June 26, 2007

USA cricket's final opportunity

Despite a dismal record, the deal struck in the USA to salvage the country's cricket administration has to be given a chance

The cricket world - or at least those running the game in countries from Australia to Zambia - assemble in London this week for their annual get-together. However, there will be a notable absentee. For the second time in three years, there will be no representation from the USA.

While the US might not be a major player on the field - it would probably rank just outside the top ten Associates if it ever managed to take to the field - but it does control one of the game's biggest and potentially most lucrative markets. It also is home to one of the most dysfunctional and unaccountable boards, the USA Cricket Association, and it is its ongoing shenanigans that have twice caused the ICC to suspend it from the international game.

A fortnight ago, in Washington, the two factions claiming to have the right to run the game in the USA met with Ken Gordon, the WICB's president, acting as peacemaker. The irony of Gordon, head of a board under fire from almost every side and millions of dollars in debt, being asked to sort out someone else's dirty linen caused more than a few wry smiles. But the two-day sit-down ended with a brief statement that the two sides had agreed to work together to resolve their problems.

The announcement was hardly a hold-the-front-page moment. For one thing, although there are thousands of players in the USA, and millions of fans, the USACA has almost no affect on anything they do. As one administrator told me, it could disappear tomorrow and nothing would change. The other issue is that both parties agreed not to say anything. To anyone.

Secrecy has been one of the major gripes against the USACA. It says almost nothing to anyone, and the tiny ruling group has been known to shut out its own directors if it sees fit. So while those who cared might have hoped that a deal would herald an era of transparency, they were instead given a familiar wall of silence.

The immediate reaction was here we go again. A decade ago the West Indies board, represented by Julian Hunte, sat down in New York with warring factions inside US cricket and reached a similar agreement. The USACA president since shortly after then has been Gladstone Dainty, a man of monosyllabic answers on the rare occasions he deigns to talk to the media. But despite all of the positive words, nothing changed. Elections were disputed, allegations of serious governance issues circulated, and a decade on, the running of the game continues to be a shambles that would disgrace a banana republic.

But the agreement reached on June 10 in Washington - for a new independent panel to review the much-maligned constitution and then for fresh elections before the end of the year - has to be given a chance. While there is every reason to suspect that nothing will change, the US has no choice but to wait and hope.

The independent panel - and it is that - should be in a position to hand down its findings within a couple of months. Unlike the heavily criticised and rushed election in February, the next ones, set for November, should be open and above suspicion.

For the time being the stakeholders have to trust Dainty - although they have a million reasons not to - and rely on him to deliver what he and others have promised. The time to deliver a verdict on his achievements will be in November when, by all rights, he will be sent packing

One of the main failings of the USACA is that it appears to operate under the grossly misguided belief that the international cricketing community needs it more than it needs them. While the dollars available from staging third-party matches in the US is a lure, that can be done without involving the USACA if push comes to shove.

The ICC is weary with the antics of a cricketing small fry. It has tried to help but by asking the WICB to act as broker it has probably offered its final olive branch. Much is at stake. Aside from funding from the international coffers, if the US stays suspended then the national team cannot play at any level. There is also the small matter of the pending Centrex deal relating to marketing cricket and staging international matches in the USA. If that goes through then it could bring millions into the game. But it relies on a credible and transparent board. The lack of that already scuppered Project USA.

So the next six months is make-or-break for US cricket. For the last time, stakeholders have to keep fingers crossed and hope that, finally, Dainty and his associates do the right thing and act in the interests of the game. There is every reason to doubt they will, only this time if they get it wrong, there may be no way back.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo