December 7, 2016

Here's to Test cricket conferences, not divisions

Some teams are understandably opposed to a two-tier format. Two conferences, with a championship match between the leading side from each, might be more viable

If England and Australia were placed in separate conferences, it would increase the anticipation of a possible Ashes final © Getty Images

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.

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

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
England India
Pakistan Sri Lanka
South Africa Australia
Bangladesh West Indies
Zimbabwe New Zealand
Ireland Afghanistan

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.

Abe Bailey, the South African businessman, was the first to propose a world championship, in 1909 © Getty Images

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Shane on December 9, 2016, 14:26 GMT

    @JOHN-PRICE - I completely understand that. I stand by my belief that any resistance to relegation will be driven by the misguided belief among some fans and administrators that their team is too good for relegation, however. But you're right that a sport needs to do what's required to make it successful and generate revenue. I do think people involved in cricket get a little myopic though. You see other sports doing everything they can to grow their appeal, knowing this will be the best thing for the long term health of whatever game it is. Cricket seems to be drive by thinking along the lines of "What will give ME the most money, and what will give me the most money TOMORROW?" Taking the longer term view of financial success means less for the countries that we can now call the "haves" in the short term though, and that's the real issue.

  • John on December 9, 2016, 12:59 GMT

    @shane-oh The problem should not be seen in terms of teams who 'see themselves as being superior' being relegated. It is a question of making the best use of teams who are well supported and therefore able to bring in money. Professional sport, we should remember, is not a moral crusade, it is part of the entertainment business and test cricket is struggling because it cannot attract a sufficient audience. No plan which risks losing the best draw cards is ever going to be signed off.

  • Shane on December 9, 2016, 11:29 GMT

    @PY0ALB - lots of people want to support the idea of tiers, but none of them want to address the obvious issue with the idea. That is, when, inevitably, some of those countries that see themselves as "superior" get to the point of being relegated, they will throw their toys out and have a tantrum and refuse to go. I think that's why you won't see the tiers happen.

  • g on December 9, 2016, 10:31 GMT

    One very sad outcome of this is that - if for example Aus and SA are in two different groups, we don't get to see them play each other for the next 4-6 yrs? Same goes with some of the other combinations as well. Wouldn't that be robbing the fans of exciting contest for such a long time? Would be good if besides the mandatory matches within group there are also additional matches with teams outside the group that will ensure we don't miss such contests.

  • Adam on December 9, 2016, 10:29 GMT

    Terrible idea. One sided test series are an awful advert for the game, whereas closely-matched, traditional rivalries are its life blood. 2 tiers of 7 teams played home or away over 2 years makes the most sense with 1 up 1 down, with 2 more tiers below playing 2 day games allowing associate nations the opportunity to progress.

  • Shane on December 9, 2016, 9:29 GMT

    @LUKE ASHWOOD - again, that's the attitude that will ultimately kill test cricket, but you're unable to see the bigger picture it would seem. There's no such thing as a "sympathy" test. If you refuse to play against all the other nations, the format will simply die. When I read comments like yours I start to realise that there is probably no saving it, but at least your views are only held by a minuscule minority.

  •   Dhruv Deepak on December 9, 2016, 8:13 GMT

    * Over rates: ICC can really make teams hurt by docking points for slow over rates. I have always felt that a 'clock' could help make the process be more objective. The fielding team has a clock put on it, and the clock pauses for batting delays, waiting for a new batsman to come in or other events. The clock keeps running during the setting of fields and fielding team delays. This way, each team gets an over rate calculation over the duration of the match and is docked 1 point for every 5 overs / 20 minutes lost. This is far easier to administer, is objective and will be more effective than fining or banning captains * Poor behavior: Yellow card is docked 1 point and red card is docked 3 points (about time this system is put in place!). This also applies to time-delaying tactics such as tying one's shoelaces or re-setting fields every ball in the dying moments of a game

  •   Dhruv Deepak on December 9, 2016, 8:11 GMT

    Points system needs to be given enough thought. It can be a catalyst for re-thinking the game tactically if done right:

    * Result: 10 points for a Test match win; 5 pts for a tie; 3 pts for a draw; 0 for a loss * 3 additional points for an innings win * Batting: 1 pt for scoring 250 in the first 100 overs of an inning; 1 additional pt for every additional 50 runs scored in that time (i.e. a total of 2 pts for 300, 3 pts for 350, 4 pts for 400 within 100 overs). One additional point for surpassing 400 in an inning (irrespective of the number of overs) * Bowling: 1 point for every 3 wickets taken within the first 100 overs of an inning and an extra point for bowling the team out in that time (i.e. 1 pt for 3 wkts, 2 pt for 6 wkts, 3 pt for 9 wkts and 4 pt for 10 wkts within 100 overs). One additional point for bowling a team out for less than 400 (irrespective of the number of overs) * An additional 3 points to be awarded for taking 20 wkts

  • Luke Ashwood on December 9, 2016, 7:11 GMT

    I tired of hearing about playing sympathy matches against lower ranked teams. Sorry, but no one in Aus wants to watch a Test vs Ban, Zim or Afg. Therefore limited revenue. Just let the teams play who they want to. Forget the whole ranking system altogether. Most matches are just a side event to the Ashes anyway. People say Test are dying. Absolute rubbish. Even if there are only 2 teams, it would continue. In reality, the 2 tier system is a good option. No waste of time 'Tests' with wanna be's who'll never be.

  • phil on December 8, 2016, 20:22 GMT

    I like the conference idea, but think the "cross-over" idea is the key to limit mismatches of ability. If you applied "three tiers" to each conference you could have each team playing all other in their conference, plus the two teams at the same tier in the other conference. e.g. taking recent rankings you would get (with tier number in brackets): Conf-A: PAK (1), ENG (1), SL (2), WI (2), ZIM (3), IRE (3) Conf-B: IND (1), AUS (1), SA (2), NZ (2), BDESH (3), AFG (3) England would play all teams in Conf-A plus IND & AUS, and Afghanistan would play all in Conf-B plus ZIM & IRE. Series lengths could depend on the "tier", with Tier 1 teams playing five matches, Tier 2 playing three matches and Tier 3 playing two matches. Over 2 years, Tier 1 teams will play 25 matches, Tier 2: 19 and Tier 3: 14. Keep the point system simple (as with football); 3 points for a series win, 1 point for a draw, and have "Match Diff." instead of "Goal Diff." … and add 3 ODIs & 3 IT20s to each series for fun.

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