June 29, 2011

Two tier or not two tier?

The proposed FTP may seem unjust to some teams but the likes of Bangladesh won't have it worse than they already do; and maybe a two-tier structure is closer than we think

You're too young to be old
You don't need to be told
You want to see things as they are
You know exactly what I do
- Jim Morrison

James Douglas Morrison had plenty to rebel against: admiral father, nomadic American childhood in the archly conservative fifties, Vietnam; police massing at gigs, ready to pounce should he so much as scratch his crotch. No wonder he lived so hard and died, mysteriously and horribly early, 40 years ago next week, albeit not before articulating better than most what it means to be young.

Due in some measure to the songs he wrote for the Doors, dissing elders and alleged betters became both a rite of passage and an inalienable right. To respect without question is to betray centuries of hard-won gains. And because sport taps so expertly into our inner teenager, lauding administrators also feels like treachery, not least because, as with all authorities, we reckon we could do their job with eyes shut, one arm tied behind our back and brain in second gear. It is therefore with considerable queasiness that this column comes not to bury but praise the International Cricket Council.

Not that the ritual arm-wrestling in Hong Kong has been entirely howler-free. Banning runners will rob the game of compassion and mirth, and while the BCCI's aversion to Hawk-Eye may make some sense in terms of its imperfect prescience, its military clientele don't seem nearly so fussy. Besides, since when was the Decision Review System about perfection? The upshot, a perpetuation of multiple playing conditions, is in no one's interests bar those who insist on it. No, this allergic reaction makes far more sense as muscle-flexing in the wake of a significant U-turn.

The bottom line, nonetheless, is stacked heavily in favour of the credit side of the ledger, notably making the modified (but far from toothless) DRS mandatory in all Tests and ODIs, and in an equally sudden U-turn, a World Cup that will not, after all, be a private party for the haves. The latter may have been a quid pro quo, allowing the rotation policy for the ICC presidency to be scrapped, but the price feels right. It's not as if that particular throne is a licence to do much more than deliver the occasional rant.

For the lesser lights, however, this crumb of comfort was counter-balanced, even outweighed, by the draft Future Tours Programme, according to which Bangladesh will play 42 Tests in eight years (we can be sure there is a fairly good reason why the FTP has to cover such a protracted span, and pretty much certain it has something, if not everything, to do with the next TV contracts). Regrettably pragmatic as this is, history suggests Shakib al Hasan and Co haven't been treated all that shabbily.

Since 1928, when West Indies became the fourth Test "nation", each new entrant has been eased in - bar Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. Over their first 10 years, West Indies averaged 1.9 Tests per annum, New Zealand 1.4, India 1.2, Pakistan 3.5, Sri Lanka 3.6; for the newest boys, the respective figures were 5.9 and 6.1. Indeed, the first four of those countries all endured at least two Test-free years: West Indies and New Zealand five, India four, and Pakistan two. No subsequent incomer has had even one.

The expansion of the field and the evolution of air travel accelerated and multiplied the fixture options, but now Bangladesh are beginning to feel the pinch as the schedule becomes ever more congested. (A window for the IPL is wise but for the Champions League? How long before Cricket Australia engineers similar preferential treatment for the game's worst-monikered event, the Big Bash League?). Zimbabwe had 14 Tests in their first four years, then averaged 7.5 per annum from years five to 10; for Bangladesh, the mean was a smidgen under seven in their first half-decade, 5.4 in the second. Since when things have deteriorated - seven Tests in 2010 and a pitiful three in 2009, with only five inked in for 2011. The new FTP should at least ensure the decline does not continue.

Not that this excuses for a nanosecond India's continued reluctance to invite Bangladesh for even a solitary Test. The same goes for England, who have been far more encouraging to newcomers in the past but have no room for Bangladesh this side of 2020, and were similarly guilty of disdain for Sri Lanka, consenting only to one-off Tests from 1982 until 2000, though the Lankans did enjoy four trips to Lord's during that span. Growth is imperative, stasis self-defeating, but trying to suppress the suspicion that the ECB and the BCCI are both putting profits before the greater good isn't worth the bother. Yet in the long run, surely even someone with a limited grasp of sporting economics would conclude that the more competitive opponents there are, the healthier the game will be.

The difficulty with Tests - as opposed to soccer matches, to cite the most obvious example - is that they are played primarily in the mind; fitness, technique, speed and strength can only get you so far. New Zealand held Italy, the holders, to a draw at last year's FIFA World Cup; it's easier to envisage the Beatles reforming with Lady Gaga and Madonna subbing for John Lennon and George Harrison than Ireland resisting South Africa for three days, much less five. The question is whether the inexperienced learn more from defeat than success. Regrettably the big boys seem far too short-termist to tolerate the former. Spectators and viewers are apparently no different.

We all know where this could be heading. Next stop, a two-tier structure, with Ireland and possibly the Dutch drafted in to keep Bangladesh, New Zealand, West Indies and Zimbabwe company? Such is the surfeit of matches that serve solely to titillate sadomasochists, it is an idea whose time has probably come.

Growth is imperative, stasis self-defeating, but trying to suppress the suspicion that the ECB and the BCCI are both putting profits before the greater good isn't worth the bother

The counter-argument does not lack substance: the balance of on-field power is more evenly spread than at any time since Charlie Bannerman flogged England's finest in 1877. From then until 1965, the duel for the unofficial crown was an Anglo-Australian monopoly; from 1979 to 2009, West Indies and Australia took turns in the dictator's seat; right now, in terms of talent if not consistent application, the top six sides in the Test rankings all have the beating of one other on any given day, venue permitting. The West Indies' two most recent wins, moreover, came against England and Pakistan, and New Zealand gave India a decent scrap last year.

In terms of both cricketing realpolitik and the development of the Test championship, such a split could only mean conferring Test status on all matches in the lower tier. There is a case for saying this might - to lapse into marketing-speak - dilute the brand. Imagine Kevin O'Brien hitting 401 for Ireland against Holland, or Ryan ten Doeschate grabbing all 20 against Zimbabwe. Would such feats be diminished? Would the stattos be obliged to keep separate records? 1) Not much and 2) So what? Did Len Hutton's 364 relinquish any of its aura because Australia were down to two-and-a-half fit bowlers?

This brave-ish new world would not only broaden Test cricket's narrow constituency, and give genuine hope to Afghanistan and Nepal, it would facilitate a playoff format whereby, in order to reach the quarter-finals (three fixtures doth not a tournament make), the bottom two sides from upstairs would first have to see off the challenge of the top two from downstairs. Future, thy name is fluidity.

WHICH BRINGS US TO THE FINE PRINT. Amid the welter of recommendations from the chief executives (prompted by the ICC's sagacious cricket committee) came another ray of light even someone with a PhD in optimism (i.e. your correspondent) didn't see coming - that national boards should raise the number of overs available to a bowler in domestic one-dayers. The limited-overs lash is biased enough in favour of the pie-smiters without this grotesquely unjust limitation, and any corrective is worthy of a heartfelt "yippee", perhaps even an unbridled "Cool!". Followed by a wholly ungracious "And about bloody time!"

Quite why bowlers - and captains - have been handicapped for the past half-century has long been a source of bafflement. Originally the priority was to boost gates by hoisting scoring rates on dodgy surfaces, but that mountain was scaled once fielding circles and chief executives' pitches became de rigeur.

Bowlers are second-class citizens; always have been, always will be. Imagine asking Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir to retire after 20 overs so MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh can have a go. Or demanding that Virender Sehwag bow out on 200 so Rohit Sharma can face a few. So why should Dale Steyn and Wayne Parnell be content with sharing 20 overs, or Graeme Swann have to settle for 3 for 33 instead of 6 for 66? How many momentums have been lost because Ricky Ponting had to keep a couple of overs from Shane Warne up his sleeve? How many games have been lost because Warne or Wasim Akram or Daniel Vettori lacked sufficient balls (and I mean that most respectfully, gentlemen)?

So no, much as any improvement would be enormously appreciated, raising the allocation to 12 overs, or even 15, won't satisfy this customer. If we're happy to let the batters bat until they're out, why can't the bowlers bowl until they're fagged out?

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton