ICC planning two Test divisions amid major overhaul
Promotion and relegation could be introduced into Test cricket as early as 2019, if ICC chief executive David Richardson has his way. Richardson admitted that Test cricket required added "meaning and context" if it is to survive and revealed that the ICC hopes to unveil plans for the introduction of two divisions and, potentially, a number of new Test nations within the next few weeks.
Speaking to promote the 2017 Champions Trophy, Richardson also confirmed an intention to stage an extra World T20 tournament in 2018. The event would, he said, involve "a minimum of 16 teams" and be staged in either South Africa, Sri Lanka or the UAE. The final decision over the event's go-ahead will be made by the ICC's broadcasting partner, Star.
But it was the plans to reinvigorate Test cricket that were the most eye-catching and radical. Accepting the diminishing returns of current bilateral series, Richardson offered the prospect of Test status to the likes of Nepal, Ireland and Afghanistan, but warned more established nations - notably West Indies - that they could find themselves playing Division Two cricket if they are unable to improve their red-ball form.
"There's a general realisation now that, if we're going to keep Test cricket going well into the future, we can't just say it's going to survive on its own," Richardson said. "Unless we can give some meaning to these series beyond the rankings and a trophy, then interest in Test cricket will continue to waver. The same applies if we allow uncompetitive Test cricket to take place too often.
"If we really want Test cricket to survive, we can't have the number of Test teams diminishing. We have to create a proper competition structure which provides promotion and relegation and opportunities to get to the top.
"A number of member countries are finding that they're not getting as much from their TV rights for bilateral cricket and they see the need to change and introduce some meaningful context.
"The beauty of leagues is that, in theory, you will have a more competitive competition and teams playing each other that are of a more equal standard.
"They will all be striving for something. There's something at stake. They will be thinking 'We could end up in the Intercontinental Cup if we're not careful here.' Hopefully that will inspire performance and make the matches more competitive."
While the details of the plan remain open to debate - Richardson hopes they will be agreed by the end of this month - there is a favoured option, involving the introduction of a top division of seven teams and a second division of five teams. It is likely that the plan would see one team promoted and relegated in each two-year cycle, though it remains possible that a second team could be promoted if the ICC embraced a play-off model with the sixth team in Division One playing the second team in Division Two.
Richardson hopes that each qualifying Test series would consist of a minimum of three Tests, though he acknowledged that the growth of domestic T20 leagues might render that impractical. The Ashes series would still consist of five games, with every Test carrying ranking points but the overall number of points in the series not exceeding those available in a three-Test series.
"The feeling is that if you want to sustain interest in a competition, you probably can't go longer than two years with it," Richardson said. "If you had a top division of seven teams, you'd have six tours - three home, three away - over a two-year period. It works well mathematically.
"We could probably make it work in 2019 because hopefully whatever we implement will be better than the current arrangement. It's the sooner the better as far as we're concerned. We might need to have some negotiations with broadcasters who have deals in place, but they might be willing to change. This is a marvellous opportunity for the game."
There are two catalysts to the changing mood of an ICC board who, only a few months ago, appeared to have little concern for any interests beyond their own. The first is the election of the new chairman, Shashank Manohar, who seems genuinely committed to growing cricket as a global game and running the ICC as a governing body for the good of all 105 members rather than a favoured few.
The second is the diminishing financial value of bilateral series to the Full Member boards, which has allowed Manohar fertile ground on which to plant his ideas.
The combination has offered the prospect of unprecedented opportunities for Associate nations in the next few years.
"The new chairman has gone out of his way to reverse the sense that the 'Big Three' are in control," Richardson said. "There is a bigger desire to regard the ICC as an organisation with 105 members, not just 10 Full Members who are a select, secluded club with no one else allowed in. We want to be more encompassing and allow opportunities for Associate Members to graduate.
"We have 105 members at the moment and we want 105 members to be able to play T20 internationals. Obviously not all against each other at the same time but everybody should want to play the T20 format and it will appeal to all of our members. Then the better ones, the top 30 to 35, would graduate to the 50-over game and be involved in global competitions catering to approximately that number of teams.
"And then Test cricket is towards the other end of the spectrum, where the top 18 teams perhaps are playing a multi-day format of the game, be it the Intercontinental Cup or part of a Test league.
"Countries that you never thought would have ambitions to play multi-day cricket actually have got the potential. Countries like Nepal, Afghanistan and Ireland are keen. But Ireland and Nepal aren't getting any opportunities. Zimbabwe hardly play. West Indies are focusing more on T20 cricket. Creating a competition and a financial model that underpins it, it will allow them the resources to fund a team and provide incentives for their players to be available to play Test cricket for them."
Richardson also suggested that membership rules could be changed, to decouple Test status and Full Membership.
"We're reviewing the criteria for Full Membership, which will enable countries like Ireland and Afghanistan to become Full Members. But we don't want to link it to Test cricket. The competition structure is set separate to membership status. It's about voting or funding opportunities."
As the ICC's original broadcast deal did not include plans for a global tournament in 2018, it will have to gain permission from its broadcast partner, Star, before confirming the World T20 for 2018.
"We're having discussions now with broadcasters about having a second World T20 in a four-year cycle," Richardson said. "If they agree - and the board agrees - it would be in 2018 and the venue needs to be decided. The broadcasting agreement says we can't hold another event without them agreeing to it. So they will have a say in where the event will be held.
"The broadcasters obviously want the matches to be played at times which are good for the broadcast market in India. But it probably won't be India as we've just been there. And the timing issue rules out West Indies, Australia and New Zealand. We're currently unable to play in Pakistan, so that leaves Sri Lanka, South Africa or the UAE as the only options probably. It is too early for America."
It also emerged that England, the hosts of the 2017 Champions Trophy and the 2019 World Cup, retain hopes of hosting a possible World T20 in 2022, and the World Cup qualifiers in 2018. Those qualifiers are currently scheduled to be played in Bangladesh but if Bangladesh qualify automatically - they are currently ranked seventh and on target to do so - it is likely the qualifiers would be moved to the country where the main tournament will be played the following year.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo