Saturday 20 January 2018

Stake driven through the heart of game's credibility

Ireland's exclusion from cricket's next World Cup may not be final, writes Gerard Siggins

CRICKET IRELAND is still hopeful that the International Cricket Council (ICC) will reverse its decision to confine the next World Cup to its ten full members. And the organisation was given fresh hope this weekend after an apparent U-turn by the English board (ECB).

After days of silence from the administrators, the ECB sent this statement to anyone emailing a complaint. "ECB has been a strong advocate of meritocracy in the qualification process for the ICC Cricket World Cup . . . A qualification period for a 10-team World Cup, which is by far the best format for this event, needs to commence in 2013 and 2014 and ECB will fully support its introduction at the earliest possible stage."

The news was welcomed by Cricket Ireland chief executive Warren Deutrom who spent much of last week drumming up support for an appeal.

"We have been building a consensus with the 95 disenfranchised nations and will exhaust all internal avenues," he told the Sunday Independent. "We have had scores of sports lawyers contacting us to say we had a great case but legal action would obviously be a last resort."

The ICC decision was a dismal end to a tournament that promised much for Irish cricket. An historic win over England was followed by Sri Lanka and Pakistan agreeing to play here this summer.

The visit of Pakistan next month will bring back memories of St Patrick's Day 2007 and Trent Johnston's match-winning six. The captain's powerful hit had knocked Pakistan out of the World Cup and gave Irish cricketers hope for a brighter future. But that six-hit could yet prove to be the first nail in the coffin of the game in this country.

The decision of the ICC executive to keep the 2015 World Cup a 'members-only' event has rocked the sport. An email preened its way out of Mumbai at 3.10pm on Monday, full of self-congratulation on an event which exceeded expectations in attendance, viewership, revenue and quality of play.

But while the blazers were passing around the cigars in the Taj Mahal Hotel, a nasty surprise was buried deep in the statement: "The Board agreed that the 2015 World Cup will comprise the existing 10 Full Members, however, they gave notice to all Full Members that participation in the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup will be determined on the basis of qualification."

ICC is not a governing body in the way FIFA is. Its ruling council comprises the ten full members and three officers. Its president is Sharad Pawar, the Indian Minister for Agriculture who, on Thursday, was forced to resign from the government Group of Ministers on Corruption after being himself singled out as 'corrupt'.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is the powerhouse of the game, valued by Forbes magazine at $1.5bn in 2006 -- and that was before it launched its money-spinning IPL. The same year ECB was valued at $270m and Cricket Australia at $225m.

The ICC itself is relatively powerless, merely a glorified bureau for the great powers -- its 2006 revenues were a mere $36m, making a loss of $3.5m. Cricket's single biggest earner is television rights -- ESPN-Star paid $2bn for the latest contract which includes the 2011 and 2015 events.

Recent World Cups were unpopular -- too long and too many mismatches -- but with TV calling the shots there is no chance that the number of games or length of tournament will be reduced.

While soccer revels in its internationalism, its uncomplicated nature means surprises are frequent. Cricket, like rugby, is highly technical and therefore more difficult for outsiders to upset the odds.

The 2007 event had 16 teams, which made for four-groups of four but lots of mismatches and, when the associates were actually competitive, commercial disaster. That Irish victory over Pakistan, and Bangladesh's over India, knocked the two Asian powers out of the tournament.

ICC vowed that wouldn't happen again and rigged this year's 14-team cup to reduce the chances of a major country going home early. That worked, but still the full members wanted to ensure more big games between themselves.

Last October, they decided on a ten-team tournament, and Monday's meeting rubber-stamped this deal. A long-standing TV contract states that the ten full members must take part in 2015 so there was no room for associates.

Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland backs "a ten-team one round league where everyone plays each other once and then a semi-final and final. Every match has great context, and we will see some really good quality cricket." Hardly, as those 48 games would include 17 with the "full minnows" Zimbabwe or Bangladesh.

But it is not just about money and TV -- Ireland are a better bet than Zimbabwe on both counts -- the Africans have been in India's pocket for years and their vote, and that of Bangladesh, is often crucial.

The Irish players went ballistic: "We beat Pakistan and Bangladesh in our first World Cup, took down the Ashes champions in our second, made the fastest World Cup hundred, the highest and third-highest World Cup run chases and have the youngest World Cup centurion. Anyone who says they don't want to watch Ireland in the World Cup is lying," raged Gary Wilson. For that the Surrey batsman, and other county players, earned a knuckle-rap and a gag from the ECB.

Support flooded in from all over, including former England captains Michael Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff. Only eight per cent said it was the right call in a poll run by the world's largest sports website, Cricinfo.

Commentators from the 2015 hosts were just as furious. Malcolm Conn of The Age in Melbourne wrote "By banishing Ireland in favour of the game's most corrupt country, Zimbabwe, the Afro-Asia dominated ICC has once again driven a stake through the heart of the game's credibility. Fair-minded fans should prepare themselves with an Irish flag for 2015, waving it frantically at matches that involve Zimbabwe as a protest at this injustice."

Greg Baum of the Sydney Morning Herald thundered: "Cricket's major problem as an international sport is its narrow base, not much wider than the British empire. This is reflected in its archaic nomenclature: the Test-playing countries are 'members'', the rest 'associates', like women at golf clubs. On form, Ireland is at least as deserving of 'membership' as Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, but has the wrong breeding."

A hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport is fraught with danger. Associates are generally hand-to-mouth organisations with most of their funding coming from ICC -- which won't want its grants spent on legal challenges. A battle won could mean a war lost.

But by the time 2019 comes around, Kevin O'Brien will be 35, his brother Niall 38, and John Mooney 37. Younger team-mates such as George Dockrell could well be wearing the three lions of England by then. Cricket Ireland's plan to double playing numbers by 2015 (having already doubled since 2007) will be harder to achieve. For a sport on the cusp of a serious breakthrough at home and abroad, it is a devastating blow.

Sunday Indo Sport

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