It is 2027 and international cricket series between nations are limited to the Ashes and the occasional one-day international or T20 on a day of national importance. There have been just 28 Test matches in the past five years outside England and Australia, mostly one-off events as a nod to nostalgia. Historians of the sport pinpoint 2017 as the year in which the wheels finally fell off.
It was the year in which Pakistani and Indian cricket administrators and government officials finally abandoned all attempts to fulfil their International Cricket Council (ICC) future tours commitments and stalked off to sulk with their own bats and balls. When the world gave up on contests between these fanatical cricketing countries, international cricket gave up on the world.
It was the year that England’s old-fashioned, unwieldy county system was jettisoned for the now fabulously successful nine-team, city-based T20 league, which has outstripped Australia’s Big Bash in both revenue and player popularity — in many respects it now matches the Indian Premier League.
And 2017 was also the year that South Africa launched its now solidly entrenched Global Destination League, which attracts many of the world’s top players but specialises in luring those with a penchant for adventure rather than cash. The fun, and the whacky yet valuable prizes, have meant all the top players have made at least one appearance.
As national boards’ revenue share from the ICC’s World Cups declined, so did their ability to keep their best players. Now, 10 years after it all blew up, less than a quarter of those who play the little international cricket that remains are actually contracted to their country.
The majority of those selected for the three World Cup formats do so under short-term contracts or agreements that span nothing more than a weeklong preparation period and the tournament itself.
The Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations has been conducting player surveys around the world for more than 30 years. In 2017, about 70% believed a Test cap to be more important than an IPL contract. Today that number is just 21%, exclusively English and Australian players.
As astute observers had been predicting for years, domestic T20 cricket now dominates the landscape — just as domestic football has done for a century. Outside World Cups, the international game is peripheral.
There were good men within the game who saw the danger and tried to intervene, among them ICC chief executive David Richardson, who tried to persuade the 10 full-member nations to adopt an official league for both Test and ODI cricket, a recognisable structure with home and away fixtures involving every country with Test and/or ODI status.
The proposal for two divisions with promotion and relegation was shot down, led by India’s intransigent Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), as were proposals to have 15 nations competing in a league over two, three and even four years. A 16-nation T20 league was vetoed, as was a straightforward Test Championship between just the 10 Test nations over three years.
The final proposal was scuppered at the end of April 2017 when the BCCI, supported by Sri Lanka Cricket, the Bangladesh Cricket Board and Zimbabwe Cricket, voted against it — all for selfish personal protection or gain.
The BCCI refused to accept a new financial model or a revamped constitution with 15 voting directors on the ICC board and a much-needed emphasis on accountability. It would have all but ended the BCCI’s monopoly on voting in which they simply need to “persuade” three other full members to vote with them to block a proposal.
Under the new financial model, the BCCI would receive $290-million of the $2.7-billion the ICC would accumulate in the eight-year television rights cycle, which started in 2019. But it insisted on $570-million, which was what it was going to earn following the 2015 coup in which it assumed control of the ICC along with Cricket Australia and the England Cricket Board.
ICC president Shashank Manohar offered an improved $400-million. The BCCI refused, stating that the excess could be found by cutting the $60-million that had been allocated over eight years to proposed new Test nations Afghanistan and Ireland, and by slashing the ICC’s administration costs by $100-million, rendering the governing body incapable of organising and running the World Cups that produced all the revenue in the first place.
In a further act of profoundly selfish posturing, the BCCI deliberately failed to meet the deadline for announcing its 2017 Champions Trophy squad — clearly sending the message that it would not arrive in England for the June tournament unless the board’s demands were met.
That was the beginning of the end of the international game as we had known it for almost a century.
Still, all is not lost. Crowds are still good for T20 league matches —although, judging by the extremes to which organisers are resorting to maintain interest, there is a nagging doubt they’ll be sustainable.
In truth, the final years of regular bilateral cricket were not “the good old days”. World rankings were largely meaningless, and the lack of meaning meant that Test and ODI series were on the wane.
Cricket had a chance and a blueprint to put that right. But greed and self-interest blew it.