July 4, 2010

Cricket's fig leaf of democracy

To be legit, democracy needs to meet certain preconditions. In cricket, legitimacy is something the boards have been happy to overlook, as shown by the Howard affair

"I'm not worried because it's a democratic organisation," said Sharad Pawar, the International Cricket Council's new president, after last week's executive board meeting in Singapore. The mystery is which organisation he was talking about. Amnesty International? The Boy Scout Movement? It certainly can't have been the ICC.

On the other hand, there seem to be others claiming in the aftermath of Howard's thwarting to have glimpsed democracy in action, six out of 10 constituting a majority. They prove only that they can count; otherwise they demonstrate a decidedly loose grasp of how democracy operates.

People in a room having a vote is not democracy. It depends on who they are, how they got there, and how faithfully they follow the rules of their organisation. Not even lots of people voting freely does a democracy make. Lots of people voted freely in South Africa in the days of apartheid; many more did not. Lots of people voted in Zimbabwe in 2008; guns spoke louder.

To be legitimate, democracy depends on several preconditions. One is an open and transparent election process. Can the ICC executive board boast of this? So far there has been neither a vote nor even a discussion, merely a letter, giving no reason for the opposition to Howard, or the last-minute changes of heart of several countries.

To be legitimate, too, those making decisions require legitimacy themselves. And here, I think, it becomes quite interesting. By disputing John Howard's credentials to be ICC vice-president, the naysayers turn attention on their own credentials - and, to be fair, on those of the prosayers too.

The executive board of the ICC is not elected. Individuals are appointed by the boards of control that are its members. How are they appointed? It varies. There are chairmen. There are presidents. There are chief executives. Some have been selected by constituent associations, some by governments; the default route into the BCCI, for instance, is to become the chief minister of a state. Easy really. All you have to do is join a political party, suck up to the right people and knife the rest for 20 years or so - presto, you're a cricket administrator.

How, meanwhile, did Ijaz Butt get the job of being chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board? Myself, I think he was appointed to make him feel better about being Ijaz Butt. Someone in authority probably considered him a "safe pair of hands". Yep, just as smooth and steady as Kamran Akmal's.

Anyway, you're getting the idea. Here's a couple of questions. By what measure are cricket administrators actually representative of their countries, as distinct from the self-perpetuating administrative autocracies that bear those countries' names? Because if you're going to start brandishing the d-word round, you really should be able to invoke some sort of mandate yourself.

Is the ICC executive board genuinely motivated by the interests of world cricket, or those of its members' increasingly pressing short-term needs, like the desperation of Pakistan to renew cricket competition with India, or of Zimbabwe to sneak back in via the side door?

And is the ICC executive board genuinely motivated by the interests of world cricket, or those of its members' increasingly pressing short-term needs, like the desperation of Pakistan to renew cricket competition with India, or of Zimbabwe to sneak back in via the side door? Because if it's simply the latter, then there is no point to it: a system of bilateral relations, with India at their centre, would serve just as well, and actually be more honest.

Legitimacy is something cricket governance has tended to overlook, mainly out of mutual politeness: boards tacitly agree not to talk about one another's tinpot dictatorships lest it draw attention to their own. But it's starting to matter, because there are new influences in cricket governance. Vijay Mallya and Mukesh Ambani, for instance, are already more powerful men than Ijaz Butt ever was. And whatever you may think of the Indian Premier League, its franchise owners have made good on promises to fans and to players - they have set out to earn legitimacy, as well as to buy it. In this respect, the IPL amply deserves its popularity: as the BCCI never has, franchises have given fans a fair deal, and players probably more than a fair deal. To what degree can this be said of any of the boards of control currently so proud of themselves for speaking truth to power, acting on their consciences, signing a one-paragraph letter and opting out of further discussion?

But why pick on India and Pakistan, apart from the fun of seeing the comments section phosphoresce with fury? Australia's system is a 105-year-old antique. It has a certain vernacular charm: basically you join the committee of a first-grade cricket club, gather together enough mates to boost you to a state association, then wait for sufficient numbers to float you on to Cricket Australia. A degree of sucking up and knifing may be expedient here too; you will certain have to buy many rounds of drinks.

Now, the board of Cricket Australia are a pleasant bunch of coves. But they're not exactly dynamic, nor would one say they were overqualified; on occasion they can be pretty damn parochial. How big is the talent pool from which they are drawn? Decidedly small. How representative are they of all cricket's constituencies - men, women, children, players, fans? Not very. CA is not the worst cricket government going round, by any means: I noted with concern Prem Panicker's recent disclosure of a rare medical condition in which hearing "BCCI" and "professional" in the same sentence caused him to break into paroxysms of laughter. But phew… is that bar set low or what?

A criticism of Cricket Australia's nomination of Howard runs this way: was there nobody else in the circles of Australian cricket administration with the nous, gravitas and willingness to fill the ICC presidency? I'm bound to say it's a very good question, and after an embarrassing pause the answer really has to be no. Regrettably, if Australia took the job of the ICC presidency seriously at all, an appointment from outside traditional cricket administration was unavoidable - perhaps also because anyone with a background in the ICC's history and its characters would run a mile.

There's a good argument, too, that this applies more generally. Cricket has changed more in the last three years than the previous 30. If ever past knowledge was trading at a discount and new thinking was at a premium, it is now. Chief executives today flit between industries as a matter of course: it is nothing to see oil men running banks, management consultants running IT companies. Yet some running cricket still see their realm as so unique that they will accept nobody who hasn't put out a slips cradle or erected a set of nets. Who are they kidding? Apart from themselves, I mean.

