(Photo: Getty Images)
By Tim Wigmore
Enjoy a five-Test series? Enjoy the Ashes: it looms as almost the last preserve of five-match tussles. Under the new Future Tours Programme (FTP), which outlines the structure of international cricket from 2019-23, only the Ashes and England-India will be played over five Tests.
Only three others from 2019-23 – two India-Australia clashes, and one England-South Africa series – will even comprise four. Instead, series of two and three matches will be the norm.
On one level, of course, this is a great shame: the theatre of a five-match Test series is unique in sport, allowing plots to simmer over weeks, the weak-nesses of players laid bare. And yet, on a deeper level, perhaps the demise of longer series should not be lamented.
After all, the flipside of every five-Test series is a couple of matches tacked onto the periphery of summer. For every five-match Ashes series, there must be an England-New Zealand 2015 series – an enthralling two-match contest which deserved far better than to be played in May. For every five-match England-India series in 2018, there is a two-game England-Pakistan series at the start of summer, no matter that England and Pakistan played out a pulsating 2-2 draw in 2016.
Longer series, while savoured by nations involved, actually perpetuate international cricket’s iniquities. Why should New Zealanders be denied the chance to reach the Test pinnacle just because of the country of their birth?
So the FTP, while a shame for nostalgists, represents an improve-ment. It is right that the Ashes, cricket’s Ryder Cup, remains a five-Test contest. But the greater balance in the length of series overall should be welcomed – especially as matches are now part of a Test league, which runs from 2019 to 2021, with a one-off final between the top two teams, likely at Lord’s.
Under the new structure, there will be a little less Test cricket overall, but if it is better Test cricket, is that such a loss? All nine teams in the Test league will have something to aspire to. The league is flawed – there are only six series, of a minimum of two Tests each, so not everyone plays each other – but it still represents a significant improvement upon the status quo.
In time, the Test league should be expanded from nine teams to 12, and include Afghanistan, Ireland and Zimbabwe. Certainly it is heartening that the ‘small three’, including the two new Test nations, actually have a reasonable programme of games: Ireland have 16 from 2019-23 – including Tests against six of the nine in the Test league, and series against Afghanistan and Zimbabwe.
Many of these are likely to be four-day, 98-over affairs: in a sense a return to Test cricket’s roots, when matches were played over different lengths, even with overs of differing lengths. Should the ‘small three’ compete well against higher ranked opposition, there is every chance they will be included in subsequent editions of the Test league.
Yet perhaps the main takeaway in the new FTP structure concerns limited overs cricket. First there is a (long overdue) structure in ODI cricket, with a welcome new 13-team league, even if this suffers from each team playing only eight of the 12 others over three-match series, rather than being genuinely symmetrical. Still, as with the Test league, this is a lot better than nothing. The new league is also married to a rationalisation of ODI cricket – so England will play 43 ODIs over the new four-year FTP cycle (excluding world events), compared with 103 in the current five-year cycle – a reduction from 20.6 a year to 10.75 a year. Few will mourn a steep reduction in context-free ODI series, played more out of commercial necessity.
And what will replace it? Less international cricket is one answer, with T20 leagues the world over becoming more prominent, as club cricket becomes an increasingly significant part of the sport’s overall eco-system. The other answer is more international T20 – and lots more of it.
In the current five-year FTP, from 2014-19, there will be 414 bilateral ODIs, and 162 T20Is. In the new four-year FTP, there will be only 291 ODIs, but 260 T20Is. It is another reminder that T20 looms as the greatest part of cricket’s future.
Yet, for all the compromises the new FTP entails, it holds out the real hope that all three formats can peacefully co-exist, with context and meaning. And that should be welcomed.