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During the Second World War, it was Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt. In the car industry, it used to be General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. But the world of cricket will remember 2014 as the year the game got its own Big Three - even if it was really a Big One (India), with two lesser parties (England and Australia) obediently in step.
In July, cement magnate Narayanaswami Srinivasan is set to become not simply cricket's most powerful figure, but the most powerful figure cricket has ever known. The president of the BCCI and owner of the IPL's Chennai Super Kings has arguably been cricket's Grand Poobah for some time, but his installation as ICC chairman will afford him unexampled pre-eminence in the game's governance - as well as unexampled conflicts of interest.
It says something that this was not even the most extraordinary aspect of the Big Three's campaign to revamp the ICC. That honour went, perhaps, to the notion of distribution of money raised by events such as the World Cup and World Twenty20 according to the size of the "contribution" made by the relevant member - massively enriching the BCCI, and somewhat benefiting the ECB and Cricket Australia. Or to the effective scrapping of the Future Tours Programme in favour of touring arrangements secured bilaterally. Or to a ranking system that ostensibly offered possible admission to Test cricket to the ICC's most advanced Associate Member, be it Ireland or Afghanistan. Take your pick: the so-called position paper, prepared by Srinivasan, the ECB's Giles Clarke and CA's Wally Edwards, made previous revamps look cosmetic.
It's not like there was nothing to fix, of course: the BCCI's economic heft has distorted cricket's finances to breaking point, with the health of other boards basically determined by how often their team played India - entailing, it must be said, an unwonted burden for India's cricketers. It was an environment that lent itself to temporary alliances, tit-for-tat wranglings, and negligible strategic thought.
The ICC's members and other stakeholders had condemned it out of their own mouths in 2011, when they participated in what became "An Independent Governance Review of the International Cricket Council". Its authors, former chief justice Lord Woolf and PricewaterhouseCoopers, found the organisation sunk in squabbles, and divided by financial imbalance, with "those in a strong financial position… using that strength to provide leverage to reach decisions that may be in individual members' interests rather than the interests of the majority of Full Members, or indeed international cricket as a whole".
Tabled before the executive board at the end of January 2012, the review made the case for a more active council, with a fully fledged chairman, independent directors and a funding model "based on need". Woolf and his colleagues argued: "The ICC react as though they are primarily a members' club; their interest in enhancing the global development of the game is secondary… The game is too big and globally important to permit continuation of Full Member boards using the ICC as a 'club'." Sensitive to anything that might curb their influence, the BCCI rejected the review as "not appropriate". ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat cleared his desk in June. The atmosphere at meetings grew tense, aggravated by Srinivasan's distaste for Dubai: he was once said to have complained loudly of his inability to find a burger at the airport. By January 2013, relations had broken down irretrievably, as Srinivasan informed other Full Members that he did not feel bound by the ICC's code of ethics to act in the body's fiduciary interests, and that the BCCI reserved the right to exit the FTP if any recommendation of the Woolf Review was even mooted. Further signs of restiveness at the BCCI were the foisting of Srinivasan's protege´, Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, on the ICC cricket committee, and manoeuvrings towards a life ban for his old enemy, Lalit Modi, because of alleged misdeeds in the management of the IPL.
Midway through 2013, Srinivasan experienced pressures of his own, temporarily standing aside from his BCCI and ICC roles when his son-in-law Gurunath Meiyappan was drawn into a new and different IPL corruption crisis. The sight of Srinivasan at bay emboldened both Modi, who plotted a return to the BCCI through his old power base at the Rajasthan Cricket Association, and Lorgat, whom Cricket South Africa, after some hesitation, felt free to appoint as their chief executive. If anything, though, this stiffened Srinivasan's resolve to reshape the ICC - a procedure which the ECB and CA could either collude in or face exclusion from. Pragmatically, they chose collusion. All the while the BCCI were foreshadowing the eclipse of the old FTP by dickering at length over a tour of South Africa to which they had previously committed.
The three-man working group met in London in October, in Mumbai in November, and in Perth in December, co-opting as their scriveners the IPL's chief operating officer Sundar Raman, and CA's legal and business affairs manager Dean Kino. The momentous changes envisioned by the group needed the support of eight of the ten Full Members, so various inducements were devised, from a Test-match fund - to provide grants to boards playing "unviable" Test series - to an understanding that Full Members could "enter into as many or as few FTP agreements as they wish". Lorgat's brainchild, the World Test Championship, was also to be scrapped, with the more lucrative Champions Trophy now restored.
But the Big Three's offer of leadership was mainly a means of entrenching their own position, embodied by a proposed executive committee made up of a representative from each and, a little grudgingly, one other board member: "ExCo would act as the sole recommendation committee… on all constitutional, personnel, integrity, ethics, development and nomination matters."
The Big Three also proposed rotating the chairs among themselves for the executive board, whose importance was now somewhat diminished, and the financial and commercial affairs subcommittee, whose importance was now considerably enhanced by their role in selling broadcast rights to the next eight-year cycle of ICC events (the hosting of which would be shared by the Big Three, with the option of embracing a co-host). It was on a handsome sale price for these - forecast to be in the region of $US2.5bn, a full $1bn more than in the previous cycle - that the new regime was predicated. The Big Three could then argue that, despite their additional rake-off of hundreds of millions of dollars, no Full Member would be significantly worse off - or not, at any rate, once they had been assured of binding and bankable bilateral tours.
When the paper was tabled at a special meeting of the executive board on January 9, curiosity quickly turned to consternation. In reference to the concentration of executive power among the mighty, the Pakistan Cricket Board's Najam Sethi was said to have asked: "So, are you doing a UN Security Council on us?" It was not denied. Not surprisingly, the paper was quickly leaked to ESPNcricinfo, who led coverage of developments. Other mainstream media, by contrast, veered between partisan and apathetic. Initial comment, most of it indignant, focused on the Big
Three's self-exemption from relegation in two divisions, which they first suggested, then ditched. It was actually a stipulation on which they could give way quite easily; likewise their absolute control of ExCo, now made into a transitional arrangement, and leavened with the addition of a further seat. The new distribution model remained stubbornly impenetrable, with "contribution costs" levied by the Big Three explained as recognising "the role of each Member in contributing to generating the ICC revenues required to sustain the game". There was no clarity as to their calculation, beyond the bland assurance: "The agreed principles are sound, and the break-up between categories appropriate."
But on January 23, the contribution costs were rendered non-negotiable at a Chennai meeting of the BCCI's working committee, which magisterially pronounced them "in the interests of cricket at large".
Two days later came the first strong voice of opposition, as former ICC president Ehsan Mani went to the lengths of preparing his own paper, charging that the Big Three had "completely undermined the integrity and standing of the ICC… in promoting their own agenda". Mani wrote caustically: "BCCI, ECB and CA say in the paper that they will provide greater leadership and stability to the ICC and their members. They do not demonstrate how they will do this in any meaningful way." The biggest losers, he argued, were the ICC's Associate and Affiliate nations, some hundreds of millions of dollars worse off.
Mani's protest was joined by a variety of old ICC hands: Mani's predecessor Malcolm Gray, and their chief executive Malcolm Speed; former directors Sir John Anderson from New Zealand, Shaharyar Khan and Tauqir Zia from Pakistan, Saber Chowdhury of Bangladesh, and Ali Bacher from South Africa; and former international captains Clive Lloyd, Imran Khan and Martin Crowe.
Their prophecies of strife and division were lent credibility by Paul Marsh, head of the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations: "The result of this will be that the countries who need ICC income the most will receive the least, while the Big Three will get the lion's share, even though they are already financially healthy because of the value of the rights to their bilateral series. The role of ICC events should be to assist in levelling the financial playing field by distributing the proceeds fairly, rather than further widening the gap between the rich and poor."
The house of the other seven Full Members remained divided against itself. Arguably the three closest to their respective governments, the PCB, Sri Lanka Cricket and Cricket South Africa, most acutely felt the position paper's implicit slight on their stature. They gathered for the quarterly executive committee meeting on January 28 full of outward fight, and deferred a vote on the proposals, while further offers and threats were exchanged.
But India hadn't spent so long in the British Empire without learning something about dividing and ruling. Srinivasan, confined to his home for a period of mourning following his mother's death, participated in the meeting by Skype: shot slightly from below, and with the sun behind him, he loomed rather ominously. Pakistan's Zaka Ashraf stood firm, unmoved even by the offer of three series against India in eight years; South Africa's Chris Nenzani, however, settled mainly for a share of proceeds from the Test-match fund, previously denied to CSA. "It is not a perfect world," he mused. When Ashraf returned home, he probably found himself in agreement: he was sacked.
By mid-February 2014, many uncertainties remained about the new regime: how the calendar would look; how teams would be ranked; how what the authors euphemistically called "certain major domestic cricket events", such as the IPL and the Champions League, would be affected (only favourably, one suspected). The position paper's authors and advocates have justified the expedient on the basis of the dysfunctional relations between the BCCI and the ICC, arguing that, as the BCCI were not amenable to reform, the ICC had to reform instead.
The authors see the "contribution costs" as the price of concord and, even if that doesn't explain why the ECB and CA deserved their enrichments, some justification exists for this view. It's all very well to say that the world must stand up to India; frankly, the finances of world cricket are such that the smaller seven Full Member boards can barely stand up.
In the absence of many checks and any balances, however, a lot depends on the cordiality between ICC members, even the Big Three, and that requires a confluence of self-interests. It may not always be guaranteed. Personalities change; politics and economics are inherently unstable; and cricket, as they say, is a funny game.
Gideon Haigh writes for The Times and The Australian