The revelation some time back by the News of the World that several Pakistani players were involved in match fixing raised the spectre of a crisis of governance in the gentleman’s game. More recently, a Pakistani player has chosen to quit the game and settle in another country in protest against Pakistan’s seamy cricket infrastructure. These episodes can hold lessons for organisations in general.
The name “Shoeless” Joe Jackson may not be familiar to the average Indian cricket fan. He played major league baseball in the early part of the last century, and still holds the third-highest career batting average. Playing for the Chicago White Sox, Jackson and others were accused of having thrown the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Although they were acquitted by a grand jury, such was the public outcry that all of them were banned from the game for life. Zero tolerance was the code of the age—an ethic that has stood baseball well.
Today, it would be unthinkable for the third highest batting average holder in cricket to be banned for life under almost any circumstances. Equally, the average cricket fan in the subcontinent does not think it at all unlikely that the captain of a cricket team and a young and exciting bowler should play fast and loose with their country’s honour. This is in contrast to major league baseball’s first commissioner K.M. Landis, who in the White Sox case banned all players for life. The Pakistani cricket establishment, in comparison, has been keen to protest the innocence of its players. In these reactions lies the root of why the game has had to plumb these depths.
Perhaps the greatest change over the past 20 years is the manner in which cricket has morphed from a gentleman’s game dominated by a few countries into mass entertainment whose centre of gravity is now in the subcontinent. This mass appeal, involving a close dalliance with industry and entertainment, is generally for the best. However, this also means that pure sporting achievement is no longer the only lens through which a cricketer is measured. For many lesser talents, it then becomes important to be measured on non-sporting criteria, several of which require a degree of networking or wealth that may not be derived directly from the game. This appears to be the trap that some Pakistani players have fallen into, and reflects the way in which a culture that pervades institutions can then affect value systems. The result is an environment where honour and reasonable wealth can no longer be enough.
Yet football and baseball, too, are highly commercialized sports whose stars are offered all sorts of temptations. But these games have avoided a major match-fixing scandal. It is, therefore, not the simple massification of the game that has caused these cultural changes. The difference appears to be the zero-tolerance approach spoken of earlier. Allegations have been met with life bans even for the best sportsmen, and companies have been prepared to summarily revoke endorsements even for infractions which have no relation to the game itself, as in the case of Tiger Woods. This type of response has been less common in India and Pakistan, and threatens over time to damage the game itself.
If a game known to represent the finest values of sportsmanship can have its culture morphed so deeply across countries, how much easier it must be for an organization’s values to change. Organizational cultures are the sum total of behaviour and relationships among leaders and senior management. As these change, so, too does the way employees behave. If there is a lesson from the betting scandals in cricket, it is that seemingly harmless and even desirable changes in organisational culture can have serious unintended consequences. Managements would be well advised to track such changes, and adopt a policy of zero tolerance to deviations from the value system they seek to uphold.
Govind Sankaranarayanan is chief financial officer and chief operating officer, corporate affairs, Tata Capital. He writes on issues of governance.
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