Government interference in sport – why the ICC suspended Sri Lanka Cricket and what happens next

Yasin Patel FCIArb
By: Yasin Patel FCIArb February 8, 2024

Yasin Patel and Caitlin Haberlin-Chambers discuss in LawInSport the issue of government interference in sport, examining in particular the recent ban imposed on Sri Lanka Cricket by the International Cricket Council, and comparing the council’s approach to political interference to that of football’s governing body, FIFA. 

Government interference in sport refers to regulatory actions taken by a government to influence decisions made by individuals, groups, and organizations on socio-economic matters. Such interferences have led to the provisional or permanent suspension of national sports organizations by international governing bodies.

This article examines the recent ban imposed on Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC), the governing body for cricket in Sri Lanka, by the International Cricket Council (ICC), the global governing body for cricket. Set against the backdrop of the broader sports landscape in Sri Lanka, it initially delves into the reasons behind SLC’s suspension, the jurisdiction enabling the ICC to take such action, and whether this aligns with the ICC’s commitment to a ‘consistent approach’ towards government interference.

It then provides a comprehensive analysis of the approaches taken to political interference by the ICC and FIFA. Anchored in the concept of the autonomy of sport, which forms the foundation for addressing government interference, it becomes evident that there is an inconsistency in how different sports federations respond to such interference. The author gives their opinion on why international governing bodies may rigorously enforce their own policies and impose sanctions when interference is perceived as detrimental to their autonomy, but often assume a more passive stance, or appear to overlook non-compliance when governmental involvement brings financial support. This intricate dynamic highlights the complex interplay between sports autonomy and government influence, revealing a landscape where financial considerations may at times overshadow principles of governance.

  • Government interference in Sri Lanka Cricket
  • Reaction of the ICC
  • Is the ICC taking a consistent approach?
  • The current situation of Sri Lanka Cricket
  • The autonomy of sport
  • How the ICC compares to FIFA

Government interference in Sri Lanka Cricket

SLC operates all of the Sri Lankan national representative cricket sides.[1] SLC is a Full Member of the ICC – a national governing body (NGB) that is listed in the Register as a “Full Member” (under Clause 2.7(A)(viii) of the ICC Membership Criteria).[2] Article 2.8 of the ICC Articles of Association sets out the retention criteria:

(A) “To retain its status as a Full Member, each Full Member must at all times satisfy the following conditions:

  • each obligation set out in Article 2.4; and
  • any further conditions as may be proposed by the Board of Directors and ratified by the Members by the passing of a Special Resolution from time to time.[3]

One such obligation is that there should be no government interference. Article 2.4(D) provides that each Member must at all times:

manage its affairs autonomously and ensure that there is no government (or other public or quasi-public body) interference in its governance, regulation and/or administration of Cricket in its Cricket Playing Country (including in operational matters, in the selection and management of teams, and in the appointment of coaches or support personnel);”[4]

On 7 November 2023, the Sri Lankan sports minister, Roshan Ranasinghe, decided to dismiss the Sri Lanka Cricket Board (SLCB) following the national team’s disappointing performance in the 2023 World Cup, losing seven out of nine games in the group round. In its place, an interim committee was established. Led by former World Cup winner Arjuna Ranatunga, the committee included two sons of politicians. However, in a turn of events, Sri Lanka’s Court of Appeal quashed Ranasinghe’s decision to dismiss the SLCB and restored the officials pending a full hearing: “The restoring of the board is for two weeks, when the court will hear the case again”.[5]

Situating this within the wider context of sports in Sri Lanka, it appears that Sri Lanka’s sport system may be heavily politicised by means of government funding and regulations. 2023 proved to be a tumultuous year for sports in Sri Lanka, notably football, rugby, and cricket. On 21 January 2023, FIFA handed an immediate ban to Sri Lanka a week after the election of J. Sri Ranga as President of the Football Federation of Sri Lanka (FFSL). Soon after, on May 17, the World Rugby Council (WRC) suspended Sri Lanka Rugby (SLR) from WRC membership with immediate effect due to “concerns about the governance of Sri Lanka Rugby and a breach of the World Rugby Bye-Laws relating to political interference“.[6]

