New Test Championship model creeps closer
Scheduling symmetry and a gentler entry into Test cricket for the likes of Afghanistan and Ireland were among the factors that saw plans for a Test Championship of two six-team conferences evolve into the 9-3 concept approved by the ICC's chief executives committee in their quarterly meetings in Dubai last week.
Having agreed in principle to move forward with two conferences of six nations after the meetings in October last year, the CEC reconvened to be told by ICC management that the conference model was unwieldy and impractical. Matters were complicated by the need for cross-conference fixtures in the event that teams like Australia and England or India and South Africa were not drawn in the same conference for a protracted period.
Chief executives were instead presented with the 9-3 model, which will require each of the top nine-ranked nations to play each opponent at least once home or away over a two-year period before a championship decider is held. Teams would then swap home and away series in the next cycle, meaning an "icon" series such as the Ashes would still be played on a four-year, home and away basis.
Those present at the meeting agreed that a landscape of two home and two away Test series per team each year - with the flexibility of being able to play anything from a one-off Test to a series of five matches - was the best and most symmetrical option for the top nine nations. At the same time, the "other three", Zimbabwe, Ireland and Afghanistan will play each other in Test matches with the additional option of higher-ranked nations meeting them for one-off fixtures when possible.
Such matches would most likely take the place of warm-up games for Tests against other opponents in the same region. A country touring England, for instance, could play a Test against Ireland rather than a warm-up against a second-division county side. Similarly, a match against Afghanistan could precede a series against Pakistan in the UAE, or a meeting with Zimbabwe serve as the entree to a series against South Africa.
Since Shashank Manohar's appointment as ICC chairman in May last year, the governing body and member nations have mulled three different concepts for a championship. The first, which called for two tiers of six sides, was thrown out due to opposition from the boards of India and Sri Lanka, in particular, amid concerns that it divided Full Member nations into first- and second-rate cricket-playing countries.
Plans for a workable Test Championship league structure have been tossed around for so long now that international cricket is now well into the year that the second edition of the championship playoff was supposed to be held - the first was meant to have taken place as far back as 2013.
That model, first unveiled by then ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat in 2011, was preceded by serious discussions around the idea of a Test Championship in 2008, when a model was put together by Rohan Sajdeh of the Boston Consulting Group and advocated by the Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland.
In 2009, Lorgat had summed up the benefits of a league simply: "There's no doubt a Test championship would be of great benefit. Let's say you and your mate are South African and Australian - and India are about to play Sri Lanka. If the result impacts on your team's championship standing, you are bound to be more interested."
However the 2008 discussions floundered due to opposition from the boards of India and England. The later attempt was also filibustered by the same two nations, with added commercial pressure from broadcasters who did not wish to accept the idea of replacing the ODI Champions Trophy with a Test Championship playoff.
This time around, the championship will be set to begin in 2019, at the commencement of the next round of fixtures and broadcast rights. But much like a raft of other issues discussed in Dubai last week - from the ICC's financial model to its constitution - final approval and implementation remains elusive.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig