Friday, 24 January 2014

ICC Position Paper: How do the votes stack up?

The day is getting closer, it’s likely that the draft ‘Position Paper’ on the future of cricket will be voted on at the ICC board meeting on January 29th. If not then the saga will need to be resolved before media rights for the next round of ICC events need to be put out to tender in April. So, who’s voting which way? Either seven or eight votes are needed to pass the resolution, according to the ICC constitution, depending on whether it is designated an ‘ordinary’ or ‘special’ resolution. A bit of fact, a bit of speculation and the votes fall this way...

India, Australia, England
The architects of the scheme, they are the only guaranteed votes for it. To get the remaining five they need to persuade five other boards to vote with them. The BCCI has already started this ‘persuasion’, with a threat not to participate in ICC events if this is not passed..

The ZCU is known to often align with the BCCI, and it’s possible that the promise of an occasional tour by India would surely be enough to buy their vote. Zimbabwe cricket has desperate financial problems, and the ODI tour from India earlier this season with two extra ODIs were added on from the three in the FTP was vital for their bottom line. South Africa are trying to organise a Test match against Zimbabwe plus a couple of t20s, but Haroon Lorgat has denied the suggestion that is an attempt to curry favour ahead of the vote. Meanwhile, perhaps understating the gravity of the situation, ZCU head Peter Chingoka has said “It’s just a proposal.”

New Zealand
Initially, NZC director Martin Snedden told the New Zealand Herald that the proposal might not be a bad thing, and that they would support it if five assurances including ones about schedules and revenue are given to them. Since then, it’s been slammed for kowtowing to the big boys, but hasn’t changed its position in public, whilst meeting on the 22nd to prepare its response

West Indies
WICB president Dave Cameron sits on the Finance and Commercial affairs committee which the working group that drew up the proposal was drawn from. It’s not clear whether Cameron was involved in drafting it, but it’s possible he wasn’t, since another member of the committee (Neil Speight, associate/affiliate representative) claims not to have had any knowledge of it. WICB director Baldath Mahabir has come out against the proposals, the board have discussed them via teleconference, and come to a position privately that some expect to be against the proposal.. If they align with India, they could be rewarded with the fourth seat in the new Executive Committee, or more tours like the Sachin farewell extravaganza.

The PCB are said to have “made their opposition privately known”, whilst in public they have taken guidance from the Prime Minister describing the proposal as “important matters of national interest.” A sweetener to the deal may be offered; the BCCI is reported to have dropped its opposition to series’ in neutral venues and is willing to discuss a series in the UAE or even in Pakistan.

South Africa
CSA were the first board to come out fully against the proposals, and after calling for the draft proposal to be withdrawn, they are certain to vote against it. Until recently, part of the ruling elite of cricket, but their choice of Haroon Lorgat as chief executive angered the BCCI, and they’ve been eased out of the frame in favour of the ECB. The only country among the ‘other seven’ to be excluded from the Test cricket fund, they look set to be marginalised at the ICC.

Sri Lanka
SLC hasn’t gone as far as South Africa, but have asked for the discussion on the position paper to be postponed, so the boards can consider their options. ESPNCricinfo reports that they are opposed to the measure, “as it would result in a significant loss of the board's influence on the global governance of the game.” It remains to be seen if they can be placated or persuaded by the BCCI though.

The BCB has been cautious on the issue, but ESPNCricinfo reports that most of the board favours aligning with India. Board president Nazmul Hassan has said that Bangladesh cannot stand against this on their own, but even with several countries seemingly planning to vote against, it’d be an unlikely move for them to vote against it, as the prevailing opinion within the board seems to be that it may help their chances of moving up the Test rankings by dropping into the Intercontinental Cup briefly.

