Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

The Shame Game: Sport that lost its way from boardroom table to the fans

As a decade of poor performance starts to become a long list of dire results, those close to the game cite player self-interest and management that's failed to understand the sport's modern dynamics as reasons for cricket's diminishing place in our affections.

The issues faced by the sport are much wider than the long-term struggles of Ross Taylor's men. Photo / NZPA
The issues faced by the sport are much wider than the long-term struggles of Ross Taylor's men. Photo / NZPA

It is hard to think of a sporting organisation that has done more to alienate its most important stakeholder, the fans, than New Zealand Cricket.

A flagship team that finds new ways to lose and very occasional ways of winning, a carousel of curious high-performance appointments, a moribund domestic scene, dwindling media coverage and an administration that has failed to adapt to the seismic changes in the sport have blotted the cricketing canvas like a Jackson Pollock abstract.

Over the next week, the Herald and Herald on Sunday will highlight some of the failings and ask key people in the game to chart a path forward.

The timing might seem peculiar, given the events in Colombo last week, but it could not be better. It is easy to jump on a soapbox after another galling loss from our national side but it becomes a watered-down process. Good points get lost in the blather of talkback outrage and fulminating opinionists.

The issues faced by the sport are much wider than the long-term struggles of Ross Taylor's men. The victory in Colombo was a tonic, but it was a long, long time coming. The problems cannot be obscured by once-a-year bursts of inspiration. While the problems are myriad, there is one that stands out above the rest - apathy.

While the odd tremendous result, such as the seven-run victory over Australia at Hobart last year and the 167-run win last week, generates an ephemeral outpouring of goodwill, they are few and far between. Even shocking displays from the national side, like the 10-wicket loss at Galle a fortnight ago, don't generate the same sort of angst. That has been replaced instead by acceptance.

Dion Nash, the heart-on-his-sleeve allrounder who represented New Zealand in 32 tests and 81 one-dayers, said he detected a "disengagement" between the sport and the public.

In a wide-ranging interview given before the Sri Lanka test series, Nash outlined the main issue the Black Caps faced as a team and that NZC had to counter as an organisation.

"As a past player you're always careful to not put too much emphasis on what your own feeling towards the game is. I feel a bit apathetic towards it and as a result I'm having less conversations with avid fans who are excited and passionate about it," Nash said. "Most conversations I have now are in the negative or not that engaged. It's the lack of engagement that's the real issue and I understand it because I feel like I've become disengaged.

"It feels like the whole of world cricket is in transition from an international-based sport to trying to turn it into a club set-up. The big loser in that transition is the fans - particularly fans from smaller countries like New Zealand."

Nash believes the sport is being mismanaged. He believes the current board needs to "stand up and take the hit", paving the way for fresh thinking and less political minds. One of the eight-person board has had little chance to make an impact - Greg Barclay only joining this year so he probably deserves a free pass - but the same could not be said of the rest, who have been accused of fiddling while cricket burns. "What have they done?" Nash asks. "We're talking 20 years of it. The last time New Zealand Cricket was functioning and felt like we were booming was when Chris Doig was in charge (from 1995-2001). He got us wearing black, he was selling grounds out and it feels like ever since then it's been this deteriorating version of what it was back then."

Nash is far from a man alone on this issue, but there are others who will happily testify NZC is ahead of the ball in its governance, that the board's independence is an example for New Zealand sport, not a handicap.If that's the case, why have we got it so wrong at a high-performance level for so long? If NZC has the right people running the game, why did it need to appoint a cricket committee?

Several people spoken to by the Herald said all the problematic roads lead back to the board tables, especially those at major association level who tend to put self-protection ahead of national interests.

"I don't believe the necessary number of people involved in the governance of cricket understand the shift and changing landscape we see," said NZC Players' Association chief executive Heath Mills. "We still see the cricket world as the simple equation of international equals commercial, domestic equals development.

"Under that model we can never have a level playing field again. We're talking 1.2 billion people versus 4.5 million. We're talking US$250 million ($305 million) versus US$40 million revenue. That's okay in a largely amateur sport like rowing, because countries are spending a similar amount on high performance. In cricket, there's huge disparity in the high-performance spend."

What Mills is essentially describing is the rapid rise of India into world cricket's revenue machine. Cricket's ruling house moved out of St Johns Wood and set up camp in Mumbai.

In the first decade of this millennium the Indian economy grew in double-digit numbers year on year and Indian cricket, run by the BCCI, has discovered how to harness a lot of the rupees suddenly floating around that economy. This year, the BCCI are expected to add another US$80 million to their already sizeable reserves of US$750 million.

New Zealand can't compete with that and plenty will argue that we don't need to try - that our mythical No 8 wire mentality will carry the day. Problem is, that No 8 wire hasn't been much use over a decade of non-achievement.

Mills said NZC had to look at ways of bringing more revenue into the game that wasn't tied up in dividends from the International Cricket Council's flagship tournaments and broadcast deals. He looks around the world at the progress being made by almost every test-playing nation in setting up franchise competitions built upon third-party money.

"Which is the country that's not making progress? For a country that prides itself on being small, fast-moving and progressive, when it comes to cricket we're actually the antithesis of that," Mills said. "Even worse, we've got such a conservative outlook, we're trying to fight it. The Players' Association first proposed trying to restructure domestic cricket three and a half years ago. The first person charged with looking into that was Lindsay Crocker. He's since left and come back! Nothing is happening."

The appointment of David Cooper as general manager of domestic cricket gives hope to those who want change. As chief executive of Northern Districts, he was seen as progressive, certainly in comparison to some of his major association counterparts.

"Cricket here is run by good club cricket people, who are unfortunately ill-equipped to run professional sport," Mills said of most major association boards. "They have what we would call the 'guardian complex'. The problem with guardians of the game is their natural reaction is to protect things from change."

Mills will also know plenty in the public see the rise of his organisation, and player advocacy in general, as a handbrake rather than an accelerator on the sport. He's not immune to attacks, even from his own.

Nash, one of the key figures in the formation of the NZCPA, is now critical of its role and believes the multi-year master agreement signed with NZC while Justin Vaughan was chief executive was a poor piece of business that has made both parties too comfortable.

"The Players' Association was a great thing and very much needed, but somewhere along the line we've got to say ... if the game is suffering, then all the stakeholders need to take some responsibility.

"The Players' Association absolutely need to step up to the plate," Nash said. "Just saying, 'The game's changing and you don't understand it' - that's not good enough.

"You have to take responsibility for what's happening and engage where the public is at with it. Understand that we don't see what's happening in India and we don't really care either. We care what happens here at home with our national side.

"The association is the players lobby. Their interests are to look after the players, but you don't bite the hands that feeds you and the fans ultimately pay NZ Cricket and make the game great here, and you've got to be totally aware of them."

Nash cited the example of the 2003 All Blacks, whom the public fell out of love with because of their reluctance to engage anywhere beyond the white lines of the field. They made a conscious effort to reconnect.

Nash believes our cricketers have to do the same. Winning consistently can only help.

- NZ Herald

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