At the end of last week, the Chief Executives Committee of the ICC met up in Dubai. At the end of their two day meeting, they came up with a radical proposal to change the framework of the international calendar. Of course, it wasn't the big ticket item of discussion which dominated the headlines; that would be the dismantling of the “Big Three” proposal. This piece of news didn’t may not have been covered as extensively, but has wide ranging ramifications for the way the game will be played once the new schedule comes into effect.
One of the topmost items on every cricket fan and players’ wishlists was a fixture list which provided “context”. Take football for instance. Barring the Olympic Games, there are mainly three types of fixtures on the international scene — the friendly, the qualifying tournament, and the big tournaments. Nowadays, the handful international friendlies are often viewed as an annoying moratorium on club matches. They only serve the purpose of trying out new players, and raking in the moolah in the case of a marquee fixture in a foreign land (say, Brazil vs Argentina in America). Each of the other games have a relevance in terms of the big prize — the World Cup, Euro and their ilk (although they have lost their sheen to the Champions league recently, but that is another discussion altogether).
In contrast, cricket banks on several meaningless (especially ODI) series, which only seem to serve the purpose of plugging in sponsors and getting some ranking points. In fact, these didn’t have a major consequence until recently (West Indies have not made the 2017 Champions Trophy cut).
On the face of it, this sounds like a plan with its heart in the right place with respect to Test cricket: nine teams play each other over a period of two years, culminating with a playoff between the top two teams. The lower ranked teams (Zimbabwe, Ireland and Afghanistan) are not ignored either — each “top” team would play at least one “lower” team during the cycle.
For a league to be fair, each team has to face every other twice (once home and once away) — just like the current four year FTP cycle. This means that each team needs to play the eight teams over a minimum of 16 Test matches over two years. Not much of a lifestyle change from the current fixture list. The 13-team ODI league is also doable. So far, so good.
However, when one crunches the numbers, it is easy to see that the implementation of the Test match schedules is fraught with uncertainty. Factor into the travel considerations, and this is where things start to get a wee bit crazy. The ICC has defined a tour as at least one match. Would a board send its team half way across the world for just one Test match? Remember, the last time when India toured South Africa, a two-Test series didn’t exactly whet the appetite.
Even if all teams play two Test matches against each other home and away, it makes it 16(!) Tests for a calendar year. Throw in one more Test for the “lower” teams and fixtures from two more formats, you know how unrealistic this schedule sounds.
The ICC has factored this, to its credit, and has stipulated that the two consecutive two-year Test cycles would be complements of each other. That is, if India tours Sri Lanka in one, the reverse fixture would happen in the next cycle. This is what is followed in the Ranji Trophy, and the Europa league. But would this provide parity to all teams when a prestigious, yet-to-be-constituted trophy is at stake?
Then there is the problem of number of match-ups: The IPL has 14 matches for each team in the league phase, the EPL has 38. Here, teams are free to decide the length of a tour bilaterally. How would you equate a five-Test series with a two Test series? Can a short Test series be fair considering teams may not be able to acclimatise easily?
What happens if India refuses to play Pakistan? How many points will it be docked? More importantly, how will the results be taken into account considering that home teams have won at home more often recently than every other decade barring the 1870s? By the way, the 1870s had only three matches.
In fact, the damning blow to this arrangement could come in the form of the actual schedule itself. Out of the nine countries, England are on an April-September schedule, West Indies are on a March-August timetable, and the rest follow an October-March calendar.
Typically, a Test team hosts two teams and tours two countries during a year. England wouldn’t be able to tour West Indies in the second half as it would clash with its own home season — it would not be able to host one team at home in that case. If you thought this was bad, spare a thought for the West Indies. They compete with seven countries in March; with the IPL in April-May; and with England in June-August.
With all this thrown in, when will the ICC have the playoff? In June at Lord’s? Or would it ignore its mythology and its primacy altogether by hosting it at the end of the calendar year in one of the seven countries? Will a crowd turn up to watch a “neutral” Test match in any part of the world?
All things considered, this model raises more questions than answers.