UPDATE: Bangladesh captain Mushfiqur Rahim has become the first player to speak out against the proposals specifically the two tier system, which the BCB has also said it will oppose.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The object of power is power

I rarely get angry at cricket. As Australia slammed England on to the canvas for five torturous Test matches, I got annoyed, depressed, and even laughed at the ineptitude. It didn’t make me angry though. Cricket administration though? That’s making me angry.

In 1984 O’Brien tells the protagonist Winston Smith that “No one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.” Unfortunately, that’s true for the cricketing power brokers. That’s why nobody should be surprised at the ICC reforms being proposed, to cede even more power to the three richest full members, making formal the system that was already in place, in the most brazen way.

The last few days have brought with them a flurry of stories about the future of Test cricket, as the World Test Championship looks set to be binned, after having been delayed once, and the ICC plans a look at two tier test cricket.

Those are both maddening developments, but under the surface lurks even more, as the ICC plans to create a new Executive Committee, above the various current committees, with three permanent members, Cricket Australia, the BCCI, and ECB, and a rotating chairmanship between the three. Those three counties, coincidentally, would be protected against relegation from the first tier of Test cricket, perhaps the most appalling suggestion of all.

Add to this the fact that the new distribution model aligns the ICC and national boards even more along the lines of being businesses, using cricket to make money, of which the big three create more, and therefore deserve more, and you have the perfect corrupt, corporatist oligarchy. To any reasonable cricket fan, the money should be there to sustain cricket

As if that wasn’t enough, the ICC look to abdicate - pushed off with a little help from the BCCI, ECB, CA etc. - from any role in scheduling Test series. Of course, this is a return to the genesis of Test cricket, ad hoc agreements between individual nations, the sort of thing that meant Australia played New Zealand just once between the latter’s elevation to Test cricket in 1930 and the first full series between the two in 1973/4.

It’s a clusterfuck of awful, corrupt administration. Have we reached the breaking point yet? There is no way now for cricket to be democratised, as little as there was any more. If any other nation wants to break into the threeway circle-jerk running world cricket they will have to become as powerful as them. Cricket South Africa’s ongoing tiff with the BCCI has pushed them out of the power circle, and allowed England to sidle closer to India, which of course is where the money is.

As an English cricket fan writing this, it’s easy for those in India to read this as whining for power lost. But it’s not. England are as powerful as ever, India have just jumped to a tier above that, and will allow England and Australia to siphon off from them, like the pilot fish swimming alongside them nibbling at their fins. It’s the other seven full members and 96 associates and affiliates that are being screwed.

What if though, instead of breaking in, the others broke away? The lack of the big three would hinder them, but that could be a chance to integrate Afghanistan and Ireland and form their own ecosystem, because if they keep swimming in the shark’s tank, they’ll slowly be starved to death.

That’s why, in cricket, as in every sphere of life, power needs to be seized from the hands of those who misuse it, but also why we should be wary of those who promise they wield their their power for the good of the rest. Until the ICC is fully democratic among its 106 members, it will never serve them all. We need a revolution.

Those beyond the Test world need something to aim for in long form cricket. In ODI and T20 cricket they have their chances to get to the World Cup, but still miss out on the regular bilateral series’ which bring cricket boards income. Still, that is changing a little; in the next six months, Ireland have short series with West Indies and Sri Lanka, along with the World T20.

Even a play off between the lowest ranked full member and the winner of the Intercontinental Cup would be an improvement. Even a minimum win percentage over 20 years to stay a full member, with an associate replacing the ones who fail to reach that, would be something.

Perhaps an even more radical suggestion is needed. Maybe the Test match needs to be a open to any nation that plays four or five day cricket? So far, the teams that have threatened the full members have done that through one day and t20 successes, World Cup shocks and the like.

If those nations could play Test cricket in ten team divisions stretching down through all the associates and affiliates, a clear promotion and relegation structure would add a clear goal, and the Test match name would give some prestige to the games, which the Intercontinental cup lacks. It would be, to misquote a well known saying, “Test cricket all the way down.”
International cricket isn’t a game which has been meritocratic over the years. The Test match is a private members club, only available to the very best - and those who have India’s ear after a strong World Cup campaign. This should change though, and in 100 years time, who's to say who the top tier would be made up of.

