With the top six nations from the ICC Trophy qualifying for the World Cup, and the Intercontinental Cup becoming a full round-robin affair from next year, things are definitely looking up for cricket in non-Test playing countries. Is it far enough though?
Despite Ireland's increased international commitments, we have still recently seen Ed Joyce snapped up by England because Ireland could not offer him the chance to play at the game's highest level. This weakens not only Ireland who lose him for the World Cup and other matches, but also the other Associates who now lose the chance to play against a top class player. I believe there is a way for the ICC to not only prevent this from happening again, but further boost the spread of cricket around the World.
While almost all of the Associates have 'achieving Test status' as a stated goal, the reality is that it will be quite a while before this becomes a reality. Full member nations are concerned with both the purported lack of quality and the potential of player burn out. Until Bangladesh start to win Tests regularly, it is exceedingly unlikely we will see another country elevated to that status.
To me the most obvious way to get around all these issues is to include a Combined Associate (include Zimbabwe) side as the 10th Test team. Associate players are already gaining experience of the longer form of the game in the Intercontinental Cup (which should again include Zimbabwe), and performance in this would be the basis for team selection. Coached by an ICC appointed staff, the team would rotate 'Home' matches between the Associate nations to fit in with the FTP and global weather patterns/seasons.
The benefits would be as follows:
- The best players from the Associates would have the opportunity to play Test cricket. It is a crime that players such as Steve Tikolo currently do not have that opportunity and it would make it much less likely for players to defect to a Full member if they did. It would keep the best players playing for their countries and thus maintain the overall standard of Associate cricket.
- In addition, the players with Test experience would almost certainly improve the standard of play in their domestic leagues giving an extra boost to measures already in place.
- It would negate the two main arguments against another Test side: lack of quality opposition and player burnout. Chosen on performance in the Intercontinental Cup, I have little doubt a team like this would be competitive, and they would be able to fit right in to the FTP in place of Zimbabwe's current fixtures.
- It provides Associate groundsmen with the experience and, aided by the ICC, know-how to produce Test wickets. Organisers get the experience of putting on a Test match.
- Associates get to host Test matches giving cricket in their regions a huge boost in terms of both publicity and revenue.
- Infrastructure would have to be improved for the Tests thus aiding cricket development (ICC would need to assist in this).
- It would provide a showcase of the best Associate talent available, and aid in getting players county/state contracts in Test countries.
- It still leaves the door open for a country to achieve Test status on its own once it is ready, only this time it would already include players with Test experience.
For a sport to work on the global stage there must be a level playing field. All players must have equal opportunity to play at the elite level, and currently this is not the case in cricket. So far, the ICC have done well in spreading the game, but they must look at taking the final step to ensure the gains that have been made so far, and that will be made over the next year are not lost.