After a seventeen year hiatus, the ICC has finally taken the plunge and extended the global Test cricket family from ten to twelve countries. In a decision that was not wholly unexpected the ICC elected to grant full Test playing status to both Ireland and Afghanistan. Participation in Test matches is at least in theory the pinnacle level of the sport, however, this does not always correlate favourably with the ICC’s often perceived disinterest in the five-day game.
Ireland has been knocking at the door of Test cricket for some years now as a leading associate team. Their geographic proximity to England has enabled them to develop their young talent via participation in the County game. An informal quid pro agreement that has brought some outstanding players through, but often with the consequence of losing them to the English national team. In the recent past the likes of Eoin Morgan, Boyd Rankin and Ed Joyce have all gone on to migrate from Ireland to England, and in the case of the last two, back to the emerald isle again.
For Ireland, it has been a steady upwards trajectory since being invited into the ICC club as an Associate member in 1993. They only really began to come to prominence at the 2007 World Cup where they followed up their tie against Zimbabwe with a spectacular victory over Pakistan and ultimately progression into the Super 8 stage. This was followed up by victories against England in the 2011 tournament and versus West Indies and Zimbabwe in the most recent edition.
If Ireland’s progression up the cricket ladder has been relatively phased and steady then Afghanistan’s’ has been positively meteoric. For a nation that mostly only exists in the public consciousness cloaked in a shroud of horror-laden news stories; their cricket team provides a singular, shining beacon of light.
Remarkably Afghanistan has only been an Associate member of the ICC since June 2013 and in the space of two years was able to qualify for a World Cup and ultimately gain full ODI status. Their team for that 2015 tournament containing as it did numerous players who had picked up the game in refugee camps, whilst their country continued in its seemingly endless political turmoil.
The last nation to gain full Test status did so on the back of a single high profile victory at a World Cup. Bangladesh’s seismic triumph over Pakistan was probably in retrospect a blessing and a curse. Followed as it was by the longest losing streak in international cricket. Taking their bow in 2000 Bangladesh proceeded to embark on a run that saw them lose their first 27 Test matches. Only recently, with their series draws against England and Sri Lanka, do they finally look like establishing themselves as a bonafide test team; in home conditions at least.
It is an interesting point to consider whether white ball form should have any legitimate bearing on whether a nation is ready for the wholly different demands of Test cricket. Perhaps both countries might be better served by having more expansive ODI fixture lists, to build on progress made thus far, rather than the current arrangement of throw away matches at the beginning and end of tours. The reason for this current malaise is that the top nations see little value in playing them both from a quality and a marketing standpoint. If this is the case for ODI’s then it is easy to predict that this will be magnified still further when it comes to Test matches
With some of the established nations already appearing to view five-day cricket as an unnecessary distraction it is difficult to see where both teams will fit into the current global schedule. The ICC thinking here seems to be slightly schizophrenic as on the one hand they have earlier closed the World Cup door on two rapidly emerging ODI nations and yet welcomed them into the fold of five-day cricket, where they have had zero exposure and are likely to struggle. The cynic could deduce that rather than the ICC awarding them the highest accolade they have instead brushed them off with what they now consider as the crumbs from their table.
It is a challenge to perceive any of the major teams queuing up for a three-match Test tour of Ireland or being prepared to host what they would consider as a singularly unattractive drawing card. The same would apply to Afghanistan who, like Pakistan, will have to plough a nomadic existence of neutral venues and away tours.
Their main opportunities will by necessity lie at the least fashionable end of the Test table. On a positive note, this could potentially help breathe new life into Zimbabwean cricket. For a long time now the African nation has barely existed as a Test playing team and struggled even to find regular white ball fixtures against top tier nations. Recently they have been filling the void with tours of associates like Scotland and Netherlands, which has proved at least helpful in maintaining some international momentum.
Whilst the rest of the cricket world was in England for the Champions Trophy, the sad and lamentable shadow that was once the West Indies team, were entertaining Afghanistan. Far from the attention of the world’s media, they scrambled themselves to a 1-1 ODI series draw. There was very little to choose between the sides and the final rained off match could easily have gone either way.
As the West Indies continue on their accelerated decline they might just find natural bedfellows among Test cricket’s newest entrants. For a long time now they have struggled to compete in the longest format and their days of being a crowd-pleasing draw are long behind them. The addition of developing Test nations to the existing pool may have the mutual benefit of helping them regain some confidence in their cricket whilst simultaneously advancing the skillset of the junior nations.
The less positive view is that this is simply the precursor to a formal fracturing within Test cricket. The extension of nations at the lower and developing end of the sport will allow the ICC’s dominant powers to finally cut adrift their weaker and less attractive opponents, in a way that will at least look socially acceptable.
This can be readily achieved by the hasty establishment of a two-tier structure for Test cricket. Whilst being able to present the latest changes as their commitment to growing the game it could instead engender the opposite whereby the top end of the sport contracts into the richest countries, and leaves the rest to fight over the unprofitable scraps.
A two division breakdown is not wholly a bad idea and is in many ways sensible. On the one level, it will at least protect the integrity of the game’s records as the newly established teams find their feet in the format. However, multiple key elements and indirect outcomes should be carefully considered. Most critically where will the dividing line be drawn and what mobility will exist to allow a team to move from the bottom level to the top.
Based on past form it would be easy to see a structure develop where some nations are almost perpetually consigned to the second string with little potential to grow. For a team like the West Indies, used to hosting big name tours, a future diet of matches against Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Ireland, Bangladesh and perhaps New Zealand or Sri Lanka will not be a positive. Rather than revive the game’s fortunes it could consign it to oblivion. It would, however, free up the BCCI, ECB and others to focus their attention on high-profile and bankable tours, within their narrow coterie.
Saddest of all could be the fate of Bangladesh who are finally making giant leaps within Test cricket. At the moment the major powers are obligated to play them in at least a minimum number of matches within the Test cycle. If that obligation is removed then it is difficult to understand how their progression can continue, and the hard-won improvements will struggle to be sustained. In addition, it is hard to believe that the big power broker boards will ever allow a tournament construct that will enable them to slip from the riches of the top tier into the basement level.
In conclusion the advancement of Ireland and Afghanistan is to be applauded. However, the dominant players within the ICC have so much history in respect of self-interest and protectionism that it is only sensible to be at least mildly suspicious. One hopes that the expansion will broaden the games footprint, increase the level of competition and raise the bar.
Regrettably though it could produce the exact opposite result and drag down some of the ICC’s older but less fashionable members. In this increasingly zero-sum game the rich may just about to be getting a whole lot richer.