The latest updates from the Cricket's Mad Science Lab, also known as the ICC Board meeting, are in and the sport is all set to be revamped to restore its position as the greatest game on the planet.
Over the past decade, the ICC has redressed and repackaged the game with the alacrity and farsight of a teenager trying new clothes at a mall. The product they are trying to sell - or shove down our throat, depending on which way you look at it - is generally the same that has been repackaged with extra bells and whistles to deliver the same utopian promise.
The major outcomes from this year's meeting are the introduction of a Test championship, a new ODI league and in-principle approval of four-day tests. Let's look at the four-day test concept first.
Already rejected by ICC's most powerful member the BCCI, four-day tests are supposed to lower the entry bar to test cricket for new test playing nations like Ireland and Afghanistan. As per the ICC Chief Executive Dave Richardson, “four-day Tests will also provide the new Test playing countries with more opportunities to play the longer version of the game against more experienced opponents, which, in turn, will help them to hone their skills and close the gap with the top nine ranked teams.”
So the ICC inducted Afghanistan and Ireland to the Test nations’ club only to realize they weren't ready for it and are now making changes to the game to allow them a soft landing. This is akin to granting a weak student admission to college and then lowering the difficulty level of the final exam just to make sure the new student can pass. As usual, the ICC's arguments are self-defeating.
“Four-day Tests will also provide the new Test playing countries with more opportunities to play the longer version of the game against more experienced opponents, which, in turn, will help them to hone their skills and close the gap with the top nine ranked teams.”- Dave Richardson
The first four-day test match could be played between South Africa and Zimbabwe if the ICC approves it but the format had already received a thumbs down from the South African captain Faf du Plessis. Speaking before the decision, he said that “I believe the great Test matches have gone to the last hour of the last day on day five. That’s what is so special about Test cricket. In four-day cricket or first-class cricket, it does feel easier because there are only four days. For five days you have to graft it out. Bowlers have to bowl a lot more and batters have to construct much bigger innings.”
Clearly, the ICC committee doesn't consider the point of view of a current international captain who believes anything less than 5-day cricket isn't really Test cricket. From a fan's perspective, four-day games can still be fun, but as the recent Tests between Sri Lanka and Pakistan showed, there is nothing quite like a five-day cliffhanger.
Four day tests = Sex without orgasm.— cricBC (@cricBC) October 13, 2017
It's still fun but you get a feeling of missing out on something important. https://t.co/ef8sBQGMQW
The Test Championship is an idea worth exploring but unless there is a clear plan to ensure the futures tours program will be followed and respected by individual cricket boards, there is no point in going ahead with it. TV rights contribute to the bulk of the revenue for most cricket boards. This means they are more interested in hosting countries that bring a promise of healthy TV viewership. As a result, England and Australia can play ten test matches in less than a year as they did in 2013-14 while a country like Sri Lanka touring Australia is rare. And then there is always India and Pakistan who will find it hard to play each other due to political reasons.
ICC CEO David Richardson speaks to the press after the logos unveiling of Test Championship
In the era of T20 leagues, playing a test series is a big commitment on the part of cricket boards and players. We are already seeing top players opting out of a test series to play in a T20 league. While it’s a noble thought to play more international test cricket, there are obvious conflict of interests between different forms of the game that make it impractical at time. Since its beginning, Test cricket has survived and thrived as a bilateral affair between two countries, and the attempt to introduce "context" as ICC puts it is a needless attempt to oversell the format.
“In the era of T20 leagues, playing a test series is a big commitment on the part of cricket boards and players.”
One of the hardest fought test series this year was Australia's tour of India where both the teams gave their everything on the field. I was in the stands during the Bangalore test where Australia was ahead on Day 1, but India showed great resilience to stay in the game on Day 2 in a battle of attrition. The crowd found their voice when they heard the home team's warcry and created a cauldron for the bewildered Australian batsmen. At that instance, the battle on the ground didn't need a larger context. No one cares about the long-term consequence of a street fight. The Ashes 2005 continues to stand out for the intensity of contest and not its context. On the flip side, the series between Sri Lanka and India earlier this year where hosts struggled to put up a fight at any point in the three test series, will struggle to draw fans even if it was part of some larger Test Championship.
Instead, a much more plausible proposal to introduce a two-tier structure in test cricket was shot down last year despite a majority of teams and players being in its favour. Competitiveness and not the context is Test cricket's holy grail and a two-tier system can help in making more games more competitive. Yes, the weaker boards are going to lose out if they can’t play against stronger and richer test nations. The ICC should find other ways of reaching out to these boards. The proposal to give the weaker boards a bigger share of ICC revenues was a welcome move in this regard and it should be supported by all cricket boards.
No ICC meeting is complete without throwing in a few rule changes in the ODI and T20 format. They have modified the powerplay rules so often that by the time an average fan gets used to the latest playing condition, a new one is introduced. I have heard a lot of fans who follow cricket seriously who aren’t sure whether a batting team is supposed to choose their powerplay overs; or whether 4 or 5 fielders are allowed outside the inner circle in the final 10 overs of the innings. It's not just the fans but also the players who are often caught unaware. In a recent T20 international between India and Australia, Aaron Finch and Shikhar Dhawan both confessed that they were not clear on the latest rule changes.
Finch and Shikhar Dhawan confessed recently that they were confused on the latest rule changes
Now don't get me wrong here. I am a bit old school but I don't mind tinkering with the rules and playing conditions of the game once a while with an eye on the future. But any change should have a strong rationale; should not be introduced at the international level as a "trial"; should be discussed at length by various stakeholders of the game including broadcasters and fans;and should be allowed to run its course before being taken down in favour of a new experiment.
The proposed ODI league that will start from 2020-21 could be a step in the right direction. While Test cricket has always been a bilateral affair in cricket’s history, the ODI format became popular when it involved a competition between multiple nations, be it a World Cup or one of those tri-nation series in Sharjah. Lengthy bilateral ODI series are driving fans away from the format and shorter series with World Cup qualification as the bigger reward should help attract fans.
Any steps in making the game fair, competitive and balanced are always welcomed by the fans. In that regard, last month’s ruling over restricting the width of the bat is a welcome move. It shows that the ICC and MCC are noticing the latest trends and trying to curb unfair tactics. But soon after the announcement, the guardians of the game blundered by criminalizing "fake fielding", a term introduced to define a fielder faking a throw to distract a batsman. This goes against the spirit of sport itself where deception is an integral part.
The maximum dimensions of a cricket bat will be 108mm in width, 67mm in depth with 40mm
This follows last year's ridiculous ruling to discourage bowlers pausing during their action. The general trend in ICC's rule changes is to make the game more batsmen friendly and that cannot be good for the long-term health of the game.
Cricket laws have one underlying purpose. Make the life of a batsman more comfortable.— cricBC (@cricBC) October 3, 2017
The ICC should understand that long-term governance isn't done by appointing short-term committees that pass resolutions based on whims and fancies. Let's give this game a break from over-governance. In most cases, it will reconfigure itself to stay competitive and relevant.