It's more what's up than what's changed
The news that the ICC board of directors had decided to again recognise the USA Cricket Association raised more than a few eyebrows among those close to the game in the US.
Last year, the USACA was effectively ostracized after first falling foul of the ICC hierarchy, and then facing a challenge from within. The former irked the ICC, the latter gave a genuine reason for the board to be barred from the ICC AGM in June and to have all funding suspended. While the ICC still supported the Under-19s - the future of the game - the senior side was kicked out of the Intercontinental Cup.
So what has changed in the last few months? Last November, the Council of League Presidents, the faction who had been opposing the Gladstone Dainty-led board, caved in under the pressure resulting from the matter being taken to the courts. The USACA held an EGM in December, but failed to give adequate notice and almost no-one turned up. In January, it unveiled a whole new mission statement, but critics pointed out that much was contained in a document several years old, adding it was big on rhetoric, light on substance.
In February, Bernard Cameron, the man behind Major League Cricket - the one relative success story in US cricket in the last 12 months - wrote to the ICC asking for an opportunity to take over running the game. It emerged that the USACA had not bothered to update the ICC of the outcome of the November settlement. What is more, the USACA had still not filed accounts for 2004 due the previous September, the result of which was that $10,000 of funding it could have got from the ICC to help prepare for the U-19 World Cup had seemingly been shunned.
Within days of Cameron's letter, the USACA contacted the ICC and submitted the missing accounts. But major concerns remained about the state of the accounts, the rescheduling of elections - which the USACA claimed would be in June - and the review of the constitution. What is more, questions about the financing of the legal case against the CLP and the alleged sale of rights to ODIs in the USA remained unanswered.
It has also yet to fulfill its promise of publishing the minutes of its board of director meetings; has not said a word in public about its dealings with ICC, nor had it published any details of its contracts with ProCricket and Calcricket.
On the face of it, the USACA remained almost as shambolic as when Malcolm Speed had slammed its leadership in January 2005. So what has changed?
Privately, the ICC leadership would like nothing more than to see the back of Dainty, but it is unable to interfere in local issues. So it has to work with him. Behind the bald statement following the ICC meeting, the USACA heirarchy is believed to have been told that they are still not off the hook, and that certain criteria will still need to be met.
The ICC still wants to see three years' worth of audited financial statements, meeting all the requirements of Associate membership; the USACA will need to present an approved Business Plan; it will also need to produce a redraft of the USACA constitution. All these will need to be in place before the USACA is re-recognised. If it once again fails to play ball, then there are veiled threats that it could be demoted to Affiliate status, a move which would leave it almost isolated in world cricket terms. The key to this all are the elections, which the ICC state must now be held by November 2006.
Given that the USA is not a major force, the question remains as to why the ICC has done such an about turn so quickly. The answer could come in the growing lure of staging ODIs in the USA, especially ones involving India and Pakistan, where the expat community would guarantee large crowds paying top dollars to attend. If the ICC continued to shun the USACA, it would open the way for boards to go it alone and arrange matches there. The presence of a national board, however shabby it might be, precludes that.
As for the USA itself, one opponent of the board wearily suggested that the next few months are likely to see a repetition of the rows over electoral processes and governance which have so blighted the game in recent years. That situation is likely to be exacerbated by the USACA's steadfast refusal to answer media queries, and as such, remain completely unaccountable.
In the meantime, Cameron's MLC will continue to stage tournaments and set up structures aimed at promoting the game. Unless the USACA suddenly finds a new sense of direction, it is MLC which holds the best chance of developing and furthering cricket in the States. The danger is that all its good intentions could be swamped by the chase for the international dollar. There is an irony that a country accused my some of colonizing certain parts of the world might find that its own domestic cricketing ambitions are crushed by the expansionist dreams of others.
Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo