April 22, 2014

Who is the ideal cricket administrator?

While you don't require cricket skills to run a national board, you do need a deft touch and diplomatic skills to deal with vested interests, million-dollar contracts, and cut-throat competition

Sanath Jayasuriya was a fine batsman but that doesn't mean he has the nous to manage the complex affairs of Sri Lanka's cricket © AFP

"The only force more ruthless and cynical than the business of big politics is the politics of big business"
- Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts

At a time when cricket is as much in the news for boardroom issues as it is for on-field action, is it time to ponder who the best person for the job of a board president might be? Note, I deliberately did not specify "best man" because I firmly believe that the sport could benefit from female leadership, if the old men in grey suits can ever be convinced that equality and high performance are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Speaking of the right candidate, does it necessarily need to be a former cricketer or someone steeped in cricket culture? Does it need to be someone from the host country? Do they need international diplomacy skills or to be fiercely protective of their own national self-interest even if that may not serve the interests of the game per se? Is it helpful to have military chiefs running a cricket board in the same way that they are used to operating inside a militarised (and politicised) bureaucracy? When will the old-boy network of quid pro quo be seen for the dinosaur that it is?

Let's look at the issue of whether it is mandatory to have an ex-cricketer in the top job. A number of countries have already gone down this path, some with more success than others. Surely, having played cricket at a decent level is not enough to warrant automatic occupation of the CEO's desk, unless that person also possesses skills that reflect the fact that this is now a multi-million dollar industry that is as much about counting money as it is about forging allegiances, some of them dishonourable deals done in secret. Such is the nature of the job these days, dictated to by television rights and an unequal distribution of power, and complicated by cultural differences that run deep.

It's important not to confuse expertise in one niche with the ability to run a business. Australian universities are a good case in point. With exceptions, they usually tend to appoint pre-eminent academics to the highest administrative posts, seemingly oblivious to the fact that being a world expert at identifying micro-organisms under a microscope is no qualification for managing the grubs in the executive group. I used to work at a university that was run by ruthlessly clever people. It soon became apparent that they cared little for their human capital - real human beings with feelings and emotions, not laboratory specimens. A high IQ doesn't necessarily translate to a high EQ (emotional intelligence).

In luminaries such as Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble and VVS Laxman, India may well unearth their next generation of CEOs who can migrate from dressing room to boardroom

India's decision to appoint Sunil Gavaskar as temporary president of the BCCI may prove to be a master stroke, even if that period is limited to however long it takes to restore some faith in world's cricket superpower after the Srinvasan, Dalmiya and Modi dynasties. This may be a rare case where a cricketing reputation may well translate to boardroom success. As an opening batsman, Gavaskar's record against some of the fastest bowlers of all time demands respect even if you're not an India fan. I spoke to a West Indian fast bowling great recently, who expressed admiration for the way the Little Master (and to a lesser extent Gundappa Viswanath) stood tall (no pun intended) to bowlers of the calibre of the feared West Indians, and also the likes of Dennis Lillee, Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee, Ian Botham, Bob Willis, et al. Gavaskar will need all that courage to succeed at this task and even that may not be enough.

In India's case, one suspects that if they wanted to look within the cricketing family for similar men of intelligence and pedigree, in luminaries such as Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble and VVS Laxman, they may well unearth their next generation of CEO, who can migrate from dressing room to boardroom with the same easy grace that characterised their playing styles.

They don't come any bigger than Sachin Tendulkar, of course, but perhaps he may just be too famous and too far removed from the real world to be able to do this sort of job successfully. By all accounts his humility and decency are unquestioned but perhaps his life experience is too narrow to make that transition. The jury is still out on whether the Don was the right man to head the Australian board - the greatest batsman of all time is still despised by many who rate his leadership era as one of the most damaging periods in Australian cricket (one that, coincidentally, led to the dawn of professionalism). It took his abrasiveness to drive change, so perhaps he can take some of the credit for having unwittingly done so.

Paul Downton is now trying to patch up the Kevin Pietersen mess in England. I am unaware of his qualifications outside cricket, so I cannot pass comment, but reading the comments on recent articles published on ESPNcricinfo, I get the impression that the general public is still betwixt and between, confusing his (relatively) modest international cricket career with his yet untested skills in management. At first glance he appears dignified and measured but whether that is what is needed to shake England up is to be seen. Their selections and performances recently suggest a system that is slow to respond to changing circumstances.

Sri Lanka and Pakistan are similar in that many of their top board appointments are heavily politicised. Whether generals and colonels are best equipped to run modern sporting business is a moot point; likewise, whether someone like Sanath Jayasuriya, swashbuckling batsman though he was, has the nous to manage the complex affairs of Sri Lanka's most popular sport is doubtful. Already, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene have experienced tensions with their former team-mate, later put down to a misunderstanding but initially brought about by naivety. We hear today that they now have an issue with their current coach, Paul Farbrace. Sangakkara has the presence to perhaps take over the reins himself one day but perhaps his very intelligence and good sense might make him choose not to drink from that poisoned chalice.

Australia's cricket administration, until recently, has been likened to a feudal system that dated back to the time when the southern states controlled voting rights, despite not always producing the lion's share of the revenue. Senior positions are still the subject of horse trading, where a vote for one candidate is repaid with support for something else at another level.

Has a woman ever been in the frame for a senior position? If not, why not? It is hard to believe that with all the cricketing experts on the payroll (coaches, analysts, high-performance managers, selectors), a savvy businesswoman cannot do as good a job as a man. Belinda Clark has run the Centre of Excellence in Brisbane for many years; her cricketing knowledge would be on par with that of any man in the country. Certainly in the football codes in Australia (and believe me, cricket is not immune either), many of the issues stemming from incidents relating to mistreatment of and disrespect towards women would be handled a whole lot better if the offender had to explain his drunken or misogynistic actions to a female CEO who wouldn't always sympathise with the "boys will be boys" attitude that result in so many disgraceful incidents being swept under the carpet.

Is it possible for a national cricket board to be run by a foreigner? If it's okay for an Irishman to run Qantas, Australia's proud flagship airline, would there be a problem with, say, an Indian running Cricket Australia? What makes sport so different from a multinational company?

There may be a valid argument to suggest that running a national cricket board requires a deep appreciation for local politics and its undercurrents, which only a local will ever understand. Is that too different to BHP, the Australian mining giant, which was run by a South African for many years? If you look at India's fiefdoms, can it all only ever be untangled and deciphered by an Indian who instinctively knows which battles can be fought and which ones are best left undisturbed? Running West Indies cricket too must be a thankless task, further complicated by sovereign states coming together to form an artificial entity for cricketing purposes only.

It is increasingly a ruthless, cut-throat business, where loyalties are traded and friendships bartered. The cruel irony is that honour and truth may end up being luxuries in the sport that coined the phrase "it's just not cricket".

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and is a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane