Graeme Smith – Above and Beyond

Graeme Smith walked alone through the guard of honour, the applause of the crowd ringing in his ears, and came to the crease for one final time.

The master of the defiant fourth innings would be asked to lead his side to safety one final time and, as he has so often before, took guard, settled his considerable bulk over the bat, jutted out his chiselled chin, and stared back down the pitch, ready as always to take up the challenge.

Just a matter of months ago he had scored a famous 234 to lead his side to victory over Pakistan, yet he had been unable to recapture the feeling throughout this series, dominated by the guile of Harris and the blistering pace of Johnson.

Yet these were distant yesterdays and this was today and only the now would matter to a proud man with a slightly obdurate streak who might have forgotten his form temporarily but not his will to fight.

Harris bustles in and is immediately on the money with a ball that rises from a good length. Smith takes it high on the bat to successfully negotiate the over and to await the fury of Mitchell Johnson that was soon to come.

He only had to wait one ball as his partner takes the single – it’s time for his acid test against Johnson.

Over the years Biff had faced a fair few examinations. He never looked like a guy who would do well in them and yet his report card was one mostly filled with A’s, year after year after year.

One last test to complete and you could hear the sharp intake of breath from the crowd who were willing their hero to his fairy tale finish. Johnson’s arm comes over like a slingshot and the ball is up into his ribs in no time at all. Smith rides the bounces, gets the ball to ground, and scampers three runs.

The relief around the ground is palpable, their belief in their captain unshakeable, their hearts a flutter with admiration. Can Biff perform one final miracle?

Down the other end he watches as Harris traps Petersen in front to claim his 100th Test victim. The task has become harder yet the crowd will continue to believe in fairy tales and miracles – their mighty captain is still there.

Johnson hands his cap to the umpire and walks briskly to the top of his mark. Time almost stands still as he approaches the crease and then suddenly all is a blur.

Over comes the whiplash arm, the ball careening into Smith’s body. He tries to shuffle inside but can only meekly fend it to Doolan in close. Before you could return to your seat from the beer queue the career of one of South Africa’s finest was over.

Smith’s fight was over and it would be left to others to safeguard a mighty legacy against the marauding Australians. In the image of their captain, and with a nod to not so long ago Adelaide, you know they will fight to their last, and their record suggests they can not be written off no matter the odds.

Should they not succeed it will mark their first series defeat since 2009, a period during which they have remained at or near the top of the cricketing tree, having built a side that deserves every consideration as being among the finest of any era.

Far more than his runs, and there were many, this is the legacy that Graeme Craig Smith will leave to his nation, a man who at the tender age of just 22 took the reins of his national side for 109 of his 117 Tests and led them to the summit. No man has led his country in the Test arena on more occasions and none enjoyed more wins than the 52 his teams achieved.

Throughout a storied career he scored runs in all conditions, against all comers at the top of the order, in the process becoming the second most prolific opening batsman in Test history behind the legendary Sunil Gavaskar. To the eye Smith bore a striking similarity to the old Land Rovers so commonly seen on safari across the savannahs of his country – sturdy and powerful with little in the way of aesthetics, devoid of flash accoutrements but immensely reliable and uniquely equipped to handle all manner of going, staring down each challenge and robustly finding a way through. Their slogan, “Above and Beyond”, seems to sum Smith up rather well.

Smith’s journey saw him contribute over 9,000 runs at a high quality average of 48 with 27 centuries thrown in for good measure. Like everything he did it, his batting had a sense of meaning and purpose, each century a robust cornerstone of a victorious push or a successful rear guard stonewalling effort – none came in a losing cause, a symbol of his sheer will to win and ability to survive, and also an indication of the quality of his individual output.

He was always a man of function over form, substance over style with an insatiable will to win which, when this became impossible, drove a desperate determination to avoid defeat. His team contained better stylists, perhaps even better players, but all became imbued with his spirit and relentless desire to make the best of their talent, and a refusal to accept defeat or the impossibility of any challenge. Defeat, when it occasionally came, would be met by honest self-appraisal and learning from mistakes. The response would usually be emphatic and decisive with Smith often leading the charge.

He may not have been able to rouse himself to lead one last charge overnight in Cape Town but his spirit and example will be with the remaining batsmen on the final day as they fight to their last breath to avoid defeat. It is a spirit and attitude that will remain with them not just during the battle today but long after he departs the change room for the last time over the months and years to come.

