January 23, 2009

A century of dysfunction

Approaching its centenary, the ICC finds itself in a state of perhaps terminal decline

The ICC wants to look forward but its future isn't clear © Getty Images

The International Cricket Council this year celebrates a hundred years as the governing body of the global game. No, strike that. The International Cricket Council this year marks its centenary. Hmm, not quite right either. Okay, let us say that the International Cricket Council's antecedent body, the Imperial Cricket Conference, held its first meeting at Lord's on 15 June 1909. Exactly right… and so what?

Under the slogan "Catch the Spirit", the ICC is making quite a big deal of this pseudo-centenary. It has events planned, even if few of these seem directly related to the 100-year landmark. It has a website with a logo that looks like one of those "commemorative coins" you find in boxes of breakfast cereal. This website solemnly states: "The ICC Centenary is an opportunity to look back at 100 wonderful years of cricket and is also a time to look forward." Let's examine these two propositions individually.

First - aye, they were wonderful years, but what exactly was the ICC's contribution to making them so? For most of that time the ICC had no powers to speak of, and was carefully constrained from developing them by its two "foundation members", England and Australia: it was an annual beano to Lord's for whomever's turn it was on the local board.

Even the 1909 date is, arguably, meaninglessly precise. The meeting of 1909 certainly pointed a way to global governance of the game - except that the way was, in the main, a dead end. Sir Abe Bailey, the South African plutocrat who is the closest thing ICC has to a father, saw the conference chiefly as being a means to the achieving of his dream of a Triangular Tournament of three-day Tests also involving England and Australia. His country's cricket was then strong - a tri-cornered contest would ratify its progress. Except that because England was ambivalent about the concept and Australia hostile, the tournament didn't occur for three years, by which time South Africa was weak again, and the whole event became a damp squib, never to be repeated.

The ICC reconvened after the First World War on a much less ambitious basis. Tours were still concluded bilaterally. Umpires were still appointed locally. Associate membership, which only became available in 1965, meant relatively little, and it's barely 20 years since the ICC obtained a secretariat independent of the Marylebone Cricket Club. What's notable about cricket's international administration is not how much there has been but how little.

If all this seems like a pedant's hankering not to let a story get in the way of a good fact, let's turn to the second proposition and "look forward" - as the members of the ICC's executive board will do from 31 January. To do so, let us ask a question: how well does the ICC reflect the changing contours of modern cricket?

For all its prominence as an administrative and disciplinary body, the ICC's chief role is to collect "event revenues" from television and sponsorship rights to its various official events, of which the most significant have traditionally been the World Cups, through its British Virgin Island-registered subsidiary ICC Development (International) Ltd. In the year of the last World Cup, "event revenues" amounted to US$285 million, 84% from the Cup itself; $258 million was then distributed to members, chiefly the 10 nations that play (or have played) Test cricket.

Actually, at the risk of further pedantry, to speak of "nations" is again not quite right. The members of ICC are actually, as they have always been, the boards of control that have carriage of international and domestic cricket in the relevant countries - indeed, in commercial terms, the ICC might be described as a global cartel of local sports monopolies.

Yet, as we are seeing, not all monopolies are created equal. The monopolies of the Pakistan Cricket Board and Cricket Sri Lanka, in particular, have become licences to shred money. According to the new PCB chairman, Ijaz Butt, the payroll under his predecessor grew from 300 to 800 in less than two years. What on earth did they all do? And who knows where the money poured into Zimbabwe Cricket ends up? (Trick question: the ICC do, thanks to KPMG, but they're not telling).

These monopolies are also changing before our eyes. The Board of Control for Cricket in India's monopoly is guarded like Fort Knox; the West Indies Cricket Board's is as sturdy as a clapboard outhouse. But in both cases they are, somewhat uneasily, shared. Subhash Chandra's Indian Cricket League has muscled in on the BCCI's lucrative market; the WICB has obtained Allen Stanford as a sugar daddy. The ECB, of course, likes the sheen on his bling too.

The days when the ICC executive board could claim to represent the most important cricket organisations in the world, and collectively to incarnate "international cricket", are no more. The ICL explicitly works against the grain of that structure already, the IPL more subtly

In fact, the days when the 10 individuals on the ICC executive board could claim to represent the 10 most important cricket organisations in the world, and collectively to incarnate "international cricket", are no more. The ICL explicitly works against the grain of that structure already, with its teams from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and possibly Sri Lanka, operating a miniature alternative version of international cricket. So, albeit in a subtler way, does the Indian Premier League, its participants based not on the state associations constituting the BCCI but city-based commercial franchises - apparently on the (very shrewd) recommendation of broadcast partner Sony.

The emanating strains of these developments are being felt even in pacific and prosperous Australia. In the last week, for instance, both Cricket Victoria and Queensland Cricket have kvetched publicly about not having top players available for the KFC Big Bash playoff that entitles them to entry in India's quasi-domestic Champions League (deferred, after the horrors of Mumbai, to later this year). Cricket Australia gave them short shrift, but their complaints were understandable - the Champions League gives new relevance to state, province and county-based bodies, offering revenue they need not share with jealous rivals.

Then there are the players, once stirred only by flags of country, now no less excited by flags of convenience. The England team have just flown to the Caribbean with several key players who have been dickering with their central contracts since September as they wait for Twenty20 opportunities to crystallise. The players are commercial entities to be reckoned with already: Sourav Ganguly has retired wealthier than Cricket Sri Lanka; if he wearies of fishing, Matthew Hayden might be able to engineer a leveraged buyout of Cricket Queensland. The players compete, moreover, in the same market for sponsorship as the boards that have traditionally staged international cricket. After all, why sign your brand up to the West Indian cricket team if the endorsement you really want is Chris Gayle's? Yet how are boards to be recompensed for the possible, nay likely, unavailability of players representing IPL franchises? Answer: not at all.

In some respects, the ICC is now the finished article, representing the culmination of international cricket as the premium form of the game - in a time quite probably past that culmination. As C Northcote Parkinson put it in one of his facetious laws: "A perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse." Indeed, a centenary kind of suits it. After all, except maybe a telegram from the Queen, too few friends and too many candles, what's a 100th birthday worth anyway?

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • sray23 on January 25, 2009, 5:51 GMT

    I always get the feeling Mr Haigh is a tad conservative and anti-Indian in his viewpoints. What the BCCI through the IPL is pioneering is radical, it goes against the grain of international cricket and undermines the power of ICC and many national boards but does that make the changes bad? A quick at the Test schedules reveals mis-matches aplenty with Australia-NZ, England-WI and SA-B'desh contests interspersed with some competitive Test series like India-Aus and Eng-SA. It's not good enough. Every game of cricket (Tests, ODIs, T20) should be meaningful and competitive. ODIs are a rudderless ship - apart from the World Cup what does it really mean to win other ODI tournaments? It should also be franchise-run with premier leagues in place. At least they are meaningful have the participation of classy players pitted against each other. That's how every game of cricket should be. The int'l model doesn't provide the quality anymore so it's high time to look at alternative business models.

  • Dogevpr2 on January 24, 2009, 21:14 GMT

    The biggest failures of the ICC have been 1. Not making Cricket an Olympic sport,and not even acknowledging Cricket2012Games.com's movement to get cricket into the 2012 Olympics -if they really want to mark a Centenary, get the ICC to have cricket in the London Olympics,even as an "exhibition" sport.Land of its birth and no cricket in the 2012 Olympics -the greatest sports travesty. 2. the second failure ties into the first,no global development of the game

  • JackJ on January 24, 2009, 14:35 GMT

    Oh dear, prashnottz, no need to guess where you hail from! There is a better answer to reforming the ICC, but India won't like it. We need to separate the money side from the cricket governance side. All sports bodies need money, but thats not the raison de etre! ICC must exist to promote and safeguard the game and its values, and money is merely one of the resources to be managed. This is where ICC is erring. If this is not fixed T20 will take over because it makes huge money. I think the MCC should be re-expanded to fufil the international cricket management side, while the ICC should become a pure money-making operation that funds the MCC. ICC receive all revenues. The MCC would produce schedules and budgets and get approval and funding from ICC, who would be proscribed from getting involved in any other cricket. ICC would also channel money to member countries to fund their domestic game, on a formula basis that takes account of where revenue originates, but also is even-handed.

  • NeilCameron on January 24, 2009, 5:16 GMT

    The ICC is a lot like the United Nations - a potential for greatness yet beset with incompetence and corruption. Unlike other commentators, I think the ICC is necessary just as FIFA is necessary for Football. Bringing Zimbabwe and Bangladesh into full membership was one of the ICC's great blunders, as neither nation should be considered for the top tier. Why did this happen? It is easy to blame Mugabe for Zimbabwe but the ICC's behaviour ever since Streak and the others left has been anything but consistent. As for Bangladesh, after nine years of Tests and ODIs the side doesn't seem to have progressed. It seems obvious that both Zimbabwe and Bangladesh needed stricter terms of membership as well as help to develop players and infrastructure. Yet for all its millions, the ICC has not helped. It may be that things are so bad that some member nations should think of leaving the ICC and creating their own body with stricter rules and and the potential for more effective policies.

  • AnOldTimeCricketer on January 23, 2009, 20:57 GMT

    Two years ago, a group of US Rugby players, many of whom had also played cricket, suggested an innovative approach that had worked to give rugby a secure financial position as a niche sport in the USA-- instead of membership fees by club, move towards fees by individuals. Even at $10 per person, this would raise far more money than was presently available to US cricket, without the need for a godfather or generous patron to supply operating cash. A group of dedicated volunteers worked for two months, produced a 14-page series of amendments to ease the transition, and presented their proposals formally at the meeting convened at the behest of ICC to adopt a new constitution. The proposal was reviewed, tabled without comment, and that was the last any one has heard of it since that time. If the ICC is rerious about its role, it should make the USA Cricket Association re-examine the proposal, vote on the proposals and implement it as set forward in the document. That is the big IF.

  • TwitterJitter on January 23, 2009, 17:08 GMT

    The reason is that there are a few countries playing cricket and most of the revenue comes from two boards, BCCI and ECB. No organization can exert its control anywhere as a unit when 70% of its business comes from one entity. These boards will automatically ask for more say in the matters in return for sharing their profits. USA is a dominant power because of its economic might. We need to look at solutions for expanding the game beyond where it is played now. My solution would be to adopt the FIFA model and develop clubs/leagues world wide. That way if there are one or two very good Irish or Afghan players they can play for some good clubs in the world, make money, and in turn provide inspiration for more players from that country to take up cricket as a career option. The league should combine this model with investment in that country's infrastructure. We should give it a try.

  • Sanks555 on January 23, 2009, 15:12 GMT

    What is IPL's competitive advantages vis-a-vis ICL? There are 2 advantages: 1- IPL has access to better stadiums 2- If a player plays in ICL, his international career is over. Even if retired, he has no scope to be an umpire/coach/selector etc. If national cricket organizations become redundant, IPL would lose this advantages. Already Pakistan, Bangladesh, and New Zealand cricket boards have been hit badly by ICL desertions. If BCCI does not support them financially they would lift the ban on ICL players and that would hurt IPL. Sri Lanka has already allowed ICL players to play in domestic cricket and Pakistan board may do so. So BCCI has to give some money from IPL proceeds to other boards if it wants to maintain IPLs competitive advantage vis-a-vis ICL. And given that the rent (franchisee fees)of ICL is lower than IPL, sports enterpreneurs will prefer it provided it can give access to same quality of players if not stadiums.

  • Lennon_Marx on January 23, 2009, 15:08 GMT

    I would completely disagree with the idea of abandonning the national team concept- it would merely result in all major cricket being played in India, and maybe England and South Africa and Australia- that's a sure fire way to completely destroy world cricket. Cricket isn't like baseball or basketball where an overwhelming percentage of talented players hail from one locale, thus allowing that locale to control the game completely. You can't also give the reins over to the BCCI, because the result will eventually be the same, India will eventually constrict the life out of cricket elsewhere till the point that its only played in India and maybe Pakistan. In the end the ICC in its current state is fundamentally and hopefully fatally flawed but redneck is absolutely right- a more FIFA style, and actual power to the body to force certain reforms and revenue arragements is the only way forward if the game is to be grown internationally (which should be the end goal at all times).

  • vpadmana on January 23, 2009, 14:07 GMT

    ChinmayD, I don't know how you can compare the ICC to the NBA or the NFL. All games in the NFL are played under the purview of the league. Players cannot play outside of it if they have a contract with one of the teams. The schedule is entirely controlled by the NFL. The rules are laid out by the NFL (unlike in cricket, where the rules are governed by the MCC). The only things that the individual franchises control are player/coach contracts and practice facilities. All of the TV rights for e.g., are negotiated and controlled by the NFL, not the individual teams. So, I'm not sure, where you're going by comparing the NFL/NBA to the ICC.

  • bonner on January 23, 2009, 12:15 GMT

    well said. now everyone together - singing: 'happy birthday to you...'

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