Bowled by a Bounder

Standpoint's Mole in English cricket dissects an institution dazzled by the prospect of big money

English boards and committees used to be reassuringly anonymous. You could tell a good committee man when you saw one: understated dress-sense, diplomatic tone, good at avoiding the real subject, even better at sitting on his hands and looking the other way. In English cricket, every decision emanated quietly from “Lord’s”, a consensus view with which no one particularly agreed but no one violently disagreed. 

What on earth happened? These days it’s all egos and open warfare. There have been two nasty elections for the English Cricket Board chairmanship, both spats spilling out with ungentlemanly vigour into the wider media. Worse still, we entered into a partnership with the Texan vulgarian Sir Allen Stanford, a financier with a nasty moustache and a penchant for branded helicopters, who flew into Lord’s carrying a Perspex chest containing $20 million. Not so much barbarians at the gates, then, as barbarians invited into the citadel. 

As a result, the ECB now gets more newspaper column inches than Paris Hilton, and our chairman Giles Clarke generates almost as many headlines as the England team. After 200 years of invisible stewardship of the game, English cricket’s top brass has suddenly raised its head above the parapet. It is not a pretty sight. The central figure here is Clarke. “Sherman McCoy, eat your heart out” – that was Mike Atherton’s verdict when he met the newly-elected ECB chairman in 2007. “I’m not short of confidence,” the multi-millionaire entrepreneur breezily informed Atherton. 

Sherman McCoy – for those who don’t know The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s novel about Wall Street excess in 1980s New York – was a “Master of the Universe”. Stupendously rich and assured, McCoy could not conceive of any situation that he couldn’t charm or buy his way out of. Sherman’s rise had been inexorable. The gods, however, decided that Sherman’s fall from grace should be equally spectacular. Driving home from the airport one evening, he took a wrong turning and found himself in the urban dystopia of the Bronx. Sherman then accidentally ran over a black person from the ghetto, but rather than admit the accident, he sped back into Manhattan, hoping that escaping the crime scene would wash the sins off his hands. Disaster followed. A journalist investigated the case, then someone traced his licence plate and Sherman’s world began to fall apart. He certainly made huge mistakes, but he was also the victim of a bizarre sequence of bad breaks. There must be times when Clarke feels his decision to strike a deal with Stanford, who is now accused of an $8 billion fraud, was the moment when he took a wrong turn into the burnt-out warehouses and insurance frauds of the Bronx.  

Why was he seduced by Stanford? Partly, having failed to negotiate a deal with the Indian Premier League in 2008, Clarke hoped to use Stanford’s millions to keep the England players onside. But it runs deeper than that. Clarke has always contrasted his own entrepreneurial gift with English cricket’s serial ineffectual amateurishness. He regarded the Texan billionaire as a kindred spirit. Who else could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Stanford, look him in the eye – man to man, Sherman to Sherman – and recognise a shared entrepreneurial genius? The Stanford saga appealed to Clarke’s vision of himself as well as his vision for English cricket. 

Why did no one else preach caution? It is as though English sport, having missed so many entrepreneurial opportunities over the last 200 years, now can’t resist whoever offers to pimp her out next. Amateurism still casts a paradoxical shadow over English cricket: two centuries of saying, “We don’t touch the money” has been supplanted by the mantra, “As long as it’s not amateurism, we’ll do it.” When virgins fall, they fall hard.

Now we know more about Stanford Investment Bank and its “unique investment strategy”. Clarke may be bruised, but he is certainly not repentant. He admits a measure of embarrassment about the Stanford affair but stands by his judgment. 

The defence of Clarke falls into three main categories. A weary altruism heads the list. Clarke likes to say that “Stanford had done a lot of good things for cricket in the West Indies.” Sadly, Clarke is not chairman of the West Indies Cricket Board, but chairman of the English board. English cricket is the constituency he should serve. Second, the chairman says he has received 3,000 supportive private emails. This is balanced by about 3,000 public emails – in other words, newspaper articles – that haven’t been so positive. And anyway, even President George W. Bush had a 27 per cent approval rating when he left office. 

Third, Clarke is hard-working and unpaid. Should critics pull their punches on this account? On the contrary, in allowing so much power to settle into an unpaid portfolio, the ECB’s corporate structure is looking increasingly bizarre. In most businesses of our size, the chief executive provides the capitalist vigour, while the chairman provides the brakes. In our set-up, the chairman has the big ideas, cuts the deals and then fronts them to the media while the chief executive…well, it’s hard to see where David Collier comes into the picture, except as dancer-in-chief at Stanford’s reggae shindig. 

But a serious lesson may yet be learnt from the Stanford disaster. It demonstrates the sad spectacle of being on the wrong side of history. Leaving aside the subsequent alleged fraud, the tournament’s whole atmosphere suggested the fag end of a profligate age, a fin de siècle of cheerleaders and bad logos. 

Stanford liked to compare himself with the Australian tycoon Kerry Packer, who invented night cricket, split the world game and gave the old boys’ networks a massive kick in the backside. When Packer began one meeting with the cricket bosses with the refrain, “Come on, we’re all whores, name your price,” a shiver of excitement must have shot down the sport’s collective spine. Yes, he was vulgar – but also bold and invigorating. 

“Come on, we’re all whores,” as reprised by Stanford, doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. He was pushing at an open gate. Sport-as-whore is getting to be old hat. The moneymen took over long ago. The old-school committeemen are safely in retreat and enjoying golfing retirements. It’s time for wise counsel, a pause for breath and careful consideration about what is best for the game-in other words, some proper stewardship by the chairman. An entrepreneur is always looking to make money. A good administrator, on the other hand, seeks to redress a balance that has swung too far out of its appropriate equipoise. Sometimes he will need to shift the institution towards simple commercialism, sometimes away from it. 

If Clarke isn’t able to turn around this perception, there is a danger that English cricket will retreat towards management by consensus muddle. It would be a disaster if his direction and clarity became too closely associated with commercialism and vulgarity. So Clarke might do well to consider the lessons of The Bonfire of the Vanities, compromise his entrepreneurial swagger and discover his inner chairman – fast. 

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