Just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.
The new ICC rules mean that it is possible to become a Full Member without becoming a Test-playing nation, and that is the path that the Dutch governing body, the KNCB, has chosen in its bid to graduate from the Associate ranks within the next five years.
It’s a clear choice and one that we might even say the ICC is encouraging by de-linking Test status and Full Membership in the aftermath of the elevation of Afghanistan and Ireland. Yet, it’s another question whether it’s the best option either for Dutch cricket or for the global development of the game.
As things stand, we have an extremely strange structure for Test cricket, with nine countries playing each other for the World Test Championship within the framework of the Future Tours Programme, and three—Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, and Ireland—in a sort of half-way house, technically enjoying Test status but without most of its benefits.
A cynic might even wonder whether the expansion of Full Membership wasn’t more about the marginalisation of Zimbabwe than the elevation of Afghanistan and Ireland. Moreover, by effectively abolishing the Intercontinental Cup, the proving ground for Test cricket, the ICC seemed to close the door on the Afghans and the Irish having any successors.
While in a rational world, therefore, we might see plans to create two eight-team divisions of Test countries with—god forbid—promotion and relegation between them, as Dave Richardson first proposed nearly twenty years ago, the truth is that the present half-cocked set-up is probably here to stay.
And countries like the Netherlands play along with this by declaring that they are happy to confine themselves to the shorter formats.
As I have argued previously, the mystique surrounding Test status could be stripped away by creating a category of Multi-Day Internationals, allowing those who wanted to retain Test cricket as a marketing brand to do so. After all, rugby internationals are sometimes described as Tests without any sense that this sets them apart.
But KNCB chair Betty Timmer made clear when announcing the drive towards Full Membership that her Board had no interest in MDIs at all. This should come as no surprise, since the KNCB’s engagement with the multi-day game has been lukewarm at best, and vice-chair and High Performance czar Hans Mulder has been a multi-day sceptic for at least fifteen years.
It is, however, a standpoint that has a definite downside, and it’s worth pausing over what a country loses when it declares that it isn’t interested in the game’s longest format.
Most coaches agree that young players benefit enormously from developing their skills in longer formats. It is no coincidence that in the established Full Members club cricket is mostly played over two days and representative cricket over three days or more. This apprenticeship creates the platform from which the finest players have traditionally launched their careers.
It’s also no coincidence that the core of the current Dutch national team is made up of players who learned their craft in countries where two- and three-day cricket is the norm. In contrast, locally-produced youngsters who have been given their chance have often been found wanting.
There are, it is true, now some exceptions. David Warner was a short-form specialist before he developed the skills which make him one of the most intimidating Test batters of his generation.
But that doesn’t mean that the general principle no longer applies.
It was with a nod to the inevitable that many Associates coaches acknowledged the regrettable demise of the Intercontinental Cup, and it is the sad reality of current policy and the grim exigency of the bottom line which seem to be closing the door on multi-day cricket for emerging players in the emerging nations.
The KNCB has wrestled with this problem for more than a decade. A decision in 2009 to establish a two-day regional competition was successfully sabotaged with some local players making it clear that they had no interest in a multi-day format even when it gave them the chance to play in the Intercontinental Cup.
But national coach Ryan Campbell did manage to organise three-day matches between the Hurricanes and the Seafarers, the two Dutch regional teams, in 2016 and 2017, and those who took part generally enjoyed the experience.
While a short European summer leaves little scope for a multi-day competition, that doesn’t mean that a longer format should be abandoned entirely.
One of the most obvious gaps in the KNCB system, and one that must be confronted if the Dutch are to have any chance of reaching that goal of ICC Full membership, is a proper A-team programme to give the most talented young players a platform from which to make their way into international cricket.
There are signs that this failing is beginning to be addressed, but it needs proper investment and thought-through strategy, neither of which is yet in evidence.
The KNCB’s lack of a major sponsor is, of course, a crucial limitation, whatever attempt vice-chair Mulder may have made during the recent general meeting to normalise that deficiency. Yet, somehow funding needs to be found to support a series of A-team tours, ideally during the European winter.
The ‘golden generation’ of the Dutch side between 1997 and 2007—with outstanding players like Roland Lefebvre, Robert van Oosterom, Tim de Leede, Klaas Jan van Noortwijk, and Bas Zuiderent—did not come about by accident. A series of tours to the UAE, New Zealand, India, and South Africa over the preceding decade was a key factor in their emergence. Something similar for the Bas de Leedes, Vikram Singhs and Zulfiqar brothers in the rising generation is urgently needed today.
And it would be all the more valuable if they could play some three-day games to help them develop their undoubted skills.
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