Changes to cricket scheduling key for growth
Phil Hughes is gone, but can Australia win? (AP Photo/Chris Crerar)
Before I begin what is a lengthy tirade, I must state that I am a traditionalist and firmly believe in the primacy of Test cricket at the international level.
Both limited overs forms of the game are, therefore, considered subject to the needs of Test cricket in the remainder of this piece.
Many may disagree with that opening premise, which is fair enough, but that is my starting philosophical viewpoint. Those who disagree with that will disagree with almost everything that follows.
One of Test cricket’s biggest problems, along with attendance and TV audience being skewed toward forms of the game that can be digested in one sitting, is that of context. A series is played. It is won or lost, and that is the end of it until those same sides meet again.
Unlike either limited overs (50 or 20) format, there is no World Cup equivalent, and the rankings system is difficult to follow with only those who support the number one nation paying much attention to who is number one.
Making the rating system simpler is possible, however, by amending the scheduling. It does require a financial hit to the stronger nations, as it would require playing series against all nations; both home and away; over a set period.
Doing this allows for a simple points table where a series win is worth so many points, and bonus points could be awarded for the winning margin (e.g. winning a series 1-0 or 2-1 may be worth 10 points, winning 3-0 or 4-1 worth 12 points).
This would encourage nations to schedule series against the weaker nations, who need more Test cricket if they are to ever improve at the main form of the game.
This inevitably leads into the possibility of qualification for a Test championship. The ICC already has a championship planned, which can not take place until 2019 due to television contracts surrounding the Champions Trophy, which has long since lost its meaning as an event to drive income for the second tier nations (more on those later).
The ICC seems to have a single match planned as a final in a nation which may or may not be taking part. This, while an improvement on the current situation, seems a little underwhelming given that it is winning series that gets teams to that point.
One bad pitch; whether poor for batting or a road on which twenty wickets is nigh on impossible; or a couple of days of bad weather, could render a final meaningless and playing the showcase game in neutral territory is fraught with the danger of low crowds.
Ideally, the final would be a series of 4 to 5 Tests and preceded by semi-finals series of 3 Tests, with the higher ranked sides having the home advantage. This is one part of the scheduling I can not yet work out, and admit that it may not be feasible due to the climate imposed limitations on each nations ability to host matches, so suggestions are very welcome.
During the final, no other international cricket and no domestic T20 matches would be played – enabling the cricketing world to focus on the one series.
There has also been a proliferation of meaningless limited over tours, Australia’s recent series against Pakistan and England are of obvious to us and the glut of series between India and Sri Lanka another.
This has arguably led to a cheapening of the 50 over game, as well as more importantly taken focus away from playing Test series. Encouraging the wealthy nations to play more Tests against smaller nations, almost inevitably weaker financially as well as on-field, assists those nation both in play and in finances – especially the series where the smaller nation is at home and get to sell TV rights into the visiting nation.
It could also help remove the over-playing of limited overs cricket. I would go one step further and ban all limited overs series (in this context 50 and 20 over formats) between Test match nations which do not not include a Test series. The World Cup and World T20 would be exempt from this rule, as would limited overs games between a Test nation and a non-Test nation. New Zealand would be free, for example, to play some 50 over cricket against Ireland as a full limited overs international series.
Possibly the biggest challenge facing all international and second tier cricket, not just Test cricket, is the rise of the domestic T20 leagues into significant money-spinners.
The IPL, in particular, is so large that it has seen international cricket played with what almost amount to third string teams. The question is often raised about having a specified IPL window where no international cricket is played.
Doing so leads into a path where all T20 leagues could be granted a window, and with every Test nation now having such a league if the leagues were not to clash with each other the window required may well be more than 52 weeks. That, clearly, is an untenable and indeed impossible ask.
So, how could a window be created without the risk of every league asking for a such a window under the precedent set? The answer at the moment is not to have a window, and nations can decided for themselves when they are willing to play.
A rule could be put in place whereby players’ nations have first rights to a player, but this risks going down the path where the financially weaker nations see their best players, and often only a few are truly world class in such teams, retire from international cricket in order to play in T20 leagues. Again, this situation seems untenable.
The rule could be extended to include players who have retired from international cricket, but would this be fair on those whose bodies truly are no longer up to the demands of longer forms of the game?
Perhaps another answer could be to use the strength of the IPL in a way to assist the game globally. The ICC could agree to an IPL window, and a window for other nations who request it, if a substantial portion of the revenues were to go toward funding the weaker Test nations, the associates and affiliates, and women’s cricket.
