Fears for Tiers
Russell Degnan

"I can't stand this indecision
Married with a lack of vision"

There is a point in the timeline of any policy decision when an organisation has to switch from consulting to selling. Where the process of ensuring that the decision is robust to challenge and has broad support gives way to garnering acceptance. It needs to be timed. Too late and the policy looks like and ill-thought through. Too early, and the problems settle into outright opposition. The consulting phase fails to inform the decision and becomes an exercise in marketing instead.

The growing opposition to the proposed two-tier Test proposal would indicate that the ICC settled on their plan too early.

While there was much talk of consultation and planning throughout the first six months of the year, there is little to no sign that the plan has changed from that leaked in late February. Indeed, there is little sign that the planning has moved much beyond what was proposed some twelve years ago. A little tinkering with the number of teams, some discussion over the financial model, but still essentially a two-tier system.

Inadequate consultation is a long-running problem throughout Richardson's tenure at the ICC. The DRS was proposed by Richardson as a way to fix "clear mistakes", but the proposal was pushed forward without a decent understanding of the uncertainty of the technology, the technical requirements of the host broadcaster, the likely expense, the way it would change players behaviour and umpiring decisions. The shambolic implementation riled the Indian players and board, and it lies in a half-completed stasis almost a decade on.

We've seen similar thought-bubbles rise and pop from the offices of the ICC throughout the period, from super-subs, and super-series, to the previous aborted incarnations of the Test championship, and the muddle over World Cup places, qualification and formats. The big questions, over financial stability, context, development pathways and the split of domestic and international cricket have been left for trivialities like the Test championship mace.

The failure to properly consult on or implement trivialities well isn't really a problem. The failure to properly consult on the Test championship is a problem. The ramifications of these changes matter to Test cricket and could do so for decades. The proposal needs to address a very real problem with exposure, when playing cricket in the second tier. Financial inducements and "context" are not sufficient to make up for a lack of star power - the currency on which major sport runs. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the less vocal dissenters are right to complain, and the ICC risks failing to make any reforms if they don't make changes that address their concerns.

While the proposal has its dissenters, the ICC is at least working from sound principles. Richardson outlined four of them at the ICC Annual Conference.

"We want to provide fair opportunities to all members based on merit rather than necessarily on membership status"

Promoting teams on merit, rather than status, is about as fundamental change as can be made to the ICC full member structure. It is a view that has widespread support amongst fans. In the recent survey I conducted, only seven percent wanting the system to stay as hierarchical or more than the status quo. Questions relating to the importance of "opportunity" and to "expansion" expressed similarly high levels of agreement. The downgrading of member entitlements is a necessary decision in order to create a meritocratic system, but it means some full members won't have opportunities they currently do. Something will be lost, and how significant that loss is matters, to players, to administrators and to fans.

"We need to put in place more meaningful cricket competition structures"

Even moreso than a meritocracy, adding meaning to the competition changes the fundamental nature of Test cricket. From the start of international competition, nations have organised tours, with no more context than the historical memory of previous match-ups. The ubiquity of competition structures in other sports entices, rather than repels, most fans, with almost three quarters of respondents considering it either important or essential. The ICC needs to convince few people that schedule reform will improve the sport. But it does need to pick the right approach.

"It’s impossible for India to play everyone, like people expecting (sic) in the past."

The inevitable consequence of more opportunity for more teams is fewer opportunities to play specific teams. This is a hugely important admission from the ICC, as the longstanding aim of the FTP was to provide exactly that. Loosening this restriction is essential if cricket is to expand its (Test) frontiers, and it needed to be stated.

Nevertheless, it throws open issues the FTP was also designed to prevent. While for Australia and England this largely manifests itself as a concern about the Ashes not being played, for most full members the concern is over their budgetary need to sell television rights to tours from India. The proposal for members to pool TV rights earnt outside the host nation would mitigate the financial impacts, as that benefit is (very broadly) shared under the current arrangement. The impact of touring opponent on promotion, crowds and the prestige of the sport is another matter. And it is here that Richardson is both right, and wrong.

"It’s impossible for everyone to play everyone in a first division of Test cricket."

The fourth point, though stated prior to the third above, is the logical conclusion of those prior: growth combined with a competition structure that limits the available time to play, ensures that not all teams can play each other, and not all teams will have access to the best teams. It is at this point that the concerns of fans over relegation become salient: their primary concern was the absence of popular or key fixtures, combined with a lack of prestige that would flow onto players, crowds, and from an administrative perspective, finances.

The original aim to construct a Test championship that would add value to fixtures is undermined if those fixtures that most need value - those between the bottom ranked full members - are regarded as second-rate. Though the point made by Richardson is obviously correct.

Under current arrangements, Test cricket operates in something like a four tier system: the Big-3 who play roughly half of their cricket amongst themselves; the five middle income full members who receive shorter, less prestigious tours; Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, who have played only 16 matches at Big-3 venues in the past 16 years; and the Intercontinental Cup, which serves as an eight-team division for associate nations.

