A crisis of credibility
"Year after year, the wonderful folks at the ICC assemble the world's best players and get them to play bad cricket," wrote Matthew Engel in the 2006 edition of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack. He was writing in anticipation of yet another "ugly-looking" Champions Trophy, but this year, the pattern may yet be altered. The gathering will still take place, but many stars may choose to stay away.
Duncan Fletcher sounded the first notes of indifference while England were spiralling to one-day defeat in India, hinting that the likes of Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison would not be risked for the two-week tournament in India. And in case anyone wanted to interpret that as a classic case of English sour grapes, Adam Gilchrist's latest comments are evidence that the malaise is widespread.
"We have to get our priorities right," Gilchrist was quoted as saying in The Sydney Morning Herald. "I believe there are potentially other games of one-day cricket that may come up prior to that. I think we have to look very, very seriously at that lead into the Ashes."
His caution is not without good reason. According to a recent poll, a whopping 63% of Australians rated the Ashes as the single most important sporting prize in the world. That in itself is perhaps not surprising, given that the job of Australian cricket captain is second in stature only to their Prime Minister.
Perhaps more surprising is the identity of the second- and third-placed trophies - the football World Cup sneaks in ahead of the cricketing version, in spite of the fact that the Socceroos haven't reached the finals since 1974. If a mere 7% of Australians see the defence of their one-day title as a priority, then what hope the Champions Trophy of captivating the nation? "We'll be sending a very, very good team, the best team available at the time," said Michael Brown of Cricket Australia, which hardly amounted to a ringing endorsement.
The ICC as ever are caught between a rock and a hard place. They recently conceded the unworkability of their Future Tours Programme by extending the five-year cycle to six years, but in doing so are relying on the goodwill of the respective boards not to pack the resulting gaps in the schedule with meaningless one-dayers.
If the BCCI's recent deal for 25 offshore one-dayers over the next five years is anything to go by, the structure and constraints of an ICC-regulated tournament are actually preferable to the sort of anarchy we suffered during Sharjah's heyday in the 1990s.
"Commercialism, while important, must not be the prime consideration in making decisions about the future," Speed himself told Cricinfo this month. It is high time, therefore, he turned his own words into deeds. The ICC has a duty to make their events more attractive, which means biting the bullet, dispensing of the bullshit, and recognising that the product they are pedalling is stale and unappetising.
It means axing at least a fortnight from the unworkably cumbersome 47-day World Cup, and it means giving the Champions Trophy - or whatever they care to rebrand it as - a slot in the international schedule that befits the status to which it aspires. Scheduling a mini-World Cup within six months of the main event is just plain silly.
England and Australia cannot be blamed for tiptoeing around the issue, but the Global Cricket Corporation, which has pumped US$550 million into the ICC's coffers in the last four years, will not take too kindly to any hint of a snub. During the ambush-marketing crisis that threatened the last Champions Trophy in 2004, the Indian board at one stage threatened to send a second XI, only for GCC to invoke a vital clause in their contract, which requires all teams to field their strongest available sides.
The launch of the Champions Trophy takes place in Delhi tomorrow, but the ICC refused to speculate on any such prospect. "All ICC members are aware of their contractual obligations," a spokesman told Cricinfo, adding that the 2002 event in Sri Lanka also took place in the shadow of a World Cup and Ashes series. "The precedent is there," he stressed. "It has happened before."
A repeat of 2002 is not, however, what the game needs - on that occasion, the Champions Trophy failed to produce a champion, after monsoonal rain wiped out the final between Sri Lanka and India. It matters that the ICC's tournaments matter, because if their credibility is fatally undermined, then the free-for-all that could follow will be to the detriment of the entire game.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo