Why 'they' can't do without 'us'
It was almost not thus; I was not aware that in the late 1990s, world cricket was apparently on the brink of a major split that would probably have destroyed the game. I always knew there was some talk of it but it never really seemed to be much more than a bit of posturing and chest-puffing. I recently stumbled upon a book called Run Out, written by the former CEO of the Australian Cricket Board, Graham Halbish. It’s hardly a new offering and it’s certainly not worth recommending but nonetheless, it still provided a fascinating insight into the politics of cricket in the 1990s.
He described an ambitious idea called Project Snow which was apparently Australian cricket’s defiant response to the power bloc of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and South Africa. Without going into the detailed politics of it, Australia, New Zealand, England and West Indies would form a league which played each other on a regular basis (presumably the other countries would do something similar with their members) and world cricket would be split in two. Amazingly, he went so far as to make the statement that the intent of Project Snow was to show South Africa that it had made the wrong choice in siding with the Asian bloc, to call India’s bluff and to show the subcontinent that “we could do without them, but that they could not do without us”.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing of course and it is unfair to judge someone on that basis. Perhaps in 1996, Halbish and the ACB truly believed that, surprising as it may seem in today’s context. My memory of that period still contrasts with Halbish’s view though – in 1996, it was patently obvious that the nexus of power and influence had shifted inexorably to the subcontinent and it seemed foolish to think of a truly viable global game without their involvement. The recent decline of West Indies and the sad fact (unfairly perhaps) that New Zealand does not have huge marketability, makes Project Snow seem even more ridiculous. Even the lure of the Ashes would soon lose its box office appeal if the two countries were forced to play each other every second year in Tests and ODIs. Today’s professional cricketer, some of them earning more rupees than dollars, must be glad indeed that Project Snow was nothing more than a concept on a piece of paper. It just doesn’t make sense on any level to contemplate world cricket without the major countries, East and West alike.
It was difficult to take the book seriously after that point. Once credibility is lost, she is a difficult mistress to find again. I should have seen the writing on the wall in the very first paragraph of the book when Halbish claimed that Australia were world champions in Test and ODI cricket in 1997 (when he was CEO). He may have forgotten the fact that Sri Lanka were the reigning World Cup champions at that point. I then started keeping a beady eye out for any other discrepancies and I was not disappointed – some of them were minor mistakes but it nonetheless became very difficult to then work out which bits were true and which bits were not.
In one chapter, curiously called “The Best of Times”, he tells of a story when a former ACB Chairman ejected two ECB officials off his houseboat (during the Youth World Cup in 1988) with some choice expletives and refuses to give them a drink or food. The best of times? Really? How charming!
Halbish recounts every detail of a very famous falling-out with the board which led to his sacking and the subsequent bad blood that inevitably followed. It was actually quite fascinating to read the behind-the-scenes politics that seem to dog most cricket boards around the world. I am neither interested in the politics nor knowledgeable enough about what really went on to offer any meaningful commentary on Halbish’s version of events. The only thing that really stood out was the total unpleasantness of most of the characters involved in that whole saga, something that is probably replicated in other cricket boards around the world I’m sure. For supposedly distinguished and senior administrators, the only common denominator seemed to be a total absence of decency or honour amongst the lot. Halbish obviously tells the story from his perspective, but even allowing for that bias, it just made me wonder how the game of cricket survives such people.
It is indeed a testament to the quality of the 'product' that it can transcend those who administer it. Cricket will never escape the grubby politics that seems to follow it in just about every country (although NZ seems to be relatively benign) but the game itself is such a powerful force that it will probably still survive and thrive, despite such folk. Halbish’s book merely highlights the ugly underbelly that governs this great game that we all love. It was an interesting read, a revealing read, an inconsistent read but sadly, it did nothing to paint cricket’s governors of the 1980s and 1990s in a positive light. I don’t think much has changed since!
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane