The international cricket calendar, particularly one-day cricket, is under serious threat, according to former Australia allrounder Shane Watson. A player who has plenty of first-hand experience of T20 league cricket, Watson said the leagues were doing a better job of providing what the fans want: context.
"The reason why the public loves franchise tournaments is because there's a build-up and there's an outcome - there's semi-finals and a final. Whereas a lot of the time with international bilateral series - of course you're playing for your country and you want to beat the opposition - but if it's a five-match series and you win 3-0, then no one sort of watches the last two games. For the players the series is over. There's no reason to play those two games. Whereas in knockout tournaments, like the Champions Trophy or a T20 World Cup or a World Cup, if you lose you're out, you don't play another couple of games for the sake of playing the amount of games that has to be there in the tournament."
It might perhaps be impossible to ensure every game played contains a hook for the player and the fan, but Watson was unequivocal in his belief that the primacy of international cricket will come under threat if things stay as they are.
"Obviously there's a lot of politics around the future tours programme (FTP) and how they can't change the next four years in advance, which seems pretty crazy, they're going to have to," he said. "Just by sheer numbers of the people coming along to the Big Bash, for example - it's the perfect example - it shows there's a huge shift in what people want to watch and that's games with context. Tournaments with context. Not just a series that has to be played, like the T20 series that Sri Lanka played at the back end of the Australian summer when everyone thought the cricket season was over. These token games have to stop shortly because the general public is going to be fed up."
They might not be the only ones alienated either. Watson was worried about the impact participating in meaningless series can have on the current generation of cricketers.
"There's been a lot of conversations around providing more context for Test matches... The players want games with context and the fans want games with context and I don't understand why the ICC is taking so long to put these things in place." Shane Watson
"Of course, there is the pride and privilege of playing for your country, but when it's all year round and a lot of gaps [in the calendar] are being filled for boards to be able to continue to make money - which has now come to the players which is great but in the end how much money is enough for a player to earn when they're getting burnt out, when they don't have a life outside of just playing and travelling around the world in different hotels, especially with families. For cricketers who've got young families, it's very challenging."
So, is the fact that the ICC is working towards establishing a Test championship and a one-day league some kind of consolation to Watson? Things are not moving quickly enough to make a difference, he said.
"These conversations have been talked about for the last five years, at least, that I can remember. There's been a lot of conversations around providing more context for Test matches, having relegation, having points for your wins, and having a Test championship at the end after two years or something like that. But there's only been talk. There has been nothing put in place and in the end the players want games with context and most importantly the fans want games with context and I don't understand why the ICC is taking so long to be able to put these things in place."
A big part of the problem is the ICC cannot unilaterally make decisions. A plan as sizable as changing the way the game is played around the world has to be put forward at Board meetings and then passed by a majority vote. As things stand, the member countries have disagreed to the two-tier Test championship and are instead discussing a model by which the top-two ranked teams play for the honours. A 13-team ODI league is also up for ratification in the next round of meetings in June.
The ICC is therefore aware of the need for change, but Watson reiterated it. "If they don't be proactive with it, before you know it, for the big Test series, there's going to be no one coming along to Test cricket. Unless its a knockout tournament, there's going to be hardly anyone coming along to one-day cricket and potentially Twenty20 cricket, international Twenty20 cricket outside of a World Cup. They'll all be going to franchise tournaments that have got more context.
"In Australia, for example, the best players aren't playing because they're playing international cricket at that moment when the Big Bash is on, but there's still 45,000 people coming around to the Adelaide Oval. Every ground is just about sold out, so people love what it's providing."