The germs of change?

Sunset over Windhoek city panorama with mountains in the background Windhoek Namibia

Increasingly, economic and social commentators are observing that the world on the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic will be very different from that which preceded it; that, in the words of one of them, ‘the era of peak globalisation is over.’

Sport is, of course, not immune to such tectonic shifts, and the economic forces which have been unleashed by the greatest health catastrophe in a century have already had an impact on the entertainment and recreation industries which will continue, and continue to be felt, for years to come.

The enforced stillness which the disease has brought with it is also an opportunity to reflect, on where we were when this crisis started, and how we came to be there. And, possibly more important, on whether, as the crisis passes and our lives resume, whether we wish to carry on as if nothing had happened.

These questions apply no less to cricket than to other forms of activity, since cricket has been a prominent beneficiary, and victim, of ‘peak globalisation’.

The first international team I ever saw, Len Hutton’s 1954-55 MCC side, had arrived in Australia on board the Orsova, after a voyage of several weeks. Their tour lasted more than four months and included 23 matches, after which they moved on to New Zealand for two Tests there, their entire trip taking more than six months.

That leisurely world began to change in the 1960s, when international sports teams started flying rather than travelling by ship and train, and slowly itineraries altered too, becoming shorter and more intensive. The era of globalisation had begun.

Significant as the development of air travel was for the future of cricket (and other sports), the creation in the 1970s and 1980s of a global system of communications satellites was scarcely less so: by the 1990s it was feasible to transmit live coverage of an event anywhere in the world to a global audience.

In 1990 an England Test in the West Indies was shown on British television for the first time, and the following year saw Rupert Murdoch launch his Sky company, the first of many established to exploit the possibilities of this brave, and enormously lucrative, New World.

And shortly afterwards, whether by coincidence or not, the country with the largest television audience in the world for cricket began to flex its muscles.

The seizure of the controls of the ICC by the BCCI began in February 1993, and everything that followed – the current organizational structure of cricket’s governing body, the move of its headquarters from Lord’s to Dubai, the growing obsession with the sale and exploitation of media rights, the 10-team World Cup, the unholy alliance between India, England and Australia which hijacked the ICC for a time, the overcrowding of the international schedule, even the epidemic of illegal betting and the match-fixing it spawned – stemmed from that moment.

It was Jagmohan Dalmiya and his ally IS Bindra who realized the massive financial potential of the sale of television rights, winning a legal battle in India to have such rights declared a commodity, forcing state broadcaster Doordarshan to pay to acquire them, and creating a model which would soon be followed enthusiastically by other major cricket-playing countries and by the ICC.

It is a reasonable estimate that the commercial contracts in force across the cricket world when the Covid-19 pandemic struck were worth something in excess of $US10 billion, or at least $2 billion a year.

This is, of course, a fairly modest sum by comparison with those earned by football and by some North American sports, but there can be no question that between 1995 and 2020 cricket’s landscape was transformed by this injection of wealth previously undreamed-of.

It would be absurd to deny that this is in many ways a success story: like other sports, cricket has been enjoyed by millions of fans, even when their beloved team is playing on the other side of the world; many players have been much better paid than their predecessors were; a game which might otherwise have been swamped by its competitors has been able to prosper and, to some extent at least, to grow.

And a few crumbs and bones from the feast have been allowed to reach those who were excluded from the charmed circle who have been filling their faces at the table.

But that is very far from being the whole story.

The commodification and globalization of cricket has also meant its creeping Americanization, that model of sports business with commercially-owned franchises, vastly overpaid superstars, increasingly ludicrous team names, and all the ballyhoo of which the IPL is the supreme example.

The highest-paid icons of cricket’s current generation, most of them Indian, are among the best rewarded sportsmen on the planet, while the journeymen of the game, whether they are playing in county cricket, the Sheffield Shield, or the Ranji Trophy, have to get by on wages not much better, relatively speaking, than those paid players thirty or fifty years ago.

We have lived in an age of rapidly-growing inequality, between and within societies, and sport has not been exempt from a trend which has seen the gap between rich and poor more than double in half a century, accelerating as globalization has expanded its grasp.

Apart from the few players who have become millionaires, those who have profited most from cricket’s rights bonanzas have been the owners of franchises, administrators who have paid themselves generous salaries, and television executives and others in the corporate world who have been able to turn the game’s success to their own advantage.

We should be asking, and be forcing the game’s leaders to ask themselves, does it have to be this way?

Is there not a more equitable way of sharing out the feast, so that every corner of the sport is able to benefit from its nutritional riches?

It would require a huge cultural shift, a quantum leap away from the greed and marketing hype of the past thirty years, not a return to the leisurely, profoundly colonialist world of the 1950s but towards a genuinely different vision of a sport which flourishes in a hundred countries and not just a dozen, on cricket grounds in Manipur as well as Mumbai, in Lusaka as well as London, in Belgrade as well as Brisbane.

If – and I concede it’s a big if – the current pandemic is going to change the world for the better in the long run, it will be because we choose to make it so. And that’s as true of cricket as it is of every other aspect of human activity.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

nineteen + nineteen =