Having been left all dressed up with nowhere to go last week when the Corby Cube's showing of Death of a Gentleman was cancelled, I am delighted to report that the excellent Errol Flynn playhouse in Northampton stepped in to offer me a complimentary ticket for their showing. This review comes courtesy of their generosity.
Death of a Gentleman opens, deliberately, in as cliched a manner as possible, with the sound of bird song and the sight of cricket on the village green. The opening words stress, correctly, that cricket is about values, and those being interviewed throughout the film articulate the association of the game with integrity and a moral code for living. In English we deploy terms such as 'that's not cricket' for a reason - that they betray our unease or anger at behaviour that is improper or unprincipled. I disagree with the film makers that cricket is a unique sport in this respect - I think you will find the same approach within several martial arts, certainly in Muay Thai and Judo - but in the context of the cricket playing nations, to play cricket means to associate with core values.
Although a total of seven people appear to have been behind Death of a Gentleman, the two we see on camera are cricket journalists Sam Collins (English) and Jarrod Kimber (Australian). They quickly explain both their love of the game and its size - whilst a long way behind football in terms of global adherence, cricket is the second biggest sport in the world. If that surprises you, just remember that cricket is the summer sport in the British Isles, the national sport in Pakistan and Bangladesh and the national sport in the second most populous country in the world - India.
The film's narrative begins in 2011, with the realisation that test cricket, described by Ian Chappell as the peak of the game, is questioned and imperiled as never before. These concerns are not necessarily new - Death of a Gentleman does not engage with the long term concerns that one day cricket is or will undermine longer forms of the game, a debate within English cricket that is at least forty years old. Instead its focus is on the latest variation, 20/20, and in particular the Indian Premier League, portrayed here as being as much about Bollywood as sport.
For all the glitz, razzmatazz and dancing girls of the IPL, cricketers still enter the game wishing to play test cricket at the highest level. The story of Ed Cowan, an Australian opener, given his cap at the MCG in 2011, is cleverly used to demonstrate the emotive appeal of ambition. No schoolboy grows up in Australia dreaming of playing for a franchise in Chennai - they still want to earn a baggy green cap, a point emphasised by the obvious pride shown by Ed Cowan's father in several short interview clips.
This is very much a film of interviews holding together a central narrative, and for me a core component of that narrative is provided by Gideon Haigh, who asks a fundamental question of cricket in the era of 20/20 - does cricket make money in order to exist, or does it exist to make money. In this, we return to the association between cricket and values, and as the film develops it becomes increasingly obvious that in the era of 20/20 cricket exists to make money. The bigger question perhaps is where that money goes, as seven test playing nations are virtually bankrupt, whilst three - Australia, England and India, make money. How can this be?
Any film needs a villain, and as Simon Heffer illustrates in his review of Death of a Gentleman, here we have Giles Clarke, formerly Chairman and now President of the English Cricket Board (ECB). Awarded the CBE for services to cricket in 2012, Clarke is one of those men who always seems to be pictured with his nose slightly raised in the air, like a deer nervously sniffing for the presence of any predator. In terms of power though, cricket is dominated not from its historical base at Lords and the MCC, but from India. It is the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) which controls the International Cricket Council, and Indian money which matters. An all too brief interview with the former Indian all-rounder Ravi Shastri in effect declares 'we are the masters now'.
If power can corrupt, absolute power can corrupt absolutely. The 2012 report by Lord Woolf into governance in cricket established a sport characterised by a lack of any financial transparency, a potentially deadly failing given the predominance of gambling in the Indian sub-continent and the power of bookmakers. In this part of the world, some two billion pounds can be bet on major matches. However for English cricket it is not match-fixing that brought its most shameful hour, but the ECB's association with Sir Allen Stanford, an American financier who had bought up large parts of Antigua, and introduced 'winner takes all' 20/20. Collins and Kimber resist the temptation to dwell on some of the less salubrious aspects of Stanford's fifteen minutes of fame, and instead use the issue to attack Giles Clarke's jugular. Here Clarke is at his most belligerent, combining detachment and aggression in his response, insisting that he does not talk about Stanford but equally that it is all history. But not of course for those ripped off by the now plain Allen Stanford, serving a 110 year jail sentence for fraud.
The demise of Stanford meant that in financial terms, the IPL developed a monopoly. Here the film's second bad guy emerges in the ponderous persona of Indian concrete magnate N Srinivasan, the President of the BCCI. The sections of the film devoted to the internal politics of cricket in India are perhaps the least appealing to English viewers, but they matter, as the ultimate ICC agreement, to keep TV revenues primarily among the three biggest earning nations - Australia, England and India, shapes all else in the game. The 2019 Cricket World Cup will accordingly be limited to just 10 teams, rather than the previous 14. Given the development of the game in recent years in countries as diverse as Ireland and Afghanistan, this is nonsense. International development, the centre of any sports health, is retarding, something Gideon Haigh correctly castigates as bizarre. Although a majority of ICC members wish to see cricket as an Olympic sport (which would release government funding for the game in China, and other nations) the ICC will not countenance this.
With Srinivasan installed as head of the ICC, despite accusations of his family being associated with match fixing in India, the future prospects for Test cricket, as opposed to the faster, looser and more profitable brand of 20/20 appear grim. When Collins and Kimber manage to get themselves into an ICC press conference in (appropriately) Dubai, a picture of CLR James briefly appears as part of the ICC backdrop on the wall. A Trinidadian born Marxist who spent much of his life in the US and England, James wrote one of the most important cricket books, Beyond A Boundary. One wonders what James would make of an IPL fixture between Sunrisers Hyderabad and and the Chennai Superkings. We probably have a pretty good idea though of what he would make of men like Giles Clarke or N Srinivasan - those who live to make money, rather than making money to live, and to uphold the values of the game.
If Death of a Gentleman ends on a positive note it is by returning to Ed Cowan, and the values of those playing the sport for that sense of individual, team or national pride. Nothing about that tendency remaining however, guarantees its survival. Collins and Kimber ask us to visit the website Change Cricket, and to resist the games drift. The interviews in the film though with IPL players such as Kevin Pietersen (the first post-national, post-modern cricketer?) and Chris Gayle remind us that when it comes down to a choice between domestic and test cricket, or the IPL, the big bucks of the IPL will always turn heads. We should not necessarily be pessimistic, but we do need to be realistic. Cricket is not in good health, and the Death of a Gentleman illustrates that all too well.
There are screenings of the film scheduled across the country for the remainder of September and going into October. Some cricket venues, most noticeably Lords, have declined to show the movie, for fear of upsetting the ECB. That makes it all the more important to get out there and see it, before hopefully it becomes available on DVD.