Cricket’s Palace Coup Threatens the Game

The three wealthiest national cricket associations are attempting to take near-total control of the sport’s international governing body. By doing so, they may be able to maximize revenue in the short- and medium-term, but they will cause significant damage to cricket in the long run.

For non-cricket fans, a brief primer (cricket fans can skip the next two paragraphs): cricket originated in England and spread to many countries in the British Empire. The top countries in world cricket are (in alphabetical order) Australia, Bangladesh, England, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, the nations of the West Indies, and Zimbabwe. Other countries where the sport is growing in popularity include Afghanistan, Kenya, and Ireland. As far as the game itself, Americans can think of it as a sort of weird baseball. For the rest of the world…there isn’t much else that is similar to cricket. It’s a bat and ball game where one team tries to score more runs than the other by hitting the ball very far.

The International Cricket Council (ICC), the sport’s governing body, is an oligarchy of the cricket boards that represent the ten nations in the first list above. These are the Full Members, and they have authority over the sport and its competitions. Below them are the 37 Associate Members, which do not have any significant say in the running of the game but can participate in a variety of regional and inter-continental competitions. The Associates include countries like Ireland, Canada, the USA, Namibia, Scotland, and Fiji — a very diverse group of developed and developing countries. All of them have cricket competitions at some reasonable standard and a committed following for the game. The lowest rung on the ladder are the Affiliate nations, where some cricket is played according to the Laws of the Game, but the general standard of play is low and the sport has a very small following.

The most influential and financially successful cricket boards represent India, England, and Australia. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is by far the wealthiest national association due to the game’s massive following in that country and the attendant value of television rights for cricket. In the last few months the BCCI, Cricket Australia (CA), and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) drafted a plan, in secret, whereby they would take de jure control of the ICC — several steps beyond the BCCI’s current de facto supremacy. The national teams of India, England, and Australia would be guaranteed places in cricket’s top competitions, no matter their success or failure on the field of play. These three boards would also be granted a larger slice of the ICC’s revenues, more in line with the amount that each actually generates (India, for example, generates about 80% of the ICC’s revenue).

On its face, the financial side of this seems eminently fair. Why should the governing bodies of the top countries subsidize the other boards? Those poorer national associations simply need to make more money. Market success should be rewarded.

The problem for cricket is that sport doesn’t work that way. At least not entirely. Sports need some level of competitiveness between teams. Not necessarily perfect parity, but a balance of forces — the underdog has to have at least a chance to win, otherwise there is no point in playing or watching. And if people don’t watch, then there will eventually be a pocketbook hit for the top teams.

To achieve that balance, the poorer cricket boards need subsidies to be able to survive. The top Pakistani players get paid almost $6000 less than the lowest category of players who pull on an Indian shirt (about $34,000 vs. $40,000). Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the West Indies in particular have inferior facilities and fewer coaches to develop players, and this has an effect on the quality of play. Sports need a variety of possible results at the start of any contest to keep fans — their revenue source — interested. Taking money away from the poorer national associations and giving more to the wealthier ones will only serve to make results more predictable, eventually reducing the game’s audience.

This isn’t the only problem with the proposal from the Big Three. Not only does it attempt to destroy what competitive balance exists in the status quo, and to stack the deck against the poorer associations, it also destroys any chance of growing the game. By asserting the principle that the boards which make money should keep it, the ECB, CA, and BCCI are putting international cricket on a course of ultimate irrelevance and decline. Without subsidies and competitive national teams, the sport will probably decline in the countries where it is popular now, and the monotony of playing just each other in tightly-fought contests will eventually wear thin for fans of the Big Three.

Cricket’s best hope is to support the rising Associate Members with increased funding and the opportunity for more of them to play at top international tournaments like the Cricket World Cup. There will certainly be a phase of adjustment, perhaps a long one, during which the long-time powers will beat up on the newcomers. But the medium-term costs of this approach will allow the game to grow beyond its traditional power bases into new countries. See, for comparison, what FIFA has done for world football and the IRU has done for rugby union. Football is the world’s most popular sport because the money from the game has been spread around (to be sure, some times wastefully) and teams outside of Europe and South America have been given a chance on the world stage. At first, many of those teams embarrassed themselves. But eventually they have built up a strong football culture and they have become more competitive in international competitions. Rugby has also grown because of financial support and opportunities.

Cricket administrators have become convinced that their responsibility is to maximize revenue. It isn’t. It is to encourage more people to play and watch cricket, and to support players so that they can excel. The Big Three’s palace coup sacrifices both of those goals for financial gains now, and puts the future of the game at risk.

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