Rebels with a cause could save cricket from itself

Business Day Sport Monthly

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

CRICKET’S future is baseball’s past. Not that cricket will acknowledge this or even realise it until it is too late; until a game that once was played for days on end is squeezed between an hour of ad breaks that last longer than an over.

A four-ball over, that is – bowled by a machine, faced by a batsman fitted with vision-enhancing goggles and standing in front of a single stump half the height of what the wicket is now, fielded by six players who have their dominant hands tied behind their backs and must face the boundary at the point of delivery, and presided over by an electronic umpire. One beep for out, two beeps for not out.

All of which will be watched by a crowd that has been photoshopped into the warehouses where cricket will be played and delivered fresh to billions of pay-per-view screens around the world. Rain will never stop play. Every game will be fixed. Three months after the World Cup ends the next one will start.

This dystopian vision of what cricket will look like decades hence comes to you not from a sponsor but from too much time spent watching the suits do the wrong thing. From Kerry Packer to Hansie Cronje to Gerald Majola to Narayanaswami Srinivasan, and many more examples before and since, cricket has refused to get it right. Now, it is getting it wrong again.

The Essel Group, the Indian conglomerate that gave us the late, unlamented Indian Cricket League (ICL), is at it again. This time they are looking to establish T20 leagues in at least 15 cities on the sub-continent with a view to building on that foundation to establish a parallel universe of cricket – another platform for playing Tests, one-day internationals and T20 internationals. Launching this juggernaut will cost, according to some sources, some US$50-billion.

And all this, mind, without bothering to say a word to the International Cricket Council (ICC); neither to ask their permission, nor to seek their counsel and especially not to tell the suits what’s in it for them. How have the ICC responded to this audacious plan? By smearing it with that word cricket hauls out when it is properly pissed off: the Essel Group’s initiative has been damned as “rebel”.

Which means the ICC have appropriated for themselves the right to call whatever cricket matches are played under their auspices as “official”.

Says who? Says the ICC, and only the ICC. The magic of this madness is that cricket’s fans, supporters, lovers and aficionados alike have drunk the Kool-Aid. When, for instance, South Africa play Australia, they believe that South Africa really are playing Australia – not the apparently blinding truth that teams carefully marketed and packaged to represent unreasonable facsimiles of South Africa and Australia are playing against each other.

How does the South African team represent you? They are not your family. They are not elected. You do not pay their salaries. Sport is not war, so it is impossible that playing it or watching it or shouting for a particular team is in any way patriotic. In short, the South African cricket team do not represent you. They represent themselves and themselves only. Even Cricket South Africa, not the most forward thinking of organisations, seem to have cottoned onto this truth. Perhaps that’s why they call the team they employ the Proteas. South Africa? South Africa is a country, not a cricket team.

But, as long as cricket’s followers prefer to pretend otherwise and sponsors and broadcasters buy into the bullshit, the myth will survive. And the ICC need it to. Without it South Africa would not play Australia. Instead, the Proteas would play the Baggy Greens and all that nonsense about national pride would be exactly that: nonsense.

This grand lie is central to the structure of what the ICC have sold to the world as “international” cricket. Without it the game would belong to all who would dare play and love it, and to hell with which bunch of suits says what. Imagine that …

Which is why the ICC are not best pleased with the Essel Group. Actually, they have been more than a little worried about them for years now. For instance, in 2007, the first year the ICL – which also did not have ICC blessing – was played, Kapil Dev was fired as head of India’s National Cricket Academy for daring to step onto the wrong side of the tracks.

By 2009 the ICL was dead, killed off by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), which more than doubled what domestic players earned to stop them from joining the “rebels”, prevented the ICL from staging matches at bigger grounds, and came up with their own T20 competition, a circus so outrageous in every aspect that no-one would think of trying to compete with it. In another world, this would be called using mafia tactics to destroy a rival. In this world, it’s called the Indian Premier League.

That happened despite the ICL winning its case against the BCCI in the Delhi high court in 2007. The ICL had demanded, reasonably, that the BCCI should stop intimidating those who were willing to get involved with them.

But the ICC knew those Essel nasties were not going quietly. “The board noted that the budget included a provision of US$250 000 for litigation expenses, but that in the event of any substantive litigation requirements (for example in relation to Essel Sports), it would be unlikely that such sum would be sufficient and any surplus requirements would need to be covered as an unbudgeted expense.” That’s from the minutes of an ICC board meeting in April, 2013. The board were set to be briefed on the issue again in June.

That’s not to say the Essel Group are the best people to force the ICC into admitting that, despite everything they tell us, they do not own cricket. Former ICL players are still owed around US$1.6-million in unpaid wages and the tournament was hit hard by matchfixing allegations. But at least one of those out-of-pocket players, Lance Klusener, would be quite happy to sign up with them again: “Cash up front and when do I start? You’ve got to pay the bills.” As for matchfixing, the ICC hasn’t been much good at making their version of the game a corruption-free zone.

As much as the ICC doesn’t want this out there, there is room for more high-level, profitable cricket in the world than they have the capacity to administer. Even retired players are in demand, what with more than one golden oldies T20 competition being planned.

One of those, the Masters Champions League (MCL), will creak around the United Arab Emirates for two weeks every year starting next February. No less a player than Brian Lara has signed up for this strangiosity.

“I am thrilled and honoured to be taking part in what promises to be an exceptional display of competitive cricket,” Lara was quoted as saying in a suitably breathless MCL press release. “The UAE is a great location for a tournament like this to be based, with a big fan base in the country already and easy access for millions of other fans around the world.

“I hope people get behind the MCL and support some of the heroes of the game as they look to extend their careers a little longer. The MCL is a tremendous force for good, which is partly what attracted me to it. The organisers have ensured giving back is a major theme, alongside inspiring cricket in the Middle East and in terms of leaving a lasting legacy.”

All good. Except that Brian Charles Lara turned 46 in May and owns a growing girth. He will always be a great player, but he will not always be worthy of wearing his greatness on the business side of boundary.

That hasn’t stopped the MCL from hatching this freak show on us. Spot the difference with what the Essel Group want to do – their plan, at any rate, is to grow cricket in all its forms, including the first-class flavour. That’s something the ICC, which for all the flak they cop do spend a lot of time, effort and money on developing the game, have failed dismally to do.

Here’s another difference: while the Essel Group are firmly out in cricket’s cold, the MCL will shake, rattle and roll its replaced hips and Zimmer frames around our screens with the full support and indulgence of the ICC.

Which brings us back to baseball. Since 1903, the winners of the National League and their counterparts in the American League have met at the end of the season to play the World Series. No shots are fired. No lawyers are unleashed. No-one dies because this happens. This is simply how baseball works – two separate, equal leagues are adult enough to realise they exist and need each other, and that they can make a pile of money and grow their game by pitting their champions against each other.

Not that things were always that neat. The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed in 1871 and for 11 years they could tell people they owned baseball and they had no choice but to believe them. Then, in 1882, the American Association (AA) arrived. At first the two leagues survived and prospered as individual entities. But, from 1884 until 1890, the respective champions faced each other.

The AA ceased operations in 1891 and what had been renamed the National League (NL) had things all their own way until 1900. But, for two years after that, no championship series were played. The American League (AL) was established in 1901 and their relationship with the NL deteriorated steadily as both sets of suits fought for superiority. Players were stolen back and forth and lawyers made money.

In 1903, the Pittsburgh Pirates won the NL pennant and the Boston Americans – later called the Red Sox – triumphed in the AL. By then the mood between the two leagues had eased. So, what to do? Play the World Series, of course.

Only for the relationship to stall a year later when the New York Giants won the NL championship and their owner, John T Brush, promptly branded the AL “inferior”. Their manager, John McGraw, said his team had won the “only real major league”. Step up the newspapers, who lashed Brush and McGraw fiercely enough to re-instate the series in 1905. It has been played every year since, except in 1994 when a player strike derailed the season.

Baseball, of course, is not perfect. In 1919 the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series, the game is still fighting rampant substance abuse, and who told the damn yanks they could call this thing a world championship when it involves only American and Canadian teams? That the name comes from an early sponsor – a newspaper called The World – is in dispute.

Whatever. The parallels between baseball’s past and cricket’s present are unmistakable. What the suits did more than a hundred years ago in New York and Boston they are doing again in Dubai and London: different time, same stupid stuff. And same result – stalemate. Lawyers are again making money.

Perhaps too much has happened in sport for cricket’s future to catch up to baseball’s present. Perhaps there is just too much money involved to allow that to happen. Perhaps it wouldn’t work because all that fake patriotism has worked.

Or perhaps it would work and we will one day look forward to the ICC champions taking on the Essel Group champions. Across all formats. In grounds spread around the world.

What the ICC must learn is that, like pornography, we know cricket when we see it. We don’t need them to tell us what it looks like.

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