Maybe roughly the same make-up would persist, the countries with a long developed cricket culture would continue to dominate. But at least the rest could say they’d been given the chance to break in.

Some of the most successful sports leagues in the world have a somewhat socialist character. Major American leagues like the NFL or the NBA have a draft and salary capping, and sell their TV rights collectively. It’ll probably never happen, but if the ICC took over tv rights worldwide and split the money equally between teams in each division, a major hurdle towards equality would be jumped. Of course the big three would never allow that.

Lower divisions would get less, according to the basic needs of their level, but therein lies another motivation to get promoted through the divisions. Success from your team gets you more money to develop the sport at grassroots level and sustain that success.

Every time a new team becomes a competitive cricketing nation, that adds to the value of the whole game. The nation boards at the moment are content with taking the money they can get now, not realising that they can make even more by expanding the game to new horizons. 

The sticking point will be that, in the short term the BCCI and other cricket boards at the top of the pile will lose some money. If those boards were committed to cricket as a growing, global game, they would take that hit. They won’t, as yesterdays news has showed. And I’m still angry.
For more reading about the ICC power grab, Osman Samiuddin, Jarrod Kimber, and Gideon Haigh have written perceptively about it, and the original stories from ESPNCricinfo are linked to in the text.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Put your body into it

There’s a video on YouTube of Shane Warne’s bowling action in slow motion. Watch it and you see the incredible physicality Warne put into his bowling. In normal motion he strides up to the crease and seems to just roll the ball down, but in slow-mo you see the huge effort that goes through the whole thing. The front foot goes down, Warne pivots up and over it, and his right arm comes through quickly, ripping the ball as Warne lets out his trademark grunt.

Ashley Mallett wrote that, “When Warne reigned supreme on the Test stage, you'd see kids in the park and in the nets trying to emulate him. They got the saunter right, but what they didn't see was Warne's amazing strength, drive and energy through the crease. Watching him, it all looked so easy. They would emulate his approach, release the ball, and more times than not watch it disappear out of the park. There was a general lack of understanding about energy and drive through the crease.”

That lack of understanding seems to extend to international level. Compare and contrast Warne with two young off-spinners fighting to become their countries’ number one spinners. One of them is Ravichandran Ashwin, the other is Sachithra Senanayake, and they have a lot in common. Both have a slow, sometimes halting action, and a sense of gentleness in their bowling. It smacks of two bowlers who grew up bowling in limited overs games, never fully committing through the crease to leave time to adjust for the slightest change in the batsman.

Ashwin has a huge disparity between his performances at home and away. In India, he’s taken 95 wickets at 24.12, and in four Tests in Australia and South Africa he has 9 wickets at 74.77. His economy rate goes up a bit abroad, but his strike rate balloons from 51.1 balls to 140 away from home. In the first Test against the South Africans he didn’t manage a wicket, but kept it tight. MS Dhoni obviously thought that wasn’t enough and Ravi Jadeja managed wickets and economy in the next Test, whilst putting more of a rip on the ball.

Senanayake made his Test debut in the UAE, where conditions were supposed to favour the spinners, but instead, it was a green tinged seamers pitch and he struggled, taking 0-96 from 23 overs in the match.

The trouble may be that growing up on turning pitches, neither had to put their full body into the ball to rip it hard enough to spin it big. Both seemingly have nimble and strong fingers, enough to put a decent rip on the ball, but how much more could they extract if they drove through the crease?

They should look to the recently retired Graeme Swann for inspiration. Until his elbow problem caught up to him, Swann spun the ball hard with a tighter grip, an almighty rip from his fingers, and a drive through the crease made easier by his rhythmical run-up.

In these days of huge bats and boundaries, and pitches either made for seamers or batsmen, the truly great spinners of the future are going to have to rip the ball harder than ever, and to do that they may have to be tremendously physically gifted. Warne and Muralitharan were great in part because of their hugely strong and flexible bodies. Warne may not have looked like an athlete, but he had a very strong shoulder and wrist along with great core strength, whilst Murali’s deformities in the wrist and elbow helped him spin the ball miles and bowl the doosra.

Whilst average spin can get taken apart these days, batsmen outside the subcontinent are as poor against genuine turn as they’ve ever been, and if they keep feasting on mediocrity, the truly great to come will have some easy wickets to harvest. If they spin it enough that is.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Borthwick's chance to bring a new balance to England

2014 will be a year of transition for England. As many as three players may make their Test debuts at Sydney in the Fifth Ashes Test, and it’s likely Scott Borthwick will be one of them. Borthwick looks on the surface to be the multi-dimensional cricketer perfect to replace a man as pivotal as Graeme Swann, and indeed has he has the recently departed spinner's recommendation, but delve deeper and Borthwick is not quite the same sort of player.

Whilst Swann was of great value as a good number eight, or excellent number nine, prone to those quick cameos which intensely annoy opposition captains, and a consistently good second slip, his main value to England's balance was as a complete spinner. Swann could tie batsmen down on the first day, allowing the seamers to rest, he could tease them into mistakes on flat decks, and rip the ball square on helpful surfaces.

He was integral to the success of a four man attack, working as two bowlers. England could afford the defensive option of Ashley Giles (who had a career economy rate not much better than Swann’s) within a five man attack, but with four, a more versatile spinner was needed.

Scott Borthwick is not a front-line spinner in a four man attack yet, and he may never be one, but he could be two other things. Firstly, he would be a good second spinner. When given helpful conditions, he has the spin and flight to test good batsmen, something he proved by taking 6-70 on an Oval dustbowl this season. He could also fit into a five man attack. If England gave the responsibility for bowling ‘dry’ to Bresnan, or Stokes, or even Joe Root if his off-spin improves, they can give Borthwick the license as a strike bowler..

As a number three for a County Championship winning team, top scoring in the title season just gone, Borthwick is more of a builder of innings than Swann, who was always a hitter with great hand-eye co-ordination, but not much in the way of defensive technique or ability to bat for long periods.

An career average of just over thirty may not show a top order Test player, but the 41.51 he averaged in the county season just gone would certainly be good enough for a number seven at Test level. Of course, with Stokes currently occupying the number six spot, Borthwick one below would push the keeper down to eight.

The pure keeper has disappeared from Test cricket, with most countries now having batsmen with varying levels of keeping ability behind the stumps. But with two all-rounders in the side, England have a chance to bring a pure keeper back in the team, even if his batting isn’t quite up to Test level.

In the long term, that man could be Michael Bates, of Hampshire, whose keeping skill has the purists drooling, but whose batting leaves a bit to be desired at First-class level. But an average of 20.50, Bates’ current mark in First-class cricket, is fine for a number eight. Bates’ time may come, and he is an intriguing prospect for the future, but a more realistic option straight away is Borthwick batting at eight and Prior or Bairstow above him.

If Prior comes back into the side, it may seem counter-intuitive, but is there a certain sense in moving him up the order by one, to swap with Stokes. Too many of his innings recently, he’s come in after top order collapses, and has faced the prospect of running out of partners as Mitchell Johnson bounced out the tail-enders. Moving him up the order will give him partners, and more time to build an innings, with less pressure, knowing two decent bats are due in after him.

Wherever Borthwick bats, he’s not going to replace Swann, but he has the potential to make his own role in the team, as a purely attacking spinner, and solid lower-middle order bat. That in turn could create the return of an old role, the pure keeper. He’s not going to bring the same balance that Swann did to the side, but in a few years time he could play a part in creating a new balance.