January 26, 2014

West Indies will toe the financial bottom line

The WICB knows that good, and acquiescent, relations with India are its only option

However much we pound our fists and rightly rail against the brazen conspiracy between Australia, England and India to effectively hijack international cricket, the West Indies Cricket Board is obliged to accept a galling reality. As with most things, it has to do with money.

The triumvirate's aim is to become the ICC's supreme rulers. As such, they will make the crucial decisions. The Future Tours Programme (FTP) will be scrapped in favour of bilateral arrangements for tours, and two-division Test cricket introduced, with promotion and demotion - from which last those three teams will be exempt. They will redistribute, on a more proportionate basis, the ICC's annual revenue, to which India currently contributes 80%. The rich getting richer, the poor poorer.

The main points in the relevant 21-page document are common knowledge. They are to be put before the ICC's quarterly meeting in Dubai next week.

The WICB's position was settled after a couple of directors' teleconferences last week. It is to be formally presented by the president, Dave Cameron, in Dubai. The board's only official statement was that it would be "in the best interest of West Indies cricket".

Baldath Mahabir, the Trinidad and Tobago director on the WICB, expressed his doubts in a newspaper interview last week, while stressing that his opinions were strictly personal. "Any time you have a situation where people are looking to divide and rule, it could never be good," he said. "Looking at the proposals, this is a situation where power-broking and sharing will go to three of the members and this cannot be healthy."

Others have spoken out more strongly and officially. Cricket South Africa, whose team is top of the list in the Test rankings but whose dealings with the BCCI have become increasingly fractious, charged that the plans are "in breach of the ICC constitution".

Paul Marsh, chairman of the FICA, which covers players of seven of the ten Full Member boards, said his organisation has "real fears that it will only serve to strengthen the Big Three countries whilst the rest are left to wither on the vine".

Former ICC president Ehsan Mani, of Pakistan, accused the three of "completely undermining the integrity and standing of the ICC". The current vice-president, Mustafa Kamal, of Bangladesh, made his doubts known.

There is undeniably substance to such concerns, but it would be a courageous president to tell the superpowers, especially India, that the WICB rejects their intended takeover; such preference for principle over practicality carries potentially damaging repercussions.

The financial value of relations with India was never more obvious to West Indies than during India's involvement in the triangular ODI tournament in the Caribbean last year. The teams contested the Celkon Mobile Cup, presented by a Hyderabad-based manufacturer of mobile phones. It, and a host of other Indian products and services, household names in the subcontinent but unheard of on this side of the planet, filled the ground perimeter advertising boards.

They were there because live coverage of the matches was transmitted back to India by Ten Sports, the Dubai-based Indian production company that won the rights to international cricket in the Caribbean in 2012.

It was a financial coup for the WICB, whose treasury was accordingly boosted. The scheduled FTP series of two Tests and five ODIs against Sri Lanka it replaced would have operated at a loss, as did the five ODIs and two T20s against Pakistan that immediately followed.

The WICB's hurried revision of its international schedule to fit in two Tests in India that ensured Sachin Tendulkar's emotional farewell in his homeland rather than in South Africa, further fortified the rapport.

As the BCCI has made plain, it will rapidly sour should the WICB oppose the triumvirate's proposals. It is a certainty seemingly recognised by "an overwhelming majority" of the Bangladesh board's directors, who, according to a report on ESPNcricinfo, favour siding with the BCCI or otherwise "will be cornered", a phrase applicable to the WICB.

The BCCI has done nothing to soften its image as the bully boy of the game. After a meeting on Thursday, it maintained that the submission to be presented on Tuesday and Wednesday was "in the interests of cricket at large", warning at the same time that its rejection would jeopardise India's participation in and hosting of future ICC events (such as the World Cup, men's and women's, the World Twenty20, and the Under-19 World Cup) . It's a big call and there are some who might be inclined to call the BCCI's bluff on this one.

While both England and Australia gave commitment to bilateral agreements with eight Full Members, India did not. The absence of such a guarantee worries the WICB and other weaker boards, who depend on visits from India, with their advertisers, sponsors and television pull, to bolster their treasuries.

For West Indies, perhaps the most ominous point in the proposals is that "no member should be forced to host uneconomic tours". "Uneconomic" is a term that has come to be associated with a team consistently languishing in the bottom half of the ICC's Test and ODI standings for nearly 20 years.

It represents a bewildering turnaround from the eras when West Indies cricket ruled the world, when they were the strongest, most envied and most popular, when the major countries couldn't get enough of teams led by Frank Worrell and Clive Lloyd.

The previous seven-year interludes between tours of England were reduced to four following Worrell's memorable 1963 series. Those led by Lloyd, and then Viv Richards, visited Australia for four Test tours in the 1980s.

Worrell's tyros attracted 90,800 spectators to the Saturday of the Melbourne Cricket Ground in the last match of the 1960-61 series, which began with Test cricket's first tie. Just as many were estimated to have been present at Calcutta's Eden Gardens for a day on the 1966-67 tour under Garry Sobers. For 15 years, between 1980 and 1995, West Indies never lost a series.

The change has been depressingly dramatic. In the 21st century, West Indies have managed two wins against England's 17, one against Australia's 17, and two against India's nine. The blackwashes of the 1980s have been replaced by washes of several different hues the other way round.

Such rapid deterioration has been brought on by weak administrations and infighting with a militant players' union that led to three strikes; by poor planning; by a continuous turnover of captains and coaches; by inferior pitches - and by much else besides.

Former New Zealand captain Martin Crowe's take on two-tiered Test cricket in regard to West Indies and New Zealand is that it is "disrespectful and ignores the great history that has built up over a century or more". Such sentimentality is foreign to the businessmen, bankers and assorted types who now manage the game strictly on the dictates of the financial bottom line.

The upshot is that, come Tuesday and Wednesday in Dubai, the WICB, even against its principles, will support the radical makeover put forward by Australia, England and India.

It couldn't have happened 30 years ago.

Tony Cozier has written about and commentated on cricket in the Caribbean for 50 years