What should the ICC be?
Just over half a century ago, the British prime minister Harold Macmillan famously declared there to be a "wind of change" blowing through Africa, presaging the final dissolution of his nation's dwindling empire. Nobody has announced it explicitly yet, or given much thought to its implications, but a similar breeze is wafting through cricket's global government. It holds both promise and peril.
Circulating since the fiasco around John Howard's failure to progress to the ICC's vice-presidency last year, that wind finally stiffened flags at the ICC's meeting just before the World Cup, when the BCCI advanced the proposition that the system of rotating the presidency among the full members should cease: no prizes for guessing where the BCCI thought a new president should come from; no prizes for imagining the wholesale rush to agree either.
At first only one board spoke against the proposition, and then hardly from a position of strength. The PCB taking a stand on governance was received as skeptically as advice from King Augeas about care of livestock. But then the boards of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh got edgy too, and when South Africa finally joined them, the BCCI, just for once, and amid general surprise, did not get its way at the June annual meeting.
Principle? Barely. Self-interest? On the ICC executive board, it's in the oxygen supply. But it provided renewed impetus for a long-cherished ambition of the council's chief executive, Haroon Lorgat, to obtain an independent review of global cricket governance. So the other shoe dropped: the ICC is now committed to looking seriously at the constitution of its board, and the discretion of its officers. Ignoring that old political axiom about never holding an inquiry unless you already know the recommendations, the executive board has placed itself on a path it may not be able to control.
Former chief justice and master of the rolls Lord Woolf, and a team from PwC, began interviewing various stakeholders in London two weeks ago. They are asking intelligent questions. This may mean they come up with some unwelcome answers. Such initiatives often falter. The Football Association performed a similar exercise six years ago, bringing Lord Burns off the bench, then red-carding him; Cricket Australia's governance review is taking longer than many countries have needed to achieve independence. The ICC's kakistocrats, furthermore, make a habit of disappointing expectations.
Some years ago, Lorgat's predecessor Malcolm Speed tried to restructure the board of ICC Development International Ltd, the council's commercial arm, which has the same personnel at the executive board, and was in sore need of some outside expertise. The idea of a six-member team with three ICC directors and three independents looked an excellent one right up to the moment it involved anyone giving anything up. But Lorgat has already done something quite shrewd: although there is no specific deadline beyond an October update, he has undertaken to publish the fruit of Lord Woolf's deliberations, so that we may see how the ICC measures up against them, and also against best practice in other sports.
The people who do the actual work at the ICC have had an excellent year, arriving at a new five-year strategic plan, gaining support for the Future Tours Programme and for the Test playoffs, concluding the investigation of the three Pakistani spot-fixers, and continuing to build competence among an excellent panel of umpires and referees. It was telling that at the annual meeting the proposals of David Richardson's cricket committee were endorsed with the minimum of discussion - which was a function both of how well thought through they were and also how meagre the cricket competence on the executive board.
For the executive board has had a shambolic year, epitomised by its gormless rush to fall in with the BCCI's abrupt insistence on a ten-team World Cup without qualification. Naturally enough, the full members who largely compose the executive board thought this a grand idea, not least Australia and New Zealand, anxious to squeeze the last dollar from their event. And it is a measure of how hobbled by personal agendas the board has become, and how obsessed it is with form rather than substance, that nothing raises so many hackles as the ICC presidency; schoolboys squabbling over a bat are a model of diplomacy by comparison.
As the starting point for the Woolf review, the presidency is a prime focus. The constant tumult around succession arises partly because it has become habitual for countries to be represented on the board by their presidents, and if there is anything presidents covet, it is another presidency. Curiously this is convention rather than a constitutional stipulation: Pakistan was ably represented for years by Ehsan Mani, not even a PCB member. But it is analogous to, and makes as much sense as, an XI of captains.
Apologists for discontinuing the rotation policy argue that it would end periodic tumults over the presidency, except that everybody knows what the outcome would be. As Richard Lord observed recently in the Wall Street Journal: "Choosing the best person makes more sense than the current Buggins' turn system, except that it won't be the best person, it'll be the person with the most powerful backers." A cosy little sinecure for Shashank Manohar, now that he's not so busy, perhaps? Or maybe something for the rising blowhard Rajiv Shukla to aspire to when he's through with being mini-Modi at the IPL?
The rotation system has its shortcomings but is perhaps less unfair than the alternatives. It also means that if you're stuck with a toxic president - and gosh, wouldn't that be terrible? - the lumbering isn't forever. If continuity is viewed as a problem, why not restore the old system of two-year terms with the option of a third year?
The irony of all the presidential aspiring in the ICC boardroom is that the president, vice-president or chief executive at the moment do not actually have a vote, despite being accountable, and also legally liable, for the decisions made by their 13 colleagues: the representatives of the 10 full members, and the three associates.
In a sense this is an index of the frequent distrust around the table. Although all three office-holders officially resign their previous national offices in order to serve, nobody really believes in their independence. But it is a curious body that renders such an important and sought-after role, that of president, so apparently ineffectual. Is it time, Lord Woolf may ask, to vest some powers in the position - if not a vote, at least a right of veto, which might have come in handy when the executive board rushed so heedlessly into downsizing the World Cup? Is it also time to dispense with the none-too-meaningful post of ICC vice-president, invented when Sharad Pawar tried to skip his presidential turn in 2008?
Another dimension of ICC governance overdue scrutiny is eligibility for full membership. It is a constant criticism of cricket that it has barely spread at the elite level in the last half-century. But might that have something to do with the fact that the 10 full members exert such rigid control over its direction, and that in the 45 years since their emergence, associate members have been treated as little better than second-class citizens?
Part of Lord Woolf's remit, then, is effectively to explore just how democratic cricket can be. At the moment, full members are inclined to refer to the ICC as "democratic" when they have just gotten their way; but the need for a two-third majority of full members means that only three full members need take opposition into their heads to confound any initiative.
Is this dominance of ICC by the full members a help or a hindrance to cricket? The full members will argue that restricting chairs at the top table to those countries that play Test cricket ensures the five-day form's primacy. But nobody believes that the full members honour this arrangement because they love Test cricket; rather, is it because they love money, and thereby become entitled to 7.5% of ICC distributions? It is cricket as compliance function, and it comes through in the perfunctory air with which many full members now approach their long-form obligations.
Yet perhaps the overriding question for Lord Woolf and his helpmates is: what should the ICC be? Should the executive board be a semi-regular beano for board presidents seeking to maximise their country's share of the spoils? Or should it be a modern policy-making body composed of a mix of representatives and independent outsiders, whose members owe chief fealty to the institution? Should the executive be treated as the equivalent of low-level functionaries? Or should they be properly empowered corporate officers with the discretion to manage once general policies have been decided on?
Cricket boards - all boards, and not merely the ICC - exhibit a tendency to micro-manage. It is an outcome of cricket's heritage. It is only in this generation that professional administrators have been a real factor in the game's governance; those who sit as directors now were raised in a time when amateur volunteers not only worked as honorary board members but also put out boundary flags and manned scoreboards.
At the moment, the ICC is falling between stools, tugged this way then that by reformers and deformers. Because some countries, there is no doubt, would rather it was reduced to a cipher - a place that just hands out cash and otherwise stays out of the way. Others need it more; indeed, they could make far better use of it than they do. Cricket is lucky: its revenues are more or less locked in until 2015, when its big rights deal with ESPN is due to expire. But its future depends on how it uses the next four years' grace. Lord Woolf is too civilised and courteous a man to huff, puff and blow cricket's house down. But with a deep breath he could make a meaningful contribution to a "wind of change".
Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer