Death of a Gentleman: Sam Collins on cricket’s governance crisis

Sam Collins, co-creator of cricket documentary Death of a Gentleman, shares his experience of making the film and gives his take on the sport's future.

Death of a Gentleman: Sam Collins on cricket’s governance crisis

Sam Collins and Jarrod Kimber, the cricket journalists behind provocative documentary Death of a Gentleman

On 7th August, just as the Ashes cricket series enters its decisive pair of games, comes the UK release in cinemas of a documentary examining the tainted soul of the world’s second most popular sport. Fittingly enough, as two teams play for a prize named in honour of a mock obituary, it is called Death of a Gentleman.

The project is the work of cricket writers Sam Collins and Jarrod Kimber – the former an Englishman and old Etonian, the latter an Australian and very much not. It began life with a narrow focus on the future of the five-day game, a format forever seeming on life support despite occasional flashes of vitality such as the Ashes or the fixture that inspired the young filmmakers – the 2000th Test, which took place at Lord’s between England and India in 2011.

The film spent over four years in development, in which time interviews were secured with more than 80 senior figures including N Srinivasan (below), the former Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) president who is now chairman of the International Cricket Council (ICC), and Giles Clarke, whose stint as England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) chairman ended earlier this year to become its president. During that period – which included the 2013 spot-fixing crisis in the Indian Premier League (IPL) and last year’s ‘Big Three takeover’ of the ICC by the BCCI, ECB and Cricket Australia – Collins and Kimber became convinced that the plight of Test cricket was “just a symptom of a much wider problem”.

The filmmakers cover this ground with impressively sure feet, blending a forensic journalistic intelligence with a romantic’s love for the sport, and imbuing their work with the kind of idiosyncratic sense of humour that sees two grown men make videos about cricket in the company of a friend in a bear costume and a retro playing shirt. But Death of a Gentleman is no joke. Rather, it is a polemic which captures a prevailing mood of unease that has swept across parts of the cricketing landscape.  

Earlier this month, Collins spoke to SportsPro about the experience of making the film and gave his take on the future of cricket.

Was there a specific point at which you realised this wasn’t a film about Test cricket, this was a film about something else? That’s apparent in the narrative on screen, but was there a point in time while you were making it where you became aware of that?

I think pretty early on you realised, basically, that cricket has so many problems – if you were at Lord’s tomorrow and you asked everyone in the queue what the problems with cricket are, someone would say, ‘Test cricket’s got no context,’; someone would say, ‘There’s too much Twenty20,’; someone would say, ‘Bat sizes,’; someone would say something about the county game… You realise that every single problem comes back to the same thing, which is a lack of proper governance at the top. Cricket is generating massive amounts of money now, but that money is not being properly monitored and spent.

The ICC countries – the Full Member nations – do not have to provide accounts, for example. Not only do you have a total lack of transparency and accountability in the way that the ICC decisions are being made in the current system, but you also have all the money which is being sent out to countries to help improve cricket – in the West Indies, in Sri Lanka, in Zimbabwe, etc – and no one really knows where it goes. Even in England. It’s still not fully transparent in India, etc, etc.

That’s the point where you begin to realise, when you hear everybody coming out with these different problems with cricket, that Test cricket is just a symptom of a much wider problem. It’s cricket’s crown jewel; it’s the thing that everybody highlights, the plight of Test cricket. But really, there’s many other things which can be filed under the same issues.

ICC chairman N Srinivasan spoke to the filmmakers

What’s your overriding impression of what’s causing that malaise, that downward pressure? You can’t have found yourself talking to every administrator and every one was thinking the wrong thing. Is it purely money, and structures that haven’t caught up with how much money’s going through them?

Well, I think, clearly, the governance system in the ICC has not caught up with the modern day. This is an arcane system that hasn’t been modernised to keep up with how the game has changed. And by that I mean, primarily, the amount of money involved. There was a strong ICC executive under Malcolm Speed in the early 2000s and in that regime there were some very forward-thinking decisions like the award of US$250 million or whatever it was to the Associates from the last rights contract – that was a real step in the right direction – but what’s happened over the last few years…

I’m trying to word this without being overly critical of India. It’s not a question of everything being India’s fault. But what we’ve seen is a system of governance in the ICC without the proper, independent governance structure. You see a system which is open to manipulation by individual countries or individual people, where essentially the television boom and the huge amounts of money and the inherent imbalance in where that money’s gone has totally destabilised the ICC. I know that people will say it’s always been thus, but as you know, when the antes up, when more money is coming in, then those decisions become more and more important.

There’s a moment in the film where Giles Clarke addresses you quite directly on that point, bringing up the idea that people were making the same arguments in Wisden in 1909…

Yes – I would check that, by the way. I’m not sure there’s any reference to it in Wisden in 1909…

But that conservatism has always been a feature of cricket governance, and so has the fact that one or two countries have held a considerable degree of control and exercised that control in their own interests. How do you respond to that argument? What opportunity is cricket not seeing if it doesn’t change that governance structure?

If it doesn’t change, then the game is totally in thrall to capitalism. What we’re saying, for example, is that we obviously love Test cricket but we also Twenty20, one-day cricket, the IPL… If you’re a cricket fan, you just love watching cricket.

Everything is different. Cricket has this great gift, which is these different formats. It’s an even greater gift when Twenty20 could potentially subsidise Test cricket. Without proper governance, you have a situation where, for various reasons, cricket in the smaller countries is fading away. Certainly Test cricket is fading away, and you would argue that once Test cricket goes, for the first-class structures it becomes a very uncertain world.

"You see a system which is open to manipulation by individual countries or individual people."

The moment you say, ‘Right, our goal is money in the short term,’ logically – and I’m not pinning the blame on the IPL here – when you have players paid pro rata the same as Premier League footballers for eight weeks of the year, and people benefitting from the IPL, the sponsors and that gigantic television market that feeds off it and feeds into it, why would the IPL not expand? And if the IPL doesn’t expand, why wouldn’t Subhash Chandra or an equivalent seize upon the second-biggest sport in the world, with those 1.3 billion Indians, and create a rebel league? Because the money is there. The players are not seeing all of that money at the moment. And that’s the history of sport – people know that you get to the players by paying the money.

And I suppose the point is that cricket does have a really difficult thing – it’s not easy to deal with the imbalance caused by having such a dominant market as India. But you can’t begin to cope with it with the current administrative structures.

Were there any points at which you found yourself sympathising with the arguments were making to you about their responsibilities and priorities?

Yes and no. I understand why administrators need to be diplomatic. Everybody understands why you need to think about bringing money into the sport – all sport needs money to survive. What I don’t agree with, for example, is the great quote in the film where Giles Clarke says, ‘I’ve got every right to put my board’s interests first.’ To an extent, he does have every right to put his board’s interests first. But the issue comes when you have the men who are tasked with making the decisions for the sport as a whole also representing their boards.

We see it a lot in politics – for obvious reasons, these guys have to think of the short term – but that short-termism can be and is clearly being so destructive to cricket. The point is, and I suppose what we’re saying is, by the end we’re showing you a sport where Lalit Modi, N Srinivasan, Giles Clarke, Allen Stanford – they’re all businessmen attracted to a sport. And what you see is that Stanford is obviously in jail, Lalit Modi is an ambiguous character, Giles Clarke is the man who invited a since-convicted fraudster to land his helicopter on Lord’s, and N Srinivasan has been described as ‘nauseating’ by the Indian Supreme Court.

But these are just examples of individuals, and they’re examples of the fact that individuals are generally flawed, and no game which is loved by billions of people and which generates billions of dollars should be subject to the whims of individuals. It should have proper governance structures in place.

Could you tell us something about this #changecricket campaign that you’re operating? I understand you’ve also got some involvement with Skins, who are attached to the New Fifa Now project.

Obviously, what we’re trying to do with the film is we’re trying to take this issue to a wider audience, not just to cricket fans. We want to say, ‘Look, there is an issue here. We need to do something about it.’ We want to get politicians involved. We want to say, ‘Look, these guys are representing the people. They’re running a public organisation and they should be publicly accountable.’

In terms of Skins, I’ve seen that chairman Jaimie Fuller’s been hugely committed to the campaigns in cycling and football – Fifa – and I suppose what our battle as filmmakers has been is that we’re taking on a culture, a sort of omerta within cricket – the idea that this is not happening – and we’re trying to change a culture. To that end, what I’ve seen and what we’ve been inspired by is the way that other sports have attempted to tackle some of the problems within themselves, or certainly some of the journalists and the people on the fringes of those sports have attempted to tackle the problems within the sport. Skins are quite naked about the way they position themselves as a brand whose values are about transparency and openness and fighting for sport, and I suppose from our point of view, we need to make as much noise about this as possible.

We need to tell people this is an issue. So we welcome support. We as filmmakers, the people who are making Death of a Gentleman and even as the people starting #changecricket, we don’t own the concept of wanting our sport to be run as well as possible and to be growing the game. This is a game loved by billions of people. All we’re doing is taking the issue to the wider public, so we welcome support from anywhere, basically, particularly those whose ethics and track record we believe in and admire.

"Cricket can go anywhere. This is the thing, it’s this incredible sport."

In terms of the Fifa thing – the comparison, obviously, with Fifa, is that Fifa is at least growing the game whereas cricket is shrinking. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of that but we’re quite keen to make that clear to people. We know that we didn’t discover a smoking gun in terms of catching them with their hands in the till, so to speak, but what we’re showing is a sport that’s been actively contracting whereas football, for all its corruption, is actually growing.     

Do you have a more positive vision for where cricket can go from here?

Yeah. Cricket can go anywhere. This is the thing, it’s this incredible sport. It’s the second-biggest sport in the world. It’s loved by so many people. It’s got this thriving love for the game in India, but also worldwide. Cricinfo’s second-biggest market is America. Cricket is growing all over the world as the world globalises and as the internet breaks down barriers. It’s got these three formats – Twenty20 is this gift that can take cricket to a wider audience and, if used correctly, allow Test cricket to flourish. So if you get people making decisions for the right reasons, and using the money and making sure that the money coming into the game is being diverted in the right way to grow cricket around the world, how can cricket fail if that happens?

Death of a Gentleman is in UK cinemas from 7th August

Sam Collins’ interview is included in a wider feature on the business of cricket in the August 2015 edition of SportsPro. Click here to subscribe.