The International Cricket Council (ICC) was a wonderful host, as it arranged a media day at its headquarters in Dubai during the Asia Cup last month. The global body’s top hierarchy spoke with candour and was ready to give every question from the media a patient hearing. Alex Marshall, the general manager of the ICC’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), turned out to be the showstopper.
“Corrupters love captains. They look for intermediaries. They look for weak links. Five international captains—four Full Members, one Associate—were approached in the last one year. The corrupters like T20s. They like the explosion of T20 tournaments,” Marshall had said, informing that five international captains—four from Full Member countries and one from an Associate—have been approached by the bookies over the past 12 months.
Corruption in cricket has risen exponentially with the “explosion” of T20 leagues. Over the past 12 months, the ICC Anti-Corruption Unit has conducted 32 investigations and out of those 23 came from the participant report. Eight of those investigations involved players as suspects and five were associated with administrators. The world body also probed three sting operations.
During the Asia Cup in the UAE, Afghanistan ‘keeper-batsman Mohammad Shahzad received an alleged spot-fixing approach for the Afghan Premier T20 League, which is currently being played in Sharjah. Shahzad promptly reported the matter to the team management and the issue was subsequently taken to the ICC.
Only a few days back, however, three Hong Kong players, Irfan Ahmed, Nadeem Ahmed and Haseeb Amjad, were charged for breaching the ICC Anti-Corruption Code and were provisionally suspended. Many offences have been allegedly committed by these players, including fixing, seeking, offering or agreeing to accept a bribe, failure to disclose full details of any approaches, etc. According to the ICC release, the transgressions happened during the Hong Kong versus Scotland match on January 13, 2014, the Hong Kong versus Canada match on January 17, 2014, the Hong Kong versus Zimbabwe match on March 12, 2014, the ICC World T20 qualifiers in 2015 and even during the 2016 ICC World T20 proper. One of the alleged offenders, Nadeem Ahmed, featured in Hong Kong’s playing XI against India in the Asia Cup last month. Their luck eventually ran out. The ICC Anti-Corruption team under the former Hampshire chief constable, Marshall, deserves credit for their relentless effort to curb corruption—it can never be completely weeded out—in cricket. But the governing body of world cricket also lives with contradiction. We would come to that later.
Test is not only the best form that cricket can offer, it’s arguably the greatest format in all sports. Here, even a series with a lopsided 4-1 scoreline like the England-India series, can be a spellbinding. A draw like the recently concluded first Test between Pakistan and Australia in Dubai can be nerve-wracking. Fans in England devoured the England-India Test series. Only a handful of spectators witnessed Usman Khawaja’s fourth innings epic and Tim Paine’s resolve at the Dubai International Stadium. Test cricket, unfortunately, is not well-attended in Asia. And it has got a lot to do with marketing. Have you ever seen an IPL-like promo on telly even for a marquee Test series in India? We are often served the logic that millennials don’t like the long form. What has the ICC, and its member boards, done to woo young fans to Test cricket? And it would be laughable to suggest that fans in England and Australia have more free time compared to their Asian counterparts.
According to a recent ICC survey, over 60% of cricket viewership/audience still falls for Test cricket. But the game’s governing body hardly does anything to promote the most venerable format, thereby creating a space for T20 tournaments to flourish. “I don’t think there’s one particular reason with regard to poor attendance in Test matches. There are a whole lot of issues. We need to improve the marketing of Test matches. The World Test Championship (starting next year) will provide (the opportunity) for everybody to put their efforts; marketing efforts and promotional efforts. That’s the first step, creating the context for Test cricket,” ICC chief executive David Richardson had said at the media event.
Now, the contradiction: the ICC has picked T20s as the driving engine to globalise the game. It has given T20 international status to all its member countries. It has scrapped an elite 50-over tournament, the 2021 Champions Trophy, and replaced it with a World T20. So we will have back-to-back World T20s in 2020 and 2021, in Australia and India, respectively. The ICC has hardly offered any resistance with regard to giving approval to the T20 and T10 leagues, notwithstanding the bookmakers’ love affair with the short-form. Yes, responsibility also sits with the organisers, but the ICC seems to have a preconceived notion that Test cricket can’t be sold to new fans. Every serious cricketer still considers the game’s most pristine format their Holy Grail. Give it a chance, rather than mulling on nonsensical ideas like four-day Test etc.
It’s heartening to know that the ICC would discuss ways to tighten the noose around various T20 and T10 leagues at its next board meeting. “It’s not just going to be an open door for any promoter to come in. I think it will be a bit harder to get sanctions in the future and any tournament would need both the support of the home country and the ICC,” the ICC general manager of cricket Geoff Allardice told reporters a few days back.
Better late than never…