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Comment - ICC Test Challenge Not Enough

Does the ICC Test Challenge do enough for Associate nations?
Does the ICC Test Challenge do enough for Associate nations?
©International Cricket Council

That the winners of the ICC Intercontinental Cup will now receive a shot at Test cricket on the face of it represents significant progress for the development of Associate nations, yet digging a little deeper reveals a decision that smacks of half-heartedness.

Firstly, the mere token gesture of two series against the lowest-ranked Full Member once every four years and nothing more is hardly an approach that will generate sustainable development.

With that ludicrously prolonged gap, whatever benefits a side may gain from experiencing the Test arena will have long evaporated by the time the next chance comes along.

Granted the carrot of Test cricket adds value to the Intercontinental Cup and in theory a window for the successful nation to showcase their Test credentials, yet in practice it is difficult to see anyone gaining full membership through such limited opportunities – particularly combined with the alarming lack of limited overs level exposure that Associates currently receive.

Further to that there is nothing within these proposals to suggest victory in the Test Challenge will result in anything other than merely returning to the Associate circuit with heads held high.

If The ICC is genuinely serious about the development of the game then the disparity between Full Member and Associate must be reduced, rather than the current closed shop situation.

Fixtures must to be played with more regularity between those at the bottom of the full member table and top Associates, for as beneficial as the learning curve of facing off against the top teams is for the likes of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe these fixtures do little to ignite self-belief.

Persistently losing can place the lower ranked full members on a cycle of demoralisation, whereas a more balanced schedule that mixes in a significant proportion of fixtures against the highest ranked Associates would allow for confidence and momentum to bread – in turn standing these sides in better stead when they do tackle the elites of the game.

For the gap between Full Members and Associates to decline there must be an overlap between the pair, not only for development but to keep those at the lower end of the full membership on their toes.

For example if the lowest two or three ranked Test sides were forced to face a certain percentage of fixtures against the leading Associates it would heighten competition to avoid being ranked in those positions.

The four-year window of this plan is in itself not conducive to success – one of the reasons why the World Twenty20 qualification format works convincingly is the two-year cycle it operates within.

Four years is not only an incredibly extensive period to maintain consistent cricket, especially when one poor day can terminally damage a sides chances, but also to preserve a strong side. At the same time should a nation narrowly miss out on qualification, four years is an excessively long and disheartening period of time to wait for another crack.

Even if increased game time at a higher level is not feasible there are other alternative routes that could be explored, such as utilising 'A' team tours. Developing players also need acquainting with international cricket; therefore such fixtures would kill two birds with one stone.

Any qualms regarding Associates not being a significant standard of challenge could be distinguished by simply turning 'A' series between full nations into tri series by involving an Associate side.

It is not just the ICC that holds a responsibility with regards to worldwide development but also the individual national bodies themselves, whether that be through such 'A' tours or invitations for Associates to take part in domestic competitions – after all the growth of the game is in their best long-term interests.

On a more positive note in the same announcement the ICC also revealed the next Twenty20 World Cup will follow the same format as the recently concluded tournament in Bangladesh - with the preliminary group stage system widely received as being beneficial the Associate.

If the ICC is, however, genuinely serious with regards to spreading cricket then Associates can’t just be picked up for tournaments and then dropped; a long-term investment needs to be made that ensures regular exposure against full members at least in Twenty20 cricket.

That the Netherlands, who won so many hearts in Bangladesh, now have a virtually empty international calendar for the foreseeable future is not only a crying shame, but yet another missed opportunity.

As we’ve seen with countries such as Kenya in the past, success at tournament level doesn’t result in a lasting legacy, it requires following up with persistent cricket. It will be argued that international calendars are already heaving yet a Twenty20 fixture here and there at the expense of a One-Day International or two is surely worth the overall benefits this would help the development of the game.

In reality Twenty20 cricket is the most viable format to develop Associate cricket, given its short and snappy nature in comparison to the numerous days of consistency and high levels of discipline that Test cricket requires.

At the same time creating the infrastructure and maintaining interest for Twenty20 games is less of a challenging proposition than for first-class games – it would not be a lie to suggest certain nations will simply never be in a position to boast the structure required to play consistent Tests but that is not to say they could not be extremely competitive over 20 overs.

These latest proposals once again highlight the ICC’s lax approach to spreading the game, with this latest vision more of an attempt to ease all parties rather than provide solutions of any substance.

These changes don’t threaten any Full Members but also offers the Associates what they crave – crucially though in such a minor degrees that it is difficult to see any lasting significant impacts they will bring.

This news may make it appear the ICC are making steps to advance the game but if they are seriously committed to this task a greater level of exposure is imperative across all forms of the game, specifically in the Twenty20 format which has the potential to take cricket into new realms.

© Cricket World 2014