“Mixed results, really. And whether he had more share of success or failure in his final report card depends on the lens through which one looks at the results obtained”.
When James Sutherland assumed the role of the chief executive of Cricket Australia, the national side was perched on the top of the world.
The grey-haired, tough-talking Malcolm Speed had handed over the baton. The then youthful Sutherland had been only 36, still in his cricketing days. He had been good enough to play four First-Class matches for Victoria as a fast-medium bowler. As bright a combination of youth, freshness and capability as one could see stepping into the coveted role.
He could not have asked for a better moment to step in.
The pay dispute, that had raised its ugly head in 1997, had been settled. There was a lucrative arrangement surrounding media rights. As far as the game was concerned, Australia had no competition around the world. They had won the World Cup in 1999, and had been trouncing England since the last 12 years in the traditional Ashes.
Now, after a long 17-year stint, Sutherland has announced his intention to hand over the responsibilities. The world has changed quite a bit since those heydays of 2001.
Sutherland, the charming young man, has stepped rather firmly into middle age. He is now 52. The fresh looks have turned puffy and frayed at the edges, there are distinct hollows beneath the eyes. His days as a cricketer are long over, and now both his son and daughter are knocking on the doors of serious recognition in the sport.
Australia is now ranked 3rd in Tests, 5th in ODIs, and 2nd in T20Is. Their descent from the top has been gradual, but very conspicuous.
One can argue that this was bound to happen. No team stays at the top forever. One cannot get a set of cricketers like Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting, Damien Martyn, Steve Waugh, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer playing together all the time. The leadership during Sutherland’s time has passed hands from Waugh to Ponting to Michael Clarke to Steven Smith and now, rather curiously, to Tim Paine.
Change is the perhaps the only characteristic of cricket that is constant.
However, apart from the reduced stature of Australia in the context of world cricket, there have been crises and calumny that have dogged their steps in the recent times.
In the past year, there have been new issues, significant ones, regarding pay disputes.
If these were resolved, sometimes just in the nick of time, other ugly ones raised their heads. The Australian cricketers shamed themselves with some extremely naïve attempts at ball tampering. Steve Smith, the best batsman of the world, had to be banned for a year. Captaincy had to be passed to someone far from the close circle of the leadership group, someone not really taken seriously as a big name.
Okay, these issues were not caused by Sutherland … he took steps to oversee acts that were more in the lines of damage control, some of them too harsh, but perhaps inevitable.
After all, Australia is again the reigning world champion in 50-over cricket, although nowhere as dominating as they were in 2001. And they still hold the Ashes, but only because as we write the last series has been held at home. The English have won both at home and away in the last dozen years.
But perhaps he cannot be totally delinked from the way the team culture has played out in recent times, the way the Australian side has lost respect due to the various antics on the cricket field, from the time Ponting’s men arrogantly dictated the umpire’s decisions in 2007, to the way the modern lot stupidly inserted offending pieces of sandpaper into their crotches.
There are whispers of match-fixing going round, which Sutherland has rubbished. The evidence, if one can call it that, as produced by Al Jazeera, is far from conclusive, but strongly hints at some names.
Is Sutherland’s decision based on the floating rumours and the ugly ball-tampering incidents? One can only speculate, stooping to yellowish streaks of journalism.
However, once again, one cannot really separate Sutherland from the way Test cricket has lacked championship in the land that has always been the stronghold of the purest format of the game. In that area, right up to the decision of doing away with the commercially non-lucrative Bangladesh visit, Sutherland has let the fans of the game down.
He was also rather reticent in providing impetus to the dying interest in Sheffield Shield cricket.
But, the seasoned accountant that he is, Sutherland did do wonders for the Big Bash League. The game did benefit in commercial terms, only the means and formats were new-fangled.
There was plenty of promotion of Women’s Cricket as well, something that the fans will be thankful for.
As a player, Sutherland bowled right arm and threw left-handed. Perhaps we could always expect varied approaches and mixed results.
As he leaves, and he will take a year to do so, the game is left richer in terms of lucre and rather hollow in the sphere of traditional features the romantics are hung up about.
Mixed results, really. And whether he had more share of success or failure in his final report card depends on the lens through which one looks at the results obtained.