The sovereign republic of the BCCI
At one point in his excellent new book on the modern powerhouse of Indian cricket, The Great Tamasha, James Astill stops to wonder whether India is becoming "an oligarchy, a democracy stage-managed by a corrupt super-elite". One might harbour exactly the same thought about cricket.
Consider this: under the ICC's Future Tours Programme, the BCCI was scheduled to visit South Africa between November and January for three Tests, seven ODIs and two T20Is. Except that in July the BCCI began to dicker about the schedule, in the same way as six months earlier it had refused to be pinned down on the matter of a schedule for a tour of New Zealand, also listed in the FTP.
Never mind that South Africa and India, first and third on the ICC Test rankings, represent probably the best cricket we have a chance of seeing in the present environment. Never mind that Cricket South Africa, like New Zealand Cricket, is an organisation whose finances depend acutely on television revenues, of which the presence of an Indian cricket team would afford them a share; in fact, that was the point. Then the BCCI announced that India will play two home Tests against West Indies, not part of the FTP, partly overlapping with the time previously allotted to the South African tour. It is now possible there will be no visit to South Africa at all.
On all this, there was no elaboration whatsoever, official or unofficial. In positing nine possible explanations for the Wisden India website, Suresh Menon observed that the BCCI had gone beyond its usual domineering ways and was "functioning like a secret society". All that seems agreed is that the BCCI and CSA have a feud. We know this because CSA's chief executive, Haroon Lorgat, has offered to apologise, which apparently BCCI's locum president Jagmohan Dalmiya thinks is a good idea without troubling to specify for what - something that transpired when Lorgat was running the ICC, one must assume. Dalmiya was certainly sorely grieved when Lorgat shifted the India v England match from the badly incomplete Eden Gardens during the 2011 World Cup.
The other salient fact is that the BCCI has its annual general meeting coming up on September 29, the overpowering presence at which will be its il capo dei capi, N Srinivasan, temporarily restricted by the betting misadventures of his son-in-law in the IPL but still the master string-puller. Since the May allegations about Gurunath Meiyappan, and about spot-fixing in the IPL, the BCCI has lurched about like many a debauched and embattled political regime.
Quick private inquiry to exonerate all concerned - thank you, former judges Chouta and Balasubramanian! Rehabilitation of former enemies it is now expedient to embrace - sorry that we once expelled you "for life" for corruption, Mr Dalmiya! Morale-boosting tributes from selected kiss-ass courtiers - congratulations, Mr Shastri, on a Sardesai Lecture that had it been delivered in North Korea would have brought a blush to the cheek of the Dear Leader!
The decision to superimpose West Indies' visit on what should have been the trip to South Africa is double the fun. There's crude populism - hey everyone, let's cheer for Sachin's 200th Test! There's gratuitous gunboat diplomacy - if you want our money, Mr Lorgat, you better beg for it! And it coincides nicely with the meting out of "justice" to the previous regime - that means you, Mr Lalit Modi! Because that general meeting has already been designated for imposing a life ban on the IPL's Icarus-like founder after a three-year investigation found… well, not as much as it wanted. After all the initial finger-pointing, the BCCI's star chamber had to work pretty hard to make the crime fit the pre-ordained punishment, because in the end he has really only been convicted of the high-handed unilateralism for which he had always been known, and in which the BCCI had previously indulged him. Perhaps his misdeeds lie elsewhere; perhaps the charges themselves achieved the desired end anyway.
To be fair to the BCCI, cricket administration is hardly to be associated with transparency and accountability anywhere. It is the domain of self-constituting national monopolies. Cricket boards have no shareholders to appease or voters to placate. The cricket-loving public, in whose name administrators sometimes purport to govern, are diffuse, unorganised, and care little about who's running things, providing they enjoy a bit of what they want every so often - whether that's semi-regular ebullitions for Sachin in India, or the maximum Ashes cricket in Australia and England. Unlike players, bound tight by codes of conduct, boards essentially police themselves, with all that that entails. What some regard as cricket's overall governing body, the ICC, has the barest powers of oversight, and receives from most of its directors only perfunctory attention: they have not visited its headquarters for nearly 18 months, preferring to meet in a resort at colossal expense while complaining that the council costs too much.
This is actually a subtext of the present imbroglio. None hold the ICC in such conspicuous contempt as its largest member, the BCCI having declined to sign the FTP and now setting a precedent in ignoring it altogether. The casus belli was the Woolf Review, a thorough examination of the governance of world cricket initiated by Lorgat, which in February 2012 made high-minded, far-reaching and arguably unrealistic proposals for turning the ICC into a full-fledged governing organisation with independent directors.
The BCCI was having none of it. The ICC govern in the interests of cricket? Not on Srinivasan's watch. And as it happens, a tiny chink of light is available to study this by: it's a copy of the minutes of the ICC's January board meeting, which has for many months been passing surprisingly unremarked on what we might call Modileaks - Lalit Modi's idiosyncratic but entertaining website.
