Arrangements for the Cricket World Cup next spring are being threatened by a dispute over players' image rights. It is the first time that the old game has been confronted by this modern dilemma, but unless it is resolved quickly the damage to the tournament could be catastrophic.
The game, its practitioners, or both, stand to lose millions of pounds if the two parties fail to reach agreement. While it is both unthinkable and unlikely, the players have the ultimate sanction of refusing to participate in the biggest cricket competition of all.
The International Cricket Council are negotiating with the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations (Fica), who represent players' organisations in seven countries. The disagreement concerns what players can do to earn money outside the game.
At present the players' contracts for the World Cup state that all personal sponsorship contracts should be put on hold for the duration of the tournament. This would enable the ICC to use players exclusively in harness with the tournament's commercial partners, which leads to the added complication of who gets what. For example, if a player has a contract with the 1910 Fruit Gum Company he would not be entitled to endorse their gums during the tournament. Instead, he would have to make himself available for one of the World Cup's sponsors, who include South African Airlines, Pepsi Cola and Hero Honda.
The discussions are given an added twist by the involvement of David Graveney, who is co-chairman of Fica (as well as chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association in England) and, coincidentally chairman of England's selectors. A possible, if improbable, upshot is that Graveney could be instrumental in picking a squad for a tournament he would advise the players not to play in. It is a delicate conundrum, and the conciliatory nature of the ICC's stance suggests they know it. But they insist the limitation was imposed to protect the tournament's sponsors from "ambush marketing".
The ICC's general manager of cricket, David Richardson, said: "Fica have raised this matter and we are working through some issues to try to arrive at some common ground. Clearly the players should be able to use their image and identities, but it is important that this is not done to the detriment of organisations whose support allows tournaments such as the World Cup to be staged.
"Commercial partnerships are essential to the sport's success and the ICC will ensure that those rights are fully recognised by all cricket's stakeholders. It may take a little time but I am confident that we will reach an agreement."
There may be some room for manoeuvre because the contracts were issued before the present ICC regime took office. Both Richardson and the chief executive, Malcolm Speed, are trying to uphold a position with which they were not originally involved.
Graveney pointed out that the timing of the World Cup should hardly affect existing sponsorship contracts. "It's a potentially huge situation and it's the way sport is going. Image rights might apply to every single cricketer. It's a question of allowing players to fulfil their obligations under their contracts and ensuring they are protected accordingly. There has to be some provision for the players to continue their usual endorsements or sponsorships."
While Fica stress that they represent all cricketers, the ICC privately hope that image rights in reality apply only to a handful of superstars.
Discussions have taken on a note of urgency. Squads of 30 have to be announced by the end of November. Although they will not be pruned to their final 14 until February, the date which counts to all sponsors.