Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Why Is International Cricket Divided Into The Haves And Have-Nots? And Is It A Good Thing?

About a month back, in response to suggestions that there was a "big four" in international cricket (Australia, India, England, South Africa), I undertook a very crude statistical analysis of whether or not there is an "elite" in cricket with respect to scheduling (you can click here to read the piece). The basic and tentative results of that analysis was that yes, there is an elite in cricket with respect to schedules, but it is not the big four but the big two (Australia and India). At the other end of the spectrum, I found that Pakistan and Sri Lanka were the teams most likely to be screwed as far as the "big" teams of international cricket are concerned.

In this post, I would like to deal with some of the common justifications given for this imbalance, and also tackle whether or not these are fair and valid justifications.

1. Security

It will strike many observers as unsurprising that Pakistan and Sri Lanka lead the teams most bereft of cricket against other top-class teams. After all, these are the two countries that have suffered the most domestic political violence amongst the international sides. The logic goes thusly: since teams will be reluctant to tour Pakistan and Sri Lanka, they will end up playing less cricket than everyone else. In other words, it's not a scheduling issue, it's a security issue.

This explanation accounts for part of Pakistan's light schedule but doesn't go as good a job of explaining Sri Lanka's case. Even in Pakistan's case, both South Africa and England have toured the country after 9/11, and played test series there. The only team to unambiguously cancel their series in Pakistan has been Australia (in 2002, the series was moved to Sharjah and Colombo; in 2008 it was basically canceled). And despite India's canceling their tour to Pakistan recently, it doesn't make that much of a difference to the actual numbers since India and Pakistan had played each other so much anyway.

In Sri Lanka's case, the explanation is even less valid. It was only in the 1990s that teams really expressed reluctance to tour Sri Lanka; since then, all teams have played regularly in Sri Lanka (though not very much). The security logic also doesn't go a good job of explaining why New Zealand, for instance, has played only seven tests each against India and the West Indies since the beginning of this decade.

In short, the security explanation, while the most obvious, is not actually particularly compelling when explaining the discrepancy between the Pakistan/SL pairing and the Aus/Ind pairing.

2. Attractive talent/money

The attractive talent explanation holds that teams with more marketable superstars will necessarily play more cricket than everyone else, and teams with fewer superstars will not. This is because boards want to recoup as much money as possible with television rights and attendance fees, and the best way to do that is ensure the public will be interested in the product, and in turn the best way to do that is to have superstars playing.

This argument is a fairly solid explanation for the scheduling of international cricket. As said earlier, the most biased in terms of scheduling have been Australia and India, and these two teams have had the most superstars within their ranks through this decade. Australia have been the best team in the world by some distance for a long time (until very recently), and even though India has only sporadically challenged for top-team status in international cricket, they have had many marketable superstars (Sachin, Dravid, Ganguly, Sehwag, Yuvraj to name just five).

The attractive-talent explanation also does a good job of explaining Sri Lanka's and Pakistan's predicament. Once Wasim and Waqar retired in 2003, Pakistan hasn't had an attractive or big-name team (Shoaib could have taken their place, but he's basically thrown away his career). Sri Lanka, despite being an excellent team, have been short on charisma, with the exception of Murali and Sangakkara. This argument also accounts for New Zealand's relative deprivation of big-boys cricket; if you take out their rivalry-induced schedule against Australia, they would be right there with Sri Lanka and Pakistan at the back of the bus, not a surprising result when you consider that they're one of the most boring/workmanlike teams around.

3. Quality of cricket/closeness of series

Number three is a close cousin of number two. While number two was about individual talent, number three is about collective talent. By this logic, teams want to schedule cricket against the best teams, irrespective of who they are, because the best teams ensure good cricket is played out there on the pitch, which is what everyone wants to see.

This explanation is almost completely belied by the evidence. For one thing, South Africa has been for large parts of this decade either the best or the second best team in the world, and yet its schedule shows very little bias (click here to see a team-by-team breakdown of their schedule). India, which has been more a middle-of-the-pack team for large parts of this decade, shows a lot of bias in its scheduling. Moreover, West Indies, by almost all accounts the worst "big" team of the decade, actually show remarkable amounts of bias in their scheduling too -- for some reason, teams continue to play them a lot despite them sucking. This explanation also cannot account for Sri Lanka's sad state; they've been as good or better than India since 2000, but they play much less cricket against the big boys (India, England, South Africa, Australia). In short, the "best teams play the most cricket" thesis is simply wrong.

4. Incompetence of boards

This explanation basically holds that teams with the worst-run boards will have the least big-team cricket, because (a) no one from other boards wants to deal with these fools and/or (b) these boards are incapable of fighting for their teams at scheduling meetings because they're not taken seriously.

In Pakistan's case, I feel this argument is extremely valid. This is made clear by the recently released future tours program, in which Pakistan plays such little cricket it's actually ridiculous. We play fewer tests than everyone but Bangladesh and fewer ODIs than everyone but Bangladesh. It's not close either, and if you don't believe me, click here for a nice table showing the extent to which we've been screwed. Or rather screwed ourselves. I have no doubt that this is in large part due to the sheer incompetence of Ejaz Butt and his cronies, who -- lest anyone thought such an eventuality impossible -- is proving a worse chairman than Nasim Ashraf.

However, as a general explanation, the incompetence explanation is quite weak, because the Windies have had a fairly dysfunctional board for a long time too, and yet play loads of important cricket. By contrast, New Zealand have a pretty well-run and well-organized board, and they're still cast aside by the wider cricketing world. In short, while it may well explain one case fairly well, we can't regard this is as a good theory because it does a terrible job of explaining the other cases.

Before closing, I want to make a general point. The fact that scheduling is left to the discretion of individual boards is a unique phenomenon in international team sports; off the top of my head, I can't think of another sport where the teams get to decide who they want to play and when. By chasing money and the short-run benefits of attractive cricket, boards around the world are ensuring that slowly but surely cricket dies. What do you think would happen to football in Spain if Real Madrid and Barcelona decided that they were going to play each other more than they would against everyone else? Disaster, that's what.

It also speaks to a breathtaking arrogance, whereby some boards and teams think they're "more deserving" of cricket against certain teams than others are. It ensures more divisions and conflicts amongst the international boards, at a time when boards need to band together more than ever before. And it leads to lopsided results and record books; Younis Khan and Andrew Strauss have basically played the same number of tests despite Younis breaking into international cricket a full four years before Strauss.

The ICC, if it had any brains or balls, would issue standardized series for everyone -- if Australia want to play five tests against England because of their historical rivalry, then they have to play five against everyone else too. Cricket should follow the way football teams play routinized schedules, before the division of haves and have-nots does any more damage.


Raza said...

Well proper tours are expensive, tedious, and short on financial return. So it makes sense boards are desperate to schedule them such that they're financially worth it.

The West Indies anomaly is probably explained by the Windies being next to the US. I'm guessing TV advertisers are competing for the US market as well, hence more TV money.

I'm not a strong critic of the Man, but the ICC sucks. They've shown zero interest in the health of the game over the past decade or so (since the Zimbabwe debacle), and has is just an investment broker for the BCCI.

Pakistan's only hope is that we become a marketable team again (and, to be fair, we're on our way) so that India gets excited about playing us again.

Butterscotch said...

Starting from late 80s till 2005, Pakistan had been the most marketable cricketing unit amongst all international teams with the exception of Australia. I do remember a time when tickets for Pak/Eng series in Eng were more expensive than the very Ashes. If i am ever to adopt Zahid Hamid's probable take on pakistani cricket, i would flatly accuse BCCI along with the possible involvement of Mossad for the current state of our cricket..:)
However since he is the biggest idiot of all so i will simply sum up everything within few lines.
Along with every other declining aspect of our country, cricket too has badly suffered. Security issues, incompetent administrators (starting right from Senator Saif ur rehman's brother) poor domestic structure(although one could argue that pakistan traditionally had a pathetic domestic infrastructure yet managed to produce some of the most exciting talented cricketers of the modern era) but what almost everyone forgets is that most of them were not the product of the local system but rather handpicked by some influential talent hunters and literally thrown into international circuit without any domestic experiance. Trained and polished by their seniors superstars during international matches.
You have pointed out the case of West Indies. I would agree with Raza but adding further, Windies despite its sad decline has remained ICC's darling mainly due to some influential ex cricketers like 3 Ws sobers lyod and more recently holding and Tony cozier who have remained vocal and share close affiliations in the inner ICC circle. The island's dominion status might have helped too.
I am not worried about Pakistan's touring schedule. We will continue to get more opportunities, what scares me most is our nation's increasing love for T20 which is an increasingly worrying trend. Being a true cricket lover, i would still prefer our team performing well in test matches which doesnt seem to be the case anymore..

Rohith said...

I believe a correction is due in respect that schedules for tours and tournaments are decided among boards(last para). this is clear from telegraph link which says ICC does it with individual boards vouching for their own piece of pie. Though the quantum of games (and the venues) on respective tours is decided amongst the boards.

