Corporate Cultural Diplomacy and David Warner’s “Speak English” Cricket Controversy

By Grant Hall, business consultant and a founding member/player (retired) of the Pirates of the St. Lawrence Cricket Club

Warner cracking a ton in Perth
David Warner receives a standing ovation upon scoring a century.
3rd Test: Australia v India at Perth, 2012

If you continue to follow where words fail you will learn that I am what my friends describe as a cricket tragic. Here in Vietnam you can order fried crickets at some restaurants and they actually go quite well with beer, but in this article I’m speaking about the, ahem, “Gentleman’s” sport of cricket.

Today is Australia Day and cricket is always played on Australia Day, from beaches and backyards to (usually) the Adelaide Oval. Having already given my thoughts about Australia Day, let’s instead talk about cricket, business, corporate cultural diplomacy and how the three relate!

Cricket is popular in Australia and it’s often said that the captain of the Australian national cricket team has the second most important job in the country, behind that of the Prime Minister. The Australian national side plays cricket against England, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the West Indies, South Africa, Bangladesh, New Zealand and Zimbabwe and usually as a nation, Australia has very positive relations with most of these countries, partly due to our shared histories as former British colonies, but also largely due to our mutual love of cricket.

Cricket has been used for cultural diplomacy purposes for decades. As an example, the South Australian Government, in conjunction with the forthcoming World Cup cricket match between India and Pakistan at the Adelaide Oval, have organised a Cultural Diplomacy activity that brings talented young Indian cricketers from disadvantaged backgrounds to Adelaide to train, play and attend the important match.

Australia is currently playing a series of cricket matches against India in Australia including a match today, two friendly nations whose shared love of the game has strengthened their friendship. But cricket is a physically and mentally tough sport and sometimes the comments between opposing players ‘on the pitch’ can match the inherent brutality of the game. An official from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told me, perhaps thinking out loud more than as a matter of fact, that Australia can spend millions of dollars on reputation building in India, but ultimately it is the behavior of an Australian cricket team that has the stronger influence on public perception.

Last week my favourite batsman David Warner was widely criticised in both the Australian and Indian media for telling India’s Rohit Sharma to “speak English” in the heat of a cricket match. In certain circumstances “speak English” is one of the most culturally arrogant and offensive sentences one can utter. People familiar with the sport have been quick to defend Warner’s words.  As reported in the International Business Times (which itself is an example of cricket’s longstanding association with international business), former Australian captain Steve Waugh defended Warner, but not without providing caution:

“It’s hard” says Waugh “to know in what context he [Warner] actually said it… it’s not a good look, it doesn’t come across well when you read it. From a distance you can understand why people were upset.  He’s got to learn his lesson from that, you can’t treat people with contempt. There was probably a bit of that involved, and a bit of frustration.  I’m sure it was two ways, India have been pretty vocal in what they’ve been saying out on the field. There’s a lesson there for all of them to tone it down a bit. English may be the universal language but it doesn’t mean everybody should expect people to speak in English.”

Warner has been in trouble with cricket authorities before about his comments on the pitch. Professional international sportspeople would be well advised to consider how their conduct and image during their playing days might affect their post-competitive working life.  Any member of the Australian cricket team will automatically be famous in India if they play against India in their career or play for an Indian Premier League team. India is the second most highly-populated country in the world with over one billion people and an Australian cricketer who plays a single match against the Indian national side will be more famous than the most well-known players of the AFL (Australia’s most popular sport, which is only played professionally in Australia). Any former Australian cricket player with some social skills and a good reputation in India stemming from their playing days, like Brett Lee or Steve Waugh, will have the potential to do business in India and make a ton of money doing so.

The author (kneeling, right) with the Pirates of the St.Lawrence. This club has come a long way since those days!

Most professional sportspeople in the higher paid sports understand that their playing career has an expiry date and that potentially their annual incomes will be reduced once they retire from competitive life. Knowing this, athletes, often guided by their managers, club or family will make provisions during their pro-sport days, such as studying part-time or online, so that they are employable once their sporting career is over.

As international business expands, companies are learning the importance of good relationships in foreign markets. A foreign business won’t succeed in India without really strong relationships. Increasingly, businesses are learning how to use corporate cultural diplomacy as a way to build these relationships to unlock profit they would otherwise be unable to access. A famous former cricketer would be a highly valuable asset for a company wanting to build relationships in India and the company would be able to pay accordingly. What I’m talking about here is not sponsorship or product endorsements but about building business relationships behind closed doors. If the cricketer is business minded he could be used in negotiations, otherwise he can be employed for relationship building and the development of social or political capital. If you are a businessperson from a Western country in India and you have a potential buyer in mind for your product but are unable to meet with them, you might be able to obtain a desired meeting if the buyer knows that they will also be introduced to a famous former cricketer. Such introductions might occur at formal business meetings or at another occasion, such as a social or corporate hospitality event.

Sport is a part of culture so athletes therefore work within a cultural industry. Sport stars, like musicians, actors and writers can be very good at communicating and connecting with people at a cultural level in a way that many business people can’t. As I will write about in future posts, companies that fail in new markets often do so because of an inability to connect with their market at a cultural level – engaging a former sports star with a good reputation in a new market can be a company’s strongest strategic advantage. These types of arrangements are becoming more common as business unlocks the power of  corporate cultural diplomacy. Former professional athletes are disciplined, competitive, team-players, in the habit of giving-their-all and understand corporate image. They often have excellent communication skills, leadership abilities, are media savvy, sociable, able to communicate across cultures and know how to show up on time – all of which is needed by today’s cross-cultural professionals.

But a player’s reputation in a particular country largely depends on the way they play or played the game. A competitor who plays within the spirit of the game, a good sportsperson, will be admired, while someone who is considered an arsehole on the field is likely to be perceived as such off the field too!

So here’s my advice to young players; think long term, think international, think relationships and think about your post-playing career profit potential.

My business, League Cultural Diplomacy helps businesses gain competitive advantages abroad through corporate cultural diplomacy.  Please get in touch with me if you are interested in working with former professional athletes to help you advance your international business objectives.  Likewise, if you are an athlete or the manager of one who could help businesses operating abroad to build relationships, please get in touch.

I’d like to leave you with a couple of videos today, first is of the Canadian Pirates of the Saint Lawrence Cricket Team that I played badly for in 2007 and secondly, highlights of one of David Warner’s best centuries (I was lucky enough to be at the ground that day).  I hope he spanks another one today!

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