The ICC recently set aside a proposal to divide Test cricket into two tiers.
The idea of dividing Test-playing nations into two leagues is often accompanied by a proposal to turn bilateral Test tours into components of a larger league. It is not clear why spectators would be more likely to watch a Test match today because it is part of a Test championship where the title will be awarded three years from now. The argument about "context" seems to be little more than a rhetorical device for justifying the shrinking of the highest level of cricket to a competition among seven teams. Though the proposal has been shelved for now, the actions of cricket's administrators in recent years suggest that under the guise of making the game more competitive, Test cricket will eventually be reduced to a smaller competition.
In the 21st century, as cricket has become a lucrative commodity for television broadcasters, no board has been able to resist the temptation to shape things in a way that suits the interests of broadcasters. This is especially true about T20, the most lucrative format, one made for TV.
Since the first T20 game was played in 2003, the number of matches played each year has grown. This growth spurt peaked in 2013, when 731 T20 matches were played globally. In January 2016, 180 T20 matches were played, the most in a single month to date. Further increases in T20 cricket are proposed. In June 2016, the BCCI announced plans for a "mini-IPL". A new city-based T20 league is also planned in England. This will probably be in addition to the existing 133-match domestic T20 tournament that features county teams.
T20 started out as a seasonal game. From 2003 to 2009, about 60% of all T20 games were played in the four months from April through July. This pattern changed in the period from 2010 to 2015, when T20 games were distributed more evenly through the year.
This has had an effect on Test and ODI cricket. A total of 1009 ODIs were played from 2003 to 2009 (144 per year), and 781 were played in 2010-15 (130 per year). Both periods included two World Cup tournaments. If we consider ODI matches featuring only the top eight Test-playing nations (setting aside matches involving Bangladesh for the sake of even comparison), 84 matches per year were played from 2003 to 09, 75 in 2010-15.
Test cricket has been similarly affected. A total of 309 Tests were played in 2003-09 (44 per year), 252 in 2010-15 (42 per year). If you consider only matches featuring Pakistan, Sri Lanka, West Indies, New Zealand and South Africa, 69 were played in 2003-09 (about ten per year), 54 in 2010-15 (nine per year). Considering matches involving only India, Australia and England, 40 Tests were played in 2003-09 (5.7 per year), 47 were played in 2010-15 (7.8 per year). Since his Test debut in November 2010, Kane Williamson has played 52 Tests. In the same period Alastair Cook has played 73.
While the five smaller established nations - South Africa, New Zealand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and West Indies, have played less Test cricket among themselves in 2010-15 compared to 2003-09, the record is the opposite in ODI cricket. From 2003 to 2009, they averaged 24 ODIs per year. In 2010-15, this increased to 26 ODIs per year.
International cricket has been mauled by the pressure of T20 into featuring the more lucrative short-form games. It is important to remember that this does not mean Test cricket does not generate revenue. However, given the existence of highly lucrative shorter forms, the incentive to play less lucrative forms is reduced.
If Test cricket is divided into two tiers, and if the top tier is designed to include seven teams, it will effectively mean shrinking Test cricket from a ten-team sport to a seven-team sport. This will codify and accelerate a process that, as the data shows, began early this decade. The Big Three - India, Australia and England - have played a larger share of Tests than before. They also host the biggest T20 leagues. The star players from the five second-tier Test-playing nations will be easily lured away by various T20 franchises. Most crucially, whereas T20 leagues today have to compete with a ten-team Test match sport, they will effectively have to compete with only a seven-team sport. Imagine being one of top eight established nations relegated to the second-tier Test league. It effectively means being banned from quality Test match competition for one league cycle. For many players, it could mean the end of their Test careers.
If a tier system has to be created, it should not depend on splitting the existing set of Test teams. At worst, perhaps Zimbabwe could be the lead team of the second tier, which could involve teams ranked 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15 in the world, with the possibility of one team moving up or down following a play-off. That would genuinely expand the game. It would give at least three to four teams in this second tier a realistic chance for promotion. It will also protect the established Test nations from the danger of relegation, which could prove catastrophic to their prospects as a Test-playing power. Existing Test nations must be protected from the vicious cycle of not getting games, becoming worse as a result, and then not getting games because they are worse than they used to be.
It is not clear how the purpose of growing the game will be served if the highest, most difficult level is practised by fewer teams than before. It is true that Bangladesh v England at Lord's is likely to be one-sided in the short term (or even in the medium term), but Bangladesh will benefit from the experience, just as India, Pakistan and New Zealand did from the many tours they undertook in the years after World War II.
Conventional wisdom has it that T20 is a gateway drug to cricket. It is a method to introduce the game to new audiences and potential playing populations. The evidence suggests that it has played out the other way. Cricket has been the gateway drug to T20. T20 leagues came into being because all the ingredients for making profits were already in place thanks to decades of cricket.
Cricket did not develop in India because it was a popular sport for the masses. It developed because there was a critical mass of organised clubs in the big cities of British India (and later independent India). These clubs were organised into a board, which in turn organised bigger tournaments and put together a representative team whose exploits made the sport popular in other parts of the country.
The possibility of playing tier-two Test cricket would be an ideal stepping stone for Associate Member teams that currently compete in tournaments like the Intercontinental Cup. Just like with clubs in Mumbai or Colombo, given the opportunity, clubs in Associate member countries could learn to produce competitive representative teams. If these teams are successful, it is possible that they will be popular. This will eventually invite private investors. Private enterprise typically takes root only in conditions where the likelihood of success is already reasonably high.
A two-tier system along the lines of the proposal that has been shelved for now will probably serve the short-term interests of the established boards. A greater concentration of highly competitive games will mean more money in TV contracts the next time these are negotiated. Does the reduction of the game's highest form to a competition between seven teams serve any purpose beyond gaining a few extra percentage points in revenue in the next TV contract negotiations? Administrators ought to keep one eye on where they would like cricket to be in, say, 2050 and weigh that against the benefits of a few extra dollars in 2019.