More than anything else that’s going around in cricket right now, the fixing fiasco in the IPL, the India-SA standoff, the DRS conundrum, the biggest and most serious woe plaguing cricket is the imbalances that the last couple of decades has thrown up. The delta between Test playing nations and Associates, the power struggles between BCCI and ICC, the overkill of cricket for some nations when others play one or two tours a year, and the over-reliance on T20 cricket to generate incomes are all examples of imbalances one way or the other.
The solution is not in reducing BCCI’s clout in the ICC, as that is financially suicidal for cricket’s governing body. The solution is not in expecting people’s attitudes towards Tests to change either. And the solution certainly is not in throwing money at Associates expecting them to improve without giving them something bigger to look forward to. The logical answers lay in a complete overhaul of the Future Tours Program and a Test Championship played in a tiered league format, with relegation/promotion series and a Test Championship series played at the end of a cycle.
The immediate issue facing cricket administrators right now is the preservation of the supremacy of Test cricket.
Cause of the problem:
The root cause of the problem is the pace (or lack thereof) and the contests that Test cricket offers to the audience. A case can be made that pitches nowadays have a role to play in the boring high-scoring draws that have become the norm in some countries. Regulating pitch preparation might be tough; moreover I wouldn’t consider it fair to tell Sri Lanka not to make batting beauties, when we can’t prevent England from preparing seaming wickets.
What the ICC as the governing body can ensure is that contests offered are interesting. Nobody wants to see a three day drubbing of Bangladesh by England; not even the Barmy Army.
Tiered groups of 6 teams each, who play each other on a home and away basis, based on rankings calculated over a 4 year period, starting and ending between each 50-over World Cup. Teams ranked 1-6 play in top-tier, and teams ranked 7-10 play in the lower-tier, along with the two leading Associate nations.
The two top associate nations should be given Test status for four years only (one cycle). At the end of each cycle, the bottom team from the lower tier goes back to the Associate status (even if it is traditionally a Test nation), and the top Associate team gets Test status for the next cycle. The Test teams during one cycle get a vote in the ICC much like the Full Members, and get funding from the ICC likewise. Not only will that make them play to keep their Test status, it will also spur them on to do better and keep the financial backing that the Test status will bring.
Giving the top Associate nation Test status, even if it might just be for four years, will solve another problem: the exodus of Test quality players from Associate nations to Test nations. For example, if Ireland had an opportunity to attain Test status in the next four years, the likes of Boyd Rankin, and Eoin Morgan might not have opted to play for England.
It will also give more exposure to Associate players to make a name for themselves, and perhaps land lucrative deals as well, much like the exposure the T20 World Cup offered to players like Kevin O’Brien and Ryan ten Doeschate.
The top team from the lower tier gets promoted to the top tier after each cycle, and the bottom team from the top-tier gets relegated to the lower tier for the next cycle.
At the end of the four year cycle, the top two teams from the bottom tier can compete in a 3-Test series at a neutral venue, or a 3-Test series, with one Test each for home, away and neutral venues. The winner gets promoted to the top-tier, with the bottom team from the top-tier gets relegated to the lower-tier.
At the end of the four year cycle, the top two teams from the top tier can compete in a 5-Test series at a neutral venue, or a 3-Test series, with two Tests each for home and away and the fifth and final Test to be played at a neutral venue. The winner gets crowned the Test Champions.
The promotion/relegation series and the Test Championship can be scheduled to be played concurrently.
How will the tiered system help cricket?
Each Test match will have context. Every Test will be competed against teams of a similar quality. The contests might be even, which will make for interesting games, and hopefully, eventually, more viewers.
These Tests should also form the basis for Test player/batsman/bowler of the 4- year cycle, as that will ensure that you have played against varied opposition in various conditions, and proved your mettle against all.
Fixing the FTP:
Now this may seem like a radical idea, but fixing the FTP is the most logical solution. The FTP is the foundation on which cricket’s international schedule, and hence the sport itself is built upon. One look at the current FTP will tell a fan which teams matter more than the others. And that should not be a problem. India having the biggest audience should get the biggest slice of the pie, and to some extent, have more of a say in the FTP than, say, New Zealand.
But the FTP should be uniform in one thing: the number of minimum series that each country has to play. A four-year cycle gives each team within a Tier to host and tour the other five teams in their tier. That will make a total of 10 Test series that each team will play over a four-year period (5 Home and 5 Away). Pretty reasonable, to say the least. Each series should not be any less than 3 Tests for the top-tier, and 2 Tests for the lower-tier.
Any series other than the Championship should not be penciled in to the FTP, and should be the decision of the Boards involved. This is where India can choose to play Sri Lanka as many times as they wish, and generate as much income as they can. What happens to marquee series like the Ashes? An FTP that ONLY dictates the Test Championships and the World Cups leaves more than enough room for tours to be conducted on bilateral agreements. England and Australia can play as many Tests in an Ashes series as their respective Boards agree upon, as long as they commit to the minimum number of Tests required for the Test Championship. Ashes Tests can also be part of the Championship, if Australia and England are within the same Tier during one cycle.
The FTP should NOT include any ODI or T20 series, with the exception of the World Cups, and perhaps the Champions Trophy. These should be left up to the respective boards, and they can play as much or as little as they want.
The profits from each Test series can be shared by the ICC and the boards involved. Similarly, any losses incurred should be borne by both the Boards and the ICC. Since the ICC shares the profits/losses, they can impose that DRS be used for ALL series, in whatever shape or form the ICC has approved it. Saying that BCCI might not agree to it is moot; they did, after all, let the DRS be used in the World Cup, which they co-hosted.
Any revenue generated from the ODI or T20 series following the Tests is the Boards’ profit. Any losses incurred are theirs to bear as well.
TV Rights sold for any tours should be clearly defined, stating that an “x” amount of dollars is for the Test series (to be shared by the Home Board and ICC), and “y” amount of dollars is for the limited overs leg of a tour, which might not necessarily take place as the Boards concerned can decide not to have any other matches (highly unlikely).
The league stage of the Championship can award points for wins (10) and draws/ties (5). Bonus points can be awarded using the following criteria:
1 point for each wicket taken, an additional bonus point for taking all 10 wickets in an innings within 100 overs.
1 point for every 40 runs scored, an additional bonus point for scoring 400 within 100 overs.
2 points for winning by an innings.
1 extra point for winning each away Test.
In case of teams finishing on the same number of points, the team with the most away wins gets a higher standing.
In case the teams have an equal number of away wins, the team with the least away losses gets a higher standing.
In case the teams have an equal number of away losses, the team with the highest run rate gets a higher standing.
Using the above-mentioned scoring criteria might encourage teams to have sporting declarations, higher run rates, or attacking fields in order to gain the extra points that they might need to stay in contention for promotion/Championship, or to avoid relegation.
Giving context to every Test match played, putting your overall ranking on the line, and having the hope of always finishing ahead of others might just be catalyst that brings Test matches back to life. The above-mentioned solution can be tailored to have a different points system to better suit the league format, but something along the lines of minimum Tests played home and away, and doing away with meaningless bilateral ODI series just might be the way forward for international cricket.