The ICC’s general manager for cricket Dave Richardson has made a suggestion that will set the cat firmly amongst the pigeons.
“It’s an important point that Test cricket should be played against teams that are at least competitive with each other,” Richardson told Cricinfo. “Ideally, you want to have the top teams playing against each other, and then teams of lesser standing playing against each other, maybe in a second division or a lesser competition such as the Intercontinental Cup. I think that’s the challenge for the ICC, that it can create some sort of context for Test cricket both at the higher level and at levels below that.”
Sounds just fine, as far as it goes: A two-tier Test system with promotions and relegations will provide context to the contests; by way of side benefits, it will avoid the farcical situation of teams and players inflating their records and averages with regular fixtures against the weaker sides. You want more pros? Once you have a tiered Test system, you can move towards organizing a world Test championship — fewer teams will permit the officials to draw up a home-and-away cycle that resolves the Test crown every two years, three tops.
The problem? This.
If the first of your two tiers comprise the 10 nations currently playing Test cricket and the second comprises the best of the associate nations, then the purpose is defeated and you are right back where you started from.
If, however, you attempt to divide the existing Test nations into two-tiers, stand by for uproar. The teams in the second tier will claim, with considerable justification, that by creating a situation where they cannot play the top teams, the ICC has dramatically curtailed their ability to monetize the game, and that without the money brought in by high profile teams, cricket in their respective countries will die an unnatural death.
An option that has been discussed in the past and likely will be again is the one where the top tier nations contribute part of their take into an ICC fund which will be used to beef up the coffers of the bottom tier. Guess who will object to that and why? [It’s like the time I used to be a steward, and got assigned permanently to the night shift. The hotel I worked in — Chola Sheraton, in Madras — brought in this insane system that you had to dump the tips you got in a common basket, and everyone shared equally once a week. The problem? The night shift is considerably more demanding, and pulls more than double the tips, of the day shift; why the devil would I want to do all the hard work, and share with those who have it easier?]
The ICC has been working over the last year towards lending context and meaning to Test cricket to make it more competitive and attractive for spectators. Last year, officials had discussed the possibility of holding a Test championship where the TV revenue flows into a common pool. But the idea was shot down primarily by India and England, who would end up contributing as bulk of that money. The other significant idea to be discussed is for countries to designate Tests between top cricketing nations as full-fledged five-Test “icon series”. India and England have already signed one such agreement.
This tier system has all the earmarks of a good idea that will never get implemented, at least not in a democratic system where each team has a vote in the ICC council.