October is a funny time for those based in England – the season is done, the winter tours are still seemingly distant, the football and rugby seasons are properly underway, and for the assorted scribblers that make up this place, it’s a busy time at work. This is probably why the ICC pick this time of year to slip out proposed changes to the game, just to ensure maximum annoyance at BOC Towers.
Of course, we’ve been here before, the stillborn Test Championship being a case in point, and when our Glorious Overlords come up with their latest wheeze to create “context” for the game of cricket, there’s a temptation to sigh and reach for the brandy. Or revolver.
The concept is simple enough, for Test cricket to work towards becoming a competition with a winner at the end of it, the proposal being for the top nine teams to play each other home and away over a two year period culminating in final to determine the winner. So far so good. Given the abandonment of the Future Tours Programme as being anything more than a suggestion, some kind of plan for how Test cricket should function should be welcomed. But the proposal has very little meat on the bones, and the plan for it to start in 2019 puts rather a tight timetable on it being adopted. There’s little information announced about what the next step would be thus far at least, and we’re already closing fast on 2018.
There’s also the element of announcement fatigue when it comes to ICC edicts. We’ve been here so many times before. But let’s be generous and assume it’s going to come off. A proper competition could actually be rather fun, with all series having something riding on them, whether for the teams hoping to reach a final, or those further down who hope to still be involved next time around. That in itself does create a problem, for the 10th placed team might find it somewhat difficult to arrange series to get themselves involved for the following competition. There’s little indicating a pathway for Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Ireland, which doesn’t in itself mean there won’t be one, just that it’s either not been thought about, or not been considered. Sceptics about the ICC can make up their own minds.
Equally, when the round of matches comes to a conclusion, it will presumably be straight into the next one once the final has been played. The leading sides would be fairly reluctant to organise a series against a team who might not be involved for the following summer, and the potential for the lower ranking sides to be left dangling has to be real. In any case, having only to play 6 of the 8 sides could offer the possibility of gaming the system on the one hand, or simply ignoring the lesser lights on the other. Quite how it could be made compulsory to ensure all nine teams actually get those 6 series in two years hasn’t been explained; Bangladesh only just managed to reach the required number over the last two years, while the fraught bilateral relationship between India and Pakistan is an obvious problem.
Nine is perhaps a specifically chosen number, for it would exclude Zimbabwe, a country who would find it problematic to arrange series against some countries, notably England. The lack of requirement for everyone to play everyone else might be considered deliberate in that light.
The length of series too is merely confined to be a minimum of two and a maximum of five, suggesting a complete refusal to become involved in changing the tendency to play as little as possible against the smaller nations. It’s probably not too surprising in itself, for the ICC is not a governing body in the normal sense, more an outlet for the collective musings of the bigger countries. The points system too is unknown, and that could provide some grounds for decent argument, given how the Test championship table can give rise to some interesting aberrations from time to time.
Still being generous (which gets harder by the day), it could provide grounds for a Test series to matter more to spectators and participants alike. Yet it’s tough to see this as any kind of radical change, more trying to fit a competition around what more or less exists at present. In some respects, that might well be as much as is possible to do at this stage; the various vested interests have always managed to kill attempts to bring forward genuine change – unless money is involved of course, for then it’s a different matter.
Of perhaps more interest in terms of a significant change is the proposed ODI league due to start a year after its Test equivalent. One day series have always been utterly disposable (without looking it up, can you remember the series results even from this summer?), to the point that the acronym JAMODI – work it out yourself – gained some currency. The proposal appears to be that the eight series to be played over that time will be over three matches, and unlike with the Test programme, that’s not put forward as a minimum, but an absolute. If that is the case, then shorter ODI series would appear to be the way forward, which is intriguing in itself were it to happen.
The last major change being mooted is to trial four day Test matches, probably beginning with the Boxing Day Test between South Africa and Zimbabwe later this year. There’s a rationale there, for a fixture such as that the likelihood of it going five days is questionable, and for Test cricket to have a future, then it does need to pay its way. The problem with this is what it always has been – it’s messing with a format that works as a cricket one. The ECB have been in favour for a while, because Tests in England are often finishing in four days. But there is, and always has been, a fundamental difference between noting that trend (and it needs to be shouted long and loud that elsewhere this is not an issue) and removing the potential for the kind of fifth day we saw only this summer against the West Indies. Accepting the need for Test cricket to pay its way is hardly an argument in the country that retains the greatest interest in the format.
Experiment by all means, but note that the players appear to be rather opposed.
It’s easy to be cynical about the ICC, but then they do keep giving those cynics reason to be so. The announcements have been made, and all will wait to see if anything comes of them. It could be good, but then few would be surprised if it all unravelled to leave nothing but the four day Tests behind. Cynicism is so often a product of repeatedly being let down.
In other news, BT Sport have announced their commentary line up for the forthcoming Ashes series. With the usual Sky commentators clearly unavailable, many of the names will come as little surprise, such as Michael Vaughan and Geoffrey Boycott. Having Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist to represent the home team does at least offer the potential for some kind of insight, while Matt Smith will be the main presenter. Graeme Swann has also been listed as being present, though there is some debate as to whether he will only be there until Perth before coming home if England are losing.