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 Many of its practices are outdated: it is funded by subscriptions from its members, which it doesn't need; and it distributes the bulk of its revenues to the Full Members, many of whom barely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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Karandeep on February 9, 2012, 12:01 GMT

    This report will be a forward step to cricket if the recommendations are implemented. There should be rule that a minimum of 7 homegrown players should in an team's eleven. The idea of full member status without tests of the report is also a very gud one because tests can be harsh to newer teams. One day, hopefully, a good person will come as an ICC president who will think about the development and globalization of the game rather than spoon-feeding the FULL MEMBERS

  • Sanjiv on February 7, 2012, 1:08 GMT

    I read Lord Woolfe has not run a commercial business himself, ever, although has many prestigious appointments. Hence his somewhat academic and naive recommendations that are ".. the equivalent of asking America, China, France and England to give up their seats on the United Nations security council." Lorgat got the wrong person to write the report. Such a shame for some of the recommendations are sound

  • Dummy4 on February 6, 2012, 20:38 GMT

    It may be naive but just imagine if the Woolf report was implemented. The gains for the 95 non test members of the ICC would be massive. Increased funding, a greater say in how the game is run, more chances to qualify for global tournaments (Surely a 16 team World Cup and a 20 team World Twenty20 should be the minimum to expect?), and a chance for Ireland and the other leading associates to break through the glass ceiling and actually play test cricket. Let us not forget that less than a year ago the ICC tried to block all of the non test members from playing in the next World Cup. As it stands it is not 'fit for purpose' and the sooner the vast majority of the Woolf Report is implemented, the better for cricket as a whole.

  • sasikanth on February 6, 2012, 18:03 GMT

    How can the BCCI fund cricket boards across the world which cannot support themselves and let them have equal say in all matters? With the exception of the Ashes, It is no secret that series invovling India make the most money. The DRS has been a good example but the WADA code is also worthy of mention in this discussion. The Indian players could not commit to the WADA code as they needed to inform the board their whereabouts at all times. Guys like Sachin, Dhoni and Sehwag are invited to so many events and are involved in so many ad-campaigns and promote so many brands, it is impossible to notify your whereabouts constantly. As a player it must be annoying, they are not criminals under house arrest! Issues with the DRS are well known and thats a case for a different day. I dont feel India is misusing and abusing its power. Obvisouly they are not kings if their players did not even show up to the ICC awards ceremony. If they were misusing power, then India would get all the awards!

  • John on February 6, 2012, 13:48 GMT

    Is it not reasonable for Cricinfo to express an Editorial opinion on the merits/shortcomings in the report rather than a prediction of what the raw balance of power outcome is likely to be? A new Chairman ( Sir Rod Eddington would add real value) may be able to work miracles in getting the Board to improve it's governance of the overall game. Difficult but not impossible.

  • Hritam on February 6, 2012, 11:37 GMT

    That means this brilliant recommendations would never be implemented? Cricket will never go forward? What a pity!

  • Cameron on February 6, 2012, 10:17 GMT

    Good article on rehabilitation. On that them, a question to the community. Were we better off in the old days before professionalism? Boards had to be financial on their own account to be able to invite and send teams overseas, whichever way they could. There was the adventure of playing in far away places almost at random and the novelty of playing a foreign team at home seldom seen. Rules were set by a single entity, with little or no political connotations - play by my rules or don't play: it is a game after all and all games have an arbitrary set of rules. The players played for the challenge of the sport and to be competitive as a team. Nothing raced through my veins more than the anticipation and excitement of following a test on the radio at school in the 70's and 80's. The boys were always asking the question of the radio owner. What's the score? Nowadays it is all about who scored a hundred and who is up for the chop. How do we bring back the old days?

  • Dummy4 on February 6, 2012, 9:27 GMT

    Still naive, alien. He(Lord Woolf) must have done a good job previously. He's missed this one though.

  • B on February 6, 2012, 8:31 GMT

    It's easy to assume naivety but I prefer to believe that Lord Woolf knows exactly what he is doing. Whatever the recommendations, perhaps half will be implemented. If the report compromised for the sake of making every recommendation achievable, far less would be achieved in the long run. Readers should be made aware that Lord Woolf presided over a hugely complex and controversial reform of the litigation process in England, and frankly cricket's closed-shop politicking is playground stuff by comparison.

  • Dummy4 on February 6, 2012, 7:55 GMT

    So since BCCI is the goose with the golden egg, lets kill it, oh common guys , its not that only BCCI is the nut job here , when Dalmiya took over ICC , it was a loss making organization, he changed into the profit making story that it is today, subsequently also made India the hub for change. Every country gets its share, not just India , and why should India agree on something that they don't like.

  • No featured comments at the moment.