Ireland and Afghanistan are looking forward to a pivotal round of ICC meetings in the hope that they come out the other side as Test-playing countries. Among the topics up for discussion in front of the ICC board this weekend is the structure of Test cricket, and whether the five-day format should be opened up to more than the current ten Test sides. Specifically, it is Ireland and Afghanistan who are knocking on the door and waiting to see if the Full Member boards open up that possibility.
Prospects for such a development have become brighter in recent times. Ireland's inter-provincial competition was awarded first-class and List A status in October 2016. Afghanistan's application to have first-class status granted to their multi-day domestic competition, meanwhile, is due to be examined at the Chief Executives Committee meeting on Thursday.
Afghanistan recently declared their ambitions of achieving Full Member status. Their premier national competition has five teams compared to Ireland's three-team elite structure, while Afghanistan's domestic crowd numbers run well into the thousands, helping to satisfy the most nebulous aspect of ICC criteria: proving an established "cricket culture". As such, Afghanistan's administrators are confident that at the very least their domestic competition will be awarded the same first-class status as Ireland's, and perhaps more.
"We've submitted a proposal for Test status and in February they will decide about it," Atif Mashal, chairman of the Afghanistan Cricket Board, told ESPNcricinfo in a recent interview. "We had a very positive meeting with ICC. They were very happy for Afghanistan cricket, the development and sustainability of the cricket, the introduction of youngsters to our team.
"Now we have many new names in the team and they are performing very well. Introducing new boys to the team is a plus thing because it is becoming a young, sustainable and well performing team. We have already reserved a place for Full Membership and after the criteria is passed by the full [ICC] board and executive committee, we are ready for Full Membership."
Results at international level will also matter. At each of the previous three 50-over World Cups, Ireland have notched wins against Full Members while Afghanistan added the scalp of West Indies at the 2016 World T20 to their stretch of dominance over Zimbabwe. Both countries are already part of the 12-team ODI qualification table and have demonstrated consistently positive results in the highest multi-day competition available to them, the Intercontinental Cup.
Since entering the competition in 2009, Afghanistan have won 14 games, lost once - to Ireland in the 2013 I-Cup final - and recorded four draws, including in their first-class debut match against a Zimbabwe XI in 2009. They beat Scotland in the 2010 final to claim the title in their first appearance at the tournament, and in the current tournament table are in second place behind Ireland. It's a record that proves Afghanistan are ready for Tests, ACB chief executive Shafiqullah Stanikzai told ESPNcricinfo this past summer.
Ireland won three I-Cup titles from 2005 to 2008 when the competition was crammed into a two-year cycle. They won again in 2013 by beating Afghanistan in the final and could have won more titles had the format not been rejigged to stretch out seven group matches over three years. Overall, since 2004, they have won 24 matches and drawn ten while losing only two. One of those losses was to Scotland in the first year of the competition, the other to Afghanistan in 2009. They have been unbeaten in their last 12 matches, which includes four wins in four matches in the current tournament that began in 2015.
Despite demonstrating their cricketing prowess, each country's fate may have just as much to do with their administrative nous off the field. Part of that is garnering support from other Full Members for inclusion. While the two-tier structure proposal was put on the back burner at the ICC annual conference, momentum may be growing for a dual-conference structure, thereby maintaining a semblance of competitive parity. In order to avoid rocking the boat with the ICC's 10-team financial distribution model linked to Full Membership, it may also help to argue for Test opportunities without necessarily attaching Full Member status to them.
One official believes, however, that nothing definitive will emerge until after the ongoing Intercontinental Cup. "One of the key objectives is to try and uncouple Test cricket from Full Membership," the official said. "I don't think that is going to be determined through the new membership of the Test cricket until following this latest Intercontinental Cup competition."