WICB’s neat Christmas gift
AS the outline of Twenty20 Caribbean Premier League was revealed last week, Julian Hunte reacted with the delight of someone opening a special Christmas present.
The West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) president’s joy at the sale of the six-franchise operation over 20 years to the financial company Verus International was understandable. It had not previously been able to find sponsorship for its three major tournaments.
The deal itself was just the gift wrapping. What was inside was the sparkling diamond of Verus boss Ajmal Khan’s pledge that he aims “to invest whatever it takes, in the hundreds of millions”.
Explaining his interest, Ajmal said he had lived in Barbados since 1997 and had become “very fond of this island and this region, the people and the passion with cricket being at the heart of it”.
Such sentiments echoed those of another international financier whose regional Twenty20 tournament was welcomed with equal enthusiasm by the WICB five years ago.
As it turned out, Allen Stanford illegally bankrolled his extravagant cricket event, and his lavish lifestyle, with investors’ money. It all crashed once the United States authorities eventually nailed the brazen Texan and, effectively, handed him a life sentence.
It was an embarrassment for the WICB (and for the England Cricket Board that has also fallen for the Stanford Twenty20 millions; this time, as Hunte stressed, it has been “extra cautious” in finalizing the present agreement.
It would have been crazy if it hadn’t.
As it is, a globally recognized organization has found everything above board in its due diligence review of Verus, the kind that might have avoided the Stanford shambles.
Hunte said that, as far as the WICB is concerned, the main benefits from the league would be for the players to “pursue their profession as professionals and not as semi-professionals or amateurs” and “allow for regional retainer contracts for a broad pool of players that will extend to other formats of the game”.
Given the convoluted media release two days after the Verus agreement was announced, headed WICB explains scheduling of international cricket for 2013, the question is, what formats will survive?
It confirmed the earlier decision to transform Sri Lanka’s two Tests, three One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and two Twenty20s in the Caribbean in April and May, as set out in the International Cricket Council’s Future Tours Programme (FTP), into a triangular series of ODIs with India as the third team.
It stated that the shift was made to allow Sri Lankan and West Indian players to fulfil their contract with the simultaneous Indian Premier League (IPL).
Since the revised itinerary takes in the ICC Champions Trophy in England June 6 to 23, the India-Sri Lanka-West Indies ODI is slotted from June 28 to July 11. But that clashes with Pakistan’s FTP-scheduled West Indies tour from the last week in June to the last week of July. Still with me?
The WICB tried to get the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) to agree to shift their start to immediately after July 11; that would have pushed it back to August. The PCB declined; now alternative dates are being negotiated but the reported likelihood is that the Pakistan Tests will go the way of Sri Lanka’s and there will be ODIs only.
The upshot of all this would be that the six home Tests on the FTP for the West Indies in the 2013 home season, would be reduced to just the two against lowly Zimbabwe in February-March. Instead, there would be 12 ODIs, 13 if in the triangular final, and six Twenty20s.
For all the ICC’s affirmation of the “paramountcy” of Test matches, the direction the administrators with the most financial clout are taking is away from the traditional game.
The West Indies and Sri Lanka boards, both impoverished, cannot compete with the power of the IPL, hence they turn Tests into ODIs to accommodate it.
A Test between two of the contemporary powerhouses, South Africa and Australia, was dropped in 2011 in favour of an additional Twenty20.
The ICC provides a window for the Twenty20 Champions League, a tournament in which India, Australia and South Africa are stakeholders and which is confined to domestic teams.
The ICC had agreed to a World Test Championship that would give the traditional game more context and the fitting finale that benefits both the shorter formats. The inaugural tournament was set for next year; without strong majority support, it has been delayed until 2017.
After encouraging developments this year, West Indies need more Tests, not fewer.
Hunte believes the CPL will “allow for the strengthening and development of the game” but, while their bank accounts will be boosted by such franchise tournaments around the world, players such as Darren Bravo, Keiron Powell and Kemar Roach, all in their early 20s, cannot truly advance on white ball cricket.
The obvious rejoinder is what does it matter if Test cricket in being effectively phased out, even by the ICC itself, even if unconsciously?
The top players of the day can provide that answer.
Hear Chris Gayle, not so long ago such a convert to Twenty20 that he was unconcerned about the possible demise of Tests. Interviewed in Australia last week about his goals for the future, he listed a West Indies win in a Test series in Australia (he’ll have a lengthy wait for the next series in 2017) and boosting his Test hundreds from 14 to 20 and average from 40 to 45.
Or Lalith Malinga, the Sri Lankan slinger forced out of Test cricket by injury: “I learnt a lot from playing Tests – how to bowl with the new ball, how to get the better of a batsman once the ball had become old, and it showed me how to always look for wickets. It makes me sad that I can’t play Tests anymore.”
And these are not just the opinions of aging cricketers. The majority know they can make millions out of the short game but appreciate that, at the end of their careers, their status will be measured by the examination of character, concentration and stamina only Tests can provide.
Perhaps all the boards, and the television networks, presently so enamoured by Twenty20 are taking note of the figures for the present Big Bash series in Australia. TV ratings are down 30 per cent and crowds nearly 40 per cent from the same stage last year.
Sportsmax’s coverage shows vast empty spaces in the huge stadiums hosting the matches. Average crowds over the first nine matches were 11 167 compared to 17 575 last year. Only once has there been more than 10 000. There were similar declines in England last season.
And there is a growing feeling that, while Twenty20, especially at international level, will still flourish to provide the financial support for Tests, ODIs is the version that will have to make way to free up the overpacked international calendar.
The coming few years will tell.
• Tony Cozier is the most experienced cricket writer and broadcaster in the Caribbean.