Also, one of your aims was to assess whether a particular reason is justified for blame to be pinned on elites;

So we have point 1 that is applicable for Pakistan while not for SL and NZ. So the elites can be held accountable for using this against SL/NZ as a reason if ever such a case was made (and Aus particularly for Pak)

We have point 2 which is applicable to all 3(Pak SL NZ) as well as FAIR because quality of cricketers(and cricketing system) produced by a country is not the domain/headache of other international boards, is it? If I can use the analogy, it seems you are recommending a "Socialist" type of order(common good) as against "Capitalist" enterprise that seems to exist. Of course it is worthy of a look but I am not sure how viable and agreeable.

Which then boils down to point 4. Again this is seen as applicable for Pakistan. But I disagree with NZ being a proper board; they themselves have had issues with contracts of players and getting many people to take to cricket and make it a lucrative proposition in the first place. So this again is valid but does not necessarily indict the elites as the reason for it. And if you look closely, SL/PAK/NZ have hardly anything concrete in terms of domestic structure while the rest have vibrant ones (even WI).

Ofcourse it is true that bcos of commercial considerations, the quantum of games within tournaments among elites is greater and for that bias to be reduced and brought to a more even keel, the other individual boards need to get their act together. This is again keeping in mind the capitalist enterprise that exists at the moment.

Pakistan, for one, can do with accepting games at neutral venues. I am sure if this had been considered, the allocation of games would have been considerably larger. Plus look at the knock-on effect on domestic cricket from greater intl cricket; everything works on incentive doesnt it? Similarly, if NZ can pull more people to cricket from Rugby and solve other systemic issues, they would serve themselves a lot of good.

Finally i think your comparison with football scenario is completely unjustified (the parallels in the systems simply dont exist), but I will elaborate on it later.

PS :- All these comments and suggestions are as the System of Cricket currently stands. It is not my contention that the existing system is correct; far from it. In fact, my contention is that it is the system that causes the elites to appear and for the game to not expand its reach. A comparison with football in this case may well be worthy.

FZ said...


I really have to take issue with this analogy of yours. The cricket system is far from "capitalist". If it was truly capitalist you wouldn't need an ICC to begin with. They are the gate keepers of who is allowed in to international cricket to begin with - so hardly a free market institution, more socialist if you insist on using those terms.

What you have really is something resembling a somewhat functioning version of OPEC- with the Indians in the dominant position because their market is bigger. This lets them push the system to what they want to do (I'm not making a value judgement just describing the current system). Therefore you see things like a ban on players in the ICL (again hardly free market). In fact the very fact that there is such a thing as a "rebel" league tells you we are dealing with some sort of cartel. (as an aside there is a specific exemption in US antitrust statutes for Major League Baseball to deal with this issue).

That said I don't think we need a free market system. We need a system that IS run for the common good of cricket long term- otherwise what is the ICC needed for?

What we have currently is crony capitalism run for $$ - where felons run cricket leagues, idiots suggest 4 day test matches, and schedules are determined by prime time.


karachi khatmal said...

Spot on FZ!

i want to ask about this primacy of test cricket debate. i know as a player its the ultimate test blah blah blah. but as a spectator, there is on average 1 or 2 good test matches out of every 10. yet we are supposed to hold up test matches as some sort of holy grail and we must support them cuz we should

i say fuck that - make better pitches, allow bowlers to work the ball, or test cricket can fuck off. there was a time when abolishing under arm bowling was a huge issue as well. no one cares about it any more.

if those with the power (ICC, BCCI, cricket boards and admins in general) are not willing to make the changes that are needed, then we will see changes that are inevitable.

what is more possible 50 years from now?

8 test playing nations playing exciting cricket against one another, or a world league of 30-40 countries only playing t20 cricket?

if the big two don't give a fuck about the rest, then all that they cherish will wither away and replaced by something new.

AKS said...


"8 test playing nations playing exciting cricket against one another, or a world league of 30-40 countries only playing t20 cricket?"

Why does it have to be a choice between the two? Wouldn't it be great if we had 8 test playing countries playing exciting test cricket and 40 countries playing T20?

I've become a great fan of T20 during this last world cup, which owing to its time frame allows cricket to become a truly social activity. Few of us ever went over to a cafe (Pakistani answer to a bar) to watch cricket before, yet T20 allows you to do exactly this.

And I think its more exciting than ODIs.

FZ said...

I agree, I don't think it has to be either or. I personally think tests are better (provided the wickets are good plus the grounds are full). Watching a test match at Lords is very different than watching one in the subcontinent.

That said I enjoy T20 as well - though to be honest only at the international level - I can't watch the IPL, ICL etc - it just doesn't seem to mean anything.


Rohith said...


