Monday, 18 April 2011

Why six team Test divisions is the answer

Amidst all the rightful uproar over the exclusion of the associates from the 2015 World Cup, Test cricket has rather been ignored. Yet the perennial issue of how games can be more competitive, and be lent real context, is only going to become more pressing when Zimbabwe return to Test cricket in a few months.

Let’s be honest – it’s going to be pretty unpalatable. Against everyone except Bangladesh, Zimbabwe will get thrashed. A 38-year-old Murray Goodwin would be their best batsman if he revoked his international retirement. Heck, if Andy Flower fancied a new challenge I’m sure he could get back in the side tomorrow. Damning evidence of how uncompetitive Zimbabwe will be came during the World Cup, especially a ten-wicket loss to a New Zealand side that lost 4-0 in an ODI series in Bangladesh five months earlier. They certainly didn’t look much like a side who have earned their Test status back – rather, one who will simply massage the statistics of their opponents.

Whenever there are some ugly mismatches in Tests, discussion of a Test championship is never far away.  The usual call is for two divisions of eight, with Bangladesh and Zimbabwe joining the minnows in the second tier. Yet this really wouldn’t help the problem. In division one, thanks to the weakness of the West Indies and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand, one-sided games would remain. And they would be plenty in division too, too; Kenya, Canada and Scotland would be to that league what Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are to Tests now. These sides would have neither the levels of cricketing interest nor the quality of players to make the exercise anything other than futile.
Promotion and relegation between the leagues would provide the context for the games but imagine the repercussions if the Windies slipped into the second tier? It’s no exaggeration to say Test cricket could completely collapse. Sponsors would run; players would prioritise lucrative Twenty20 even more than they do today. Fans, used to seeing Australia, South Africa and India, wouldn’t touch games against Kenya and co. Remember, too, that England were ranked ninth as recently as 1999 – how would they have fancied five years, sans the Ashes, slugging it out with the Netherlands instead? The gap would make that notorious chasm between the football Premier League and Championship appear trivial.
A much more sensible solution, previously not suggested, is two division of six. This is how it would work.
Every four years, the Test league would take place. Each side in division one and two would be required to play every other side in their division in home-and-away series of at least three matches. Every game would count towards the league standings. The culmination of the four years would be a three-match series played between the sides ranked first and second in the top division. Simultaneously, there would be a three-match play-off series between the bottom-ranked side in the top division and the top side of division one. And there could be something similar, though not granted Test status, between the bottom-ranked side in the second division and the winner of the ICC Intercontinental Cup, which would continue. This would provide Test cricket with the showpiece it badly needs, giving players and sides a tangible aim every four years. Winning the championship would captivate in a way that reaching number one in the Test rankings simply does not; sides like New Zealand and West Indies, which currently bumble along thrashing those ranked below them but struggling against the rest, in the limited Tests they play against them, would have something realistic – promotion or avoiding relegation - to aspire to.
Division two would produce some competitive and intriguing cricket. I’d much rather watch Ireland tussle Bangladesh than Shane Watson pulverise the Tigers. It would also provide those outside the current Test-playing nations the matches they need both to improve as teams and further increase the popularity of the sport. Mercifully, the charade of the best minnow players qualifying for other countries to play Tests would end; George Dockrell wouldn’t need to worry about England.
So far, so good – but surely Australia, England and India would block such a championship, fearful of how much revenue they would lose if they suffered relegation? But the great strength of this format is its openness: teams would only have to play 30 Tests every four years against those in the same division. Given that England played a total of 50 Tests in the period between the last two World Cups, this leaves ample scope for other fixtures. So New Zealand and the West Indies would not suddenly be cut-off from the sides in division one. The Kiwis played only 25 Tests against sides ranked above them between the 2007 and 2011 World Cups, and could expect to play division one sides in 20 Tests over four years under this system.
India and friends wouldn’t have to worry about losing out on revenue if they were relegated. If England were, they could still play home-and-away Ashes series of five Tests apiece, as well as, say, three-match contests against India and South Africa home-and-away over four years in division two. Relegation, though a great embarrassment, wouldn’t be the sporting and financial catastrophe it would be under eight-nation divisions.
Undeniably, this change would make Test matches a much more appealing prospect: more games would be played between sides of the same standard; there would be more overall meaning; and there would be a thrilling climax every four years. To those crying ‘but what of the statistics?’, cricket needs to get over its numbers obsession. Iran’s Ali Daei has more international goals than anyone else, but no one thinks he’s better than Pele. Besides, it wouldn’t require a degree in mathematics to see the difference in Test stats between division one and division two.
Under this system, all sides would become aspirational. Far from destroying Test cricket in New Zealand and West Indies, the challenge of getting promoted would be reinvigorating, in a way their current schedules clearly are not. There would be a very welcome bonus, too: as all league series would have to be at least three Tests, that miserable specimen known as the two-match series would become virtually extinct. If cricket is to be expanded, as it should, this is how.

See my post on How it would actually work


Russ said...

Tim, I agree absolutely whole-heartedly with the need for six team divisions, but not with your rationale. There is never a guarantee that any particular size of competition will guarantee close competition. The sixth team might be terrible, the 7th team might utterly dominate the lower division. That we have 6 teams now is largely a historical coincidence.

It is hard to see why a team in the first division would play ones lower down unless it had to, and the lower ranked full members would be rightly petrified of losing that income. More importantly, what they really need are tours from India (teams only get money from hosting tours, and India is the golden tour). When you consider India will have to play 8 3-test (or more) series between October and March over four years, there won't be a huge number of opportunities to head to NZ, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan (or at least the UAE). Touring England and Ireland is easy.

The other question I have is: why a league? Leagues were developed for a specific reason: to ensure a certain number of fixtures for teams who might otherwise get knocked out of a cup competition early on. A four year league strikes me as being a bit long, and a bit too likely to drift towards the end. They are also extremely hard to get out of. What if two very good teams emerge from division three? It might take more than a decade for one to get to division 1, and the other longer still.

For these two reasons, in my manifesto I argued to keep the major bilateral series intact in 2 years of the 4 year cycle; and mix the other two years between qualification (over one year, preferably regionally), and a 6-team tiered competition, where 2 groups of 3 play the test championship in a single year, the final, held over 4 tests home and away in Sept/Oct. No need for neutral tests. And qualification, starting from a (relatively) even playing field, allows any team to move forward quickly, provided they are good enough.

It may be that some teams don't meet others for many years, but that is bound to happen eventually. If test cricket is to expand, we'll need to give up on the idea that all teams must play all others regularly. Financially, a test championship, as opposed to bilateral tours, implies a pool of funding that would make the financial imperative to conduct regular tours much less pressing.

Tim said...

Russ - thanks for your comment.

I've seen your mainfesto before and, while I think its really interesting I have a few slight issues with it, mainly that there are so many 2-Test series (even Aus-RSA). I'm also not sure there'd be much to gain for Aus playing two Tests against Namibia. Also there are 16 Aus-Eng Tests in that 4-year period - overkill perhaps? But I still think its a very interesting idea (and certainly an excellent one for ODIs).

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