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What can we expect from two-division Test cricket?

With the ICC's latest plan, Test series between teams like New Zealand and Sri Lanka will receive interest from neutral spectators since the result will have an impact on their teams' standings in the points table Associated Press

Since it was first played in 1877, Test cricket has been a byword for conservatism. This image of a game impervious to shifting sands conceals how much has actually been altered: Tests have been scheduled over three, four, five, six or unlimited days, on uncovered or covered pitches; overs have been six or eight balls long, delivered by cricketers bowling underarm or overarm; the number of teams has risen from two to ten; and in recent years, the DRS and day-night games have been introduced. Evolution has been constant.

Yet perhaps none of these changes are as significant as the ones that could be ratified at the end of June. The introduction of two divisions - seven teams in Division One, and five, including two new Test nations, in Division Two, playing under a league system to determine promotion and relegation every two years - would give Test cricket a context and structure that it has always lacked.

Meritocracy would no longer be anathema to Test cricket. Any of the ICC's 105 members would have the opportunity to reach the pinnacle, based on their performances. Order would be created out of Test cricket's chaotic, disjointed and sometimes downright irrational scheduling. It would be the most radical move in the history of the Test game, and it is envisaged it will lead to Tests generating more interest and cash, safeguarding the longest format's future.

"Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it," Mark Twain once bemoaned. The same has long been true about "protecting the primacy of Test cricket": much talked about by administrators but seldom acted upon. Day-night Tests are welcome but don't address how to give Tests greater relevance. The idea of points across formats in a series, introduced by England this summer, is an attempt to create more context, but how is a series super if it does not count towards anything?

This time no one can accuse the ICC of modest tweaking while being oblivious to the fundamental issues Tests face, the administrative equivalent of debating the colour of the curtains while the house is burning down. Led by David Richardson, the ICC has come up with a plan that it believes can save Test cricket, and ensure it can peacefully coexist with T20.

Each team in Division One would play every other side home or away over a two-year cycle. Most of these would be three-match series - so nine Tests at home and nine away every two years, 18 in total. Each match and each series would be apportioned a certain number of points. It could be as simple as three points for a win in a match, and one for a draw, though the details are still being thrashed out. These points determine the overall standings. At the end of each two-year cycle - the first would begin after the 2019 World Cup and end in early 2021 - there would be a winner of Division One, effectively a winner of the World Test League, and the bottom side that would be relegated.

Unlike now, when the Test rankings have little integrity, and are fiendishly complicated, such a structure would be simple and easily understood, and build towards producing a clearly identifiable winner. Never again would we have a new No. 1 for bureaucratic reasons, as often happens when old results are discounted from the rankings every April and the Test mace changes hands.

"Moving the World T20 back to every two years will raise $400-500 million in extra profit every eight-year cycle. These funds would be more than enough to bankroll the two Test divisions"

Division Two would be structured similarly to Division One, but it would only include five teams, with each playing the other home or away, perhaps in two-Test series, amounting to eight Tests each every two years. The winner would automatically be promoted, while the side finishing second might have a playoff, against the team finishing sixth in Division One, to determine who would be in Division One for the next cycle.

The bottom team in Division Two would face a playoff with the top team in the Intercontinental Cup, which would remain a first-class competition. The I-Cup would be played by six countries - playing two matches at home every two years and two away, with the final round played out concurrently in the UAE - and the bottom side would also face relegation, probably after a playoff with the leading team in the World Cricket League structure below the I-Cup.

Aspects of this plan might sound familiar, and in many ways they are. Something similar was proposed by Rohan Sajdeh of the Boston Consulting Group in 2008 (which had been commissioned by Cricket Australia) but was rejected, partly because teams did not get enough freedom in the schedule to stage the most lucrative series. Two years ago Australia, England and India tried to introduce promotion and relegation, with eight teams playing Test cricket and the rest in the I-Cup. The only snag? The Big Three would be exempt from relegation.

That would not be the case this time. "If we end up in Division Two, it is our own fault, simple as that," ECB chairman Colin Graves recently said.

The attitude shift is not only explained by the change in personnel among the Big Three. It also owes to the essential pragmatism of what is being proposed. The structure would only occupy about five months a year, deliberately leaving gaps in the schedule for teams to organise extra matches, including against teams from different divisions.

