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Indian largesse holds key to cricket's future

Cricket historian and writer Gideon HaighBy Gideon Haigh

Global cricket governance? 

The subject brings to mind Gandhi’s response when he was asked his view of western civilisation: "It would be a good idea."

Cricket does not so much submit to governing as lurch in varying directions.  The latest direction, however, looks like being a long-term one, toward a future suiting the aspirations of Indian consumer capitalism.

There’s a certain sense to this.  India is where cricket is strongest.  Only in India, and also Pakistan and Sri Lanka, can cricket call itself the number one game. 

The Indian state is weak, holding its Commonwealth Games together with Sellotape and a prayer, but the Indian private sector is robust and expansive: the country’s economy is tipped to grow faster than any large country’s over the next 20-25 years. 

The country’s offshore reach is lengthening too.  The boundary hoardings at Australian grounds whenever India play here attest it, while two Australian states now have Indian sponsors, Victoria with DEC and New South Wales with Gujarat NRE Coking Coal.

So if the power to run the game remains nominally vested in the 100-year-old International Cricket Council (ICC), such a huge and growing proportion of the broadcasting and corporate cash to run the game originates in Asia that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) will henceforward hold an economic veto over all major decisions.

In particular, the BCCI controls the world’s two most lucrative cricket attractions, the supranational Twenty20 Indian Premier League and Champions League, which have made the ICC’s Future Tours Program look as redundant a form of direction as a 1970s Melways in the era of Google Maps.

Resistance so far has been not just futile, but embarrassing. England and West Indies threw themselves at Twenty20 Texan Allen Stanford, only to see his billions vanish in the Bermuda Triangle. 

Australia and New Zealand’s mooting of John Howard as a future ICC president was then doomed by the desire of member boards to endear themselves to the BCCI, and remain in the position to continue lucrative touring exchanges. 

Some boards, especially Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, are capable of funding themselves only because of the BCCI’s largesse; Pakistan’s board has been brought to its knees by the loss of its marquee series with its neighbour and nuclear rival.

The other big losers in the making look like player unions and representatives.  The BCCI wants nothing to do with the Federation of International Cricket Associations, and wastes no opportunity to curtail its influence. 

The BCCI decided in September to direct ten per cent of IPL fees to the boards to which players are contracted, and to exclude player agents from all negotiation – a decision of which the last has not been heard by a long chalk.

The BCCI has arrogated power to itself with comparative ease for more than economic reasons.  The fact is that cricket’s global governance structures are not strong, and have depended for much of the last hundred years on an imperial undergirding that has been fragmenting since World War II.

England and Australia both colluded in keeping the ICC weak and ineffective, for the selfish reasons that they were committed chiefly to Ashes cricket, and regarded the rest as representing the white man’s burden.  That meant that as other countries asserted themselves, the predominant culture was one of self-interest – one India has cheerfully embraced.

The trouble is that the BCCI takes self-interest to an almost Ayn Randian extreme, absorbed chiefly by the commercial and electoral interests of those composing it.

Boss Narayanaswami Srinivasan runs the building materials giant India Cements, which owns the number one IPL franchise, Chennai Super Kings, employer of India’s captain MS Dhoni and chairman of selectors Kris Srikkanth.  He also runs India’s powerful chess federation, promotor of world champion Viswanathan Anand. 

The BCCI’s ranks also include some of the country’s most powerful politicians and chief ministers.  Its nomination to the ICC presidency, Sharad Pawar, actually runs his own party, a member of the ruling coalition.

Not surprisingly, the BCCI is a ruthless monopolist.  Where the Australian Cricket Board was prostrated by its encounter with private capital, Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, the BCCI emerged more formidable from its, making short work of Subhash Chandra’s rival Twenty20-for-TV circuit, the Indian Cricket League.

Mind you, it is no less ruthless with its own household.  For the last nine months, the BCCI has been obsessed with extirpating the influence of Lalit Modi, soi-disant commissioner of the IPL, a process that culminated recently in the unilateral abolition of the two franchises closest to him.

So if you want to start understanding the governance of cricket in the 21st century, diversify your reading.  The sports pages won’t have the half of it; a lot of the key battles will be fought out in the reporting of politics and business in India. 

You might also want to keep in mind another line of Gandhi’s, that if India approximated capitalism on a western model, it would "strip the world bare like locusts."

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer.