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

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