In a characteristically thoughtful and broadly-visioned article last weekend, Gideon Haigh wrote about the immediate effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on club cricket in Australia, and asked some painful questions about the long-term future of the game if, as seems increasingly certain, the disease disrupts schedules for more than a few weeks.
‘Once the habit has been broken,’ he reflected, ‘it is exceptionally difficult to re-establish. It’s as my friends on The Grade Cricketer observe: once your weekend has been colonised by other activities, it is not easily given back to exasperating ducks, dropping easy catches and getting smashed all over the park.’
It’s a challenge that’s not confined to cricket, and we are seeing sports administrators across every sport, and at every level, struggling to respond to a situation which is for most of us completely without parallel or precedent.
Difficult enough to make the tough decisions in one’s personal life – should I go shopping and what’s a responsible amount to buy, when should I cancel or postpone that holiday, why shouldn’t I play football in the park or go to the beach?
And we are seeing, in the absurd and unconscionable delay in postponing the Tokyo Olympics, in the somewhat botched abandonment of the national Australian Rules football league, in the reluctance of the soccer and rugby league authorities in Australia to face the brutal facts, how difficult it is for the sports administrators to make the right call at the right moment.
For the Southern Hemisphere governing bodies of cricket, the choices have had to be made towards the end of the season, and while this has meant, for example, that the Sheffield Shield final, as well as the last round of round-robin matches, has been cancelled and the title awarded to leaders New South Wales, there will now be a few months for decisions about next summer to be made with a greater degree of reflection and consultation.
But for those in the north, including a large number of Associate countries, the start of a new season would normally be imminent, and the uncertainties about how long the present restrictions are likely to last make sensible decision-making next to impossible.
We have seen tours abandoned, an ODI series called off after one match had been played behind closed doors, and a series in the ICC’s League Two and a Challenge League tournament postponed. What we have not seen, however, is any kind of leadership from cricket’s governing body during the greatest crisis the game has faced since 1945.
SEE THE EC LIST OF CANCELLATIONS AND POSTPONEMENTS HERE
The ICC website is, quite simply a disgrace: the ‘Results’ section still shows matches long since called off, the Women’s T20 World Cup is still being celebrated, and there’s barely a mention of the implications of the covid-19 virus for international and domestic cricket.
‘It’s been a while since any competitive cricket has been played,’ is the nonchalant announcement of a feature about how cricketers are coping with the situation, as if the greatest health challenge the world has faced in a hundred years were some kind of off-season pause.
If you look at the websites of the governing bodies of football, rugby union or hockey, to name just three, the picture is very different: there, along with a budget of good-news stories, there are clear, encouraging statements from the sports’ leaders, acknowledging the crisis but looking forward to a time when life will return to something like normal.
The difference illustrates two grim truths.
One is that the ICC’s media department has become so locked into its pattern of hype that it simply cannot cope with a crisis of this order; the only news they recognize is (often fairly bogus) good news.
But that is a reflection of a much deeper problem, the fact that the ICC itself is no more fit for purpose now than it was when Lord Woolf submitted his devastating review in 2012.
He described it then as ‘primarily a Members’ club,’ and that is what it has remained. And an organisation principally set up to pursue the interests of its individual members, and especially of the most powerful of them, is scarcely in a position to provide inspiring leadership in a crisis such as a global pandemic.
No doubt the defence would be that it was necessary to wait until the Board had held its video conference on 27 March, an event which was reported in advance in the Indian press but of which there appeared to be no mention on the ICC’s own website, and that a great deal of consultation has been going on behind the scenes.
But there was absolutely no reason why ICC chairman Shashank Manohar or CEO Manu Sawhney should not have produced an interim statement in the meantime, acknowledging the scale of the problem, expressing solidarity with cricketers at every level across the globe and the millions of fans who are not only missing their beloved game but facing enormous challenges in their own lives, and promising that the ICC will do everything in its power to get things going again as soon as that can safely happen.
Although a string of ICC qualifying tournaments, due to be played before the end of June, were postponed last week, there was no news about the future of matches in the Super League or the World Test Championship, presumably because of the ICC’s absurd insistence that the bilateral series which make up these competitions are the responsibility of individual members.
Nor did the bland communique following that virtual Board meeting provide any more than a burble of management-speak about ‘a comprehensive business continuity and contingency planning exercise’ and exploring ‘all options available to us’. Not a word about what all this means for the future of the sport.
The silence has been deafening, and it unfortunately points to a deeper truth still: that cricket’s bosses are solely concerned with markets and the extraction of as much money as possible from the game, and don’t really care a twopenny damn about the game itself.