@ovshake42 5 minute read
In an ESPNCricinfo column, Ian Chappell has suggested stripping four teams of their Test status. What the format requires at this point is the exact opposite, explains Abhishek Mukherjee.
Let us first examine Ian Chappell’s questions: “How many teams should be playing Tests? And why aren’t administrators working with the players in a partnership to ensure the future of the game?”
The second question is obviously pertinent. The Federation of International Cricketers’ Association (FICA) should have been the logical intermediary between the two, at least in principle: they call themselves “the players’ collective representative at global level by the ICC and other bodies, and in all relevant ICC and other global forums”.
Yet, when the ICC announced their next Future Tests Programme in August, FICA Chief Executive Tom Moffat did express his concern (“FICA remains concerned that the FTP’s do not address the tension between the international cricket and domestic leagues landscapes”).
It goes without saying that the two bodies – of administrators and cricketers – need to work more in synchronisation than they do at this point.
Which bring us to Chappell’s other point, of how many teams should be playing Test cricket as of now. By suggesting “Test status is best confined to the eight nations who have had a long-standing culture of the format,” he has as good as recommended stripping four nations of Test status.
These are probably Ireland, Afghanistan (he specifically mentions them), Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. The last two, the most recent additions among the rest, are also – perhaps not coincidentally – at the bottom of the top ten.
One can see where Chappell – one of the most respected captains and cricket pundits of all time – is coming from. First-class cricket infrastructure is more expensive and less profitable than Twenty20 leagues; given a choice, almost every board will opt for the latter.
Chappell demands teams to have “to fulfil infrastructure and financial requirements to qualify for Test status” and the requirement of a “second-tier competition, where teams that perform well could state their case for Test status”.
Fair points, but that is exactly how Afghanistan and Ireland had acquired Test status. They met every demand, fulfilled every requirement, and dominated the ICC Intercontinental Cup to reach there. They followed every protocol – unlike South Africa, whose matches against England, Australia, and New Zealand were rewarded Test status in the 1960s when they should not have been once they left the Commonwealth in 1961.
Since then, Afghanistan have played six Test matches and Ireland three over four and a half years – because other teams have been reluctant to play against them, and the ICC have looked the other way. When they launched the inaugural World Test Championship – which should have solved the problem – they left out both teams and Zimbabwe (10 Tests over the same period).
Stripping them of Test status would simply mean penalising the wrong parties. If the ICC indeed does that, they would do exactly what the Woolf Report had accused them of in 2012: “The ICC reacts as though it is primarily a Members club; its interest in enhancing the global development of the game is secondary.”
Chappell has also recommended best-of-the-rest XIs (“combination teams composed of interested players who represent non-Test status teams”). The idea might – or not – have been inspired by a hard-fought ‘Test’ series Chappell had led Australia in, against a Rest of the World XI side in 1971/72. The Rest of the World side won 2-1, but that tour featured 12 tour matches (of first-class status) including three before the first ‘Test’. Given the schedules the cricketers have to adhere to, an itinerary like that is virtually impossible today.
Despite a galaxy of superstars, the ICC Super Series (Australia against the Rest of World) had sunk in 2005/06. In an era when tour matches are becoming extinct, how are such teams – with players with little “long-standing culture of the format” – expected to compete if they do not get to play first-class cricket alongside each other?
All that brings us to a much bigger question: why should Test status be earned in the first place?
The Test status of the early matches were decided almost arbitrarily. When the ICC was founded in 1909, the USA was not part of it despite a team from Philadelphia having a terrific summer in England in 1908. The USA had also played an international match in 1844, against Canada – but it was not assigned Test status.
For decades, cricket used to be the most popular sport in the USA. They were a strong side with a reasonably active domestic structure. It never competed against baseball after the Great War.
A similar situation arose in 1926, when the ICC rewarded Full Membership to the West Indies (who were not a nation), India (who did not have a board), and New Zealand. Yet again, the list did not include a strong Argentinian side. Almost to prove a point, Argentina beat the MCC in January 1927.
Once football grew in popularity in the late 1920s, cricket in Argentina faded out. By not being proactive and inclusive, the ICC lost the opportunity to make inroads into the Americas.
Between 1926 and 1982, the ICC handed the hallowed Test status to a sum total of one team: Pakistan. Even among them, the teams did not play each other uniformly. For example, despite the proximity, Australia played New Zealand only once until 1973/74, and were the last of the existing Full Members to host them.
Sri Lanka needed to play two World Cups before getting a Test match. Zimbabwe, three. At every step, the organisers sent out the message that playing Test cricket was a bigger prize than even a World Cup berth – a level typically considered the pinnacle of every other sport at international level. In cricket’s case, even more so – for it was not an Olympic sport.
It was not clear why one of cricket’s formats should be considered sacred enough to qualify for such exclusivity. Test cricket’s superiority has always been based on phrases like ‘purest format’ and ‘real cricket’ and ‘the ultimate contest between bat and ball’. If looked at objectively, these are subjective phrases that have seldom been questioned.
The rise of Twenty20 cricket exposed the three follies of how the ICC’s approach towards Test cricket over the decades. Cricket’s shortest format is not merely the easiest to arrange: it is also more inclusive in terms of geography and gender, and does not need an international tournament to be popular.
There is little doubt that Test cricket – or international cricket, generally – is against an unprecedented adversary in the form of franchise leagues. Unlike Packer’s SuperTests or the rebel Tests in South Africa or the Indian Cricket League, this threat is not going to go away, for these are run by the boards that are members of the ICC.
Of course, the ICC may try to retain the vague sanctity of Test cricket by restricting it to as few teams as possible. They have not done so yet, but one look at the next FTP reveals that England, Australia, and India will continue to play five-match Test series among each other, while one- or two-match series are going to be become the norm for the other teams.
A couple of decades down the line, the disparity will only increase. Test cricket has already lost players to franchise-based cricket. Chappell himself had been part of that bandwagon, though rebel leagues did not, to quote Chappell, “pop up faster than weeds in summer”.
If weaker teams start losing players to franchise cricket, the gap will only increase, and Test matches will become even more one-sided. If they are not allowed to play major teams often, it will not be long before Test cricket starts losing entire teams: for how long will a board continue to field depleted sides in front of empty stands?
That will probably in line with Chappell’s recommendations.
Alternately, they may try to give cricket’s least inclusive format one final chance to find its footing by being more inclusive, by not being as stringent about Test status as they have been. It is too late already, but perhaps it is still worth a try.