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Saving Test cricket: Is the Michael Vaughan way the right one?

1st June, 2016
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Michael Vaughan's plan to save Test cricket is flawed.
Roar Guru
1st June, 2016
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1275 Reads

Sri Lanka and the West Indies should not be playing Test matches against England and Australia because they are just not good enough. They should be playing “lower division Test cricket” against teams at their own level.

That’s the view of former England captain Michael Vaughan.

His new idea to save Test cricket from itself is to create three divisions of countries, with the top four playing each other in Test cricket’s ‘Champions League’.

Let’s first look at the idea he sets out in a recent article in The Telegraph. An idea that arises from his angst about the poor quality Sri Lankan outfit the world beating Englishmen are being forced to play in the first part of summer.

Vaughan suggests that Test cricket should be structured like football where there are several divisions and teams that are at the same level play each other. In principle, it looks like a sound idea. The reality, one’s gut feel says, could perhaps be slightly different. But let’s try and imagine how this would work.

As of May 23, 2016, the top four Test teams in the world were Australia, India, Pakistan and England. So these four would constitute our Division 1 teams. Division 2 would consist of New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka and West Indies.

To complete Vaughan’s Division 3, however, one would need to promote two teams to Test status, as currently there are only ten teams in the world who are Test-playing nations.

So who would those two be? Afghanistan? UAE? Netherlands? Ireland? Scotland? Hong Kong? None of them have ever played the longer version of the team competitively, and hence we have no track record to judge their performance except for a four-yearly World Cup performance at the ODI version of the game.

Let’s say for argument’s sake, however, that we agree on who the two new promoted members are. Let’s choose Afghanistan and Ireland at random.

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Afghanistan because I admire the way they play the game and because life is hard for them, and Ireland because I know Niall O’Brien a bit. (I doubt Vaughan can suggest a more scientific basis for choosing the two new Test-playing nations anyway.)

The Vaughan plan
If we take Division 1 as an example, Australia, India, Pakistan and England would each play two Tests against each other home and away. That means 12 Tests a year and would leave space for iconic series such as the Ashes, or an India-Pakistan series.

Never mind that England and Australia would have played each other anyway during the division games, as would India and Pakistan. Never mind the fact that no one wants to go to Pakistan to play Tests anyway and all away Tests would have to be played at neutral venues where very few people would come to watch the teams play.

Vaughan would decide promotion and relegation by the bottom side in a division playing the top team from the next division at home in a one-off decider.

Now let’s examine exactly what is wrong with this line of argument and certainly with this imaginative, but perhaps less than logical plan.

There is no team sport in the world which is played like club football between nations. And there are some good reasons for that.

First, nations have massive egos by definition, whereas clubs constitute a smaller group of individuals who feel a close affinity for their club but are rarely violently egoistic about it. They recognise that if the club is not good enough, relegation to the next division is inevitable and eventually if they are good enough the club will come back up to the top level.

Nations will accept that their country may not be good enough to make it into a World Cup once every four years, but they will rarely accept that they should continue playing in Division 3 day in, day out. If that persists, the game will die a natural death because there will be no financial support for cricket in that country. This will be completely counter-productive for the future of Test cricket.

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Second, Vaughan expects that one country at a time will get a chance to come up the divisions at the end of every year. Let’s use an example to understand how this is unlikely to work in practice.

Let’s assume Afghanistan comes out on top of Division 3 at the end of the first year and beats Sri Lanka, who have finished last in Division 2. The new Division 2 (let’s make life simple and assume everyone in Division 1 remains in the highest tier) would consist of New Zealand, South Africa, the West Indies and Afghanistan.

I think even the most ardent supporter of the Afghans wouldn’t expect them to triumph over nations with Kane Williamson, Martin Guptill, Trent Boult, Corey Anderson, AB De Villiers, Hashim Amla, Imran Tahir and Dale Steyn.

So it would effectively be the fourth year by the time Afghanistan is potentially a Division 1 team and good enough to play with Vaughan’s England. It would be unfortunate indeed if England were then to find themselves in a lower division by the time this happens.

