The aftermath of two-tiers and a twelve team Test Championship
Russell Degnan

The two-tier test structure is no more. It may merely be resting, as a plan for tiered leagues has been a recurring theme for more than a decade, but its nearly inevitable failure could easily be foreseen.

There have been several fine post-mortems, notably Sharda Ugra's discussion of TV rights and the forthcoming plan to pool them between some nations. This sort of plan can occur independently of the ICC, and even the BCCI, as could some form of bilateral championship that nations sign on to - a sort-of parallel with the absence of England from the first three FIFA World Cups. That's a sensible and financially sound plan which could lay the ground-work for better competition structures - one of the key points I made three years ago when discussing why tiered test leagues are unlikely to succeed.

Leaving aside the financial considerations, there is a significant power-tussle at play in introducing collective bargaining. The BCCI derives most of its power at board level from their ability to offer lucrative tours to other full members, so pooling that money negates any ability they have to horse-trade. Lorgat's influence at CSA is being felt in this type of proposal and it is a significant move to negate BCCI influence. Whether the BCCI is willing to blackball any member of the collective - effectively splitting cricket - in order to preserve that power remains to be seen. The BCCI have lost much of the trust they built up as a counter-weight to Australia and England under Dalmiya - not least in their brinkmanship with the West Indies and South Africa, and their naked greed under Srinivasan. Their protection of the weaker full members in this most recent episode only produced an alliance of four votes (sufficient, but fragile), and a better plan could easily be enough to carry out the reforms the CA-ECB-CSA-NZ bloc is aiming to introduce.

That the previous attempt failed was in large part because the ICC is a poor consultant. Most ICC members derive the majority of their income from either ICC dividends or the rights to India tours. There is little value for them in sidelining the weaker nations because they don't make much money regardless of who they play. CA and the ECB, by contrast, derive the majority of their income from local TV rights, and both Channel Nine and Sky have been actively seeking to avoid the sort of mismatches that the West Indies have recently provided (and that Bangladesh and Zimbabwe would, were they to play them).

The smaller full members have no reason to trust either CA or the ECB, nor their motives. But the biggest failure to communicate lay in their misunderstanding of the cultural importance of status to the boards that have it. Absence the prestige of being a full member, there was little reason for Zimbabwe and Bangladesh to reject the proposal. Between them, in the past four years, they have played only sixteen Test matches against opposition outside the top-7; the inclusion of competitive associate opponents, and a more structured competition that offered them an opportunity for promotion, would have offered some benefit, if somewhat marginal.

Sixteen matches is not zero, however, even with the (somewhat dubious) potential of an offer to play a bilateral series in the remaining gaps. Moreover, there is a significant symbolic difference between being a top-tier member and second-tier one. As SLC president Thilanga Sumathipala stated: "We believe that if you are a Full Member, there can't be two tiers." While the ICC often presses of the importance of a meritocratic system, meritocracy - the idea that every nation the opportunity to progress upwards - is also rooted in exclusion: that if someone is not good enough they should receive nothing. While it is sensible both commercially and competitively to have elite teams play each other more regularly, there ought to be an expectation of inclusiveness in a competition, where the elite prove themselves first.

Nor is this unusual. The FIFA World Cup is restricted to 32 elite teams, but qualifying is extended to more than two hundred. Similarly, the English Premier League offers parallel cup competitions where some 58 fixtures were scheduled between EPL clubs and those in the leagues below in 2015/16. Neither the relative smallness of that number, nor that most clubs must pass several rounds before getting that opportunity negates the central point: that even a meritocratic system can offer inclusivity and immediate opportunity to all its competitors.

It is in that context that I put forward a proposal that attempts to meet the concerns of the weaker full members with regard to inclusiveness, while retaining the basic numerical structures of the existing ICC. In past proposals, upon which much of this is based, I have attempted to incorporate regional championships and extended opportunities to members - eighteen in the first round. In this proposal I have restricted the opening round to twelve teams - broadly speaking, the number the ICC is willing to extend test status to - with an elite tier of six teams and a final. The diagram below is based on current or most recent rankings of the various participating teams.

As with previous proposals, I have split the season into bilateral and test championship seasons, as scheduling Ashes series into a championship format is unnecessarily restrictive. Whether nations should reschedule bilateral commitments in the event that two teams are drawn against each other within the championship is an open question.

The competition structure is relatively self-explanatory, but several remarks should be made on each stage:

Championship Final
1st from Test Championship; Two Test series, home and away.

The center-piece of the competition, most likely played in September-October in the gap left by the Champions League, when all nations are able to stage matches. See this taxonomy for a discussion on deciding drawn series and Test matches.

Test championship
1st from Test Championship Qualifiers, 1st from Tier One Repechage; Three Test series, home and away.

The core of the competition finals, with the best six teams competing in two groups. By limiting it to three teams in each group the competition can be done in one year (six home matches for each side).

Tier One Repechage
2nd from Test Championship Qualifiers; Two Test series, home and away.

The repechage for second placed teams in the qualifier has two aims. Firstly, to allow multiple opportunities for teams to make the top-six (particularly as there will be luck in the seeding of the previous round); and to accommodate more matches between the teams ranked five through eight, creating a more competitive structure. Like the final two years later, the repechage can be played in September/October, meaning it won't impact the bilateral schedule for the following year.

Test Championship Qualifiers
Participant in Test Championship, Finalist in Tier Two Championship, 1st in Round Two Qualifiers; Three Test series, home and away.

The qualifiers are the inclusive aspect of the championship structure, and are broad enough to include all the full members and two associates, along with the higher ranked teams they want to play. Like the finals, they can be done in a year, and because of the group structure every place is meaningful: first getting direct qualification, and second the repechage opportunity.

Tier Two Championship Final
1st from Tier Two Championship; Two Test series, home and away.

A final series as with the tier one championship, with the added incentive that the teams qualify directly for the Test Championship Qualifiers in the following cycle.

Tier Two Championship
3rd in Test Championship Qualifiers, 2nd in Tier One Repechage, Finalist in Intercontinental Cup; Two test series, home and away.

The second tier championship is largely there to provide competitive cricket for those ranked outside the top-six. The four-team group allows the Intercontinental Cup to serve as a secondary qualification pathway for this level, the other teams having been knocked out of the previous Test Championship qualifier rounds. As there are four teams in each group, the series are shorter (two tests each), but for the Intercontinental Cup qualifiers will be both the strongest and deepest schedule they will participate in over the cycle.

Intercontinental Cup
2nd/3rd in Round Two Qualifiers; Single First-class match, home or away.

The existing I-Cup structure fits snugly into the Test championship competition, operating over two years, with seven group games and a final. The finalists get the opportunity to play Test cricket (depending on how status is allocated) in the Tier Two Championship. The remaining teams must begin again the following year in the Round One qualifiers. By continuing the structure during years set aside for bilateral cricket, the associate nations (who play few bilateral matches) have cricket scheduled throughout the four year cycle.

Round Two Qualifiers
2nd-4th in Tier Two Championship, 1st/2nd in Round Two Qualifiers; Single First-class match, home and away.

In many ways the most cut-throat of any of the competition structures. The short and small groups and single qualifiers largely serves as a second chance for those who didn't progress from Tier Two, while introducing six teams from the first round of qualifiers. There is a case for making these two match series, but the ICC would need to fund full time professional teams for all twelve participants, and pay for matches that will be mostly make losses.

Round One Qualifiers
3rd-8th in Intercontinental Cup, 1st in Regional Qualifiers, 1st in Regional Repechage; Single First-class match, home or away.

Unlike the second round of qualifiers, the first round offers two spots in the following competition, but with one fewer match per team and one extra team in each group. Measured by ranking difference, this is the least competitive of any of the structures, notwithstanding that associate cricket is generally more competitive, and by only a couple of places.

Regional Qualifiers / Regional Repechage

Qualification for this has been deliberately left open as it depends on whether any regional restructure takes place - in which case it might be two teams from three regions, rather than one from five, and a best second place-getter. And whether qualifiers come from ODI tournaments, or a two or three day match between the best placed teams in each region. There is also a case for taking the six teams that qualify for World Cricket League Division Three, and aligning that tournament with the Round One qualifiers.

The general benefits of this structure are relatively easy to see. It is succinct and meaningful with a legible structure, allowing a full cycle of matches for the associate nations, and a combination of championship and bilaterals for the full members.

Most importantly, it doesn't rigidly separate the divisions. Unlike a tiered league structure, teams at roughly the same level will play more matches with each other, while still receiving a handful of games against those much better (or worse) than themselves. This can be seen by comparing the number of matches per match-up in the Two Tier system in red and the championship structure above in green:

Although the two-tier championship is slightly more competitive (represented by the tight bounds around the central axis) it offers few opportunities and misses many possible competitive matchups between teams separated by a divisional break. By contrast, the championship structure both limits the number of mismatches and offers numerous opportunities for teams to play their closest rivals. A team that is successful can rise faster through a championship (five years vs six once in the multi-day structure) and has more leeway than a single promotion place can allow.

Finally, it is easily realisable, as it needs only the creation of the round one and two qualifiers and the massaging of bilateral fixtures into the championship structure for the full members. It brings in two associate nations (which was already under discussion) but limits their exposure to the top-ranked full members to a single home series for each. Essentially: three home Test matches against sides ranked 9-12 every four years. If CA and the ECB aren't willing to accept even that token commitment to inclusiveness, then Test cricket really does have problems.

It doesn't. Unless it creates them for itself.

Idle Summers 11th September, 2016 18:43:14   [#]