July 14, 2011

Will more Sangakkaras stand up and be counted?

Players have more power than they think. More of them need to take a stand for the good of the game

Silence can often be a conspiracy against justice. Many things stay wrong not because the world is full of bad people but because good men choose not to get involved. Kumar Sangakkara has done his duty to cricket, and Sri Lanka, by raising his voice against the rot in the country's cricket.

Cricketers have a duty to the game that extends beyond the playing field. It is a reasonable argument that they serve the game best with bat or ball in hand, and that their skills are ill-suited for business off the field. But they have an obligation to be the moral custodians of the game. They have the affections of the fans, and their voices carry credibility. They can make a bigger difference than they often imagine.

The silence of the leading international cricketers during the match-fixing scandal in 2000 was unedifying and unbecoming. Perhaps they were unsure; perhaps they were afraid, but character is tested at such times. Those who spoke up - Steve Waugh and Sourav Ganguly among them - distinguished themselves, but far too many big players retreated to their own corners while the game bled.

In recent times players have spoken their mind to address personal grievances. Simon Katich spared no words in slamming the Australian selectors for dropping him. A couple of his mates sprang to his side. Paul Collingwood, though not in terms as severe, said what he thought of being dropped from England's limited-over teams after having led them to victory in the World Twenty20. Shahid Afridi took on the Pakistan Cricket Board after being sacked as captain. And Chris Gayle has launched nothing short of a war on the West Indies Cricket Board.

Occasionally players have let their positions be known on matters like the Decision Review System or scheduling. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is an open critic of the DRS, but then he has his board's support in the matter. Complaints about excessive cricket, though, have been somewhat muted since the inception of the IPL and subsequently the Champions League.

The most significant aspect of Sangakkara's speech that it was made after he had voluntarily surrendered leadership. It can be argued he was compelled by circumstances, but by no account was he pushed. And the speech wasn't made in haste or in the pique of the moment: he had taken his time to deliberate the contents of it and the likely consequences. Even the most cynical evaluation of the event will not yield an ulterior motive. Sangakkara had nothing to gain personally from it; if anything, he was risking retribution - a fine, or worse.

As the game has grown more and more commercial, cricketers have found themselves bound by more and more disciplinary codes. Through the ages, cricketers have been expected to be ambassadors for their nation and role models for their fans. But increasingly they are expected to safeguard commercial interests more than the ideals of the sport.

Cricketers are better remunerated than they have ever been in the history of the game, and they shouldn't be grudged their wealth, for they are the reason the game prospers. However, as the stakes rise, so does the temptation to conform to the wills of those who control the purse strings. But principles should count for something. They must.

Governance represents the biggest challenge to a game that finds itself at a crossroads. Lack of leadership is palpable. So are lack of vision and accountability. Most cricket boards are run by people who don't really care about cricket. Some are ruled by proxy by politicians, some are run by personal agendas, and some are plain incompetent. Cricket is in perpetual crisis in the West Indies; the PCB is a joke; Sri Lankan cricket is insolvent and is permanently governed by interim committees; Cricket South Africa torn by a power struggle between the board and the executive; and the Indian cricket board, which controls the largest share of cricket's riches, cares only about itself.

The obsessive pursuit of money and power has drained cricket of its moral voice. Principles count for nothing; few dare to stand up for what is right. The game needs to find its true leaders

But while it is undeniable that the BCCI imposes its will on the game, the rest are complicit by their silence. It is simplistic and convenient to lay all the blame for the ills of the game at the doors of the BCCI. If the BCCI has hijacked the global cricket agenda it can be only because the rest have played willing victims.

The reality is that they are all chasing the same thing. The IPL is held responsible for subverting the global cricket calendar, but if they had the wherewithal every cricket board would have its own IPL. The England board bent backwards to woo Allen Stanford, the Texas billionaire now in jail for financial fraud; Cricket Australia is desperate to make the Big Bash, the franchise-based Twenty20 tournament, the showpiece event in its domestic calendar; and cricket boards like those of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have simply resigned themselves to doles from the BCCI.

The obsessive pursuit of money and power has drained cricket of its moral voice. Principles count for nothing; few dare to stand up for what is right. The game needs to find its true leaders.

If they so wish, cricketers can provide that leadership. It's not naïve to suggest that the game could find its own Arab spring if Sangakkara's fellow players take his lead. Cricketers mustn't underestimate their own strength. Along with the fans, they are the true owners of the game.

By standing up, Sangakkara has shown courage and honour; but it will amount to nothing if he is alone. It is for the rest to show that they care. They owe everything to the game.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo