Speculation has it that the much-mooted overhaul of the game's most prestigious format - Test Cricket - may again be on the cards, with the the possible establishment of a Test Championship, the splitting of the top-flight into two divisions, and questions of promotion and relegation again under consideration.
To the casual observer, Test Cricket already looks rather like a sports league; it boasts a dedicated fan following, regular fixtures, ten contestants, a reigning champion and these days even a trophy. But the fact remains that despite two abortive efforts to establish a World Test Championship, the competition does not in fact exist. The "Championship" is merely a poorly-understood ranking system superimposed on a pre-existing and unrelated fixture list. Test Cricket is purely a "notional tournament".
What is increasingly plain is that this current system is unsustainable. Even marquee series have seen declining interest - the Ashes for instance has seen viewing figures fall by an order of magnitude since 2005, a drop that can be only partly explained by the switch to subscription television. Meanwhile middle and lower-ranked countries struggle to turn a profit from home series and perform poorly away from home - or in some cases not at all - whilst up-and-coming sides like Ireland and Afghanistan are still knocking at the door with growing impatience.
The already flimsy Future Tours Programme, arrived at purely through bilateral horse-trading, was wildly unbalanced at the best of times and has now proved entirely unenforceable. Whilst lesser boards such as the West Indies are penalised for failing to meet their obligations, the game's heavyweights are able to re-write the schedule seemingly at will. The result is that the international calendar takes on a relentlessly monotonous character, as the prioritisation of short-term revenue sees lower-ranked teams starved of matches as the same few top sides play one another with tedious regularity - slowly cannibalising the long-term value of the sport's most bankable fixtures.
Papering over the Cracks
Some piecemeal efforts have been made in recent years to find stopgap solutions to these issues: day/night tests have been introduced in the hope of boosting viewing figures and attendance, a Test Cricket fund established to subsidise the format in countries where profitability was elusive, and the much-vaunted and still more-derided "pathway to Test Cricket" provided by the cobbled-together Test Challenge announced as a sop to the excluded Associates.
These efforts may have gone some way to ameliorate the symptoms of Test Cricket's malaise, but previous attempts to treat the cause have consistently run aground on the same seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
The hugely disparate commercial value of different series ensures that a schedule maximising short-term revenue will be drastically unbalanced in terms of fixture allocation. Similarly the disparity in the commercial value in hosting the various sides results in an enormous imbalance in negotiating power, allowing the most bankable sides to effectively set the schedule.
This same commercial calculus makes the prospect of a split between the top-ranked teams and the rest of the table extremely unattractive for lower-ranked sides, who stand to see their most profitable series evaporate entirely, replaced with loss-making matches against newly-promoted Associates.
Meanwhile purists and nostalgics worry that the promotion of weaker teams or the division of Test Cricket into two tiers would devalue the records and achievements of the past and sully Test cricket's history, whilst doing a disservice to the contributions of currently struggling but historically competitive sides.
The ICC remains essentially an inter-board forum rather than a true federation, one with extremely limited (and decreasing) institutional autonomy and agency. Consequently it has negligible influence or coercive power over more powerful Boards, and acts only as a conduit for influence over the less powerful.
With top-ranked teams resisting centralisation of control over fixtures, lower-ranked Full Members resisting the introduction of divisions, and Associate Members essentially voiceless or outvoted, real reform seems hopelessly out of reach.
The Trouble with Tables
Simply splitting Test cricket into two divisions of six would indeed compound these problems; reinforcing the gap in standards, prestige and, crucially, finances that exists between the top few teams and the rest, whilst compromising the credibility of records set in the lower division.
Meanwhile, the monotony of repeated clashes between the same few sides, of the sort that sees Australia playing some 20 tests against England in the past six years whilst playing Bangladesh exactly twice, is also exacerbated by splitting the top level of cricket into two distinct leagues.
Broadly speaking it is seen as crucial to developing and maintaining a competitive standard that sides regularly play against stronger opposition. Imposing a complete split between two Test leagues, even with promotion and relegation, risks opening a permanent and unbridgeable gulf in quality in the game's top flight.
Old Solutions to Older Problems
As it happens the ICC already have a competition structure that solves this issue neatly, in the form of the World Cricket League. Indeed outside the top-flight, international cricket is the very model of context and structure.
At first glance the system of promotion and relegation between the WCL's five (formerly eight) divisions seems incomprehensibly byzantine, but the basic principle is fairly simple: the top two teams from each division are promoted, the bottom two relegated, the rest continue to the next iteration of the same division.
Because there are two iterations of each division per cycle, relatively rapid recovery from relegation is possible, and a team is able to fully participate in two separate tiers. Take the USA, for example, who habitually bounce between Divisions 3 and 4, thus regularly switching between benefiting from superior opposition and providing it.
There has historically been understandable opposition to the introduction of tiers to Test Cricket from lower and middle-ranked countries, but the truth is that in practice such a two-tier system already exists. The lowest-ranked countries play those at the top rarely, if at all, and under the current system that is unlikely to change.
Future Tiers Programme
Adopting a two-phase cycle modelled on the WCL's structure allows a neat compromise. Rather than being relegated permanently to a lower tier, the lower-ranked Full Members would be able to fully participate in the current ten-team Test division before the field is temporarily split into upper and lower tiers once per cycle.
The top tier of, say, six teams could then contest a comparatively brief Championship division, whilst the lower four are joined by two Associates to contest a Promotion phase, both divisions feeding back into the next cycle of Test Cricket.
Such a system would preserve the integrity and stature of the game's most prestigious format whilst allowing developing teams a route to participation. The introduction of a risk of relegation is balanced by the prospect of comparatively speedy recovery, and the greater interest attracted by the higher stakes at play. Likewise at the other end of the table the attraction of a genuine Championship contest could revitalise interest in previously repetitive fixtures.
The temporary nature of the split would mean that a degree of diversity is preserved in the schedule, with lower-ranked teams not permanently barred from the most bankable tours. Meanwhile top-sides' preference for playing amongst themselves is recognised and accommodated, whilst the risk, for example, of an under-performing England finding itself the wrong division for an Ashes Series for a protracted period is essentially eliminated.
But one glaring problem remains: the introduction of this or any structure requires that certain matches actually be played. The ICC's Full Members have long resisted central control over the scheduling of bilateral fixtures, and not just out of a nostalgic sense of tradition or the simple belief that the ICC has no business telling them what to do. There are hard commercial realities behind the unwillingness of national boards to hand over control of their schedules to the ICC, and the ICC's relative powerlessness means boards cannot be forced to play unprofitable series, even if one were to argue that they should be.
Solving the schedule - without scheduling anything
With a little creativity, however, this need not be an insurmountable problem. Rather than attempt to mandate a set schedule of compulsory fixtures - a task which has proved entirely impracticable in the past - the ICC could effectively leave the scheduling to be arranged bilaterally between league participants.
Each pairing of countries is simply allocated, say, 20 points between them - to be distributed as they see fit across however many Test matches they elect to play against one another in the main phase, the only obligation being that at least one match be played against every other country.
This obligation makes the system slightly more restrictive than the current free-for-all, but only slightly. India might decide that a pair of home-and-away two-test series is as much as it wants to play New Zealand over the course of a cycle, or England might even prefer to discharge its obligations to Bangladesh and Zimbabwe by means of a trilateral series at a neutral venue - playing them just once each and staking the full 20 points on each game.
Meanwhile the Ashes can carry on as before with, say, two five-match series being played across the same four year cycle - except that each match is worth only two Test League points. Inherently bankable events such as the Ashes or a Border-Gavaskar series need not be disrupted, whilst traditionally less attractive or unprofitable series benefit from the higher stakes the system bestows on them.
Our rather extreme example of the three-way series between England, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe would hypothetically have some sixty points up for grabs - one might imagine that were it played toward the end of a closely-contested cycle it might attract substantial interest even outside the countries involved.
Where such matches have bearing on India's final standing, for example, it opens the possibility of them drawing considerably greater viewership in India than the paltry figures that Test matches not involving India currently generate. If even a small proportion of the enormous Indian television market could be thus attracted, the difference to the commercial value of non-Indian bilateral series would be far from trivial.
Start with the Possible
There are doubtless better formats that could be divised of course, and nothing suggested here would do much to eliminate the inherent imbalances in financial clout or political power between the ICC's 106 members. The benefits of the proposal accrue mostly to those who need them least, the risks to those already in the more precarious situations. The possibility for powerful members to strong-arm their peers through the promise of lucrative tours or the threat of a minimum schedule is largely preserved. The essentially exclusive and heirarchical nature of the international game is likewise left intact.
Altogether, international cricket would not be in a hugely different place from where it is today. But it might be moving in a very different direction.
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