One of the biggest threats to South African cricket surfaced last week. A draft proposal to radically change the structure of world cricket administration has been secretly concocted by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the English Cricket Board (ECB) and Cricket Australia (CA). Basically, the three cricket boards sat down a few months ago and agreed to create a kind of cricket security council with the attendant superpower status of absolute control of world cricket. The plan includes the arrogation of a greater share of cricketing revenues for the three boards and less for the other seven full member countries that play Test cricket. South Africa is one of these seven countries. There’s been a fair bit of shouting and jumping on the spot by Cricket South Africa (CSA) and some of the boards from the other member countries. Cricket fans the world over (including some residents of India, England and Australia) are convinced that the Rapture is upon Test cricket.
South African fans are chewing over conspiracy theories of BCCI vindictiveness and malice. News of the proposal comes hot on the heels of an Indian tour of South Africa, a tour that became more ill-tempered as it progressed. The BCCI unilaterally shortened the Test series before it started, presumably in response to previous criticism from CSA’s Haroon Lorgat. Relations between the South African and Indian boards appear to be at an all-time low, which is a pity because of the shared history of the respective countries. When the Proteas re-entered world cricket back in 1991, it was India that first hosted us for a one-day series. We returned the favour the following year by making India the first team to tour South Africa in more than 20 years.
In the past few years the BCCI and CSA had been very close. South Africa hosted the IPL when India couldn’t. We hosted the Champions League Twenty20 in 2010 and 2012. Back then (and it seems so long ago now) the BCCI was very happy to share its loot with CSA. Our national administrators had become accustomed to grazing on the greenery of these locally hosted tournaments. As their brown, bovine eyes twitched in the summer sun and they steadily masticated their share of the profits, they didn’t plan for the food security they’d need if they ever offended their providers. Those salad days are well over. The BCCI has been cast as the main villain in this piece, and it’s true that the Indian board and its members stand accused of aggravated mismanagement, greed with the intent to gouge, and common assault of cricket lovers everywhere. Unfortunately, so does CSA and a number of other boards. The BCCI is definitely trying to hurt South African cricket as much as possible, but CSA is experienced in its own brand of self-destructive behaviour.
This controversial proposal, probably spearheaded by the BCCI, will hurt South African cricket if it goes ahead in its current format. It may even cripple Test cricket in the country, but let’s not pretend that all the harm to the sport has come from outside our borders. Here are two facts about Test cricket in South Africa; both point to one contradiction. We have the best team in the world, on the cusp of building a legacy to rank with the West Indian and Australian teams of the past. This team plays on some of the best pitches in the world, at grounds that have hosted some of the earliest games in the history of the sport. At the same time, we are a country filled with people (apart from our benighted administrators) who do not seem to care much for their champions. There is little acknowledgement and no outward display of love for Test cricket from the administrators or fans. First-class matches are not televised and stadiums (with the exception of Newlands) are poorly attended.
Over the summer of 2013, we hosted the Indians for the truncated two-Test series and Australia hosted the English for the traditional five-Test Ashes series. We played the Indians in Johannesburg and Durban and we couldn’t fill either stadium for a single day. Tickets were eventually given away, free of charge, on the final day of both Tests. The quarter-capacity crowd at the Wanderers can be blamed on poor scheduling – and possibly linked back to the BCCI. Who in their right mind would schedule a Test in Johannesburg in late December, when most people have either fled to the coast or are squeezing out one more week of work? But that reasoning doesn’t wash for the Boxing Day Test in Durban. Over Boxing Day, the Melbourne Cricket Ground hosted more than 91 000 people in a single day – a new attendance record and for a dead-rubber Test. The Aussies had already won the first three Tests and had clinched the series. Tickets in Australia are also considerably more expensive than they are here. The Kingsmead ground, with a stated capacity of 25 000, was less than half full for most of the Test. This was a deciding Test between the top two teams in the world. It was also the swansong of Jacques Kallis, the greatest South African player of his generation. The indifference and apathy from most of the sports fans among us was evident. We are lousy – we have become lousy – with our lack of support and encouragement.
Still, it’s probably mostly not our fault, as common fans and garden-variety supporters. The power to shape and change South African cricket lies with the administrators, the politicians and the sponsors. Have they done right by us? Popular opinion says that they haven’t. Over the past decade or so, CSA appears to have prioritised the shorter forms of the game over Test cricket. It’s no secret that a World Cup trophy has been the most-prized piece of silverware for the Proteas over this time, and it’s been an elusive trophy. At the same time, the South African Test team has become the best in the world. As the Australian juggernaut wound down and ran out of spare parts, the South African outfit was in the ascendancy. Smith became a better captain. A young Dale Steyn cemented his place in the line-up with Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers. Since 2007 the Proteas have lost only one Test series (at home to Australia).
