India-Pakistan cricket is ICC’s cash cow, nothing wrong in having more of it

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International Cricket Council (ICC) chief executive Dave Richardson said on Wednesday “you can go Zig, Zag, you can go like a snake” in justification of the 2017 Champions Trophy groupings based on rankings. But what he conveniently omitted from mentioning was the role of that omnipresent sign which makes the world go round and is critical to the fortunes of the 2017 Champions Trophy stake holders. If you still haven’t guessed it, that sign which drives all things cricket is: $.

To understand this better and also ICC’s fixation with grouping India and Pakistan together (group B) and to a lesser extent Australia and England (group A), one has to go back in time, to 2007 when the World Cup was not ICC’s property but an event rotated by turn among nations.

The erstwhile hosts West Indies spent US$ 300 million (through grants from China, India, US, etc) to build afresh or extensively spruce up their various stadia. They were looking forward to reaping a fortune from television money and also by tourism generated through the hosting of the event.

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But disaster struck when India from group B and Pakistan from Group D both failed to get past their group matches and make the Super Eight stage. They were slated to clash during the second phase of the tournament and when that failed to materialize, all interest in the tournament evaporated. Television ratings plummeted and the channel rights holder was severely hit. Tourism cancellations rocked the Caribbean islands. West Indies cricket board virtually went belly-up. The terrible reality that the entire tournament was dependent on the match and more particularly on India’s continued presence in the tournament shook the cricketing world to its very roots.

Consequently, when ICC took charge of the T20, Champions Trophy and 50-over world events it decided that the most prudent thing for it would be to pay heed to the television channels’ demand that marquee matches be scheduled for every world event.

The ICC was also advised that these marquee matches should be meaningful ones and not inconsequential clashes which had no bearing on the teams or the tournament. Thus it was strategized that the best possible way to hype up the entire tournament was by holding the marquee match right up front and by giving all stake holders plenty of time and opportunity to play it up in every way possible.

Of course it goes without saying that there cannot be a bigger marquee match in cricket than an India Vs. Pakistan clash. It does not matter in which part of the globe the match would be held. India’s and Pakistan’s fans would flock to the match as if that was the only worthwhile event of the year.

Importantly, from the ICC’s point of view, they benefited that these two arch-rivals rarely played against each other in bi-lateral series. This ensured that craving for the match was not diluted by overexposure. Thus interest in the rare match was kept at sky-high much to the delight of sponsors of ICC-backed multi-nation events.

The simple fact is that India-Pakistan clashes are a sponsor’s delight and the ICC would be downright foolish if it did not capitalize on the aura and interest surrounding these matches. It thus had to be smart in scheduling it at such a juncture that both nations’ hopes would be alive. Thus the decision to feature the match at the beginning of the 2017 Champions Trophy could never have been a co-incidence. On the other hand it was a cold, logical well thought-out move.

The choice of venue is a giveaway as much as the timing of the clash.  Birmingham is awash with people of Indian and Pakistani origin and they could be expected to fill Edgbaston stadium to capacity.

Of course it goes without saying that all India matches in England  would be houseful and therefore the crowds for the match against Pakistan would not be an exception. But what the India Vs. Pakistan match brings to English shores would be the needle that would be sorely lacking in other clashes.

Thus whichever way one looks at it, the ICC has been pretty smart with the scheduling. It has announced the date and the venue a year in advance, thus giving all concerned the scope to work towards making the match a massive success; Channels get the time to sell the match to advertisers, sponsors get time to work on promotions while tourism industry – flights, hotels, communication, travel, mementoes and clothing – have the opportunity to do solid work.

In an earlier era the ICC would painstakingly keep India and Pakistan apart, in different groups and without too much prospect of a head-to-head clash. But now the ICC has flipped the paradigm and ensured that they clash at every world event. ICC then sits back and milks the confrontation for what it is worth.

And why not? At least somebody recognises a cash cow when they see it.

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