Competition or Standards?
It would be an understatement to say the ICC has a mixed record when it comes to administering the game it is responsible for. But one area where it is doing well is development. Not since the early 1930s have so many teams looked like being capable of taking a step up to test cricket - when the West Indies, New Zealand and India did so in just a few years.
The teams on the cusp - Kenya, Uganda, Nepal, Holland, Scotland - represent a conundrum for the administrators. Are they good enough to play at the next level? Similarly, Bangladesh - who are improving rapidly - Zimbabwe - who aren't - and even (to a far lesser extent) the West Indies raise the issue about teams who aren't to some 'Test' standard.
Scott Wickstein raises this point in relation to Zimbabwe, arguing - rightly - that standards have been lower before, and that Zimbabwe will improve once the politics sorts itself out. But, he also argues (there and elsewhere) that previous nations have gradually improved to test standard after long periods of mediocre cricket, and that - given suitable opportunities - a team can be expected to be 'competitive'. The problem is, introducing more teams - as will happen unless the ICC gets cold feet and scuttles cricket's outward expansion - will break this habit.
When looking at New Zealand - and unfortunately my ratings are otherwise unavailable right now - it is less accurate to say they improved gradually than to say they've had several peaks, the first three of which were progressively higher than that previous. In the early 1950s, the early 1970s, and a highpoint in the mid-1980s. They were at a pathetically low ebb in 1996 before rebounding strongly today. Zimbabwe is similar. The Australia beating team of 1983 was stronger than 1987. The team who got test status in 1992 was young and promising, but peaked in the late 1990s. In both nations cricket is a fringe sport, dependent on a few talents occuring at infrequent intervals to move them to a higher level.
The next crop of Test nations will be similarly hamstrung. The bulk of the generation of Kenyan cricketers who made the semi-final of the last World Cup are already in their mid-late 30s. They have missed their chance to play at the higher level. The next group may not be as talented, and it may be years before Kenya reaches a truly competitive standard again.
If cricket is looking for a good model, they could do worse than look at the Davis Cup, which promotes and relegates teams each year, and keeps a solid contingent in the 'World Group'. In that spirit, plans have been mooted for a three-tier system for test cricket. The ICC Intercontinental Cup is also designed to get teams of similar standard playing each other. Both of them are excellent initiatives (although I still disapprove of a 'league' system for Test cricket for reasons I'll go into another day).
But two points need to be remembered.
One, standards are entirely arbitrary, and only relevant in relation to who you are playing. Top bowlers can make otherwise fine batsmen look ordinary. Great batsmen likewise to otherwise fine bowlers. What is important is competition. Zimbabwean cricket is a problem because they are completely outclassed at the moment. They need to step down a level to rebuild.
Two, in any country - by which we mean almost everyone except a few elite nations - where cricket is a fringe sport, it will be common for standards to fluctuate from year to year. The history of teams in the World Group of the Davis Cup is of a few core nations - the USA, Australia, Sweden, Spain - and of others moving in and out depending on the talents and form of their top players. While cricket has larger teams, a few key players can carry a side from pathetic to mediocre, or from mediocre to competitive - George Headley, Bert Sutcliffe, Richard Hadlee, even Andy Flower and Muralitharan. But these talents will come and go, and the fortunes of their teams will with them.
The ICC needs to be more flexible in terms of who gets to play whom, and when, so as to maintain competitive games, and more importantly, encourage development in improving countries - noone is served by cricketers moving to gain their chance at test cricket a la Graeme Hick. The current rigid caste system doesn't provide for good competition. In fact, it actively encourages mismatches in the name of 'opportunity', while working against the second tier of emerging nations. To view current developments, it looks like the changes are coming, but it can't be fast enough. For once, the ICC needs to actually administer the game.
2nd June, 2004 03:12:40
Second-tier competition unviable...
Russ, isn't the widely-discussed problem with this that it's not financially and politically viable to run a two-tier competition?
What would it do to New Zealand cricket, for example, if they got relegated and didn't get series against Australia? While less likely, what if England got relegated? Do you really think Australia would be happy with losing out on the revenue that the Barmy Army bring?
Rob 5th June, 2004 14:49:38