All hail the Ashes win but the fight for the soul of Test cricket has only just begun

The film ‘Death of a Gentleman’ shows how India is a malign controlling force in the game

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The Independent Online

It was from a vantage point six feet away that you saw how Michael Clarke bled. His hands twisted around each other as he talked about what losing an Ashes Test match meant. There were silent little Australian tragedies like that all over the place on Saturday morning. Like Nathan Lyon, last man out, down on his haunches for fully a minute or more, taking in the vast significance.

It was in those moments that you appreciated what Test cricket actually still means; its epic scope. How, for a player, it still dwarfs the game’s shorter forms. “The great leveller, pretty much true to life,” as Mark Nicholas describes it in Death of a Gentleman, the brilliant new film in which Sam Collins and Jarrod Kimber set out to discover why this form of the sport seems to be struggling.

One of the film’s most precious commodities is its intimate access to Ed Cowan, the young Australian batsman who moves mountains to follow and fulfil his dream of playing for his nation. He opens in Melbourne’s Boxing Day Test, then scores a Test match century, then finds his place in the team ripped away. Your heart soars and sinks with the contours of this bright, optimistic individual’s fortunes. I do not know of a more powerful depiction on film of what it is to be a sportsman.

And all that is why the film makes you rage against what it reveals: a Fifa-like venality that is strangling all hopes of Test cricket broadening into a world game, preserving its own riches for a small oligarchic group of three wealthy nations – India, England and Australia – while the have-nots are left to get by on scraps as best they can.

 

The malign, controlling force is India who – by a distance – attract the biggest broadcasting deals and have all the rest doffing their caps in subjugation for fear that they will be cut out of those money-spinning fixtures and a slice of that cash. Colonialism from the once colonised, you might say. From that position of supremacy, India rules the International Cricket Committee, preserving the game’s wealth for the elite, and to hell with what Nicholas describes as “pastoral care” for the game. India’s push for the idea of two-tier cricket, with the Big Three immune from relegation, was abandoned in 2013, when a leaked draft document detailing the plans caused outrage. But in exchange for that concession, a redistribution of cricket’s wealth made the triumvirate richer to the detriment of all others. Wisden India estimated at the time that India, England and Australia would be around $520m (£323m) better off.

Death of a Gentleman acquaints us well with the few, faceless bureaucrats whose control of cricket has brought us to this position. A place where Ireland, for example, were granted the grand total of nine matches against top-flight nations in the four years after beating England in the 2011 World Cup, despite increasing their turnover tenfold, quadrupling the number of active  cricketers and professionalising the game.  A place where the number of countries at  the 2019 World Cup has been reduced from 14 to 10.

We meet the sports’s most powerful man, Narayanaswami Srinivasan, the cement magnate who became chairman of the ICC, buried the organisation in a new base in the desert of Dubai, noiselessly removed those board members who dissented from his views, and who owned an IPL franchise, Chennai Kings, on the side. And we learn a tremendous amount more about Srinivasan’s English equivalent: the former pet-shop and wine-business entrepreneur Giles Clarke, former chairman and now president of the ECB. In a more pompous, arrogant and condescending performance than any you will see on film, Clarke wafts away such questions as why the ICC saw fit to dismiss a report by the former Lord Chief Justice Woolf, advocating an independent, financially transparent ICC, freed from individual member nations’ control to operate for the good of the game.

Clarke splutters over the suggestion that cricket might become an Olympic sport, which would have triggered government money for its development beyond the colonial nations to such countries as Afghanistan, the United States – or China, who are allocated a mere $30,000 by the ICC despite burgeoning interest there. Clarke is asked why he saw fit to sell the England team’s soul to the disgraced, jailed businessman Allen Stanford, by agreeing to the notorious £1m-per-player winner-takes-all match in 2008. “No. No. No. I don’t talk about Stanford. Next question,” Clarke tells the filmmakers, in a performance which leaves you wondering how on God’s earth the future of our precious game – a game requiring imagination, professionalism and intelligence as T20 crowds in – could be left in such hands as this.

In Saturday’s scenes in Nottingham – every Trent Bridge seat being taken up on the promise of what would probably be an hour’s cricket and a presentation ceremony at best – you saw a form of sport that lives and breathes. The summer’s battle was  duly won. The real fight – the struggle for the soul of the game’s true form – has barely begun.

Liverpool can only benefit from plenty of ‘Noise’

More on these pages in the days to come about Living on the Volcano, my Independent on Sunday colleague Michael Calvin’s vivid journey into what it really is to be a football manager. But the book’s incidental allusion to Sean O’Driscoll, Brendan Rodgers’ new assistant at Liverpool, builds on the sense that hiring the 58-year-old is incredibly wise. O’Driscoll’s nickname is “noise”, owing to the fact he tends to speak only when there is a need. His humour is sharp and dry as dust and Calvin hears Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe explain how O’Driscoll’s taciturnity put the fear of God into him when they drove to work together – O’Driscoll as a player, passenger Howe as a trainee at Bournemouth – in the early 1990s. “He questioned a lot of the stereotypes: ‘Why are we doing this? I’m not doing that any more.’ You listen to him and suddenly you think: ‘Yeah, he’s right,’” Howe says. Among the many in Rodgers’ staff who evangelise about him, there have been too few challengers. Some “Noise” will serve him well.

Insight of cricket experts in this series has been Sky high

When all’s said and done in this sporting year, let those who allocate the awards remember the extraordinary quality of insight from Nasser Hussein, Michael Atherton, Michael Holding, Ricky Ponting and David Lloyd throughout this Ashes series. Sky raises the standard to such a level that we can await with expectation many previously undiscovered insights into the Open from 2017. This standard of broadcasting on terrestrial television would be something to behold.

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