A Manifesto for World Cricket
Russell Degnan

Previously: Part 1 a b c d e f g

Part 1h. Domestic and International Windows

No doubt, until two years ago, the idea that there should be times available in the international calendar for domestic cricket was laughable. Domestic cricket made no money, international cricket dominated the media and television schedules, and that was the way it was. Then came the IPL.

The impact of T20 Domestic leagues are a long way from playing out, but given their increasing popularity with the fans, and the obvious benefits for players currently struggling to maintain a regular place in their national side, it is not hard to envisage a time when international cricket intrudes on domestic schedules, as happens in most other sports.

International players will become quickly disgruntled if they are not granted full access to the riches of the T20 domestic leagues, and that will put pressure on administrators to reform the international calendar. This is no bad thing. At the moment, tours are a disorganised mess, players have substantial breaks over the course of the season, but there is always some international cricket on, somewhere. The most straight-forward reform of the international calendar is not to reduce the number of games, but to ensure that when international cricket is on, all teams are involved, not just one or two. Once this is achieved, large slabs of the season will be free, allowing all players to participate in the league system, further strengthening that part of the game.

It would be nice, at this point, to see test players return to first class cricket as well, given the sharp reduction in appearances at that level that has occurred in the past two decades, and the consequent diminished standards at that level, and quite probably, at test level as well. It is hard to see that happening, however, not unless ODIs were substantially reduced in number or excised completely from the calendar (I could only hope).

Nevertheless, there is still a question over how large a window is necessary. While other nations have failed, to date, to challenge the IPL with their own big money national or regional T20 leagues, it is almost certainly only a matter of time. A much larger window than has currently been shoe-horned in for the IPL will be necessary soon. As with the scheduling of international cricket, regional summers affect the amount of time available in different places. In the non-tropical parts of the world, it would be possible to have two months (8-9 weeks) set aside for domestic T20 games, but little more without a reduction in international cricket. In Asia, however, both domestic windows are feasible, allowing up to four months of domestic cricket a year.

Reform of the calendar would seem to be inevitable, though as with most things, it may take an entrepreneur to radically remake cricket before the ICC and the boards of control take action themselves. Despite the worries over scheduling conflicts and the drop-out of big name players, fitting several extensive domestic league windows into the schedule is feasible and desirable. More than anything, it is the international schedule that needs work, by forcing the current mess of tours starting and finishing any time they are able, into a strict timetable. The sooner players are able to move between international and domestic cricket without conflict, the stronger both the international and domestic games will be.

Cricket - Manifesto 31st December, 2009 00:35:39   [#] [0 comments] 

A Manifesto for World Cricket
Russell Degnan

Previously: Part 1 a b c d e f

Part 1g. Regional Rivalries

International cricket teams have odd relationships with their neighbours. Cricket's most celebrated rivalry, the Ashes, is not regional at all, yet it is played more regularly than any other contest for a simple reason: Australia and England have always been able to schedule tours in their off-season, and their opponents summer. By contrast, the contest between Australia and South Africa, while every bit as keen, and usually of the highest quality, is limited to three tests a piece, with the South African leg shuttled into March, and the South African administrators having to forgo their now traditional December/January test program.

While scheduling isn't always a problem - India and Pakistan have tended to fluctuate from playing almost monthly, to not at all, depending on the political climate - cricket's best potential rivalries are often stunted affairs. New Zealand have always been far more likely to play Pakistan or Sri Lanka than their tri-nations rivals they really want to contest against; the Asian cup was last seen bereft of Indian involvement; and despite being surrounded by high profile associates, England play just two ODI games a year against their near neighbours.

Other sports have much better regional rivalries. Football has as its main structure world cup qualifiers and regional championships; likewise, rugby is centred around the tri-nations and six nations tournaments. And for obvious reasons: travel is cheaper and less burdensome on players, allowing more games to be played; regional rivalries build on the natural tendency of people to aspire first and foremost to beat those most like themselves; and the absence of regular games against more exotic locales brings greater interest to those games when they occur.

While world championships have often been cited as a way of introducing greater meaning into test cricket, regional championships are rarely considered. Yet, for many teams, being regional champion (or finalist) is a far more realistic goal than world champion. Regional championships too, serve a useful purpose in providing a structure to introduce smaller nations into the fray against major teams without them needing to travel across the world, nor, more importantly, requiring more than one of the game's heavy-weights to play the minnows in any qualification sequence.

There is a question over what constitutes a "region". Depth is important. With so few top class teams, it makes little sense for a championship to follow the ICC development regions, where only the Asian region has a real contest for the local champion. Here, I favour regions sorted by scheduling arrangements, split between those teams playing in the Northern Hemisphere's summer (England, West Indies), those playing in the Southern Hemisphere (South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Zimbabwe) and those playing in the Asian semi-tropical zone (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh).

