June 30, 2013

When India travel, money follows

For the impoverished WICB, substituting a bilateral with Sri Lanka with a tri-series is a financial coup. However, it isn't doing Test cricket any good in the region

It only needed a quick glance around Sabina Park on Friday to understand why India are here for the ODI triangular with West Indies and Sri Lanka, rather than the two Tests, three ODIs and one T20 against Sri Lanka as stipulated on the ICC's Future Tours Programme (FTP).

The switch has little to do with cricket, all to do with the money that follows India wherever they go.

The teams are playing for the Celkon Mobile Cup, the name of a large Hyderabad-based manufacturer of mobile phones. It and a host of other Indian products and services, household names in the subcontinent, but unheard of in these parts, fill the ground perimeter advertising boards.

They are there because live coverage of the matches is transmitted back to India (as well as several other areas) by Ten Sports, the Dubai-based Indian production company that won the rights to international cricket in the Caribbean from the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) last year. Commentary is in English and, more pertinently for a viewership of several million, in Hindi.

The basis for the change from the ICC's bilateral with Sri Lanka was that it clashed with the closing stages of the IPL in which the leading Sri Lankan and West Indies players would be engaged. In their absence, the Tests would be seriously devalued.

For the impoverished WICB, the substitute is a financial coup. It was also, unavoidably it would argue, a further tightening of the rope around the neck of Test cricket.

There would be further complications. The tri-series was slotted in immediately after the Champions Trophy in England, precisely when the FTP had mandated a home series of two Tests, five ODIs and two T20s against Pakistan.

Nothing, however, properly explains how the WICB hasn't been able to attract sponsorship for its major tournaments since the days of Shell, Sandals, Geddes Grant/Harrison Line, Busta and Red Stripe

The WICB had already sold the rights for its annual T20 to the little known Verus International organisation under the banner of the Caribbean Premier League (CPL). Since then, Digicel, the former sponsor of West Indies cricket, has taken a lead role preparing for the July 30-August 24 tournament.

The three weeks between the end of the tri-series and the start of the CPL was the only window for Pakistan. That has finally, and inevitably, been condensed into five ODIs and two Twenty20s, further strangling Test cricket.

The stark truth, as the WICB repeatedly states, is that the only profitable home tours are those by India and England (with their host of travelling supporters and Sky TV coverage more so than the advertisers). All the others result in losses in a region of steep hotel and travel costs, small populations and increasingly struggling economies. When Zimbabwe toured last March, there was a sprinkling of advertising boards on the ground, all from WICB's few sponsors. By then, Digicel had dropped its title sponsorship, a hint of its later involvement with the CPL.

So it was last year when New Zealand and Australia came, their time zones inconvenient for TV viewers back home. The ICC hasn't listed India to return until February 2016 for three Tests, five ODIs and one T20. England have been split into separate tours (three ODIs and two T20s next February-March, three Tests in April 2015). The same number of spectators will hopefully follow them.

All of which might yet change. As long as India can be lured back, the ICC programme has no bearing.

Nothing, however, properly explains how the WICB hasn't been able to attract sponsorship for its major tournaments since the days of Shell, Sandals, Geddes Grant/Harrison Line, Busta and Red Stripe a decade and more ago, while CPL cooly signs on Limacol and Courts right away and entices Digicel over.

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

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