Sticky future looms for SA cricket
Cricket SA’s decisions have not been without controversy over the years. Its proposal to restructure the domestic game is unlikely to be any less so
On April 5, the board of Cricket SA (CSA) decided to restructure domestic cricket. At the end of a long and disappointing season, including a Test series loss at home to Sri Lanka, the matter was neglected by a weary public and largely ignored by the media.
There were more important things to consider — the upcoming World Cup, for example, and the likely composition of the Proteas squad for it.
Such neglect was cynically encouraged by a seven-paragraph CSA press statement issued on the afternoon of April 6 — a Saturday — in which the decision was buried in paragraph six.
Headed, "Turning the Tide for the Better as CSA Board Approves Austerity Plans", the release made much of "changing market forces" and "a declining revenue-generation landscape", but little of the fact that CSA had itself contributed to this need for belt-tightening. As CSA itself said, this was likely to cost it R654m in the current four-year budget cycle.
Examples of CSA’s self-inflicted pain abound, but let one suffice. Late last year, it launched the Mzansi Super League (MSL) — a second attempt at what had been the Global T20 in 2017.
The logic was sound: domestic T20 leagues with an international flavour — the Indian Premier League (IPL) and Australia’s Big Bash League (BBL), for example — give the boards running them some financial autonomy in a depressed broadcast rights context.
Starting your own T20 league is not about hubris and mimicry; it has global commercial imperatives and makes you less beholden to International Cricket Council (ICC) handouts and the fair-weather treachery of cricket’s power brokers: India, England and Australia. (Cricket Australia recently cancelled an incoming tour by Bangladesh because it wasn’t profitable enough to host.)
However, CSA botched the inaugural MSL season — commercially at least. Unlike the IPL and the BBL, the tournament went ahead without a headline sponsor. And, because of CSA’s row with SuperSport earlier in the year — the two were to become "equity partners" in a "joint venture" before parting ways — CSA gave its broadcast rights to the SABC, hoping the broadcaster could pay later.
When this never happened, CSA found itself in a public relations pickle. On the one hand, it made much of serving the public good by having the tournament broadcast on free-to-air television. On the other, it was forced to admit, given it received no money for its inventory, that it had indulged in an act of financial self-harm.
Thumb-sucks vary, but conservative estimates suggest CSA lost R80m on the first MSL. It looks likely to lose R200m, possibly more, over the next four-year planning and budget cycle, which ends in 2022.
The "austerity plans" announced in April put CSA on a collision course with the SA Cricketers’ Association (Saca): domestic restructuring would mean job losses among Saca’s 311 members.
Conservative estimates suggest CSA lost R80m on the first Mzansi Super League. It looks likely to lose R200m over the next four-year budget cycle
Saca was formed in 2002, just before SA hosted the 2003 Cricket World Cup. It was initially received poorly by the administrators, but the union was slowly incorporated into local cricket’s commercial and governance landscape.
Essentially, it is there to ensure players’ security, but it also handles issues around recognition and profit-sharing, particularly with the Proteas — an issue that has proved to be fraught in the past.
All of this is arguably less important than the fact that there has been a sea change in the CSA-Saca relationship in the past 18 months — a period that has coincided with Thabang Moroe taking over from Haroon Lorgat as CSA CEO.
After several spats and any number of miscommunications, there appears to have been a mutual hardening of attitude.
Matters reached a head in the days after the April "austerity announcement", with Saca arguing there had been no "meaningful consultation" and that CSA’s announcement was a violation of a pre-existing agreement.
Saca CEO Tony Irish repeatedly emphasised that the union wasn’t opposed to restructuring per se, but that it wanted to be consulted, so it could be privy to the financial rationale for the restructuring decision.
Numerous e-mail requests were stonewalled, with Moroe going so far as to question why, if Saca didn’t show CSA its financials, things should work the other way round.
What, however, is being restructured? The current domestic format has six franchises at the apex of the domestic pyramid, with 15 semi-professional teams underneath that — so 21 first-class teams in all.
