Thakur’s exit could pave the way for a better game

Tim Wigmore on how the Supreme Court’s decision to remove two of cricket’s most powerful men can herald a positive change

Cricket governance is an arcane world and nowhere more than India. To which most fans would say: so what? After all it’s the cricket, not the internecine squabbling off it, that is the point of the game.

The trouble with this attitude, though, is that it ignores the huge hidden power of administrators to shape the game – sometimes for good but, in recent years, more often for bad. The men (and they are almost always men) in suits have not been scrutinised enough, and in so many ways – from the continued lack of structure in Test cricket, to the proliferation of context-free two-Test series and ubiquitous bilateral ODI series to the ludicrous contraction of the World Cup and the shameful hoarding of money and power by Australia, England and India – cricket has suffered.

In an ideal world, then, sports administration could be left unreported and ignored, but such a utopia is as absent in cricket as in the rest of the globe.

Which brings us to the week’s news from India. Essentially, the two highest office-bearers of the Board of Control for Cricket in India have been removed from office by the Supreme Court. It is the culmination of a year of bitter squabbling, after the Lodha Committee, which was established by the Supreme Court, advocated a comprehensive overhaul of the workings of the BCCI to make it fit to govern, above all by eradicating conflict of interest. Remarkably, Anurag Thakur, who was the BCCI’s president – and therefore the most important administrator in the entire world – was simultaneously an MP for the governing BJP: a flagrant conflict of interest. As ESPNCricinfo editor Sambit Bal put it, the BCCI was run like “an archaic oligarchy”.

This is not just a local dispute, but one that could shape the future of the sport. Cricket’s beating heart resides in India, and the sheer economic power of the country – somewhere in the region of two-thirds of the value of ICC TV rights are said to come from India – guarantees it great heft in how the sport is run. And in recent years India’s economic power has transformed the ICC. In 2014, India colluded with Australia and England to push through sweeping changes to the governance and structure of the ICC. Essentially the three proposed to take control of the ICC’s power and money, threatening the other seven Full Members with cancelled tours – and effectively financial ruin – if they did not sign up.

Since Thakur took over as BCCI president, last year, India’s relationship with the ICC has returned to being antagonistic. Essentially Thakur did not get on with Shashank Manohar, his predecessor as BCCI president, and now the ICC chairman – because Manohar has publicly denounced the ‘Big Three’ takeover, and wants to spread power and wealth to do what is best for the game.

“The problem with the ICC now is that it is acting like a dictator,” an unnamed BCCI source had told The Indian Express recently. “Apart from the Big Three model that the ICC now wants to change, it is slowly trying to keep the BCCI at bay.” The BCCI has shown an increasing propensity for picking fights – like complaining that the budget for this year’s Champions Trophy, in England, is too much.

And while the BCCI has done some admirable work in recent years, like establishing player pensions for domestic players, too often it still treats fans terribly.

The organisation of last year’s WT20 was shambolic. Risibly, Dharamsala, which had never hosted a match of such magnitude, was awarded the India-Pakistan match (Thakur is an MP in the state), until it was moved to Kolkata for security reasons at ten days’ notice. And in Nagpur during the WT20, Scotland fans were locked outside the stadium; there were many thousands of free seats inside, but tickets could only be bought from the old ground, some 18km away.

In essence, the Supreme Court has delivered a simple message: cricket, you can do much better. The Supreme Court’s target might be the BCCI, but really it should apply to all who run cricket.

For too long, the sport has lacked any proper vision at all. Instead, it has been run on the basis of maximising short-term cash, and grubby politicking and alliance-building between different Full Members.

Matches are scheduled not on the basis of fairness, but of which generate the most cash: Michael Clarke played 57 of his 115 Tests against India or England. Smaller nations have voted with the big ones because it is in their economic interests to do so. There has long been a joke that, whenever India raise their hands in ICC meetings, so, unthinkingly, do Zimbabwe.

India have toured Zimbabwe four times in six years – just playing short limited-overs series, and invariably resting many players, but nevertheless effectively bankrolling Zimbabwean cricket through the commercial rights for the games. All the while, the Associates – who don’t have a vote, and therefore can’t offer anything to the Full Members – have been locked out, as highlighted by the risible nine ODIs Ireland played against Test teams from 2011 to 2015. Conflict of interest has been endemic in the very make-up of the ICC: representatives of Full Members are charged with taking decisions for the overall game.

Where cricket goes next, in India or elsewhere, is unclear. But the Supreme Court has created an opportunity to tilt the BCCI towards being more independent and better-run, which would lead to more long-term thinking for the global game, too.

The timing could be opportune indeed. The coming months loom as pivotal for the future of cricket. Up for grabs is the very wellbeing of the international game, and whether it can remain vibrant and avoid being submerged by domestic T20 leagues. The ICC is discussing adding Afghanistan and Ireland as Test teams, creating a proper structure for Tests, bringing back the WT20 to take place every two years, making the tournament more inclusive, and creating a new 13-team ODI and T20I league, giving bilateral cricket context and structure while growing the sport. It also wants to revisit the egregious ICC reforms of 2014, which gave more ICC cash to Australia, England and India combined, and share the wealth to do what is best for the sport.

That is some agenda – a belated recognition that the ICC recognises the depth of the challenges facing the international game. It will only pass with India on side, committed to doing what is best for the sport, and others – above all Australia and England – putting their own history of opportunistic and selfish administration behind.

If the promise of newly enlightened governance in India is acted upon, and it heralds an era of better administration in other Test nations and the ICC being empowered to take decisions for the long-term health of the sport, then the Lodha Committee could be a boon to the health of the world game. We can only hope, but prospects for cricket throughout the globe are better than a week ago.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, January 6 2017

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