Reviewing the Woolf review: Ideals, politics and economics
Russell Degnan

The Woolf review of ICC governance will be remembered as either a significant turning point in cricket's quest to become a global sport, or an interesting foot-note in the ICC's troubled history. It is radical to the point of excess, yet despite acknowledging at length the financial implications of the current structure, leaves any detail of how they might be usefully reformed.

Let us begin with the good aspects however. The chapters on the role of the ICC and fundamental issues are outstanding, leaving almost nothing of importance out. Woolf stakes out his position from the off:

"In the past, ["Member Boards using the ICC as a 'club for Members', with new Full Members being admitted at their discretion"] might have been appropriate but that is no longer the case. If cricket is to be a truly international game, it is essential that a body exists that is responsible for, and in charge of, the global game. The ICC has reached a point in its development where [the role of the ICC] is more far reaching. Its role should be to act in the best interests of cricket generally and promote, lead and develop the international game. It should be held accountable to all its 105 Members, not just the existing 10 Full Members. Therefore it is critical that the ICC acknowledges that it is the body to lead the global game and Member Boards and the Members of the ICC accept that is the position. This does not mean it cannot continue in its role to support the Full Member Boards."

This is a fundamental change, and one that in the past many full members - by reported word, or action - have failed to acknowledge. If that remains the case, Woolf might as well have stopped there. If his goals, and those of his many respondents don't align with the ICC members, the only feasible solution is for the many to go their own way. Woolf says as much, concluding chapter two with a warning that:

"If the ICC is prevented from developing, promoting and protecting world cricket, public opinion will be increasingly critical of the Members of the ICC Board who are responsible for this."

He is pleasantly straight-forward about what this means for full members:

"This may be seen as involving the surrender of what are perceived to be long established privileges of Members to the ICC. Whether they are perceived or real they should be given up. [...] The FTP at present solely benefits the Test playing nations. [..] this needs to come under the governance and oversight of the ICC for the global good of the game, [...] Other examples include the automatic right to Board Membership, distribution of surplus revenues and automatic participation in ICC events currently enjoyed by Full Members."

The remainder of the report deals with a number of issues, particularly the submissions from the global cricket community and those relating to transparency; on which also see Deryck Murray's submission on behalf of transperency international. I want to focus on three, where the Woolf review remains lacking in some way.

ICC Membership

This is perhaps the strangest aspect of the report. Woolf is assiduous to ensure no parts of the ICC can be used to exclude others - certainly a good thing - but pays almost no attention to member responsibilities.

The removal of affiliate membership - allowing all members to vote on the full council - is potentially problematic unless the standard of affiliate membership is increased - which has its own problems, not least the exclusion of small members from competition. While some affiliates are big nations, and even strong ones (Afghanistan) their problems are not just poor infrastructure and limited playing members. They are also run on a shoe-string, with limited governance. Applying one-member-one-vote to the affiliates when they outnumber the full and associate members risks some very odd decisions at full council level. Even when it is limited to membership and judgement of the board. The case for removing that category of membership seems weak, given it was one of the aspects of the ICC that was working reasonably well, with clear guidelines for progression.

The strangest notion however seems to apply to the separation of test cricket and full membership. Separating them is a very good idea. But the main reason to separate them is to recognise that there are certain members with highly developed infrastruture and finance who have greater responsibilities and a greater capacity to run the game; but that that capacity is only peripherally related to on-field performance. The notion put forward that a nation ought to have full membership rights and not play test cricket is entirely back-to-front. Full members must play test cricket, because they have a responsibility to preserve that format of the game - or an equivalent first-class international format if standards are so precious. Associate members ought to be allowed to play test cricket - or some equivalent, merit based version of first-class international cricket that leads to test cricket.

Letting Ireland become a full member but continuing to exclude them from test cricket won't help them keep their players. And while it is reasonable to remove the onerous (and never used) requirements for full members, it makes absolutely no sense to state that they aren't able to play test cricket, when the reality is they are perfectly able (and in fact do, in its I-Cup equivalent), but are being excluded for reasons of competition.

Board Membership

Here is where it gets political. Woolf's proposals for a board include four full members, two associate members, a chairman, three independent (business/governance) directors and two independent (cricket) directors "representing the wider game" to provide diversity of views. Here it is worth revisiting a quote on politics by Crick, from our own review submission:

"Politics then, can be simply defined as the activity by which differing interests within a given unit of rule are conciliated by giving them a share in power in proportion to their importance to the welfare and the survival of the whole community. [...] A political system is that type of government where politics proves successful in ensuring reasonable stability and order."

The fundamental question on the board composition is: will it be stable. I fear not, England, Australia and India will demand representation on the board, and given their global influence need to have it. There is no nice way to solve that, nor would it be a permanent solution, as relative political strengths are never fixed. Similarly, asking the full members to give up representation and reform the financial structure of cricket (whereon they will feel the most need for representation) is an unlikely wish. The first proposal is for the addition of independent directors, and the removal of the full member veto (which is the most important step). This is a simpler step; it seems likely that the board will grow to be unwieldy before it becomes small. Whatever the solution, this promises to be a messy, drawn out, and ugly.

Financial Reform

The Woolf review makes a number of very salient points on finances. It is also lacking, stating that "We have been unable to obtain a full picture of the current financial position of global cricket." What it did determine ought to be familiar for those who understand the general concept of global cricket finances:

  • 75% of ICC finances are evenly distributed direct to full members. The remaining 25% are used by the ICC or directed to associate development.
  • Many full members are dependent on overseas tours from India and England, and the ICC distribution to pay for normal operations. (As an aside, this would also make them inelgible for full member status, as they couldn't support first-class cricket without test status).
  • No evaluation of the financial implications of the FTP have been made.
  • The ICC is unable to adequately monitor financial information.

Needless to say, the financial question is central to the scheduling and membership questions, and the absence of adequate knowledge of it detracts from the Woolf review.

Despite this, Woolf advocates that the ICC become independent of its members financially, removing the subscriptions members pay to support he global body, and allowing it to keep its event revenue, so that it can target that revenue more effectively. If that means less money going to boards that don't need it and a significant increase in global development programs then it is definitely a good thing. If it means member boards have to scale back professionalism, first-class programs, or lose more players to domestic T20 leagues, then it is going to be a problem.

There is no easy solution to this problem, and ultimately the ICC will be judged on its ability to handle the problem of cricket finance, as that issue underpins many of the niggling scheduling problems that give rise to complaint.

We might hope that the full members vote themselves into a submissive role under the benevolence of the ICC administration, but it is unlikely to happen. The transitional plan proposed by Woolf - removal of the veto, new full members and a chairman and three independent directors - will go some way to improving the existing disfunction. But the ICC will need to conduct a further review into finances - something they could have voted for in the previous meeting - and into a method of scheduling that supports the broader member base.

Given the only reliable way if distributing funds is via the ICC, the likely outcome will be to submerse larger chunks of cricket into ICC tournaments where the ICC owns the tv rights, and can therefore sell subsidise smaller nations from Indian and English viewership. If, as in my plan, two years of the test schedule became ICC tournaments, then ICC revenue would increase from approximately 400 million to one billion. The marquee series that provide the largest chunk of India, England and Australia's home-generated revenue will be maintained, reducing their losses.

If the finances cannot be arranged to satisfaction, and in the past it has been a stumbling block, then this plan won't go far. Which will be a pity, because it talks a lot of sense.

Cricket - Articles 4th February, 2012 13:47:51   [#]