New structures to reduce international volume

James Sutherland: “I think things need to change absolutely and we certainly believe that additional structure moving towards a Test Championship … would be a real positive” © Getty Images

Less will be more under the structures currently being proposed for the future of international cricket, which would for the first time place limits on how many matches and series could be scheduled by any one nation.

Speaking at the Cricket Australia AGM, which underlined the game’s financial reliance on bilateral tours, the chief executive James Sutherland outlined plans currently under discussion for league structures in ODIs and Twenty20 matches, plus a mooted “conference” format for Test matches.

These structures, Sutherland said, would mean that the game’s financial powerhouses like Australia, India and England would play less international cricket than they presently do, while raising the volume of cricket played by other nations. This would be possible due to the increased context and meaning given to each match by league formats that gave players, fans, broadcasters and sponsors a clear idea why each match was being played.

“If you bring in some structure around international cricket and you create formats that are a league type arrangement you put limits around that, and any other cricket that’s played outside of that is even more meaningless than other cricket that is played at the moment,” Sutherland said. “From that perspective it would put some really significant structure and limits around the amount of cricket that’s played.

“With one day cricket and Twenty20 cricket we are contemplating a 13-team league where everyone plays each other, home and away over a three-match series over the course of a three-year period. That means you play six one day matches away, six at home every year. There doesn’t seem any point playing any more than that because those are the matches that count.

“Similar structure for T20 cricket and I think that’s something that’ll be really beneficial for world cricket. Not just in terms of putting those limits in place, but also creating third party interest, making sure there’s real relevance and context to every single match.”

The limited-overs league structures would mean each nation in the 13-team competition would play each other in one series, either home or away, over three years leading into each World Cup year, with the home team for that series then playing away in the next cycle to follow. Similarly, the conference structure for Tests would grow out of an ICC event-style draw, with seeded teams and others drawn to play them. A 12-team structure has the added bonus of bringing the likes of Ireland or Afghanistan into the fold.

“I think things need to change absolutely and we certainly believe that additional structure moving towards a Test Championship of one form or another, probably on some sort of a two-year cycle would be a real positive,” Sutherland said. “We’re betwixt and between a little bit original suggestions about two divisions, then looking at perhaps a system where people play against each other and we used ranking points to decide who the champions are.

“But the one that’s floating around at the moment is two conferences and perhaps matches being played inside of conferences with a little bit of cross-conference activity as well inside that two-year period and then having a champion team in each conference play off in a two-year cycle. I think there’s some real merit in that, I don’t think it significantly undermines some of the traditional series that are played and all in all very positive where every match would count, every series would count and I think it’d be very keenly sought after, the right to play in that final.

“It also really exposes performances as well and the opportunity to bring a couple of countries into Test cricket would be a real positive as well.”

Sutherland admitted that in the current environment, it was impossible to apply equal priority to every international series, as shown by the recent tour of South Africa or the near convergence next year of the Test tour to India with the T20 home series against Sri Lanka. The IPL, of course, blocks out more than a month of the year for most nations.

“We make decisions from time to time in the best interests of a player, to make sure they’re available at the times that we see as the most important for them to be available,” he said. “There’s absolutely no doubt that at times we have to prioritise certain events, series, matches ahead of others.

“Certainly for the bowlers it’s just not possible for them to play all of the time. If you include IPL in there as well there are prioritisation discussions that need to be held all the time. they can be long-term planning discussions but they also need to be short-term planning according to how the player is dealing with injuries, niggles and also mental health.”

However Sutherland pushed the vital importance of making sure international cricket remained the top priority for the game ahead of domestic Twenty20, a point he has pressed home at successive ICC chief executives committee meetings in recent times. The example he can point to is the Big Bash League, devised to run alongside the international season and succeed without Australia’s best Test players.

“I’m not sure my point of view is seen to be agreed to by everyone in international cricket, but our perspective here is that IPL is unique and then there’s all the other domestic T20 competitions around the world. As far as I’m concerned international cricket comes first, and is the absolute priority. We’ve been true to that word in the way we’ve scheduled the BBL. People said the BBL couldn’t be a success without Australian players playing in it.

“The facts of the matter are that it’s a great success, and it’s scheduled during the middle peak time of our Australian summer. International cricket needs to be the priority and you cannot schedule international cricket around domestic T20 competitions as far as I’m concerned, and that will be one of the things we need to work through. Some countries may try to massage the program in such a way that they can do that, that’s up to them. But first and foremost we need to be fully committed to international cricket for it to be sustainable.”

The proposed changes to the international game are due to be discussed in further detail at the next round of ICC meetings in February, and Sutherland said the hope was for a fully rejuvenated model to kick in beyond the 2019 World Cup in England.

“I would say certainly within five years,” he said. “There’s a little bit of a lead time because of preexisting contracts and things like that, but certainly the planning is very heavily focused on a line in the sand around the World Cup in 2019. We see that post-that there’s an opportunity to roll into a new structure for the three formats.”

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

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