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Noises out of India this past week have sent an immediate shiver down the fragile spine of the ICC. If anyone there was listening and, more to the point, if anyone recognised the implications, the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) had even more reason to be trembling in its threadbare boots.
In the space of a few days, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) told the ICC it was butting out of the bi-annual Champions Trophy following the conclusion of the tournament next October (which it hosts), as well as proclaiming that it intended to arrange more frequent series with Australia, England and Pakistan. It has announced that Australia would tour India every year from 2007 and 2009, that they are negotiating to play England every alternate year and that it has cancelled a previously agreed tour to New Zealand early in 2007.
In addition, the BCCI revealed that it would produce its own television coverage of all cricket in India, rather than rely on international companies to do it on its behalf. The messages were loud and clear. India, with its gynormous, cricket-crazy population and its voracious television networks, has become the financial centre of the cricket universe and is now flexing its considerable muscle. It was, said BCCI vice-president Lalit Modi redundantly, "all about extracting the most value for the board".
This equates to more contact with strong opponents who attract the crowds and, more especially, lucrative contracts for its new television plan. After that, the Indians have, in effect, said let the devil take the hindmost-and the West Indies' record of the past decade, reflected in its position, of eighth out of ten in the ICC rankings, reveals just how hindmost we are at present.
ICC chief executive Malcolm Speed was quick to point out in a terse letter to BCCI secretary Niranjan Shah, that its proposed, bilateral decisions are "contrary to ICC policy". The ICC's executive board, he stressed, had, as recently as March 2004, resolved to adopt its Future Tours Programme and its commercial arm had decided last October that the ICC would stage one major event each year up to 2015.
The Future Tours Programme was initiated specifically to ensure that all ten full ICC members, regardless of rankings, play each other, home and away, over a ten-year period. The Champions Trophy, started in 1998 in Bangladesh, was designed mainly to raise funds to support ICC programmes for affiliate members. After itemising the priority for scheduling matches, as agreed by the ICC's executive board in Sydney last October, Speed wrote: "With the greatest respect to the BCCI, could I urge you to take these decisions into account when you are considering scheduling of matches."
Judging by last week's reports from Mumbai, Speed's pleas are likely to go unheeded. And England, Australia and Pakistan seem ready to play ball, marginalising the other Test teams, especially the weakest.
Hear BCCI vice-president Modi on the Champions Trophy: "We're not free in October in 2007, 2008 or 2009. We've made our position clear to the ICC many times. If others want to play, they can, but why should be play in October. We've not signed any agreement to play in future editions."
Inderjit Singh Bindra, another vice-president, on whether India would avoid playing teams such as Bangladesh, bottom of the ICC list: "They make more money by us going there. If they come to India, they will get only meal allowance. If we go there, they make huge television revenue and title sponsorship." England's response to the BCCI's overtures has been instructive.
"We've always wanted to develop closer ties with India," David Morgan, head of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) said after talks with Bindra. "This was on our wish list that we gave to the ICC. They have a middle class which is as big as the entire population of the United States. Bindra was pushing an open door." The West Indies and the others outside India's chosen elite are likely to be left to pick up the crumbs. The more Australia, England and Pakistan play against India, obviously the less they will play against the rest.
Already, under the ICC's programme, the gap between England tours to the Caribbean was increased from four to six years, as huge a dent on the coffers of the WICB as it is on the region's tourism. The West Indies have just undertaken a tour of Australia where, for the first time, they did not play a Test in Sydney or Melbourne, the main venues, and, instead, were shunted off-shore to Hobart for one match.
For the West Indies, such developments, like those in India, are the inevitable consequence of their dramatic slide in standards. When they were as strong as any team that has ever graced the game and boasted a host of exciting, champion players, the world couldn't get enough of them.
After the impression created by Frank Worrell's team in 1963, England took the unprecedented step of altering their tours from every eight to every four years so that their public could see the West Indies more regularly. The effect of Clive Lloyd's conquerors in Packer's World Series Cricket was the same. Once WSC ended in 1979, the Australians saw to it that the West Indies returned five times in the 1980s. At the height of the West Indies' power and popularity, they returned to India twice in four years between 1983 and 1987.
How dramatically and depressingly times have changed. If we didn't already appreciate the real distinction between success and failure, the Indians have reminded us. The next thing you know, they'll be telling us that our West Indies team is only worth meal allowance.
It's as serious as that.