Johnny Grave: West Indies’ Covid tour showed Big Three need strong opponents

England

Johnny Grave, the chief executive of Cricket West Indies, hopes that memories of the team’s bio-secure tour of England in 2020 will help to advance the narrative about Test cricket’s revenue-share model, in the wake of his remarks earlier this year that the current system is “completely broken“.

Speaking at Lord’s during MCC’s inaugural World Cricket Connects symposium – a gathering of many of the sport’s most influential players, administrators and media representatives – Grave expressed his hope that West Indies would once again prove a competitive force, just as they were in winning the first Test of the 2020 tour in Southampton, as well as each of their last two home series against England, in 2019 and 2022.

But, he said, in the wake of CWI’s reported outlay of US$2 million to fulfil their tour of Australia in January and February, the onus was on cricket’s Big Three – India, England and Australia – to find a better means of propping up the economies of the sport’s less financially secure nations, rather than just sending their own teams on endless overseas tours, from which the host boards are able to replenish their coffers.

“We don’t get any money at all from the Australian market, or from that tour, so it’s a double-whammy,” Grave said, in the wake of a Test tour on which West Indies again exceeded expectations with their thrilling series-levelling win at the Gabba in January.

“There are a number of measures to ensure this competitive balance, and ensure that the three formats thrive. I think the easiest thing to do is say, well, this format doesn’t make money or isn’t sustainable in this market or that country, but if the game works together and has a collective mindset, there is plenty of money to go around to ensure the game can thrive.”

Grave cited India’s ongoing T20I series in Zimbabwe, featuring a new-look team led by Shubman Gill, only days after their victory in the T20 World Cup in Barbados, as proof that the BCCI “cannot do more for the world game” in a pure playing capacity. Instead, he welcomed the suggestion voiced last year by Richard Gould, his counterpart at the ECB, that the time may be coming for touring teams to be paid a fee for fulfilling their overseas engagements.

“Do we need to play more contextual, meaningful cricket? Absolutely,” Grave said. “But I think Richard’s point around being open to sharing revenue is a massive positive, because when we are talking about sharing revenue we are talking about three countries.

“One country cannot play any more cricket, cannot do more for the world game than they are doing, and that’s the BCCI. England have been fantastic, they have toured us pretty much every year, bar a few, since 2017. Is there more they could do for us? Not really. So at that point you have to look at the model and the finances, and for leaders of the ECB, Australia and India to be even talking about it, I take it as a positive indication of a shift in mindset that needs to happen.”

England’s vulnerability to the fragmenting international game was made abundantly clear in the Covid-blighted summer of 2020, when West Indies were instrumental in “keeping the lights on”, in the words of the then-ECB chief executive Tom Harrison.

By agreeing to play their three scheduled Tests behind closed doors and in bio-secure environments at Old Trafford and Southampton, West Indies helped fulfil the ECB’s contractual obligation to Sky Sports, with each Test valued in the region of £20 million. This in turn helped mitigate the ECB’s losses that still ended up being in the region of £100 million.

“I think what Covid proved was that you can’t play against yourselves, and that you need to have opposition,” Grave said. “The better that opposition is, and the more balanced the game is, the better the product is, because then there’s genuine jeopardy.

“In Covid everyone had to come together. The fact that we were coming here and generating no revenue was irrelevant. We were trying to save the game, because none of us knew whether the game as we knew it would ever happen again.”

West Indies’ Test tour comes just weeks after the completion of the T20 World Cup in the Caribbean. Despite the hosts falling short of the semi-finals after a tight loss to South Africa in St Lucia, the sense of togetherness and expectation was palpable from a set of big-name players whose greatest financial opportunities still come on the T20 franchise circuit, but whose restored faith in CWI has been a notable aspect of Grave’s era as chief executive.

“We’ve had to find balance, which was initially struck by speaking to the players in a respectful way and creating two windows, in the IPL and the CPL,” Grave said. “We then tried to have balance and flexibility with our players in how we schedule bilateral cricket – we rarely play over that Christmas and New Year period because it’s important for our players to be at home with their families – while we’ve also tried to create windows for them to go to other leagues where the calendar has allowed it.

“So it’s all about balance. And at the moment Darren Sammy and Rovman Powell, the leaders of our T20 team, have really got those players focused.”

Now the attention turns to the Test series against England, starting with a first Test at Lord’s – a venue that West Indies haven’t frequented since 2017.

“It’s probably the pinnacle Test series that we play, it’s the barometer of how the team are developing,” Grave said. “We’re coming off a high, obviously it’s a long gap since that amazing day at the Gabba, and for a number of the players this will be the first time they’ve ever played at Lord’s.

“They’re playing for the Richards-Botham Trophy, the ultimate example of friendship and camaraderie between England and West Indies. So being here it’s always special, but I think for our players to hopefully announce themselves to the English audience with a Test series at Lord’s is fantastic.”

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket

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