Cricket's impending crisis
Only those immersed in the thrills and spills of the IPL will be feeling confident that cricket is on the right track. Of course that includes the bulk of the leading players and a sizeable proportion of the commentariat. Exciting events tend to distract attention from broader truths. In some cases that is their intention; elsewhere it is a by-product.
Some observers, too, point out that cricket has just staged the best World Cup in a quarter of a century and that the 50-over game has proved it has plenty of life left in it. Not that thoughtful people ever doubted it. Recently, too, the Ashes series attracted big crowds. From the outside it might appear that all is well. But then, if cricket cannot rise in an Ashes and World Cup year, and with India staging the World Cup and also sitting on top of the rankings, it never will.
And, it is true, other consolations can be found. Bangladesh's enthusiasm for the game is a priceless asset. Anyone seeking sincere love for cricket ought to walk the streets of Dhaka on a match day. The rebuilding of the stadiums in India and elsewhere for the World Cup means that, at last, spectators are properly treated in that neck of the woods. In that regard India has had a wretched history. Not that the public was always given its due this time around. The lathi charges and ticketing scandals indicate otherwise.
The world is a battleground between the corrupt and the common man. Everyone has to choose his side. At present that struggle is unfolding in North Africa but eventually it will spread. The new media is not so easily contained because it expresses not the political aspiration of the few but the social requirements of the many.
Cricket also assisted supporters by providing cheaper tickets. Elsewhere, too, the rise of Anil Kumble, Venkatesh Prasad and Javagal Srinath into positions of influence in Karnataka is to be warmly welcomed. Cricket has few men of their calibre and cannot afford to waste them. Mostly, too, the international teams are well coached and led. That has not always been the case. How many captains have had their snouts in the trough in the last 30 years? Sir Paul Condon says match-fixing started in the early 1980s, and he counts among the most cautious of men.
If anything, the game on the field is more honest than it has been in recent times. Off the field, of course, cricket is at its lowest ebb. Allen Stanford and Lalit Modi knew they moved among fellow travellers, people prepared to do anything for a buck. In his compelling, compulsory and depressing book Sticky Wicket, Malcolm Speed recalls Desmond Haynes ranting and raving and Viv Richards banging his fist on the table after the ICC declined to accept Stanford's proposals. Speed is not the most diplomatic of men but even so the picture is remarkable.
In the fullness of time the disastrous nature of the last few months will be grasped. It will be seen as a period in which cricket spurned numerous opportunities, limiting itself to the old empire, disdaining due diligence and settling for compromised leadership. In that time cricket has concluded that corruption does not matter, conflicts of interest are irrelevant, and that power and money alone count. In that period cricket has rejected its best and embraced its worst.
Inevitably the ICC is blamed for all developments. It is a glib position to take. The ICC is not a powerful beast stalking the earth. Mostly it is an administrative body called upon to ensure that umpires and players turn up at the same place at the same time and play by more or less the same rules. Since the game is played at the highest level by a small group of nations burdened with alarming histories, conflicting religions and internal struggles, and mostly in the top half of the corruption table, it is hardly surprising that the ICC is constantly under pressure. Cricket is not played by a bunch of sweet-talking Nordic countries.
Moreover it is a mistake to regard the ICC as a unit. In effect it has two arms, administration and executive. The administration works admirably and contains many dedicated and honest servants with the game's best interests embedded in their souls. Considering all their efforts, in far-flung places and even at the recent World Cup, it must be galling to be blamed for decisions taken at the head table, where self-interest rules, resentment resides and cynicism is common practice.
Cricket's impending collapse - once the head rots the rest will follow - stems from the lack of principle displayed by the board. Consider the men - they are all men - sitting at the head table. Ordinarily Ijaz Butt represents Pakistan. If he were an isolated case the game might survive. In fact, he remains in charge in cricket's second-largest nation. Speed called him a buffoon and subsequently withdrew the remark on the grounds that it was unfair to buffoons. Sharad Pawar is president. To his chagrin he has recently been obliged to resign from a body set up to counter corruption in his country. At the least this shows the folly of involving a current politician in a game.
Dr Julian Hunte of the West Indies has so many plenipotentiaries that it's hard to believe he has any time for cricket. In any case he has hardly presided over triumph in his region. Giles Clarke of England considers himself a go-getter, and it is true he is decisive, though seldom wise. Jack Clarke of Australia is a likeable fellow, but his country did not consider him worthy of further elevation and on his watch Australia has spent most of its time snuggling up to India.
Alan Isaac of New Zealand is a capable man and so is Shashank Manohar of India, though as a busy lawyer he has little time for the game. N Srinivasan, India's supposedly strong man, seems to consider it appropriate to own an IPL franchise and to run the IPL, a novel view of governance.
South Africa's representative at the table changed after the incumbent chairman went on radio and accused his chief executive, Gerald Majola, of dishonest words and deeds. It is an internal matter concerning behind-the-scenes payments for extra work done when the IPL was hastily moved to Africa. Dr Nyoka contends that CSA paid itself bonuses and was entitled to know that the IPL had been extremely generous. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, the isolating of Nyoka, the whistle-blower, did not improve confidence. Happily the matter is to go before the courts, so perhaps they can sort it out.
Sri Lanka's inner sanctum is in such turmoil that it's hard to know where to start. There are disconcerting accusations about ticket scams, while the Daily Mirror, a local newspaper, has suggested that bankruptcy is looming. The resignations of an excellent captain and vice-captain, clearly under stress, after the World Cup, also raised eyebrows. It is ridiculous to say that these men are too old. Like India, Sri Lanka has of late been extremely lucky with its senior players. Likewise the sustained attacks on Arjuna Ranatunga were unwarranted. But then, he is a member of the opposition.
Although transparency has improved considerably in the last year or so, Zimbabwe is also represented by some curious coves. As the last generation was rightly judged by the stance it took on apartheid, so the reputation of moderns depends on the position they take on the Zimbabwean tyranny. God knows we are all flawed but some things are beyond the pale. Even a game cannot put its head in the sand.
Speed's chapters on the Zimbabwe issue brook no argument. They remove the façade so diligently erected by the lickspittles. At first sight it does not seem unreasonable to expect that an audit confirming that Zimbabwe Cricket's financial accounts have been falsified might be referred to the ethics committee. But Peter Chingoka, ZC chairman, and the most powerful man in cricket, was able to persuade bitter and inadequate colleagues that no such action was needed. By all accounts Chingoka is a brilliant operator able to nurse along powerful allies at home and at the ICC. That is his job. The fault lies with supposedly responsible parties letting him get away with it.
Cricket's brave new world is deeply compromised. Once quality has been lost around the table - and cricket has produced lots of fine men, many of them West Indian, but also Ehsan Mani and David Morgan - then the decisions will deteriorate. Inexorably the forces of darkness are taking hold in cricket.
Two recent issues promote pessimism. It was arrogant, and too cute, of Cricket Australia to present John Howard as its candidate for the ICC presidency when New Zealand had a splendid alternative in Sir John Anderson, a man long involved in the game and a man of high integrity. It was equally ham-fisted of the overestimated businessman appointed to break the deadlock to prefer him to the Kiwi. But Howard was a legitimate nomination under the existing protocol and should have been accepted. Instead, those prepared to turn a blind eye to the failings of Ray Mali and Pawar rejected both Howard and the very system they had so recently introduced. And the reason was as simple as it was deplorable: he had a high profile and might use it to instill diligence.
Now the same disreputable board has ditched the idea of letting the top 10 teams play in the next World Cup. It was inevitable. A lot of money was at stake. And those pointing out that Ireland and company might get the chance in eight years' time merely pander to the powerful. Cricket is a closed shop pretending to be an open house. The ICC board talks a lot about cleaning up the game. They might consider starting with themselves. But that's not going to happen. Everyone is making too much easy money. Much easier to pick on a few shady players. The game is run by men making one-star decisions in five-star hotels. The only remaining hope lies with the creation of an independent commission.
Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It