The boards of India, England and Australia must act decisively to change the economics of Test cricket or risk more instances of under-strength squads going out on tour.
“The revenue-share model is completely broken,” Grave said. “If we operate as a cricketing community we are only as strong as the weakest team, and we’ve got to change the mindset of bilateral cricket.”
“What I would say to Steve Waugh is that CWI has spent $2 million supporting Australian cricket in the last four months and we’ve seen zero dollars back”
“They [West Indies] haven’t picked a full-strength Test team for a couple of years now,” Waugh said to the Sydney Morning Herald . “If the ICC or someone doesn’t step in shortly, then Test cricket doesn’t become Test cricket, because you’re not testing yourself against the best players.”
That “someone”, Grave says, should include Australia. “What I would say to Steve Waugh is that CWI has spent $2 million supporting Australian cricket in the last four months and we’ve seen zero dollars back,” Grave said. “Is that fair and reasonable?”
Since September 2022, West Indies have played six women’s internationals and seven men’s internationals in Australia, incurring a sizeable cost.
“We are not going to throw money at Jason Holder to go and play in Australia. We said to him: ‘If you want to go play ILT20, good luck, here’s your NOC. We hope you play well and work hard because it’s part of your preparations for the T20 World Cup. But when you come back from it, if you want to play Test cricket, we are expecting you to play some matches in the West Indies championship and, if you can, some county cricket – if you’re not in the IPL – because in order to play for West Indies, we want you to be in the best possible form to play.’ Every player has a choice to make. As a board, we are going to be consistent. We are not going to force any player to do anything they don’t want to do. We respect their ability to make choices.”
“Anyone who says cricket in West Indies is dying, you can say, ‘Look at the CPL.’ The average age is young. The gender balance is more female than male. Those are the kinds of stats that CA and ECB will kill for”
While the West Indies board has not always seen eye to eye with their players on the club-versus-country dispute, the marketplace has changed and their administrators appear to be changing with it.
The Australian position is different. In the past, players such as Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc have opted out of the IPL to focus on national duties, cushioned by handsome compensation from their boards. Grave was clear West Indies can’t do that.
“The other way is to do what ECB do and throw three-year contracts at people at ten times the price because [otherwise] Mark Wood might turn down an India Test series and play ILT20. We don’t have that luxury because if we did, we wouldn’t have any money for grassroots cricket. If players want to maximise their earnings outside the region, we give them an NOC and say, ‘Good luck.'”
That means West Indies are likely to lose a lot of players to leagues and can only hope to ensure they keep developing new ones to take their place. “We play red-ball cricket at Under-17 level, U-19 level, we have A team tours, we just played an academy series and our first-class cricket system will cost more than any other place by miles,” Grave said. “We have to put people up in tourist accommodation, we have to [use] hugely expensive regional flights just to be able to have one first-class game. We don’t have a host broadcaster. And we spend more than anyone on red-ball cricket.”
South Africa are in a similar position. Their first-class competition is not sponsored, is not broadcast, and is bloated by expansion to a 15-team, two-tier system. Cost-cutting measures have included a reduction in the number of four-day games played – from ten to seven for top-tier teams. A recent South African Cricketers’ Association report claimed most former and current senior players believed standards had declined. But the red-ball game has been left in a state of neglect as CSA launched the SA20 in a bid to become self-sustaining outside of the ICC. It has worked for them financially because the tournament turned a profit in its first year and has attracted new sponsors for its second, but that success is backfiring on the national team.
“We will always want to have an exclusive window. We want all our best players playing because we want that competition to be the absolute best it can be. There is no divine right for the Big Three to have windows for their T20s,” he said. “Anyone who says cricket in West Indies is dying, you can say, ‘Look at the CPL.’ The average age is young. The gender balance is more female than male. Those are the kinds of stats that CA and ECB will kill for. The same for South Africa. Anyone who says cricket in South Africa is dying, you can say, ‘Look at the SA20.'”
But can you say something similar to anyone who says Test cricket is dying in West Indies and South Africa? Only if the other boards help them to revive it.
“Hopefully the South Africa series has woken up the Australian media to the realities of what it’s like to operate Test cricket, and unless the boards change the economic model, I don’t think Test cricket will thrive outside of the Big Three,” Grave said. “I don’t think it will die either. But it could be and should be so much better. If the South Africa situation can restart sensible conversations about how we position Test cricket, we would fully welcome that. To blame South Africa for that would be unfair.”
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s correspondent for South Africa and women’s cricket