The battle of the boards
In one corner slumps the Old World, aching for the days when it had a decent punch and dominated the ring, did much as it pleased, reaped most of the profits and took no crap from nobody. In the other bobs the New World, the new boss, itching to land another humiliating blow as payback for all the centuries of prejudice, subjugation and subservience.
A simplistic, needlessly alarmist view of the relationship between the England and Wales Cricket Board and the Board of Control for Cricket in India? Maybe, but maybe not. On Sunday a lifelong, staunchly colour-blind friend confessed that he wished Ricky Ponting hadn't been so worried about over-rates in Nagpur that he forgot he had a match to win and a series to save. Things have come to a pretty pass when a fully qualified Pom roots for chaps in baggy green caps.
On the face of it, the two nations appear keener on each other than ever. Chicken tandoori is Britain's favourite dish. Bollywood is giving Hollywood a run for its money in the multiplexes. British Asians sit in Parliament. Amir Khan is British first, Asian second. Until very recently, England deigned to visit India once, at best twice, a decade - once each in the 30s, 50s and 60s, twice in the 70s and 80s (though there would have been a third in the latter but for Graham Gooch's South African dalliances) and once in the 90s. And that was in the days of fewer teams and slimmer options. Yet this current tour, thanks in good part to the much-maligned Future Tours Programme, is the third such expedition in eight winters. But to judge the situation in such terms is to misunderstand and underestimate the nature and extent of the behind-the-scenes argy-bargying between the BCCI and the ECB that so upset my pal.
Ian Chappell recently characterised the ICC as an "offshoot" of the BCCI. It is difficult to sustain a worthwhile counter-argument. Money has never talked as loud as it is doing in cricket now, and as the producer of an estimated 70% of the game's income, the BCCI is certainly flexing its muscles, acting in its own interests and calling a goodly proportion of the shots - much like the MCC and the Test and County Cricket Board once did. A little humility and a great deal more caring and sharing would not go amiss, not to mention a firmer grasp of the principles of enlightened despotism, but the inescapable fact remains: the New World holds every bit as many cards as the Old World once did. All of them.
Notwithstanding James Sutherland's recent criticism of the BCCI's fondness for appealing against disciplinary rulings, Chappell's fellow Australians have accepted the new order, for reasons strictly related to the fiscal and the pragmatic. However, if only because it wields considerably more economic muscle than CA, the ECB - which sees eye to eye with its Indian counterpart solely on one subject, namely the extremely prejudicial termination of the ICL - is not going so quietly.
Exhibit 1 is obvious. That decision to get into bed with Sir Allen Stanford, who wants to help Caribbean cricket back to its feet but also rather fancies the idea of being the man who sold cricket to the United States. The ECB sees him as an ally in its attempt to resist the advances of the Indian Premier League; hence what many Englishmen see, somewhat harshly, as the pantomime that was the Stanford Series. Ensuring West Indies' support at ICC meetings is another happy by-product. However, last weekend's news from Venezuela, where intelligence officers raided the Caracas branch of Stanford's offshore bank over claims that employees were paid by the CIA to spy on the defiantly left-wing South American nation, does little for the prospect of a beautiful relationship, much less a lasting one.
|The BCCI is certainly flexing its muscles, acting in its own interests and calling a goodly proportion of the shots - much like the MCC and the Test and County Cricket Board once did. A little humility and a great deal more caring and sharing would not go amiss, but the inescapable fact remains: the New World holds every bit as many cards as the Old World once did|
Exhibit 2 is Sean Morris, the unshrinking new chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association, who summed up English grievances when he attacked the BCCI's decision to "devalue" the forthcoming series by confining hostilities to a "series" of two Tests. "The guys who control the purse-strings are now showing they have the potential to make or break a Test series in another country," he charged, referring to the Sri Lanka tour of England next year. "We are on the outside at the moment, and the Indian board have simply decided to devalue this series for their own ends. They're threatening other countries' Test contracts." And it is the PCA's constituents, who comprise the majority of the game's full-time professionals, who are at the sharp end of all this, whether risking county and international bans by playing in the ICL, or weighing up whether to tear up those central contracts and sign on the dotted line for Lalit Modi and the IPL.
Exhibit 3 is David Morgan. Welshmen are hardly renowned for taking up cudgels on behalf of the English (well, let's face it, however wrongly, the term "British cricket" has yet to catch on), but Cardiff is about to host an Ashes Test, the ICC president did use to chair the ECB, and he is clearly singing from the same aggrieved hymn sheet.
"Quite unacceptable behaviour" was his description of the proposed US$70m deal whereby the cash-poor Sri Lankan board committed its players to the IPL and its offshoots for the next ten years, thus scuppering next May's tour of England. Yet Morgan clearly forgot, or neglected to acknowledge, that that projected visit was not part of the FTP: Zimbabwe had been due to tour and Sri Lanka had merely stepped in as late substitutes. When a far better deal plopped on to the table, the change of heart was eminently forgiveable, given that the relationship between Sri Lanka's board and players can be conservatively depicted as constantly fractious. Yet while it may be unjust to accuse the BCCI of acting in a Machievellian manner, the fact remains that that tour would have clashed with the IPL, whose franchises are not exactly queuing up to sign Zimbabweans.
Exhibit 4 is Giles Clarke, the ECB's forthright chairman. Not a man who attracts fence-sitters. While many clubs believe he has the vision, verve and commercial nous to fur-line their pockets, many fans and commentators are livid at what they see as the short-term expedient of selling live broadcasting rights to Sky Sports rather than seeking the widest possible audience, flogging off the family jewels in exchange for a mess of potage.
"We have yearned for strong leadership for years and now Giles has come along and we are terrified," admitted one county chairman during the summer. Considerably more damning is Mike Soper, the Surrey president, who was beaten to the ECB chairmanship by Clarke and is contemplating running against him in 2010. "I don't know Giles Clarke particularly well," he conceded, "but I have not been impressed by what I have seen. We don't want some loose cannon flying round the world shooting from the hip. It's a titular role, about flesh-pressing. The tail shouldn't be wagging the dog. One county chairman - and there are others who feel the same way - phoned me and said he hoped Clarke gets back in in March because then he can come a complete cropper instead of half a cropper."
Clarke has fired many a dart at the BCCI. Primarily for, as he sees it, downgrading Test cricket but also because of the sneaky/successful (take your pick) way Modi has adapted the "Made in Britain" Twenty20 format for his and the BCCI's own, far more lucrative, ends. Yet Clarke, a sharp, resoundingly successful businessman, and hence something of a realist, is not quite the loose cannon Soper perceives. Recent evidence, indeed, suggests he is keen to keep up a placatory front.
"We've been constantly dealing with legal issues, and the ICL in particular has affected our relationship with the Indian board," he admitted a month or so back. "Still, we've come through that and now I'd say I have a good personal relationship with [Indian board chairman] Sharad Pawar and a sensible one with Lalit Modi." Note the word "sensible", and the immense care which almost certainly attended its selection. "We're going in the right direction," he continued. "I hope this winter's Champions League is a great success and I believe we've taken the right decisions over the shape of our own English Premier League."
Wherein, one likes to imagine, lie the seeds of peace, or at least truce. Sooner rather than later the ECB is going to accept, has to accept, that the acronym war is unwinnable. Which means focusing its efforts on helping the ICC accept the need for a revamped FTP - complete with annual Test Championship - that forestalls any clashes with the IPL. It shouldn't be that arduous a task, for all that discussions have been deferred, just so long as there is a recognition that keeping the players onside is now paramount. Only then, one strongly suspects, will Clarke and company get what they want more than anything: the BCCI's consent to release its players for the EPL.
In other words, the very best the ECB can hope for is a draw. Jagmohan Dalmiya, the man who got backs up at Lord's in the first place, may have wanted to ban such defiantly un-21st-century things, but that is precisely the result that cricket craves.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton