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After 22 years of glacial progress, the ICC is trying to impose some sort of order on a system that has been growing wild for over a hundred years

Ready your arguments, it’s time to have that conversation all over again. The ICC’s chief executives are meeting in Auckland this week, and the expectation is that they will agree in principle to the launch of a World Test Championship. The league is slated to start in 2019, a mere 22 years after the idea was first proposed by Ali Bacher and Clive Lloyd at the ICC’s conference in 1997, the glacial progress of the plan accelerated, in the end, by the widespread acceptance that after two decades of prevarication it’s very nearly too late anyway. As the ICC chief executive David Richardson put it a couple of years back “doing nothing is not an option any more”. So though it’s been a long time coming, a change is at last going to come. James Sutherland, the CEO of Cricket Australia, has just said that he doesn’t think “people have quite cottoned on to how significant this is”. And he’s right, if only because the ICC’s mandarins have been talking about this for so long you sense most people stopped listening a long while back. If the details covered on Cricinfo and in the Sydney Morning Herald are right, the league will be the most radical change to Test cricket since the end of the Packer affair. And yet, the plan already has the vague whiff of failure about it, redolent with desperation and compromise. Back when Bacher and Lloyd were first promoting the idea, it couldn’t have been any more straightforward. All the teams would agree to play at least one home Test and one away Test against each other every four years, with two points awarded for each series victory and one apiece for each series drawn. There was another idea that, at the end of the cycle, the top two teams in the rankings would play a final Test against each other to decide the winner. It was imperfect, because it meant that a one-off match would carry the same weight as a five-Test series. But as Matthew Engel, who argued hard for the league when he was Wisden editor, explained: “A complex game needs simple structures.” This principle got lost somewhere along the way. The system the ICC is about to bring in seems so Byzantine that it makes the Constantine’s bureaucracy look straightforward. The 12 Testplaying nations would be split into two groups, one of nine, another of three. In the first of these, the nine teams would each agree to play six series, three home, and three away, every two years. These series could be two matches short, five matches long, or anything in between. But, according to the report by Chris Barrett in the SMH, they would all be played for 100 points, which will be divided so that 60 hinge on the series result and 40 on what happens in the individual matches. At the end of the two-year cycle, the two top teams will play a final. This hasn’t been touched on publicly, but you would hope there would be a play-off to decide the issue of promotion and relegation from the second division, too. Hope, though, is a fanciful thing. The last time the ICC floated the idea of promotion and relegation it was shot down by the nations who were worried they’d find themselves stranded playing Zimbabwe, Ireland, and Afghanistan. Which is why the league has that lop-sided nine-three split to begin with. Given this is cricket, it’s just as likely that at the end of the first two-year cycle, the league will be entirely redesigned and a new structure drawn up for the following round. There will also be scope for teams in the top nine to play matches against the teams in the bottom three which won’t count towards the league standings. Just as the new 13-team ODI league the ICC is also planning to bring in at the same time will include a window in which teams can arrange to play bilateral series that won’t count towards the rankings, even though those rankings will determine who qualifies for the World Cup. If nothing else these complexities do provide a compelling argument against cutting Test cricket down to four days, since it’s going to take at least that long to explain exactly what’s going on to any newcomers. Still, the new system may well be the best, or rather the least bad, available in the circumstances. The reason it took two decades to get this far was because of the competing self-interests of the boards involved. Everybody wants to play India, India don’t want to play Pakistan, Australia and England want to protect the Ashes, nobody wants to be stranded in the second division, and everybody wants to have room to run their own domestic T20 leagues in among everything else. The ICC is trying to impose some sort of order on a system that has been growing wild for over a hundred years. To push it through, they’ve had to please everyone, so the plan feels as though it’s been compromised several times too often. And underlying the entire scheme, of course, is the tacit admission that the contest isn’t enough any more, that Test cricket needs a context too, something that matters more than the rivalries between the teams and the obscure trophies many of these series are currently played for. Which feels like evidence of the authorities’ ongoing negligence. Competitive games, between closelymatched teams, in challenging conditions, sell themselves without recourse to gimmicks. But there are too few of those matches in Test cricket. So this imperfect Test Championship, a league which will be won by a team that won’t even have played all the other contenders, is the upshot. Cross your fingers it works. (The Guardian)