June 26, 2011

Will the right decisions be taken?

On the face of it, the answers to the questions confronting the ICC at its conference are straightforward. But that doesn't account for machinations behind the scenes

In his book Sticky Wicket, the ICC's first CEO, Malcolm Speed, described cricket as an "insular and parochial" sport. When his old firm meets for its annual conference in Hong Kong from June 26 to 30, there will be more than one chance for the ICC to prove their former foot soldier wrong. The questions asked in Hong Kong have answers that can demonstrate inclusion, progressiveness and a resistance to bullying. The problem is, cricket has not usually been forthcoming with those answers.

Hong Kong will be momentous as much for what is approved as for what is turned down or left on the gas. We will come to understand exactly what it is that cricket wants to protect and what its primary interests are over the next few days.

As the W Hotel readies its starched white linen for ICC's annual pow wow, the men who run international cricket will have spent the last two weeks making notes and alliances. Fifteen days before every annual conference, the official agenda is circulated among those in power across the member boards. It is a time when deals can be struck, so that decisions eventually take place in quick time without too much argument. They say the ICC's annual meetings are always cordial, businesslike and, by and large, orderly. There are no bun fights or nasty name-calling. Maybe because everything has already been arranged.

The first decade of a new century has remodelled cricket's economics, and so its political dynamic. The 2012 FTP that will emerge from Hong Kong will endorse the re-alignment. West v East fisticuffs and Asian solidarity are consigned to history's dustbin, and the current contest between haves and have nots is unsurprisingly one-sided. World cricket stands closer than it ever has to shutting the door on ideas of fraternity or equality.

The current state of affairs will be reflected in three pivotal questions to be asked in Hong Kong: whether the Associates will have a chance to get into the 2015 World Cup, whether the ICC should amend its presidential appointment procedure for the fourth time in 15 years, and of course, the one that will make the most noise - whether the Decision Review System should be made mandatory at the international level. The answers to each of these is fairly simple, but what has brought them to a boilover are political equations and brute strength.

In mundane terms this is how the meeting will work: for the first two days, the Chief Executives' Committee (CEC) will study the logical, earnest recommendations of the ICC Cricket Committee. Whatever they approve of (along with the new FTP) will be passed to the executive board, full of member presidents, for the final seal.

All cricketing matters - whether the 2015 World Cup issue, the FTP, or the cricket committee recommendations - will be decided by these two committees, made up of 30 men. Mostly they are heads of member boards, their chief executives, and representatives of the Associates. Constitutional and governance changes will be the main issue put before the full council of 50 (10 full members, 35 Associates, five Affiliates).

After every decision taken or deferred in Hong Kong, there will be more than just winners and losers in the room. There will be a third group of unseen, indirect beneficiaries who shifted the balance the winner's way. If, for instance, the 2015 World Cup shuts Associates out even from qualification, it will be a handout to the weakest of the full member nations in exchange for support over other issues.

After every decision taken or deferred in Hong Kong, there will be more than just winners and losers in the room. There will be a third group of unseen, indirect beneficiaries who shifted the balance the winner's way

If the ICC's rotation policy for the presidency is changed yet again (the fourth time since the reworked constitution of 1996), watch out for the men who pop up as president and vice-president in 2014: they will be the two most influential deal-makers of Hong Kong. The contentious rejection of John Howard as a nominee for the ICC presidentship in 2012, led to the move to amend the rule, but an ICC dissenter says: "The ICC's president must be appointed on one consistent basis. You can't keep changing the rule to suit personal interests."

If the DRS recommendations stay on paper, it will mean that none of the other chief executives asked for the matter to be brought to vote at the CEC. (And, gentlemen, we know who you are.) It will have happened because a majority of the members were either given BCCI "sweeteners" in some form or the other. Or because even the most forward-thinking of financially strong full member nations do not want to rock the BCCI's boat. It will be a confirmation that cricket's full member nations (and not the voteless ICC executives) have allowed India to seize what it had once fiercely protested and argued against: a virtual veto power in the governing body.

A seasoned cricket administrator draws a picture of the changing face of cricket governance. When England and Australia called the shots, their domination, he says, was "subtle". The old boys "tried to carry members along with them. They gave off an impression of magnanimity." The impression given out by the BCCI is "one of total arbitrary-ness". Financial clout was always going to be more forceful when compared to England and Australia's traditional, patriarchal hold over the game.

If there is one member board with little to gain or lose in Hong Kong, it would have to be Pakistan. The constitutional amendment over the president is driven, the PCB believes, by the reluctance to allow Pakistan to nominate an ICC president when Alan Isaac's time is up in 2014. It is contemplating a legal challenge to the other ICC constitutional amendment that is being discussed, which pertains to reducing government interference in cricket administration. Pakistan cannot play cricket at home, its alliance with India is long over, it has few friends in the global forum. While much attention is rarely paid to its dissenting voice, it still owns the power of the single emphatic vote. Who is to say it cannot then produce the one Black Swan event that makes the Hong Kong meeting memorable?

Hong Kong will also indicate the weight of influence that ICC president Sharad Pawar can actually wield in the world game. A mere appeal to the executive board to revisit the 2015 decision about the Associates is not enough for the wider constituency in cricket that Pawar both leads and addresses. In contrast to his high-powered political life in India, Pawar's has been a largely invisible, unimpressive role at the head of world cricket. An ICC insider says, "That's politics. Cricket is different. You have to run the game well in order not to be pushed around." Pawar has just 12 months left in office. If there ever was an opportunity to show that the game can be well run and not pushed around on his watch, Hong Kong is it.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo