If variety is the spice of life...
In the Isles of Scilly, an English archipelago off the coast of Cornwall, there is a football league that contains just two teams. The teams play each other 17 times over the season, also playing four matches in three cup competitions for a total of 21 matches. The competition is, unsurprisingly, seen as a bit of an oddity.
And yet such a competition would be completely in keeping with what is about to happen in cricket between England and Australia. Already scheduled over a six month period are five Tests, five ODIs and two T20Is in England along with five Tests in Australia, with no doubt more ODIs and T20Is to be scheduled for the Australian leg. Australia are then due back in England in 2015 for more of the same.
It's every bit as odd as that Scilly football league (pardon the pun) and yet some seem to be talking it up as one of the greatest things that could possibly happen in cricket. Ten Ashes Tests in six months, who wouldn't want to watch that? Though I can't help but ask, what sort of mad man thinks this is a good idea?
I'm not alone in this, with Wisden Almanack editor Lawrence Booth saying in his notes in this year's edition that the ten matches "will be less of an occasion, more of a routine", and that "a little of the magic will be lost".
But it's not just the Ashes. I'm beginning to feel that way towards all international cricket between the full members, especially those towards the top of the rankings.
I noticed this in the middle of November last year when the USA hosted Canada for a two-day game, a one-day game and two Twenty20 matches. The matches were all streamed live on the internet, and I went out of my way to be able to watch them, even though the two-day game was never going to get a result and the one-day game was one of the dullest 50 over contests I'd ever seen.
At the same time, the first Test match of the series between India and England was being played. Despite being an England supporter, I did not go out of my way to see this, as I did with USA v Canada, and as I have done with England matches in the past. It was the same for the whole series. I'd watch an hour in the morning before going to work whilst checking e-mails and twitter. I'd do much the same on weekend mornings. A series between two of the top teams in international cricket was not much more than background noise to me. Almost all full member internationals are for me these days.
I am occasionally asked why I'm so interested in cricket outside of the Test playing nations. I sometimes even ask myself the same question. It can be a hard slog keeping up to date with news from the associate & affiliate nations, especially those where cricket rarely warrants a mention in the national press.
The social media age has to some extent made this easier, with committed people around the world tweeting scores and contributing to Facebook groups. But the level of coverage is so variable, with even World Cup qualification tournaments receiving scant mention in the mainstream media and even on the official ICC website. Live scorecards, and quite pleasingly, live streaming are becoming more commonplace, and this is in general a much easier time to be following cricket at this level.
But to come back to the question, why am I so interested in cricket at this level? It comes down to two things, which are also the reasons why I'm losing interest in full member internationals.
Firstly, it seems to have a purpose. Perhaps it's just the way my mathematician's brain works, but I enjoy the ordered, structured way in which cricket below Test level is run. Regional tournaments feed into global tournaments. Teams get promoted and relegated up and down the structure both globally and regionally. The best Twenty20 teams get to play 50 over cricket and the best 50 over teams get to play first-class cricket.
But there is none of that structure when it comes to the full members. No matter how many games a team loses, they'll still be in the top ten, they'll still get the same automatic World Cup places and they'll still get the same funding. If England lose all ten Ashes Tests, they'll still be able to play Australia in 2015. If an associate loses ten games in a row, they can find themselves two divisions below where they were.
The ICC will claim that their rankings provide that structure and that purpose. But do they really? After all, we still see teams resting players in dead rubber matches. ODIs have become, to some extent, a format with which to experiment, to give new players a taste of international cricket. Maybe this will change when rankings become part of qualification for tournaments, but as I've written before, I very much doubt that.
Of course, none of this structure applies to the USA v Canada matches I watched back in November. Something else applies here - variety. I was so interested in watching the USA play Canada because I've never watched the USA play Canada. I've watched England play India and Australia dozens of times, and that's just over the last few years.
The full member circuit is just the same old teams playing each other over and over again and has been for some time. No new teams have been added since the elevation of Bangladesh in 2000, and given how few matches they and Zimbabwe play, you could even argue that the circuit has barely changed since Sri Lanka were elevated 30 years ago.
One thing that has changed though is the amount of matches they are playing, especially amongst the top teams, who seem to play multiple times against each other every single year these days. Are people going to continue to watch the same teams play each other all the time? Maybe they will, as that's all they really know, but there is the saying that familiarity breeds contempt.
To put this lack of variety into perspective, since the conclusion of the 2007 World Cup, England have played almost 300 internationals, but have faced just 13 opponents, some of which they have played less than a handful of times.
In the same time, Afghanistan have played just 139 internationals, but they have come against over 20 opponents. Afghanistan may be a special case having shot up the rankings in recent years, but the same also applies to Ireland, who have remained at the top of associate cricket since that World Cup. They have also played over 100 internationals in that period against over 20 opponents.
There are 96 associate and affiliate members of the ICC, most of which play regular international cricket against a wide variety of opponents. Whilst some fixtures have become regular occurrences in recent years, with rivalries building up, they have remained interesting due to the lower number of fixtures.
As big a rivalry as it's become, Afghanistan and Ireland have still only met less than a dozen times since their first match in 2009. England have played Australia almost fifty times in that same time period.
If variety really is the spice of life, then it's found more in associate and affiliate cricket then in full member cricket, and that, along with the structured way in which it's run, is why I prefer it, and why I've ceased to care all that much about full member internationals now, even those that involve my own country.
Perhaps I'm alone in being bored of the increasingly meaningless, increasingly "samey" nature of full member international cricket these days. After all, people do still buy the tickets (though not always for Tests, of course!) and they still tune into the TV and the radio. But maybe, just maybe, if you gave people more variety and more meaning in their international cricket, the audience might get even bigger. And wouldn't that be great for everybody?