July 21, 2010

Hurry up with the World Test Championship

It's going to be hard to squeeze it into the schedule, but cricket needs the context provided by a definitive tournament to crown the top Test team in the world

Five wickets for Shane Watson. Six for Marcus North. Those, however, are not the most notable statistics to emerge from last week's loudly successful Lord's experiment. That honour belongs to those who turned up over those four days, all 50,000-odd of us. Look at that figure again and marvel. In 2005, with a buoyant economy and no FIFA World Cup or Olympic Games to compete with, 59,000 watched Bangladesh's two Tests on these shores; in 2008, when the recession had yet to bite, South Africa won a pulsating four-dayer at Edgbaston in front of the same number. In 2004-05, Australia hosted three two-Test series, against Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, drawing aggregate gates of 42,000, 27,000 and 33,000 respectively. And no, not all the games were played in Darwin or Cairns.

Cricket officialdom's attitude towards publicising Test attendances can be summed up in almost all cases by one word: avoid. Even Wisden only publishes them for matches in England. We can only hazard a strictly hypothetical guess as to how many would have turned up, in the strictly hypothetical absence of any terrorist threat, to see Pakistan play Australia in Lahore or Karachi. Judging by the DVD of England's 2005-06 tour, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that the turnstiles would not have clicked anything like 50,000 times. To believe they would have done so in Abu Dhabi would be to descend into a fantasy world even Pixar would deride as too fanciful.

The Headingley treasurer, of course, is hardly likely to see this in quite the same light as his Lord's counterpart. Pakistan's lack of fight in St John's Wood, allied to the reluctance to charge a more realistic admission, is expected to mean that the second Test will struggle to attract 5000 per day. That's still not terribly different to what Yorkshire would have anticipated from staging an England v Bangladesh Test.

Arguing with Giles Clarke, as Lalit Modi will doubtless testify, may be among life's simpler tasks, but it is exceedingly difficult to dispute the ECB chairman's oft-trumpeted belief that England is the economic and spiritual home of Test cricket. The throngs at Lord's last week did nothing to hurt his case.

WHICH BRINGS US, HOWEVER TANGENTIALLY, to the long-mooted, endlessly deferred and grossly tardy advent of a World Test Championship. Neutral Tests are apt to rouse such musings, let alone last week's encouraging noises from Haroon Lorgat. We'll have to come up with a better acronym than WTC in deference to American sensitivities, but the concept is shaping up as the ultimate challenge for administrators as well as players. Replacing the Champions Trophy with such a tournament, as Lorgat proposed, would be a giant step in the general vicinity of the right direction, but do we really have to wait another three years?

Laudable as the original notion was, the ICC should give up trying to oblige countries to play Tests and focus instead on a biennial or even annual celebration of the form. Let those who wish to maintain bilateral series do so. The next question is not so much when such a championship should begin (as soon as humanly possible) but where and how.

The how is a matter of taste and principle. How many teams should be involved? To maximise the competitive element, kicking off with eight quarter-finalists - the top eight in the ICC rankings - would be sufficient for now. More importantly, should the format be one-off Tests or three-match series?

The former would leave the competition more vulnerable to the vagaries of weather, injury and luck, not to mention throwing up the ticklish dilemma of how you decide who "wins" a draw (run-rate would surely be the most attractive tie-breaker). The difficulty with the second format is that the third match, which ought to be played to a finish, would be no more than a possibility, with tickets made available only after the second instalment. Big deal. For decades American spectators have put up with the not-entirely-glorious uncertainty of best-of-seven national finals in baseball, basketball and ice hockey. You won't catch them clamouring for change.

The added advantage of a series of series is, that would reassert the importance to Test cricket of the best-of concept, consigning the premature ejaculation of the two-Test rubber to the oblivion it deserves. One downside, clearly, is the time required, and unless all the series in each phase are played concurrently, or at least within a similar time frame, the requisite sense of occasion could prove elusive.

Laudable as the original notion was, the ICC should give up trying to oblige countries to play Tests and focus instead on a biennial or even annual celebration of the form

The where depends on the how. It could be argued that home advantage should be a major factor in all matches, and reward the higher-ranked teams, in which case, whether we believe that teams ought to progress via a succession of one-off Tests or a series, the matches should be spread out geographically. Which could leave us, on the basis of the current ICC chart (first plays eighth, second plays seventh and so forth), with India at home to West Indies, South Africa v New Zealand, Australia v Pakistan and Sri Lanka v England. Not many close calls there, true, but you can't have everything.

If, on the other hand, it was felt that having a single host nation made more sense in terms of economics, politics and prestige, it is difficult, if not quite impossible, to envisage anything but one-match eliminators. Which brings us back to our Lord's lesson.

Those 50,000 punters who watched the MCC's Spirit of Cricket Test at Lord's, and the gestating proposals for India to meet Pakistan there next summer, do nothing to circumscribe the view that Britain would be the most plausible inaugural host. Even if I wasn't a Pom, I like to think I would concede that these isles remain the home of international sport - forget Lord's, Old Trafford, Trent Bridge and The Oval; think Wimbledon, Wembley, Brands Hatch and St Andrews; think Hampden Park, Twickenham, Aintree and Epsom. We might not hold the best-organised parties but everyone who is anyone comes.

Squeezing all this into the existing schedule will, of course, be touted as a prickly, even insurmountable hurdle: West Indies and South Africa are due to tour in 2012, when the Olympic Games will be the sporting focal point from July 27 to August 12, and Lord's, due to host the archery, will be out of commission. India, though, have recently demonstrated the practicability of last-minute rejigs. End of thoroughly jaundiced pitch.

These, though, are mere details, distractions from the bigger picture. Now, more than ever, as the Dubai mandarins seldom tire of reminding us, Test cricket needs context (which rather suggests they have little faith in their own rankings). It also needs action, which means, realistically, that the first world championship would have to comprise one-off eliminators, perhaps capped by a three-match final (but definitely no third-place scrap). As a curtain-raiser to the planet's foremost celebration of second-rate sports, June 2012 seems as apt a moment as any.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

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