The proposed restructuring of the International Cricket Council has been widely described as a death sentence for the global game as we know it. If the move is ratified, and it does kill Test cricket, then Test cricket was dead in the first place. The suggestions are a diagnosis of several things that afflict the global game, and a proposed course of treatment.
To be sure, most patients would prefer to be able to choose their doctors – in this case, representatives of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the England & Wales Cricket Board and Cricket Australia have taken it upon themselves to produce this 21-page draft Position Paper – and then have the final say in the course of treatment to be undertaken. Representatives of the seven countries not supping at the head table, who Osman Samiuddin, who first alerted the world to this story, describes as the ‘Small Seven’, will have a chance to block this proposal, should they so desire, when the ICC board meets.
In the past, various cricket boards have been shown to be utterly duplicitous, shouting from the rooftops about the dominance of one group or another, planting stories in various media outlets, but eventually voting solely to protect their own interests. Now, in what will change the way they run their own affairs, the Small Seven have a chance to walk the talk, with their votes, and defeat this proposal, should they believe it only serves to strengthen the strong and destroy the rest. Whether they will do so is another matter altogether.
There is an opportunity here for the Small Seven to come together, and they will have to be led by Cricket South Africa, the only truly strong cricket nation not to be invited to the big feast, but each of these members may decide that the risk of being locked out entirely far outweighs the rewards that the Position Paper bestows. Certainly, if there was unity in the cricket world, the time to come together would have been for a Nervous Nine to square off against India, and put the BCCI in its place. Even contributing 80% of the cricket world’s money, India could not sustain itself with no one to play against. In that scenario, however, the ECB and CA showed their truest colours, working furiously to ingratiate themselves with the BCCI rather than mount a challenge or provide leadership to other boards who wanted to stand up to the powers that be but did not have the means to do so.
This move will not kill cricket, but it will certainly change the global landscape, although not necessarily anywhere near as dramatically as the doomsday prophets suggest. Greedy as they are for more lucrative cricket among themselves, the BCCI, ECB and CA are unlikely to simply stop playing opposition outside their own club. In the current scenario, several cricket boards are bankrupt, or so heavily indebted to financial institutions that only the occasional visit from one of the Big Three keeps them afloat. Many of us have warned for years that this dangerous dependence on a few could end only in disaster. In an ideal world, each of the ten Test-playing nations would play each other equally, but the world we live in is governed not by idealism but the hard reality of commerce. It was often said that the ICC should ensure a level playing field, but none of the people suggesting this ever explained who would pay for this.
Certainly, it’s farfetched to expect the BCCI, ECB and CA to subsidise a bilateral series between, say Sri Lanka and New Zealand. And the fact of the matter is that it is these bilateral tours that are mandated by the Future Tours Programme (FTP), involving any two of the Small Seven, that are bankrupting those very boards. If such tours are effectively killing off the home boards that undertake them, should they be played as often as they currently are? A game that is actively played at the highest level by only ten of its 106 constituents should not be allowed to constrict further, but the new proposal sets aside a Test Fund to allow teams to play each other even when the market says otherwise.
As for the FTP, it was hardly worth the paper it was printed on, for the BCCI have never invited the Bangladesh Cricket Board over for a tour, the Ashes are played as often and involve as many Tests as the ECB and CA can agree to, and other countries have begun to tailor the content of their tours based on broadcasters’ demands. An FTP that was, for all practical purposes, non-binding, served no real purpose, and its scrapping can only be welcome as it’s a move towards greater honesty and clarity. A natural fallout of this would be that the World Test Championship, a non-starter at the best of times, is scrapped as there would be no time frame in which all teams would be required to play each other at least once, home and away, making the rankings system even more meaningless than it already is.
What this means, also, is that introducing a multi-tiered Test system could prove problematic. If all teams do not play each other often enough, how would you fairly judge who should be in which tier?
The one stinker in the new proposal is that India, England and Australia will be exempt from relegation, and while this is understandable in limited-overs cricket, where the absence of one or more of these teams at a World Cup would spell disaster for the event, there is no call for such protectionism in Tests. Presumably, even if one of these teams were to go from Tier A to Tier B, the commercial value of a series involving them would not be greatly impacted.
While most cricket boards have maintained a studied silence on the leaked proposal, there have been several strong reactions from around the world. In these pages, Dileep Premachandran has argued that the potent mix of greed and amnesia points to an ugly future. Elsewhere, Samiuddin says the proposal should be met with outrage; Jarrod Kimber urges fans to let cricket boards know they’re being watched; Gideon Haigh bats on in his Cuts and Glances blog. And this is only to be expected at any moment when a game finds itself at the crossroads.
The fundamental source of anger stems from two things. Firstly, few trust the representatives of these three boards, as part of an ICC committee, to do right by the global game, to take those who are not fortunate to boast the backing of a big market or a traditional Test following, with them, rather than trample them underfoot. Secondly, there is a lack of transparency in the process that makes suspicion inherent, even desirable, and when you couple with being unable to precisely predict what the outcomes may be, there is anxiety.
However, the cricket world has changed drastically in the last decade or so. If this revamped structure made it possible for more Sri Lankan cricketers to earn a living from the game by playing in T20 leagues around the world, would that be all bad? To suggest that you can only love a sport if you support country-versus-country competition is a uniquely cricketing outlook. Fans of baseball in the United States are no poorer because their country does not tour the world around the year playing five-match series. Many English Premier League season-ticket holders spend considerable time, effort and energy to support their team, without ever having gone to an international.
In England and Australia, Test grounds are full, and certain centres occasionally attract decent crowds. At Kingsmead in Durban last month, when Cricket South Africa threw open the gates on the final day of the second Test, when South Africa’s greatest cricketer bid farewell to the pinnacle of the game, a few thousand turned up, even as twenty times the number thronged North Beach a kilometre away. You can argue that this is sad, but it is unfortunately the way of the cricket world at the moment.
It has been suggested that this proposal would destroy the foundations of democracy and lead to an oligarchy. I’m afraid it always was, it’s just that the new order formalises this in no uncertain manner.
To go back to the original analogy, a diagnosis has been made, and a course of treatment decided on. This will result in pain, and discomfort, and there is no guarantee that the patient will be cured. However, doing nothing was not an option, as that could have ended only one way.