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Can Test Championship Revive Fortunes of Oldest Format?

Dileep Premachandran |Cricketnext |October 16, 2017, 10:10 AM IST
Can Test Championship Revive Fortunes of Oldest Format?

In October 2009, on the sidelines of the Champions Trophy final at Supersport Park in Centurion, this correspondent asked Haroon Lorgat, then the International Cricket Council’s chief executive, why the Test Championship – talked about for aeons – was a non-starter. He laid blame squarely at the doors of the ‘rich’ cricket boards, the triumvirate that subsequently came to be labelled the Big Three. Australia and England were also culpable, he said, but the biggest stumbling block was the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).

In the years since, that accusation has been made to look increasingly ridiculous. The BCCI, thanks largely to its ham-handed public relations, continues to get a bad rap. But the numbers suggest that no cricket board – and certainly not their well-heeled cousins in England and Australia – does more to spread the wealth around.

Let’s just look at the outline of the new structure that the ICC has put in place for Test and ODI cricket. These advocate six Test series in a two-year cycle, with the top sides playing most of their peers once either home or away. In the 50-overs format, the plan is for a three-year cycle (the first one will run just for 24 months) that incorporates series against each of the other 12 teams chosen to be part of the elite group.

In the last two years, India have played 24 Tests across seven series. They have played every side apart from Pakistan and Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe, after years of decline and instability, have only recently made it back to the Test fold, while series against Pakistan, ever since the early 1960s, have been prey to the whims of politicians on both sides of the border. To blame the BCCI for cross-border sabre-rattling makes no sense at all.

If you go back a further two years, the situation is no different. In that 24-month cycle, India played 19 Tests across seven series. Again, the schedule took in every team apart from Zimbabwe and Pakistan. In both cycles, there was a one-off Test against Bangladesh. The upgrade to two or even three Tests should be welcomed by broadcasters seeking a local rivalry to replace the India-Pakistan one.

If you take the three-year cycle for ODIs, India have played 12 bilateral series comprising 51 games since October 2014. There was also a tri-series in Australia before the 2015 World Cup. Of the 12 series, two were in Zimbabwe, a long trek that few countries make – England haven’t set foot there since 2004, while Australia have played one series there in the last 13 years. Except for Pakistan, India have toured or hosted each of the Test-playing nations in this cycle.

In the penultimate one, they also played 12 series, including a three-match home contest against Pakistan. In addition to that, there were two Asia Cups and two tri-series, one apiece in Australia and the Caribbean. In essence, the new guidelines change nothing as far as India is concerned. But for the elephant in the room that is cricket against Pakistan, India have been fulfilling their obligations and then some for the best part of a decade, which is more than can be said for others.

The new proposals will change nothing if Test cricket isn’t given a helping hand in the countries where it has struggled to stay relevant. New Zealand and West Indies, to give two examples, have met the numerical criteria over the past four years, but there’s little point in forcing boards to host series that plunge their finances into further disarray. The Test championship will make sense only if a significant share of the revenue from it – assuming sponsors and advertisers clamber aboard the bandwagon – is used to at least partially subsidise the cost of hosting such matches, and the extras they entail like the Decision Review System (DRS).

Any talk of context is irrelevant as long as the playing field continues to be unequal. Test status for Afghanistan and Ireland, or even Bangladesh, means little as long as they’re given scant opportunities to test themselves against the best. And those one-off or rare matches make little sense either when the roots of the game are not robust. As much as any Test championship or ODI league, what cricket needs is a pathway for such nations to improve rapidly.

In the 1980s, Sri Lanka, invited to the top table in 1982, played just 29 Tests and 95 ODIs. In the next decade, those numbers ballooned to 67 Tests and a whopping 217 ODIs. Contrast that with Bangladesh, the new boys, in the first decade of the new millennium, when they played 61 Tests and 174 ODIs – number swelled by eight five-day matches and 43 50-over games against Zimbabwe, a side going into a tailspin.

With TV companies so influential in the carving out of itineraries, you’re not going to see too many series featuring the unfashionable sides, no matter what the guidelines may say. One way to lift playing standards, and breathe some life into domestic cricket, would be to include them in competitions like the Duleep Trophy and the Sunfoil Series, depending on geography. Afghanistan, Nepal and even Bangladesh A could play in India, while Papua New Guinea could be part of a tournament on either side of the Tasman Sea. Ireland, Scotland and the Netherlands could be part of certain English competitions, as they have been at times in the past.

Sport at the highest level, as Neymar Junior’s transfer earlier this summer proved, is never going to be about charity. The bottom line matters. But for cricket, played at a high level in so few countries, that line would look a lot healthier if the playing pool was widened and deepened. And contrary to popular perception, India have done more than anyone else in that regard. The numbers don’t lie.

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2 New Zealand 2547 111
3 South Africa 2917 108
4 England 3778 105
5 Australia 2640 98
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1 England 6745 125
2 India 7071 122
3 New Zealand 4837 112
4 Australia 5543 111
5 South Africa 5193 110
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1 Pakistan 7365 283
2 England 4253 266
3 South Africa 4196 262
4 India 8099 261
5 Australia 5471 261
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