February 5, 2014

Pakistan and the Big Three

Whether by circumstance or not, Pakistan is now one of the few voices of dissent against the restructuring of the ICC

The PCB has chosen to make a virtue of its impending disenfranchisement © PCB

We all love a last stand, and Pakistan cricket has enjoyed a few. Inzamam-ul Haq and Mushtaq Ahmed nudged and scampered a final-wicket partnership of 57 to defeat Australia and win a Test series in 1994. Two years earlier, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis stood firm to beat England at Lord's. Imran Khan was known for standing alone, defying fierce rivals from all nations.

I hark back to those times because the 1980s and 1990s saw a power shift in international cricket. The imperial rule of Australia and England, the Big Two, was challenged primarily by India - but with the support of Pakistan and others. The popularity and pull of the game in South Asia was irresistible. In those times, winning a Test match or series against the old powers was more than cricket. It was a blow for the disempowered in international cricket.

India, it seems ironic now, led the charge and clamour for equality in world cricket. A fair, representative, international cricket council was best for the transformation of the Commonwealth's game into a truly global sport. India needed its fellow rebels, the nations that are now cajoled, tempted and arm-twisted into compliance. Yet India quickly outgrew these allies. The biggest population, the fastest growing economy, and the most valuable television rights rendered any of its less powerful accomplices meaningless.

This is a linear history, but history is also circular. For now we are pretty much back where we started. Instead of a Big Two we have a Big Three, the new imperialists. India now leads a system that is a reinvention of the old one. At least there is some honesty about this world of cricket. India is brazenly in charge; no democracy here, thank you very much. Australia and England are brides who bring the biggest dowries. The rest are dogs at a wedding feast, feeding off scraps from the top table.

Not much else has changed since the old days. The world of cricket is not significantly bigger. No sport confuses politics and sport like cricket does. There is no independent ruling body. Since the 1970s, at least, the purpose of cricket has been to make money. Except, nobody now pretends to act in the best interests of the spirit of cricket. Greed is good, celebrated and rewarded.

Where this leaves Pakistan is in a mess. No home international tours; distanced from its old political ally India; less sellable, albeit more intriguing, than most international teams. The Pakistan Cricket Board has chosen to make a virtue of its disenfranchisement. Pakistan stands alone, against the rule of the Big Three. And so should any rational analysis. Bravo PCB. We don't often say that.

But the recent back-to-back Ashes series serve as a warning. The Big Three endlessly playing the Big Three will become tedious. Cricket will not grow as a global sport. The financial obsession of the Big Three will not allow such long-term investment. What the Big Three say will go. The Big Three will decide who hosts major tournaments. The Big Three will settle on the structure and format of international cricket. The Big Three will control the laws of the game. The Big Three will judge which players are hounded out of the game for chucking balls and throwing games. Perhaps the Big Three will also decide who wins and who loses? After all, why disappoint a sponsor? And a happy population is good for commercial partners and the economy.

Be in no doubt, the financial arguments to justify the new structure are a smokescreen. The arguments for equity in distribution of revenues are a diversion. These could all have been agreed without the accompanying corporate changes.

Look no further than cricket's organogram. The corporate changes are the beginning, middle and end of this proposal. Power and greed, grand corrupters both, are driving the new proposals. Inequity in the governance of cricket will now be enshrined in its articles.

India is the dominant cricket board of the three, and it will be tested like all leaders are. There is no bitterness in this statement, just regret. I don't pretend that Pakistan's stance is one of genuine idealism. It is pragmatism: a country with nothing left to lose, facing a future of legislated marginalisation. Had Pakistan been invited into the ruling cabal, the PCB would now be singing the benefits of the new system. But the structure delivers overall power to India. Who are Australia and England to challenge India's financial muscle?

In between the years of the Big Two and the Big Three, a shadow world that India ruled while pretending not to, India's leadership of cricket was a disappointment. As such, I don't accept the argument that India has an automatic right to leadership of world cricket. Not because my allegiance is with Pakistan but because India's behind-the-scenes rule of cricket has been incredibly self-serving. India's track record of decision-making for the good of cricket is poor, and nothing predicts behaviour like behaviour, as any decent psychiatrist will tell you.

Indeed, leadership in any sphere must be by merit and based on values, not snatched by force. The dominant value in the world of the Indian cricket board is the commercial value proposition. Greed is good and greed has won, whatever Punjabi-film-style posturing the PCB has begun. But the lesson of history is that no empire lasts forever. We might not always be able to imagine how it will end, but as surely as day follows night, as verily as a Misbah dot ball follows a Misbah dot ball, the tyranny of the Big Three will end.

But the question for now is: How long can the Big Three last?

Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here