Cricket: Zimbabwe should force the issue of class distinction: With the arrival today of a ninth member of its exclusive club, Scyld Berry suggests a new world order for Test cricket

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WHEN Dickie Bird calls 'play' at the Harare Sports Club ground today, amid the jacarandas and temporary stands, he will mark Zimbabwe's debut as a Test-playing country. The occasion could also mark the start of a new world order for Test cricket, if only the ICC did not stand for Indecisive Cricket Council.

Test-playing countries have appeared with a remarkable symmetry over the years: England, Australia and South Africa before the First World War; West Indies, New Zealand and India before the Second; Pakistan, Sri Lanka and now Zimbabwe before a possible third. This latest debut takes the number of full members of the ICC to nine, an embarrassment of riches.

Or to be precise, in England's opinion, Zimbabwe will be a plain embarrassment. They have a point: the team to be led out by David Houghton this morning to face India consists of weekend club cricketers, mostly amateurs, innocents in the world of full-time professionalism and gamesmanship. When the vote was taken on Zimbabwe's Test status, West Indies proposed, Pakistan seconded and England abstained.

The problem is that Zimbabwe come in a category all their own, betwixt and between. They are distinctly better than the Denmarks and Fijis of this world, and have proved it by never losing a game in the mini-World Cup, winning all three competitions. Over the decades they have produced a team of cricketers to represent South Africa, most notably that first great out-fielder, Colin Bland; and they defeated Australia in the 1983 World Cup and England in the most recent.

On the other hand, the Zimbabweans have never won a first-class match on their frequent tours of England; and they have no first-class competition of their own in which to develop their game over three days, let alone five. The white community, from where their cricketers have so far come, has dwindled to 70,000: it is therefore like Test status being awarded to Worcester, Hastings or Harrogate. According to the former president of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union David Ellmann-Brown: 'It is taking time to develop young black cricketers: there are a couple of young hopefuls but they'll need a couple of years at least.'

What should have happened is that Zimbabwe, if they were to be given Test status at all, should have been given it in the early mid-Eighties, shortly after Independence, and before white cricketers such as Graeme Hick had emigrated to greener fields. And yet, astonishingly, one who is privy to the deliberations of the ICC says there were no deliberations on the subject at that time: 'I don't think anybody actually got round to thinking about it.'

Ten years ago Zimbabwe defeated the newly promoted Test country of Sri Lanka by an innings in a 'Test'. Then they had Kevin Curran and Peter Rawson, who have since emigrated, as well as John Traicos, Andy Pycroft and Houghton. It is said that Brian Davison would have returned at the prospect of Test cricket; subsequently Hick and Trevor Penney might not have left. The ICC's hand was only forced when South Africa was readmitted, for Zimbabwe's promising cricketers would have gone there, without Test status of their own.

Now it is up to the ICC to make the most of this situation of nine Test-playing countries who vary so drastically in ability that if they all played each other there would be many a mis-match. The possibilities are suggested by the programme which Zimbabwe have for their immediate future. After their inaugural Test against India, they play one against New Zealand in Bulawayo, which will thereby become the world's 69th Test ground, and another in Harare. This game will begin on a Saturday, break for a one- day international on the Sunday, and resume on the Monday, so county cricket will no longer be alone in its idiocy of staging a game within a game.

Since New Zealand will lack their two strike bowlers, Danny Morrison and Chris Cairns, through injury and illness, the two countries might be fairly well matched on Zimbabwean grounds. And it is this reality which has to be recognised and turned to advantage: that the Test-playing countries can now be divided into two groups. On one side the super-powers of West Indies, Australia and Pakistan; on the other the post- Hadlee New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe; with England, India and South Africa coming in between, depending on the match- winning bowlers they can muster.

Common and commercial sense suggest that after the forthcoming winter, the busiest which cricket has ever known, the countries should be split into groups 'A' and 'B'. This would be to recognise an arrangement which informally exists already: West Indies have never played a Test against Sri Lanka, for it would be a pointless and penniless exercise. England have played four Tests against Sri Lanka in 11 years and have no plans to meet Zimbabwe.

Once the countries have been divided up, the teams in each group would meet at least once every four years, one point would be awarded for every series drawn and two for every series won. (At any time a country could play another from the other group but it would not be part of the competition.) We would have world champions of Test cricket, and teams playing for promotion and relegation. Interest in Test matches might then be revived, before they are buried under the weight of one-day internationals.