The International Cricket Council's (ICC) proposed two-tier Test system will not save cricket.
It won’t save cricket because “context”, the latest buzzword among cricket administrators, is not Test cricket’s biggest problem. A lack of quality is, combined with a skewed financial structure that offers the widest and deepest rewards for playing T20 cricket.
What the two-tier system will do is make the rich teams richer and the poor teams poorer, which is to say it would institutionalise the already existing inequality in the international game and aggravate the situation even further. For proof, just look at any professional football league around the world. The money goes to the top – whether that’s the Premier League, La Liga or Serie A. Those in the lower divisions essentially fight for scraps, though some of the big money trickles down. Sure there’s the potential to be promoted but promotion is often followed quickly by demotion. Even if they stay up, their goal is to survive as best they can, with Leicester City being the glitteringly obvious exception.
At least a private football club can hope that there is a billionaire somewhere with a football fetish who will swoop in and rescue them from financial purgatory. For national teams, no such saviour is possible.
There’s also more depth in football. Leagues have 20 teams. Cricket’s two-tier system would have 12 teams total, with seven above and five below. That’s just not enough teams to safeguard against those times when certain teams will struggle, which is part of the cycle of sports. All teams go through transition periods and success ebbs and flows. It is exactly the problem Test cricket faces currently with 10 teams, so why the ICC thinks reducing that number to seven and classifying five (albeit accurately) as “second-tier” will boost their fortunes is anyone’s guess. It’s a cosmetic change that does nothing to tackle the underlying structural problems that plague Test cricket.
Taking the rankings as they stand today, West Indies, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe would be relegated. It’s hard to see why anyone would pay millions of dollars for the television rights for them to play each other. Claiming that cricket will be competitive in the second-tier and therefore more attractive misses the point. The quality of the contest matters most, which is why they aren’t making the big bucks as it is. At least now, when one of the more prosperous teams tour – India or Australia – these boards get a chance to earn some money. If they can’t play the big teams, you aren’t simply leaving them crumbs; you are removing them from the dinner table entirely.
As it is, the smaller teams such as Zimbabwe and Bangladesh don’t get to play the better teams as often they as need to, in order to get better as players on the field as well as financially off it. Sure, under the ICC’s proposed rules teams can schedule their own series outside the Test championship structure but does anyone expect a team like India, for example, to schedule a Test series against Zimbabwe or Bangladesh? Zimbabwe has only played 14 Tests over the last five years (India will play more Tests than that in their home season this year alone) and only five of those were against teams ranked in the top seven. In that time Australia, England and India have not played a Test against Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe cricket may be beset by home grown problems, but starving it and its fans of high quality cricket isn’t the way to revive it.
This is why Sri Lanka Cricket was absolutely right to reject the idea. "Sri Lanka Cricket has decided not to support two-tier Test cricket as we have decided it's detrimental to SLC and for its future," SLC president Thilanga Sumathipala said. "We feel that to make it a top seven - you are virtually relegating the bottom three to a different level."
Then there’s the money. If you want to be a Test cricketer, there’s only team – the national team. However, if you want to be a T20 player, there are dozens of teams spread across multiple countries. Even if you never make it to your national side, you could play in the Indian Premier League, the Big Bash and the Caribbean Premier League. Even Pakistan has a T20 league now. These leagues pay much better than a number of national boards can, as well. Plus the investment isn’t as arduous. You don’t need to know how to bat out a session on a turning pitch on the fifth day of a Test or see off the new ball on an overcast English morning.
Other proposed changes such as day-night Tests and four-day Tests, while necessary in a globalised, league-hopping world, are also no more than window dressing. Making it easy to watch poor cricket doesn’t change the poor nature of the cricket.
In other words, cricket is caught in a vice of its own making and has ended up cannibalising itself. It has created multiple versions of the sport but the incentives for playing them are out of balance. If the ICC and the national cricket boards genuinely want Test cricket to thrive, and not just survive, players have to be rewarded to a higher degree. Those boards that are wealthier must use that wealth to subsidise those who are not so they can invest in players and facilities and raise the level of the game. After all, it’s not SLC’s fault that Sri Lanka is a smaller market any more than the BCCI can take credit for India being a large market. It’s simply an accident of birth.
The two-tier system will do none of these things. In fact, it has the potential to do the opposite and hasten the demise of Test cricket as we know it.