OPINION: To Win Or To Entertain? The Contradiction At The Heart Of Pro Sport

There has been a lot said and written about Australia’s “bore-draw” game-plan during the Women’s Ashes Test – were they just being “professional”? Or should they have tried to contrive an exciting result for the benefit of the fans?

Aussie coach Matthew Mott was vigorous in his defence, telling the media post-match “We’re not a charity!” and @aotearoaxi spoke for many when he said on Twitter: “[Mott] coaches an elite team who is judged on results – anything else is a bonus.”

But even Mott implicitly accepted the dilemma, admitting: “There’s always a responsibility to the fans.”

It is certainly easy to argue for a “result” from the press gallery or commentary box; and it isn’t just English “sour grapes” either – several Australians, including Mary Konstantopoulos and Brittany Carter from the Ladies Who Legspin podcast, and The Guardian’s Geoff Lemon – expressed disappointment that the Aussies didn’t put on more of a show.

Some of the disappointment in the press box stems from the disconnect between words and actions. After the 3rd ODI, I asked Ellyse Perry about the Southern Stars tactics going into the Test, and she had this to say (emphasis ours):

“These Test matches come around once every couple of years and I think it is a big responsibility for all players to play it in a really great spirit and in a way that is entertaining because I’d love to play more of them, and I think there is scope to play this kind of format series against some of the other top teams in the world, but to do that we’ve got to do the Test match justice.”

And that is not what we really saw, certainly in the final sessions of the last day.

On the other hand, say Meg Lanning had declared at a point where England would have “gone for it” and lost? She’d have been torn to pieces by the media and the fans – at least the Australian ones – who would have given her little credit for “doing the Test match justice”.

It comes down to the contradiction at the heart of professional sport – the job of the players and the coaches is to win; but the job of the sport as a whole is to entertain – if no fans turn on their TVs or come through the gates, ultimately the sport dies and the players and coaches don’t get paid!

The sporting reality is that players are paid to win; but the commercial reality is that if they don’t also entertain, they don’t get paid at all – and this may be what we have seen this summer, with slightly disappointing crowds across the Ashes series so far.

Its not Matthew Mott’s job (or Meg Lanning or Ellyse Perry’s) to solve this dilemma; but as a sport, it is a concern.

Perhaps an exciting T20 series can liven things up again, and a forgettable Test can be forgotten? T20 is certainly the format which takes “entertainment” most to heart – it will be really interesting to see if that happens… and how the fans respond.

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3 thoughts on “OPINION: To Win Or To Entertain? The Contradiction At The Heart Of Pro Sport

  1. The aspect of Australia’s approach I simply do not understand is not that they took the draw (why not when you hold the Ashes); it’s that they batted on when well past the point where England could or even would try to win the match (remember that England would not have chased a win at all costs – not losing the Ashes Series would have become primary in their objectives once a RRR hit ludicrous proportions, which it did). Australia have England ‘by the throat’ in this Series and in the Test and should have squeezed harder on that throat by declaring and putting England’s top order in a ‘no win lots to lose’ situation. Ask yourself this – who would have been extremely relieved that Australia batted to the end ……. yes the England top order.

    You are right to contrast pre-match statements verses actual reality and no one can claim Australia’s actions matched Perry’s proposition (people might quite rightly defend how Australia played but they cannot claim their play matched Perry’s assertion). Perry is rightly ‘pulled out’ for this but she is not the first and won’t be the last player to come out with words that later prove not to match reality. The only batsmen on both sides that played positively was Healy (and as an opener on day 1 she has least reason to do that so well done Healy).

    The scenario that played out at Taunton will be repeated in the future but, beyond ‘picking on Perry’, we have to ask whether there are things that can be done to reduce the likelihood – not least because right now it’s the last thing women’s cricket need. For example, Test matches for which you get 2 points for a win not 4; having the same number of Tests as ODIs and T20s, bowling 110 overs in a day (therefore 440 in a match, only 10 short of the men’s 450), the position of the Test (or Tests!) in the Ashes series etc.

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  2. After the euphoria of the men’s final we had the other side of cricket in the women’s test. Albeit dull it was understandable as the objective at the start of the series was for each team to win/retain the Ashes. The Aussies have done this with time to spare.
    The challenge is for the England women to show the courage of Marsh, Sciver and more importantly Amy Jones in the T20s.
    Let us hope for good competitive cricket which crowds would come to see.

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  3. The Clanger is on to something.

    I think part of the problem is the Ashes schedule: 3 ODIs followed by a Test, and then 3 T20s.

    In the present series, Australia was the holder of the Ashes, and won all three of the ODIs. To retain the Ashes, Australia therefore only had to draw the Test. So when it came to the crunch, Australia didn’t have any incentive to try to win it.

    That reminds me of the scheduling of a now-defunct tennis tournament, the Hopman Cup (played in my home city of Perth). When that tournament began at the end of the 1980s, each contest involved three matches in the following order: a ladies’ singles followed by a mixed doubles, and then a men’s singles.

    Under that order, the ladies’ and mixed doubles would usually be fiercely contested, but the men’s singles would often be a dead rubber. Not much fun for the fans.

    In the third year of the tournament, the schedule was changed: the ladies’ singles would be followed by the men’s singles, and only then the mixed doubles would be played.

    What happened from then onwards was that all of the singles were always live. Often the mixed doubles was, too. But when it wasn’t, it was still fun for the fans, because it would be played in a shortened format, and the players would often fool around a bit, as in an exhibition match. I particularly remember one memorable dead rubber mixed doubles involving Henri Leconte, but as this is a cricket blog, I won’t describe it.

    Now translate that sort of lateral thinking to the Ashes.

    Instead of having the Test in the middle, have it at the start. As the Test is worth a lot of points, both teams would then always have a strong incentive to go for a win. If the team that wins the Test then wins the first couple of ODIs, the rest of the series will be dead rubbers. But as the dead rubbers will all be limited overs matches, not Tests, it won’t be possible to draw them, and therefore the incentive to play for a win and put on a contest for the fans will remain right to the last T20.

    If you don’t believe me, just consider this: does anyone seriously think that in the present series, both teams won’t try their best to win each of the three dead rubber T20s?

    Anyway, just a thought. We all want women’s cricket to be as successful as possible, don’t we …

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