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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dummy4fb on July 24, 2010, 0:11 GMT

    Test championship will put the nail in the coffin. If they don't get enough people to watch the test matches, some day they will shutdown the championship. There would be no FTP , no championship and that would be the end of test cricket.

    Don't even try to compare with Davis cup.

  • dil333 on July 23, 2010, 22:09 GMT

    It shouldn't be the top 8. We need ALL tests to have a context. We should make it the top 3-5 teams, probably 4, who get to participate. Perhaps they can all play each other twice, and we can get to the final. 6 day tests maybe too? But yeah, 4 teams is probably the way to go. And it should be only once every 3-4 years or so. That way, teams will always be wanting to WIN all test games because it means they need to go up the ranks in order to participate in the Test Championship. Perhaps the top team get's hosting rights, or something like that, or the second one if the top team has just held it, but that will add more context to teams wanting to win. Final is a Timeless Test

  • dummy4fb on July 23, 2010, 18:52 GMT

    Why not have a structure such as the LV county championship in ENG? Every team plays each other and the one with the most pts wins. Bonus Pts are allocated for the margin of each win.

    I also like the ICC idea of top four playing each other in the semis and then final. So atleast the top four teams are justified. Rather than 1 semifinal test it would make sense to play 3 tests for each semifinal and another 3 or 5 T for the final. depends which format one wants, I suspect many will prefer a single knockout test.

  • Muqs on July 23, 2010, 17:20 GMT

    A possible format for WTC: 10 teams divided into 2 groups of 5. Each team will play other teams in the grp twice (home/away). And lastly a final between top team from each group. Apart from world test championship, i believe it will be better to introduce an ODI league. And bring an end to present format of bilateral cricket. Ther must be one Test championship & an ODI league of 10 teams every year. And both WTC n ODI league must not take more than 6 months. As a result 4.5 months will b ther for IPL, champs league, WT20(once every 2 yr), WC(once every 4 yr). In addition it is also important to ensure that all the players n fans must get 1.5 months of rest when no cricket will played or televised. If this 2 tournaments r introduced then all other unneccassary n useless bilateral intl.cricket matches must not take place. However, during the 6 months free time meaningful bilateral series such as Ashes, Ind/pak Odi series can take place.

  • ns_krishnan on July 23, 2010, 12:00 GMT

    @Daveswede: You suggestion is fantastic.The only problem is the money hungry administrators won't buy it as it reduces the number of limited overs matches.

  • Sportsscientist on July 23, 2010, 10:58 GMT

    there is no point in creating a test championship if your just going to play single test matches against countries. the whole point is that test cricket has been palyed for decades and the only tournaments we have come up with are for ODI's and T20. you can win the the 50 over WC with good fortune, and to be fair any test nation can win the World T20....although the T20 is entertaining (And I do like T20) it's hardly a true test of skill. Are we going to ruin this new test championship idea by making nations contest a single test play-off?? we might as well leave it the way it is and keep the FTP in place. Lets do a test championship properly, or not do it at all.

  • L.Ryan on July 23, 2010, 10:30 GMT

    A tournament involving 8 teams would not add context to Test cricket because all matches throughout the two-years leading to the tournament essentially do not count towards this tournament because it is inevitable who the top 8 teams will be. In fact it would degrade Test cricket as all tests outside the tournament would become second-rate, like international football friendlies. Test cricket should be divided into two conferences of five teams with promotion and relegation. Teams play a three-match series, home and away against each opponent over three years. Sheffield Shield points system to be used. A six-day final hosted by the top ranked team decides each tournament and is one by the top ranked team in the event of a draw in the final. This would add context to all Tests and remove one-sided matches increasing support for Test cricket

  • RussDegnan on July 23, 2010, 5:21 GMT

    ryangsmith and daveswede, both your ideas have good and bad sides, as you've noted. The difficulty you are creating for yourself is trying to collapse the entire competition into one stage (the final league). By adding a qualification round, you can have both a more inclusive tournament and a more competitive, fairer and shorter final.

    My "finals" proposal would work as follows: 6 teams, 2 groups of 3 playing home and away over 3 test series in one year (Oct-Aug). The top team from each group then plays a final over Sep-Oct (4 games 2 at home, 2 away - with a deciding test at the second venue if necessary). A compressed championship of that sort allows many of the things people have argued for here: 3-test series, home/away matches, a 5-test final, and is logistically straight forward (6 home tests per summer).

  • Markus971 on July 23, 2010, 1:43 GMT

    @redneck .. yeh!! over 3 or 4yrs. Also the Points system used, has to "reward teams' going for "Wins", most strongly. --This will lead to 2 Teams (Yes only 2) playing off for the Championship, over a 5 Match Test Series!! --AND This is also the Time to bring in 4 Day Test Matches!? 100 Overs per Day!?... IT'S TIME

  • dummy4fb on July 23, 2010, 1:02 GMT

    ryangsmith, good idea. except that i would like to see three tests in a series instead of two. also, agree on the point that points system should be framed to encourage teams to go for a result. and how about a points system where teams are encouraged to go for series victories?

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