With the ICC, where the Associates are concerned, there’s always a sting in the tail.
So last autumn, when they announced the spiffing new structure of one-day competitions to replace the World Cricket League, there was also a passing reference to the Intercontinental Cup, the four-day, first-class competition which the leading Associate nations have been playing in since 2004.
They didn’t, of course, abolish it outright. They’re much cleverer than that. They said that it was up to the Associates themselves to decide whether it should continue. Oh, and they’d have to pay for it themselves.
Linked with the decoupling of ICC Full membership from Test status, this decision – supposedly made after consultation with the members – has had utterly predictable consequences.
No announcement has been made, but nine months on it looks as if what was once one of the high points of the High Performance Program has been quietly buried.
One argument I have heard is that since most Associates have no immediate, and possibly even long-term, ambition to play Test cricket, there is no need for a multi-day format.
Quite apart from whether the lack of aspiration to join the Test ranks is sensible or not, this contention reveals a degree of cricket illiteracy which is absolutely breathtaking in senior cricket administrators.
There is no doubt that they all share the desire to see their national men’s teams prosper on the world stage in the ODI and T20 formats. And where, pray, do they think their Full member opponents have honed the skills they bring to the shorter forms of the game?
In multi-day cricket, that’s where. In two-day club cricket and in the three- or four-day first-class game.
That’s where batsmen have learned the skills which enable them to build an innings, to change gears as the situation of the game requires.
That’s where bowlers develop the necessary stamina and the range of options which they can employ to attack or defend as needed.
And that’s where captains can experiment with imaginative field settings and smart bowling changes, all of which are necessary if the shorter forms are not to be, as they all too often are, mind-numbingly formulaic.
It is, of course, a two-way street: many of the new skills which have been developed in one-day and especially in T20 cricket – the ramp shots and a range of reverse strokes, the greater variety of slower balls and yorkers, the accuracy of direct hits from all angles and distances, the spectacular fielding on the boundary – now grace the first-class game as well.
But if you don’t understand that much of the basis of the sport is necessarily developed in the fertile nursery of the multi-day game, then you don’t really understand cricket at all.
The coaches and high performance managers no doubt understand it; they are mostly former professional cricketers, who in many cases themselves grew up in the longer format, playing two-day grade cricket before they graduated into the three-day or four-day first-class game.
But they also have to operate within the realities of chronically-underfunded Associates cricket, where a decision to play a four-day competition means a lot less money to spend on other, superficially more attractive priorities.
Over thirteen years the Intercontinental Cup provided a vital nursery, and the effect is obvious: the two Associates who won the last six editions, Ireland and Afghanistan, have now been admitted to what is essentially a Second Division of Test cricket.
But the decision of the ICC, almost at the same moment, to withdraw ear-marked funding for the ICup makes it much less likely that the other top Associates, like Scotland, the Netherlands, Nepal, Namibia or the United States, will develop in comparable ways.
Perhaps that’s the intention. It certainly looks as if the ICC is hell-bent on abandoning the vision which the late Bob Woolmer promoted so effectively and which Dave Richardson once appeared to support, a key element of which was the creation of the Intercontinental Cup.
Allowing it to die, insisting upon a 10-team ‘World Cup’, maintaining the smoke-and-mirrors set-up in which most qualifiers are kept out of the World T20 tournament proper, and ensuring that the Full Members continue to absorb an ever-greater share of revenue, are all part of a pattern which belies the ICC’s claims that it is fostering the global development of the game.
The Intercontinental Cup was an integral part of the development strategy the ICC once espoused. It must not be allowed to die.