Can cricket be saved from itself? How the ICC is flirting with essential reform

Nestled amid skyscrapers in the desert, an unobtrusive building on Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Road in Dubai is not an obvious place for cricket’s future to be determined. Yet, lured by free land and a 50-year tax exemption, the International Cricket Council has been based here since 2009, and in the Emirates since 2005.

In a city brimming with ostentatious landmarks, the three storeys of the ICC’s headquarters have more of the feel of a well-maintained medium-sized business than a glitzy desert enclave. The TVs in the lobby always show cricket. Earlier this month, on the first day of the first ICC board meeting of the year, the screens showed a rerun of Pakistan against West Indies in the Haier Presents Brighto Paints Cup 2016. It was rather apt: the meeting addressed the urgent need to give internationals real meaning – and, more fundamentally, how to save cricket from the worst of itself.

Cricket today is a sport in unusual flux. Uniquely, it has three distinct formats – Tests, one-day internationals and Twenty20 internationals – run by one governing body. Yet vibrant domestic T20 leagues imperil international cricket’s primacy. Sometimes, the conflict is not just between club and country, but between the same national team in different formats. Later this month Australia play a T20 at home against Sri Lanka the day before a completely different Australia national side play a Test in India – a microcosm of the chaotic and unfathomable structure of modern cricket.

Beneath the surface are wider problems. Cricket needs to wean itself off its overdependence on India, and expand beyond being a crusty Commonwealth club. To do so it will need to spread its wealth, something Test nations have historically been loth to do.

In the ICC recent years have followed a predictable ritual. The next meeting is routinely pronounced the most important ever, only to end with a press release announcing “progress” but with critical decisions postponed – again.

The first meeting of 2017 was a little different. Though the changes are yet to be formally voted upon, the three days in Dubai established agreement on a raft of matters including introducing new leagues in Tests and ODIs, and spreading voting power and money more equitably. Yet such promising signs do not obscure the profound questions that remain about cricket’s future, and whether the ICC is equipped to lead and shape the sport.

Few organisations are more poorly understood than the ICC. Really it is not so much one body as two. There are the staff based in Dubai, and then those with whom real power resides – the representatives of Test nations in the executive board. The ICC has always been a members’ organisation; some have seen its remit as little more than monetizing global events, like the World Cup and World Twenty20, and redistributing the bounty.

Recent meetings, including this month’s, have attempted to undo the changes of 2014. Then, through a mixture of chutzpah, cajoling and bullying, the Big Three cricketing nations – Australia, England and India – awarded themselves greater powers, and more ICC cash than the other 102 members combined. One representative of another Test nation felt “sick” voting through the changes, with persistent fears that India would retaliate against those voting against their wishes by disrupting the cricket calendar. The changes were denounced by Transparency International as antithetical to good governance.

Belatedly, these are being unpicked. Before the Dubai meetings the ICC’s chairman Shashank Manohar wrote: “It is no secret that in our recent past the ICC has taken decisions that were in retrospect not always in the best interests of the game” – an understatement, even when set against scandals engulfing football, athletics, cycling and other sports. Those 2014 changes led to India’s Narayanaswami Srinivasan being appointed as the ICC chairman, despite his conduct being under investigation by the supreme court of India for a betting scandal in Indian cricket.

So it is a little extraordinary that Srinivasan’s great ally, Giles Clarke – president of the England and Wales Cricket Board – is again in Dubai, striding into the ICC’s HQ in his famous beige suit. Showing the remarkable propensity of cricket’s governing elites to adapt and recycle themselves, Clarke joined a working group devised to undo his own reforms. “In principle” an agreement has now been reached.

But in the ICC, “in principle” changes have often not materialised. Australia and England appear genuinely committed to reversing the 2014 reforms, which would involve England’s share of ICC money falling by about $25m over an eight-year cycle, but there are manifest signs that a bitter fight with the Indian board awaits. Under the financial model agreed in 2014, India stands to receive nearly $450m in net income from the ICC from 2015-23 – a third of the ICC’s total distribution to all its members. The new model would bring that figure down to around $260m, still double any other country. In Dubai, one Board of Control for Cricket in India representative’s response was to revert to the organisation’s notorious tactics of yore – threatening to pull out of ICC events and tours and lengthening the Indian Premier League, in between promising extra matches as sweeteners to those who sided with India.

Ever since its modern inception in 1993 the ICC has been hampered by the whims of its 10 “full members”, who have all the power and have prioritised their own narrow interests over the 95 associate members and those of the wider sport. “Sometimes,” Ronald Reagan once quipped, “our right hand doesn’t know what our far‑right hand is doing.” In the ICC’s case, those in Dubai too often have not known what the executive board, who have made decisions in the dark without consultation, is doing.

“The ICC in its present form is not able to provide the leadership that world cricket requires,” said Ehsan Mani, a former ICC president. “The directors are all conflicted between the interest of their own national board and what is good for the game as a whole.”

Cricket’s split personality is revealed by how T20 leagues are undermining international cricket. In the absence of a cohesive global schedule, each board attempts to generate as much from their own league as possible, pulling away fans and players from internationals. Tony Irish, the executive chairman of the Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations, observed that this leaves cricket “competing against itself”.

