July 22, 2008

The Indianisation of cricket

The concentration of power in the hands of the BCCI is not necessarily bad, but India should understand that it is one thing to have earned the right to wield unipolar power, another to demonstrate deserving it

Sharad Pawar now leads cricket's unipolar world © AFP

When the Cold War abruptly thawed almost 20 years ago, political strategists launched the expression "unipolar world" to describe global realpolitik in which the United States was the solitary superpower. In the last five years cricket has realigned to reflect a similar world order. Where it was once ritually complained that the ICC is weak, inconsistent, reactive, lacking in leadership, we now know exactly what that body will do on every issue before it: what India wishes. Sometimes not exactly; sometimes not without qualification. But in the main, no significant motion can advance without India's patronage, and nothing to which India is resistant has a hope in hell. On India's nod, the ICC can even change the result of Test matches. Hell, why play Test matches at all? Let's just decide them by vote at the ICC!

In one sense at least, a unipolar ICC is long overdue. India has always been the most populous, and arguably also the most passionate, of cricket nations. But its house has commonly been divided, and its stock abroad poor. In Australia in the 1980s and 1990s, we saw little of Indian teams - frustratingly little, for they were a purist's delight to watch. While the West Indies seemed to tour every other summer, Australians were denied a Sachin Tendulkar Test innings for almost eight years. The reason? India were not perceived as sufficiently bankable - and this is worth remembering lest it be imagined that the BCCI somehow introduced the evils of money to a cricket world of prelapsarian innocence.

The reasons for India's belated eminence are not far to seek either. Its democracy is stable, its economy vital, its political and media elite rich beyond the dreams of avarice; they covet cultural clout due their wealth. I suspect it is no longer correct to talk about the "globalisation" of cricket; rather is the game being "Indianised", subordinated to Indian commercial agendas. That is to say, the emphasis has moved from taking the game to new frontiers for its benefit and furtherance, but to spreading the sphere of the BCCI's influence and providing content for the consumption of its domestic market. And in a lot of ways this is actually no big deal. There are worse cultural values to be pervaded by; and, well, most commercial agendas are alike, no matter where they're from, and India's commercial sector is no more rapacious and vulgar than those of other countries. At its best, in fact, the BCCI has shown an élan and imagination that other boards, and other sporting bodies, must eye enviously. At its worst, however, it exhibits the characteristics of chip-on-the-shoulder superpower and insatiable monopoly capitalist.

Take, for example, the maintenance of Indian power at ICC level. In discussing the BCCI's shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity with Zimbabwe at the ICC, for example, one of my esteemed Cricinfo colleagues offered as explanation "a deep-rooted suspicion about Western double standards", commenting with particular asperity on the involvement of Australian and British troops in the furtherance of US foreign policy in Iraq. It was hard not to savour the irony, for India's indulgence of Peter Chingoka is reminiscent of nothing so much as that famous US State Department endorsement of foreign dictatorship: "He might be a sonofabitch but he's our sonofabitch." It's also, of course, pure obfuscation to say that "practically every cricket-playing country has blood on its hands". The difference in Zimbabwe is that its cricket has been degraded and exploited by the ruling junta, and that to continue allocating ICC monies to Zimbabwe Cricket is to collude in the vandalisation of the country.

At its best the BCCI has shown an élan and imagination that other boards, and other sporting bodies, must eye enviously. At its worst, however, it exhibits the characteristics of chip-on-the-shoulder superpower and insatiable monopoly capitalist

This "double-standards" charge really needs picking over because it is symptomatic of thinking as widespread as it is lazy, not just in cricket but generally. The accusation has become one of the bluntest, and also crudest, tools in the kit of argumentation. It is popular because it saves the labour of thought, because it can pass for debate when it is actually a substitute for it, and because it leaves a pleasing sensation of smugness. You believe in climate change... but you drive a car! You speak of family values... yet you once ogled a waitress! Smackdown! High-fives all round! Yet if a smoker tells you smoking is bad for you, he may appear a little conflicted, but he's not wrong. As George Orwell said: "Some things are true even if they appear in the Daily Telegraph." What the BCCI has wrought in preserving Zimbabwe's full member status at the ICC is nothing more or less than a public bribe: the BCCI will protect the flow of money to ZC in return for its vote. You have to admire the straight faces at the BCCI as they piously proclaim that "sport and politics must not mix" while striking such nakedly political arrangements: they have nothing to learn from "Western double standards".

