Transcript: Couch Talk with Mike Jakeman

Couch Talk 106 (Play)

Guest: Mike Jakeman, Author of the book “Saving the Test

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is Mike Jakeman, who is the author of a new book called “Saving the Test”. He talks about the various challenges facing Test cricket currently and the need for cooperation between different national cricket boards for the survival of Test cricket, amongst other things.

Welcome to the show, Mike!

Mike Jakeman (MJ)– Thank you very much.

SJ– You have a new book out, “Saving the Test” about the various pressures on and threats for the game of Test cricket and you provide your ways around it. Let’s begin with what got you thinking about writing the book and what kind of research went in to it.

MJ– What started me on the process of writing this book is watching the England-India Test series from two years ago in the English summer. This was a series, certainly in England, had more anticipation than any since the 2005 Ashes. India were the best team in the world at that time and they had this incredible, legendary batting line up with [Sachin] Tendulkar, [VVS] Laxman, [Rahul] Dravid, [Virender] Sehwag. It was going to be a real test for a young, up and coming England team with an exciting bowling attack. It was going to be the Indian batsmen versus the England bowlers, and the best team in the world against the young pretenders. I was really hoping as a cricket fan, as well as an England fan, that this was going to be a series that captures the imagination of the countries. It sort of did but not in the way I was expecting. England obviously won 4-nil. India were a terrible team in that series, Rahul Dravid apart and Zaheer Khan who bowled well in the first morning of the first Test at Lord’s before pulling up injured. Other than that, there was very little resistance from India and the competitive spectacle was lousy.

So I had a think about the reasons why India seemed so tired, underprepared and just not in the position to contest what should have been a real show-piece series of cricket. Before I realized what I’d got my hands on, I was writing a book about it.

SJ– Let’s get in to the book then. The segmentation of the book I thought was pretty interesting. You have a chapter titled “The tour”, and you have, “Short game”, “Technology”, “The fixers”, “The pitches” and “The broadcasters”. So, I guess, these are the way you go about saving the Test or, these are the ones putting the pressure on the Test game? How did you decide to segment the way you did?

MJ– The situation with Test cricket is very complicated. It’s not like there is a single threat to it. It’s not like if we eliminate the match fixers, it would be a perfect game. There are a lot of pressure coming from these various points and my central point is that the sport of Test cricket isn’t broken at all. When you get two teams who have something to play for, who are fighting fit, then it works as well as ever. The problem is, all these things, the environment that Test cricket comes about in, aren’t quite right. We see now that too many Test matches are being played between teams that are underprepared, tired, their minds are elsewhere and they are not earning what they think they should be earning, administrators have made a mess of their schedules etc. It’s the environment of Test cricket isn’t what it should be. I think that’s why I structured the book the way I did, picking appart each of these areas a little at a time, then, hopefully by the end of the book readers have an idea of the composite picture where Test cricket is.

SJ– It’s an interesting thing you just said: “Players with something to play for”. Let’s take the example of The Ashes that just began. It is the most historic, traditional rivalry in cricket and yet, you had bunch of Aussie players playing ODIs in India not too long ago where as England were in Australia preparing for the series. Also, there are a whole lot of meaningless Test matches – they play 2 Tests series and even one-off Tests! Even though there are more number of Tests being played these days, there is no context to the games outside of the Ashes.

MJ– Yeah, I completely agree. The fundamental problem with Test cricket now is that it is extremely hard to follow. Part of it for the fan to figure where the teams are going, when they are playing etc., but also the national boards mess up the calendar so much in terms of building up a momentum towards the series, if you swap the formats all the time, playing at home and playing abroad within the half of the same season. On the specific example of the Ashes you gave, it isn’t the most egregious example of that by the way. When England last went to Australia, they had excellent warm up and had learnt from their mistakes in their previous trip there in 2006-07 and Australia were playing a meaningless series with Sri Lanka 10 days before the Ashes started, and this time they were in India playing One Day cricket.

The Ashes is the healthiest series going since it’s played for a good length – 5 Tests obviously, and in front of full houses. That series no one has any worries about. It is everything else that we have got to focus on.

In terms of the scheduling, that is a fundamental thing the administrators should be able to fix very quickly. But we have seen, again in the last year, the BCCI take a liberal approach to their commitment to the FTP. They [shortened] the tour to South Africa to hold Tendulkar’s retirement match at home. No one would begrudge the man, obviously. Although it would have been more special if it had come in meaningful Test matches, against stronger opposition such as in the tour that India were supposed to be playing in.

SJ– Well, I have my thoughts on that, but you’re the guest. Let’s go back to the Ashes. Even there, you see full grounds in England definitely but in Australia, during the 2010-11 series, by the time Days 4 and 5 rolled around in 4th and 5th Tests, most of the crowd in the grounds were English. The Aussies stopped showing up. If the Ashes stops being a rivalry because the two teams have to be competitive on the field as well, and if Australia end up losing their 4th Ashes in 5 tries, I don’t know how Aussie crowds would react to that.

MJ– My thinking regarding that as an Englishman growing up and watching in the 1990’s is, “How brilliant is this!” Obviously I’ll try to reign that in a little bit.

I’m not really concerend about the Ashes, I really am not. There is still improvements that could be made to even how the Ashes are structured. Give Cricket Australia their due, they are at the very front of the queue pioneering things like Day-Night cricket where a Test day starts at a more spectator friendly hour. Another thing you could do is how the tickets are sold. It is £100 ($160) to watch a day of cricket at Lord’s. That’s a lot of money particularly in the current climate. Why not split that up? Why not gie the people session by session tickets at a third of the cost or whatever? So, even at the successful end of the Test spectrum, you can do various things to keep people’s interest alive.

I thkn England will win the series but I am not genuinely concerend about the state of cricket in Australia. I know there are concerns in Australia about Aussie Rules Football is effecting cricket. If you’re a 15 or 16 year old athlete in Australia, you have to make that choice between Cricket and Aussie Rules. But, in the list of priorities for the health of Test cricket, the status of Aussie cricket team isn’t near the top of the list.

SJ– In terms of speaking about the health of teams or nations, you have the top 3 (India, England and Australia) doing well and the rest of them pick up the crumbs. I suppose that sort of unequal sharing of revenues cannot be sustained for long and expect Test cricket to survive.

MJ– The way cricket’s income is shared or not shared is an important subject. This was at least hammered home to me when I watched England go to New Zealand last winter. The three Test series ended 0-0 with all of the Tests drawn but it was far more exciting that the scoreline sounds. The point is that New Zealand Cricket (NZC) operate on a budget that’s an absolute fraction of ECB’s. Obviously NZ had the advantage of home conditions although the change from England to New Zealand isn’t that great. However, it is irresponsible and wrong for the rest of the cricket world to sit back and assume that NZC can continue to produce competitive teams on that budget.

If we had 30 Test teams, if 1, 2, 3 or 10 were starting to slip a bit, it wouldn’t be a problem because it would be a chance for someone else to come up a bit from the inside, but if you have only 10 full members, and the overwhelming wealth is concentrated within three nations, and the rest are, as you said “picking up the crumbs”, you really have to wonder how competitive this game is going to be and for how much longer? We certainly should be saluting NZC, and I certainly do without patronizing them in any way because there was no way that for how behind NZC are to England (in terms of finances) that the scoreline could be nil-nil. My fear is that if we continue to ignore these inqualities and there isn’t a bit more revenue sharing for the good of the game as a whole, then, we are going to see more and more uncompetitive series and less and less of the Test cricket we all want to see.

SJ– Absolutely. I agree with you that the number of teams playing Test cricket should be expanded and they have to be supported financially as well, of course, rather than shrinking the number of teams, as some people have suggested the two-tier system which I guess is happening any way…

MJ– Yeah, that’s what is going on. One look at the fixture calendar and it will tell you that we already have a two-tier system. England are playing 10 Tests with Australia right now, they played India and South Africa immediately prior to that with only the NZ tests to break them up. So, we are already seeing enough of the heavyweight clashes but we want to see also Test matches featuring other teams besides those 3 or 4.

SJ– During your research for the book, did you ever find out the logic behind ICC not expanding beyond the 10 Full Members as Test playing nations? There is Ireland that look ready, perhaps Afghanistan too and others too. What seems to be the opposition there?

MJ– The case for Ireland’s inclusion is building year by year, not least of it they just just set up their domestic FC league which is a requirement for a Full Member. The simple reason as far as I have been able to decipher is Money. Because, the incentive for the top nations (India, England, Australia and South Africa) to invite Ireland or Bangladesh, and increasingly New Zealand, to tour or tour them is not worth as much to them. These national boards have to make their money and ideally will have money left over to reinvest in the game, in the team etc. You can sell broadcast rights for England-Australia, India-England or such matches very easily for a lot of money but you can’t do the same thing for India-Ireland. There has to be a bit more cooperation amongst the boards to accept that 20 years down the line, it might be quite beneficial that Ireland has a competitive Test team in the way Sri Lanka has now, but we are seeing less and less, as far I have been able to discern the sort of willingness amongst the biggest nations to invest their time, energy and their show of skills in front of these new audiences which is what the game really needs to maintain its current level, never mind improving it.

SJ– It is kind of counterintuitive, isn’t it? Of course, all the money in cricket is through broadcast deals and they are skewed towards the big teams. But, if these big teams were loosen their grip on the money a bit and expand their frontiers, eventually it gives them more markets to sell more of their deals…

MJ– I completely agree. It would be a bit more complicted in reality but that’d be the best case thinking. It is quite short termist right now. From what I have learned about how national boards operate, they really should be siblings but instead they are competitors. It’s fine to compete on the field, and it is what we all want to see, but there really needs to be overarching cooperation between them to grow the game as a whole. Without it, no one has got any cricket to watch to be honest.

SJ– You spoke to Giles Clarke (of ECB) and also an official within Cricket Australia for the book, correct? What are their views on where the game is now in terms of the money and the health of the game itself, and is there any momentum from these high ranking officials to move the game forward and move it outside of just the top 3 nations and grow the revenue in the other 7 nations and beyond?

MJ– My impressions from the ECB was that they are gradually waking up to the possibilities of how cricket is being consumed differently in the age of mobile devices, tablets etc., rather than just sitting at home in front of the TV. However, in comparison to some other sports, cricket has been predictably slow off the mark. They have done couple of good initiatives recently. You were able to watch the livestream and highlights of the Ashes in England during summer in mainland Europe for free through the ECB website which was a completely new thing. I gather they got some good figures from that. I don’t think there is any doubt that the demand is there but some of the attitudes have been a bit strange.

There has been a lot of effort from the ECB recently to try and shut down pirate streams which I can understand because some one is ripping off the content that they have sold. But, it seems to me to be a negative way of looking at it. They should see that there is a demand [for cricket broadcasts] in places where coverage isn’t easily available and they should be the ones throwing this out and saying, “Look what we can deliver for you and look at what you can get” and the different ways of broadcasting stuff and not make it ever harder for people to see it.

In the book, I use the example of Rob Moody, who runs a YouTube channel showing – entirely legal as far as I can tell – highlights of cricket matches past. He gets phenomenal amont of abuse. There is such an appetite for highlights, cricket matches and archival footage by the fans, and the boards should make it available digitally and there is money in that! So far, the reaction from ECB, and Cricket Australia as well, has been slow.

The example I use in the book is Baseball in terms of sports that are just ahead in generating this type of content and making money off it. There is no more committed group fans than the cricket fans. They would want to watch footage that you can customize where you only want to watch X player’s cover drives in a series, or every wicket taking ball bowled by Graeme Swann in the first over of a new spell, you name it, and cricket fans would want to watch this stuff, but its not available now. The purpose of the last chapter in the book was to be a slight rocket in the direction of the boards in terms of the market that is just waiting for it.

SJ– Baseball is a good comparison because it has similar history and tradition like cricket. I want to talk about the adoption of the internet by the MLB to provide additional avenues for the fans to consume baseball. MLB also has the unequal sharing of revenues between the teams like cricket – you have the Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs who dominate the revenues and then there are teams like Kansas City, Oakland and Pittsburgh who are picking up the crumbs. You go in some detail about how MLB adopted internet and started providing access through various devices, tablets etc. You see something of that sort developing for cricket too?

MJ– In a utopian sense, may be. The obvious comeback whenever you use baseball as a comparison is that all these MLB teams operate under single country, single law; It’s a lot easier to corrall them and sell joint rights. In cricket, you are dealing with 9 or 10 different legal frameworks and all the different TV networks. However, I am not the one brokering the deal in the chapter but I am merely pointing out the market that I think exists and provided some indication of how some people have managed to exploit it. So far, national boards have shown no evidence of cooperating on a group basis to achieve something like this and I don’t really expect it to happen.

What I do expect to happen is that each of the country will gradually wise up to the size of the market available – it will be a lot bigger in England and Australia than it will be in the West Indies and New Zealand – and they will work out their own digital rights with the broadcasters. England will make a lot of money and NZ will make little. However, the point really is that there is a product that can be sold and I think it would benefit fans everywhere watching it and it would suit the board themselves to make a bit more money. Ideally, it would be shared but I am not holding my breath as to when it will happen.

