Westbury column: How T20 reflects lure of private sector

By Isabelle Westbury

When David Storey, arguably the greatest novelist to have played professional sport (granted a narrow genre), wrote his prescient tome, This Sporting Life, he put into cuttingly honest words how our emotions and the challenges we face are often channelled, or at the very least reflected, in sport.

The opposite is also true – that sport is reflected in life; there is a wealth of fiction which has readily combined elements of playing cricket with themes about fair play, ethics, and morality both as an individual and as part of a team.

Whether art, which includes sport, imitates life, or life imitates art is a question debated by many, Oscar Wilde and Aristotle included. Others have gone further; not only does sport imitate life, it prepares you for it. The quote, albeit likely apocryphal, that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”, attributed to the Duke of Wellington, is one of many that demonstrate the romantic framing of sport as a breeding ground for those attributes desired in man (and, yes, it was mainly man).

This view of cricket as the maker of tomorrow’s leaders is one often associated with a nostalgic past. Yet arguably this relationship, of cricket imitating life and vice versa, is now stronger than ever. The parallels at times can be quite unnerving.

The “Big Three” cricket nations, of Australia, England and India, in whose hands power and control of the global game is clustered, could easily be considered the China, USA and Russia of the cricket world – the “superpowers”.

Until recently, these superpowers held disproportionately more executive power and a greater share of international tournament revenue. Last year, in an apparent bid for greater transparency, democracy and perhaps the simple mantra of fair play, the ICC scaled down these powers.

It was the “right” thing to do.

More recently the ICC has announced proposals to better regulate domestic T20 tournaments – whose rise has proven particularly problematic to the likes of the West Indies, whose board cannot match the vast sums offered to players by the overseas leagues.

As with real-world problems, it is not difficult to take the view that this newfound desire to better manage T20 cricket might be more a matter of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. The merits of this regulation aside, it has come only at the stage at which the superpowers’ own wellbeing is threatened.

Comparisons, loosely, could be drawn to the real-world problem of tackling climate change. Despite a wealth of evidence on the impact of climate change having been around for decades, it was only once the superpowers had reached the stage of relatively stable, prosperous economies that they sought to impose restrictions on fossil fuel consumption – and only at the stage at which their own longevity may be threatened.

While West Indies cricket is now a shadow of its former self, struggling to qualify for a World Cup, the first two editions of which they won, it is only now that players from within the “Big Three” are threatening to abandon representative cricket for the lure of the domestic franchise that any action is being taken.
To the same degree, this is why none of these nations have any incentive to expand the World Cup beyond its current ten-team format. The fear of embarrassment, uncertainty and the potential loss of short-term revenue should the fixture card deviate from the tightly controlled broadcast package now on offer overrides any long-term incentive or ideals of growing the game.

Just as the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council purport to oversee the maintenance of international peace and security, the “Big Three” of world cricket purport to oversee the maintenance of the standards and spirit of international cricket.

It is dangerous to compare cricket and warfare, just ask David Warner, but just as intervention often only comes when it is in the immediate self-interest of these powerful nations to do so, a similar rule can be applied to broadening the World Cup.

The misfortune for both is that, in the long term, these powerful nations will suffer – passive nation states from an escalating global refugee crisis and cricket’s powers from a game failing to attract new fans and followers while its older, traditional fan base dies out. Just as sovereign states must defer to the five-yearly (or thereabouts) election cycles, the ICC bigwigs remain subservient to the cyclic broadcast rights deals.

On an individual level, cricket is already a far truer reflection of society than many would readily believe. The lure of domestic T20 leagues versus international caps has reached its tipping point and reflects a similar dilemma in capitalist states for individuals deciding to work in the private sector over the state.

There once was a time when the brightest and best would decline the lure of City pay packets for a noble career in the civil sector, where the pay was not wildly inferior and the wider incentives, of a healthy pension, job security and more manageable working hours offered an attractive all-round package.
Those that bolted towards the City were induced by the thrill of the chase, the high risk and high reward environment. No longer. The incentives to join the public sector, beyond the call of patriotic duty, are few. The stress levels are similar if not greater through budget constraints, the job security is equivalent, the add-ons equally so and the rest of the best, with whom to challenge and stimulate an individual, are in the private sector.

Not to mention the widening chasm in remuneration.

As the world becomes ever more interconnected and multicultural, the clarion call of patriotic duty on the cricket pitch only holds so much sway.
Fail to act and it may even become an ideal consigned to the past.

It is well documented that cricket has been challenged by the private versus public debate before.

Even in the Eighties with the arrival of Kerry Packer, the international boards almost left it too late before reacting, adapting and changing their approach – bringing remuneration, innovation and an infrastructure in line with those standards expected of a major global sport at the time.

Like the best companies in business, a changing world and the challenges this brings are not so much a threat as an opportunity to evolve, innovate and thrive. Let’s hope the ICC understands this.

To date, as an exhilarating, tightly fought and high quality World Cup Qualifier series unfolds in Zimbabwe, without television, radio or any substantive coverage, for the glory of the two remaining spots in the restricted 2019 World Cup, the signs are not encouraging.

There may at least be one redeeming feature; it is a well-known fact that it is far easier to write about tragedy than it is a victory. Sharpen your pencils.

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