Friday, August 29, 2008

Lessons from Australia - Zephirine

Pommies: England Cricket Through an Australian Lens by William Buckland (Troubador Publishing 2008)

The first thing to say about this very useful book is that the title is a little misleading: you expect it to be written from an Australian point of view. In fact Buckland is English, and makes only passing references to Aussie attitudes to English cricket. But throughout the book he uses the manifestly successful Australian domestic cricket structure as a standard against which to measure the English equivalent. Why Our Cricket System Is Crap and the Australian One Isn’t would be a more precise, if less elegant, title.

The second thing is that this is, essentially, a readable and thorough business-style analysis with a big chunk of recent cricket history thrown in. Every anecdote is there to prove a point; this is not a book of player reminiscences or dressing-room gossip.

Pommies should be required reading for anyone who intends to pontificate about cricket in the near future. Much of the history – the Packer revolution and subsequent developments – will be familiar to students of the game, but it is presented with such a brisk array of facts and figures, and progresses so relentlessly to its conclusions, that I defy anyone not to have some of their received ideas shaken up.

Note that the title is ‘England’ cricket: Buckland’s main concern is the national squad, its performance and the public’s access to it.

Why has our domestic setup not delivered a stable, successful and relatively injury-free national side, as the Australian system has? Why was the Ashes success of 2005 followed by the crushing failure of 2006/7? Why can most of the Barmy Army – genuine fans, whether or not you like their style - only attend England games overseas? Why were TV rights deals accepted which mean that 80% of English viewers can no longer watch their national side play a Test match?

Buckland has no hesitation in blaming the over-large and often mediocre county system and the power of the counties through the ECB. This is nothing new, of course - he details how many ex-players and commentators have called for reform of the counties at different times. (And anyone who thinks of Bob Willis as just the miserable bloke on Sky will be surprised at how forward-thinking and radical he has been for more than 25 years). But until I read this book I had never fully taken on board what an entrenched, unproductive and financially draining system it is.

Like most of the reformers before him, Buckland believes there are too many fully-professional county sides, and that the English game is being run in order to sustain them (none would be viable businesses without subsidy) when it should be run for the benefit of the national side and the fans, as Australian cricket is.

He also has some theories of his own about stadium size, based on the large numbers of fans unable to get tickets for major fixtures and the success of vast multi-purpose stadia in Australia like the Melbourne Cricket Ground. And, of course, that familiar equation, corporate hospitality=empty seats.

The book offers many constructive suggestions, based on Buckland’s concepts of ‘second-tier logic’ (ie how many teams you actually need to feed a national side) and the triple aims of ‘access, success and inspiration’. The final chapter has several formulae for real reform, some quite startling, especially in view of the emergence of Allen Stanford and the IPL.

The first few chapters are perhaps a little difficult to get into, as they move rapidly between different themes including a visit to Australia, childhood memories and the Olympic stadium. But if you love cricket, stick with it and read all of this book. It will put many things into context, and will make you understand exactly what is wrong with the English system - and why it has to be changed.

53 comments:

mimi said...

I was initially confused by this piece. What could a 19th Century Oxford don have to offer in the way of contemporary cricket writing, I thought. Surely that bust I remember from visits to the Pitt Rivers museum was of Buckland? A quick refresh of my memory through Google proved me right in one way (yes, that was WB) but also wrong in that it's not the same WB!

That confusion cleared up, I re-read this piece and am definitely going to ask the library to order this for me. I am not often moved to do this just from one review, but you write so well and enthusiastically about this book - without pulling punches that it's a bit tough to get into - that I am convinced it will be a good read.

Thanks for searching this book out for the rest of us to enjoy.

Zephirine said...

This William Buckland is a management consultant (sss!) who used to work for Reuters (OK) and has written for Cricinfo (hooray!).

It's a good book.

Ebren's put a funny title on this though, I'm just hoping he'll change it.....

Zephirine said...

... ah, he has now, splendid. Silky editing skills..

mimi said...

