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Cricket at the crossroads

With a big summer of test cricket just around the corner Ryan Jon asks, what exactly is the Australian cricket team playing for?

The AFL and NRL seasons have just been completed. At the beginning of the year, all teams had a common goal – to win the premiership. Only Collingwood and St George-Illawarra, respectively, won the ultimate prize. The simplicity of having a defined season followed by finals, resulting in an eventual winner is the perfect way for a sport to operate, and the approach is similar in the majority of major team sports in the world.

In the sports-mad United States; basketball, baseball and football all have a long seasons ending with playoffs and an eventual champion. In Europe, soccer and volleyball have national seasons with the top teams playing in a Champions League.

All major team sports have something to strive for – to be the eventual champion.

Except one: test cricket.

Cricket plays a range of series where the winner receives points that go towards the ICC rankings. The rankings never end; therefore there is no eventual winner – just a leader until next time – which for me is quite anticlimactic.

Australia is currently ranked fifth in the world; higher than our 21st ranked soccer team but given there are only nine competitive countries, it is quite low.

Mike Hussey last week told the media that he didn’t believe Australia was really the fifth best nation, publicly rejecting the rankings.

It must be asked: if players are rejecting these rankings, what exactly are they even playing for?

When Australia competes with England for the Ashes, it’s a popular event, but aside from this age-old rivalry, test cricket has been struggling for years. The introduction of Twenty20 cricket and the Indian Premier League means the cricketing world is being drowned in championships.

How is an athlete supposed to get motivated for one particular event? There is the IPL, T20 World Cup, ODI World Cup, KFC Big Bash, Sheffield Shield, the new 20+25 over Ryobi Cup, the Commonwealth Bank ODI series and through all this our cricketers are supposed to be fully focused upon winning the Ashes so they can move their test ranking up a few spots?

It seems mentally tough and somewhat confusing when you consider an AFL player can be fully focused on competing for one team, in one competition, for one premiership that is decided with the same set of rules.

Australia recently played India in a series of one day matches. According to the rankings, this was a contest between the best and second-best one day international teams in the world. With the deciding match approaching, you would expect Australia’s captain to be training hard and talking up his side’s chances.

Instead, Michael Clarke was forced to defend the importance of the game. Even on Cricket Australia’s own website, the article headline reads Clarke talks up decider stating that he has, ‘rejected claims that the match is not important.’

If Cricket Australia’s own media team is forced to ask the questions, surely the writing is on the wall and dramatic changes need to be made.

The cricket watching audience is already asking questions, visible by the awkward emptiness of stadiums during recent test cricket matches. The recent test series in cricket-mad India struggled to get fans into the playing areas.

So if the audience is falling away, and these win-at-all-cost professional athletes aren’t really playing for anything, how long can test cricket survive? And is it worth having nine nations travelling the globe in their white outfits simply to justify an exciting, money making Ashes series every two or three years?

All other major team sports competing in the world have the majority of the players primarily competing for a club, rather than their country. Over the last decade, it has been said that Australia has the strongest domestic competition in the world – strong enough that an Australian second or third team could be competitive internationally.

Those around the Australian team often say that the quality of Australian cricketers unable to force their way into the side is ‘a good problem to have’.

It’s a good problem for the selectors, but a bad one for the sport as potentially the 12th best cricketer in the world can’t compete at the highest level. The beauty of the Indian Premier League (a club-based competition) and other leading sporting associations such as the NBA or NHL is that we get to see the best take on the best. Players at the level of a Brad Hodge or Cameron White don’t get left behind, as the level of competition is at its highest and in turn, the crowd comes out to watch.

When 22 highly skilled cricketers take each other on, you get a high standard of play and the winner leaves with a sense of pride, achievement and accomplishment.

When 11 highly skilled cricketers defeat 11 lesser athletes from developing nations by colossal margins, there are no real winners. The best aren’t tested, the developing barely  get a chance to and nobody goes to watch as the result is decided before the players leave the team hotel.

Sure, it’s exciting for countries to complete against one another, to settle some debates and accrue some bragging rights. But this doesn’t need to happen more than every two to four years.

When football’s World Cup is over, Wayne Rooney goes back to Manchester United, and when the Olympic gold medals have been decided, Kobe Bryant goes back to the LA Lakers. This gives the players the high level of competition they desire and gives the viewing audience an exciting and forever entertaining spectacle.

But the hardest challenge in implementing changes is that cricket is convincing the old-hat traditionalists that follow, and administer, the game. These sporting history tragics are well behind the times and certainly aren’t accustomed to change.  Among the cricket history tragics are the players themselves. In the 2008 players’ survey, 86% of players rated Test Cricket as the most important form of cricket.

Test cricket runs through the veins of the players and the diehard fans but is beginning to lose popularity in the greater sporting community and will eventually be a cost, rather than a money maker for cricket’s governing body. People closest to the game of cricket are just that – too close. In wider society, cricket – like all sports – is a form of entertainment. Drawing big crowds is what keeps sports going. T20 Cricket is entertaining people, whilst test cricket – as shown by the empty Indian stadiums – is not.

It’s hard to say how these issues will be resolved. But one thing is for sure: having four different formats, played at conflicting times of the year, across multiple continents, has seen cricket spreading itself too thin, leaving players and spectators in a state of uncertainty and confusion.

Ryan Jon is a part of upstart’s editorial team and is currently enrolled in La Trobe’s Graduate Diploma of Journalism program.

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