Domestic T20 windows are impossible

According to Cricinfo, the ICC are again considering putting windows into the international calendar for domestic T20 tournaments. This is ridiculous on the face of it; there is no way that any domestic event should take precedence over an international one and certainly not a domestic T20 event. Apparently the committee concluded that T20 can ‘add to the game as a whole’. That is blatantly untrue; the only thing domestic T20 has added to the game is money and even then only for India. I certainly don’t blame T20 for all or even most of the problems facing the Test game, there is literally nothing that it has added. If any domestic event should be given a window it is domestic first class competitions, but no one is asking for that because it would be ridiculous. The same applies to T20.

Even if there was a justification for putting a domestic event ahead of international ones, it is not feasible to carve out a window for every domestic T20 competition. This is especially true in the places that have well-defined seasons. Even if the English competition were reduced to four weeks again, it would be very difficult to fit that into the summer around all of the scheduled internationals. In Australia the current schedule of the Big Bash League would prevent the Boxing Day and New Year’s Tests from being played either in Australia or South Africa. Presumably Cricket Australia would change the timing, but there is only so much of a cricket season available and the entire Australian summer overlaps with a time where at least one Test series is usually being played somewhere in the world. Even with the other counties where they can move their competitions, there are so many that even if they each only last a month (and right now most are longer than that) there is not enough time left on the calendar if each of them get their own window.

Of course, the league at which the notion of a window is really aimed is the IPL. But an IPL window, even if it was only for the IPL and not any of the other T20 leagues, is still not feasible. The IPL currently runs for about two months, from the beginning of April to the end of May and overlaps with the first two Tests of England’s summer. A quick glance at the history of the BCCI suggests they will be distinctly unwilling to compromise on the timing (or any other matter) and there isn’t enough time in the English calendar to wait until June to start the internationals. The only way for a window to work would be for England to cut some matches out of the international summer. This would be unacceptable to many and in particular I expect it would be unacceptable to Sky Sports. England already play two extra T20s in the summer because they sold the broadcast rights for them to Sky; I cannot imagine Sky agreeing to the ECB cutting down on fixtures. Even if the BCCI were to agree to bring the IPL forward to end before the English summer began then they are impacting (more than they are already) on the West Indies and New Zealand home seasons. The West Indies don’t have a well-defined season, but they still may have trouble moving their matches around and New Zealand would certainly have problems doing so.

No matter how much the administrators pretend that domestic T20 leagues are a good thing or even that international cricket can/should not fight them, there is simply not enough time in the calendar to give them all windows, or even just the IPL unless the leagues themselves are changed considerably and in most cases that looks very unlikely.

Three small things

1) England won an ODI in India. They have not done so (or at least not done so against India, they obviously did win a few matches at the last World Cup) since the 2006 tour and even that was in a dead rubber win and their only one in the seven match series. I didn’t see most of it, but it was a close affair with both sides scoring over 300. It was also the first match of the new ODI fielding restrictions, so it’s hard to say if the bowlers really underperformed or if scores are going to be higher on average now. We’ll probably never find out though; it surely can’t be long before the ICC simply make every over a powerplay over in the name of increased ‘excitement’. England will be obviously pleased to win and go 1-0 up in the series, but it is especially important with their recent record in India to get that first win out of the way and I think it will give them an excellent confidence boost ahead of the next match.

2) South Africa are 325-4 after the first day of the second Test against New Zealand. At least in the second half of the day, which is the part I saw, New Zealand did not look particularly penetrative and they let South Africa get well ahead from it being about honours even halfway through the day. They didn’t help themselves in the field; there was one dropped catch (against Hashim Amla no less), a low chance missed at slip and a would-be caught behind given not out and then not reviewed. I expected South Africa would put up a good first innings score, but the Kiwis have made it too easy for them at least on the first day. The pitch was turning by stumps, so the fact that neither side have a good spinner might become important.

3) An ICC committee have made another suggestion about DRS, this time that it be left up to the home board. I like this idea and this is the most reasonable implementation apart from simply making it mandatory. It would be simply a part of the conditions for each country, much like the different brand of ball used or the different hours of play. Of course, India have already expressed a dislike of the idea which means that it will be blocked just like all the previous times this has been tried.

New ICC playing conditions

The ICC have made their annual adjustments to playing conditions and in addition to their usual futile tinkering with ODIs, there is actually some stuff of note.

The biggest is probably that the ICC have given approval for Day/Night Tests provided both sides agree to the hours and type and colour of the ball. I’m not happy with this and I’m less happy that Australia have already said they would be keen to play D/N Tests. I do understand the need to reach out to audiences with Test cricket and I can just about understand it in places with sharply declining Test attendances. But I very much hope they are never implemented in England and I would rather they weren’t in Australia either. In places where Test cricket is still strong they should stick to the traditional red ball and sunlight.

The worse change is to the DRS, however. After India blocked it’s universal application, the ICC still made a tweak to the umpire’s call margin. They have widened the umpire’s call margin for the ball hitting the pad to half a stump width, the same as the margin for the HawkEye projection. But this betrays an utter ignorance of how a margin of uncertainty actually works. The margin of uncertainty regarding where the ball hits the pad is related to the accuracy of the cameras and nothing more. There certainly is one, but it will depend on the specific technology and is almost certainly smaller than half a stump width. And it is definitely smaller than the margin of uncertainty for where the ball hits (or misses) the stumps because by nature the uncertainty increases the farther into the future one tries to predict! What ought to happen in both cases is that the on-screen graphic should just show the uncertainty as it shows the path of the ball and that should be used to determine umpire’s call. Nothing else makes sense. Using the same, completely made-up margin for both is utterly ridiculous and all it will do is increase the controversy about the results. Given the influence the BCCI had, however, that may be the point.

Some things I missed

I’m still kind of catching up on events that I missed during the final Test. (The time difference was so awkward I did not have time to do a lot.) The most amusing thing was probably Sahara pulling their funding from the BCCI and IPL. The Sahara press release was possibly the strangest one I’ve ever read; it was written in a very informal style, used the phrase ‘natural justice’ five times and described their deal with the BCCI as ‘primarily emotional’. It read like someone playing up their hardships in an effort to get a sympathetic response (which it almost certainly was) and most unlike almost every other press release I have read. I have no idea how this will affect the BCCI in the long run. I assume they have plenty of money in the coffers, though they also seem to have a knack at offending their commercial partners (the TV rights-holders spring to mind). It also further exposes the shoddy administration of the IPL. It’s almost as though the tournament was thrown together for the purpose of making a quick rupee and everything else fell by the wayside. Funny that.

The other big piece of news that I missed was the Woolf Report to the ICC. It proposes some fairly major changes to the structure of the ICC and I rather like it. It almost certainly won’t get accepted, due to the ‘turkeys don’t vote for Christmas’ principle, but there are some good recommendations. Most of it is aimed at curbing the power of the largest boards and giving the Associates more say, which would only be a good thing. The problem, of course, is that those larger boards have to ratify the proposals. We have already seen with the DRS and Test Championship that even when there is large support it is very hard to get the ICC to actually do anything. It’s particularly amusing/galling (depending on how dark one’s sense of humour is) that the inherent impenetrability is one of the reasons why the ICC badly needs reform.

The DRS must be mandatory

I have not always been a supporter of technology in cricket. I’m a traditionalist at heart and love the old fashion notion of walking off stoically even when you’ve had a howler. I was very happy in 2009 that the system was not trialled in a series as important as the Ashes. Subsequent debacles in South Africa and the West Indies ought to have deepened my distrust, but the more I saw it used the happier I became with it. Part of it was just a matter of getting used to it, but also there was the added comfort of knowing that our batsman weren’t going to be given out to a howler at a crucial moment. The poor showing in the 06/07 Ashes was not entirely, or even mostly, down to umpiring decisions, but they played a part. They also started a slide that could have ended Strauss’ career, and England would probably not be as good now without him. It is frustrating for one’s side to get a wicket and have it not be given, but it is more frustrating I think to have a batsman unfairly given out. Even in its early teething problems the DRS leaned more toward keeping batsmen in than giving them out.

