Teams like Sri Lanka, West Indies show why a two-tier system may be needed
Test cricket is going through a critical phase currently. Resounding defeats for Sri Lanka (0-3 by India) and West Indies (whipped by England in the first Test) have revived the debate on whether the five-day format needs to be played on a two-tier system.
Sri Lanka’s debacle against India was an extension of their appalling recent form, in which they’ve lost to even lower-ranked teams in Tests as well as limited-overs cricket—including at home, where they have otherwise been consistently good.
Last week, when the West Indies played the first day-night, pink-ball Test in England, there was a buzz of excitement—and hope. The Caribbean side has been in the doldrums for almost two decades as far as Tests are concerned. Would this match mark a new beginning?
As it happened, the only redeeming aspect of the Edgbaston Test was huge spectator support. Fans packed the ground on all three days, but all they got to see was a hopelessly one-sided contest as the West Indies capitulated ignominiously, losing 19 wickets in a single day.
So thoroughly outplayed were they that many critics likened them to a schoolboys’ team. Mean though it may appear, this wasn’t misplaced. The West Indies looked bereft of the technical skills, temperament and maturity essential for the longest format.
Vivian Richards and Curtly Ambrose, who once epitomized the brilliance of West Indies cricket, were at the match—it must have traumatized them to see how standards have slumped.
I have dwelt on the decline of West Indies cricket earlier in these columns. Regrettably, the situation seems to have worsened. Where Tests are concerned, the West Indies are in ICU, and there seems to be no panacea in sight.
Slump periods are not unusual in sport, but they are more pronounced in cricket, still played by few countries. These usually tend to be cyclical, with the period of turnaround depending on the talent and financial resources available, and how well these are managed.
In the modern milieu of sport, though, this period can’t be open-ended. Cricket is no longer an expansion of colonial expression, as it was in its early days. In a globalized world, and with the tastes and demands of various stakeholders changing rapidly, it has to be competitive to survive.
For instance, while day-night, pink-ball Tests will undoubtedly attract more fans—to the stadia and TV viewership—owing to a more convenient time schedule, this can come to naught if the contests are tepid.
Floodlights, pink ball, etc., add flavour to the spectacle, but they are not at the core. If competitiveness collapses, it’s not just fans who turn away—sponsors do too. This, in turn, can lead to financial constraints, affecting the development and growth of talent as well as infrastructure.
It hasn’t helped Test cricket that countries that have been added on as International Cricket Council (ICC) full members in the past 20-25 years haven’t really come good. Bangladesh and Zimbabwe (sadly, after an inspired phase) still languish at the bottom.
The West Indies have fallen sharply and for a harrowingly long period. Sri Lanka are struggling badly now. Hopefully they will recover soon. However, with Afghanistan and Ireland now given full Test status—laudable though this is—the disparity between Test teams is likely to increase.
Test cricket needs to be supported and sustained, but that is only possible if spectator/sponsor interest increases. How does one achieve this?
The ICC has been mulling a two-tier format for some time now. With 12 countries in the Test-playing ranks, segregating them into two groups of eight (top) and four (bottom) teams with a promotion/relegation system involving two teams seems like a fair proposition.
But there are challenges. Convincing all the Test countries of its viability will not be easy. By all accounts, the “older” members are loath to change. Also, unless “minnow” teams play the better ones regularly, how will they improve?
There is also the matter of rationalizing statistics, so integral to the sport. How would this happen in a double-tier system without becoming farcical?
These are vexing times for cricket’s minders.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.