A Terrible Two-Tier Idea: The Future of Test Match Cricket

Posted on January 18, 2014

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Once again, the future of test cricket is up in the air. As the Australia/England ODI series finally produces something approaching a contest between the two teams, and the Big Bash League motors on with close finishes, big hitting and non-stop thrills, test cricket can be forgiven for resembling the hotel residents who ring reception at 10.30pm to complain about the noise levels in the hotel bar. Frequently, some of the most respected names in the sport stand up to lament the traditional format, to come up with ways of making it spicier. They talk of how the lucrative T20 contracts have changed the aim of young players, from a test cap to an IPL contract. Decades back, the idea of an England test player missing a test match in favour of playing in a domestic short format competition was completely unthinkable. Now, it’s a legitimate quandary.

Now, the idea of a two-tier system is back in play. Rahul Dravid, Michael Vaughan and many others see it as the only way to save test cricket. The two-division system has certainly led to improvements in the English county game. Matches towards the end of the season have meaning now, both in terms of competition and financial rewards. The rankings would take on a genuine fluidity, and the aim would be to expand the game. The system proposed would be two divisions of six, with Australia, England, India, South Africa, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in Division One, followed by Bangladesh, Ireland, New Zealand, West Indies, Zimbabwe and one more associate nation (most likely Afghanistan, although Michael Vaughan hilariously proposes Kenya, showing how out of touch he is). They would play over multiple years, gathering points for eventual promotion and relegation between the two.

Sure, on paper it doesn’t seem so bad. Who doesn’t want matches to matter? If Pakistan head to South Africa for a three-match series knowing they need to win at least one match to stay in the top division, the tension is already ramped up. If South Africa needed to beat India to win the title in their recent series in SA, would they have committed further to chasing down 458? Of course they would. It’s easy to see the two-tier system as being good for the game.

The problem is that sport isn’t played on paper, and cricket is no ordinary sport. Cricket is unique in that it has to support three different formats of the same sport. From the off, it is an overly ambitious game. Attempting to add intrigue to some of the nothing matches can only be a good thing, but it can also be done without sacrificing those who are struggling at the moment. It’s telling that this idea is seriously being spoke of at a time when New Zealand and West Indies are the two historical nations that are struggling. When India lost eight tests back to back in England and Australia, no one called for a two-tier system then. If England go on a horrific run now, will Vaughan still back the idea if they are to be slotted into Division two? Obviously not. New Zealand’s recent record isn’t so bad either way. In fact, the last time they played Australia in a test they won. In Australia.

If the aim is to expand the game, what is stopping countries such as Ireland and Afghanistan playing test matches? The sanctity of the game? Ridiculous. I’m not saying it’s time to send Pakistan on a four test tour of Ireland, but what is stopping India playing a test in Ireland next summer on their tour of Britain? Obviously tests can’t be played in Afghanistan right now, but the UAE has provided Pakistan with a ‘home’ for a few years, can the same not be done for the improving Afghans? The only way the lesser-ranked teams will improve is by playing matches. This is the only reason Bangladesh haven’t improved more in their test history. They just haven’t played enough games.

Test cricket is going to be just fine. The only thing that it is really suffering from is unnecessarily pessimistic thinking.

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Posted in: Sport