Alistair Campbell knows Zimbabwe cricket better than most. He had a decade-long career with the national team, was among the country’s most successful captains, and later took on administrative roles with Zimbabwe Cricket and spent time as a chief selector of the national sides. Now a globe-trotting commentator when he is not running his cricket academy in Zimbabwe, Campbell keeps a close eye on world cricket, particularly on how the smaller nations are faring, and retains a deep affection and concern for his home country. He spoke to ESPNcricinfo about the realities of cricket’s financing model, and the potential road ahead for the weaker teams, Zimbabwe included.

You said as far back as 2015 that Zimbabwe could be lost to cricket if things didn’t change drastically.

It almost came true. Zimbabwe were almost lost to cricket last year.thrown out of the ICC. But that wasn’t Zimbabwe Cricket’s fault, that was government becoming involved. But at the end of the day it’s the players and supporters who have [borne] all the stuff that’s happened.

I just hope that it’s a wake-up call for our administration and for the ICC to say, “How can we help you get this right again?” Because world cricket needs a strong Zimbabwe, it needs cricket to be strong in that part of the world, in Africa.

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Everybody is going through their trials and tribulations. I mean, South African cricket, every day I read an adverse article. But what Zimbabwe could have done, and can do a lot better insofar as their structures and player pathways are concerned, is to get their cricketing structure [up to scratch] to make sure they are more competitive at the highest level.

You have a good player base and there’s talent there. If there’s lots of raw material, why are we not better? One thing is, we don’t play enough top-class cricket consistently. But this year, I’ve seen the FTP [Future Tours Programme] and it’s one of the best FTPs for a long time.

I just think that we don’t have the right amount of talent coming through of the right standard that can feed into the clubs and franchise first-class teams. That gap needs to be bridged and resources need to be put in to make sure that we can compete.

“I don’t think anybody can sit in front of you with a straight face and say that the way it stands, there’s going to be any meaningful progression from the [smaller] nations”

The other nations are catching up or have surpassed us. Afghanistan have been rags to riches, unbelievable progress. Bangladesh have proven themselves on the international stage. Then the likes of Ireland, Scotland. And Nepal – their domestic games, there’s 10,000 people watching! That’s good for world cricket, that all of these nations are coming up.

Yes, Zimbabwe cricket has regressed – not enough talent realised, and early retirements. The likes of Tatenda Taibu retiring when he was 29, and a lot of well-documented fighting between board and players, that sort of thing. But I also think that other nations have progressed [in contrast].

Did you think the suspension by the ICC last year was too harsh? The ultimate losers were the players.suspended the board [in June 2019] because they didn’t agree with how things were being run. Now [the ICC ban has] been lifted but there was six months of nothing going on in Zimbabwe. No salaries, no cricket. Crazy, crazy, crazy that in this day and age you can’t intervene and say, “Hold on guys, you can’t do it this way.”

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Things seemed to be looking up after the ban, but now it appears the first-class competition is on hold?

Are there enough young people taking up the game in Zimbabwe? It seems like it should be a lucrative option to make a career in cricket?

Why aren’t the structures in place? Zimbabwe was a Full Member and was receiving ICC money for many years.

When you’re an Associate country, the ICC’s paying for your flights, accommodation [when you tour], and now, suddenly, like Ireland and Afghanistan are seeing, they say, “Okay, you’re big boys. Here’s your money, sort your own problems out.” Now they need a CEO, they need secretaries, this and that, and suddenly it’s a big corporate [operation].

I don’t think people quite understand how costly it is to host a game of cricket if you don’t have a proper TV rights contract. Take the Afghanistan v West Indies game in Lucknow. It finished in two and a half days, but all the people working on it have been booked for the five days. The grounds, the staff, the food, everything. So yes, they have played a Test match, but it’s probably cost them US$200,000 to $300,000. Perhaps more. And if your yearly grant is to the tune of $4 million, that means you have spent close to 10% of your budget on playing one Test match!

A lot of countries like Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Ireland, Scotland, Netherlands want to play more but cannot because the cash is not there. It’s not that they don’t want to play cricket, but they can’t play because they don’t have enough cash to host.

What makes it so costly to host a cricket tour?

Then there’s television. The broadcaster might want a 12-camera or 16-camera production. I don’t think production is less than $30,000-40,000 a day. That’s for a bog-standard production. So for a Test match, just for television that’s about $200,000 at least. You have to sell the TV rights [for more than that]. Not many people take it. They’ll take the content and say, “If we get any money from advertising revenue, we’ll share it with you.” Unless you play against India. Or unless you have your own domestic market. The lesser nations with no lucrative TV deals cannot survive on just the ICC grants and play meaningful cricket against everybody. It’s not possible.

“I don’t think anybody can sit in front of you with a straight face and say that the way it stands, there’s going to be any meaningful progression from the [smaller] nations”

It’s important to get it on TV. So many success stories have come by someone saying, “I saw my hero on TV.”

Once upon a time the ICC had a Test grant [Test match fund], I think it was $10 million [over eight years], that they put aside for subsidising Test matches for the “lesser” nations. To help them out, because it’s costly to host a Test match. They’ve withdrawn that now and said, “No, you guys should be able to make your own plan.”

Zimbabwe, Ireland and Afghanistan – for them to play more cricket, with the odd matches against some of the bigger nations, it’s not possible without the infusion of cash. The current grant [which amounts to approximately $94 million out of the ICC’s projected earnings of $2.7 billion for the 2016-23 TV rights cycle] is probably enough to run your infrastructure, first-class tournaments, pay your players, and run an organisation. But it’s not possible, with that amount of money, to host and play as much cricket as you should be playing to improve.

And yet, Zimbabwe are hosting Sri Lanka for two Tests.Laughs) That’s going to make a big hole in the budget. But it’s a sort of catch-22 isn’t it? You know that you’re making a loss, and it might impact some of your further tours, but you’re eager to play Test cricket. These opportunities don’t arise [often], so you can’t cancel it. You have to go ahead and try to make a plan.

But the bulk of the cost is the television production, and they’re doing a cut-back production and live streaming, as opposed to a full production. That’s an option the ICC have said is acceptable, so you’ll get a lot of smaller nations live streaming as opposed to a full television production.

You saw with this Sri Lanka tour, there were no warm-up games, it’s very congested. There is still going to be a loss, though, and the powers that be will have had to cut a few other bits and pieces off their budget for the year. It’s just how you can reduce the quantum of that loss and absorb it.

What’s the way out? Is there a way to bootstrap one’s way through a tough period and wait for larger rewards?

There’s also a home and away against Pakistan. I think India are coming to Zimbabwe – they’ll make money from that, TV rights in Zimbabwe. It’s a lucrative tour for them. They can probably get through this year because India’s coming. But if there’s no India tour, then probably they’d be scratching around for cash to try and host.

Is there a corner you turn?

India could say, “Look guys, our players need the rest. We’ve got lots of money, so we’ll pay you and we won’t come there.” (laughs)

But the only real way is, there needs to be an increase [in revenue]. If you’re not paying your players, and if you produce a really good player, they’ll start playing in other leagues or leave. If a Steven Smith comes out of Zimbabwe, he might not get as much money as he thinks he’s worth. So he goes, “No thanks, I’m going to go sign an IPL deal and other deals.” If Zimbabwe then say no, they won’t give him a no-objection certificate, he’ll say he won’t sign a contract with Zimbabwe. It’s a slippery slope. As soon as you start to get better, it means you’ve got better players, but then you have to pay more players and pay them better!

“It’s a slippery slope. As soon as you start to get better, it means you’ve got better players, but then you have to pay more players and pay them better!”

If Zimbabwe are suddenly beating everybody, it doesn’t increase their TV rights because those TV rights are based on your domestic market. You’ve got to have people in your domestic market paying to watch you play. That’s how you generate cash. It’s sort of like a ceiling – these nations can’t progress any further than where they are because of the commercial constraints.

So then it seems like cricket is fated to be, unofficially at least, a two-tier sport? The top half is always going to be a bit out of reach of the bottom half.

You can be competitive in the white-ball format, particularly T20. One person can make a difference on a day. There will be those upsets, there will be the World Cups where everyone is together, like the T20 World Cup. It’s “Rah rah, 16 nations, everyone is playing and it’s nice.” But if you actually peel all that back and say, “Are Zimbabwe, Ireland and Afghanistan progressing as Test nations?” No.

