EXCLUSIVE - The Ashes is a money-maker but Test series between many countries now run at a loss and players will start chasing dollar in Twenty20
Bilateral Test cricket will die as more top stars turn to Twenty20 unless radical change is implemented soon according the head of the international players’ union.
Tony Irish, chief executive of the Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations, has told Telegraph Sport more players are considering becoming free agents since the carving up of power and money by the big three countries now running the International Cricket Council.
He believes players will follow the example of top cricketers from the West Indies such as Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo who have opted to play Twenty20 tournaments rather than international cricket.
Fica has called on the ICC to push through radical plans for changes to Test cricket with ideas at the moment including a divisional format with promotion and relegation for both Test and one-day cricket.
Dave Richardson, the chief executive of the ICC, this week ruled out any change before 2019 which is when the current tours programme ends. But Irish believes that will be too late.
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“If we wait until 2019 then bilateral cricket around the world is going to be in real trouble,” he said. “The engagement and insight provided by players is vital to this process. We surveyed players recently on structuring in the context of cricket. We are using some of our outcomes of that with ICC.
“The worrying thing is that the players are telling us that if things don’t change they will be turning more to T20 leagues. It varies from country to country. Countries where players are well paid and Test cricket is stronger have a big affinity to Test cricket. But in many countries that is not the case. You have to think big picture. You want to keep Test cricket strong in a number of countries so players want to play the format and there is investment in the format.
“Everyone in cricket has now got to the point where we need significant and proper changes. ICC events are strong because they have context but bilateral cricket is struggling. What we are trying to impress upon the administrators is that it is not just the commercial value and the fan interest that is dwindling, but players are starting to turn away from the game because they have an alternative market now.
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“The two T20 leagues [IPL and Big Bash] are an internal market and free agency is on the rise. The West Indies are just a forerunner of the free agency change and we have got to do what we can to make international cricket as attractive as it can be to players.
“The normal response when you look for change is people say we can’t change until a particular date because we have commercial agreements or there are certain things that need to be taken into account but if you come up with a better product the commercial partners are going to be interested.
“What is happening in Australia tells the story. There is a Big Bash and a Test series going on at the same time. Where are the crowds going? Where is the interest? Where do the players really want to play?”
The Big Bash is a remarkable success story for Cricket Australia. One franchise, the Sydney Sixers, this week announced it has made $1m Australian dollars in ticket sales (£480,000) this year and the 80,833 attendance at the MCG for the Melbourne derby between the Renegades and Stars was a seminal moment for the domestic T20 game.
With the commercial interest in T20 growing the wages on offer to players will rise and the temptation to reduce international workloads to play in the IPL or Big Bash will be hard to resist.
Players from England, Australia and India, the three countries that now gain a lion’s share of ICC profits since the restructuring of the world governing body, are well paid by their boards. But the rest are ripe for picking off by Twenty20 leagues.
The Ashes is a money-maker and any cricket involving India attracts massive broadcast deals, but bilateral tours between many countries, particularly Test series, are now run at a loss.
The Test rankings are seen as arcane and hard for fans to understand whereas Twenty20 leagues offer a simple winner and loser.
It is why a divisional format with promotion and relegation is on the table at the ICC and will be discussed at its annual general meeting in July.
One proposal is for four divisions of four teams which would expand Test cricket to some of the associates who desperately want to play the longer format but are not allowed because they do not have Test status.
In previous years having Test status equalled a vote at the ICC table and countries feared losing power. But now the ICC is run by the big three that concern has receded.
“Keeping the standard of Test cricket high really is a lot to do with how much the players value that format,” said Irish. “In England, Australia, South Africa, and India to a certain extent, players really value that format. They will be responsible for keeping standards high. But perhaps not elsewhere.
“Free agency is a labour market phenomenon. The things that drive it are remuneration of players and also the attraction of international cricket versus T20 market. In Twenty20 they play in front of bigger crowds but more and more in international cricket a player is away for a long time on meaningless tours that don’t have any context. International cricket becomes less attractive relative to the T20 leagues which are shorter.
“These things are related to the means of a board. The rich have started to get richer. The effects of the restructuring decision they took at the ICC two years ago drives the gap between rich and poor in cricket. The poor will not have a means to invest in their players and the game that the rich are going to have. We are noticing that already. The West Indian situation is a forerunner of it. We have done comparatives of remuneration between English, Australia, India and West Indies players and there is a big disparity. They [West Indies players] can earn two or three times the money playing T20 cricket, and there is less strain on the body. It is human nature to want that.”