By Brian Murgatroyd
The ICC's first-class competition for non-Test playing countries, the ICC Intercontinental Cup, will switch from a regional to a global tournament from 2006 onwards.
Under a new format agreed at the recent meeting of the ICC Development Committee, the competition will become an eight-team tournament and in 2006 those teams will be divided into two groups with the winners of each group contesting a final.
Then in 2007 and 2008 it will be conducted over a full round-robin format with all eight sides playing each other over those two years with the likelihood of a final between the top two line-ups.
And as soon as it is deemed affordable, appropriate and feasible, it is planned to add a second division to the format, bringing with it the opportunity for promotion and relegation.
The format for the tournament in 2004 and 2005 involved four regional groups - Africa, Asia, Europe and Americas - with three teams in each group playing each other and the winners of the groups going forward to semi-finals.
In a further alteration to the existing set-up, all matches will change from three to four days' duration from 2006 onwards.
More international competition
It will mean that each side plays a minimum of three four-day matches in the next ICC Intercontinental Cup and seven four-day matches over the 2007 - 2008 period compared to a minimum of just two three-day matches per year under the existing structure.
Commenting on the new format, ICC Global Development Manager Mathew Kennedy said: "This new format means we can truly have the best playing the best for the right to be called the top Associate side at first-class level.
"The existing regional system was an excellent starting point towards establishing the ICC Intercontinental Cup as a major international competition but it did have its limitations.
"With only one team from each of the four regions qualifying for the semi-finals it meant it was not always possible to ensure the four strongest sides reached that knock-out stage.
"This format removes that issue and also gives each side the chance to play more first-class matches.
"And although the playing conditions for the 2006 tournament are yet to be finalised, the switch to four-day matches also means we now have the option to dispense with the current complex bonus points system as the extra time gives us a much better chance to get positive results," he added.
Johnstone welcomes new format
Trent Johnston, the captain of the current ICC Intercontinental Cup holders Ireland, welcomed the amendments to the format.
"I think it's really exciting the ICC have turned it into a worldwide competition," he said. "It gives players the chance to compete in different conditions than they are used to and that has to be a good thing in terms of gaining experience.
"The switch to four-day cricket also means there is much more scope for tactics than was the case with the three-day format where the importance of bonus points meant it was often vital to win the toss, especially if the pitches were flat.
"On top of that there are the extra matches. That means extra first-class exposure for players and that is another very positive outcome."
Namibia to play Nepal
The groups for the 2006 tournament have been determined using a combination of current multi-day and one-day rankings together with cost-effective scheduling.
Nepal, rated ninth by this method, have been given the chance to play off for a place in the 2006 competition because they are the one side rated inside the top eight in multi-day cricket that is not in the overall top eight because of their one-day form.
Nepal's opponents will be Namibia even though the African side is ranked seventh ahead of eighth-ranked the Netherlands because guaranteed participation in the competition was felt to be vital for the Dutch in their build up to the ICC Cricket World Cup 2007.
The date for the play-off match is still to be confirmed although it will take place in Namibia. The schedule for the tournament is currently being developed but the first matches are likely to be played in March 2006.
The two groups for the 2006 ICC Intercontinental Cup are as follows:
United Arab Emirates
Namibia or Nepal
Group B Kenya
Ireland win in Windhoek
Ireland won the 2005 ICC Intercontinental Cup by Kenya by six wickets in the final in Windhoek, Namibia in October.
That result meant the trophy stayed in the Europe region as the inaugural winners of the tournament in 2004 were Scotland, which defeated Canada in the final, played in Sharjah in November of that year.
The purpose of the ICC Intercontinental Cup is to give Associate members greater exposure to the longer form of the game and hopefully improve their playing standards.
The format is intended to give batsmen the chance to learn how to build an innings and spend more time at the crease while, for bowlers, the longer game encourages them to get fitter and learn more skills as it requires them to dismiss players rather than simply restrict them from scoring. ? www.icc-cricket.com