Probably only the IPL is a big enough cash generator for the governing body to do this. In effect the BCCI would get their exclusive window, while the West Indies, Zimbabwe, Ireland, Afghanistan, etc. would receive some assistance, and we would not see the West Indies team playing with a dramatically reduced side due to the loss of players to the IPL.
Rules surrounding national teams having first choice over player selection could then be applied to all other leagues where no window existed, if Pakistan want a BBL-contracted player for example Pakistan get him.
The problem here is if other nations do ask for a window under those rules, the amount of time available for international cricket may be greatly reduced. The deal would need to be such that it favours the IPL in getting the big name players, but that other leagues find it unaffordable to request the window.
This is the challenge of T20, to allow it to flourish while enhancing the game as a whole. (As much as I don’t regard it as having any on-field importance whatsoever, T20 is firmly entrenched as the cash producer and has a role to play in building up the poorer nations and helping make them competitive.)
This brings me to the final part of this article, how to provide a pathway for the Associate and Affiliate nations gain access to the top flight that is Test cricket.
A pathway, or even a plan for one, is sorely lacking at the moment. Indeed, full member status and Test status appear to be virtually a closed shop with the incumbent nations seemingly not willing to look at anyone else joining them in the future.
With the ICC and full member nations seemingly willing to cut out the few chances that the non-Test nations get; to the point of advocating removing them from the 50 over World Cup; the promotion of the next tier of nations is under serious threat.
Most focus is on Ireland, as they have produced some good performances at World Cups. Ireland’s performances have been far better than Bangladesh’s were before gaining Test status. That, in itself, is not enough.
Kenya’s World Cup performances were also quite good for a time, but the lack of cohesion within the cricket community and political problems both inside and outside cricket have seen them fall away dramatically over the last decade.
Nations must have strong cricket governance and a domestic structure in place before taking the step up. This may also be considered a lesson from Zimbabwe as much as Kenya, although Zimbabwe did seem to have things in place before the nation as a whole was engulfed by turmoil.
When looking at the second tier, Ireland are not all there is and it should be noted that Scotland currently hold the Intercontinental Cup, while Ireland are currently on top in that competition and Afghanistan – not even an Associate nation – with Scotland round out the top three.
How can the next tier be assisted, then? Firstly, finances are important. But scheduling plays its part as well. These teams need regular cricket against hardened professionals.
This may mean Afghanistan touring Queensland; as an example; for a mix of List A, T20 and First Class games.
Teams already regularly play one match against Ireland or Scotland in a tour of England. The top European sides, Ireland, Scotland and the Netherlands also get experience in some limited overs tournaments in the county system.
The next step is for teams to have regular First Class matches outside the Intercontinental Cup. If they can play states, counties, provinces, on a regular basis and start being competitive, then some of the lower Test nations could start sending A teams.
Once the secondary nations are competitive against them on a regular basis it is time to start thinking about Test status, perhaps with some tours by higher ranked nation’s ‘A’ teams in the lead up.
Tours are an important part of the process, as once Test status is gained that inevitably involves playing the same opponent back to back, with some time in between. Learning the art of touring, including how to take the lessons from one game and apply them in the next, should not be underestimated in preparing a side for Test cricket.
The other question on potentially promoted nations then goes to the players from those nations who already play Test cricket for another nation.
The Irish who have played for England in recent years are the first examples that come to mind. Currently, if Ireland was to gain Test status and such a player wanted to go back and play for Ireland they would be prevented due to the qualifying period.
One option is to remove the qualifying period for players who wish to go back to a newly elevated Test status nation. This would provide a nation with such a player who has experience at that level, while still allowing players from non-Test nations to play for a Test nation until that point.
Any such player would be given the option upon promotion of their home nation (for example, Eoin Morgan could decide immediately transfer to Ireland, or stay with England). Refusal of that option would then lead to the normal qualifying period being imposed.
This seeks to strike a balance between the needs of a newly promoted nation to get their players back, and the ability of players from non-Test nations to seek a career where they can play at the highest level of the game, namely Test cricket.
There is one more question out of this, should a nation with such a player be excluded from voting on that nation’s promotion to Test status? Would, for example, England attempt to vote down the promotion of Ireland in order to retain Morgan (or Australia, in the less likely event of the Netherlands being up for promotion, in order to retain Nannes)?
None of the above concepts are completely free of their own issues, and some are perhaps not realistic. Any ideas to fill in the detail, any improvements, or alternative suggestions are most welcome.
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