The commonwealth cricket team, sorry I mean England, are straddling the top of the ICC test rankings and despite a tricky winter have the potential to stay there for some time to come. The England football team however are experiencing the lowest level of expectation from the public for many a year and this despite English domestic football coming off the back of arguably the greatest season in its entire history. The explanation for this lack of enthusiasm is down to England's poor record in recent tournaments and the number of times they have come up short. The reasons for this are not, as commonly bemoaned, down to poor managers. The cause is far more deep rooted and lies in who actually exerts all the power in the game.
The power and grip the domestic game and especially the premier league has over the national team has always been there but it has been especially stark since the turn of the millennium. Alongside this English cricket has also experienced a radical shift in power but in the other direction. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) under its first Chairman Lord MacLaurin, set out to create an elite, professional national team whose players would view success with England as their number one goal.
The idea that success with England would not be the main priority of an England cricketer may sound strange in today's climate but that fact was before the implementation of central contracts playing for your county was the main job of a cricketer. Turning out for England was a bit of a jolly one enjoyed for a few weeks in the summer and during the winter.
There have been many stories told by ex England players of disunity and division in the dressing room during the dark days of the nineties. Players would regularly spend more time checking up on the county scores on ceefax than bothering to watch the team out on the field. This was partly driven by insecurity that was bred from the managements susceptibility to chop and change personnel on a regular basis. Many players were unable to feel like they truly belonged as they knew one bad game could spell the end of their time in the team.
The advent of central contracts alongside Duncan Fletcher's appointment as coach led to major shift in the culture of the team. Playing for England became a centrally contracted players main focus, that was who paid them the majority of their income and that was who they had major legal obligations to. Although financial incentives are not what fundamentally drives a sportsman they clearly have a role to play even if it's only subconscious.
This is where the difference between cricket and football is most stark. Footballers earn the overwhelming majority of their income from their clubs and even the money they do get from turning out for England is voluntarily donated to charity. This shows that there is no financial need to play for their country which contrasts hugely with cricket. County cricketers are paid a fraction of what centrally contracted England players receive. If a player were to lose their central contract with the ECB their living standards would take a severe hit. Now this is not to say this is the sole reason why a cricketer would strive to play at their best for England but also it cannot be discounted as a major incentive in their performance.
Clearly on the flip side financial incentives are not the sole reason for the lack of performance by the football team but it's the mentality that comes from this that is crucial. Whoever has the financial power has ultimate control over a players timetable of activity. The ECB can dictate when a centrally contracted player turns out for their county, this would be unthinkable by the FA and the premier league clubs simply wouldn't accept it. This is all because the premier league, due to its financial strength, has far more power and influence than the FA could ever hope to have. If the ECB feels James Anderson is fatigued or has a slight niggle after the 2nd test against the West Indies, they can tell Lancashire to rest him from their next game. Can you imagine what Alex Ferguson would say if the FA or Roy Hodgson asked him to rest Wayne Rooney from a premier league match. They would be given short shrift and told to go whistle.
Some ex-cricketers have bemoaned this practice and believe this has damaged the county game but the counties are so financially depended on the ECB there's really nothing they can do. Also England success filters good will and money down through the game, all the way to the grass roots. The administrators and people who run the counties appreciate this and therefore having been in the main willing to accept the changes that the ECB has asked for. This has meant the main goal in the entire cricket structure is a winning England team, this cannot be said for Football sadly.
It's true county cricket and the premier league are very different beasts but it is telling how different their attitudes seem to be. The impression given by many premier league clubs, especially the top sides, is one of annoyance when a player is selected for international duty. Their view is that one of their most prised assets, potentially worth millions, is being taken away from them for a couple of weeks or longer during tournaments. In that time there is the very real potential for some harm to come to that asset which could adversely affect the clubs overall performance.
This attitude is understandable but extremely short sighted. A successful England team can only be a good thing for the club sides but their goals and priorities have become so short term they cannot appreciate the long term impact of a poor England team. Yes the Premiership will continue to generate vast amounts of money from media and advertising but football has no god given right to be the national game. More people have been drawn into the game by watching England's past exploits at summer tournaments than anything else. If England continue to be treated as an after thought by the clubs and players their performances at these tournaments will suffer and we will face real difficulty in even qualifying.
English cricket is certainly on a high and doesn't have the same worries as football but they certainly cannot afford any complacency. The issue of how the ECB treat the Indian Premier League (IPL) in terms of player participation is becoming a real issue and has to be carefully managed. Undoubtedly the financial rewards are huge and you can't begrudge players like Kevin Pietersen from wanting to be involved but the potential for divided loyalties is clear. Other national boards like the West Indies, who lack the ECB's financial muscle, have been unable to stop players competing in the IPL at the expense of international matches.
Due to the crowded international calendar this issue shows no sign of abating so the ECB will have its hands full in managing player participation in the IPL whilst also maintaining the progress that has been made over the last decade.
Football and cricket are clearly very different sports but they both have a deep tradition in our sporting psyche and if football wants hold on to that position as a truly national game it could do worse than to study how cricket pulled itself up from the gutter it was in in 1999. That defeat to New Zealand and our subsequent drop to bottom of the world test rankings was the catalyst for change in all aspects of cricket. I wonder how far English football has to fall before a similar revolution is started, my fear is we still have some way to descend before this realisation dawns on the football establishment.
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