SJ– Even MLB, when this idea was first mooted, there was plenty of resistance in that watching it on Internet would cut in to the revenue they were going to make at the Stadiums, or on TV but those fears have been proven untrue. So you’d think there would be leadership in cricket to make it in to one giant conglomerate of internet rights but that doesn’t seem to be happening which is quite shocking.

MJ– No, it doesn’t. There definitely is a mentality where they think that TV and Digital is a zero sum game where if you have $50 million of digital revenue, you lose $50 million from TV. Obviously, that depends partly on the skill of the board to negotiate. Of course, If I was a TV company and you are organizing the digital rights, I’d want money off of it. What we are seeing is that, in addition to my Sky subscription at home, f I had an hour long commute to the office every day, I wouldn’t mind having an hour long highlights package from the day on my tablet for which I might pay a separate fee for. My point is that these things will happen eventually but it will happen on an individual basis.

SJ– But based on the track record of boards, this is going to be a tough one to pull off.

MJ– Of course.

SJ– Besides the obvious stumbling block of various cricket boards in various nations having interests of only their boards on their minds, what do you see are the other barriers to entry for this?

MJ– You’ve got to design a decent product. One of the things that BAM did in the U.S. that designed the Baseball coverage on mobile devices, is that they designed a wonderful iPhone, iPad, games console app called AtBat. It basically makes you the director of the broadcast. It allows you to pull up various players, stats, change the camera angles or Stop-FF-Rewind, you are the director of the broadcast, the kind of thing I’d imagine would appeal enormously to a cricket fan.

Once you have the digital rights in place – that is, if you’ve managed that, then you have to make a product that people want to pay that extra for. BAM has been doing this for 10 years or so, and it took them nearly 8 years (until the technology was ready) to capture the imagination of the baseball fan. These things do take a bit of a lead time to develop. On the other hand, cricket authorities already have a model in place that has worked somewhere else, in another sport. So perhaps it shouldn’t take that long. It will take a sozeable investment to design a product like this that makes the cricket fans want to take part even after you have gone through the boards, corporations, renegotiation of the media rights etc.

SJ– I want to come back to the revenues thing… I was doing a bit of a research and even though Cricket is claimed to be the 2nd most popular sport in the world after Soccer, in terms of revenue it doesn’t even feature in the top 10. Even NASCAR makes more revenue than all of cricket put together. It could mean that the cricket administrators are just happy with the money they make now or are just blind to the possibilities. Which one is it?

MJ– That’s a very good question. I think there is a sense that the global governing body ICC, if it’s compared to FIFA, is such a young body. As of 15 years ago, the ICC was run off a back room at Lord’s and had a staff of 4 people. When you think from that point of view, you can see why revenues are as small as they are. On the other hand, one of FIFA’s biggest money spinner is of course the World Cup and of course the ICC has the ODI World Cup and the World T20 pow-wow as well. Test Cricket, the premier version of cricket, doesn’t have anything of that sort, apart from the Ashes. It doesn’t have the pinnacle event you can tie your marketing, sponsorship and broadcasting rights t, which is why the Test championship is an idea worth considering. Of course, a lot of it is artifical. I talk in the book about developing a long rivalry, playing long series etc, and the world Test championship flies in the face of all of that but it does at least have some commercial opportunities. It does give it a sense of an event, a climax, the idea that some one is leading towards something which Test cricket at the moment lacks.

SJ– After writing the book, how optimistic are you Test cricket will continue to be in good health and will have support in terms of the fans and the money?

MJ– In terms of the sport itself, no fears whatsoever. Test cricket will continue to captivate like it has for the last 140 years but I have serious reservations about the kind of environment in which it is handled. My big fear is that in 30 years time, we could get a single Test match played between England and Australia once a year at Lord’s, kind of sepia tinged affair people like me would get nostalgic about how it doesn’t exist as a real sport. That’s my real fear and that’s part of what fired me up to write the book. I really desperately hope that doesn’t happen but I think there are some real concerns about Test cricket’s future.

SJ– Well, on that note, Thanks a lot for coming on the show Mike. We hope you are proven wrong in 30 years time. Thanks for writing the book, it was a wonderful read. Thank you.

MJ– Thanks very much Subash. Thanks for having me on.

SJ– Cheers.