seeming wicket, let it seem! Let the bowlers learn how to bowl on it, and the batters learn how to bat on it. If matches aren’t lasting the full quota, the players need to learn from their mistakes and do better next time.

This change has to start with a directive from the governing bodies to prepare distinct wickets for first class matches so the kids coming thru get a good look at how to adapt. Then we need them back for test wickets too.

Call me a conspiracy theorist if you will but, the summer of 2014/15 against India couldn’t have been a clearer example of commercial pressure. After beating them 5-0 last tour and then getting spanked back 4-0 on the return tour, I believe it was clearly an agreed directive from both governing bodies not to produce anything with bounce, which would sway the advantage heavily in Australia’s favour. They were the flattest decks I’ve seen put back to back in a series in this country. It was absolutely deflating.

I can’t see anything changing just because it’s the nature of the beast, but I think something has to be done soon, so at least in a generation we can learn to play in different conditions.

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