July 1, 2012

Contract the schedule

If Tests are limited to the top eight teams, T20s to clubs and a relegation system is introduced in ODIs, all three formats could survive and cricket could gain a broader talent pool

Instead of lamenting the demise of Test cricket and indulging in conjecture that the 50-over game has run its race, it's time to formulate a plan that gives all three forms their best chance of survival. The answer could be contraction. Contracting the business is not always a sign of progress but in cricket's case it could well be the saviour of the game.

The major problem in having three forms of the game is the congestion it creates in the schedule. This leads to players choosing between forms of cricket, which exacerbates the lack of star attractions in the game.

There are two chances, Buckley's or none, that Test cricket can expand into major markets like the Americas, Europe, Japan, and parts of Asia and Africa where it isn't already played. Therefore, it would be pragmatic to concentrate on programming the ultimate competition between the major Test-playing countries.

By contracting to an eight-team competition there would be fewer one-sided contests and it would then be possible to conduct a meaningful world championship. It may also be possible through day-night Tests to reduce the matches to three or four days' duration, as they were originally. By taking this option you might not save Test cricket, but at least the administrators wouldn't be guilty of an inside job if it does eventually perish.

By all means continue promoting the longer versions of the game in countries where, with proper nurturing, they could eventually raise their standard to compete with the best. However, don't do it in a manner that dilutes the standard of Test cricket.

The 50-over competitions should be conducted at different levels and should operate on a promotion/relegation basis. That way it becomes obvious when a team is ready for the highest level or another is going through a bad era and needs to drop down a grade. It means fewer one-sided contests that do cricket harm by promoting the less endearing aspects of the game on television.

T20 can be used to foster a wider appeal and open up strong markets in places like the Americas, Europe, Japan and Malaysia. This is best done on a city-franchise basis so that teams in, say, Florida, Amsterdam, Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur have a chance of competing on an equal footing with sides from Mumbai and Melbourne. T20 internationals between countries could then be scrapped, and hopefully this will open up opportunities for skilful players from a much broader range of countries.

And that's where expansion comes in. In the IPL, the BBL, or any other competition ending in "L", apart from the local stars, it's the same players who spark the headlines and attract big contracts. The game can't continue to expand unless it finds a way to produce more top-class players from a broader pool.

By all means continue promoting the longer versions of the game in countries where, with proper nurturing, they could eventually raise their standard to compete with the best. However, don't do it in a manner that dilutes the standard of Test cricket

Taking advantage of the franchise system by producing players via academies based in potentially productive regions like Afghanistan and parts of Europe could broaden the pool of excellence.

There's also a need to come up with better ways to produce top-class players. It's no coincidence that Sachin Tendulkar's great skills were honed on the maidan, Sir Garfield Sobers' and Javed Miandad's in the streets, and numerous Australian cricketers' in their own backyards. They all improved by learning how to survive and prosper in numerous pick-up matches rather than spending hours in structured net sessions.

I recall watching a young bloke hook, pull and cut with impunity while facing a tennis ball skimming off a film of water at 150kph on a Barbados beach.

"What first-class team does he play for?" I asked one of the players.

"Man, this is the only cricket he plays," came the response.

Cricket can't afford to lose players with such a high natural skill level. The game needs to at least give those players a pathway to succeed at higher levels.

To find more skilful players from a broader spread of countries and promote more competitive matches, cricket might need to contract the schedule but not the different forms of the game.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist

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