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So the ICC has postponed the Champion’s Trophy for a year. After South Africa withdrew on Friday, postponement was inevitable. Cricket SA’s announcement came immediately after a meeting with the ICC’s top two officials, both South Africans, and it seems inconceivable that the latter didn’t tacitly approve.
The Champions Trophy controversy reflects the ICC in crisis. Not a crisis of leadership – because of the removal of the Australian MD, as argued by Malcolm Conn in a typically Aussie one-eyed take –– but a structural crisis. Its governance processes have become outdated as the power relations in world cricket have shifted. An unfashionable German guy with a beard long ago referred to this sort of problem as the inevitable consequence of the contradiction between the forces and the relations of production.
The ICC was already in crisis in June over Zimbabwe, but in terms of its own future this is much worse. Not being able to play in Pakistan is a far worse blow to world cricket, but the Champions’ Trophy debacle has so much further polarised the ICC as to render it incapable of making decisions. Its two-thirds majority voting model is no longer feasible, since the Asian group of four has veto power over any proposals if it sticks together, but cannot carry its own proposals against ‘old’ powers Engand and Australia, without support from both SA and West Indies, which it didn’t have in this instance and won’t automatically have in future. The Asian group could not make the tournament happen but it could prevent cancellation as favoured by the old powers. Postponement was simply the least unsatisfactory compromise for both sides. But it was not a proper resolution of the problem, nor was the Zimbabwe decision in June. Sooner rather than later, the ‘least unsatisfactory’ compromise will not be adequate and the organisation will implode.
Not coincidentally, there is a similar problem in the arguably more important world of international trade, where negotiations for a new WTO agreement have collapsed (again). India is at the heart of that crisis too, together with China and Brazil. As in cricket, it is the nouveau riche challenging the presumptive dominance of the ancien regime, and using the existing rules to do so. As in cricket, the outcome is stalemate – at least for now. The emergent countries have acquired enough defensive power to block their opponents’ efforts, but not enough to impose their own solutions or to create a new set of rules..
The future of the WTO is unclear. There are powerful centrifugal pressures in the world trading system, as powerful countries – old and new –focus on building exclusive trading blocs, pushing smaller nations into bilateral trade agreements to try to exclude competing powers.
Where to for the ICC? Can the ‘cricket world’ hold together? The pressures for disintegration have surely been greatly reinforced by the undermining of ICC authority reflected in today’s decision. Private interests – whether IPL, Stanford, ICL or whomever – will be emboldened to test the limits of ICC regulatory power over the cricket calendar and ‘official’ stamp. Franchise-based ‘club’ cricket competitions like the IPL will be expanded, leaving less time for international representative cricket. The incentives for national boards to adhere to the ‘Future Tours Programme’ will be weaker, and countries more likely to pick and choose Test opponents based on marketability and politics (The itinerary provided to England by India for the forthcoming tour was an interesting straw in the wind.)
The ICC can try to resist this, and it probably will try. That would be a mistake.
The proper meaning of ‘crisis’ is not closure or collapse, but ‘turning point’, and a crisis is therefore also an opportunity for renewal. Instead of trying to defend the status quo, inevitably in vain, the ICC should undertake an orderly retreat aiming to leave itself with enhanced authority over diminished territory. In this, cricket would be following the examples of football and rugby. It would require drastically reducing and refocusing the Test and LOI schedules, but at least the ICC would thereby maintain control over international cricket, and could arrange a considered and well-designed Test calendar rather than an unco-ordinated and unplanned one. The alternative is to leave more powerful private interests to structure their own tournaments with international games reduced to the leftovers. Of course there would be numerous contracts to re-negotiate, not least with the TV overlords, but they (and national boards) would be compensated by the continued growth of globally-marketed ‘club’ cricket.
The subtext here is of course more Twenty20 and less Test cricket, not good news for those, myself included, who choose Tests above the rest. But if anything is inevitable in cricket’s future, it is more Twenty20, a lot more, and less time for everything else.
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