Cricket

SA cricket on the precipice

2014-01-23 14:01
Tony Irish (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – The Proteas care deeply about their No 1 Test status in the world and would be “very unhappy” if they were left to predominantly play minnows under a possible, commercial superpower-engineered new dispensation for the global game.

VIDEO: Jonty Rhodes on ICC's 'big three'

So says Tony Irish, chief executive of the South African Cricketers’ Association, in response to moves by the “big three” powers – India, primarily, plus England and Australia – to wrest primary control of top-tier cricket from umbrella body the International Cricket Council.

Here are his thoughts in an in-depth interview conducted this week with Sport24’s Rob Houwing:

Is it true to say the ‘big three’ of India, England and Australia are campaigning to effectively become the International Cricket Council? Or at least pretty much the equivalent of an all-powerful Security Council, a la United Nations?

Yes, that’s totally what it is about and it has huge implications for cricket worldwide. It is the effective control of the supposedly global body of cricket, by three countries. It is against the ICC’s constitution, and it is also just plain wrong that three countries can dominate and control the ICC, which has 10 full members and 106 other members. So three countries are aiming to control the global game ... and they benefit from this.

Cricinfo’s Indian-based editor Sambit Bal has described the bid as the creation of “an oligarchy in the name of democracy that reduces the sport to the level of commonplace commerce”. Is that also a good assessment?

Yes, this is all about money and control. It is about short-term enrichment for those three countries, but there will definitely be long-term impoverishing of the game: the rich will get richer and the poor  will get poorer, and in cricket terms that means less money invested into the countries needing it most and fewer countries that will be competitive at the top level. You cannot continue to play more and more cricket between three countries and expect that to be a global sport.

It sounds as though South Africa in many respects will simply become best of a frighteningly impotent rest ... though I read that even Pakistan may benefit more from the new dispensation than we do?

I think there are two ways in which this will affect us, as South Africa. One is the distribution that countries get back from ICC events: these new proposals have been sold on the back of every country supposedly getting more from such events. But that’s only because the vast increase in value of events, in this new round of ICC negotiations with broadcasters and sponsors ... the uptick is likely to be significant. But what will then happen is the three big countries will get the lion’s share of the uptick and divide the scraps amongst the small countries. So those needing the money most will get least ... the imbalance actually gets more acute. That’s also just for ICC events; the second area is in bilateral tours. The proposal suggests that effectively you replace the FTP (Future Tours Programme) with the ability of certain countries themselves to decide who they’ll play and when and even if they will play. Those decisions will be made on the basis of money and not of cricket. The big three will play among themselves more and more, leaving the rest to play among themselves – and those are not profitable series. So money will also decrease for the smaller nations. 

Is it not a major assault on cricket’s credibility? The Proteas are a superpower in on-field terms, and it’s hard to imagine world champions New Zealand, for instance, suddenly becoming so dramatically marginalised from the International Rugby Board ...

Let me first say that there are one or two positive proposals in this paper – for example that there should be two-tier Test leagues. But then the other proposal around this detracts from the credibility and they also demonstrate a lack of understanding of what sporting contest is actually about. South Africa could be left playing very little Test cricket against England, Australia and India.  This affects the overall credibility of Test cricket. There is also a ludicrous part of this proposal which suggests there will be a two-tier promotional/relegation Test system, but that England, India and Australia are immune from relegation, which makes a farce of it. These countries could finish sixth, seventh and eighth in this system, yet No 5 gets relegated. In football’s Premiership in England, is there immunity against the drop for Arsenal, Man United and Chelsea? Of course not. It would make a mockery of things.

Do you believe India, with its hogging of up to 80 per cent of cricket’s financial muscle, is the main manipulator of this power drive? What are the chances Australia and England will actually buy in?

I think it is three countries involved here, plain and simple. Yes, there’s one that is vastly more powerful than the rest, but there are two in a bracket just under that, and then another bunch of countries lower down of which South Africa is one. But this is a case of the top three getting together and seeking to widen the gap between them and the rest ... financially, in cricket terms and in competitive terms. It runs contrary to everything the ICC constitution stands for: the growth, health and sustainability of the game.

What can Cricket South Africa do about the situation? Or will it all come down to our small market share, at the end of the day?

They’ve done precisely what they should do at this point, which is object to the proposal. The question will be how many allies do they have? I’m pretty sure six other countries don’t like what’s going on, either, but will they be able to stand up for what is right, as South Africa has done? If pressure is brought to bear on them by the big three ... it’s so sad that these days it’s so much more about politics than it is about cricket.

Reading between the lines, it seems the power grab bid is at least partly a convenient extension of known BCCI acrimony towards their South African counterparts? This happens at a time when bilateral relations are far from ideal ...

If you take away the proper scheduling regulation of the game, through the FTP, then you are leaving it up to individuals to decide on arbitrary grounds whether they will play each other. And if relations between countries aren’t good, then they simply won’t play each other or they will play the minimum number of matches. The dominant country will dictate if and when they play.  We’ve just seen it happen with the recent Indian tour here. But at least they still had to play us, under the FTP minimum requirement! I should also point out that the current FTP schedule was finalised and agreed to but all countries some time ago.  Now it’s suggested this should just be discarded without proper consultation.

These are already financially challenging times for the game in this country, aren’t they? The franchises and their stadiums, for instance, aren’t exactly flourishing?

Yes, I think the game is under pressure here financially. There is also the major threat of player free agency -- players going onto the T20 circuit instead of for their country because of the money involved.  If you can’t pay players fairly you encourage free agency. Under the current model, and its projections for the next four years, we’d still be OK but these new proposals create uncertainty.

How do our premier players – especially the blue-chip Test ones – feel about the situation?

Our players care an awful lot about international cricket, Test cricket in particular. They care about the Proteas being the No 1 Test team in the world. They, like everyone else in the centre of the cricket world, believe that the pinnacle of cricket is the Test game ... and we top that. But the new plans could drastically affect who they play. They could be left to play just the minnows, and deprived of playing who they most want to play: Australia, India and England. As the best, they want to and deserve to play the best. So it’s pretty obvious they’d be very unhappy about the proposals.

There’s already dissatisfaction around the lack of Test matches for our No 1-ranked side; under the proposed new power deal wouldn’t the situation only get bleaker?

It’s likely to get worse. Decisions on who plays who will be based more on money than rankings and cricket competitiveness.

And with India at the forefront, won’t limited-overs cricket increasingly trample Test cricket’s space?

I think there is a danger in the long term to both Test cricket and ODI cricket if proper context isn’t introduced. By that I mean properly regulated Test and ODI championships where all countries play each other, fairly and the same number of times, for points. You do your scheduling around that, rather than deals and potentially ad hoc arrangements as this proposal suggests.

SA franchises’ participation in the T20 Champions League will surely also be endangered now?

Well, Cricket SA is currently a legitimate 20 per cent stakeholder in the Champions League. So you would think they can’t just be booted out. But one never knows, because these are political decisions around control and power, rather than cricket and rightful shareholding.

That Champions League is a massive incentive, as things stand, for our ordinary domestic players to earn way above their normal pay cheques, isn’t it?

Yes, it is. Not only is it an opportunity to top up earnings, but it is also a means of showcasing themselves in almost international circumstances, whereas they wouldn’t otherwise get that global exposure unless they make the Proteas side. It gives them exposure for possible participation in other T20 events, like the Indian Premier League, Big Bash and so on. 

Isn’t it ironic that South Africa could once do no wrong? We used to be popular hosts of major global tournaments, and capable rescuers of the IPL at short notice, and now there’s no major jamboree on our horizon ...

Yes, I think much of it is about the whole business being so political and personality-driven instead of being run on proper governance lines. Personalities have changed (in recent years) on both sides, in dealings between the BCCI and CSA.  But that shouldn’t matter if ICC governance was sound. When it’s just political, it becomes between people, instead of Boards.

If the big three simply get richer and the rest only poorer, doesn’t cricket run the risk of monotony as that trio play each other to death and the rest become almost inconsequential?

Oh yes, they are definitely shooting themselves in the foot by doing this, because in the long term the value of the game and the interest in it will decline. No one wants to see three countries playing each other over and over again. The fans will tire of that. The question comes back: is this about short-term gain or the long-term growth and sustainability of the game? The ICC has an obligation on the latter score. The way this has all been brewing has been surprising; there’s been no proper consultation or inclusion of cricket stakeholders. It’s a paper that’s been produced by a committee dominated by three people, and is being tabled before the ICC executive board next week, and has all been done in a hurry. Yet these are fundamental changes dramatically affecting the future of the game. One has to start asking oneself is there a future if this happens?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    tony irish  |  cricket
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