Time the ‘shop door’ opened to Ireland and rivals

PERHAPS the only surprise about Ireland’s four-wicket victory against the West Indies in Nelson was that the margin of victory was only four wickets.

Ireland's John Mooney, left, and Niall O'Brien, celebrate their team's win over West Indies.
Ireland's John Mooney, left, and Niall O'Brien, celebrate their team's win over West Indies.

To say that the outcome was a shock was to ignore the evidence of recent times; namely, that Irish cricket is on the rise and that West Indies are seemingly in fatal decline.

As David Lloyd predicted beforehand on satellite television: “I would say that Ireland are favourites”.

Few would have dropped their hot chocolates in stunned disagreement.

Inevitably, Ireland’s win gives rise to such questions as: Should they be granted Test status? And were the International Cricket Council wrong to cut the number of teams for the next World Cup – to be held in England in 2019 – from 14 to 10, thus making it harder for sides such as Ireland to qualify?

When it comes to matters relating to cricket administration, a hotbed of financial intrigue and brazen self-interest, the answers are not as straightforward as one might imagine.

On the first and most significant point, there is, as of last year, a recognised pathway for Ireland and their fellow Associate countries (non Test-playing nations) to reach Test level.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) introduced a Test Challenge that will take place every four years from 2018 between the lowest-ranked Test side and the winner of the ICC Intercontinental Cup, a two-year competition involving the Associates.

This Test challenge will consist of two five-day games, home and away, between the 10th-ranked Test side and the cup-winning Associate, with that Associate joining the four-year Test cycle if they come through.

It means that Ireland, for example, would become the 11th-Test nation if they prevailed – although the defeated 10th-ranked team would still retain their Test status, along with full membership of ICC and their place in future tour agreements, leading to yet more fixtures in a saturated schedule.

Quite how many Tests a new side such as Ireland would actually get, however, is unclear, just as most of the ICC’s strategy is confused.

However, Giles Clarke, the outgoing England and Wales Cricket Board chairman, promised last year that if Ireland win the inaugural Test Challenge, they would be guaranteed a Test against England at Lord’s.

Few of romantic and/or emerald disposition could fail to be seduced by that prospect.

England versus Ireland at headquarters would have great appeal and novelty value.

But is this really the best way to facilitate the elevation to Test level of Associate nations?

Test cricket should not be a closed shop to the extent that only 10 set teams are allowed to play it between now and Armageddon, but this method only increases an imbalance that sees teams such as Zimbabwe and Bangladesh rub shoulders with South Africa and Australia.

When India, Australia and England carved up world cricket 12 months ago, revolutionising the ICC to ensure they received more money, there was actually a sensible idea amid the raft of proposals.

A plan for two divisions of eight teams was mooted in a bid to spice up Test cricket and promote competition, only for the Big Three of India, Australia and England to add the preposterous caveat that none of them could be relegated.

When Bangladesh, the lowest-ranked side, objected to their presence in the lower tier, the prospect of relegation was shelved entirely and the sop of an ICC Test Challenge created.

The likes of Ireland can thus gain Test status, but it is worth noting that they still cannot gain full – as opposed to Associate – membership of ICC, as that, of course, would mean less money for the existing full members.

Promotion and relegation, whether via two divisions of eight comprising the 10 current Test sides and the six Associates with one-day international status, or three divisions of six – thus raising competition at the very top – would perhaps be a fairer system.

That way, sides such as Ireland could find their feet on a level playing field and sides such as Bangladesh would have no divine right to keep them at bay.

As for the decision to cut the number of teams from 14 to 10 at the next World Cup, it is not – as ex-South Africa captain Graeme Smith has argued – fundamentally flawed in that mismatches do little to promote an iconic event.

The problem, just like Test cricket, is that qualification is not unanimously based on merit, hence the likes of West Indies are apparently guaranteed a place, even though the likes of Ireland may be more deserving.