If the tussle for dominance on the pitch between England and India has only just started, the two country's Boards have been sparring for weeks. In the latest round of brinkmanship between them, the England and Wales Cricket Board has been told that the Indian team will only play three Tests next summer instead of the four that had been agreed earlier in the year.
The threat comes at a time when relations between the ECB and the Board of Control for Cricket in India have been strained, following the recent palaver over security. It also arrives close on the heels of the ECB's recent refusal to agree to two more one-day internationals – eventually reduced to one – to the five England are due to play in India during January.
"Since October 1998, the Indian Board have been aware of the imbalance this summer," said a spokesman for the ECB yesterday. "We also have a letter dated 8 April 2001 agreeing next summer's Test series and the dates, as well as one dated 10 May, agreeing the one-day tournament that runs before it."
The spokesman added: "The question of reciprocity was raised by the India Board a month ago in Kuala Lumpur, but with some tickets and commercial rights already sold, we felt it was too late to change it. In any case, the Board feels that 10 one-dayers this winter [five in India and five in New Zealand] is perfectly adequate."
Judging from the tone of the statement, the ECB is refusing to budge and may ask the International Cricket Council to arbitrate, providing the intended processes are in place. If not, lawyers could become involved, a situation that is bound to anger the newly elected BCCI president, Jagmohan Dalmiya, whose planned escalation of one-day internationals in the 1990s helped transform Asia into cricket's economic powerhouse.
The repercussions of such a move are vast. Television and sponsorship rights have been sold to Channel 4, Vodaphone and npower, with the promise of seven Tests. Unless Sri Lanka, next season's first tourists, agree to a fourth Test they, the public and one of the Test grounds will all miss out.
Clearly miffed at what they see as the ECB's inflexibility over playing extra one-day internationals, the BCCI is holding firm. After all, it was Dalmiya's predecessor, AC Muthiah, who originally agreed to the four-Test tour now in danger of having its tail bobbed.
"It is a hectic tour so we only want to play three Tests," said the honorary secretary of the BCCI, Niranjan Shah. "England say their players are busy and need a rest. That applies to our players, too. We play more cricket than England."
Before the impasse becomes too wide, there is one final bargaining chip – a five-match Test series in India in 2005-06. But if England cannot put out their strongest team for the current three-match tour, what chances have they of doing so then?