Good on the field, grim off it
Cricket has had a curious year. The signs from the field ought to spread optimism. The World Cup, the game's showpiece event, defied predictions and turned out to be everything the organisers would have prayed for, granting one-day cricket - regarded in many quarters with the mixture of sympathy and condescension given to fading divas - fresh oxygen. Test cricket was blessed with dramatic contests too, and though England were the only team to scale the peak, many other sides contributed to keep Test cricket absorbing and unpredictable. Even Zimbabwe, reappearing on the circuit after six years, nearly pulled off a stiff final-day chase, against New Zealand. A lot of it was due to a uniform inconsistency from most teams, but the most heartening part of the theme was that bowlers found a way back into the game.
It can be argued that the English summer was blighted by the Indian team never turning up, but that would be missing the main story. India arrived in England underdone, but they were truly cooked by the most complete bowling attack for English conditions. The story continued in Sri Lanka, South Africa and Australia, where exciting new talents exploited conditions to bring alive the central appeal of Test cricket: the contest between bat and ball.
But away from the field, the story was grim and eerily mirrored the global economic crisis. Many of the words used for the bankers and finance-sector czars who brought the world economy to its knees could be applied to cricket's administrators: greed, cockiness, self-interest and shortsightedness spring easily to mind. It's not tough to find similarities with the Eurozone. Sri Lankan cricket is close to bankruptcy, the Pakistan cricket board is a case study in mismanagement, Bangladesh has remained stunted, West Indies and New Zealand are now firmly on the margins, and the world governing body is paralysed by a lack of common vision from its most influential members.
However, the biggest challenge to cricket has come, as far as the administrators are concerned, from unexpected quarters. Not that the signs haven't been there, just that the administrators have been too giddy and self-absorbed to notice. The message was finally delivered in the starkest fashion when the crowds failed to turn up for an ODI featuring India at Eden Gardens. To make it clear that it was no aberration, they stayed away from the Test that followed as well. It can be argued that enough Indians are still following cricket on television, and that the cricket economy is not on the verge of a meltdown, but when Kolkatans and Mumbaiites stay away from the ground, it is silly to not try to figure out why.
The most plausible answer is that the Indian fan is finally saying enough is enough. Both literally and metaphorically. After cricketers, Indian cricket fans, by virtue of sustaining the world cricket economy with their interest and passion, must count as the most significant constituents in the world of cricket. Yet throughout the history of cricket they have been taken for granted in the worst manner possible. From buying a ticket to get into the ground, to sitting through the match, every aspect of experiencing a live match has always been an ordeal. Seats and facilities improved significantly at India's major grounds during the World Cup, but attitudes haven't.
Even watching the game on television has grown increasingly tedious. Television channels, not content with squeezing an ad into every idle second, have found new "innovations" with which to grab screen space during actual play. In many parts of the world such disrespect for consumers is legislated against. Indian television viewers enjoy no such protection, though as consumers they are getting used to being wooed in many other areas. Theatres in Indian cities have reclining seats (in some cases, even flat beds), there are 300 television channels to choose from, and for the young, plenty of recreational options. Cricket can't afford to take their loyalty for granted.
Neither can it afford keep piling courses on their plates. Spectator fatigue is real. The scheduling of the IPL deprived the Indian World Cup team of the opportunity to soak in their triumph, but television viewers had a choice and the ratings for the IPL dived. Similarly, fans were perhaps so spent after India's emotion-sapping hiding in England that the one-day series that followed against the same opponents, at home, felt hollow and meaningless. Few other sports engage fans as deeply and as pervasively as cricket does, and it's hard to fathom why the administrators have been oblivious to the simple requirement for space.
Cricket's cadence is set to waiting and anticipating: between balls, between overs, between breaks, between days and between events. The cramming of the calendar has taken the anticipation out of cricket watching, and consequently the sense of occasion.
In many ways, the administrators have already missed an opportunity. The Future Tours Programme, approved after much wrangling among the members, has set out a carpet-to-carpet schedule for most major nations. It has created a clear window for the Champions League, and a partial one for the IPL. The positive aspect of the schedule is that it provides for a larger proportion of Tests between the top nations; this might be seen as elitist in some quarters, but Tests between unequal teams do a disservice to everyone involved. However, the calendar is still littered with seven-match one-day series, quick two-Test series, and provides no roadmap for a Test Championship.
The FTP, though, is merely a guideline, and as they have done in the past, those who control the purse strings - India, England, Australia, and to a lesser extent South Africa, will continue to dictate the schedule. Already the Test series between India and Pakistan, scheduled for early 2012, has been squeezed out, and though it might have been influenced by the political climate in the subcontinent, ultimately all matches outside the ICC's direct ownership are down to bilateral arrangements. So ultimately the future of cricket is in the hands of rich and powerful boards.
A new era for television rights
Perhaps the matter will soon be out of their hands. The overcrowding of the cricket calendar isn't merely depleting spectator interest, it is also devaluing television rights, and making it harder for TV companies to recoup their investment.
