It is not quite holding the governing body of cricket to ransom with a gun to its head. The action cannot be rendered serious by using the term ‘blackmail’. And parallels with the United Nations Security Council are too fancy.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has behaved like the rich kid in the neighbourhood, the only one owning a bat, who and threatens to leave the game and take the bat with him if he is not allowed to continue batting.
The manoeuvres adapted on Thursday by the richest cricket board of the world were indeed shocking, but not quite unexpected. The BCCI has too tell-tale a track record for even the most obnoxious of measures to carry an element of surprise.
Before BCCI threatened to pull India out of International Cricket Council (ICC) tournaments, the changes variously suggested, proposed and demanded might have sounded outrageous, but there was still some room for debate.
There had already been plenty of talk about multi-tiered approach to Tests, the position of Zimbabwe and Bangladesh as Test playing nations had for long skewed figures and necessitated the minnow vs non-minnow break-ups. The leadership in heralding the changes needed to come from somewhere, and if the richest Board was seen driving it with the support of two strong allies there could be plenty of justification.
For long, BCCI’s mission statement has been simple and transparent— to make lots of money. And the Board has excelled in doing that, grabbing the maximum number of eyeballs — their own vision focused keenly on the bottom line rather than the game.
True, it has all hinted at being geared for financial benefit of the Big Three. The revenue figures have not really been scrutinised in detail;the backup documents, if any, have not been reviewed to verify and validate the claims that the big three have put together. Yet, there are quarters that agree – even if unwillingly – that the huge proportion of revenue generated by the game’s biggest financial provider empowers them with at least some decision making powers.
There is the case of bilateral arrangements threatening to override the established Future Tours Programme (FTP).But, that should not be too surprising either. The FTP had been created to provide financial security to the Full Members suffering from insecurity due to lack of funds or interest in the game. In a syndicate of any sort – be it business, finance, sports or crime –things generally end up with the big fish either devouring, or withdrawing their support for the smaller fry. In this case, at least on paper, there were promises and plans to ensure the sustenance of the Members outside the Big Three.
In fact International cricket run by a select group of Member nations is nothing new. England had done it from the stuffy Long Room of Lord’s until the palpably recent past. There was also an alliance of the Big Two, between the two teams whose supporters could not quite distinguish between Ashes and cricket.
And if ICC is forced to surrender some of its autonomy to the combination of the Australian, English and Indian Boards, what of it? When was it anything but an ornamental organisation that dragged its perpetually cold feet on every matter of minor and major importance? Was an upheaval of governance not required?
Of course there remained concerns — many, many of them. The BCCI has seldom given the indication of looking beyond its coffer. Having suddenly stumbled across the enormous financial clout due to massive interest in cricket in the sub-continent, the Board has splashed around in the riches without quite developing the responsibility that comes with such almost absolute power.
For long, BCCI’s mission statement has been simple and transparent— to make lots of money.
And the Board has excelled in doing that, grabbing the maximum number of eyeballs — their own vision focused keenly on the bottom line rather than the game. They have brazenly demonstrated the trait Stanley Baldwin made memorable in his London speech in 1931, ‘power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot.’ To do this they have for long turned the game into a spectacle at every available opportunity.
This does render their first released statement on Thursday— “in the interests of cricket at large”—exceedingly laughable. There remains plenty of concern about the fate of the game if BCCI is allowed to run amok with its money making schemes.
There is a lurking fear of a return to the pre-FTP days when as many One Day Internationals were squeezed into the Indian schedule as the calendar and cricketing centres could afford, often with perfectly viable Test matches cruelly slashed away with the filthy knife of lucre.
Before the FTP came into vogue, in the eight years from 1994 to 2001, India played 64 Tests, while England took part in 93, and Australia 90, South Africa 81, West Indies 79. Only Zimbabwe played less Tests than India during this period. At the same time, the team led the world in terms of ODIs played — with 249 contested in the eight years.
Since 2002, after FTP, England with 156 and Australia with 140 still lead the field in terms of Tests played, but India is third on the list with 127. And in ODIs, they are no longer at the top of the list. So, FTP has indeed played a part in reining in the greed of BCCI.
However now, with the FTP about to be overridden with bilateral agreements, BCCI has also found a new age instrument for raking in more money by the bushel which overrides ODIs. It is the modern day oxymoron known as Twenty20 cricket. How many will be surprised if bilateral series in the future consist of the nominal Test match — if there is any — followed by an almost infinite number of T20I matches?
The eventuality predicted by some Test match doomsday prophets might indeed be very much on the cards, awaiting a few more hostile takeovers and rule changes over the tottering decision tables of cricket. Tests can indeed soon be limited to Ashes contests while the Indian team cashes in on the low hanging fruits of the T20 craze while it lasts. There can also be the apocalypse of the Indian Premier League taking over the top cricketers with huge pay packets and solid support of the authorities.
But, all that is in the realm of conjectures, speculations and debates. BCCI has gone far beyond that, into the domain of almost puerile financial bullying, artless threats and an astounding amount of arrogance.
The other two Boards have played their cards well. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB)has stepped into a position of power by forging the right sort of allegiance, and is on the brink of being handed back the clout it had carried for long. Cricket Australia (CA) is perhaps acting as an ally to keep the biggest revenue earning Board from breaking away from the game and thus crippling the sport for good. Perhaps either or both of them do have the leadership of global cricket as one of their goals.
However, through suave persuasion or following its own Mafioso-like initiative, it is the BCCI who has volunteered to perform the unsophisticated act of issuing boorish ultimatums. And with that, any meaningful analysis of the situation has ceased to be relevant. It remains to be seen how the ICC reacts to this unprecedented situation.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)