AT a time when the idea of dividing Test cricket into two tiers is again gathering influential support, the West Indies' forthcoming Tests against Zimbabwe take on a special significance.
Michael Vaughan, the former England captain who, like so many others, has moved quickly from player to writer and commentator, has recently pressed the issue once more. It is, he states, a way of staving off the threat of Twenty20s to the 136-year existence of Tests.
Based on the latest International Cricket Council (ICC) rankings, he proposes Australia, England, India, South Africa, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the top division, and the West Indies in the second along with New Zealand, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Ireland and Kenya (a choice that reveals his unawareness of Kenya's decline and Afghanistan's rapid rise among the associate ICC members). There would be relegation and promotion every two years.
Such a plan would be fiercely resisted by the affected full members of the ICC and might never materialize.
All the same, the West Indies need to be on the safe side. They are presently just one ranking point below Sri Lanka at No.7 on the ICC list and, if none are available against Zimbabwe, nothing less will do than an incontestable outcome over inexperienced opponents whose cricket has been through such tough times that they voluntarily opted out of Tests between 2006 and 2011.
None of the Zimbabweans who take the field at Kensington on Tuesday has more than 37-year-old left-arm spinner Ray Price's 21 Tests; only four have Test hundreds to their name. What is more, they enter the series to the distressing backdrop of defeat in all five preceding limited-overs matches.
For their part, the West Indies have defeated New Zealand and Bangladesh, two other teams proposed for Vaughan's second division, 2-0 in each of their two previous series. As expected as it is, a conquest of Zimbabwe would be a useful hat-trick leading into two Tests in July against Pakistan, which is in the top six.
The main concern of coach Ottis Gibson and captain Darren Sammy is their team's lack of killer instinct.
Time and again in the past year, promising positions have rapidly faded – Australia 250 for seven to 406 for nine declared in the first Test, 169 for seven to 328 all out in the third; England 57 for four to 191 to win the first Test for the loss of one more wicket with scores level; Bangladesh 119 for three to 556 all out in the first Test, 193 for eight to 387 (with a debutant at No.10 scoring 113) in the second.
Australia won both Tests and England theirs, Bangladesh lost, a reflection of contrasting self-confidence. It is an element that Zimbabwe are short of just now but they won't be slow to welcome any complacency – as No.8 New Zealand did of No.2 England's arrogance over the first three days of their current first Test in Dunedin.
It is a further opportunity for the West Indies to show that, whatever comes of the two-tier plan, they belong in the top six.
Citing England's home series against South Africa last year as a "superb encounter played in front of good crowds", Vaughan reasons that "the best teams need to play against each other more often".
He notes that Twenty20 offers players the kind of money that induces them to prioritise it over Tests and acknowledges that he would have been similarly swayed. He sees Sri Lanka and the West Indies continuing to struggle "simply because their boards are not looking after their players well enough".
The recent refusal by Sri Lanka's players to sign board contracts, ultimately settled through the intervention of former Test opener, now chief selector, Sanath Jayasuriya, and the similar stance of the West Indies Players Association (WIPA) on a similar, still not resolved, issue support his point.
"The fact is that, with Twenty20 competitions springing up around the world, players now get looked after elsewhere," he adds.
So Marlon Samuels and Sunil Narine were unavailable for last season's West Indies' Tests against Australia and Narine for the first two in England, which all conflicted with their obligations in Indian Premier League (IPL).
Sri Lanka declined the 2009 series in England in May as their leading players were engaged in the IPL; Chris Gayle and Daniel Vettori, captains of the West Indies and New Zealand, fronted up just a few days prior to Tests in England in 2007 and 2008 for the same reason.
The IPL has also led to the conversion of Sri Lanka's scheduled two Tests in the Caribbean in May into a three-way ODI series also involving India.
"If the incentives do not change then Test cricket in 15 years' time will be under huge threat," Vaughan writes in his column in the London Daily Telegraph. That incentive, he contends, would be for top teams to avoid relegation and for bottom teams to press for promotion to the top tier where the money is greater.
There was agreement from a few of those who responded to Vaughan's proposal on the internet, but others pointed out the flaws.
Calling it "an awful idea", a blogger identifying himself as 'tackler7' wrote: "The second tier countries won't improve, probably the opposite will happen. TV and sponsorship revenue will drop, supporter numbers will dwindle even more than already. It's ok for those in the top tier but I suspect England will be the first to complain when they are relegated and/or they find themselves in a different group to Australia, so there would be no Ashes series."
Another chided, tongue in cheek: "What a fantastic idea! Let's kill Test cricket in the Caribbean!!! A team, by the way that beat England last time they played in the West Indies. There are solutions to Test cricket, but your idea seems to be what's best for England not what's best for Test cricket."
What's best for the West Indies in the coming two weeks is a couple of convincing victories.