The Fight for Cricket’s Future

The International Cricket Council ICC HQ is seen in Dubai October 30, 2010.Pakistan's Salman Butt and Mohammad Amir are confident their suspensions will be lifted at a hearing in Dubai this weekend, they said on Friday. REUTERS/Nikhil Monteiro (UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Tags: SPORT CRICKET)

Try to picture a cricket ground which is offering spectators the chance to watch the action in a setting where Lord Lucan could be sitting next to Shergar and nobody would notice – because there’s nobody there – and you might understand why the Intercontinental Cup leaves me as cold as the characters in “Frozen”.

I remember sitting around at Ayr one Saturday for hours, as the rain fell incessantly in 2007, prior to the umpires confirming the inevitable news there would be no play. That date – July 2 – has always stuck with me, not because of anything to do with cricket, but because, on the journey home, I discovered that John Smeaton and other Glasgow Airport staff had heroically foiled a terrorist attack.

Ever since that afternoon, the Intercontinental Cup has been eminently avoidable. And now, the ICC, which seems determined to keep ploughing down the wrong path, wants to reward the 2017 winners with a chance to tackle the bottom country among the body’s Full Members.

Even more radically, it is actively discussing the possibility of a two-tier Test structure coming into existence by 2019, which must be one of the craziest concepts dreamt up by an organisation which keeps stumbling around in the dark.

Honestly, it’s difficult to know where to start with the objections. At the moment, Ireland and Afghanistan are probably in pole position to win the ongoing intercontinental Cup, and the former’s livewire chief executive, Warren Deutrom, is keen on the notion of new members joining the ICC’s elite nations. I don’t fault him, but at the moment, the whole idea really is preposterous.

Why? Well, let’s take a look at three basic factors. Firstly, how many people among the sport’s established nations are still turning up for four or five days of Test action? I watched the winter’s series between Australia and West Indies, for instance, and I felt a rapport with some of the fans, because I saw them every 20 minutes or so. The Aussies triumphed at a canter, but that didn’t matter to the vast majority of supporters who were switching their attention to the quick fire thrills of the Big Bash. More than 85,000 turned up for one Twenty20 match, which comfortably exceeded the entire Test crowd over several days. And it’s exactly the same scenario in South Africa, New Zealand and the Caribbean.

In this climate, who honestly believes Scots, Irish, Dutch or Afghan fans will turn up to watch five-day tussles against Zimbabwe, Bangladesh or even the now second-rate Windies? Get real, people – it’s pie in the sky!

And secondly, what financial provisions are being established to ensure the Associates will be ready – in three years – to commit themselves to cricket on a full-time basis. Granted, several nations have managed to arrange contracts for their best talent, but this merely extends to 15 or 20 players. There isn’t anything remotely resembling a pro cricket structure, involving four or six district sides, which would provide the intensity and competitive edge to allow the Associates to prepare properly for being asked to step up to a (much) higher level.

Nor, for that matter, is there the behind-the-scenes infrastructure or professionalism to stage full-scale Test matches in the emerging world. You can’t keep asking volunteers to give up whole weeks to ensure that matches proceed. You need to pay people to show that commitment. Or at least if you can even find them.

But thirdly, is there even any indication that the ICC’s elite performers are going to persist with the status quo? If you remove the Ashes from the equation – given that political reasons have conspired to dash hopes of an India v Pakistan tussle for the foreseeable future – it’s clear an increasing number of leading players are not interested in long-term Test careers. The West Indies are palpably a shambles because of this. But what about so many Asian starlets who are being offered king’s ransoms to pledge their troth to the IPL?

Cricket is changing at a dramatic rate. I’m not even sure we will still have five-day Tests in a decade. All the momentum is with limited-overs formats and, no matter that I might deprecate this development, there is no use pretending it isn’t happening.
So the ICC should forget about half-baked initiatives and concentrate on a way of helping the Associates raise their standards for at least five years with a fixture programme which actually makes sense.

In Europe, this should take the form of something like a cricket-style Five Nations Championship, involving Scotland, Ireland, The Netherlands, a European Select and the England Lions.

The latter’s inclusion might raise eyebrows, but why? This could be the perfect platform for England’s second-string squad to enhance their skills and help their Euro counterparts climb the ladder.

Let’s imagine this championship was played home and away between the teams across three formats, with four four-day contests, and the same number of ODIs and Twenty20 games. This would give al the sides a minimum of 12 fixtures and if the winners met their counterparts in Asia, it would be a tournament which could tap into people’s imaginations.

Better that by far than flinging countries with little experience into the Test cauldron and letting them sink or swim. Bangladesh are finally getting acclimatised to thriving in rarefied company, but it has taken them more than 15 years as ICC Full Members.

Surely we can’t make that mistake again?

9 Replies to "The Fight for Cricket's Future"

  • comment-avatar
    Gary Wilkinson
    March 2, 2016 (11:44 am)
    Reply

    Whilst I concur fully with the conclusion about test cricket both in relation to associates and the possible future of it I am not sure I see the merit in the five nations if it is to include a four day home and away fixture as well as the ODI and T20. The ODI and T20 is great but having to commit to 8 fixtures of four days with at least one travel day is a lot of time and money and hadley any different to a five day test series.. For all the reasons you say test cricket would not work for associates the same reasoning applies to the four day fixtures. If this five nations league/tournament was split over a two year period it would still mean 24 days of matches + the necessary travel days each year. And that requires a lot of pro paid players at more than the pocket money remuneration they earn in the North Sea Pro Series.