CSA’s restructuring proposals seek to abolish the semi-professional structure entirely. In a corresponding move, it’s looking to add six teams, drawn from the ranks of the current franchises’ junior partners, to the six top teams, with the new system coming into place in the season after next.
This means the current top six will be joined by Griquas, North West, Easterns, Border, Boland and South Western Districts (SWD). "These six were sometimes seen as unhappy partners in being joined to a larger partner like Free State if you were Griquas under the old franchise dispensation," says one of the current franchise CEOs. "Now they will have their own teams."
The cricket rationale for such changes seems moot at best, dubious at worst. Indeed, what hope does CSA have of attracting a sponsor for a new 12-or 14-team tournament, possibly featuring nonentities like Limpopo and Mpumalanga, when the current six-team franchise series runs without one and doesn’t appear on television?
And what of the implications for the Proteas? The Test win over Australia last March notwithstanding, the definition of the side has changed markedly in the past few years.
SA’s Test success was once founded on winning series in unpropitious environments away from home.
With sizeable defeats away to India, England and Sri Lanka in recent years, a golden period has passed. There’s no obvious way of seeing how a new 12-or 14-team format will help that.
Cricket reasons for the restructuring proposals aside, Saca suspects CSA’s financial position might be far more precarious than it has admitted.
Some in the cricket community suggest that losses in the next four-year cycle could nudge R1bn.
So high are the stakes that the stand-off has led to Saca filing papers in the South Gauteng High Court, compelling CSA to disclose the financial underpinnings of the restructuring proposal.
Not only is such an action unprecedented; it looks likely that CSA will receive another blow to its credibility under Moroe’s leadership. CSA has already failed to meet court deadlines for answering papers — a state of affairs that will reflect poorly on it when the court rules on the matter.
CSA has also tried to drive a wedge between Saca CEO Irish and the organisation’s president, Omphile Ramela, by inviting Ramela to meetings after claiming Irish had run to the media with his concerns.
"He adds no value," says Moroe of Irish in e-mail correspondence drawn from the high court.
Ramela has dismissed such overtures, saying Saca and the players remain united behind the CEO. "I, together with my [Saca] executive, am well aware that this is an attempt on your part at divide and rule," he says in his response to CSA’s invitation for him — not Irish — to represent Saca before CSA in April.
So what’s at stake? Irish isn’t being alarmist when he gives cricket one to two years to hit financial rock bottom. The parallels between CSA and Zimbabwe Cricket are all too obvious, just a week after Zimbabwe’s suspension from the ICC.
One of the reasons for the country’s suspension was that hoary old chestnut, "government interference".
As it frantically searches for new revenue streams, CSA has been courting the very agency the ICC takes a dim view of — the government.
First it looked to the National Treasury to pay it what it had lost by taking the MSL to the SABC. Then it came up with a plan (admittedly short-lived) for local metros to lodge substantial bids to host home Test matches.
What it means
The restructuring of domestic cricket has put CSA on a collision course with the players’ association
In recent years, Zimbabwe has become something of a beggar, reliant on ICC loans and handouts. Such a scenario is still distant for SA, but the comparison will become increasingly easy to make.
In April, CSA president Chris Nenzani spoke about his organisation having "designed a cogent four-year recovery plan". But Saca is not buying either the financial or cricket imperatives for restructuring.
Some in the cricket community go even further, alleging that the reason smaller provinces like SWD and Griquas are getting their day in the sun is because it is payback time for their presidents, who formed a lobby to ensure Moroe became CEO.
Meanwhile, cricket suffers. CSA’s staff complement has ballooned despite "austerity plans", and upper management is notoriously high-living. The sport itself is not unaffected by the high jinks and serial inefficiencies of the current system.
CSA was asked for its version of events in six detailed questions, but hadn’t replied by the time the FM went to print.
The Proteas ODI side, by current reckoning, are seventh in the world, with little explanation from CSA at the time of writing as to why they had such a poor World Cup, and mixed signals about coach Ottis Gibson’s future.
Seven makes us a middling nation, not a powerhouse and not a pauper. It’s where we deserve to be.