Two-tier Test system, my foot
Talk of a two-tier system for Test cricket is shallow. To confine West Indies and New Zealand to the outhouse is disrespectful and ignores the great history that has built up over a century or more. Did we hear of a two-tier system when Australia were drowning in the mid-1980s? Or when England were being smashed by West Indies in Test after Test, series after series? Or when India weren't even in the top four during the same decade?
South Africa are excused, for they were deep in isolation, yet when they came back in 1991, did we suggest they try out in the second division first? During the '80s, West Indies totally dominated, while New Zealand were unbeaten at home for 12 long years, as well as winning away in England and Australia. For that, they command respect, through thick and thin.
And yet, we hear from the likes of even Rahul Dravid, that a two-tier system is a good idea. With respect to Rahul, what is good about it?
This doesn't feel right. It's not right to abandon upstanding nations, countries that have given their all to prop up the game, to cast them adrift. It is so disappointing that the ICC has failed again to find the right formula for showcasing Test cricket and crowning a champion on a regular basis.
The very least they can do is arrange for the top two teams to play and allow someone to raise the mace. Someone. The problem for those languishing in fifth place and below is that those bottom teams will never get back the points they need, over at least two, probably three, years to contest for a place in a final, leaving the same teams to compete for the title. This is not what a competition is about.
Competition in sport is normally held annually, or in the case of the traditional Ryder Cup, every two years. Following a normal competition, in the off season, teams can regroup and come again, trying to find the recipe for the crowning glory at season's end. The winning team tries to recapture that winning way and repeat their success. Of course there are no off seasons in cricket. It's so ridiculously complicated, especially with three formats to juggle, that a team can hardly catch its breath before it's asked to go on another meaningless tour, or play another fruitless series of one-dayers.
There are eight very proud cricketing nations that have earned kudos and respect the world over for their longevity and endeavour, over the course of the game's history. I don't include Bangladesh, with respect, as they haven't played enough, nor won enough since their introduction. Nor Zimbabwe, with their political interference and lack of resources. The eight major teams deserve the chance to bounce back from difficult times. Who knows, maybe England are about to enter a period of sheer hell. Will they be abandoned the way that folk are talking about demoting New Zealand and West Indies?
Sport is mostly cyclical, despite the long period that both West Indies and New Zealand have been down and out. Instead they need support and encouragement, not a kick in the proverbial. Talk of promotion and relegation is bizarre given there are only eight teams that have ever played Test cricket with any degree of success.
If Ireland, Afghanistan and others are to be encouraged to play Test cricket one day, they should start by playing first-class cricket against the likes of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. Surely this is the prerequisite to stepping into the cauldron of the elite. Bangladesh have made the mistake of not playing enough first-class cricket to prepare their players. And lately New Zealand and West Indies have too often focused on the shorter forms, either internationally or domestically, ignoring their Test priorities and losing their mojo in the process. The solution is to remove the pointless T20 internationals, and the repetitive one-dayers; I can guarantee, their Test form will improve.
If it's not done, then Test cricket will die. The big four will survive and even flourish, however the others will wilt away and be gone for good as new generations learn a different way. A way that is not cricket, only a caricature of it. What is a sport, or format of it, when only four or five teams can play it?
Why has the World Test Championship failed to gain traction? Television and financial revenue first come to mind. It's mighty expensive to televise Tests, let alone get folk to come along in a cash-strapped world. Only the Ashes Tests truly fill grounds and generate good revenue. Why? Because the history of the series demands it. That's why a Test competition needs to happen. There won't be a perfect remedy here. Everyone needs to be flexible and open-minded and allow Test cricket a chance to show it can crown a champion regularly.
Here are some questions I need to ask. Why can't the four Test series that invariably take place every November to February between the top eight teams count as the quarter-finals of a competition that culminates in two semis and a grand final? Why can't those with the better ranking go through to the semis or the final, if the game is drawn? Why can't it be mixed up with the top four playing away against the four lower-placed teams (knowing they have a higher ranking and need to be beaten outright to not go through) to create a true challenge and encourage unpredictability? Isn't this what will captivate the watching audience? Is it not worth a go, and as it unfolds, can't adjustments be made as the purpose becomes clearer?
Shall we just sit idly by doing nothing, or start disrespecting teams by placing them in a back paddock, abandoned, to slowly but surely die as the funds and enthusiasm dry up? This is all becoming a playground where the bully boys decide the punishment. It's sickening.
Let's pay dues to all those who have served the game well. Let's include them in all that we do. Let's keep it simple and meaningful. Let's protect the very format that exudes, clarifies, portrays, recognises and exemplifies the true nature of cricket. And let's grow it over time.
The Test Cricket Open, an eight-team knockout competition staged annually or every two years, deserves a run, including those long-standing nations that have served the game so well.
Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand