The International Cricket Council’s (ICC) executive conference in Singapore in June only confirmed what the cricketing world feared, if not had severe apprehensions about—of India’s muscle power in running world cricket and of the realignment of forces in the forum. Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s nomination for vice-presidency of the ICC was blocked by what later was dubbed as the “Afro-Asian” bloc, for reasons that went beyond cricket. These reasons ranged from Mr Howard’s past positions on international issues to the diplomatic “lack of cricket administration experience.”
Mr Howard does have a controversial past, a leadership style centred around unilateralist principles and may lack an ability to create consensus. His arrogance in standing by what he says and his unwillingness to apologise for his outspoken demeanour eventually ticked off many, causing many nations to vote against his nomination. Mr Howard’s nomination as a joint candidate of Cricket Australia and New Zealand Cricket is itself worth exploring. Sir John Anderson, a well-known New Zealand-based businessman and an experienced cricket administrator was in the running, but an arbitration panel or the “emergency committee”, headed by an Australian eventually picked Mr Howard as the consensus candidate.
Mr Howard’s positions on leading international issues, and his proximity to George W Bush played a major role, losing him two strong votes from Bangladesh and Pakistan, cricket’s only two Muslim Test-playing nations. His infamous 1988 speech against Asian immigration and his views on Muslims as an inferior community in Australia must have eventually contributed to his bid’s failure. His faux pas in a press conference calling Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan a “chucker” in 2004, and subsequently, the failure to condemn the regular racial abuse directed against Sri Lankan cricketers, meant one more vote lost to Mr Howard. The fact that Mr Howard did not ban the LTTE during his three terms didn’t help.
Then we have the case of Zimbabwe and South Africa. The former was lost because of Mr Howard’s strong political views against Robert Mugabe and the latter because of his condoning apartheid by opposing economic sanctions against P W Botha’s administration. In 2007, Mr Howard likened the Mugabe-led Zimbabwean administration to “Nazis”and banned the Australian team from touring the country, opting to pay over $2m to the ICC for the cancellation of the tour. He called Nelson Mandela a “terrorist” even after he was democratically elected in South Africa’s first post-apartheid elections. A week before the meeting in Singapore, Mr Howard made a desperate dash to Harare to meet David Colbert, Zimbabwe’s sports minister, making promises in exchange for the vote of confidence. This eventually proved to be in vain.
Mr Howard thus carried baggage, which cricket and the ICC could easily live without. Cricket Australia should have thought better while picking its candidate for the ICC vice-presidency.
However, mammoth in the meeting was India, represented by Shashank Manohar, chief of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). BCCI voted against Howard’s nomination, though there were no reasons given for the same. At one level, this vote was puzzling: the BCCI and Cricket Australia have moved closer than ever, with the Australians endorsing BCCI’s commerce-led policies, namely the Indian Premier League (IPL) and Champions League Twenty-20 tournaments. The boards are working very closely to set up regular exposure-based exchange programmes for cricketers of both nations.
It is possible the India-Australia relations were at play at some level—but unlike the Pakistani and the Bangladeshi case, where a decision on support to Howard was left to their governments—there was no intervention from the Indian government. From race attacks against Indian students in Australia to the consistent snub over the refusal of uranium sales to to India to the decade-long dalliance with China, Australia’s relations with India have been at best inconsistent and moody. It was during Mr Howard’s prime-ministership that Mohammad Hanif, an Indian doctor in Australia was held for alleged links to terrorism. All put together, the snub wasn’t quite unexpected—given BCCI’s interests in maintaining close cricket relations with Asian nations like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and its clearly felt the need to stamp its own clout on the game by dictating terms on most contentious issues.
But did India act in the best interests of the game? Or were internal dynamics emanating from the Lalit Modi’s IPL imbroglio at play, where a vote against Mr Howard was pretty much a vote against Sharad Pawar who had openly backed Mr Howard’s nomination a month before becoming ICC president?
Mr Howard’s case was largely based on tu quoque grounds, the claim being that if Sharad Pawar, one of India’s non-performing cabinet ministers could bag the top job, so could a former Australian prime minister who many Australians dislike for his lack of credibility. Or that, the people governing cricket in respective member-nations are themselves proxies of the people in power—like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe and hence cricket could do with a John Howard. Or maybe, as some of Mr Howard’s supporters claim, he would have been the ideal man to keep India’s clout in check, even if his supporters at Cricket Australia choose to bend their knees in submission to the BCCI.
What the game needs today is not a run-of-the-mill administrator but a leader whose credibility and integrity are unimpeachable and who has a vision for world cricket at a time when the game is facing an acute identity crisis. The ICC must not be seen as a secondary forum for active and retired politicians to search for an alternative source of power, but as a body which genuinely has the game’s interests at heart. For now sadly, cricket is on the back foot, under attack from cliques who put their own interests before the game’s.