The Ashes could remain a five-Test series played on its current cycle no matter what. If Australia and England were in the same division, then only three Tests would count towards the league standings. Or, less simply, each Test would be weighted to give the series the same overall points as a three-match series.

The freedom to organise extra matches means that relegation to Division Two need not be catastrophic, especially as the mandatory schedule in Division Two would be light. If India were in Division Two, they would only be compelled to play four home Tests every two years - a minuscule obligation set against the 13 Tests planned for their next home summer - which would leave them ample time to organise more attractive Tests.

Other countries in Division Two might also be able to arrange extra matches against Division One sides. If Bangladesh were in Division Two, teams could play a Test there as preparation for touring other countries in the subcontinent, just as they could play Ireland before touring England, or Zimbabwe before touring South Africa.

The pragmatism of the envisaged reforms reflects the realities of world cricket; the ICC's need is not to devise a utopian structure but simply a good structure that will secure enough votes to be made a reality. It is no coincidence that seven countries would be in Division One, and the proposals would need the vote of seven of the ten Full Member representatives in the ICC board to get through.

Yet even teams in Division Two could have something to gain, especially if they negotiated deals with Division One countries guaranteeing some matches outside of the structure - an obvious sweetener to the three Full Members who would initially be in Division Two.

Bangladesh and Zimbabwe play so few matches against the top nations now - Zimbabwe have been temporarily removed from the rankings as a result - that the chance to lift themselves up to Division One, and receive regular guaranteed matches, might appeal.

The gravest concerns are for West Indies. Their place in Division Two would be a sobering reminder of how far they have fallen, and they have no geographical neighbours in Division One, perhaps making it harder for them to entice Division One sides to play there. Yet the WICB might view the chance to establish the side in Division One as something more appealing than them continuing to bumble along near the bottom of the Test rankings. The aspiration could also be a unifying force in the Caribbean.

The ICC's challenge is not merely to get a new structure passed but to work out how to pay for it. One favoured option is to introduce competition grants for each country playing Test cricket, covering the costs of each team's matches within the structure, and then leaving it up to the nations to fund any extra cricket they arrange. Some of the money needed to fund the new structure could come from redirecting the Test Cricket Fund. The rest could be found by resolving the ICC's imminent dilemma about what to do with all its extra cash.

Moving the World T20 back to every two years will raise US$400-500 million in extra profit every eight-year cycle. These funds would be more than enough to bankroll the two Test divisions. Effectively, T20 would be subsidising Test matches, just as some TV stations use soaps to subsidise documentaries.

More ambitiously, the ICC has tentatively discussed selling all Test matches within the structure collectively, although this would require many more months of negotiation even if two divisions are voted through.

"If India were in Division Two they would only be compelled to play four home Tests every two years, which would leave them ample time to organise more attractive Tests"

In the English Premier League and beyond, it is the norm for teams to sell rights collectively, which generates more money than them doing so individually. After it had given out the relevant competition grants, the ICC would then distribute surplus funds to members according to an agreed formula. India would still receive far more than any other country, but the hope is that everyone could be better off.

Either way, a funding mechanism needs to be devised, so that sides do not lose out if their series with India in Division One happens to be away, depriving them of the proceeds of home TV rights.

Even if the TV rights are not sold collectively, the proposed new structure would boost the economic value of Tests, believes Simon Chadwick, a sports business expert from the University of Salford. In sports the world over, fans have shown they are more likely to watch matches with consequences - those that are part of a competition rather than merely bilateral contests.

The popularity of Rugby sevens has rocketed since the World Rugby Sevens Series was introduced in 1999. Hockey has just agreed to a new structure giving matches greater context. In cricket the soaring value of ICC events contrasts with the stagnating value for bilateral fixtures, including ODIs and T20Is.

The reforms would also mean that supporters in one country had a stake in the results of other matches, as they could impact their prospects of winning the league or being relegated - and if even a tiny percentage of English or Indian fans had a new reason to watch New Zealand play Sri Lanka, say, the economics of the series could be transformed.

If Full Member boards can be convinced of this financial argument, it bodes well for the ICC's plans. Nothing drives votes quite like self-interest. Richardson has tried to introduce divisions in Tests since 2004. He and the rest of the ICC's management have been frustrated more than they would care to remember. This time could just be different.