Most long-term television rights are based on projections, and broadcasters are often prepared to lose money in the first couple of years of a contract by betting on much higher yields in the later years. But there are boundaries to advertising spends, still the major source of income for broadcasters in a market like India, where the pay-TV model is yet to mature, and with the addition of new tournaments like the IPL and the Champions League, the pie has been further fragmented, diminishing the value of the rights bought before these tournaments were conceived.
In fact, the Indian cricket board did agree to scale down the value of its rights to $436 million in 2010 from $549 million in 2006 (and that was already brought down from the original deal of $612 million), but as events have borne out, even paying that amount became a struggle, which led to the BCCI terminating its contract with Nimbus Communications earlier this month.
Given the prevailing economic uncertainty, the BCCI's decision to terminate an existing deal is curious, particularly because the amount due was a trifle in the context of the overall deal. The board is yet make an official statement on the matter, though BCCI officials have privately spoken of previous difficulties with Nimbus, but they must be prepared for a depressed rights market when they eventually invite bids again.
The rights business has been overheated for a few years now. A correction is overdue and cricket boards must take a realistic view. But while they must be prepared to accept smaller rights fees, they need to tie down broadcasters to minimum requirements for technology, and strict norms over how far they can go with advertising. As the game's custodians, they are obliged to protect the interests of the fans, who happen to be their primary consumers.
Could a Test championship work?
I have always been conflicted about the idea of a Test Championship. Test cricket wasn't designed as a tournament sport: it is best played bilaterally and over the course of at least three Tests. The length of Test matches will never allow for a multi-match tournament, and an event consisting of two semi-finals and a final is hardly a championship.
Some find the idea of timeless Tests quite appealing, but playing three timeless Tests isn't a practical option. How to deal with the draw then? Allowing the higher-ranked team to go through in the event of stalemate carries the risk of safety-first cricket. Also, unlike in one-day cricket, the home advantage is huge in Test cricket. How many teams have managed to beat India on a turning pitch at home?
The current ranking system isn't perfect, but since it takes into account performances over a long period against a number of opponents, the No. 1 ranking is generally well-earned. It can be argued that the same circumstances exist for one-day cricket, but that format is far better suited to a multi-team tournament: the World Cup is large enough for the trophy to feel earned.
That said, there are two solid arguments in favour of a Test championship in some form. It will create a rallying point for Test cricket round the year, and create a sense of anticipation and build-up for the fans. It will also give context and meaning to the Test calendar as a whole. More importantly, it will provide a strong incentive for teams in the bottom half of the table - New Zealand and West Indies, for example - to stay committed to Test cricket. And if the prize money is big enough, making it to the top four would count for something more than prestige. So even though there is something artificial about it, it is an experiment worth pursuing.
From the perspective of the game overall, it's a pity that the official broadcasters didn't buy the idea of swapping the Champions Trophy for the Test Championship. But from a commercial point of view they are entitled to reject oranges offered in lieu of the apples they bought. If this was an idea the ICC believed in strongly, was it willing to sacrifice part of the rights money to make it happen?
The ICC's review: the right answers?
One of the worthiest tasks undertaken by the ICC this year has been to put itself under the scanner. It was instigated by Haroon Lorgat, the ICC chief executive, and the brief given to the governance review committee, headed by Lord Harry Woolf, a former chief justice of England and Wales, is sweeping: it covers governance, ethics, membership, and the role of the ICC.
The committee has gone about its work diligently and thoroughly. They have interviewed a wide number of people with a knowledge of and interest in the game and asked the right questions. But the all-important question is: have they come up with answers that the executive board wants to hear?
Some of the questions are likely to yield obvious responses. How should voting power be distributed? Should the board include independent members? Should the ICC have a code of ethics, and whom should this code apply to?
Judged purely by its decision-making process on the major issues, it can be surmised, even without an independent review, that the structure of the ICC requires an overhaul. But reform can only be possible if the decision-makers are willing. Let's hope, for a start, that they make the report public.
Two players who stood up
If the unthinkable happened and the ICC board chose to draft some directors from outside, they might not have to look far for the first couple of candidates. Players must get a role in running the game, and there can be no worthier candidates than Rahul Dravid and Kumar Sangakkara.
If making a stirring speech was good enough to land you a plum job, politicians would never be out of work, but in the cases of Sangakkara and Dravid, their lectures, delivered in London and Canberra, merely confirmed what we knew about them.
They spoke with erudition and intelligence, with warmth and passion for their nations and the game, with awareness about history and concern about the future, and with honesty, empathy and understanding. Sangakkara's speech was brave because he directly targeted the politics and corruption in the Sri Lankan cricket administration. In comparison, Dravid's words were measured, but they contained a broader vision for the game.
None of their suggestions and reflections were revolutionary or radical. In fact, they were simple and marked by common sense. But it was significant that they came from two leading current players. As the financial rewards have grown, players have grown more and more passive about the major issues confronting the game, choosing to retreat into their corners rather than risk derailing the gravy train. By standing up for the values they believed in, Dravid and Sangakkara have set distinct examples for their peers.
Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo