“I’m going to explain to you the new World Test Championship”, I tell my grandparents at the lunch table. This is a social experiment: can they, laymen among the game’s fans, comprehend what international cricket is becoming?
“There are 12 teams that play Test Cricket, but nine of them will play in the World Test Championship”, I begin.
My grandmother, immediately: “Why don’t the other three?”
“Because everyone else thinks they aren’t good enough, and they don’t have enough money to argue about it.”
My grandfather, ever the businessman, nods.
“These teams will not play every other member," I continue. “They will play six series against opponents they mutually agree upon. The top two will reach the final.”
Grandmother: “That’s not fair. India will just choose the teams they are sure to win against.”
“Actually, no, they will choose the big teams, because even if they lose, the television rights cost more.”
That stumps her. To her, sport is about winning and losing, not about television. My grandfather has already zoned out. Somewhere between explaining why teams can play a different number of Tests in a series and how each match might thus carry different points, my grandmother begins to show more interest in her lunch than our chat. Imagine trying to explain all this to someone who has no idea what the game is about.
If cricket did not hold the title of the ‘world’s most complicated game’ before, it surely does now. No matter how many explainers you might have read, the new ICC World Test Championship is a mental mouthful. Take this for example: Bangladesh will play 14 Tests in the first WTC cycle, mostly in two-Test series. England meanwhile, will play 22 Tests, with two series of five Test matches.
The much awaited ICC WTC is complicated, drawn out, and in some ways, unfair. But it’s finally here. Along with a 13-team ODI league, bilateral Test and ODI cricket can finally be said to have cast off the mantle of meaninglessness. That burden has been passed to the T20 format, at least until 2023.
The disappointment of not seeing India play Tests against Pakistan will perhaps be matched only by the relief of not playing Tests against Sri Lanka. India’s marquee clashes begin with three Tests against South Africa in 2019 (home). In the 2020-21 season will come four Tests against Australia (away) and five Tests against England (home), apart from the ones scheduled in this year. India will play 10 Tests against England in the year 2021 alone. When did they become the new Sri Lanka?
The Points System
The ICC’s decision to award points for individual matches instead of series will kill the dead rubber, but how it will work is yet to be revealed. With each team playing the same number of series but a different number of Tests, it is plausible that the ICC will award each series a fixed number of points, which will be divided by the number of Tests in it. For instance, in England’s 2021 tour to India is a series of five matches. Each of the five Tests could be worth two points each. Conversely, in a two-Test series between New Zealand and Bangladesh in 2020, each match could be worth five points. And finally, a draw will be worth a third of win, which in this case will be worth 3.33 points. With so many numbers involved, cricketers and fans might be often reaching for the F and C words: Fractions and Calculators, that is.
Home and away Tests have not been weighed differently, so teams who have more home games than others might see in this both advantage and opportunity. India, for instance, play 10 Tests at home and eight away, whereas the Windies play nine away Tests and just six at home.
India versus Pakistan
India and Pakistan play each other somewhat inconsistently; in world tournaments, it is accepted, but not in bilaterals. But despite the WTC creating a super-tournament over each bilateral, the situation is unlikely to change. It made little difference in the ICC Women’s Championship, where India had to concede points after the teams didn’t play a scheduled bilateral ODI series. What if the two teams reach the final though?
And yet there is a tour by Pakistan to India in the FTP. Afghanistan host Pakistan for three ODIs in September 2021. If Afghanistan continue to be based in India, they might end up being the facilitators of history.
Pick and Choose
Context for every match means that stunts such as Australia’s walk-out of their tour to Bangladesh, ostensibly for financial reasons after just having secured their most lucrative rights deal, will not be without meaningful consequence. However, the option of picking and choosing your opponents means that Australia can avoid Bangladesh altogether, and that’s exactly what they have done. What, you thought only India are picky?
So in that sense, the much-awaited World Test Championship does not really feature the whole world. Six series over two years gives enough breathing space to the rest of cricket: domestic T20 Leagues, ICC events and bilateral white ball games, while still giving all teams a significant amount of cricket.
Perhaps the truly global impact will be seen through a possible multi-scenario finale. One of the last series on the calendar is Australia’s tour of South Africa. If it wasn’t an entertaining enough prospect, imagine if India’s fate rests on the result. Or Pakistan’s. Instantly, the series sprouts a fan base the size of a country, just as Argentina hung on to every minute of Nigeria versus Iceland on Friday.
What about the newbies?
Ireland and Afghanistan have been included in the FTP for the first time, and will see a sharp increase in their cricket against Full Member teams. Afghanistan play 11 Tests from now to 2023, and Ireland play 12. However, this isn’t exactly a lot of cricket by new entrant standards. Bangladesh played 40 games in the first five years after Test debut, and Zimbabwe played 23.
What About ODIs and T20Is?
Starting from 2020, ODIs will also count towards points for qualification for the World Cup, signaling the end of the meaningless bilateral ODI series. India qualify directly as hosts of the 2023 World Cup, leaving seven direct-qualification spots up for grabs. This means that teams will have less inconsequential games to try out their combinations in, and should bring some long-term vision into team selection. It is expected that in the next FTP, that will begin after the 2023 World Cup, a similar system will be introduced for T20Is as well, linking all international bilaterals to ICC events.
What does it all mean?
Getting 12 nations to agree on an FTP that treats them differently is a monumental task, and the ICC must be given credit for this. It may be labyrinthine, but to provide context to every Test and ODI is an achievement. Meaningful cricket is finally here, and after first discussing the idea more than a decade ago, the game is finally moving forward.
But it also underlines the presence of an unofficial ICC member, one who turns much of the hamster wheel in international cricket: the broadcaster. Members pick and choose each other in combinations that suit the broadcast deals they can land, so everyone is still looking for tours from/to India.
“There are two streams”, wrote Gideon Haigh of the economics of cricket in 2008, in an essay reproduced in his book Sphere of Influence. “There is the stream when India plays and the stream when it does not.” Ten years later, it is even truer. The ‘Big Three’ may have been nerfed, but India, England and Australia still host all ICC events till 2030. They play a collective 59 Tests in the WTC, with India playing the least at 18.
It remains to be seen whether the WTC will help balance things out, or indeed it helps to ‘save Test cricket’, as is usually demanded the media every time empty stadiums are spotted. It certainly seems best positioned to try.