Tim Wig­more greets the Test League with guarded op­ti­mism

Tim Wig­more greets the ICC’s lat­est of­fer­ing with guarded op­ti­mism but sug­gests its struc­ture leaves a lot to be de­sired

The Cricket Paper - - NEWS -

Dashed dreams are all too fa­mil­iar to any­one who has fol­lowed cricket pol­i­tics and the In­ter­na­tional Cricket Coun­cil’s plans to re­form the sport.

There was the plan to cre­ate a Test league in 2004. It failed. There was a plan to cre­ate a Test league in 2008. It, too, failed. There was the plan to cre­ate a World Test Cham­pi­onship in 2013 and then, when that was post­poned, 2017. It failed.

And there was last year’s plan to in­tro­duce two di­vi­sions, of seven and five, in Test cricket.Yep, that one failed, too.

So the over­whelm­ing re­ac­tion to this week’s news, ex­pected at the time of writ­ing, that a Test league of nine na­tions would be in­tro­duced from 2019 is one of sur­prise. Fi­nally, ad­min­is­tra­tors have trans­lated de­bate into tan­gi­ble ac­tion.

And, yes, the plans are flawed. It doesn’t ad­here to the ba­sic con­cept of fair­ness in sports league: ev­ery­one play­ing ev­ery­one else. In­stead, be­cause of a com­bi­na­tion of In­dia’s un­will­ing­ness to play Pak­istan and the over­crowded sched­ule, the nine teams will only play six se­ries – three at home and three away – over two years be­fore the win­ners meet in the fi­nal.

The Test league is likely to al­low one-Test se­ries, so that a soli­tary Test vic­tory will bring the same num­ber of to­tal points as some­one win­ning the Ashes se­ries 5-0.

Afghanistan and Ire­land, el­e­vated to Test sta­tus in June, have ef­fec­tively been de­moted to the ‘small three’, with Zim­babwe, be­fore even play­ing their first Test. They will es­sen­tially play among them­selves, with a cou­ple of Test friendlies a year against top-tier sides.

But a flawed plan is still in­fin­itely prefer­able to bum­bling along, even as Test cricket’s chal­lenges – both from other for­mats of the game and com­pletely dif­fer­ent sports – in­ten­sify.

The struc­ture will mean Test cricket is no longer unique among in­ter­na­tional sports in hav­ing no league, and no over­all cham­pion. A two-year cy­cle is also very long – too long, some broad­cast­ing in­sid­ers be­lieve – but it’s bet­ter than no league at all. In Eng­land, Test cricket lovers have al­ways been in­dulged by co­pi­ous Tests and multi-match se­ries, the sort that make it easy to con­vince your­self that Test cricket doesn’t re­ally have any prob­lem at all.

But English fans be­ing spoiled shouldn’t ob­scure how other coun­tries have too lit­tle to play for, mak­ing Tests a hard sell to play­ers and fans alike.

Con­sider New Zealand. From 2013-15, they went seven se­ries un­de­feated, in­clud­ing top­pling In­dia at home and shar­ing a thrilling two-Test se­ries in Eng­land in 2015. Mike Hes­son, New Zealand’s coach, said his side had “earned the right” to play longer Test se­ries.

Of course, that’s not how it works in in­ter­na­tional cricket, where fix­tures are de­ter­mined by a mix­ture of fi­nan­cial greed, which is why Aus­tralia, Eng­land and In­dia stage so many games against each other, and po­lit­i­cal al­liances, which is why In­dia play Sri Lanka, a re­li­able ally in the ICC, so of­ten. It is an ap­palling way to run a sport.

Un­der the new sys­tem, that prob­a­bly won’t change much: the length of se­ries will be left up to boards them­selves, so could be any­thing from one Test to five. But at least all coun­tries will have some­thing to aim for af­ter two years.

For a coun­try like New Zealand, who do not have a mar­quee Test se­ries (they would claim it is against Aus­tralia, yet the last trans-Tas­man se­ries was only two Tests, which hardly sug­gests Aus­tralia feel the same way), there will be an over­ar­ch­ing goal at last.

That 2013-15 team, un­der Bren­don McCul­lum, could well have reached the Test fi­nal, which would have been a his­toric achieve­ment, the sort that could fleet­ingly bring Test matches in the coun­try from niche pur­suit to front-page news.

The an­swer to in­ter­na­tional sport’s most ba­sic ques­tion – “who’s the best?” – will fi­nally have an easy an­swer: the world Test cham­pi­ons. Even more im­por­tantly, it should en­cour­age more peo­ple to watch. If South Africa, say, needed to beat Sri Lanka 2-0 to reach the Test play-off, the se­ries would have far more rel­e­vance, and chance of en­gag­ing the wider pub­lic, than it ever would now.

And, be­cause matches in­volv­ing other coun­tries will now im­pact whether their team can reach the Test play-off, it will en­cour­age fans to watch games in­volv­ing other sides, just as Premier League foot­ball fans do.

So, yes, the new struc­ture is far from per­fect.Yet at least it amounts to par­tial recog­ni­tion of Test cricket’s problems. If the sport’s struc­ture un­til this week was worth a mark of 1/10 – re­ally, of course, there was no struc­ture at all – now it has prob­a­bly been el­e­vated to 4/10.

That’s progress of sorts. But Test cricket needs much broader re­form – above all, equal­ity in fix­tures and fi­nances, to en­sure that it’s in the fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests of all the best play­ers to play, rather than merely those from the Big Three – to sus­tain the game.

What hap­pened this week is wel­come, but it is not enough.

PIC­TURE: Getty Im­ages

Tri­umph: But soon the win­ners of an Ashes se­ries could also be cel­e­brat­ing with a Test world cham­pi­onship tro­phy

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