January 20, 2014

Missing the fundamental point of sport

Cricket needs leadership and reform but setting up an oligarchy in the name of democracy reduces the sport to the level of commonplace commerce

Cricket, with its tiny base, can't afford to shrink further © AFP

Let's dispense with the obvious first. Plenty of things in cricket need fixing, and the ICC would rank near the top of the chart. Cricket can't pretend that nothing has changed when everything has. Also, the changes have not been linear but radical and disruptive. It was about time that the administration caught up.

For the best part of the past ten years the ICC has been a governing body only in name, unable to meaningfully influence either the making of decisions or their implementation, or to discharge its basic fiduciary obligations to the game. The relationship between the executive board and the administrative wing has ranged between open hostility and simmering tension, making it an impossible structure for governance.

The administrators should be grateful that cricket is not a traditional business - if the fans had a vote, the whole lot would have been sacked long ago.

Thus, reform for cricket can come only from within, and it can only come with the BCCI, the game's biggest provider and the most powerful arbiter, leading the charge. However well-intentioned, the Woolf committee recommendations that called for the powerful to willingly disenfranchise themselves were always likely to land in the wastepaper bin. Cricket's shining knight was never likely to charge out of the shadows; change can only be driven by those with the means and the clout to carry it through. It may not be ideal but it is realistic.

Cricket is confronted by major challenges. The current Future Tours Programme, the document that lays the broad framework for bilateral engagements, doesn't take into account the IPL or most of the T20 leagues that have mushroomed around the world, even though it was rubber-stamped only three years ago; the financial disparity between the top three boards and the rest has widened; and the ICC has simply been unable to take a decision about the Test championship. So for the three most powerful cricket boards to start a process to reorganise cricket should only be welcome.

And so we come to the proposals, or the Position Paper as it has been labelled, from a "working group" of the ICC's Finance and Commercial Affairs Committee, which is expected to be put to vote in the final week of this month. The proposals were not, of course, meant for publication, but they fortuitously found their way to us and have been reported in detail on our website.

On the face of it, the BCCI, the ECB and Cricket Australia taking charge of the world game is not such a terrible thing for cricket. If anything, it ends the charade. One way or the other, these three boards have written the rules of the game in the last two decades without being officially responsible for them. The ICC has become a euphemism for cricket's maladministration without ever having the mandate for it from its principal constituents, so for the proxy rulers to officially commit themselves to leadership cannot be the worst outcome.

The top countries playing each other would make economic sense in the short term but the emasculation of the game in the other parts will not merely drain cricket of flavour and colour, it will lead to ennui and fatigue

There are a few good ideas in the proposal. The establishment of a "Test match fund" to support Test cricket in the countries where it is no longer financially viable is a worthy concept. So too the proposals to streamline the spending of the ICC, and the institution of more checks and balances and transparency in the accounting systems. However, through the 21-page document one theme becomes increasingly pronounced: the stated objective is to establish the primacy of members over the ICC executive, but the underlying objective is to establish the supremacy of the three members over the rest. One troika to rule all, an oligarchy in the name of democracy.

And in this it fails the true test of leadership and militates against some of the fundamental canons of sport: to provide level playing fields, give the underdog an equal chance, and promote fair play. Without these values, sport will be stripped of dignity and honour and will be reduced to the level of commonplace commerce. In failing to grasp this, most administrators miss the fundamental point of sport.

Let's take the FTP as a case in point. True, the current structure doesn't work and Test matches between some nations aren't commercially viable. The first problem can be tackled by rationalising the schedule, and as for the second, isn't that the very purpose of the proposed Test match fund? The FTP was established on egalitarian principles, to give every team a fair chance of exposure. To replace it with strictly bilateral deals will be to leave the smaller boards to the benediction of the powerful ones. It carries the risk of turning an already lopsided equation into a hopeless one.

And then of course there is the case of promotion and relegation. I have long been a proponent of a two-tier system, though ESPNcricinfo columnist Martin Crowe has a passionately logical counter to it. This proposal, in fact, seeks to create a three-tier system - with protection granted to India, England and Australia, reducing the concept to a sham. In a hypothetical scenario of these three teams occupying the bottom of the table at six, seven and eight, the teams above them will be relegated. It has been explained away as a commercial decision because cricket will become financially unsustainable without a team like India. It is true - though that is also a good reason to ditch the idea completely. Moreover, if teams don't play each other in a structured format, how will the ranking system work on a fair basis?

That this is cricket's way of embracing market economics is a deceptive argument on two counts. One, sport isn't analogous to business. Two, cricket's ecosystem has been built and nurtured by interdependence. Even among sports, cricket is unique. It has a tiny base and can't afford to shrink further. The cricket boards of England and Australia are fortunate that a devotion to the tradition of Test cricket and the relative wealth of those nations keep cricket in good health, and the Indian board is lucky that the game it runs enjoys a monopoly in a billion-strong country.

The top countries playing each other would make economic sense in the short term but the emasculation of the game in the other parts of the world will not merely drain cricket of flavour and colour, it will lead to ennui and fatigue.

And last, who can miss the irony in the BCCI joining the Security Council-like executive committee with three permanent members? It does smell like a return to the days of the veto, which administrators in the subcontinent found so repugnant. Is the memory of the past so thin that they are condemned to repeat it?

The fears of cricket's apocalypse are perhaps exaggerated, and as it stands, the document is still a proposal. For it not to become policy, the members, while they still have the liberty, must speak with their votes.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here