Back on the front foot: cricket’s golden global opportunity

In an in-depth interview ahead of the World Twenty20 in India, ICC chief executive David Richardson talks how cricket is run and how it can meet its goals of international expansion.

Back on the front foot: cricket’s golden global opportunity

The challenges of the commercial era are common to many international sporting federations but for the International Cricket Council, they come in a unique combination. In a sport caught between its own traditions, expansionist ambitions and a single dominant market, ICC chief executive David Richardson must plot a path to true modernity.

By Eoin Connolly

The story of how cricket is run can be told, at least a little, as a tale of two cities. Until 2005 the International Cricket Council (ICC) took residence at Lord’s Cricket Ground, which has stood on the same site in the well-heeled London suburb of St John’s Wood for 202 years. There, the global governing body was a tenant of the Marylebone Cricket Club, an organisation that operated until recent times to almost masonic standards of exclusivity.

Today, the ICC is based in Dubai. More specifically, it sits in smart but understated headquarters in the stunted development that is Dubai Sports City, next to its own ICC Academy and along the road from the Dubai International Stadium that has hosted the itinerant Pakistan team during their security-imposed exile from home. Building around the sports complex slowed as backers reeled from the effects of a property crash at the end of the last decade: half of those who bought off-plan in the Rufi Twin Towers apartment complex nearby defaulted on their commitments in 2011. But Dubai is still thriving on its own unequal terms. Money pours in, steel and glass sprouts from the desert sand.

The reasons for the ICC’s relocation were prosaic, relating to the tax obligations of a growing membership. Yet the move was richly symbolic of a cultural shift away from Anglospheric roots and into Asia – principally India – and beyond.

Cricket is a sport of conservative traditions, yet to find consensus in an age of plurality and abundance. Even before the birth of its youngest and shortest format, Twenty20, it was coming to terms with a new commercial age, but that innovation has brought about a quantum leap. Accessible and highly TV-friendly, T20 has birthed domestic franchise competitions – the mighty Indian Premier League (IPL) chief among them – that pay the top players better than their national boards ever have.

The ICC must adapt to these developments in what are interesting times for international federations. Guiding that evolution on behalf of its members’ representatives is a former Test wicketkeeper: South African chief executive David Richardson.

“As a former cricketer, I suppose we were always very wary of administrators being in the game for anything other than the good of the sport,” says Richardson, reflecting on how the travails of world soccer’s Fifa and world athletics’ IAAF have made him think about matters in his own. “So, no sympathy, really, for anybody who’s taking off the top or taking backhanders or awarding their company contracts, etc, just because they are in a position to do so by virtue of their position on a board or something like that. No sympathy for that at all. But having said that, and being in cricket now with the ICC for over 15 years, I’ve never personally seen any evidence of that at ICC level.”

But while the ICC may have been free of looting and cover-ups, it has not avoided pained debate about its own governance. In 2014, to howls of protest beyond its corridors, it passed a series of reforms that granted new powers and greater proportional income to the richest three bodies in the sport: the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), and Cricket Australia.

The measures were enacted to ensure certainty ahead of a new eight-year rights cycle, and to keep the financially invaluable Indian board onside. BCCI president N Srinivasan, then embroiled in an investigation into the spot-fixing scandal that had afflicted the IPL and his now suspended Chennai Super Kings team in 2013, became ICC chairman. Whatever their intentions, the new regulations struck a discordant note. 

“As a former cricketer, I suppose we were always very wary of administrators being in the game for anything other than the good of the sport."

“I think there’s no doubt that what the media labelled as the ‘big three takeover’ hurt the game,” Richardson concedes now, “and the biggest difficulty all member organisations have is dealing with the inherent conflict of interest that exists between what’s good for the global game and what’s good for my particular country. That has to be carefully and collectively managed. But as long as the influential people act responsibly, then you can manage it properly.”

Richardson suggests that the dispute over those changes “overshadowed” a wealth of positive news at a time when there are “more people playing and following the game than ever before”. That point, however, partly explains the negative reaction.

The ICC has 105 members, divided into three tiers. At the top are the ten full members, all nations with teams deemed good enough to play Test matches. Then come the 37 Associates, whose number is made up of those countries where cricket is well established and whose leading lights have graced global ICC tournaments like the Cricket World Cup. Finally, there are the 57 Affiliate members, representing other territories where cricket is played under officially recognised conditions. At a time of unprecedented global promise, cricket’s rulers seemed to be reverting to their basest elitist instincts.

