‘Sticky Wicket’ — one of the most important cricket books published in the last ten years

2011-05-21 00:00

CRICKET followers are advised to dip into their pockets and buy Malcolm Speed’s riveting account of his stints as CEO at Cricket Australia and the ICC. Simply, Sticky Wicket is the most important cricket book published in the last ten years. Moreover readers are urged to follow the tale to the end. The last chapter concerns Speed’s removal from office and exposes the nasty corrupt forces that engineered his downfall.

It is a colourful tale methodically told by a man more comfortable with figures than words, a man without flourish but with a strong ethical core. As far as the ICC is concerned, it is a tale of misrule. Not that the ICC has an easy task. Cricket is contentious and an inward-looking game played at the top level by a small group of nations with long and painful memories of each other, and even themselves. Some of its governments are dubious. Had Zanu-PF been counting the votes they’d probably have won KZN. The leader of the opposition remains behind bars in Sri Lanka.

Progressive leadership is needed because it is also a game of high potential. Cricket is a uniquely diverse game — the semi-finals at the recent World Cup featured predominantly Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist neighbours, plus a Christian country that thinks primarily about rugby. No other game covers as wide a range in such a small space. Instead the opportunity has been wasted by bandits posing as patriots.

If the style in Sticky Wicket is as dry as a paper clip, the content is colourful. Speed describes the rumour ridden enquiry into Bob Woolmer’s death at the 2003 Cricket World Cup (CWC), an investigation hijacked by a vainglorious detective and a silly coroner. He talks about the disastrous 2007 CWC, the growth of Indian power, the move from London to Dubai, the advent of T20, the attempt to spread the game beyond the Old Empire and the sensible changes made to the throwing law. He focuses on the notorious SCG Test against India that showed numerous players and both boards in a poor light, an issue from which only a Kiwi judge emerged with credit.

Speed also outlines the crass manipulations over John Howard’s candidacy for the ICC vice-presidency. He was a poor but legitimate choice and much worse had been accepted. The Zimbabweans were especially alarmed by the prospect and worked relentlessly behind the scenes to block him. Afterwards they denied it, but they lied. Speed talks about the Stanford debacle and describes the great West Indian players hanging to his coat tails and raging at the ICC’s reluctance to accept their man’s grandiose proposals. As a pastor put it at a recent memorial service at UKZN “Dignity was lost on the altar of expediency”.

Speed reflects upon his disagreements with Darrel Hair and Nasser Hussain. Not for the first time Hair emerges as a man capable of judging lbw’s but not serious issues. Hussain’s hot-headed posturing during the 2003 CWC was ill-conceived. Throughout England’s position on playing in Zimbabwe he was inconsistent and self-serving.

Ironically, Zimbabwe proved to be Speed’s undoing, and his undoing was his finest hour. Its rulers are the cleverest and most powerful men in cricket because they know how to work the table. His refusal to accept the suppression of documents revealing financial irregularities in Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) led to his sacking. Our positions differed only in degree. I argued that Zimbabwe ought to be boycotted for the same reason as apartheid South Africa, because it suffered under the yoke of tyranny. Speed could see no beginning or end in that.

Speed’s account of his sacking is a devastating exposé of the game’s ruling clique. The way in which unscrupulous elements drove a principled if prickly man from office is the crux of the matter. The rogues conspired to sweep the independent audit into ZC accounts under the carpet and even had the gall to pretend it had uncovered no chicanery. In fact, it indicated that the financial records and supporting documents had been falsified. The Croco Motors deal alone left a gap of 1,5 million dollars (R10,3 million) in the accounts.

Unable to stomach the distortions, Speed refused to attend the ensuing press conference. Inevitably the shysters ganged up on him. By then he’d had enough anyhow. Everyone has his sell by date. It was a rough few years and by and large Speed advanced both the game and his own reputation.

Of course the game rolls along, with the interminable IPL moving slowly towards its climax. It is a great game and has rightly embraced change.

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