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January 8, 2015

What cricket can learn from the Davis Cup

Martin Jones

Tennis is an individual sport, its showpiece event - perhaps not the highest level, but the most entertaining event - is a competition between teams. The Davis Cup is effectively the World Cup of tennis, and a Davis Cup tie is arguably the most comparable sporting event to a Test match. It is a multi-day battle, a team contest made up of individual battles. But there are some obvious differences.

In the Davis Cup, anyone can compete, from the United States to tiny San Marino. In Test cricket, this is certainly not the case, although there is at least some sort of a parthway, however difficult it may be.

In the Davis Cup, every tie has a context and a purpose. In Test cricket, we are stuck in a meandering throwback to colonial times, where bilateral series are as big as it gets. A World Test Championship has been repeatedly obstructed, postponed, and cancelled.

In the Davis Cup, the crowds are impressive. Packed houses of colour, noise and patriotic support. In Test cricket, attendances are down, tempted away by all manner of things that are more appealing than watching five days of grinding at the SSC, or even two-and-a-bit days of one-sidedness in Bridgetown.

It could be said that everything that the Davis Cup does right, Test cricket does wrong.

But the Davis Cup provides a possible framework for Test cricket to follow if it wants to keep up with the rest of the sporting world. If you want to make clear the historic nature of Test cricket, then the competition can be called the Bannerman Cup.

The first step is to split teams into divisions of eight. The 'World Group' could contain Australia, Bangladesh, England, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa and Sri Lanka. There could then be as many divisions as you like below that, but there must be a pathway for even the lowest-ranked teams to work their way up the rungs of the ladder: Great Britain's ascent to the 2015 Davis Cup should serve as a clear enough example as to why that is worthwhile.

Then, the season should be split into three phases. The first could be from January to April; the second could be from May to August, and the third could run from September to November.

In the first phase, a random draw takes place as each division sees four three-Test series played. For example, if Australia draw Sri Lanka, then they have to arrange a three-Test series during that time period. The team drawn first has first refusal for hosting a home series. If they're not able to do that, then the second team drawn can step into the breach. The random draw is particularly important, because it can facilitate so many more interesting stories than a tournament designed so that Australia, England, India and their best friend play in the semi-finals.

In the second phase, the four 'World Group' winners progress to the semi-finals, which could be arranged again by a random draw.

Everywhere else, the four losers from one division will play series against the four teams who have won from the division below. So, for instance, you could end up with Bangadesh v Afghanistan, Ireland v Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe v New Zealand and England v West Indies. These play-offs are for promotion and relegation between the divisions. If none of the teams are good enough to win their play-off series, then nobody is promoted. If all of them are, then they are all promoted.

In the third phase, most of the teams have finished, and will have time to arrange bilateral series to their hearts' content. The only two teams who will still have fixtures will be the two who won the semi-finals. They will then play a three-match final series. This could perhaps consist of a Test at Lord's in September, a Test at Eden Gardens in October, and a Test at the MCG in November. This serves three purposes: firstly, it ensures that the winner will be the best side in all kinds of conditions; secondly, it means that the finals will be played in the world's most famous venues, and thirdly, it should keep the Big Three happy.

The schedule could repeat annually, like the Davis Cup. It still leaves plenty of time for the other tournaments, like a 20-team World Cup. But that, like the Bannerman Cup, is a utopian fantasy.

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Posted by John on (January 13, 2016, 15:57 GMT)

This is an interesting idea, though I'm not quite sure that there's a fully satisfactory way to handle drawn Test series. Just as in international football, any country who want to play Test cricket should be allowed to do so and play anyone prepared to meet them. We should be less precious about the "status" of Test cricket and its statistics, and if Afghanistan and Ireland want to play a Test against each other then why should it not be "official"?

Posted by Chris on (January 11, 2016, 12:27 GMT)

I think the cricket world will eventually go to being entirely franchise based. That is, all formats of cricket will survive, but played without borders of nation. Each club would be able to have x number of players on their roster and choose who they play in each format of the game. A player could still be a test specialist, whilst others could be T20 only. A franchise could be on a test tour through one region, but also be playing in a T20 game on the other side of the world. A ladder system could be devised, with each franchise playing an even amount of each format, against other franchises (most probably in divisions), to reveal a Champion franchise for the timeframe, with the option to include a Finals series or playoff (I wouldn't, leaving it like the EPL). Imagine, Hashim's Hampshire Hedgehogs playing off against Warner's Wellington Warriors, in order to deny McCullum's Melbourne Magpies the ultimate cricketing glory. One to ponder, I think.

Posted by Shams on (January 10, 2016, 16:04 GMT)

Instead of truly random picks which could potentially mean the best two teams, (1) I would rank the teams 1 through 8. Teams ranked 1-4 are then randomly paired with teams ranked 5-8. The corresponding teams then play a home-and-away series of 3 or 4 Tests. (2) The winners progress to the next round where the same is repeated for the now top-4 ranked teams in the semi-final stage. (3) The bottom 4 can then play teams ranked 9-12 to avoid relegation in home-and-away or away series. We have potentially 12 teams if you include Ireland and Afghanistan (or any of the other upcoming competitors). This ensures even the lower ranked teams get to play some amount of Test cricket. (4) I like your idea of playing the finals (3 or 5 matches) at different venues around the world allowing the winner to be the best team across conditions. (5) This entire system could be bi-annual to accommodate the home-and away format. Teams are of course free to schedule additional bilateral matches as practice.

Posted by Lewis on (January 10, 2016, 8:15 GMT)

How about having something like the intercontinental cup?? Just increase the group sizes and relegate Zimbabwe and Bangladesh into division one. The rest of the test nations play in what could be called the elite division and play 5 day matches instead of 4. Have one nation from each division relegated/promoted automatically (top and bottom obviously) and have 2nd place/2nd to last place play each other in something like the test challenge.

Posted by Jinphil on (January 10, 2016, 8:14 GMT)

There needs to be a concrete pathway to Test status, but I don't think a straight promotion/relegation system is the right way. Ireland is the only non-Test playing nation that has both done enough in international play and has access to the required infrastructure (the ECB structure) to compete at Test level in the reasonable future against even the lower half of the Test nations. That same lower half of the Test cricket "family" not in good health - Pakistan are still playing in exile, WI have been in freefall for years, Zimbabwe is a total basketcase, SL faces serious decline and Bangladesh have never even been relevant. There's only 10 Test-playing nations, and I'd rather try to support the beleaguered ones rather than shun them to the wilderness while promoting woefully unprepared teams to become new Bangladeshes.

Posted by Andrea on (January 9, 2016, 17:40 GMT)

Thanks Martin for your article. On a few occasions I posted on ESPN Cricinfo that Test CAN have a future provided it stops blaming T20 and offers an interesting, comprehensive tournament formula. Copying tennis Davis Cup maybe the effective medicine. DavisCup formula, as it was in the late '70s, would be the perfect format: I envisage four regional robins of 4 teams each, then quarter finals, semis and a final. This Test Cup has to span along the year to keep interest alive and avoid overlapping when top T20 tournaments are held. Surely with pink ball the completion of first innings within the first two days may become easily feasible and a guarantee against draws. This means having a thrilling 16 Nations Test Championship and the termination of anachronistic, little meaningful, tours, a legacy from victorian age. I would also welcome a parallel robin for 8 "B" Nations. Last ranked of top 16 Nations may be relegated and top ranked of "B" Nations promoted.

Posted by andrews on (January 9, 2016, 4:08 GMT)

Thanks for throwing another possibility in to the pot for making Test cricket more interesting. You call it a utopian fantasy, but it could have legs. Neutral venues are not a financially good idea though. And it could never be an annual event. The draw would need to be according to seedings, not random. The biggest problem.I have with the article is that you have Bangladesh in the top division ahead of the West Indies. I appreciate that the farcical rankings will have Bangladesh as much as 55 points ahead of WI when they are recalibrated in May. But that is stupid. WI have beaten Bangledesh comfortably home and away in recent times, and must be ranked 8 in any intelligent rankings system (which the official one is not). In fact, any intelligent system would have to say that WI has not moved from number 8 since losing at home to New Zealand in 2002.

Posted by Nigel on (January 9, 2016, 1:50 GMT)

Although in tennis, the big events are the historical ones, the four grand slams, the Davis Cup would never replace them or have the same prestige. Divisions are the key thing, so how about this:

Have multiple divisions with however many teams (doesn't matter, they play who they like within their division). Most countries have to leave one home and away series free every year for a challenge from the division below. Let's say the magic ratio is a $half (or a third or two-thirds).The bottom $half in one division can be challenged by the top $half in the next. If there's no challenge before a certain deadline, then as usual they can play whomever they want. Multiple challenges are resolved by agreement or ranking (the highest in the lower division plays the lowest in the higher division). If the challenger wins, then they swap divisions, and inherit the other's tour schedule. If Aus/Eng/Ind are good enough to stay in the top $half of the first division, they are immune from challenge.

Posted by Tim on (January 8, 2016, 19:22 GMT)

I'm a newbie to the sport (started by watching The Ashes in 2010) and I'm an American, which means I have no inherent rooting interest for any nation, not yet anyway.

I think another interesting parallel between test cricket and another sport would be golf. Golf tournaments take 4 days, 5 if you count the Pro-Am. Golf is extremely international, although you are dealing with individuals and not teams, which lowers the complexity by orders of magnitude. The PGA has come up with a playoff system using points. It's probably overly complicated and is constantly being revised, but I could see how you could adapt it to test cricket. You could award points for various achievements through an 18-month schedule, and the two top test sides could meet in a finals (or possibly top four in a knockout tournament) at the end of the period, with the venues alternating between the northern and southern hemisphere over the 36-month cycle.

Posted by John on (January 8, 2016, 15:56 GMT)

About as well thought out as a soluble submarine plan. Please don't try and lump easy to stage. logistically simple and virtually weather independent formats from other sports into the same pot as something with the complexity of cricket. Cricket, especially test cricket, is unique. The reason why the NFL is the highest grossing team sport per event by a very long way is because a bunch of guys got together 50 years ago and decided that they as owners of the stronger teams needed to make sacrifices to assist the weaker teams so that the entire brand/sport could flourish. That kind of thing can happen in a business/conglomerate within a country it will never ever happen between nations with such a diverse range of cultures, rules of law and now unfortunately religious conflict. Eventually even Ashes series will be three tests and all other tours will have one test that will only be attended by a few grey beards and retro-hipsters wanting selfies of themselves sitting on a grass bank

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