CRICKET’S NEW HEGEMONY AND HOW TO STOP IT

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What if the future of cricket is just watching more of these series. Over and over and over? Not that appealing, is it?

The other day while browsing a stats column on Cricinfo, I found something intriguing about whitewashes in a series involving four or more tests since 2011. It has happened an amazing four times as of writing which compares quite alarmingly to the fact that whitewashes involving four or more tests had happened only 12 times out of 207 series in the history of Test cricket prior to 2011. Andy Zaltzman, the writer of the said column in his usual delightful turn of phrase called it “A golden age of cricketing travel sickness”. But then, as I counted the whitewashes post 2011 something more remarkable stood out – all those four series involved either India,
Australia or England (India lost to England and Australia 4-0 in 2011 and 2011-12 and then Australia lost to India 4-0 and of course there was the 5-0 result in The Ashes recently). The Big Three. The marquee teams in cricket today. Or so they would like to believe.

The oddity of that stat really hit home when this week we found out about the proposal tabled at an ICC meeting that was essentially designed to abandon the Future Tours Program (FTP) and create a monopoly through a trifecta of BCCI, Cricket Australia and the ECB that would financially rule cricket by virtually making sure the only meaningful cricket and hence the only meaningful money comes from and remains with these boards in question because apparently “They are attaching the right of a country to rule the cricket world to its economic strength” as an ICC official put it. The proposal involves, among other things, a two tier Test system to replace the World Test Championship but one where while football league style promotion and relegation were possible. However, citing the “importance of those markets and teams to prospective ICC media rights buyers” (the report’s language) the Big Three would be exempt
from relegation. Imagine Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea demanding a clause like that when the Premier League was created. Or a bunch of countries getting together and calling themselves ‘permanent members’ of a security council of a league of nations kind of a body and then self appointing themselves the arbiters in all sorts of conflicts around the world. (Oh, wait, that may have already happened.) Bonkers, right?

Presumably, like some of the extractive financial institutions they have sometimes echoed in terms of their inclination for avarice, the Big Three are ‘too big to fail’. In Seventeenth Century England, monopolies were granted in virtually everything making it the dominant form of economic enterprised, a ruthlessly extractive agreement that would profit at the cost of the customer. Of course, to a large extent the Glorious Revolution and the Industrial Revolution changed all that but as Daren Acemoglu and James A Robinson write in ‘Why Nations Fail’

“These monopolies…gave individuals or groups the sole right to control the production of many goods. They impeded the type of allocation of talent, which is so crucial to economic prosperity.”

 

The current revelations about what the future of cricket might look like sound eerily similar. While the arguments are being made by these three boards that they have the best interests of the game in mind, they are facetious at best. (The proposed profit sharing arrangements distinctly place the poorer boards at a disadvantage. They get to produce less of the products because the Big Three would be busy playing (and based on the statistical evidence, maybe whitewashing) each other and they get a smaller cut too. The rich become richer and poor become poorer. Sound familiar?

Monopoly power and rent seeking, to use the typical economic terms to describe such a blatant cornering of the market, have been as old as time itself but there is only so much of the abuse of power that the game we love for its beauty can take. You might argue that if you go by a business yardstick or capitalist sentiment, these three boards have earned their keep based on the fact as to how their teams draw the crowds and fill the coffers while a West Indies v New Zealand test match goes empty. But there is a problem. Sport is not always business as usual. Major League Baseball in the United States faced a similar problem at the turn of the Millennium. Big market and rich teams were winning all the pennants and the World Series leaving smaller market and smaller budget teams in the lurch. (Those of you who have seen ‘Moneyball’ know the narrative.) In 2000, the commissioner constituted a blue ribbon panel to study baseball economics and suggest how the playing field can be leveled. It suggested quite pointedly:

“Sports leagues do not function as free markets. If they did, the clubs would be clustered in a few large markets. Rather, sports leagues are blends of cooperation and competition—cooperation for the sake of producing satisfactory competitiveness.”

Without this ‘satisfactory competitiveness’ people would simply stop caring about the sport. We need the West Indieses, the New Zealands, the Sri Lankas and the rest (and let’s not even get started on how South Africa have been ignored in the draft proposal, and they are the current No. 1!). As Jarrod Kimber notes in his plea to fans in another Cricinfo column, perhaps it is time to send the boards a message. As he rightly points out,

“We have no vote in cricket. All we have is our passion, which is what makes the money that gives these men their power…They are banking on you not knowing or caring about any of this… What this does is allow cricket’s most important men to run the game while no one is watching. Show them you’re watching.”

This post is my contribution to let them know. (I have incidentally sent it across to all three boards.)

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