April 20, 2014

Test cricket needs fewer teams, not more

Having the top Associate team play the lowest-ranked Test side without the threat of relegation shows how votes mean more to the ICC than results

The ICC's recent announcement that it is providing a pathway to Test cricket for Associate nations almost - I stress, almost - made me forget the dysfunctional nature of the administration. For a fleeting moment I shelved my concerns about the Big Three power grab and the ICC's incoming president currently being barred by the Indian Supreme Court (pending a corruption inquiry) from holding the same position with the BCCI.

Surely the ICC's main priority is to address the flaws in Test cricket rather than add to them by introducing new teams. Not that the ICC announcement actually stated there will be any additions from among the Associates, but it made it abundantly clear there won't be any subtractions from the current ten member nations.

Wouldn't want to upset the balance of power in the boardroom voting, would we? Certainly not just for the sake of addressing what ails Test cricket.

The ICC's ill-conceived plan is to have the winner of the ICC Intercontinental Cup, a first-class tournament between Associate nations, play the lowest-ranked Test team in a series of five-day first-class matches held every four years, starting in 2018, two at home and two away.

This might seem to be a dream come true for the stronger Associate nations like Ireland, but the fine print acts like a cold shower. No Full Member, beaten by an Associate nation in one of these challenges, can be relegated. So if Ireland or Afghanistan or another strong Associate nation was to beat Zimbabwe or Bangladesh, or, heaven forbid, West Indies, it doesn't necessarily mean that Associate gets to play Test cricket.

That's reassuring, considering Test cricket is already in a state of competitive imbalance. There are four sides who rate as "strong" - South Africa, India, Australia and England. However, all four have flaws. India haven't won a match of any consequence away from home recently; England have dramatically slipped from strong to teetering on the brink of moderate; Australia have improved but are only months removed from 4-0 and 3-0 overseas thrashings; and South Africa could be in for a tough time following the retirements of stalwart allrounder Jacques Kallis and a strong leader, Graeme Smith.

Sri Lanka rank just outside that group but they struggle to produce quick bowlers and Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jaywardene, who form the spine of their batting, are edging ever closer to retirement. Pakistan continue to produce talented young cricketers but with no games at home this will become ever harder to replicate, and they already frustrate with their consistent inconsistency.

New Zealand fight like hell under a brave captain, Brendon McCullum, and they now possess a decent attack, but they have such a small player pool it's always a battle to match it with the superpowers.

Then we come to the saddest tale of all - West Indies. They have been a basket case for more than a decade and cricket desperately needs them to be strong, because playing well, they are a big draw card.

And Bangladesh and Zimbabwe as Test nations make for a misnomer that could only be dreamt up by a body more interested in votes than victory on the field.

Associate nations being elevated to Test level should be about them attaining a consistently high standard of play against strong opposition and developing a solid, dependable production line of players. It shouldn't be about one of them getting lucky with a talented group of players in one four-year period.

The ICC needs to be wary in its assessments, judging by the progress of Ireland's best players. It's not like the transfer to England's colours has seen Eoin Morgan, Ed Joyce or Boyd Rankin actually take Test cricket by storm.

And anyway, looking to add more Test nations when you already have two who shouldn't be playing and another team that needs serious help is ludicrous.

I don't think Ireland or Afghanistan or Netherlands or any other Associate nation should be playing Test cricket. However, neither should Bangladesh or Zimbabwe. To prosper, Test cricket needs to have more competitive balance not less.

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