James Sutherland and the managerialist revolution in Cricket Australia

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James Sutherland announcing his retirement from Cricket Australia (Image via YouTube)

James Sutherland is due to retire soon as CEO of Cricket Australia, yet his influence has made a lasting impression on the sport, writes Justen Bellingham.

AFTER 20 YEARS of managerial leadership at Cricket Australia, the last 17 of which he was the CEO, James Sutherland has announced he will be standing down from the company. He has given CA twelve months’ notice to find his replacement before he’s out the door.

For an entire generation, he has been Australian cricket’s administrative and policy conductor. As a public figurehead, he has been a symbol of respectability, authority and credibility for the sport. His vanilla style of public speaking gives off an aura of calmness and clarity, even if it’s boring and dry.

Gideon Haigh has remarked:

‘He is a decent, likeable man, hardworking and well-motivated.’

Early media reports preceding Sutherland’s announcement have tended towards the narrative (approaching mythology) that his tenure as head of Cricket Australia was one filled with continuous victories and successes – the establishment of the thrillingly successful Big Bash League, an exponential expansion of the professional female side of the game, a new multi-million dollar TV broadcast deal and so forth – but that his legacy has been unfortunately soiled by the two recent scandals of the players’ pay dispute and the ball tampering affair.

Tom Morris for Fox Sports writes:

‘He leaves cricket in better shape than when he found it, but this legacy has been tested significantly, especially in recent times.’

In a certain sense, that is surely true. Far more people are playing and watching cricket today than they were 17 years ago. Cricket Australia has become a corporate powerhouse, with a surplus revenue worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Haigh notes:

‘Cricket’s public has expanded significantly, as the game has been rendered more accessible, which can only be good.’

But running against this flowery, positive outlook have been disturbing trends and shifts in the orientation, make-up and moral character of Australian cricket over the past 20 years which point to a deeper structural weakness inside Cricket Australia. James Sutherland’s fingerprints are all over the scene.

Over the course of the Sutherland era, the ideology of managerialism has gradually grown into eventually becoming the predominant method of thinking inside of Cricket Australia’s offices and hallways. During this time period, as a change in values, principles and ideas has occurred, the language and policies and direction of sports administration have also transformed.

Guided by the logic of managerialism, everything within the sport of cricket is to be commodified, rationalised and compartmentalised. Matches are now seen as commodities to be produced, packaged, branded, marketed and distributed. Fans are now treated and spoken to as passive, impetuous consumers. The value of particular cricket matches and tournaments is now in accordance with their immediate consumable and marketable potential (not larger or deeper considerations of competition, skill or entertainment). Players are to be moved about swiftly and utilised immediately as though they’re automatons in a warehouse.

All of the changes that have happened to Australian cricket since the mid-1990s have been driven by this managerialist agenda.

Tournaments and matches that may be crucially important for building up players’ skills and experience, but which aren’t profitable or widely marketable – like the Sheffield Shield, the domestic limited-overs tournament and matches against touring teams – have been deprioritised, defunded and are often not publicly televised. The Australian domestic cricket scene in its entirety is not the intense, high-quality breeding ground for the next generation of international players that it was for many past generations.

This trend of defocusing, defunding and sometimes even cutting cricket matches that aren’t marketable or profitable enough has even come to affect the international side of the game: Bangladesh was due to tour Australia over the 2018 winter, but Cricket Australia cancelled it citing financial reasons.

As Ronan O’Connell opines:

“In reality, CA seems to view these lower-profile Test teams as a nuisance. It’s hard not to feel they’d happily play blockbuster series against England, India and South Africa on a loop, never again stooping down to interact with the commoner teams.”

Cricket Australia has shown nothing but contempt towards the minnow Test nations of Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Ireland and Afghanistan.

The rampant expansion of the women’s game wasn’t and has never been about gender equality or providing women cricketers with greater access or opportunities. Rather it’s been about the narrow, cynical desire to expand and congeal the Cricket Australia brand name into this latent demographic of potential consumers. Throughout the sport’s history, women have always been a significant share of its fans, viewers and local community volunteers. But in the last few years, the numbers of women and girls participating, watching and playing have grown dramatically — such that cricket is now Australia’s number one most popular sport.

And yet the actual, material sex-based barriers haven’t been broken down or dissolved away — female athletes are still patronised and segregated and constricted, such that men’s and women’s cricket have been operating on a “separate and unequal” ethos for the past several summers.

The growth of Twenty20 cricket in this country, leading on to the founding of the Big Bash League, has never been about what’s best for the sport, the players or the fans, but rather providing a form of the game that is most easily commodified, packaged and marketed to a wider television-oriented audience of consumers.

As Stephen Wagg explains:

‘It is a celebrity-nurturing, entertainment-driven form of the game designed to engage the time-poor, instant gratification-demanding and brand spectacle-driven sensibilities of 21st global metropolitans, wherever they may reside.’

It feels almost divinely appropriate that it would be James Sutherland, a chartered accountant by training, who would lead the managerialist revolution within Australian cricket as he has.

From the outside looking in, Australian cricket is certainly in a good state of health right now. But it has come at a significant cost because it has introduced into the organism a variety of dangerous and unpredictable chemicals. What happens from here onwards is uncertain. The social body that is Australian cricket might be able to absorb, nullify and pacify these harmful and volatile elements. Or one of them might get out of control, spread, fester, aggravate and turn into a deadly cancer that destroys the sport entirely.

Justen Bellingham is a Melbourne writer and a former student of Box Hill TAFE and La Trobe University. You can follow him @JustenBell.

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