Richardson, it must be stressed, was not one of the prime movers behind the reorganisation of the ICC. His job is to enact the wishes of appointed officials, and that job changed little after reforms that effectively ensconced the status quo. The most telling effect, he says, was that “India have committed to playing, in recent times, more of a leadership role, whereas in the past they used to sit on the outside, wait for things to be debated and then, have their say”.

That has had an unexpected consequence. Last year, after the intervention of India’s Supreme Court, Srinivasan was forbidden from standing for re-election at the BCCI unless he extricated himself from a dense network of conflicts of interest. He failed to do so. Then his initial replacement, the pivotal former BCCI and ICC head Jagmohan Dalmiya, died in September at the age of 75. He was succeeded by another former BCCI president: Shashank Manohar.

Seizing upon a popular mood at home and abroad to see the balance of power redressed, Manohar was quick to offer a new brand of leadership. In India, he pushed through a series of measures aimed at eradicating the excesses of the prior regime. Then he led the BCCI in removing one N Srinivasan as its representative at the ICC.

Last year's Cricket World Cup, won by co-hosts Australia, surpassed ICC expectations in a wide range of targeted areas.

Manohar was appointed in Srinivasan’s place, and will serve until this summer. His rhetoric so far has been quite different from what has gone before. “I don’t agree with the three major countries bullying the ICC,” he said in an interview with The Hindu in November. With the ECB under new management and a new chairman at Cricket Australia, he has since led moves to unpick the 2014 agreements. Richardson believes Manohar’s reformist credentials are to be taken seriously.

“Since Mr Manohar has come in as the new chairman of ICC, there have already been a number of changes made to reverse some of the decisions taken back in 2014 – reintroducing the independent nature of the ICC chairman and removing the entrenched right of certain members to sit on the executive and finance committees,” he says. “In fact, the ICC board agreed at its last meeting in February to conduct a review of all the changes introduced in 2014.

“I think Mr Manohar has shown a genuine intention to look at ways of improving the governance, financial and playing structures of the ICC. I believe that over the last few years we have become a more efficient organisation and that we are well placed to take advantage of the opportunities that may be presented by the review.”

Away from boardrooms in Dubai and Mumbai, 2015 was “dominated” by the Cricket World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. The tournament far surpassed the ICC’s sporting and commercial expectations, according to Richardson, and reassured audiences and sponsors of the long-term viability of the 50-over a side one-day international. 

 

 

Such success, Richardson adds, was a lesson that “there’s no substitute for hard work and preparation”.

“The level of pre-event planning across all aspects of the event was probably higher than for any previous event,” he says, citing efforts in everything from preparations for Associate teams to anti-corruption collaboration with the police to press facilities.

Joining Richardson for the interview is the ICC general manager, commercial, Campbell Jamieson. He points to the support of national and local government in Australia and New Zealand as vital to the World Cup’s performance. “I think they really see it as an economic opportunity, more so than just a nice exhibition or sporting event,” Jamieson says. “It’s a business decision to invest in them.”

Those circumstances are not uniform across cricket’s leading nations. Richardson and Jamieson are speaking ahead of the ICC’s secondary global event, the World Twenty20, which is being played in India for the first time from 8th March to 3rd April. The men’s and women’s tournaments are held concurrently.

Where the two local organising committees for the Cricket World Cup laid out plans well ahead of time, their counterparts in India have flown by the seat of their pants. Playing schedules were not announced until December. Tickets went on sale less than two weeks before the tournament started – to the chagrin of travelling supporters in particular. Throughout February, doubts persisted over whether one of the eight venues – the Feroz Shah Kotla Ground in New Delhi – would emerge from legal wrangling over its availability.

Meanwhile, it was only as SportsPro was going to press that Nine Network and Fox Sports in Australia – where parts of the World T20 are protected for free-to-air viewing by national ‘anti-siphoning laws’ – were able to reach a broadcast deal with India’s global rights holder Star Sports to show the tournament.

Richardson accepts the uncertainty as a part of doing business in a unique market. 

“I don’t mean this as a criticism,” he says, “more as a statement of fact, but the culture of putting on events in the subcontinent is a little bit more like, ‘What’s the panic?’ More of a ‘lastminute.com’ approach.

“And they are pretty good at it! They can transform a venue virtually overnight: you go there a couple of days before the game and the dressing rooms look like nothing – cement floors, showers dirty, no equipment. And by the time the players arrive, it’s Persian carpets from wall to wall, comfortable chairs, refrigerators fully stocked, beautifully painted. Sometimes, they might still be painting the door as you go in – but they get it done. It’s a totally different approach.”

Richardson believes that new BCCI president and ICC chairman Shashank Manohar can be taken seriously as a cricketing reformer.

The short notice over ticketing is principally a nuisance for fans, but it also denies the ICC any certainty in its financial projections for the tournament. Again, though, the official response is phlegmatic, not least in light of the popularity of IPL cricket and of India’s highly successful Cricket World Cup in 2011. 

“It’s harder to predict, I suppose, to be certain,” Richardson adds, “but even in Australia and New Zealand, whilst there were for many matches significant advanced sales, there were still many matches where tickets were sold on the day. So you always go into an event, to some extent, holding thumbs.”

And while the ICC expects TV interest to be global, it still accounts for crowds in the grounds being more local in their make-up for the World T20 than the World Cup. The challenge, Richardson says, is making sure that matches not involving the home team are well attended. 

"The culture of putting on events in the subcontinent is a little bit more like, ‘What’s the panic?’ More of a ‘lastminute.com’ approach."

The tournament format is eye-catching, and not necessarily for the right reasons. For the second time in succession, 16 teams will take part, more than for any other ICC event. But, for the second time in succession, the eight lower-ranked qualifiers will compete in a first round for the right to join the eight top-ranked teams in a ‘Super 10’ stage that many will consider the start of the tournament proper.

It looks an unappealing fudge and, moreover, one that might confuse those outsiders the ICC hopes the tournament will draw in. Richardson, unsurprisingly, offers a different perspective, countering that the format groups together teams of a similar standard throughout. “Anything could happen,” he says. “Every match should be really good to watch. There’s always going to be one-sided matches but at least the risk of that is less frequent.”

Richardson adds that “there would be no reason” not to introduce a more streamlined format once more teams are playing at an elite level. Still, the bipartite structure keeps alive a long-running dispute over the composition of global events. Ahead of last year’s Cricket World Cup, the ICC confirmed plans to cut the number of participants in its blue-riband event from 14 to ten. Against the backdrop of ongoing controversy over governance changes, it smacked of a further narrowing of the sport’s horizons – painfully so when debutants Afghanistan were providing such a good news story in Australia and New Zealand. 

Richardson says now that the leading Associate nations are “understandably not particularly happy” and that he can “understand the argument” against the cut. Nevertheless, he is clear that the interests of smaller nations are better served by improving standards between each major tournament and creating new “merit-based” opportunities for the best to play against full members, noting that Afghanistan and Ireland are now on the same future tours programme for limited-overs games as the Test nations.

“If we succeed in that,” he says, “underpinned by an appropriate funding model, I have no doubt that very soon we will have 14 or 16 teams capable of qualifying for a World Cup and making it through to the knock-out stages, or 20 teams at a World T20.”

There is another contributing factor to those contortions in tournament formats: the overwhelming importance to cricket of India and its television market, and the need to ensure that the men in blue play as many games – guaranteed – as possible. This is a structural weakness that Richardson is well aware of, and the challenge of bringing new territories into play is one the ICC is now confronting.

With the ECB having reversed its long-held objection under new chairman Colin Graves, one avenue now being seriously explored for the first time is Olympic participation. Senior ICC delegations have met with their counterparts at the International Olympic Committee (IOC), with Richardson and his colleagues also taking part in talks with IOC president Thomas Bach.

Richardson is confident of T20 cricket’s chances of Olympic inclusion but adds that it will also come down to the “willingness of the members” on the ICC side. “There are some concerns, the main one being whether participation in the Olympics will devalue the ICC World T20 event,” he reveals. “We need to investigate that as well before making a decision.”

Despite a cut in the number of places available in the Cricket World Cup, Richardson is keen to create more opportunities for teams like Afghanistan to play the very best.

The results of IOC talks were presented to the ICC board in February, with further internal discussions planned for April.

Proponents of Olympic participation argue that it would unlock significant funds for grassroots projects around the world, with prospects for investment thought to be particularly strong in nations like China. The government there has spent a reported US$15 million a year on rugby sevens since that sport was added to the programme for Rio 2016, and similar sums are mooted for cricket’s hypothetical arrival at the Games.

