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ADRIAN EPHRAIM: Mistrust between CSA and media is the last thing cricket needs

OPINION

Being a sports journalist means not being able to react to things in the way that others do. Somehow, we have to remain composed and pretend to be impartial and resist the urge to celebrate like fans do (outwardly anyway). It means being calculated and analytical while those around you, the fans, succumb to the euphoria of the moment and appreciate it for what it’s worth.

While the Springboks were winning the Rugby World Cup, there were hundreds of South African sports journalists tapping at their computers or prepping to go on air, while millions of fans drank themselves into a stupor, cried tears of joy together and danced in the streets.

Sports journalists have to stay focused, and continue working, to produce a report that sums up the moment, in words that are balanced, fair and pleasing to read. For a while we have to remove ourselves from the moment, observe it from the outside and interpret it for the those who are not privileged enough to be there in the stadium with you.

That is the job of the sports reporter. It means staying behind at least three hours after the last ball is bowled, chasing continuous and immovable deadlines, and making sure Twitter and the digital beast are fed. It means writing an analysis later on and possibly an opinion piece for good measure. It's relentless, and editors demand more and more every day.

Reporting on cricket can consume your entire life, from morning until night for months at a time, and yet most cricket scribes cannot get enough of it. They love the game deeply and obsessively. They’ve made a life choice to write about the game they appreciate more than most.

So, while revoking media accreditation may seem like a childish reaction to criticism from a Cricket South Africa (CSA) leadership out of its depth, the breakdown in trust between the cricket body and the media may have lasting repercussions for the game.

Revoking media accreditation was a stupid thing to do. It wasn’t even original. By now CSA knows that was a mistake and have backtracked.

But what CSA fails to realise is that journalists like Stuart Hess, Ken Borland and others who were barred, are not just doing their jobs for which they clock in, swipe their accreditation tags and take a salary. They do much more than that for the game. In a crucial way, the media are protecting the game of cricket; maybe even saving it by asking the hard questions. We are major stakeholders in the sport.

Over the years media houses have spent millions of rands for journalists to travel locally and abroad with the Proteas, Springboks and Bafana Bafana, not to mention report on club and franchise teams. We get to tell great stories and produce mostly excellent content, and the sport codes get heaps of coverage from all media houses, which pleases sponsors and advertisers.

The media’s investment in the sports product cannot be questioned. Cricket and other sports survive on broadcast rights fees which they are able to charge for a decent product. So for the love of Graeme Smith, why would CSA ever feel it’s ok to push the media away?

The careers of the journalists affected span about four different CSA CEOs. At least two of those left under a cloud. It didn’t occur to CSA to draw from that institutional knowledge by paying attention to the questions that journalists were asking, and maybe learn from previous administrators’ mistakes. Questions like “who’s the director of cricket going to be?”, “who’ll select the squad to play England in less than a month’s time?”, “who’s the new national head coach?”, “why the delay in making critical decisions?” These are answers to questions CSA should have already.

The Proteas were effectively out of the Cricket World Cup on 23 June and played their last match in England on 6 July. CSA would have known back then that a change was inevitable . Ottis Gibson was not going to survive as head coach, and so plans needed to be made for the next phase of the national team, especially with the tour of India beckoning. But the focus was elsewhere, perhaps putting out fires emanating from last year’s Mzansi Super League when players weren’t compensated for use of their brand image.

In its scramble to find answers to these questions, CSA directed its own frustrations at the wrong crowd when it should have been looking into the mirror.

I’d like to believe that Thabang Moroe has the interests of cricket in South Africa at heart. I find it hard to believe he has turned into some tin pot dictator overnight (though this is not the first time we’ve seen this side of CSA). He certainly has shown some poor judgement and an intolerance for dissenting voices.

For CSA to survive its current downturn over the next four years as a R654-million debt cloud hangs low, it needs the Mzansi Super League to continue to grow and attract bigger TV and real life audiences. It needs to sell out matches when England and Australia visit our shores over the next three months.

Success in these series will make a significant impact on CSA’s finances but will not stem the bleeding. In order to sell out stadiums, CSA needs the media to drive home the message; that the Proteas are worth supporting, which they are, and we have some serious talent on display. They need the media to tell the story of a young player’s beautiful rise to the top. But we also need to document the game’s administrative bungles.

The players, for their own good, will be silent throughout this sorry ordeal, because speaking out puts a target on your back. Everyone would prefer they just focus their attention on the field anyway, but this malaise affects them directly.

If revenues do not improve, CSA will be forced to make some difficult choices. It will need to cut costs, and where do you think they will cut from first? Development programmes are usually the first to suffer, followed by dwindling support for club and school cricket until South Africa is no longer able to compete with the best at an international level because the system is broken. That is the tragedy that awaits us if all role players, CSA, the media, government, and sponsors, stop doing their jobs. Targeting the messenger is what paranoid and insecure leaders do, not CEOs and administrators who are confident in their roles.

Adrian Ephraim is deputy news and sports editor at Eyewitness News. He’s a writer and digital media expert with nearly 20 years in journalism. Follow him on Twitter: @AdrianEphraim

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