By Richard Bannan
If you’re reading this you’re a sports fan. If you’re a sports fan, you’re a fan of Test Match Cricket. To claim otherwise is akin to being to a lover of sketch comedy with a blind spot for Monty Python.
And if you love Test Match Cricket you must see Death of a Gentleman.
This new documentary, from journalists Sam Collins and Jarrod Kimber began life in 2011 as a love letter to Test Match Cricket and an exploration of whether it would be able to retain its sporting and social relevance in an increasingly fragmented and fraught commercial marketplace. However, in the intervening four years, it became apparent to the directors that they were, in fact, making a film about an administrative coup, staged at the top of the world game by the Big Three Boards – India, England and Australia – and their respective leaders – N Srinivasan, Giles Clarke and Wally Edwards. These three men ruthlessly exploit the financial weaknesses of their rivals whilst enshrining and enriching their own coffers. The deal disenfranchises smaller nations and challenges the very spirit of the game. The philosophy of the new regime is neatly summed up by Australian Cricket historian and journalist Gideon Haigh who asks, “does cricket make money to exist or does cricket exist to make money?”
Alongside this narrative of menacing men in suits doing dodgy deals in Dubai hotels is placed a more human story, as the filmmakers trace the brief test career of Australian top order batsman Ed Cowan. This thread of the film is presented in far more romantic terms: Cowan is an old fashioned grafter, the sort of cricketer in whose success we should all revel, and whose failure we should all mourn. His is the heart of the film, the dogged artist robustly forward defending his game against such terrifying adversaries as Twenty20 cricket and David Warner.
Of course, these two strands swiftly converge. Such is the revenue potential of T20, and the IPL in particular, the administrators begin to look for larger cuts of the pie, and the players, in turn, are pressured into more aggressive, expansive shots. The beloved game becomes a Bollywood entertainment, and everyone wants to be a producer.
What is puzzling is that Collins and Kimber present this story with the verve and flamboyance of a switch-hit six, rather than a more conventional stroke. There is a cuddly lion mascot and a fake sheikh; there is a Michael Moorish self-righteousness to the interrogation of their suspects and there is the black board spider graph connecting every string in the story, a device familiar to anyone who has watched an episode of The Wire. The filmmakers are using the language of the Twitter generation to expose the apparent daylight robbery of this most ancient and traditional of games. When Giles Clark accuses Collins of repeating arguments made in the 1909 edition of Wisden he fails to recognise that such a statement indicts his own views rather than his adversary.
The film will, of course, be compared to other recent sports revelations, most notably the Armstrong Lie and the whirlwind of corruption surrounding FIFA. However, in both those cases the rule and law breaking was on such an industrial scale that it became unsustainable. In those examples, someone blew the whistle and the walls came tumbling down. What is uniquely insidious about the actions of Cricket’s big three is that they appear to have engaged in a line of legal corruption, persuading the turkeys of the seven smaller cricket boards to vote them an eternal Christmas. There is, therefore, no smoking gun to tip off the judiciary. The FBI is not coming to save cricket.
Death of a Gentleman is a profoundly sad film that raises far more questions than it answers. There is no indication that Collins and Kimber have any idea what will happen following this film’s release, although the closing reel suggests they imagine the status quo will ultimately prevail. Hence, it is imperative that every sports fan on the planet should see it. Cricket is no democracy, that much is clear. But the financial strangle hold which Clark, Edwards and, particularly, Srinivasan have placed upon cricket will ultimately suffocate the international game. By taking financial incentives away from lesser nations, by restricting the size and location of ICC tournaments, by refusing to countenance cricket as an Olympic sport and by reacting to any challenge to their authority by abandoning or, at least, drastically reducing future tours, these three gentleman, acting, as is their want, in the short term self-interest of their respective boards, are digging a grave for Test Match Cricket.
What will, ultimately, kill the sport, however, is apathy and it is for this reason that the film resonates so strongly. There is something of the moral crusade about Collins’ and Kimber’s work; this is documentary cinema as social action and, thus, the onus is put upon the viewer to act. In the absence of a narrative smoking gun, the filmmakers challenge their audience to fire first. It is a powerful and persuasive argument. Cricket will not change unless we change it ourselves.