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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Daniel on June 16, 2009, 18:18 GMT

    The ICC should be an independent body, separate from all the national boards. This way, it will not be manipulated by the powerful nations such as India and can govern and adjudicate the world game with full impartiality. The main balance of power would be in the executive board, which would consist of representatives from the nine Test nations (permanent members) and nine temporary mebers from the Associates and Affiliates, who would sit on the board for one year. The presidency would also rotate annually between the permanent members. The ICC should also have the power to suspend or remove any member nation from its organisation, pending a majority vote of the board.

  • Nigel on June 16, 2009, 14:55 GMT

    Great point raised by CricketPissek - sooner or later, the majority of players from the West Indies will attract attntion for their convertible T20 skills as they are pure athletes first and cricketers thereafter. Their ability to ply their trade across the world (there is no real bread at home anymore, let's all be real!) is dependent on an ICC that can facilitate player movement across leagues, which brings me to another point. How on earth can we have players tied to more than one team in a Super League of the sort being organised for later this year? The ICC has to regulate this properly, if only because it crates confusion in the mind of the fan, who then will create their own perception of the fare on offer. Finally, There is a need for the ICC to regulate board performance across the world, as is done by the IOC, FIFA, and other top flight sporting organisations. The WICB should have a mandate to produce a quality, competitive Windies team for all forms of the game!

  • Asim on June 15, 2009, 16:40 GMT

    I am not suggesting that there shouldnt be any team from India and Australia .... it was just in the first edition of Champions league there should have been 8 teams, one from each top 8 countries and they could have expanded the league to 12 in the next edition with 3 additional teams from the countries that finish in top 3 of this edition and 4th additional team should have been last year champion.

    Pakistan is in the semis now and their team is not invited so should it really be called Champions league or a political league, as currently the number of teams asked to participate from each country is decided more on political basis without any real merit.

  • vishal on June 15, 2009, 16:03 GMT

    i believe india is exploiting the ICC a lot..... b'coz of its financial clout...which is no good sign for Cricket on whole.... India should stand down and ICC should get some spine and take some stands wich makes this game intresting....

  • Scott on June 15, 2009, 14:57 GMT

    I think a lot of us cricket fans would like to see an international cricket body function in the way of say FIFA (or perhaps even the IRB). But Mr Haigh is absolutely right, any attempt to grow the game has been historically stifled by the international boards (especially Australia- who you might remember have an hillariously bad record when it comes to committing to fixture to new or "weaker" international teams- most notably with New Zealand who they barely played for 30 years, and when they did often fielded what amounted to as second string teams) often at the expense of the obvious benefits of growing the game into new markets. It does look increasingly like Modi and the BCCI are trying to wrestle the Australian role away from them by the creation of things like the IPL they are trying to structure a calendar which makes playing all bar the most profitable international series impossible. Unless the ICC can wrestle power away from its members dark days continue to loom ahead.

  • Dimuthu on June 15, 2009, 10:43 GMT

    Roamer's point fails miserably.. as uglyhunK said, a club's performance is no way connected to its intl team's one. esp if foreign players are involved. anyway, the icc is becoming a joke now, and its their own fault. but they cant simply be abolished either. the lower tiered teams need it. but they need a better performing one than the current crop heading it.

  • Raja on June 15, 2009, 8:45 GMT

    Roamer, you are missing whole lot .....why in the world are you linking domestic teams performance with the national teams. If England is not qualified to the quarters/semis in the football world cup, does that mean Man Utd does not deserve to play in Champions league(if it qualifies of course)?? Absurd....

  • Asim on June 15, 2009, 8:16 GMT

    Point to Ponder: ICC has approved a Champions League for Twenty20 of 12 teams and out of these 12 teams, 2 teams belong to Australia (the team which didnt qualify for the Top 8 teams), 3 from India (didnt qualify for the semis) ..... if england gets beaten today, then 7 teams out of 12 are from the countries, whose national team didnot finish in World's Top 4 !!! .... so is it really Champions League or a Losers League? or am I missing something here?

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