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UK editor, ESPNcricinfo

Percy Sonn will be missed, not least by his detractors

Worse to follow

Sonn's death has left a power vacuum, the filling of which will raise further uncomfortable issues within a none-too-cosy set-up

Andrew Miller

May 29, 2007

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'At the start of his tenure in July 2006, Sonn announced his intention to be a "hands-off" president - a reflection, perhaps, of the distrust he engendered within the ICC executive' © Getty Images
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Percy Sonn, who died on Sunday aged 57, is possibly the only man to have been booed at consecutive World Cup finals. In South Africa in 2003, he was cast as the bogeyman at the final in Johannesburg, after the infamous "trouser-gate" incident at Paarl that has, quite literally, followed him to the grave. Last month in Barbados the catcalls were less specific. Instead they were aimed at the figurehead of an organisation that had presided over, arguably, the most shambolic international sporting event of all time. Thus, in a nutshell, was the public perception of the late ICC president. It hardly makes for a flattering epitaph.

And yet in Sonn's passing emerges the alternative view of the man and, by extension, his organisation. "Percy was never afraid to speak his mind," said Sonn's sidekick and polar opposite, Malcolm Speed, "but his great skill, especially in meetings where discord was possible, was to do so in such a way that he got everyone together and pulling in the same direction."

As a lawyer and a politician, Speed has never been known make an utterance without measuring the weight of every word. His fingerprints were to be found throughout the recent World Cup - a triumph of joylessness at which the jovial, reckless Sonn was but a fleeting visitor. But the "discord" of which he spoke could be about to rise exponentially next month, when the ICC executive meets at Lord's to rake over the ashes of a dreadful year for the game.

At the start of his tenure in July 2006, Sonn announced his intention to be a "hands-off" president - a reflection, perhaps, of the distrust he engendered within the executive. It is behind the closed doors of the boardroom, however, that Sonn's expertise - honed in a lifetime of administration from his cricket club, Bellville in Cape Town, to South Africa's FBI equivalent, the Scorpions - has really come into play. "Percy never spoke for the sake of it but when he did speak people listened," said his predecessor, Ehsan Mani. "He was one of the most intelligent men I have ever met."

The ICC is going to be longing for a dose of his buffoonish brilliance next month, at a meeting that is sure to turn ugly on numerous fronts. His death has left a power vacuum, the filling of which will raise further uncomfortable issues within a none-too-cosy set-up. Going head-to-head are two candidates who represent the two intractable extremes of the ICC's large and dysfunctional family - the ECB's David Morgan, representative of cricket's old world, and the BCCI president, Sharad Pawar - a busy career politician who has had time to attend just 80 minutes of ICC business in 12 months.

Despite - or perhaps because of - the complicated voting procedure used to decide between the two back in March, the issue ended up being fudged and Sonn was asked to stay in office for an extra term. But it was quite clear how the land lay even then. In a 3-3 tied ballot, Morgan's support came from Bob Merriman (representing Australia and New Zealand), Stephen Camacho (West Indies and England) and John Blair (South Africa and Zimbabwe), while Pawar was backed by Dr AC Muttiah (India and Sri Lanka), Mueen Afzal (Bangladesh and Pakistan) and Imran Khwaja (associate and affiliate members).

With the Asian bloc unbreakable, all it would take for a Pawar victory would be a shifting of support of the African contingent, and then Pandora's Box really would be cracked open. For all his faults, Sonn remained a cricket-lover at heart, something that has not always been apparent at the fiscally obsessed BCCI. With Pawar installed at the head of the ICC, the way would be cleared for the takeover of the ICC that has long been threatened by the frustrated Indians, who represent 70% of the game's income and whose early exit from the World Cup conveniently distanced them from most - if not all - of the tournament's myriad failings.

Dissatisfaction is rife at all levels of the world game.... Sonn's role in it all was often mysterious and invariably mocked, but he was at the very least a man who could claim to have cricket in his soul. His passing might soon be mourned by the same people who have habitually booed him on the public stage. If only because the alternative is even less palatable

"While commercialism is important, we must not let it dominate the landscape or lose sight of what this great game is all about," said Sonn at his inauguration last year. "Financial considerations cannot be our only driver and cricketing considerations must also play a vital part in any decisions the ICC makes." There was little evidence in Sonn's brief tenure that anything other than money was making the game go round, but now - as the World Cup fall-out gathers momentum - a reality check may be forced upon the game.

Two issues are combining to put the squeeze on the organisation. The first comes from above, where the ESPN Star Sports deal to televise 18 ICC events over the next eight years is reported to be on the verge of collapse. An undisclosed sum, thought to be in the region of US$1.1billion - or double the figure secured by the Global Cricket Corporation for the last round of rights - has been jeopardised by regulatory changes in India that oblige ESS to share their feed (and their exclusivity) with the state broadcaster, Doordarshan.

The second, and potentially even more unsettling, comes from below, with the threat of a player boycott of future ICC events, particularly the unloved ICC Champions Trophy, which is due to be staged in Pakistan in October 2008. "Our frustration is that we have ten Test-playing countries voting politically on some issues such as who will succeed Sonn," said Richard Bevan, the chief executive of the English players' body, the Professional Cricketers' Association. "They take cricketing and commercial decisions that are often not linked with one another. A more independent administration is needed."

Dissatisfaction is rife at all levels of the world game. The players are unhappy with the fixture overload; the administrators with the balance sheets; the fans with the quality of much of what passes at present for "entertainment". Sonn's role in it all was often mysterious and invariably mocked, but he was at the very least a man who could claim to have cricket in his soul. His passing might soon be mourned by the same people who have habitually booed him on the public stage. If only because the alternative is even less palatable.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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Andrew Miller Andrew Miller was saved from a life of drudgery in the City when his car caught fire on the way to an interview. He took this as a sign and fled to Pakistan where he witnessed England's historic victory in the twilight at Karachi (or thought he did, at any rate - it was too dark to tell). He then joined Wisden Online in 2001, and soon graduated from put-upon photocopier to a writer with a penchant for comment and cricket on the subcontinent. In addition to Pakistan, he has covered England tours in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, as well as the World Cup in the Caribbean in 2007
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