ICC's decision to ratify FTP March 24, 2006

Can the bosses be trusted?

The ICC have decided to ratify their Future Tours Progamme but are the players being treated as an afterthought, asks Martin Williamson

Malcolm Speed's recent comments leave one puzzled © Getty Images

An acrimonious row has broken out in the last 48 hours between the ICC and the Federation of International Cricketers' Association, the players' trade union. The catalyst was the ICC executive's decision to ratify their Future Tours Progamme - the schedule which dictates each country has to play one another once home and away in any cycle - when they met in Dubai earlier this week.

On the face of it, the ICC eased the burden on its members, extending the cycle from five to six years. With ten Full Member countries, that equates to 18 series in the period plus ICC-run events such as the Champions Trophy and the World Cup. That is the minimum, but an increasing number of series - England-Australia, India-Pakistan and others - will be more frequent and it doesn't make allowance for the plethora of multi-national one-day tournaments that spring up like weeds, only often with less notice. There had been talk of a change so that Bangladesh and Zimbabwe only had to be played once in that period, but that turned out to be hot air.

One look at the international cricket itinerary underlines the crazy workload imposed on the players. Sri Lanka recently returned from two months in Australia and after 24 hours in Colombo, jetted off to play in Bangladesh. They were lucky to have any stopover as their board had originally agreed an itinerary without a break. Australia are due to play an ODI in Bangladesh three days after they finish their final Test in South Africa.

It is hardly surprising that more and more players are sidelined with niggling injuries. And that makes no allowance for the personal pressures of lives spent almost constantly away from home. One former Test player told me today that the average career of a top player is now around ten years. A generation ago it was probably double that.

Tim May, FICA's chief executive, accused the people making these decisions of not understanding the pressure as none of them were players - he is right, and he talks as a former Test player himself - and of overlooking the strain of the incessant schedule on the cricketers themselves. And that clearly struck a nerve.

Malcolm Speed and Ehsan Mani both reacted within hours by launching a broadside aimed at FICA, and making thinly veiled - actually, not veiled at all - threats that the ICC was about to withdraw its recognition of FICA. But it was Speed's comment that "a spirit of co-operation between players and administrators would be better served by each individual board dealing with its own players/player representatives" that really stuck in the craw.

Just who is he kidding? The very people that many players cannot rely on to safeguard their interests are - with a few notable exceptions - their own boards. These bodies' aim seems to be to cram as many lucrative series in as they possibly can, and hang the consequences.

Had an organisation such as FICA existed in the 1970s, then World Series Cricket would probably have never come about. Australia's players had been at war with the Australian Cricket Board ever since Bill Lawry, their captain in South Africa in 1969-70, spoke out against the inequality of the conditions they were asked to tolerate and the remuneration. He paid with his job the following season, but the dispute rumbled on through the 1970s. In 1972, Rod Marsh admitted that it cost him money to tour England as he had to take unpaid leave from his job.

Times have moved on, but bosses are still bosses. The ones who stress that they can be trusted and that the workers do not need representation are usually the very ones who cannot.

Two examples. In the recent West Indies dispute, when players were dropped after refusing to scrap their own valid contracts with the board's former sponsor, FICA played a vital part in brokering a solution to a bitter row. The West Indies board and the local players' association were at loggerheads, and it took an external third party to help sort things out.

In Zimbabwe, a number of players have still not been paid money owed from more than seven months ago, and the board has effectively sidelined their players' association. But pressure has been brought - quietly - to try to bring about a solution, with a degree of success.

In these instances, the local board was the very body who could not be relied on to act impartially. And, as Zimbabwe proves, the ICC is powerless to act in such instances. Without FICA, there will be no checks on the less generously-minded boards.

So why has the ICC hierarchy, who usually remain calm and detached from such issues, suddenly come out all guns blazing? The answer would seem to be that the executive - the same board heads who Speed and Mani insist can be relied on to safeguard the players - have decided to get tough. Break the union and remove a major obstacle - or as some would argue, a lone voice of reason - and pave the way to implement a burgeoning and punishing schedule.

If the players were treated fairly then this would not matter. But increasingly, they are becoming an afterthought. May hit the nail on the head when he said that "very important decisions are being made by ICC committees which have no international cricket playing experience and appear to have no appreciation of the demands and pressures of the game today from a players perspective." Not one of the executives can speak as an international cricketer and so can claim to be arguing from a position of knowledge.

Speed concluded by railing against FICA's "unnecessarily belligerent approach" in dealings with the ICC. He should remember that, sometimes, when people feel they are banging their heads against a brick wall, they get slightly arsy.

Sometimes cricket's administrators are accused of being out of touch and of living in the dark ages. That criticism is often unfair, but the ICC executive's latest approach to dealing with the workers is more reminiscent of a 19th century factory owner than a custodian of the game.

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo