To understand what lies ahead this week for the England and Wales Cricket Board, we need to go back to the start of the year.
Having arranged India’s tour for the 2021 summer, with the Board of Control of Cricket in India then on board in principle, some final details needed to be ironed out: operational logistics to sort, especially around travel and accommodation given the circumstances of the times. As such, a prospective date was agreed upon with five Tests inked into the diary from 4 August.
The etiquette for announcing these details always sits with the host – a chance to look ahead with excitement with considerable coverage guaranteed. However, as the England team were boarding their flight to Sri Lanka in January, a message came through that the BCCI had decided to tell the world instead. In response, the ECB scrabbled together a release and various accompanying notes, some of which were yet to be rubber-stamped.
It doesn’t seem like much in the broader scheme of things, but it was instructive of what the BCCI wanted to convey. That regardless of usual courtesies, or that English administrators had been so accommodative to make this tour work to the visitors’ satisfaction, they pulled the strings. There’s a reason that control has a capital ‘C’.
It was in that context that, going into the last weekend, reports emerged the BCCI had asked the ECB if they could move the fifth Test of the series, or scrap it altogether, in order to complete the 31 matches left in the suspended Indian Premier League season as cleanly as possible ahead of the T20 World Cup in October.
It is widely understood the request was not made in an official capacity. Indeed, on deck, no talks have taken place, which is not to say conversations have not started privately. That is likely to change in the next few weeks, with the potential for further steps to be made on the BCCI’s part in the coming days.
The calm of a weekend break has been one of ECB officials bracing to hold firm. There is no appetite to shift or distort a schedule set in stone for six months. Least of all one that, with the domestic lifting of restrictions and a thriving vaccine programme, had set itself up for a crescendo with that now-disputed fifth and final encounter.
Emirates Old Trafford – the Test most vulnerable based on its position in the current schedule – has reported sell-outs for the first three days. Those could be in jeopardy even if the match is moved to start the series before the original 4 August opener at Trent Bridge.
There is also the matter of The Hundred, set to begin on 21 July, reliant on star names to push it off to a good start. With some doubt on overseas arrivals because of the ongoing Covid-19 uncertainties, the last thing the men’s competition needs is some of its homegrown star names to be unavailable by a sudden early first Test.
Series between the two nations are always financially fruitful, but even in a sport where money talks and so does India’s clout, the above problems are not necessarily ones to be solved. The BCCI could front the losses incurred by reducing five Tests to four.
The sweetener – allowing England to host the remainder of the IPL – seems unlikely at this juncture. Despite the appetite of Surrey, Warwickshire and Lancashire, completing the franchise tournament – and thus recouping the £200million that could be lost if it is not completed – would still be threatened by English weather. The guarantee of sun in the United Arab Emirates is, understandably, more attractive.
As such, the prevailing sense that an impasse will lead to the disagreements behind closed doors kicked into a very public battle. And while it is a situation the ECB wants to avoid, you could argue it is here where they stand the best chance of winning.
Last week, a fake statement did the rounds on social media with untruths about a contorted series and clearing of the schedule for the IPL to push the rest of the county season into October. Beyond the obvious fabrication and shoddy photoshop was a momentary rallying by some fans against the greed of the governing body. It highlighted a key tenet of “fake news” – that it thrives from drawing on genuine emotions and ingrained beliefs.
Faith in the English game’s power-brokers is low, and for as much as some view The Hundred as a beacon of the lack of care over traditional and established fans, there is a strong desire within the ECB to claw that trust back. Naturally, some of that is driven by money, and after the hit of 2020, alienating fans of Test cricket – the most lucrative fanbase home or away – is just bad business. But this current situation is as much about fighting for those fans as it is about fighting for an agreement to be upheld.
In the meantime, the next moves are being formulated. Should the BCCI engage in formal talks, the expectation is the Indian press will be briefed simultaneously. They may even cut out that traditional middleman entirely. One source in India joked the ECB might want to refresh the Twitter feed of BCCI honorary secretary Jay Shah: news of a women’s Test between India and England and a pink ball women’s Test between India and Australia later this year came first via his Twitter account.
It’s not quite fighting dirty, but it is far from clean for a matter that, beyond basic diplomacy, requires a great deal of care. Even if the BCCI get their way, a show of thanks by allowing Indian players to enter The Hundred next season may rank as a sound compromise. But the cost of a new low in trust, from broadcasters to punters, will be irretrievable.
No doubt the ECB will have to be at their politicking best. As Test players assemble on Friday ahead of the New Zealand series, their paymasters will be preparing for a tussle of their own with repercussions far more wide-reaching than who holds the trophy aloft.
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