  • comment-avatar
    Neil Drysdale
    March 2, 2016 (12:40 pm)
    Reply

    That’s a fair point, Gary. But I don’t think the ICC will allow the Associates just to play one-day cricket. This, though, at least makes the fixtures meaningful in a European context.

  • comment-avatar
    Gary Wilkinson
    March 2, 2016 (1:27 pm)
    Reply

    I am sure you are hoping for the odd wrong’un – your five nations comp leads to the selection of a “European” test team. That must be worthy of a separate page on the site to ask for present nominations. lol

  • comment-avatar
    Neil Drysdale
    March 2, 2016 (2:10 pm)
    Reply

    Absolutely, that’s a cracking idea. I’d go for Porterfield, Coetzer, Joyce, T Cooper, Berrington, Mommsen, Borren, Ten Doeschate, G Wilson, Haq, Rankin. Plenty of choices!

  • comment-avatar
    Sean McPartlin
    March 2, 2016 (2:51 pm)
    Reply

    Good points here – and I agree and disagree. Common sense runs through Neil’s piece, but as someone who enjoys 4 day county cricket more than any other form, I have to be dragged screaming into acknowledgement of the way the wind is blowing. Eventually when players chasing big bucks learn how to be successful in T20, the skills, tactics and insight needed for “proper” cricket will wither, and we’ll be left with a version of baseball to please the marketing men. That in turn will be dumped when something more instantly “exciting” hits the airwaves. The only hope – for cricket, as well as rugby and football, is that, eventually we will have the “Harlem Globetrotters” version of these games performed exclusively for tv audiences by a travelling circus of “top players”, while an amateur version of the game will flourish, at a lower level, perhaps, but preserving the soul of each sport. In England you can already detect a movement from EPL to National Conference amongst supporters amongst whom the game is more important than the glitter. A thin and somewhat desolate hope, I suppose.

  • comment-avatar
    Neil Drysdale
    March 2, 2016 (4:21 pm)
    Reply

    I agree with most of what Sean says. After 20/20, where else is there to go? 10/10, maybe? I do think there is merit in the leading Associate players getting the opportunity to refine their skills in four-day cricket. Just not in the Intercontinenal Cup!

  • comment-avatar
    Russ
    March 2, 2016 (11:17 pm)
    Reply

    Neil, I think this is both overly pessimistic and reductive.

    You are absolutely right about the current setup, both of test cricket, with its context-free bilaterals, and poor marketing, and more-so the I-Cup with its non-existent media coverage, lack of high profile international players, second-rate status, and uncertainty over its point. Similarly, in a world where associates get no high profile tours, and grossly unfair distribution of ICC funds, and no help marketing and televising the cricket they do play, implementing test match cricket is a difficult burden. But the ICC’s aim with a test championship is to address those issues (though to the degree that they will remains unclear). It is a step too far to argue that it would be impossible to make test cricket attractive to an audience, even in Scotland.

    Australia provides some useful examples here. Test cricket is actually in rude health. TV audiences are routinely over a million people; crowds at Adelaide for the day-night test were huge, and better than 20 years ago in Melbourne. It is marketed well, despite the broader global issues, and steep ticket prices.

    But a better example is found with the women’s game. Two years ago I watched NSW play Victoria – more than a dozen current or recent internationals on show, including the world’s best batter and fastest bowler – in front of about 40 people. No television or media coverage, no interest beyond a few close supporters. This year Cricket Australia introduced the WBBL. They paid to televise parts of the tournament, paid for media to write about matches, encouraged BBL clubs to market them as whole entities. Crowds at untelevised matches were in the thousands, and higher for the double headers which had TV coverage. Television coverage was expanded, and the schedule amended, due to viewer demand, and the tournament was more successful than the most optimistic predictions.

    Marketing works. It makes no sense to write off test cricket in Scotland, or anywhere, until we’ve seen it fail with an actual effort being made by the governing bodies to package and promote it like a sport people want to watch – rather than some sort of obligation to be got through. The marketing of cricket currently, test cricket particularly, is rubbish. The product is poorly constructed. The packaging is non-existent. In Scotland’s case they suffer from a lack of funds to make an impact, but the ICC has the means to invest in development and they aren’t doing so. Learning the lessons of the BBL would help too: target the biggest markets, undersell the TV rights in exchange for marketing and coverage, reach out to kids and women, schedule in ways that build tradition and certainty. You can’t argue associate cricket, test cricket, cricket generally, is doing that. They plainly aren’t and failing because of it.

  • comment-avatar
    Neil Drysdale
    March 3, 2016 (4:39 pm)
    Reply

    That’s a terrific response, Russ. I think you make plenty of very valid points and it’s true we won’t know whether Test cricket takes off in new countries without making the effort. I just wonder about the whole rush to embrace one-day games and the fact there is no history of fans turning up to watch long-form matches in Scotland or Ireland.

  • comment-avatar
    Neil Drysdale
    March 5, 2016 (2:20 pm)
    Reply

    I think one of the main things for Associate cricket is that at least one of Scotland, Ireland, Afghanistan, The Netherlands, Oman and Hong Kong wins their qualifying group at World T20. If Bangladesh and Zimbabwe go through to the main event, it will simply reinforce the ICC’s attitude that the so-called “minnows” are making up the numbers.


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