The stunning admission by Australian Rugby Union boss John O’Neill this week – that rugby in Australia was losing money by the bucketload and in grave danger of going broke – should give every sports administrator in this country pause for thought. If one of Australia’s traditional sports powerhouses can find itself in such dire straits, then surely other codes, both big and small, could follow it to the wall.
Cricket Australia, in particular, would do well to heed the warning bells sounding from rugby’s heartland. For the parallels between its sport and the “game played in heaven” are close – worryingly close.
Like rugby, cricket is played well by six or eight nations. It is no soccer or basketball which has managed to penetrate into virtually every part of the globe, effortlessly crossing the divide between rich and poor. It is a boutique sport served up in the dominions of her Majesty’s realm, and one or two other Anglo-influenced countries.
Like rugby, which is now essentially run by England and France, cricket’s powerbase has shifted dramatically in the past decade. Where once it resided within the walls of Lord’s and, more latterly, in Australia, the balance of power in cricket has irredeemably moved to the sub-continent, that is to say India. And it is not just financial power we’re talking about here – even though 70% of the game’s revenue comes from India, and the expatriate Indian population in the United States is now cricket’s second-most lucrative television rights market – but political clout, as well. As anyone who has witnessed India flex its newfound muscle over the Harbhajan Singh affair will appreciate.
And, like rugby, cricket’s national team must remain competitive. If not, that’s the start of the slippery slope to oblivion. Just ask O’Neill.
In his sweeping state-of-the-nation address in Sydney – which was given little airplay in the heathen AFL states – O’Neill pinpointed the Wallabies’ relative lack of success in the past five years as being a key contributor to the code’s troubles. There was a time when the Wallabies’ trophy cabinet was stacked with Bledisloe and World Cups. Now the cabinet is bare.
The Australian cricket team’s success over the past 15 years has ensured that the Cricket Australia coffers are full to brimming. But that happy state of affairs can never be taken for granted. There will come a time in three or four years – perhaps earlier – when Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden retire, and Brett Lee is in his dotage, and we are left with the rump of a once-dominant team. Then the boys at Cricket Australia HQ in Jolimont will really earn their money trying to keep the game buoyant in this country.
In the meantime, they will be watching with interest as O’Neill, the master administrator, desperately tries to extricate Australian rugby from this mess. And counting themselves lucky that it is rugby, and not cricket, which has fallen into this morass first.