The last team from outside those few nations to win the European Cup was in 1990-91, when eastern Europe could still put out sides resembling their national team, and England was absent due to the Heysel ban. The European Championships are, by contrast, remarkably equal, for the reasons being argued: that having a high quality domestic competition is not necessary for international success, particularly if results fall your way.
Yet the international game is not much more equal, and it favours teams that can produce good domestic competitions. Not because it is necessary to have a good domestic competition. But because a good, meaning rich, domestic competition needs a large base of supporters, and therefore a large base of potential players to choose from. The same 10 nations mentioned above dominate international football, having won all ten World Cups, and been runners-up in every competition since 1962. The top ten teams in the rankings are not always drawn from those teams, but interlopers never stay there for long. Their success depends not on strength in depth, but in the fortuitous emergence of greats.
We see this in cricket as well. New Zealand is a naturally weak team, able to compete with a Hadlee or Crowe, but struggling badly in between times. Over a long enough time period their results will be no better than mediocre. The fallacy in having "test match status" is that by asking teams to reach and then maintain a standard represented by the best few teams in the world, is the equivalent of expecting footballing nations to match the results of Brazil, Italy and Germany. No amount of time or development money will make Denmark the equal of those three sides, but they can certainly match them, when fortune favours them with Schmeichel and a couple of Laudrups.
Test cricket's supporters must discard the idea that it is somehow special or different in terms of its inequalities, that prevent it from being inclusive of the sports smaller nations. An examination of results against the four largest sides in cricket (India, England, Australia and South Africa) shows remarkably similar inequalities as the results table for teams against rugby's big five (Australia, New Zealand, England, France and South Africa). Rugby is, if anything, less competitive, with no team having a better than 25% winning record, and only five passing 10%. The great difference is that, unlike cricket, rugby's big five occasionally deem it necessary to play teams outside the narrow confines of an elitist club, mostly saving them the trouble of hand-wringing over the performance of their weaker nations (though Italy seems to cop the Bangladesh treatment on occasion).
There is no great benefit in keeping potentially good teams away from test cricket, on the basis that they might not be able to sustain that level of achievement. It is almost certain, in fact, that they won't remain at that level, and any structure must allow teams to have their ups, and their downs, by playing most of their games against nations at their current level. Allowing more teams to play would add colour and interest to the sport, provide a base for growth in previously fallow fields, and allow Bangladesh to stand proud as the 9th best team in the world, not hang their heads in shame at being the worst. More importantly, opening up the competitive structure, will allow teams like Ireland, currently blessed with some talent, to challenge and defeat their traditional betters, even if they remain no match for the sport's powerhouses. A challenge they will never get to undertake, if they continue to be stymied by artificial and irrelevant constraints like the quality of their domestic league, or their future abilities.
Monday Melbourne: CCI, March 2010
|1st Test||New Zealand||v||Australia|
|Expected Margin||Australia by 87 runs|
|Actual Margin||Australia by 10 wickets|
It is almost impossible to find something interesting to write about this game. Australia found themselves in a potentially difficult situation when North joined Clarke at 4/176, but it was all one-way from there, as you'd expect. New Zealand's strength in the middle order kept them from being completely embarrassed, and they'll be pleased to have got to 400 in the second dig, but there was little else to write about of interest. Eventually, Ponting's insistence on declaring early - without taking advantage of the situation by attacking first to gain time - will backfire spectacularly. But so far it has worked well enough, and New Zealand, even more-so than Pakistan and the West Indies, clearly lack the fire-power to take advantage.
|Expected Margin||England by 200 runs|
|Actual Margin||England by 9 wickets|
Bangladesh failed to meet expectations in this game, albeit by only one wicket, but that single wicket is perhaps a better pointer to the limits of their development and ambitions, than their successes in this series. They were never going to win, not on pitches conducive to batting, where their lack of discipline with the willow, and poor bowling attack work against them. But they still lack ambition at key times, exemplified by their defensive spread fields both in the first test, and more crucially, in the fourth innings of the second. This deficiency is most likely because playing only superior teams has meant Bangladesh are yet to learn how to win, and one that may take years to perfect.