So, what do you do as administrators when your Test team is the best in the world? Do you do your utmost to dampen the trajectory of its success? Thwart its ability? If you’re CSA, it would seem that’s exactly what you do. Around 2000, when the Proteas were in the ascendency, we still played regular four- and five-Test series against England and the West Indies. Since 2005, we haven’t played a five-Test series against anyone; the closest we’ve come is four Tests in a row against England. There’s been a trend towards shorter Test series for South Africa over the past decade, even as India has negotiated prestigious four- and five-Test series with England and Australia. There’s a future tours programme (FTP) here that is used by the ICC to schedule international cricket over a 10-year period. Study the programme, which covers the decade between 2010 and 2020. In this time the English, Australian and Indian cricket teams will play about 120 Tests each. About a third of these matches will be played between the three countries. Over the same period, South Africa will play around 90 Tests. That’s fewer Tests than in the previous decade, despite the absence of Zimbabwe for much of that time. It’s fewer Tests than Pakistan and Sri Lanka play. In fact, only New Zealand, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are scheduled to play fewer Tests.
This programme didn’t drop out of the sky last week. It’s been in place for about five years. This programme reflects the ambitions of the BCCI and the concomitant lack of ambition by CSA to promote Test cricket. Fuss is being made over a suggestion in the new draft proposal to reduce the FTP to a mere bilateral arrangement between nations, scrapping the multilateral structure that currently underpins the whole thing. CSA seems to have discovered a principled stance about multilateralism that didn’t seem to be that important in previous years.
Consider the following evidence of CSA’s reactive and ad-hoc approach to international scheduling. The board hasn’t been that good in arranging overseas Test tours during the northern summer (to England, the West Indies and Sri Lanka). For almost all of the past few seasons there’s been a gap in our international calendar between April and September. We were meant to play in Sri Lanka last year, but the Tests were abruptly postponed by the hosts to 2015. We last played in the West Indies in 2010 (three Tests). The 2012 tour of England was just three Tests. We used to prioritise a series against the West Indies. They were the first team to host us post-isolation for a Test match. The Sir Vivian Richards trophy used to be a five-Test affair between the two countries, which became reduced to four Tests and then ultimately to three. It may be that there was little money to be made from a West Indies tour, or that they have become so woeful that there’s little interest in a longer series. The Sri Lankan board must also shoulder responsibility for its dismissive treatment of last year’s Test series. South Africa is not the only country chasing short-term loot and neglecting the longer-term development structures. But we have treated the relationship with the West Indies with malign neglect.
The point of this exercise is not to apportion blame and responsibility as fairly as possible, but to paint a picture of a widening gulf between two camps. In the one camp are the three countries proposing a radical change to global administration. England and Australia will always build their schedule around Test cricket. India seems to have prioritised the sport as well. In the other camp are the rest of the countries, bumbling and stumbling along, waiting for the next tour of India or an invitation by England to replenish the coffers. Sri Lankan cricket is a mess, and the same goes for the sport in the West Indies. Pakistan has been wandering in the desert of the UAE for years now. Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are stuck in perpetual adolescence and New Zealand – despite their recent success against India at home – typically just isn’t very good at cricket.
We didn’t arrive at this situation overnight. It’s been developing for years. CSA has managed to alienate the BCCI and therefore needs to develop a plan of self-sufficiency in a hurry. Our administrators have been good at pocketing IPL bonuses. They haven’t been so great at developing a sustainable revenue stream, and developing the sport and promoting it to the greater public has fallen by the wayside. Test fans can be tiresome, as my fiancée keeps reminding me. Just because South Africa was one of the three original Test-playing nations doesn’t mean that we’ll always enjoy pride of place in the history of the game. The mythology of the South African Test team is pretty and there is a certain symmetry behind our recent rise to the top, but so what?
History is boring to the youth. The memories of the elderly are increasingly unreliable. You could, if you were inclined, make a pilgrimage to cricketing grounds across the country, marvel at the dusty old display cabinets and try to imagine an era of timeless Tests, three-month tour itineraries and other such charming anachronisms. But why would you, when you can stream the highlights of the latest India-Australia game? History is written by the winners, and the winners fight hard for creative control of the editing process. Yes, we have the best Test team in the world. Yes, we are being tossed aside by the powerful nations. But are they doing it out of jealousy at our success or frustration with our lack of application, with our indifference to their priorities? This proposal might pass and it might not. The BCCI is trying very hard to buy the votes it needs (seven out of 10 countries for a super-majority) to pass the proposal in its current form. If the proposal passes, we’re probably stuffed. But if it doesn’t pass, will we continue to pretend that our cricket is in rude health and in the hands of the competent, the proactive and the wise?
Songezo Zibi wrote a piece this week about the childlike beliefs of South Africans when it comes to sport and politics. We’d rather believe in miracles and fairies than investigate the causal link between competent administration and long-term success. The venality and insincerity of the BCCI doesn’t make CSA better by contradistinction. If this proposal was withdrawn tomorrow, South African cricket would still be in a precarious position and would still be committed, over the next six years, to playing less international cricket. Be angry at the proposal and the three boards behind it, by all means. But let’s not pretend for another minute that the enemies of the sport are all outside the castle walls.
Main Pic: South Africa vs England, at Newlands, Cape Town Jan 2005, Test Day 3 by Ricky212