It was half a decade ago that N Srinivasan, Giles Clarke and Wally Edwards came up with the concept of the Big Three, a self-serving cartel intended to make the game’s richest cricket boards considerably wealthier. The divvying up of cricket’s revenue-pie on those lines didn’t come to pass, but its after-effects have been felt in other ways, not least in the structuring of the Future Tours Program (FTP).
Since his fall from grace, most have enjoyed putting the boot into Srinivasan. The one thing that couldn’t be denied, however, was the man’s commitment to Test cricket. In the years before he became Indian cricket’s most powerful man, India’s tours of England usually consisted of three Tests. It had been that way since the 1970s, save for four-Test series in 1979 and 2002. When India played five matches in 2014, it was the first time they had done so in England since 1959. Those at Lord’s freely admitted Srinivasan’s role in making sure that an India series received the same stage as the Ashes.
India’s impact on the fortunes of other cricket boards needs no retelling. When they were routed 4-0 in 2011, a few months after winning the World Cup, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) made a profit of 15 million pounds. The following year, when South Africa visited for a series featuring the sides then ranked No.1 and 2 in the world, the English board lost money.
Those commercial realities are reflected in the FTP for 2018 to 2023. India’s ongoing commitment to the five-day game is reinforced by a schedule that has 51 Tests, including 18 in the World Test Championship that will run between July 2019 and June 2021. Of those 51 games, a whopping 15 are against England, and 12 against Australia. Given that no matches are scheduled against Pakistan and Ireland, that’s well over 50 per cent against two of the nine teams India are down to play.
The rest of the list gives you an accurate indicator of the commercial pecking order. Afghanistan, already played, and Zimbabwe get the one game each. Sri Lanka have been downgraded to three Tests over the five-year period. New Zealand and Bangladesh get four apiece. West Indies, still a big draw in Twenty20, are slated to play five Tests, while South Africa get six.
The Test championship features home series against South Africa, Bangladesh and England. For India, it starts with an away assignment in the Caribbean, where they haven’t lost since 2002. The only banana skins between them and a place in the final stages are tours of Australia and New Zealand. But with ten of the 18 Tests to be played at home, the odds are firmly in favour of Virat Kohli’s men.
Of the 59 matches that England will play – the most of any team – ten will be against Australia. That means more than 40 per cent of their games against their Big Three brethren, though eight Tests against Pakistan indicate that the ECB doesn’t want every egg in the one lucrative basket.
Nearly half of Australia’s 47 Tests will be against India and England. What the Test championship has also done is upset established rhythms. Thus, India will tour Australia later this year, and return again two years later, while Australia, who last visited India in early 2017, will only be back on these shores in 2022.
And after India close out their Test championship campaign with five home Tests against England, they will head there later that summer for five more matches. That level of overkill doesn’t just kill the golden goose, it buries it alive.
The lack of engagement against Afghanistan and Ireland isn’t really a surprise, given how hard it is to sell Test series to sponsors and advertisers these days. It is surprising though that Ireland haven’t been considered better preparation for a tour of England than second-rate county XIs denuded of big names.
The woolly mammoth in the room is obviously cricketing ties with Pakistan. In the early years of the millennium, when there was some hope of a political thaw, India and Pakistan played 12 Tests in less than four years. The last of them was in Bangalore in December 2007. The current generation of players, on both sides of the border, have never experienced that tinderbox atmosphere while playing in whites. Perhaps they never will.
It does devalue the Test championship though. Like a Serie A season without Internazionale and AC Milan meeting at the San Siro, a tournament without India playing Pakistan feels incomplete. We really can’t hope for the void to be filled any time soon either.