Test of mettle for game's guardians

Mismatches at the top level, mismanagement below - and much for the ICC to do this week

The new structure for international cricket should finally be settled this week after a review that has taken almost two years. There is no certainty of change and no consensus of what is the best option but it is an opportunity that the International Cricket Council dare not miss.

The new structure for international cricket should finally be settled this week after a review that has taken almost two years. There is no certainty of change and no consensus of what is the best option but it is an opportunity that the International Cricket Council dare not miss.

"There is a belief around that some change has to be made if we want to protect the integrity of cricket, particularly in the light of what happened in Cape Town last week between South Africa and Zimbabwe," said David Morgan, the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board. "I don't think saying Zimbabwe and Bangladesh should only play Test matches at home is a particularly good recommendation."

Morgan will represent England at the ICC's executive board meeting in New Delhi on Thursday and Friday. The immediate fate of Zimbabwe and Bangladesh - something will have to be done - will be oddly linked with the discussions on the United States and Kenya, where the game is in chaos, and could have a genuine bearing on the need and desire to expand.

Before them the ICC reviewers will theoretically have a blank piece of paper, although bits have been filled in, deleted, redrawn and then amended in the past 20 months. It has been a trial to reach this stage and to try to ensure some form of harmony (or at least avoid terminal discord) a firm of consultants has been hired to interview individual board directors. The review was first announced by Malcolm Speed, the chief executive of the ICC, in London in 2003.

This was enthusiastically received because it was plain that the international game had just about reached saturation point, an argument with which Speed himself expressed sympathy. It was delayed initially because it proved difficult to gather the necessary financial information from each member board.

Gradually, however, things fell into place but then the thrust of the review shifted because of the increasingly woeful performances of Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. It was not simply then that there was too much cricket but that there was too much poor cricket. This reached its nadir, as Morgan indicated, at Newlands a week ago when Zimbabwe were bowled out for 54, South Africa made 340 for three in 50 overs and won by an innings and 21 runs inside two days.

All along the ICC have known that there is a delicate balance to be struck between globalisation, integrity and commercial imperative. These three components matter as much to the stronger nations as the weaker ones.

For instance, it is obvious that England will make much more money out of playing Australia than Bangladesh, but it is also true that to fulfil their obligations to television they need to have enough countries to play against. In turn, the weaker countries would much prefer to play strong, or at least attractive, opposition - India, first and foremost, England and Australia - because that enhances the value of their TV rights negotiations.

There is then apparently something to be said for the status quo, the Future Tours Programme as it now stands. This was laid down for 10 years and obliges each of the 10 full member countries to play each other once both home and away every five years in series of at least two Test matches and three one-day internationals. Any matches beyond that are entirely up to the countries (and presumably whichever television companies they are in bed with at the time).

In announcing the review, the ICC were aware that with regard to both forms of the game they were in danger of achieving the potent combination of overkill and player burn-out. But the ICC also recognise that they have a role as guardians. Something in the current FTP will have to give in Delhi this week. It will not be a reduction in Ashes Test series, for example, because they make money and they are still a draw. To allow Zimbabwe and Bangladesh to continue in their current form will invite something more than hollow laughter.

The chief executives of the various national boards whittled the options down to three, all involving modified programmes with a different cycle. No consensus then, but the possibility, no more, is that Zimbabwe and Bangladesh will play only home Tests and that the five-year cycle will become a six-year cycle to allow more breathing space.

As for the USA and Kenya, the ICC will have to decide what might best be done to try to get cricket in those countries back on track. In effect, they have no governing bodies and it seems bizarre that Kenya were World Cup semi-finalists two years ago and that the USA was being seriously considered as a venue for 2007 World Cup matches as part of major plans to expand the game there.

The format of the Champions Trophy will also be discussed, probably at the expense of weaker nations. Perversely, it is probably a tournament that the game could do without, but television pays a lot for it.

There are unsubstantiated suggestions that Ehsan Mani, president of the ICC, who has been diplomatic and gracious, may stay in office for an extra year instead of allowing the elevation from vice-president of Percy Sonn, the South African lawyer.

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