When Oscar Wilde described a cynic as someone who knew "the price of everything and the value of nothing," he may as well have been describing most cricket administrators.
For this fortnight—this fortnight that may come to be looked back upon as momentous in cricket’s history, is one in which a leaked 21 page document tore back the veil of three cricket boards' poorly disguised avarice, and revealed that they were prepared to endanger the very notion of cricket as a global sport, merely to further their own insatiable greed and wealth.
It would not be overstating the issue to claim that the 21-page draft leaked late last Friday evening constitutes the biggest threat to the sport as we know it in modern times. The draft, incidentally, is expected to be discussed and voted on as soon as next week [January 27th & 28th].
Cricket is on the precipice of massive and fundamental change.
The draft paper, initially thought to have been put together by the Finance and Commercial Affairs Committee of the ICC seems, in fact, to have been the product of months of close discussions between merely three boards: Cricket Australia, the Board of Control for Cricket in India and the England and Wales Cricket Board.
That the paper, drafted by the boards of only three nations, can claim the authority it has in a sport played by 106 nations is, of course, inherently wrong. But the predominance of this triumvirate is historical and entrenched in an archaic system of administration in which the sport’s governing body, the ICC, is comprised of (and therefore dominated by its most powerful) member nations.
The document claims that the ICC should “revert to being a member-driven organisation; an organisation of the members and for the members;" a sentiment the opposite of which was suggested two years ago by an independent report into the ICC, the Woolf Report, which was rejected out of hand by one of the very nations who drafted this antithetical document.
Starting at the very top, the Position Paper tears into the independent, administrative arm of the ICC, accusing it of mismanagement and profligacy of both money and resources. The power is thus removed from this independent arm in a series of measures: the creation of a new all-powerful Executive Committee (ExCo) with permanent memberships for the Big Three, and a rotating fourth member pawn.
The recently created post of the ICC Chairman will rotate between a nominee from one of the Big Three, as will the Chairman of the F&CA Committee; while notably—and we’ll come onto this later—scheduling has been delinked from the ICC with the removal of the Future Tours Programme.
The ICC as an organisation has been in need of a drastic, and ideally complete, structural overhaul, but this, rather than overhauling it, simply destroys what was left of it. There will, under this proposal, be no one, not in spirit nor in material existence, to legitimately restrain or manage the power of the Big Three. It will give birth to a sanctioned oligarchy.
There is a justifiable acknowledgement in the paper that cricket’s finances are fundamentally unstable, with tours from India, and to a lesser extent, Australia and England, essential to preserving the health of smaller nations boards; and the need to establish “self-sufficiency” amongst full members is appropriately recognised.
However, rather than structure a system that helps nurture and foster self-sufficiency, the proposal creates a dangerously uncertain future for nations, other than the Big Three, to the extent that it may ultimately destroy any sufficiency, self or otherwise.
Firstly, and most obviously, the Future Tours Programme—conceived to provide financial stability to full member nations—has been removed. The FTP has been undermined in recent times with a number of series being curtailed, truncated or cancelled. However, its abolishment removes the guarantee, although increasingly flimsy, that a tour from one of the Big Three will help provide sustenance for the smaller nations.
The paper states "it is up to the full member to enter into as many or as few FTP agreements as they wish.” And although both the ECB and Cricket Australia (notably not the BCCI) have stated their commitment to FTP until 2023, it is not required by the draft that they do so.
This financial uncertainty is perpetuated by perhaps the most controversial aspect of the paper which surrounds the concept of contribution and distribution costs. Currently, 75 per cent of the ICC’s revenue is distributed amongst the 10 full members, and the remaining 25 per cent distributed amongst the associate and affiliate members. The paper recommends reforming that model to redistribute money based on the weight of their contribution to the initial revenue. Indeed, the BCCI have been carping about the disproportionality of the redistribution for some time. This is, one senses, a policy to appease he who is most mighty.
Ultimately, the restructuring of redistribution, in effect, makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, widening an already immense disparity in wealth and reinforcing the difficulties of weaker nations. One analysis has calculated that if ICC revenue increases to $2 billion, then the Big Three will receive an additional revenue 108 per cent greater than what they do under the current system. While another has calculated the Small Seven will receive between $27 million and $57 million less over the next eight-year period.
These twin proposals: dismantling the FTP and reorganising distribution, that considerably undermine the weaker full member nations are, in a sense, a brutally harsh test of self-sufficiency.
Much will depend on the commitment of the Big Three to continue touring the Small Seven, but ultimately, what is insinuated by the proposal is that the Big Three are giving the seven other nations until the end of this Future Tours Programme in 2023 to become self-sufficient.
A recurring theme throughout the paper is one of half-measures and superficial intent. In a number of policies, the Big Three can be at least seen to be doing something for the global game, whereas, in fact, the small print of the proposals reveal shortcomings that make such positive steps forward more tenuous.
The Test Cricket Fund is one such policy. Although the fund is commendable on the surface in that it distributes money to smaller nations to help them fund Test cricket, it only kicks in when ICC revenue exceeds $2.25 billion, almost $750,000 more than was achieved last year, and notably excludes South Africa from the fund without any explanation.
The concept of promotion and relegation in Test cricket is the headline grabber and the lede of this paper. And indeed, it does offer more promise for associate and affiliate nations of playing Test cricket than under the current system. However, it still remains far from easy for them to do so.
To be promoted from a second division that incidentally will include both Bangladesh and Zimbabwe (a move that will increase the standing and value of the competition), a team must first finish top, before then defeating the bottom ranked side of the first division home and away in two-match series. Even then, the relegated full member nation will continue to be treated administratively as a full member, and receive 90 per cent of its ICC distribution, the other 10 per cent going to the newly promoted team.
