How ironic that in the week after Brexit, cricket's custodians are meeting on the premise that more unity and shared wealth is vital to securing the game's future. More fitting is that they are doing it via the ICC's Annual Conference in Edinburgh, where the Scots voted overwhelmingly to Remain.
Two years on from N Srinivasan's Melbourne coronation as the first all-powerful chairman of the ICC, the landscape has changed irrevocably. For one, this will be the first time Srinivasan has been absent from an ICC conference since 2008. A fresh BCCI delegation of Anurag Thakur (president) and Ajay Shirke (secretary) will work alongside the ICC chairman, Shashank Manohar.
A greater change will be the focus of the conference. Rather than arguing over issues like leadership, as was the case when John Howard's candidacy for ICC president was scuppered in 2010, or squabbling over a recut of the ICC events pie as in 2014, this week will look at more fundamental questions for the future of the game. Those questions began to be asked with considerable urgency in April last year.
At the time, it appeared the "Big Three" were on song. At the showpiece World Cup final at the MCG, Srinivasan, Wally Edwards and Giles Clarke all preened in television interviews with Harsha Bhogle, telling the world how they had put cricket in great shape. A centrepiece of their work had been to decentralise bilateral agreements under the FTP, redrawing them between individual nations on the assurance that Australia, England and India would share their national teams around.
The notion of putting the emphasis back onto the members was championed most strongly by Clarke, who in an opinion piece for the 2014 Wisden Almanack highlighted the waste he saw at the ICC's management headquarters in Dubai in ways familiar to Boris Johnson when he was a muckraking newspaper correspondent in Brussels:
"A huge white elephant sits in the Dubai desert, otherwise known as the purpose-built offices of the ICC. The most bizarre part of this monument to profligacy can be found in the chief executive's office: a private lavatory unavailable to the general staff, but insisted on, at considerable cost, at the time of design.
Combine this with huge travel bills, expensive hotel suites, even golf club memberships that, in the case of one chief executive, amounted to $US57,000 per annum - the equivalent of the annual distribution to six Affiliate Members - and the impression is of a business without adequate controls, run for the management, not for the shareholders."
But in the next round of ICC meetings that followed, a couple of weeks after the World Cup, Clarke's attack on the Dubai "elite" was to be turned upside down, as the ICC's broadcaster, Star Sports, addressed administrators with a frank and grim assessment of where the game was headed. The Big Three system, newly minted, was in fact the wrong one for changing times.
"Changes at the BCCI can always lead down unexpected avenues, but at least in this case the evidence is strong that Thakur, Shirke and Manohar are all on the same page"
In short, board chief executives and chairmen were told that while the package for ICC events was performing extremely well, and could expect to continue rising in value, bilateral cricket was sharply on the wane - with the exception of a couple of marquee series. Meanwhile, T20 leagues such as the IPL were carving out an ever greater share of cricket's commercial revenue, and broadcasters were being drawn to them as surely as the more publicly conflicted players.
As Edwards said in March 2014 about the dividends from ICC events: "In reality it's not a lot of money. The most important money is: 'Does India tour you?' We all know that." To be told that bilateral series, even those involving India, were rapidly losing value for broadcasters on the subcontinent and beyond forced a rapid about-turn in priorities.
Fast forward to June 2015 and the annual conference in Barbados, and ICC event revenues were no longer an agenda item. Instead all the talk was of context for bilateral cricket, ways and means of ensuring that every match, everywhere, had meaning and a clear reason for existing. To quote Srinivasan himself: "It is time for all of the members to look at ways in which we can generate more interest and value in our cricket."
If any one series served as the canary in the coal mine for the ICC board's directors it was India's tour of Sri Lanka late last year. For years such tours had been the lifeblood of the game, and India wielded its power partly through the threat of withholding visits unless on-field opponents did the right thing by them in the boardroom. Notably, South Africa had their most recent India tour culled to a skeleton trip for reasons best known to Srinivasan.
But when the Sri Lankan board put this series out to the Indian television market, they were unable to raise the price demanded. Years of budgets predicated on money from such tours were momentarily thrown into chaos. The relatively modest board cash flows of Sri Lanka, West Indies and New Zealand, in particular, would struggle to cope without an India tour, but what if those tours did not bring in the promised amount of money? Cricket would be facing nothing short of its own nuclear winter.
At length, and after going back to the well a second time, SLC did get a reasonable fee for the tour. Yet the episode sent chills down many a board chairman's spine, not least that of Manohar, who has succeeded Srinivasan in moving from BCCI presidency to ICC chairmanship with a rather different agenda from Srinivasan's in mind. He has championed a more collective approach, with more accountable governance, aware that Indian cricket will be greatly diminished if it allows its competitors to shrivel away to nothing.
In that context, with mounting urgency, ICC management, board chief executives and chairmen have been working away at finding a better way to schedule international cricket, and to sell it to broadcasters. There are thus three key planks to the game's new agenda, into which a host of other debates, from day-night Test cricket and player payments for international cricket to the DRS, fold into:
- reforming bilateral cricket into leagues with context
- reforming television and commercial deals for bilateral cricket to be more attractive to broadcasters
- reforming governance to better manage the new landscape
Perhaps the most revolutionary gambit is the idea of pooling overseas television rights into a central deal, along the lines of the ICC events package. This would alleviate the pressure on individual boards to negotiate over contextless and changeable tours with increasingly reluctant broadcasters, while offering television companies greater certainty about what they are getting over time. It would also reduce India's need to continually tour the world as a revenue source for other boards - a model that is close to cracking anyway.
Plenty of unknowns abound in Edinburgh this week. There is no expectation that the issues around bilateral cricket will be solved in the space of a single conference, only the hope that things will continue to move down a path of shared purpose. Changes at the BCCI, in particular, can always lead down unexpected avenues, but at least in this case the evidence is strong that Thakur, Shirke and Manohar are all on the same page.
In exchange for revenue-model changes that can benefit the whole of the game, India are seeking to carve out a more definitive home season, as shown by the BCCI's recent schedule announcement. Such a shift would likely mean fewer India tours overseas, but a more broad-minded attitude about sharing cricket's wealth. As Manohar has said: "I don't agree with the revenue-sharing formula, because it's nice to say that India [BCCI] will get 22% of the total revenue of the ICC, but you cannot make the poor poorer and the rich richer only because you have the clout."
So instead of clout, Edinburgh should see further co-operation, as the Associates and Affiliates, the Chief Executives Committee and the ICC board keep working together on a project that will ultimately affect them all. No one wants to vote out of the current state of union - they cannot afford to.