Talking of silky skills - I think England might wrap this up at the Oval in time for me to get to the library tonight!

Zephirine said...

Samit Patel, eh? 5 wickets on debut, that'll do nicely.

I feel sorry for the Saffers though, this year's 'summer' has obviously reduced them all to a state of clinical depression.

mimi said...

I'm not sorry for the Saffers, but it's a really hard ask to go away from home, win a Test Series and then do the double.

But England have been asked to do that.

So no sympathy. I would say, go look at Mark Cavendish.

mimi said...

Who won again today.

Cav is a star.

offsideintahiti said...

Straight to the top of my Christmas list.

:)

Zephirine said...

Oh, Offie, I thought you wanted a printed and bound version of all the cricket pages in Wikipedia? As a souvenir of your recent fact-finding mission:)

offsideintahiti said...

Thanks, Zeph, very thoughtful. But you know where I live. I have no need for insulation.

mimi said...

Offie - if it was in my power to deliver Mark Cavendish, wrapped in ribbons to your door, then f**k it, I'd have him sent to my door!

But I think you are wanting Zeph at the top of your list not the Cav.

I'm very disappointed that my visit to the library has not resulted in Moray Council buying this book.

Still, I was able to order a Modesty Blaise title that I'd never read!

greengrass said...

mimi,
are the ignorant members of the Moray council known as "Morons"?

gg

MotM said...

"Pommies should be required reading for anyone who intends to pontificate about cricket in the near future." Thank God I'm not intending to do such a thing.

I've read much about this book and I'm grateful to Zeph for the review. I'm slightly reluctant to read it as I've a feeling I'll be catapulted back to the TINA days of Mrs T and her McKinseyite apparatchiks.

There's too much history in the counties, too many people enjoy the simple pleasures of county cricket and it's too, well, unBritish to dismantle a rickety system just because it doesn't work.

The argument that the current system is uneconomic is nonsense - the counties receive a subsidy from the Tests but there would be non Tests without them. How long would the "efficient" private hospitals last without the NHS doing their R and D and training for them as well as treating unprofitable patients?

The Aus system is undeniably effective for a nation of its population with its number of cities. Transplanting it here might bring one Ashes win per decade more, but we'd lose a lot else.

Or am I just prejudiced against the kind of ideology that brought us British Coal (sic) in the 80s and Enron in the 90s?

I'll have to look and see if I can find Mike Marquesee's take on the book.

Anyway, thanks Zeph. I'll look out for it!

zeph said...

Read the book for yourself, Mouth!

It does deal a lot with whether or not the various parts of the game are viable in business terms, but it didn't strike me as particularly Thatcherite ... except for a bit towards the end which I won't spoil for you. But yes, he's a management/business guy and that's the angle he takes. But the same goes for most of the ECB and county bosses.

He doesn't in fact recommend dismantling the counties, or even reducing the number, but he would change the way they operate.

The thing is, at the moment, the counties are only kept going by the TV money. It has to be a lot of money because there are so many counties. That means the only winning TV bidder will be Sky. Which means most of the country can't watch any cricket beyond a highlights package. To me, that's bad for the game at every level.

But I can't summarise the whole book here, you really should look at it and see what you think.

MotM said...

Quite right Zeph!

The only problem with the anti-Sky brigade is that the BBC and other free-to-air broadcasters don't want cricket!

mimi said...

Mouth - the whole free-to-air viewing issue is immensely complex, as you know.

I haven't even got this book yet, let alone read it, but I would venture to suggest that someone who knows cricket and business would have much of interest to say.

The issue of the BBC not bidding for rights for the next god knows how long for the cricket is beyond my ken. They are prepared to spend millions on other sports but cricket - a grass-roots sport - not worth it. Or so it seems.

Sunset and Vine do a pretty good job with their highlights packages, but only on 5 - which is not a universally recognised cricket medium.

Sunset and Vine, actually, are also the company that brings the Tour to telly.

And as was pointed out on another thread (yes, mine!), even the Guardian - bastions of sport writing - have totally ignored Mark Cavendish's success in Ireland.

zeph said...

I suspect some of the current hierarchy at the BBC don't care much about cricket, or indeed any sport.

But there's also the question of 'listing', as you know in most sports certain national events are made available on special deals and don't cost the broadcasters all that much. But the ECB won't list anything, not even the Ashes, which has caused a lot of resentment at the BBC and has probably influenced their decision that they can't afford to bid for cricket.

And Sky currently pays £52 million a year, the BBC couldn't do that. Cricket has made itself too expensive.

I posted on Mike Selvey's blog that if the Allen Stanford team isn't actually The England XI, but an invitation XI, perhaps it's outside the broadcasting agreements, in which case Stanford ought to give the million £ match free to a free-to-air broadcaster - brilliant publicity! But I bet somebody's already blocked that one...

thé croqueter said...

Happy to find out that BBC and guitou
Have something in common: they don't care much about
Cricket. If we could only comment on croquet i would be
Posting like mimi does of with thé lycra boys.
Btw :what about la vuelta mimi?

davy crockett said...

Guitou,

stop teasing those nice English people and come back to Tenessee.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nOF4cq6qNc

Zeph said...

It's getting closer, Guitou: today Italy, tomorrow, la France!!

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/aug/30/italy.cricket

jeanne d'arc said...

Jamais!

David Barry said...

Transplanting it here might bring one Ashes win per decade more, but we'd lose a lot else.
I have no idea how much you'd gain from a better-structured and better-run domestic system, but the attitude you show here is pretty incomprehensible to my Australian mind.

Tests in England are sellouts - huge masses of people wanted to go to Ashes matches in 2005. Suppose you lose a tight series. Cricket followers in England would be despairing, the disappointment would be all over the papers, etc.

And someone offers an alternative where England would have won, and everyone in England would have been happy. But it'll mean you won't be able to watch Kent play anymore.

Oh in that case, I'd rather lose the Ashes.

Very strange priorities, you English.

zeph said...

David, you have to remember that for years we've been sold the status quo as the only possible way. And really until the broadcasting deal with Sky, the British cricket-loving public had enough to keep them quiet, if not happy. Now, I think it really is an unsustainable system, but it took this book to make me see it.

Under Buckland's proposals, Kent could still be there (and Surrey, Mouth) but it would have been demoted in the hierarchy, and that's the problem!

MotM said...

Dave and Zeph,

I see your points, but I'm arguing from a different perspective.

In football, I have no doubt at all. If you said to me "England will win the World Cup as often as, say, Italy, but four of your clubs have to leave domestic football and play solely in a 16 club European Super League", I'd reply NO (even if my club were one of the four).

In cricket, it's not as clear cut, but I think it's mad enough now with only five days county cricket in London between July 2 and August 15 or something. It's just not worth demolishing the domestic game to benefit the Test team.

And the domestic game isn't so bad in terms of standard and financially. The counties pay the players because they have the money (the same reason for the huge improvement in grounds). If the TV money is reduced, they'll just pay the players less. For example, if van Jaarsveld in paid £100k per year now, he'd go down to £50k per year - I mean, where else is he going to play from April to September?

MotM said...

Dave - "Suppose you lose a tight series. Cricket followers in England would be despairing, the disappointment would be all over the papers, etc.

And someone offers an alternative where England would have won, and everyone in England would have been happy. But it'll mean you won't be able to watch Kent play anymore."

We're just not like that Dave. Had Warne caught KP at The Oval in 2005 and Aus chased say 180 to win after tea, every English player would have been cheered to the hilt. We would have lost to a very fine team including three all-time Greats in Warne, Gilchrist and McGrath and Flintoff would still have been a national hero.

The Brits (especially in cricket) are not too concerned about losing. It's losing without trying or caring that we don't like.

It's not a mentality that produces too many winners (hence the paucity of British coaches in even British sport) but it gives ua a tremendous appreciation of the game (or games) and makes the likes of Usain Bolt, Rafael Nadal, Bjorn Borg, Gianfranco Zola and even a few Aussies like Wally Lewis, Mal Maninga, even David Campese and SK Warne real heroes here, not to mention the likes of Richie. For overseas heroes, they do have to spice the sporting success with a bit of humility and / or humour to be totally accepted - but they are.

PS if Glenn McGrath comes here to do Media work in 2009, he will get a huge reception and will, apart from a few gentle 5-0 jibes, bask in a sea of admiration and warmth. Gilchrist will get that treatment too.

Zephirine said...

Mouth, I wouldn't mind keeping the present structure if it could be paid for other than by a TV deal which excludes 80% of the population. Any suggestions?

Not so sure about us Brits as gallant losers - plenty of ungallant losers on the blogs and in the pubs, I reckon.

Anyway, you have to read this book, if you can't afford it on your civil servant's salary, I'll lend you my copy.

And how are the feet today?

MotM said...

Hurts.

I'll put it on the Christmas list - you should be his agent Zeph!

(I'm not sure the exclusion rate is quite that high, but I know what you mean).

zeph said...

And you did the whole run? Very impressive... did anybody disappear along the way or did you all make it?

offsideintahiti said...

Cricket players get paid?!!?

wow.

greengrass said...

offy,
even croquet players get paid.

mimi said...

Pour le croqueter: if they played in lycra and had thighs like Chris Hoy, I'd happily write about anyone who played croquet - or to be honest any other sport.

zeph said...

Petanque in lycra?

offsideintahiti said...

Soyons sérieux...

mimi said...

Petanque in lycra - can Offie get Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton to play?

I'll happily commentate.

Ebren said...

I'll come play with a Pendleton in lycra. Mimi, feel free to distract Mr Hoy.

Zephirine said...

This guy could probably be OK with the lycra, but I'm not so sureabout this one.

Zephirine said...

oops... This one.

Ebren said...

As a former international petanque player (yes, we lost, what of it), I'm sure the rules prohibit people that sort of irresponsible facial hair.

offsideintahiti said...

And the cricket thread turns into a pétanque thread. I must be dreaming...

mimi said...

Be happy to distract Mr Hoy, Ebren, as long as you promise to write up your antics with Ms Pendleton!

Zeph, don't think either of these guys really merit lycra. But then, each to their own.

Zephirine said...

Well, the thing is, Offie, I feel about petanque rather the same way you feel about cricket.

offsideintahiti said...

What? Trawling wikipedia for information on pétanque captains and writing inane blog comments on pétanque articles? Zeph, you never cease to amaze me.

Ebren said...

Zeph, give petanque a throw, definately worthwhile. And never better than when played on a sandy beach with the tide the only timekeeper.

Mimi, one never petanque's and tells. Unless there are enough spectators that it becomes public knowledge - like the international match.

Zephirine said...

So far I haven't read any petanque articles good enough to make me do that:)

offsideintahiti said...

Ebren,

pétanque on sand?

*bangs head 'gainst desk*

And, what international match?

Ebren said...

How very dare you offie! The sand is the natural home of petanque. And the international match was held in the pestrigious venue of Mousehole harbour with crowds of litterally dozens. I'm surprised it didn't make the news

offsideintahiti said...

I'd say whoever told you pétanque was played on sand and involved time-keeping was pulling your jambe.

mimi said...

Would that have been the jambe they threw into Mousehole harbour? Just for the fun of seeing if someone could petanque the petanque and get international recognition?

offsideintahiti said...

With the proper research, it is getting clearer for me. Gradually.

http://ie.youtube.com/watch?v=CUyK_J_W4BI&feature=related

Zephirine said...

That's very wonderful, Offie, thank you.

I can see you're beginning to understand!

offsideintahiti said...

Yep, I have seen the light.

The bat is wiiiide.

greengrass said...

Ta, Offy -
that drunk coach reminds me of someone I know...

mimi said...

Excellent clip. Tells you all you need to know ... about David Mitchell!

Tweet it, digg it