As a matter of fact, the compromise reached at Dubai in the matter of Zimbabwe was not the worst that could have been reached. South Africa showed unanticipated fortitude; England was not obviously humiliated; Australia left fairly satisfied; Sharad Pawar got to pretend to be a statesman while defending the indefensible. By the ICC's abysmal standards this almost merits a ticker-tape parade. And in cricket's unipolar world this is how it will have to be - although that's not quite how it is yet.

If you're a student of political power, there are some parallels between cricket's geopolitical tectonics and diplomatic responses to Suez in 1956. After the lack of US support undermined Britain's hopeless mission, other powers were left with a choice. Britain cleaved to the US, hoping to exercise influence as "Greece to their Rome"; France, still nourishing imperial fantasies, began leaning against the American hegemon. Cricket Australia has kept its relations with the BCCI in good repair, believing this to be in its best interests. The ECB has reversed its country's post-Suez strategy by trying to become a countervailing force, seizing whatever support might be passing, clutching for Allen Stanford like the proverbial drunk for a lamppost.

Time will tell who has made the right call. Cricket Australia's strategy is essentially a rationalisation of weakness, as the country lacks the commercial heft to sustain its own Australian Premier League. Just as the country has become more or less a Chinese mine economically, so it faces a cricket future as essentially a mine of playing talent for mainly Indian consumption, especially if the IPL is expanded to three or four seasons in a year. The ECB, meanwhile, looks increasingly shambolic, its mercurial chairman running hard but gathering no real support, either nationally or internationally.

Cricket Australia has kept its relations with the Indian board in good repair, believing this to be in its best interests © Getty Images

Will the rest of the world ever learn to love the BCCI? The US has found that unipolar power is no guarantee of popularity - quite the opposite. And for a group arrogating so much power to itself, the BCCI is not always its own best advertisement, presenting a streamlined corporate image while maintaining standards of governance apparently patterned after Tammany Hall, with its immortal distinction between "honest graft" and "dishonest graft", and commitment to "rewardin' the men that won the victory".

Its Chief Financial Officer is among the owners of the franchise for the Chennai Super Kings. Its IPL administrators work as commentators. One of Lalit Modi's advantages in having baked such a big pie is the room for a few of his own fingers. If India's voting clout at ICC were not enough, new CEO Haroon Lorgat has the services of IS Bindra, the BCCI's grey eminence, as "adviser". Bindra is probably the most impressive of all Indian administrators - strong when he has to be, supple when he needs to be - but his position is a favour neither to Lorgat nor himself, inviting doubts about the ICC's transparency, and eroding Lorgat's standing as an honest broker. David Morgan, meanwhile, will spend his presidency at the ICC listening to Pawar, as vice-president, drumming his fingers waiting to take over. Actually, someone should tell Pawar that his Wikipedia entry introduces him thus: "The MARATHA warrior Mr Sharad Pawar is MOST DANGEROUS politician in Asia." [This has since been removed --Ed] On second thoughts, perhaps they should tell Morgan first.

In the near term, evaluating cricket's future direction may become like a species of Kremlinology, studying who is taking the various salutes alongside Modi, Bindra, Pawar, and his successor as BCCI president, Shashank Manohar. Which could be quite fun. If the ICC can vote on the results of cricket matches, perhaps games could be used to decide votes at the ICC: how about a tape-ball test in the office to decide whether the ICL receives official recognition? Power begetting responsibility, the sustainability of that model is another matter. The BCCI should understand that it is one thing to have earned the right to wield unipolar power, another to demonstrate deserving it.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer