ECB profit could be England's loss

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Old 09-Jul-2014
ECB profit could be England's loss

Cricket is no longer measured in terms of victories and defeats. Not predominantly, anyway. It is measured in terms of profit and loss.

How else could it come to pass that two middle-ranking Test teams would come to carve up the management of the cricket world? How else could it come to pass that, while the 2012 series between South Africa and England to decide the No. 1 Test spot was played over just three Tests, the world's fourth- and fifth-rated sides will now contest a five-match series in the space of 42 days? How else could it come to pass that the same business plan that has earned the ECB more money than ever before is also responsible for hindering the ability of its team to compete at their optimum level?

It is because cricket in England is about money, not merit.

The summer of 2014 will earn the ECB more money than any that has preceded it. Such is the value of the television audience that India generates, the season will earn even more than 2013, when England hosted an Ashes series and a Champions Trophy. That is despite one side having not won in eight successive Tests and the other having not won away in more than three years. If this were a boat race, you might expect both sides to sink.

There are many positive aspects of the ECB's wealth. It has allowed them to retain the services of their best players despite the threat of T20 leagues. It has allowed them to retain an army of support staff so large that, at times, they outnumber the playing squad. It has allowed the ECB to lead the world in the funding of disability cricket and to bring a new level of professionalism to women's cricket. It has allowed them to spend heavily on grass-roots cricket; building new facilities at clubs around the country and ensuring the continued existence of the 18-county domestic game.

But it also comes at a cost. By squeezing so many Tests into such a short window, the ECB is giving England's leading pace bowlers - the same bowlers that present the best chance of victory - little possibility of performing at their best. And, in the longer term, it risks those players in greatest demand leaving the game prematurely through burn-out (Jonathan Trott) or injury (Graeme Swann). In 2015, those players - and coaches - involved in all formats will spend around 300 days in hotels. Too much is asked of them.

Equally, the desire - an admirable desire - to ensure as little time off the pitch as possible has seen new drainage installed at most grounds. That has led not just to quick-drying outfields, but quick-drying pitches. The days of green seamers are largely gone and, with them, England's home advantage. India may not have realised it yet, but the pitches in this series may help their spinners more than England's seamers.

Across English cricket, decisions are taken which bring short-term financial gain but will cost in the longer term. From selling all live TV rights to a subscription broadcaster, to diluting the value of the Ashes by playing too many limited-overs series against Australia, the ECB is risking the long-term health of the game while claiming it is earning more than ever before. The administrators need to understand that sport, like schools and hospitals, cannot be judged purely on the bottom line.

Eventually there is a danger that, if England continue to play on low, slow wickets, if they continue to play jaded cricket, if they continue to be absent from free-to-air TV, if they continue to lose and play the same opposition, the value of broadcast rights and ticket sales will diminish. But, by then, the current management will have moved on and will be able to look back and say that all was okay on their watch.

They were points touched upon, albeit gently, by Stuart Broad as he looked ahead to the Test series. Broad, who looked weary by the end of the two-Test series against Sri Lanka, expressed his concern at the schedule and the grounds' new drainage.

"If the pitches are dry, I think India will be licking their lips with the two spinners, won't they?"
Stuart Broad
"Back-to-back Test cricket does really tire you out," Broad said. "This schedule's got five Test matches in the space of probably three, so it is pretty hectic. We will have to look after our bodies, big time. Part of the reason we had a camp last week was to get a lot of cricket work in before the series started. Once we get underway there's just no training time really.

"The clubs have all spent huge money on all these drainage systems to make sure we can get out on the field. But I don't know how much research was done into what they do to the pitches. I know our players, three or four years ago, brought the theory up that they were making the wickets too dry, too early and it is quite hard to keep bounce in the wickets now unless you leave them really green, which Test match wickets just don't do.

"So it is a bit of an issue we're suffering, with pitches bouncing three or four times to the keeper. I think Test wickets should be flat, no doubt, because the crowds want to come and see runs scored. But if you catch the edge of a batsman it's got to carry to the keeper and the slips, that's the number one rule.

"It didn't happen at Lord's and Headingley. They turned out to be really slow and both really should have been draw wickets. It will be interesting to see how this series plays out. But, if they're dry, I think India will be licking their lips with the two spinners, won't they?"

It seems they may not. Perhaps influenced by Duncan Fletcher's previous experience of English pitches - which might prove to be somewhat dated - it seems India may select a side bursting with seamers and with only one spinner.

In the short term, England may retain the seam-bowling depth to defeat an India side who have not won a single Test away since June 2011. In the longer term, if they really want to enjoy a sustained period among the best teams in the world, they need the ECB to devise a new business plan that looks to the benefit of the whole game, not just the bottom line.

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