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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on January 22, 2014, 23:35 GMT

    Look, all this talk about growth means nothing until/unless the sport's powers decide to invest in the US. It's a long-term play, but the most obvious place to reach out to a relative large population of expats to get momentum started. It's unlikely that a US team will be a power on the world stage in my lifetime, but it will never, ever be so unless the sport makes an effort to reach out. The prize? The world's biggest exporter of culture. Get the US on board, other countries follow. Efforts to expand the game in Africa and Asia are small potatoes and don't create a material market. The last real effort was 10 years ago by Alan Sanford, and we know how that ended, but a legitimate grassroots effort could hold major promise. If the ICC continue to ignore the elephant outside its yard, though, cricket will be a regional, parochial sport governed by the few who are interested.

  • Sunil on January 22, 2014, 11:38 GMT

    @ web_guru2003: Fine points in a perfect universe but..

    a) to make cricket popular in other countries, most important thing you need is, unfortunately, MONEY. To earn money, you cut loss (i.e., no test matches which don't generate enough revenue; in other words: All test matches involving countries other 'Big 3'). Vicious cycle, you see.

    b) "Non-performing board should be held accountable".. How? Will Sri Lanka board allow BCCI to probe how they spend fund? Will PCB allow BCCI/ ICC to probe how much money actually go to facilities and how much to private coffers? No, right? That would be violating their sovereignty. So, only option is to cut the 'freebies' offered to such boards and let them run their cricket more efficiently! Otherwise these boards will leach-on to BCCI money for ever!

    And given that these people hate BCCI (and India) despite BCCI regularly 'helping' these boards out, it makes no sense to continue to do so!

  • Web on January 21, 2014, 22:29 GMT

    Primary objective of ICC is to make cricket popular and not make more money. All of the arguments I see in comments that are in favor of this draft proposal have one thing in common. "Big three should get more money coz they make more money" or "oh why should big three feed countries when they cant make money their own"

    Yes ICC should be run professionally but not for making money for his shareholders but for spreading the sport of cricket. If some country is not spending the funds properly, that board should be held accountable instead of stop funding to the board.

  • Dummy4 on January 21, 2014, 21:17 GMT

    Firstly the whole idea that every letter in the proposal is a farce is ridiculous.The proposal is masked in great ideas but nearly all are in the vested interests of the Big 3.The idea that NZ has less people than Delhi is true but to cut New Zealand is what is obscure.If you want more Indians in teams make a league don't demean black caps contribution to cricket.

    I agree with Indians on the idea of the distribution of wealth is unfair but other than that this proposal is preposterous and if passed will result in the end of ICC like the league of Nations

  • Jason on January 21, 2014, 8:38 GMT

    @Argho5, what are you talking about there are rules in regards to the size of bats, the weight of the ball, etc, an adult Bat must weigh between certain 1.2 and 1.4kg, and cannot exceed 108mm in width, or 965mm in length. and must be made of wood (Appendix E dictate the specifications).

    In terms of the ball it must weigh between 156 and 163 grams, the colour has traditionally being a shade of red as it is the easiest colour for the eye to pick up. The White ball was introduced for ODI's as an aid for day/night games as its the easiest colour to pick up under flood lights.

  • Dummy4 on January 21, 2014, 8:36 GMT

    If we learn from history, eventually big three will get control they desire. They will also get supprt from likes of Mr. Sunil Gawasker who will spin the argument by saying why did the world take so long to raise voice against Australian/English dominance before 90s. NZL will happily tag along with CA. CSA is opposing only because their current relationship with BCCI is not good. In long term, teams like Pakistan, Srilanka and Bangladesh will suffer most. Before FTP, it took TCCB ages to invite Srilankan team to visit England for their maiden series in England. We will return back to those days. Big three playing 5 tests series against each other while rest living off the scraps.

  • John on January 21, 2014, 8:13 GMT

    If all 10 countries will get the same amount from the ICC, where is the need for countries like SL/BD etc to try to make revenues. All SL does is call India for a tour when their coffers are empty due to mismanagement. Say BCCI gives US$100 million to ICC and gets back 10 like every other country, what happens when they give 200 million the next year and get the same 10% and SL contributes nothing and still gets the whopping 10% ?

    I think its fair that the larger contributors take up a bigger role and play it impartially. After all they did not become big by sitting on their backsides. Let every country innovate and generate revenue. Hire Lalit Modi if you must !!!

  • Arvin on January 21, 2014, 7:50 GMT

    If you leave the administration in the hands of Lawyers and Businessmen, that is what you will get. The goal of a businessmen is to maximize the money and that is what will drive his/her decisions. In today's world, business is not anymore about maintaining or building a brand but to mint as maximum possible money and in shortest possible time.

    If ever there is a discussion to revamp ICC, first goal should be keep the people at the helm who know the game of cricket and understand its values beyond what money can measure. The lawyer and businessmen could stay at lower ranks to help but not to make decisions.

  • Kev on January 21, 2014, 7:32 GMT

    The Big Three leading the world cricket would probably a good thing. As economics has proven time and again that when poor nations keep receiving aid from the rich ones they seldom prosper because much of the financial aid ends up in the pockets of the powers-that-be!

    Cricket has to take roots on its own. The big three can encourage to allow cricket to grow naturally; not merely by throwing money at smaller and weaker countries.

    With all the money that has so far been thrown at these 'infant' cricketing nations has only produced negligible results.

    Leadership is not about money but inspiring nations to create their own.

    Sometimes the adage 'necessity is the mother of invention' holds true. When countries realise that they have to find innovative ways to rise up, it might probably do a world of good.

    Many African countries have seen levels of poverty going down, not because of financial aid from the west but because they have come up with their own schemes to develop.

  • Dummy4 on January 21, 2014, 5:11 GMT

    Same with the opportunity for aspiring cricketers. An Indian kid has to compete with tens of millions of other kids to have his shot at limelight whereas an NZ kid has to compete with a only a few thousand at most. Who is at a disadvantage here?

    The obvious solution is to create more teams where there is a huge demand for cricket, where there is a huge number of kids aspiring to play the game. Forcing cricket down the throat of non-interested countries just to maintain status quo while also restricting opportunity (to both play at the highest level and watch highest level cricket) in places like India where there is a huge demand isn't going to help the game grow.