December 19, 2013

Project Snow and what might have been

Cricket nearly reached an impasse in the mid-1990s and there was a possibility the game would split into two factions

Would Brian Lara have produced his sublime 153 not out if world cricket was split in the mid-1990s? © Getty Images

As pointless an exercise as it may be, sometimes I like to imagine the world as it would have been if certain events had or hadn't occurred. In the case of international cricket, one of those "sliding doors" I can't help but wonder about is "Project Snow", a dramatic and initially secretive affair that occurred in the wake of a London meeting of the ICC member nations in mid-1996.

After what former Australian Cricket Board CEO Graham Halbish described as a "decidedly ugly" gathering of the world's cricket leaders, the agitated heads of Australian, English, New Zealand and West Indies cricket turned into the cricketing version of Doomsday Preppers, formulating a plan to counter what they saw as a realistic attempt by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to seize total control of the game's interests.

"International cricket was in crisis and heading deeper into the mire," claimed Halbish in his 2003 tell-all, Run Out. Is this sounding a little bit familiar? From that moment until Halbish's abrupt sacking in January 1997, Project Snow really was a living, breathing thing. Well, it was a document in the safe keeping of its four conspirators anyway. In Australia, Halbish's copy was locked inside a safe in the offices of the Australian Cricket Board's lawyer.

The primary motivation for this clandestine operation was that Halbish and the nations that shared his concerns were growing increasingly worried about the shifting power dynamics in world cricket. Unprecedented amounts of influence had shifted to Asian nations, who were at that point also benefitting from the "unexpected support" (Halbish's words) of South Africa and Zimbabwe. To Halbish it had the makings of an unwelcome takeover that would leave the long-time custodians of the game at the kids table. Again, is this sounding familiar?

In truth Project Snow was a contingency plan for the rainiest of rainy days, a worst-case scenario in case "world cricket [ran] off the rails". The primary function of the document was to make sure that, in the event of estrangement from the subcontinental and African sides, Australia, England, New Zealand and West Indies would have a fall-back schedule. Thus the respective boards would be able to deliver content for their television rights partners and maintain a meaningful international schedule. Australia playing England all the time; imagine that eh?

By Halbish's account, Project Snow had three key objectives. The first was to fire a return salvo at South African cricket; Halbish felt particularly slighted that its managing director, Ali Bacher, had thrown his lot in with the subcontinental alliance and now he planned to freeze him and them out. Secondly, it would be an upper-case warning to India that the Australian-led alliance was wary of their "quest for more influence over all matters cricket", which was either entirely defensible, a thinly-veiled condescension, or something in between. Thirdly, they hoped to promote a more balanced leadership structure in international cricket, which was probably less of a pipe dream than it sounds now.

Putting all of that aside and speaking as a fan, I can't help but ponder the parallel universe all of this could have created for players and cricket lovers. From a purely cricket perspective, Halbish labelled the plan a potential "bonanza" when he published its details in 2003. This is hardly a surprise given it was his own idea, but it's also slightly absurd when you consider relative strengths of the teams within his limited rota.

By the mid-1990s English cricket was not exactly humming along, smack bang in the middle of what would be a 16-year Ashes drought with a solid but not spectacular team. It was also one that was never quite capable of landing a knockout blow against the Australians. Most pundits had West Indies heading towards the edge of a savage cliff face at the speed of a Malcolm Marshall yorker. The Kiwis were sublime at times, awful at others, but did often lift against the Australians.

To kick off the 1997-98 home summer, Australia ended up beating New Zealand 2-0 and was pushed hard for a draw in the third Test. A series of the same length against South Africa followed, but it wouldn't have under the auspices of Project Snow.

Just imagine, rather than the double-header that eventuated, it's conceivable that we might have seen a five-Test programme against New Zealand. Three Tests worth of Blair Pocock and Simon Doull is one thing, but five? The prospect of a strutting, star-laden Aussie side trouncing the Kiwis on an endless merry-go-round of Tests and ODIs until the turn of the century would surely not have been appealing to anyone other than Warne, McGrath and Co.

From a selfish perspective, I wouldn't have been able to sit at the top of the old Olympic stand watching Jacques Kallis scoring his painstaking maiden Test century or Gary Kirsten compile a 256-ball 83 in that dour, drawn Boxing Day Test. In real life Australia won an attritional series 1-0 after an innings victory in Sydney, but it might never have happened.

There are so many others, obviously. Warne v Tendulkar in Chennai in 1998 would never have happened. What about the latter's 177 from 207 balls in Bangalore in the third game of the same series? Nope. Given scheduling limitations, Australia probably would have been engaged in a five-Test tour of the West Indies by then, a disturbance of the earth's rotation that might have at least seen them avoid the famous one-wicket loss at the hands of Brian Lara in Bridgetown in 1999.

Maybe Lara wouldn't have been in quite the same mood as when his 213 at Sabina Park lit up that '99 series. West Indies also might have avoided being routed for 51 in the fourth innings in Port-of-Spain, I guess.

The cricket war that so concerned Graham Halbish never truly came, but even sooner than that, he was out of a job. Like the rest of us he can only wonder what might have been.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sports in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian and the Wasted Afternoons. He tweets here