As­so­ciate game

While Tim Wig­more is thrilled that two new na­tions are on the verge of gain­ing Test sta­tus, he cau­tions against com­pla­cency

The Cricket Paper - - FEATURE -

Tim Wig­more on life be­low the Test-play­ing na­tions

When it comes to the re­sults of ICC board meet­ings, bit­ter dis­ap­point­ment is a feel­ing that cricket’s As­so­ciate na­tions know only too well. But, at least for Afghanistan and Ire­land, this month’s ICC board meet­ing had the feel of a sem­i­nal mo­ment.

It is true that noth­ing was rat­i­fied, but, in prin­ci­ple, it has been agreed that Afghanistan and Ire­land will be­come Test na­tions from 2019, and could soon be­come Full Mem­bers of the ICC, too.

The his­tory of Test cricket is of ex­pan­sion­ism at an lethar­gic pace. That is why, 140 years af­ter its in­cep­tion, Test cricket still only com­prises ten Test na­tions. It has been unique among sports in be­ing de­lib­er­ately ex­clu­sive, and stop­ping those who wish to play it from do­ing so, thereby re­veal­ing the worst of cricket’s elitism and self­de­feat­ing con­ser­vatism.

In this con­text, the news that Afghanistan and Ire­land will gain Test sta­tus qual­i­fies as revo­lu­tion­ary: not since the Twen­ties have two new na­tions gained Test sta­tus at the same time.

The way that they will do so is, how­ever, im­per­fect. Af­ter the ICC ad­vo­cated a two-di­vi­sion model for Test cricket, with seven na­tions in Di­vi­sion One and five in Di­vi­sion Two, and then flirted with the no­tion of two par­al­lel con­fer­ences of six, now agree­ment has been found over a slightly un­wieldy ‘9+3’ struc­ture.

Es­sen­tially, this would in­volve the top nine na­tions play­ing each other in a Test league – ev­ery team would play ev­ery­one else, ei­ther home or away, ev­ery two years, cul­mi­nat­ing in a fi­nal be­fore the cy­cle starts again – while the other three Test teams, Afghanistan, Ire­land and Zim­babwe, play Test cricket out­side the struc­ture.

The risks of such a struc­ture are ob­vi­ous. Zim­babwe re­cently went 20 months with­out play­ing a Test match, tem­po­rar­ily los­ing their rank­ing through paucity of fix­tures. If the re­ward for Afghanistan and Ire­land is merely to gain a sched­ule like this, it is re­ally not much re­ward at all.

But although the 9+3 for­mat is flawed, I un­der­stand that there is a gen­uine com­mit­ment to pre­vent Afghanistan and Ire­land re­ceiv­ing the same deroga­tory fix­ture list as Zim­babwe cur­rently do.

The ex­pec­ta­tion is that all nine teams in the main Test league will com­mit to play­ing at least one match against the bot­tom three teams ev­ery two years, thereby guar­an­tee­ing the trio three Tests ev­ery two years against the top nine – hope­fully more. If that does not sound spec­tac­u­lar, by the stan­dards of Test cricket it still qual­i­fies as revo­lu­tion­ary. With en­light­ened sched­ul­ing, play­ing the bot­tom three could be not a chore but valu­able prepa­ra­tion.

All three are based in or near Test na­tions – Afghanistan play their home matches in India, while Ire­land and Zim­babwe are next to Eng­land and South Africa re­spec­tively – so Tests against them could amount to far bet­ter prepa­ra­tion for an im­mi­nent Test se­ries against a heavy­weight than play­ing a te­dious warm-up match against an un­der­strength first-class side, as has been the norm for many years.

Re­call how, when Rob Key (Kent) and Ravi Bopara (Es­sex) won the toss on flat wick­ets against Aus­tralia in 2015 in warm-up matches, they de­cided to in­sert Aus­tralia: a de­ci­sion clearly made solely with en­sur­ing that the game ex­tended for as long as pos­si­ble, so their coun­ties could gen­er­ate as much cash as pos­si­ble from the fix­ture. For Aus­tralia, play­ing a revved-up Ire­land at Malahide would have amounted to far more com­pet­i­tive prepa­ra­tion for the Ashes se­ries.

The 9+3 for­mat has the feel of a clas­sic ICC com­pro­mise. In many ways that is what it is.Yet it also recog­nises how ar­du­ous it is to make the step up to Tests. That has been true through­out cricket his­tory.

Only one team ever – Aus­tralia in the in­au­gu­ral Test in 1877 – has ever won their first Test. Most re­cently, Bangladesh waited un­til their 35th Test be­fore fi­nally record­ing their maiden win. A more gen­tle start to Test cricket will help to en­sure that Afghanistan and Ire­land do not have to wait nearly as long.

