Finally, finally, after after the level of procrastination and dithering that is the hallmark of the ICC, we have plans in place for a Test Championship and ODI league. As you will know I have been a strong advocate for cricket with context, so this news is very welcome.
The main details are: The Test league will have nine teams playing six series over two years – three home and three away – with each having a minimum of two Tests and a maximum of five and all matches being played over five days culminating in a World Test League Championship Final. This means that marquee series such as the Ashes can still take place over five Tests, so this is a sensible move. Best of all of course is that each series provides context, so there will be no dead rubbers as every Test will have longer-term meaning. This should improve the standard of play, with teams hopefully being more aggressive in pressing for victories rather than allowing matches to drift into tame draws.
Having three home and three away series is good news too. This will ensure fairness, as at the moment it is quite possible for a team to reach number one in the world rankings by virtue of playing more matches in a home environment, which massively increases the chances of winning. With the first cycle running from 2019 to 2021 and then every three years after that, the timespan is short enough to get a clear idea of who the strongest teams are in the Test format, and having a clear winner is good for sponsors, and to entice crowds for the big matches, particularly in areas of the world where attendances are suffering.
The fate of the three remaining FMs remain unclear. It would be a shame for Afghanistan and Ireland to be forced to play each other and Zimbabwe all the time, for example. Trying to fit in matches against other FMs into the schedule will be very difficult. Another problem will be the likelihood of home teams producing pitches vastly suited to their strengths. Home advantage is all well and good, but pitches need to be fair to both teams and most importantly, take spin as the match wears on.
The ODI league is based on sound thinking too – up to a point. This format will be contested by the 12 Full Members plus the winners of the current ICC World Cricket League Championship. In the first edition of the league, each side will play four home and four away series each comprising of three ODIs moving to all teams playing each other from the second cycle onwards.
On the face of it, great. Especially for those in the WCL, who now have a direct pathway to the new league and a chance at World Cup qualification. The Dutch, who currently top the WCL, would get a huge shot in the arm for their domestic cricket if they could remain there when the first league begins in 2020. My main gripe is that this agreement probably spells a ten-team World Cup for the foreseeable future. I’d much prefer to see the main competition expanded to 16 teams with a similar qualification pathway. Still, small crumbs are better than nothing I guess.
The directive I do have a problem with is the trialling of four day Test matches. Think of all the great Test finishes over the years and all will have been on the fifth day. The ebb and flow of a match, when four days can be quite staid then explode into life on the final day, will be lost. Four days will mean more declarations and the nuances of Test cricket will be altered. Supporters say that the number of overs a day can be increased to minimise the loss of the fifth day, but over rates are slow enough as it is and I can’t see them improving.
It also feels like a sop to the smaller FMs. The first Test to trial four days is South Africa vs Zimbabwe on Boxing Day, and all the talk suggests that without four days, the Test would never have taken place. I wouldn’t mind betting that both Afghanistan and Ireland will be playing the majority of their opening Tests as four days, at least until the Test Championship begins in 2019. So there will still be a clear divide between the format of the bigger teams and those just starting out. This strikes me as unfair. Still, Dave Richardson has said that this is just a trial, so it will be dependent on crowds as to whether four day Tests become a regular part of the international calendar.