ICC and the two-tier Test system: Has cricket administration let the game down once again?

Who'd be Dave Richardson? Just a few months ago the ICC chief executive was flush with enthusiasm as he presented a plan for a two-tier Test system including Ireland and Afghanistan. After long being labelled, perhaps rather simplistically, as a stooge of and apologist for the Big Three nations, he spoke gamely about providing “meaning and context” for the longest form. What's more, Richardson had two-thirds of that virile triumvirate on board, with England and Australia apparently supporting the proposal. It seemed not only progress for cricket but progress for the ICC as an independent body, distancing itself a little from the notion it only serves its already self-serving leading members rather than the game itself. The idea was further boosted with the revelation – 72 percent of players were also in favour.

Well. A few months is clearly a long time in cricket politics. Now the two-tier idea has been slapped down by a BCCI-led faction, with slightly sheepish talk of a Test championship – a flogged horse many presumed already dead – all there is for Richardson to herald, albeit alongside the welcome commitment to a ‘minimum’ 16-team World T20 in 2018. The knockback was welcomed by plenty, Sir Viv Richards included, but it again felt like a golden chance for cricket to haul itself into a meritocratic future had slipped away due to self-protectionism. Even if we accept those boards most forcibly advocating such a system – namely the ECB and Cricket Australia – had one eye on protecting their own soon to be renegotiated TV revenues rather than nobly advancing the cause of the game, it still seemed another lost opportunity.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) logo.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) logo.

In many respects, Richardson’s role in expanding the game globally is not to be envied. He is essentially a lifeguard patrolling a patch of water leased out to swimmers by sharks. He can sit in his high chair blowing his whistle to try and get the sharks to play nicely with the existing swimmers. He can even try to coax the sharks into allowing a few more people into the water, but ultimately it's a thankless task. The ICC’s whistle is no match for apex predators. On this occasion it was the BCCI doing the Jaws impression (if you disagree with their stance), but other boards have been equally biting in the past.

The upshot of last week’s Dubai meeting and the coy statement which followed were equally depressing. Had the ICC been somehow able to broker a two-tier deal we would immediately have had both genuine competition in Test cricket and a further two Test teams. This would have been at a stroke a 20 percent increase in sides playing the longest form from ten to a still hardly gargantuan twelve. After 139 years of Tests this would have been both one small step and one giant leap simultaneously.

Instead the ICC and thus cricket continues to tread water and so, for the present associate nations, the fig leaf of inclusion that the last ODI World Cup was, has now been dispensed with entirely for Tests. Cricket again just stands naked and unabashed in all its unmeritocratic glory, happy to bare all its flaws to the world again.

Claiming a two-tier system is not a cure for all Test cricket’s woes is perfectly valid point, but this is to believe it is already moribund. The format isn’t dying but, as with any creature which fails to sow its seeds widely, it isn’t evolving either. Conversely, Test cricket's very durability is part of the problem. The very fact it has been able to sustain itself for so long while only being played by such a narrow coterie has negated any genuine desire to spread the format beyond its present borders. Under the Intercontinental Cup process just one associate team may, possibly, secure Test cricket for the next four-year cycle of matches, so teams outside the ten are effectively left able to just climb up the T20 and ODI rungs of cricket’s ladder.

There were some compelling football analogy arguments made against a two-tier system on Firstpost, but cricket’s perilously narrow pathway to Tests for associate teams seems akin to FIFA keeping emerging nations locked in a gym playing futsal against each other in perpetuity until Germany, Spain and Brazil decide they're ready to have a go on the big pitch. Really what other game in the world tries to repress the genuine spread of competition the way cricket does?

Those against the immediately elevation of Ireland and Afghanistan to Test status also often cite Zimbabwe and Bangladesh’s slow progress since they joined the top table. But using two nations’ failures as a barrier to offering opportunity to so many others is extrapolation, speculation and defenestration in one fell swoop. Others offer arguments about wishing to protect the integrity of the game by ensuring –to borrow Richardson’s silly phrase to justify a ten-team ODI World Cup – Tests remain contests between “evenly matched teams”. Others are worried that weaker sides playing more amongst themselves will skew records, defiling the sanctity of Test statistics databases. All these arguments must induce a wry smile in Emily Pankhurst wherever she is now, so paltry are they in defence of disenfranchisement.

Some critics of the plan were also concerned that marquee series could disappear if teams find themselves in different divisions but, firstly, there’s nothing to stop teams scheduling “friendly” matches outside the tier structure. Secondly, cricket’s present governance is too weak to ensure fans see the marquee Test series everyone most wants, namely India versus Pakistan. In this particular instance a “league” fixture would be a compelling reason to get them back on the pitch together. If you want to see Mohammad Amir bowling to Virat Kohli in a Test, the ICC plan is currently your best bet.

The quandary for smaller boards is ultimately going to be which system – the present or proposed –helps boost Test cricket in their nations: Playing against lesser sides but in a genuinely competitive league context versus playing prestige sides to secure more money and preserve historical kudos?

For the West Indies, the problem is deemed especially acute given their players’ particular and perfectly understandable liking for playing in lucrative T20 leagues and, not unrelated, the nation’s huge success in the format. Rather than clinging on to bilateral Test series with the big guns, however, smaller boards could continue to harvest revenue from limited over series against them whilst playing Test cricket which actually had something riding on it and thus garnered greater interest.

India’s recent visit to the West Indies may well have boosted the WICB’s coffers but it is hard to believe it inspired more enthusiasm among current or potential home fans than would Tests played in a genuinely competitive context, albeit against weaker teams. The argument against allowing Ireland and Afghanistan in because it would harm TV revenue or crowds also presupposes present Test nation fans would have have no desire to see new teams play. This seems a presumption contrary to the very reason so many people watch sport: To see the emergence of fresh talent upsetting the established order.

There are wheels within wheels within wheels on this issue, and cricket’s grind in a particularly complex and cumbersome manner. The fact is no one really, truly knows what the effect of a two-tier Test structure would be, neither its advocates or critics. But what we do know is this – last week cricket had the chance to pick up the Test mace and use it to partially smash through the glass ceiling faced by associate teams. Sadly, almost inevitably, it again dropped the prize.

Updated Date: Sep 12, 2016 10:27 AM

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