Third, this league system cannot work for a sport where there are so few teams that are actively involved. FIFA has 209 member countries. But football does not have an international league with countries playing in different hierarchical divisions all year.

The divisions it has are regional, by geography, not by ability. Rugby divides countries into three tiers – Tier 1 has ten countries, Tier 2 has 13 countries, and Tier 3 has 94 countries. But these are just tiers based on past results and they don’t play in divisions. The ten countries in Tier 1 of rugby are certainly not split into tiny divisions.

Fourth, any other sport we discuss lasts for a few hours while Test cricket lasts for five days. As a result, the chances that each team gets to maintain or improve its status are few and far between. Consequently, the players get very little opportunity to play different teams under different conditions except the three teams they face all year.

Since, unlike club sports, Test cricket is played between countries, there is no scope for player transfers. Hence, brilliant players stuck in a lower division for years would rarely get a chance to play good players and teams and hence never be able to break out of this cycle.

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Finally, whether we like it or not, money is an enabler. If we have the Division 1 teams playing each other, chances are that most of the money would stay within those countries. If we have a politically unstable and terror-prone country in that mix, like Pakistan, the equation gets even more complicated for that cricket board because the other three refuse to travel there.

How many advertisers will be excited by the prospect of sponsoring a Division 3 team or how many spectators will pay for tickets to those matches? In time, the cricket boards will be bankrupt and youngsters will not take to the sport. The game will die a natural death and the number of cricket-playing countries will decline.

The major teams in the world of cricket have thrived and improved over the years because they are able to play against better teams. They will be deprived of this opportunity year after year, and Test cricket will be stuck in a vicious cycle of mediocrity.

It would perhaps be fair to suggest that the best players in the world have emerged because they have proved how good they are under vastly different conditions against completely different teams over a long period of time. Stuart Broad is who he is today because he learnt the lessons from being hit for six sixes in an over by Yuvraj Singh on a pitch that wasn’t as friendly to bowlers as his home ground, The Oval.

A point to ponder is that even without the Vaughan plan, it’s taken 140 years for an English batsman to score 10,000 runs in Test cricket. If England had only played the three other top teams in the world, it’s perhaps fair to say it would have been a longer wait.

In 2003, Stanford University published a very interesting piece of research called The Organisation of Sports Leagues.

One of the most important conclusions it drew, was that the primary reason to create a league system with a top tier league is almost always money. Attendance at a game is almost always dependent on the significance of the game. So if a weak team is playing a top team then people pay to watch, but ticket sales are poor if a weak team is playing another weak team.

Tournaments have a clear economic advantage over round robins (which Vaughan suggests), as they “substantially increase the importance of each match and thereby create more intense demand for each game”.

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Another major conclusion of the Stanford paper is that multiple divisions exist because it’s impractical and cumbersome to have too many teams in the same league. Clearly, for Test cricket, this is not a problem. It also mentions that “teams that would have contested for a Division 2 or 3 Championship would suffer a general decline in support”. This is exactly the one of the consequences I have mentioned above.

In conclusion, it seems fair to conclude that Test cricket is not ready for a club football style league. It’s not good for the nations, it’s not good for the players, it’s not good for the supporters of the game in various countries, it’s not good for the sponsors, and it’s certainly not a formula to secure the future of the game.

That’s not to say that we should not look for ways to increase the appeal of the game. With the success of the shorter versions and the generational mental shift towards instant gratification in most spheres of life, the five-day game is at risk of disappearing in the future. More thought needs to be given to preserve this purest form of cricket.

Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Vivian Richards, Steve Waugh, and most importantly, Donald Bradman would not have become the legends they are just by playing the IPL or Big Bash League.

The longer version brings out the real character of a great player. It needs to be preserved, nurtured and allowed to grow. The Vaughan plan may not be the solution, but the debate has started and the flow of ideas must continue.

Thirteen men in white walking back to the pavilion at the stroke of lunch to join the other nine is not a tradition the world of cricket can afford to lose.