June 15, 2009

Its own worst enemy

A hundred years into its existence, the ICC finds itself presiding over the means of its obsolescence

When, in 1977, England and Australia wished to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the inaugural Test match, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, they played a Test match on that ground - one of the best in history, decided by a margin identical to the game it commemorated. Simpler days, simpler habits. For its 100th anniversary, which falls today, the International Cricket Council is doing a bit in general and nothing in particular, the slogan "Catch the Spirit", for its series of very low-key events, having proven as resistible as "Catch the Swine Flu".

Fair dos, the ICC has a bit on - the World Twenty20, for one thing. Nor is it as though re-enacting a meeting would cause much excitement, unless perhaps Ravi Shastri was under instruction from Lalit Modi. That pow-wow on 15 June 1909, ironically, was held during a Lord's Test involving England and Australia; one of the Australian representatives, vice-captain Peter McAlister, was unable to attend because he was batting at the time. In 2009, not only is there no game scheduled at what was once called "headquarters", but Australia have been eliminated, while England are barely hanging on.

Mind you, South Africa, whose Sir Abe Bailey is the closest approximation of a founder the ICC has, is the tournament's red-hot favourite, and one part of his vision for an "Imperial Board of Control" has been fulfilled: the "Triangular Cricket Contest" on English soil he wanted and got was such a fiasco that international cricket on "neutral" territory did not recur for more than 60 years, but is now commonplace.

There are some other interesting plus ca change aspects to the genesis of the ICC's antecedent, the Imperial Cricket Conference. Bailey was no Baron de Coubertin. In an excellent new history, Empire & Cricket (2009), edited by Bruce Murray and Goolam Vahed, Murray draws attention to the initial congruence of cricket and commercial interests: not only was Bailey the politically ambitious protégé of the merchant venturer Cecil Rhodes, but England's representative Lord Harris was chairman of the London-headquartered Consolidated Goldfield of South Africa. Both had interests in promoting British prestige in South Africa, and vice versa.

Bailey and Harris, however, hastened too slowly to achieve their ends. South Africa's formal proposition, sent to Lord's in November 1907, was for a Triangular eighteen months thence. Thanks mainly to Australia, already scheduled to tour in 1909, and whose newly-founded Board of Control was loath to share profits of the summer, Bailey's brainchild had to gestate until 1912, by which time South African cricket was in decline and Australian cricket in foment: England duly prevailed by forgettable default. Too much dithering and dickering, countries basically suiting themselves - the patterns of the ICC's century, you could argue, were set at birth.

The ICC's future looms, at least potentially, as running those parts of global cricket that its members can't otherwise be bothered with

In constituting a body with an explicitly imperial charter, furthermore, Bailey and Harris expressly confined the official game to the pink bits of the world map. As Rowland Bowen observed in Cricket: A History of Its Growth and Development Throughout the World (1970), the founders "excluded Philadelphia, arguably more powerful at the time than the surprising proponents of the idea, South Africa", and also neglected the strength of cricket in Argentina, which hosted a strong MCC team in 1911-12, and several teams after the war. The model, then, was that of a club, chiefly about the beneficiation of the existing members, rather than an association, about trying to gather further interested parties. And even when the nature of the body was altered by the admission of New Zealand, India and West Indies, the power of the foundation members was fortified through special voting rights.

Much of the ICC's history, in fact, has been about the resistance of members to its growing too strong, thereby impinging on their sovereignty and self-perpetuation. Only for the last 20 years has the organisation had a secretariat independent of the Marylebone Cricket Club; only for the last decade has it been guaranteed even an approximation of the resources necessary to administer the game.

A popular genre in punditry in the mid-1990s was the "Why O Why" column, calling for the ICC to do something , usually about match-fixing, illegal actions or glutted schedules, ignoring that it was the organisation's members who kept its structures so weak and loose. Indeed, the instant that chief executive Malcolm Speed looked like taking these imprecations seriously, his lawns and flower beds flourished: he spent the last months of his contract on "gardening leave". There are noisier church mice than his successor, Haroon Lorgat.

This week the ICC will be feeling a mite chuffed with itself. The World Twenty20 is ticking over nicely, India and South Africa providing the power, Ireland and the Netherlands the passion. That sensation is unlikely to persist long past Sunday's final. With every success in Twenty20, not only does Test cricket look that tiny bit dowdier, but the ICC's premier property, the 50-over-a-side World Cup, appears a little more archaic. Players ground down by the one-day international mill must regard Twenty20 as nothing short of deliverance.

Twenty20, too, this global summit notwithstanding, looks likelier to be exploited at national level than international, the BCCI having perfected a club-based model, the Indian Premier League, that other countries are striving to emulate, unilaterally and jointly. All of a sudden, the talk is of "windows" in the global calendar - talk that began with players but has lately been echoed by their boards. For the ICC's Future Tours Programme, a decade in the perfecting, the implications are enormous: disliking the view through his particular "window", for example, IPL commissioner Modi seems intent on demolishing the decrepit English property he can see next door.

At the moment, however, "windows" are about all the ICC has to offer, for the IPL, the Champions League and mooted Twenty20 tournaments in England, and in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, are of the hybrid quasi-domestic variety that, their progenitors argue, place them beyond the ICC's remit, even though they involve international players, potentially clash with international schedules, have already occurred in international locations, and inevitably will again - indeed, Modi has spruiked the possibility of a second IPL each year away from India. In other words, because the players are the same, and because the sponsorship and broadcasting monies available to these ventures come from the same finite pool as that available to ICC, the international body faces being required to bless national cricket ventures occurring at its expense. At least the ICC had nominal jurisdiction over the spread of 50-over cricket, even if it had precious little success curtailing its proliferation; it looks like the ICC will have even less say where the diffusion of Twenty20 is concerned.

Invocation of 1977, then, isn't without significance. The back story to the Centenary Test was that many of the players involved were throwing in their lot with the inchoate professional venture that Kerry Packer would call World Series Cricket: the game's established governors were about to lose their undisputed authority. Today's centenary comes at a similar juncture, as control of cricket appears to be slipping from the ICC's grasp, the difference being that this control is reverting to members who have never really liked it. As it enters a second century, the ICC's future looms, at least potentially, as running those parts of global cricket that its members can't otherwise be bothered with.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

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