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I discovered ‘Sticky Wicket’ by Malcolm Speed during one of my random browsing sessions at the bookshop. Malcolm Speed was one of the controversial CEOs of the ICC (International Cricket Council) and he wasn’t liked even in his own country – Australia. (He himself says this in his book – “I was never going to be warm, soft and friendly, and I was not in cricket to win any popularity contest. As I said back in 2001 at my first ICC annual conference as CEO, my aim was to do my best for the game without fear or favour.”) At the beginning and middle of his term as ICC CEO, he was very unpopular in India, because of a series of decisions that the ICC took which impacted Indian players. The Indian cricket board never liked him throughout his tenure. But during this time I always found him to be an interesting person, because he was a stickler to rules and the law and never backed down from his position, if the law was on his side. He was not a chap who was easily intimidated. He would have been an asset to any organization he served in. So, when I discovered that he has written a memoir, I couldn’t resist getting it. I wanted to find out what he thought of all the controversies that he had been part of. I started reading it a few days back and finished it yesterday. Here is what I think.

 

What I think

 

‘Sticky Wicket’ gives an account of Malcolm Speed’s time at the helm of Cricket Australia (the Australian Cricket Board) and the ICC. He covers all the major controversies during this time – including the pay dispute that the Australian cricketers had with their board in the late 1990s, which nearly resulted in a player’s strike, the Monkeygate scandal involving Andrew Symonds and Harbhajan Singh, corruption, betting, ball tampering and matchfixing in cricket, Speed’s battles with cricket administrators like Dalmiya, Lalit Modi and Ray Mali, the Zimbabwean problem, Bob Woolmer’s death during the 2007 World cup, the Stanford affair, the Darrell Hair affair and the Oval test controversy in 2005. He also gives an account of the world cups which were organized when he was at the helm and the highs and the lows and the controversies which were part of those events and covers other important cricket topics which are of interest to the modern cricket fan, like the rise of the India as a powerhouse in cricket, the rise of Twenty20 cricket, the role of umpires and referees in cricket and on the possibilities of cricket becoming a big sport in USA and China.

 

One thing that I liked very much about the book was that Speed doesn’t shy away from controversies. He takes all the facts that are publicly known and also some facts that are probably not public knowledge and gives his own analysis of the situation. He calls a spade a spade. Speed is a lawyer by profession and it shows in his memoir. His style is calm and cool, dispassionate, objective and well-informed. In places he even admits that he got things wrong. At other places he defends himself and his team at the ICC, based on facts. A few times he takes a swipe at others who must have annoyed him – for example Nasser Hussain, Jagmohan Dalmiya, Niranjan Shah (he says this about Shah –    “Shah, whose attendance at ICC meetings was described by Gray as unnecessarily depriving a village of its idiot” J), Ijaz Butt. But even that is done with the support of facts, in a calm and cool tone. It is very different from autobiographies – ghosted or otherwise – written by some players (for example Botham said in his autobiography that all rumours about his affairs were untrue, except for one. Peter Roebuck, who has an opinion on all other controversies, describes all the controversies he was himself involved in, in quite vague and abstract terms, so that readers who didn’t have a background into his life and career wouldn’t know what he was talking about). There is also no attempt at writing beautiful prose or flowery language. It is like watching Sehwag or Rahul Dravid play. This makes the pages fly when one is reading the book.

 

Speed gives only a very brief description of his pre-cricket life and career in a chapter. There was however a reference to how his wife Allison ditched him many times since they first met, before they finally got married, which made me smile J There is also a reference to his grandchildren in the final chapter when he talks about his retirement. But, otherwise, the whole book is about cricket and its administration and its controversies and its politics. His description of the Monkeygate affair was one of the best that I have read. His thoughts on the Zimbabwe affair are also quite objective, eye-opening and fascinating. Towards the end of the book, Speed talks about how he was unceremoniously sacked over the Zimbabwe affair, which was a real shame, and also how former Australian PM John Howard met a similar fate when he was nominated for the post of ICC President post but whose nomination was rejected by the Asian and African bloc.

 

There are a couple of things that Speed said, about which I want to write a bit more. On India’s rise as a powerhouse in cricket, this is what he says :

 

      “Is it to cricket’s benefit that India is the financial powerhouse of the game? Is it to cricket’s benefit that the BCCI has exercised its commercial muscle to influence the governance of the game?

      The answer is an emphatic yes.”

 

I should be agreeing with Speed here, but I don’t. I would say that the jury is still out on this. Indian cricket fans love cricket – not just when the Indian team plays in it, but any kind of cricket. We follow the Ashes, we follow the Australia-South Africa and the England-South Africa series and sometimes we even watch domestic matches held in other countries – like England and Australia. So, if the game of cricket and the international and national cricket administrations treat the fans better – in terms of producing and telecasting matches, providing good facilities for cricket fans at stadia – it is definitely good for the game. It is always a good thing if one of the world’s most populous nations backs one sport. It can only mean that this sport will stay popular and will encourage many talented youngsters to take it up as a career. Because of the surge in the number of cricket fans, cricket has managed to pull in a lot of sponsors in India and in the subcontinent. This has given the BCCI a lot of financial muscle. Has the BCCI used it for the game’s good? I am not very sure. To me the BCCI seems to be quite an undemocratic organization which has ugly battles during election time. The BCCI is very conservative in cricketing issues and opposes innovations and changes – the BCCI is still against using the UDRS system and against the players forming an association. The BCCI even opposed Twenty20 cricket, tooth and nail, during the initial days, without any logic. The BCCI bullies commentators and players to toe its conservative line. So, we have intelligent people like Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri, who probably know better, saying that the UDRS is not a good system. The BCCI always tries to bend the rules to fit its needs. The BCCI buys votes from the South African, Zimbabwean and Bangladeshi boards (and previously from the Pakistani board too) by supporting them on issues where those boards were in the wrong. Two examples of this are the Zimbabwe audit issue and the Oval test fiasco. This has been going on for a decade. On top of that, the BCCI’s behaviour in the ICL issue was extremely shameful. Interestingly though, the BCCI has also got some things right – once upon a time Indian and subcontinental players were cautioned by umpires and match referees for bad behaviour and were even fined and banned while Australian and South African players used to go scot-free. This has changed significantly now, because of the bullying tactics applied by the BCCI – now the same rules are applied to everyone. The IPL and the Champions League were also wonderful innovations which came out from the BCCI stable. The IPL has ensured that cricket is now a viable career for a lot of talented youngsters. So is the BCCI’s influence good? I am not sure as there seem to be two sides to that debate. One thing I feel though is that the BCCI has a regional view on cricket and not a global view. It is important that some of the BCCI folks evolve into leaders who are able to think about what is good for the sport rather than what is good to strengthen their power base. That is a big leap to take.

 

Another thing that Speed said – this was about what he wanted to achieve at the ICC – was this :

 

      “Did we achieve respect, influence and an appropriate level of control? Clearly no. We made a good start but were overwhelmed. In the end, it got worse, not better.”

 

Many cricket fans and cricket administrators might agree with Speed’s assessment here. But I don’t agree with him. I think the ICC achieved a lot in the last decade. Sure, there were controversies and disasters and politics and in many cases the ICC was treated as the official punching bag by cricketers, national boards, commentators and fans. But the ICC was also responsible for some genuine achievements. Like neutral umpires in test matches and ODIs, using technology to assist umpires, the UDRS system, the Twenty20 revolution, the successful hosting of the past three ODI world cups, the FTP programme, giving more opportunities to Associate countries which led to the wonderful progress of Ireland and Netherlands, giving a clear shape to the role of the ICC amidst all the controversies and the importance given to women’s cricket and the telecasting of women cricket World cups. One of my favourite cricket memories in the past decade was watching Claire Taylor hitting the winning runs for England in the Twenty20 cricket world cup in her elegant style – who would have known that women cricket rocks and Claire Taylor is a legend if the match hadn’t been shown on TV? These were all genuine achievements of the ICC and Speed and his team at the ICC deserve credit for that.

 

So, what do I think of the book? I think it is quite interesting, objective and gives insights into cricket, its administration politics in the last decade. For someone who was once regarded as ‘Public Enemy Number One’ and whose effigy was burnt many times, Speed has written quite a fascinating and eye-opening account of his times at the ICC. I haven’t read a cricket administrator’s memoir before – I don’t think any cricket administrator has written a memoir except for Dr.Ali Bacher. I have only read biographies and autobiographies of cricketers – ghosted or otherwise – and books by authors like CLR James and Ed Smith which are difficult to classify. So, it was an interesting experience to read a cricket administrator’s memoir and I am glad that I liked it. If you love cricket like I do and have been fascinated by its politics, you will love this book.

 

For a book which is written in sparse, businesslike prose, it is quite surprising that I have some favourite passages from it. Here are some :

 

On Sport

 

      As with any job, if you work in a sport long enough you see beneath its skin: you understand what makes it tick, you know when it is strong and when it is ailing, you revel in its greatness, you fight against its ugliness. You hear its heart, analyse its DNA and see changes in its character as it adapts to changes in society. On rare and privileged occasions you see deep into its soul.

 

On Meetings

 

      I am quite prepared ‘to come out of the closet’ and make the unusual and unfashionable statement that I enjoy going to meetings. You don’t hear that too often these days – meetings are generally seen as an unnecessary impediment to sound decision-making. I enjoy taking part in well-orchestrated debates that stretch the participants to their intellectual limits and exhaust the collective wisdom of those around the table on their way to achieving great decisions. Over my career, I have worked in several forums – classroom, courtroom, media, public domain and boardroom – and I have been far and away most comfortable in the forum of the Board meeting.

 

On Players

 

I found it difficult to communicate with the Australian players. As a group they are quite intimidating. I had had a rough start with the team because of the player dispute and they were very wary of me. It is quite hard to stand in front of a group of household names and tell them what is expected of them. I think it was more difficult for me because I had not been an international cricketer – there was definitely an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.

      Most modern-day cricketers have never had a career or serious job – or a boss. They show early promise and are fast-tracked into cricket through an Academy or one of the state programs. Most of them are terrific company and really enjoy the lifestyle of a professional sportsman. However, several of them are surrounded by people who tell them only what they want to hear, which means that they do not deal well with the reality of hardship and conflict off the cricket ground.

 

On Power

 

Power to influence the effective governance of a sport is a fluid and valuable commodity. Power brings with it responsibility. Power in business is different from power in sport. Sport administrators do not own the sport. They exercise their power as trustees for the owners of the sport – the public. They do not have a share price or shareholders. They have stakeholders. Sport should be more value-driven than dollar-driven.

 

Have you read Malcolm Speed’s ‘Sticky Wicket’? What do you think about it?

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