Efforts to contextualize international cricket are a step closer to reality after the ICC's chief executives committee (CEC) worked out a viable schedule for a Test and ODI league.
Option C, as the proposal is known, includes a rolling Test league starting in 2019, in which the top-nine Test teams will play 12 Test series on a home-and-away basis over four years. The Test league, as it stands, does not have any space for either Ireland or Afghanistan; Zimbabwe, the lowest-ranked Test side currently, will also not be part of the league. The proposal also contains an ODI league of the top 13 teams to be played over two years from 2020.
Option C now awaits ratification by the ICC Board which meets on Friday. But that is being looked upon with optimism, given that the BCCI, who had been staunchly against potential structures proposed previously, has backed the new proposal. If approved by the Board, the ICC will formalise the plan, add in specifics such as dates, terms and conditions, and present a more detailed schedule to the CEC for approval in the ICC meetings in October.
The new Test League is likely to start immediately after the 2019 World Cup and will run till the beginning of the 2023 World Cup. It will conclude with a play-off between the top two teams at the end of the cycle.
Under the proposal, each country is allowed to play a maximum of 12 Test series - with a minimum of two Test matches per series - over the four-year cycle. Half of the series will be at home, half away. In any given year, one side will play two home series but only one the following year (three home series in two years, or six in four).
Twelve Test series over four years is not far off from what Full Members played in a four-year stretch from 2011-15: Australia played 12, England 13, India 12, South Africa 12, New Zealand 16, West Indies 13, Pakistan 14, Sri Lanka 14, Zimbabwe 9 and Bangladesh 10.
One of the main obstacles to creating these new structures has been the lack of space in a calendar now bearing the weight of international cricket as well as a growing domestic Twenty20 league calendar. One of the main concerns raised by the ICC in April to the structure discussions was the need to schedule less Test cricket, but make it more meaningful - that has brought down the number of Test series each side plays in four years from 16, in an earlier proposal, to 12.
Member boards retain autonomy over who they play. Countries are allowed to play bilateral series outside the Test league, though the windows are likely to be limited to marquee series like the Ashes. The latest structure essentially allows teams to build home seasons into the calendar, increasingly a growing concern for a number of members. The BCCI is likely to split its home seasons between September-November and February-March.
The glaring bilateral omission from the schedule is, of course, India and Pakistan, who have no series planned for either league. The BCCI has made it clear to the PCB that they cannot play a bilateral series even on neutral territory without the permission of the Indian federal government.
Meanwhile, neither Ireland or Afghanistan, who were granted Test status on Thursday, and Zimbabwe will feature in this Test league. They may, however, organise Tests against each other and against the other nine if they can find a window for it. Both new Test entrants will however be part of the 13-team ODI league expected to start in 2020. The 13th team will be determined according to the rankings as per a cut-off date specified by the ICC.
The 13-team ODI league for World Cup qualifying will be condensed into two years instead of three. That would mean each team will only play eight opponents instead of all 12. David Richardson, the ICC CEO, said they were still formulating as to which eight opponents each team plays to make it "as fair as possible".
As per the schedule prepared by the ICC, Afghanistan will play two ODI series at home against Pakistan and Ireland in 2020-21. They will travel to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka for away tours. Across 2021-22, Afghanistan will host Australia and the 13th-ranked country and play in India and Zimbabwe for away series.
Ireland will host New Zealand and Bangladesh at home and travel to Afghanistan and England in 2020-21. In the next phase, Ireland will host South Africa and Zimbabwe while travelling to the West Indies and the 13th-ranked side.
For the purposes of working out points, the ICC has capped bilateral series to three matches. Teams can play over and above that if they wish, but no points would be considered from those fixtures.
The ICC also confirmed that the Test Challenge Playoff series (two home games, two away), which was proposed to be played by the winner of the Intercontinental Cup against the lowest ranked Full Member in 2018, will be scrapped after Afghanistan and Ireland were inducted as Full members.