When Sam Allardyce was unveiled as England's new football manager recently, it reflected more than just the underwhelming state of English football. It seemed indicative, too, of the second-rate nature of international football. If you want to see the best football, go to the Champions League, not the World Cup. It has been this way for many years.
Cricket has traditionally been different. The surest way to see the world's best talent has been to get a ticket to a Test match. The game's beating heart has been international cricket, its main rivalries found in nation v nation contests. These matches have often had a resonance beyond the field. The Ashes clash between colonial master and colony; how West Indies' rise was intertwined with the wider process of black empowerment; and the way in which the Indian and Pakistani teams were expressions of nationhood.
As five-day Test matches were cricket's dominant form, only the most devoted fans had time to watch both these and multi-day domestic games. "In the long version of the game, modern society only makes enough room for us to concentrate on the pinnacle," says David Goldblatt, a sports historian. "It would be a fabulously leisurely world in which the four-day domestic game was well attended."
From 1963, when the Gillette Cup was introduced in England, domestic teams at least tried to make their product more appealing to those who were pressed for time. The 40-over Sunday League was a notable success after its formation in 1969, partly because, in its early years, pubs could not serve alcohol on Sunday afternoons, so for those with a thirst to quench, a trip to the cricket was particularly appealing. But Goldblatt considers the 1960s and subsequent decades "a big missed opportunity" for domestic cricket around the world, with too many matches marketed anaemically, if at all, despite international players being available far more than today. Somerset in the 1980s regularly fielded Ian Botham, Joel Garner and Viv Richards in the same team, a coterie of players with as much star power as most IPL teams possess today. Stuart Robertson, the inventor of T20 cricket, believes that one-day cricket was simply never able to overcome "one of the main barriers to entry: the length of matches".
It was not until the advent of T20 cricket, in 2003 - and especially the birth of the Indian Premier League five years later - that domestic cricket begun to emerge as a revenue stream to rival internationals.
More than T20 v Test cricket, the overriding tension in world cricket is now club v country. T20 gave domestic teams a format to market to those who are time-poor, and emerged at a moment in cricket history when national loyalties have been eroded.
As memories of colonialism and its legacy have become more distant, the idea of international cricket representing something greater has diminished. "I have five million West Indians depending on me to perform at my best so they can walk the streets and be proud," Michael Holding said in Fire in Babylon. Now Andre Russell can claim that he is more passionate playing for Jamaica Tallawahs than for West Indies and it seems nothing more than a sad statement of the obvious.
"In FICA's new player survey, 58.6% of players from Bangladesh, New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka and West Indies said that they would consider rejecting a national contract if they were paid significantly more to be playing only in domestic T20 leagues"
Rapid urbanisation throughout the globe means that more people define themselves less by the country they live in but the city they do, leading to them identifying more with club teams. The thirst for club cricket also reflects the impatience of the modern world - not just in the preference for T20 cricket but in the desire to see global stars return every season. To IPL fans, the notion of waiting four years for AB de Villiers or Chris Gayle to return for their next international tour to India seems quaint.
International cricket's chaotic and disjointed structure has also helped domestic T20 cricket to thrive. "The lack of clarity and consistency in scheduling and formats is causing bilateral cricket to rapidly lose its appeal to broadcasters, fans and players," FICA remarks in its new report on how the game is run.
The underwhelming standard of much international cricket, especially when countries are weakened by the loss of players to domestic leagues, is a further problem. During West Indies' tour of Australia last year, six of their players were turning out in the Big Bash instead. Perhaps little wonder that the average TV viewership for matches in last season's Big Bash topped one million, and were higher than for the Australia-West Indies Test series taking place at the same time. And while 80,000 attended the Melbourne Big Bash derby on January 2, 30,000 higher than the previous Big Bash record, only 127,000 in all attended the four days of the Boxing Day Test, the lowest total figure for 21 years.
"The Big Bash League has changed the dynamic a lot, and let's be open: all over the country it has cannibalised the demand for international cricket," Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland admitted.
The tumultuous relationships between Full Member boards have also driven countries to focus more on domestic T20 cricket. In 2013-14, India's curtailed tour of South Africa cost Cricket South Africa around US$20 million. When West Indies pulled out of their tour to India in 2014, it cost the BCCI $42 million. And India's refusal to play Pakistan since the Mumbai attacks in 2008 has cost the Pakistan Cricket Board around $150 million, according to analysis by Peter Oborne, the author of Wounded Tiger, and Charles Alexander.
In these circumstances prioritising domestic T20 cricket is prudent risk management by boards, allowing them to reduce their dependence upon other countries touring. Little wonder, then, that South Africa are preparing to launch a new T20 Premier League, or that the Pakistan Cricket Board has declared its intention that the Pakistan Super League "will be the most exciting event of the year, far more exciting than any FTP [engagement] could ever be" within five years.
The ascent of domestic T20 cricket has already transformed cricket's ecosystem. Perhaps the most significant impact of the IPL is not in India but in other countries. It can be seen in the plight of West Indies, with the internecine wrangling between the players and board born, in significant part, from players being able to earn far more in T20 leagues than by representing West Indies. It can be seen in the retirements of international players to pursue careers in domestic T20. And it can be seen, too, in the consistently underwhelming early-season Tests in England, where the uncompetitiveness is partly the result of many tourists arriving unprepared for Test cricket after a stint in the IPL.
The commercial unattractiveness of these early-season Tests is one factor in the ECB's desire to reduce the Test summer from seven matches to six, and so create more room for a lucrative T20 tournament in July in England, which, if the ECB succeeds in its ambition to rival the Big Bash and IPL, would further undermine the supremacy of international cricket. Cricket would become a little more like football, with the majority of matches played at club level, and internationals focused around a small number of tournaments.
So far domestic cricket has yet to make the crucial leap that domestic football has - in being recognised as the highest quality of the sport. Few regard even the IPL as being of a greater standard to the World T20, largely because of the requirement for each of the eight teams to field seven Indian players. But franchise cricket might already be a more fertile ground for innovation than international T20 cricket, because the length of tournaments provides scope for coaches and players to work together as they seldom can in international T20. If the IPL ever was to relax the requirement on domestic players, it might soon be able to rival international T20 in quality terms.
The dangers for international cricket are palpable. In FICA's new player survey, 58.6% of players from Bangladesh, New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka and West Indies said that they would consider rejecting a national contract if they were paid significantly more to be a free agent, playing only in domestic T20 leagues. "The earnings opportunities that domestic T20 events provide will make it harder to commit to playing international cricket, and we are now faced with a choice as to where we play," Ross Taylor explained.
The ICC is aware that the sport is being reoriented around the domestic game. The organisation's management has suggested some radical ideas - including windows for domestic T20 leagues, an idea supported by two-thirds of players surveyed by FICA, and even limits on the number of domestic teams that players are allowed to play for - to militate club v country conflict, learning from how football manages tension between domestic and international matches by avoiding scheduling clashes. It does not look like either proposal will pass. Cricket Australia wants the Big Bash to continue taking place concurrently with its marquee Test series, while any attempt to restrain the freedom of movement of players would be liable to face a legal challenge.
Plans for a new structure for global cricket - two divisions in Test cricket, a 13-team ODI league, and regional qualification for the World T20 - are all attempts to reinvigorate the international game by giving it more context.
Alongside this the ICC would like the overall demands on international teams to be reduced, creating scarcity value in nation v nation contexts and, it is hoped, effectively creating a truce with T20 leagues, by making it easier to combine playing all of a nation's international fixtures with ample time for lucrative T20 leagues.
Some other major reforms could also help reduce the financial incentive for players to choose club over country. The ICC's ongoing review into the 2014 restructuring of its governance is likely to lead to some - though probably not all - of the extra funding to the Big Three being removed, putting other nations in a position to pay their players more. Proposals for a competition fund for international matches within the new structure could also help make the boards' income more consistent and less dependent on tours from the wealthiest nations, and lead them to pay players more.
When the decision to return the World T20 to taking place every two years is confirmed, it will open up around another $400 million every eight years to be shared between the ICC's members.
Ultimately whether players have the incentives to play international cricket, especially Tests, will mostly come down to economics. In its new report, FICA advocates that the ICC work to "narrow the gap in the time:wage ratios between international and domestic T20 cricket".
While a player could earn $230,000 a year playing in all three formats of the game for New Zealand, he could earn $500,000 playing in three domestic T20 leagues. For as long as that discrepancy exists, then economic rationale will draw players to premature international retirement if scheduling clashes arise. In the worst-case scenario, the decline of international cricket risks become self-perpetuating: international teams weakened by the loss of crucial players will produce less exciting cricket, leading to the matches generating less revenue, and boards being able to pay their players less.
All trends point to domestic cricket becoming more vibrant still. How the ICC and Full Member boards manage the ascent of T20 leagues will go far in shaping cricket's future - whether club and country can peacefully co-exist, or whether the domestic game will effectively cannibalise international cricket.