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By Suresh Menon
In 1996, after what Graham Halbish, then CEO of the Australian Cricket Board called a “decidedly ugly ICC meeting in London", Australia, England, New Zealand and the West Indies prepared to break away from the International Cricket Council.
In Halbish's book Run Out, he gives the details of "Project Snow", a "genuine option for Australia and their closest allies to counter a power play by the subcontinent and South Africa".
India, led by Jagmohan Dalmiya and I S Bindra, had begun to dominate the ICC; three years earlier they had ensured that the Veto power enjoyed by Australia and England was repealed. England’s original plan of hosting the World Cup in perpetuity and then a more diluted version where they would host it every alternate year was in jeopardy. India had hosted the World Cup in 1987 and would do so once again later in 1996. There was talk of rotating the World Cup among the countries that was causing apoplexy at Lord’s.
The first hints of the 70 percent or more of the finances in world cricket being generated by India were becoming clear to the naked eye. A small, provincial, 19th century old boys club was about to be converted into a 20th century professional set-up with both money and accountability. It was a difficult pill for the old boys to swallow.
South Africa and Zimbabwe, for political and cricketing reasons, backed India. Halbish hoped that they could be persuaded to change sides. The idea then was to squeeze the subcontinent teams into a corner from which they would have no choice but to follow the diktat of the countries in Project Snow. The plan was so secret that it wasn’t circulated in the ICC, but only among the top honchos of the “breakaway” countries.
"Project Snow would provide our group with three outcomes we believed were necessary,” wrote Halbish. “First, to show South Africa they had chosen the wrong side; second, to steady India and the subcontinent's quest for more influence over all matters cricket; and third, to restore balanced leadership to international cricket.”
Was this done to save the game? Here's what Halbish says, "The contingency plan would allow us to keep satisfying our television networks, sponsors and crowds." Note the order.
Project Snow remained a plan, and was never put into force thanks to John Anderson of New Zealand. “He came up with a universally acceptable rotation system for the World Cup and the ICC chairmanship that averted a split in world cricket,” wrote Halbish, unaware, or perhaps unwilling to acknowledge the irony here - the difficulty in distinguishing between the good guys and the bad guys.
Project Snow, sums up Halbish, was initiated “to protect our backs in the event of a collapse of the system.”
If Project Snow tells us anything, it is that angels and devils are interchangeable in cricket; today's angel is often tomorrow's devil, and both are driven by the same motive.
Which is why the recent admission by Sanjay Patel, secretary, Board of Control for Cricket in India that the BCCI had threatened to form a parallel cricket body and thus forced Australia and England to agree to the restructuring of the ICC does not surprise at all. It was always suspected. And its good to have official confirmation.
“We told them,” said Patel, “that if India are not getting their proper due and importance then India might be forced to form a second ICC of their own.” It was as simple as that, reminding us once again about the practicality of the paymaster telling the Piper what tune to play.
Officials do not use words like “blackmail”, but as was in 1996, so too in 2014. Protecting one’s back, scratching one another’s when necessary, are elements of serving the game. If in the earlier case, Australia and England threatened to break away because of the perceived power of the subcontinent, now the real power of the subcontinent has ensured they stay within the fold. The wheel has come full circle in a short period; doubtless it will turn again. That is the nature of wheels.
Follow the money was the advice given to the reporters who exposed the Watergate scandal in the US. It is advice that cricket boards are happy to follow. The ICC has been threatened on and off – but so long as this is the motto of the boards, nothing will cause it to split. Not the colour of skin, not the type of government, not the lack of friends.