January 12, 2014

How to make Test tours more competitive

Increase the size of tour squads, or create teams of Associate and U-19 cricketers to play warm-ups

Chappell: I'm in favour of a World Test Championship

In the last couple of years there has been a spate of series between top-ranked teams where one side - previously a strong unit - hasn't won a match.

In eight such series involving India, Australia, England, South Africa and Pakistan, the only team to achieve success away from home has been South Africa. In the recently completed Australian whitewash of England, Kevin Pietersen was of the opinion that it's hard to play back-to-back series against the same team but even more difficult if you're the touring side in the return contest.

This may partly explain the English debacle, but in all six of the other cases they didn't involve back-to-back series against the same side. Perhaps a better explanation for the disintegration of good sides is the structure of modern tours.

Not only are there very few lead-in games for the touring side, but also, once a series starts, there's little or no opportunity for out-of-form players to reverse the trend. Previously the touring team would play a number of first-class games to acclimatise and find form under unfamiliar conditions. Then in between Tests there'd be opportunities for out-of-form and squad players to get some match practice against first-class teams. This was the ideal way to either regain form or put your name forward for inclusion in the next Test team.

The current scheduling doesn't accommodate either out-of-form players or those outside the Test XI. It reminds me of World Series Cricket, which was the toughest environment I played in. One match you'd play against the ferocious West Indies pace quartet, and if you failed, the next assignment was against a World XI attack, which was almost as talented. That sequence continued until an out-of-form player must have felt like he was at the bottom of a well with no step ladder and no way out.

Current international players must experience similar feelings when they are either struggling for runs or wickets. Consequently, once one side gets on top early in a series, it's almost impossible for even good cricketers to reverse that trend.

The game is fortunate that most of these pummellings have been administered by the home side. Therefore the fans have either turned up in droves or watched in big numbers on television. However, a continuation of this trend won't do much for the competitive balance of Test cricket, and this needs to be considered if the game is going to prosper.

There has been no indication for more than a decade that common sense will be applied to producing a logical international itinerary. Therefore some lateral thinking is required to overcome the massive flaw in the current structure of Test tours.

One way to overcome the problem would be for the touring party to be increased so that most of the surplus players could be involved in matches running concurrently with the Test programme. In order to avoid a cost blowout this would mean reducing the number of support staff in a touring party, which would be a good result in itself.

Such an itinerary would also provide opportunities for the hosts to choose their best young players to give them international experience. That would be an ideal way of gauging who among them is on the verge of international selection. However, this would disrupt the local first-class competition and wouldn't be popular with the associations.

Another solution might be to draw a team from the top young talent among the Associate nations, bolstered by a few strong Under-19 players from the major nations, to form a travelling party to play the tourists while the Tests are played.

The administrators say they need to schedule a lot of cricket to provide money to run the game. This sort of investment, designed to produce elite players from a wider pool of countries, makes more sense than providing surplus jobs for officials.

Whatever method is adopted, something needs to be done to balance these contests because too many one-sided series will eventually detract from Test cricket. If ever a World Test Championship is played, it'll quickly lose credibility if the touring sides are at a distinct disadvantage.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist