Revealing, damning and compelling
The chances of the words "riveting" and "administrator" appearing in the same sentence are so unlikely that odds cannot be offered on them showing up. To then suggest that they could be used about a book written by former ICC CEO Malcolm Speed would lead to cacophonous catcalls of "Yeah, right." Well, actually, both "yeah" and "right". Sticky Wicket (subtitled "Inside Ten Turbulent Years at the Top of World Cricket") is that kind of book.
Not merely an eye-opener but a real eye-popper, it features cricketers and administrators, caught in situations both uncomfortable and avoidable. There's Matthew Hayden, who put on his best suit and visited Speed to ask why he had been dropped, Steve Waugh carrying the Australian Cricketers Association's "Intention to Strike" forms in his bag but not distributing them to the players, Desmond Haynes shouting, Nasser Hussain in a massive strop and Viv Richards banging on tables.
And these are mere asides. If cricketers mostly sell their autobiographies on the strength of the few pages that talk up an incident and/or take potshots at an old adversary, bookshelves should demand that Speed's memoir fly off them.
Every chapter contains careful details and facts about events that shook the sport at its roots on Speed's watch. His career as a cricket administrator began as the CEO of the Australian cricket Board (ACB) in May 1997 and ended it as CEO of the ICC in July 2008. He was at the heart of a dramatically changing cricket landscape - from its on-field fundamentals, the business and industry built around it, the politics that was its constant undercurrent and has now begun to control far too much.
The 300-odd pages cover the salary dispute in Australian cricket, the decision to pick Waugh over Shane Warne as captain, the Justice Qayuum inquiry into match fixing, the Mike Denness affair, the scandal that is Zimbabwe cricket, the advent of Twenty20, the 2007 World Cup ("The Event From Hell", in the words of one of the chapter titles) and the death of Bob Woolmer, the growth of the Indian board, Monkeygate, and revealing individual chapters on the Stanford affair and Darrell Hair. And eventually even why he got sacked with two months left for his contract to run its course. "Ten Turbulent Years" sounds like an understatement.
Speed, who came into the ACB job from basketball, was surprised to be picked because he thought of himself as an outsider, in what was an "insular and parochial sport that would not go outside its own circles". When he took over as ICC CEO he reminded himself that every sporting organisation needed to achieve "respect, influence and an appropriate control". When he left cricket, the result of wanting to persist with financial inquiries over Zimbabwe cricket, Speed said, "I had lost the stomach for the fight, especially one with the potential to further damage the already battle-weary image of an organisation that had consumed seven years of my life."
The outside world saw Speed as a tough cookie, a stickler for rules, procedure and method. His staff at the ICC, however, still speak warmly of him, as a boss with humane qualities, with an ability to inspire loyalty, and to keep them focused on the objectivity of what their office was trying to do - concentrate on the world game over singular national interest. Towards the end of the book Speed explains his game face: "I was never going to be warm, soft and friendly, and I was not in cricket to win any popularity contest."
This is a very relevant book and it will stay that way. It will not please all those involved in some of the turbulence: some inside the ICC board, player associations, and the sneakiest of the sport's deal-makers. It is a clear and unbiased account of what battles must be fought, and how they were won (or lost) to keep the game sustainable, viable, and always fair. Every chapter has more than a few facts that, until now, were unknown to the wider world, which explain the chaos that followed crises or controversy. By no means is it a cover-up of errors. It takes a rare sports official to write these words about being booed after the end of the 2007 World Cup final: "I knew it was coming. It was not pleasant, but I deserved it."
It is ironic that the book was released just after the ICC's cynical and dreadful turnaround over how its ten-team 2015 World Cup was going to be structured. Its last two chapters explain how and why the Associates have been shut out. Speed may not have been in any of the meetings but his detailed explanation of how the ICC's board of directors and its executive board (made up of the heads of all the full-member boards or their representatives) works provides all the clues. Hint: keep an eye out for a sudden surge in tours of and by Zimbabwe, and the nations involved in them. You will understand how the voting went for 2015, knocking out even a qualification process for Associate nations, a decision Speed called "insular and backward" in an interview.
Sticky Wicket is both witness and guide to the game's evolution in the last decade. What "ambush marketing" really means, why the 15-degree rule for bowlers makes sense, and what it means for players and boards to sign up to codes pertaining to anti-corruption, anti-racism and anti-doping. Whenever issues pertaining to those codes arose -spot-fixing or Monkeygate or others - the codes that had been signed on had to apply. Ideally without nationalistic kicking and screaming, or cosy mutual deals - like the one informally agreed upon by the Indian and Australian boards under which they asked Justice John Hansen to "an agreed statements of facts and a consent order that they expected [him] to rubber stamp". Had Hansen done so, a precedent for member boards successfully "fixing" the ICC's disciplinary processes would have been established.
Speed's wrangles with the BCCI were plenty and his observations about India's role in cricket are carefully detailed, though he takes the effigy-burning and newspaper headlines a little too seriously. The chapter titled "A 15-rounder With Dalmiya", related to the Mike Denness affair of 2001, is exhausting to read merely because the episode went on for as long as it did.
Relations between Speed and Dalmiya, who he said had a "manic determination to make India a world cricket power" were never warm. But the Australian has some respect for Dalmiya as administrator and adversary, despite the history of their arguments. Listing the ICC presidents who have added to the "governance and fabric of the game", he says, "yes, even Dalmiya, of whom I have been critical in these pages... he taught the ICC how to capitalise on its new revenue stream".
It is almost three years that Speed has been outside cricket, a period that was marked by the Lahore attack on the Sri Lankan team, the spot-fixing scandal, and the IPL explosion, which has shaken up the game's economy and re-established India's prominence in the sport. India was always the game's "unique selling point" and is now its power base. India does not worry Speed, "as long as that influence and control are exercised fairly, transparently and with the interests of the game as paramount consideration". So we should all worry, then.
The current office bearers of the BCCI leave Speed, "far from confident" about the part they will play in the ICC, whose role "is to balance India's power and look after all its members". DRS, anyone?
Sticky Wicket is packed with both broad brushstrokes and anecdote. During one of the Anti-Corruption Unit's earliest formal lectures with the players who was there was one player who, "for his reasons known only to him, turned his chair around to face the other way and read his newspaper while the lecture was in progress". The guy had better not still be playing.
The book is written like Speed usually spoke: clearly and forcefully. To imagine that it is primarily meant for anyone interested in board politics or cricket's inner workings is inaccurate. It is meant for all those who consider themselves "genuine" cricket lovers, its "true" fans. It is a revealing and often damning document. It will tell the fans what a struggle it is to keep the game they love going, due to the interests and muscle-flexing of cricket's self-obsessed.
Sticky Wicket: Inside Ten Turbulent Years at the Top of World Cricket
by Malcolm Speed
Harper Sports, hb
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo