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Feature

How do you prepare new teams for Test cricket?

A strong first-class programme, A-team tours, more matches against Full Members, and more ICC funding will help teams like Ireland and Afghanistan make a better transition than Bangladesh did

Tim Wigmore
Tim Wigmore
09-Nov-2016
Given how they've been preparing for a potential introduction to Test cricket in 2019, Ireland and Afghanistan, and their fans, may not have to wait too long before tasting success at the highest level  •  Getty Images

Given how they've been preparing for a potential introduction to Test cricket in 2019, Ireland and Afghanistan, and their fans, may not have to wait too long before tasting success at the highest level  •  Getty Images

There is nothing quite like the thrill of a nation's first Test victory. Bangladesh's coruscating win over England in Dhaka was their eighth Test victory, but it was their first against heavyweight opposition, and a seminal moment for the world game: the moment that cricket's most exclusive club became a little bigger.
Amid all the euphoria, it felt a little churlish to ask: why had it taken so long for this moment to come? It is not only a question that Bangladesh should be asking. The ICC is very keen to add two new Test nations - Afghanistan and Ireland - in 2019. No one wants them to have to wait 16 years for a major win in Test cricket.
The history of Test cricket tells us how hard it is for new nations to master the game. It took India 20 years and 24 Tests before their first win, and New Zealand 26 years and 44 games. In this context, Bangladesh's wait of 16 years for a major win does not look so surprising, although no country has made anything like such an inauspicious start to Tests. Even New Zealand drew half of their first 44 Tests. And Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, the last two Test nations before Bangladesh, both toppled established Test opponents (India and Pakistan) within three years of their elevations.
Teams' first Test wins
Team Debut year Number of Tests before first win Total Tests played Wins Losses Draws
Australia 1877 0 791 372 211 206
England 1877 1 798 351 285 342
South Africa 1889 11 402 146 134 122
West Indies 1928 6 520 165 181 173
New Zealand 1930 44 415 85 169 161
India 1932 24 502 132 157 212
Pakistan 1952 1 402 130 114 158
Sri Lanka 1982 13 252 79 92 81
Zimbabwe 1992 10 100 11 63 26
Bangladesh 2000 34 95 8 72 15
Bangladesh had huge, and very particular, obstacles as a cricket country - the circumstances surrounding nationhood in 1971, and the dire economic state for many years after. Cricket, inevitably, was not immune to these problems. When the Bangladesh Cricket Board was founded, it had "nothing, not even a dollar", recounts Ahmed Sajjadul Alam Bobby, a BCB director. In the early years the board's telephone line never worked. When the national team practiced, there were no refreshments. Even by 2000 the quality of cricket facilities remained far worse than in other Test nations.
Yet there were many avoidable mistakes in how Bangladesh prepared for Test cricket. "They were rushed in too quickly," says Andrew Eade, Global Development Manager of the ICC from 2000 to 2003. Bangladesh had no structured regional multi-day competition before 1999, and only rarely played Full Member A sides or Indian domestic teams. Even the country's vibrant cricket culture and huge population were not enough to overcome these impediments.
"Having a solid domestic competition structure was the key thing missing there. Test match cricket's a very different beast to one-day cricket, and you can't learn it playing one-day cricket," Eade reflects. "If you had your time again, they'd have a four-year window beforehand where you got in place the building blocks of a four-day domestic structure, so there was a significant amount of four-day cricket played domestically, and a regular A team programme and first-class games for the national side."
All of which provide many lessons for the ICC and the leading aspiring Test nations, Afghanistan and Ireland. "They're a hell of a lot better prepared for Test cricket than Bangladesh were," says one ICC source, citing their experience playing against Test teams in limited-overs cricket. Ireland have played in eight ICC world events and Afghanistan in five, to Bangladesh's one when they were elected as a Full Member.
Since their inclusion in the 12-team ODI ranking structure last year, Afghanistan and Ireland have also played regular ODIs against Test nations; Bangladesh had only played 34 ODIs against Full Members before their first Test. Worse, they were an Associate nation in the years when, besides qualification for the World Cup, there was little cricket or structure for the leading countries beyond the Test world.
Afghanistan and Ireland also have one major advantage over every other Test nation in history - the Intercontinental Cup, which provides a regular programme of first-class matches with context around the world against other international sides. The creation of the tournament in 2004 provided an avenue for leading Associates to learn skills in multi-day cricket, even if the volume of matches has decreased since. While top Associates each played a total of 13 Intercontinental matches in the group stages of the tournament from 2007 to 2010, they will only play seven during the current four-year cycle.
For new Test nations, a high-quality first-class competition and multi-day structure is "the absolute key", Eade says. He considers Zimbabwe's involvement in South African multi-day cricket, which stretched back to 1904, "a big part" of why Zimbabwe were far more successful during their early forays in Test cricket than Bangladesh. From their first Test in 1992 to the end of 1999, Zimbabwe lost only 19 of their 39 Tests, drawing 17 and winning three (two against Pakistan and one against India).
In their first decade in Test cricket Bangladesh drew three matches (two due to inclement weather) and lost 48 of their 51 Tests not against Zimbabwe or a strike-ravaged West Indies.
It is understood that Zimbabwe still receive around $5 million a year more than Afghanistan and Ireland, who both need considerably more ICC cash if they are to be given every possible chance of thriving in Test cricket
A proper first-class system "is a must", Bobby agrees, saying that Bangladesh's anaemic progress in Tests "was because of not having proper longer-version games being played regularly all around the country".
Afghanistan and Ireland have noted as much. With Test cricket in mind, Afghanistan set up a regional four-day competition in 2014. Ireland have had a multi-day domestic competition since 2013, though it currently only amounts to four three-day matches a year for the three teams. That Ireland's competition has just been awarded first-class status might help attract a higher calibre of overseas player to raise standards.
Cricket Ireland is keen to make matches in the competition four days each, but "at present we could not afford to do this", says Richard Holdsworth, Ireland's Performance Director. Ireland's proximity to England means that many in Ireland's squad have experience of playing in the County Championship, even if the lack of players who were automatic picks in the competition last year was worrying. Eade also advocates Afghanistan joining the Ranji Trophy, as a short-term measure while preparing for Test cricket.
History suggests there are two other things that can give new Test nations the best chance of success. The first is playing against A teams from Full Members to help them prepare and expose them to new conditions and opponents.
"I would have liked to have seen more such encounters take place for Bangladesh," says Bobby. Before any new teams play their first Test matches, "they have to play with stronger sides all the time to improve. They just can't play among themselves."
Afghanistan's three-day match against England Lions in the UAE in December is a welcome development. They hope that their new base, in Greater Noida, near Delhi, will enable them to play tourists to India - including Australia, potentially, in February - in multi-day matches.
A regular programme of A team matches in first-class cricket is also essential, Eade believes. Such games develop fringe players and emerging talent, and also push players within the side to improve. Ireland have suffered from a paucity of players breaking into their batting order since the 2011 World Cup, and professionalism appears to have created a chasm between those who are full-time cricketers and those who are not.
Afghanistan have benefited from a far more healthy A-team programme than Ireland and hope to play Zimbabwe A again early in 2017. Ireland's lack of A-team games is a concern. They plan to beef up their A-team schedule in 2017 and beyond, including by playing against county 2nd XIs and against Full Member teams touring Ireland. They are also planning a winter tour for the A team to a Test nation in 2017-18. Ireland especially need tours of the subcontinent, and specialist coaching, to nourish their skills against spin bowling.
Such steps must be accompanied by wider improvements in training facilities and coaching if the countries are to nurture a consistent supply of Test players. Indeed, Bobby still believes that Bangladesh are hindered by a lack of outstanding training facilities. In Ireland, "practice facilities are not up to scratch", says Kyle McCallan, a former player - one reason why Cricket Ireland has established a training base in La Manga in Spain.
It will take considerable sums to fund this shopping list. While money is less of an issue for Afghanistan than for Ireland, it would seem incumbent on the ICC to fund a special programme for new nations to help prepare them for Test status and mitigate the risk of them stumbling in the same manner as Bangladesh. "To fund that transition phase would create a vastly increased chance of them being competitive once they stepped up," says Eade.
While Afghanistan and Ireland both get more cash from the ICC than ever before, boosted by an extra award of $500,000 to fund fixtures in 2017, this is still just a "drop in the ocean" compared to the lowest Full Members, says the ICC source.
It is understood that Zimbabwe still receive around $5 million a year more than Afghanistan and Ireland, who both need considerably more ICC cash if they are to be given every possible chance of thriving in Test cricket.
No country is the same, and no cricket culture is the same. So, as Warren Deutrom, Cricket Ireland's CEO, says, no formula can ensure success in Test cricket. "None of this comes with guarantees, but it's about trying to be as ready as we can, bearing in mind there is still no absolute guarantee of becoming a Test country - albeit we're planning for it - and we're doing so on vastly inferior resources to the Full Members."
But if the ICC can help new Test countries improve their domestic multi-day structures, organise regular matches against the A teams from Full Members, and fund vibrant A-team programmes themselves, then at least they will have done all they can to help new teams succeed. Had they done the same for Bangladesh, the joyous scenes in Dhaka might have been witnessed many years earlier.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts