ICC press releases about meetings are a strange thing. They by no means cover everything that was discussed or decided at meetings (there's still been no formal announcement that WCL Divisions 7 & 8 have been cancelled, for example) and they can be more notable for what they don't say rather than what they do say. And sometimes some of what they do say is ignored as people are distracted by headline grabbing statements elsewhere in the press release.
Never was this more apparent than the reaction yesterday to the press release about the ICC board meeting in Dubai. Ireland and other associates are delighted that finally, a pathway to Test cricket is open to them. Ireland could be playing Test cricket in 2019, so they say.
It's worth repeating the relevant section of the press release verbatim:
The ICC Board approved the introduction of an ICC Test Challenge which will take place every four years between the lowest ranked Test team and the winner of the ICC Intercontinental Cup.
The proposal is that the 10th ranked side on the Reliance ICC Test Team Rankings on 31 December 2017, or at the conclusion of any series in progress at that time, will play two five-day matches at home and two five-day matches away against the winner of the upcoming ICC Intercontinental Cup, with the inaugural Challenge scheduled to take place during 2018.
In the next eight years, two ICC Intercontinental Cup tournaments are planned with the first to run from 2015 to 2017 and the second to be held between 2019 and 2021. The second ICC Test Challenge is scheduled for 2022.
ICC Chief Executive David Richardson said: "The ICC Test Challenge now opens the door for Associate Members to play Test cricket and in doing so gives even greater context to the ICC Intercontinental Cup which will now be a pathway to Test cricket."
Read that carefully. It says there will be a pathway to Test cricket, but it doesn't say what that pathway actually is. And that's because it isn't there. It is understood that whether an associate that wins the "Test Challenge" will get promoted is still to be decided – possibly at the annual conference in Melbourne in June.
Everybody is assuming that will be the case of course, as that's what the ICC have said in previous press releases. But back in 2010, every press release about the World Cricket League said it was part of the qualification pathway to the 2015 World Cup. All of a sudden it stopped appearing in press releases. And then it was taken away as the ICC announced that the 2015 World Cup would be contested by the ten full members only.
That decision was later rescinded, as we all know, and it is indeed quite possible – even likely – that an associate that wins the Test challenge will get Test status for an interim period. But history suggests that associate and affiliate members should be wary when deciding whether to trust what the ICC say.
There are so many questions about what form the pathway will take, it's almost not worth getting too excited. Two matches at home and two away is what the "Test Challenge" will be – but does the associate just have to win more matches in the four match series to be promoted? Or do they have to win both series? Do they have to win all four? Nobody knows. Winning away from home is no easy task either – India haven't managed it in almost three years.
But let us give the ICC the benefit of the doubt for now – let's assume that the pathway is there and that if Ireland win the next Intercontinental Cup and win the Test Challenge, they'll get Test status for an interim period – say four years. Ireland's problems are all solved, right?
Well, not really.
The real prize is full membership – this would just grant Test status. Full membership grants voting rights at ICC meetings, a greater share of revenue and preferential treatment when it comes to global tournament qualification, amongst other things.
An Ireland team getting Test status through this process would remain an associate. They'd have to arrange Tests whilst getting less money than even the full member they'd have beaten in the Test Challenge. More importantly, a player could still play for Ireland one day and England the next – only full membership would make them have to wait four years.
It seems that the ICC are determined to shut off full membership for the foreseeable future, instead making vague promises of a pathway to Test cricket in the hope that it will distract Ireland and other associates from the real goal.
A pathway to allow associates to play Test cricket is admittedly progress, but it is a long way from the ideal where Test cricket becomes an open game, where every ICC member who wishes to can play without restriction.
There was something else in yesterday's press release that seems to have been ignored by those so happy over the apparent Test pathway and a move towards meritocracy.
Because whilst they claim to be moving towards meritocracy in Test cricket – leaving aside the discussion as to whether a promotion system without a corresponding relegation system is really meritocratic – in Twenty20 cricket, the usual non-meritocratic systems will remain.
The ICC also announced that the terrible format used in the 2014 World Twenty20 would be retained for the 2016 tournament. They also revealed how the automatic qualifiers would be decided through the rankings, with 8 teams being seeded into the second round and two teams seeded into the first round, to be joined by six qualifiers.
The cut off point for the rankings is April 30th 2014. With no T20Is scheduled between now and then, it's essentially the rankings as they are now. Ireland are in 9th place and so will automatically play in the first round without having to qualify.
Except they won't. Only full members can qualify through the rankings, which means that Zimbabwe – 13th place behind Ireland, Afghanistan and the Netherlands in the rankings – will automatically qualify instead. Ireland being ninth in the World and the Netherlands performing so well in the World Twenty20 counts for nothing. Meritocracy? Not in Twenty20!
This week saw the publication of the 151st Wisden Almanack. It contains much about the ICC's new governance reforms, with Lawrence Booth's editors notes and Gideon Haigh's excellent piece highly recommended reading. Also in there is an article in support of the reforms from ECB chairman Giles Clarke. In the last paragraph, he refers to the proposed Test pathway.
"The ECB have already reserved a date in the cycle from 2015-23 for a Lord's Test to the Associate who win the Intercontinental Cup and go on to defeat the No. 10 side in the Test rankings. A glittering prize!"
A glittering prize. He may as well have said "look everybody, shiny things!" Don't be distracted by the shiny things. We are not on the cusp of cricket evolving into a truly meritocratic sport. We've barely made it out of the primordial soup.