November 12, 2014

Bring back the FTP

Sport bereft of fair and vibrant competition is a betrayal. The Future Tours Programme was far from perfect, but its absence provides serious cause for concern

The new bilateral agreements that replaced the FTP are more open to abuse. Such is life in the dispensation of the big three © Getty Images

In June last year, Tim May resigned after eight long, progressive but inevitably turbulent years as chief executive, campaigner in chief and public voice of the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations (FICA). He attributed his decision to "the realisation that I was tiring of working in a sport that was increasingly at odds with the principles I respect". Retirement speeches don't come much more damning than that.

With new blood comes renewed optimism, and one hopes against hope that disillusionment does not diminish the enthusiasm of Tony Irish, who succeeded Paul Marsh as FICA executive chairman earlier this year. That he has his work cut out, at this precarious juncture in the relationship between players and paymasters, cannot be doubted, but he's beginning to earn his corn.

In response to this week's schoolmasterly warning from Dubai to any disgruntled players who might contemplate emulating Dwayne Bravo and company, Irish correctly turned the spotlight on a recent spot of ICC foot-shooting. "The de-regulation of the Future Tours Programme," he lamented, "has unfortunately taken the playing schedule out of the structural framework and rules which used to exist for international cricket." After all, under FTP regulations, a national board couldn't just withdraw its team from a tour, or suspend future tours. A commitment was a commitment. The new bilateral agreements that replaced the FTP in April are more open to abuse. Such is life in the not-at-all brave new world of the Indo-Anglo-Australian G3 (take your pick: G for Grasping, G for Greedy or G for Glum).

The birth of the G3 also brought the funeral of the stillborn World Test Championship. Notwithstanding the sneering suggestions that the Indians were fearful of not qualifying, the reasons for the jettisoning of this worthy if belated enterprise were lack of imagination, conviction, and ultimately, will. Dave Richardson, the ICC chief executive, admitted as much when he blamed the increasingly lesser-spotted draw. Was it really so out of the box to propose playing the games to a finish? Or was it all simply a matter of timidity, a fear of even broaching the subject with those precious broadcasting partner-masters?

In effect, therefore, we've lost two world championships for the price of one: without the FTP, the extant, brave but unsatisfying ICC Test championship (the one launched three months after the FTP, the one governed by a rankings system that defies comprehension without a degree in logarithms and an actuary table - or, failing that, a press release) can only fall further from repute.

Even the crumbs of comfort dissolve easily. Bangladesh were apparently bought off with the delicious promise of that 14-years-in-the-waiting maiden Test in India, but the new revenue distribution rules will dilute the benefits of that. The fund for the have-nots could well prove beneficial, but without an FTP to keep them honest, will they bother with Tests at all?

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The FTP was born in February 2001 and consecrated in Kuala Lumpur that October by a Members Agreement. Viewed through the lens of the 2004 update, it still strikes you as a supremely well-intentioned, laudable project, giving the game - and its followers - a sense of structure, one that would complement, and add authenticity to, the (then) spanking new ICC Test rankings.

The FTP was about more than kisses of life. It was sold as evidence of solidarity, unity of purpose, teamwork. Now, notwithstanding the Test Fund, and however hard Richardson tries to put a gloss on it, it's more or less every man for himself

Mind you, even though that Malaysian conflab authorised a $2m "visitor's loss" for non-compliance, the FTP was not the lead item in the media release. Coming just five weeks after 9/11, it was relegated, understandably, behind the approval granted for neutral venues.

A ten-year schedule by which all Full Members agreed to be bound, the first FTP stretched from May 2001 to April 2011. "Host and visitor" were obliged to confirm the length and content of tours (up to 29 February 2004) to the ICC by 30 June 2002: 20 months in advance; for those commencing thereafter, that specification was reduced to 12 months. Unless otherwise agreed, tours would comprise a minimum of two Tests and three ODIs. Commendable as the desire to banish the expedient one-off Test was, the game would be depleted, its integrity undermined, by the refusal to make it three apiece.

Even the impact on the ICC rankings was covered. In the event of cancellation, the innocent party would be awarded the ranking points due the victor of a one-off match, and the offending party treated as if they had lost. All in all, therefore, there was precious little not to like. The FTP made immense common sense, if not necessarily financial sense. It heightened anticipation; more pertinently, given the way the cookie was beginning to crumble, it gave the broadcasters a schedule. It reminded me of that 1960s ad for Mackeson ale: "Looks good, smells good, and by golly it does you good". Cue deus ex machina. Who knew the English counties would kick off the T20 revolution inside two years?

Still, in terms of Test preservation, the FTP really did do us good for a while, maintaining levels in numerical terms if not parity: Zimbabwe's exile wouldn't help, and neither would Bangladesh's struggle to find form or opponents. Even so, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the game's evolution since that catalytic inaugural World Cup of 1975, has been the way the Test match, for all the rabid doom-and-gloomery, has retained its visibility.

Mind you, not even the most devout apostle of the five-day play would want to go back to the sort of schedule India were forced to endure shortly before the ODI era began in earnest. During the build-up to Pakistan's six-Test visit in 1979-80, Sunil Gavaskar predicted (with no prescience whatsoever) that the tourists "would smash us to a pulp". The reasoning for such defeatism seemed sound. Not only had Pakistan "thrashed us soundly" the previous year, going into the series India would have played 19 Tests in less than 13 months, including six-match rubbers against West Indies and Australia. Small wonder they had a horrendous World Cup.

All told, 53 Tests were played from the start of 1979 to the end of 1980, a back-to-business statement of intent after the ravages of the Packer War. In the 12 months preceding that Members Agreement, from October 1, 2000 to 1 October, 2001, there were 52; the same span in 1999-2000, just prior to the ascent of Bangladesh, brought 50. Yet ten years before that there had been just 25 sprinkled among seven teams, with West Indies confined to four and Sri Lanka half that; the previous twelvemonth had witnessed a pitiful 21. Over the equivalent period in 2004-05, which encompassed the first T20 international, there were 55 Tests. In other words, the FTP presided, initially at least, over an extension of a trend.

Then in strutted the new golden goose. In 2006 there were 46 Tests; in 2007, a World Cup year, 31; since then, the quota has fluctuated, albeit mildly: 47, 41, 43, 39 (World Cup year), 42, 44 and, this year, 42 - a seven-year mean of 42 and a bit. In other words, we're nearly 20% down on the number played in the year before there were ten seats at the top table.

But maybe we demand too much? A glance at the decades since the invasion of the ODI should temper grievances. The 1990s saw 347 Tests: fewer than 35 per year and five per team. In the 1980s, the first decade to feature seven contestants, the annual mean was 26.6, with England alone averaging 10. In the 1960s, before South Africa's banishment, only England (10) and Australia (6.7) averaged more than India's 5.2 - fewer than Bangladesh manage now.

But the FTP was about more than kisses of life. It was sold as evidence of solidarity, unity of purpose, teamwork. Now, notwithstanding the Test Fund, and however hard Richardson tries to put a gloss on it, it's more or less every man for himself.

Examples worth heeding? Try the American way. Not only does revenue sharing keep the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball buoyant, the playoff system ensures that both rich and poor(ish) prosper. "Competitive balance" is the holy grail, and they're making a reasonable fist of it. The advent of free agency in baseball in 1976 kick-started the process by making it difficult for teams to dominate with the same players year after year; thus it was that, between 1979 and 1989, the World Series was won by no fewer than ten different teams. Another ten have won it since; only twice in all those years was the title retained. Even the Kansas City Royals, absent from the playoffs since 1985, reached this year's World Series.

Then there are the Washington Nationals. In 2004, the Montreal Expos, slain primarily by poor attendances, ceased to be. Two years earlier, the Major League Owners Committee had approved MLB's unprecedented collective purchase of the beleaguered franchise, and in 2005 the Expos became the Nationals. Stocked with cast-offs and ingènues, pathetic at first, the new club spent wisely and moved swiftly in the right direction, winning the National League East in 2012 and 2014.

Relocation in international cricket is not, of course, an option. Nor are filthy-rich owners and whopping contracts for free-agent acquisitions. Nor, given the largely impenetrable barriers erected by geographical boundaries, is true competitive balance. But a collective ethos assuredly is. Sport bereft of fair and vibrant competition is a betrayal, so let's restore the FTP and, while we're at it, rescue the Woolf Report from the trash can into which it was so hurriedly, thoughtlessly and callously flung. Otherwise those who protect the players' interests will not be the only stakeholders who leave the sinking ship with anger in their hearts.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now

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