Reaction of the ICC

Representing 108 members, including 12 Full Members, and the ICC governs and administrates the game and works with their members to grow the sport.[7]

On the 10 November 2023, the ICC swiftly suspended SLC pursuant to Article 2.10(A) of its Associations,[8] over alleged government interference, contrary to Article 2.4(D).[9] During this period, SLC lost its right to receive ICC funding, participate in international events and attend and vote at Meetings as a Full Member.[10]

On 21 November 2023, the ICC Board convened to discuss the suspension of SLC. The President of SLC, Mr Shammi Silva, “urged the ICC board to grant additional time for the Sri Lankan government to rectify the issue of political interference in cricket”.[11] However, the ICC Board, taking cognizance of similar suspensions imposed by World Rugby and FIFA in response to political interference, concluded that ample time had already been afforded to the Sri Lankan government.[12] Consequently, the Board confirmed the suspension of SLC which will continue whilst the appointment of an interim committee by the Minister of Sports remains in force, which the ICC considers it to be political interference. However, pursuant to Silva’s fervent appeal to the Members, the ICC Board carved out an exception whereby “Sri Lanka can continue to compete internationally both in bilateral cricket and ICC events”, despite the suspension.[13] Regardless, the ICC decided to relocate the 2024 Men’s Under-19 World Cup from Sri Lanka to South Africa.

Is the ICC taking a consistent approach? 

The suspension of SLC highlights the ICC’s unwavering commitment to preserving the independence of cricket administration, in accordance with its powers outlined in Article 2.10 of its Articles of Association. This approach mirrored that in the case of Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC). On 18 July 2019, the ICC suspended ZC, with immediate effect for breach of Article 2.4(C)[14]to provide a process for free and democratic elections”, and Article 2.4(D), respectively.[15] According to ICC Chairman, Shashank Manohar, “we must keep our sport free from political interference”.[16] The uniformity in its treatment of countries that breach established protocols underscores the ICC’s dedication to upholding the principles and standards that govern the sport on a global scale. A further display of the ICC’s ‘consistent approach’ is found in the treatment of South Africa in 2020, where the government’s intent to intervene in the affairs of Cricket South Africa (CSA) prompted concerns. Unlike the suspension of SLC, the ICC did not act against CSA following its implementation of a new governance model which ensured compliance. This is pursuant to Article 2.10(E) which allows for a suspension to be revoked in the suspended Member meets the Reinstatement Conditions in full by the specified deadline.[17]

However, upon closer examination of the ICC’s response to government intervention in cricket affairs, discrepancies emerge. A significant departure from the ICC’s purported commitment was observed during the 2023 World Cup in India. Denials of visas to Pakistani journalists and cricket fans raised suspicions about the tournament’s association with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Dubbed the ‘BJP’s World Cup’, the naming of stadiums, choice of venues and the demonisation of Pakistan and Muslims, fuelled concerns that the Modi’s Hindu-nationalist BJP was using the tournament as a “launch pad for a third term in office”.[18] Alongside this, the revelation that the Chairman of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is the son of the Indian Home Minister further underpinned speculations government interference, whether direct or indirect.The apparent lack of action or a statement from the ICC on these issues, suggests a potential deviation from its ‘consistent approach’ to safeguard cricket affairs from undue government influence. This not only undermines the integrity of the sport but also raises questions about the ICC’s commitment to upholding the principles of autonomy and impartiality in international cricket events.

This prompts the crucial question: Why does Afghanistan maintain its Full Member status in the ICC? The imposition of Taliban rule has led to the prohibition of Afghan women, including the national women’s cricket team, from participating in sports. Ahmadullah Wasiq, the deputy head of the Taliban’s cultural commission, explicitly declared that women’s involvement in sports, including cricket, is deemed inappropriate and unnecessary.[19] Under this Taliban-led governance, interference in the administration of cricket in Afghanistan has transpired, directly contradicting ICC’s Article 2.4(D), and has become a significant cause for concern for the ICC. Despite the ICC’s refusal to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate ruling authority in Afghanistan, “the ICC will not penalise the ACB, or its players, for abiding by the laws set by the government of their country”, according to an ICC spokesperson.[20] The decision not to suspend Afghanistan’s men’s cricket team stems from the ICC’s reasoning that such an action would disproportionately punish the country’s population rather than the regime.[21] [22] The ICC, in its stance, emphasises its commitment to supporting the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB), while concurrently expressing that the punishment or suspension of the ACB and its players would unfairly penalize them for adhering to the laws set by the government of Afghanistan.[23]

This scenario underscores the intricate limitations that international governing bodies face. While they wield authority over the management of NGBs, their influence is constrained when it comes to imposing directives on governments. The ban on the women’s cricket team is not an outcome of the ACB’s decisions but rather a consequence of the Taliban regime’s policies. Consequently, addressing this matter falls beyond the purview of the ICC and falls within the realm of the United Nations. These instances underscore the need for the ICC to maintain a consistent and impartial stance in addressing government interference across all member nations, ensuring that the principles of fairness and independence are upheld uniformly throughout the cricketing community.

The current situation of Sri Lanka Cricket

Presently, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe is spearheading a transformative move to overhaul the outdated 1973 sports law, which previously vested the sports minister with the authority to appoint interim committees. In pursuit of this, President Wickremesinghe has established a cabinet sub-committee, led by Foreign Minister Ali Sabry. The primary objective of this committee is to meticulously examine the existing composition and structure of SLC and propose comprehensive reforms. The ultimate goal is to curtail government and political interference, elevating the governance structure of the SLCB. A central focus was the voting structure, which has faced criticism for its potential role in facilitating vote-buying.[24]

The envisioned legislation is poised to address these issues head-on, heralding an era of transparency, accountability, and autonomy in the administration of SLC, aligning with international standards set by the ICC.[25] This reflects a dedication to bringing SLC in line with contemporary expectations and fostering a governance model that meets the highest international benchmarks.

The autonomy of sport

The legal autonomy in a sports organization refers to its private authority to establish rules and norms within the legal framework set by the State, whether at national or international levels.[26] Many major sports statutes underline the importance of preserving sport’s autonomy. This is often seen as essential to protect the intrinsic values of sport from external influences, including political, legal, and commercial pressures in today’s landscape. Although the autonomy of sports can be enshrined and protected in the Articles of Associations of international governing bodies, the practical implementation of this can differ significantly in reality.

The suspension of Sri Lanka Cricket and Zimbabwe Cricket by the ICC serves as a vivid reminder of the potential repercussions when sports autonomy is compromised. Governments, often wary of the associated repercussions, as exemplified by South Africa’s decision to establish a new governance structure, are typically deterred from interference.

The autonomy of sport becomes particularly complex when dealing with geopolitical issues, as evidenced by the ICC’s lack of action with Afghanistan following political and government interference by the Taliban. This highlights the delicate balance and restricted jurisdiction that international governing bodies navigate in addressing complex geopolitical matters while upholding the autonomy of the sports they oversee.

