Future tours is not a level playing field
For Sachin Tendulkar, the key number is 64. For Virender Sehwag, it is 56. In Gautam Gambhir's case, it shoots up to 60, which is the same as VVS Laxman's. For Zaheer Khan, the key figure is 101.
The first four are batting averages over the last three years, and the last is the number of wickets India's spearhead has taken in the same period.
These five men have been integral to India's surge to the top of the International Cricket Council's (ICC) Test rankings. Only Laxman, who has not been part of the one-day side since 2006, will be seen in the Caribbean later this month.
Three of them are nursing various injuries, having followed the World Cup with a hectic Indian Premier League (IPL) schedule. Tendulkar wants to be at home with his family.
On Saturday, India and West Indies played a one-day match in front of vast swathes of empty seats at North Sound in Antigua.
The game started at 9am, to drive up the television audience in India, and the stands barely filled as the day wore on and India won what turned out to be an entertaining game.
This tour is part of the Future Tours Programme (FTP), a framework meant to promote a level playing field and maintain the primacy of international cricket. In a given period, each team has to play the others home and away - although no home games if you are Pakistan, sadly.
But unlike the top European football leagues, the itinerary is subject to the whims and fancies of the strongest national boards.
India, England and Australia have carved out calendars of their choice, playing who they want and ignoring others - India have never hosted Bangladesh since they were granted Test status in 2000 - while maximising revenue from home series.
The lucrative broadcast deals that they have signed dictate the schedule, and also who they play.
When the West Indies travel to India later this year, it will be their first Test tour there since 2002. In the same period, Australia have come and gone thrice (2004, 2008 and 2010).
England will always play a Lord's Test in July. Australia will not contemplate touring in the Christmas period that sees the Boxing Day Test (Melbourne) and the New Year game (Sydney).
It is easy to blame the ICC for all this, but like the United Nations, their powerful constituents hold them hostage. Anyone serious about growing the game worldwide, as rugby union has done through its sevens events, would also include leading associate nations like Ireland, Netherlands and Afghanistan in the FTP.
Without regular experience of cricket at the highest level, it is hard to see how they can compete against the strongest sides. Kenya barely played a game after their run to the World Cup semi-final in 2003 and their subsequent decline owes much to that isolation.
The farce being played out in the Caribbean - the West Indies have taken an axe to their own toe by excluding Chris Gayle - merely reinforces the feeling that the current system achieves little.
Having two second-string sides play each other in front of empty stands does nothing for the game.
Any contest shorn of its leading lights will always be an unwelcome distraction.
At some point, the FTP will have to be reshaped to accommodate the financial behemoths that are the IPL and the Champions League Twenty20.
But as long as the stronger nations dictate terms, the international playing field will be as askew as an English Premier League season where Manchester United get 30 home games and the have-nots like Norwich get eight.
Published: June 13, 2011 04:00 AM