This post was originally published on All Out Cricket on April 14th 2014.

The ICC have announced that from 2018 associate nations will have the opportunity to play Test cricket through the creation of the ICC Test Challenge. It’s been greeted as a watershed moment but Tim Brooks says we’re missing the bigger picture.

Kevin O'Brien and Andy McBrine celebrate a Nepal wicket

Social media has been abuzz with excitement over the formal announcement of an ICC Test Challenge, giving associate nations a “pathway to Test cricket”. But while the prospect of Tests is an exciting one for administrators, players and fans alike, there is a very real danger that this PR masterstroke will distract from the broader development agenda for global cricket.

Many seem to have forgotten that Ireland recently made an application for full member status. This was what they felt their development on and off the field warranted. This was the prize that the hard work, full member scalps and growing international profile had been leading towards. They made a compelling case and most agreed that they had outgrown the constraints of associate membership.

What was celebrated after the announcement of the ICC Test Challenge was the theoretical opportunity to qualify for a limited period of Test cricket once every four years. It therefore falls a long way short of the benefits of full member status. Ireland will remain an associate, with funding levels a fraction of those enjoyed by full members, without their hereditary voting rights and free passes to World Cups. The ICC press release wasn’t even clear as to whether a series victory was required or wins in all four games. The devil may well be in the detail.

As Gideon Haigh has pointed out in his excellent piece for Wisden on the carve up of the global game, the ICC have ignored the independent conclusions and recommendations of an audit they themselves commissioned. In 2012, Lord Woolf described the ICC’s governance as that of an exclusive members club and said that in order to demonstrate global development was one of its key objectives it should elevate two associates to full membership. This hasn’t happened. Instead the Test Challenge has been implemented to address the increasingly awkward ‘Irish Question’. The trouble is that it doesn’t address it, but by a lucky stroke for the ICC it been championed as the holy grail by the very organisations that once the euphoria has subsided will realise how far short of their ambitions it is.

Press releases focus on the positives for the organisations that release them. This is a truism but in this case it’s worth reflecting on. The major headline here is that the ICC has decided there will be no more full members. Unfortunately it is a headline that hasn’t been written. The Test Challenge represents a minor concession in an attempt to appease leading associate members who have had a glass ceiling erected above them, through which they can see the bright, sun-dappled prospect of Test cricket.

It is therefore a significant announcement for the development of the global game, but not for the reasons reported. It is true that the announcement will energise the Intercontinental Cup, a tournament that sorely needed a boost in order to gain significance, profile and audience. Of course a far easier solution would have been to make this the second tier of Test cricket. And then, as if by magic, emerging cricket nations would have enjoyed higher profile, greater revenue and a chance for cricket to chip away at football’s global hegemony.

Hopefully the Test Challenge will lead to television coverage and an opportunity for fans to follow their teams in a longer format of the game. These will be positive outcomes. I’m pleased too for players who may now experience the pride of representing their countries in a Test. But the emotive appeal of Test cricket has masked the hard truths the associates must confront in the new world order. For all the talk of meritocracy, the fundamental pathway, the one that leads to full membership through meeting transparent on and off field criteria, has been blocked.

In this context, meritocracy has a very hollow sound in the ear. The truth is that due to the limitations of their governance structure, the ICC cannot treat members fairly. Full members cannot be demoted to associate members, and it now seems clear that associate members will not be promoted.

A subtle illustration of how this hard truth manifests itself in practice and how awkwardly it sits alongside rhetoric about expanding the global game lies in the ranking system. Leading associates can get on the ranking table by beating a full member. And several have. But these rankings are not used to determine automatic qualification for World Cups and World T20s. Put a different way, a ranking attained through objective criteria (i.e. performance) is trumped by a ranking set by subjective criteria (i.e. a membership classification that isn’t reviewed).

If the global development of cricket is to be a key objective of the ICC, the game needs structural change rather than minor concessions presented as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

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