Gone once, twice and sold

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Where goes the money, there follows the cricket

Gideon Haigh
Gideon Haigh
Australian Journalist

THE FIRST PRESIDENT of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, put it best. ‘Yesterday, the Ukraine stood poised on the brink of a great abyss,’ he said, in his inaugural parliamentary address, adding, ‘Today we have taken a great step forward.’ Such is the state of international cricket, poised to do away with structures a century and more in the making, but rendered helpless to do otherwise by the ineluctable momentums of commerce.

That’s not to say that parts of the system aren’t ripe for some creative destruction. But there are aspects of cricket’s new dispensation, which lie disconcertingly unexamined, amidst moments of excitement and personal and national ambitions.

Surreal estate Vijay Mallya, Lalit Modi, Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta and Ness Wadia at an IPL player auction
Surreal estate Vijay Mallya, Lalit Modi, Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta and Ness Wadia at an IPL player auction
Photo: Reuters

Consider one modern lamentation common among traditionalists, among whom, I might say, I am generally to be counted. It is that ‘Cricket is run too much like a business.’ This is misconceived. The International Cricket Council looks nothing like the standard unit of modern commerce, the publicly listed corporation. Its shareholders are not dispersed and voiceless; they are concentrated and inclined to vociferous rivalries. It has no power over who sits on its executive board, having to cop whomsoever is sent by the sovereign national associations, which control it. Its presidency rotates on a fixed-term basis, and incompetence is no bar to appointment.

The ICC’s biggest and most historic enterprise, Test matches, generate losses for the majority of its shareholders. In return for absorbing these losses, those shareholders receive dividends derived from the ICC’s other commercial properties, including World Cups and Champions Trophies. The ICC exerts no control over the use of these dividends. Nobody knows exactly how the dividends are spent – whether they genuinely contribute to the benefit of the game, or of certain sticky-fingered individuals.

The shareholders are wracked with their own problems. One, India, provides the lion’s share of the cash and others are loath to cross it. Meanwhile, at least three — Pakistan, Sri Lanka and West Indies — are on a Ukraine-style financial precipice. But neither the ICC nor its member boards have any authority over the most lucrative properties so far conceived in global cricket – the ostensibly ‘domestic’ T20 competitions conceived in India, the Indian Premier League and the Champions League. This is despite the fact that the players these boards have developed and groomed are the feature that makes those properties work in the first place. I could go on, but you get the picture.

We’re watching a process of privatisation — we’re being sold something we thought we owned

You could argue that cricket’s problem is not that it is run too much like a business, but that it isn’t run enough like a business. There are good cultural reasons for this, emanating from the way cricket control boards were originally structured to run domestic firstclass competitions, with representation based on the local and regional teams they are made up of. But even at the country level, those arrangements look anachronistic. Does anyone really understand how the Board of Control for Cricket in India is elected? Is anyone prepared to swear that it is a transparent, democratic process in which the ablest candidates are always chosen? Not that an Australian should necessarily point the finger, but Cricket Australia recently overlooked the obvious choice for its own chairmanship, Mark Taylor, in favour of an Adelaide solicitor, Jack Clarke, for the sake of interstate harmony. Jack’s a genial old hearty, but if ever there was a time when a smart ex-player with worldwide respect would have been useful, it is today.

In one respect, the traditionalists have it right. Cricket is tightly in the grip of commerce in the sense that it has lost the sense of existing for any other purpose. The priorities of business can be witnessed in the supersaturation point reached by international competition: television demands a constant supply of new, live product, good or bad. Turn on your television, flick idly between the Test match here, the IPL game there and the one-day international everywhere, and one sees not competition but content, created simply to be sold to the highest bidder. ‘Sport is business,’ warned Lamar Hunt, progenitor of World Championship Tennis. ‘And business is business.’

This invites an always-useful question: cui bono? To whose benefit? The answer has never been straightforward where cricket is concerned. For all that the game’s past provided for the enjoyment of fans, the ambitions of players and the pride of patriots, it also shored up old imperial structures and political prejudices. But there is a sense that the game’s present has become so thoroughly subverted by economic objectives — the interests of broadcasters, advertisers, a group of entrepreneurial administrators and an elite of international players — that the rest of us must accept our lot as simple customers at the end of the assembly line.

What we’re watching then is akin to a process of privatisation – that is, we are being sold something we thought we owned. The game, which administrators once held in a kind of public trust, is becoming a private sector product – the same kind of transfiguration that occurs in the bottling of water. During the Boxing Day Test, I attended a lunch of Cricket Australia where the chief executive, James Sutherland, referred incessantly to me and others like me, who love cricket, as ‘cricket consumers’. Is that all we do? We do, bollocks, I thought. It was then that I started thinking about Leonid Kravchuk.

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