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Two-tier cricket plan at work

Tony Cozier

Two-tier cricket plan at work

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Four years ago, when the idea that Test cricket should be split into two divisions was gaining currency, there was no doubt which one the West Indies would be in.
They had slumped so rapidly from their proud, prolonged position as the game’s No.1 that they would not make the proposed qualification of the top seven under [such an] arrangement; they would be left in the second tier alongside the bottom three and the chosen associates. Their only way back was through a projected promotion and relegation system.
Julian Hunte let the International Cricket Council (ICC) know just what the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) thought of the idea. He was adamant that it was unworkable and simply wouldn’t happen.
On the face of it, it hasn’t. The same ten teams (by present rankings, South Africa, England, Australia, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, West Indies, New Zealand, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe) still play Tests.
Yet, in effect, the two-tier plan is in place. The top sides, South Africa, England, Australia and India have competed against each other in series of five matches (England and Australia for the Ashes), four or, at the least, three. The also-rans are confined mainly to two Tests at a time, even against each other, with lengthy gaps for those against their superiors.
The obvious consequence was accentuated last week by Chris Gayle and Tamin Iqbal, the left-handed openers in opposite camps in last month’s series of two Tests between the West Indies and Bangladesh.
Since they came into Test cricket a dozen years ago, when they were clearly not ready for the jump, only one of Bangladesh’s series has been longer than two matches. Four times, they have been consigned one.
At the height of their power, five Tests was a given for the West Indies. Twice there were even six, against Australia in 1975-76 and England in 1995. They have now been reduced to no more than three, even down to two each against England, Pakistan, Bangladesh (twice) and New Zealand in the last few years.
To make his point, Tamin used Bangladesh’s experience in the recent first Test against the West Indies, when they amassed 556 in their first innings and still lost by 77 runs.
“It showed we know how to play the game but not how to finish a Test,” he said. “If you don’t play enough Tests, you wouldn’t have an idea of how to play the game properly. Test cricket is all about habits and the more we will play, the more we will improve.
“It is the same as scoring a hundred: if you haven’t made one, you wouldn’t know how it’s done.”
Gayle’s theme was similar.
The former West Indies captain, one of the most identifiable of current cricketers, has clearly done a 180-degree turn since his much quoted and criticized comment in England in 2009 that he wouldn’t care if Test cricket died. In an interview in the Melbourne Age last week, he called it the pinnacle of the sport, with the rider “and that won’t change”.
His concern now is that “the lower-ranked teams are playing each other more and not given the chance to play against the top-ranked teams to create points and be up there and have a crack at the No.1 position”.
As a result, he expected the West Indies to struggle to ever be back at the top where they indisputably were in the 1960s and 1980s – “it’s going to be a hell of a leap to get across that hurdle” was the way he put it.
The West Indies’ coming Test engagements between February 2013 and August 2014 are Zimbabwe (presently unranked), Pakistan (No. 4) and Bangladesh (No. 9), each at home for two Tests, and New Zealand (No. 8) twice, home and away, for three matches each.
Captain Darren Sammy said after the recent sequence of four Test wins over New Zealand and Bangladesh, along with the triumph in the T20 World Cup, only success over Australia, England and South Africa would prove if the West Indies are “moving in the right direction”. It’s going to be a long wait.
They next come up against India and South Africa in three away Tests each between October 2014 and January 2015. Australia (away) and England (home) are not on the calendar until December 2015 through March 2016. That would be six years since their previous encounters; it used to be at least once every four years; in between, there is the sop of five ODIs against each.
The reasons for such scheduling are mainly, if not solely, the increasingly congested programme.
Until 1971, the only international cricket were Tests. Then came the one-day, 50-overs-an-innings variety, compounded by the addition of Sri Lanka (1982), Zimbabwe (1992) and Bangladesh (2000) to ICC’s full status.
Most recently, Twenty20 has been added to the roster. Given the public’s infatuation for the all-action short game, the lucrative contracts on offer for players and the financial returns for the ICC and its affiliates, its success was inevitable. It is here to stay, yet none of the previous changes has proved as disruptive.
The ICC has pressed the pause button on its Test programme to accommodate the Indian Premier League (IPL) and the Champions League, tournaments confined to domestic franchise teams. It stages its own World Cup every two years.
The WICB and Sri Lanka Cricket have agreed to scrap the listed Test series in the Caribbean in March and April because their key players will be on duty in the IPL. They have swapped it for a later three-way ODI series, with India the third team.
While the ICC reiterates that Tests remain the “pinnacle”, it is clear that it cannot properly sustain its programme as it is. So what gives?
Adam Gilchrist, the Australian ball-beater who was an expert Fifty50 exponent, is not alone in fingering that format as the one to make way. He gives it three more years (until after the 2015 World Cup in Australia) before it is “consumed by the other two formats”.
There are those who place Test cricket’s head on the chopping block but that’s a mantra that’s been sung, ironically, since the ODIs were jazzed up by Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket more than 30 years ago.
In the meantime, the West Indies, Bangladesh and the other current stragglers just have to make do with whatever, and whenever, Tests are offered.
• Tony Cozier is the most experienced cricket writer and broadcaster in the Caribbean.