In the one-day and T20 stuff, it’s easier to get everyone involved. We all know why there were only ten teams at the [50-over] World Cup – because India needed to play more games. That generates more cash, so everyone can get paid. It’s quid pro quo, really. So all that stuff going around about why there should have been more teams there – well, if India play less games, there’s less money! So smell the coffee.

Take the Afghanistan v West Indies Test. It had no meaning or context. It’s lovely for guys to play Test cricket. Rahkeem Cornwall [did well]. Shamarh Brooks got a hundred – he’s got a Test match hundred, you can’t take that away from him. Amir Hamza, five wickets. But in the greater scheme of Afghanistan cricket, could that $250,000 have been better spent?

That Test match is finished in two and a half days. There’s no back-up to that. It’s not a series, they’re not playing another Test in two weeks’ time. They’re not playing games and constantly improving. So you play two Test matches a year and they cost you about half a million dollars. How on earth is that benefiting anybody?

Maybe the ICC [can give] you a base programme: that they are going to fund, say, four Tests guaranteed, ten one-dayers and four T20Is, so you’re guaranteed 25 days of cricket a year. The ICC underwrites it. After that, you get your grant and sort out your own bilateral series. Then guys will be playing [a good amount of cricket] a year.

The next step is to talk about how we can have promotion-relegation. And the ICC can guarantee that the funding won’t change for those guys [who get relegated]. Because a lot of the nations do their budgets in line with the grants, so you can have a development programme for a long time ahead, but suddenly you get chucked out of the Test Championship and you’ve got no money.

At the moment I don’t think anybody can sit in front of you with a straight face and say that the way it stands, there’s going to be any meaningful progression from those lower nations. It’s not possible when you don’t play any cricket.

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Maybe the solution is, we tell Virat Kohli, “Look, we need you 365 days in a year. You might lead India A teams but you have to be there and tour various countries.” That way they’ll get television deals!

If India went and played three T20Is in Ireland, Ireland would be able to budget for the next two years. For Afghanistan, [India] don’t even have to go there. They can be in their own country, go to Lucknow [Afghanistan’s designated home venue] for a week. Play three T20Is and Afghanistan cricket are sorted. That’s a simplistic plan… but it might be better than big ICC meetings, boardrooms and vetoes.

I just think at the moment, a meaningful FTP is not possible in the current budget that the smaller countries have. It’s only possible with the intervention from proper TV rights or if ICC give you a supplementary playing budget.

“There’s only 365 days in a year, and players need rest. If India do agree to play you, they’ll sometimes rest some of their senior players. And then the TV companies say, “No, he’s not playing, so we can’t pay that much”

What’s the way forward for Zimbabwe?

Player pathway is critical. A guy that’s talented, how do you get him to first-class cricket and then to international cricket? That player pathway is not clear-cut right now. Club structures and facilities aren’t good enough. Just a simple thing like games getting rained off or people not being able to get to stadiums because of transport problems. Why doesn’t Zimbabwe Cricket provide transport? A set of covers is no more than $3000 or 4000. Little things like that.

Start with your best 30 or 40 cricketers and have three first-class sides. And then you can expand from there. But have those playing and the amateur structure below that.

For me, right now Test cricket is a drain on resources [for Zimbabwe]. If I was in charge, I would say we have to concentrate on white-ball cricket. We have to get to the 2023 World Cup. Is it a realistic goal to be in the top eight by then so you qualify automatically? Yes, it is. We have to automatically qualify for all the T20 World Cups – also a realistic goal. Let’s concentrate there.

You can’t focus on all three formats. You don’t have the resources to do that.

You should have your own domestic T20 competition. Try and get some more ex-players involved.

Finally, putting aside the economics of it all, how does it feel as a former captain to see Test cricket back in Zimbabwe?

Even if it’s a second tier, there should be promotion-relegation. I don’t mind starting with the top eight [for the WTC] but then the bottom five should have their own championship, and the winner of that gets promoted to the top and whoever comes last in the top eight gets relegated. If there was that sort of context, it would be marvellous.