At half past six at the George Hotel, Huddersfield, on 29 August 1895, rugby split. Officials from leading northern rugby clubs, fed up with southern clubs’s elitism and their insistence on maintaining amateurism – a ruse to keep the northern teams down – voted to form a Northern Rugby Football Union, heralding the birth of rugby league. At a stroke, the game of rugby fragmented into two.
Cricket has managed to avoid such a breakaway. In many ways it is quite an achievement: uniquely, cricket is a sport that has three different formats all run by the same governing body. And yet, while this veneer of unity remains, the fissures in the sport are increasingly inescapable.
For all those concerned about Test cricket, the most salient fact is that Tests not involving one of Australia, England or India – the sport’s Big Three – lose boards in the region of £500,000 apiece. While the sums are altogether less dramatic, and profits are more common, many one-day internationals and Twenty20s between non Big Three sides also lose money. Most domestic T20 leagues also lose money: as Bangladesh and South Africa would attest, the more you invest in your T20 league, the more you stand to lose. Boards don’t receive any revenue for overseas tours either.
So, besides the revenue they receive from the International Cricket Council, there is essentially only one way for teams to make cash: a tour by one of the Big Three. It is standard practice for boards to plan their entire four-year cycles around tours from the Big Three. The proceeds of selling these matches to broadcasters dictate what other fixtures boards can afford to stage and when. It adds up to an inherently perilous model, which means that boards can face catastrophic financial damage if relations with a Big Three member collapse, as has happened with Pakistan and India. Even for boards who avoid this fate, there is an essential snag: there are only so many Big Three tours to go around, and only one country that any member can tour at one time.
Perhaps no longer. Recent weeks have brought two portends of cricket’s potential future direction. The first came from Australia, who announced that they will play a T20 series in New Zealand next February – while simultaneously contesting a Test series in South Africa. The second was news of England’s advanced talks with Pakistan about a T20 series in January, which is likely to take place while England are in Sri Lanka, either preparing for or playing their two-match Test series. So within a few weeks at the start of 2021, two of the Big Three will have separate international squads in different countries playing separate series. Whether the matches take place on the same day is a moot point: players will only be able to be selected for one of the series.
If England toured Sri Lanka and Pakistan simultaneously, their T20 side would be bereft of Jofra Archer, Jos Buttler or Ben Stokes, three of their most in-demand T20 players: all would be wanted by the Test side, which would get priority in this instance. It would be harder to maintain the notion of international competition representing the primacy of the sport – already under threat from the Indian Premier League – if availability was effectively restricted to those unwanted by the team in another format.