Time arrives for a test of Test status

Mismatches force rethink. Stephen Brenkley finds the five-day game is not an automatic right for all
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Some Test match countries could stop playing Test cricket. This radical proposal, likely to involve Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, is being considered as part of a review of the structure of the international game that will be given its first official airing in October.

It would end the tediously unequal contests that are taking place too often, and allow some breathing space in the schedule. The option was raised during intensive discussions at the International Cricket Council's annual meeting in London last week, and is now considered to have a serious if unexpected prospect of being adopted.

In his address to the ICC's business forum, the chief executive, Malcolm Speed, said the structure review, announced a year ago, was now moving rapidly. "It is important to recognise that there are no sacred cows," he said. "Every option should be, and will be, examined, and if there is a potentially better way than the current system, this will be identified, analysed and presented to the executive board for consideration."

A non-runner, however, will certainly be the long-touted split of Test cricket into two divisions. In theory, this sounds perfectly plausible because it would segregate wheat from chaff, but if Australia, for example, fell so low that they were in the second division, while England strutted their stuff in the first, this would mean a halt to the Ashes. On both traditional and commercial grounds that would be madness. But Speed conceded that it would probably be floated "in a rigorous process with no preconceptions".

Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, the two most recent additions to the Test match fold, are also the two likeliest candidates for reshuffling. Zimbabwe are already suspended from Tests for the rest of this year, and while Bangladesh are deemed to be making progress, their domestic structure is hardly designed to promote rapid improvement in the longer game. The suggestion is that they would play only one-day internationals but remain full members of the ICC, with the voting rights and financial benefits that brings.

Having agreed the review, it would be remarkable if the ICC retained their Future Tours Programme. Under this system, itself revolutionary in 2001, each of the 10 full-member countries must play each other home and away in series of at least two Tests and three ODIs. It has caused mismatches and congestion.

If not discredited, the FTP has been under constant scrutiny. Bangladesh have been perpetually feeble until recently and Zimbabwe, never truly competitive in Tests, are still in danger of imploding. The ICC have announced an investigation into allegations of racism at the Zimbabwe Cricket Union by a two-man panel of unimpeachable virtue - yet to be appointed.

Any change in the Test programme would lead perhaps inexorably to the separation of Test and one-day programmes. This is in any case another theme being repeatedly talked about in the review. It is universally recognised that Test cricket represents the acme of the sport, but not every country aspires to playing it. Some - perhaps Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, but also others - would settle for playing top-notch one-day matches. In most countries, they are what fill seats, at grounds and in front of the television.

The players, who are deeply involved in the discussions, want a more streamlined one-day system. A one-day league keeps being mentioned, and two divisions in the short game cannot be entirely discounted. It is increasingly felt that one-dayers between World Cups and Champions Trophies need more context.

Structure review or no structure review, plans are pressing ahead for a Super Series next year between the champion country and a Rest of the World side, probably consisting of one Test and three one-dayers. The event will be held next September in India, Australia or South Africa, with a view to it being repeated every four years. Driven by commercial considerations it may be, but its attraction as a cricket event should not be underrated.

It will be but one of the hot potatoes with which the new ICC president, Percy Sonn, must wrestle when he takes office next year. He was elected as a vice-president to Ehsan Mani last week and as it was South Africa's turn his only competition could have come from his compatriot Ali Bacher. But Bacher, who would have been an understandable choice, kept his promise to Sonn to leave the path clear. Sonn, a controversial character who attracted abundant publicity during the World Cup for his socialising habits, will be guaranteed a tough two years.