ICC reveals spineless greed on issue of Test play-offs

Gideon Haigh, in  the Weekend Australian, 29-30 October 2011 with different title… Gideon Haigh is one of Australia’s best sports writers and has expertise in financial analysis as well. He has now joined the Weekend Australian’s columns and must be listened to avidly. Web Editor.

HYPOCRISY, the saying goes, is the homage that vice pays to virtue. In cricket, it is the homage administrators pay to Test matches. Time and again, administrators assure us of their continued regard for Test cricket as the game’s ultimate form. Then they pull sneaky little manoeuvres like winnowing Australia’s planned three-Test series against South Africa away to two, and England’s promised five-Test series against South Africa next year to three.

Their recent decision to welch on playoffs for the World Test Championship is perhaps their most destructive move yet. Destructive and also instructive: because it demonstrates how far the game’s welfare now falls behind self-interest and short-term financial expediency as a governance priority.

At their July annual meeting inHong Kong, the executive board of the International Cricket Council, on which Cricket Australia’s representative was its chairman Jack Clarke, agreed to advance plans for playoffs to the World Test Championship: semi-finals and a final among the top four ranked countries. It was welcomed as a much-needed innovation: a chance to contextualise the game’s most skilful and historic format, and enrich it with a finale worth the name.The ICC Test rankings are useful but notional. The prestige conferred is transitory. The prize money is pissant: $US175,000 ($164,000) to the No 1 Test nation on April 1 each year, which is roughly what MS Dhoni earned for each appearance in the last Indian Premier League.

It is also less than the directors are believed to have spent, soon after their commitment, on an expenses-paid, spouses-included, first-class trip for themselves to the 2000th Test, betweenEnglandandIndia. Tasty gig.

Yet the celebrations were premature if they were ever ingenuous. Somewhere between the last vintage port and the ICC meeting in Dubai earlier this month, it was quietly decided that the playoffs were all a bit too difficult, and could wait another four years.

So what happened? The playoffs were always contingent on the consent of ESPN-Star, which five years ago paid north of $1 billion for broadcast rights to nine ICC events, including World Cups and World T20s, from 2007 to 2015. What was mooted was a swap: slotting the playoffs into the calendar in place of the Champions Trophy, that quintessence of more-is-less 50-over tournaments, scheduled forEnglandin 2013.

Because one-day internationals outrate Tests on the Indian sub-continent, and also becauseIndia’s participation could not be guaranteed, it was understood that varying arrangements would entail a financial sacrifice. But ESPN-Star, which has been a first-rate broadcast partner for the ICC, was not thought unduly hostile to the idea.

There were, however, complicating factors. One was the T20 Champions League, a joint venture of CricketAustralia, the Board of Control for Cricket inIndiaand Cricket SouthAfrica, which pits winners of domestic T20 tournaments from around the world against each other so forgettably that you could have a gun held to your head a week afterwards and be unable to remember who won.

Broadcast rights to the Champions League were auctioned three years ago at thepeakofT20euphoria after the inaugural Indian Premier League, and ESPN-Star splurged $US950m on them.

For cricket, it was a stupendous windfall; for ESPN-Star, it has been a money pit. It’s a poorly kept secret that the broadcaster is losing heavily on each instalment, perhaps as much as $50m. So it was a bad time to be asking ESPN-Star for a favour. Having lost one shirt to cricket, it could hardly be expected to throw a suit in as well.

That left the ICC’s 10 full members to decide whether it was worth about $3m to each of them to proceed with the playoffs. Given that ICC distributions have actually outstripped projections for the past three years, it was not a cost that they were entirely ill-placed to incur.

For some boards, to be sure, $3m is a very great deal indeed:New Zealand,Pakistan, beleaguered West Indies and busted-arseSri Lanka. But what about the boards, for instance, profiting mightily from the Champions League? After all, CricketAustraliahas been an arch-proponent of the World Test Championship.

Only last week, vice-president Rajeev Shukla proclaimed the BCCI’s unswerving commitment to “doing our level best to promote Test cricket now”. CSA’s boss Gerald Majola likewise insists that “Test cricket remains in our view the ultimate pinnacle of the game”. Alas, not if deeds are required to match words.

Let’s be fair. Boards everywhere face a rising cost tide: from players, from infrastructure, from the shrunken US dollar in which most of their contracts are denominated, from investment in future attractions.

While CricketAustraliamight see a payday down the road on its Big Bash League, it’s so far been a cash drain. Those overproduced commercials and eye-gashing uniforms don’t come from thin air.

But what the failure of nerve and vision with regard to the Test playoffs dramatises is the impending doom of cricket’s financial model in the world of supranational T20 tournaments like the IPL and the Champions League.

T20 has been a vibrant and colourful addition to cricket’s formulae. It has also made the rich richer, the poor poorer, sucked money, time, players and prestige from international cricket, and left the majority of full members overwhelmingly dependent on their ICC dividends. Trouble is that those dividends have only another three years to run, the ICC’s ESPN-Star contract expiring with the next World Cup. The ICC will then be hawking its wares in a market from which much of the cash has already been gouged.

The ICC executive board had the opportunity at its last meeting not only to arrest Test cricket’s drift into irrelevancy, but also to invest in a property that might in its next rights cycle have enriched all members. They funked it, and who knows if they will have the chance again?

Perhaps, in the end, they don’t care. After all, in a world without Test cricket, they could not be accused of hypocrisy; only greed.

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