Fazeer Mohammed (FP)
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FIRST THINGS first: It is impossible to fill the shoes of Tony Cozier, so there is no point trying. Still, it is a privilege to be invited to contribute in the space he occupied with such distinction for so long.
Whatever the many varied and vexing issues surrounding West Indies cricket, on the field this feels like a good time.
Champions (men and women) of the World Twenty20, winners of the Under-19 World Cup and competitive beyond most expectations in the just concluded Tri-Nation One-Day International Series, it is again evident that the issue in the Caribbean has never really been one of talent but of the systems and structures that nurture those abilities and motivate the supremely gifted players to give of their best in West Indian colours.
That challenge has proven to be almost insurmountable at Test level, the format in which our internationally-respected reputation was built over decades and where the West Indies dominated like none before or since for almost 20 years. And now, ominous clouds are massing on the eastern horizon which portend doom for Test cricket here should the obvious warning signs not be heeded.
It was a month ago at a promotional event for next year’s Champions Trophy tournament in England – for which the West Indies failed to qualify – that the International Cricket Council’s chief executive, David Richardson, revealed plans by the sport’s umbrella body (you can’t really call it a “governing” body because India, and to a lesser extent England and Australia, are the ones who govern the game) to implement a two-tier Test format, possibly as early as 2019.
“If we really want Test cricket to survive, we can’t have the number of Test teams diminishing,” said the former South African wicketkeeper/batsman. “We have to create a proper competition structure which provides promotion and relegation and opportunities to get to the top. A number of member countries are finding that they’re not getting as much from their TV rights for bilateral cricket and they see the need to change.”
Putting aside the obvious irony that it is the ICC itself which has contributed to the watering down of Test cricket by allowing the powerful nations to arrange schedules to suit their own narrow interests, the immediate concern for the West Indies is that, as things stand, the former champions will be the only one of the established Test nations to be consigned to the second division along with Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and possibly Ireland and Afghanistan.
Apparently, the favoured format of this two-tier system is a Division 1 of seven teams and a Division 2 comprising five teams, including two new Test nations, based on the international Test rankings at a cut-off date that is yet to be determined.
Right now, the West Indies are ranked eighth on 65 points, 20 behind seventh-ranked Sri Lanka. So the task is to erase that gap and move ahead of the Sri Lankans, or whoever occupies seventh spot, by the time the divisional structure is formalised.
If the accepted format is for two divisions of six teams each, then the challenge is even greater as the Caribbean team will have to also move ahead of the sixth-ranked nation (currently South Africa on 92 points) to be in the top tier.
Further conspiring against chances of competing in the first division is the fact that the lower ranked nations don’t play as many Tests as the top rankers. Over the two-year sliding scale on which the rankings are based, the West Indies have played 21 matches, compared to 36 by fourth placed England and 32 by top-of-the-table Australia. Bangladesh, last in the rankings because Zimbabwe haven’t played the eight Tests required over a two-year period to qualify for a rating, have played just 12 Tests over the past 24 months.
How such a disparity can persist in what pretends to be an international competition with a presumed level playing field merely highlights the reality that top-level global cricket is a hierarchy where the powerful and the privileged hold sway.
And now comes day/night Test cricket. Prominent players may gripe about exaggerated movement and picking up the pink ball under lights; however, the fact that television viewership for the first official day/night Test between Australia and New Zealand last November in Adelaide was double the usual figures, points to where this will be headed.
If there is any doubt, consider that India trialled the pink ball a couple weeks ago in a club final in Kolkata.
Given the significantly diminishing interest in Test cricket in the region, a West Indian demotion to Division 2 may not be greeted with widespread dismay.
How the West Indies Cricket Board, custodians of the Caribbean game, copes with this impending challenge, though, will indicate clearly whether a proud and unsurpassed legacy in the traditional format matters to the present administration.
Fazeer Mohammed is a regional cricket journalist and broadcaster who has been covering the game at all levels since 1987.