May 13, 2015

Cricket needs to stop being parochial

The best Associates need a shot at Test cricket immediately, as opposed to the more tedious pathway via the Intercontinental Cup

What's stopping the ICC from introducing an 11th Test nation now? © ICC/Saleem Sanghati

This year, Kumar Sangakkara was Wisden's leading cricketer in the world. The greatest left-hand batsman since Brian Lara by some accounts. His country, little Sri Lanka with its population of 20 million, is a difficult Test side to beat. Muttiah Muralitharan is the leading wicket-taker in the history of Test cricket. Three thousand kilometres to the northeast, Bangladesh matched Pakistan in the first Test. Pakistan were embarrassed by the draw. They had beaten Bangladesh in every previous Test. A first victory against Pakistan can't be too far off for the Bengal Tigers.

When I started watching cricket in the 1970s neither Sri Lanka nor Bangladesh was a Test nation. The last country to be awarded Test status was Pakistan, in 1952. South Africa were exiled. Zimbabwe was known as a land of farmers and part-time cricketers. Test cricket was a small world. Television coverage was confined to home Test matches. Australia, England, New Zealand, West Indies, India and Pakistan. That was the world of Test cricket. A six-nation tournament.

This week Namibia host Hong Kong in the ICC Intercontinental Cup. Dave Richardson, the ICC's chief executive, says this tournament "is now the platform for emerging nations to fulfil their ambitions of playing Test cricket". The winners of this round robin league, which includes Ireland and Afghanistan, will play the bottom-ranked Test side in 2018. What happens next? Ireland have won the competition four times in the last decade, yet they remain an Associate ICC member. Afghanistan have won it too. The current ICC pathway is too long and too slow.

Over the past 60 years and more, international cricket has invited three new nations to its top table. South Africa's ban was lifted. It's an abysmal return on the ICC's promise of supporting new countries to Test status. That's why the press releases the ICC sends to journalists about progress on the "Pathway to Test Cricket" read like a cynical marketing stunt. The ICC's actions speak for themselves. Three in 60 years.

Turn international cricket on its head and make countries Test teams by default. At the very least, adopt a proactive policy of introducing one or two new Test nations every year

Those three in 60 years had little to do with merit. Yes, Sri Lanka in particular showed some quality, but that wasn't why they were promoted. The rising power of Asia was the major influence. Politics, plain and simple, won the day. Once Sri Lanka graduated, politics eased Zimbabwe and Bangladesh into the fold.

And it is politics that will preserve the status quo. The member states sitting on the ICC executive committee are too intoxicated with power, too bloated on the spoils of their television money, to let others in on their fun. There is no longer a Great Game to dislodge the traditional powers of Australia and England. The old money is in cahoots with the new money of India, lording it over the no-monies that make up the rest of the ICC executive. The die of international cricket politics is cast for a good many years.

The arguments to deny Test status are nonsense. Quality? Countries can only develop the skills for Test cricket if they are allowed to play it, against the better teams. Infrastructure? A Test series can be played at a single venue. Empty stadiums? That's par for the course in most Test matches. Money? I don't remember the ICC recording a loss. There is nothing to stop more countries being granted Test status, except the will of the ruling cabal and their fear of losing the trappings of power.

Let Ireland in. Afghanistan too. Let them all in. Turn international cricket on its head and make countries Test teams by default. At the very least, adopt a proactive policy of introducing one or two new Test nations every year. The best teams will still find a way of playing each other more often to fill their coffers. The coffers might even swell further as more of the world tunes in. Cricket is wrong to be a ten-nation sport in a globalised world.

This argument isn't inspired by a quest to find a team that Pakistan can beat. It is inspired by fatigue from the merry-go-round of soulless cricket on the international circuit. Many of the games that held true fascination in the recent World Cup involved the non-Test nations. We need more diversity, some new blood, a grander vision and greater fairness. We don't need the distant promises of the ICC's Test pathway. We need something more radical, more urgent. An accident of politics gave us Sangakkara, Muralitharan, and the promise of Bangladesh. How many more talents have been stifled by the narrow world view of cricket's administrators? How many more excuses before cricket is returned to the people of the world? A game of ten nations is a parochial sport, and in time there will be no parochial sport in a globalised society.

Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. @KamranAbbasi

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