For connoisseurs of shambolic governance, these minutes contain much to savour, but let's confine ourselves to two nuggets. Firstly, at section 6.2, you will find an attempt by ICC ethics officer Sean Cleary to raise Clause 3 of the council's code of ethics which binds ICC board members to act as, amazing to say, ICC board members. Let the minutes record: "Mr Srinivasan explained that he did not agree with that principle and that his position was that he was representing the BCCI." Singapore's Imran Khwaja, one of three Associate member representatives on the executive board, then pointed out the bleeding obvious, that "this matter needed to be resolved one way or another in order to avoid directors technically being in perpetual breach of the Code of Ethics and for the ICC to be seen as a credible organisation and an effective Board". And, of course, everyone then stepped delicately round the multi-billion-dollar elephant in the room.
In order to convey his point, Cleary rather bravely invoked examples of ethical failures at FIFA, the International Olympic Committee, and Union Cycliste Internationale: "He emphasised that the current version of the Code of Ethics binds everybody, but that if it is flouted by all, then it becomes meaningless." Yet rather than an address what might be regarded as a pretty fundamental point, Srinivasan responded by calling on Cleary to investigate "certain matters, which relate to the former Chief Executive, Mr Lorgat".
What this means, who is to say? Innuendo now swirls around Lorgat in much the same way as it did around Modi, with nobody showing much interest in clearing it up - not even journalists, happier these days to feed a swirl of rumour than do anything so vulgar as unearth a fact. Anyway, precisely nobody was prepared to point out the manifest absurdity of Srinivasan's position - the board member who openly scorned the code of ethics in his own case demanding that it be applied to someone else.
Secondly, at section 9.3, ICC legal officer Iain Higgins attempts to lead a discussion of the FTP agreement, whereupon Srinivasan explains why the BCCI refused to sign it. Let the minutes record:
"Mr Srinivasan explained that the BCCI's position was that it wished to retain the right to unilaterally terminate the FTP Agreement: a/ in the event of certain financial or structural changes emanating from the implementation of certain recommendations from the Woolf Report; and b/ should it be required to use DRS in any bilateral matches. In the meantime he explained that the Indian national team would continue to play the fixtures in the FTP Schedule, but he noted that it was finding it difficult to continue the commitments because there are so many events in the calendar."
Well that's jolly nice of them, then.
Incidentally, although Modi is being a little cheeky posting these minutes online, there's really no reason for them not to be freely available. They concern matters of significance to every cricket fan, and contain no information that could be described as commercial-in-confidence. An administrative class that took transparency and accountability seriously would make all such deliberations public. We are in a day and age of whistles being blown left and right. Yet we know more about the internal policies of the US' super-secret National Security Agency - thanks to Ed Snowden - than we do about the attitudes and purposes of those who run cricket. So let's get it out there, shall we?
The BCCI represents itself at the ICC in open defiance of the council's code of ethics, and deigns to play other countries only in an unspecified "meantime", reserving the right to set the whole of international cricket at nought if anything should happen it doesn't like. If it won't acknowledge it publicly, then we should spread the word ourselves.
For the moment, international cricket under the foregoing conditions quite suits the BCCI, preserving its freedom to reward those in favour, to punish those out of favour, and generally to intimidate the equivocal. Those favoured at the moment evidently include the West Indies Cricket Board, whose captain was among those who obligingly changed their vote on the ICC cricket committee away from Tim May of the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations to Srinivasan's water carrier Laxman Sivaramakrishnan.
The BCCI gave the WICB a nice fat tri-series three months ago; now the WICB has returned the compliment by volunteering to provide extras for The Tendulkar Show. NZC now also enjoys a crumb from the rich man's table, a truncated visit by India being not only confirmed but brought forward, now that its mettlesome chairman and ICC executive board member Chris Moller is about to depart.
The out of favour obviously include CSA, despite the fact that four years ago it was CSA that made possible IPL 2 at the 11th hour. The trouble was, of course, that this abetted the BCCI's previous regime, the Modi-Pawar-Bindra alliance, rather than the present mob, the Srinivasan-Dalmiya-Sundar Raman junta; given the latter's manicheanism, that probably constitutes giving aid and comfort to the enemy. (In the annals of cricket administration, by the way, the relocation of IPL 2 must now be eligible for some sort of hall of shame, given its legacies of crises and ill will at both CSA and the BCCI.)
As noted, CSA is acutely beholden to the BCCI. The members of its superb Test team are in their playing and earnings prime, and understandably eager to play in the IPL. The country's six professional franchises depend heavily on the BCCI-led Champions League, in which CSA, with Cricket Australia, is a minority shareholder. Rightly or wrongly, some in South Africa sense that the BCCI's long-term aim is to prostrate an on-field rival, perhaps also by levering CSA out of the Champions League and replacing it with the ECB, thereby pauperising South African first-class cricket. So while the wranglings of administrators can seem as remote to the everyday fan as supersonic fighters in the stratosphere, they are, under the influence of an over-mighty BCCI, forming part of a more worrisome pattern. And what happens when Srinivasan's unspecified "meantime" expires?
From your more militant apologist for Indian power in cricket, response to observations like the foregoing usually condenses to: well, tough luck; you ruled; now we rule. Yet this misunderstands the nature of the change in cricket's patterns of governance. In the hundred years and more that authority emanated from Lord's, cricket was run along the lines of an English public school, at least as defined by Lytton Strachey: anarchy tempered by despotism. Under the economic dominion of the BCCI, the world is converging on the opposite model: despotism tempered by anarchy, the anarchy coming mainly from within India itself. For the BCCI is an organisation with many more problems than are sometimes acknowledged - full of ambitious people pulling in different directions, operating in an uncertain political, commercial and legal environment, shaped by a turbo-boosted economy that has bestowed its benefits unevenly and whose impetus is currently faltering.
At an operational level, ironically, the BCCI is an increasingly impressive and efficient organisation, which probably deserves more credit for what it does and how it does it: allegations of player corruption in the IPL have been dealt with capably and expeditiously. At a governance level, however, it is an arena of self-advancement and self-aggrandisement.
External fights the BCCI is inclined to pick, like the current feud with CSA, sometimes look like the phoney foreign war confected to distract from an American president's personal peccadillos in Wag the Dog. "The president will be a hero," says the political fixer. "He brought peace." Someone quibbles: "But there was never a war." Explains the fixer: "All the greater accomplishment."
Certainly the BCCI annual meeting is being treated with outsized importance. Dalmiya has deferred consideration of the dispute with CSA until afterwards: "What we will decide we will decide only after the AGM. We are very busy with our AGM at the moment." Hey, never let the triviality of competition between the world's two best cricket teams stand in the way of something really important, like a meeting of administrators! But if we accept the BCCI at its self-estimation, there is a logical conclusion to this, in which international cricket, especially Test cricket, dwindles independent of its relations with India.
For some time, there have been essentially two tiers of cricket: the tier involving India (significantly lucrative) and the tier that doesn't (where, with the exception of the Ashes, the rewards are so thin that Sri Lanka can hardly afford to play Test matches any longer, and Zimbabwe and Pakistan must play consecutively at the same venue). The latter can only weaken further; the former is ripe for rationalisation.
One of the most fascinating passages in Astill's book is an interview with BCCI vice-president Niranjan Shah, the board's longest-serving member, who runs cricket in the region of Saurashtra, thanks to a membership populated with friends, relatives and cronies that has not changed in 20 years. From his secure vantage point, Shah regards the cricket world simply as an irritation. Why does India have to send cricket teams abroad anyway? The IPL lights the way: all should come to India as supplicants.
At the moment we are getting money only when there is an international game. So I think IPL is the first step on this issue. Like in baseball, America is not worried whether other country is playing or not. Because cricket is a major game here, so we should not depend on whether England or South Africa come to India to get money…
ICC is trying to control us. That's my feeling. Most of the other boards do not like that we make so much money and that their revenue depends on whether our team goes to play them. So the whole thing has been reversed. For cricket the only market in the world is India. The market is here. So we will control cricket, naturally.
Shah isn't exactly one of cricket's leading-edge thinkers, being remembered at the ICC for his fervent denunciations of T20 during Malcolm Speed's period as chief executive: he declared it an abomination to which India would never be reconciled. Yet Astill came away from their conversation with the feeling that Shah represented the BCCI's "majority view". This may or may not be true. What it more likely reflects is the prevalence of a view at the BCCI that the cricket world's only proper attitude to it is one of homage.
For the time being, as it negotiates a broadcast deal for the cycle of events beyond the 2015 World Cup, the ICC is relatively secure. But it is also in the throes of reviewing its group structure, specifically the use of the British Virgin Islands by its development arm, and its revenue-distribution model, including how it will handle the allocation of its next lot of rights monies. Late next year, too, an option is exercisable on the ICC's headquarters under which it can be "put" back to the building's developers, Dubai Sports City.
The council could emerge from the process a very different-looking entity, most likely a smaller one, relocated to somewhere like Singapore and reduced to a kind of provider of auxiliary services, although still available to blame when things go wrong. Such a step would be unobjectionable to most cricket publics, who identify the council mainly with fiascos - overlong tournaments, unintelligible playing conditions, the DRS passim.
That would leave the way open to a long-awaited extension of the IPL season. In the IPL, the BCCI created a mighty sporting product that was also a rod for its own back. The league in its original specifications and duration was only a marginal commercial proposition for franchisees: why invest in a sporting brand name in order to leave it inactive for nine or ten months of the year? As soon as private capital entered cricket, the rules were different - its impact has simply been deferred, not avoided. The one thing of which we can be fairly certain is that the interests of cricket will be the least concern of anyone with influence over the decision. The predominant motivations will be individual ambition, commercial advantage and potential political gain, and by the time we're told what has happened, there will be nothing to do about it.
Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer