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Change is the real Test

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West_Indies_cricket_board_playersThe week began with the West Indies losing by ten wickets to a team that contained six debutants. It was therefore no surprise when the men from the Caribbean succumbed to an embarrassing innings defeat in the first of three Tests against the second best side in the world. Australia were ruthless in their dismantling of an undercooked and down-hearted West Indies team that have one overseas Test win against a top 8 team in the last 12 years.

The concern is that this isn’t even the nadir of Caribbean cricket. Gideon Haigh summed it up in The Australian. “The West Indies used to be ¬baaaaaaad. Now they’re simply bad. And in international cricket, bad easily gets worse, there being no equalising mechanisms, such as draft picks, salary caps or a transfer market, to arrest a subsidence.”

The biggest concern for the West Indies is not the perception that they can’t play, but the impression that they can’t be bothered. The laid back body language on display in Hobart would have been of no consequence when the West Indies were world conquering supermen. When you are losing game after game, it is a touch unseemly.

Of course, games of cricket are not won and lost on folded arms and hands in pocket, but it adds to the image of a side that have given up before they started. Those who know what these players have had to put up with from the administrators of the game may feel that is understandable, but if you had paid good money to watch them in Tasmania you would have the right to feel a little aggrieved at the quality of entertainment that you got in return for your hard earned cash.

Some will suggest that the solution to this problem is to stop them from playing Test cricket, but it is exactly that attitude that has exacerbated the drop in standard from the West Indies. If cricket had opened up the game to allow other sides into the fold, one team struggling would not be as big a problem. Instead, one team falling in standard means 10% of sides are below par. As soon as two or three nations are struggling, a third of those that play the game are fading away.

 

Imagine if, instead of telling teams like Ireland, Afghanistan and the UAE that they are not welcome at the party, we had given them the opportunity to grow through funding and playing opportunities. Instead of bemoaning the death of West Indian cricket, we could be celebrating the rise of new players from new nations giving us new narratives to embrace.

The whole idea of status is elitist nonsense that exists only to maintain the status quo at the expense of the sport and the growth of the game. No other international sport makes the distinction that only some games count. No other international sport insinuates that fans are not bright enough to distinguish the value of performances against weaker opponents.

In football the all-time leading international goal scorer is Iran’s Ali Daei. No football fans think he is a better player than Messi, Ronaldo and Pele. In rugby the man with the most tries is Daisuke Ohata, but no one suggests he is the world’s greatest.

The solution is so obvious that it already exists. Below Test cricket, a whole league system exists that allows promotion and relegation, where every result matters and almost every game is a must-win affair. When the ICC talk about a meritocratic pathway to Test cricket, they are right to say it exists; it is just that the concept of meritocracy disappears as soon as you are given the golden key to the full member executive lounge.

An associate side can lose funding, “status” and sponsors as a result of a bad day on the field. The consequence for the West Indies’ repeated failures is furrowed brows and allusions to the good old days of Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd.

This cosy existence means the administrative failures that allowed the West Indies to slide so far have festered for all too long. It means that having a replacement for a fading team is impossible, when the inevitable cyclical nature of sport means a good team becomes a bad one.

The answer to cricket’s problems is not having one fewer Test nations, it is opening the whole thing up and tearing all the walls down. Have a top tier and several below that. Have a fixture list that allows each of the teams in those divisions to play each other home and away. It gives series context and it allows the game to grow.

The reasons why this won’t happen are legion. The idea that any one of the “Big 3” could be relegated is unpalatable to the short-sighted money men that run our game. What if England and Australia are not in the same division? No Ashes? We need that to pay the bills.

Some will argue about how statistics matter, but the idea that numbers on a scorecard mean more than the health of the sport and the game as a spectacle is, frankly, ridiculous. For far too long Test cricket has been run like the Victorian pursuit it remains. The time for reform has long past, but it isn’t too late.



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