I will try to explain my analogy of socialism/capitalism below

The system of cricket as it exists currently has ICC as the mother governing board with the various international boards as affiliate members. If this was to be a socialist system, all the associated boards would have been under ctrl of ICC amd all cricket functioning/setup in these nations would have been under control of ICC. Which is not the case.

Instead what we have is all affiliated members as private associations (de linked from each other), each working to enhance its own profit with ICC as what can be seen as a regulatory body. Moreover, cartels are also a feature of capitalism (u urself have used the phrase capitalism in the end)

So why am i hankering on about capitalism analogy. Because that brings into focus 2 essential factors :- Market and Merit.

The Market factor, as u have rightly pointed out, is heavily tilted in India's favour and it is no surprise that BCCI has such a clout in administration of ICC affairs. Also it is near impossible for other parties involved to generate the kind of market that India already has.This is a ground reality and one cant crib on about that. So what does that leave them with?

There comes the Merit proposition. By ur argument, Aus SA and Eng are powers in Cricket today because of croniesm to India(or its market). Hardly. They bring to the field a certain level of competence and professionalism of running cricket which is why they are successful. And that is what exactly is desired of all the other parties concerned. I had, in the comments of the previous post on this topic, given the example of how SA has over the past decade evolved into a power, not just by their cricketing skills but also becoming a hub of major tournaments. The professionalism in that country of running tournaments today is so well respected. All this when the market really is not very huge there(rugby football vying for attention). So what i am trying to point out is that one of the participating players in the ICC has by virtue of self built quality cricket and administration made a place for itself among the elite in the game. For that matter, Pakistan also had a great "merit proposition" till a few years back.

And this was another reason why analogy of capitalism came into play :- to clear the contention as to who is to blame for mess in a few countries' cricket affairs. As said before if ICC had been responsible for cricket affairs within member countries, it would have been for a major part responsible for the grisly affairs. Not that it is not at the moment, but to a much lesser degree owing to the autonomous nature of participating boards of ICC. So greater responsibility lies with the individual boards to develop cricket setup in their respective countries.

Rohith said...

So what the hell is ICC for? My answer is :- I dont know. As far as I know, the role of ICC in maintaining cricketing interest/quality in member countries has been very low over the years. It is largely in organising tournaments for the 2nd rung of cricketing countries (Holland, Ireland, Scotland, Singapore) and promoting the game in places like China USA that it spends a large amount of its money and effort. How wise that is considering state of member nations is debatable.

But again, this is not new is it? Well then a closer look infact suggests that this "elite" mechanism is also not really new. Through the 70s 80s and 90s, Aus Eng WI have always been the elite and have dominated world cricket affairs. World cricket administration has never been an inclusive and just affair. And nations making a space for themselves has always been a gradual and slow affair, hardly aided by ICC. So, in conclusion, to look at ICC for any relief/help in raising status in world cricket affairs is next to hopeless.

Rohith said...

Another point made by Ahsan is the comparison with football(eg of Real and Barca). I will state how different the systems are and what features of football administration ICC can learn from:-

1) Real/Barca are part of a club format and not nation format. Real/Barca cant breakaway from their leagues (and say they want to play each other more) because they are a part of the national league and most players are playing to establish credentials for national aspirations.
2) The club/league format is in the form of established round-the-year tournaments where teams play each other for stipulated no of times. The incentive of winning the tournament/title ensures the top teams play the bottom of the table teams also. In comparison, most of cricket scheduling works in form of bilateral/trilateral series. This format issue is worth looking at but again debatable on feasibility for all. We could have round-the-year tournaments for Tests, ODIs and T20 at the national level.
3) In case of football leagues, organising hassles are very less as all clubs are within a country and each club has to maintain only 1 ground and revenue gathering mechanisms range from ticket sales to merchandising to sponsorship deals; All done in the utmost professional manner. Thereby making sustenability a whole lot easier. Do we find any of that in most cricketing countries?
4) Another reason for sustenance of club leagues in various nations is the very fact that these are national level leagues of major footballing nations. So if a country like Spain/England is a major footballing nation, it is safe to assume that footballing interest is uniform (almost) for large parts of the nation. And hence the various clubs can attract enough talent and sustain quality over a period of time. And mind you, this also helps in maintaing quality at national level.
Where as in cricket, this very sustained grassroot involvement is missing (read NZ).
5) in case of football, these different club leagues also help nurture talent from foreign and remote countries like Togo/South Africa/Senegal. And this has in turn helped these countries establish a footing(howsoever small) at the Intl level. It is also worthy of notice that mid level countries like Portugal have therefore been able to catapult themselves as significant international players. So may be club level leagues like IPL (many more are needed ofcourse) are the way to go as far as cricket is concerned as well. And nations like Eng/Pak therefore need to allow their players from participating in such leagues.

I think its all very well to make wishlists of what one would want 30-40 years down the lane, but i think concrete plans need to be drawn out. Any other suggestions are welcome

FZ said...

incidentally cricket fans may enjoy this - and you thought there was no such genre as Cricket Pop

karachi khatmal said...

when i suggested the 8 test teams vs 40 t20 teams choice, i didn't mean to imply one would be better than the other.

i meant to say that one is likely, and the other isn't.

for all the comprehensive explantion you provided Rohith, there was little in way of what can be done to ensure that test cricket remains a strong part of the future game. maybe one country realises its value and tries to build itself up according to the "merit" criteria you have outlined.

what do you do about teams like west indies, which don't care much about test cricket any more? shouldn't the ICC step in to sort things out and ensure that the primacy of test cricket is retained? because i think what we are arguing is that if the ICC doesn't then test cricket WILL die out.

i think in one way perhaps the market analogy makes sense. the market does not hold anything holy or sacred, it is only concerned with supply and demand. the dearth of supply of top quality test cricket means demand for it has also been dropping drastically. soon, test cricket would not be viable from a supply demand perspective. we would like the ICC to do something about it. if it is concerned with profits alone, then we can kiss test cricket good bye.

Rohith said...

Agreed KK,

None of my points point to saving test cricket. But then, that is the problem with test cricket; it is not marketable as a packaged product(length of play, keeping the viewers engaged, trouble with quality of wickets). And that is why cricket is not (yet) as global a sport as football(all of 90 mins!) is. But with the advent of T20 version, most of the above anomalies go away, thereby making it acceptable to a larger audience (within existing member nations and outside as well). So consider the below setup.

My contention is to build up competitive leagues like IPL for T20. If national leagues are not acceptable, have continental leagues, with provision for foreign players. The way IPL this year was taken to SA, such leagues can be carried to places like USA and maybe even China(larger markets). Make that version extend its reach to a global audience and make money out of it.

Meanwhile, keep test cricket going among member nations. One option to make tests a lot more competitive/attractive is to do away with these bilateral arrangements. ICC can come up with a list of nations which have over past few years been able to produce competitive test wickets (SA/Eng/Aus immediately come to mind, NZ/Ind/SL pitches are far too onesided) and have a round-the-year test tournament going on. As far as crowds are concerned, any way most countries dont sport large turnouts. And cricket purists like us then have the option to voluntarily watch these games; mind you, the nations I have named have considerable diaspora populations as well; so the turnout may not be all that low. And with this tournament setup, the cricket calendar may not necessarily turn out to be as hectic as it is now (well atleast for India).Also, broadcasting deals can be given out in clubbed packages for T20 and tests, or some such arrangement.

And assuming T20 makes inroads into other countries, there will surely be some players out there not competitive enough for T20 but can be honed for Tests. So the way cricket evolved from Tests to T20 in countries till now, future evolution can be from T20 to tests.

Sounds a bit too far-fetched?

Rohith said...

There is another reason why league structure works. Look at IPL. Each team can have max 4 foreign players. In addition you can consider 3 Indian international players/probables per team(totalling to 24 for the nation). That leaves us with 4 pure grassroot level talent who are directly pitted against the best of the world. Now consider this happening for all the countries. Dont you agree this setup will foment/nurture more talent than ever? Infact, this coversup for the deficiencies that our domestic setups suffer from. Intl players dont play there as they dont get the time and hence quality of the 2nd rung never improves. The domestic associations are regional associations without professional managements. With franchisee models of leagues like IPL, more money and professionalism can be invited [read incentive] Domestic associations meanwhile can run their own academies and do a traditional job.

A sample itinerary for the year can be as follows
1) 3 months for individual national/continental leagues (non ICC ctrled)
2) 3 months for Champions leagues type tournament where best of the leagues play each other (ICC ctrled)
3)3 months for the test tournament (ICC ctrled)
4)Finally 3 months for a nation level T20/ODI tournament (ICC ctrled)
5) the 4 domestic players i described above can work in spare time (approx 6-8 months) in domestic leagues
6) This also assumes doing away of bilateral ODIs. Personally, I have a negative opinion of ODIs; they really are neither-here-nor-there sort of an affair.

PS :- Any of the 1st 4 points above can happen concurrently as well; thereby spreading the time windows apart for each.

karachi khatmal said...

i like your test matches played abroad idea... its crazy but i think thats the sort of thinking that can get us out of here