It's about TV rights, stupid
World cricket has had to deal with a mind-bender this week. It began with the biggest of the Big Three (the BCCI) standing up for the smallest and weakest of their tribe when BCCI president Anurag Thakur said two-tier Test cricket was "fundamentally against the basic purpose and identity of the ICC".
This placed the BCCI directly against the Big Three's Minor Two (Cricket Australia and the England & Wales Cricket Board) as the passionate backers of two-tier Test cricket. CA and ECB were supported by Cricket South Africa (CSA), who have made a stirring comeback to the big stage, and by New Zealand Cricket (NZC), largely loyal allies to anyone who needs their number. Two years ago, CSA had been cast into the darkness by the Big One with not a squeak of protest from the Minor Two. But two years are an eon in cricket administration and in CA, ECB and CSA, we now have a Mid-Sized Three promising to steer cricket towards yet another new dawn.
Once the BCCI had stood up for the cricket boards of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, the two-tier plan was out the window before it even made it to the table. But wait. This has happened before. In the 1990s, it was called the Asian Block v the Old Order and Jagmohan Dalmiya headed those conflagrations. So where are we today? Has cricket gone back to the old days? Is it Asia v the Old World? But where is Pakistan? Wasn't South Africa usually on the BCCI's side? What's happening?
After the Dubai ICC meeting, which the ICC insists was not a meeting but a members' workshop, all that remains is a vast vagueness.
The first public mooting of the two-tier Test idea was heard in June this year from ICC's chief executive David Richardson, who said, "A number of member countries are finding that they're not getting as much from their TV rights for bilateral cricket and they see the need to change and introduce some meaningful context."
The buzz words that offer us some clues in Richardson's statement are "TV rights". They will help us understand that, contrary to popular belief, Two-Tier is not the Jedi Knights of the ECB-CA-CSA versus the Imperial Stormtroopers of the BCCI fighting over the Kingdom of the White Flannels. The two-tier Tests form only a small part of a larger drama unfolding over the play field of cricket politics.
Over the next 24 months, two key media rights cycles will be going on sale. This month, the ECB is expected to offer to the counties their plan for an eight-team city-based T20 league, as well as a revised version of international cricket coverage. It is rumoured that the ECB will go into the market for the next set of TV rights deal within the next few months, a year before their deal with Sky TV (estimated to be about £280m over four years) runs out in 2017. This deal, first signed in 2012, forms 80% of the ECB's income.
The bid for Cricket Australia's international rights, up for sale around 2018 for the 2018-2023 period, will have to match the $500m it earned from Channel 9, in the face of the overwhelming popularity of its Big Bash.
So what the ECB, CA and CSA (with the support of the boards of Pakistan and New Zealand) are seeking is to form a collective to ensure bigger, better, more watertight broadcast deals for their international bilateral series, particularly when they face increasing pressure from domestic T20 leagues - a pooling together of overseas rights by a group of countries, to be overseen and managed by an independent administrative body.
One of the reasons cited is the "shrinking of the Indian market", due to the fact that the Indian broadcasters interested in buying overseas rights have shrunk from three to two. The coalition is expected to offer its member boards the power of collective bargaining with broadcasters. Whichever TV network wants to broadcast the Ashes in India will also have to buy the Pakistan v New Zealand bundle, or whatever other package the coalition wants to put together. If this new multinational coalition of the willing so wishes, that independent administrative body could well be the ICC.
If this new coalition does come into being - and there are plans to push it through before the ICC's October board meeting - it hopes to lead to far less dependence on every member nation's bilateral deals with the BCCI. It is what the Mid-sized Three hopes will work to rope in a few more doubting comrades. In theory that is. Whether such camaraderie outlasts the self-interest hardwired into every cricket board's DNA will make for the tactical and psychological case studies of the future.
A successful push for the two-tier system would have helped these boards, the CA and ECB in particular, ensure that they wouldn't have to deal with home-and-away tours against weaker nations. West Indies, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe would have been immediately dropped from the top tier and would not have featured in these countries' international calendars when offered to broadcast bidders. Cricketing arguments were made forcefully and loudly over the uncomfortable fact that economic benefits of the two-tier Tests would earn for a select few over the less privileged.
You could argue that the BCCI's stand against two-tier cricket, even while acknowledging that it has the confidence of being able to dictate terms to broadcasters rather than vice versa, turned out to be rather Jedi Knight. In terms of giving Test matches "primacy", the BCCI is hosting 13 this year and the team has just returned from four Tests in the West Indies. Over the last three years India have toured Zimbabwe three times and played 11 ODIs and five T20Is against them.
Another proposal that emerged from the Dubai workshop was about a playoff to pick an official Test champion once every two years. The top two ranked teams will face off in a single Test to decide a winner, though who would own the rights or make the revenues isn't clear yet. The ICC's old FTP, in which every country plays the other home and away in a four-year cycle is now being discussed as a nebulous six-year cycle, with every team playing the other at least once. More vagueness.
There is another dynamic at work here - the running battle between the BCCI and the ICC's newest chairman, Shashank Manohar, who headed the BCCI not too long ago. The BCCI believes that Manohar is responsible for betraying its cause and passing word onto the other members that in the face of the Lodha Committee recommendations, the BCCI is rowing up a very dangerous creek and the time to strike at its control over international cricket is now.
Manohar's icy response was: "I'm the independent ICC chairman, so I have to look at the best interests of the ICC. It's for the BCCI representative to look after the best interests of the BCCI." But he also said he didn't agree with the two-tier system. "Personally, I was against the idea, because the value of the second-tier teams would be negligible."
Cricket's suits are going to launch themselves into another bloody skirmish between now and October. Don't go looking for Jedi Knights among them, because there aren't any. The only Force that works here is cash.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo