It's the end of January 2007. India and Pakistan have both just completed 2-1 Test series defeats in South Africa. The ageing Indian side won the First Test convincingly and then fell apart, while the young Pakistan team was competitive right through to the last day of a low-scoring series. If anything the Pakistanis look to have a brighter future, with only Inzamam-ul-Haq and Shoaib Akhtar nearing retirement. Salman Butt, Shoaib Malik and Umar Gul missed the series.
Across the Indian Ocean, Australia has just swept the Ashes 5-0, but has lost Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Justin Langer and Damien Martyn to retirement, and seems to be facing the imminent loss of Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden. It looks as if world cricket will soon be entering a new phase in which Australia, South Africa, India and Pakistan will be pretty evenly matched.
Leap forward two years and we instead find that cricket has split into two tiers. The Big Four of India, Australia, South Africa and England now have most of the money and play one another endlessly, while Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and to a lesser extent West Indies and New Zealand, have joined Bangladesh in near-oblivion, consigned to empty calendars interspersed with the odd two-match Test series. The split mirrors club football, where pay TV income has ensured that a Big Four of English clubs now dominates.
The two tiers are defined by the relative financial muscle of the cricket boards, but as the Big Four play one another, their players become more experienced and technically skilled, while players from the other countries stagnate. The rich get richer.
By Easter 2009, Australia will have played home and away series against both South Africa and India in the space of just 16 months. In stark contrast, Pakistan did not play a single Test match in 2008, with the result that its team is falling apart as the young players fail to develop their skills and the older players defect to the ICL.
Mitchell Johnson and Sohail Tanvir made their Test debuts within a fortnight of one another in November 2007. Johnson now has 78 wickets and 439 runs from 18 Tests, including two five-wicket bags and two fifties. Tanvir has five wickets and 17 runs from two Tests. Johnson now is a proven Test player, while Tanvir remains a novice.
Pakistan now stands at the edge of a precipice. Its players are not developing because they are not playing competitive cricket, while the PCB is financially crippled by its inactivity. Meanwhile the public is starved of international cricket on TV and is reduced to following the Lahore Badshahs in the ICL. An entire generation of young players, including the likes of Butt, Malik, Tanvir, Gul and Danish Kaneria, is going nowhere.
National pride and misplaced optimism have led the PCB to persist with trying to schedule home series in Pakistan. Over the last few years what series there have been have been getting shorter, and as people in western countries increasingly link Pakistan with the Afghan situation, there is an increasing reluctance for western players with young families to even consider visiting. The South Africans made it clear when the 2008 Champions Trophy was cancelled that they considered the situation to have deteriorated in the few months since their previous visit.
The outcome is that no one is touring and Pakistan's calendar is as empty as Zimbabwe's. Again, the blame can be attributed to the failure of the previous PCB to programme visits, but the current ICC Future Tours Programme has introduced the concept of two-Test series, and virtually every country in the world has taken this as a licence to shorten its visits to Pakistan. Shorter tours offer obvious advantages in terms of reduced insurance premiums and better player morale - not to mention that tours to Pakistan are never lucrative for the visitors. The upshot is that in recent years the Big Four have all played twice as many Tests as Pakistan, and even Bangladesh is now playing more.
For Pakistan this isolation marks the start of a very damaging cycle. New Zealand has shown graphically what happens if you fill your calendar with one-day and Twenty20 series, with the odd two-Test series in between. The players develop poor techniques and perform badly, with the result that they are even less in demand for long tours and are ill-equipped to perform on unfamiliar pitches.
So what options are there for Pakistan?
The first is to persist with trying to schedule home series in Pakistan. The calendar then will be largely empty, with only the non-white countries scuttling in and out for short two-Test series. Home Tests in Pakistan are traditionally played in virtually empty stadia, so it is difficult to see who the target audience is in this arrangement. There is an argument that larger crowds might attend Tests in smaller centres like Multan, but of course that entails even more discomfort for visiting teams and would probably further discourage them from visiting. This option means more of the same: playing fewer than half as many Tests per years as the Big Four and generating far less than half the revenue. This would effectively consign Pakistan to the second tier for the foreseeable future.
The second option is to schedule home series in empty stadia in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah or Malaysia. The crowds and gate receipts would be minimal, and as we saw in 2002-03, when Australia used high-tech ice vests to cope with the heat, the opposition would be at least as at home in the conditions. Besides, Pakistan's best pace bowler is barred from entering the UAE.
The third option is far more compelling because it offers potential entry to the Big Four club. It involves long-term planning to host series in other Test-playing countries, both during the remaining 58 months of Pakistan's existing TV-rights contract and beyond that time. Pakistan could play most of its "home" series in England, scheduling Test matches on days in summer when England is not playing home Tests. There is little cricket overseas at that time of year, and so the boards of the opposing countries are likely to see this as a potential revenue earner. Headingley, Old Trafford and The Oval would offer substantial gate receipts due to the local Pakistani diaspora.
In England this year - one where they host the Ashes and the World Twenty20 - there are at least 30 unused international-free days in the middle of the season. Any other year would be even more wide open.
The TV rights would be a key factor in the viability of playing "home" Tests in England. The current rights were sold for five years to Ten Sports, but clearly in the expectation of an average of only a single two-Test series per year. The value of rights for matches hosted in England would be far higher, in part because the "away" boards would be amenable to making longer tours, and also because of the peculiar demographics of British TV viewers. Of course, there may be potential complications to do with Sky's deal with the ECB, but a solution can be worked out, especially considering neutral Tests are an idea the ECB is itself considering.
In the world of British pay TV, football is everything, not least because summer sports such as golf and tennis are of little interest, except to the highest social demographic. Wimbledon gets decent viewership figures but the French Open a fortnight earlier attracts little notice. Cricket has considerably more appeal to the British public than golf, athletics or tennis. With football effectively out of season from the end of April to the end of August, Sky and Setanta struggle to fill their schedules. And it surely would not be too complex or expensive to use the same equipment and facilities that are used to televise existing international cricket in England for matches that are deliberately scheduled not to clash.
There are now eight Test grounds in the UK, but with Lord's usually hosting two Tests per summer, inevitably two or three counties miss out on hosting an England Test every year. Pakistan's home Tests could be a lucrative consolation for those venues.
Pakistan could schedule a "home" series against either of Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and West Indies in England every summer, and given that the full tour to England has always been the most lucrative revenue earner for those boards - in part because those countries have large populations resident in England - they may even consider four- or five-Test series.
The PCB could also schedule an additional annual home series against one of India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and England elsewhere. India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have a similar need to develop their players' techniques on fast and bouncy wickets to prepare for when they tour Australia and South Africa, so where better to schedule series against those teams than in South Africa? If India has a four-Test series away to Australia in the New Year, they would be far better prepared if they were coming off three Tests against Pakistan in South Africa before Christmas.
Series against India would attract lucrative TV rights and sponsorship wherever they occur, whereas matches against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have limited appeal. Those series could be viewed as player-development opportunities and scheduled for smaller centres like East London, Bloemfontein and Potchefstroom, where the novelty of international cricket would at least bring in some crowds.
As for England, the PCB could consider hosting home series against them in Antigua, Barbados and Jamaica. The Barmy Army never shows much desire to visit Pakistan, but if they, and other England fans, could watch the series on the holiday islands of the Caribbean, we would almost certainly find the hotels and stadia packed with English tourists. Not only would the gate receipts be high but the future TV rights would be lucrative too, as Test cricket in the West Indies takes place during prime time in the English evening. The timing and venue offers little for Pakistan's fans, but the income would certainly help the PCB and the players.
Pakistan finds itself at a crossroads. It can persist with trying to host home series in Pakistan or the Middle East, but the outcome will be a mostly empty calendar. The coffers will run dry and the players will continue to depart for lucrative contracts overseas. Alternatively it can take the pragmatic route and host two annual home series, one in England and the other in South Africa or the West Indies. This compromise would fill the PCB's coffers and allow the team to develop its skills. It would also make the cricket boards of England, South Africa and West Indies into important allies. At present no one really wants to tour Pakistan. If the PCB has the courage to move series to desirable and lucrative venues, that reluctance may well disappear.