Picture: 123RF/RICHARD THOMAS
Picture: 123RF/RICHARD THOMAS

Inappropriate as it may feel to talk of luck and fortune in these troubling times, the truth is that Cricket SA may have dodged the financial bullet which has been heading to a  spot between its eyes for 18 months. Covid-19 has given them the chance to make sure the sidestep is permanent.

The structure of the domestic game needs to be changed drastically and urgently. Below the existing six franchises sit another 15 provinces and, below them there are 15 provincial academies. Below them on the Cricket SA pyramid are 57 hubs designed to identify new, young talent and provide an “entry point” into the game.

The cost of maintaining and administering this vast operation over the past two years alone was close to R680m. One more year of it and the point of no return will almost certainly have been reached.

At the top of the pyramid sit the men’s and women’s Proteas teams. In time, the revenue generated by the women’s team will grow but, for now, the men’s team are directly or indirectly responsible for generating more than 95% of the revenue required to fund this behemoth.

In many ways the business of cricket is immensely complex with player image rights, exchange rate fluctuations and television rights requiring intimate knowledge to master.

Luck also plays a part. But in another way the most basic rule of all business still applies — income must exceed expenditure, and the men’s Proteas are set to play less cricket in the next four years than ever before. Consequently, the international TV rights deal with Star TV has been reduced by close to 30% over the next four years.

Apart from vast cuts in expenditure, extra income is desperately needed and, as has been the case for the past 25 years, there is one source which can provide enough to make a difference on this sort of scale. India. Or, to be more accurate, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).

Most SA supporters had no idea what it meant when Graeme Smith accepted the director of cricket position. It is not unusual for strong leaders, in whatever field, to be appreciated and respected more outside the borders of their own country than inside. It is the price they pay for the familiarity their countrymen have with them.

In recent weeks Smith has been almost single-handedly responsible for potentially adding between R150m and R170m to Cricket SA’s projected income for this financial year. He secured an agreement with the BCCI, in principle at this stage but strong enough for Cricket SA to include it on their fixture list, for Virat Kohli’s team to play three T20 Internationals in this country at the end of August.

The TV rights value of a single T20I is in the region of $3m. That was a deal Smith was able to broker because of who he is and what he has achieved in the game. You don’t captain your country in more than 100 Test matches spanning a decade without making many powerful and influential friends — in boardrooms around the world.

As formidable as the mighty BCCI might be, it seems likely that Smith and Cricket SA’s acting CEO, Jacques Faul, are facing a far more stubborn and resilient challenge at home. At the Cricket SA CEs annual meeting two weeks ago it became clear, apparently, that some of the game’s administrators were reluctant to accept even the most irrefutable evidence that the game is heading towards bankruptcy.

There may be two reasons for that: the vast domestic structure was created in the name of development, with laudable intentions. Some provinces fear that by disassembling it now they will be perceived to be anti-development and, by insinuation, anti-transformation.

Mostly, however, their denialism is self-serving. Each one of the provincial unions are fighting for their survival, fighting for their academies and fighting for their players. Their focus on the small picture is so intense they are blinded to the big one.

Provinces recruit players on “academy contracts” as well as provincial contracts. Though they are not paid a lot, they are paid and the brutal truth is that many of them are existing in a comfort zone from which they have neither the ambition nor talent to leave.

Provincial teams act as feeders to the six franchises but there is no need for 15 of them, or their academies, at least not professionally. One solution would be to have a top six of semi-professional teams with the bottom nine funding themselves with promotion and relegation as the incentive. They won’t vote for it, of course, but if changes aren’t made — and immediately — then there won’t be any administered game left for anybody.

If sporting life hasn’t resumed meaningfully in four or five months then it won’t matter anyway, but if it has then Cricket SA must have used that time wisely and rebuilt its house for a sustainable future. It will, like the virus, hurt a lot of people. By acting now it can avert a much bleaker future.

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