This arrangement has the advantage of being relatively even. While the Northern hemisphere is weakest in its test sides, it has the best associates (Canada, USA, Ireland, Netherlands, Scotland, Bermuda, Denmark, Italy). By contrast, the Asian zone has strong test sides, but weak associates (UAE, Nepal, Afghanistan, Hong Kong, Oman) and the Southern hemisphere lies in the middle (Kenya, Namibia, Uganda, PNG).

Scheduling a regional championship is more problematic, requiring a whole summer of densely scheduled games to contest even the most basic of championships. Yet that density may be a blessing for players, instead of ad hoc scheduling where blocks of games are preceded and followed by a few weeks rest, a more organised schedule and extensive breaks would allow better recovery times from injury. Unfortunately that is not the only scheduling issue that needs resolving.

Cricket - Manifesto 30th December, 2009 20:51:24   [#] [0 comments] 

A Manifesto for World Cricket
Russell Degnan

Previously: Part 1 a b c d e

Part 1f. World Championships

On the surface, the need for a world championship is a facile point. Almost every neutral observer agrees on the need for one. But in its absence, and given the inherent difficulties of organising a championship for the elongated test match format, it is worth discussing the options available for instituting one.

There are, broadly, three standard methods of finding the "best" in a sporting context: a ranking system, a league system, and a championship (or cup). Most sports us a combination of several, and cricket is no different. Each has certain advantages and disadvantages, most particularly with respect to "meaning".

If you want an accurate measure of the best team, a ranking system is unparalleled. Most sports have some sort of ranking system in addition to competition, because no competition can be a perfect indicator of the best team. Luck plays too big a role, even in test cricket. Cricket's existing rating system is not flawless, but it does a reasonable job. The problem with a rating system is that they are fluid measures, with no end and no beginning (except 1877, I suppose).

Tennis works around this problem with a year end rating, but tennis also structures its tournament system around that year, allowing year-on-year comparisons. Cricket has no such luxury, with even the mooted 4-5 year cycle of the FTP being heavily compromised, and the ratings of different sides with it. Thus, the narrative of a rating-based championship is of constant flux - this series will decide the number on ranking, as will the next one, and the one after, until we tire of knowing that every game is equally important, and equally unimportant.

In most sports, a league provides both the narrative context and the necessary structure. Every team plays each other, normally twice, and the winner is the team with the most accumulated points, or the winner of a play-off, should a final be organised. But test cricket is poorly suited to a league system. The big teams shy away from long series against un-financial sides, and gravitate towards extended series with the history and interest those bring. The FTP always intended that all teams would play each other, but political reality and logistical constraints have prevented it being implemented, and will likely continue to do so.

Those logistical constraints are even more acute if cricket is to expand. Nine teams, playing two teams per summer can rotate through a full roster in four years. But 11 teams, or 15, require 5 and 7 years respectively, at which point the earlier games are a distant memory (and an irrelevance when judging quality); with the marquee series unreasonably separated. The standard proposed solution is a tiered system, be it eight - if for no other reason than there have been, in the recent past, eight decent sides - or six. But a tiered system has little support. The teams in danger of falling off the top tier are averse to the financial burden that would impose, the teams assured of a place at the top, averse to a structure that prevents them maximising revenue from marquee series.

That leaves a cup format. For ODI and T20 cricket this exists already, with most teams structuring their programs around the four year cycle of preparation and infrequent competition the World Cup and Champions Trophy bring. But test cricket is different. A two month tournament would lack the ebb and flow of normal test match series, around which the game has always based itself. Neutral venues would struggle to attract crowds, be heavily biased towards the home side, and extremely difficult to schedule more than a handful of matches.

A non-neutral cup, played over a season or more is more feasible, but must be structured carefully, as, unlike football or tennis (in which the Davis Cup is a good example), a cricket team is limited to home games in their summer. September/October and March/April offer the only period in which all teams can reasonably schedule games, and would therefore be the ideal time for a final series on alternate home grounds. Preliminary rounds, more easily scheduled, could be played across the year, allowing the cup to unfold its narrative as the finals approach.

Just as importantly, a test world championship would need to be restrictive in the number of teams playing, to allow decent length series (at least 3 games) between teams, and the time period over which it is played. Qualification therefore, becomes paramount, such that every team should have reasonable opportunity to progress to each subsequent stage, with the vagaries of fortune reduced as much as possible. This type of qualification therefore entails a broader scope than normal for cricket. Rather than a single quadrennial tournament, a test championship must be a quadrennial program of games that move through a series of stages, culminating in a final.

How this might work will be reserved for the second part of this series. The conclusion from this post is that much effort expended on test championships are misguided, focusing too much on either rankings or leagues to provide champions, and wedded to the idea that all teams should play each other - an idea only feasible with an excessively restrictive cricketing family. A cup is the most natural and flexible format for a true world championship, as evidenced by the numerous sports that use it for national competition. The difficulty is providing an acceptable format for that form of competition.

Cricket - Manifesto 16th December, 2009 00:54:34   [#] [0 comments]