The DRS today still isn’t perfect. It never will be, of course, nothing is. HotSpot has trouble detecting faint edges, especially in warmer climates. Sometimes Hawk-Eye gives very odd looking results, and the display could be altered to more adequately reflect the margin of uncertainty. (It is certainly more variable than just ‘half a ball width’.) The manufacturers of HotSpot have already worked to improve their system and Hawk-Eye will improve as cameras get better and better as well. Even if the current technology were as good as it would ever get, however, I would support making it mandatory. Even now it is better than the human umpires. As much as I like Jonathan Agnew, his suggestion that technology not be adopted until it is 100% is silly. Any improvement is a good thing, any time a poor decision is overturned the game is better off for it.

It is also not true to suggest that having the DRS encourages players to disrespect or undermine umpires. In the time when the quality of an umpires decision could not be immediately and independently inspected it was true that players could undermine the umpires by questioning the decision, but that is not the case anymore. Now the umpire is going to be undermined if he makes a poor decision with or without the help of the players. If an umpire gets one wrong everyone in the ground or watching on telly will see the mistake immediately and it will be all over the back pages the next day, undermining him far more effectively than a player ever could. I doubt there is a single umpire in the world who thinks that he never makes a mistake (although I can’t remember the last time I saw Simon Taufel make one) or who would rather have that mistake shown endless times on TV than have it be simply corrected and the game moved on. By the same token it is quite possible to respectfully question a decision. No one is suggesting that players be allowed to crowd around an umpire like footballers (or Australians at the MCG last year).

Although there are purists such as the aforementioned Aggers who oppose the DRS, most of the vocal opposition has come from India. They are the main reason why the ICC has not implemented the DRS full time and they are the only board who still refuse to use it in their series. I have never heard a good explanation for their opposition, apart from the fact that they don’t think the technology is reliable. (Which is patently untrue, otherwise there would not be an option to use it at all.) They certainly aren’t traditionalists or interested in maintaining respect for the umpires. The refused to use the DRS for LBWs in England and it hurt them when Broad took his hat trick at Trent Bridge, but it was worse for England who had a few plumb decisions turned down. Now in Australia they refused any sort of DRS and have got two dodgy wickets for it. It’s probably not going to happen, but the other boards need to force the Indians to use the DRS next time the ICC meet. In the meantime I can only hope that Tendulkar gets a few horrible decisions in this and subsequent series.

Alternative formats for the Test Championship

The ICC today confirmed what had already been very strongly expected, that the inaugural Test Championship would not take place before 2017. I blogged a month ago about the stupidity of the decision, and I stand by that. It is a blow to the purest form of the game and reminds us that the ICC are impotent at best.

It does mean, however, that there is now time to alter the format of the Test Championship, which I never liked. The current plan is to have four teams play a semi-final and a final in England. The first problem with this is the time. Even if the semi-finals are not held concurrently that is only three weeks and three matches, which is a bit short for something of the stature that they want. I think it will be hard to make people properly care about something that short. The second problem is that one match a side leaves more room for fluke results. Upsets themselves are not bad, but these would not be the giant killings of the FA cup. A side coming to England for at best two test matches will have a hard time warming up and getting acclimatised to the conditions. With that in mind, I think people will have trouble viewing the Test Champions in the same way as the World Cup winners. More broadly, I don’t think the current format would do a lot to add meaning to Test series; England, South Africa and India don’t look like slipping out of the top four anytime soon. Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, New Zealand and the West Indies don’t look like breaking into the top four anytime soon. The only battle is between Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Australia for fourth place.

So I think the ICC need to spend the next six years looking for a better format. If the goal is to add context to other Test series then I think there needs to be a clear benefit from being ranked number one or two. Right now there isn’t so England, South Africa and India have nothing for which to play. It would also help if lower level teams had a decent chance of playing in the knockout. Both those problems can be solved in one go, however. Instead of just semi-finals and a final there should be a qualifying round where the top two teams have a bye. With the current tables that would be India v Pakistan and Australia v Sri Lanka in the qualifying round. The lowest ranked winner would then play England in the semi-final and the highest ranked would play South Africa. I would also like just the final to be at a predetermined venue. If it could be fit into the schedule (no guarantee), the qualifiers and semi-finals should be three match series hosted by the higher ranked team. This would decrease the likelihood of a fluke result and would provide a strong incentive to have a higher ranking. The final would still be a one-off match at Lord’s, but would then be the result of a proper tournament (albeit one spread out over the course of a few months).

If the goal is simply to have a knockout tournament, however, I think something along the lines of the FA cup would be best. The associates ranked 3-10 would play each other in the first round and the winners would be drawn with the top two associates and the bottom two full members in the second round. The winners from the second round would be drawn with the full members ranked 5-8 and the top four full members would come in at the fourth round/quarter-finals. This does not fix the problem of travelling to a country to play one Test match, but it would allow the knockouts to run alongside the existing Test series, so it would not have the same scheduling problem as the above proposal. It would also help the associates, as at least one would be able to play a money spinning match against a Test side. Anyone who read the comments on my piece about the importance of Test cricket will recognise this as being part of that plan. On the whole, however, I prefer the first one.

It is, of course, unlikely that the ICC will review their format, as we have already seen how much difficulty they have in doing anything. We’ll have six years to discuss it, however.

Now I’m cross

The ICC are a bunch of craven, short-sighted idiots. Which goes without saying, really, but once again they have thrown that fact into sharp relief. Yesterday they decided that the DRS would not be mandatory. This after making a bizarre half-DRS mandatory last summer. This despite that the single biggest problem with the DRS is not it’s accuracy (which is not perfect, but is quite high and higher than that of the on field umpires) but the inconsistency of it’s application. The ICC have responded to this problem by making it worse. It also begs the question of why, when all the major boards except India support the DRS, does the DRS fail a simple vote by the boards? The amount of short term, selfish thinking on display is staggering.

That happened yesterday. Today they decided to postpone the test championship until 2017. The rationale is that they promised ESPN Star Sports (in India) a Champions Trophy in 2013 and couldn’t back out of that. Which I understand and is certainly true. This isn’t entirely their fault, even. The fact that ESPN insist on a one-day tournament is infuriating, but unsurprising. There’s no guarantee that India would even qualify for the test championship, and it would not be as popular in any case. One cannot expect a corporation to act against it’s own interests. But the ICC should have seen this coming. By signing a deal with ESPN Star Sports they must have known that they would be putting themselves under the control of an organisation that does not have the best interests of cricket at heart. By allowing ESPN to dictate terms the ICC guaranteed they would be preferentially staging ODI tournaments. They must not let this continue. When the rights come up for negotiation again they must give themselves some flexibility. Unfortunately the odds of this happening are lower than the odds of a whelk surviving a supernova.

This does not fully explain the ICC’s decision, however. The fact that they must stage a Champions Trophy does not mean that they could not stage a test championship. It would give them four major tournaments (test championship, 50 over World Cup, T20 WC, and Champions Trophy). It’s more than are needed but all four could still be staged with one every four years. Except the ICC decided to make the T20 WC once every two years so as to squeeze every penny out of it. The upshot now is that in order to stage the test championship in 2013 it must conflict with the CT. In 2014 it must conflict with the T20 WC, in 2015 the ODI WC and in 2016 the T20 WC again. The ICC could have just bitten the bullet and staged two events in a year. But they didn’t. They chose the solution best for their coffers instead of the solution best for the game.