February 16, 2009

Stormy up north

The recent upheavals in Canada's cricket administration have dented its image

Cricket Canada president Ben Sennik (left) © Eddie Norfolk

For the first time in a long time, Cricket Canada is staying on message. It doesn't matter whom you speak to in the organisation, the line is the same: "There is no crisis in Canadian cricket." As one member of the board's executive committee put it, there is actually disbelief that the media has portrayed the firing of the CEO, Atul Ahuja, as a descent into chaos.

Ahuja's abrupt departure may not be an earth-shaking catastrophe, but to act like the dismissal of the most important man in Canada's cricket administration is a routine affair is at best disingenuous and at worst indicative of a complete inability to see how Cricket Canada is perceived by those outside the organisation.

The fact that Cricket Canada has been unable to explain the reasons behind Ahuja's axing lends credence to the notion that his dismissal was political or motivated by something as petty as a personality clash between the CEO and the board's president.

A source close to both Ahuja and to Cricket Canada president Ben Sennik explained the differences in the two men's approaches: "Atul is a go-getter. He sees opportunities and he goes after them. He was a paid employee, not someone who needed to worry about getting re-elected, so he didn't care about stepping on people's toes when something needed to get done. Ben is more careful about these things."

One of Ahuja's detractors in Cricket Canada, who also did not wish to be identified, described Ahuja as abrupt and someone who constantly rubbed people the wrong way. "He would have got more done had he used sugar instead of vinegar."

And while Cricket Canada's executive committee and the various other officials might not see Ahuja's departure as significant, those who control Cricket Canada's purse strings certainly do. Publicly the main sponsor, Scotiabank, has not commented on Ahuja's dismissal, though rumours persist that its confidence in Cricket Canada has been shaken to the extent that funds to the organisation could be frozen. Scotiabank maintains that its links are with Cricket Canada itself and not a particular individual, but it is understood that they are closely monitoring the implementation of the initiatives and projects for which funds have been allotted.

The ICC too has refused to comment on Ahuja's dismissal though it, too, is said to be keeping tabs on the situation, and has in the past urged that the roles of CEO and president be clearly defined.

As recently as the day of Ahuja's ouster, the ICC sent a letter to Cricket Canada criticising, among other things, the ineffective selection policy that saw 35 or more players take the field for Canada last year, and the organisation's inability to sort out long-standing issues, such as a redrafting of the Cricket Canada constitution. In such circumstances, the firing of the CEO without cause is akin to playing with fire. Canada may be an important ICC Associate, but it is not so important that the ICC will continue to fund it if its directives and advice are flouted. Cricket Canada simply cannot afford to look dysfunctional.

If Cricket Canada wishes to avoid the fate that the USA Cricket Association suffered, where ICC recognition and funds were lost, then the interests of cricket, rather than the next set of elections, must be paramount for administrators

Ahuja had always stated that his goal was to move Canadian cricket out of weekend-picnic mode into something more professional, and it is clear that in the year or so that he was running the show, Cricket Canada broke out of stagnation. He was the key figure in securing sponsorship with Scotiabank and initiating the Quadrangular T-20 Cup that saw Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe come to Canada.

Articulate, with a salesman's charm, Ahuja presented cricket as an attractive commodity to sponsors, and Canada as an attractive destination for international teams. Cricket Canada itself was projected as an exciting organisation with many initiatives on the go, one to which it would be wise to hitch your wagon before Canadian cricket shot off into space. In some respects that dynamism may have contributed to his downfall - too much too fast for an establishment prone to slow, tentative steps. That sheen has gone, with Ahuja. His loss is significant, and yet Canadian cricket will survive, for no individual is bigger than the game.

There are still many people in the Cricket Canada set-up who deeply care about the sport and wish for it to thrive, but for progress to truly happen, petty politics must be put aside. Ahuja's exit from the scene and the unprecedented scrutiny that this has brought to Cricket Canada's affairs must have a sobering impact on the people who run the game in this country. The days when cock-ups in Canadian cricket went undetected and unreported are over. If Cricket Canada wishes to avoid the fate that the USA Cricket Association suffered, where ICC recognition and funds were lost, then the interests of cricket, rather than the next set of elections, must be paramount for administrators. The CEO fiasco now needs to be put aside and the trust of stakeholders must be restored through actions that demonstrate maturity and responsibility.

Faraz Sarwat is the cricket columnist for the Toronto Star and the author of The Cricket World Cup: History, Highlights, Facts and Figures