ICC presidency: handle cricket with care

There’s plenty of ways to measure the health of cricket. How many people are paying to get in, of course. Television ratings, column inches, blog posts are another.

But there is a more intangible way of measuring the health of cricket, and that is in the emotional commitment of those same spectators to the game. One of the most delightful images to come out of the Headingley Test was actually a row of spectators, all dressed up in Superman outfits, with Monty Panesar style beards and turbans.

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Of course, getting dressed up to go to the cricket is a long standing Headingley tradition. You can see a Batman & Robin duo in the photo, and a couple of Homer Simpsons, as well.

But in identifying with a particular player, these fans in the Super Monty Panesar outfits are making a statement- they are big fans of the guy, and really enjoy his efforts for England, to the point where they are willing to make an effort to show the world.

It is also a symbol, I think, that the emotional commitment between England’s cricket team, and its fans, is in robust good health. It has in fact been in good health for a long time. Even in the darkest days of England’s cricket in the 1990’s, the fans cared, and the England team have always responded to that. They were not always able to respond with runs and wickets, especially in Australia, but all three England captains Down Under made it pretty plain that they really got a kick out of the support that they got.

The Barmy Army and the Western Terraces of Headingley aren’t the only way that fans can show their commitment to their team’s cause. The cricket public all around the world are pretty good at letting their heroes know that they admire their deeds. However, it is not only deeds. The fans respond to effort even more then they do to results.

As a teenage cricket tragic, I worshipped the ground Alan Border walked on, for example, even though Australia regularly were getting hammered. Not only was AB usually the only player able to save Australia from defeat, but he was also the most obviously pissed off player about the entire situation.

Conversely, Ricky Ponting lost some marks in the eyes of Australian fans last year because he did not display appropriate annoyance at losing the Ashes. That is not entirely fair to Ponting, as I am sure he would have been in quite as much a ‘kick the cat’ mood as I was, but he did not demonstrate his emotions in the way that Border would have, or as Warne was so obviously doing.

It’s the whole emotional ‘empathy’ thing, I guess. And in cricket, the more there is, the healthier the game is.

There was a time when ICC’s entire staff, from the President to the janitor, would have understood what I meant in using something as intangible as emotions as a way to measure the health of world cricket. I’m not quite so sure about that now, though.

Of course, that is because ICC has changed beyond all recognition in the last dozen years. The ICC President was usually not aware he even WAS the ICC President, because he was of course also the MCC President. Cricket in those days ambled through the seasons, the Ashes were fought tooth and nail, the county seasons came and went, and there were the occasional jaunts to more exotic climes.

Of course, it wasn’t all bread and honey when amatuer gentlemen ran the cricket world. Those MCC Patricians never did have much empathy for the actual players, seeing them as cogs in a team instead of as individuals who were trying to make a living. I’m certainly not advocating a return to a bygone era that will never return. You only need to look at the mess that West Indies Cricket Board makes of things to see what the Old Order of cricket was really like.

These days, the ICC is a professional, corporate outfit that is charged with running cricket and promoting the game around the world. And in many respects, it does a very good job too.

I’m constantly torn though between admiration for what the money-minded executives who have dominated ICC in the last decade have done for, as well as to, the game. Jagmohan Dalmiya and Malcolm Speed have turned the ICC from a side office at Lords to a major power in the global sports stage in barely more then a decade. Now ICC resides in the United Arab Emirates, away from Lords; who knows, by 2020 they may reside in their own corporate Tower of Babel.

They’ve done a lot of good for the game, slowly spreading the seeds of expansion. Events like the ICC Continental cup are spreading the game to all sorts of places, and even if the standard is low at the moment, you have to remember that spreading cricket is like an growing an oak tree; it takes a while to gather momentum.

The best bit of all was probably managing to wangle an insane amount of money out of News Corporation’s GCC arm for the television rights for the 2003 and 2007 World Cups, and Champions Trophy tournaments. The Champions’ Trophy has been mismanaged something shockingly, and is widely derided, but it’s a small price to pay for the robust good health that the game is in.

So these positives have to be borne in mind when tackling ICC for its more ridiculous follies that it has foisted on the game. The Future Tours Program is the principle atrocity that comes to mind here, although the admission of Bangladesh, and the failure to deal with Zimbabwe, and to a lesser extent the USA and Kenyan boards also springs to mind.

Oh, and the ICC Superseries.

Okay, I’ll stop now.

How does cricket solve the riddle then? We need to have professional managers running the game, to deal with the ever increasing intractability of dealing with complex issues like broadcast rights, stadium management, and managing an international sport played by people across the full range of human conditions. And cricket wants to at the very least hold its ground as a primary sport in the nations where it is played.  Yet often these same professional managers are sometimes ridiculously tone-deaf to the nuances of the game, and the people who are interested in it.

The ECB provide the most damning indictment of professional managers running cricket. It reaches the confines of lunacy, as the great Wisdon editor Sydney Pardon put it, that Test cricket in England has now become regarded as merely a money-making device for the ECB, and it is now not shown on terrestial television over there. I cannot recall a more stupid, retrograde and thoughtless administrative decision by cricket administrators, except perhaps the ICC blunders that I mentioned above.

What is needed is of course an ICC Presidency that is worthy of the name. The ICC President should not actually need to dirty his hands with the actual running of the game, in the way that Dalmiya did. He should be an Elder Statesman of the game, who supervises the administrators, and vetoes their sillier proposals. He needs to have authority and dignity that is respected throughout the cricket world, and be thick-skinned enough to ignore the abuse that is sure to come his way.

You probably didn’t know that Ehsan Mani was the President of ICC, did you? I had to look it up too. I understand the need to ‘rotate’ the Presidency, but surely Pakistan could have provided someone with a bit more authority then that? Imran Khan would have been ideal, although I gather he’s quite a divisive figure within Pakistan society.

I am confident that ICC, even under the Presidency of Ehsan Mani and being run by Malcolm Speed, is in relatively good hands. I’m pretty optimistic about the future of the game, in the global sense. However, cricket is also a delicate plant, and it needs tender care. Reforming the Presidency is a good place to start.