The Fight for Cricket’s Future
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?