Players are sending a clear and obvious message: there’s too much cricket and not enough of it matters.
This is an excerpt from The Bounce, a Substack newsletter by Dylan Cleaver.
We are less than a week from the start of the home international men’s cricket season and… what a wet fart of a start it is.
Even though the rights were essentially gifted to them by Spark, TVNZ must already have buyer’s remorse because, with all due respect to perfectly capable cricketers, nobody except close family and tragics like myself are tuning in to watch the second XI that was picked to play Bangladesh.
New Zealand plays a reciprocal white-ball series against Bangladesh following the gruesome red-ball series on the Bay of Bengal. They’ll be doing it without the likes of Kane Williamson, Tim Southee, Devon Conway, Daryl Mitchell, Glenn Phillips and Mitchell Santner, who are rested ahead of a busy IPL. Sorry, my bad… are rested, according to the NZC release, “ahead of a full home season”. (Somebody might need a word to NZC to explain what “full” means.)
Now, there might be some out there who snidely say, “Well of course Williamson, the Black Caps’ white-ball captain, is going to be exhausted after playing four ODIs in New Zealand in the past 1755 days”. The jaded cynicism is appropriate, but misdirected.
For one, Williamson has helmed his steady ship towards national-treasure status and he should be able to pick and choose his assignments (though perhaps not with the “c” next to his name if he is going to miss as much as he makes) to prolong his career.
Secondly, why would anybody who had a modicum of agency over their careers choose to play this type of cricket? What exactly is the point of non-contextual bilateral cricket aside from creating content churn for national boards to sell to increasingly disinterested broadcasters?
That is the crux of the matter and why cricket’s vertical model – school to club to province to international – is starting to look like a relic of a bygone age. International cricket is facing a watershed moment and, to mangle my metaphors, this is a nettle few, if any, national boards seem willing to grasp.
Players like Williamson and Boult, in their own different ways, have taken stock of the future and understand that it doesn’t involve playing a weakened Bangladesh side in Dunedin in December – not when there is nothing at stake beyond a comparatively small match fee and the padding of your Statsguru page.
The players are sending a clear and obvious message: there’s too much cricket and not enough of it matters.
It’s so obvious, in fact, that it’s literally spelled out in the NZ Cricket Players’ Association’s Annual Report.
Here it is, in the (slightly abridged) hand of punchy chief executive Heath Mills.
“The world game continues to evolve with the addition of more T20 franchise cricket competitions to the annual schedule,” Mills writes. “This is on top of the ICC confirming one men’s event each year in the next eight-year cycle and the national governing bodies agreeing an ad hoc future bilateral touring programme that on average will result in about a 10 percent increase in international matches across all three formats. All competitions, events and series will want the best players to play in what was an already packed schedule… yet there remain only 12 months in the year. It’s now impossible for the best players to play in everything and the addition of T20 competitions in the UAE and South Africa at the height of the Southern Hemisphere summer will exacerbate the trend of seeing the leading players move away from playing international cricket full time…
“The conflict in scheduling between T20 competitions and international cricket is the biggest issue in the game and is certainly not the fault of the players. It can squarely be laid at the feet of the national governing bodies that sit around the ICC board table. Their refusal to come together and compromise to achieve a playing schedule for international cricket with good context and meaning, that allows windows for their T20 competitions, has resulted in the situation we now face where T20 competitions (ironically owned by the national governing bodies) compete with international cricket for the same players and fan engagement.
Mills noted that under the current, confused modelling bilateral international cricket will, and possibly even has begun to, decline in value.
“This situation will put significant financial pressure on the smaller national governing bodies like NZC who rely so heavily on international bilateral cricket to generate revenue during our home summer. The canary [in the coalmine] is already screeching as we see multiple international series taking place each year without the best players in each country competing.”
Mills’ prescience was acute, with Gary Stead naming a development XI to play Bangladesh, but they will look positively World XI material compared to what South Africa plans to send out here in February to play two tests while their top players are locked into their own domestic T20 competition.
Fifteen years ago this was impossible to imagine, but international cricket is hurtling headlong towards irrelevance. Unless there are radical changes to the cricket calendar, we will soon reach a point where you will not be able to give away broadcast content outside of the IPL and ICC tournaments (this is already happening to a degree, with a number of recent bilateral series being sold for chicken feed at the 11th hour). When that day comes, member boards will no longer be able to pay for full-time contracts for their players.
The IPL franchises will be able to, in India, the USA, South Africa, the UAE or anywhere else a new T20 competition pops up and they own teams.
This is happening in real time. Just look at that team to play Bangladesh.
The truth may be that the only people in a position to change the course of cricket history, the member boards, are the ones least willing to work together to do so.
Or to return to the words of Mills who, in his role as executive chairman of FICA, the international co-op of player associations, talks to the world’s best players on a daily basis:
“This situation, coupled with the fact broadcasters are telling the game they will continue to pay less for international cricket, should mean it is the number one focus item for every director and senior executive serving the game.”