Australia’s approaching dangerous crossroads

‘No cricket country in the world has more working parties than England. No cricket country in the world pays less attention to the important things and more to the unimportant things when addressing the question of cricket.’ Having spent more summers here than he cares to remember, Richie Benaud knows us pretty well.

Still, from the land that does deep introspection better than anyone else, it is amusing to watch others going through the same agonising process. Following on from their heavy defeat in the Ashes series, Australia currently have a working party in progress, similar to the one they instigated following the 2005 defeat, with some of the same people involved.   There is a whiff of the Schofield Report about it, chaired as it is by a non-cricketer, the former chairman of BHP Billiton, Don Argus, and involving some high-profile former captains, Mark Taylor, Allan Border and Steven Waugh to name but three. Their findings are to be discussed at Cricket Australia’s board meeting this week.

Whilst there has been, to date, no formal review set up to look into India’s tour, there is the same kind of disquiet bubbling under the surface. In the aftermath of a disastrous series there is always the desire to lash out and blame someone or something. In India’s case, attention has turned to the Indian Premier League.

No issue dives opinion more than the IPL, and the battle-lines are usually straightforward: those with an interest in it, against those who do not. This is roughly how the debate has fallen again. The media and those high-profile figures with just not enough profile or cash to have a gig in the IPL have brought their fury to bear. They blame injuries to Zaheer Khan and Virender Sehwag on the IPL; they blame fatigue, especially where Mahendra Singh Dhoni is concerned, on the IPL and they blame a decline in professionalism on the IPL.

In the opposite camp, are those with an interest. Sunil Gavaskar, for example, as a former governing body member and now BCCI-paid commentator disagrees, as does N Srinivasan, the secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, who happens to be the owner of the Chennai Super Kings, as does Kris Srikkanth, the chairman of selectors, who is an ambassador for the CSK. ‘Let us not indulge in the blame game,’ said Srikkanth after Edgbaston, ‘on the players, or the administrators or the BCCI. Nobody is to be blamed and it is not the time for that. It is just that we are going through a bad phase.’

As ever, the issue is more nuanced than that. The IPL has reinvigorated the domestic calendar in India, has allowed young players the chance to compete alongside established international stars and in big match atmospheres. Against that, is the volume of cricket, the absence now of an off-season for India’s international cricketers, and the effect it has and will continue to have on the financially weaker and therefore more vulnerable Test playing nations.  On balance, more bad than good.

For India the dangers of this expanded league should be clear by now, something that Gary Kirsten, the previous coach, was keen to express in the wake of his team’s early exit from the most recent Champions Trophy. Afterwards, Kirsten complained of the weariness of his leading players and that the standard of international cricket was far higher than his players had been used to playing in the IPL.  They had, he intimated, become soft.

India has chosen its path, and it is difficult to see how it can row back now, especially given the financial stake so many of their leading administrators and players have in the game. Other countries, though, are at the fork in the road. Not England, thankfully, due to the fortuitous collapse of the Stanford experiment, but certainly Australia, who have decided to press ahead with their franchised Twenty20 Big Bash League- their version of the IPL.

The dangers of this were neatly encapsulated recently by Matthew Hayden, once an opening batsman of thundering efficiency for Australia, now the owner of something called the Hayden Way and espouser of large dollops of corporate-style gobbledegook. Recently he announced his intention to play for, and invest in, the Brisbane Heat in this newly enfranchised competition, and in doing so Hayden articulating a path the rest of the world must surely hope Australia shies away from.

It is worth quoting some of Hayden’s conceit in full.  ‘All of you [lovely, this, the assumption that we hang on Haydos’s every word] will know the importance I’ve placed in the Big Bash League but also the emergence of T20 as a competition both domestically and globally….I am excited by how this will take the game as we know it to a new level and to new heights.’ With great sorrow, he announces that he is standing down as a Director of Cricket Australia but that he is proud to have added value to what, he believes, is ‘a very important property, and that is cricket.’ Haydos has moved on though, pitching his lot with something that fits ‘very sweetly with a leisure-tainment and entertainment package that has never yet been seen on our shores in cricket.’

‘It’s revolutionary,’ he says, and a ‘courageous move on the part of the Hayden Way, but I am extremely optimistic about it because I believe 100% that the future or part thereof [has he been doing a law degree of late?] of the future of cricket is in the consolidation of entertainment package which sits in the landscape of the summer very comfortably.’ ‘I love the Baggy Green, I love what it stands for. However short of the Ashes and potentially the Indian summer, I’ve said for a long time that I’m largely un-invested in that particular competition.if [the BBL] causes some cannibalisation then that is what has to happen.’ So goodbye, then, to South Africa, West Indies, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and potentially to the Sheffield Shield and 119 years of history, too.

‘The greatest challenge [the focus here is, inevitably, on Haydos and not Australian Cricket] is how I can expand my business to cater for the growing needs and services I actually want to contribute to the Brisbane Heat from the Hayden Way and that takes some time and issues to work through…but I feel very confident….this is a time to invest in how you move forward…and it is important we get into that space.’

Short of wondering what demented space Hayden has begun to occupy, it is enough to hope that every Director of Cricket Australia, and every member of the working party currently dissecting Australian cricket, read that press release in full. England should hope they all read it, too, because the ultimate path down which the Hayden Way wants to take us, is one where nobody would be interested in the World Test rankings at all.