February 6, 2012

The Woolf report is well-meaning but naïve

Its most important recommendations aim to reduce the concentration of power in a few hands, which is easier said than done

History and acquaintance with human behaviour tell us that power is the hardest thing to renounce. Just this fact makes the Woolf report, in many ways a remarkable document, hopelessly utopian.

At the heart of the sweeping reforms suggested by Harry Woolf, the former chief justice of England and Wales, who headed the independent governance review of the ICC, is the call to those who hold the strings: give up your right to rule, and behave yourselves.

That the ICC needs reform is beyond argument. As an organisation, it hasn't kept pace with the times. It is oligarchic, which is anathema to its stated objective of globalisation. Many of its practices are outdated: it is funded by subscriptions from its members, which it doesn't need; and it distributes the bulk of its revenues to the Full Members, many of whom barely need it. It has often been accused of being dysfunctional, with the management and the executive board pulling in contrary directions.

Historically, governance has always been a problem for cricket. That is largely due to the peculiar construct of the game. Only notionally is cricket a global game. It is a mainstream sport only in ten countries. Of these, nearly half can't generate enough resources by themselves to even pay their own operating costs. Only three cricket boards can genuinely call themselves profitable. And one of them generates nearly three-fourths of all global revenue. Even at the peak of America's superpowerdom in global politics, the scales were not remotely as lopsided.

Two countries ran cricket's affairs for over a hundred years. Their writ ran over every aspect of the game. They made the rules, they drew up the schedules, they decided who could play, and the rest of the cricket world drew up their calendars around theirs. For decades on end, the lot of the have-nots was quiet submission. Then came simmering resentment, and finally, starting in about 1996, the beginning of a shift in power.

The last 25 years have been fractious and rancorous in cricket, and all of it has spilled over to the ICC board, which unsurprisingly has been dominated by the politics of cricket. The decision-making process has been guided by the spirit of give-and-take, with the powerful boards protecting self-interest above all else. This has resulted in repeated policy flip-flops, a porous international calendar, and a distinct lack of focus and vision about the future of the game.

Though there are 13 members on the executive board, it is only the ten Full Members who really count, and the top three, India, England and Australia, hold sway. The veto that England and Australia had granted themselves has been abolished in principle, but in reality it now lies with India. It riles Indian administrators that they get blamed - sometimes unfairly - for all that is wrong with global cricket, but it can't be denied that no major decision can be taken without the approval of the BCCI. This doesn't absolve the other boards, which are complicit by their acquiescence, but it isn't unreasonable to argue that it is unhealthy for one board to wield so much influence.

Since how the ICC is governed is fundamental to how the game is governed, a review of the way it goes about its business ought be welcome. But things are never that simple with the ICC. For a review to serve its real purpose, there must be willingness to act on its recommendations. The ICC is not the first high-profile cricket organisation to have commissioned a review in recent times. But unlike the Schofield review and the Argus review, which were wholeheartedly accepted by the ECB and Cricket Australia, the Woolf review is regarded with a generous dose of skepticism and suspicion by those on whom rests the responsibility for its implementation.

The Woolf review is the pet project of Haroon Lorgat, the out-going ICC chief executive, and it was only grudgingly sanctioned by the executive board. Lorgat's team drew up the terms of reference for the review, picked the team to conduct it, and committed itself to putting the findings in the public domain.

It is one of the many peculiarities of the ICC that the relationship between the executive office and the executive board has long been thorny. Malcolm Speed, Lorgat's predecessor, was sent on gardening leave before his term ran out. Lorgat, who has had to back down on several of his decisions, including the Test championship, the format of the next World Cup, and the Decision Review System, announced his decision to step down last November. It is no secret that he has fallen foul of some powerful constituents of the board, most notably the BCCI, which snubbed him by refusing to send its team to the ICC Awards in September last year.

Though Lorgat would stand to gain nothing from its implementation, since he is due to depart in June this year, the Woolf report will be perceived by some members as his parting shot at the executive board: a review, they argue, can often be influenced by its terms of reference.

That would be a pity because the report makes some excellent recommendations. It seeks to free the ICC of its mandatory obligation of shipping back its earnings to the Full Members, and instead urges it to focus on those who need it the most; it sets out clear parameters of ethical conduct for members of board; and it seeks to clarify the roles of the ICC board and the executive management.

Since how the ICC is governed is fundamental to how the game is governed, a review of the way it goes about its business ought be welcome. But for a review to serve its real purpose, there must be willingness to act on its recommendations

But central to its premise for reform is the restructuring of the board itself, with the induction of independent directors and the eventual reduction in the number of Full Members, from the current ten to four. That's the equivalent of asking America, China, France and England to give up their seats on the United Nations security council.

Curiously, even before the report was tabled, the ICC board announced the creation of the post of a chairman and the repositioning of the president's role, already a non-executive one, to merely a ceremonial one. Lorgat said that was in line with the recommendations of the Woolf report. He was technically right. Such an idea had already been in existence, but it is hard to imagine the rest of the recommendations regarding the constitution of the board being similarly in sync.

Beyond being unrealistic, the Woolf report also makes the naïve assumption that power can be legislated. It calls for the directors, even those nominated by Full Members, to be independent of their parent boards. It vests the right of hiring and firing the chairman in the full council. It outlines an independent nomination process for independent directors. But it ignores the most fundamental truth about power: that it lies with the rich.

The report makes several mentions about the difficulties of implementing a uniform DRS. In fact, the DRS perfectly demonstrates that real influence lies beyond merely having a vote on the board. Of the ten Full Members, at least eight have embraced the DRS in principle, yet they went along with idea of granting the BCCI the right to choose when to use it.

Tellingly, the report describes independence as a "state of mind". Can a state of mind be regulated by a set of guidelines? Who is to guarantee that the appointment of independent directors will be free from manipulation, politicking and deal-making?

A substantial part of the report seems to be designed to redress the balance of power in cricket, and reading between lines, some recommendations - about side deals and loans - would seem aimed specifically at containing the BCCI's influence. In reality it can only be achieved by fixing the financial imbalance in world cricket. Till then any tinkering would only be academic.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo