The idea of a World Test Championship has finally been accepted by the ICC several years after it was first mooted.
At present, it is something of a notional championship, as it does not include a specific tournament, but is awarded on the basis of existing fixtures.
Whether you think this is a good or bad thing may be influenced by your perception of the integrity of individual series and your faith in the ICC among other issues, but one of the issues it fails to address is the competitiveness of cricket at the highest level.
Since the addition of Bangladesh to the Test-playing ranks—some would say far too soon and with political ends in mind—there has been concern that they, and Zimbabwe in particular, are just not sufficiently competitive to warrant Test status.
Indeed, all of the other Full Member ICC countries treat the two newcomers that way; rarely have they been offered a Test series of more than two matches by any opponent because the disparity in performance leads to one-sided games and to fewer people interested in watching.
Instead of addressing this, the ICC have regularly mandated that each Test-playing Nation will be required to face each of the others, home and away, over a set period; this is commonly known as the Future Tours Programme (FTP) and has drawn the ire of various cricketing bodies in the past, notably the West Indies in 2005.
From April 2011, the updated FTP will effectively form the structure for the new World Test Championship and will run for four years, with a playoff at the end of it.
In many ways this will not affect the existing structure of tours, but it is likely to show what we already know: That Bangladesh are well adrift of the other current Test Nations.
Rather than ingraining this within the fabric of a Test Championship, it might be more worthy for funds to be found (perhaps from the multi-millionaire BCCI) for the development of cricket in the Associate Nations?
The existing World Cricket league provides a framework for this, but is limited because it works on the one-day format.
The outcomes from this could be enhanced by establishing greater financial rewards, the use of improved facilities in Test-nation countries and the offer of A-sides from all the Test-playing countries, to make regular tours of the Associate Nations to provide high-quality opposition for developing cricket nations.
It would be relatively easy for the ECB to send teams to Kenya, Denmark and Canada to play competitive four-day fixtures and one-day matches against the best that those nations have to offer—after all, it was only recently that A teams were being sent to compete in the West Indies First Class competition.
The BCCI could do something similar in Afghanistan, Holland and the United Arab Emirates, for example, and the focus would be on getting the developing nations up to speed in four day cricket as well as on-day games.
At the same time, instead of having away series’ in India and Australia, Bangladesh (and Zimbabwe when they return to Test cricket) should only host these teams and should make more use of regular games against the top Associate Members.
This might see Bangladesh having a three match series of four-day games against Ireland and Scotland one year, then against Holland and Denmark the next. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe could do the same against Kenya and Namibia in the first year then Canada and the USA the second.
These could be hosted and funded by one of top nations, so that the Associate Member doesn’t have to worry about financing it or one of the major boards could sponsor the events in any of these countries.
At the moment, there is little hope for the progression of the Associate Members.
They don’t get the opportunity to face competitive opposition on a regular basis in order to improve, and don’t have the finances to fund expansion of the four-day game (for example, to get part-time players the necessary time off work). They're also being forced out of the next World Cup, with the sop of being offered additional places in the World T20 instead.
Surely, some of this responsibility should lie with the rich, Test-playing countries? The vision of the ICC must be to spread the game around the world and to do it in a manner that provides a good standard of cricket, rather than hoping for amateurism to break through.
Taking a step back from the focus on the Test-playing countries to allow the development of the Associate Members would be an ideal first step on this road.
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