Episode 92: Cricket – a prisoner of market forces?

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde won major awards in 2020 for their book Cricket 2.0, tracking the T20 cricket revolution. Tim has now joined forces with one of the world’s leading sports economists, Stefan Szymanski, to write Crickonomics The Anatomy of Modern Cricket. He reveals its essential messages about the inescapable impact of economic and social change on the future of cricket, and surprising conclusions from its data, as the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast.

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He begins by answering an easy question: can first-class cricket survive? Tim notes that for most of their existence the English first-class counties have needed external financial support, latterly from their share of the international cricket revenues from the England & Wales Cricket Board. Other nations’ domestic first-class teams are even more financially precarious. However, the counties remain economically essential as the nursery of talent for England’s international matches, which generate the greatest media-derived income for English cricket. But market forces are grinding down international cricket: for all their recent successes in all formats, the New Zealand cricket team remains unprofitable and reduced to playing short series. Preserving and promoting Test cricket now requires imagination and collaboration so far lacking in national boards and the ICC. 4-6 minutes

He argues that global cricket is shifting from its historic but unusual model, in which international contests were paramount, to a system more like association football, dominated by domestic clubs. He dwells on “the strange conservatism” of Kerry Packer, whose revolution in the 1970s had never attempted such a shift, but it was now in full swing through the IPL and other T20 leagues. Although some franchises and leagues had foundered in the pursuit of short-term profits, far-sighted enterprises especially in the IPL had seen the wisdom of putting down roots in their cities and regions and opening up new pathways for talented players. In this way, they were supplanting national boards as controllers and shapers of cricket. 6-9 minutes

He predicts continued expansion of the IPL and further weakening of international cricket within the game’s economic landscape. Apart from major events like the World Cup and series between the present Big Three of India, England and Australia, international matches will be less needed as sources of audiences and revenues for cricket and to provide careers for players and generate recognition and income for the best of them. The survival of international cricket between major events (he argues) depends on creating a structure that makes victory and defeat as relevant as they are in the IPL and other successful T20 leagues. Without this, within a decade the best international players might be spending eight or nine months a year in domestic T20 competitions instead of playing first-class and international matches. 10-13 minutes

He suggests a major dilemma for all major cricket countries in keeping alive their domestic first-class teams as nurseries for their international teams, especially when most of their players will never reach international standard. There will always be argument on how best to invest in structures to develop cricket talent and how to generate more revenues for such investment and share them out. He speculates on the possibilities of presenting cricket to niche markets of connoisseurs and calls for greater promotion of Test cricket against T20, which can now look after itself. 14-20 minutes

He strongly criticizes the ICC, a member’s club devoted primarily to preserving the interests of its leading members, and not allowed by them to be more than an events organizer. It had largely abandoned its mission of globalizing the sport and the contraction of participants in the World Cup was a hugely retrograde step. Unlike those in other sports, he has found that many cricket administrators seem positively anxious not to widen the global appeal of the game. 20-27 minutes

Tim acutely analyses class issues in global cricket, especially the continued dominance of élite independent schools as pathways into the professional game. This is not confined to England, and to the annoyance of Australians he has shown how many of their top players were privately educated. Tim also suggests why such schools have generated more top batters than top bowlers. He cites access to élite coaching and its cost as the greatest early barrier to cricket careers for children from low-income families, and notes the intense efforts now being made by independent schools to entice future international players as a marketing device. 27-40 minutes

Tim attributes the recent success of Indian cricket to the discovery of talent from smaller cities and towns outside its six established main centres. The IPL and state T20 leagues have been a major catalyst for this, and so have a growing number of private cricket academies. 9, 41-44 minutes

Tim picks out the features of New Zealand’s cricket structure and strategy which have helped it defy market forces and make the most of its talent, especially the healthy relationship between the centre and the provinces. 45-52 minutes

He hails the success of women’s cricket and its leadership in innovation but worries that the (male) administrators of cricket boards and the ICC will foist on it the same inequalities between countries which he sees in the men’s game. 53-56 minutes

Crickonomics by Stefan Szymanski and Tim Wigmore is published by Bloomsbury


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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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