In the wake of the outrage against the Big Three takeover of the ICC in 2014, a sentence, or variations of it, came to be commonly used by the administrators of the ECB and Cricket Australia. Broadly, it went: “Better to have the BCCI in the tent, than having it pelt stones from outside.” Apparently the BCCI was ready to walk out of the ICC if the revenue distribution model wasn’t recast in its favour.
Three years later, it looks like the clock has been rewound: the BCCI has been left out of the tent, and prominent among those pushing the needle back are the ECB and CA, and they have been led by the ICC’s first independent chairman, a prominent cricket administrator from India, who vacated the top job at the BCCI to take up the leadership of global cricket.
On the surface this appears to be a masterpiece in strategy and execution. The chief architect and guiding force behind the Big Three proposal, N Srinivasan, was removed long ago, and the BCCI leadership has since been flattened by the Supreme Court of India, leading to confusion and chaos. Many of the smaller national boards had been steamrolled into signing the earlier constitutional amendments, so with the ECB and CA on their side now, what better opportunity to isolate and corner the bully?
But is that really the case?
There is no doubt that the Big Three amendments needed to be overturned. The Asian nations had railed for years against the veto granted to the imperial powers (England and Australia), and yet the Indian cricket board joined forces with the ECB and CA to secure decisive control of the ICC. Much of the planning had been done in stealth, and more than the distribution model, which granted the BCCI over 20% of the ICC’s revenues, and nifty hikes to the ECB and CA, it was the governance structure that really stank.
It mandated that the chairmanship of the ICC would rotate between the Big Three for the next three terms, and it gave permanent memberships to these three boards on the two most powerful committees of the ICC. At its most benevolent, the message to the rest of the boards was this: it’s for your own good that we will rule you.
How could it possibly be wrong to pay the BCCI back in its own coin?
Let’s get the simple question of propriety out of the way first. Paying someone back in their own coin is the rule of the streets and of high schools. The ICC has forever been a beehive of intrigue and deal-making, but transparency and good governance have been buzzwords in recent months, and the secrecy behind the revamping of the revenue redistribution and the haste in trying to get it approved have smacked of the same kind of opportunism and scheming that was a feature of the Big Three heist. It is incredible that Giles Clarke, a leading light of the Big Three proposal as the ECB president at the time, and a vocal defender of it in subsequent months, should also be part of the working group tasked with its unmaking.
That aside, this bit of manoeuvring contains multiple thorns. For a start, it takes world cricket politics squarely back to the pre-2014 era, with the BCCI outside the tent, growling and waiting for its turn to strike. It is bad in principle to have a disgruntled member in a small society, but if that member turns out be the one holding the purse strings, you’re asking for trouble.
Just as there is no exact science with which to determine which country contributes how much to the ICC’s central revenue, there cannot be an exact formula for distribution of revenue. There seems to a consensus that the BCCI, cricket’s largest economy by a distance, ought to receive the largest share.
What that share should be is a matter of perspective. There is a view, which I share, that the wealth should be shared more equitably so that nations disadvantaged by the size of their fan base or economic conditions are able to sustain a certain level in the game, since the global game isn’t sustainable with only three or four major players.
The other view, which finds wide resonance in India, is that a 20% share for the BCCI is hardly unreasonable, given that it contributes nearly four times more to the global cricket economy than any other country, and it has to support an infrastructure many times the size of any other, given the geographical vastness and the population of the country.
It’s an argument that can be settled only through negotiation.
There was indeed an opportunity for engagement. Under Manohar’s brief presidency, the BCCI itself had agreed to a reduction of its share, with only one dissenting voice. But as ICC chairman, Manohar chose to exclude the BCCI from the committee formed to revise the financial model, while co-opting members of the ECB and the CA. Is any significant global trade negotiation conceivable without the US at the table?
And do the rest now expect the BCCI, or even the court-appointed committee of administrators, to simply accept a figure that has been arrived at in good faith? Of course, international cricket survives on inter-dependency, and the IPL could never have reached the heights it has without the participation of global stars, but just as Indian cricket cannot flourish in isolation, cricket’s global revenues will simply collapse without India’s participation.
Over the last couple of weeks I have spoken to several senior officials of the ICC’s global broadcaster and there is unanimity over the assessment that the Indian market alone contributes nearly 70% of the value of the rights; if you include the various Indian diasporas, that figure is in the region of 80%. India’s withdrawal from the Champions Trophy is unthinkable, and the consequences will be disastrous for all concerned, but the Members Participation Agreement, signed in 2014, does give them the right to do so, and the broadcast agreement does allow the broadcasters to pull out in such an eventuality.
The point is not whether this will happen; the question is about the soundness of the strategy to marginalise and isolate the game’s largest stakeholder (it’s a word cricket’s administrators are increasingly fond of) from the decision-making process and paint it into such a corner that it will lay in wait for the opportunity to extract vengeance.
Already, there is nervousness among cricket boards over the matter of bilateral tours with India, the most reliable source of income for many boards, and by April, when the next ICC board meeting is due, it is likely that the voting equation will have altered.
The pity is that this was avoidable. There was the opportunity, and the environment, to forge a collaboration for a new global order in cricket. The BCCI has never been the most loved organisation either at home or abroad, but a transformation is under way. To launch a strike against it at a moment of weakness is, above everything else, bad politics.
Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo. @sambitbal
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