World cricket's custodians are to consider a revolutionary proposal to bring relegation and promotion to Test matches as a partial sop to the imminent death of the World Test Championship (WTC).
The ICC executive board is expected to consider the proposal at the next round of meetings later this month, the same gathering expected to end any hopes for the WTC due to the reluctance of broadcasters and the lack of certainty around the format of an event that was postponed from its original 2013 launch date and re-launched for 2017 last October.
ESPNcricinfo understands that the board will instead entertain the promotion/relegation plan, which will open up the possibility of nations like Ireland and Afghanistan earning their way into Test matches while at the same time placing the likes of Zimbabwe and Bangladesh on the precipice. It will be introduced on the "no disadvantage" condition that none of the current ICC Full Member nations would lose that status and its financial advantages.
Instead, the Associate nations will have the chance to press for spots at the Test match table on the basis of performance against the lower-ranked Full Members. This would provide a strong incentive for nations currently playing Test matches to improve themselves while also offering opportunities for Associates to compete at the highest level of the game.
Precise details of how promotion and relegation from Test cricket would work in practice are yet to be revealed, but the concept of play-offs for Test status every four years is believed to be one of the options under consideration. The idea of dividing Test cricket up into two tiers has been debated for some time, with various noted voices on the game expressing opinions on its merits.
In 2013, the former England captain Michael Vaughan suggested that the incentives provided by promotion and relegation would also add context and value to Test cricket, perhaps to the point of dissuading some players from fringe nations prioritising the IPL over representing their country at that time of year.
"Just imagine if New Zealand have to come to England and win one out of three Tests to stay in the first division or win promotion," Vaughan wrote in the Telegraph. "If there is a proper financial incentive to playing in the first division, like there is in football's Premier League, then players would be less likely to choose the IPL instead."
In addition to promotion and relegation, the ICC is expected to consider increasing the financial rewards on offer to teams earning the No. 1 spot on the Test rankings, for which the Test Championship Mace is currently awarded on an annual basis.
There have been an increasing number of diversions from the Future Tours Programme, as nations make bilateral agreements that flout the authority of officially agreed schedule. India recently reduced their tour of South Africa to the minimum two Test matches while adding two unscheduled home fixtures against the West Indies, while this week it was confirmed that Pakistan's series against Australia in October would be downsized from the earlier agreed three Tests to two.
The ICC has previously flagged that promotion and relegation will become part of the landscape for ODIs, coming into effect following the 2019 World Cup.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here