Film review: Death of a Gentleman (2015) and corruption in cricket


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.

Death of a Gentleman – Official trailer from Dartmouth Films on Vimeo.

Comments

  1. deepak shetty says

    Unfortunately, the controlling bodies of cricket in some of the other countries are also dominated by people

    Or bribed by the BCCI -like Zimbabwe where the BCCI turns a blind eye to any irregularities in turn Zimbabwe votes with the BCCI
    Or Sri Lanka too which gets many tours from India in return for its vote.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    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?

    I wonder if cricket has something to learn from rugby, a similarly class-ridden sport in the UK?

    Rugby union – the original game, fifteen men, scrums, lineouts etc. – was scrupulously amateur. Then in 1895 the working men (as opposed to gentlemen) who played the game, primarily in the north, broke away and formed their own, professional league – thirteen to a team, play-the-balls, no lineouts. This allowed players to be fairly compensated for the time spent playing and training. Meanwhile union remained scrupulously amateur, to the point that a player couldn’t do anything like write an autobiography or even accept an appearance fee for a social event for fear of being accused of “professionalism” and drummed out of the game. The result was that players would build a reputation in union as amateurs, then the best would be courted by the big League teams, and would turn pro (and would often find professional athletes somewhat fitter and harder than they expected…). HUGE amounts of money flowed through rugby league as a result. (Huge amounts of money flowed through rugby union, too, obviously – it was just kept well away from the actual players of the game).

    From a purely subjective viewpoint, league is a more appealing game to the spectator. It’s easier to understand and flows better, and in the 80s the players were visibly fitter and faster. This view has nothing to do with growing up in a town that had the best rugby league team in the world (the professional team representing my home town – population about 300,000 – played and beat the national side of Australia. When they won a cup final match 38-12 it was regarded as close, given that they’d won the semi 74-10 and won a league match the week after 76-8.)

    Then in 1995, union went pro. Players no longer had to look to League to make decent money playing. League withered, Union went from strength to strength, despite remaining frustratingly opaque to the spectator.

    Could test cricket “go pro”? Is there enough appetite for a game so determinedly slow and complex? I hope so.

  3. Mano Singham says

    sonofrojblake,

    Cricket is already pro at the Test match level. The cricketers who play in those matches are paid by the cricket boards of those countries. The catch is that the T20 format generates far more TV revenues and thus can pay its players much more.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    I do know that, hence the scare quotes. They’re not paid very much, though, by the standards of international sports. Rugby union, despite being the more opaque and (whisper it) boring game to watch of the two codes nevertheless manages to maintain an air of prestige, of being the “proper” game. I guess it helps that it doesn’t take the best part of a week to watch. It’s so frustrating that TV drives so much of how sport ends up today. See also the calvacade of cheats and posers playing football.

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