June 5, 2013

Let's copy the women, shall we?

Women's Ashes will be contested over three formats this year. Why not base a men's championship along those lines?

We of advanced years might have to pinch ourselves pretty hard, but this month marks the 40th anniversary of the inaugural World Cup - the women's version, that is, beating those dilatory menfolk to the punch by two full years. Last month's enterprising if faintly shocking revamp of the Ashes schedule suggests that, when it comes to marching down Innovation Street, the chaps still lag behind the chapesses.

Deciding the winner by aggregating results across all three formats may strike some as a compromise too far, but the merits are considerable. The economic practicalities are plain: packaged right, fewer matches will be necessary to obtain a significant and meaningful outcome. Furthermore, in linking three discrete overall results, a more complete picture of cricketing skill will unquestionably emerge. Whether this actually engenders a greater incentive to stage Tests, already resisted womanfully, remains to be seen.

And so, inevitably, to the controversially reconstituted ICC Cricket Committee's latest ruminations on the Future Tours Programme, which, welcome as they are, continue to exude uncertainty and ooze nerves, prompting the usual canyon-esque divergence of opinion on this site and elsewhere. After all, depending on perspective, a minimum of four Tests per annum - the formula currently being floated - seems at once eminently reasonable, grossly unfair and plain daft. Eminently reasonable to New Zealand, Sri Lanka and West Indies, whose boards appear to hold about as much enthusiasm for staging five-day bouts as certain members of our House of Lords have for the rules on lobbying; grossly unfair to Bangladesh and Zimbabwe (how they would love to be able to play more), and plain daft to the rest (though Cricket South Africa might be overcome by ambivalence).

Imagine Sky Sports or ESPNStar being content with broadcasting four Tests a year? OK, it doesn't exactly demand inhuman effort, but the necessary compensation in screen hours, in the shape of endless ODIs and T20 internationals, would drag the FTP even farther from all those noble pronouncements about the "primacy" of Tests. And we all know the p-word needs to be taken with a cellar full of salt.

For those who fear the worst, there was one shard of good news last week with the publication of an ECB survey offering hope for the most venerable version of the international game from an improbable quarter. Nearly 3000 England followers were asked to cite their preferred format; of these, 200 were under 25 years of age, of whom as many as 61% plumped for Tests. To see this as any more than mildly encouraging, sadly, is to master the art of self-delusion. In England, Test cricket should be played on the Southbank, rubbing shoulders with the National Theatre, the National Film Theatre, the Royal Festival Hall and the Hayward Gallery: a branch of culture warranting protection by the public purse; in too much of the rest of the world, it's an obligation, a listed building of limited appeal: a 16th-century pub without a karaoke machine or a pool table.

The players themselves seem rather more fervent, but for how much longer? The only way Test cricket can cement a medium-term future, therefore, is for its administrators to bury their sack of hatchets and tackle the matter with a singularity of purpose - which means making "primacy" more than just a posh word signifying a sharp PR department with a thesaurus in its drawer.

And to do that means making it unequivocally clear that this is the apex of the game, its highest form of expression, its ultimate measure of skill. And to do that means devising a credible, meaningful world championship, a task utterly beyond the ken of cricket administrators ever since that first ill-fated stab in 1912.

From that unpromising starting point we can turn to that new women's Ashes schedule for stimulus. One Test, three ODIs and three Twenty20s will be played, with six points allocated for the solitary four-day Test and two for each of the shorter contests; the side netting the most points, up to a maximum of 18, will take possession of the wooden ball - the women's urn, its contents a bat burnt in the Harris Garden at Lord's in 1998. So far, so neat.

The difference between the sexes, however, is as stark as can be. On the plus side, nine nations have played a women's Test this century, including Ireland and Netherlands; August's Anglo-Australian encounter at Wormsley, though, will not merely be the 134th overall but just the fifth since 2006. From 1954 to 1961 - when the only participants were Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa, admittedly - there were 14. There was a six-set rubber between West Indies and India in 1976-77 and an Ashes five-setter eight winters later, but to find the last three-match series you have to rewind to 1998. Multi-day cricket, moreover, is as rare in the women's domestic game as an all-run-five.

We could be half-full about all this. Where one section of the game is desperately trying to invigorate the near-dead, the other - or parts thereof - is thrashing around trying to sort out a format that has never been played so widely or frequently. The reality is immeasurably more complex, of course, as exemplified by the soaring prevalence of those insufferably puny two-match rubbers (hence, presumably, that figure of four Tests per year) and even - sin of sins - substitutions of scheduled Tests by ODIs and T20s. In an age when economics take precedence over results, a reversal of the tide seems highly unlikely without some sizeable carrots and an exceedingly sharp stick.

So why not kill a number of birds with a single stone? Why not a world league incorporating all three formats? Each variant could have its own independent championship, in turn feeding specific tournaments and rivalries, but the holiest grail would be the same for all. For the very first time in the history of the planet's most durable international sport, it would be possible to ask "Who's the best?" and receive an informed, valid, only mildly contentious answer.

Ah, but what ingredients can we sprinkle into this cooking bowl to ensure that Test cricket remains the ultimate test of cricketkind? Consider the following recipe, on occasion cribbed shamelessly from f***ball:

  • Test win - 10pts
  • Test draw - 5pts (tie 8pts)
  • Test series win - 50pts (3 Tests), 75pts (4 Tests), 100pts (5 Tests)
  • ODI win - 5pts (tie 3pts)
  • ODI series win - 25pts; draw - 15pts
  • T20 win - 3pts (tie 2pts)
  • T20 series win - 15pts; draw - 10pts

Beneath the meat and potatoes lurk those sticks and carrots: a maximum of three ODIs or T20s per series and, while one-off Tests would be permissible, there must be at least three to comprise a series. In other words, the more Tests you play, the more points you stand to win. Oh, and just to sex it all up and lend it that Premier League sheen - while keeping the players' workloads at manageable levels, thus enhancing the prospects for year-round quality - we'll insist on 38 matches per nation per year, with variety left strictly to bilateral negotiation. Who knows how many doors this could open? Who knows what grand ideas this might give the Irish and the Dutch and the Afghans?

Let's take a pair of extremities. Sri Lanka play 25 ODIs in 2015, winning 16 and losing nine while taking four series and drawing one; they also play 11 T20s, winning eight, and claim all four rubbers. During that span, they also play one two-Test series and lose 2-0, the upshot a year-end tally of 279 from a win-loss record of 24-14. Now let's spin the dial. In the same span, India play 20 ODIs, losing nearly twice as many as they win (13-7), and also lose all five T20s, but win ten and draw three of their 13 Tests, spawning two victorious five-match series and one in a tri-chapter rubber: 400 points from a win-loss record of 17-18. Now you might deem this eventuality to be an abomination of everything that makes sport this planet's closest approximation to genuine meritocracy, but at least it would make it clear which national board prioritises the pursuit of excellence and glory, and which the pursuit of paper.

Better yet, a World Test Championship could spin off the back of this with no impact on the schedule whatsoever. Taking a leaf out of an old rugby league book, nations could consensually nominate, in advance, which Test in a series would be eligible for ranking points, thus obviating any need for additional fixtures (though a final might make a nice crescendo). But hey, let's think big. Let's dream. Every four years, let there be a two-month series of playoffs involving the top four nations in the Test classification (outside IPL hours, natch): simultaneous Champions League-y home-and-away semi-finals followed, if required, by an eliminator on neutral turf, and thence by a best-of-five final - two home, two away, one neutral. And if only three games are needed to resolve the spoils, cancel the remainder. For decades, the NBA, the NHL and Major League Baseball have been terminating dead rubbers with extreme prejudice; riots have yet to ensue.

Oh, and any deciding match, semi-final or final, shall be played to a finish. It's my dream and I'll be as idealistic as I want.

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