Expanding Test privileges to likes of Ireland and Afghanistan could be boon the five-day format needs

Is any sport quite as fatalistic as cricket? Seldom does a match pass without a lament for the fact one format or other, is dying, and that we are all powerless to stop it, asks Paul Radley.

The Dukes pink ball during the MCC XI v Scotland at Lords Cricket Ground on April 21, 2008 in London, England. The pink cricket ball is being trialled for the first time in a match in England. Tom Shaw/ Getty Images
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Is any sport quite as fatalistic as cricket? Seldom does a match pass without a lament for the fact one format or other, is dying, and that we are all powerless to stop it.

Whenever a Test is played somewhere in the world in front of a swath of empty seats, the response is always the same. Something Needs To Be Done.

Among the latest remedial measures proposed to save the five-day format are to make it four days instead, use a pink ball, play at night, and to have two divisions, with promotion and relegation. All while being part of a larger, convoluted, multi-format Super Series. Not necessarily all at once, but possibly.

Giving the fixtures a semblance of context, rather than just playing the reams and reams of bilateral “friendlies”, as is currently the case, and building towards a tangible goal, seems an eminently sensible thing to do.

The fact the initial plan is apparently to have a top division of seven and second tier of five shows the ICC's thinking has finally, after years of their compelling argument being largely ignored, been forced by the rise of Ireland and Afghanistan.

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For some while now, they have been in a tier of their own. Too good for the level of competition they play in, but with no access to the level above, their tier has been more an ether than a league.

Both sides have proved themselves in the Intercontinental Cup, the first-class competition for the nations just below the Test game. Having them as regulars on the Test circuit would have great merit.

Home internationals between England and Ireland, were they ever to meet, would immediately have the sort of rivalry that sustains sport.

And seeing the former refugee turned cricketers of Afghanistan walking through the Long Room at Lord’s to play a Test match would be the perfect finale to the game’s greatest real life fairy tale.

Two divisions might also go some way to arresting, or at least challenging, dwindling standards in historically established nations.

Not everyone agrees relegation is a good thing. It is a concept alien to North American sport, for example, and they do all right.

But for the likes of Zimbabwe and, to a lesser extent, the West Indies in the Test game, might be forced into greater introspection if they were demoted to the ranks of a new second tier.

Is two divisions a cure-all, though? Will going to the game itself be so much more appealing because it is part of a championship, with an actual winner at the end, and actual punishment for underperformance?

Seven hours of watching a team bowl 13 overs per hour, with six wickets falling, 260 runs scored, and the promise of no result for some days yet, can be a chore for those not in tune with the finer points of the game. That sort of a day at the cricket might sound like heaven for aficionados, but there are not enough of those around.

Bloating attendances will need more than just the promise of three points towards promotion or avoiding relegation at the end of five days.

A day at the Test needs to be an event. Lord’s does it perfectly. That is part of the reason 100,000 are reportedly heading through the gates for the ongoing match between England and a Sri Lanka side shorn of the star names of its recent past. There is more to a day at Lord’s than just the play in the middle.

The pink-ball Test in Adelaide between Australia and New Zealand, too, was well received. It was an event, and, vitally, was played at a time when more people can get to the ground to watch.

Foisting an old format on new arrivistes has its own problems, too. International competition in the long game was invented 139 years ago, to suit people who were already playing it. It was of the day.

Twenty20 better suits the present. Take the Afghans, who can beat the world champions in it. Their fans adore it, less so the long format.

Countries such as Afghanistan and Nepal, where cricket’s future is germinating, might be less appreciative of the actual process of playing multi-day cricket than they would the opportunities provided by being inside the elite.

So expanding the privileges enjoyed by the few who do play Tests to the many who do not could be the biggest gift the game’s organisers could provide.

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