Cricket South Africa's withdrawal of its men's team from three ODIs in Australia has spotlighted the schism that's stalked world cricket for the best part of the last decade. That schism may become more evident at the ICC's AGM at the end of this month, where a new Future Tours Programme is expected to be unveiled.
The argument most commonly associated with football and, more recently, rugby will now dominate cricket as more T20 leagues squeeze international fixtures into smaller and smaller windows. As more and more Full Members look to T20 leagues as their revenue-generators, bilateral international cricket risks being eclipsed. And history may remember South Africa's decision to pull out of these ODIs to concentrate on launching their T20 league as the first domino. So why has CSA made this decision and what could be the broader ramifications?
What has Cricket South Africa done, and why?
On the face of it, all CSA has done is opt out of a three-match ODI series, ostensibly a much smaller reneging of a bilateral agreement than Australia pulling out of three Tests last March. But these are not just any ODIs. They are ODIs that form part of the World Cup Super League, where South Africa lie in 11th place, outside the automatic qualification zone. By forfeiting their points, which will go to eighth-placed Australia, South Africa will be left with only eight matches to play to try and finish in the top eight. Those matches are against India (three, away), England (three, at home) and Netherlands (two, home). Even eight wins could leave South Africa short of the points total they need to go straight to the 2023 World Cup. Next year's qualifying event is a real possibility for South Africa, which could give the ICC a potentially blockbluster pre-World Cup tournament, but that is another story.
While there is no guarantee that playing the matches in Australia would have improved South Africa's chances, it would have least given them greater opportunity, so you'd assume CSA has a very good reason for potentially making the team take the scenic route to the World Cup. Financially, it does.
CSA is aiming to launch a new T20 franchise league in January, at the same time the ODIs were scheduled to be played, with the goal of making it the second-biggest in the world after the IPL. Tenders for the six teams close today and IPL owners and big business people are believed to be among those interested. Sundar Raman, the former IPL chief operating officer, and the South African broadcasters SuperSport own stakes in the league and CSA's projections show it making the kind of money that will leave the board less reliant on India for bilateral-series profits and more self-sustaining. But for the league to work, it needs high-profile players, and that includes those who would have been in an ODI squad in Australia. So instead of being there, the big names will be at home to play in the league and give it the seed-capital it needs to succeed.
Ok, how much money are we talking about?
In a working document from April, CSA planned for the league to break even after four years and make a profit from the fifth year onwards. Over ten years, it has estimated costs at USD 56 million and revenue at USD 119 million, which will leave the board with a profit of USD 63 million, which is a lot more money than it makes from bilateral cricket. And that's only the benefit to CSA. From its first year, the league will pay players bumper salaries in US dollars, which dwarf the Rand amounts they earn from domestic franchises and even international cricket at home. And that's despite the tournament competing with leagues such as the UAE T20 and the BBL, which are expected to run at the same time.
In short, the league is the only way for CSA to keep cricket financially viable given the unsustainability of international cricket, where it only makes money when hosting India. Even in the 2019-20 summer, when England and Australia toured South Africa, CSA reported a loss.
But what's at stake if you miss a World Cup?
Financially, not much. CSA could earn around USD 2 million in participation fees and endorsements, but there are longer-term consequences around sponsorship, for example, that could cost more. You'd imagine there'll be few kit manufacturers who are falling over themselves to put their names on the shirt of a team that did not qualify for a World Cup.
Of course, the World Cup is about more than the money. For the players, it's a chance to win a major trophy and reach what administrators including CSA's board chair Lawson Naidoo, call the "pinnacle" of their careers.
Many players plot their career trajectories with World Cups in mind and may eye the event as a swansong, or a reason to keep going. For South African players, there's even more importance attached to a World Cup, because they have never won one, and even more now, because they are due to host the following edition of the tournament, in 2027. Asked what impression it would create if the hosts of the 2027 World Cup miss out on the 2023 one, CSA CEO Pholetsi Moseki told ESPNcricinfo it would be a "disaster", which only means the pressure is on South Africa's players to qualify.
What do the players think of all this?
Word from both CSA and insider sources is that while the players would have preferred to compete in the ODIs in Australia, they understand the situation their organisation is in and have accepted their fate, and the inevitability of world cricket changing. Their association, the South African Cricketers' Association (SACA), and its mother body, FICA (Federation of International Cricketers' Associations), have long called on the ICC to take greater control of the situation and regulate windows for league cricket while also leaving space for bilateral cricket.
The trouble, as Moseki pointed out, is that there are several members who want dedicated time slots for their respective T20 leagues, which not only leaves little space for international cricket, but also diminishes the quality of the leagues. South Africa's, for example, will take place at the same time as the UAE T20 and the BBL, and will compete with both for players and eyeballs. CSA is hopeful the strong contingent of domestic players in South Africa, compared to the UAE, will ensure the quality of cricket in the South African league is attractive enough to draw eyeballs and money to them while the favourable time zone, compared to Australia's, could do the same. But whether they will attract bigger global stars than those leagues remains to be seen. And there's also the tricky question of which league their own free agents will choose. Will Faf du Plessis opt for the Big Bash or the CSA league? We'll know in a few days, which could also provide some insight into how players view the South African league compared to others.
So where does all this leave world cricket?
With a problem. A big one.
A quick glance at a calendar will tell you that if the South African and UAE leagues and the BBL take place in January, followed by the PSL in February and March, the IPL from mid-March to May, The Hundred in June-July, and the CPL in August, it leaves only September to December for international cricket, and there won't be room to fit it all. Something will have to give. ESPNcricinfo's Osman Samiuddin has already argued it will be bilateral ODIs, and it's difficult to disagree.
The World Cup Super League gave the format relevance - though, as South Africa have shown, even that was not enough to ensure all teams honoured all their commitments - and scrapping it from the next cycle is a step that could end ODIs beyond World Cups, the Champions Trophy, and preparatory matches for those tournaments.
Naturally, there will be concerns around the other formats too, and there's a chance of fewer bilateral T20Is and more T20 leagues. Tests, which are the most expensive to host and the least lucrative, could be limited to the Big Three, and occasionally Pakistan and South Africa, even though all the members have emphasised a commitment to the format. Monetarily, many may simply not be able to afford to put on Test cricket.
We could also see international cricket played at different times. South Africa are already talking about starting their international season in August (technically still winter) if need be, and ending it after the New Year's Test in the first week of January to accommodate the league. Australia will do something similar from next year.
At the end of this, world cricket could be fundamentally different. The signs have been there for a while, from central-contract disputes in places like the West Indies to countries fielding different teams in different formats at the same time, as England and India have done recently, but here we've seen a national board that is not the BCCI make the decision to put its own domestic interests above an international commitment, which has an impact on a major tournament. That's sending a strong message. Things will not be the same.