How the ICC compares to FIFA

FIFA, as a global governing body for football, maintains a robust framework to safeguard the autonomy of sport and counteract governmental interference. The definition of such interference is expansively articulated in FIFA’s Statutes (2022), emphasizing the observance of FIFA’s regulations, decisions, and Code of Ethics.[27] Under Article 8.3 of the FIFA Statutes, every entity involved in football is obliged to comply with FIFA’s statutes, regulations, and the principles of fair play.[28] 

FIFA’s powers to intervene derives from its Statutes (2022). Article 8.3 allows for the removal of executive bodies under exceptional circumstances.[29] To facilitate this, FIFA employs a mechanism known as “normalisation committees,” which are entrusted with the temporary takeover of member associations not in compliance with FIFA Statutes and the relevant national law.[30]

Article 15 of the FIFA Statutes emphasizes the necessity for member associations to be independent and, amongst other requirements:

to be neutral in matters of politics and religion;
to prohibit all forms of discrimination;
to be independent and avoid any form of political interference;
to ensure that judicial bodies are independent (separation of powers).[31]

The imposition of normalisation committees is exercised when member associations fail to align with these principles. Recent instances include the appointment of normalisation committees for the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) in March 2020[32] and the Congo Democratic Republic Football Association (CDRFA) in April 2023.[33] For more information on FIFA’s normalisation committees see this article[34].

In contrast, the ICC does not utilize a normalisation committee to address non-compliance. Instead, the ICC has a Board of Directors which “may make such arrangements for the governance, regulation and administration of Cricket in the relevant Member’s Cricket Playing Country as it sees fit, including (without limitation) exercising (or delegating to another to exercise) the rights previously exercised by the suspended Member to sanction (or not sanction) Cricket events staged in that Cricket Playing Country”.[35]

Similarly, the lifting of suspensions by both FIFA and the ICC requires member associations to demonstrate compliance with established standards. Notably, the removal of sanctions against the Football Federation of Sri Lanka (FFSL) in August 2023 was contingent on measures implemented by Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Youth & Sports to eliminate undue interference. This mirrors the ICC’s decision to not suspend the CSA.

As to whether the imposition of a normalisation committee is compliant with national law, or how a national association would render a normalisation committee compliant with national law, would depend on the specific laws to which a national association adheres to.[36] This demonstrates the restrictions of FIFA in exercising its powers of autonomy over a state. Similar to the challenges the ICC holds, the laws which govern the land prevail over the autonomy of the international sport body.

Both the ICC and FIFA share a common commitment to preserving the autonomy of sport, prohibiting government interference, and imposing sanctions for non-compliance. However, the key distinction lies in the enforcement mechanism. FIFA, with its stringent approach, employs normalisation committees to take direct control and guide the restructuring of non-compliant member associations. In contrast, the ICC seems to adopt a slightly more lenient stance, allowing member associations like SLC to continue participating in international competitions despite suspension. This variance underscores the nuanced approaches taken by international sports bodies in preserving the autonomy of sport and handling government interference.

Comment


The stance adopted by sports entities in response to governmental interference with the autonomy of sport typically elicits a negative perception. Conversely, when governments actively invest in sports through club acquisitions and hosting major events, the reception is markedly positive. This dichotomy is exemplified by India’s successful bid to host the 2023 Cricket World Cup, the noteworthy £4.2 billion sale of the Premier League Club, Chelsea, to Todd Boehly,[37] and the revelation of the personal lobbying of Tory government ministers in the takeover of the Premier League Club, Newcastle United by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund.[38]

Evidently, there exists an inconsistency in the approach toward handling government interference. International governing bodies uphold their own policies and wield sanctions when such interference is perceived as detrimental to their authority. However, when governmental involvement is financially bolstered, international sports bodies often assume a passive stance, occasionally turning a blind eye to instances of non-compliance. This is accompanied by the diverse nature of the structure and resources of the different international sports federations with FIFA lying as an exception given the global scale and profits in football and the World Cup. This nuanced dynamic highlights the complex interplay between sports autonomy and government influence, revealing a landscape where financial considerations may overshadow principles of governance.

Regardless of the position adopted, whether active or passive, international governing bodies are not intergovernmental organisations whose purpose is to maintain international peace and security. FIFA exists to govern football and to develop the game around the world.[39] Similarly, the ICC governs and administrates the game of cricket and works with its members to grow the sport.[40] The decision-making of these international governing bodies can only be called into question when they act outside the remits of their powers, not in response to the intricate dynamic of political affairs.


[1]Sri Lanka Cricket, https://srilankacricket.lk/,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sri_Lanka_Cricket

[2] ICC Article of Association, Membership Criteria https://images.icc-cricket.com/image/upload/prd/rlunkwfrzjmu3re47qcx.pdf

[3] See Footnote 2

[4] See Footnote 2

[5] ‘Sri Lanka court restores sacked cricket board in latest twist’, france24.com, 7 Nov 2023, last accessed 26 Jan 2024, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20231107-sri-lanka-court-restores-sacked-cricket-board

[6] Statement by World Rugby referenced in Barrons: ‘World Rugby Bans Sri Lanka Over Political Meddling’, barrons.com, 17 May 2023, last accessed 26 Jan 2024, https://www.barrons.com/news/world-rugby-bans-sri-lanka-over-political-meddling-48dc4e5f

[7] About the ICC, https://www.icc-cricket.com/about

[8] Article 2.10(A): “Without prejudice to Article 2.11(A)(i), the Board of Directors may suspend the membership of a Member with immediate effect where, in the opinion of the Board of Directors (in its absolute discretion), the Member is in serious breach of any of its obligations as a Member…

[9] Article 2.4(D): “manage its affairs autonomously and ensure that there is no government (or other public or quasi-public body) interference in its governance, regulation and/or administration of Cricket in its Cricket Playing Country (including in operational matters, in the selection and management of teams, and in the appointment of coaches or support personnel).”

[10] Article 2.10(C): Any Member that has its membership suspended under this Article 2.10 shall… for the period of such suspension, be deprived of all of its rights as a Member… including its right to receive distributions of surplus ICC revenues, its right to participate in Events sanctioned by the ICC and its right to attend and vote at Meetings…

[11]SLC says President Silva made ‘fervent appeal to ICC to make exception’ for international cricket participation, 22 Nov 2023, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/sports/slc-says-president-silva-made-fervent-appeal-to-icc-to-make-exception-for-international-cricket-participation/articleshow/105403083.cms?from=mdr

[12] ‘SLC Statement on the decisions taken by the ICC Board pertaining to Sri Lanka’, srilankacricket.lk, 21 Nov 2023, https://srilankacricket.lk/2023/11/slc-statement-on-the-decisions-taken-by-the-icc-board-pertaining-to-sri-lanka/

[13] ‘ICC shifts Men’s Under 19 World Cup from Sri Lanka to South Africa’, espncricinfo.com, 21 Nov 2023,

https://www.espncricinfo.com/story/icc-shifts-men-s-under-19-world-cup-from-sri-lanka-to-south-africa-1409945

[14] Article 2.4(C): “ensure that: (i) its statutes provide a process for free and democratic elections and appointments from amongst its members (or nominees from outside its members) for its executive body; and (ii) it determines its office- holders by free and democratic elections in accordance with the process set out in its statutes;

[15] See Footnote 2

[16] ‘ICC suspends Zimbabwe Cricket over government interference’, euronews.com, 18 July 2019,

https://www.euronews.com/2019/07/18/icc-suspends-zimbabwe-cricket-over-government-interference

[17] Article 2.10(E) of the ICC Articles of Association.

[18] ‘‘The BJP’s World Cup’: India’s Modi wields cricket as a political weapon’, aljazeera.com, 4 Oct 2023,

https://www.aljazeera.com/sports/2023/10/4/india-narendra-modi-bjp-icc-cricket-world-cup-politics

[19] ‘Afghan women to be banned from playing sport, Taliban say’, theguardian.com, 8 Sept 2021,

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/08/afghan-women-to-be-banned-from-playing-sport-taliban-say

[20] ‘Maiden over: Afghan cricket escapes sanctions despite women’s team woes’, 4 Oct 2023, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20231004-maiden-over-afghan-cricket-escapes-sanctions-despite-women-s-team-woes

[21] ‘Taliban wanted ICC to replace Afghanistan flag, make changes to national anthem’, deccanherald.com, 7 Nov 2021, https://www.deccanherald.com/sports/cricket/taliban-wanted-icc-to-replace-afghanistan-flag-make-changes-to-national-anthem-1047949.html https://www.deccanherald.com/sports/cricket/taliban-wanted-icc-to-replace-afghanistan-flag-make-changes-to-national-anthem-1047949.html

[22]  ‘Afghanistan chasing World Cup semi-final under flag banned by Taliban’, telegraph.co.uk, 9 Nov 2023,

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/cricket/2023/11/09/afghanistan-cricket-world-cup-flag-banned-taliban

[23] ‘Afghanistan’s female cricketers plead with sport’s world governing body: help us play again’, apnews.com, 1 Sept 2023, https://apnews.com/article/afghanistan-womens-cricket-team-taliban-australia-de65c6be543eb02a9f360a619de309d5

[24] ‘Sri Lanka Cricket to introduce new law to curb political interference’, timesofindia.indiatimes.com, 2 Jan 2024, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/sports/cricket/news/sri-lanka-cricket-to-introduce-new-law-to-curb-political-interference/articleshow/106481423.cms

[25] Ibid.

[26] Michaël Mrkonjic ‘Sports organisations, autonomy and good governance’, researchgate.net, Jan 2013, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/323696569_Sports_organisations_autonomy_and_good_governance

[27] Henk Erik Meier and Borja Garcia, ‘Protecting Private Transnational Authority Against Public Intervention: FIFA’s Power Over National Governments’, Public Administration, 93.4 (2015).

[28] Article 8.3: “Every person and organisation involved in the game of football is obliged to observe the Statutes and regulations of FIFA as well as the principles of fair play”.

[29] Article 8.3: “Executive bodies of member associations may under exceptional circumstances be removed from office by the Council in consultation with the relevant confederation and replaced by a normalisation committee for a specific period of time.”

[30] ‘FIFA’s normalisation committees: What are they and how do they work?’, fifa.com, 7 March 2019, https://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/SportsArchive/FIFA-s-normalisation-committees-What-are-they-and-how-do-they-work-728711#:~:text=The%20normalisation%20committee%20takes%20over,and%20the%20relevant%20national%20law.

[31] Article 15: “Member associations’ statutes must comply with the principles of good governance, and shall in particular contain, at a minimum, provisions relating to the following matters: (a) to be neutral in matters of politics and religion; (c) to be independent and avoid any form of political interference.”

[32] ‘Normalisation committee appointed for Trinidad and Tobago’, fifa.com, 17 March 2020, https://www.fifa.com/legal/football-regulatory/media-releases/normalisation-committee-appointed-for-trinidad-and-tobago

[33] Normalisation committee appointed in Congo DR,

https://www.fifa.com/about-fifa/associations/media-releases/normalisation-committee-appointed-in-congo-dr

[34] Hannah Kent, ‘FIFA’s normalisation committees – what are they and how do they work?’, lawinsport.com, 18 March 2022, last accessed 26 Jan 2022,

https://www.lawinsport.com/topics/sports/item/fifa-s-normalisation-committees-what-are-they-and-how-do-they-work

[35] Article 2.10(D) of the ICC Articles of Association.

[36] See Footnote 32

[37] ‘UK government clears £4.25bn Chelsea FC sale to Todd Boehly’, 25 May 2022, https://www.ft.com/content/7257acdb-d96d-491c-8e68-82e11d8e424d

[38] ‘Documents reveal Tory minister’s push to smooth Saudi Newcastle takeover’, 26 Sep 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2022/sep/26/documents-reveal-tory-ministers-push-to-smooth-saudi-newcastle-takeover

[39] ‘Inside FIFIA’, https://www.fifa.com/about-fifa

[40] ‘ICC’, https://www.icc-cricket.com/about




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