Leading article: Give football and cricket a sporting chance

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Until recently the government minister who could best be relied on to speak without engaging his brain was undoubtedly Tony Banks, a talent for which the Minister for Sport appeared to have some pride. Since his appointment in May, Mr Banks has spouted happily on just about any subject within his brief - and a few that aren't - often without ever laying himself open to the charge that he was giving a considered opinion.

His latest proposal, which might be described as half-baked except that it does not appear to have been baked at all, is that national anthems should be banned from international football matches "because then sport becomes almost an extension of war". Like much of what Mr Banks has said, it caused a mixture of indignation and incredulity, but appears destined to be ignored.

Over the weekend, however, a new contender stepped into the ring to challenge Banks's position: his boss, Chris Smith. Once again the subject was sport, which is probably significant. Sport has traditionally been regarded with contempt in Whitehall, rated as less important than overseas aid and generating less kudos than the cones hotline. Sport simply does not attract the rigour of policy scrutiny that applies in other corners of the government machine. But, in the late Nineties, sport is high profile. It ought to be viewed as carrying significant political clout, not only because it engages the energies and passions of so many voters, but also because it is an increasingly powerful economic force.

As Secretary for State for Culture, Media and Sport, Mr Smith has been considering proposals to set up a British Academy for Sport with lottery money, a project initiated by the previous administration in response to Britain's repeated sporting failures (our athletes at the last Olympics; our footballers when they failed to qualify for the last World Cup; our cricketers virtually every time they walk out on to grass). The new Labour government was committed to establishing some form of Academy, but the details had yet to be formulated.

On Sunday Mr Smith began to enlighten us. Or rather, he didn't. His first move was to tell the Independent on Sunday that he intended the new academy to concentrate on the non-commercial Olympic sports such as athletics and swimming, to the exclusion of the major professional ones of football, cricket and rugby. He repeated the line on the radio on Sunday, with the explanation that money-making sports could be expected to finance their own academies.

Already Smith's thinking appeared to be flawed, and it was quickly pounced on by Lord MacLaurin, the Tory peer who used to run Tesco and is now the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board. While few would deny that football, flush with Sky's millions, has more than enough spare cash to spend on nurturing young talent for lucrative careers in the Premier League, the same is hardly true of rugby, and it is certainly not true of cricket.

The national summer sport has been in a parlous state for most of its history, saddled as it is with an antiquated county system whose games frequently attract fewer spectators than the average barn dance. Test matches remain popular, but the profits made from this form of the game are quickly gobbled up by the impoverished counties.

To suggest, as Mr Smith appeared to, that cricket would be able to put something aside to endow its own academy was frankly ludicrous, and Lord MacLaurin was quick to say so. He went on to point out that the one way his sport might be able to raise money was by having Test cricket removed from television's listed events, and thus able to be sold on the free market.

Mr Smith then suggested that Test cricket's televised status might be subject to review, and the sport's less than splenetic reaction to its exclusion from a national academy was interpreted by some as evidence of a covert deal. By now Mr Smith's utterances bore all the appearance of policy formulated on the hoof: muddled, indistinct, and with off-the- cuff solutions that threatened to become problems of their own.

Then, just as the possibility of Test cricket joining Sky's exclusive range created its own controversy, Mr Smith's line changed again. Perhaps cricket might have its own academy, he suggested, separately funded with lottery money. This idea received a guarded welcome from cricket's hierarchy, but in making it Mr Smith is obscuring the real issue: why shouldn't cricket, and rugby for that matter, be part of the wider national academy?

By concentrating such a scheme on non-commercial sports the Government conjures the faintly surreal picture of millions of pounds of lottery money being spent on our volleyball and synchronised swimming teams (Olympic sports, both) while nothing is done to help develop the country's cricketers, in whom the nation invests far more collective passion. Put bluntly, the nation cares far more about producing outstanding young cricketers, rugby players and footballers than young rowers or fencers. Why, then, should they be denied access to lottery money?

The example offered by the Australian Institute of Sport is instructive. Its cricketing academy has been hugely successful, providing a handful of the current all-conquering Australian team - including Shane Warne - and beating Michael Atherton's grown-up team twice in a weekend on England's last visit.

Though based in Adelaide, away from the institute's Canberra head-quarters, the cricketers, like many other sports players down under, operate within the umbrella of the institute as a whole; they all benefit from the cross- pollination of expertise on such things as fitness training, sports medicine and diet. Such a scheme is surely what is required in Britain, with all the sports linked under one academy, and benefiting from the same source of funding.

A couple of years ago when the Australian institute was being scrutinised to see what Britain might learn, its then director said: "The great advantage that Britain has is that they can plan it. Our system just grew, and it wasn't very coherent." Unless Mr Smith is very careful, ours will be a lot less coherent even than the Aussie example. Tony Blair, when he gets back from his well-deserved break, should get a grip on the whole enterprise. Sport is, in one sense, utterly unimportant; and then, of course, it matters more than almost anything that politicians get to meddle in. They had better get it right this time.

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