The keenly-anticipated Ashes begins at Edgbaston on Thursday. This historic duel also marks the start of the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) World Test championship, an initiative to make the longest format of the game more relevant. Nine Test teams will participate in a total of 71 matches spread across 27 series over the next two years. The two teams with the most points, accrued from every single game, will then square off in the final at Lord’s in June 2021.
The concept bodes well for Test cricket, which has spent most of its recent years in existential angst. From now on, every bilateral series will have context, and with points up for grabs, there won’t be dead rubbers and the often-heard cliche ‘playing for pride’ will be a thing of the past. Former Australia captain Steve Waugh, who led his country to 16 consecutive Test victories between 1999 to 2001, said this was just the kind of dose that Test cricket so desperately needed.
“Test cricket really needs this… I played for 18 years and people said we were the No. 1Test team in the world, but I think unless you hold up a trophy or you can get to that final then you’re not really sure,” he said. But if one thinks that the team holding the trophy in London two years from now can be called the undisputed champions in Test cricket, then one may have doubts.
The WTC has its flaws. At the core is the contentious format. Instead of having a round-robin tournament, where each of the nine teams play each other once, teams will play six opponents — three home and three away. In such a scenario, luck could play a bigger factor than skill in a team’s fortunes. For example, Sri Lanka do not play Australia and India in the WTC schedule, while New Zealand play against everyone except England and South Africa. Australia, on the other hand, have their task cut out, as they don’t play Sri Lanka and West Indies — two relatively lower-ranked teams.
If eyebrows are raised, it’s due to the fact that the series comprising the WTC are finalised bilaterally. In other words, the teams decide amongst themselves against whom they want to play. It explains why there is no India-Pakistan series inked in.
In theory, this seems an equitable system but as in most things in life, the big guys have more leverage and a bigger say. The Big Three – India, Australia and England – would not like to miss out on lucrative series among themselves which could bring in more gate money and television rights money. TV rights for all the series in the WTC rest with the host Board, with the ICC having the rights for the final.
At present, the Ashes and India-England are the only two series to be contested over five Tests.
With the kind of sponsorships and revenue at stake, there’s little chance that the respective boards would do anything to dilute or truncate such big-ticket encounters.
However, the system also allows teams like New Zealand, West Indies, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to use it to their benefit, by setting up series where their potential weaknesses (mostly away from home) are not totally exposed while they can capitalise on the home advantage.
Bangladesh, for example will host New Zealand, Australia and West Indies – teams which have a history of struggling against quality spin – and play India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka away, where they may not be confronted with totally alien conditions. Such teams will feature in several two-match series, look to play smart and collect maximum points.
What’s the point?
Another contentious aspect is points distribution. While each team plays against six others from the pool of nine (each series has 120 points up for grabs), there’s considerable disparity in the number of matches played. Sample this: England play 22Tests in this two-year period, the most for any team, while Pakistan and Sri Lanka, with 13 Tests, play the fewest. Since all teams will not play the same number of matches (teams play a minimum of two-match series and a maximum of five-match series), the ICC has devised this points system that will give some inherent benefit to lower-ranked teams, who will be playing fewer matches.
Doing away with gold standard
Over the years, winning series in alien conditions was considered the mark of a quality side. West Indies in their pomp, Australia, South Africa and, of late, India earned respect by doing well overseas. But the WTC will treat all series victories equally – whether home or away. For example, Australia will earn the same number of points (120) if they defeat England 5-0 in their own backyard in the upcoming Ashes as they would if they blank Pakistan in the two-match Test series at home later this year.
Despite the ICC’s best intentions, these are some of the teething issues that cannot be brushed aside. The team that wins this championship will earn the plaudits no doubt, but that will not be the true indicator of its prowess in the game’s longest format. Meanwhile, the ICC Test rankings, which allocate points for every series, will continue to do so independent of the WTC with the No.1 team on April 1 holding the Test mace and a purse.
Poor pitch will cost points
The ICC has introduced some new rules that will come into force once the World Test championship gets underway.
The captain and all his players will be fined equally for a slow over rate and more importantly, two points will also be deducted from the competition points tally of a team for every over they have fallen short of, as adjudicated by the match referee.
That apart, if a pitch or playing conditions are deemed unfit for the game, the points for a win will be awarded to the visiting team.