Ultimately it’s a system which has enough checks and balances to make relegation from the top division difficult for even the worst of teams; the humming undercurrent of which is the preservation of the status quo.
There is, of course, no clearer demonstration of such an approach than the extraordinary proposal in a paper with the word "meritocracy" in its title that states "relegation exceptions [!] will be provided to India, England and Australia solely in order to protect ICC income due to the importance of those markets and teams to prospective media rights buyers."
The fact that revenue from bilateral Test series is owned by the boards, not the ICC, seems to have been overlooked when the trio have claimed to be protecting "ICC income" with this move. Even if they're relegated in Test cricket, they'll still compete in the ICC's global 50-over and T20 events, the only events of which the revenue belongs to the ICC!
Elsewhere, alongside their fragile potential for promotion, there is some good news for the six main associates who will compete in the second division Intercontinental Cup alongside Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.
Those six nations are proposed to receive half of the newly calculated figure—expected to be slightly less than the previous 25 per cent—that was divided amongst the associates and affiliates. This, of course, is bad news for the remaining 90 [!] associates and affiliates who will share a little over 10 per cent of the remaining distribution amongst themselves.
This often neglected sphere of the game is the sphere that most needs the ICC handouts. It is thus only apt in a document such as this that they receive the least.
The cheer for the major associates, alongside the transparency required by the beneficiaries of the Test Cricket Fund with regards to how they spend that money (a financial transparency that has never been required of full members, but has of everyone else), are perhaps the only two clear benefits for the sport from this proposal.
It is a paper that further centralises and indeed legitimises power in the hands of even the already powerful, while exacerbating existing differences in wealth and economic strength, and establishing a system of immense fragility. It is a coup. A power grab. The formation of a sanctioned oligarchy. It is, on almost every level, bad for international cricket.
Ironically, the self-interest and greed of Australia and England may well have saved global cricket from an even more dramatic, perhaps even dystopian circumstance. Concerns over India's growing sense of independence have been gaining traction over the past year or so.
Fuelled by a period of doubled profits for the BCCI, and a quote in James Astill's book The Great Tamasha, from then-BCCI President Nirianjan Shah, that seems to point to a future of Indian isolationism, people have begun to fear a world of eight-month long Indian Premier League seasons, and the marginalisation of the game outside India.
It may be too soon for such a world to be feasible, but all the same, the Australia-England alliance with India has at least staved off fears for such a scenario unfolding in the short-term. In doing a deal with the devil, England and Australia may have done cricket a favour: an oligarchy is preferable to an autocracy.
Although saying that, it would be ill-advised for Cricket Australia or the ECB to be clouded by illusions of grandeur. India's predominance over them and the global game remains immense.
So what of the formats? Test cricket is unsurprisingly the format under the greatest threat, largely because of the increasingly frequent mismanagement and poor marketing of it. That is not to say there are not other existential reasons for the declining popularity of Test cricket, but it has not been given anywhere near enough of a chance to develop and grow in a world driven by short-termism and an obsession with quick money.
Test series between the Big Three will naturally continue to take place, at least until the end of the next rights cycle. Outside of that trio, however, the future of Test cricket is a lot more tempestuous.
ODIs and T20s at international level should continue to succeed. The limited overs world will perhaps become more diverse with series between associates and the Small Seven more likely.
The Big Three, meanwhile, will probably continue to branch outside their own existence as long as it remains financially worthwhile to do so. Indeed, there is a possibility that if they do so for long enough, the proposals suggested by this draft paper could be good for the limited overs game. It will certainly be widened, if not deepened, but for how long remains to be seen.
Domestic T20 leagues, most certainly the IPL, will be granted a window free of international cricket. The IPL could and may well be extended. Ideals such as the partnership between the Rajasthan Royals and Hampshire could become more entrenched and common over time and across the world, as the international game is further displaced by the domestic. The cricket itself will continue to evolve and progress at perhaps an even greater speed than the seminal past decade.
Essentially, the future of international cricket under the proposals rests largely on the willingness of the Big Three to foster and grow the game. Indeed, the concept of engendering self-sufficiency outside India, Australia and England is not misguided, it is entirely correct. It is merely that in this world, and considering historical and empirical evidence, the Big Three acting with anyone but their own interests at heart is unlikely, to say the least.
It is the nature of the draft, and indeed the politics of world cricket, that although the paper poses enormous danger to the small seven, some of them, perhaps even all of them, may vote for it.
It is the sad truth of cricket politics that a world with the Big Three, however abusive and vicious their treatment, may still be preferable to a world without them.
Four other votes, alongside Australia's, England's and India's are required for a decision to pass, and the Position Paper is expected to be presented to the boards next week.
It would require the confidence of every individual board in the Small Seven, of perhaps total unanimity against the paper, for all of them to actually vote against it. No one wants to be the lone naysayer. The triumvirate have thrust this proposal upon the other nations; it has come as a shock, a surprise; the professional players association have expressed their discontent; but the Big Three feed on fear and fear is reek in the air.
The health of international cricket by the values of democracy and equality has never really existed. Rather than attempting to save international cricket—to reinvigorate it—to use their wealth to proliferate and expand it, the Big Three are essentially cutting and running towards the future. They are grabbing as much money and power as they can from the international game before the balance of cricket shifts irrevocably towards the domestic T20 leagues whom they so will have fostered and nurtured for the preceding decade.
Nations outside the Big Three have perhaps that decade to somehow save themselves as meaningful entities. Seven of them voting against this proposal next week would be a start.