Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa
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Tony Cozier is, rightly, one of the most respected journalists in the game. His work to cover and promote cricket in the Caribbean has been unstinting for almost four decades. And yet even the best writers have off days, and his attack on the way that the ICC funds the Intercontinental Cup, the first-class competition for the Associates, is one of those.
Cozier's outburst in his Caribbean-syndicated column at the weekend in effect concluded that rather than waste money on Associate tournaments it would be better spent on aiding West Indies, a “well-established member with a great tradition presently fallen on hard times”.
Cozier attacked the ICC for doling out "heaven knows how much cash every year" to run the Intercontinental Cup. The overall annual cost of the tournament is actually around $400,000 on top of which the participants contribute another $120,000 between them. For that, the leading eight Associate countries get to play in a prestigious (for them) competition, to meet a variety of opponents across the world and to improve.
Yes, it has its faults and there are mismatches, but the same could be said for any competition or series involving the Full Members. When was the last time Bangladesh or Zimbabwe or, dare it be said, West Indies played in a gripping contest as opposed to occasional one-off successes. As seen at the World Cup, the gulf between the have and have-nots on the field may be large but it is nothing like as vast as the chasm between their respective funding.
The leading Associates survive on grants of under half a million dollars a year; some, such as Kenya and Scotland, earn more through winning tournaments such as the World Cricket League which entitles them to ICC World Twenty20 participation money. The Full Members receive twenty times more. Zimbabwe, for example, coined in almost $11 million from the World Cup, and yet they struggle to hold their own with several Associates. What is more, the Full Members almost all have bloated payrolls; the Associates rely almost entirely on goodwill of hard-working administrators who often end up digging deep into their own pockets to keep things ticking over.
What Cozier seems to overlook is that the ICC should not be about looking after the big boys and forget the rest, although as the major boards become more money-obsessed by the month it may go that way. It has a responsibility to nurture and support the game in areas away from the traditional bedrocks. That is done through a myriad of tournaments, coaching clinics and advice. The total sum spent on Associates is under 25% of the ICC's overall budget. To scrap that would be akin to pulling up the drawbridge, hoping that the game survives among the existing ten Full Members, and hang the rest. No other sport would consider such a short-sighted policy, and neither should cricket.
Then there is the additional income that Full Members can earn through the very fact they play each other so often. Sponsorship and TV deals bring in tens of millions on top of the ICC funding. Although the WICB has never revealed the value of the original deal with Digicel, it is believed to be worth more than $20 million for five years. The England board's four-year TV deal with BSkyB was worth in excess of $400 million, the Indian board's own deals even more. They should be awash with cash.
Associates cannot attract funding worth even 5% of that as they play precious few big matches, a fact not helped by the continuing reluctance of most Full Members to play them. The big boys prefer to pack their schedules with ever longer one-day series against the same old - more lucrative - opposition. Television and sponsorship deals for Associates, if they ever get them, are for peanuts.
Cozier also argues that the Intercontinental Cup is not worthwhile as sides cannot always field their full sides as players cannot get time off work. It is a problem, and one everyone is aware of. But that ignores the fact that the bulk of players are prepared to make remarkable sacrifices to represent their countries. With more funding, and not with less, those players can be rewarded for their cricket skills and so availability will improve. As an aside, it is worth remembering West Indies couldn't find 15 players to represent their A team in Zimbabwe last July.
To argue that the woes of the West Indies could be cured by diverting cash from Associates to the Caribbean simply doesn't add up. Those who have witnessed the antics of a succession of West Indies boards might counter that to pour money into the region would be akin to chucking it onto a bonfire. In the last decade the WICB has run up debts running into tens of millions of dollars. It has failed to handle sponsors or players remotely adequately and needed the income from a (poorly run) World Cup to bail it out. That the game in the Caribbean is in need of help is beyond question. But it is in even more need of some broad-minded and competent leadership. Julian Hunte, the new WICB chairman, might be such a man but he has a daunting job ahead of him.
This is not a call for more money to be poured into Associate cricket, but there has to be some kind of reality check before those looking to establish and build the game are asked to tighten their belts even more because a Full Member is down to its last few dozen administrators.