Cricket Ireland's chief executive, Warren Deutrom, has welcomed the International Cricket Council's proposals to create two divisions in Test cricket. He described the idea as something "we have been pressing for ever since I've become involved in Irish cricket", and said that it could "propel cricket even further into the mainstream of Irish sport".
The ICC is exploring a two-divisional structure in Test cricket, which would involve seven teams in division one and five countries, including two associate nations, in division two. Ireland are currently top of the Intercontinental Cup, leaving them ideally placed to be elevated to Tests if the proposals are agreed.
“The sort of structure, which is meritocratic and driven by context, with something hanging on every game - whether that is the prospect of promotion or relegation - is surely what fans around the world want to see,” Deutrom said. “It provides an opportunity for true performance accountability. What happens on and off the pitch will drive the success of every team.”
Deutrom is also convinced that the proposed new structure, which would involve promotion and relegation every two years, will make bilateral cricket more commercially viable throughout the world. “Stronger context will help to drive more interest, improving performances and therefore making the game more attractive and commercially appealing.”
In 2014 the ICC introduced a pathway for a new side to gain Test status. The winners of the ongoing Intercontinental Cup, the first-class competition for associate nations, are scheduled to play the bottom-ranked Test team over four matches in 2018. Should the associate win, they would gain Test status for four years.
However the new proposals appear far preferable. Two new nations would be able to play Tests, and be provided with the certainty over fixtures that some teams today lack: Zimbabwe have played only 14 Tests since 2005.
“I think the proposal is excellent. It does away with the Test Challenge about which I’ve always had my doubts,” Deutrom said. “If we were to lose the series - or even draw, no one knows yet - it might then be a justification for saying we’re not ready when we’ve never played internationally over five days, other than the Intercontinental Cup Final.”
Under the new structure being discussed, the five teams in Division Two of Test cricket would play each other either home or away over a two-year cycle. This would guarantee Ireland, if they were among the sides, either eight or 12 Tests over a two-year period.
The reforms could make Irish cricket more attractive to broadcasters, commercial partners and the government, and ultimately help to prevent players leaving for England in the future. Cricket Ireland’s surveys of its squad show that Test cricket is the main pull in players opting to play for England, although it also offers huge financial benefits.
While admitting there would be challenges in marketing the longest format, Deutrom said “Irish people have grown up with Test cricket”, because it was historically available on free-to-air TV in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. “Do I think we’d get 10,000 people per day at a five-day game over three matches? No I don’t. We’d have to be smart about where and when we schedule the games, in the same way as New Zealand are.”
Alongside the proposed two divisional structure in Tests, the ICC is also exploring creating two groups of six for the leading 12 nations in ODI cricket, with three groups of four another possibility. The groups would be drawn according to seedings, and home and away matches would form the basis for World Cup qualification.
While Ireland have been attempting to gain full member status in the ICC since 2009, there remains no indication how they could do so. Rather than add to the 10 full members, senior figures in the ICC are hoping to make ICC payments more merit-based, thereby eroding the benefits of membership.
Senior figures in the ICC are also exploring whether to include more teams in future World T20 events. The prospect of moving to a more inclusive 20-team event has been mentioned. But some associate representatives are concerned that the ICC is not moving decisively enough on the Olympics, ahead of next year’s deadline to apply for inclusion in the 2024 Games.
“It sounds to me like they’re almost banking on the Olympics not happening,” one senior associate source said. “The development of cricket will be harmed as countries will not be able to unlock the extra cash the government normally gives Olympic sports.”