Glowing embers: England and Australia meet again in pivotal week for world cricket

20 November 2013 | Posted in SportsPro Blog | By Eoin Connolly | Contact the author

Glowing embers: England and Australia meet again in pivotal week for world cricket

A replica of the Ashes urn on the outfield at the Gabba in Brisbane, where Australia will face England in the first Test of a five-match series from Thursday

England and Australia resume Ashes hostilities in Brisbane on Thursday in a week which has taken on a pivotal quality in world cricket.

The two old enemies will meet in front of a packed house at the Gabba as they start the second half of their unusual back-to-back pair of Test series. The hosts, despite a run of nine five-day games without a win, have entered the contest full of bold talk of restored confidence. The visitors, on the other hand, can lean on the easy riposte of a 3-0 win in England this summer, which might have been 4-0 had bad light not intervened at the end of August's fifth Test at London's Kia Oval.

Commercially, the series will once again act as a showcase for Cricket Australia (CA) and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). CA begins a new cycle of broadcast and sponsorship deals, with long-term one-day backer Commonwealth Bank stepping up to become the lead partner of the Test team as it begins its four-year, AUS$50 million deal, and Channel Nine continuing a 34-year association with Australian international cricket into a new five-year contract.

The series marks a farewell for England team sponsor Brit Insurance - set to be replaced by upscale supermarket chain Waitrose in 2014 - but perhaps the most intriguing business sub-plot concerns television coverage back in the UK. In a significant first, long-term rights holder Sky has declined to sub-license highlights of the series to one of the major terrestrial broadcasters, preferring instead to show a daily one-hour programme on its own free-to-air channel Pick.

It has been reported that BBC and ITV, the main parties involved in discussions over highlights packages, were attempting to drive down Sky's asking price with the pay-TV giant insisting on highlights being held back to 10pm GMT, over 12 hours after the close of play each day. Nevertheless, the move represents a major opportunity for Sky to build up its free-to-air offering as it opens up new fronts in its battle with the interloping BT Sport.

A key element of BT Sport's exclusive UK£897 million deal to secure Uefa Champions League and Europa League soccer was the guarantee that selected matches would be available without subscription, and both broadcasters know that future bids for the UK rights to the World Cup or European Championship would be dependent on a significant free-to-air offering.

Within cricket, however, the series is taking place at a moment of considerable symbolic potency. On Saturday, the legendary Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar played his 200th and last Test against the West Indies in front of an adoring crowd in his hometown of Mumbai. The match drew 19 million applications for its scarce supply of publicly available tickets, and set all manner of social networking landmarks.

The end of Tendulkar's record-breaking 24-year international career inspired tributes from all manner of tributes but it also marked a break from the sport's past. The 40-year-old batsman's career has neatly tracked the rise of India as the major cricketing power - and the country's economic maturation - as well as the commercialisation of the game and the advance of its shorter formats.

His valedictory series - a two-Test rubber against West Indies - was hurriedly arranged after he announced his retirement earlier this year. India's next scheduled Test series had been a visit to world number one South Africa. That tour will go ahead, but only after the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) insisted on shortening the Test series from three games to two and that it would not deal with Haroon Lorgat, the Cricket South Africa chief executive who endured strained relations with Indian officials during his time in charge of the International Cricket Council (ICC).

CSA, which like most of the world's major boards depends heavily on income from the Indian broadcast market, had little choice but to acquiesce to the BCCI's demands.

The episode says much about the current state of world cricket. India is the game's best hope, not only as its biggest market but in that its team - 50-over world champions, world number two in Tests and a favourite for the World Twenty20 next year - contains a crop of exciting players whose upcoming visits to South Africa and England are hugely anticipated. Nevertheless, the governance of the sport in India and beyond is a source of long-term concern.

"Most cricket administration decisions seem to be made purely with the bottom line in mind."

This week Transparency International, the non-governmental organisation which monitors corruption in organisations across the world, released a report called  'Fair Play: Strengthening Integrity and Transparency in Cricket'. It called for greater availability of information on cricket's anti-corruption measures and progress reports from the ICC on the implementation of its Woolf and de Speville governance reports.

In Brisbane, meanwhile, the former Australia captain Ian Chappell derided cricket's leadership as "weak and self-interested" at an event for the ESPNcricinfo website.

"Most cricket administration decisions seem to be made purely with the bottom line in mind," he said. "I would like cricket administrators to get back to where priority number one, and easily priority number one, is the best interests of the game."

These are key questions for the sport to address. In the UAE this week, 16 countries outside of the Test elite are playing in the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier. Six of them will join the big boys at the main event in Bangladesh - assuming venues are completed on time - in March and April. Cricket's shortest format has created historic opportunities for international growth, but also issued a huge challenge to the sport's priorities.

None of this will matter on the field when England and Australia contest one of sport's oldest prizes this week but it could come to shape the future of that rivalry, and much beyond. 

To read our August 2013 cover story on the business of Ashes cricket, open up the digital version below.


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