Here's to Test cricket conferences, not divisions
First Brexit, then Trump, then Cuba without Castro, but is this groggy planet of ours ready for the most improbable happening of all? Recent rumblings emanating from Dubai certainly suggest there is reason to believe it may be in the offing. Once played, once aborted, perpetually defying the combined brainpower of the game's purported leaders, a World Test Championship is firmly back on the agenda. And the ICC, bless it, is contemplating ripping off the Americans.
With Sri Lanka and Bangladesh having registered their understandable objections to a two-tier format, which has apparently been given the heave-ho, the latest idea on the table is a pair of six-team conferences, a modus operandi devised by Major League Baseball more than a century ago and subsequently adopted by the other three major US team sports. It makes sense in this context too, though this column remains convinced that the women's recent initiative - a combined series of T20, ODI and Test matches, with points awarded on a rising scale according to the length of the game - is the best option. That may be what will end up with, but for now let's examine the pros and cons of a conference system.
First things first, namely the proposal to elevate Afghanistan and Ireland to Test (if not Full Member) status. The naysayers will reel off their time-dishonoured predictions. If Bangladesh can't win overseas, or Zimbabwe at home, what awful calamities will befall the newcomers should they have to play India or South Africa? Besides, the gap in class will surely devalue the status of the contest, and thus any ensuing records. Rugby union, though, has already gone through this existential ordeal and seems to have survived robustly enough, so let's not fret over that one any longer.
The fact is that the international game, 140 years old next March and under siege as never before from the domestic product, has no choice but to expand, thereby encouraging more people to take up the game and aim for the pinnacle. Tradition and custom only get you so far these days.
The trickiest element of a conference structure in a global cricketing context is the attendant baggage. Since India and Pakistan refuse to play each other for political reasons - and even if there were inter-conference matches, as happens in the US - they would have to be allocated to separate leagues, unless the concept of playing on neutral ground is embraced. So too, in the interest of balance, would Afghanistan and Ireland. This means that merely announcing a cut-off point and going strictly by the ICC rankings - the top team placed in Conference A, second-ranked in B, third-ranked in A, and so on - would be impractical.
Seeding will be required - each conference should contain three of the six leading teams (according to the latest rankings) and two of the next four. In order to achieve a balance in conditions it would also make sense to split the four senior Asian teams up - two per conference.
Keeping England and Australia apart would ensure they don't overdo matters as they have done lately, while making the delicious prospect of an Ashes final feasible. Ideally that showpiece should be a best-of-three series - one home, one away, and the decider, if necessary, on neutral turf. Of course, if the India-Pakistan standoff persists that would remove home advantage from the equation - not necessarily a bad thing.
As for what we're going to call these conferences, something memorable but impartial is required. So, rather than plump for Bradman and Grace, Warney and Murali, or Sachin and Brian, let's pay tribute to the men behind it all: Charles Alcock, the Surrey secretary who first hatched the idea of calling an international contest a Test match, then brought it to fruition at The Oval, and Abe Bailey, the South African businessman and cricket benefactor who dreamed up the inaugural world championship, the wet and spectacularly unsuccessful 1912 Triangular Tournament.
Anyway, here's a glimpse of how it all might look:
|Alcock Conference||Bailey Conference|
Why, though, stop at a final? What about semi-finals, each pitting the winner of a conference against the second-placed side from the other one? The chief reason against them is that playing them would run counter to the pronouncement by ICC chief executive David Richardson, who stated during the recent Adelaide Test that the CEOs of the Full Member boards felt the number of Tests needed to be reduced from around 45 a year - the average over the past half-decade - to between 35 and 40. And that acknowledgement stems, of course, from the implicit and growing realisation that if space isn't found for domestic T20 competitions sharpish then the international game may recede into insignificance. Fewer games but greater context is the mantra, and they won't find any quarrel here.
Five to ten fixtures might not be a terribly big reduction were it not for the proposal to increase the number of competing teams by 20%. Still, as this column has previously suggested, there is a remedy, albeit one bound to provoke growls of derision and howls of disgust. Namely that, unless the protagonists decide otherwise, series will shrink into one-off matches. Given that so many already comprise just two Tests, this would be no bad thing, even if the realities of the ICC's brave new world did not decree it.
One advantage the one-match series could confer would be to free up time for proper acclimatisation, thus preventing a recurrence of the current ludicrous nonsense in India, where England went directly into the Rajkot Test from another in Bangladesh. They will have played seven such games on the trot before Christmas supplies blessed relief. Even if a Mumbai 2nd XI and a Tamil Nadu 4ths had provided the opposition, match practice would have been infinitely preferable to nets.
As for who plays whom and when, that's where the complexities really start. Overall, a home-and-away series per team per annum should be the minimum expectation, but if points are to be awarded only for series victories or draws (why not ten and five respectively, thus upholding the value of the latter?), then any meaningful final order will demand more than that. Playing, say, 15 series over four years - with each team tackling every other member of its conference at least once - would not only be a more accurate reflection of form and quality but would pave the way for a major ICC event every year: World T20, World Cup, Champions Trophy and World Test Championship.
How, though, would we separate teams that have accrued the same number of points at the end of each cycle? Much the easiest method would be to take into account the results of individual contests, but that would disadvantage those least likely to stage them. Better, then, to have a playoff, the regulations for which would echo those for the final: played on neutral ground and timeless.
Moreover, and perhaps most importantly of all, the conference system makes more sense than a hierarchical one because it would oblige the senior nations to play Afghanistan and Ireland. Even if that only amounts to one Test every four years, even if the sole aim is to pick up easy points, it would still be a vast improvement on the current situation, where Bangladesh, to cite but the most obvious and unjustified victims, are constantly undermined by a dearth of fixtures.
That the ICC has yet to reach any agreement on any of this is indicative of the difficulties inherent in changing the face of international cricket to better suit times and tastes. Even so, to once again lament the hurdles as insurmountable (remember those plans for a 2017 Test Championship that were scuppered by the broadcasting fraternity but ultimately sunk by a lack of imagination?) would surely be the last word in defeatism.
How, though, can a sport that talks so strenuously about the future not implement, as the barest of necessities, a means of anointing a world champion? With negotiations for a new broadcasting deal beckoning, the sages of the MCC World Cricket Committee having nodded their esteemed assent to a conference format at Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace this week, and an executive at one major free-to-air channel having expressed enthusiasm for such a venture to yours truly, the time for hesitation has well and truly passed.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now