Bangladesh’s maiden Test victory over England was a reminder to the International Cricket Council (ICC)—and the entire cricketing fraternity—that the so-called minnow teams need to be given opportunities at the highest level against major teams.
This was a riveting, tense series, replete with deep suspense and twists and turns that ensure the five-day format is still the most enthralling. That the series was drawn 1-1 was fair to both teams, the only regret being that there was no decider.
In the almost 16 years since they got Test status (starting 10 November 2000 against India), Bangladesh have played 95 matches, mostly at home, and comparatively fewer against the established sides in the sport.
For instance, they have played just eight Tests against India and four against Australia. England, Pakistan and South Africa have been a little more accommodating. Yet they have played only 10 Tests each against Bangladesh, which is low for a 16-year period. Contrast this with Sri Lanka (16), Zimbabwe (14), West Indies (12) and New Zealand (11) and the disparaging attitude of big-ticket teams—in terms of influence within the ICC, if not always cricketing merit—towards smaller boards becomes clear.
Planning bilateral contests has never been easy, and it is made more complex by financial compulsions in the modern age. It’s not just about seat occupancy (which has fallen everywhere except for the Ashes), but also the monetary value of television rights in a country.
The size of a country’s TV viewership and its economic well-being are the strongest determinants in the valuation of broadcast (and digital) rights in sport. In the case of cricket, however, there is a massive skew because India provides almost 70% of the eyeballs and revenue.
This led to the formation of the “Big 3” in the ICC some years ago so India, England and Australia—in that order—would get the lion’s share of the profits from the sport. The share of other boards was enhanced too, but their say in running the sport, deciding on fixtures, etc., stood eroded.
This put the smaller cricket boards at the mercy of the more powerful ones. While India, England and Australia would play each other often enough, others would get a series against the Big 3—which would obviously provide more revenue—occasionally.
While the financial logic of this arrangement could hardly be questioned, it led to a kind of elitism in cricket administration that caused a great deal of heartburn in other countries, even though the objections were muted.
In particular, this stymied opportunities for smaller, weaker nations to compete with the best and grow in stature and flew in the face of the ICC’s stated aim of not just protecting, but enhancing, Test cricket.
The Big 3 was disbanded soon after Shashank Manohar took over as the ICC’s independent chairman earlier this year, having quit as Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) president only a week or so earlier. The BCCI cried foul—the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and Cricket Australia (CA) too, though they were a little less shrill—but the die was cast.
The manner in which this change was effected did reek of diabolical cricket politics—much as the formation of the Big 3 had earlier—but it willy-nilly put the focus back on the future of Tests in weaker countries.
For the longest format to survive, the powerful cricket boards will have to play ball more willingly and aggressively with the weaker ones. As the sport stands today, there is a huge gulf in standards between the top five and the bottom five among the 10 Test-playing countries.
The two-tier system proposed by the ICC has merit. But even for that to succeed, teams in the bottom half need to be exposed to better ones more regularly for some years to close the gap and make the system more purposeful.
That England toured Bangladesh despite security concerns is to be lauded. Bangladesh will tour India in February for a solitary Test, but at least it is a step in the right direction.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.