`Invest more, and better'

The thrust of Cricket Australia CEO James Sutherland's speech at a game development summit recently was of prioritising long term grassroots development and responding better to cricket's customers.

Australia is the model of choice for cricketing nations looking to restructure their systems, but attempts at replication haven't quite fetched the desired success. The lack of will has hindered some countries; a shortage of funds has hamstrung others. Indian cricket's new regime, which has proven itself particularly adept at keeping the cash registers ringing, can do worse than emulate some of the ideas Cricket Australia's CEO James Sutherland put forth in a recent speech at a game development summit.

Sutherland spoke of prioritising long-term grassroots development over short-term success in international cricket (an ageing Australian side mandates this), of responding better to cricket's customers, and of seizing the momentum the upcoming Ashes series is expected to generate.

"To grow our game, we need to invest more, and better. At this time, it includes the prioritisation of game development initiatives ahead of elite and high performance cricket," said Sutherland. "In our context, investment in elite and high performance cricket usually has a short term focus driven by the desire to win matches and climb ladders. That is the most obvious and easiest measure of national, state or club success.

"Administrators are often guilty of short-termism, of sacrificing tremendously worthy and important investments in grassroots activities for the sake of elite and high performance cricket programmes that service less than 0.2 per cent of our participation base.

"I'm not saying that we should reduce the level of investment in elite and high performance cricket, but I'm saying that as more money comes into the game, we need to find a way to achieve a better balance." Sutherland spoke of how administrators had to "work harder, together, to get game development initiatives prioritised higher, to build a compelling case for investment. And you need to demonstrate measurable returns on that investment."

He also spoke of servicing Australian cricket's customers — both consumers and participants — something India's administration will do well to look at. "To grow the game and achieve our vision, we must know and understand our customers — our customers being the consumers of the game, people who add economic value to the game," said Sutherland. "This includes our players, coaches, umpires and others who are involved in the participation of the game.

"We must know and understand our customers, and deliver on their needs. And to be a genuine, national sport, we must ensure our customer approach permeates through all levels of cricket. If you want to be really clinical about it, we need more customers; more customers who will provide better and greater economic returns to the game. Our customers are, as I said before, our participants and consumers.

"But in order to achieve our vision and ensure the long term health of Australian cricket we must challenge ourselves to think just as much about serving who is not playing the game, as we do about who is playing the game."

Cricket Australia has had to grapple with certain issues India takes for granted — "We want to be Australia's most watched sport, the most attended sport, the most played and the sport that most people are interested in," said Sutherland. Cricket in India fits all four categories.

"We operate in a highly competitive sport, leisure and entertainment industry. The entertainment industry is a competitor. We've got to be ready to plan a way to attract more people to the game and service them appropriately."

Sutherland also spoke of being "open, nimble and innovative" to grasp the opportunity offered by cricket's increasing popularity in Australia in the wake of the 2005 Ashes. Commending those responsible for increasing the participation figures of cricket in Australia (a census conducted by Street Ryan & Associates pegged the number of participants in cricket — non-inclusive of back-yard, indoor cricket — at 532000 against a target of 555000 for 2009), Sutherland said, "one of the keys with getting this sort of growth in numbers is to ensure that it is sustainable growth. "It's no time to sit back and consider the job done. The ultimate test for us is whether we can transform this golden opportunity into a sustainable long term growth period to leave a legacy for our sport."

A Special Correspondent