The problems that concern Sri Lanka and other dissenters are manifest in the current structure. Associate nations, unable to play the full members, also find it difficult to promote a competition that is perceived as (and is) second-rate, to attract even local media to report on nations without an obvious cricketing pedigree, and to generate money to fund their local structures. Sport runs on star power - Steph Curry, LeBron, KD, Russ, Dirk; there are a limited number of star players, and most are in the top few sides. One star is enough to generate a crowd and always has been - read any contemporary report on WG Grace, Bradman or Sobers - but they need to periodically appear to build interest, and help nations establish their own stars in comparison.

Despite itself, this informal arrangement broadly reflects the number of fixtures teams in different tiers ought to play. The issues (though numerous) lie in the unstructured context-free schedule, and the rigidity of the tiers that prevents both associates and full members finding their correct level.

The proposed two leagued Test structure, while adding some context, dispenses with fixtures that many fans would like to see play. Between tiers, the proposed promotion and relegation playoffs provide a structure almost as rigid as that it is meant to replace. While it is true that not all teams can play in the top tier, the proposed league structure is far from the only arrangement of tiers that could be made. And others are undoubtedly better at addressing the concerns of the members likely to face relegation.

Eventually, every competition does have a "first division". But much emphasis should be placed on the word "eventually". The more important question that should be asked is how a team qualifies for the top tier. There are five broad categories of qualification to any stage of a competition structure

  • A bye - meaning a team does not need to play in that tier
  • Automatic entry - based on status or entitlement
  • Qualification based on ranking prior to the draw
  • Qualification based on performances at the previous running of the competition
  • Qualification based on performance in the previous stage/ lower tier

Cricket, indeed all sports, use each of these methods in their competition structures. The World T20 combines three tiered regional qualifications with a global qualifier to which six entrants qualify on past performances, and the four tier WT20 itself. The first division in this sense is the final, to which two teams qualify. The exact nature of the qualification pathway for the next World Cup is still to be announced, but it will be broadly similar to previous editions. Deeper but narrower and more rigid, with a three team competition, built on top of seven tiers of world cricket league events.

The ICC World Cup and ICC World T20. The shades vary from light to dark in the list above, with the darkest representing team who qualified via the previous stage.

The striking feature of ICC competitions is the limited opportunity to qualify for subsequent rounds - normally either one or two sides out of six - and the large number of teams with byes to subsequent rounds. By contrast, the FIFA World Cup exhibits a broad structure with relatively few byes and many opportunities - though early rounds in some confederation are two-leg playoffs.

The structure of the entire football World Cup does not preclude the points made by Richardson. The top tier (whether the final, or the 32 teams in the World Cup) is restricted to the best teams, and not every team can play every other, separated as they are by geography and group divisions. However, unlike the cricketing equivalents, the inclusion of top-tier nations in qualifying ensures that teams have the opportunity to play a select number of top tier teams on a semi-regular basis.

The rigid and limited structure of the proposed Test championship is revealed starkly in the chart below. Both for its limitations on teams being able to progress upwards (or downwards) and for the long grey line of exclusion that represents the bulk of ICC members.

More importantly, it is unnecessarily exclusionary. Staged tournaments are standard practice at international level. Leagues are rare to non-existent outside of rugby union. The Test championship, run over two years, could easily incorporate a year of qualifying with a broad base of participants, and a shorter top tier operating in groups of three or four. Indeed, this was the format I proposed in 2010 and nothing has emerged to persuade me that a tiered league is a superior option. The repeated failures of the ICC to move forward with a format acceptable to their members is further proof that a tiered league is a limited an second rate plan.

Lest you demur, the proposal below isn't a free-for-all for lower ranked teams and uncompetitive matches. The total number of matches against associate opposition that the Big-3 would play over a four-year cycle (two years being set aside for bilateral contests) amounts to only four matches each. Not many, but importantly, not zero either. Nor is it the only possible format that a broad-based Test championship could take. A sixteen team tournament with four groups of four - playing two test series. Relaxing the requirement to play home-and-away (as the ICC does) allows a five-team top tier over a single season, still playing three-test series. Nevertheless, I believe the combination of regional championships, emphasising the close links between the nations involved, and the six-team top tier represents the best balance between inclusion, meaning and competitiveness.

The proposed Test championship may be accepted - most likely the smaller nations will be bought off with additional, if temporary, bilateral series - but that won't make it the best option. The associate nations have years of playing in a structure that is low profile and hard to market. Conversely, we see across many sports the benefits of broad based tiered structures that allow smaller nations to have their day in the sun - and just occasionally, as with Iceland and Wales at the European championships, a few more justly deserved days.

Rigid leagues make those stories less likely, ossifying the nations involved and churning a handful of others. Test cricket needs to change, grow and accept the benefits of meritocracy, but it can do that in better ways than those proposed by the ICC.

Cricket - Articles 26th July, 2016 20:26:51   [#]