A candid insight into ICC-think
Malcolm Speed, Sticky Wicket (Sydney: Harper Collins Australia, 2011).
There was a strange, inspiring and disturbing episode during the Second Test between England and India at Trent Bridge at the end of last month. On the brink of the tea interval on the third day, England’s Ian Bell, under the impression that Eoin Morgan had hit a boundary and thinking only of a cup of tea, a sandwich and a slice of Victoria sponge, wandered down the pitch and was run out.
There was little doubt that Bell was technically out, but a partisan crowd was not happy. They booed the Indians back onto the field after the interval, but then boos turned to cheers as Bell reappeared with Morgan – after representations from England captain Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower, it transpired, India had withdrawn the appeal and Bell had been reinstated.
That was the inspiring bit, a remarkable piece of sportsmanship by India. But then the administrators got involved. Within minutes of the resumption, the ECB chief executive David Collier issued a statement in which he claimed that the Indian decision reflected not just ‘the true spirit in which the game of cricket should be played’, but also ‘the excellent relationship between the ECB and BCCI’.
Not content with that, he went on to ‘express the England and Wales Cricket Board’s grateful thanks to the BCCI and the India team’. Then ICC CEO Haroon Lorgat got into the act, issuing a media release of his own, congratulating those concerned on this victory for ‘the Great Spirit of cricket’.
At least Lorgat praised only the teams and match officials, apparently understanding that decisions about what happens in a cricket match have nothing to do – officially, at least – with the governing bodies under whose auspices it is played. But the ECB’s craven sucking up to the BCCI was a sad reflection of what the game has become.
Anyone looking to understand how we reached this point, where keeping the BCCI onside is the only thing that matters in world cricket, could do a lot worse than read Sticky Wicket, the personal memoir of Lorgat’s predecessor as CEO of the ICC, the Australian lawyer Malcolm Speed, though they might have to use a certain amount of ingenuity in getting hold of a copy, since it's shown as unavailable by the leading online booksellers.
Appointed in 2001 and sacked in 2008 after a coup d’etat organised by the then ICC President Ray Mali and a group of Indian cricket magnates, Speed ran cricket’s world body during a crucial period, and as CEO of Cricket Australia between 1997 and 2001 he saw a good deal of what went on in four years which were scarcely less lively.
His book therefore casts invaluable light upon the issues and personalities which dominated the game during that decade: the threat of corruption; the running sore that is Zimbabwe Cricket; rampant commercialism; problems of player indiscipline and the always-latent accusations of racism. And running through it all there is one recurrent thread: the unbridled power of the BCCI and the men who run it.
Speed is pretty candid about a lot of this, although at times one can see the shadow of legal advisors looming behind the text. He is prepared to admit some errors of judgement, and he acknowledges that in the end he was unsuccessful in his ambition to ‘achieve respect, influence, and an appropriate level of control’ for the world body. ‘In the end,’ he concedes, ‘it got worse, not better.’
And of course, since his departure things have deteriorated still further. The woeful mismanagement of the whole World Cup debate, from the initial proposal to cut the 2015 event to ten participants, through the indefensible decision to limit those ten to the Full members, to the miserable, petty, vengeful tactical withdrawal in Hong Kong, proves how much worse they have become under his successor, although to be fair all the elements of that unhappy saga are already present in Speed’s narrative, and apparently in his thinking.
At the very outset of his book, he seems to welcome the fact that under James Sutherland, his successor at Cricket Australia, his own country ‘has emerged as the sub-continent’s closest ally’. Criticised himself by many in cricket for having been ‘too commercial’, he continues to embrace the domination of the game by commercial considerations which, while undoubtedly vital for the health of the sport, increasingly seem to pay scant regard to the long-term welfare of that sport.
It was, we must remember, the alliance between Cricket Australia, the BCCI and their commercial sponsors which initially demanded the ten-team World Cup, threatening to undermine the whole thrust of the ICC’s development programmes.
And that brings me to the strangest and most disturbing feature of Speed’s account: the virtual invisibility of the Global Development and High Performance Programs. These are, you would think, things of which he would be justly proud – in 1997, for example, the ICC had 48 members, by the time Speed departed, that had more than doubled.
The Intercontinental Cup, a first-class competition for the leading Associate countries, was launched in 2004, and the World Cricket League three years later. These are huge initiatives, yet the first is never mentioned in Sticky Wicket, while the only reference to the second comes in the context of Pakistan’s defeat at the 2007 World Cup by Ireland,
Who would guess that this ‘pre-tournament match-up’ was the inaugural Division One tournament of the World Cricket League, or that that competition had since evolved into an eight-division structure in which dozens of Associate and Affiliate countries had gained the opportunity to play at a global level, and through which Afghanistan had achieved their meteoric rise to ODI and first-class status?
While Speed seems to be more interested in writing about Bangladeshi golf courses than cricket’s global development he does, all too predictably, devote three pages to China and the United States, which he describes as ‘two fertile areas for the ICC’. Fertile, that is, in terms of markets: it’s the commercial possibilities of these countries which, in ICC-think, are far more important than their ability to emulate Ireland or Afghanistan – although Speed does repeat his quixotic dream of living to see China play India in an ICC event.
In this sense, Sticky Wicket is more than just an insider’s account of the disaster area that is Zimbabwe Cricket, outrageous episodes like ‘Monkeygate’, and the awful machinations of such men as Jagmohan Dalmiya, IS Bindra and Lalit Modi. It provides a candid and, one suspects, frequently unconscious insight into the habit of thought which uses ‘cricket-playing countries’ to mean the ICC’s Full members (p. 170) and which allows the banditry of television magnates to determine the future of the sport.
Malcolm Speed is, I am sure, a decent and honest man, a good deal too decent and honest for the byzantine world of modern international cricket. But in many respects he manufactured the bullets which Haroon Lorgat and others are now firing, and Sticky Wicket offers, for all the rather watery optimism of its conclusion, a bleak prospect for the future of the game he undoubtedly loves.