Future Tours Programme 2006-2012 May 9, 2006

Too much of a good thing?

Martin Williamson looks at the new FTP and how things just seem to get busier and busier

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The ICC today unveiled the international calendar for the next six years, and even a cursory glance reveals that, unless you are from Zimbabwe or Bangladesh, there's a hell of a lot of cricket going on.

The ICC had an unenviable job in trying to cram so many tours into a relatively short time. The only thing that probably kept those involved sane was the knowledge that at least they were dealing with a six-year cycle and not, as before, five. It is unlikely that some countries - notably India and England - could physically fit in all their obligations in the shorter timescale.

There has been much debate in recent weeks over player burnout, and the FTP already has a whiff of singed flesh. The killer here is that this is not the finished article. It does not include any off the oh-so-lucrative additional one-day series that boards and television executives love. The Indian board has already nailed its colours to the mast by signing a $127 million TV contract which will mean it has to play extra one-day series abroad in venues as diverse as Toronto, Abu Dhabi and Malaysia.

At the weekend, a couple of India's players sent up distress flares to the effect that they would appreciate some breaks in their schedules. "If any player feels there is burnout, he can take a rest," was the response of Niranjan Shah, the board's secretary. "The board cannot change its policy or itinerary for any player." The idea of resting key players is fine in theory, but sponsors and TV companies will soon start to kick up a fuss if Sachin Tendulkar or Rahul Dravid decides to give one of these events a miss. The pressure on the players will be relentless.

In 2007, India have only ten weeks where they have no cricket scheduled. It is odds-on that the BCCI will shoehorn in a few extras games in that time. India are certainly not the exception. Between now and the end of the 2007 season, England have less than three months off. From the start of their England tour in July, Pakistan have barely a fortnight off until the end of the World Cup in April next year.

Last month, Malcolm Speed, the ICC chief executive, in an attack on FICA, the international players' federation, said that players could deal with their own boards on issues of scheduling. Today, Dave Richardson, the ICC's general manager - cricket, said that it was "now up to our members to responsibly manage their calendar of international cricket beyond the mandatory commitments of the FTP and ICC events." What is fairly clear is that, with a few exceptions, the boards are the very people who should not be entrusted with this responsibility.

In fairness, some players do want more games. In many instances, their income is tied to the revenue of their board. Never have players been so well rewarded. But it is not only about the cricketers themselves. Wall-to-wall cricket on TV risks boring viewers into looking elsewhere for their entertainment, and the marathon seven-match ODI series which are dotted around the FTP hardly help. It is possible to have too much of a good thing.

Is there a way out? Well, the ICC is in a difficult place and it is only as strong as the members who make up its executive board. The only check on the relentless scheduling is the executive, and they are the very people who want more. That is underlined by the shoehorning of the much-derided Afro-Asia Cup in immediately after the Champions Trophy and then again next May. Its sole purpose is to raise cash for the two associations and expect a fair few top-named players to develop niggling strains as the events approach.

The only winners in this whole thing are the smaller countries - Zimbabwe and Bangladesh want more rather than less cricket, and West Indies and Sri Lanka are not overstretched either. Other countries could point out that they have an imbalance of Test and one-day cricket planned for them. New Zealand, for example, have only three Tests and up to 19 ODIs, and that does not include any matches in the World Cup, in the next year. And spare a thought for Bangladesh, who in the next 12 months have no Test cricket at all and 12 ODIs, ten of which are against Zimbabwe and the other two Canada and Bermuda.

If anyone doubted the influence of the Indian board, look at the FTP and ask yourself why Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are not down to tour India. That will not go down well in Bangladesh whose election to Test status in 2001 was so staunchly backed by Jagmohan Dalmiya, then the BCCI supremo, and yet, according to the FTP, a decade on and they will still be waiting for their first invitation.

The ICC have done well to salvage relative order from such a potentially shambolic situation. The worry, and one that will be on many players' minds, is that their own boards will be the ones who really put the cat among the pigeons.

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo