Why relegation for India would be a good thing

A draft proposal regarding the structure of international cricket will be presented to the ICC Executive Board during its quarterly meeting in Dubai on January 28 and 29. One of the elements is a two-tier Test system in which India, England and Australia would be protected from relegation. (So a three-tier system, then.)

The supposed justification is that this is a commercial decision; that cricket would become financially unsustainable without all of these three at the top table.

Really? Is this a fact? It’s presented as if it’s a fact, but is that actually the case? Who decided it was a fact? Would all the fans in each of those countries completely lose interest in the sport should their team be relegated?

Here’s an alternative scenario

India are relegated and forced to play Bangladesh, Ireland, Afghanistan et al. The popularity of the sport in those countries skyrockets. India return to the top tier at the first time of asking, leaving the health of the sport in each of the second tier nations in a far better state than when they were relegated.

Maybe that’s a trifle idealistic, but it’s also true that sports fans’ main interest is competition. They don’t always care so much at what level their team is playing. Manchester City Football Club have won the FA Cup and the Premier League in recent years, but many of the fans still rate the 1999 Division Two play-off final against Gillingham as being one of the club’s most memorable days because of the extraordinary drama of that match, with City clawing back a two-goal deficit during injury time.

When the short-term is the only timeframe that matters

If there is one thing that cricket administrators need to understand, it is that what they consider to be the right decisions for the commercial viability of the game are merely the right decisions for the commercial viability of the game in the short-term.

Doing what seems rational from a short-term commercial perspective actually means doing exactly the wrong things from a long-term commercial perspective.

Abandoning Test cricket entirely makes sense from a short-term commercial perspective – it’s the hardest format to sell to fans. However, in the long-term Test fans are generally the most loyal and easiest to retain as the very complexities which make Test cricket so inaccessible to new fans are precisely what engage people in the long-term.

Similarly, it makes sense for England to play Australia this summer from a short-term commercial perspective because that’s the series that currently gains most interest in those countries and therefore makes most money. However, in the long-term people will grown weary of seeing the same thing over and over again. Big events draw people in, but diversity is what keeps them interested. How will we know the Ashes is special if we have nothing against which to compare it?

Further reading

We once wrote a five-part short story for Cricinfo in which short-term commercial optimisation fucked everything up. If you’ve the time and inclination, have a read. It starts with a bloke presenting something at an ICC board meeting. The end of it is basically what’s happening now.

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33 Appeals

  1. i’m in favour of a two-tier test system (though judging by the vote results on cricinfo, plenty of people aren’t). it would do the associate countries the power of good, surely. however, the idea of ANY teams being protected from relegation is so inherently unpalatable… that… words fail me.

    why don’t these guys just come out and say it? “we are completely motivated by money. we want to get as rich as possible as quickly as possible, and when we get there, we want to concentrate on getting richer. we don’t care about anything else, so don’t bother asking.” wouldn’t that be refreshing? i mean, they’re barely troubling to hide the fact any more as it is.

    (you can just see football chairmen – well, the richer ones anyway – calling a secret meeting, if this is allowed to go ahead. hmmm, wouldn’t it be nice if the most powerful clubs were automatically guaranteed EPL status? mmm… what am i talking about, the meeting has probably already happened and if “it” hasn’t come to pass, it’s only cos they couldn’t figure out how to get away with it. but in that case, they will all frantically be texting each other again round about now)

    – and of course you’re right, short-term profitability and long-term financial stability are not necessarily the same thing at all (indeed they sometimes appear to be mutually exclusive). but as far as i can gather – not being a money-grabber myself – the general feeling among the fatcats at present is that it can’t possibly last much longer before the whole thing collapses around their ears, so they’d better make hay while the sun shines. lots of hay… and then stuff it all into unmarked boxes in zurich or the cayman islands, just to ensure no-one else gets a nibble. what good that’ll do them, if the whole international banking system DOES come crashing down..? they don’t seem to have thought about that. but then, in all seriousness, they don’t know any other way to conduct themselves; and the idea of stopping to think about anything, or concerning themselves with anything at all which isn’t configured like a target, is anathema to them.

    we are living in interesting times… lucky people that we are…

    • King Cricket

      January 21, 2014 at 10:00 am

      Motivated by money but cursed with acute myopia. Motivated by money but with a decent pair of specs wouldn’t actually be so bad.

  2. I would be ashamed to have to support a team that was protected from relegation. That defies the entire reason for enjoying sport. If the pain or consequences of defeat are legislatively altered, how are you supposed to feel any real joy in victory?

    Its like the spoilt rich brat who refuses to be given out because you might happen to be playing with his bat. It would be pretty pathetic to know you are the team that isn’t good enough but gets to play in the top league because your dad owns it.

  3. It can be done properly. The Rugby League, a sport beset by financial worries, is currently moving to a new structure for the top two divisions. 12 teams in each division, a full set of 22 matches, followed by a split into three eights. The top eight play each other once each for the title (*), maintaining their points from the earlier phase. The middle eight (four from Division 1 bottom, four from Division 2 top) play each other once each starting from scratch, with the top four of this new league promoted / maintained in Division 1, the bottom four relegated / maintained in Division 2. The bottom eight also play each other once each, for fun.

    (*) – Not actually the title, more likely for two semi-finals and a final.

    This is genius. There is genuine promotion and relegation, genuine end-of-season intensity and excitement for 16 of the 24 teams, but also a removal of the financial plughole of ordinary relegation, wherein some of the Division 1 teams will automatically be playing in Division 2 next season. In this set-up, relegated teams will properly deserve to be relegated because they have failed to be better than Division 2 teams; promoted teams likewise in reverse.

    I mention this only because it shows that financial concerns, in this case the avoidance of Superleague money automatically disappearing into Division 2, can be balanced with real sport, in this case the hopes and fears of actual promotion and relegation. What is being suggested for test cricket is not this, and in its narrow-mindedness it even runs the risk of destroying the financial capability of the only part that can raise any money.

    • Davis Cup tennis works roughly along these lines too.

      I have no problem with a “play off for promotion/relegation” set up.

      I also have no problem with certain historic match-ups, such as The Ashes going ahead outside the divisional system if one of the teams (e.g. Australia) proves to be utterly inadequate for the top flight.

      But the idea of 100% protection from relegation in a divisional competition is simply a sick joke.

    • This would be a winner, although you are limited by the fact that the total number of teams must be an even multiple of 3.
      eg
      2×6 split to 3×4
      2×9 split to 3×6
      etc
      Whilst you could probably make a good argument for 12 teams, expanding the competition to 18 would involve redistributing money to a lot of smaller associations to allow them to put forward a good showing. History has shown that sports administrators hate redistributing money (unless it is from the sport they administer to their own pockets).
      I suppose the other option would be to supplement the 3rd group from among nations hopeful of promotion – 2×5 splitting into 3×4, 2×6 splitting into 3×5 etc?
      In any case an important pre-requisite would be that no team is immune from relegation.

  4. KC, you might need to check your spam folder again I’m afraid. Events outside of my control and all that.

    • King Cricket

      January 21, 2014 at 11:28 am

      We’ve flagged the ‘improved versions’ we received after you’d spent the weekend in the bin and deflagged the original, so we’re pretty sure we’re on track with our flaggage.

    • Things are back as they were, before any of this un/re/deflagging became necessary. So you should have received something today at 11:18. Better check – I don’t fancy another three days in your bin with livescore.

  5. For me, a lot turns on whether being in a division is what obliges you to play a complete home/away cycle against other teams (though you may still schedule a marquee series against a team in another division if it is commercially viable and time allows) or whether to be allowed to play another team, you must be in the same division.

    The second case would be madness – no Ashes if one of Eng and Aus had slipped a division, despite its historic and commercial importance. The only way to alleviate that madness would be to lock the most historically and financially important teams into the top division. Which is blatantly contrary to notions of fairness or even sporting competition.

    Allowing teams to schedule inter-division fixtures would remove the necessity for guaranteed status for the Big Three. A relegated team could still play the “big series”. But leaving enough space in the schedule for it might disadvantage other lower division teams who are unable to attract big name opposition to fill the gap (after all, part of the whole point of the divisions is to free top teams of the “burden” of travelling to NZ or Bangladesh).

  6. Is cricket really suited to relegation/promotion style battles. I just imagine teams skewing conditions so much to make test matches like lotteries. Ind v Aus 2004 at mumbai, could become common place.

    Also wasn’t test cricket basically a bi-lateral ashes competition for the first 50 years of its existence. I think the Ryder cup survives on a similar basis.

    I reckon, it’s best to leave test match cricket as bi-lateral series between whomever wants to play, rather than forcing “context” and “meaning” on these matches. A 5 test series provides sufficient context for me.

  7. There are some problems with a divisional Test structure I think it will be hard to escape.

    Firstly, what Ram said. Things are bound to get unpalatable in promotion deciders and worse in relegation scraps. I’d add to that the chance of ugly scenes between players, or even worse, between fans. Meaning and context are not bad things but sometimes too much can seem at stake in what is just a game, for it to remain enjoyable as a game. (In associate cricket, where there is movement between divisions, this has turned out to be a problem. If the Nepalis struggle to take it well, goodness knows how crowds in more famously fanatical countries would take it.)

    As KC has covered, tours by big name countries may reinvigorate the game in less traditional Test nations. Even without a golden ticket for the self-declared big three, this would happen less often. In a Div 2 country, how easy will it be to sell “Test” cricket to be played against only the obscure or (officially) second rate, while short form matches continue against all comers?

    The short form and Test schedules will become more disconnected. Either players will need to specialise more, or we are looking at even more travel time, more stressed and jetlagged players, more unsatisfying performances after inadequate acclimatisation and warm-up in local conditions…

    One consequence of the above is to make things harder for “away” supporters. Away support is more likely in Tests than for a brief short form series – outside world cups, it is the only form of the game which justifies the travel. Travelling away support is a pretty minor issue overall, but on the one hand the presence of the Barmy Army is very helpful to countries like Sri Lanka (with a substantial tourism industry piggy-backing on cricket, and which helps keeps Tests financially viable there) and on the other, the Barmy Army do enjoy trips out to SL or the Caribbean which divisional Tests might take away. Similarly “home-based” away support is an issue in multicultural countries like the UK. If Pakistan and the Windies stop touring, then it becomes harder for English cricket to engage the Pakistani and Caribbean origin communities, both groups already showing a switch in preference to other sports.

    I think it would’ve been tragic for an all-time great to spend the bulk or even all their career in the “wrong” division. Without being tested against the best, how would we know how good they are? Murali, Hadlee, Jayasuriya, Chanderpaul, Streak, Crowe, Gayle, Vettori, Andy Flower, Shakib Al Hassan… English fans would have missed out badly if we never saw them in the five day game. Dont retort that so-and-so was in a top 3 side so we’d have seen them. A team can peak while marooned in Div 2.

    Which is part of the killer issue for me. The length of the division cycle will have to be several years. But in that time a team can undergo massive changes in personnel and quality. The Mega Ashes turnaround is an arguable case in point that works on a far shorter timescale. (You may argue that the conditions changed while the teams hadn’t much, but few would argue England are as potent a Test team as a year ago. Would you back them to repeat their Indian heist?) A team may get promoted on the back of wins years ago and have shown severe deterioration by the time they finish their final fixtures in the top division. Vice versa for demotees.

    A team enjoying a four-year halcyon period will get very different outcomes depending on whether that spans an entire cycle (championship or promotion contenders) or if it cuts across two of those arbitrary periods (in which case they would finish one cycle strongly and start the next well, but the fact it was a golden age will be obfuscated). At any rate team quality is far more nuanced than the binary good/bad a two division structure suggests.

    I don’t think anything I said is a good enough reason to stop it happening, however.

    • Counterfactual of the day. If England had not had a golden ticket in times gone by:

      Hick and Ramps would be veritable three lion legends. Commentators around the world would regale them as two of the greatest batsmen never to have played top tier Test cricket. The closest they came to five-day silverware was when they helped England push South Africa close for the 1996 promotion slot. However that divisional trophy eluded their grasp, and by the early 2000s their powers had faded as Sri Lanka spun their way to the following title. Historians speculate that Hick and Ramprakash may have been better equipped to face the era’s strong West Indian and Australian bowling attacks than many of their top division contemporaries. Certainly their strong performance against the Zimbabwean pace battery is suggestive, but not conclusive proof. Their most vital contribution to the English cause came after the team crumbled at home against New Zealand to leave them bottom of the rankings. This was the darkest time in the history of English cricket, and enraged spectators burned the stumps and placed them in an urn to symbolise the soot of English cricket.

      What followed was the famous up-down playoff against the Dutch, in which defeat would see England exchange places with the Netherlands in the Euro-Africa-Americas Group 1 until at least 2006. Somehow, missed run-out opportunities led to a tense, unthinkable Oranje victory at Lord’s. But in the return match at Amstelveen, Hick and Ramps scored gritty twin hundreds to tie the series, saving England’s place in World Division 2. This allowed a rematch with New Zealand at which the urn was contested for the first time, and so the Sooties were born.

      Now, you may not wish to thank Mark and Graeme for their endeavours following England’s 5-0 mauling by the Kiwis Down Under. Perhaps back to back winter tours of Namibia and Bermuda would have been more enticing for both cricketing and personal reasons than a Sooties sweep. But it is only thanks to their Dutch courage that we can enjoy, and occasionally endure, the Sooties – a spectacle unmatched in cricket for its intensity and rivalry. Greybeards say it even rivals the ancient Ashes contests that generations of players and spectators once grew up on, particularly since NZ is a small rugby-mad country that loses at cricket satisfyingly more easily and often than its larger neighbour.

  8. *If commercial success is your only goal*, abandoning test cricket altogether would be a good long-term goal as well. The T20 pulls new members in for the excitement, and if these people seek a longer version, the one-days suffice. Tests are simply an added layer that can be removed completely. Let’s go by a recent Indian example: India and Sri Lanka played eleventy billion one-day matches between them, all of which were decently/well attended. And presumably brought in a lot of money in terms of TV rights and so forth. So where’s the boredom here? To claim this would become stale in the future is simply speculative.The people who write about cricket are usually folks who are serious enough about it to bemoan the fading of test cricket. To claim the average Joe who attends one-days and IPLs shares the sentiment would be a stretch.

    • King Cricket

      January 21, 2014 at 3:01 pm

      You’d be replacing Tests with an EVEN GREATER volume of one-day cricket and there is evidence that even in India, the thirst for one-dayers can be sated: http://www.espncricinfo.com/india-v-england-2011/content/story/537970.html

      Maybe the average Joe who attends one-dayers and IPL matches doesn’t much care what happens to Test cricket, but there are other people who follow the sport and, anecdotally speaking, we’d say those who follow Tests are more likely to be in it for the long haul. Commercially speaking, these are highly valuable cricket fans as individuals, even if they are fewer in overall number.

    • If commercial success is your only goal you’d abandon cricket all together and get into ponzi schemes. Oh wait, Giles clarke already tried that didn’t he. *hurredly cheCks libel laws… clicks send anyway*

  9. It’s been said before, but the problem is that sports administration is NOT the same as running a business. If you run a sit-on lawnmower factory and you find an opportunity to make more money by switching to the manufacture of golf carts, this is exactly what you should do. But it is surely a fundamental tenet of sports administration that your job, your ONLY job, is to maintain the sport in basically the same format in which you were given it. Small changes are fine. Changes to the fundamental structure of the sport ARE NOT.

    This whole affair demonstrates the desperate lack of ability and imagination from a set of people who only know of one way to measure success.

  10. About a week ago I suggested you abandon England and start supporting NZ instead. Ignore that. Apparently the rampant brown-nosing, suck-up, sell-out old prats that run NZC think this brave new world is a great idea. Awesome. Didn’t really like having a say in running the sport we love anyway. Much rather just bend over and hope for an occasional reach around. Bastards.

    • This

      didn’t they add “but we’ll get more money from from series against the big teams *cough* which they wont be obliged to play *cough*” right, yeah, hope for a reach around.

  11. I understand that the meeting to draft this piece of shit went like this:

    BCCI: “Hey, ECB and CA, we only want to play you so here’s the deal. Hey, everyone else, get fucked.”

    Among the many other objections, I wonder how relegation can be fair without everyone playing same number of games/series against everyone else. Oh, and what happens if a “protected” team fills a relegation spot? Does the next team have to contest the relegation playoff? Or does the qualifier from “division 2” just have to get fucked? Presumably so, because the BCCI et al. wont really wnat to play them regardless.

    But obviously we shouldn’t be analysing this in terms of “fairness” should we. No.

  12. To be honest, this “proposal” is going to make fuck-all difference to the sport. It just makes official what everyone knows is already going on behind the scenes. And it’ll probably kill Test cricket, but sadly that’s just removing the feeding tube from something that’s already in a vegetative state.

    Test cricket is dying; everyone knows it, we’re just afraid to say it. Outside of the big series (Ashes, India-England, India-Australia, maybe Australia-SA) very few people give two shits about Test cricket. SA are No. 1 in the world, but their home Tests are still attended by the proverbial 2 men and a dog.

    It’s sad, but what can we do? In this day and age, no one has the time to commit to a game for five days. A game can’t survive on a mostly TV/online audience — there have to be people at the grounds watching it. Even with all the things we like to blame the death of Test cricket for — flat pitches, greedy administrators, and the lack of respect especially in India for Test spectators (which pisses me off every time I think about it), etc etc -> if there was a large enough base of fans who were passionate about the game, Test cricket would survive and thrive. Sadly such a base does not exist.

    • King Cricket

      January 21, 2014 at 11:08 pm

      A game CAN survive on a mostly TV/online audience. The TV deals are where the money is. It just looks rubbish that there’s hardly anyone in the grounds.

      Also, the notion that very few people give two shits about Test cricket isn’t exactly true. The fact that few people are in the ground encourages this view, but that’s not generally how people follow Test cricket. We’ve read that during the last hour of the Auckland Test between England and New Zealand in March last year, around a third of the population of New Zealand was watching.

    • Well said KC. I was rushing home from work in Christchurch NZ to catch that last hour, and have a great memory of getting an update from a couple of guys who were standing outside watching a display TV in a shop window. People DO care about tests; they just care a lot less about rubbish tests. So the answer is to improve the quality of all test cricket, not just cut & paste the marquee series and expect everyone to keep getting excited every time. And Deets; do you really think the NBA or NFL pays it way from gate sales alone??

    • If they don’t, I want to know why tickets for NFL games are so expensive.

      Side note: go Seahawks!

    • KC, while it may be true that there is a large base which follows test cricket, the ability to monetize them is pretty low – atleast compared to OD & T20.

      The “last hour” bit in the comment on the Eng-NZ match reflects this. Tests generate lower TV money vs OD, as its harder to sell spots for 5 days when the viewership is likely to spike intermittently depending on how the game is progressing. OD & T20 are essentially effort to replicate the tension of that last hour/session in Test cricket. Obviously it lacks the context which dilutes the excitement but the average fan probably doesn’t care.

      Even OD/T20 does mainly survive on TV audience. Its just that the average viewership will be higher than Test over the entire duration of the match which makes it commercially viable. The cost of producing a Test match is prohibitive compared to the revenues it generates and that is not going to change anytime in the future.

      I think the draft proposals are ridiculous and will end up hurting the game badly but as long as the game is controlled by private boards with no accountability it will eventually go this way sooner than later. There needs to be greater oversight (not sure who will bring this) and significant funding for the associate members (greater share of incremental revenues as against the proposal to corner them between BCCI/CA/ECB) for the game to ever get out of this cycle.

    • King Cricket

      January 22, 2014 at 9:57 am

      We’re not for one minute trying to claim that Tests are more commercially viable than one-day internationals. We’re saying that deciding to stop playing them because they’re less profitable would be a short-term decision that wouldn’t play out well in the long-term.

      If you run a shop, you don’t identify the best-selling item with the highest mark-up and then cease stocking everything else. You cater for different needs and that means more people going through the checkout overall – probably also buying all sorts of additional stuff they didn’t mean to get.

    • King Cricket

      January 22, 2014 at 10:00 am

      Another way of looking at it would be that you wouldn’t be replacing a five-day Test with five one-dayers, you’d be replacing it with a sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth one-dayer.

      What would be the commercial value of a 15th one-dayer? People like a bit of diversity.

    • People like diversity but the crowd at a OD/T20 and at a Test match is not the same. Also, if people want diversity they’ll go watch a movie or a play or a football match. The casual fan tired of T20 cricket is not going to watch a Test match for a change. He/she is tired of cricket and will find something else to do.

    • King Cricket

      January 22, 2014 at 11:43 am

      No, but the serious fan tired of T20 WILL follow a Test. Just because casual fans are greater in number doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who matter.

    • For all we know this could be a masterplan. Force feed one dayers and T20s till everyone is tired and then BOOM! hit them with tests.

      Yes?
      Yes?

  13. As a lover of cricket what has frustrated the hell out of me is not seeing the top teams battle it out over a longer series. Fair enough that South Africa only plays 2 tests against the likes of Zimbabwe or Bangladesh but if it’s a battle of the top 4 or 5 then it should be a minimum of 5 tests long.
    Last summer Australia only played 3 tests against South Africa, and the return is set to be the same. This is bullshit, if you really want to see who is the best you need those series at the pointy end to be played for much higher stakes than is offered now.
    There is nothing stopping a ‘top’ team who struggles away from home (looking at you India and Australia) from scheduling a short series against a team they know they will likely lose, and a long series against a team they think they can beat in favorable conditions to maximise their points, thus protecting their rating.
    However… money. Bastards.

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