It was, after all, that gentlemen’s club, the Marylebone Cricket Club, which got us into this mess in the first place: through its arrogant, short-sighted management of the Imperial Cricket Conference, backed by its allies Australia and South Africa, the MCC was consistently on the wrong side of history, and ultimately bequeathed us what we now have, the most dysfunctional international governing body in world sport.
So it doesn’t come as a great surprise to see the club’s new chairman, Mark Nicholas (Bradfield College and Hampshire), putting the boot into a playing format which is of vital importance to a group of more than twenty countries which are just outside the hallowed circle of the ICC’s Full members.
The 50-over format, Nicholas has proclaimed as he takes over the MCC chairmanship from Steven Fry, should be confined to World Cups, and should be ‘significantly reduced’ outside World Cup years.
ODIs, he blithely asserts, are (or should be) largely a thing of the past, mostly because of the ‘almost supernatural’ power of T20.
As he himself tacitly admits, there’s nothing supernatural about the relentless pursuit of money which fuels the rise of the T20 leagues – unless we regard the infernal as a version of the supernatural.
But as we and others have pointed out repeatedly, the proliferation of those leagues, building on the evident success of the IPL and harnessing the greed of the money-men in India (and now, perhaps, in Riyadh), threatens not just ODIs but the entire structure of international cricket, which one might suppose Nicholas would be otherwise rather keen to defend.
If current trends are allowed to continue, one can foresee traditional international cricket, in the form of matches between national representative teams, corralled into a couple of ‘windows’ in a schedule otherwise dominated by a perpetual regime of T20 leagues involving sides packed with international stars and having little relevance for the cities, provinces or regions they nominally represent.
And what, one might reasonably ask, is to come of players in countries like the Netherlands, Scotland, Namibia, the UAE and Oman, who are knocking on the door of the highest echelons but who are held back at present by the regressive, self-interested policies of those who control the ICC?
A fortunate few might get an occasional gig in some of the lesser T20 competitions, but other than that, how can they be expected to develop their game, and how can the national teams they play in continue to progress?
Lord (or should that be Lord’s?) knows, the dice are already heavily loaded against them: ODIs, and for that matter T20Is, between Full members and the leading Associates are already as scarce as hens’ teeth, and even when a country like the Netherlands manages to overcome all the obstacles and qualify – ahead of three Full members – for the 50-over World Cup, they are denied the opportunity to prepare for the tournament with the sort of programme of bilateral warm-up matches which their opponents take for granted.
It’s hard to know whether it’s disingenuousness or stupidity which leads Nicholas to assert that ‘it’s difficult bilaterally now to justify’ ODIs.
He must know – and if he doesn’t, he should – that the ICC had until recently an outstanding structure for giving ‘context’ to ODIs, namely the World Cup Super League, the pinnacle of a system which also included League 2 and the Challenge League.
It was arguably their participation in the Super League which gave the Netherlands’ rising stars the experience which carried them through the Qualifier and into the World Cup, but the ICC Board in its infinite wisdom had decided, even before the first iteration of the League had been completed, that it should be abolished, allowing the Full members to revert to a programme of supposedly context-less bilateral series.
And for fools like Mark Nicholas to start pushing for even those to be run down to the point of effective abolition.
Let’s imagine for a moment what the landscape would look like if he got his way.
The world’s leading players would spend their careers earning gazillions playing T20 cricket in the IPL and elsewhere, occasionally guesting for their national sides in Tests played in the windows generously granted to the ICC by the money-men.
Below that there would presumably continue to be domestic cricket in the Full members, played minus the stars and affording a nursery for the next generation of top players – but the money to pay for that would have to come from the profits generated by the T20 system.
And you have to wonder how long the oligarchs who increasingly run world cricket would be prepared to allow that to continue.
Meanwhile, the Associate nations would battle along, perhaps managing to create second-order T20 leagues of their own, like the corruption-riddled Emirati International League, which might be financed in part by the owners of IPL franchises or those who would like to emulate them.
In such a scenario, one can only see the Great Divide between the existing Full members and the leading Associates getting wider, although it’s possible to imagine that some of the weaker Full members might find themselves squeezed out by the ‘free market’ which Nicholas seems to accept as the only possible model.
But is that actually the only way?
More than a decade ago, Lord Woolf sketched out a series of reforms which would, had they been implemented, have turned the ICC into a decent, fit-for-purpose organisation, which might have been better able to resist the forces unleashed by the architects of the IPL and its satellites.
Those proposals were, of course, almost instantly torpedoed by the very oligarchs who were engineering the hostile takeover of world cricket in order to line their own pockets, and who then proceeded to vote themselves an even larger share of the ICC cake.
In the end, if cricket is to be saved from their depredations a majority of the Full members is going to have to muster sufficient backbone to stand up to the bullies of the BCCI and their allies, and call a halt to the game’s slide into a corporatist nightmare.
And a strong, well-organised ODI system is likely to be part of the answer.
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