A long-awaited ICC Test Championship is in severe danger of being delayed until at least 2017 because the ICC member nations are not prepared to accept a short-term financial hit to accommodate it.
The championship had been scheduled for 2013 in England, and Test teams around the world had begun plotting their best strategies for claiming a place in the top four that would play-off for the title. Instead, the ICC executive board has now admitted to considering the scheduling of another 50-over Champions Trophy, last played in 2009, because it would bring in more money.
The prospect of a significant cut in the multi-million-dollar broadcast rights fee that would be on the table for another edition of the Champions Trophy has caused the ICC to hesitate about replacing it with the Test playoffs and it now appears likely that the Champions Trophy will be given another edition in 2013. The rights to all ICC events are with ESPN STAR Sports*, who had no comment.
"The ICC Executive Board confirmed their preference to host an ICC Test Championship in 2013 but recognised the significant commercial challenge in trying to replace the Champions Trophy," the board said in a statement. "Without the support and consent of the ICC's broadcast partner, ESPN STAR Sports, the financial implications on the Members and the development of the game would be significant."
Given how much the ICC has stressed the importance of context for Test cricket in recent years, the prospect of an about-turn is difficult to contemplate. "It would be unfortunate if the Test Championship is delayed to 2017 but the board needs to balance several objectives," Haroon Lorgat, the ICC chief executive, said. "We've got existing commitments in terms of our rights agreement, which is a one day format in the Champions Trophy and we need to convert that to a Test format.
"That has got implications for the broadcast partner and the board's challenge is to balance all of its objectives, key of which is the development of the game and the revenue we source from these events go to developing the game, and that's the decision that needs to be made."
Lorgat also conceded that a championship format in which India might miss out on taking part was also a consideration for the executive board.
"Not in the depth you might be thinking, but certainly it is a consideration," he said. "If anyone of the top teams so to speak, in particularly India, are in the top four it does generate a lot more interest from a commercial partners perspective."
The push for greater context in international cricket had started with the players. Paul Marsh, chief executive of the Australian Cricketers Association, said the ICC had to show it valued Test cricket and its potential worth beyond the context of a single rights fee.
"We've been championing the importance of context for a decade or more now and the ICC have recently been championing it also," Marsh told ESPNcricinfo. "Now is not the time to abandon what we think is best for the game, for the sake of a short-term financial gain in a one-off event such as the Champions Trophy.
"I think the ICC need to weigh up what increased value may be delivered to all Test cricket as qualifying matches for the Test championship play-off, that's not just the ICC, what all individual boards my get from increased returns from Test cricket, versus this one-off Champions Trophy."
Marsh also raised the prospect of the ICC facing a similar dilemma even if the event was re-scheduled for 2017, as the financial value of Test cricket would not be helped by the delay.
"If they don't do it in 2013 and push it back to 2017, what's going to change, is it going to be basically the same issue again, that we're going to have a Champions Trophy that's of greater value than a Test Championship playoff? Their planning was the drop the Champions Trophy and replace it with the Test Championship playoff."
*ESPN STAR Sports is a 50:50 joint venture between Walt Disney (ESPN, Inc.), the parent company of ESPNcricinfo, and News Corporation Limited (STAR)