NOT unexpectedly, the International Cricket Council (ICC) last week gave an unequivocal endorsement to the domestic Twenty20 tournaments that continue to proliferate wherever the game is played.
In a report to its board meeting in Dubai, a committee of chief executives acknowledged that that such extravaganzas as the Indian Premier League (IPL), Australia's Big Bash and the Bangladesh Premier League (BPL) (the Caribbean Premier League joins the list in July) have now become the most popular format and can "add to the game as a whole".
The ICC's chief executive, Dave Richardson, the one-time South Africa wicketkeeper, hailed them for "providing so many opportunities for players and officials alike as well as entertaining large domestic crowds."
All of this is palpably correct but the chief executives added a proviso to their approval. Twenty20 leagues, they cautioned, need to coexist with the overall ICC programme to "ensure the growth and sustainability of international cricket" — in other words its repeatedly trumpeted "primacy of Test cricket".
On that score, there is a clear link with the annual long-established tournaments of individual members that prepare their players for Test cricket. If their strength is compromised, "the growth and sustainability of international cricket" cannot be properly maintained.
Boards, such as Australia, England, India and South Africa, have the strength, and the sizeable retainer contracts, to call the shots on whether or not to allow their main players to participate in the Twenty20 leagues; the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) has it only in theory.
For the past few months, the Trinidad and Tobago High Court has been considering a lawsuit from the West Indies Players Association (WIPA) seeking U$20 million in damages for itself and its members for restraint of trade over the board's refusal to grant the uncontracted former captain Chris Gayle an unconditional No Objection Certificate (NOC) that would free him, and others, to join whichever team they choose. The WICB must tread carefully until judgment is handed down.
So, while it might not have been intentional, the WICB's designation of what was once its major tournament as "the regional four-day", rather than the "first-class" as it used to be, is symbolic of the distinct shift that has come over the game.
When the regional four-day, and the intertwined one-day competition (now more grandly entitled the Super50), gets underway on Thursday, the 25 best players will be absent. Fifteen are in Australia on West Indies duty, 10 are engaged in the BPL. Others will be lost later to the home series of three ODIs, two Twenty20s and two Tests against Zimbabwe and, inevitably, to the IPL.
Trinidad and Tobago start without the Bravo brothers, Kieron Pollard, Sunil Narine (in Australia), Samuel Badree and Kevon Cooper (in the BPL). Barbados will be without their entire first-choice bowling staff (Kemar Roach, Tino Best, Jason Holder in Australia, Fidel Edwards, Sulieman Benn and their most recent captain, Dwayne Smith, all in Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna and other cities far east).
The Australian tour ends February 13, the BPL February 19. By the time those engaged fly back home, two rounds of the four-day tournament would be over. Zimbabwe arrive soon after for their engagements between February 22 and March 24. That will occupy the best players — 15, let us say — for the third and fourth rounds of regional play.
Within a few days, the top men retained by IPL franchises (Chris Gayle, Pollard, Narine, Marlon Samuels, Dwayne Bravo, Andre Russell) are off for the sixth season of the most high-profile, and highest paying, show of the lot. No doubt, by then others would have been snapped up in next week's players' auction; a dozen have put their name forward, among them West Indies captain Darren Sammy. Whoever eventually goes won't be around for the semi-finals and final of either the Super50 or the four-day.
It is hardly the first time the regional season has been weakened by a West Indies overseas tour or a series at home. These are part of the ICC's international programme. Now it is being increasingly hit by the domestic Twenty20 tournaments that are not just here to stay but are likely to become more enveloping. We can be sure that the promising rising brigade such as Keiron Powell, Jason Holder, Shannon Gabriel, Roston Beaton are already on some franchise owner's radar.
Last year, his Big Bash and IPL contracts limited Gayle to just one match for Jamaica (in which he scored 165 against the Windwards). This year, he returned from the Big Bash in January in time for two matches in the the Caribbean Twenty20 (and promptly blasted 85 and 122 not out). He probably won't be seen for Jamaica again this season.
Pollard and Dwayne Bravo also turned out in just the one match for Trinidad and Tobago last year, Cooper two; Fidel Edwards and Dwayne Smith each had two for Barbados. The Big Bash, BPL and IPL had priority.
As WICB president Julian Hunte noted at the launch of the forthcoming Caribbean Premier League, players will "earn more (and) have greater financial stability". That might be enough to influence them into staying at home for the four-day and 50-overs tournaments; more realistically, probably not.
Indeed, Hunte noted that it also would be "a global platform" for players to "display their skills and expertise in the game". In other words, a showcase for Twenty20 contracts elsewhere.
The straightforward reality is that Twenty20 increasingly rules, okay. The longer versions will have to take care of themselves as best they can.