They did have notable successes though. Tamim Iqbal is emerging as a brilliant batsmen, capable of destroying any attack, with the temperament to make consistent runs. He is well supported by Mahmudullah, Rahim and Siddique, who have shown themselves capable of building good partnerships, and by Shakib al Hasan, who may yet be a truly great player. Only 23, he is almost certainly the youngest player to 1000 runs and 50 wickets, and seems to be the third fastest in terms of matches (thanks DB). That is an astonishing record. Bangladesh have some way to go before they can compete with England, but they might have already found some of the players who will do so, when they reach their prime.
|Rankings at 24th March 2010|
Shaded teams have played fewer than 2 games per season. Non-test team ratings are not comparable to test ratings as they don't play each other.
Recently completed matches
|Expected Margin||England by 206 runs|
|Actual Margin||England by 181 runs|
Bangladesh are a team very unfairly done by. They suffer the barbs of being the "worst team in world cricket" when they are actually better than more than half the teams playing regular international cricket; the accusation that they aren't "good enough" for test cricket, when test status itself is no more than an artifact of an elitist and backward system; and the tests they play are derided as "meaningless", "pointless", and "uninteresting", when comparable mismatches between international teams are commonplace. What this test fixture lacked was a context that would make it meaningful and interesting, not a level competition.
Even so, I've found Bangladesh's recent forays fascinating, as in each of the past four games they have crawled past the expected margin, and slowly improved their rating. In the first test against India they needed 143 in the fourth innings; they passed that five down, having been 4/97. In the second, 301 in the third innings; they collapsed over the target six down. Against New Zealand, 186 in the fourth innings; they passed it five down, having been 5/78. And against England, 307 in the fourth innings; passed eight down, having been 5/110. The message is clear: they need to sort their top order out, though the efforts of Tamin Iqbal and Junaid Siddique are commendable, and they need to keep doing what they are doing. Their rating continues to climb, and the small victories mount: the centuries, the fifties, the instances where they bowl out the opposition, or induce a collapse. However, they still lack consistency of play and attitude. Both those problems were clearly visible in this test by negativity at both the toss and in the field, and in the way they played themselves out of the game in the first two days. As commendable as the fight-back was, they need to stop putting themselves in that position if they are to get that elusive victory against a "real" test side.
|2 Tests||New Zealand||v||Australia|
|Expected Margin||Australia by 87 runs|
New Zealand should enter this game with more confidence than at any time in the past decade, being far closer to their trans-Tasman rivals than they have been for some time. In the absence of Bond, O'Brien and Ryder (but mostly Bond), they are a weak line-up, likely to collapse at any moment, and rarely able to produce the sort of bowling spells that win matches. Having said that, Australia's test form is woeful, and they can count themselves lucky that neither the West Indies nor Pakistan were able to capitalise on their weaknesses over the summer. If New Zealand can bat well, this series could prove interesting, but it seems likely Australia's bowling fire-power, even the depleted one sent on this tour, will be too strong.
|Rankings at 16th March 2010|
Shaded teams have played fewer than 2 games per season. Non-test team ratings are not comparable to test ratings as they don't play each other.
Morning at the Supreme Court. Taken March 2010
The back of Old Treasury. Taken September 2003
In the first part of this manifesto, eight principles were put forward to guide the future development of cricket. They are not without controversy, as the implications of them involve a substantial change in the traditions of touring and the existing international flavour to the game. Regardless, I believe strongly in three key ideas that underpin what I was trying to achieve: that cricket can and should aim to be more widely played; that the existing structure of international cricket is not serving the game well, but rather causing players and fans alike to withdraw from the relentless but meaningless competition; and and that T20 domestic cricket will transform the finances of players and the emphasis of the game in a mostly beneficial manner.
Despite this, I believe strongly in the historical traditions that underpin the game, and am a devoted follower of test cricket, even to the exclusion of other forms of the game. Thus while the manifesto seeks to balance multiple competing ideals, it does so in a way that ultimately reflects my beliefs in what I would like to see played, and the competitions I would take an interest in.
With that in mind, three key ideas were put forward. Firstly, that the calendar should be divided between international and T20 domestic cricket, entailing a reduction in first class seasons (an problem most keenly felt in England) and a rationalisation of international tours. Secondly, that world cricket should be split into regions, or more precisely, that the existing regions be amalgamated into three, such that each has the depth to play competitive tournaments amongst its members that would include the test and associate nations. And finally, that half the international test calendar should be set aside to play regional and world test championships, such that, every four years there would be an official world test champion.
Of those three ideas, the first is controversial, but I suspect inevitable, if the growth of T20 cricket continues as it is likely to do. The second is controversial only insofar as many people are deeply reluctant to bring associate teams into the circle of test playing nations. Politically, this is understandable, as full member status carries with it broader implications. As was recently argued by Roy Morgan however, full member status need not be tied to playing the game. The growth of cricket on the fringes is rapid, and they will shortly clamour for more opportunities. Regional qualification competitions are a tried and true way of bringing smaller nations into competition without hurting the overall "product".
The third idea is not new, in the sense that everybody has their own preference for how a world championship should be played. I only proffer mine on the basis that its incubation has been long (almost a decade) and rigorous thought been applied to the intricacies of the problem. The combination of a 6 team world championship, played inside a year, a qualification play-off, and regional qualifiers is, I believe, a unique approach, which addresses the principles outlined at the beginning of this process. I put it forward now, for comment, as a serious suggestion for the enhancement of the game, on which I hope you, my silent (if not absent) readers, might approve.
Having completed the proposed tournament format, it is now possible to lay it out in its entirety, to track the progress of teams from stage to stage. To help enable this process, a sample tournament has been constructed with teams filled in (the results being a reflection of the ratings a few months ago).
Using the tournament(s) as a base, and taking into account adjunct series - notably the marquee series - it is possible to construct a workable future tours program across the four year cycle of games. Below shows this for five different sides of varying levels playing within the same region.
Every one of the top 18 teams are basically full time professionals for the four year period in question, playing between 35 and 50 games. In the event professionalism is not an option, then the friendly series, and (potentially) the extra divisions can be shortened or scrapped. It is reasonable, however, to assume that a modest level of revenue from the regional championships would be sufficient to fund a team fully, and allow them to compete year round. The income to be gained from T20 domestic leagues for competent associate players will also, eventually, make the funding of international cricket less necessary.
Finally, the most frequent criticism of ideas that promote games between so-called minnows and others is the issue of mismatches. Ignoring, again, the marquee series, which are organised between boards and therefore not relevant to this discussion, the table below shows the frequency of games between teams in four groups: The big 4 (India, England, South Africa and Australia), the other competitive test teams (New Zealand, Pakistan, West Indies and Sri Lanka), the other test teams and leading associates (Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Ireland and Kenya), and the other associates (Afghanistan, Scotland, Canada and the Netherlands). This excludes Namibia and the UAE, who would add another 6 mismatches if they were put in the bottom group but would play 18 competitive (or better) games.
Games are considered very competitive if they are played against another team in their group, and competitive, if it is against a team in an adjacent group.
Two points are worth noting from the table. Firstly, there are only 26 games listed as a mismatch in the entire tournament. Of those games, 22 would be played in the first six weeks of year one, making them no more than a brief pre-season interlude before the actual competition starts. Secondly, those 26 games compare with over 100 games that are competitive and more than 100 that are very competitive. Of the 84 games played by the big 4, just 16 are against teams of Bangladesh's standard, or worse; the 5th to 8th ranked nations meanwhile, (rightly) split between the top test sides (48 games) and the next level (38 games). While there are a handful of mismatches, and no region can expect to always have stiff competition for either places in the World Test Championship or for Regional Champion, this is a highly competitive structure where few games can be taken for granted, and almost all have some meaning in the narrative sense.
The creation of a world test championship satisfies the key goals of meaningful cricket and an elite competition without burdening the schedule. It leaves unresolved the problem of qualification and inclusiveness that is necessary to provide opportunities and goals for emerging nations. The proposed solution to both of these is a regional championship, played, as in football, two years prior to the world championship, also pitting the best six teams from each region against one another.
Unlike the world championship however, the appropriate format is not two groups of three. In that format, the regional heavy-weights would spend almost all summer thrashing minnows. To prevent that, and for logistical constraints imposed by the participants coinciding summers, the regional tournament is staged.
While regional variations are possible, and perhaps even desirable given the disparate levels of competitiveness each region contains, a standard format is here proposed, that can be completed across an 18 week international summer.
The final stage is a three team league, played over 12 weeks, with each team playing four tests at home and four away. Points are counted as described previously, and the top team is considered the regional champion. A final was considered but considered problematic. Firstly, the competition is already very long, potentially spilling over into the "off-season" in places where cricket is still playable. Secondly, a final like the inevitably dreary Shield final would be of no great benefit to the game, and in any case, would only be a single game in the competition (making most of the preceding 12 games meaningless). Thirdly, in such a small league, several group games will already have been decisive in determining the champion, and there is no need to devalue them in favour of another result.
As described previously each region will send either one or two teams to the world test championship, as well as one team to the playoffs. A plate competition needs to be held concurrently to determine places four through six.
The first stage is also a three team league, but with the competition split into two groups and ech side only playing two tests at home, and two away (one of each against each side). As before, points will determine the winner, with the group champions going into the final stage, and the two second placed sides going into the second, intermediate stage. This stage is designed to ensure that a random draw doesn't prevent a good side from making further progress. It is proposed as a two leg play-off, with the winner decided on aggregate margin.
There are numerous issues with the regional championships. Firstly, eventually the problem of playing against minnows has to be addressed. The regional approach minimizes mismatches, but does so at the expense of more games for those teams. You cannot have both, and there will inevitably be winners and losers in the process. Some team, somewhere, must be cut.
Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are the clear losers, being likely to lose their respective regional playoff games, and be relegated to playing the associates. It is possible to play, over the same time frame, a tournament with four in each group, but results in teams playing every week, with no rest (as described, a team will only play two weeks in three). The Northern regions lack of test teams makes that interesting. In the past 30 years it would almost never have been competitive, with either England or the West Indies dominating, and the northern associate merely making up the numbers. The rapid turnaround in the fortunes of the test teams in this group is sufficient reason to hope one of those associates can shortly match it with their counterparts, but who can say how long that might take (perhaps not long if the West Indies continue to rapidly close the gap in the wrong direction).
Nevertheless, necessary exclusions and too few games aside, the regional championship provides a fair balance between the competing objectives surrounding associate cricket, and the promise of reasonable competition at the pointy end of the tournament.
There is no graphic, or proposed format for this, as associate and affiliate cricket is too close to its infancy to be sure how this might develop. Only eight associates will play in the regional qualifiers however, two in the Southern and Asian regions, and four in the (much stronger) Northern region. Some sort of first class tournament is required to decide who qualifies - test sides, understandably, need not be included at this level.
It is likely, in the same vein as the UEFA Champions League qualifiers or FA Cup, that there might need to be several stages of competition, perhaps over several years prior to Year 0. Better sides would enter in the latter stages, culminating in a final tournament, or group competition that leads to the regional qualifiers. Every team that qualifies for the regional qualifiers would be entered in a division of the world test championship, making three tiers, and 18 teams in all.
The last of summer in the gardens. Taken September 2003