Should Zimbabwe decide not to return to Test cricket, or should the ICC decide not to readmit them, there will be a sizeable block left empty in the FTP. While some people will see this as a good thing and want to keep only nine teams playing at the top level, it will be a perfect opportunity for the ICC to bridge the current gap between the Test nations and the Associates.
Test cricket works well with ten teams playing. It gives the newer teams a chance to improve by playing against the best, and the big clashes are far enough apart that they create great anticipation. Currently, there is no avenue for the Associates to rise above the level of the Intercontinental Cup, just as there is no provision for a team to be dropped from Test cricket, no matter how low their standards fall. If the ICC were to open this last place on the FTP up to the best Associate (include Zimbabwe, as they are no longer playing Tests), it would effectively cover both shortcomings in the system.
My proposal is as follows: Every second year, the top placed team in the Intercontinental Cup be given the chance to play off against the bottom placed Test team for their slot on the FTP. Next year, this would be between Zimbabwe and the IC winner. The matches would be hosted by the Test team and would count as full Tests. The winner would earn the right to be part of the FTP for a period of 2 years. At the end of that period, the bottom ranked Test team would again have to play off against the top ranked Associate, as decided by the Intercontinental Cup.
This system would do two important things. First, it would put in place the final bridge between the Associates and Full members. To cross it, the Associates will have to prove they are at a high enough standard, but the opportunity is none the less there. It would allow Associates to aspire to Test status without watering down the quality of Test cricket played.
Second, it would act as a quality control for Test cricket - if a team's standards fall too low, they will be beaten by an upcoming team, and have to go back to basics in the Intercontinental Cup. It may mean that at some stage in the future, a traditional cricketing team loses out on Test status for a while, but should they really keep it if there are non-Test teams who play at a higher standard? Surely not.
There are practical considerations that would need to be taken into account for this to work - pitch quality for one, but the money and means are available to the ICC to assist in this. It is high time that quality is allowed the chance to shine in cricket wherever it comes from. No longer is cricket just a game for the Test nations, and the structure needs to be reworked to take that into account. The opportunity seems to have come about for just such a step.