For his part, Richardson believes that the potential financial benefits are “not that easy to quantify” at present but that the case is strengthened by “the stories that sports like golf, badminton and rugby can tell you about the indirect benefits of participation”.

“The majority of people are arguing that if you really want to globalise the game, participation in the Olympics is the way to do it,” he says – confirming that this is also his personal view.

Were cricket to eventually join the Olympic programme, it would continue a process of transformation that has challenged longstanding conventions. The concept of the bilateral tour is under constant pressure, and the format that has long sustained those tours, the five-day Test, is struggling.

 

 

“Test cricket does need to evolve and find ways of keeping itself relevant to the modern day,” says Richardson, who welcomes innovations like November’s inaugural day-night Test between New Zealand and Australia in Adelaide as a means of meeting the needs of the audience.

The Test match is a unique asset and not solely because of its historical value. Few other sporting contests offer the same variety or rich possibility. Yet beyond a handful of marquee series, it is badly sold. “To me, the value of professional sport is a factor of attendances,” Richardson suggests. “Poor attendances, no one at the ground watching, equates to the perception of a poor quality product, no excitement, boring. No one wants to broadcast that or sponsor that.”

Efforts at centralising the marketing of Test cricket have been rejected by members in the past on the grounds that local conditions vary so considerably, but best practice is routinely shared. Jamieson, for example, points to Cricket New Zealand’s use of smaller, yet attractive outgrounds for its Test matches, rather than giant bowls that rarely sell out.

“But as I say,” Richardson adds, “what we can do in my view is to create a competition structure that is meaningful. That is where we are now at. The members have said, ‘Put some models together for us to consider.’”

As the delivery of the sport changes in so many ways, the role of the ICC – still a members’ organisation – must change with it. The question remains as to how that will transpire.

“We’ve just agreed our strategic plan now for the next five years and it’s quite simple, really,” says Richardson. “It’s got four key pillars to it.”

"USA has great potential, with lots of cricketers and cricket fans – we are making a big effort to assist cricket in the USA to take the next step up. As regards China, the focus is more on women’s cricket initially."

The first of these, the “cricket pillar”, is one that “sounds obvious” but is complicated by cricket’s three different formats. As well as encouraging “attacking cricket” through improving pitch standards, the ICC wants to see to it that all of these “remain distinctive, have their own appeal, and are sustainable in their own right” in the men’s and women’s games.

Integrity is the second pillar. Fixing has long been a scourge of professional cricket and, while measures to combat that form of corruption will continue to evolve, Richardson also warns that “the increased focus on power-hitting” and the greater opportunities to secure lucrative franchise contracts could tempt more players to dope.

Building the commercial value of the game in the digital age, ahead of the next rights cycle in 2023, is the third pillar. The fourth pillar, finally, is development.

“There are two aspects to this,” Richardson explains. “Firstly, we need to have more competitive teams at the highest level – 12 teams that can play Test cricket, 16 teams that can go to a Cricket World Cup and win the event. 20 teams that can win a T20.

“Secondly, we need to develop more cricket markets, USA and China being the more quoted examples. USA has great potential, with lots of cricketers and cricket fans – we are making a big effort to assist cricket in the USA to take the next step up. As regards China, the focus is more on women’s cricket initially. There are others but I don’t want to risk offending anyone by leaving out any names. 

“So we want to take a much more targeted approach towards game and market development than we have done before. We don’t want to see anyone getting less, money-wise, than before, but we do want to allocate more to the better-performing countries and those with the potential to mix it with the best.”

In February, The Guardian reported that the ICC was exploring the idea of a 12-team, two-division structure for Test cricket, with tiers also introduced in shorter-form cricket. Such a move would be welcomed by many of the better-performing Associate nations – Warren Deutrom, the chief executive of Cricket Ireland, has already spoken out in favour – and would further dissolve the lines between member nations from different tiers.

It seems natural to ask whether this might one day mean that in a sport marked for so long by selective attitudes, notions such as membership status might disappear altogether.  

“We seem to be moving, evolving slowly, towards playing and funding structures that reward teams based on the level at which they are performing,” says Richardson carefully. “But as I say, these are exciting times ahead for cricket with ongoing reviews into the governance, cricket and financial structures.

“Let’s not speculate too much just yet and wait and see.”