His record will be about what his has done but his legacy will lie in the culture and team that he has built – something that will withstand the ravages of time and make a far more compelling case for greatness than his batting alone.

Welcome to the pantheon of greats Graeme Smith !

Until next time … that is stumps.

The Fellows of February

It has been a truly remarkable summer for the ever-expanding army of marketing wunderkinds that seem to have stormed into occupation of the entire top floor of CA’s Jollimont headquarters.

The results of course are there for all to see with over one million people pouring through the gates to watch the dismantling of the hapless English tourists, a doubling of BBL attendances combined with a four-fold increase in ratings, and of course the rivers of gold that now flow down the stairwells courtesy of the bumper new TV rights deal and sponsorship bounty.

Now none of this could occur without the creative input of the ponytailed geniuses who masterminded such events as the spin-off of CA Digital Media, #AskBoof, #bullshit, the World’s Greatest Dress Up Party, lycra-clad trampolinists, and of course the piece de resistance, the giant mobile corporate edifice of the KFC Skybox where original recipe and VB reigned supreme.

But, with the end of the Australian summer at hand, and a brief hiatus until the baggy green tackle the Proteas in far away South Africa, the thorny question of just how to maintain the momentum now rears its ugly head.

Fans fear not because the team have been hard at work over the Christmas period to plan for such an eventuality and I can exclusively reveal that, in addition to the launch of the @ShaneRWatson twitter character, the team are proud to announce, and sell to you, the Fellows of February calendar.

That’s right, a calendar, available exclusively by retweets of CA Digital Media click-bait material !

Concerned that, amidst the blizzard of social media and promotions focussing on social frivolity rather than on-field happenings, CA may be losing core supporters the creative types started work on executing the plan in conjunction with none other than the Frank Drebin of selectors, the urbane John Inverarity.

Artfully conceived, the plan targeted the selection of 28 players to represent Australia in the international arena, with each earning the privilege of appearing as a daily pin-up accompanied by one of CA’s 19 commercial partners and 4 broadcasters, with the remaining spots available for a negotiable fee.

Having skilfully accomplished this wondrous feat of planning and talent management last month you can now grab your ‘exclusive’ and highly prized memento of a golden summer – just head to CA Digital Media and use the special hashtag #ILoveILoveACalendarBoy.

Until next time … that is stumps.

It’s Legs Eleven at the Souk

In a souk under the blazing Dubai sun a cacophony of raised voices and shouted demands cuts through the early morning silence as officials of Full member nations continue their unedifying daily haggling with the stall holders of the BCCI, ECB and CA around the future of the ICC and the structure of world cricket. It is a scene that has been seen often over the past week since formal meetings began to discuss the draft FC&A position paper, and each day has brought us fresh news of the latest peripheral accommodation sold in exchange for their vote.

In today’s latest update from the horse-trading at the souk we receive news of a fresh proposal to facilitate the possibility of top Associate members attaining Test status. You might recall that just a few short days ago that a promotion and relegation system was suggested under which there would be two tiers of Test cricket, one involving the top 8 Full members and a lower level that accommodated Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and the top 6 Associate nations who would play in an Intercontinental Cup.

The winner of this competition would earn the right to challenge the lowest ranked nation from the top-tier for promotion to the top flight over a 4 match series with the victor being elevated, or remaining, in the top-tier – that is unless one of the bottom ranked teams were the rich merchants of the BCCI, ECB or CA who were unilaterally exempted from such market forces in order to protect their business interests and without whom it was argued the souk would fall into financial ruin.

As an encouragement for the development of cricket in leading Associate nations the proposal had some merit as well as providing continued incentive for those in the top flight to maintain and enhance standards. Naturally self-interest and the now familiar horse-trading at the souk saw the proposal quickly jettisoned given that the stall holders required the support of Zimbabwe and Bangladesh to advance their broader financial agenda.

The latest negotiations have resulted in a new proposal that would provide the leading Associate nation with the opportunity to challenge the lowest ranked Test nation to a series, victory in which would award them Test status for the following four year period – naturally, given their previous accommodations, the stall holders have assured Full members that their Test status will not be affected regardless of the result. “Legs eleven” cries the bingo caller at the souk!

Again, it is not a bad proposal if the aim is to provide clearer pathways for leading Associates, but it remains eerily silent, as was its earlier incarnation, on the broader implications of such a decision.

The first, and most important, issue it ignores is the very clear link between Test status and Full membership of the ICC with all of the financial and voting rights it brings. As the ICC website makes clear in its Members Overview section:

“Full Members are the governing bodies for cricket of a country recognised by the ICC, or countries associated for cricket purposes, or a geographical area, from which representative teams are qualified to play official Test matches.”

It goes on to note in their section ICC Classification of Official Cricket (with effect from January 2014) that:

“Test matches are those which:

  1. a.      are played in accordance with the ICC Standard Test Match Playing Conditions and other ICC regulations pertaining to Test matches; and
  2. b.      are between:

                                            I.            teams selected by Full Members of the ICC as representatives of the Member Countries (Full Member Teams)

                                          II.            a Full Member and a composite team selected by the ICC as representative of the best players from the rest of the world … “

And yet under this proposal from the Dubai souk there appears to be no suggestion that should the top ranked Associate would attain Full member status should they defeat the bottom ranked Test nation. This should really come as no surprise given the narrowing of financial and governance power to the BCCI, ECB and CA articulated even under the latest modification of the FC&A proposal – after all such status would create an additional, albeit much disembodied, voice and vote at the ICC table, not to mention reducing the distributions (after Contribution Cost) to each Full member by around $5.7m over the next 8 rights year cycle based on realistic ICC revenue projections of $2.5b.

This is the real elephant in the room – Test status confers Full membership rights and it does so because those that attain it meet a set of criteria (see here for details) that demonstrate their financial stability, the sustainability and strength of cricket in their nation or region, and their ability to grow the game. In return they are entitled to a greater share of ICC revenue and decision-making power as a Full member.

It is clear that historically this criteria has not always been consistently applied by the present incarnation of the ICC, Bangladesh for example had neither a FC structure at the time of their introduction or a sustained period of dominance at lower levels. Nor does it appear that members are regularly reviewed against it as Zimbabwe lurch from one disaster to another over the past decade as a corrupt government and compliant cricket administration burn piles of ICC cash and reduce player numbers and programmes to the point where have been unable to afford to participate in Test cricket and pay their players on several occasions.

But past failings of governance should not mean that such criteria are not relevant into the future. If the new proposal emanating from the souk is adopted, Associates can attain Test status without the need to meet a set of criteria that, if sensibly and objectively measured, ensures that they continue to invest in cricket infrastructure, participation and playing strength. Equally though, such participation may impede their ascension to Full membership – new nations have historically struggled to be immediately competitive and this may colour judgement over Full membership applications as the strength is no longer purely assessed against performance at lower levels.

In addition, if the FC&A document can be believed, the successful Associate would experience an additional financial impost by having to host unprofitable tours of which this position paper would have us believe there are many and without the additional ICC revenue derived from Full membership, and with no guarantees of bilateral series against the Big 3 would they really be better off?

And then of course, with potentially another Test nation added, there is the problematic question of how to create a realistic FTP with meaningful Test series length when scheduling issues and the lust for financial returns cannot see such a dream realised in the present day with less nations to accommodate.

Realistically, if it is desirable to ensure that “Test cricket remains competitive and relevant” and have each nation play each other on a home and away basis every four years with each series having a minimum of 3 Tests, it is hard to find a way in which this could work with more than 9 teams given that this would result in each playing 6 to 8 Tests each domestic summer – after all it is hard to have a fair and realistic ranking system without a workable FTP.

A greater number of teams will simply result in either more meaningless two Test series, or less frequent (or potentially no) bilateral tours to smaller Full members from the largest three nations which would further erode the already fragile financial position of many given the almost certain introduction of the Contribution Cost model over the next rights cycle.

However, as Srini, Giles and Wally board their magic carpet en route to the Burj Al Arab, weary from another day of frenzied bargaining at the souk that brings them ever closer to their goal, you can rest assured that they will waste not one minute’s contemplation on such difficult issues – after all they are not particularly germane or helpful to their broader agenda.

Tomorrow will undoubtedly be another frantic day at the souk bringing more breathless news of new deals, alliances and accommodations but it is unlikely to supply the answer to this problem.

Until the market opens tomorrow … that is stumps.