In many ways, Afghanistan and Ire­land are far bet­ter pre­pared for the el­e­va­tion than Bangladesh were in 2000. Ire­land have played in eight ICC world events and Afghanistan in five; Bangladesh had played a pal­try one, the 1999 World Cup, be­fore they made their Test de­buts.

And while Bangladesh, re­mark­ably, had no struc­tured re­gional multi-day com­pe­ti­tion be­fore 1999, and only sel­dom played Full Mem­ber A sides or In­dian do­mes­tic teams in multi-day matches, Afghanistan and Ire­land have had the ben­e­fit of the In­tercon­ti­nen­tal Cup, the first-class com­pe­ti­tion for As­so­ciates.

This has pro­vided valu­able prepa­ra­tion for the coun­tries in mul­ti­day matches – the Afghanistan-Ire­land fi­nal at the end of the last com­pleted com­pe­ti­tion, in 2013, was played with an in­ten­sity be­fit­ting a Test match – even if there should be more matches.

While top As­so­ciates each played a to­tal of 13 In­tercon­ti­nen­tal matches in the group stages of the tour­na­ment from 2007 to 2010, they will only play seven dur­ing the cur­rent four-year cy­cle.

Per­haps Ire­land’s most im­por­tant ad­van­tage in pre­par­ing for Test cricket is their prox­im­ity to Eng­land, al­low­ing their elite crick­eters to be schooled there, though, as their in­ter­na­tional sched­ule in­creases, Cricket Ire­land are now try­ing to bring their best play­ers back.

Both Afghanistan and Ire­land have now been awarded first-class sta­tus for their do­mes­tic multi-day com­pe­ti­tions, which is a wel­come sign of the ICC be­ing less snooty about the con­cept of sta­tus, but doesn’t, in it­self, en­sure that the matches are of the high­est qual­ity.

Ire­land’s inter-pro­vin­cial com­pe­ti­tion, which has been run­ning since 2013, is only made up of three-day matches, be­cause Cricket Ire­land lacks the cash to make the tour­na­ment a four-day af­fair. That must change if the ICC are to give them the best chance of thriv­ing in Test cricket.

Ex­tra cash, too, would also help ex­pand the com­pe­ti­tion from three teams to four – es­pe­cially nec­es­sary given the pool of Ir­ish tal­ent, in­clud­ing Ed Joyce, Niall O’Brien and Andy Bal­birnie, who will be play­ing in the in­au­gu­ral sea­son of first-class cricket on the Emer­ald Isle in 2017 – and at­tract a higher cal­i­bre of over­seas player to raise the stan­dards.

As they pre­pare for their Test de­buts in 2019, Afghanistan and Ire­land also

Per­haps Ire­land’s most im­por­tant ad­van­tage is their prox­im­ity to Eng­land, al­low­ing their elite crick­eters to be schooled there

re­quire a rig­or­ous sched­ule against Full Mem­ber A teams, just as Bangladesh lacked. Afghanistan’s four-day match against Eng­land Li­ons in the UAE in De­cem­ber, which they lost by 48 runs, was a wel­come de­vel­op­ment.

Such ini­tia­tives should be repli­cated wher­ever pos­si­ble to give Afghanistan and Ire­land the best pos­si­ble chance of adapt­ing to Test cricket.

Giv­ing Afghanistan and Ire­land all the re­sources they need to thrive when they are el­e­vated to Tests is not just about good­will and fix­tures; it is about cash, too. So rat­i­fy­ing their el­e­va­tion to Full Mem­ber sta­tus, and open­ing up ex­tra ICC cash to al­low them to pre­pare for 2019 is es­sen­tial, and should be done im­mi­nently.

Then, the two will soon be ready to step up to be­ing part of the main Test struc­ture – the ICC has ten­ta­tively sug­gested that it would like the sys­tem of two con­fer­ences of six im­ple­mented in 2023, giv­ing all 12 Test na­tions the same stand­ing.

Cricket needs to be a more open sport, and let­ting Afghanistan and Ire­land play Tests is a be­lated and wel­come step. Now, the As­so­ciate world needs them to be flag­bear­ers: by adapt­ing to the step up to Test cricket, the hope is that they will en­cour­age the ICC to nur­ture other As­so­ciates, and give them greater op­por­tu­ni­ties, too.

The el­e­va­tion of Afghanistan and Ire­land to the crick­et­ing main­stream must be seen as the be­gin­ning of cricket’s gov­ern­ing elite nur­tur­ing the game be­yond the ex­ist­ing ten Test na­tions, not the endgame.

PIC­TURES: Getty Images

Im­pres­sive: Afghanistan were one of the talk­ing points of last year’s T20 World Cup with a num­ber of eye-catch­ing per­for­mances

Test­ing times: Ire­land skip­per Will Porter­field and Afghanistan’s Mo­ham­mad Nabi at the 2015 T20 World Cup

Win­ning ways: Tamim Iqbal in ac­tion for Bangladesh dur­ing their Test vic­tory over Eng­land last Autumn

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