Australia's generous summer window may be closing

25Apr 2019
The Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
Australia's generous summer window may be closing

WITHIN a couple days of his appointment as Cricket Australia chairman in October 2011, Wally Edwards received a letter from the BCCI.

It was concerning the upcoming summer of 2011-12, outlining the fact that India were owed games by Australia, meaning that the scheduled four-Test series in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Adelaide would need to be reduced to two matches in mid-January, followed by three ODIs.

Faced with a financial and cricketing disaster given the schedule was already set out, Edwards read the intent of the letter as well as the content - he needed to get talking with India. Within a matter of hours, he and the chief executive James Sutherland were on a plane to Chennai, where they joined CA's head of business and legal affairs Dean Kino for negotiations with the then BCCI president N Srinivasan and his lieutenant Sundar Raman.

Through those hurried talks, the tour went ahead as originally planned, and the scheming that would result in the 2014 "Big Three" domination of the ICC by India, Australia and England also began. But equally, Edwards and Sutherland were left with a distinct impression that the summer window so beneficial to Australian cricket and its coffers is something requiring constant careful management and no little horse trading to maintain.

Revelations earlier this month that the BCCI had insisted CA honour their FTP agreement to play an ODI series in India in mid-January next year, while also asking for an earlier arrival time that forced the postponement of a home ODI series against New Zealand, thrust the issue of Australia's summer window squarely back into the forefront of administrative and broadcasting minds. Undoubtedly, the broadcasters and ODI rights holders Fox Sports were unhappy about the prospect of a first summer without any 50-over matches in more than 40 years. Its head of cricket Matt Weiss told the Australian: "We want the very best players involved in the Big Bash and we had been working with Cricket Australia to make that happen. Last year, the India ODI series was one of our most successful and we naturally want to have exclusive access to ODI series at that sweet spot of the summer."

Still more pointed was this description of events by the Daily Telegraph cricket writer Ben Horne: "Administrators were left reeling from news last week that India is forcing Cricket Australia into the farcical scenario of playing one-dayers in the sub-continent in the height of the home summer. The scheduling disaster will take Australia's best white ball cricketers away from the BBL at a time when CA was doing all it could to get the likes of Aaron Finch and Glenn Maxwell playing."

While it was understandable for Fox Sports and its owner News Corp to rail at Australia's international absence for a couple weeks in January 2020, in truth this is a battle that has been brewing for years if not decades. Given that CA is one of no fewer than eight major international boards - India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, South Africa and West Indies the others - to essentially share the same season, the primacy of the Australian season has for a long time been one of the international game's major inequities.

This was not always so. For most of the history of international cricket in Australia, the national team would regularly tour overseas during the peak summer months, as part of bilateral agreements with other nations. Look up summers like 1935-36, 1949-50, 1955-56 and 1956-57, 1964-65 and 1969-70 to find Australia playing Test series away from home, with the MCG, SCG and Adelaide Oval sitting dormant apart from the Sheffield Shield.

Change to the summer window that most now come to regard as traditional did not fully arrive until 1979-80 and the end of the World Series Cricket split. Kerry Packer's PBL Marketing arm and Nine Network broadcaster wanted guaranteed international cricket to rule the television ratings every summer without fail, and so began a system of rich tour guarantees being paid by PBL to ensure touring teams were well compensated for leaving their own home seasons behind.

India, conspicuously, was a loser out of this change. Not only were they pushed aside from the draft schedule for 1979-80 due to PBL's desire to commence with England and West Indies, Australian tours to the subcontinent were few and far between. It has not been forgotten that none of Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh or Greg Chappell ever played a Test in India.

Nevertheless, for most of the past 40 years, the home summer arrangement worked well enough, given the high regard in which a tour of Australia is held, and the mutually beneficial streams of revenue to CA for home tours and opposing boards for the trips that Australia makes either side of the established window. India, of course, became a far more frequent bilateral partner once their value as a broadcast property became clear in 1996. But in an era of Twenty20 tournaments and increasing competition for eyeballs around the world, rumblings of discontent have grown.

The 2011 letter is far from the only time the BCCI has queried a lengthy Australian tour, also doing so ahead of 2007-08. After the marathon 2014-15 visit that also took in the World Cup, CA was given strong indications that the next scheduled visit in a World Cup cycle, 2022-23, would not take place. Instead, India will tour Australia in 2020-21, clearing their home schedule for the following season which will peak with hosting the global tournament as in 2011.

South Africa, too, have mounted their own opposition to Australia's summer window. Not since 2008-09 have they played a Boxing Day and New Year's Test, thereby depriving CA of one of its most bankable teams for the summer holiday period after England and India. Among the compromises witnessed in the 2019 to 2023 FTP is South Africa's return to play at that time of the year. How often they will be willing to do so is a question for CA's current chairman Earl Eddings and chief executive Kevin Roberts to ponder.

They were both part of CA when Sutherland stated quite frankly, amid negotiations for the start of the ICC's World Test Championship later this year, that the Boxing Day and New Year's Tests are far from guaranteed. "I'd like to say they are but they're not totally guaranteed," Sutherland told the ABC in January 2017. "I think we would like to see it unfold in such a way that we can secure those matches but it's actually a very congested schedule through the traditional Australian summer.

"Seven out of the 10 Test-playing countries play at that time of year so everybody's reasonably competitive for slots in the calendar. I think one of the good things is that visiting countries do really enjoy the experience of playing in a Boxing Day Test match and a New Year's Test match in Sydney but that doesn't necessarily guarantee that we'd be able to secure that but we'd like to think we will be able to."

Another element of global disquiet about Australia's summer window relates to the squeezing of overseas tours into ever-tighter packages, often through the use of multiple teams. When a vastly weakened national Twenty20 side played at home the day before the start of a Test series in India in 2017, there were plenty of dissenting media voices in public, but so too plenty of administrative ones in private.

"While we may externally say the T20 side is different from the ODI side, is different from the Test side, the fact is the fans want the best players on the field and you can't deny that," one international administrator told ESPNcricinfo. "The paying public has a right to watch the best team that represents that country, and they're not doing justice to that. There's an opportunity to look at opportunities to expand the calendar for Australia."

So while Fox Sports may be angry about the lack of exclusive ODI content in Australia next January, with the added complication of Australian player availability for the Big Bash League, the truth of the matter is that bigger battles loom. These will be over the fundamental maintenance of a summer window that, in terms of growing the game globally, has been a sore point for quite some time. The Newlands scandal was in many ways a reckoning for the behaviour of the Australian team in relation to opponents over many years, and the subsequent Ethics Centre review afforded the chance for CA's corporate and governance partners to extract their own pound of flesh. Further encroachment on the summer window so enjoyed by CA may be seen as another element of rebalancing Australia's relationship with world cricket. It is unlikely to be an easy discussion.

Among the more intriguing movements out of CA's Jolimont headquarters in recent weeks has been the departure of the board's head of strategy and scheduling, Sachin Kumar, to lead sports strategy at News Corp. For Eddings, Roberts and whoever succeeds them, the prospect of more hurried flights to India appear a distinct possibility. AGENCIES

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