Strong Governance = punching above your weight

18th July 2019

Regardless of the win/lose/tie/draw (we know now but it matters little in this context), this article makes plain the benefits of having governance arrangements that eschew parochialism, focus on outcomes which endure (sustainability if you must), put the objective, the teams and the long run ahead of narrow interests. The benefits – even for the “little guy” can be remarkable. Fail to do that and the results can be remarkably poor – no matter how big you are.

Why New Zealand's little big guys are most impressive team in the world :

Their annual revenue is less than Surrey County Cricket Club. They have the smallest population of any of the 12 Test nations. Yet, last Sunday, the New Zealand cricket team lined up for their second consecutive World Cup final, ranked third in the world in one-day-international cricket and second in Test matches.  

In an age when the sport’s Big Three – Australia, England and India – are opening up a financial chasm with those bubbling under, New Zealand stand alone as their most regular challengers on the pitch.

They are the interlopers in a sport whose very structure – from the way that fixtures and broadcasting cash is divided up, to the Big Three alone hosting all men’s global events from 2016-23 – seems designed to keep them locked outside the gates.

It was not always this way. At the start of 1999, New Zealand were ranked eighth in ODIs and Tests alike – in both cases, only narrowly above Zimbabwe as the lowest-ranked of the Test nations at the time.

Ever since, New Zealand have no challenger as, pound-for-pound, the most impressive international cricket team in the world. They are unique in reaching the last four of the previous four World Cups, even while maintaining a strong Test side.

To understand why, the simplest explanation is “Cricket in New Zealand is really well run”, says Heath Mills, chief executive of the New Zealand Cricket Players Association. From 1995, a new governance structure was created – effectively, the existing provincial directors, who represented the six provinces, voted themselves out of existence, replaced by appointments on merit. The nub is that the board is independent.

It is a salient contrast with, say, the West Indies, in which there is still no independent board structure. Having independent governance means that administrators are not divided between regional and national loyalties. “The independent governance has been critical to us,” Mills reflects. “I’ve seen other instances where the decision-making of the national body is compromised because of political pressures.”

New Zealand's players earn far less than their rivals

Robust governance is more important than ever in the Twenty20 age. New Zealand Cricket has cultivated a mature attitude to foreign T20 leagues – rather than view them as a threat, the board has been assiduous in minimising scheduling clashes with their own fixtures.

This is essential, because of the sport’s economic inequities: Kane Williamson earns about one-sixth as much as Joe Root for playing international cricket. New Zealand Cricket has also resisted the fool’s gold of other nations in creating a glamorous T20 franchise league without having the market to sustain it. And so it avoided diverting cash away from the grass roots and national team; Cricket South Africa lost £11 million on the Global T20 League, which was cancelled before its launch in 2017.

New Zealand need enlightened thinking to rise above their paucity of players – the old joke has it that the only cricketers are failed All Blacks – and cash. They get by on £26 million a year, one-seventh as much as England and £5 million less than Surrey alone.

“We don’t have the resources to compete so it forces us to do two things: one, prioritise; and two, find different ways of doing things that do not cost money,” explains Bryan Stronach, the high performance manager for New Zealand Cricket since 2014.

In contrast to the parochialism of many domestic teams, the regions see their duty to produce international players first and win trophies second: an echo of the attitude of the nation’s Super Rugby clubs.

“Because we are small we can get our whole country working towards a common goal – our national teams,” Stronach says. “We are small. Many see this as a weakness but we see this as a strength.”

The small pool begets a meticulous focus on improving the players New Zealand have. Fielding and fitness have long been prioritised, and New Zealand are meticulous in managing their players’ workloads: “If we get lots of injuries then we struggle – but that’s why our sports science and medical and everything has to be top-notch,” Stronach reflects.

He singles out two distinguishing features of New Zealand’s approach. “One is our use of mental skills and sports psychology,” he says. “We don’t want psychology or mental skills to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. We want it to be a precursor to performance and well-being so that stuff is done consistently all the time.”

Team culture – New Zealand have a simple mantra of “Team First” – is the second plank that Stronach identifies. “That’s really driven by the players and the team but also our manager, Mike Sandle, is the custodian of that. It’s the philosophy around the team comes before the individuals.”

This manifests itself in the selfless play that often characterises New Zealand teams, which is encouraged by a selection policy that prioritises role clarity and giving players an ample run in the side. “We sort of trust players based on the decisions they’re making and the contributions they’re trying to make, rather than raw numbers,” all-rounder Jimmy Neesham reflects.

Cricket New Zealand prioritises its cash unsentimentally. Insiders view the A-team programme as at the core of New Zealand’s success in recent years, helping to bridge the gap between domestic and international cricket. “By playing more A cricket the identified players are getting more experience against better teams and in more conditions,” Stronach explains. The importance of the A-team programme has led to cost-cutting elsewhere – notably in, controversially, reducing the first-class season from 10 games per team to eight from 2018/19.

None of this can obscure that New Zealand’s status, like those of all bar the Big Three, remains fraught with difficulties. The player pool will always be finite, rendering New Zealand disproportionately vulnerable to a few inopportune injuries. The broadcasting landscape, and even New Zealand’s time zone, puts a ceiling on the cash that New Zealand can generate. The skewed economics of international cricket are simply not set up in a way that is tailored for teams like New Zealand to thrive.

All of this only emphasises New Zealand’s achievements on the field. At Lord’s on Sunday they will not just be fighting to win their first World Cup. They will also be fighting to show that demography and economics need not be destiny in international sport.

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