The World Cup’s contraction to 10 nations in 2019 is also emblematic: the decision is so loathed because of the huge improvement in associate cricket – a triumph for the ICC’s own development programme, no less. But although reducing the World Cup is privately opposed by almost all ICC employees, it is the executive board’s will, prioritising short-term cash over long-term growth of the sport.

Similar logic drives the hosting of world events: the Big Three divvied up all six major events from 2016 to 2023 among themselves. Full members seemingly most at risk of not qualifying for world events (Sri Lanka for the Women’s World Cup this year, Bangladesh for the 2019 men’s World Cup and Zimbabwe for the 2023 tournament) were allocated the qualification tournaments.

Such inequities are manifestations of the ICC’s weakness. Its role “always seems to be changing”, one senior figure told me. “What is the ICC? It’s a question I’ve asked more than answered.”

Clarke derided the ICC as “a huge white elephant” when justifying the Big Three reforms in Wisden 2014. Yet in many ways the organisation is remarkably small. The Big Three reforms of 2014 mandated that the ICC made significant cutbacks to running costs and in regional development offices. It has 69 full-time staff, while World Rugby, a governing body that generated about $500m less from 2007-15, has 94. The ICC is on course to generate $2.6bn in net revenue from 2015-23, yet is institutionally weak, precisely because the full members have always preferred it that way.

The ICC is trying to overcome these limitations to equip the sport for the challenges ahead. Under Manohar, who became a newly independent chairman in an enlightened reform last year, the ICC is more buoyant than at any time since early 2012, when Lord Woolf’s independent review advocated radical progressive reform – only for the Big Three to respond by rejecting it and doing the exact opposite.

“Two years ago I would be ashamed telling people I worked for the ICC,” one employee admitted. “I’m not any more.” The ICC is consciously trying to engage more, improving dialogue and launching an impressive new website. Its chief executive, David Richardson, wants “to take a more proactive approach in telling the ICC story”.

Institutionally its main role has been to protect the sport’s integrity on the field. The ICC’s anti-corruption unit now has 15 full-time staff, and received more than 500 intelligence reports from players, support staff and umpires last year. The ICC board is considering creating a pot of money to standardise anti-corruption efforts in poorer nations. The council also conducted 547 drugs tests in 2016 and has just introduced blood testing. And the ICC has driven improvements in umpiring standards and the embrace of the decision review system: 94% of decisions in matches without the DRS, and 98.5% in matches with the DRS, are now correct.

Alongside these roles, the ICC also wants to shape the sport’s future. For 13 years, Richardson has been trying to imbue the sport with structure. Last year several plans – introducing two divisions in Tests, and windows for domestic T20 leagues to prevent international cricket being cannibalised – collapsed because of opposition from full members.

Now, finally, the ICC has established broad consensus about seismic changes in all three formats of international cricket: a nine-team Test league played over two years, with Afghanistan, Ireland and Zimbabwe also playing Tests outside the structure; a 13-team ODI league doubling as World Cup qualification; and regional qualification for the World Twenty20.

Bilateral internationals would cease to be glorified friendlies. “If we want all three formats of the international game to remain relevant to fans, broadcasters and commercial partners, then they need context and every game should count,” Richardson said. While T20 is regarded as the ICC’s “globalisation vehicle”, there is also genuine belief that a combination of scarcity and greater meaning can reinvigorate Test cricket. The ICC is keen to trial four-day Tests, and determined to cultivate day-night matches.

It can legitimately be argued that all these changes do not go far enough. Last year the Scotland captain Preston Mommsen retired out of exasperation with a lack of opportunities, an emblem of cricket’s caste divide between full members and the rest.

Yet the reforms would still go a long way to redressing the sport’s crippling lack of context, which not only belittles internationals but also puts fans off, robbing matches of economic value. ODIs between the same countries typically attract more than three times as many viewers in multi-team events, like the Asia Cup, than when they are simply bilateral games. Likewise, when the match takes place in a global event, it is watched by five times as many as for a bilateral game.

Tentatively, the ICC is also making full members accountable for what they do on and off the field. Qualification for world events is no longer an automatic right. From last year, all full members have to submit their accounts to the ICC, as associates have done since 2009. Eventually all ICC members might have their funding allocated by transparent criteria, similar to the “scorecard” that determines funding for associate members. The governing body is also introducing criteria for countries to both gain full member status – as Afghanistan and Ireland are likely to – and lose it, as Zimbabwe could yet.

The ICC deserves particular credit for the growth of the women’s game: globally, the 2016 Women’s World Twenty20 was watched by three times more people than the 2012 tournament. Yet this cannot disguise that cricket is a sport that has been terrible at promoting women to senior leadership positions. Though almost 40% of the ICC’s staff are women, photos of the Dubai meetings showed no women around the main table, because there are no female chief executives among the 10 full members and three associate nations with representation on the board.

