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Decision to run cricket according to commercial interests will cause inequity

Cricket needs a powerful commercial base, and rigorous money management.

Written by Harsha Bhogle | Mumbai | Updated: January 21, 2014 10:14 am
ICC The real issue before the ICC, or the new entity that seeks to be the ICC, is how to balance commerce and development.

The first thing that strikes you about the “position paper” on the future of the ICC (was the leak an act of dissidence?) is how smartly it has been drafted. I got the impression that the people that produced it were aware of where they would be attacked and have put in debating points at the right places.

But debating points are one thing, the basic philosophy is another. The real issue before the ICC, or the new entity that seeks to be the ICC, is how to balance commerce and development. If you start with development as your primary agenda, you should be willing to compromise on profits. Sri Lanka vs New Zealand, both teams in the top eight, is not a profitable enterprise but still it must be played. If however you start with profit and power as the end-objective, then you make concessions to development. My impression, after one reading of a very skilfully produced document, is that development emerges as, at best, a necessary by-product of commercial success.

Profit by itself is not wrong though. Sport is played, and followed, on emotion but it must be run as an enterprise to have a sustainable future. Interestingly, even charitable institutions are learning that you cannot just be a group of well-meaning people bumbling along. But in sport, as in charity, funds have to be generated for common good. And it is in the distribution of funds that this document seeks to create a group of haves.

I can see them arguing that handouts are bad and that the ICC has given enough of it. Certainly some of the “Test playing” nations have little to show by way of development for all the money gifted them by the ICC. Some countries created bloated administrative structures that paid salaries as, well, handouts. And they will argue too that with greater revenue, and by cutting wasteful costs, everyone will actually get more.

But we are likely to get into a situation where the three rich countries of the ICC run the commercial interests of the others, and obviously their own, and in doing so are likely to create an inequity within nations. Even beyond the ICC revenue distribution, not all of these countries will get to play against the big three often enough to generate television revenue. If New Zealand, for example, have to play Sri Lanka, West Indies and Pakistan most of the time, they will struggle to raise enough money to plough back into development. All they are guaranteed in this document is 3 Tests and 5 one day internationals over an 8 year cycle against Australia and England. The document does not say how often India will grant other teams an opportunity. But it does say that if the host nation has a tv deal with an entity that is in dispute with the visiting nation, they needn’t visit! These are the small financial controls that could weaken finances of teams outside the big three.

Graded payments are ok

But is there anything wrong in graded payments? Should Sri Lanka for example, get the same amount of money from the ICC as does India which contributes to 80% of the revenues? India’s argument, indeed that of the big three as stated in the position paper, is they give up on their own income to play ICC events and so it cannot be equal. My impression, and I haven’t been in such forums, is that a fair distribution may not be contested by everyone because inherently you cannot own 1% of a business and get the same as someone who owns 25%. But the question is: who decides the graded payments? If the governors alone decide how much the governors be paid, and there is no dissent allowable in the structure, it becomes an unanswerable monarchy.

The two big talking points are the attack on the FTP and the two-tier system that protects the big three. The moment commerce became the basis for the document, the FTP was going to disintegrate anyway. The assertion is that everyone should be free to make their own profits and not be stuck with unviable series of which sadly, there are many. But that, I believe, is as much an issue with the format they play as with the opposition. And so, if this goes through, expect more one-day internationals and fewer tests among the “others”.

It is not difficult to see that at the root of the financial insecurity of many Test nations is the amount of unremunerative Test cricket they have to play. It is a larger issue that is clouded more by emotion and sentiment than by commercial viability. Test cricket is shrinking very fast (the Kallis farewell match was stark) and outside the traditional rivalries, it is not viable any more. It makes losses and the document says individual boards should be allowed to do away with such unviable activities. It is, even though there is reference to preserving Test cricket as the premier form, an acknowledgement that the oldest form has effectively shrunk. There is a fund to help cover costs though I am not sure if that effectively covers all the costs involved.

As principle, I don’t mind a two tier system because teams must earn the right to belong where they do and not be bestowed it. Each tier has 8 teams and if you are number eight out of eight, you could argue that you deserve to be downgraded. Even that is not easy. You play two home and two away Tests against the winner of Tier 2 and that is as fair as it can get. But I am perplexed by the clause that India, England and Australia will be kept out of relegation. That more than anything else damages this paper. It is very unlikely that either country will finish 8th and if, with all the resources at its disposal it does, and can’t even beat the 9th placed country, it deserves to go down. And in any case, if they finish 8th, they haven’t delivered value to their investors who, therefore, should be perfectly entitled to withdraw their investment.

What happens to SA?

Which leaves South Africa, the finest cricket team in the world today. Are they in a peculiar position of being too small to be in the big three and not small enough to need assistance? Or is South Africa’s administration being bullied a bit here?

There are many other issues but an article of this length can only pick some of those. I hope there is a strident debate on this position paper because I believe some good could come out of it. An attempt to push it through suggests a fear of debate and that cannot be good. It also shows that England and Australia are like everyone else; that when presented the opportunity to be powerful and exclusive, they will take it. I have no doubt at all that if three other countries had similar resources, they would behave identically.

Cricket needs a powerful commercial base, and rigorous money management. But the end objective has to be inclusion and, dare I say, benevolence. This paper focuses on the first and shuts out the second.

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