Okay, so who in these circumstances were Cricket Australia and New Zealand Cricket to choose? The criteria… well, there weren't any. And this, one can only imagine, was a planned absence. Remember: this presidential rotation system is only as old as the wrangle about which of David Morgan and Sharad Pawar went first as ICC president. It was conceived of because, perhaps wisely, nobody thought the council capable of handling a process that involved other than a rubber stamp.

So there were no prerequisites of involvement in cricket administration; no requirement to be other than a sentient biped. All the nomination had to be was the duly chosen representative of CA and NZC, and, apparently, have no criminal record. It could have been Kylie. It could have been Russ. God knows, it could have been Hoges.

Loves cricket. Some administrative experience, from involvement in the set-up of World Series Cricket. Popular overseas - more than in Australia, actually. Similar attitude to tax as the ICC. No criminal record - well, not yet anyway, unless you count Almost an Angel. Mick Dundee's knife might have added a frisson to executive board meetings.

It must have been assumed that Hoges had his hands full with the Australian Taxation Office, because the nomination went to John Howard. I won't rehash the arguments for and against him: they are worn out and, in the absence of further and better particulars about the ICC executive board's objections, speculative.

Howard was a controversial politician with a populist knack that sometimes expressed itself crudely, in policies that were punitive, draconian and base - although, irony of ironies, Australia was actually a more culturally and ethnically diverse country at the end of the prime ministership than before it.

I don't doubt the sincerity of several of his critics now; it's not as if I haven't myself harboured several of the views they're expressing now. By the same token, some self-appointed experts on Howard in India at the moment seem to have a fairly casual acquaintance with Australian domestic politics: one tabloid TV jock who interviewed me last week kept calling him "the prime minister of Australia and New Zealand".

Consider this, too: Howard's candidature was disclosed at the beginning of January. His selection by CA/NZC was announced two months later. The response at the time, or so it appeared, was shrugs all round. Sharad Pawar rang Howard to express pleasure at the prospect of working with him; Haroon Lorgat rang to introduce himself and his organisation. Sri Lanka were imagined to hold reservations, but their board secretary, Nishantha Ranatunga, stated: "We know that Howard as prime minister ruffled a few feathers calling Muttiah Muralitharan a chucker, but that is now a thing of the past. We don't want to harp on it anymore. We have to look to the future and try to work cordially with whoever is elected to the ICC post. We have no control over people elected to that position."

About that "no control" bit: you could argue that this was stupid, and you wouldn't have a bad case. Theoretically, if not practically, the ICC presidency is cricket's number one job: it is a travesty that it should basically be an empty slot to be filled for two years by whomever's go it is. Other sports administrators create dynasties: Joao Havelange, Avery Brundage, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. ICC presidents take turns: the guy from India, him from England, that bloke whatsisname from Pakistan.

There were no prerequisites of involvement in cricket administration; no requirement to be other than a sentient biped. All the nomination had to be was the duly chosen representative of CA and NZC, and, apparently, have no criminal record. It could have been Kylie

It is, however, a travesty of the ICC's own and very recent making. And it was the process. CA, by the way, is a great believer in process. It's a watchword. Cereal for breakfast? There is a "process". They will be getting the Corn Flakes from the pantry. They will be adding milk. Eating will then commence. James Sutherland is an exceedingly methodical man, sometimes to a fault, but once he has a process, he nags away at it like Glenn McGrath.

Then the process changed. We still don't know when. We still don't know why. It may be as simple as the process dragging out, giving the opportunity for second, third and fourth thoughts. The ICC executive board were meant to vote in April, but the attendance was disrupted by Eyjafjallajökull. It came to pass that the executive board did not make a view known until six months after Howard was known to be in the running for the job: if his existence was so obviously a mortal offence to all right-thinking persons, why did his antagonists wait so long, so that the ICC now has no vice-president, and a high-profile and very fully-employed president who'll be able to give his job at least half an hour a fortnight, every other month, with a bit of luck, if he's not too busy?

There is now a perverse pleasure in circles in Asia and Africa that Howard was scotched - sic semper tyrannis and all that. But what transpired was a pathetic, even a cowardly squib. Howard tried to meet Mtutuzeli Nyoka in Johannesburg. Nyoka decided to go to the football instead. Howard went on to Harare to meet Zimbabwe's Peter Chingoka. Chingoka, apparently, was charm personified.

So what transpired in Singapore last week was a teeny weeny fig leaf of democracy to cover a dirty great embarrassment of decrepit and disintegrating oligarchy, for it reflects not the ICC executive board's profound commitment to fair play and friendliness, but its growing crisis of legitimacy. The boards involved are watching their sovereignty eroded on all sides, by India, by the IPL, by the players' increasing commercial mobility, by fans' desertion of their marquee Test match product, by the encroachments of their governments and corporations. All they have left are cynical, populist gestures like saying boo to John Howard. And, as they say, never stand between a politician and a cynical, populist gesture - you will be trampled in the rush.

Because, of course, the members of the ICC executive board, even if they pose as cricket administrators, are politicians by any other name. Not that this is totally to be deplored: these days, that goes with the territory. What's wrong is that they're mediocre, self-protecting, sinecured politicians who speak not for their countries but for their board's predominant clique, and whose supervening policy is to remain on India's right side. Say what you will of John Howard, and also of Sharad Pawar, but at least they know what an actual democratic mandate feels like.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

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