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