Seeking a bigger piece of the Test pie
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On 4 February, the International Cricket Council passed an in-principle agreement pertaining to a clutch of constitutional and financial changes to the administration of the game. Two of them stood out: the end of the Big Three proposal (under which Australia, England and India got a majority of the ICC revenue) and the near approval of a championship structure for Test cricket.
While the first has financial implications for national associations, the game will benefit from the second change. For too long, the international calendar has meandered from one pointless bilateral series to another, across formats. This proposal will give both Tests and One Day Internationals (ODIs) proper structure and meaning.
The ODI world cup has still been significant, in that it is an end-point to a virtual performance cycle for all teams. It is the five-day format that has searched for some care, faced with a drop in attendance in most countries, especially the subcontinent.
In this new proposal then, the top nine Test nations will play each other once in a two-year cycle, home or away, replicating conference-style scheduling. It will culminate in a championship decider. Three other nations (Zimbabwe, plus Ireland and Afghanistan presumably after they gain Test status) will also benefit from regular international cricket.
The timing of this agreement is a bit ironic, though. The same weekend this resolution was passed in Dubai, Bangladesh landed in India to play a Test for the first time, from 9 February. It’s been 17 years since they played their inaugural five-day match against the same opposition in Dhaka (November 2000).
Oddly enough, this match was granted to the Bangladesh Cricket Board as barter for their vote when former ICC chairman N. Srinivasan mooted the Big Three proposal. Until then, they had to be content with India’s visits for the stand-alone ODI/Twenty20 series even as Bangladesh’s interests in playing Tests waned. In 2015, the Indian team played a solitary Test; in 2004, 2007 and 2010, they had played two on each visit.
This is in keeping with the way Bangladesh’s fortunes have progressed in international cricket. Before this Test in India, they had played 97 Tests in all, yet pickings have been slim in terms of tours to other countries. After their inauguration in 2000-01, they first toured overseas—to New Zealand—in 2001-02. Thereafter, the frequency of such trips, especially to prominent Test-playing nations, has only come down.
They have been to New Zealand three more times in 2008, 2010 and 2017, and to South Africa in 2002-03 and 2008-09. They have been to England in 2005 and 2010. They played in Australia in 2003, as Cricket Australia experimented with international cricket in the winter months, but are yet to be invited back for a summer tour.
Pakistan have only hosted them once, in 2003; subsequently, security concerns and scheduling conflicts didn’t bring these two countries together in the Test arena.
Bangladesh visited Sri Lanka in 2002, 2005, 2007 and 2013. They have another full tour of Lanka lined up immediately after this Indian trip. They have been to the West Indies in 2004, 2009 and 2014. Their most frequent exchanges have been with Zimbabwe, both home and away—the latter in 2001, 2004, 2011 and 2013.
There is a pattern here. Bangladesh cricket doesn’t have a well-defined international home season and of late, they have become a practice stopover for teams visiting India (South Africa in 2015, England in 2016). Without saying as much, then, top nations invite lower-ranked teams as and when it benefits their TV revenue.
This detailed look at Bangladesh’s past fixtures’ list indicates an inequality that resembles the two-tier structure—with 12 teams divided into two leagues or tiers of six teams each, playing home and away for two years, with promotion and relegation at the end of each cycle—proposed last year by the ICC.
“Playing more five-day cricket is the only way we can improve,” said Chandika Hathurusingha, Bangladesh coach, ahead of the one-off Test in Hyderabad. “It is only by playing different nations, in different conditions, that we can hope to progress. It will help us judge our progress better. We will be able to ascertain where we have made gains since last year, and if not, why haven’t we done so?”
Out of 98 Tests, they have won eight matches and drawn 15—they lost to India on Monday. Their biggest wins have come against the West Indies (a 2-0 series win away in 2009) and against England (a 1-1 series drawn at home in 2016). The other matches have been won against Zimbabwe.
Can their progress over the years, however, really be judged in terms of the number of matches won or drawn? Sample this: Since November 2000, Bangladesh have played 98 matches, and India, 175. This match in Hyderabad was Virat Kohli’s 54th Test—he debuted in 2011. His counterpart Mushfiqur Rahim debuted in 2005—this was his 52nd Test. Can there really be an equitable comparison of their Test-career experiences based on the number of matches alone?
“They have the skill. They just don’t play that many Tests to gain confidence as a squad. They have become a very good one-day side because they play so many ODIs. If you don’t play Test cricket often, you will never understand the mindset,” said Kohli.
Of late, Bangladesh have tried to upend their poor fortunes in the longer format with some hearty performances. The win against England, and their recent good showing in New Zealand (despite a 0-2 series loss) are noteworthy. Even in this one-off Test against India, the Tigers stretched proceedings late into the fifth day despite facing a mammoth first innings total of 687-6 declared.
The underlying point, as Test cricket looks ahead to a reformed international structure, is about inclusion. In the ICC’s vision for the future of five-day cricket, this is the watchword, not only for Bangladesh but other teams in a similar situation—Zimbabwe, Ireland and Afghanistan.
Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper—A Definitive Account Of India’s Greatest Captains.