The main table will now look a little more inclusive: the ICC’s new constitution mandates for the addition of a female independent director on the board. The three associate votes used to be effectively worthless, but now all votes will be counted equally. That is progress, undoubtedly, but it is also far from sufficient. “It is ironical that the female director is required to be independent but not the rest of the board,” Ehsan Mani said. “A board independent of the member boards is essential for good governance.” As 10 of the 14 votes will be required to pass a motion, the 10 full members could still push through changes with no support whatsoever from anyone else.

Even with the reforms, cricket will remain unique among sports federations in having such a “concentration of power”, said Borja García, a sports governance expert from Loughborough University. “Good governance comes from checks and balances and accountability, and one wonders whether the ICC big powers are actually brought to account.”

The contrast with the Woolf report remains unpalatable: Lord Woolf advocated that five out of 11 votes be held by independent directors.

If prospects for progressive change are greater now, that is partly because the proposed governance reforms are far more pragmatic, and less utopian. Perhaps the greatest risk is of insufficient reform and the danger is of a return to something resembling the pre‑2014 arrangements – those described by Lord Woolf as not worthy of the sport.

Still, even the current raft of reforms are far from locked in. Exactly what agreement “in principle” means to today’s membership will go a long way to shaping cricket’s future.

History suggests that the BCCI will not meekly give up some of its extra cash from the ICC. And, for all the optimism that financial changes will be ratified, Sri Lanka joined India in opposing, while Zimbabwe abstained, giving the motion a 7-2 majority; if four members oppose them in April they will collapse. By then the BCCI will have reassembled after the turmoil caused by the Lodha Committee in India, which culminated in the Indian supreme court mandating that leading office holders be removed for ignoring the committee’s recommendations to improve governance.

Views on the merits of the ICC’s proposed reforms vary hugely within the BCCI, and much of world cricket’s future hinges on who exactly represents India at the April meeting. Anirudh Chaudhry, one of the BCCI’s representatives in Dubai, was said to be deeply uncooperative. Chaudhry, a known ally of the governing body’s chairman, suggested that India’s support for the new cricket structures depended on them being happy with any finance and governance reforms, and made various threats. “The board knew about this, was very unimpressed and this led to a real resolve among the members not to be bullied again,” Narayanaswami Srinivasan said. “That resolve will surely be tested in the coming weeks.” And whispers abound that plans are being made for the IPL to expand to 75 days a year within the next five years.

This also points to potential trouble ahead. Another complication is that the overall pot of ICC profit could prove less than the Big Three envisaged in 2014, because their optimistic calculations underestimated the costs of running events. Some cash could be recovered by reverting the World T20 tournament to being biannual, but the ICC’s commercial rights agreement gives Star Sports first refusal on any new tournament before 2023, leaving the ICC with a weak hand. Even as it seeks to move away from the era of the Big Three, the ICC’s capacity is still largely defined by it.

If the reforms to the structure, governance and financing of the international game can indeed be ratified, the ICC will be better placed than for years – maybe ever – to nurture the sport. “We commend the ICC for the changes,” Tony Irish said. “Please don’t stop.”

Perhaps, more than anything, the ICC needs to be empowered to lead cricket through the myriad threats facing the sport – from ensuring the three formats survive in harmony, to devising a proper structure, safeguarding against corruption and preventing the intermittent rumours of a rebel league coming to pass. World cricket’s problem is not with the calibre and integrity of the ICC’s staff in Dubai; it is that, too often, they have been marginalised. “The ICC has not been allowed or given the required authority by its members to govern international cricket,” one Test representative reflected after the meetings.

Look through the windows at ICC HQ and there are hordes of half-completed buildings, some left untouched since the global financial crisis. The sense of work unfinished doubles as a metaphor for the ICC. “Transformation is never easy,” Richardson said. “But we are all keen to keep improving.”

The six big challenges facing cricket


Rugby has a similar colonial footprint to cricket, yet is far more advanced in globalisation. It has a 20-team World Cup – cricket’s World Cup is now contracted to 10 – and has thrived in its outposts since rejoining the Olympics at Rio 2016. Cricket’s embrace of the Games remains timid and, one insider lamented, “has been very bad at learning from other sports”.


The anti-corruption unit believes that the threat of corruption has been displaced, and corruptors are now targeting televised associate, women’s and under-19 matches, plus domestic T20 leagues.

Sharing the wealth

The ICC faces a critical fight to share its cash more equitably and divide it up on the basis of merit, not status. From 2007 to 2015, Ireland won five matches against Test opposition in World Cups, while receiving one-eighth the ICC funding of Zimbabwe, who won none.

Growing the women’s game

The women’s World Twenty20 is moving to a standalone event, in recognition of its growing popularity. The West Indies’ victory last year felt like a seminal moment for the sport.

The future of Test cricket

The ICC believes Test cricket can end existential worries about its future by introducing a league structure, more day-night Tests and awarding Test status to Afghanistan and Ireland.

Club v country

The hotchpotch of T20 leagues leaves cricket “competing against itself”, warns Tony Irish, the head of the players’ association. Not since the three years of World Series Cricket has the pre-eminence of international cricket been under such threat.

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