A tenth World Cup. A fourth Indian Premier League. England, then Australia, hosting India. For cricket, the year of 2011 holds golden promise. That gold, though, is proving more difficult to handle than it should.
Is cricket corrupt? One finding on this question will be returned on February 5, when the judges who last month heard charges of spot-fixing against three Pakistani cricketers publish their deliberations. Whatever the result, it won't be pretty. Even assuming the charges stick, there is precious little for cricket to congratulate itself on: it took a tabloid newspaper, then a parallel police investigation, to make most of the case.
There is, moreover, a disturbing inattention among cricket's governing classes to the matter of corruption in their own ranks. Players at least are bound by a code of conduct. By what are administrators bound? A classic definition of corruption is "authority plus monopoly minus transparency". What form of words could better describe your average member board of the ICC?
The risk of administrative corruption is something cricket tacitly acknowledges. Last October, after an ICC executive board in Dubai discussed corruption as a general issue, chief executive Haroon Lorgat followed up with a letter to each member organisation, in which the ICC sought to "remind all registered players, support personnel and Member Board officials about their responsibilities, our clear stance on corruption, the need to abide by the ICC Anti-Corruption Code and that failure to do so could result in severe penalties". One paragraph is worth citing in full:
The Board was also determined to ensure that any other form of corrupt activities in the administration of the game (i.e. outside of the international players and support personnel group who are covered by various rules and regulations) should be rigorously dealt with to protect the integrity of the game. In this regard the Board agreed that any substantive allegations against any individual involved in the administration of the game should be thoroughly and independently investigated, unless there are disciplinary processes contained within the constitution of a Member Board for a credible review to be held internally.
In one respect, it put the boards concerned on notice, that houses not in order should be made so. It also, however, exhibited some of the ICC's limitations. The word "substantive" looks innocuous enough in this context - after all, who would be expected to investigate something "insubstantive"? But what about when there is disagreement about "substantivity", as there evidently is between Mtutuzeli Nyoka and Gerald Majola, respectively president and CEO of Cricket South Africa, in the matter of the bonuses
rained on that body's executive after the second Indian Premier League? And what about when there is disagreement about the adequacy of internal disciplinary processes, as there is between the BCCI and its erstwhile wunderkind Lalit Modi in respect of the many and varied allegations against the latter? So what starts on the right rhetorical track - "determined to ensure", "rigorously dealt with", "protect the integrity" - wanders off in such a way as to afford ample wriggle room.
And exactly what "severe penalties" did the ICC really have to brandish? The ultimate sanction, one supposes, would be suspension, which was mooted in some punitive circles last year for the perennially dysfunctional Pakistan Cricket Board. Yet it is surely only a very last resort, because the sufferers would chiefly be blameless fans, mainly those in Pakistan, but also those who recognise the team as cricket's most exorbitantly talented and mercurial.
So what does the ICC have to hand where enforcing any sort of minimally acceptable behaviour on its members is concerned? The answer is: not much. Bear in mind that it has taken a decade for the ICC's member boards to recognise it as an appropriate forum for the policing of match-fixing, following the failure of their individual whitewashings. The only concerted attempt to get to the bottom of the activities of a member was the insertion of forensic accountants into the Augean stable of Zimbabwe Cricket, which three years ago cost Lorgat's predecessor his job; around even the PCB in the last six months, the ICC has trodden warily, anxious not to look too doctrinaire.
There is, however, more and more reason for concern. In south Asia, where so much of cricket's wealth is located, corruption is a daily, deep-rooted fact of life. On the annual corruption index published by Transparency International, an NGO, India (87th), Sri Lanka (91st), Bangladesh (134th) and Pakistan (143th) all rank in the bottom half of the table.
The PCB does nothing to discourage the view that the bribery and graft endemic in Pakistan civil society does not pervade cricket also. Nobody batted an eyelid last year when Lt Gen Tauqir Zia recounted a conversation with a "gentleman" who rang him during his four-year PCB chairmanship:
"So he said, 'So-and-so player should be included in the team because he fixes matches and we get money. You know, that's our livelihood.' So I said, 'Ah, I can give you appointment and a job in Pakistan Cricket Board. Why do you have to earn money, you know, in a wrong manner?'"
The caller declined the job - apparently he was making enough money where he was, thanks. But welcome to a country where a match-fixer can apparently ring the board president and be offered a gig.
Sri Lanka Cricket, meanwhile, was last year dubbed Sri Lanka's third most corrupt
institution by the country's own sports minister Chandrasiri Ratnayake, who then promptly broke his promise of reform. Capable of the instant constitution of a star chamber to punish Suraj Randiv for bowling a no-ball
, Sri Lanka Cricket has somehow proven incapable of organising an election of office bearers since its so-called "interim committee" was appointed in March 2005, or of doing anything about last year's allegations by former captain (and former ICC executive board member) Arjuna Ranatunga that "the money that comes from TV rights deals has gone into the pockets of some individuals".
The game contains too many people living too comfortably, who find it expedient to look the other way, and not just in its administrative echelons, but players, agents and media too
As for India, where last year's headlines were all of the Radia Tapes and the 2G scandal, and where one estimate is the country has been illegally bilked of as much as 40% of gross domestic product since independence, the strategy of the BCCI of simply heaping blame on Modi has worn thin.
When they appeared recently before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance, the BCCI's three senior officials simply disclaimed all responsibility for their organisation's breaches of the Foreign Exchange Management Act during the second IPL, sidestepped the funding of IPL franchises through tax shelters like the Bahamas, Mauritius and the British Virgin Islands, and otherwise impressed as accountable to nobody. With a year to move on from Modi, the BCCI has made slow progress on restoring faith in its processes: approximately nobody who watches the IPL, for instance, believes, rightly or wrongly, that the salary cap is other than cosmetic, and that player retention has not been engineered to benefit vested interests.
Treating corruption in cricket as a south Asian problem, however, is unjust. The cricket economy is global, and the challenges affect everyone, a pursuit used to counting its pennies having abruptly become wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice. In some respects cricket is like a poor but happy soul suddenly in receipt of news about a vast inheritance, and as a result surrounded by a host of new "friends" who want to "help" him - although, of course, they also expect to be rewarded for it. The game contains too many people living too comfortably who find it expedient to look the other way, and not just in its administrative echelons but players, agents and media too.
Cricket administration is also experiencing a cultural shift from residual claims to a philanthropic status - for which it enjoys in many countries an exemption from tax - to something resembling more closely a publicly listed company, but for which it is yet to accept proper degrees of commercial oversight, continuing to arrogate to itself the respect due a charity ("We are doing this for the good of the game!") while doing nothing to disguise its profit motive ('We've got to maximise stakeholder value!").
Direction in that climacteric will have to come from the ICC, which for all the BCCI's status as financial bellwether, is still a major distributor of revenue to the world's far-flung cricket community. This year, containing as it does a World Cup, the ICC will distribute hundreds of millions of dollars among its members - yet it will lose all oversight over those monies the minute they are disgorged. How sure can the ICC be that these funds will actually enrich the game, given the involvement of often small local organisations with few financial controls and essentially no probity checks? Will the ICC be able to ennumerate the constructive playing, organisational and infrastructural ends to which these payments have been put?
The answer is that they can't, but that arguably they should, that a system essentially of self-regulation is coming to a point where it is inadequate to guard cricket against the influence of those who are chiefly parasitic on it, and that a system where the difference in the standards of behaviour expected of those who play the game and those who run it now gapes too wide. It should be an exciting year for cricket, but excitement passes; of abiding public respect and trust does the game also have a need.
Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer