Second-class deal for first-class cricket

Sweeping up: Andrew Strauss, watched by Brad Haddin and Michael Clarke at the Gabba, leading England towards the 2010 Ashes series victory which led to the Argus Review. Picture: Will Swan
Sweeping up: Andrew Strauss, watched by Brad Haddin and Michael Clarke at the Gabba, leading England towards the 2010 Ashes series victory which led to the Argus Review. Picture: Will Swan

A mere 135 years, one week and two days after the infamous death notice recording the demise of English Test cricket, Australia appears to have added its name.

On Thursday, Cricket Australia launched its latest five-year strategy, a document which appeared to have as many fundamental flaws as Matthew Wade’s sub-continental defence.

Seeking to outline Australia’s imminent cricketing priorities, the “strategy” talked up the importance of the Big Bash League and both female and junior cricket.

But, like Jackson Bird, Test cricket was notable only by its absence.

Speaking on behalf of the national body and all eight state and territory cricket associations, CA chief executive James Sutherland reminisced about the origins of the Ashes rivalry in 1882 but then proceeded to dance on its grave in his haste to breathe new life into the Twenty20 monster.

Obviously, since the Ashes were the result of a cremation it wouldn’t be possible to dance on a grave, but let’s not let metaphorical madness thwart Australia’s hopes in future series when CA is quite capable of doing that by itself.

“The first Test match, between Australia and England, was held in 1877, leading to the creation of The Ashes five years later,” Sutherland lectured, before adding, just for comedy purposes: “The Sheffield Shield began in 1892.”

Remember the Sheffield Shield? That’s the national domestic first-class competition that CA has been increasingly undermining from the moment David Warner hit 89 on his Twenty20 international debut.

Somewhat condescendingly, Sutherland provided a potted history of the first recorded cricket match in Australia in 1803, the “landmark match” between an indigenous XI and the Melbourne Cricket Club on Boxing Day, 1866, and the first overseas tour by an indigenous Australian team in 1868.

However, first-class cricket post-1892 does not appear to warrant a guernsey in CA’s bold vision.

“In planning our next five years, we have been very conscious of the proud history of the game in this country,” Sutherland explained.

“History, though, does not guarantee continued success, and cricket has effectively used five-year strategies to ensure that we have a clear understanding of the challenges, and our ongoing responsibility to the future of the game.”

That future appears to be more Scorchers than Ashes as CA milks the BBL cash cow for every drop it can get from those limited-over udders.

Sharing some of its immense wealth with grass roots, youngsters and females can only be commended but continuing to treat first-class cricket in such a second-class way should – like a Shane Watson lbw decision – not go unchallenged.

Cricket Australia milks the BBL cash cow for every drop it can get from those limited-over udders

Some historical perspective may be timely here.

After England strolled to a 3-1 Ashes series win in Australia in 2010-11 there was, quite understandably, a national outcry the like of which has not been seen since.

Imminent impact from a North Korean nuclear missile has nothing on losing a home Ashes campaign in the Australian psyche.

CA responded with the Argus review – an investigation into what shortcomings could have led to such an unnatural disaster.

Looking back, it makes for gripping, if ironic, reading.

Among the report’s recommendations “which the [CA] board has not ratified but will consider in the near future” are two gems.

“Aligning cricket's incentive systems, including the MOU, to give greater emphasis to linking reward with performance and to ensure player payment incentives for Test cricket reflect its position as cricket's premium format.”

Six years later, Australia’s millionaire cricketers went from pay check to reality check (that line only works with the American spelling of cheque) – Steve Smith and co. clearly undeserving of any performance-related reward having cashed in on lengthy MOU wranglings only to suffer their first ever Test defeat to Bangladesh.

Then there was this: “Carefully assessing Big Bash League private ownership implications to ensure private ownership does not incentivise BBL expansion in a way that could compromise Australia's goal to be the No.1-ranked Test nation.”

This year the BBL expanded to 10 fixtures per franchise while Australia plummeted to fifth in the Test rankings (below New Zealand).

The executive summary of the Australian Cricket Strategy 2017-22 (that’s the bit the spin doctor always skips to on Utopia) lists its first “strategic theme” as: “Give fans what they want and grow the Big Bash.”

So maybe there has been some progress in those six years.

At least the latest Australian cricket navel gaze doesn’t make any pretense towards protecting the first-class format.