While I have been following cricket matches, I have not paid much attention to the politics of the game. I stumbled upon the documentary Death of a Gentleman quite by accident and it was quite an eye-opener. The film looks at the way that international cricket is run. The documentary started out as a project by two sports journalists Jarrod Kimber and Sam Collins who are ardent fans of cricket at the highest level, which consist of the five-day Test matches played between national teams. They were concerned that this form of the game (that purists like me like the most) was in danger of extinction because of the rise of the abomination called T20 which reduces the game to about three hours but in the process eliminates many of the features that had made this game into the second most popular sport in the world after soccer. The long form of Test matches has many subtleties that the short form T20 lacks. I personally find the short-form boring, requiring as it does a very limited range of batting and bowling skills.
But as their documentary progressed, they discovered a bigger and darker story, about how a few individuals, three in particular from India, England, and Australia, were controlling the destiny of cricket and taking it in a direction that was harmful to other nations and to Test cricket in general.
While K-12 schools are the places where young people get their formal start, for adults cricket used to be mainly played by teams that were organized, depending on the country, by clubs or regional groupings that were the foundation of the game and also served as sources of talent for the national Test teams. They were basically not-for-profit operations. The world of T20 changed all that. They follow the professional sports model of the US where single owners purchase franchises and hire players on contract. The Indian Professional League is the biggest of these operations. The IPL has created a spectacle with the games featuring raucous crowds, scantily-clad cheerleaders, fireworks, and music, along the lines of a Bollywood production. There is no question that it has attracted an audience and it makes a lot of money mainly from TV revenues because of the insatiable appetite for cricket in India.
The fear is that this short form of the game, while currently popular, may prove to be ephemeral. As with anything that depends on spectacle, the crowds that watch it now may eventually tire of it and move on to other new spectacles. By that time, five-day international Test cricket, a game whose appeal has lasted nearly 150 years, may have been killed off. Currently T20 cricket draws its talent from those who have succeeded in the longer forms of the game but what happens if that longer form dies out because it has been cannibalized by the financial success of the short form?
What the documentary argues is that the controlling bodies of India, England, and Australia, and their respective three heads, Narayanaswami Srinivasan, Giles Clarke, and Wally Edwards, are acting as a cabal, privately arriving at decisions of the International Cricket Council (ICC) that benefit themselves and just those three nations, and then imposing those decisions on the others as a fait accompli, to the detriment of the game as a whole. The documentary points to a glaring lack of transparency and democracy in decision-making. Srinivasan comes across as inscrutable and evasive, a smooth-talking snake-oil salesman. Clarke seems to be almost a caricature of the upper class English villain from central casting: arrogant, supercilious, condescending, whose sense of superiority and entitlement drips from his mouth and posture, the kind of person that causes audiences to stand up and cheer when he gets his comeuppance at the end of a film. Edwards refused to be interviewed.
The three of them dominate over the representatives of other nations by threatening to not have their teams, which currently are big draws, tour the other countries if they do not get their way. There are currently 105 countries that play cricket but only 10 are allowed by the ICC to play Test cricket. 52% of all cricket revenues currently go to Australia, England and India. This trio has also opposed the entry of cricket into the Olympics even though that would increase the visibility of the game and seem to fear the emergence of China as a cricketing nation that might challenge the dominance of the big three.
Unfortunately, the controlling bodies of cricket in some of the other countries are also dominated by people who have personal agendas or are political hacks and the game has suffered as a result. This film does not deal with those broader issues, instead focusing on what is going on at the apex of the game at the ICC and the harm that the top three individuals and the countries that they represent are causing.
A word about the cryptic title. There are no deaths in the film and the title is unexplained but cricket aficionados know that it is referred to as a ‘gentleman’s game’, where the allusion is not to gender but the code of conduct that all those involved with the game are supposed to adhere to that requires the highest standards of ethical behavior. The phrase ‘not cricket’ has entered the vernacular and signifies something unethical. The opening scenes empathize the importance of this ethos and the rest of the film argues that the big three are killing it.
You can see the trailer.